Ancient History & Civilisation


The Last Battle [324-322 B.C.]

Walls and ships are nothing without men living together inside them.


ALEXANDER LOST NO TIME IN MAKING HIS PRESENCE FELT. At Olympia that summer an emissary from the king made a most unwelcome proclamation to the Greeks who had gathered for games of the 114th Olympiad. It was the will of the king that all Greek cities should take back their exiles, restore them to citizenship, and then give them back their lands. The Exiles Decree was intended to dissipate the hordes of mercenaries adrift in Alexander’s new dominions. But the decree violated the autonomy of the Greeks. Alexander had forgotten by now that they were nominally his allies; viewed from his imperial capitals at Susa and Babylon, they looked like nothing more than distant subjects. To provide a sort of legal basis for his autocratic act, the new Great King also told the Greeks that they could now worship him as a god.

Demosthenes brought the bad news back to Athens from Olympia. Quite apart from the horde of undesirables—traitors, criminals, and troublemakers—that would be forced on the Athenians, the decree threatened to rob them of Samos. The rich island had been liberated from Persian control by Timotheus more than forty years before (the biggest of all the lobsters that fell into his famous pot) and held tenaciously by Athens ever since. So even at the risk of triggering a war with the divine Alexander, the Athenians ordered to sea that bulwark of democracy, the Paralos. The flagship of the navy reached Samos before the exiles returned. And as the elated Samian oligarchs sailed back to Samos to reclaim their estates under the terms of the decree, an Athenian general took them prisoner as they landed and sent them to Athens. Samos was almost the only remnant of maritime empire left to the Athenians, and they would defy the world and the gods to keep it.

If Alexander had his way, the Athenian navy would soon be overshadowed by new Macedonian fleets. Ever since his trek back from India, the king’s head had been full of ships. In his early campaigns Alexander had given scant attention to the sea. Now he launched ships to explore the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Gulf, started an immense new harbor at Babylon, and contemplated a circumnavigation of Africa. Alexander even dreamed of building one thousand new warships, all bigger than triremes, for an expedition against Carthage and the lands of the western Mediterranean. There were, after all, many worlds, and he had not yet completely conquered even one.

Early the next summer, one year after promulgating the Exiles Decree, Alexander held a conference with his new admiral Nearchus to discuss these naval initiatives. It was to be his last act as king. Already feverish following a heavy bout of drinking, further sickened by the steamy summer heat of Babylon, and perhaps the victim of poison poured into his cup by someone near the throne, Alexander fell mortally ill. He died at the age of thirty-six without naming an heir.

The news of his death at first provoked incredulity in Athens. Demades exclaimed, “Alexander dead? Impossible! The whole world would smell of his corpse!” Once the report from Babylon was confirmed, the majority of citizens swiftly voted that Athens should lead a war of liberation against Alexander’s successors. The landowners and other rich Athenians opposed the war but were outnumbered. Messengers departed at once to seek the support of other Greek cities. The Assembly’s resolution rang with the same idealistic fervor that had motivated Themistocles in the face of Xerxes’ invasion: “The Athenian people recognize it as their duty to risk their lives and treasure and ships in the cause of the common freedom of Greece.” Cities throughout central Greece and the Peloponnese rallied to the call.

At first all went well. The Macedonian regent Antipater attempted to crush the uprising, but he was no Alexander, nor even a Xerxes. Under Athenian leadership, the Greeks successfully held the pass at Thermopylae against the invaders. Helpless to deal with the rebels alone, Antipater appealed to the Macedonian generals in Asia for reinforcements and a fleet. The ultimate test of the new Greek alliance, and of Athenian sea power, would come in the following spring.

Pressing forward with the war effort, the Athenians resolved to equip themselves with two hundred new quadriremes and forty new triremes. That winter every Athenian citizen under the age of forty was conscripted for service. Three tribal regiments would defend the frontiers of Attica. The other seven prepared for campaigns abroad. As the warm weather returned, armies of Macedonians began to cross the Hellespont into Europe, preparing to reinforce Antipater’s troops and crush the rebellion in Greece. In an effort to stop these troops, the Athenians launched a fleet of triremes and quadriremes and sent it northeast across the Aegean. Of that year’s board of generals, Phocion alone could claim experience of a naval battle, and that had been at Naxos, more than half a century before. As he was now almost eighty, it seemed best to send a younger man. Euetion from thedeme or township of Cephisia, an aristocrat and a former cavalry commander, was given charge of the war at sea.

If the Athenians had hoped for the same happy outcome that had met Phocion’s expedition to Byzantium eighteen years before, when he faced down Alexander’s father Philip, they were deluding themselves. The days of Macedonian timidity at sea were long gone. Arriving in the Hellespont, Euetion and his fleet encountered a force commanded by a Macedonian general named Cleitus. A battle was fought in the familiar waters off Abydos, and the Macedonians were victorious. Euetion managed to escape with the bulk of the fleet, but he left many Athenians behind, stranded or captured. Loyal friends of Athens in the city of Abydos rescued as many of these men as they could, gave them money for the voyage back to Athens, and sent them home.

Cleitus then gathered a fleet of 240 ships and with this immense force left the Hellespont to seek the remnant of the Athenian navy. Despite the hundreds of empty hulls resting in the shipsheds at the Piraeus and the grandiose shipbuilding proposal of the previous year, the Athenians in this moment of supreme crisis were able to provide crews for only 170 ships. Preference was given to the quadriremes, virtually all of which were manned and launched. The two quinqueremes were dispatched also. The rest of Euetion’s force was made up of triremes.



Their course took them to the waters off Amorgos, a narrow rugged island on the farthest eastern edge of the Cyclades. Amorgos was no match in size, wealth, or fame to Naxos, its neighbor to the west. However, it possessed on its western coast the finest natural harbor in the archipelago, ringed by fine beaches. Perched on a hill overlooking the harbor, the fortified settlement of Minoa was a reminder of ancient Cretan sea kings and their vanished thalassocracy. Amorgos had been tributary to Athens in imperial days and loyal through the years of the Second Maritime League, yet up to now it had scarcely figured in Athenian naval history.

When the Macedonian fleet loomed up over the horizon, Euetion arrayed his own fleet for battle—the greatest number of ships to fight for Athens since the debacle at Aegospotami. Even so the Macedonian superiority in numbers was overwhelming. Equally daunting was the reputation of the soldiers on their decks, members of the most ruthlessly effective fighting force on earth. There was a brief clash, and some of Cleitus’ ships managed to overturn three or four Athenian triremes. Before the Macedonians broke through the Athenian line or surrounded their fleet, and before the hopeless contest could turn into a slaughter, Euetion signaled from his flagship to Cleitus’ that the Athenians were ready to surrender.

Over the last century and a half Athenian fleets had been ambushed in Egypt, annihilated at Syracuse, chased back to their base at Notium, and captured on shore at Aegospotami. The surrender at Amorgos marked the first time in history that an Athenian general had voluntarily yielded to an enemy fleet. Themistocles or Phormio or Chabrias would never have conceded victory without doing his best for Athens in a mighty struggle first. What had changed?

Athenians of the upper classes had opposed the war of liberation from the first. And there was at least one wealthy citizen on board every ship: the trierarch. The long odds that the Athenians faced at Amorgos would not have intimidated the men who held command during the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, but the generals and trierarchs at Amorgos had approached the battle with no will to win or even to fight. Somehow in the aftermath of surrender Euetion managed to convince Cleitus that the Athenians not only conceded the victory but would never again challenge the Macedonians at sea. Nothing short of such a promise could have justified Cleitus’ action after the battle: instead of claiming prizes, he allowed his enemies to take their damaged ships in tow and depart.

Without Macedonian harassment or escort, the Athenians left the scene of their defeat in full force. Ahead was the voyage back to the Piraeus. It was a long row home with heavy hearts among the majority who had voted for the war. Did they comfort themselves with hopes that Alexander’s successors would treat Athens as Alexander himself had done? Or that the navy would rise again in months or years to come?

A false report preceded them across the Aegean—a report of victory. The Athenian triremes had been seen after the battle with their damaged ships in tow, which was ordinarily a sign of the winning fleet. The first man at Athens to hear the rumor put a victory wreath on his head and rode through the city, shouting the glad tidings to his fellow citizens. In an ecstasy of joy, the Assembly ordered sacrifices to the gods and ceremonies of thanksgiving. The euphoria lasted two or three days, until the great fleet arrived at the Piraeus to tell the true story.

The confrontation with the Macedonian forces on land mirrored the failure at sea. The armies met at Crannon in Thessaly, where a narrow victory for the Macedonians precipitated a complete surrender by the Greeks. Shortly after this debacle Cleitus’ fleet, fresh from its victories in the Hellespont and at Amorgos, caught the squadron of Athenian warships operating in western waters and destroyed them near the Echinades Islands. Even without Philip or Alexander, the Macedonians had been able to master the ancient city-states of Greece.

The Assembly sent Phocion and Demades and Xenocrates, the head of the Academy, to ask Antipater about terms: a war hero, an orator, and a philosopher to negotiate the fate of a once-great city. Antipater demanded payment of an indemnity equal to the full cost of the war, the handing over of Demosthenes and other enemies of Macedon, and the evacuation of Samos. The thetes of the demos, defined as all citizens with a net worth less than two thousand drachmas, were to be expelled from Athens. The wealth ier citizens who remained must surrender the fort on Munychia Hill in the Piraeus to a Macedonian garrison.

The three envoys had expected very different terms. They accepted the exile of the thetes, but protested desperately against the loss of Samos and the presence of a Macedonian garrison on Attic soil. Antipater backed off to the extent of referring the case of Samos to the new king, Alexander’s half brother Philip Arrhidaeus. As for the occupation of the Piraeus, the Athenian protest met with laughter. The headquarters of the legendary Athenian navy was a far more strategic stronghold for the Macedonian conquerors than the Acropolis or even the entire city of Athens. Antipater had no need to destroy the naval base or burn the ships. The exile of the troublesome thetes would guarantee the end of Athenian sea power, and its material remains could be useful to the successors of Alexander.

So the envoys returned to Athens with terms of surrender that gave up Athenian independence and, for all practical purposes, Athenian identity. The incredible had happened. Almost three-fifths of the citizens—12,000 out of 21,000—failed to pass Antipater’s test of wealth. They were the rabble, the mob, the radical democrats who were everywhere blamed for all the crimes of a restless, ambitious, and expansionist Athens. They were now to be banished for the good of all, not merely from Athens but for the most part from Greece itself.

Only now could the Athenians understand what had happened at Amorgos. They had saved their lives and most of their ships; they had experienced no defeat to match the horror of Syracuse or the totality of Aegospotami. Yet in the waters off Amorgos they had suffered a loss more costly and decisive than any other in their history. With good reason the Macedonians honored Cleitus as a god, a Poseidon, for overturning those few Athenian triremes. He had accomplished what neither Xerxes nor Lysander nor Philip had been able to achieve: the final defeat of the Athenian navy. In reality, however, Athens had been its own worst enemy. The judgment that Thucydides passed on the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War applied in full force to their final collapse: “It was only because they destroyed themselves with their own internal strife that they were forced to surrender.”

Land was to be provided for the exiles in Thrace, that harsh northern country that so many Athenians of previous generations had died trying to win. Helpless, the citizens packed up their households and made their way down to the Piraeus for the embarkation. All around hundreds of triremes and other warships still rested in the shipsheds, but their time was over. Without the harmony that had drawn all Athenians together for a common purpose, the ships were so many lifeless hulks of timber and pitch. At the harbor the exiled citizens and their families embarked for the long voyage to Thrace and their new homes. Many would never see Athens again.

As autumn came the depleted city celebrated the Mysteries at Eleusis, but the rites were marred by a terrible portent. One of the initiates who had waded into the sea to make a sacrifice was attacked and killed by a shark. On the nineteenth of Boedromion the city observed the anniversary of Salamis and the birthday of Athenian maritime supremacy. The triumphant Macedonians, either mocking, ignorant, or indifferent, chose to send a garrison to the Piraeus the following day. Armed with their long pikes, men who had followed Alexander the Great across the Persian Empire now established themselves as an army of occupation in the fort on Munychia Hill.

Macedonian troops hunted down Demosthenes, who had taken refuge in the sanctuary of Poseidon at Calauria. As the soldiers approached, Demosthenes stepped outside the precinct so as not to desecrate holy soil, then quickly drank poison that he had hidden in his pen. His suicide deprived the Macedonians of their chance to take revenge for his many speeches against Philip and Alexander. In the same year Aristotle died of natural causes. An age was ending.

When they surrendered to the Macedonians, the Athenians had more ships and a better-equipped naval base than ever before. Philo’s Arsenal was still brand-new. Some mysterious spiritual essence, however, had vanished. As Nicias once reminded the Assembly, a trireme’s crew could remain at the peak of performance for only a short time. For the Athenian ship of state, thanks to the unremitting effort and self-sacrifice of its people, the peak had been prolonged for over a century and a half. Now rule of the sea would pass to other city-states and empires: Rhodes, Carthage, Alexandria, Rome. As for the creative explosion called the Golden Age, it ended with the naval power on which it had been built. With the Athenian people divided and the Piraeus in foreign hands, the reign of Themistocles’ navy reached its final day.

The gleaming city of marble and bronze still enshrines the memory of many heroes whose ashes lie buried in tombs along the Sacred Way. Thucydides set down a Funeral Oration delivered by Pericles for citizens who died in the Peloponnesian War. Near the end of his speech Pericles issued a challenge: “Famous men have the whole world as their memorial. It is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out. No, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people’s hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them.” Many have tried, chasing the same goals of democracy, liberty, and happiness that generations of Athenians pursued in their ships. Few can claim to have equaled their achievements; fewer still to have surpassed them.

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