Battle of Aegospotami

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The Battle of Aegospotami was the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War. In the battle, a Spartan fleet under Lysander completely destroyed the Athenian navy. This effectively ended the Peloponnesian War, since Athens could not import grain or communicate with its empire without control of the sea.

Prelude

Lysander's campaigns

In 405 BC, following the severe Spartan defeat at the Battle of Arginusae, Lysander, the commander who had been responsible for the first Spartan naval successes, was reinstated in command. Since the Spartan constitution prohibited any commander from holding the office of navarch more than once, he was appointed as a vice-admiral instead, with the obvious understanding that he was to command.

One of Lysander's advantages as a commander was his close relationship with the Persian prince Cyrus. Using this connection, he quickly raised the money to begin rebuilding the Spartan fleet. When Cyrus was recalled to Susa by his father Darius, he took the unorthodox step of appointing Lysander as satrap of Asia Minor. With the resources of this entire wealthy Persian province at his disposal, Lysander was able to quickly reconstitute his fleet.

He then set off on a series of campaigns throughout the Aegean. He seized several Athenian-held cities, and attacked numerous islands. He was unable to move north to the Hellespont, however, because of the threat from the Athenian fleet at Samos. To divert the Athenians, Lysander struck westward. Approaching quite near to Athens itself, he attacked Aegina and Salamis, and even landed in Attica. The Athenian fleet set out in pursuit, but Lysander sailed around them, reached the Hellespont, and established a base at Abydos. From there, he seized the strategically important town of Lampsacus. From here, the way was open to enter the Bosporus and close down the trade routes from which Athens received the majority of her grain. If the Athenians were going to avoid starvation, Lysander needed to be contained immediately.

Athenian response

The Athenian fleet caught up with Lysander shortly afer he had taken Lampsacus, and established a base at Sestos. However, perhaps because of the need to keep a close watch on Lysander, they set up camp on a beach much nearer to Lampsacus. The location was less than ideal because of the lack of a harbor and the difficulty of supplying the fleet, but proximity seems to have been the primary concern in the minds of the Athenian generals. Every day, the fleet sailed out to Lampsacus in battle formation, and waited outside the harbor; when Lysander refused to emerge, they returned home.

Alcibiades's involvement

At this time, the exiled Athenian leader Alcibiades was living in a castle quite near the Athenian camp. Coming down to the beach where the ships were gathered, he made several suggestions to the generals. First, he proposed relocating the fleet to the more secure base at Sestos. Second, he claimed that several Thracian kings had offered to provide him with an army. If the generals would offer him a share of the command, he claimed that he would use this army to assist the Athenians. The generals, however, declined this offer and rejected his advice, and Alcibiades returned home.

The battle

Two accounts of the battle of Aegospotami exist. Diodorus Siculus relates that the Athenian general in command on the fifth day at Sestos, Philocles, sailed out with thirty ships, ordering the rest to follow him[1]. Donald Kagan has argued that the Athenian strategy, if this account is accurate, must have been to draw the Peloponnesians into an attack on the small force so that the larger force following could surprise them[2]. In the event, the small force was immediately defeated, and the remainder of the fleet was caught unprepared on the beach.

Xenophon, on the other hand, relates that the entire Athenian fleet came out as usual on the day of the battle, and Lysander remained in the harbor. When the Athenians returned to their camp, the sailors scattered to forage for food; Lysander's fleet then sailed across from Abydos, and captured most of the ships on the beach, with no sea fighting at all[3].

Whichever account of the battle itself is accurate, the result is clear. The Athenian fleet was obliterated; only nine ships escaped, led by the general Conon. Lysander captured nearly all of the remainder, along with some three or four thousand Athenian sailors. Of the escaped ships, the messenger ship Paralus, was dispatched to inform Athens of the disaster. The rest, with Conon, sought refuge with a friendly ruler in Cyprus.

Aftermath

Lysander and his victorious fleet sailed back to Abydos. There, the thousands of Athenian prisoners were executed. He then began moving slowly towards Athens, capturing cities along the way. The Athenians, with no fleet, were powerless to oppose him. Only at Samos did Lysander meet resistance; the democratic government there, fiercely loyal to Athens, refused to give in, and Lysander left a besieging force behind him.

Xenophon reports that when the news of the defeat reached Athens,

a sound of wailing ran from Piraeus through the long walls to the city, one man passing on the news to another; and during that night no one slept, all mourning, not for the lost alone, but far more for their own selves[4].

Fearing the retribution that the victorious Spartans might take on them, the Athenians resolved to hold out, but their cause was hopeless. After a siege, the city surrendered in March 404 BC. The walls of the city were demolished, and a pro-Spartan oligarchic government was established. The Spartan victory at Aegospotami marked the end of 27 years of war, and placed Sparta in a position of complete dominance throughout the Greek world and established a political order that would last for more than thirty years.

References


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