Ancient History & Civilisation

Part Five



It is right to endure with resignation what the gods send, and to
face one’s enemies with courage. This was the old Athenian way.
Do not let any act of yours prevent it from still being so. Remem ber, too, that the reason why Athens has the greatest name in all
the world is because she has never surrendered to adversity, but
has spent more life and labor in warfare than any other state.
Thus the city has won the greatest power that has ever existed
in history, a power that will be remembered forever by posterity,
even if now (since all things are born to decay) there should come
a time when we were forced to yield.

—Pericles to the Athenians


Passing the Torch [397-371 B.C.]

Brave men are made bolder by ordeals, but cowards achieve nothing.
We have not come this long way by oar only to turn back now from
our goal.


AFTER THE SURRENDER OF ATHENS AND ITS NAVY TO THE Spartans, eight Athenian triremes under Conon’s command still remained at large. The runaways had found shelter on Cyprus, far beyond the reach of the Spartans. There they landed at an ancient city called, auspiciously enough, Salamis. Its Greek ruler, King Evagoras, was a vassal of King Artaxerxes but nursed secret hopes of liberating all Cyprus from Persian rule. Evagoras welcomed this windfall of an Athenian squadron. He encouraged Conon and his sixteen hundred men to stay as his guests. A remnant of the Athenian navy would live on in Cyprus, homeless but still free. And where there was life, there was hope.

Now in his forties, Conon could look back on a decade’s experience as a naval commander. His record was dubious. It was not only at Aegospotami that he had dodged actions where other generals had lost their reputations or even their lives. At the time of the Sicilian expedition, Conon had led a squadron to guard duty at Naupactus instead of to death and destruction at Syracuse. Two years later he missed the fleet’s democratic revolution on Samos, being otherwise engaged on Corcyra. After Alcibiades’ steersman lost the battle of Notium, it was Conon who took charge of the demoralized fleet, but he had been well out of range during the debacle itself. And Conon had watched the distant battle of Arginusae from the walls of Mytilene, where he lay blockaded by the Spartan fleet. Glory eluded Conon, but no one could deny that he had a knack for survival. Now a rapid current of events in the distant Aegean was about to sweep Conon back into the very eye of the maelstrom.

If there had been any harmony among Spartan leaders or any honor in Spartan treatment of the other Greeks, Athenian democracy and naval power might have sunk without a trace. “Freedom for the Greeks” had been the Spartans’ rallying cry against Athens. Yet within months of winning the war, the Spartans betrayed the trust of the very allies who had made their victory possible. They handed the Greek cities of Asia back to the Great King of Persia in return for the gold that he had poured into their naval effort. In the islands Lysander’s brutal military governors took control of the cities. Shattered pieces of the old Athenian maritime empire were quickly reforged into an even more oppressive Spartan maritime empire.

To pay the costs of their new navy, the Spartans demanded tribute at more than double the rate once assessed by Aristides the Just. Under Athenian rule the allies had complained when they had to go all the way to Athens for legal redress of official abuses. Under the new regime these same allies found that they had no legal redress anywhere. Spartan officials, even private Spartan citizens, operated outside the law, with nothing to curb their greed, their lust, and their congenital Spartan urge to give orders.

The Spartans’ hubris touched off an ominous reaction. Foolishly they antagonized their old partners the Persians with attacks on the satrapies of Asia Minor. Chief among the injured parties was Pharnabazus, satrap of the lands along the Hellespont. This impetuous leader once rode his horse into the sea to help Spartans keep Athenian triremes off a beach. It was a dark day for Sparta when the embittered Pharnabazus sent a messenger up the Royal Road to Susa, urging that some action be launched against them. A war at sea, Pharnabazus suggested, might curb Spartan aggression on land.

In response to this appeal, King Artaxerxes II, great-grandson of Xerxes, named as his admiral the only experienced naval commander within the realm: Conon. The Great King also ordered Cyprus, Cilicia, and Phoenicia to contribute triremes for an expedition against the Spartans. Only seven years had passed since a Persian prince provided the pay for Lysander’s crews at Aegospotami. Overnight Conon the Athenian was catapulted from his obscure exile into the forefront of a new campaign.

Within the Persian Empire the cities were slow to answer the king’s call for ships. Once news of Conon’s royal appointment reached Athens, however, the effect was electric. Hundreds of Athenians rallied to his distant banner. Triremes began to slip away from the Piraeus to join Conon on Cyprus. Even the Assembly dispatched a few ships, then blandly disowned them (on Thrasybulus’ recommendation) when the Spartans protested. Renegade Athenians manned other triremes on their own initiative and at their own expense. Ship by ship an Athenian “navy in exile” began to congregate in the harbor of Cyprian Salamis.

Conon was still waiting for the full Persian levy of triremes. The delays and false starts stretched into years, until Conon at last took his grievances directly to the Great King at Babylon. The negotiations were strained. Go- betweens had to carry messages back and forth from Artaxerxes to Conon, who refused to kowtow in the groveling obeisance that would have admitted him into the royal presence. Nevertheless the king attended to every one of Conon’s complaints. He confirmed Conon’s position as supreme admiral, ordered all Persian officials to follow his lead, and provided more money to pay the crews. Artaxerxes also offered Conon the privilege of choosing a Persian colleague to command with him. Conon asked for Pharnabazus.

Midsummer was well past when Conon and Pharnabazus led their fleet of almost one hundred triremes west to the Aegean. They established a base near Cnidus, in the southwestern corner of Asia Minor. The city was famous for its temple of Aphrodite, a goddess whose birth from the foam of the sea had made her a patron of mariners. In happier days Cnidus had been an Athenian ally. Now it served as the base for the Spartan fleet. Conon’s antagonist was the Spartan admiral Peisander, who owed his command not to experience but to nepotism. (King Agesilaus of Sparta was his brother-in-law.) Possessing eighty-five triremes, Peisander was slightly outnumbered. To draw Peisander into battle before reinforcements arrived, Conon decided to employ the same ruse that had helped Alcibiades bring on the battle at Cyzicus.

Conon began by leading a small vanguard of Athenian triremes across the bay in full view of the Spartans. As he intended, Peisander impulsively manned his ships and put out to sea. In the ensuing clash all seemed to go well for the Spartans at first. Then the allies on the left wing of Peisander’s fleet saw Pharnabazus bearing down on them with the main body of Persian triremes, a move that threatened to envelop them. Abandoning their foolish admiral to his fate, they turned and began to row back toward Cnidus. Their flight exposed Peisander to a flanking attack. Athenian triremes surrounded the Spartan flagship and forced it toward shore, where the ship was rammed and Peisander killed. Conon ordered a chase of the fleeing Spartan allies, snapping up fifty triremes and five hundred prisoners. Most of the crews ignominiously abandoned their vessels, jumping overboard and swimming to shore.

The victory at Cnidus really belonged to the Great King, but the Athenians celebrated as if it were their own. As for Conon, he had redeemed a lifetime of near misses in one glorious action. When a solar eclipse darkened the sky a few days after his triumph, it seemed to signify the passing of Spartan thalassocracy. The maritime empire created by Lysander had lasted only eleven years.

Conon and Pharnabazus immediately set out on a cruise through the eastern Aegean, liberating the Greeks from their despised Spartan governors. Cities and islands as far north as Lesbos joined the revolution. At Samos and Ephesus, citizens erected bronze statues of Conon and his son Timotheus, honoring these saviors as if they were divine heroes. On Conon’s advice, Pharnabazus assured the Greeks that if they left the Spartan alliance of their own free will, he would respect their traditional forms of government and install no Persian garrisons. Such honorable treatment prompted even more defections from Sparta.

The Persian-Athenian fleet now enjoyed the freedom of the seas. Conon and Pharnabazus used that freedom to take their ships to the Isthmus of Corinth. There in the sanctuary of Poseidon the two victorious admirals found the estranged allies of Sparta sitting in council. Less than a century earlier the Spartans had summoned their allies to the Isthmus to plan the resistance to Xerxes. Now the world was turned upside down. The satrap Pharnabazus urged the Corinthians and Thebans to push forward with their war against the Spartans, and he provided Persian cash to back up his words. He then prepared for the voyage back to Asia, confident that he had caused Sparta enough trouble.

Conon had other ideas. He asked that he might keep the Great King’s fleet in Greek waters to continue hostilities. No money would be required: loot and contributions from the islands would cover the costs. Conon also suggested that the fleet relocate to Athens. If refortified, the Piraeus would provide a secure naval base. Pharnabazus approved and gave Conon both the fleet and the princely sum of fifty talents to pay for work on Athens’ fortifications. The satrap felt no friendship for Athens—he meant simply to punish Sparta. As Conon had said, “I can think of no action that would hurt the Spartans more. By doing this you will not only have given the Athenians something for which they will be grateful, but will really have made the Spartans suffer. You will make null and void that achievement of theirs which cost them more toil and trouble than anything else.” As Pharnabazus’ flagship rowed away from the Isthmus into the blue of the Aegean, Conon launched the rest of the fleet, now his and his alone, and steered for home.

Even before Conon’s return, the Athenians had tried to rebuild the Long Walls. But the work might never have been completed had Conon not arrived with Persian money to pay for stone and timber, and for skilled masons and carpenters to complete the work. Conon’s crews—thousands of Athenian citizens who had not seen their city for over a decade—came ashore to help raise those mighty ramparts. With his own money Conon built a temple for Aphrodite in the Piraeus. As goddess of Cnidus, she was dear to his heart, and it was as Aphrodite Euploia (“Aphrodite of the Fair Voyage”) that he and his fellow Athenians now worshipped her.

One hundred years had passed since the archonship of Themistocles, and work on the new Piraeus foundations laid bare the foundations of his original walls. Themistocles’ descendants had long ago brought the great man’s ashes back from Asia, where he had died in exile. To celebrate the restoration of the Piraeus, the Assembly honored the hero of Salamis with a tomb, an altar, and a pillar on a point of land just outside the Cantharus Harbor. An Athenian poet wrote commemorative verses.

Fair is the point where your tomb is raised,
A welcome sight to greet all traders.
It gazes on them, outward or homeward bound,
And views the long ships racing past.

With the raising of this monument to the founder of the navy and the hero of Salamis, the Athenians formally rededicated themselves to the quest for victory at sea.

Not all Athenians were happy about the resurrection of Athenian naval power. The philosopher Plato told his students that the walls “should continue to slumber in the bosom of the earth.” And in Aristophanes’ new comedy Ecclesiazusae (“The Assembly Women”) a chorus of Athenian matrons noted the difficulty of dealing with a public opinion divided against itself. They observed that the mass of citizens voted for new ships, but the farmers and the rich opposed them. In the real-life Assembly, Conon warned the Athenians to be satisfied with getting back their freedom and their walls. The imperialistic plans advocated by Thrasybulus, as Conon reminded them, came from a man whose very name meant “Rash Adviser.”

Sent out to the Hellespont with a fleet, Thrasybulus had once again defeated Spartans and won Byzantium and other cities back to friendship with Athens. The time of the older generation, however, was drawing to a close. Aristophanes had written his last play. Conon and Thrasybulus, architects of Athenian reconstruction, died within four years of each other, Conon in the course of a diplomatic mission to the Persians, Thrasybulus while campaigning on the Eurymedon River. Their ashes were brought back to Athens and buried in the public cemetery along the Sacred Way.

Now the mission to restore Athenian sea power was taken up by a younger generation of Athenian generals. So successfully did they assert Athens’ claims to the Hellespont, the Aegean, and points east that the Spartans appealed for help to their former paymaster, the Great King of Persia. Vexed by endless wars on his western frontier, Artaxerxes handed down a peace and commanded the Greeks to swear obedience to its terms:

“I, King Artaxerxes, regard the following arrangements as just. The cities in Asia and, among the islands, Clazomenae and Cyprus should belong to me. The other Greek cities, big and small, should be left to govern themselves, except for Lemnos, Imbros, and Scyros, which should belong to Athens, as in the past. And if either of the two parties refuses to accept peace on these terms, I, together with those who accept this peace, will make war on that party both by land and by sea, with ships and with money.”

No sooner had the Spartans secured the oaths of the Athenians and other Greeks than they began to violate the King’s Peace themselves, attacking small cities and installing pro-Spartan regimes or even Spartan garrisons. Finally a Spartan commander led an army of ten thousand in a night raid against the Piraeus. Even though unsuccessful (dawn had found the slow-moving Spartans still on the march, miles away from the port), this outrage led the Athenians to declare that the Spartans themselves had now violated the King’s Peace. At once they hung the massive gates back on the portals of the Piraeus, which had been open since they swore their oaths at Sardis, and prepared for war.

Athens was not alone. Twenty-six years had passed since Spartans stripped Athens of its allies and claimed them as their own. Now fear and loathing of Sparta had driven a number of cities to seek alliances with Athens. One year after the abortive attack against the Piraeus, these and many other Greek states united with Athens in a formal confederation. This was in fact nothing less than a Second Maritime League, which resurrected the Delian League of a century before. (Like the so-called Delian League, the Second Maritime League was known in its own day simply as “the Athenians and their allies.”) This time, however, there would be no assessment and no tribute. In every way possible the Athenians purged the new league of all the evils and abuses that had bedeviled its predecessor.

The Delian League had united its members in a perpetual fight against the menace of Persia. The new alliance just as explicitly named Sparta as the common enemy. The charter stated that it was formed “so that the Spartans shall leave the Greeks free and autonomous, to enjoy peace, holding their own lands in safety.” So appealing was the charter of this Second Maritime League that some seventy cities and peoples eventually became members. The upsurge of goodwill toward Athens seemed a redemption, a wiping away of past guilt. Athens had stumbled only to rise again.

While the Second Maritime League offered its members protection from the Spartans, the charter also safeguarded them from their own hegemon, Athens. Any Athenian who owned or claimed land in the territory of an allied city now had to give it up. The much-resented practice of sending out Athenian colonists or cleruchs was explicitly forbidden on lands belonging to league members. To finance the enterprises of the league, Athens would collect not tribute but a tax, one-fortieth of the value of cargoes that passed through the Piraeus. Every clause of the charter breathed a new air of liberalism. The Athenians seemed determined to avoid the path of oppression and empire that had ruined them before. They were in truth a changed and chastened people and had learned as much from the misfortunes they inflicted on others as from their own.

The league charter called for a fleet of 200 triremes. At present the Athenians had 106—a motley collection that included some ships brought to Athens by Conon, others captured in naval engagements with the Spartans and their allies, and still others recently built in the Piraeus. So the Athenians tackled the challenge of rebuilding their navy. They meant not just to match the old navy of Periclean Athens but to surpass it, drawing more Athenian citizens than ever before into the navy’s funding, organization, and operation. The Assembly counted on the new navy to protect the allies, secure the grain route, and raise money but also to provide employment for the mass of the Athenian population. Sea power and democracy would again work hand in hand.

The waterfront of Zea Harbor was limited, the dreams of the Assembly vast. Shipbuilding was now the responsibility of the Council, who would annually appoint ten trieropoioi or trireme builders. This board was assisted by a treasurer of naval funds and five naval architects who supervised the design and refitting of triremes by the city’s shipwrights. The tasks were so arduous that the members of the Council routinely received gold crowns for successful completion of a year’s work.

The shipbuilding campaign called for timber. By now the Athenians had stripped Attica of its forests. The philosopher Plato, looking up at the bare hillsides around the city, noted that the trees that had provided mighty roofbeams in the days of his forefathers were long gone. The forests had been replaced by heather, the loggers by beekeepers. And as Plato foresaw, the process was irreversible. Without trees, rain eroded the soil from the hills and carried it away to the sea. The barren rocky hills that remained (and that still remain) were “like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease.” Athenian deforestation had prompted the first awareness that the resources of the earth were not inexhaustible.

The big new navy would have to be constructed entirely from imported timber. To accommodate more triremes, the shipsheds at Zea were rebuilt with slipways double the length of the original ones. Two triremes could now be fitted end to end between each row of columns. The roofs of the new shipsheds were made with whitened tiles, so that they gleamed in the sunlight like marble.



The might of the resurrected navy was soon to be tested. Conon’s victory at Cnidus had been only a beginning: the war against the Spartans at sea had still to be won. The adversities of the last quarter century had bred an extraordinary new generation of naval commanders, led by Chabrias, Phocion, Timotheus the son of Conon, and Iphicrates. Relay races were popular events in Athens: instead of a baton, a lighted torch was passed from hand to hand through the team of runners. Never before had the navy enjoyed the services of such a team as was about to take up the torch in the cause of Athens’ new maritime league. Their efforts would determine, once and for all, the outcome of the long struggle between Greece’s two warring alliances.

Chabrias, the son of an affluent Athenian trierarch and horse breeder, took an interest in the technical side of naval operations. He invented new foul-weather fittings that improved his triremes’ performance on rough seas, including extra steering oars and an extension of thick screens that completely enclosed the rowing frames. To train inexperienced oarsmen, Chabrias built wooden rowing frames on shore where beginners could learn technique and timing before they went on board ship. On one occasion he lashed his triremes together in pairs to create double-hulled catamarans, a ploy that fooled Spartan scouts into believing the Athenian fleet to be only half its actual size.

One year after founding the Second Maritime League, the Athenians sent Chabrias to protect the incoming flotilla of grain ships from a Spartan fleet that was hovering, piratelike, in the vicinity of Cape Sunium. At the approach of Chabrias and his squadron the Spartans melted away, and the grain arrived safely at the Piraeus. To lure the Spartans to a decisive battle, Chabrias cruised south to the green and hilly island of Naxos, rich in vineyards, almond trees, and fine white marble. The oligarchs of Naxos were still loyal Spartan allies, and Chabrias rightly guessed that an attack on their walls would bring the enemy fleet to him at once. Shortly after he unloaded his siege machinery, the Spartan fleet appeared over the horizon.

Over and above his orders, Chabrias had a personal score to settle with the Spartan admiral, Pollis. The Athenian philosopher Plato happened to be a close friend of Chabrias. A dozen years earlier, when Plato voyaged to Sicily for a view of Mount Etna, Pollis took him captive and sent him to be sold at the slave market on Aegina. Plato’s friends were able to buy his freedom, but the degrading insult had yet to be avenged.

The battle at Naxos would be the first actual sea fight between Athenian and Spartan fleets since the battle of the Arginusae Islands, thirty years before. Unlike Chabrias’ force, the Spartan fleet was an amalgam of various contingents, each bearing its own heraldic emblems. Before launching his ships, Chabrias ordered his trierarchs to remove the golden images of Athena that identified all Athenian warships in order to disguise, if only briefly, their identity. His crews were still untried, and he intended to give them every possible edge.



The antagonists met at dawn in the wide channel between Naxos and the neighboring island of Paros. The Spartan admiral Pollis scythed through the Athenian left wing, killing the commander Cedon in the process. Chabrias had his hands full with the ships attacking his center and right, so he ordered a young trierarch named Phocion to take a contingent and save whatever might remain of the now-leaderless Athenian left.

As the two original lines disintegrated into a mass of dueling ships, the enemy lookouts and steersmen began to hesitate in ordering their ramming strikes. Without the familiar golden figureheads of Athena to guide them, they could not quickly distinguish Athenian ships from their own allies. The removal of the ensigns bought precious moments for the Athenians as the Spartans held off. Though the Spartans rammed and destroyed eighteen Athenian triremes, the Athenian tally was twenty-four, more than a third of the Spartan fleet.

Young Phocion’s dash to the left wing turned the battle. With defeat looming, Pollis signaled his ships to break off the engagement and save themselves. Chabrias could easily have taken prizes during the rout. Instead he ordered a rescue mission on the watery battlefield, now littered with wrecks, to save Athenian survivors who were clinging to timbers or swimming for shore. Even after three decades, the Arginusae Islands cast a long shadow.

So Pollis and the Spartan navy survived, though with diminished force and prestige. Athens had no funds to follow up the victory at Naxos. In this hour of need Chabrias turned again to Phocion. He put the twenty-six-year-old hero in command of twenty triremes and assigned him the formidable task of collecting contributions from Athenian allies in the Aegean. Phocion, clear-sighted and blunt-spoken, told his general that twenty was the wrong number: too many for a friendly visit, too few for a fight. Chabrias gave in and let him go in a single trireme.

Phocion made such a good impression on his cruise that the league members not only provided money but assembled a fleet to carry it to Athens. Thus began a remarkable career. The grateful Athenians would in years to come elect Phocion general a record-breaking forty-five times, more often even than they had elected Pericles.

Chabrias won his great victory on the sixteenth of Boedromion, the second day of the Eleusinian Mysteries. As the navy fought at Naxos, the Athenians at home were answering the herald’s cry of “Seaward, Initiates!” and wading into the sea to purify themselves. For the rest of his life Chabrias provided a celebratory bumper of wine to every Athenian household on that date. With the recurring commemorations of Naxos and Salamis, the latter falling on the nineteenth of Boedromion, the victory celebrations for the Athenian navy became intertwined with the city’s annual rites of mystical rebirth.

The Aegean was secure, but Sparta still ruled the western seas. The following spring the Assembly sent sixty triremes around the Peloponnese. The torch of command now passed to Timotheus. His expedition was intended to forestall Spartan attacks on league members and win over new allies. Timotheus had spent his youth in Cyprus, sharing the exile of his father, Conon. Growing up far from Athens, he tended throughout his life to be more at ease with foreigners than with Athenians. His fellow citizens saw in Timotheus a small and unprepossessing fellow who could not exhibit the strong physique expected of a war hero. But his lack of brawn was offset by an excess of intelligence, energy, and honor.

Timotheus’ unmatched record of bringing twenty-four cities over to the Athenian alliance with apparently little trouble made him the good-humored target of the world’s first known political cartoon. The anonymous artist depicted Timotheus as a fisherman dozing beside his lobster pot, as city after city crawled up to the trap and fell in. Above the scene floated the goddess Tyche (“Fortune”). She was directing the procession of lobsters while Timotheus enjoyed his nap.

The western campaign was Timotheus’ first independent naval command. He quickly succeeded in bringing Zacynthus, Cephallenia, Corcyra, and even some mainland cities back to the Athenian alliance. This string of diplomatic victories posed a starker threat to Sparta than any number of successful raids. When Timotheus learned that the Spartan fleet had landed on the island of Leucas, he bivouacked on the mainland opposite at an isolated place called Alyzia. This curving beach near a sanctuary of Heracles occupied a place in his family lore. Thirty-eight years earlier, at the time of the Sicilian expedition, Timotheus’ father, Conon, had been cruising the western seaways to protect Athenian allies from attack by the Peloponnesians. At Alyzia Conon bade farewell to Demosthenes and Eurymedon as those two ill-fated generals voyaged west to their meeting with destiny at Syracuse.

A high ridge hid Timotheus’ camp at Alyzia from Spartan scouts, but from its crest the Athenians had a clear view of the Spartans. With fifty-five triremes the enemy fleet was already almost a match for the Athenians, and Timotheus knew that reinforcements were on their way to the Spartans: ten triremes convoying a fleet of Italian grain freighters, and half a dozen more from the Ambracians in the Gulf of Arta. These western Greeks had been bitter enemies of the Athenians since the early campaigns of Phormio. Timotheus decided to attack while he still held the advantage in numbers.

The battle coincided with the Athenian religious holiday known as the Skira, held on the twelfth of the early-summer month of Skirophorion. Garlands for the Skira were traditionally woven of myrtle branches. Mindful of his crews’ morale, Timotheus let them cut myrtle from the surrounding countryside and decorate the triremes with green wreaths. In this way the ships were consecrated to the gods being honored that day in far-off Athens: Athena, Poseidon, and the sun god Helios.

As the crew boarded Timotheus’ flagship, a man happened to sneeze while coming up the ladder. At the omen, the steersman called a halt to the boarding process. But Timotheus was no Nicias, to let a portent interfere with his plan of campaign. Myrtle wreaths were one thing; calling off a battle because of a sneeze was quite another. “Do you think it a miracle,” he demanded of his superstitious steersman, “that out of so many thousands one man has caught a cold?” The men laughed at the rebuke, and the process of boarding resumed.

Timotheus first launched only twenty of his triremes, leaving the others behind on shore. As soon as this ridiculously small Athenian squadron rowed into view around the southern tip of the promontory, the entire Spartan fleet eagerly advanced to meet it. The Athenian vanguard had plenty of sea room, but Timotheus did not intend to use it at present for the classic maneuvers of diekplous or periplous. Instead, he instructed his trierarchs and steersmen to break formation and execute any maneuvers they pleased, provided that they kept the Spartans on the attack and stayed out of range of enemy rams and missiles. So the scattered Athenian ships led the Spartans in a lively chase, turning, twisting, or feigning flight, transforming the sea west of Alyzia into a watery dancing floor.

The sun rose high; the enemy’s oar beats grew sluggish and weak. Seeing that he had worn them out, Timotheus told his trumpeter to sound the retreat. The Athenians raced back toward Alyzia, and the Spartan fleet trailed behind: hot, weary, and thoroughly annoyed. At that moment Timotheus’ forty reserve triremes emerged into view from around the promontory, fresh and ready for anything.

The result was a foregone conclusion. The Athenians took full advantage of their superior energy and their general’s tactics, and the ramming attack continued until the appearance of the long-awaited Spartan reinforcements. Faced with this fresh threat, Timotheus ordered some of his trierarchs to lasso the hulls of disabled ships and take them in tow. He then arrayed all the others in a vast crescent around them. The convex curve of this half-moon shielded the prizes, and its backward-reaching horns prevented attacks from the flanks. As soon as the tow ships were under way, the rest retreated with their rams continually pointed toward the frustrated Spartans, backing water all the way to their haven at Alyzia. Though the Spartans now held the advantage in numbers, Timotheus’ novel mode of retreat prevented them from renewing the battle or claiming any prizes.

It would be left to another Athenian general, Iphicrates, to aim the final blow at Spartan naval power. Unlike his colleagues, Iphicrates grew up in poverty, the son of a shoemaker. At the age of only twenty his remarkable qualities as a soldier earned him a command under Conon at Cnidus. Like Chabrias, Iphicrates introduced innovations into Athenian warfare. He championed the use of lightly armored, mobile troops known as peltasts (so called for the small rimless leather shields or peltai that they carried) rather than the hoplites who had served Athens with such mixed results during the century since the battle of Marathon.

He was also a pioneer in coordinating fleets and armies in joint attacks and stratagems. During his first expedition to the Hellespont he devised a “Trojan Horse” ploy. First, Iphicrates’ triremes departed ostentatiously from their station, luring overconfident Spartan hoplites into an unguarded position; then Iphicrates’ peltasts, who had been lying concealed on high ground, ambushed the enemy with deadly effect.

On another occasion Iphicrates borrowed not from Homer’s epic but from Aesop’s fable of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Faced with the problem of telling friends from foes among the islanders of Chios, Iphicrates secretly put some of his Athenian troops on shore. He then sent his triremes into the harbor decorated with Spartan insignia, and with the trierarchs disguised as Spartan officers. The sight of these supposed allies brought all the local Spartan sympathizers running down to the docks. Now that they had obligingly revealed their true loyalties and assembled without arms, Iphicrates had them rounded up and arrested.

Athens scarcely provided a wide enough stage for this brilliant and daring tactician. At times Iphicrates could be found, not on the deck of an Athenian flagship, but serving as a soldier of fortune in Asia or the northern Aegean. His personal services to the royal house of Macedon led to Iphicrates’ being formally adopted as a son by the Macedonian king. Farther east in Thrace, Iphicrates’ victories carried him to such dizzying heights that he was able to marry the sister of a Thracian king, thus following in the foot-steps of the legendary Miltiades.

Iphicrates named his son Menestheus after an ancient king of Athens, celebrated in Homer’s Iliad as the monarch who led fifty Athenian ships to Troy. The original Menestheus was singled out in Homer’s epic verses as the Greek leader most skilled at ordering and marshaling troops in battle—a skill that Iphicrates valued highly. A born leader himself, Iphicrates held the commander to be the most important element in warfare. “When other parts are lost,” he reminded his listeners, “the army may be lame and disabled. But when the general is lost, the entire army is useless.” Every poor citizen could see in Iphicrates the fulfillment of the Athenian democratic dream, a cobbler’s son who rose through his own efforts to fame and fortune. Iphicrates never let the world forget his humble origins. “Consider what I was,” he would say, “and what I now am.”

Now one of the city’s most honored generals, Iphicrates decided that the fleet allocated to his upcoming western cruise was inadequate. He demanded more ships, as if he ruled the Assembly rather than the other way around. Meekly the Assembly complied. Timotheus in the same position had been too proud or too principled to beg for sufficient forces. Iphicrates ultimately assembled a fleet of seventy that included the state triremes Paralos and Salaminia and even guard ships from the coastal patrols. He also cracked down on his trierarchs, making them take responsibility for recruiting their own crews.

His destination was Corcyra, where a Spartan fleet and army were besieging the democratic islanders. Iphicrates was determined to reach Corcyra in record time, and he meant to bring his crews to a perfect pitch of discipline and fitness while doing so. He left all the mainsails behind in the Piraeus, as if he intended to meet the enemy in battle on the first day of the expedition and every day thereafter. Without cruising sails, the twelve thousand oarsmen in the fleet were compelled to row throughout the voyage, with only occasional help from the small boat sails when the winds were favorable.

As they rowed, Iphicrates drilled the helmsmen and crews in recognizing signals and in executing battle maneuvers, turning from line ahead formation to line abreast, without ever ceasing the relentless forward motion. He also made the daily landings for meals into occasions for rowing races, starting far out at sea and ending on the beach, where the winners were first in line for food and drink. While the fleet was on shore, the small masts were stepped so sentries could climb to their tops and watch for approaching enemies. On some fine afternoons Iphicrates put to sea again after dinner. The crews then rowed in shifts, each taking turns to sleep through the hours of evening.

Word of this extraordinary cruise reached the Athenian exile Xenophon, now living on a farm near Olympia and collecting material for a history that would continue the unfinished work of Thucydides. Xenophon gave high praise to Iphicrates for this tactical use of a cruise into the battle zone. “I know, of course, that when people are expecting to fight a naval action, all these tactical exercises and all this training are quite usual. But what I admire in the conduct of Iphicrates is this: when he had to arrive quickly in an area where he expected to engage the enemy, he found a way by which his men would be none the worse trained tactically because of having to make the voyage, and the voyage would be none the slower because of the training given to the men.”

Inevitably the rumor of Iphicrates’ approach reached Corcyra. The Spartans on the island were so alarmed that they broke off the siege and slipped away to a safe harbor nearer home. With them went their sixty triremes. Thanks to Iphicrates’ show of strength and readiness, the Athenians won their victory without fighting a battle. A politician named Peitholaus had once called the state trireme Paralos “the People’s Big Stick.” Thanks to Iphicrates, the epithet could be applied with justice to the entire Athenian fleet.

Only one mopping-up operation remained. Ten Syracusan triremes were on their way to Corcyra from Sicily. Iphicrates learned that the latecomers expected to finish their long crossing at night. The Syracusans would light a beacon on an offshore islet as they approached their destination. If they saw an answering signal fire on the northern cape of Corcyra, the Syracusans would know that the Spartans still controlled the island and would press forward the next morning to reinforce their old allies.

Iphicrates led twenty triremes to the northern tip of the island and waited through the night. Out at sea in the black night a beacon flared. Lighting a blaze in answer, Iphicrates steered his squadron across the dark water toward the beacon of the ignorant enemy. At first light he reached the islet—and swooped down on the unsuspecting Sicilians, capturing ships and crews together. In his mortification, the Syracusan commander committed suicide. Although neither Iphicrates nor anyone else could know it at the time, this remote and minor exploit was to be the last naval action in the long, long war. But one last disaster still awaited the Spartan fleet.

A year after Iphicrates made his cruise to Corcyra, ten Spartan triremes lay at Helike, a city on the southern coast of the Corinthian Gulf. Their commander was the same Pollis whom Chabrias and Phocion had defeated at Naxos three years before. While the Spartan ships were in the harbor at Helike, a strange phenomenon was observed. For days, an exodus of snakes, mice, and other small animals—even beetles—streamed out of the city, making for higher ground.

On the fifth night a violent earthquake shook the gulf. Some hours later, as the survivors were trying to save themselves and their families, the sea rose in an immense wave and swept over the site, destroying everything. By morning Helike had disappeared, along with Pollis and the ten Spartan ships. Only a shallow lagoon remained. Local ferrymen claimed that for years afterward they had to steer clear of a submerged bronze statue of Poseidon. The Earthshaker still stood erect in his ancient sanctuary, menacing watercraft with his trident at the place where he had blotted out the last vestige of the Spartan navy.

The string of naval defeats and the great wave that swallowed up the triremes at Helike left the Spartans bewildered and demoralized. The following summer Athenian envoys arrived in Sparta with a proposal of peace. A popular leader named Callistratus accompanied the embassy. Callistratus had been so worn out during his recent trierarchy on board the Lampra (“Radiant”) that he had made an unprecedented deal with the general in command of the fleet. If Iphicrates would only let him go home, Callistratus swore either to raise new funds for the navy or to negotiate a peace. He kept his word.

From Callistratus, the Spartans heard the kind of straight talk that they could respect. “All the cities of Greece are divided among those who are on our side and those who are on yours, and in each individual city there is a pro-Spartan party and a pro-Athenian party. Now if you and we became friends, would there be any quarter from which either of us could reasonably expect trouble? Certainly, if you were with us, no one would be powerful enough to do us any harm on land; and with us on your side, no one could hurt you by sea.”

The Spartans agreed to the terms, which were in reality nothing more than a reaffirmation of the King’s Peace of fifteen years before, minus the threats of Artaxerxes. The events of the following days, however, linked this peace to one of the great turning points of Greek history. Spartan supremacy on land was about to be shattered. In his speech Callistratus had failed to mention the one power that could now challenge the Spartan hoplite phalanx: Thebes. The peace accord with Athens could not help Sparta against this new rival. When the two great armies met near the town of Leuctra, the Theban general Epaminondas launched an attack that resembled, in Xenophon’s words, “the ram of a trireme.”

By the end of the battle, the myth of Spartan invincibility was exploded. Already stripped of its thalassocracy, Sparta lost at Leuctra its ancient claim to be the supreme moral and military leader of Greece. To ensure that Sparta would never revive, the Thebans liberated the Spartan fiefdom of Messenia, the rich land of the southwestern Peloponnese, and called its people home. For the first time in centuries Messenia was again an independent state; the exile of the Messenians at Naupactus was finally over.

The Peloponnesian War had lasted twenty-seven years and settled nothing. The Spartan War, fought by generals from Conon to Iphicrates, had also lasted for a full generation, and it changed Greece forever. Taking the long view, Athenians could now see that they had ultimately triumphed over the Spartans in a contest that began with the battle of Tanagra in the days of the Delian League and lasted more than eighty-five years. The struggle had weakened both cities, but in the end Athenian democracy, leadership, and naval tradition had prevailed.

The return of Athenian sea power breathed new life into the city’s Golden Age. Chabrias and Phocion regularly attended Plato’s lectures at the Academy; Timotheus could be found on the other side of the city studying rhetoric with Isocrates at the Lyceum. Phocion’s brother-in-law, a sculptor named Cephisodotus, created a monument in the Agora to honor the goddess Eirene (“Peace”), whom he depicted as a happy mother holding a baby named Plutus (“Wealth”). A sculptor named Praxiteles was the brightest light in Athens’ artistic renaissance. Praxiteles raised Athenian sculpture to new heights with his nude Aphrodite. From her temple at Cnidus in Asia Minor, Praxiteles’ famous marble goddess looked out over the bay where Conon had struck the first blow against Spartan hegemony at sea.

The rebirth of Athens reached a high point eight years after the peace with Sparta, on a night enlivened by torchlit processions and the music of pipes and lyres. Timotheus’ daughter was marrying Menestheus, the son of Iphicrates. An ornate wedding wagon carried the young couple from the door of the bride’s house, which Timotheus had decked with laurel and olive branches. Friends sang the marriage hymn as the wagon rolled through the streets. Iphicrates, crowned with myrtle, met them at his door. Beside him stood his wife, the northern princess whose own wedding had taken place in a Thracian royal hall. Now she held aloft a flaming torch to welcome the bride. In a shower of nuts and dried fruit Timotheus’ daughter descended from the wagon, ate the ceremonial quince, and entered the home of her new family. Her children would unite the bloodlines of Conon and Timotheus with Iphicrates, three of the city’s greatest naval heroes. Their victories had brought to pass the seemingly impossible: Athens was alight again with a final flaring up of its ancient glory.

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