|Map of the Sicilian expedition, 415 BC|
The rise of the demagogues
After the death of Pericles, things could never be the same. According to Thucydides, the leaders who emerged from his shadow were petty, self-seeking rabble-rousers, such as the demagogue, Cleon, acquired an influential voice in the Assembly. The socially conservative playwright Aristophanes satirised him as a tanner (he owned a tannery) but in reality he was a skilful general who inflicted a humiliating reverse on the Spartans.
MytileneThucydides shows that the war could corrupt moral standards. In 428 Mytilene on the island of Lesbos defected to Sparta. In the following year, Athens sent a fleet that subdued the island. The Assembly then voted to execute all the adult males and to sell the women and children into slavery, and a trireme was despatched to carry this out. However, opinion changed overnight and the debate was renewed the following day. There was a famous duel of speeches between Cleon and Diodotus, Cleon arguing for a policy of terror, Diodotus pleading for mercy on the grounds of expediency. In spite of Cleon’s arguments, the Assembly changed its mind and despatched another trireme to countermand the orders of the first. It arrived just in time. As Bettany Hughes points out 'Both the mob passion and the flexibility of this fledgling democracy had been proved at a stroke.'
DefeatismThe atmosphere of defeatism at this time is reflected in the early comedies of Aristophanes that are pervaded by criticism of Cleon and a general atmosphere of defeatism. The death of Cleon on a campaign in 422 served to highlight the obvious fact: the war could not be won.
The rise of Alcibiades
The career of the flamboyant and glamorous aristocrat, Alcibiades, highlights the problems of the Athenian democracy and was used by subsequent commentators to prove that democracy was an inherently unstable form of government.
The Sicilian ExpeditionIn the winter of 416/15 envoys came from one of Athens’ allies in Sicily to beg for help against Syracuse, a colony of Corinth’s. Largely at the instigation of Alcibiades, the Assembly voted to send an expedition to conquer Syracuse, partly as a vanity project but mainly to ensure the supplies of grain. A fleet of nearly 1400 triremes, 5,100 infantry and about 1,300 archers, slingers and light-armed troops was equipped, with Alcibiades and Nicias in charge.
The failure of the Sicilian expedition presented the enemies of Athens with an opportunity. In 413 King Agis of Sparta placed a permanent fort at Deceleia in Attica. The fort became a sanctuary for runaway slaves, many of them from the Laurion mines, which were forced to close. This meant that the ‘owls’ were no longer produced and Athens and her allies were starved of currency.
The Four HundredIn 411 the Athenian political scene was extremely complex.
- The Persians had entered the war on the Spartan side.
- From his exile Alcibiades had rehabilitated himself, and though he did not feel able to return to the city he commanded a fleet that began to win significant victories.
- The democracy was temporarily overthrown by an oligarchic coup.
‘The democracy itself had been overturned by an Athenian cell of aristocratic men. This was Athens’ night of the long knives. Slaughter, torture, intimidations were companions of the political coup. Athenians spattered the streets with Athenian blood.' Beverley Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010)In 410 the democracy was restored. In 407 Alcibiades returned to an enthusiastic welcome. But his credibility was badly tarnished when he was defeated by a combined Spartan and Persian fleet in 406. He retired to one of his castles in Thrace and may have taken up a final career as a pirate. He died in mysterious circumstances in 404.
The defeat of AthensWith Persian help the landlocked Spartans had learned to adapt to naval warfare. At Aegospotami they defeated the Athenian fleet. All Athens' allies deserted her with the exception of Samos. 150 Spartan ships prevented the arrival of the grain supply.
The war ended with the Spartan siege of Athens in 404. They demanded as terms of surrender:
- The reduction of Athens’s fleet to twelve ships
- The disbanding of the democracy
- The destruction of the city walls
- ‘Athens to have the same enemies and the same friends as Sparta has and to follow Spartan leadership in any expedition Sparta might make either by land or sea.’