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Xenophon on the fall of Athens

Corinthian helmet. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Corinthian helmet (British Museum)
In 405, the Spartan admiral Lysander defeated the Athenians at Aigospotamoi. This meant the end of the Peloponnesian War, because from now on, Athens no longer controlled the sea and could no longer import food supplies. The Spartan kings Pausanias and Agis II laid siege to the city and Lysander blocked its port. There were tens of thousands of hungry people, and in the end, it was decided to surrender.

The moderate leader Theramenes was sent out to negotiate. When he had reached Sparta, the Spartans organized a peace congress in which all Greek towns were allowed to speak. Announcing it, inviting the ambassadors, waiting for their arrival, and the congress itself must have taken at least two months. Meanwhile, the Athenians were starving, which did little for Theramenes' bargaining position.

The story is told by the Athenian historian Xenophon (430-c.354) describes the negotiations, the terms, and their acceptance by the Athenian Assembly in his Hellenica. The translation of 2.2.19-23 was made by Rex Warner.

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Bust of Xenophon from Aphrodisias (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Xenophon, herm from Aphrodisias

At Sellasia [1] Theramenes and the other ambassadors were asked to define the purpose of their mission. They replied that they had come with full powers to treat for peace, and the ephors [2] then gave orders that they should be summoned to Sparta. On their arrival the ephors called an assembly at which many Greek states, and in particular the Corinthians and Thebans, opposed making any peace with Athens. The Athenians, they said, should be destroyed.

The Spartans, however, said they would not enslave a Greek city which had done such great things for Greece at the time of supreme danger.[3] They offered to make peace on the following terms:

  • the Long walls and the fortifications of Piraeus must be destroyed;
  • all ships except twelve surrendered;
  • the exiles to be recalled;
  • Athens to have the same enemies and the same friends as Sparta had and to follow Spartan leadership in any expedition Sparta might make either by land or sea.[4]
Theramenes and his fellow ambassadors brought these terms back to Athens. Great masses of people crowded round them as they entered the city, for it was feared that they might have come back unsuccessful and it was impossible to delay any longer because of the numbers who were dying of hunger.

Next day the ambassadors reported to the Assembly the terms on which Sparta was prepared to make peace. Theramenes made the report and spoke in favor of accepting the Spartan terms and tearing down the walls. Some people spoke in opposition, but many more were in favor and so it was decided to accept the peace.

After this, Lysander sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of the freedom for Greece.

Note 1:
The first town one reached when one traveled to Sparta.

Note 2:
Spartan magistrates.

Note 3:
A reference to the Athenian role in the Persian Wars.

Note 4:
In other words, Athens had to give up its own foreign policy.

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