Friday, February 04, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: the end of (the) history

Map of ancient Greece
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But the Lacedæmonians, not only in this but in many other things, were most commodious enemies to the Athenians to war withal. For being of most different humours; the one swift, the other slow; the one adventurous, the other timorous; the Lacedæmonians gave them great advantage, especially when their greatness was by sea. This was evident in the Syracusians: who being in condition like unto them, warred best against them.
(Book Eight, Chapter 96)

This post looks at Chapters 89 through 109 of Book Eight, covering the war during toward the end of the summer of 411 BC. Thucydides’ history ends here even though the war would continue for seven more years. This section covers the overthrow of the Four Hundred in Athens and the Athenian victory at the battle of Cynossema. All quotes (and spellings) come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

The envoys sent by the Four Hundred to the army at Samos return to Athens and relay Alcibiades’ message that they should hold firm against the enemy, giving many of the members resolve to continue with the oligarchy. However a clear split begins to form as some members of the Four Hundred want the Five Thousand to exist in reality and not just as a concept. It’s interesting that the envoys did not relay the part of Alcibiades’ message saying he would support the Five Thousand. In addition to a walking a political tightrope with the statement, Alcibiades may have aimed this at the Four Hundred because he was excluded from their ranks. Thucydides says that many of the disgruntled oligarchs were concerned that things would fail (and they would be blamed) as well as being driven by private ambition. Even so, he believed the call for the Five Thousand was just for show for many of them.

The Four Hundred sent their embassy to Sparta to pursue peace “with all possible speed”, “fearing their adversaries both at home and at Samos”. They also began construction of a wall at Piraeus at a spot called Eetioneia in order (so they said) to keep forces out of the harbor. Theramenes claims a plot is in the works by pointing out the construction was so “at their pleasure to be able to let in both the galleys and the land-forces of the enemies.” Theramenes becomes quite the irritant for the Four Hundred, saying that Peloponnesian ships were coming to Athens instead of helping the revolt in Euboea. The assassination of Phrynichus, one of the envoys to Sparta, proves to be the starting point for overturning the Four Hundred. The killer escapes and his associate, an Argive, refuses to reveal other names even while under torture. Aristocrates, one of the moderate oligarchs, has the Four Hundred general Alexicles arrested at Piraeus. The Four Hundred seize Theramenes, assuming he was part of the uprising but he agrees to accompany them to Piraeus to rescue Alexicles. Chaos escalates in Athens—no one is quite sure what is going on.

Aristarchus and the hard-line Four Hundred demand the soldiers at Piraeus to release Alexicles but instead the soldiers asked Theramenes if he thought the construction at Eetioneia were for the good. Theramenes replied he thought it better to demolish the walls, plus “whosoever desired that the sovereignty should be in the five thousand instead of the four hundred, ought also to set himself to the work in hand.” The wall is quickly razed; the moderates with the help of the soldiers and the people had won. The Five Thousand, while still an oligarchy, could at least still appear as a democracy. Representatives of the soldiers and of the Four Hundred, chosen for their mild tempers, meet and hammer out an agreement that an assembly should be held to figure out how power would be transferred to the Five Thousand.

Word comes that the Peloponnesian fleet has come “to the fortification”, but the enemy found the walls destroyed and the Athenians stirring to defend themselves. The Spartan commander Hegesandridas sails toward Eretria on Euboea. The nearby island of Euboea was a central point for Athenian supply since the fortress at Deceleia restricted their movements around Athens. Athenian ships hasten to follow to protect their interest there. Hegesandridas, with help from the Eretrians, had set a trap, though. The Athenian ships land near Eretria but, with no marketplace was made available to them, the soldiers drift apart in search of food. A sign is given and Hegesandridas attacks, routing the Athenians and taking twenty-two out of the thirty-six Athenian ships. The loss on Euboea encourages the rest of the island to revolt (except for Oreus, where the Athenaisn had a garrison) and causes much fear in Athens. Thucydides says it put the Athenians” into the greatest astonishment that ever they had been in before”, including after the loss of Sicily. Euboea was one of their supply life-lines, the Hellespont being another. Thucydides conjectures that if the Spartans had attached or blockaded the port at this time they could have easily carried the war. Tongue firmly in cheek, Thucydides makes the observation opening this post that the Spartans were the most convenient enemy for the Athenians.

The Athenians, panicked but still resolved, call an assembly “in the place called Pnyx, where they were wont to assemble at other times”…in other words, during the democracy. This assembly deposed the Four Hundred and handed matters over to the Five Thousand. Thucydides describes the actions by other assemblies enacting government matters as a turning point for the Athenians, setting things aright and providing the best government they had in his lifetime. Many of the oligarchs from the Four Hundred flee to the Spartans and the Five Thousand decree the recall of Alcibiades. Best government? Recalling Alcibiades? Well, I guess we’ll see (in other books, unfortunately) if that’s truly for the best.

Back to the eastern front… The Spartan admiral Mindarus, seeing Tissaphernes did not return with the Phoenician fleet, sails to the Hellespont at the request of the Persian satrap there, Pharnabazus. The Athenian general Thrasyllus hears of this movement and sails to the Hellespont as well, stopping in Lesbos to catch the Peloponnesian fleet unawares. Mindarus sails into the Hellespont unseen and establishes a base while the few Athenian ships at Sestos are forced to flee.

The Athenians on Lesbos, finding out the Peloponnesian fleet was already in the Hellespont, sail to meet for battle with Thrasyllus and Thrasybulus on the wings. For the Peloponnesians, Mindarus was on one wing while the Syracuians held down the other end. The Athenians stretch their lines out so far that the Peloponnesians successfully attack the center and run several Athenian ships aground, setting the stage to win the battle. The inexperience of the Peloponnesian fleet surfaces at this point as they begin to chase individual ships instead of reforming their lines and attacking in unison. The Athenians regroup and win the day, causing the Peloponnesian fleet to flee. The Athenians relish their victory since “having till this day stood in fear of the Peloponnesian navy, both for the loss which they had received by little and little and also for their great loss in Sicily, they now ceased either to accuse themselves, or to think highly any longer of the naval power of the enemies.” The victory in the Hellespont at Cynossema and the change in government brought temporary solace to Athens. Having lost Euboea and the ability to supply the city from that island, the Hellespont represented a crucial route to supplies from their colonies around the Black Sea.

And, a few chapters after the battle of Cynossema, Thucydides’ voice falls silent…

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DorAnd said...

Do you have any perspectives on whether the Athenian and Spartan leaders effectively took account of Persia in their strategic thinking?

Dwight said...

I think the deterioration in quality of leadership for both Athens and Sparta over the course of the war is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. The Persian question could be an extended chapter for any time period you choose related to the war. One point that immediately springs to mind. has an article on the Spartan treaties with Persia at the end of the war, detailing Sparta's embarrassing agreements. I'd disagree with their assessment that Sparta had no was a question of what Sparta wanted and what it was willing to do and willing to give up for a short-sighted goal.

An interesting comparison to the Spartan treaties at the end of the war would be the Athenian treaty with Persia in 449 BC (the Callias treaty). At that time, Athens could negotiate from a position of strength. 35+ years later and Sparta has little to offer Persia except Greek possessions.