431 – 415 B.C.


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Causes of the War

Before the year 421 B.C. a great majority of the states of Greece had been brought under the leadership of Athens or Sparta. The peace of 445 B.C. was to last thirty years; but scarcely half that period had elapsed when war broke out between the two powers. They were rivals for the leadership of Greece; and the growing power of Athens filled Sparta with jealousy and fear.

The Athenians had trouble also with particular states of the League. The usual relations between Athens and Corinth had been extremely friendly; but since the war with Persia, Peiraeus was monopolizing the commerce of the seas, and Corinth found herself painfully cramped in her trade. Furthermore, Athens was interfering between her and her colony, Corcyra. Corinth and Corcyra had fought for the possession of Epidamnus, a joint colony on the mainland. After suffering a severe defeat in battle, Corinth persuaded several of her neighbors to aid in preparing a great armament with which to overwhelm Corcyra. Thereupon the latter sent envoys to Athens to ask for an alliance. Corinthian ambassadors also came, and the two parties pleaded their causes before the Athenian assembly. Believing war with Lacedaemon inevitable, Pericles felt that the navy of the Corcyraeans should by all means be secured for Athens. Upon his advice, therefore, it was resolved to make a defensive alliance with them; and a small Athenian fleet was sent to aid them in defending their island against the great Corinthian armament in the battle off Sybota in 432 B.C. The Corinthians were justly angry with this interference between themselves and their colonies, especially as they had several times prevented Lacedaemon from interfering in Athenian affairs. They asserted that Athens had broken the treaty, and now exerted all their energy to stir up the Peloponnese against the offender.

At the same time they were urging Potidaea to revolt. This Corinthian settlement in Chalcidice had grown into a prosperous city, now tributary to Athens. Garrisoned by a force from the mother state, it revolted, whereupon the Athenians laid siege to the place.

The Corinthians alleged that this was another violation of the treaty of 445 B.C. They persuaded the Lacedaemonians to call a congress of the League to consider the various grievances against Athens (432 B.C.) When the deputies gathered, the Lacedaemonians invited them to bring their complaints before the Spartan assembly. Among those who had grievances were the Megarians. Athens had recently passed an act which excluded them from the parts and markets of Attica and of the empire. The Megarians also averred that this was a violation of the treaty. Persuaded by these arguments, the Spartan assembly voted that the Athenians had broken the treaty. The Peloponnesian congress ratified the decision and declared war against Athens.


The Resources of Athens and Sparta

The empire of Athens, composed of subjects’ states, was stronger than it had ever been before. Among her independent allies were Chios, Lesbos, Thessaly, and Plataea, besides a few cities in Italy and Sicily. She had thirteen thousand heavy-armed troops, and a larger force for garrison service. There were three hundred triremes of her own, besides those of the allies, and her sailors were the best in the world. She commanded the sea and its resources. The tributes from her subject cities, together with other revenues, amounting in all to about a thousand talents a year, would be nearly enough, in case of siege, to support the whole Attic population on imported food.

All the Peloponnesian states, except Argos and a part of Achaea, were in alliance with Lacedaemon; and outside of Peloponnese, the Megarians, Boeotians, Locrians, and some others, in Sicily and in Italy most of the Dorian cities sympathized with Sparta. The few commercial states of the League provided ships; the others, land forces only. The League could muster an army of twenty-five thousand heavy-armed men. Though by no means a numerous force, it was the strongest in the world at that time.


The First Three Years of the War 431 – 429 B.C.

In the summer of the first year a Peloponnesian army invaded Attica. The plan of Pericles was to venture no battle on land, but to bring the entire population into the city or behind the Long Walls, and to damage Peloponnese as much as he could with his fleet. While the invaders were devastating Attica, the Athenians were sailing round Peloponnese and ravaging the coasts. These operations were repeated nearly every year through the early part of the war. The removal of the country people to Athens was very painful. They were distressed at exchanging the homes and shrines which they loved for the crowded city, where most of them could find no comfortable shelter. And when they saw their houses and orchards ruined by the enemy, they could not help being angry with Pericles. Nevertheless his policy was, on the whole, successful.

Next year Athens and Peiraeus were visited by a plague, which inflicted more terrible damage than the severest defeat in battle would have done. The people suffered because they were crowded together and lacked the comforts of life. Although many nobly risked their lives to attend their friends, the total effect was demoralizing. The Athenians blamed Pericles for both the war and the plague, and gave vent to their grief and anger by fining him heavily. But they soon repented, and again elected him general with absolute power.


The Death of Pericles; Cleon as Leader 429 B.C.

Pericles died of the plague, and the leadership of the state passed into the hands of Cleon, a tanner (429 B.C.) Though he was no general, he had a remarkable talent for finance, and was an orator of great force. In the main he followed the policy of Pericles. As the surplus in the treasury was soon exhausted by the war, the state levied a direct tax, and Cleon made himself very unpopular with the wealthy by his ruthlessness in collecting it. The more energetic he was in providing ways and means, the more the nobles hated him. They could not endure to see this upstart from the industrial class at the head of the government, compelling them to pay in taxes the expenses of a war they did not favor.


The Revolt of Lesbos

In the year after Cleon had come to the front, the oligarchs of Lesbos induced Mytilene and nearly all the other cities of the island to revolt. There was danger that all the maritime cities would follow this example. But the Peloponnesians were too slow in sending the promised aid, and the Athenians made desperate efforts to conquer the island. As a last resort, in 427 B.C. the oligarchs of Mytilene armed the commons; but the latter promptly surrendered the city to the Athenian commander. Thereupon he sent the oligarchs, who alone were guilty of revolt, to Athens for trial. The Athenians were angry because the Lesbians had revolted without cause; they feared, too, for the safety of their empire, and indeed for their own lives. With no great difficulty, therefore, Cleon persuaded them to condemn and put to death all the captive oligarchs. Cleon’s idea was to make an example of them that other communities might fear to revolt. The punishment, decreed under excitement, was too severe, and out of keeping with the humane character of the Athenians. In putting down this revolt, they passed the dangerous crisis, and were again undisputed the master of the Aegean Sea.


The Capture of Pylos

The war now began to turn decidedly in favor of Athens. This change was due chiefly to Demosthenes, the ablest commander since the days of Themistocles and Cimon. In 425 B.C. he seized Pylos, on the west coast of Peloponnese, and fortified it. This became a thorn in the side of Sparta – a refuge for helots and a good basis for ravaging Laconia. It was a promontory with an excellent harbor protected by the island of Sphacteria, and tried to carry his position by storm. The attempt failed; the besiegers found themselves blockaded by an Athenian fleet; and then, to save the troops on the island, they made a truce with Demosthenes with a view to negotiating for peace. Spartan envoys came to Athens to discuss the terms; but as the demands of Cleon were too great for them to accept, the war continued. Cleon brought reinforcements to Pylos, and wisely placed himself under the command of Demosthenes. The latter captured the troops of Sphacteria and brought them home, two hundred and ninety-two in number (425 B.C.). The victory strengthened the hold of Athens on the empire, and enabled her to raise the tribute to a thousand talents. This measure increased the Athenian resources for war.


Brasidas; Athenian Losses 424 – 422 B.C.

Soon the tide began to turn against Athens. A certain Spartan officer named Brasidas discovered the one exposed point of the Athenian empire – Chalcidice. It was the only part of the empire outside of Attica which the Peloponnesians could reach by land. Brasidas invaded this country with a small force of allies and emancipated helots. An exceptionally able commander and diplomat, he induced several states of the empire to revolt, among them Amphipolis, the most important city in that region. The states which revolted became members of the Peloponnesian League. Cleon, who had been elected general, tried to regain Amphipolis, but was defeated and slain. Brasidas was killed in the same battle. The death of these two men removed the chief obstacles in the way of peace.


The Peace of Nicias 421 B.C.

Both Athens and Sparta desired peace. The Athenians were discouraged by Cleon’s recent failure. The Lacedaemonians, for their part, were bitterly disappointed in the results of the war. They had hoped to crush the power of Athens in a few years at the most, but had suffered at Pylos the greatest reverse in their history. They were anxious also to recover the prisoners taken at Sphacteria, for many of them were no ordinary troops, but pure Spartans. Nicias, a general of the Athenians, carried on the negotiations as representative of his city, and the treaty accordingly bears his name. It was concluded in 421 B.C. The treaty provided for a return to the relations which had existed before the war. As the opposing powers seemed evenly balanced, the arrangement was accepted as just. Later events, however, proved that Athens lost greatly by the treaty.

Peace was to last fifty years and was to extend to the allies on both sides. Though the treaty was imperfectly carried out, the two cities did not directly attack each other for seven years, and the Athenians enjoyed the peace while it lasted. They returned to the country and began again the cultivation of their little farms, pleased to be free from their long confinement behind the walls.


Alcibiades; the Battle of Mantinea 418 B.C.

When it became known in Athens that peace with Sparta could not be maintained, the war party again came into power. The principal leader of this party was Alcibiades. He belonged to one of the noblest families of Athens, and was a near kinsman of Pericles. Though still young, he was influential because of his high birth and his fascinating personality. His talents were brilliant in all directions; but he was lawless and violent, and followed no motive but self interest and self-indulgence. Through his influence Athens allied herself with Argos, Elis, and Mantinea against the Lacedaemonians and their allies. The armies of these two unions met in battle at Mantinea in 418 B.C. The Lacedaemonians, who still had the best organization and discipline in Greece, were victorious. This success wiped out the disgrace which had lately come upon them, and enabled them to regain must of their former influence in Peloponnese. Argos and Mantinea now made peace with Lacedaemon apart from Athens.


Slaughter of the Melians 416 B.C.

In 416 B.C. Alcibiades persuaded Athens to send a fleet against Melos, now the only Aegean island outside her empire.

It was a colony of Lacedaemon but remained neutral until the Athenians began to attack it. They were acting on the principle that the Aegean Sea was theirs, and all the islands in it. Insisting that the strongest had a right to rule, they tried to justify their own conquests by their mild treatment of subjects. Thus if the Melians should surrender, they would be required merely to pay an annual tribute. But as Melos resisted, the Athenians blockaded the island and starved the inhabitants into surrender. They then killed all the men of military age and enslaved the women and children. Greek usage made it just for them to annex the island, but the slaughter of the conquered, though common in that age, has proved an indelible stain on the good name of Athens.


415 – 404 B.C.

(1) The Sicilian Expedition Athens and the Western Greek 479 – 416 B.C.

To understand how Sicily now came to be involved in the war, it is necessary to quickly review the history of the western Greeks from the time of their victory over Carthage.

After the battle of Himera in 480 B.C. the Greeks of Sicily and Italy entered upon an era of great prosperity. The tyrants beautified their cities with temples and statues. Literature flourished, wealth abounded, and life was easy. Then tyranny was abolished, and before the middle of the century most of the cities of western Greece had introduced democratic governments. Syracuse, the greatest power in Sicily, led the Hellenic cities of the island in time of war, in some such way as Sparta had led the eastern Greeks during the Persian invasions. In this position Syracuse followed two nearly related lines of policy: (1) she maintained close friendship with Sparta and with her mother city, Corinth; and (2) she aimed to bring all the Sicilian cities as thoroughly under her control as those of Peloponnese were under Sparta. In consequence of this policy, (1) Syracuse was hostile to Athens, the enemy of Corinth and Sparta, and (2) the Sicilian cities which disliked the rule of Syracuse looked to Athens for protection.

From the time of Themistocles the Athenians took a more and more lively commercial interest in the West. They exported vases and other manufactured articles to Italy, Sicily, and Carthage. Commerce gradually led to political influence; Segesta, a foreign city, and the Ionian Rhegium and Leontini became their allies. When the Peloponnesian War began, the Dorians of the West gave their sympathy to Sparta, and at the same time Syracuse found in the war an opportunity to encroach upon the Ionian cities, especially upon Leontini. Athens sent little aid, and Leontini was destroyed.


Preparations for an Expedition to Sicily 425 B.C.

Naturally the Athenians looked upon this event as a great misfortune to themselves; they feared lest the Dorians, if they should gain control of Sicily, might furnish Sparta with troops and supplies in her war with Athens. Many Athenians even dreamed of adding Sicily to their empire. While they were in this mood, envoys came from Segesta, a city of Sicily, begging Athens for protection from Selinus, a stronger state nearby. All were therefore deeply interested in the request of the Segestaeans for aid. The latter promised to pay the expenses of an expedition, and grossly exaggerated the wealth of their city. Alcibiades urged the Athenians to conquer Sicily. His motive was surely selfish – to open a field in which he might display his talents and win fame. The project was unwise, for the Athenians could do little more than hold their empire together and defend it against the Peloponnesians. Nicias advised the citizens in their assembly to drop all thought of the scheme, but his warnings were unheeded. The Athenians made ready in the spring of 415 B.C. to send a magnificent land and naval armament to Sicily. Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus – an able officer of the school of Pericles – were to conduct the expedition. To say nothing of the evils of a divided command, Nicias and Alcibiades were so opposed to each other as to give no prospect of harmony in the councils of war.


The Mutilation of the Hermae

It was customary for the Athenians to place on the street before the door of a private house or a temple, a square stone pillar, ending at the top in the head of Hermes or some other god. Whatever Deity might be represented, the figures were called Hermae (plural of Hermes). One morning when the armament was nearly ready to sail, the Athenians were horrified to find that these Hermae, which they held in great reverence as the guardians of peace and public order, had been nearly all mutilated in the night. The citizens were overwhelmed with terror. They feared that a band of conspirators had attempted to deprive Athens of divine protection and would next try to overthrow the government. Some, without good cause, suspected Alcibiades. A court of inquiry was appointed to discover the perpetrators of this sacrilege, but learned that certain men, Alcibiades among them, had been profaning the Eleusinian mysteries by imitating them for amusement in private houses.

Believing that the welfare of the state depended upon keeping them secret, the citizens were greatly alarmed at hearing that they had been profaned and divulged. Alcibiades in vain demanded a trial. His enemies feared that he would be acquitted through the support of the soldiers, with whom he was very popular. It would be safer, his opponents thought, to wait until the armament had departed and then recall him for trial.


The Voyage; the Plans of the Admirals 415 B.C.

The armament was to gather at Corcyra. The whole Athenian population thronged to the wharves of Peiraeus to watch the departure of the imperial city’s galleys. The moment was full of tears and prayers, of anxiety and hope. The flower of Athenian strength was going forth to war, and some surmised that it would return no more. One hundred and thirty-four triremes and a great number of transports and merchant ships assembled at Corcyra with five thousand heavy-armed men on board, besides light auxiliaries and the crews. Hellas had seen larger fleets than this, but none so splendid or so formidable. About the middle of the summer it began its voyage across the Ionian Sea toward Italy.

But the western Greeks now gave Athens a cold reception. Even Rhegium, which had always been friendly, would not admit the Athenians within its walls. The great armament seemed a menace to the liberties of all alike. It soon appeared, too, that Segesta could furnish little support. Disappointed by such news, the admirals were in doubt as to what they should do. Lamachus wished to attack Syracuse immediately; Nicias preferred to display the fleet along the Sicilian coasts and then return home. Either plan would have been good; but Alcibiades proposed instead to win over as many Sicilian cities as possible by negotiation. With all his genius for diplomacy, in this instance he miscalculated; the Greeks of the West could not be won over by mere discussion. His unwise plan, however, was adopted. Yet before it had been followed far, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens for trial. But on the way home he made his escape to Peloponnese, whereupon the Athenians sentenced him to death. The trick of his opponents had succeeded – probably to their satisfaction; but it made of Alcibiades as dangerous an enemy as Athens ever had.


The Siege of Syracuse 414 – 413 B.C.

Nicias, who now held the superior command, trifled away the autumn in half-hearted undertakings, and then wasted the winter at Catana. Meantime the Syracusans were enclosing their city with strong walls. In the spring of 414 B.C. the Athenians entered the Great Harbor and laid siege to Syracuse; they began to build a wall which, if completed, would cut the city off from communication by land with the rest of the island. They were successful in several minor engagements; but Lamachus was killed, and with his death the command lost all energy. The Syracusans built and maintained against the besiegers a cross-wall extending from their outer line of defense on the north to the height in the rear of the Athenian position. This prevented the besiegers from finishing their northern part of their wall, and secured a free communication with the country. At the same time the Syracusans were acquiring a navy sufficiently strong to venture battle with the Athenian fleet. There was no longer any reasonable hope of taking Syracuse; and Nicias would gladly have raised the siege, but dared not face the Athenian assembly after so great a failure. In the winter he wrote a letter to Athens, giving a detailed account of the situation, and asking that either the armament be withdrawn or strong reinforcements be sent. The Athenians would take no thought of abandoning the enterprise, and prepared to send nearly as large a land and naval force as the original one, and this notwithstanding the fact that the war with Lacedaemon was now openly resumed.


Agis in Attica; Ruin of the Athenian Armament 413 B.C.

In the spring of 413 B.C. Agis, king of the Lacedaemonians, ravaged Attica, which for twelve years had seen no enemy. At the suggestion of Alcibiades, he seized and fortified Decelea, a strong position in the north of Attica. The Lacedaemonians continued to hold it winter and summer to the end of the war. The Athenians could now do no farming except under their very walls. They were obliged to keep perpetual watch around the city to prevent surprise, and their slaves deserted to the enemy in great numbers. But though they were themselves thus practically besieged by land, they sent to Syracuse a new fleet of seventy-three triremes and five thousand hoplites, commanded by Demosthenes, their ablest general. On his arrival at Syracuse he found the army in a sorry plight and the fleet already defeated in the Great Harbor by the Syracusans. He saw that the Athenians must either resume active operations at once or abandon the siege. In the following night, accordingly, he attempted to take the Syracusan cross-wall by surprise, but was repulsed with great loss. In spite of his advice to put the army on board the fleet and sail away, his slow colleague Nicias delayed for some days. When finally Nicias consented and everything was ready for embarking, there was an eclipse of the moon, which filled him as well as the soldiers with superstitious fears. He would remain twenty-seven days longer to avoid the effect of the evil omen. Before that time had elapsed, the Athenians lost another naval battle, and the disheartened crews would fight no more. The Athenians then burned their ships and began to retreat by land, with Nicias in advance and Demosthenes bringing up the rear. The two divisions were separated on the march, and both were compelled to surrender after severe losses. Probably forth thousand men had taken part in the Sicilian expedition, and twenty-five thousand were left to begin the retreat. Demosthenes and Nicias were both put to death. Many of the captives were sold into slavery; many were thrown into the stone quarries near Syracuse, where most of them perished of exposure and starvation. The failure of the expedition was due chiefly to the stupidity and the superstition of Nicias. It compelled the Athenians at once to abandon all hope of conquering other peoples, and to consider instead how they could save themselves and their empire from ruin.


(2) The Closing Years of the War 413-404 B.C. Effects of the Sicilian Disaster 413 B.C.

At first the Athenians could not believe the news of the disaster in Sicily, even when they heard it from the survivors themselves. As they came to realize the truth, they vented their rage upon the orators and the soothsayers who had persuaded them to engage in the enterprise. For a time they seemed overwhelmed with despair; while mourning their losses they feared that they should now have to contend against the whole Greek world and they had no ships, no men, no money. But the spirit of Athens was elastic; her hopes revived, and her citizens determined in some way to build a new fleet. At the same time they resolved to cut down expenses and to hold fast to their empire. Fortunately they had the winter for preparation before the enemy could attack.

The Lacedaemonians and their allies, elated by the news, began to hope once more for success. They dispatched aid to the Chians and other allies of Athens, who were revolting. Alcibiades himself went out from Sparta to encourage rebellion against his native city. The Lacedaemonians then concluded an offensive and defensive alliance with Persia; they surrendered to that power the cities of Asia Minor which Athens had protected from every enemy for nearly seventy years.


Rebellion Checked; Alcibiades 412 B.C.

The Athenians put forth every energy to prevent the revolt from spreading. To Samos, their most faithful ally, they granted independence, and made this island the base of their naval operation. The contending parties remained nearly balanced in strength, even after the arrival of a Syracusan fleet to help the Lacedaemonians; but the resources of Athens were gradually exhausted, while those of the enemy seemed limitless. Such was the state of affairs when an unexpected event turned the war for a time in favor of Athens. Alcibiades, hated by King Agis and fearing for his life, forsook Sparta, went over to the satrap of Sardis, and persuaded him to keep back the Phoenician fleet, which was daily expected in the Aegean Sea. He convinced the satrap that it would be well to let Lacedaemon and Athens wear each other out in war. Alcibiades sincerely desired to return to Athens; and in order to bring about his recall he aimed to win the gratitude of his countrymen by making them think he could gain for them the friendship of Persia. He wished, too, to recover on his return the leadership of the democratic party. But a serious obstacle was in the way – Androcles, the present head of the party, was the very men who had sent him into exile. To accomplish his objective, Alcibiades felt that he must first persuade others to overthrow the popular government along with the chief, and then he himself would step in to restore it. In the light of a savior of democracy he believed that he could return all-powerful to his native city.


The Conspiracy of the Oligarchs 412 – 411 B.C.

The time was ripe for a change of government at Athens, as the Sicilian disaster seemed to prove the failure of democracy. Some of the officers of the Athenian army at Samos, who were themselves of the wealthier class, favored the establishment of oligarchy, in which they thought they should have more of the privileges naturally belonging to men of their standing. Accordingly, when Alcibiades sent them word that he would return and make the satrap an ally of Athens if they should set up an oligarchy, they readily consented. But when their spokesman came to Athens, the citizens met his proposals with a storm of indignation. They objected equally to changing the government and to recalling the impious traitor Alcibiades. But the oligarch addressed the objections one by one, and asked them what else could be done. He asked, “How are we to raise money to support the war against both Persia and our many Greek enemies?” Unable to meet this pointed argument, the people gave way, in the hope that they might renew the democracy at the close of the war. It soon appeared, however, that Alcibiades had grossly deceived the Athenians in making them believe he would win with the help of Persia.

The oligarchs proceeded, nevertheless, to carry out their designs. As a part of the program, their clubs at Athens assassinated Androcles and other prominent democrats, and in this way terrorized the whole state. Overestimating the extent of the conspiracy, the people feared to talk on the subject with one another, lest in so doing they might betray themselves to an enemy. This mutual distrust among the citizens made the conspirators safe. They managed to place the state under the control of a Council of Four Hundred, which included the principal oligarchs. This body was to rule with absolute power.


The Rule of the Four Hundred 411 B.C.

When organized, the Four Hundred assumed the reins of government. They ruled by force, assassinating, banishing, and imprisoning their opponents on mere suspicion. They showed their lack of patriotism by their unwillingness to make peace with Lacedaemon at any price, and their weakness by yielding Euboea to the enemy.

News of the violence and cruelty of the Four Hundred came to the Athenian army at Samos. The soldiers assembled, declared that Athens had revolted, and that they themselves constituted the true government of the empire. They deposed their oligarchic officers, and filled the vacant places with popular men; they prepared to carry on the war with vigor, and hoped through Alcibiades to win Persia to their side. Thrasybulus, one of the new commanders, brought the famous exile to their camp. A democrat once more, Alcibiades was immediately elected general and placed in chief command of the army. Now he was ready to use all the resources of his mind to save Athens from the ruin he had brought upon her. To the envoys from the Four Hundred, he replied that this new council must abdicate immediately in favor of the old Council of Five Hundred. At the same time he prudently restrained the troops from going to Athens to punish the usurpers.

The Four Hundred began to fell insecure. Lacking a definite policy, they split into two factions; the extreme oligarchs and the moderates. With the help of the moderates the citizens overthrew the Four Hundred, after a three months’ rule, and restored the democracy.


Alcibiades – General of the Athenians 411-407 B.C.

The Four Hundred had brought only misfortune to Athens. Under their slack rule the war extended to the Hellespont, and most of the cities in that region revolted. Soon, however, the Athenians were cheered by news of victories, especially of that at Cyzicus, gained by Alcibiades in 410 B.C. “Ships gone, our admiral dead, the men starving, at our wits’ end what to do,” was the laconic message which reached Sparta from Cyzicus. Lacedaemon then proposed a treaty of peace which should leave Athens the few possessions she still held; but the Athenians rejected the terms. It appeared doubtful whether a lasting peace could be secured without the complete triumph of one of the contending parties. The Athenians feared, too, that peace with Sparta would bring them another tyrannical oligarchy in place of their free constitution; and with Alcibiades as general they still hoped for success in the war.


The Battle of Notium 407 B.C.; The Fall of Alcibiades

In 408 B.C., however, Darius, King of Persia, dispatched Cyrus, the younger of his two sons, to take the satrapy of Sardis with large powers and to give all possible aid to the enemies of Athens. About the same time Lysander, a born leader of men, a general and diplomat of surpassing ability, came from Sparta to the seat of war. He visited Cyrus, and easily won his way to the heart of the ambitious young prince. Next year he defeated a large Athenian fleet off Notium, near Ephesus, capturing fifteen triremes. In the absence of Alcibiades, their admiral, the Athenians had risked a battle; and as a result they suffered their first reverse since the time of the Four Hundred. As they held Alcibiades responsible for the misfortune, they failed to reelect him general for the following year. Fearing to return home, he retired to a castle on the Hellespont which he had prepared for such an occasion. Thus the Athenians cast away a man who might have saved them. Though working to the end for his own glory, he was wiser now than in his youth, and would have served his country well; but the confidence of his fellow citizens in one who had been so impious and so traitorous could not be shaken by the slightest appearance of inattention to duty. (Afterward, while residing in Phrygia, he was assassinated by order of the Spartan authorities.)


The Battle of Arginusae 406 B.C.

The contending powers now put forth enormous efforts. In 406 B.C. the Athenians, with a hundred and fifty triremes, met a Peloponnesian fleet of a hundred and twenty triremes near the islands of Arginusae, and gained a complete victory. Athens lost twenty-five ships; the enemy seventy, and with their commander and crews, amounting to about fourteen thousand men. This was the severest battle of the war. After hearing of their disaster, the Lacedaemonians were willing for the sake of peace to leave Athens what she still possessed; but the Athenians again rejected the conditions.

The Athenians disgraced themselves for all time by putting to death six of the generals who had won the victory at Arginusae, on the ground that they had neglected to rescue the crews of the triremes wrecked in battle. The commanders had ordered two ship-captains to attend to the work, but a sudden storm had prevented the rescue of the unfortunate sailors. The Athenians violated the constitution in condemning the generals collectively and in refusing them a sufficient opportunity for defense. Soon repenting of their conduct, they prosecuted those who had persuaded them to commit the murder.


The Battle of Aegospotami 405 B.C.

Athens and Sparta made one more desperate effort to gain the mastery of the Aegean Sea. The opposing fleets met in the Hellespont – a hundred and eighty Athenian warships against two hundred from Peloponnese. The Athenians were on the European side at the mouth of the Aegospotami, the Peloponnesians on the opposite shore of the strait. Lysander, who was in command, surprised the Athenian fleet while the sailors were seeking provisions on shore. There was no resistance. It seems probable that the Athenians were betrayed to Lysander by one or more of their generals. Conon alone of the commanders escaped with a few ships; and sending the official galley Paralus to Athens with the news, he, though innocent, fled for his life with the rest of his ships to Cyprus.


The Effects of the Battle; The Terms of Peace 404 B.C.

“It was night when the Paralus reached Athens with her evil tidings, on receipt of which a bitter wail of woe broke forth. From Peiraeus, following the line of the Long Walls up to the heart of the city, it swept and swelled, as each man passed the news to his neighbor. That night no man slept. There was mourning and sorrow for those who were lost, but the lamentation for the dead was merged in even deeper sorrow for themselves, as they pictured the evils they were about to suffer, the like of which they had inflicted upon the men of Melos” (Xenonphon, Hellenica, ii,2.), and upon many others. Ships and men were lost, and they were soon besieged by land and sea. Finally, when on the point of starvation, they sent envoys to Sparta with full powers to treat for peace. Thereupon a Peloponnesian congress was held in Sparta, in which the Corinthians, the Thebans, and some others proposed to destroy Athens utterly, and to enslave the Athenians. But the Spartan ephors objected; they were unwilling, they said that a city which had done such noble service for Greece in the perilous times of the Persian invasion should be enslaved. They would be content with milder conditions: that Athens should demolish the fortifications of Peiraeus and the Long Walls, give up all her warships but twelve, follow Sparta in peace and in war, and permit the return of the exiled oligarchs. With these concessions, Athens might remain free and “under the constitution of the fathers.” As the Athenian envoys entered their city, a great crowd gathered about them, trembling lest their mission should have proved fruitless; for many were dying of starvation. The majority ratified the treaty. Lysander entered Peiraeus with his fleet, the exiles were already coming home, and the Peloponnesians began the destruction of the walls to the music of pipes, with the idea that they were celebrating the return of liberty to Hellas.


(3) The Progress of Culture; the New Learning 431-404 B.C. Architecture and Sculpture

In spite of the heavy expenses of the war, the Athenians built a new temple on the Acropolis – the Erechtheum – doubtless fulfilling a wish of Pericles. It stands north of the Parthenon. For two reasons it is irregular in plan, (1) the ground on which it was built is uneven, (2) it was intended for two divinities, Athena and Erechtheus. The Athena worshipped here was the guardian of the state, as distinguished from the imperial goddess of the Parthenon. She was represented by a log rudely carved in human form. This archaic image the Athenians venerated more highly than all the artistic statues of more recent times. To her belonged the eastern portion of the temple. In the western part lived Erechtheus, the hero, who, as the Athenians supposed, had once been king of Athens. This temple is the most beautiful example of the Ionic order known to us. The rich carvings which adorn it have been the admiration of all artists, but no one has been able to equal them. The Porch of the Maidens is especially attractive. Though bearing heavy weights on their heads, the maidens stand at perfect ease. In dignified grace of posture and drapery they are little inferior to the sculptures of the Parthenon. Through want of money the Athenians of this period accomplished little else in art. Good work was done in other parts of Greece. The most notable statue of the period is that of a Winged Victory by Paeonius at Olympia. The Messenians dedicated it there as a memorial of the capture of the Spartans at Sphacteria. The goddess is represented, not as standing on the lofty base, but floating above it with wings outstretched and garments streaming in the wind. It was a bold artistic experiment successfully achieved.


Literature: The Drama

Though the war discouraged art, it stimulated literature. Euripides (480-406 B.C.), a writer of dramas, belongs to this period. His education was broad; he had been an athlete, a painter, and a student of all the philosophy of the time. No ancient writer seems as modern as he; none knew human nature so well or sympathized so deeply with it, especially with women and slaves, with the unfortunate and the lowly. His plays represent a decline in art, but a great advance in kindly feeling. The most popular is the Alcestis, in which the heroine dies to save her selfish husband’s life. Among the strongest is the Medea, whose plot is drawn from the voyage of the Argonauts. There remain in all nineteen plays of the ninety-two attributed to him by the ancients.

The most famous comic dramatist of Greece was Aristophanes (about 450-385 B.C.). His wit never failed; his fancy was as lively and as creative as Shakespeare’s; the choruses of his plays are beautiful lyrics, fragrant of the country and woodland, free from the polish and from the restraints of life within the city. He had much, also, to tell of the times in which he lived. No one has given so true a picture of Athens and her people, and at the same time such caricatures of her individual public men. We might compare his character sketches with the cartoons of the modern newspaper. The Clouds is an attack on the sophists. In his Birds he pictures an ideal state in Cloudland, whose citizens were the fowls of the air. The Knights hold Cleon up to ridicule; the Wasps presents the Athenian jury system in a comical light. He is said to have written fifty-four comedies; of which we have but eleven.


History: Thucydides

Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, including the events which led up to it. He gathered the facts for it with extreme care by travel and personal observation and by questioning eye-witnesses of events. His work is therefore remarkable for accuracy. It contains no anecdotes or myths, which make the history of Herodotus attractive. In contrast with Herodotus, he is not only critical and correct, but exceedingly complex in style and thought. He goes deeply into the character and motives of political parties and into the causes and connection of events. It is the first scientific history ever written. He admits that his strictly truthful narrative may disappoint the ear, but believes that it will prove useful to anyone who desires a true picture of the past and of what is likely to happen in the course of human events. As his work was to be of service especially to generals, he narrates campaigns with all the details, but pays little attention to internal improvements and civilization.


The Sophists

Since the age of Pericles the sophists – professors of useful knowledge – were increasing in number and influence. As they aimed chiefly to prepare their pupils for statesmanship, they laid great stress on rhetoric. This new branch of learning was a system of rules for the composition and delivery of speeches. Through such study, the sophists asserted, any man could fit himself in a short time for public speaking and for statesmanship. It is true that the teachings of certain eminent men of this class contained much that was wholesome. They began the study of grammar and philology, and the criticism of literature. They were founders of the science of ethics, a principle of which was that all men were by nature brothers, and that slavery was therefore wrong. But many were mere jugglers in words; and the spirit of the class was skeptical of all existing beliefs and customs. They called into question the laws on which state and society rested. Their thinking on political subjects undermined the democracy, and led to the establishment of the oligarchy in 411 B.C.; it weakened Athens in the later years of the war. The sophistic spirit is strong in Euripides, and can be discovered even in Thucydides; in fact, it influenced all the thinking of the time. Nearly all the educated accepted the view that the present age was one of enlightenment in contrast with the ignorance and superstition of the past. The science, philosophy, and literature controlled by this sophistic view may be aptly termed the “New Learning.”


Socrates 469-399 B.C.

The worthlessness of the great body of sophistic teaching was pointed out by Socrates, a man whose thoughts and character have left a deep impression on the world for all time. In personal appearance he was “the ugliest of the sons of men.” With his enormously large bald head, protruding eyes, flat nose, and thick lips, he resembled the satyr masks in the shop windows at Athens. Bid-bodied and bandy-legged, he stalked like a pelican through the streets. But beneath the satyr mask was a mind of extraordinary power. In his youth he was but a sculptor – a tradesman from the Greek point of view; and he did not succeed in his work, as he had the habit of standing for hours, or even for a day and night together, wholly lost in thought. Then, too, he believed himself inspired; - a spirit accompanied him through life warning him against doing evil. Forsaking an occupation in which, under the circumstances, he could but a poor living, he devoted himself to searching for truth. The sophists had said, “We are ignorant.” Socrates, admitting this, heralded a new era in thought when he said, “I will seek knowledge,” thus asserting, contrary to the sophists, the possibility of learning the truth. Though people called him sophist, he gave no course of study and charged no fee, but simply questioned any one whom he met until he had convinced his opponent in the argument that the latter knew nothing of the subject. In all this he thought he was fulfilling a heaven-appointed mission – the quest for truth with the help of his fellow men. Taking no thought of natural or of physical science, he busied himself with moral duties, inquiring, for instance, what was just and what unjust; what was bravery and what cowardice; what a state was and what the character of a statesman. True knowledge, he asserted, was the only guide to virtuous conduct. Thus Socrates laid for ethical science a solid foundation, on which men could build far better than on the sands of sophistry.

In religion his teaching tended to strengthen the traditional faith. He often spoke of the gods in the plural, and he performed conscientiously all the religious duties of the citizen in the customary way. But he sometimes spoke, too, of one God, the creator of the universe. His idea seems to have been that the other gods were subordinate to the ne supreme being. Moral conduct he based on religion as well as on the reason. We should be virtuous, he taught, not only because virtue is useful to us, but also because it is pleasing to God. God is good because he likes that very conduct which is most to our own advantage. In this way, Socrates reconciled knowledge with faith.

About the close of the Peloponnesian War, thinking people grew weary of the uncertainty of the new learning, and went back to the old faith. Socrates helped this movement, but was himself destroyed by it. In 399 B.C. he was brought to trial on the ground that he had corrupted the youth and had acted impiously toward the gods. The accuser was conscientious but ignorant, and mistook his for a sophist. In fact, Socrates had done exactly the contrary. But the jury condemned him to death. Though he might have escaped from the country, he considered it the duty of a good citizen to obey the laws even when unjustly administered. Cheerfully he drank the cup of hemlock – a poison which caused a painless death. It was the Athenian method of execution. In this way he crowned a useful life by the death of a saint and a martyr. Inspired by the great ideal, his disciples scattered throughout Hellas, founding schools of philosophy based on his principles. Through them Socrates influenced the thought of all later time.

>Excerpts and map from “A History of the Ancient World” by George Willis Botsford, PhD., copyright 1912, pgs 219-245

Compiled by Marko Marelich, Retired Mechanical Engineer
San Francisco, California USA
June 12, 2008