Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), II

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.

The constant Athenian strategy in this phase of the war was to avoid a direct confrontation on land with Sparta, to maintain the fleet, and to keep the empire together.


Thucydides 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.' 


The 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.

In the winter of 421 a peace, named the Peace of Nicias after the main Athenian negotiator, was ratified. The historian, Robin Lane Fox, (The Classical World: An Epic History, Penguin, 2006, p. 163) points out that the Spartan state was financially feeble - it did not even strike its own coins - and its commanders were incompetent at sea. The first phase of the war was over but the underlying tensions remained and neither side fully complied with the agreement Athens had emerged the weaker. 

However, the Peace restored security to the peasants of Attica and allowed them to export again their oil and wine. More and more metics settled in Athens and the city benefited from their skills. The temple of Athena Nike was built and the building of the Erechtheum continued.  Loans were repaid and the number of ships in the navy was increased.

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.

Alcibiades (b. 450 BC), the orphaned son of Cleinias, was a young nobleman brought up in the household of Pericles. He was a complete individualist and egotist, but his charisma and physical beauty gave him an extraordinary charm. He brilliantly exploited the continuing suspicions of Sparta. His horses won spectacular victories in the Olympic Games. He surrounded himself with admiring high-born youth and was one of the lovers of Socrates.

Elected strategos for several successive years he advocated an aggressive foreign policy in contrast to the unassuming and peaceful Nicias. He persuaded the Athenians to build up a new anti-Spartan coalition. The Spartans crushed this with ease, but did not follow up their victory and this lulled Athens into a false sense of security and an even greater ruthlessness. When the Athenians captured the pro-Spartan island of Melos in 416 they massacred the adult men and enslaved the women and children.

The Sicilian Expedition

In 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 mutilation of the herms: Just before the fleet sailed in the early summer of 415 the Athenians woke to find that some of the hermai, busts of Hermes that stood outside both public and private houses as a symbol of good fortune had been defaced during the night. This was an organized act of sacrilege, and was not simply the work of drunken revellers. At the same time, at a meeting of the Assembly before the fleet sailed, Alcibiades was accused of taking part in sacrilegious mock-celebrations of the Eleusinian mysteries. The two acts of sacrilege do not seem to have been related, but are signs of tensions within the city and perhaps a growing religious scepticism.

Once the fleet had sailed, the Athenians decided to recall Alcibiades in order to answer charges of sacrilege. In response he fled to Sparta, where he was sentenced to death in absentia. A block was placed on the Acropolis denouncing him as an enemy of democracy. In Athens a series of trials were held of those who had allegedly committed sacrilege.

It is in this kind of atmosphere that Aristophanes wrote the most cynical of his comedies, The Birds, in which the two main characters are looking for a city free from politics and violence. This new city is built between heaven and earth and named Nephelokokkygia. 

Disaster at Syracuse: By the winter of 415/14 the Athenian fleet, under the command of Nicias, was anchored in the Great Bay of Syracuse and the Athenians had begun siege works around the city. But the Athenians were no match for the superior horsemanship of the Syracusans. In support of Syracuse, the Spartans invaded Attica and Athens was thus faced with a war on two fronts. In 413 the Athenian navy was defeated. Nicias tried to march the 40,000 men on dry land to safety but after eight days of marching in terrible conditions they were attached by the Syracusans.  50,000 Athenians were presumed dead and 216 triremes were lost. The surviving Athenians, about 7,000 in number, were herded into a makeshift prisoner-or-war camp in the stone quarries of Syracuse, where many died.  Nicias was executed. Only a handful returned. Thucydides called it ‘the most disastrous of defeats’. Sparta once more entered the war. Aided by Persian resources it became a naval power and encouraged the rebellion of Athens’s allies.  

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 Hundred

In 411 the Athenian political scene was extremely complex. 
  1. The Persians had entered the war on the Spartan side. 
  2. 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. 
  3. The democracy was temporarily overthrown by an oligarchic coup. 
A body of four hundred men took control of the city and dismissed the Assembly and the Council. But after only four months they were overthrown and replaced with a broader oligarchy the rule of the Five Thousand

‘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 Athens

With 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:
  1. The reduction of Athens’s fleet to twelve ships
  2. The disbanding of the democracy
  3. The destruction of the city walls
  4. ‘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.’
The Spartan general Lysander entered Piraeus and to the accompaniment of girl flute-players, the Long Walls were pulled down.

The Thirty Tyrants

Later in the summer Lysander returned to add his support to another oligarchic coup in Athens, the rule of a group of thirty men, known as the Thirty Tyrants, who governed Athens under overall Spartan domination. Under Critias, Plato’s uncle, the Thirty instituted a reign of terror, purging the city of their enemies and stamping out all dissent. Over a hundred men a month were ‘disappeared’. In 403 they moved into the Tholos. The Thirty only governed for a year but in that period between 1,000 and 1,500 Athenians died. As well as the tried and tested methods they introduced a new means of death – hemlock.

However, the oligarchs fell out with each other. Meanwhile democratic exiles found refuge in a number of Greek cities including Thebes. They occupied the Athenian port of Phyle, three miles north-east of Athens and from there they captured Piraeus and in a fight killed some of the Thirty including Critias. The Spartan king, Pausanias, arrived to restore order, but he was unable to suppress the democratic revival, he brokered a compromise. The supporters of the Thirty were to receive an amnesty and be permitted to live in Eleusis. In the following years the democracy was reinstated, the law codes were revised and state pay was reintroduced.