Aegospotami – Disaster at Sea

Arginusae was an unlucky victory for the Athenians as its aftermath made clear. Not only had they killed the generals who won the battle, but in savoring the victory they may again have rejected Spartan peace overtures. Opposition to peace came most notably from Cleophon, a prominent popular leader, who on this occasion spoke boldly and drunkenly (perhaps) against any deal with the Spartans. Some Athenians too were troubled by the freedom and citizenship granted to the fighting slaves of Arginusae, especially as so many free – born Athenian citizens had been exiled over the course of the war. Aristophanes voices this grievance in Frogs (ll. 33 – 4, 693 – 6) and the issue remained hot in 400 when Andocides defended himself against charges of impiety in his speech On the Mysteries (149). Battles not only took Athenian lives, but changed them in other ways too.

The executions required the election of new generals (probably in spring 405), and afterwards preparations began for a renewed offensive into the eastern Aegean. From their base in Samos the Athenian commanders, including Conon and some of the new generals, Cephisodotus, Menander, and Tydeus, raided Persian territories and those around Chios and Ephesus, all the while watching to see what response the Spartans would now make (Xen. Hell. 2.1.12, 16).

Arginusae may also have led the Spartans to reassess their old ways of doing things. A near revolt on Chios was just nipped in the bud by Eteoni cus, the Spartan governor. This event, and allied demands that Lysander be reinstated as commander of Spartan and allied forces, reenergized the Spartan war effort. Lysander had been popular among the allies and he got on well with Cyrus, and while there were rules and regulations to be fol lowed (i. e., the same man could not be admiral twice), they could be skirted. Spartan authorities returned Lysander to service, technically as the subordinate to a new commander, Aracus (in place of the fallen Callicra tidas). But as far as anyone could see, it was Lysander who commanded Spartan Aegean forces (Xen. Hell. 2.1.1 – 7).

Lysander quickly began the rebuilding of the Spartan war effort. From his base at Ephesus, he began to assemble his forces: summoning Eteonicus and the Chian garrison (and fleet), Lysander begged and borrowed ships and crews wherever he could. Manipulative and scheming as ever, Lysander met with Cyrus. Again he pressed the prince for more money. While Cyrus went over the books, pointing out all the funds that he and his father had already invested in the Spartans, he still came up with more cash with which Lysander paid his crews. Cyrus also urged him to be careful in fight ing the Athenians, to make sure that he held massive superiority before taking them on again – clearly Arginusae was on his mind (Xen. Hell. 2.1.10 – 15).

This new fleet needed a seasoning expedition and Lysander provided that with a punitive raid against Cedreiae, an Athenian ally in Caria, and then against shipping near Rhodes and the Ionian coast (Xen. Hell. 2.1.15 – 16). Lysander then moved north into the Hellespont which he had surely identified as the key to victory. Ostensibly aimed at the recovery of those cities lost to Alcibiades and the Athenians two years before, Lysander knew that moving there would draw the Athenian fleet to him, just like a moth to a flame.

Lampsacus, an Athenian ally midway up the Hellespont, fell to a Spartan attack by land and sea. The Athenians, trailing Lysander’s fleet some twenty or thirty miles south, learned of this and immediately moved north, taking on new stores at Sestus, finally coming to Aegospotami, a landing opposite Lampsacus. Over the next four days the two fleets played a game of cat and mouse – a game that suited Lysander perfectly. He once said when the lion’s skin was too small, it could be made bigger with the fox’s (Plut. Mor. 229B). The Athenians were about to get a lesson in Spartan stealth.

Each morning the Athenian fleet, 180 ships strong, would sail across the narrow strait and assume battle stations opposite the Spartan anchorage. Lysander ordered his men to prepare their ships for battle but to await an Athenian attack. But there was no attack and at midday the Athenians retired for lunch. Lysander sent out a fast ship to watch and then report back on what the Athenians did on reaching their camp. What his scouts saw was encouraging: the Athenians pulled their ships up on the beach, prepared lunch, or went off in search of it as their supplies were fast running out. The Spartan fleet, however, remained on station as Lysander received this same report each day.

The danger lurking on the horizon was obvious to just about everyone perhaps but the Athenian commanders. This included the exiled Alcibiades whose Thracian perch a short distance away gave him a bird’s eye view of the dangerous position taken up by the Athenian fleet. After watching for several days, Alcibiades visited the Athenian camp. He advised retiring to Sestus where there was food and a better anchorage which would enable them to attack wherever they desired. But the generals, especially Tydeus and Menander, rebuffed him harshly and told him to go away, that they were now in charge of things (Xen. Hell. 2.1.20 – 6).

On the fourth day the scene replayed, but this time Lysander told his scout ship that upon following the Athenians back and observing the same routine as before, they should return as fast as possible and signal with a shield once they were halfway back. Keeping their routine, the Athenians scattered for lunch and the scout ship returned and flashed the ordered sign. Lysander sent his ships standing at battle station into the attack catching the Athenians completely offguard. Only the still lucky Conon with eight other ships was able to get away before the Spartans were upon them all. In an hour, almost the entire Athenian force was captured, only a few men managing to get away on foot. The last Athenian fleet was now in Spartan hands.

Lysander brought his prizes – both the ships and their crews – to Lampsacus and word was sent off to Sparta of the great victory. An assembly was convened and the allies were asked for recommendations in dealing with the prisoners, some 3000 of them Athenian (Plut. Lys. 13.1). Historically, from ancient Greece to Vietnam and Iraq, prisoners of war have always been in harm ‘ s way as previous acts of violence and killing demand payback. Moreover, keeping and looking after prisoners is a nuisance – they have to be fed, they have to be guarded, and they delay whatever plans a victorious commander wants to make. As Lysander now looked over the mass of Athenians in his hands and evaluated the situation, he may have seen a solution to his problem in his allies. Rage against the Athenians was palpable. To all the past crimes, the destruction of so many cities, the Athenians had recently added further horrors: a decree that all prisoners taken in sea fights should have their right hands cut off; the deliberate drowning of two ships ‘ crews at the order of Philocles, one of the generals now in Lysander’s hands.

The response of the allies was loud and clear – kill them. Only the general Adeimantus was spared, ostensibly for his opposition to the ` right hand ‘ decree, though some thought he owed his survival to his betrayal of the fleet, bribed by Lysander (Xen. Hell. 2.1.32, Paus. 10.9.5). As for Philocles, Lysander asked him, ` What ‘ s a worthy punishment for acting like a criminal towards your fellow Greeks? ‘ Not intimidated, Philocles told Lysander not to play the part of the prosecutor where there was no judge, but rather that of the victor and do what would have been done to him had he lost. Then bathing and putting on his best clothes, he led his fellow Athenians to their deaths. How was such a mass execution carried out? A few rare scenes of the killing of prisoners from vase paintings suggests that the Athenians were bound and then were led off and executed, either drowned or killed by sword. However carried out, the deliberate killing of so many unarmed men must be seen not only as a gruesome act itself, but also as an indicator of the level of violence the war had now reached.


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