Saturday, December 19, 2015

Athens in 406 BC: From the Dismissal of Alcibiades to Athens' Last Victory

With the defeat at Notium and the dismissal of Alcibiades, the Athenians' fortunes began to decline. Their string of victories had been broken and their aura of invincibility at sea had taken a hit.  The year 406 B.C. would be the Athenians' last hurrah and also their disgrace, one final, seemingly impossible come-from-behind victory, followed by the second of only two really destructive outbreaks of punching up by the Athenians.  (The other, of course, was the moral panic that followed the vandalism of the herms).

The Spartan admiral who defeated the Athenians at Notium was Lysander, a mothax, i.e., the son of a citizen father and non-citizen mother, who by dint of extraordinary ambition managed to be the gay lover (in the senior role!) of the king's younger son and to take command of the Peloponnesian fleet.  Plutarch wrote a biography of Lysander, who he compared to Sulla.  I am not quite sure of the reason for the comparison.  Was Plutarch looking for two straight-up villains or tyrants to compare?  In his comparison, Plutarch praises Lysander for his strict moderation in his appetites and lack of petty vices, while Sulla lived like some decadent Roman Emperor.  And it is reasonable to distrust petty vices in rulers.  A heavy drinker may make important decisions while drunk, which calls his judgment into question.  A swinger often thinks with the wrong organ and sometimes even resorts to rape.  One overly fond of luxury may be tempted by bribes, or may resort to nefarious means to acquire wealth.  Ah, but then there is the leader with no petty vices but only great ones, the one indifferent to the fleshly temptations of food, drink, sex or wealth, whose sole passion is raw, unrelenting lust for power.  Such a one was Lysander.

Lysander appears to have taken command of the Peloponnesian fleet in 407 B.C. He  befriended Cyrus the Younger, the king's son now acting as satrap in the south and eager to do all he could to contribute to a Spartan victory.  He made a favorable impression on the young prince when Cyrus asked Lysander what was his fondest request and Lysander asked nothing for himself, but only an increase in his men's pay.  He gives a favorable impression to us as well.  Rather less favorable are his intrigues, as he raised funds from rich and audacious men, promising to install them as governing decarchies (juntas of ten) once the Athenians were overthrown.

Also despicable were his intrigues when he was replaced.  (Spartan admirals were only allowed to serve a single one-year term).  Lysander's replacement, Callicratidas, was a different sort altogether. Scrupulously just and incorruptible, Callicratides was not one to condone schemes to empower a few grasping men, so naturally Lysander's co-conspirators were none too pleased with the replacement.  Lysander returned the funds Cyrus had given him for his sailors and left Callicratides without means to pay them!  He also arrogantly boasted that he was master of the seas because of his victory at Notium and did his best to stir up discontent against him.  Callicratidas, in turn,  deeply resented having to beg a Persian prince for money to fight his fellow Greeks and made clear that when he returned home he would seek a reconciliation between the sides.  He nonetheless fought well, capturing the Island of Delphinium and the City of Teos (see map above) before heading north to the island of Lesbos.

Callicratidas sailed against Methymna, in northern Lesbos.  When Mytilene (on the opposite side of Lesbos) led a revolt earlier in the war, Methymna was the only city on Lesbos not to join in. The revolt was defeated and Mytilene forcibly returned to the Athenian alliance.  Methymna, presumably a democracy and housing an Athenian garrison, had quietly remained an Athenian ally until then, but Callicratidas captured it, by storm, according to Xenophon; by treachery, according to Diodorus.  In either event, Callicratidas carried off the city's movable wealth, including slaves, but declined a request by allied to sell the citizens as slaves as well.  Callicratidas proudly proclaimed that so long as he was commander, no Greek would be enslaved if he could help it.  This did not prevent him from selling the Athenian garrison as slaves, however.

I should add here that George Grote (pp. 386-389) sees this as a gesture of extraordinary magnanimity against the usual practice.  That seems a stretch, to put it mildly,  Mass enslavement of citizens appears to ha been rare and generally recognized (along with massacre and mass deportation) as an atrocity.  So no special points to Callicratidas for refraining from mass enslavement, though some for being the first to enunciate that Greeks should never enslave each other.  Nor should any points be scored against him for plundering the city, which does appear to have been the standard practice of the time, and a routine means of financing war operations.  Indeed, when any general refrained from plundering a city, such as Brasidas at Amphipolis or Alcibiades at Byzantium, his restraint was considered remarkable.*

In any event, Callicratidas sent a message to Conon, the Athenian admiral, telling him to cease his adulterous affair with the sea, which Callicratidas was claiming as his wife.  Considering that Athens' winning streak had only recently ended, it was a most arrogant and provocative message.  But it was true that Athens' resources were running low.  Conon, starting out with 100 ships, had winnowed them down to 70, apparently considering 30 of his ships or their crews as of such poor quality as not to be worth having.  Given the evidence throughout the war that even a small edge in numbers could be an important advantage, this speaks very poorly of the materials he had to work with.

In any event, Conon, unable to relieve Methymna, set sail for Mytilene.  The Peloponnesians  captured 30 ships of his small fleet, but the other 40 escaped to Mytilene, where they were  blockaded and settled in for a siege.  Conon sent out two ships to seek reinforcements, one of which reached Athens with the news.

The Athenians recognized just how dire the situation was.  Their fleet was down to 70 ships, of which 30 had been captured or destroyed and 40 were holed up in Mytilene.  If the siege of Mytilene was successful, they would lose their navy altogether, their ability to maintain and empire, and even their ability to import food.  Their city would be blockaded and quickly starved into submission.  Faced with such an emergency, they made remarkable use of fast-dwindling resources.  They somehow managed to scrape together a last 110 ships, as well as 30 from the allies and 10 from Samos, for a total fleet of 150 ships.  (Diodorus, perhaps more plausibly, puts the numbers at 60 ships raised at home, 80 from allies and 10 from Samos, also for a total of 150).  As for crews, the Athenians accepted any able-bodied male of military age, from aristocrats to slaves, offering citizenship to any metic or foreigner who signed up.  With hastily assembled ships and inexperienced crews, the Athenian navy had fallen a long way from its glory days even a few years earlier.

The hastily assembled fleet reached Arginusae, on the mainland across from Mytilene, in remarkable time.  Callicratidas left his second-in-command to continue the siege with 50 ships and set out with 120.  Diodorus puts the number at 140.  Either way the Peloponnesians had a slight disadvantage in numbers, but an advantage in quality of ships and crews.  With nearly 300 ships, this was the largest battle yet seen of Greeks against Greeks.  The Athenians appear to have made good use of their superior numbers to split the Peloponnesian fleet and force it to fight two separate battles.  Battle was long and hard, but Callicratidas was killed, leading to panic in his wing.  The other wing was then  badly outnumbered and had no chance.

Xenophon puts the total losses of the Athenians at 25 ships out of 150; of the Spartans 9 out of 10 ships, and of the other Peloponnesians 60 ships (apparently out of 110).  Diodorus puts Athenian losses at 25 and Peloponnesian losses at 76.  So the Peloponnesians were left with a fleet of 51 to 64 ships -- plus to 40 to 50 left at Myteline.  If these could be kept from escaping, the Peloponnesian fleet could be considered crippled; if they escaped it would continue to be viable.  Clearly the Athenians' priority would have to sail for Mytilene to capture the forces remaining.  Except there were survivors of the sunken ships to be rescued, and bodies to be retrieved for burial.  Normally when Greek ships sank, the crews would swim to shore.  It is not clear why they did not do so in this case.  Maybe they were too far from shore to reach it.  Maybe many of the inexperienced crews could not swim.  Maybe the sea was too rough for them.  Certainly some were wounded.  And then there were the bodies.  Every account of a battle is followed by the victors granting the defeated a truce to retrieve their dead, showing how important this was to the Greeks.  Be that as it may, Thrasybulus  and Theramenes, who had won glorious victories working with Alcibiades, had now been demoted from admiral to ship's captain (presumably because of their association with the disgraced Alcibiades) and were tasked with the rescue and retrieval of the bodies, while the others were to proceed to Mytilene to keep the remaining Peloponnesians from escaping.  As it happened, a severe storm came up and prevented them from achieving either.  The siege was lifted, but the  Peloponnesians at Mytilene escaped and were able to maintain a viable fleet.

And then, according to Aristotle, the Spartans made an offer of peace, proposing to withdraw from Decelea and otherwise each side keep what it had, but Cleophon persuaded the assembly to reject to offer by appearing in the Assembly drunk, dressed in armor, refusing to settle for anything less than total victory.  No other source mentions any such offer, but Diodorus mentions such an offer about four years earlier, after the Athenians had destroyed the Peloponnesian fleet altogether, and still had an outpost in the Peloponnese to trade for Decelea.  Here, too, the proposal was for each side to keep what it had, but Cleophon insisted on total victory.  This has led most modern historians to conclude that there was only one such offer, and that Aristotle misdated it.  Certainly Diodorus' timing of the offer is more plausible.  Diodorus places the offer at a time when the Peloponnesian fleet had been destroyed altogether and they might seriously doubt their ability to recover, when each power had an outpost on the other's territory to trade, and when leaving the status quo otherwise in place would leave the Athenians in a very vulnerable position.  At the same time, the Athenian victory had been so overwhelming that winning back all they had lost seemed possible, and they did, in fact, take advantage of their position to recover a great deal.  By this point in the war, the momentum had clearly shifted.  The Peloponnesians, with the resources of the Persians at their disposal, had recovered from losing one fleet, and could reasonably expect to recover from this serious but still lesser defeat.  Withdrawing from Decelea would be a unilateral withdrawal with nothing in return. Athens was in a  much stronger position territorially, having control of the Propontis and most of the north.  And at the same time they had tapped out their last resources had had nothing to fall back on in case of another defeat.  To refuse the earlier offer of peace was controversial but defensible; to refuse at this point was little short of madness.

I am thus inclined to agree with most modern historians that there was only one peace offer, and that Aristotle has misplace it.  Donald Kagan dissents, accepting the second offer as genuine.  As for why the Athenians so rashly rejected it, he can only suggest that it was because the previous peace fell apart so quickly when the Spartans failed to deliver on their promises.  Except that the reason they failed to deliver was that the previous peace contained too many moving parts.  It relied on promising actions by allies, who refused to cooperate.  This time, peace was to be based on each side holding on to what it had (except Decelea, which the Spartans had and were able to hand over).  There were no moving parts to fail.  Besides, even if the peace were to fail, a few years' .respite could have made an immense difference to an exhausted country.

And if the Athenians did, in fact, refuse an offer of peace, their folly would become clear almost immediately.

But first to want to discuss the seriously destructive episode of punching up that followed the battle, and a grave blemish on the democracy's record -- the trial of the generals who won it.

*There is some reason to believe that a city taken by force might be plundered but one that surrendered could not, hence Thucydides' shock when the city Mende opened its gates to the Athenians, but they proceeded to plunder it "as if it had been stormed."  It seems likely that many so-called traitors who opened the city's gates to a besieging army were actually people who calculated their city had lost and were seeking the best terms possible.

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