Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 11

Fortune Favors the Brave [430-428 B.C.]

“But tactical science is only one part of generalship,” said Socrates. “A general must be capable of equipping his forces and providing for his men. He must also be inventive, hardworking, and watchful—bullheaded and brilliant, friendly and fierce, straightforward and subtle.”

—Xenophon

THE ONLY GENERAL CAPABLE OF SAVING ATHENS WAS AT THAT moment living in poverty, disgrace, and dishonor, almost forgotten by his fellow citizens. Phormio had been a successful commander through almost three decades of service to the city, but like Pericles he had fallen victim to the people’s hunt for scapegoats during the plague. Always ready to answer the trumpet’s call even without pay, Phormio was Ares in the civic pantheon of celebrities, a counterpart to the Zeus of Pericles. Both Olympians had fallen from favor.

Though his ancestry was as noble as any Athenian’s, Phormio was now a poor man. In the course of his honest generalship at Potidaea he had helped provide for his troops from his own personal funds. After his return to Athens the civilian scrutiny board censured him for his conduct of the campaign and fined him one hundred silver minai. Phormio was too proud to beg or borrow the money from friends. His failure to pay the punitive fine led to an official ban of atimia or dishonor. Until it was lifted, he could not set foot on consecrated ground, including the Acropolis, the Agora, and the Pnyx.

In this crisis Phormio left the city and retired to his ancestral home at Paiania on the far side of Mount Hymettus. The family farm lay in the heart of the broad plain called Mesogaia or Middle Earth and had been visited earlier that summer by the marauding Peloponnesian army. For forty days the Spartans and their allies had worked their way through Attica, spreading fire and destruction everywhere. Phormio had been a small boy when Xerxes’ army had devastated the countryside. Just as the men of his father’s generation had done, Phormio settled down to live off the blackened earth, work his fields, and plant his crops. His career as a naval commander seemed over.

Now almost sixty, Phormio was used to living rough. On his many campaigns he had shared the hardships and short rations of his troops. Every day he stripped down and exercised naked, like a boy toughening his body in the gymnasium at home. Phormio had kept up this regimen in all weathers, winter and summer. Exposure to sun and wind had burned his body dark brown, so the men gave him one of Heracles’ nicknames, Melampy gous or “Black Butt.” At night he slept on the ground. His pallet was a reed mat so thin and poor that “Phormio’s sleeping mat” became a proverb in Athens to describe anything of truly wretched quality.

His look of a simple, weatherbeaten campaigner was deceptive. He had stormed cities, won allies, enriched the public treasury, and even beaten fifty enemy triremes with an Athenian fleet of only thirty. Phormio’s genius lay in quick improvisation on unexpected themes, and in his conviction that every situation, no matter how discouraging, offered a chance for victory. That chance had to be discovered and exploited through mêtis. Through cunning intelligence young Phormio had once tricked a city into opening its gates. On that occasion he borrowed techniques from the playwrights of Athens, including disguises and a dramatic messenger’s speech that he wrote and recited himself in order to fool the enemy. In the case of the sea battle of fifty against thirty, Phormio used a standard cavalry formation to hide the true numbers of his ships, thus luring the foolish enemy into undertaking a hasty and disordered charge. For Phormio as for Themistocles, the general’s mêtis was the decisive element in war.

His career had fallen in between the two supreme challenges to Athenian liberty, the Persian invasion and the Peloponnesian War. Phormio had been too young to fight against Xerxes and would soon be too old to participate further in the war against the Spartans. His antagonists had been unruly westerners, rebellious allies, and Corinthian colonists, with no chance to measure himself against the city’s principal foes. Phormio’s gifts had been squandered while he played minor roles in distant campaigns, and now, when Athens most desperately needed able commanders, it seemed his disgrace would keep him from coming to his city’s aid until it was too late.

One day a party of men approached his farm through the desolate landscape. They were not Athenians but Acarnanians, distant allies who had come to beg Athens for protection. During that second summer of the war, when the plague cut short the Athenian naval expedition around the Peloponnese, enemy fleets had ventured to sea with more than a hundred ships. Corinthians and other Spartan allies had made landings on the territory of Acarnania and other western allies. It seemed clear that the Peloponnesian fleet would return the following year to complete the job unless Athens sent a force to prevent them.

As general of that force, the Acarnanians wanted Phormio. He had been a hero in their country ever since the day long before when he arrived with thirty triremes, stormed a hostile city, and handed it back to its rightful Acarnanian owners. Local families had even named their sons Phormio in honor of the liberator. This party of Acarnanian envoys had arrived at Athens at summer’s end after a dangerous voyage, only to learn that the man whom they sought was now banned from office. So they had journeyed through Attica to Phormio’s farm, hoping to persuade him to abandon the Athenians and come west with them as a general at large, an honored guest who would take into his own hands the defense of their country. If Athens did not want Phormio, Acarnania did.

Phormio declined the offer. He told his visitors that as a dishonored man and a debtor, he would feel ashamed to face his men. This reply was not completely open. He saw in this unexpected offer a lever that might move the Assembly to reconsider his case. Phormio had no intention of spending his declining years as a soldier of fortune in the wilds of western Greece. Time was running out if he wanted to render any last great service to his city.

Meanwhile back in Athens a strong reaction had emerged in Phormio’s favor, perhaps simply because he was now in demand with other Greeks. To cancel his fine, the Assembly resorted to a ruse. The citizens appointed Phormio to decorate the sanctuary of Dionysus for an upcoming festival. One hundred minai of silver from public funds would be handed over to him to cover the cost. Of course Phormio took the money to the scrutiny board instead and paid his fine. He then fobbed off the god Dionysus with a cheap gift, inspiring a couple of comic verses from an anonymous playwright:

Phormio said, “I’ll raise three silver tripods!”
Instead he raised just one—made out of lead.

With Phormio’s debt cleared and his honor restored, the Assembly reelected him general in charge of a special mission: the defense of Acarnania and other western allies. His base would be Naupactus, a seaside town that had been given to a group of friendly Messenians during Tolmides’ circumnavigation of the Peloponnese. From there Phormio could blockade the Corinthian Gulf in both directions, preventing enemy fleets from rowing out, and Sicilian or Italian grain freighters from sailing in. He would face a combination of Spartan allies that had mustered one hundred ships earlier that year. How many triremes would the Assembly assign to him? Twenty. The plague had left Athens incapable of more.

In the first year of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians had launched a war fleet of 180 ships; in the second year, even with the outbreak of the plague, 150. In the war’s third year, Phormio’s 20 triremes would be the sum of the Athenian naval effort. This squadron was smaller than the vanguard of an Athenian fleet in their days of glory, but with Phormio in command its chances of survival were not as desperate as the numbers suggested. His flagship would be the Paralos, pride of the Athenian fleet.

During the winter Phormio left the Piraeus and led his little force around the Peloponnese to Naupactus. The town faced south across a broad oval of water, the westernmost reach of the Gulf of Corinth. Cold streams tumbled down from the hills to the flat reedy shore. To the west the coast curved south toward the Peloponnese, a long finger reaching out as if to touch the opposite shore. The cape at the tip of this finger, Cape Rhium of Molycria, guarded the gulf’s narrow entrance. The Messenian exiles at Naupactus gave a warm welcome to Phormio and his fleet. The harbor had room for twenty slipways but little more. The fortifications of Naupactus came right down to the beach and joined the harbor walls to create a complete defensive circuit.

The Athenians held their station unchallenged through the winter and spring. At about midsummer two messengers arrived at Naupactus almost simultaneously, both bearing bad news. From Acarnania came a desperate appeal: the Spartan admiral Cnemus had dodged Phormio’s blockade and landed an army that was about to attack the cities that Phormio had been sent out to protect. From the opposite direction Phormio received a report that a large fleet was ready to put to sea from Corinth and other Peloponnesian ports.

Phormio was caught in a dilemma. Without his help Acarnania might fall. He had already failed his friends by letting the Spartan ships elude him. But it was his first duty to block the gulf. The fleet launched by Sparta’s maritime allies was no doubt coordinated with the Spartan invasion under Admiral Cnemus. The close timing suggested an attempt to draw him away from Naupactus. Hoping that the Spartans would wait for their reinforcements before proceeding with their attack, Phormio told the unhappy Acarnanian messenger that he could not abandon his post.

The Athenians did not have long to wait. Within a few days they spotted enemy warships cruising westward along the gulf’s opposite shore. At once Phormio launched his full force of twenty triremes and rowed south to observe them. A closer view revealed an assemblage of forty-seven triremes with a flotilla of small support vessels bobbing in their wake. Only a few were fast triremes; the rest were heavily laden troop carriers. Phormio had no intention of challenging them inside the gulf. Instead he shadowed them as they passed between the capes and entered the open sea to the west. That evening the Peloponnesian fleet camped at Patras. Instead of returning to Naupactus, Phormio chose to bivouac on the opposite shore. He suspected that the enemy would attempt a night crossing, and he was right.

Several hours before sunrise the Athenians were again at sea, feeling their way southward across the dark water. The sea was flat, the air still. Ahead they could hear the sounds of an approaching fleet. But the enemy was already aware of their presence. By the time the two fleets made contact, the Peloponnesians had arrayed their forces in the same kyklos or wheel formation that the Greeks had used with such good results at Artemisium. The troop carriers formed a wide circle with their rams pointing outward, protecting the support vessels like dogs around a flock of sheep. Five fast triremes were also stationed inside the circle, ready to attack any Athenian that dared to break through.

After studying the enemy’s wheel, Phormio decided on an oblique and delayed attack. He intended to imitate the ploy used by Greek fishing boats when tackling a big run of tuna. Once alongside the huge fish, the fishermen would row quietly around the school, enclosing their prey within an ever-tightening circle of nets. Herded together, the jostling and terrified tuna inevitably started to leap from the water. As they landed in or near the boats, the fishermen clubbed them to death. Phormio had no nets, but he meant to go fishing nonetheless.

Following their general’s lead, the twenty Athenian triremes formed a single line and began a leisurely encircling maneuver, rowing around and around the perimeter of the motionless kyklos. At times a single trireme broke from the line to make a ramming charge at a Peloponnesian troop carrier. Convulsively the threatened ship would retreat deeper into the circle, and its companions on either side would pull back to close the gap. At the last moment the Athenian steersman veered away and resumed his place among the prowling triremes in the line. Little by little the Peloponnesian circle contracted. At last the Athenians drew the noose so tight that the oar banks of the troop carriers became enmeshed in a tangled ring.

Even now Phormio held off. He was waiting for the dawn, and the stiff easterly wind that blew every morning out of the Corinthian Gulf. It came at last, catching the Peloponnesian hulls and driving them against one another. Long poles struck planking as mariners tried to fend off neighboring vessels. Choppy waves kicked up by the wind added to the confusion of the colliding ships. In the rough sea the raw Peloponnesian rowers could not lift their oar blades clear of the water, and without steerage way the steersmen were helpless. An uproar of shouts, warnings, and curses drowned the orders of the officers. In the center of the chaos lay the five fast triremes, trapped between small craft and troop carriers.

When the confusion reached its height, Phormio gave the signal to attack. Each of the twenty Athenian triremes aimed for an enemy ship on the outer edge of the struggling mass. The flagship of one Peloponnesian contingent was struck in the first charge. Others followed as the Athenians settled down to the business of ramming every ship within reach. As the mass of ships broke up, those Peloponnesians who could get free fled back toward Patras. Before the morning’s work was over, the Athenians had captured twelve enemy triremes and most of their crews: more than two thousand men. At that point they abandoned the chase. With many more prizes they ran the risk of being outnumbered by their prisoners. Not one Athenian ship had been lost.

In Poseidon’s sanctuary on Cape Rhium the Athenians raised their victory trophy and sang their paeans. The battle of Patras was Athens’ first major success at sea since the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. An extra measure of thanks seemed due to the sea god, so Phormio ordered his crews to haul one of the captured triremes onto the consecrated ground. Near it a stone was inscribed with a dedication to Poseidon and the Athenian hero Theseus. Good news from Acarnania capped the celebrations. The invading army led by the Spartan admiral Cnemus, deprived of the reinforcements sent by sea, had been defeated. For the moment Athens’ western allies were safe.

The contest for control of the western seas continued. It was not in the nature of the Spartans to yield so easily, however poorly their allies fought. Scouts brought Phormio word that in the harbors of the Peloponnese shore the troop carriers that had survived the battle of Patras were being refitted by the shipwrights as fast triremes. Sure that he would have to fight again, Phormio sent a messenger to Athens with an appeal for more ships.

The Athenians at home had their own preoccupations. Since the outbreak of the plague the previous summer, the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean had been unable to man a large fleet. Between two and three hundred triremes lay empty in the Navy Yard, lifeless pods of timber without their crews. The outlook on land was even bleaker. The Peloponnesian army was besieging Athens’ closest ally, Plataea, yet the Athenians could do nothing to help. The treasury was at low ebb: a naval mission to collect tribute money in Asia Minor ended in the death of the commander. In this hour of crisis the entire city was held in suspense by the imminent loss of its wisest counselor. Pericles had contracted a lingering form of the plague and was slowly dying. Most citizens could not remember an Athens without that calm Olympian figure at the helm.

Phormio and his troubles in the Corinthian Gulf seemed small and far-off. The Assembly could do no more than send him another twenty triremes, and even those could not be spared immediately. On their way to Naupactus the squadron would have to stop at Crete and join with local forces in the assault of Cydonia. Only then could they proceed around the Peloponnese to their rendezvous with Phormio. It seemed uncertain that they could reach him before the Spartans launched another attack. Bearing nothing but bad news, the messenger returned to Naupactus.

At Sparta reaction to the battle of Patras was very different. Admiral Cnemus’ report on the Peloponnesian defeat angered the ephors and other leaders who were directing the war against Athens. They could see only one explanation for the humiliating loss.Malakia! The allies had been soft! In their fury the Spartans sent out three distinguished commanders to advise Cnemus. The group included a valiant young soldier named Brasidas, who had already scored one victory against an Athenian expeditionary force. For the moment Acarnania was forgotten. Phormio and his blockaders must be destroyed. The advisers delivered new orders to the admiral: muster more ships; prepare the crews for battle; and this time do not let a few Athenian ships drive them off the sea.

Fresh levies of ships from league members soon raised the Peloponnesian total to seventy-seven. Phormio would face the combined naval forces of eight states: Sparta, Corinth, Megara, Sicyon, Pellene, Elis, Leucas, and Ambracia. The ships assembled at a place called Panormus, near the mouth of the Corinthian Gulf. From the high citadel at Naupactus, Phormio’s lookouts had a clear view of Panormus, five miles to the south across the broad oval of open water. The enemy fleet outnumbered them almost four to one and was backed by a land army that had marched up to reinforce it. Almost overnight a city of mariners and armed men had sprouted on the coast of the Peloponnese.

It was contrary to Phormio’s beliefs—and his orders from the Assembly—to yield control of the sea. He had been ordered to guard the entrance to the gulf, and like Leonidas at Thermopylae, he would make his stand where obedience to those orders required. Launching his twenty ships, Phormio moved down to Cape Rhium to show that he meant to fight. Pebbles and shingle covered the shoreline within the gulf, denying him a landing place. So he rounded the cape and set up camp on a sandy beach near the sanctuary of Poseidon, facing west toward the distant isles of Ithaca and Cephallenia. The twenty triremes sent from Athens had still not appeared. His only supporters were a few hundred Messenian hoplites from Naupactus. They would protect the camp while the Athenians were at sea and aid any Athenian trireme driven to shore during a battle.

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Phormio held a near-mystical faith in the invincibility of the Athenian navy. He often exhorted his men to remember that they were Athenians and the equal of any enemy force no matter how great. Common sense should have convinced him to stay behind the strong walls of Naupactus until the winter storms dispersed the enemy fleet. But Phormio preferred his unprotected beach and an immediate challenge. Here the relief fleet from Athens could reach him most easily, should it ever arrive. Here too he could assert the Athenian rule of the sea on which Pericles had founded his grand strategy. And from here he might lure the Spartans and their allies into the open sea, where the superior skill of his crews and steersmen could be given full rein.

The Spartans’ response to Phormio’s bold challenge was quiet and ominous. Instead of attacking the Athenians, they began to drill their crews on the calm water of the gulf. Every morning the Athenians pushed off from their beach and formed a battle line outside the entrance to the gulf. From there they observed the enemy’s steady improvement in maneuvers and oarsmanship. With each passing day Peloponnesian confidence rose as Athenian morale began to ebb.

After six or seven days Phormio saw signs of an impending mutiny. Normally Athenian citizens serving in the navy felt free to talk back to their officers; perhaps for that very reason actual mutinies were virtually unknown, either by a fleet against its general or by a crew against its trierarch. So it was alarming when knots of fearful men formed here and there in the camp at Cape Rhium, earnestly talking among themselves. Hoping to reverse the despondent mood, Phormio called an assembly by the ships. He spoke frankly about the enemy’s advantage of numbers and the Spartans’ belief that they held some sort of monopoly on bravery. But he observed that the Peloponnesian allies were unlikely to risk their lives for the cause of Spartan honor. Then he shared his vision of the coming battle: “Great forces before now have been beaten by small ones because of a lack of skill or daring. We lack neither.”

Phormio promised that, if humanly possible, he would ensure that the battle was fought on open water that allowed plenty of sea room for Athenian maneuvers, full use of the diekplous, and carefully aimed ramming charges. He would keep out of the gulf, where they would have less room to back away if surrounded. In return, Phormio asked his men to play their part. They must stick to their posts, maintaining discipline and silence so that the commands could be clearly heard. Finally he reminded them that they had already won a victory over most of the men in this new fleet. “Beaten men never face danger again with the same resolve.”

During the days of training the Spartans had forged the motley collection of allied contingents into a well-ordered line of battle. With almost eighty ships to pit against Phormio’s twenty, they were able to array their triremes four deep yet still match the length of the Athenian line. The Peloponnesian right wing, center, and left wing were under the leadership of Brasidas, Lycophron, and the admiral Cnemus. The twenty fastest triremes, however, had been brought together in a special flying squadron posted beyond the right wing—that is, on the north end of the fleet as it faced the Athenians. The Spartan Timocrates commanded this special squadron. He had chosen for his flagship the finest and fastest vessel of all, a trireme from the island of Leucas.

Next morning the Peloponnesians were astir before first light. Whether they meant to train or to fight, the Athenians could not tell. They rowed out from shore four abreast, with Timocrates’ squadron leading the way. As the Athenians watched, the fleet rowed north toward the center of the gulf. At any moment Phormio expected the enemy to start the daily exercises. But today was not like the other days. The fleet did not turn: drills and delay were over. This was a battle fleet advancing in quadruple column, ready for action, and it was aimed not at the Athenians at Cape Rhium but at Naupactus.

Phormio had told his men that he would not fight in narrow waters. Now he had no choice. He could not abandon his Messenian allies to a direct assault when all their hoplites had left the city to support him. Hastily and against his will he ordered his fleet to sea. As the Athenian crews poured onto the ships, the Messenians seized their arms and took off overland toward their homes and families. Phormio’s triremes rowed in single file with the Paralos halfway down the line. Should they have an opportunity to turn and face the Spartans, the flagship would hold the center. As each ship rounded the point of the cape and entered the gulf, its steersman set his course north-northeast toward Naupactus, barely visible at the far end of its curving bay. The race was on.

The Peloponnesians had a head start, but the superior strength and skill of Phormio’s crews soon began to tell. There came a moment when the leading Athenian trireme pulled level with the enemy vanguard and then began to draw ahead. It now appeared that the Athenians might win the race and save the city. But the Spartan commanders had never actually intended to assault Naupactus. The harbor was fortified, and their triremes carried no equipment for storming walls. The move to the north had been merely a feint to lure Phormio into fighting on their terms, and the feint had succeeded. It was time to spring the trap.

On signal the seventy-seven Peloponnesian ships executed a sharp left turn. On this new heading their rams pointed directly toward the Athenians. Four ranks deep they attacked. Phormio’s ships were caught broadside to the charge. But the Spartans had been too slow. Thanks to their miscalculation, it was clear that that the foremost Athenians were going to escape. As the fleets collided, the nine trailing ships of Phormio’s squadron were pushed onto the pebbly shore. The main body of the Peloponnesian fleet crowded after them, eager to take part in this historic victory over Athenians at sea. In the crush the men on some of the trapped ships remained at their posts, desperately fending off enemy grappling irons and boarding parties. When resistance became hopeless, the crews leaped down into the shallows and scrambled to land.

Eleven Athenian triremes had eluded the turning maneuver. These ships were still thrashing along toward Naupactus. To make the victory complete, Timocrates ordered the flying squadron on the Peloponnesian right wing to follow them. At the Spartan’s command the twenty triremes swung around into the wake of the last free Athenian ship—the Paralos—and set off in pursuit.

The long race had brought the Athenians close to their goal. One after the other the leading Athenian triremes reached Naupactus and wheeled around to face the oncoming enemy. Their rams formed a barrier of bronze across the approach to the harbor. Close by stood a temple of Apollo, built on sacred ground near the water’s edge. While they stood at bay, there came wafting to them the sound of distant music. The men in the Peloponnesian triremes were already chanting the paean to Apollo, the ancient hymn of victory. Their singing rolled across the water and echoed off the city walls.

Timocrates’ flagship had pulled clear of the pack. Closely followed by another trireme, the ship from Leucas flew along in the wake of the Paralos. As they neared the harbor Phormio received a report from the lookout at the prow. Directly ahead a broad-beamed merchant vessel was riding at anchor off Naupactus. The first ten Athenians had already rowed past it, but its unexpected presence sparked an idea in Phormio’s mind. Despite the disastrous events of the morning he had not given up hope of striking a blow before the end, whatever the risk. While the Peloponnesians sang, he quickly worked out a plan of action. The command would have to be given immediately, while the anchored freighter still lay ahead. Its bulky wooden hull held out a last chance, if not to win the battle, then to take one enemy ship down with him.

In Greece accidents sometimes happened during chariot races in open country. A leading charioteer had been known to misjudge his course around the turning point at the far end of the track. If he brought his team too far around the post, it would smash headlong into the chariot coming up behind. During the race of the ships toward Naupactus the Paralos had been unable to turn on its pursuer. Any change of course would have exposed it to the enemy’s ram. Now opportunity had put in Phormio’s path an obstacle that might screen his ship while it wheeled around on its pursuer. The freighter would be his turning post, the Paralos his chariot. The maneuver was reckless, even suicidal, but there was no time to consider. The Spartan’s flagship was only a few lengths astern. Safety lay with the phalanx of ten Athenian triremes lined up across the harbor mouth, but Phormio ignored them. Instead he ordered the steersman to execute a racing turn around the anchored freighter.

The crew at the oars could see nothing outside their ship. The thick screens of hide concealed the stone walls of Naupactus, the merchant vessel, and the enemy fleet astern. With blind faith they answered the shrilling of the pipes and the yells of the coxswain. As the Paralos came abreast of the anchored merchantman, the steersman worked the big steering oars so as to turn the trireme as sharply as possible. The rowers, exhausted but still game, worked at pulling their ship around the turn. Halfway through the tight circle, at the crucial moment when the Paralos lay broadside to the pursuer’s ram, the floating bulwark hid them from view, just as Phormio had foreseen. The moment of vulnerability passed. Bursting out of the turn, the Paralos was now aimed like an arrow at the foe. The roles of the two ships were abruptly reversed: the hunter had become the prey.

Phormio’s unlikely action left Timocrates no means of saving his ship. To stop, to turn, or to retreat would be equally fatal. In the end the Leucadian trireme continued on course, perhaps hoping to outrun the ramming strike of the Paralos. It was not to be. The Athenian rowers took a final stroke and lifted their blades clear of the water. Like wings, gleaming and wet with spray, the outstretched banks of oars hovered motionless as the ship shot forward. Just before impact each man on board the Paralos grabbed the nearest timber and braced himself for the shock. Then bronze hit wood, and the Athenian ram plowed deep into the enemy’s hull. In an instant both ships were struck motionless. The thunder of the oars gave way to the cries of the enemy wounded and the gurgle of water pouring into the shattered stern of the trireme from Leucas.

As the sea swirled into the breach, Timocrates lost his head. He could still have rallied his band of marines and led them up the towering prow of the Athenian ship. On other occasions fighting men had left their sinking ship, boarded their attacker, and claimed it as a prize. But for the Spartan commander the shock and shame were too great. True to his country’s code of choosing death before dishonor, Timocrates drew his sword, braced it against the deck with its point toward his heart, and fell forward. A moment later his lifeless body toppled over the railing and pitched into the sea.

That moment could have been Phormio’s last as well. The Paralos now lay immobilized before the entire enemy vanguard. His own end, and that of his ship and men, was surely imminent. Incredibly, no attack came. With their flagship destroyed and their commander quite spectacularly dead, the Peloponnesians stopped singing, stopped rowing, stopped steering. Leaderless, they panicked. Some ran aground on the muddy shoals; others lost their way and drifted. Whether aground or afloat, all nineteen were suddenly, fatally vulnerable.

The Athenian trierarchs in the ten triremes near the harbor had witnessed the unbelievable exploit of the Paralos. Now they seized the moment. Someone gave the command to charge; the crews answered with a shout. All ten ships broke from their defensive formation and steered for the hapless Peloponnesians. Phormio’s oarsmen backed their ship free from the sinking Leucadian and joined the attack. There was a brief struggle as the Peloponnesians tried to regroup and resist, but it was too late. Momentum now lay with the Athenians. All the Peloponnesians still afloat set off southward as fast as they could row. In their wake came the resurgent Athenians. Quickly they overtook and captured six of the laggards.

As the pursuit swept into the open water of the gulf, an amazing spectacle came into view. Around the nine Athenian triremes earlier driven ashore a battle was raging. The Messenian hoplites had reached the grounded ships as they were running toward Naupactus and turned aside to help. Splashing into the sea, the Messenians hoisted themselves aboard the empty warships and, hand to hand with Spartans at last, fought back from the decks. Already they had recaptured several ships. Pushed onto the defensive, the beleaguered Spartans were startled to see the remnant of Timocrates’ squadron streaming toward them with the Athenians in pursuit. At once they gave up the fight and joined their comrades in flight. Those Peloponnesians who had managed to tow away captured triremes had to cut their prizes adrift to save themselves. In the course of the rout the Athenians regained eight of the ships they had believed lost.

At last Phormio called a halt. Most of the Peloponnesians had escaped, taking with them one Athenian trireme with its crew. Even with this loss Phormio and his small force had won an epic victory. The Athenians now sang the paean in their turn, then rowed back to Naupactus. Someone fished the body of Timocrates out of the harbor, where it had been washed up by the currents. The Athenians set up their trophy by the temple of Apollo, overlooking the place where the Paralos had turned the fortunes of war. Later they learned that the Spartans considered that there had really been two battles that day, and that the Peloponnesian fleet had won the fight on the shore. So the Spartans too set up a trophy—on their own safe shore at Panormus, well out of reach of vengeful Athenians.

The next morning the southern shore of the gulf, lately so crowded with ships and troops, was empty. Fearing the arrival of reinforcements from Athens, the Peloponnesians had slipped away in the night, too broken in spirit to face Phormio again, though they still outnumbered his little fleet more than three to one. A few days later as autumn ended, the twenty triremes from Athens finally appeared. The newly arrived trierarchs explained that contrary winds and various setbacks on Crete had delayed them. Their absence from the battle of Naupactus merely underscored the dazzling supremacy of Athenian seamanship and the genius of the navy’s supreme tactician.

When spring came, Phormio bade farewell to his Messenian allies and took his fleet and his prizes back to the Piraeus. Now sixty, he had fought his last battle. He had also revived the Athenians’ flagging efforts and will to fight. After Phormio’s victories at Patras and Naupactus there was no more talk of suing the Spartans for peace. To commemorate his triumphs the Athenians dedicated an offering to Apollo in his sanctuary at Delphi. Shields and prows that Phormio had taken from enemy warships were set up in a stoa near the oracular shrine, and an inscribed stele listed the names of the eight members of the Peloponnesian League that Phormio had defeated. The man himself took on a numinous heroic aura. The next time that the Acarnanians sent to Athens for aid, they specified that a son or other kinsman of Phormio should be sent to help them.

The western adventure had begun when Phormio dedicated a lead tripod to Dionysus, and it was in the theater of Dionysus that he underwent his ultimate apotheosis. To honor the victor of Patras and Naupactus, a young Athenian playwright named Eupolis wrote a comedy called Taxiarchsafter its chorus of regimental officers. The plot brought Dionysus down from Olympus to learn the art of war from Phormio, who put the soft and pleasure-loving god of wine through hard training in rowing and combat skills. At one point the actor playing Dionysus actually rowed a little boat across the playing area, while the actor who played Phormio stood in the bow, giving instructions and complaining when he was splashed by a misplaced stroke. Phormio also introduced Dionysus to the celebrated reed mat on which he slept when in the field. Eupolis’ popular comedy was the first to exploit the humorous potential of a tenderfoot’s transformation into a soldier. Along with accounts of Phormio’s victories in histories and tactical manuals, it carried the great general’s fame down to remote generations.

Phormio had been only a boy when Themistocles proclaimed that the Delphic Oracle’s Wooden Wall was in truth the Athenian navy, a god-given defense that would not fail the Athenians in their hour of need. Serving the navy had been his life, and at the end of his career he crowned the beloved Wooden Wall with a pair of unsurpassable victories. His stratagems would long be remembered and imitated by other naval commanders. All those gifts of mind and spirit that set Athenians apart shone at their brightest in Phormio: optimism, energy, inventiveness, and daring; a determination to seize every chance and defy all odds; and the iron will to continue the fight even when all seemed lost—even when the enemy had already begun to celebrate their victory. For Phormio, it was never too late to win.

After his death, a statue of Phormio was raised on the Acropolis near the west front of the Parthenon, where both Athena and Poseidon could look down upon this most favored son from their perches on the pediment. The people interred Phormio’s ashes in a tomb beside the Sacred Way. Pericles had already been given the place of honor just outside the city gates, but next to him the Athenians made a monument to Phormio, the greatest naval hero of them all.

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