Such, then, was the trial of the generals, which Athenians soon came to recognize was a disgrace to their city. Given the contradictory accounts of Xenophon and Diodorus, modern historians struggle mightily to figure out what actually happened, with a large measure of conjecture in all cases. There are many such accounts; I have read two, George Grote (pp. 401-428) and Donald Kagan.
Xenophon and Diodorus only directly contradict each other in one particular. According to Xenophon, the generals originally prepared a dispatch blaming Theramenes and Thrasybulus for the failed rescue, but were persuaded by two of their number to blame only the storm, and that Theramenes ignored their generosity and began agitating the people against the generals, apparently without provocation. Interestingly enough, Xenophon later contradicts himself and has Theramenes argue that he blamed the generals only in self-defense when they accused him, and that really only the storm was to be blamed. Does Xenophon contradict himself, or is he trying to show Theramenes up as a sleazy, slippery liar? Diodorus, by contrast, says the generals blamed Thrasybulus and Theramenes in their report and thereby forced them to testify against the generals in self-defense. Both Kagan and Grote attempt the resolve the contradiction by saying that there were two separate reports. In their initial dispatch the generals blamed only the storm, but as the mood became uglier, they began blaming the captains -- in unofficial, private letters according to Grote, in a second official dispatch, guesses Kagan. Both also dismiss as implausible Xenophon's account that Theramenes had supporters dress in mourning and impersonate the relatives of the dead. It does, indeed, sound far-fetched. The actual relatives of the dead had quite enough to be upset about, and such subterfuge would have been easily seen through. Nor does it make any sense for Theramenes to keep anger stirred up, when it was in his interest no less than the generals' for it to die down. As for the disgraceful details of the trial, they come entirely from Xenophon, so there is no need to harmonize accounts.
The real subject they speculate most about is why they failed to rescue the survivors and retrieve the dead. Were they culpable, or could their failure realistically be blamed on the storm? Or, put differently, was this simply mob justice, or were the Athenians substantively right, though procedurally inexcusable? Grote, always eager to champion democracy and the wisdom of the Athenian demos, argues that they were justified in their anger at the generals. How could the storm have been severe enough to prevent either rescue or pursuit, he argues, while not so severe as to keep the Peloponnesians from escaping? For a navy to fail to rescue is shipwrecked comrades is inexcusable unless the storm is very severe indeed. The Athenians were justified in their anger, though not in denying the generals a proper trial. But his attempt to excuse the Athenians people by blaming the navy, either officers or rank-and-file, fails. After all, who were the rank-and-file but ordinary Athenians, no different than the men in the Assembly? And who were the admirals but leading democratic politicians, elected by their fellow citizens at least in part for their defense of democracy against the oligarchic coup. If the failure to rescue was the failing of Athenian sailors and admirals, then it was also the failure of the Athenian people and their elected officials.
Kagan takes a different approach. He suggests that the admirals were unprepared for the situation they had to face -- relieving the siege at Mytilene and mounting a rescue operation. Inexperienced and unsure of themselves, they wasted time working out the plan and by the time they had divided the forces, the Peloponnesians had escaped and the storm had become too severe to permit rescue.* This is partially supported by Xenonphon. The reports that in the speech by the generals' defender that the generals were divided, with Diomedon wanting to mount a rescue, Erasinides wanting to go straight to Mytilene, and Thrasyllus proposing to split their forces and do both. His plan sounds like a poor one -- taken three ships from each of the eight generals' divisions, plus ten from the Samians, plus 13 from lesser offers, to a total of 47 to conduct the rescue and the others to head to Mytilene. One can well imagine such a complicated maneuver would have delayed either operation until the storm made them impossible. Kagan also suggests that both Thrasybulus and Theramenes, experience admirals responsible for some of Athen's major victories, resented getting stuck with the rescue and thought that their superiors badly botched the job. This, together with fear of being blamed for the failed rescue, would have led for them to be eager to see the generals tried and executed as quickly as possible, even by an unconstitutional procedure, before they would have the chance to blame the captains. Kagan appears to assume that Thrasybulus and Theramenes were equally responsible in blaming the generals. It is hard to tell what Thrasybulus' role in all this was. Xenophon clearly blames Theramenes only. Accurate, or a whitewash of Thrasybulus in light of his later heroism? (Which we shall learn of later).
As for me, I will leave such attempts at reconstruction to the experts. My main interest is whether this episode played a significant role in the failure of the democracy. And my answer has to be a yes and no. I have previously suggested the the moral panic following the vandalism of the herms may have played an important role in turning many of Athens' leading citizens against the democracy. The sight of leading citizens arrested and threatened with torture and death on the word of metics, slaves, women and scoundrels and never knowing how far the panic would spread must have had a disillusioning effect. A number of the people arrested in the moral panic turn up on the list of ones who later overthrew the democracy. The execution of the generals, by contrast was not a true moral panic, i.e., it was limited to a few specific men and not in danger of spreading, except, perhaps, to Thrasybulus and Theramenes. Certainly it was not a case of leading citizens living in fear, never knowing when suspicion might fall on them. On the other hand, despite the out-of-control number of arrests following the vandalism of the herms, all or nearly all of the people actually executed were (probably) actually guilty of a sacrilege that would have been seen at the time as properly a capital crime. The generals were guilty, at worst, of poor organization. And while many of the men arrested over the herms may have been targeted because of suspected oligarchic sympathies, the generals were loyal democrats. Although exiles would soon return to establish a narrow and tight oligarchy, there is nothing to suggest that either of the ones who fled played any role whatever in the oligarchy. Conon would to on to do the democracy great service. And as for the mysterious Leon, who disappeared at Mytilene -- well his fate is unknown, but speculation will follow.
But while there is nothing to suggest that the trial of the generals disillusioned any leading Athenians so as to turn them against the democracy, it may, perhaps, have contributed to Athens' defeat the following year.
*Unfortunately, the online version has enough pages omitted to make it difficult to tell all the details of what Kagan is saying.