Ancient History & Civilisation


Of Heroes and Hemlock [407-406 B.C.]

There I lie, one moment on the shore, another in the sea’s swell, carried along by the constant ebb and flow of the waves, with no one to weep for me or give me burial.


NOW THAT THE ANNUAL INFLUX OF TRIBUTE MONEY HAD ENDED, the Assembly was perennially strapped for cash. Rather than sending their generals to sea with an adequate war chest from the public treasury, the Athenians had fallen into the bad habit of expecting them to raise the money for their crews while on the move. This was no way to run a war, let alone to win one, and it led to many abuses. These ranged from extorting money from neutral coastal cities, to committing acts of piracy on the high seas, to taking mercenary service in local wars outside the realm of official Athenian influence. Some desperate generals even resorted to hiring out their crews as migrant workers. The rowers would leave their oars and rowing pads to pick fruit at harvesttime.

After a halcyon summer at home, capped by a spectacular celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries (the rites that he had once been accused of desecrating), Alcibiades was sent out as general in command of a fleet. The Assembly was counting on him to bring the war in Ionia to a speedy conclusion. As usual in those years, his war chest was empty. Alcibiades should have protested at once and used his charisma and popularity to squeeze funds out of the treasury. Unfortunately he had sold himself to the adoring people as a superman, a demigod. It was too late now to confess that he was a mere mortal like themselves.

Alcibiades’ dreams of leadership at Athens ended in disgrace at Notium, near Ephesus. Unable to pay his men, he set off on a round of money-raising and left his steersman, Antiochus, in charge of the fleet. The triremes were moored in the sheltered cove at Notium. This Antiochus was the very man who had long ago caught Alcibiades’ notice by capturing the runaway quail during the Assembly meeting. The wealthy Athenian trierarchs could not have been pleased with the prospect of taking orders from their general’s steersman and drinking partner. To ensure that nothing went wrong in his absence, Alcibiades left Antiochus with strict orders not to engage the enemy fleet, which lay a few miles east of Notium at Ephesus.

Alas, Antiochus seems to have picked up rashness and opportunism from Alcibiades himself. Soon after the general left Notium, the misguided steersman foolishly precipitated a naval battle in which he himself was killed and twenty-two Athenian triremes were lost. When Alcibiades returned, he led the fleet to Ephesus and challenged the enemy to a fair fight, but the Spartan admiral Lysander would not come out. In these circumstances Alcibiades, though guilty of little more than bad judgment and worse luck, dared not return to Athens to face the wrath of the Assembly. Instead he departed northward with one trireme and went to ground at his private fortress on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara. This stronghold at Pactye was a bolt-hole that Alcibiades had created for just such an emergency. There he played the role of local warlord in conflicts between Greek settlers and Thracian tribesmen, much as the great Miltiades had done a century before. An evil destiny seemed to hound him still.

After the fiasco at Notium the Athenians urgently needed a reliable general in Ionia. Their choice fell on Conon, a commander with experience at Naupactus. At Samos Conon found a dispirited and depleted fleet. Conon manned seventy triremes with the best crews that he could muster and boldly headed north to confront the Peloponnesian fleet. As he rowed up the broad seaway between Lesbos and the Asiatic shore, messengers brought him word that the enemy had captured the city of Methymna on Lesbos. The Athenian garrison had been sold into slavery. Conon also learned that the Spartan admiral had sent him a warning and a challenge: “I shall stop your fornicating with the sea. She belongs to me.”

These bold words came from the new Spartan navarchos, a brash young man named Callicratidas. He had succeeded Lysander as admiral and commanded a Peloponnesian fleet of 140 triremes, twice the size of Conon’s force. The unequal opponents skirmished the next day. Callicratidas managed to capture 30 of Conon’s triremes and chased the rest into the harbor at Mytilene. A pitched battle was fought along the breakwater at Mytilene. The Athenians anchored inside the barrier and used their ships’ yardarms as catapults to hurl large stones at the enemy. Hopelessly outnumbered, Conon finally ordered a retreat to the city’s inner harbor. Here for the moment he was safe. But Callicratidas did not depart. Almost half of Conon’s ships, the cream of the Athenian navy, were already in his hands, and the Spartan admiral was determined not to leave Lesbos till he had taken the rest. The Spartans settled down to a blockade. Two Athenian triremes broke through and made a dash for freedom. The Spartans captured one, but the other reached Athens with news of the disastrous defeat and blockade.

The unexpected news from Mytilene shook Athens to its foundations. All of the city’s gains since the Sicilian expedition stood suddenly in jeopardy. Should the Spartans capture Conon and his men, the Athenians would be forced to beg for terms, just as the Spartans had done after the Pylos affair. No effort was spared to avoid that fate. Sacred images and other treasures from the Acropolis were melted down to mint new coins. The rich citizens serving as trierarchs, short on cash themselves, agreed to share the financial burden by serving in pairs. The Assembly had luckily approved Alcibiades’ proposal to build new triremes in Macedon, and young Pericles, the son of Pericles and Aspasia, had conveyed them on completion to Athens. To aid the Athenian cause, the Macedonian king had made a gift of shipbuilding timber and oars. Pericles, newly elected to the generalship, handled the finances and fitting out of the new fleet.

Temple treasures and Macedonian forests could provide the material for war but not the tens of thousands of men needed at the oars and on the decks. Even if only the oldest and youngest age-groups stayed in Athens to guard the walls, a full conscription of the remaining male population—horsemen, hoplites, thetes, and resident aliens—would fall short. Fortunately Athens possessed one currency even more precious than silver: citizenship. To be a citizen of Athens was to partake of the world’s most liberal commonwealth. The citizenship rolls were jealously protected, and only rarely did the Assembly approve new grants. By law, only the child of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother could claim citizenship. Young Pericles himself was a citizen only by special vote of the people, since his mother, Aspasia, had been a woman of Miletus. Now the Assembly voted to offer Athenian citizenship to foreigners residing in Athens in return for service with the navy.

When that move failed to provide sufficient numbers, wealthy Athenians offered to free their slaves so that they too could man the oars. In ancient Greece slavery was a misfortune that had nothing to do with any stigma related to race or class. It had always been possible for individual slaves to earn their freedom. The liberal attitudes of Athenian naval democracy exerted a positive effect on the lot of slaves, as one oligarch complained, observing that at Athens one could not strike another man’s slave, or even expect a slave to step aside for a free man in the street. The same writer noted that in serving their hoplite masters on troop carriers, some Athenian slaves had already become seasoned rowers.

When they heard the offer of the wealthy citizens, the people were fired by a spirit of emulation. After a hasty vote the Assembly proclaimed that any slaves who were willing to risk their lives at sea would receive not only freedom but citizenship as well. The revolutionary decision was carried through in a rush. Thousands of slaves came forward, willing to give up the exemption from military service that was one of the few benefits of slavery. A river of liberated humanity poured down the Long Walls to the Piraeus. There was no time to train the crews. Shortly after midsummer the anxious Athenians on shore watched the launching of the relief fleet, knowing that they had just taken part in a miracle. Only thirty days had elapsed since the arrival of the trireme from Mytilene that carried Conon’s appeal for a rescue.

At their naval base in Samos the Athenians managed to assemble more than 150 ships. The fleet was led by no fewer than eight generals. Thrasybulus and Theramenes, former generals who had covered themselves with glory at Cyzicus, were present with the fleet but only serving on individual ships as trierarchs for this rescue mission. The fleet’s size was impressive, but speed and seamanship were lacking. The short voyage north to Lesbos showed that the raw crews, however willing, could hardly hope to be synkrotoi—beating and beaten together—by the time they faced the enemy fleet.

Rather than risk a landing near the Spartan forces blockading Mytilene, the Athenians avoided Lesbos and instead camped across the channel on the Arginusae (“White Islands”). A sheltered lagoon lay between the largest two islands in the little archipelago. Along its shores the crews disembarked and lit their cooking fires and watch fires. The Arginusae Islands, ordinarily home to a few Aeolian Greeks, now had a population of some thirty thousand men, the majority of the Athenian citizen body.

The camp extended up a slope to a high ridge overlooking the channel. Standing on the heights, Thrasyllus, Pericles, and the other generals took stock of their position. Southward, to their left, stretched the open sea. In the other direction, half a mile from the island where they had camped, the third and smallest of the Arginusae formed a lonely outpost to the north. And at their feet the chalky white cliffs plunged into the water, bordered in places by treacherous reefs. As night fell, the Athenians saw twinkling lights appear on the opposite shore. The Spartans, aware of their arrival, had moved south along the coast of Lesbos to confront them. Certain of a battle in the morning, the generals ordered their crews to strip the triremes of cruising masts and sails to ready them for action. For most of the crew members it would be the first combat they had ever known. For some it would be the last. About midnight a storm blew up, with wind and heavy rain.

Among the eight generals, supreme command rested with Thrasyllus. He had held a place of honor in Athenian affairs ever since the historic day on Samos five years earlier when he stepped forward from the hoplite ranks to support the cause of democracy. That night at Arginusae Thrasyllus had a dream, one that could have come only to an Athenian. He dreamed that he was at home in the theater of Dionysus, acting a play. Six other generals from the fleet sang and danced with him in the chorus. The play was Euripides’Phoenician Women, and their opponents were performing Euripides’ Suppliants. Both plays had the same tragic themes: the defeat of the Seven Against Thebes; the fate of unburied and dishonored corpses. Thrasyllus and his team won the prize. But it was a Cadmean victory, for they all lost their lives. When he awoke, Thrasyllus immediately told his dream to the prophets.



By dawn the sky had cleared and the sea was calm. The prophets declared that the signs at the morning sacrifices were favorable for victory. Zeus, Apollo, and the Furies would preside over the coming battle. These lucky predictions were announced to the men, though at Thrasyllus’ request his dream was not. Ignoring omens, Thrasyllus had worked out a plan that would keep his inexperienced crews close to the protection of the islands. In fact, Thrasyllus would incorporate the islands themselves into the Athenian battle line—a stroke of genius that would render the Athenians unbeatable so long as they held their station. There had been no time for advance planning: the idea had come to him only the previous evening, as he stood on the cliff surveying the channel, the islands, and the reefs.

Thrasyllus divided his fleet into powerful right and left wings bracketing a much less formidable center. The right wing would extend from the northern end of the large island where they had camped across half a mile of water to the lonely islet at the northern end of the little archipelago. Sixty ships arrayed in a double line would compose the right wing, with Thrasyllus himself among the four generals in command. The islet would screen the outermost ships and prevent a flank attack or a periplous. Thrasyllus posted his own flagship on the right wing.

Meanwhile the sixty ships of the left wing, also arrayed in a double line, took up a position with one end backed against the southern point of the island and the other reaching into the open sea. Pericles was among the four generals posted on the left wing. The ships of the hopelessly weak center—ten sacred triremes of the Athenian tribes, traditionally rowed by cadets; three ships commanded by the navarchs; ten ships from Samos and a handful from other allies—were strung out along the ragged seaward edge of the island, protected from enemy attack by the treacherous reefs and sheer cliffs behind them.

When all were in position, the Athenian ships formed a wall some two miles long, bristling with bronze beaks and wooden oars. The battle of the Arginusae Islands would be a contest between the best rowers that Persian money could buy and untested crews of Athenian horsemen, commoners, resident aliens, and former slaves. Callicratidas had advanced more than halfway across the channel before his lookouts could take in the amazing Athenian formation sitting immobile on the calm morning sea. Callicratidas’ fleet numbered only 120, since he had left 50 triremes at Mytilene to prevent Conon from escaping. In any case, he had never expected the Athenians to produce so many ships. His own fleet was strung out in a single line abreast.

The steersman on the Spartan flagship recognized the danger and told the admiral that he should abandon any idea of attacking. It would be folly to tackle the Athenians in their well-entrenched position, and there was no need to do so. To rescue Conon, the new arrivals would eventually have no choice but to cross to Mytilene. Whenever that happened, they could easily be encircled and defeated in the open channel. But Callicratidas was a Spartan of the old school. Manhood, not mêtis, won battles. Retreat was unthinkable.

Ignoring the weak Athenian center, Callicratidas divided his line in two so as to match at least the length of each Athenian wing. Then the trumpeter sounded the charge, and the Peloponnesians swept forward. Callicratidas with his ten triremes from Sparta held the right wing, facing Pericles and his colleagues on the Athenian left. Crowds of camp followers, noncombatants, and local folk lined the top of the cliffs. These spectators had the unique experience of watching four separate fleets engage in combat.

As the Athenians neither advanced nor retreated, the naval action took on the character of a land battle, as if one hoplite phalanx were shoving and heaving against another. The turning point in the long struggle came with the death of the Spartan admiral. His flagship broke through the Athenian front line and then rammed Pericles’ trireme with such force that its beak stuck fast in the Athenian hull. Pericles and his marines leaped across and fought their way along the deck of the enemy flagship. Either the shock of the ramming impact or a blow from an Athenian soldier knocked Callicratidas off his feet. He fell into the sea, and the weight of his armor carried him to the bottom. With the disappearance of their admiral, the rest of the Peloponnesian right wing fled. The Athenians surged after them, catching and destroying nine of the ten Spartan ships. The Spartan allies at the northern end of the line held out longer, but eventually they too had to row for their lives. In the ensuing rout the Athenians overtook and rammed a grand total of seventy-seven ships before the end. Athens’ new citizens had prevailed.

Thrasyllus summoned his colleagues to a council on shore. Back on the beach, in the azure tranquillity of the island’s leeward side, the generals debated their next move. One proposed that the fleet form a line and row through the field of battle, picking up corpses and rescuing shipwrecked Athenians and their allies. Another argued that they should set out immediately for Mytilene to liberate Conon. Thrasyllus proposed a compromise. All eight generals would join in an immediate attack on the Spartan fleet at Mytilene. The former generals Thrasybulus and Theramenes, along with the lower-ranking officers known as taxiarchs, would stay at Arginusae with forty-seven triremes and comb through the floating wreckage for survivors and the bodies of the dead.

While they were making their plans, a north wind had been rising to gale force in the channel. As the Athenian camp afforded no view of the open sea, the generals were unaware of the change in the weather. By the time they voted to adopt Thrasyllus’ proposal, the wind had caught the scattered debris of battle. The vast expanse of broken hulls and shipwrecked humanity was suddenly on the move, shifting southward with the storm. The sea was by this time too rough for either part of Thrasyllus’ plan to be carried out. Athenian insistence on democratic deliberations, however praiseworthy in principle, now cost the generals their chance. Triremes were not built to survive in heavy seas: even the Athenian marines spoke out against risking more lives in a rescue effort. The generals had no choice but to halt. On the beach they raised a victory trophy, then settled down to wait out the storm.

By morning the wind dropped, but the sea was empty. Wrecks, corpses, and survivors had passed out of sight and out of reach, swept away to beaches far to the south. Grieving for those lost, the Athenians launched their ships and rowed toward Mytilene. Almost immediately they spotted an approaching fleet. It was Conon at the head of his forty ships. The previous evening the Spartan blockaders, learning of Callicratidas’ death and the defeat of their comrades, had set fire to their camp and disappeared into the night. Unable to track down the remnant of the Peloponnesian fleet, the Athenians returned to their base at Samos.

The Assembly at home was overjoyed by news of the victory but dissatisfied with the generals for failing to collect the bodies of the dead. To save themselves from prosecution, Theramenes and Thrasybulus (the trierarchs who had been charged with the task of picking up the corpses) joined the accusers of the generals. After debating the issue, the Assembly recalled all of the generals except Conon to stand trial. This summons was a serious setback for the war effort at a moment when Athens had again seized the upper hand. The accused generals brought many ships back to the Piraeus with them: they wanted the support of their crews when the crisis came.

Two of the eight slipped away into self-imposed exile rather than face the Assembly. Their flight seemed to confirm the guilt of the rest. As the affair wound its tortuous way through inquiry boards, Council sessions, and emotional Assembly meetings, the claims and counterclaims mounted. At length the people voted to imprison, pending a hearing, the six generals who had returned to the city: Thrasyllus, Pericles, Diomedon, Lysias, Aristocrates, and Erasinides. When they were led before the Assembly, the generals insisted that no one could have succeeded in collecting the dead once the storm began. Steersmen who had served at Arginusae testified to the violence of the wind. The mood began to swing in favor of acquittal, but the fading daylight brought a premature end to the debate. Before darkness fell, a final vote charged the Council of Five Hundred with the task of deciding upon the correct charge, if any, and the appropriate form of trial.

When the Assembly reconvened, the citizen of the tribe Antiochis who presided over that day’s meeting was the philosopher Socrates. Presidents were chosen by lot and served for just one day; it was only a coincidence that such a prominent citizen’s name had been drawn. After completing the ritual of sacrifices and prayers, Socrates opened the meeting by asking the secretary to read the Council’s proposal. It called for the six generals to be tried not separately but together, and not in a jury court but by the Assembly itself that very day. Each of the ten tribes would set up two urns, one marked “guilty” and the other “not guilty.” The citizens would then file past the urns and cast their ballots.

Athenians had at times imprisoned, tried, fined, or banished generals, but they had never yet put a general to death for decisions made during battle. Equally unprecedented was the proposal to try the six accused men as a group. To distract the Assembly from questions of military consequences or judicial procedure, a survivor of Arginusae came forward with a sensational story. When his trireme had been rammed, he saved himself by clinging to a wooden flour tub amid the flotsam. He told the Assembly that he had heard all around him the cries of drowning men. Unable to save themselves, they called on him to tell the Athenians at home how the generals had abandoned them. To the crowd on the Pnyx the tragedy was now palpable, the flour tub unforgettable.

This testimony touched off an uproar that overwhelmed any speaker who came forward to support the generals. Strident voices demanded that nothing must thwart the people’s will, and that the president should put the Council’s proposal to an immediate vote. To Socrates the issue was personal as well as legal. One of the accused generals, young Pericles, was a close friend and disciple. Socrates had often talked over the city’s affairs with him and had personally encouraged Pericles to seek the generalship. Now Socrates told the angry mob that Athenian law required individual trials for citizens accused of crimes. He then declared the Council’s proposal to be illegal and refused to put it to the vote. The chief accusers launched another vociferous attack, but Socrates was used to opposition and stood his ground.

In this breathing space a kinsman of Pericles and Alcibiades came forward. He was the same Euryptolemus who had greeted Alcibiades on his return the previous year. He pointed out that at least one of the generals was entirely blameless, since he had been swimming to shore from his sinking flagship at the time of the fatal council. Of what could he be guilty, except bad luck? “Men of Athens,” said Euryptolemus, “you have won a great and fortunate victory. Do not act as though you were smarting under the ignominy of defeat. Do not be so unreasonable as not to recognize that some things are in the hand of heaven. These men are helpless; do not condemn them for treachery. They were unable because of the storm to do what they had been ordered to do. Indeed it would be fairer to crown them with garlands than to punish them with death at the instigation of rogues.”

Euryptolemus moved that each of the six generals be given a separate trial by jury. Socrates willingly consented to put his motion before the Assembly. A majority were raising their hands in favor when an objection was suddenly lodged, possibly by an enemy of the generals, possibly by a stickler for the rules of order. The original proposal of the Council for a trial of all six generals was still tabled. It must be decided before any other motion could be approved. Confident of a rational outcome, Socrates put it to the vote. But he had misjudged the crowd. With insane fickleness the majority unexpectedly voted for an immediate trial of all the generals. Hopeful still of a “not guilty” verdict, Socrates ordered the urns to be set up. Tribe by tribe the citizens filed past and cast their pebbles. A count showed that the generals had been condemned to death.

From the Pnyx the officials known as the Eleven conducted the condemned men back down to the prison. Athenians customarily carried out death sentences at once, though families and friends might visit the jail to take leave of loved ones. The method of death varied according to the nature of the crime and the status of the condemned. Pirates were crucified on wooden boards set up along the road to the Piraeus. Enemies of the state and polluted persons were thrown into a pit called the Barathron. Respectable citizens such as the generals, however, were allowed to drink hemlock.

The poisonous draft of hemlock was extracted from a branchy weed that grew wild throughout Attica. In fields and scrublands the hemlock plants raised their umbels of white flowers to a towering height. When gathered, brought to an apothecary, and pressed in a mortar, the hemlock’s ferny leaves and small fruits yielded a bitter juice, clear and oily. A cupful was enough to kill a man. The jailer recommended walking about to help the poison spread quickly throughout the body. Drowsiness led slowly to paralysis of the limbs, followed by loss of speech. Consciousness remained clear to the end. Once the poison reached the lungs, the victim lost the ability to breathe and died as if drowning on dry land. One after another the heroes of Arginusae drank their vials of hemlock juice and departed this life.

The Athenians soon cooled off and repented. They blamed not themselves but the political leaders who had conspired to lead them astray. But no recriminations could bring the generals back to life, or repair the rupture of trust between the people and their elected military leaders. Democracy unchecked by reason proved as violent and unjust as any tyranny. In the cramped rooms of the prison, Thrasyllus had seen his ominous dream fulfilled, and the career of young Pericles was cut short almost before it had begun.

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