The Fall of Athens: 406–404

From 410, Athenian fortunes steadily rose. The Spartans now held only Abydos, Chios, and a few cities on the Ionian coast; the momentum of the war had clearly turned in favor of Athens. However, a number of events in 406 would doom the Athenian war effort. The first was the appointment of a new Spartan navarch, Lysander. Lysander would prove to be the best admiral Sparta produced in the war. The second blow was the Battle of Notium. Alcibiades was very popular with many Athenians, but there was still a bitter minority that for various reasons was looking for an opportunity to ruin him. Alcibiades was in command of the fleet at Notium, and one day he led some of his soldiers inland on a plundering expedition. He had left the navy under the command of Antiochus and had ordered that under no circumstances was he to lead the navy out. However, once Alcibiades was gone, Antiochus did exactly that, looking for his opportunity to win military glory. The Athenian fleet found the Spartans led by Lysander and suffered a minor defeat in which Antiochus was killed. Though this was not a major disaster, it was the opportunity that enemies of Alcibiades were looking for. In the assembly, the blame for the defeat was placed squarely on his shoulders, and he was ordered to return to stand trial for negligence. Fearing he would not get a fair trial, he fled into exile, where he died a few years later.

The year 406 did provide one last great moment for the Athenian navy at the Battle of Arginousae, in what was the largest naval battle between Greek fleets in history. Through a massive effort, which included melting the gold and silver from their statues, the Athenians outfitted a fleet of 155 triremes to face 120 Spartan ships. In a huge Athenian victory, the Spartans lost 77 triremes while the Athenians lost 25. Seemingly, in one stroke, the Athenians had regained complete naval mastery of the Aegean. However, the victory did come at a huge price. After the battle, there were maybe a thousand Athenians from the 25 wrecked ships in the water. Usually, when battles were fought close to shore, it was much easier to pick up the survivors. However, this battle was fought in the open sea over a large area, and, to make things worse, a storm hit, making it very difficult to find the survivors. Conditions became so bad that the sailors refused to continue the search. Many of the bodies were never given proper burial, and those men who might have still been alive were lost. In Athens, this created a huge political firestorm. The eight generals were put on trial; all were convicted, and six were executed (two had never returned to Athens, guessing their probable fate). Theramenes and Thrasybulus, who were not in command but who had been involved in the unsuccessful rescue operation, were not convicted but fell into disfavor and were not elected to serve as generals for 405. The Athenians had managed in less than a year to drive out, execute, or keep from office Alcibiades, the eight experienced admirals who had planned the great victory at Arginousae, and Thrasybulus and Theramenes, who had contributed so much to the Athenian recovery since 411. The various blows suffered by Athens in 406 served to negate their one great success at Arginousae and paved the way for defeat the next year. Even worse, when the Spartans offered to end the war in 406, their proposal was rejected by the Athenian assembly. After so many years of war and so much loss, and because of their series of victories since 411, they were now unwilling to contemplate anything less than total victory. An Athenian politician named Cleophon, supposedly drunk and wearing a breastplate, convinced the assembly in very threatening language to continue the war.

The decisive battle of the war took place at Aegospotomae, in the Hellespont, in 405. The Spartans, thanks to the seemingly limitless treasury of Persia, had been able to build a new fleet and had put it under the command of their best navarch, Lysander. After extensive training of his crews, Lysander wished to open the Hellespont as a theater of war to threaten the Athenian lifeline, something Sparta had been unable to do since the Athenian victories of 411–410. The Athenian fleet was based at Samos, blocking Lysander’s route into the Hellespont. He therefore moved west, making a run at Athens itself. This maneuver served its purpose: the Athenians raced to protect their home city, allowing Lysander to move quickly back to Rhodes and then north along the Ionian coast, since the Athenians were no longer at Samos. Lysander entered the Hellespont and moved to Abydos, which was still allied to Sparta, though there had been no navy based there since 410; from there the Spartans attacked and conquered Lampsacus. The Athenians, realizing what had happened, moved to their base at Sestos and then to the beach of Aegospotami, just across the Hellespont from the Spartans at Lampsacus. Unfortunately, overconfidence, stemming from six years of naval victories, and the absence of their best admirals led the Athenians to make a number of blunders. Aegospotomae was not a suitable base: it was only a beach, with no nearby city or sources of water and food. The men had to leave their ships repeatedly to move inland to pick up needed supplies. Plutarch describes an Athenian force unprepared for battle: “They would spend most of the day ashore, abandoning all discipline without even posting a lookout as though they despised the enemy.”

Alcibiades happened to be living in exile nearby, so he went down to the Athenian camp and tried to warn the Athenians admirals that their position was weak and that the fleet should be moved immediately. They responded by saying, “We are in command, not you.”

Each day, the Athenians would sail out and try to provoke Lysander into battle; when that failed, they would return to the beach and then go off in every direction seeking supplies. On the fifth day, the Athenians again tried to bait Lysander into battle, but again he seemingly refused. The Athenians returned to shore, only to find Lysander and the Spartan fleet suddenly bearing down on them. Only nine Athenian triremes escaped; the rest, almost 200 triremes, were captured on the beach along with their crews. Lysander then executed more than 3,000 Athenian prisoners. The Athenian general Philocles faced his fate bravely. When asked by Lysander what punishment he deserved for treating other Greeks so badly, Philocles brazenly replied:

“Lysander do not play the prosecutor in a case where there is no judge, deal out the exact same punishment you would have suffered had you been defeated.” Then Philocles bathed, put on a splendid cloak, and led his fellow Athenians to execution, offering himself as the first victim.

Without its navy, Athens had effectively lost the war. The news of the disaster was brought to Athens by the Paralus (which along with the Saliminia was one of two fast triremes used by the Athenian state to send messages). The news came at night to the Piraeus, and, according to the Athenian historian Xenophon (430–355), who may have been an eyewitness, a “wail” went up from the harbor, along the Long Walls and into the city as the news passed from one person to another. No one in Athens slept that night, so upset were they by the great defeat and also because of their fears of the immediate future as they saw a fate similar to that which they had meted out to Melos as a very real possibility.

Lysander, meanwhile, sailed around the Aegean overthrowing governments friendly to Athens and installing narrow oligarchies of 10 (native) men to rule on Sparta’s behalf. He then arrived outside the Piraeus at the same time the Spartan army, led by the two kings, Agis II (r. 427–400) and Pausanias (r. 408–395), encamped just outside the Long Walls. The Spartans had been unable throughout the war to break into Athens; now they would not have to, for they would wait outside the city until the food ran out and Athens was forced to surrender. By 404, with the population of Athens starving, Athens sued for peace. The Spartans held a congress of their allies to decide Athens’ fate. Some states, most notably Thebes and Corinth, wanted to impose andrapodismos (killing all the men and enslaving the women and children) as punishment for Melos and other atrocities. The Spartans refused, but they did impose harsh peace terms: the end of the Athenian Empire, the end of the Athenian navy except for 12 triremes, the destruction of the Long Walls, and the installation of a new narrow oligarchy of 30 men (which would last only until 403) to replace the democracy. The Spartans and their allies then celebrated their victory on the sixteenth day of the month of Munychion (September 20, 404), the anniversary of the great victory over the Persians at Salamis 76 years before. People came from all over Greece to watch as the Long Walls, the hated symbol of Athenian power, were pulled down. According to Plutarch:

Lysander sent for a great company of flute girls from the city and collected all those who were in his camp. Then to the sound of their music, he pulled down the Long Walls and burned the triremes while the allies garlanded themselves with flowers, rejoiced together, and hailed that day as the beginning of freedom for Greece.