Ancient History & Civilisation

Part Four

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CATASTROPHE

What I should wish is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave their lives.

—Pericles to the Athenians

CHAPTER 14

The Rogue’s Return [412-407 B.C.]

Let him come! Let him come! Do not stop the ship of many oars that carries him, until he makes his way home to the city.

—Sophocles

AFTER THE DISASTER AT SYRACUSE MOST GREEKS EXPECTED universal rebellion among Athens’ allies and the fall of Athens itself soon afterward. Pleasant anticipations warmed the Spartans through the winter months as they waited for the start of the next campaigning season. But nothing turned out as they had imagined. The troublesome Athenian democracy declined to accept the destiny that seemed so inevitable to everybody else. And by a strange twist of fate, the leading role in Athens’ recovery was to be played by that traitorous and evil genius of the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades.

For two years he had lived among the Spartans, doing his best to wreak vengeance on the Athenians. Alcibiades knew Athens well, and he used his knowledge to hurt his native city more deeply than any stranger could have done. The Spartans were mere tools in his campaign for revenge. Thanks to the success of his counsels, Alcibiades stood high in their regard, but what had really won their respect was his total adaptation to Spartan ways: a regimen of black broth, daily exercise, and hard living. He had embraced the simple life of a Spartan warrior as if born to it. So complete was the transformation that his contemporaries likened him to a chameleon. Biding his time, Alcibiades awaited the overthrow of his political enemies and his triumphant return to Athens. As the playwright Aeschylus put it in one of his tragedies, “Men in exile feed on dreams.”

The prestige of Athenian democracy suffered with the failure of the Sicilian expedition, but Alcibiades and the rest of the Greeks overestimated the disaster’s impact. In this supreme crisis the Assembly rallied swiftly. Timber was found and new ships built. To retrench, the Athenians called in the triremes and troops from distant outposts. Messengers were sent to Athenian garrisons in allied cities, warning them that the Spartans could back oligarchic coups. All these steps were taken over the winter. When the historian Thucydides recorded the people’s energetic response, he observed that democracies are always at their best when things seem at their worst.

Even before the Sicilian expedition ended, the Athenians had begun to seek a more just relationship with their maritime allies. On their own initiative they ended the annual demand for tribute, the most hated practice of their imperial rule. Instead they collected a five percent tax on all maritime commerce. The new system was more directly tied to the benefits conferred by Athenian rule of the sea, and it actually brought in more money than the annual tribute payments. Above all, the Assembly tacitly renounced the terrible practice of enforcing imperial rule through the wholesale killing of defeated populations. Athens was rewarded for its reforms by the loyal adherence of most cities in the empire.

Alarms and excursions might come and go, but at Athens the theater was eternal. The eighty-year-old Sophocles had been appointed to a new board of councilors, so his younger colleague Euripides came to the fore. Retreating to an isolated cave on the island of Salamis, Euripides undertook to write tragedies for a people whose lives were now steeped in real tragedy. Thousands of citizens had lost loved ones in Sicily. The entire city was still in a state of trauma from the horrors of the disaster. At this time of deep grief, any tale of bloodshed or divine punishment would have seemed unendurable. In the past, Euripides had produced plays like The Trojan Women that savagely rebuked Athenian arrogance and inhumanity, but he was now a changed man. His new plays were meant not to cut but to heal.

Instead of harping on death, sorrow, and retribution, Euripides invented a different type of tragedy: the romance. His themes were deliverance, redemption, and reunion. The new plays featured the stock mythological characters and situations of Attic tragedy, but they ended happily. Gods and heroes rescued the innocent from great perils, and loved ones believed dead were discovered alive and well. In his romances Euripides fashioned a theater of escape, but on a higher plane than mere physical escapism and diversion. The new plays were metaphors for renewal, purification, and fresh beginnings.

The sea dominated Euripides’ romantic tragedies, both as a setting and as a force of nature. His protagonists now always faced dangers at sea, but their trials concluded with daring and joyful rescues. In Iphigenia Among the Taurians the young Orestes, son of King Agamemnon, crossed the Black Sea and rescued his long-lost sister Iphigenia from savage local tribesmen. At the end the actor playing Athena was hoisted up by the crane and hovered over the stage as a deus ex machina. The goddess assured the audience that Poseidon would smooth the waves, while fair winds wafted the wan derers safely to the shores of Attica. Wish fulfillment could go no further. Euripides put his most hopeful and consoling line into the mouth of Iphigenia, a woman stranded upon a foreign shore who had given up hope of rescue: “The sea can wash away all human ills.”

Soon after the festival of Dionysus, the sea became the theater for an epic conflict that most ancient chroniclers called the Ionian War, though Thucydides regarded it as the final eight-year phase of his great Peloponnesian War. Continuous naval actions and amphibious assaults raged up and down the coasts of Asia Minor from Halicarnassus to Byzantium and embroiled the islands of Rhodes, Samos, Chios, and Lesbos as well. For the Athenians, survival depended upon holding on to Ionia and the Hellespont. For the Spartans, these eastern seaways held the key to defeating a city that was still impregnable at home, thanks to its Long Walls. The Athenians established their principal naval base on the loyal island of Samos, while the Spartan fleet used the harbor at Ephesus on the Asiatic mainland.

Among the first commanders to cross from Greece to Ionia was Alcibiades. He had pressing personal reasons for making a speedy exit from Sparta. Eros with his thunderbolt had struck again. As sexually irrepressible as ever, Alcibiades had taken advantage of King Agis’ absence with the Spartan army in Attica to seduce his wife, Timonassa. Now he had every reason to believe that the child she was bearing was his own. It would be best for him to get away before the secret became known. After stirring up a revolt against Athens on the island of Chios, he continued eastward to Asia.

Since neither the Spartans nor the Athenians had enough money to pay their crews, the Great King and his satraps became once again an important force in Greek affairs. In exchange for Persian gold sufficient to engineer the defeat of the Athenian navy, the Spartans were even willing to restore the Greek cities of Asia to Persian rule—an extraordinary offer from men who claimed to be fighting for Greek liberty. Alcibiades took advantage of the negotiations between Spartans and Persians to ingratiate himself with Tissaphernes, the satrap at Sardis. The two men were rogues and opportunists of the same stamp. Amid the cushions and courtesies of the satrap’s court, Alcibiades transformed himself into the luxury-loving companion of Tissaphernes’ feasts and hunting parties.

Alcibiades gave Tissaphernes two pieces of advice. First, he should provide as little money as possible for the rowing crews, to keep them poor and tied to the Spartan fleet. Second, he should not favor the Spartans exclusively but should also give something to the Athenians so that the two sides would wear each other down. Alcibiades had in fact been distancing himself from the Spartan cause ever since an Athenian victory on a plain near Miletus (another Athenian ally that Alcibiades had persuaded to revolt). It had been a shock for Alcibiades to confront his fellow citizens on the battlefield and to witness their vigorous resistance to the Spartans. Now almost forty, he felt dissatisfied with his life. A great yearning grew in him to be accepted back by his own countrymen. Alcibiades had played the part of a Spartan, and more recently of a Persian. Now he meant to be an Athenian again.

To achieve this end, Alcibiades decided to instigate an oligarchic revolution among the Athenians. He envisioned himself returning home as leader of the revolutionary party. His complicated intrigues brought about in rapid succession a brutal oligarchic coup at Athens, the overthrow of the democracy, and the establishment of a new government under a group of oligarchs called the Four Hundred. The crew of the Paralos brought word of the revolution to the Athenian naval base on Samos. Defiantly, the mass of citizens serving with the fleet repudiated the tyrannical oligarchs, set up a democratic assembly on the island, and declared themselves to be the true, legitimate Athens. Democracy now resided not in the Agora or on the Pnyx but in the triremes of the navy. Themistocles’ vision of a city in ships had unexpectedly become a reality.

After their declaration of independence the Athenians with the fleet realized that well-trained crews and good intentions would not win the war with the Spartans. Victory required a master strategist. In this crisis they were driven to offer command of the fleet to the one man who had done more than any other to injure both the democracy and the navy: Alcibiades. He was again with Tissaphernes at Sardis, since the oligarchs in Athens, having happily accepted his hints about a revolution, wanted nothing more to do with him. Now the seemingly impossible had come to pass. As Aristophanes said, puzzling over the mysterious obsession of his fellow citizens for Alcibiades, “They love him and they hate him. They cannot live with him and they cannot live without him.”

The man sent to fetch Alcibiades was Thrasybulus, a former trierarch who was now the most popular general of the “democracy in exile.” He returned from Sardis with Alcibiades in tow, a legendary figure of larger-than-life vices and powers, a demon who might yet prove to be a savior. Exerting all his charismatic appeal, Alcibiades spoke to the men about his star-crossed life and of the dangers that still faced them. Most of all he spoke of his conviction that he could bring the Persians over to their side. Once he deprived the enemy of Persian gold, the Spartan naval effort would soon wither away. It was a moving and optimistic speech. The men elected him general on the spot. Alcibiades soon showed his value as a leader by deterring a rash plan to launch the fleet and fight a civil war against Athens itself. He pointed out that as soon as the democratic navy left for Athens, the Spartans would quickly seize all the cities of Ionia and the Hellespont.

In the end, no action on the part of the fleet was needed to terminate the oligarchic regime in the city. Shortly after Alcibiades’ return a naval setback sealed the fate of the Four Hundred. An enemy fleet was menacing Athenian strongholds on the island of Euboea. Under the command of the oligarchs a hastily assembled Athenian fleet suffered a shameful defeat outside the harbor of Eretria. (The inexplicable failure of the Spartans to attack Athens immediately after this battle led Thucydides to dub them “quite the most convenient enemies that the Athenians could possibly have had.”) The disaster at Eretria exposed the impotence of the oligarchs at sea. And if they could not rule the sea, they were unfit to govern Athens. Spontaneously the citizens assembled on the Pnyx and voted to depose the Four Hundred. The revolution was over.

Alcibiades now turned his attention to the Persians. The Great King was sending a large fleet of Phoenician triremes to aid the Spartan war effort. Tissaphernes had been ordered to oversee the union of the Spartan and Persian fleets at the Eurymedon River, and Alcibiades boldly voyaged there himself with a few Athenian triremes in order to frustrate the plan. No one will ever know what wiles or promises Alcibiades employed with his bosom friend, but against all odds they succeeded. To the incredulous rage of the Spartans, Tissaphernes dismissed the newly arrived armada and sent it back to its home ports of Tyre and Sidon.

Alcibiades took full credit for saving Athens, but when he arrived back at Samos, he found no one to congratulate him. During his absence the theater of war had abruptly shifted to the Hellespont. The new Spartan admiral Mindarus, angered by Tissaphernes’ broken promises, had accepted the invitation of the more trustworthy satrap Pharnabazus to make war in northern waters. Together the Spartan and the Persian hoped to win control of the grain route from the Black Sea and starve Athens into submission. The entire Athenian fleet had followed the Spartans north. Their new base was at Sestos, facing the Spartans at Abydos, on the Hellespont’s southern shore. Thrasybulus and his colleagues had already won a naval victory near a headland called Cynossema (“Bitch’s Tomb”). Expecting another naval battle, the generals in both the Spartan and the Athenian fleets were appealing far and wide for more ships. Alcibiades quickly manned eighteen triremes and set off for the north.

The seaways were strangely empty, every available galley having been drawn off to the Hellespont. At their overnight stops on shore the Athenians learned that they were following in the wake of a fleet of Spartan reinforcements from Rhodes, now less than a day’s row ahead of them. Should Mindarus launch his attack as soon as those ships reached him, Alcibiades might miss the battle altogether. It was late afternoon when the Athenian squadron finally turned into the mouth of the Hellespont. No ships were in sight, but the stream carried the wreckage of a great battle: oars, timbers, corpses. Beyond a turn in the channel the struggle came into view: two fleets locked in midstream, clashing and colliding as victory still hung in the balance. Alcibiades had arrived in time.

Both sides took heart when they saw the eighteen triremes coming up the channel with the sun behind them. Each believed the new arrivals to be ships of their own. Not until Alcibiades ran up his purple flag was he recognized. The hard-pressed Athenians cheered; the Spartans and their allies braced for a flank attack. Mindarus had posted an allied contingent from Syracuse on his left wing, at the downstream end of the line. With grim satisfaction Alcibiades bore down on these Sicilian ships, smashing through their ranks and driving them back toward their own shore. The rest of the enemy line went the way of the Syracusans. Unable to reach their harbor at Abydos, they formed a barrier of ships along a stretch of coast where their army could hold off the Athenian attack.

The Persian cavalry rode up in support as well, led by the satrap Pharnabazus, a conspicuous figure wearing the high-peaked tiara of a Persian lord. He was witnessing at first hand the fruit of his dubious investment in the Spartan naval enterprise. Pharnabazus was not a man to hang back, however, even in a rout. With heroic zeal he urged his stallion far out in the waves, calling on Persians and Spartans alike to join him in driving back the Athenians. His efforts, along with the rising wind, balked the Athenians in their efforts to destroy all of Mindarus’ ships. Even so, they were able to tow back to Sestos not only thirty enemy triremes as prizes but also Athenian ships that had been captured by the Spartans in the early hours of fighting. Alcibiades joined the other generals in erecting a second trophy, this time for victory in the battle of Abydos.

Alcibiades and his colleagues spent the winter combing the Aegean Sea and Ionia for money and ships. By early spring they had managed to assemble a fleet of eighty-six triremes near the mouth of the Hellespont. At last, thanks to the winds that had destroyed Spartan reinforcements and to their own successes in battle, they outnumbered the enemy. Along with Alcibiades the Athenian naval command was shared by Thrasybulus and Theramenes, a young general recently sent out by the Assembly at Athens. While the three considered their next move, news came that Mindarus and the Spartans had seized Cyzicus, on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara.

The Athenians knew Cyzicus well. This prosperous city was a longtime Athenian ally. It lay on a narrow isthmus joining the mainland of Asia Minor to a large rugged landmass that projected far out into the sea. The Spartan fleet was lying in Cyzicus harbor, a sheltered embayment in the sand flats of the isthmus. Alcibiades and his colleagues decided first to recapture the city and then, having robbed the Spartans of their base, destroy them in a sea battle at a time and place favorable to the Athenians. With Spartan sea power broken, they might go on to recover Byzantium, the Bosporus, and control of the grain traffic from the Black Sea.

THE BATTLE OF CYZICUS, 410 B.C.

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Secrecy was now essential. Should Mindarus get wind of their actual numbers, they might never lure him out into the open. So the Athenian fleet became a nocturnal animal, sleeping by day and moving forward only under cover of darkness. On the first night they rowed up the Hellespont, unseen by the Spartan watchmen on the walls of Abydos. On the second they left the Hellespont behind and crossed the open Sea of Marmara to an island that lay north of Cyzicus. No word of their coming was allowed to reach the enemy—the Athenians adopted Alcibiades’ effective policy of arresting any traveler unlucky enough to cross their path, and at their final landfall on the island of Proconnesus they impounded all local shipping and held it in the port. Alcibiades even had the herald proclaim the death penalty for anyone who tried to cross over to the Asiatic mainland.

As the third night drew on, Alcibiades assembled the men and fired their spirits for what lay ahead. The troops and rowers would face the challenge that had confronted the Persian forces at Salamis: sleepless hours of ceaseless activity, followed by an attack on an enemy that had enjoyed a full night’s rest. Alcibiades reminded his men that the Athenian fleet now had no money at all, while the Spartans enjoyed the unlimited bounty of the Great King. If they wanted to remedy that situation, they must be prepared to tackle every kind of obstacle: enemy fleets, armies, and fortified cities and camps. “You must be ready to face fighting at sea, fighting on land, fighting on walls,” he told the men. A different general might have appealed to patriotism and noble causes. Alcibiades somehow hit the right note with a speech that could have been made by a pirate chief.

In darkness the thousands of men boarded the ships and pushed off. Ahead lay the rough promontory and desolate range of hills that guarded the northern approaches to Cyzicus. During the night it began to rain. The spring shower thickened to a heavy downpour, drenching the soldiers and officers on the decks. The men might curse, but to the generals the bad weather was a blessing. Rain and mist would wrap the fleet in a cloak of invisibility and drive watchers on the coast to take shelter indoors. The drumming and hissing of the rain on the sea would help them by drowning out the sound of the oars, which could travel far on a still night.

Guided by reports from the lookouts in the prows, the steersmen felt their way along the coast until they reached the wide curving beach at Artaki. Here the generals set most of the troops ashore. With Chaireas of the Paralos in the lead, the hoplites were ordered to march over the shoulder of the hills to the northern side of Cyzicus. It would be their mission to create a diversion when the fleet launched the main attack on the harbor. By gray dawn light the army company filed inland and vanished into the gloom of the wet, wooded slopes.

Riding lighter now, the triremes resumed their slow advance until a rocky islet loomed up ahead of them. This landmark was the island of Polydoros, broad at its base but tapering to a conical summit. Here the Athenians divided. Thrasybulus and Theramenes stayed behind, concealing the main fleet behind the islet, just as Homer’s Greeks had once hidden their ships behind the isle of Tenedos near Troy. Alcibiades forged ahead with the force that would serve as the Athenians’ “Trojan Horse,” a vanguard of twenty fast ships. His mission was to lure the unsuspecting Spartan fleet away from Cyzicus. Thrasybulus and Theramenes would then move forward to attack the harbor, while Chaireas and the Athenian troops assaulted the city’s landward side. Alcibiades might even be able to sprint back in time to assist in recapturing Cyzicus, leaving the outnumbered and disconcerted Spartans bereft of their naval station. That, at any rate, seems to have been the modest and workmanlike plan for the day. Given the involvement of Alcibiades, however, something was bound to go wrong.

The rain had stopped, and the sky was brightening as Alcibiades led his flying squadron through the channel that ran between Polydoros and the neighboring coast. As the Athenian triremes burst into the sunshine, Alcibiades saw that by a stroke of luck Mindarus had already accomplished half his task for him. The full Spartan naval force was already clear of the harbor, though unaware of the Athenian approach. Their admiral had brought them out for morning exercises. Back and forth in front of Cyzicus they were practicing their maneuvers. There were famous men in the Spartan ranks: the general Hermocrates, nemesis of Nicias and the Athenian expedition to Sicily, led the Syracusans; an Olympic athlete named Dorieus commanded a squadron from Thurii in southern Italy. Pharnabazus and his cavalry were still in winter quarters well inland, on the far side of a range of hills, but the satrap’s mercenary army occupied a fort on the heights above the bay. To Alcibiades’ left lay Cyzicus itself, the prize for which all these forces would soon contend.

The stratagem that would lure the Spartans away from Cyzicus followed the precepts of Alcibiades’ old commander Phormio: “Feign weakness to make your enemy overconfident. Draw a disorderly charge by making your own force appear small.” Alcibiades moved forward until the enemy lookouts saw him, and enemy ships broke away from the drill to challenge the newcomers. Then he ordered his steersmen to veer west toward the open sea, drawing the Spartans after him in an exuberant chase. Mindarus’ entire fleet was soon racing along in the Athenians’ wake, losing order as the faster triremes outdistanced the rest. Once the chase had pulled west of Polydoros island, Thrasybulus and Theramenes moved into the open. A short row brought them far enough into the bay to cut off Mindarus’ retreat. On seeing his colleagues take up their new position, Alcibiades hoisted the signal for his own squadron to attack its pursuers. At once the twenty ships swung into a hard turn that brought them back around until their rams pointed at the enemy fleet. Then each trireme picked a target and charged.

Alcibiades’ sudden turn and the appearance of the main Athenian fleet took the hapless Spartans completely by surprise. Mindarus could tell that he had lost Cyzicus, but he still hoped to save his fleet. With the way to the harbor blocked, he turned toward the only stretch of level shore in the area, a beach below the mercenary encampment. If his fleet could reach land, the conflict would no doubt degenerate into a standoff between Spartans entrenched on the beach and Athenians fearful of leaving their ships. The sea, not the land, was the Athenians’ element. In the battles of Cynossema and Abydos, back in the autumn, the Spartans had been beaten on the water but survived the struggle on shore without much difficulty.

As the Spartan forces fled back toward the southeastern corner of the bay, Alcibiades’ triremes were close behind, smashing into the rear guard. Despite the Athenians’ best efforts, most of the enemy fleet managed to reach land at a place called Kleroi. It was time now for Alcibiades to abandon the naval battle and return to the main fleet. Thrasybulus and Theramenes were waiting for him in the middle of the bay, ready for the assault on Cyzicus.

For Alcibiades, however, the prospect of one more inconclusive victory seemed suddenly intolerable. His marines were casting grappling irons on enemy hulls at the water’s edge, hoping to tow them off as prizes. The Spartans and their allies, led by Mindarus, were fighting back from the decks of their own ships. Away to the Athenians’ right, beyond the chaotic mass of triremes in the shallows, lay a strip of open beach. Ignoring his colleagues, Alcibiades rallied his fastest ships and made a dash for the shore west of the grounded Spartan fleet. Despite his many failings, he possessed a lionlike physical courage, and it did not desert him now. As soon as the steersman brought his ship close enough, Alcibiades jumped to shore fully armed, like Achilles leaping onto the sands at Troy.

The marines and archers followed him. The fighting force from all twenty triremes amounted to fewer than three hundred men. As soon as Mindarus got his own troops off the ships and onto shore, the Athenians would be outnumbered by about three to one. But at their head was a general in the grip of full battle fury, behaving like a man possessed. The mania quickly spread through the ranks behind him. Their position was hemmed in on the left by the hulls of the beached ships, and on the right by the hillside. Surprised once again, Mindarus called his troops together to crush this mad charge on his flank.

Watching from the deck of his flagship, Thrasybulus realized that the naval battle was melting into a fight on land. He could also see Pharnabazus’ mercenaries as they came streaming out of their fort to join the struggle on the beach. Unless he acted quickly, Alcibiades and his men would soon be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. Plan or no plan, the assault on Cyzicus would have to wait. Thrasybulus was well known for his stentorian voice. Shouting across the water, he told Theramenes to fetch Chaireas and the Athenian land forces, now stranded on the northern side of Cyzicus. If they were to join the battle by the ships, Theramenes would have to ferry them across the bay.

As his colleague hurried away with half the remaining Athenian ships, Thrasybulus headed for the beach. The crisis gave him only moments to consider how to save Alcibiades. Deciding that his best hope lay in dividing their opponents, Thrasybulus steered for a point east of the beached fleets, at the opposite end from the place where Mindarus and Alcibiades were now locked in combat. The main enemy force was too busy with Alcibiades to prevent Thrasybulus’ triremes from setting his men ashore. When word reached Mindarus of yet another Athenian landing, he sent some of the allied Greeks along with the freshly arrived Persian mercenaries to dispose of Thrasybulus. This horde quickly closed in around their prey. Though successful at the start, Thrasybulus and his company of marines and archers were soon thrown on the defensive. Still they resisted, and the losses were heavy on both sides.

The Athenians were close to exhaustion when Theramenes’ squadron finally arrived, the ships crowded with Chaireas’ troop of hoplites. As these reinforcements disembarked on the short length of beach still held by Thrasybulus, the tide of battle began to turn. The Persian mercenaries gave way first, then the Peloponnesians. Theramenes’ men were still full of fire, and he led them west along the beach to relieve the sorely beleaguered Alcibiades. To meet this new threat from his rear, Mindarus was compelled to divide his forces a second time. Shortly after Theramenes’ arrival the Spartan admiral was killed, and once he had fallen even the Spartan hoplites broke ranks and ran. The Athenians chased them inland, until the thunder of hooves on the road from the hills warned them that Pharnabazus and his Persian cavalry were approaching.

As they turned back to the sea, the Athenians saw flames spouting from the row of triremes that the Syracusans had abandoned. These Sicilians had voyaged all the way across the Greek world to lend a hand in the destruction of the Athenian navy. Now the crews from Syracuse had chosen to burn their ships rather than see them fall into Athenian hands. So the day that began in rain ended in fire. All the other ships of Mindarus’ fleet were captured intact. Alcibiades’ wanton disregard for plans and prudence had transformed what would have been a modest gain at Cyzicus into the greatest Athenian naval victory since the Peloponnesian War began.

The triumphant Athenians put up two trophies: one on the islet of Polydoros for Alcibiades’ victory at sea; the other on the mainland for the battle by the ships. That night the Peloponnesian garrison slipped out of Cyzicus, and the next day the Athenians marched in and took the city, unopposed by Pharnabazus and the Persians. Soon afterward the Athenians intercepted a secret message sent back to Sparta by the officer who had taken Mindarus’ place. Written in the true laconic style favored by Spartans, the text was short, but very sweet to Athenian eyes: SHIPS LOST MINDARUS DEAD MEN STARVING DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO.

One casualty of the naval battles in the Hellespont was the playwright Eupolis. He had taken advantage of the license granted to comic poets in Athens to criticize the conduct of the war. As he wrote in one play, “Men whom once you would have deemed unfit to be wine inspectors you now elect to be generals. O Athens! Athens! You are more lucky than wise.” Eupolis had lampooned Alcibiades in a play called Baptai or “The Dippers.” To the poet’s misfortune, he had been posted aboard one of Alcibiades’ ships. Eupolis soon discovered that the general had neither forgotten nor forgiven his witty insults. Alcibiades had him dunked in the sea, calling the dip in the brine a return for the dipping that Eupolis had given him in the theater. When Eupolis was killed in action, the Athenians were so distraught at the loss of this shining comic light that they passed a law exempting poets from military service.

As for Alcibiades himself, his exploits at Cyzicus were immortalized in histories, biographies, and tactical manuals. It was the great battle that he had been restlessly seeking all his life, and it improved his reputation in Athens more than anything else could have done. Ever since the democratic restoration in Athens the previous year, an active faction in the city had been working to bring Alcibiades back from exile. He seemed a talisman of victory. The fortunes of Athens had prospered until his condemnation and exile. The Spartans’ star had been in the ascendant during the years when Alcibiades advised them. And the goddess Nike had started to smile on the Athenian navy as soon as the democratic assembly on Samos elected him general.

Even the venerable poet Sophocles lent his support to the “Return of the Exile” movement with his Philoctetes, first performed in the dramatic contests that followed the great victory at Cyzicus. The play, which was Sophocles’ contribution to the new genre of romances, featured the rescue of the marooned hero Philoctetes from an island, and a happy ending as he rejoined his old companions (who had themselves banished and marooned him) to help them win a war. There were still dissenters who blamed Athens’ troubles on Alcibiades and pointed out that it was really Thrasybulus who had won the battle of Cyzicus, but they were increasingly in the minority.

In the campaigning seasons that followed the victory at Cyzicus, Alcibiades and his colleagues went on a rampage. Sometimes they worked together; often they undertook separate expeditions. Thrasybulus recovered Thrace and the mining district, Theramenes fought against Pharnabazus on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus, and Alcibiades used stratagems and night attacks to recover the greatest prize of all, Byzantium. From a fort that they named Chrysopolis (“Golden City”), the Athenians levied a ten percent tax on all cargoes passing through the Bosporus from the Black Sea. Enriched by tolls and by booty from Cyzicus, Alcibiades and the other Athenian generals extended their campaigns to Ionia. The Spartans, stripped of naval power, were unable to prevent their opponents from rolling back many of the gains made since the war resumed.

Part of the money from the Bosporus tolls was shipped back to Athens, and from that moment the city’s finances began to recover. Up on the Acropolis, architects and stone carvers resumed work on a wondrous new temple called the Erechtheum, for the naval victories and the flow of wealth from overseas gave a buoyant impulse both to the public works projects and to offerings of gratitude to the gods. Now the treasury could pay artisans to complete the Erechtheum’s marble statues and fluted columns. As delicate and mysterious as the Parthenon was massive and orderly, the new temple was graced by a high porch where six marble maidens, in place of columns, held up the roof. These strong young women gazed across the ruins of the old temple that Xerxes had destroyed toward the Parthenon and were silent observers at each summer’s Panathenaic procession. The Erechtheum provided a spectacular setting for Athena’s sacred olive tree, but it celebrated Poseidon as well as Athena. Here stood an altar to the sea god, here was the ancient mark where Poseidon’s trident had struck the bedrock of the Acropolis, and here too lay Poseidon’s deep saltwater well or “Sea.” Athenians who hung their heads over the well believed that they could hear the surf when the wind blew in from the coast.

After three years of fighting on Athens’ behalf, Alcibiades finally felt that it might be safe to return to the city. The final mark of civic forgiveness was his election in absentia to the post of general, not by the men in the fleet this time but by the entire Athenian Assembly voting on the Pnyx. By now he was back on Samos, so it was from the island that had witnessed the turn of his fortunes that Alcibiades began his long voyage home.

Most of the men and ships had been away from Athens for years, and Alcibiades wanted their return to be a triumphal procession. He loaded the holds of his twenty triremes with figureheads from captured Spartan warships, and he hung Spartan shields and other trophies from the railings. A purple sail billowed on his flagship’s mast, a famous virtuoso played the pipes for his crew, and an equally famous singer chanted the rowing cadence. Alcibiades and his friends decked themselves with garlands of leaves and flowers. In his splendid progress he visited the island of Paros and even took a detour to the Spartan harbor at Gythium. There Alcibiades looked alertly for signs of shipbuilding even as he brazenly flaunted his trophies to the Spartans on shore. He was reminding them, as he had reminded the Athenians during the Sicilian campaign, that he was indeed still alive.

At the Piraeus, Alcibiades’ bravado deserted him. The crowd was immense, the shouting incoherent. Not sure whether they were hailing or cursing him, Alcibiades hesitated on the deck of his flagship until he spotted his cousin Euryptolemus and other family members waving a welcome. Then at last he climbed down from his ship and set foot on shore. Well-wishers mobbed him, laughing, cheering, weeping. Someone put a crown on his head, as if he were a victorious athlete, a divine hero—or a king. Through a cordon of friends Alcibiades made his way up the road between the Long Walls.

As soon as possible he presented himself to the Council and then spoke before the Assembly. The people revoked the death sentence, restored his citizenship and property, and even voted him strategos autokrator, commander supreme on land and sea. Priests and priestesses lifted their ritual curses from his head. The marble slabs inscribed with the record of Alcibiades’ condemnation were pulled down and thrown into the sea, from which they have not yet risen. The beautiful line that Euripides gave to his heroine Iphigenia had proved to be prophetic: “The sea can wash away all human ills.”

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