Ancient History & Civilisation


Rowing to Hades [405-399 B.C.]

The power of fate is a wonder; dark, terrible wonder.
Neither wealth nor armies, towered walls nor ships,
Black hulls lashed by the salt, can save us from that force.


THREE MONTHS AFTER THE TRIAL OF THE GENERALS THE Athenians celebrated the Lenaea or festival of wine vats. Revels and comic plays honored Dionysus as the grape juice bubbled and fermented under the lids of the vats, making its magical transformation into wine. The city was mourning the passing of two dramatic geniuses. Death had claimed Euripides in Macedon, where he was visiting the royal court. Sophocles too had died, at the age of ninety—no living Athenian could remember a world without him.

At this time of loss Aristophanes produced a new comedy, Frogs. His themes were reconciliation, unity, and commitment to the navy. There was also a salute to the slaves who had earned their citizenship at Arginusae. Many of these new Athenians were taking their places in the theater for the first time, freed from bondage by their own heroism.

The action of Frogs started with the entrance of Dionysus, the god of the theater, setting out for Hades to bring Euripides back to life. Dionysus sought out the grim boatman Charon and rowed across the River Styx in his boat. A chorus of frogs helped the god keep time with an amphibian rowing chant: “Brekekekex ko-ax, ko-ax! Brekekekex ko-ax, ko-ax!” On the far side of the river Dionysus located Euripides and his much older predecessor Aeschylus, author of Persians, both residing in the poets’ corner of Hades. Dionysus promptly announced a competition, appointed himself judge, and proclaimed that he would take the winner back with him to Athens. After many trials failed to decide the contest on the basis of poetry alone, Dionysus asked a final question: “How can Athens be saved?” Aeschylus won the day with blunt Themistoclean advice: commit everything to the war at sea and look after the navy. At the play’s end Euripides remained in Hades, but Aeschylus ascended to the upper world. There he would share his patriotic wisdom with the current generation of Athenians.

Frogs won first prize. The public even demanded that the play be performed again—a rare honor. After the second performance the Athenians crowned Aristophanes not with Dionysus’ ivy but with leaves from Athena’s sacred olive, an award reserved for the city’s greatest benefactors.

The Peloponnesian War was entering its twenty-seventh year. Had Aeschylus actually been able to return to Athens that spring, he could have found no fault with the people as far as the navy was concerned. The shipbuilding program that they had pursued ever since the Sicilian disaster had equipped Athens with almost two hundred triremes ready for active service. Thanks to the revolutionary enfranchisement of slaves and resident aliens, the whole fleet could be manned with the city’s own population. Since the Persians continued to pay the cost of the Spartans’ efforts at sea, it was crucial that the Athenian navy be self-sustaining.

Ships and crews were plentiful; leaders were scarce. The generals who had commanded the fleet during its recent victories were now either dead, passed over by the voters, or unwilling (understandably) to serve. Alcibiades was in exile at his fortress on the Sea of Marmara. Conon had been either navarch or general for many campaigning seasons, but he had done no more than stay out of trouble and win half a naval battle—unfortunately the first half. (It happened off Lesbos as he was being chased into Mytilene harbor by Callicratidas the previous summer.)

Seven years had passed since the disaster in the Great Harbor at Syracuse—a defeat that the Greeks had expected would finish Athens’ rule of the sea. With a Spartan army besieging the city from a base in Attica and repeated naval actions in Ionia and Hellespont, ceaseless war was producing a world both inured to and traumatized by violence. Rumors of atrocities floated about the Aegean like a miasma. One of the new Athenian generals, a warmonger named Philocles, was reported to have captured two enemy triremes on the high seas and thrown their entire crews overboard, leaving them to drown. He was also notorious for proposing that the Athenians should cut off the right hands (or some said, right thumbs) of all prisoners of war, so that when ransomed or released they could never again pull an oar or wield a weapon against Athens. On the Spartan side, the popular commander Lysander was accused of wantonly butchering noncombatants in coastal towns.

Lysander was the most brilliant strategist and tactician that Sparta had ever produced. He was also a man of infinite mêtis or cunning. He had been the admiral at Ephesus who avoided direct confrontation with Alcibiades but then struck like lightning as soon as the foolish steersman Antiochus gave him an opening. Far more than any of Athens’ own generals, Lysander was the true heir of Themistocles, Cimon, and Phormio. Like them, he knew that a winning general had no use for scruples. “Deceive boys with knucklebones,” said Lysander, “and men with oaths.” He was immensely popular with Greek allies and Persian princes alike. Lysander had been sent out this year on their insistence as an “adviser” with full authority to command at sea, since Spartan law prevented any man from holding the post of admiral more than once.

As summer began, Lysander’s big Peloponnesian fleet seemed to be here, there, and everywhere in the Aegean. The Athenian navy, based once more on Samos, could neither pin him down to a battle nor prevent his strikes against their few remaining allies. Reports reached the frustrated Athenians that he had raided Rhodes, the coast of Asia Minor, even Attica itself. Sometime after midsummer Conon and his colleagues finally determined that Lysander was heading north to the Hellespont. The Athenians set off in pursuit with all their available forces, including six generals, 180 triremes, the state ship Paralos, and more than thirty-five thousand men. At all costs they must prevent Lysander from closing the grain route. Within a month the heavily laden freighters would begin their annual descent through the Bosporus and Hellespont. Clearly the Spartans meant to capture the flotilla or at least block its passage to the Piraeus, as they had previously done when Mindarus was admiral. The Athenian generals knew that a strong and undefeated navy would count for nothing if the city lacked bread.

By the time the Athenians reached the Hellespont, Lysander had already struck his first blow. After a short siege he captured Lampsacus, allowing the hoplites of the resident Athenian garrison to evacuate the city in return for their prompt surrender. Lampsacus guarded the upper entrance to the Hellespont, which at that point was some three miles wide. The loss of Lampsacus was a serious blow, but the Athenians could still hope to blockade Lysander there till the grain fleet had passed safely downstream, or even entice him out into the open for a proper naval battle. The Athenian triremes took on provisions at Sestos and then rowed upstream to Lampsacus. Lysander’s ships lay safe within the curving bay that served the city as a harbor, while a large Spartan field army kept the Athenians from making a landing anywhere on the Asiatic shore. So the generals turned north to search for a base on the opposite shore.

In those days there was no city on the European side of the Hellespont’s upper entrance. Many years later some Greeks would build Kallipolis (“Beautiful City”) directly across from Lampsacus. Over the passage of centuries the city’s name would be worn down to Gallipoli. As modern Gelibolu, the city boasts a fine enclosed harbor. But no such secure base was available to the Athenians as they confronted Lysander and his forces.

Lacking a port city, the Athenians required an open beach for their ships and a campsite for the crews. The swift current prevented sandy beaches from forming along the straight coastline within the Hellespont itself, but just outside the channel’s mouth stretched a fine sandy beach more than a mile and a half long. Lapped by the waters of the Sea of Marmara, the beach faced east toward Byzantium. From this stretch of pale shelly sand the Athenians would be able to see the grain fleet as it approached, or intercept Lysander’s naval force should it make a move toward the Bosporus. The distance from the beach to Lampsacus was about six miles, and a lofty cape at the beach’s southern end screened the position from Lysander’s lookouts. Inland, a wide plain afforded room for the vast horde of men, and a pair of little watercourses running down from the hilly hinterland supplied drinking water. The two streams gave the spot its name: Aegospotami (“Goat Rivers”). It was fortunate that the fleet had picked up provisions at Sestos, for there were none to be had at Aegospotami.

With confidence born of their recent victories at Cyzicus and the Arginusae Islands, the Athenians launched their ships at dawn the next day: outside Lampsacus harbor they arrayed the fleet in line of battle. But Lysander would not come out and fight. The Athenian lookouts could not even tell if he had manned his ships. After hours of desultory rowing against the stream to keep their station in front of Lampsacus, the Athenians gave up hope of a battle and rowed back to Aegospotami for their midday meal. The next day the challenge was repeated and again declined. A third day passed in this way and a fourth, with no sign that Lysander intended to leave Lampsacus while the huge Athenian fleet was in the vicinity. In the face of what appeared to be Spartan cowardice, the spirits of the Athenians rose even as their food supplies dwindled.

One frustrated Athenian observer was a helpless witness to these daily maneuvers. From the battlements of his fortress at Pactye, on the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula, Alcibiades had a view of the entire panorama from Aegospotami to Lampsacus. After spending little more than a year as warlord, he was now a force to be reckoned with in the region. It was a poor exchange for the Athenian generalship that he had forfeited, but Alcibiades believed that his local power could provide some much-needed leverage. With it he meant to insinuate his way into command of the fleet that had unexpectedly planted itself at his doorstep.

From his stronghold he rode on horseback along the shore to Aegospotami. Conon and the other generals gave him permission to speak. The Athenians were in a perilous position on their open beach and would never prevail over their enemies without a strong force to fight on land. Two neighboring kings had promised Alcibiades an army of Thracian warriors. Ferried across the Hellespont in Athenian triremes, they could attack Lampsacus by land. Alcibiades promised either to defeat the Peloponnesian army or to force Lysander to face the Athenian fleet at sea. He asked only one thing in return: a share of the command.

The generals were not interested. They knew Alcibiades too well. If his plan failed, the Assembly would blame the officially appointed generals. If it succeeded, he would get all the credit. Brusquely the generals ordered their uninvited guest to leave the camp and never come back. He offered one piece of advice before he departed: they should withdraw from Aegospotami to Sestos with its proper harbor, walls, and granaries. The generals were neither grateful nor impressed. “We are in charge now,” they told Alcibiades. “Not you.”

Alcibiades was silenced. The Athenians seemed bent on self-destruction. Mounting his horse, he made his way through the camp, past the trierarchs’ field tents, the long row of ships’ sterns, and the bivouacs of the crews. From this familiar universe of Athenian men and ships Alcibiades was now forever barred. He could only return to his fortress and gaze from a distance at the unfolding drama.

In true democratic fashion, the generals were rotating the command among themselves on a daily basis. Having taken the initiative to offer battle at sea, they now seemed incapable of changing or adjusting their plan. The challenge to Lysander had become a morning ritual. Discipline continued to slacken as the chances of battle seemed to grow more remote. Each afternoon the careless crews relaxed or even slept on shore, or scattered farther and farther from the ships in search of food. In time the overconfident generals even stopped posting lookouts on shore.

Unfortunately for the Athenians, Alcibiades was not their only observer. Each day, unregarded by the rearmost ships in the fleet, two or three enemy spy ships were trailing the Athenians from Lampsacus back toward Aegospotami. As the Athenians disembarked on shore for their midday meal, scouts were watching them from the leading trireme, positioned well out in the Sea of Marmara. Lysander was waiting for a signal from his little chain of spy ships—a signal that the Athenians had dispersed too far inland to get back to their ships in case he attacked.

The scouts carried polished bronze shields so that they could flash messages between ships and ultimately back to Lampsacus. When on the afternoon of the fifth day Lysander saw a gleam of reflected sunlight from the nearest spy ship, he knew that the crews had deserted the triremes of the Athenian fleet and that the camp was unguarded. Immediately Lysander eased his entire fleet away from Lampsacus harbor and advanced to a low-lying promontory called Abarnis, also on the Asiatic shore. There the Peloponnesian crews unloaded the big masts and cruising sails of the triremes and deposited them on shore, to be collected if the day’s battle went against them and they needed to escape. Lysander knew that if he were defeated, there would be no returning to Lampsacus.

With the crews back on board and his triremes stripped for action, Lysander gave the command to the trumpeter. The brazen call rang out over the water, and the long line surged away from shore. With powerful strokes the rowers overcame the inertia of wooden hulls and crowded decks. Younger Spartans in the fleet had been waiting all their lives for this moment. Their hopes rested on reaching Aegospotami before the Athenians became aware of the attack and gathered their forces. Speed was all.

On Lysander’s orders the steersmen headed first for an unguarded sandy cove south of the Athenian camp. Their initial landing would be screened from Aegospotami by a high cape. As the ships reached land, the Spartan troops instantly leaped ashore and sprinted to seize the headland. Once entrenched on the high ground, they could either attack the Athenian camp or (in case the Athenians repelled their assault) at least establish a Peloponnesian base on European soil. As soon as the soldiers were safely ashore, Lysander ordered the triremes back to sea.

As the fleet swung around the cape, Lysander’s leading ships took by surprise an Athenian squadron cruising directly toward them. This small detachment was commanded by the fire-breathing general Philocles. The trierarchs and steersmen of his squadron immediately saw that they had blundered into the entire enemy fleet. In headlong flight they turned back toward Aegospotami. Beyond them stretched the long line of Athenian ships drawn up along the beach, deserted by their crews.

Hot on the sterns of the fleeing Athenians, Lysander’s triremes bore down on their targets. They hit the southernmost end of the line first, then swept up the beach like a wildfire in the hope of trapping them all. Lysander had stationed men armed with grappling irons at the prows of his ships. As the steersmen brought the triremes ram-first into the shallows, these men cast their hooks onto the empty hulls in front of them. Once the irons held fast in Athenian timber, the Peloponnesian crews backed their oars hard and towed their prizes out to sea.

In the Athenian camp, chaos reigned. Amid the confusion some tried to pull their triremes back to shore, while others clambered on board to resist. Here and there Peloponnesians were ramming the bows of Athenian ships even as their crews were climbing up the ladders at the stern. Frantic Athenian commanders launched ships with only one or two oar banks manned, only to have them quickly snapped up by the enemy. Some hulls floated off almost empty. Lysander and his marines landed and advanced on the camp through gaps in the Wooden Wall of ships. They joined the Spartan soldiers who had been set ashore near the cape, stamping out the small pockets of resistance and rounding up thousands of fleeing Athenians. The army moved so efficiently that only a few escaped into the countryside. Tens of thousands of Athenians were taken prisoner; three thousand would be executed the next day, starting with Philocles and the other generals. Thanks to Lysander’s carefully worked out plan, the so-called battle of Aegospotami was in fact a rout almost from the first moment. A war that had lasted for a generation had ended in a single hour on a summer afternoon, with almost no casualties on the Spartan side.



Only one Athenian general and a handful of crews kept their heads. Conon had stayed near his ships that afternoon and was among the first to see the enemy fleet. He managed to man eight triremes and row out to sea before the Peloponnesians reached his section of the beach. There he was joined by the Paralos. Like Conon’s crews, the Paraloi had managed to get on board and run out their oars in time to escape. It was impossible for Conon to aid the thousands of his fellow countrymen caught on the beach, where Lysander and his forces were rapidly completing the capture of the Athenian navy. He could only hope to save his own life and the lives of his men.

Putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the slaughter, the escaping Athenians came in sight of the promontory at Abarnis where Lysander had left his cruising gear. Here was a heaven-sent sliver of luck. The Athenians had had no time to fit out their ships for sailing before they made their escape, and they were in desperate need of masts and sails for the long voyage ahead. Landing on the flat shore, Conon’s men quickly took what they needed from the equipment the Spartans had fortuitously left in their path.

Conon joined the Paralos as they fled down the Hellespont to the open sea. Lysander’s dispatch vessel, a Milesian pirate ship bearing news of the tremendous victory to Sparta, would soon be on their heels. When word of the catastrophe at Goat Rivers spread, no port would be safe for an Athenian ship. From the mouth of the Hellespont, Conon led his little squadron away into southern waters, seeking refuge beyond the reach of Spartan power and Athenian retribution. He had no intention of ending his days with a draft of hemlock. The Paraloi, however, had a sacred duty to carry word back to the Assembly. Having parted from Conon near Troy, the Paralos made its solitary way homeward through the Aegean.

Young Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates, recollected years later how the report reached the city. “It was at night that the Paralos arrived at Athens. As the news of the disaster was told, one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from the Piraeus, then along the Long Walls, until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate. They thought that they themselves would now be dealt with as they had dealt with others.” The navy was gone, and hope seemed to have gone with it.

Next morning the people rallied. At an emergency meeting of the Assembly they voted to barricade the entrance to the two military harbors of Zea and Munychia—now empty and useless—and keep only the Cantharus Harbor open to receive shipments of food. Rather than surrender, they intended to withstand a siege. The city braced itself for the arrival of Lysander’s triumphant fleet from the Hellespont.

Instead, more survivors of Aegospotami arrived, followed by ships loaded with Athenian soldiers from the garrisons at Byzantium and Chalcedon. The men explained that they had surrendered to the overwhelming forces of the Spartans, and, to their surprise, had been released on condition that they return home. More and more ships continued to pour in, filling Athens with soldiers, settlers, and traders who had been similarly expelled from former allied cities. It was Lysander’s plan to fill Athens with as many hungry mouths as possible, then starve the multitude into submission. By his orders, anyone carrying food to Athens was to be executed.

Among Athens’ allies, only the democratic islanders of Samos held out for a time against the Spartans. In a burst of gratitude, the Assembly voted to extend Athenian citizenship to the loyal Samians. Had they seen fit to offer citizenship to all the allies in their days of power, the fate of their maritime empire might have been very different. Lysander installed Spartan governors and garrisons in “liberated” Greek cities from the Bosporus to Ionia. The old Athenian Empire was thus transformed into a vast new Spartan domain. Then the victor of Aegospotami brought his fleet to the island of Aegina and settled down to the blockade of Athens.

The city held out over the winter, but hunger and hopelessness eventually drove the people to surrender. In the spring the Athenians opened the mouth of the great harbor, and Lysander’s fleet rowed in to take possession. The long struggle was over. Athens had been at war with the Peloponnesians off and on for fifty-five years, and it was twenty-seven years almost to the day since the outbreak of the conflict that Thucydides (and posterity) would call the Peloponnesian War.

Among Sparta’s allies, the Corinthians and Thebans were quick to demand that Athens be destroyed and its people enslaved. At a banquet held during the congress of victorious allies, however, a man from Phocis happened to sing a well-known chorus from Euripides’ tragedy Electra. The great works of Athens’ Golden Age were now the common property of all Greeks. The song moved the delegates to tears, and the vengeful plan to raze the city was given up. Athens had been made rich and powerful by its navy, but it was saved by its poets.

In the end, the Spartans spared the city and its people but destroyed anything and everything that had contributed to Athenian rule of the sea. The democracy was terminated. Athens would be ruled by an oligarchy of thirty rich citizens handpicked by Lysander. The Long Walls and the fortifications of the Piraeus must be torn down. The navy itself, the heart of Athenian power and glory, would be reduced to just twelve triremes—probably the sacred ships Paralos and Salaminia, and the ships dedicated to the ten Attic tribes. Athens would no longer have any overseas policies of its own but would follow Sparta’s lead on land and sea alike.

On the day that the Long Walls began to come down, Lysander decided to make a holiday of the historic event. He had pipers brought out from the city—not the men who kept time for the rowers but girls who performed at parties. So it was to the music of drinking songs that the Spartans dismantled the towering ramparts. Once those symbols of democracy and maritime empire had toppled, the umbilical cord that had linked Athens to the sea for half a century was cut.

The new government of thirty oligarchs shared Lysander’s ruthlessness. Soon to be known as the Thirty Tyrants, they moved swiftly to eliminate every trace of the navy. The shipsheds of the Piraeus, built at a cost of a thousand talents and among the architectural wonders of the Greek world, were sold off to salvagers for three talents and demolished. On the Pnyx, where the speaker’s platform for Assembly meetings had always faced out to sea, the Thirty ordered that it should be reversed to look inland, away from the dangerous element that had fostered the Athenian maritime empire.

Within a short time the tyranny of the Thirty became so violent and lawless that a leader came forward to oppose it. Thrasybulus was a veteran of naval victories at Cynossema, Abydos, Cyzicus, and Arginusae. In the same spirit of defiance to tyrants, this former trierarch had stepped from the ranks on Samos, seven years before, to lead the navy’s own counterrevo lution against the oligarchs. Now he led a resistance movement that took as its headquarters the old democratic stronghold of the Piraeus. Even with the fortifications in disarray, thousands of Athenians rallied around Thrasybulus and defied the forces of the Thirty. The Spartans themselves bowed to the voice of the people after their oligarchic puppets had ruled for little more than a year. Democratic government was restored. Whether Athenian democracy could survive without ships or walls remained to be seen.

Two momentous deaths marked the demise of the old order: Socrates and Thucydides. Five years after the city’s surrender Socrates was accused of heresy and of corrupting the minds of the young. At his trial Socrates denied the charges and reminded the 501 jurors of his war record under Phormio and Lamachus. “When the generals whom you chose to command me assigned me my positions at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, I remained at my post like anyone else and faced death. Afterward, when god appointed me, as I believed, to the duty of leading a philosophic life, examining myself and others, how inconsistent I should have been to desert my post then, through fear of death or any other danger!” He also spoke of the role he played in the trial of the generals after Arginusae, when he had upheld the law rather than give in to the crowd.

The jury sentenced Socrates to death, but his execution was unexpectedly delayed because of a ship. One day before the trial began, the sacred galley Delias had embarked on its annual spring voyage to Delos for the festival of Apollo. Until the triakontor returned, the city could put no man to death. So Socrates lived on in prison, passing his time by creating poetical versions of Aesop’s fables, comforting his family, enjoying long talks with the jailer, and holding philosophical conversations with a few faithful disciples. His life was preserved for many days by the strong winds that blew over the Aegean, holding back the sacred ship.

In his last days Socrates reminisced about his career as a philosopher. His early scientific interest in the workings of the cosmos had given way in midlife to an obsessive questioning about human nature and the pursuit of virtue. Borrowing a proverbial phrase from Athenian seafarers, he called his change of course a deuteros plous or second voyaging. When mariners cruising under sail met with a dead calm, they would run out the oars and venture on by rowing. In the same way Socrates had turned away from the natural world and studied mankind instead. When word came that theDelias had landed near Cape Sunium, his reprieve was over. Like so many others who had incurred the anger of the Athenians, Socrates drank the hemlock, walked about for a little while, and then lay down to die. He had written down nothing of his philosophy, asserting that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.

The historian Thucydides had returned to Athens after his twenty-year exile in Thrace. He settled down to finish writing his history of the Peloponnesian War but died (or, according to one account, was assassinated) before he could finish. In view of the war’s outcome, Thucydides believed that in the final analysis the decisive factors had been ships, money, and sea power. The sea had been the true battleground, and all the major turning points in his history were naval actions. The Athenians had largely adhered to Pericles’ policy of avoiding land battles; the Spartans had surprised everyone by patiently mastering the nautical skills that Pericles had claimed they would never learn.

Thucydides died believing that the war between Athens and Sparta had ended with the surrender of Athens, and that it had lasted twenty-seven years. He was wrong. The contest was not over, and Athens was not yet beaten. It was not enough to pull down its walls and destroy its beloved triremes. Thucydides had reckoned without the unsinkable spirit of the Athenian people. Athens itself was about to embark on a deuteros plous. Soon the battered ship of state would again be afloat, lifted from its resting place and swept one final time into the surge.

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