Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Athens: A Recap and Setting of the Stage

 When we last left Athens, the year was 411 B.C., and the city was in desperate straits.  The Spartans had seized the fortress of Deceleia only a few miles from the city, so that all the population took refuge within the city walls and farming came to an end.  The nearby island of Euboea had revolted and removed another major source of food.  All of which meant that all of Athens' food had to be imported from overseas. Most of it was grown around the Black Sea, which made control of access to that sea vitally important to the beleaguered city.

The opening of the Black Sea is a narrow straits called the Bosporus, which was then guarded by the twin cities of  Chalcedon and Byzantium.  On the other side of the Bosporus lies a small sea which we call the Marmara and the Greeks called the Propontis, the sea before the Pontus (the Greek name for the Black Sea).  And between the Propontis/Marmara and the Aegean is a long, narrow passage that we call the Dardanelles and the Greeks called the Hellespont.  The famous city of Troy lay at the opening of the Hellespont; modern historians generally assume that the Trojan War was fought for control of that strategic waterway. The last phase of the Peloponnesian War would be fought for it as well.

Greek Colonies
The Greeks, it should be noted, had colonies around the Black Sea as well, but the war did not extend so far.  The mainland Greeks never sought to extend their influence beyond Byzantium.

To recap, the Spartans had slipped by the Athenians in the Aegean and gotten into the Propontis, where they were setting off revolts that threatened Athens' food supply, its ability to continue the war, and quite possibly its survival.  The Athenians had set up their base in Sestos on the northern shore and the Spartans at Abdyos on the southern shore.

The three main Athenian admirals were  Alcibiades,  Thrasybulus, and Theramenes, all of whom had played important roles in the recent overthrow of the democracy.  Alcibiades, in exile, had approached the Athenian fleet and offered Persian assistance if they would suspend the democracy and place him in command.  Although it soon became apparent that he could not deliver, the conspirators nonetheless overthrew the democracy and replaced it with a narrow and tight oligarchy.
Among the oligarchs was Theramenes.  But he belonged to the moderate wing, who wished a broader, looser oligarchy, under the general rule of law and became alarmed when the hardliners appeared ready to commit treason to maintain their power.  It was he who rallied the Athenians against the oligarchy at home and overthrew it.  While in the fleet, Thrasybulus, a ship captain, was promoted to admiral and joined forces with Alcibiades to rally the fleet against the oligarchy.  While Alcibiades gathered his forces in the southern Aegean, Thrasybulus sailed the bulk of the fleet into the Hellespont and won the Battle of Cynossema.  It was there that Thucydides ends, and there that I found a convenient break as well.

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