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Battle of Arginusae, 406 BC


Battle of Arginusae, 406 BC

The battle of the Arginusae Islands (406 BC) was the last major Athenian victory of the Great Peloponnesian War, but after the battle six of the eight victorious generals were executed for failing to rescue the crews of the twenty five Athenian warships lost during the battle.

At the start of the campaigning season in 406 BC the Athenians had a fleet of 70 ships in Asia Minor, commanded by Conon, while the Peloponnesians had 140 ships under the newly appointed Callicratidas. He achieved a series of early successes, capturing Delphinium in the territory of Chios and Methymne on Lesbos. He then chased Conon into Mytilene, sinking or capturing thirty of the seventy Athenian ships, and began a siege of Mytilene.

When this news reached Athens a new fleet was scraped together. Our two main sources agreed on the eventual size of the Athenian fleet, but not on its composition. According to Xenophon 110 ships came from Athens, ten were at Samos and thirty were provided by other allies, for a total of 150. In Diodorus Siculus sixty ships came from Athens, ten from Samos and eighty from other Athenian allies, again for a total of 150. The fleet came together at Samos, and sailed up the coast towards Lesbos, pausing on the night before the battle at the Arginusae Islands, east of Lesbos and close to the mainland.

Callicratidas decided to intercept the Athenian fleet, a sign of the greatly increased confidence of the Peloponnesian fleet. He left fifty ships at Mytilene, and took one hundred and twenty with him.

The Athenian fleet was drawn up in two lines. At the far left was Aristocrates with fifteen ships, and with Pericles (son of the famous statesman) behind him. Next was Diomedon with fifteen ships and Erasinides behind. In the centre were the ten Samian ships, ten ships commanded by the Athenian taxiarchs, three by the navarchs and other allies. Next was Protomachus with Lysias behind him, both with fifteen ships. Finally on the far right Thrasylus commanded the front line and Aristogenes the rear. The Athenian left wing pointed out to open sea, the right towards the shore and the Arginusae islands were in the centre of the line. The Athenians hoped that this formation would prevent the Spartans from breaking their line, while the islands extended their line and would make it harder for the Spartans to outflank it.

Callicratidas was effectively forced to split his fleet in two. He commanded on the right, while the Boeotians, commanded by Thrasondas of Thebes, held the left.

Neither Xenophon or Diodorus give us any real details of the battle, other than to agree that it was hard fought and lasted for some time. Callicratidas was killed during the battle, although our sources disagree on how. According to Xenophon he fell overboard after his ship rammed an Athenian ship, and was drowned. In Diodorus he was killed fighting onboard his ship, after becoming entangled with Pericles' ships. Our sources also disagree on which wing of the Peloponnesian fleet was defeated first - the right wing goes first in Diodorus and the left wing in Xenophon. In both sources most of the Peloponnesians fled south to Chios.

Our sources give largely similar casualty figures, with the Peloponnesians loosing 70-77 ships and the Athenians twenty ships along with most of their crews. This loss of crew would lead to the most controversial aspect of the battle. The Athenian commanders apparently decided to split their fleet, sending some ships to lift the siege of Mytilene and some to rescue their shipwrecked comrades, but a storm blew up, and the fleet was forced to return to shore without achieving either objective.

This gave Eteonicus, the Peloponnesian commander at Mytilene, time to evacuate his army and fleet. Conon was able to emerge from the blockaded city, and joined up with the main Athenian fleet. Meanwhile news of the battled reached Athens, where the initial celebrations of victory were marred by the news of the heavy losses. The generals were blamed for failing to rescue the shipwrecked men, and were dismissed. Conon, Adeimantus and Philocles were appointed to replace them. Of the eight generals in command during the battle Protomachus and Aristogenes decided not to return to Athens. Pericles, Diomedon, Lysias, Aristocrates, Thrasylus and Erasinides returned to the city, where they were put on trial and after a somewhat lengthy process condemned and executed.

The Athenian people soon regretted their decision, but it was too late. The execution of six victorious generals had a double effective - it removed most of the most able and experienced commanders, and it discouraged the survivors from taking command in the following year. This lack of experience may have played a part in the crushing Athenian defeat at Aegospotami that effectively ended the war.


Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.

Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.

For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.

Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.

In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.

I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.

A bust of Socrates

In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.

Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.

An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.

Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.

Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.

A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.

Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.

But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.

While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.

*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.

**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.

***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.


Aftermath

The overall effect of the war in Greece proper was to substitute a Spartan empire for an Athenian one. After the battle of Aegospotami, Sparta took over the Athenian empire and kept all of its tribute revenues for itself Sparta's allies, who had made greater sacrifices for the war effort than had Sparta, got nothing.

For a short period of time, Athens was ruled by the "Thirty Tyrants", and democracy was suspended. This was a reactionary regime set up by Sparta. In 403 BC, the oligarchs were overthrown and a democracy was restored by Thrasybulus.

Although the power of Athens was broken, it made something of a recovery as a result of the Corinthian War and continued to play an active role in Greek politics. Sparta was later humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, but the rivalry between Athens and Sparta was brought to an end a few decades later when Philip II of Macedon conquered all of Greece except Sparta.

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Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)

The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) was an ancient Greek war fought by the Delian League led by Athens against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases. In the first phase, the Archidamian War, Sparta launched repeated invasions of Attica, while Athens took advantage of its naval supremacy to raid the coast of the Peloponnese and attempt to suppress signs of unrest in its empire.


Thucydides IV 36-41: fragment of a 1st-century manuscript

Thucydides IV 36-41: fragment of a 1st-century manuscript
( Click image to enlarge)



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This article uses material from the Wikipedia article "Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)", which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.


Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the Athenian commanders had to decide which of several pressing tasks to focus their attention on. Conon was still blockaded at Mytilene by 50 Spartan ships, and decisive action against those ships could lead to their destruction before they had a chance to join the remainder of Callicratidas' fleet. At the same time, however, the survivors from the 25 Athenian ships sunk or disabled in the battle remained afloat off the Arginusae islands. [ 10 ] To address both of these concerns, the generals decided that all eight of them would sail with the majority of the fleet to Mytilene, where they would attempt to relieve Conon, while the trierarchs Thrasybulus and Theramenes would remain behind with a smaller detachment to rescue the survivors both of these missions, however, were thwarted by the sudden arrival of a storm which drove the ships back into port the Spartan fleet at Mytilene escaped, and rescuing the drowning sailors proved impossible. [ 11 ]

Trial of the generals

At Athens, the public relief at this unexpected victory was quickly subsumed in a bitter rhetorical battle over who was responsible for the failure to rescue the sailors. When the generals learned that the public was angry over the failed rescue, they assumed that Thrasybulus and Theramenes, who had already returned to the city, were responsible, and accordingly wrote letters to the assembly denouncing the two trierarchs and blaming them for the disaster. [ 12 ] The trierarchs responded successfully to the allegations brought against them, and public anger now turned against the generals instead. [ 13 ] The eight generals were deposed from their office and ordered to return to Athens to stand trial two of them, Aristogenes and Protomachus, fled, but the other six returned. Upon their return, they were imprisoned, and one of them, Erasinides, was brought to trial and convicted of several charges involving misconduct in office this trial may represent an attempt by the generals' enemies to test the wind, since Erasinides, who had proposed abandoning the survivors altogether during the deliberations after the battle, may have been the easiest target among the six. [ 14 ]

The question of how the generals should be tried for their failure to rescue the survivors was then brought before the assembly. On the first day of debate, the generals were able to win the sympathy of the crowd by placing the blame for the tragedy entirely on the storm that had thwarted the rescue attempts. Unfortunately for them, however, this first day of debate was followed by the festival of the Apaturia, at which families met together in this context, the absence of those drowned at Arginusae was painfully evident, and when the assembly next met the initiative passed to those who wished to treat the generals harshly. A politician named Callixeinus proposed that, without further debate, the assembly should vote on the guilt or innocence of the generals. Euryptolemus, a cousin of Alcibiades, and several others opposed the motion on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, but they withdrew their motion after another politician moved that the same penalty applied to the generals be applied to them. With the opposition from the floor now silenced, the generals' accusers sought to bring their motion to a vote.

The presiding officers of the assembly were the prytanies, randomly selected councilmen from whichever tribe was assigned to oversee the assembly in a given month at each meeting of the assembly, one of the prytanies was appointed epistates, or president of the assembly. [ 15 ] By chance, the philosopher Socrates, holding public office for the only time in his life, was epistates on the day that the generals were tried. [ 15 ] Declaring that he would "do nothing that was contrary to the law", [ 16 ] Socrates refused to put the measure to a vote. Emboldened, Euryptolemus rose again to speak, and persuaded the assembly to pass a motion ordering that the generals be tried separately. Parliamentary maneuvering, however, undid this victory, and in the end the original motion was carried a vote was taken, and all six generals were found guilty and executed including Pericles the Younger. The Athenians soon came to regret their decision in the case of the generals, and charges were brought against the principal instigators of the executions. These men escaped before they could be brought to trial, but Callixeinus did return to Athens several years later despised by his fellow citizens, he died of starvation. [ 17 ]

Peace offer

At Sparta, the defeat at Arginusae added to a long list of setbacks since the war in the Aegean had begun in 412 BC. The fleet, now stationed at Chios, was in poor condition, Spartans at home were discouraged, and supporters of Callicratidas were displeased by the notion that his rival Lysander would rise to power again if the war were to continue (Sparta's allies in the Aegean were demanding his return). [ 18 ] With all these concerns in mind, the Spartan government dispatched an embassy to Athens, offering to surrender the Spartan fort at Decelea in return for peace on the basis of the status quo in the Aegean. [ 19 ] This proposal, however, was rejected by the Athenian assembly at the urging of Cleophon. The war continued, but Athens' decision was to prove costly less than a year later when Lysander, in command of the Spartan fleet once more, decisively defeated the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami within two years of the dramatic Athenian victory at Arginusae, the city surrendered, its walls were torn down.


Contents

Callicratidas and Conon

In 406 BC, Callicratidas was appointed as the navarch of the Spartan fleet, replacing Lysander. [1] Callicratidas was a traditionalist Spartan, distrustful of Persian influence and reluctant to ask for support from the Persian prince Cyrus, who had been a strong supporter of Lysander. Thus, Callicratidas was forced to assemble his fleet and funding by seeking contributions from Sparta's allies among the Greek cities of the region. In this fashion, he assembled a fleet of some 140 triremes. Conon, meanwhile, who was in command of the Athenian fleet at Samos, was compelled by problems with the morale of his sailors to man only 70 of the more than 100 triremes he had in his possession. [2]

Callicratidas, once he had assembled his fleet, sailed against Methymna, on Lesbos, which he laid siege to and stormed. From Methymna, Callicratidas could potentially move to capture the rest of Lesbos, which clear the way for him to move his fleet to the Hellespont, where he would be athwart the all-important Athenian grain supply line to defend Lesbos, Conon was forced to move his numerically inferior fleet from Samos to the Hekatonnesi islands near Methymna. [3] When Callicratidas attacked him, however, with a fleet that had swelled to a size of 170 ships, Conon was forced to flee to Mytilene, where he was blockaded with his fleet after losing 30 ships in a clash at the mouth of the harbor. Besieged by land and sea, Conon was powerless to act against the vastly superior forces that surrounded him, and was only barely able to slip a messenger ship out to Athens to carry the news of his plight.

The relief force

When the messenger ship reached Athens with news of Conon's situation, the assembly wasted no time in approving extreme measures to build and man a relief force. The golden statues of Nike were melted down to fund the construction of the ships, [4] and slaves and metics were enlisted to crew the fleet. To ensure a sufficiently large and loyal group of crewmen, the Athenians even took the radical step of extending citizenship to thousands of slaves who rowed with the fleet. [5] Over a hundred ships were prepared and manned through these measures, and contributions from allied ships raised the fleet's size to 150 triremes after it reached Samos. In a highly unorthodox arrangement, the fleet was commanded collaboratively by eight generals these were Aristocrates, Aristogenes, Diomedon, Erasinides, Lysias, Pericles, Protomachus, and Thrasyllus.

After leaving Samos, the Athenian fleet sailed to the Arginusae islands, opposite Cape Malea on Lesbos, where they camped for an evening. Callicratidas, who had sailed south to Malea with most of his fleet upon learning of the Athenians' movements, spotted their signal fires and planned to attack them by night, but was prevented from doing so by a thunderstorm, and so was forced to delay his attack until morning.


1 Answer 1

The Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) was a testing time for the Athenian judicial system, every victory brought forth new heroes and every loss new scapegoats. The Athenians had lost their strongest asset, the leadership of Pericles, when the plague hit the city in the first year of the war, the lack of an experienced successor and the physical and mental exhaustion of the population from the plague created fertile ground for demagoguery and slander.

Cleon, Pericles' immediate successor, and Demosthenes were regularly lampooned by Aristophanes, and Nicias, although largely responsible for the peace treaty that ended the first part of the war, had little success in battle. Alcibiades rise to prominence during the interlude and the second part of the war is a tale of intense political struggle, and in one way or the other involves all the principals of the trial of the generals. Both Theramenes and Thrasybulus were his allies, the three men had fought side by side in several battles of the war, and were all involved in the coup of 411 BC.

Theramenes was part of the short lived oligarchy of the Four Hundred that followed the coup, and remains an enigmatic and highly controversial figure, but there's little doubt that at the time of the Battle of Arginusae both he and Thrasybulus were extremely influential. Alcibiades alone, who had returned to Athens only a year prior to the Battle of Arginusae, following his defection to Sparta after he was condemned to death in absentia during the ill fated Sicilian Expedition, was an extremely powerful ally and one that had proven in the past that was quite capable of manipulating the assembly in his favour.

Nevertheless, the aftermath of the Battle of Arginusae is atypical, even in the uncertain climate of the later half of an unprecedentedly long war. By Xenophon's account the Athenian victory was quite unexpected, the Athenian fleet was essentially a relief squadron, hastily assembled while the main fleet under Conon was blockaded by the Spartans in Mytilene, in the island of Lesbos:

[Xen. Hell. 1.6.24] When the Athenians heard of what had happened and of the blockade, they voted to go to the rescue with one hundred and ten ships, putting aboard all who were of military age, whether slave or free and within thirty days they manned the one hundred and ten ships and set forth. Even the knights went aboard in considerable numbers.

A bunch of kids, along with slaves (that were rarely employed in military service, thus were untrained) and knights (who were exempt from service at sea) faced a superior fleet that at the time had little trouble at keeping the main Athenian fleet at bay and delivered a decisive blow. Callicratidas, the Spartan naval commander, was killed when his ship was sunk and the Spartans lost nine of their ships, only one escaped, and sixty ships belonging to their allies.

Our other main source for the events that followed and lead to the trial is Diodorus Siculus', unfortunately Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War ends in 411 BC. Xenophon's account is the one the Wikipedia article is primarily based upon, here's what Diodorus had to say:

[Diod. 13.101.1] When the Athenians learned of their success at the Arginusae, they commended the generals for the victory but were incensed that they had allowed the men who had died to maintain their supremacy to go unburied.
[Diod. 13.101.2] Since Theramenes and Thrasybulus had gone off to Athens in advance of the others, the generals, having assumed that it was they who had made accusations before the populace with respect to the dead, dispatched letters against them to the people stating that it was they whom the generals had ordered to pick up the dead. But this very thing turned out to be the principal cause of their undoing.
[Diod. 13.101.3] For although they could have had the help of Theramenes and his associates in the trial, men who both were able orators and had many friends and, most important of all, had been participants in the events relative to the battle, they had them, on the contrary, as adversaries and bitter accusers.
[Diod. 13.101.4] For when the letters were read before the people, the multitude was at once angered at Theramenes and his associates, but after these had presented their defence, it turned out that their anger was directed again on the generals.
[Diod. 13.101.5] Consequently the people served notice on them of their trial and ordered them to turn over the command of the armaments to Conon, whom they freed of the responsibility, while they decreed that the others should report to Athens with all speed. Of the generals Aristogenes and Protomachus, fearing the wrath of the populace, sought safety in flight, but Thrasyllus and Calliades and, besides, Lysias and Pericles and Aristocrates sailed home to Athens with most of their ships, hoping that they would have their crews, which were numerous, to aid them in the trial.
[Diod. 13.101.6] When the populace gathered in the assembly, they gave attention to the accusation and to those who spoke to gratify them, but any who entered a defence they unitedly greeted with clamour and would not allow to speak. And not the least damaging to the generals were the relatives of the dead, who appeared in the assembly in mourning garments and begged the people to punish those who had allowed men who had gladly died on behalf of their country to go unburied.
[Diod. 13.101.7] And in the end the friends of these relatives and the partisans of Theramenes, being many, prevailed and the outcome was that the generals were condemned to death and their property confiscated.
[Diod. 13.102.1] After this action had been taken and while the generals were about to be led off by the public executioners to death, Diomedon, one of the generals, took the floor before the people, a man who was both vigorous in the conduct of war and thought by all to excel both in justice and in the other virtues. And when all became still, he said:
[Diod. 13.102.2] "Men of Athens, may the action which has been taken regarding us turn out well for the state but as for the vows which we made for the victory, inasmuch as Fortune has prevented our paying them, since it is well that you give thought to them, do you pay them to Zeus the Saviour and Apollo and the Holy Goddesses for it was to these gods that we made vows before we overcame the enemy."
[Diod. 13.102.3] Now after Diomedon had made this request he was led off to the appointed execution together with the other generals, though among the better citizens he had aroused great compassion and tears for that the man who was about to meet an unjust death should make no mention whatsoever of his own fate but on behalf of the state which was wronging him should request it to pay his vows to the gods appeared to be an act of a man who was god-fearing and magnanimous and undeserving of the fate that was to befall him.
[Diod. 13.102.4] These men, then, were put to death by the eleven magistrates who are designated by the laws, although far from having committed any crime against the state, they had won the greatest naval battle that had ever taken place of Greeks against Greeks and fought in splendid fashion in other battles and by reason of their individual deeds of valour had set up trophies of victories over their enemies.
[Diod. 13.102.5] To such an extent were the people beside themselves at that time, and provoked unjustly as they were by their political leaders, they vented their rage upon men who were deserving, not of punishment, but of many praises and crowns.
[Diod. 13.103.1] Soon, however, both those who had urged this action and those whom they had persuaded repented, as if the deity had become wroth with them for those who had been deceived got the wages of their error when not long afterwards they fell before the power of not one despot only but of thirty
[Diod. 13.103.2] and the deceiver, who had also proposed the measure, Callixenus, when once the populace had repented, was brought to trial on the charge of having deceived the people, and without being allowed to speak in his defence he was put in chains and thrown into the public prison and secretly burrowing his way out of the prison with certain others he managed to make his way to the enemy at Deceleia, to the end that by escaping death he might have the finger of scorn pointed at his turpitude not only in Athens but also wherever else there were Greeks throughout his entire life.

Xenophon paints more or less the same picture, but is quite more critical of Theramenes and Thrasybulus, and notes that the proceedings were rushed and the generals were not granted a full hearing:

[Xen. Hell. 1.7.5] After this the several generals spoke in their own defence (though briefly, for they were not granted the hearing prescribed by the law) and stated what they had done, saying that they themselves undertook to sail against the enemy and that they assigned the duty of recovering the shipwrecked to certain of the captains who were competent men and had been generals in the past,—Theramenes, Thrasybulus, and others of that sort
[Xen. Hell. 1.7.6] and if they had to blame any, they could blame no one else in the matter of the recovery except these men, to whom the duty was assigned. “And we shall not,” they added, “just because they accuse us, falsely say that they were to blame, but rather that it was the violence of the storm which prevented the recovery.”

Whatever happened, and whoever is to blame, all accounts seem to suggest that the trial was highly irregular, a product of the politically charged environment of the later half of the war. Trials of Athenian generals after significant defeats were not uncommon, and a notable example during the war is Thucydides exile, after he failed to reach Amphipolis in time. That said, during the war most Athenian generals that were involved in significant defeats died in battle (or were executed by their enemies shortly after), and thus it's not easy to assume a general reaction of the Athenians towards defeated generals. Interestingly Conon, who had failed in facing the Spartan fleet in Lesbos and later presided over the defeat at the Battle of Aegospotami, never faced charges.

The aftermath of the Battle of Arginusae is the only example of a trial of generals after a significant victory and along with the trial of Socrates are the two prime examples of questionable decisions by the Athenian judiciary.


Researchers locate Submerged Lost Ancient City where Athens and Sparta Fought a Battle

Researchers have found the location of the lost island city of Kane, known since ancient times as the site of a naval battle between Athens and Sparta in which the Athenians were victorious but later executed six out of eight of their own commanders for failing to aid the wounded and bury the dead.

Some historians say the loss of leadership may have contributed to Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War. But a scholar who wrote a book on the battle says the Spartans would have won whether or not Athens executed the generals.

The ancient city of Kane was on one of three Arginus Islands in the Aegean Sea off the west coast of Turkey. The exact location of the city was lost in antiquity because earth and silt displaced the water and connected the island to the mainland.

Geo-archaeologists working with other experts from Turkish and German institutions discovered Kane, where the Athens and Sparta did battle in 406 BC. Athens won the Battle of Arginusae, but its citizens tried and executed six of eight of the city-state’s victorious commanders.

Depiction of a battle between Athens and Sparta in the Great Peloponnese War, 413 BC. ( Image source )

“The Athenian people soon regretted their decision, but it was too late,” writes J. Rickard at History of War . “The execution of six victorious generals had a double effective—it removed most of the most able and experienced commanders, and it discouraged the survivors from taking command in the following year. This lack of experience may have played a part in the crushing Athenian defeat at Aegospotami that effectively ended the war.”

Debra Hamel, a classicist and historian who wrote the book The Battle of Arginusae, however, says she thinks Athens would have lost anyway.

“Sparta at that point was being funded by Persia, so they could replace ships and hire rowers indefinitely,” Dr. Hamel wrote to Ancient Origins in electronic messages. “Athens did not have those resources. Allies had revolted. They weren’t taking in the money they had in earlier days.”

Google Earth image shows the general vicinity of the islands, near Bademli Village in Turkey on the Aegean Sea.

Dr. Hamel, via e-mail, describes how the Battle of Arginusae was likely fought:

The Battle of Arginusae was only fought at sea. … The state-of-the-art vessel of the period was the trireme, a narrow ship about 120 feet [36.6 meters] long that was powered by 170 oarsmen, who sat in three rows on either side of the ship. There was a bronze-clad ram that extended about six and a half feet [2 meters] at waterline from the prow of the vessel. The purpose of the ram was to sink enemy ships. The goal of a ship's crew—the 170 oarsmen and various officers onboard—was to maneuver a trireme so that it was in position to punch a hole in the side of an enemy ship while avoiding getting rammed oneself. In order to do this you needed to have a fast ship--one that wasn't waterlogged or weighed down by marine growths--and you needed a well-trained crew.

Athens sent 150 ships, the Spartans 120. The Athenian line was about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long or longer because it was interrupted by one of the Arginusae islands. The Spartan line was a bit less than 1.5 miles [2.4 km] long, Dr. Hamel estimates.

Greek trireme, drawing by F. Mitchell note the battering ram on the prow to the right at the waterline. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Dr. Hamel’s book on the battle explores not just the battle but its aftermath too. Winning the battle “was a great triumph, saving Athens—at least temporarily—from almost certain defeat in the war,” she wrote in e-mail. “The victory was cause for celebration, but paradoxically, because of what happened afterwards, it was also one of the worst disasters to befall Athens in the war: A series of legal proceedings led ultimately to the Athenians' execution of (most of) their victorious generals. This was the stuff of tragedy.

Because the Battle of Arginusae is tied intimately with the legal proceedings that it led to, I was able to discuss in my book not only the battle itself and the intricacies of naval warfare (which are really very interesting), but also the proceedings back in Athens and Athens' democracy and democratic institutions. All of this was necessary to round out the story for readers who are approaching the book without any prior knowledge of the period.

Later, from 191 to 190 BC, Roman forces used the city of Kane’s harbor in the war against Antiochas III’s Seleucid Empire. That war lasted from 192 to 188 BC and ended when Antiochus capitulated to Rome’s condition that he evacuate Asia Minor. Most of Antiochus’ cities in Asia Minor had been conquered by the Romans anyway. He also agreed to pay 15,000 Euboeic talents. The Romans did not leave a garrison in Asia Minor but wanted a buffer zone on their eastern frontier.

The island on which Kane was situated, which is known from ancient historians’ texts, is in the sea off İzmir Province’s Dikili district Researchers, led by the German Archaeology Institute, included those from the cities of İzmir, Munich, Kiel, Cologne, Karlsruhe, Southampton and Rostock. Prehistorians, geographers, geophysics experts and topographers all worked on the project.

“During surface surveys carried out near Dikili’s Bademli village, geo-archaeologists examined samples from the underground layers and learned one of the peninsulas there was in fact an island in the ancient era, and its distance from the mainland was filled with alluviums over time,” reports Hurriyet Daily News . “Following the works, the quality of the harbors in the ancient city of Kane was revealed. Also, the location of the third island, which was lost, has been identified.”

Featured image: Main: Google Earth image shows the general vicinity of the islands, near Bademli Village in Turkey on the Aegean Sea. Inset: A representation of an ancient Greek ship on pottery (Photo by Poecus/ Wikimedia Commons )


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On the death of King Agis, Lysander was instrumental in Agis' brother Agesilaus being made king instead of Leontychides, who was popularly supposed to be Alcibiades' son rather than the king's. Lysander persuaded Agesilaus to mount an expedition to Asia to attack Persia, but when they arrived in the Greek Asian cities, Agesilaus grew jealous of the attention paid to Lysander and did everything he could to undermine Lysander's position. Finding himself unwanted there, Lysander returned to Sparta (396), where he may or may not have started a conspiracy to make the kingship elective amongst all Heraclidae or possibly all Spartiates, rather than confined to the royal families.

War broke out between Sparta and Thebes in 395, and Lysander was killed when his troops were surprised by a Theban ambush.