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Xenophon on the battle of Aigospotamoi


Corinthian helmet. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Corinthian helmet (British Museum)
In 405, the Spartan admiral Lysander defeated and destroyed the Athenian navy 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 Aigospotamoi campaign started when Lysander was able to reach the Hellespont earlier than the Athenian navy. He occupied Lampsacus, and the Athenian commander Conon organized his base at Sestus, which was too far away to keep an eye on Lysander. The Spartan admiral could, therefore, decide to move to the Bosphorus at any moment he liked; in that case, he would capture Calchedon and Byzantium, and could cut off the Athenian food supply. To prevent this, the Athenians were forced to base themselves near the Aigospotamoi ("goat's rivers"), and bring their food from Sestus. Their position was far from easy, and Lysander knew how to exploit it.

For four days, he allowed the Athenians to offer battle, but refused every time. On the fifth day, when the Athenians returned to their base at Aigospotamoi and scattered to find food, Lysander unexpectedly attacked. Hundred and seventy Athenian ships were burned.

The story is told by the Athenian historian Xenophon (430-c.354) describes the battle in his Hellenica. The translation of 2.1.15-29 and 2.2.3-4 was made by Carleton L. Brownson. A satellite photo of the area can be found here.

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

Lysander, when Cyrus had thus given over to him all his money and set out, in response to the summons, to visit his sick father,[1] distributed pay to his men and set sail to the Ceramic Gulf, in Caria. There he attacked a city named Cedreiae, an ally of the Athenians, and on the second day's assault captured it by storm and reduced the inhabitants to slavery; they were a mixture of Greek and barbarian blood. Thence he sailed away to Rhodes.

As for the Athenians, they harried the territory of the King, using Samos as a base, and sailed against Chios and Ephesus; they were also making their preparations for battle, and had chosen three generals in addition to the former number: Menander, Tydeus, and Cephisodotus.

Meanwhile Lysander sailed from Rhodes along the coast of Ionia to the Hellespont, in order to prevent the passing out of the grain ships and to take action against the cities which had revolted from the Spartans. The Athenians likewise set out thither from Chios, keeping to the open sea; for Asia was hostile to them. But Lysander coasted along from Abydus to Lampsacus, which was an ally of the Athenians; and the people of Abydus and the other cities were at hand on the shore to support him, being commanded by Thorax, a Spartan. Then they attacked the city and captured it by storm, whereupon the soldiers plundered it. It was a wealthy city, full of wine and grain and all other kinds of supplies. But Lysander let go all the free persons who were captured.

Now the Athenians had been sailing in the wake of Lysander's fleet, and they anchored at Elaeus, in the Chersonese, with 180 ships. While they were breakfasting there, the news about Lampsacus was reported to them, and they set out immediately to Sestus. From there, as soon as they had provisioned, they sailed to Aegospotamoi, which is opposite Lampsacus, the Hellespont at this point being about 2 kilometer wide. There they took dinner.[2]


Aigospotamoi. Photo Jona Lendering.
Aigospotamoi

And during the ensuing night, when early dawn came, Lysander gave the signal for his men to take breakfast and embark upon their ships, and after making everything ready for battle and stretching the side screens, he gave orders that no one should stir from his position or put out. At sunrise the Athenians formed their ships in line for battle at the mouth of the harbor. Since, however, Lysander did not put out against them, they sailed back again, when it grew late in the day, to Aegospotamoi. Thereupon Lysander ordered the swiftest of his ships to follow the Athenians and, when they had disembarked, to observe what they did, and then to sail back and report to him; and he did not disembark his men from their vessels until these scout-ships had returned.

 
This he did for four days; and the Athenians continued to sail out and offer battle. Meantime Alcibiades, who could discern from his castle that the Athenians were moored on an open shore,[3] with no city near by, and were fetching their provisions from Sestus, a distance of 2 kilometer from their ships, while the enemy, being in a harbor and near a city, had everything needful, told the Athenians that they were not moored in a good place, and advised them to shift their anchorage to Sestus and thus gain a harbor and a city, "for if you are there," he said, "you will be able to fight when you please." The generals, however, and especially Tydeus and Menander, bade him be gone; for they said that they were in command now, not he. So he went away.

And now Lysander, on the fifth day the Athenians sailed out against him, told his men, who followed them back, that as soon as they saw that the enemy had disembarked and had scattered up and down the Chersonese -and the Athenians did this far more freely every day, not only because they bought their provisions at a distance, but also because they presumed to think lightly of Lysander for not putting out to meet them- they were to sail back to him and to hoist a shield when midway in their course. And they did just as he had ordered.

Straightway Lysander gave a signal to his fleet to sail with all speed, and Thorax with his troops went with the fleet.

Now when Conon saw the oncoming attack, he signaled the Athenians to hasten with all their might to their ships. But since his men were scattered here and there, some of the ships had but two banks of oars manned, some but one, and some were entirely empty; Conon's own ship, indeed, and seven others accompanying him, which were fully manned, put to sea in close order, and the Paralus [4] with them, but all the rest Lysander captured on the beach. He also gathered up on the shore most of the men of their crews; some, however, gained the shelter of the neighboring strongholds.

But when Conon, fleeing with his nine ships, realized that the Athenian cause was lost, he put in at Abarnis, the promontory of Lampsacus, and there seized the cruising sails that belonged to Lysander's ships; then he sailed away with eight ships to seek refuge with Euagoras in Cyprus, while the Paralus went to Athens with the tidings of what had happened.

[...]

It was at night that the Paralus arrived at Athens with tidings of the disaster, and 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, thinking that they would suffer such treatment as they had visited upon the Melians, colonists of the Spartans, after reducing them by siege, and upon the Histiaeans and Scionaeans and Toronaeans and Aeginetans and many other Greek peoples. On the following day they convened an Assembly, at which it was resolved to block up all the harbors except one, to repair the walls, to station guards, and in all other respects to get the city ready for a siege. They busied themselves, accordingly, with these matters.






Note 1:
King Darius II Nothus was dying. He was to be succeeded by Artaxerxes II Mnemon, Cyrus' elder brother.

Note 2:
Lysander's Spartan fleet was moving towards the northeast and wanted to reach Byzantium and Calchedon, where they could would control the Bosphorus and could cut off the Athenian food supply. The Athenians had to defeat Lysander, and had to take a considerable risk to force a battle, because Lysander had an excellent base, too far away from the Athenian stronghold Sestus. Lysander might escape unnoticed. To control Lysander's movements, the Athenian admirals had to improvise and created a base at Aigospotamoi, which was far from ideal, but at least offered good water. They now started to offer battle.

Note 3:
Alcibiades had been sent into exile and happened to have a little castle in the neighborhood of Aigospotamoi. His advice to give up the improvised base was ill-founded: had the Athenians returned to Sestus, they would have lost contact with Lysander, and would have been unable to notice him leaving for the Bosphorus.

Note 4:
This was a special ship that was used by the Athenians for special missions.





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