Friday, October 2, 2015

Athens: Meanwhile, Back at the Fleet

As we last left Athens, it was in dire straits.  The Spartans held a fortress only a few miles away and were marauding the countryside, cutting off overland food supplies and forcing the city to be under constant guard.  The island of Euboea had revolted, cutting off the city's main local source of food, meaning that all food had to be imported by sea.  And just as control of the sea had reached the highest importance, the fleet had mutinied because of an oligarchic revolution and was no longer taking orders from the city.  The coup had just been defeated, but Athens' last naval resources had been depleted, leaving only  twenty ships to keep the port open.

But in the meantime the navy, across the Aegean, was preparing to get back on the scoreboard again.

Tissaphernes, the Persian Satrap in the south was either stinting the Peloponnesian forces' pay or not paying at all, constantly promising the Phoenician fleet would come to their aid but failing to deliver, trying to play the Greeks off against each other and wear both sides down.  Such a game could only go undetected for so long.  They were becoming increasingly restive, on the verge of mutiny, the the corrupt admiral who had been bribed to allow this situation was replaced.  Meanwhile, the northern Satrap, Pharnabazus, was offering real assistance.  So the Peloponnesian fleet decamped  and headed north, to that strategic passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea that we call the  Dardanelles and the Greeks called the Hellespont.  That waterway would be the main theater of the war from then on.  Already a small fleet had arrived in the Hellespont and was stirring up revolts.  In the south, Alcibiades took advantage of the withdrawal of the Peloponnesian fleet to secure the southern city of Halicarnassus and the island of Cos.


Thrasybulus, the Athenian commander at Samos, became aware of this movement and pursued.  Thucydides details this game place by place, but the details need not concern us.  What is important is that Greek ships were too narrow and crowded to allow for long voyages, so they had to hug the shore, frequently stopping to eat or sleep, but nonetheless moved much faster than they could ever move over land, and that both fleets arrived arrived at the Hellespont and set up camp across the straits from each other.  (My rough approximation of their trajectory is below).  The two fleets met at Cynossema.*  Battle ensued, and the Athenians were  victorious.  The battle was not particularly important strategically, but it served as a much-needed morale booster for the navy.  When word of the victory was sent back home, it served as a morale booster there as well.  It proved that the navy had not deserted, and that it was back on the score board.

Tissaphernes now realized that he had overplayed his hand.  He headed north to see if he could persuade the thoroughly disgruntled and disgusted Peloponnesians to come back.  The history there abruptly ends with, "He first went to Ephesus, and there offered sacrifice to Artemis."  The ending is so abrupt that we can almost see Thucydides having a heart attack in mid-sentence.  Indeed, one tradition holds that he was murdered.

Shocking and sudden though the end is, it is at a relatively good place for someone tracing the failures of democracy.  The oligarchic coup had just been defeated, and the democracy had just begun to open some hope in the war.  So I will follow with my standard analysis of failures of democracy, and then give Ancient Greece a break for a time as I read up on what happened next.

*The name means Tomb of the She-Dog and was said to be the burial place of Hecuba, queen of Troy.  According to legend, after Troy fell and Hecuba was taken as a slave she either was transformed into a female dog, or lost her mind and thought she was a dog.

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