Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alcibiades' Brief Flash of Glory (411-406 BC)

Athens' victory at the Battle of Cynossema meant that they were not out of the game yet.  A defeat would have allowed the Spartans to close off all imports from the Black Sea and starve Athens into submission.  A victory meant only that that outcome was still in doubt, though by no means implausible.

A significant part of both navies remained outside the Propontis, in the southern Aegean. The Peloponnesian fleet in the Aegean set sail for the Propontis.  The Athenians sailed out to intercept them.  The outnumbered Peloponnesians were forced ashore while the bulk of the Peloponnesian fleet sailed out from Abdyos to their aid.  Battle ensued between the two fleets.   The outcome hung in the balance, but broke in favor of the Athenians when  Alcibiades arrived with 18 warships and raised his flag.  The Peloponnesians were then put to flight and the Athenians captured 18 ships according to Diodorus, or 30 according to  Xenophon and Plutarch.  The Peloponnesians returned to the safety of Abdyos.

Once again, Athens had won a victory that was more about staying in the game than advancing their position.  The next battle (410 B.C.) was a different matter.*  The Peloponnesians moved on to the city of Cyzicus.  Albiciades learned of this and, joined by Thrasybulus and Theramenes with their forces, concealed themselves  on the nearby island of Proconnesus.  Battle followed.  Xenophon's  account is that the Athenians were simply lucky enough to catch the Peloponnesian fleet out of harbor practicing maneuvers to be able to cut them off from returning to the safety of their harbor.  Plutarch and Diodorus say that Alcibiades sent out a smaller force out to lure the Peloponnesians away from the harbor and the bulk of his force behind them to cut off their escape. The Peloponnesians were forced ashore and joined the army commanded by the Persian satrap Pharnabazus.  The Athenians followed them ashore and the battle continued, with Mindarus, the Spartan admiral killed and the Pelponnesian forces ultimately put to flight after fierce fighting.  (Diodorus contains by far to most tactical details, for anyone who is interested).  The Athenians  captured all the Peloponnesian ships except the ones belonging to the Syracusapoint outed their ships to keep them from falling into enemy hands.  They also captured the prisoners, arms, and other wealth from the abandoned Peloponnesian camp.

This was an overwhelming victory.  Xenophon  quotes a captured Spartan dispatch, “The ships are gone. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We know not what to do.”**  The people of Cyzicus has little choice but to admit the Athenians, who took a large sum of money but did no further harm.  They also established a customs house at Chrysopolis and charged a tithe (10% tariff) on all traffic through the Black Sea.

Diodorus then reports that the Spartans, seeing their fleet destroyed altogether, made a peace mission. He even claims to quote his speech as delivered.  Neither Xenophon nor Plutarch mention such a proposal, but Aristotle confirms that there was some sort of a proposal.  The Spartans proposed to swap their outpost at Decelaea for the Athenians' outpost at Pylos, and for each side to otherwise keep what it had.  Although historians generally do not believe Diodorus quotes the actual speech given, its contents are certainly plausible and sensible.  The Spartans  that they are less harmed by the Athenian outpost on their territory than the Athenians by the Spartan outpost, and that they have all the resources of the Persian Empire at their disposal, while Athenian resources are dwindling fast. Time was not on Athens' side.  Diodorus considers the Athenians foolish to have listened to  Cleophon (Cleon's successor as the leading populist politician) and refused.  In the clear light of hindsight this is so.  But modern historians George Grote (pp. 346-349) and Donald Kagan (p. 251) emphasize that the decision was reasonable.  The map above contains a hint as to why.  Though Athens as established a custom house at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus, just below Chrysopolis lay the much larger and more important cities of Chalcedon and Byzantium, on opposite sides of the straits, and both hostile.  Other Peloponnesian outposts dotted the Propontis.  Athens remained highly vulnerable to having their supplies cut off.

Indeed, in the time immediately ensuing, the Athenian refusal to make peace seemed thoroughly vindicated.  With the Peloponnesian fleet out of the way, the Athenians proceeded to clean up the Propontis.  The Athenians sailed out against Chalcedon and Byzantium in 408 B.C.  The Chalcedonians deposited their movable property with allies, but Alcibiades seized it.  The Athenians moved to wall off Chalcedon.  Attempts by Spartan and Persian forces in the city to halt the wall were defeated.  Then, surprisingly, instead of pressing their advantage, the Athenians reached a negotiated peace on very mild terms.  They would call off the siege in return for Chalcedon resuming paying tribute (and presumably returning to the Athenian alliance), with the first payment to be made by the Persians.  The Athenians then moved on to besiege Byzantium.  Meanwhile, Alcibiades captured Selymbria "by betrayal" Diodorus says.  Plutarch gives rather more detail.  A party within the city had agreed to give a signal to come in.  One of the conspirators then wanted to back out, so the others gave the signal prematurely, fearing exposure if they did not.  Alcibiades  entered the city with a mere 30 men and met with resistance.  However, outside the city walls, he had Thracian mercenaries, and the Thracians were known as barbarians, not just in the original sense of not Greek, but in the later sense of not civilized.  Thucycides, for instance, describes Thracians, let loose, engaged in indiscriminate slaughter that made even the massacre at Melos seem mild by comparison.  So when Alcibiades agreed to keep his Thracians outside the Selymbria if the city would surrender, the Selymbrians soon agreed.  He then took a large sum of money and imposed a garrison, but did the city no further harm.  Likewise, at Byzantium.  The siege had cut off all supplies, and the remaining stores of food were going to the Peloponnesian army while civilians starved.  The Spartan commander was also unpleasant to deal with.  A  faction within  the  city agreed to deliver it to the Athenians provided the city would not be plundered.  Alcibiades was good as his word.  Although the Athenians met with resistance when the plotters let them in, Alcibiades persuaded the Byzantines to change sides by promising that they would not be harmed.  And, indeed, no one was executed or exiled.  The city was simply allowed to change alliances.  All captured Peloponnesians were sent prisoner to Athens unharmed.  It is these episodes that make me skeptical of attempts to blame the massacre at Melos on Alcibiades.  People often act inconsistently, of course, but aside from the fact that he was probably fighting in Argos at the time, Alcibiades' conduct when given a command of his own was a model of restraint.  Athens committed many atrocities in the war, but never under Alcibiades' command.

By this time, Diodorus comments, except for Abdyos, the Propontis was an Athenian lake. The Athenians also had some success following up outside the Propontis.  Thrasybulus retook Thasos (see map above) and much of Thrace.  When the Spartan king at Decelea tried to besiege Athens, he was easily repulsed and, seeing supplies sailing into the port, recognized that Athens could not be defeated until passage to the Black Sea was cut off.

Things were not going as well for Athens outside the northern theater.  The island of Euboea (Athens' favored source of food) had not only revolted but built a bridge to the mainland as protection from blockade. An attempt to  retake Ephesus failed with some 400 casualties.  Worst of all, the Spartans took advantage of the Athenians being concentrated on the Propontis to move against the garrison at Pylos, the Athenian foothold in the Peloponnese.  The Athenians sent a fleet under the command of General Antyus*** to the relief of Pylos, but it was unable to arrive because of a storm. Antyus was put on trial and escaped only by bribing the jury, the first to have done so.  The forces at Pylos were allowed to leave under truce, but Athens had lost the one thing absolutely vital to the Spartans that would form the most obvious basis for a peace.  And the Peloponnesian fleet was rebuilding.

Still given how dire Athens' situation was at the time Alcibiades assumed command and the remarkable string of victories he scored (the defeats all taking place in places where it was not commanding) would welcome him back despite his past treason.  He returned with some trepidation,  but in triumph, with 200 captured ships and many other spoils of war.  Oligarchs and democrats alike saw him as their champion in domestic politics.  The Athenians revoked the sentences and curses against him and restored his property.  Interestingly enough, according to Plutarch it was Critias*** who made the proposal to allow Alcibiades back.  If so, no other source mentions it.  He also celebrated the Eleusian Mysteries,  conducting the procession on land for the first time since Decelea was captured.  Although his doing so merely pointed up the fact that the Spartans still controlled the countryside; the procession required armed guard, so normality was by no means restored.

Did Alcibiades aspire to be a dictator?  If so, this was his best chance.  Such triumph as he had experienced and only create unrealistic expectations and set one up for a fall.  So it was to be.  After he was named supreme general all sources agree that he sailed to the island of Andros, which was in revolt, swept the countryside, drove all the people into the city walls, but sailed on without capturing the city.  He proceeded to Samos, the Athenian headquarters in the Aegean, just opposing the Peloponnesian headquarters at Ephesus.  There the Peloponnesians had their rebuilt fleet, now up to 90 ships and growing, under the command of an energetic new admiral named Lysander.***

Alcibiades left Samos for reasons that differ in each account, but all agree that he left his helmsman Antiochus in charge with strict orders not to engage the enemy until Alcibiades got back.  So what do you suppose Antiochus did?  He sailed forth to the enemy-held port of Notium with one other ship (according to Xenophon and Plutarch), or ten (according to Diodorus) and provoked an attack.  The Peloponnesians gave pursuit.  The Athenian fleet attempted to come to the rescue, but  haphazardly and ill prepared and therefore lost.  The Athenians lost 15 ships according to Xenophon, or 22 according to Diodorus.  Most of the men swam safely ashore, but Athens could ill afford the losses.  It was not a devastating defeat by any means, but at the time the Athenians had rung up three straight naval victories and were beginning to recover their reputation for invincibility.  This defeat put an end to that.

Diodorus also makes the allegation (not supported in any other source) that Alcibiades falsely accused the friendly city of Cyme of treachery so as to have an excuse to  plunder the countryside.  The Cymeans complained to Athens.  It is to this that Diodorus attributes the Athenians' election of ten generals who did not include Alcibiades.  Plutarch attributed it to slanders by an opponent.  Xenonphon merely attributes it to his defeat.  But in any event, the Athenians pointedly excluded Alcibiades from the list of generals they elected.  Diodorus adds that he was facing prosecution on  private matters as well.  Having now made enemies of all sides in the war, Alcibiades finally went into exile in a neutral area -- his private fortress in Thrace.  Thus did his brief burst of glory end in 406 B.C.

*It was somewhat delayed as Alcibiades went meet with Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap in the south and was imprisoned.  He soon escaped  and rejoined the Athenians.
**Xenophon offers this telegraph-like message as an example of the Laconic economy of style.  Others have cited it as an example of the low level of literacy among the Spartans.  For myself, I think it reflects mostly Spartan cryptography methods.  They would wind a strip of leather around a staff and write a message across the strip so that it would be meaningless to anyone who did not have a matching staff.  This necessarily limited the length of message they could encode.
***Watch this man.  He will be important.

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