Aigospotamoi (12)

Aigospotamoi: the final battle of the Peloponnesian War (431-404). In September 405, the Athenians were decisively defeated by the Spartans and lost their navy. As a result, the siege and fall of Athens became inevitable.

The significance of Aigospotamoi

Fifth-century hoplite. Koninklijke musea voor kunst en geschiedenis, Brussels (Belgium)
Fifth-century hoplite

It is self-evident that the battle of Aigospotamoi meant the end of Athens. Its fleet was lost and there were no funds to build a new one. The siege of Athens and its subsequent surrender in 404 BCE was the concluding piece of a crisis that had raged through the Greek world for twenty-seven years.

As a consequence of the decisive defeat people started to wonder how it was possible that mighty Athens had almost completely lost her fleet, without even having confronted the Spartans. Rumors of betrayal began circulating in Athens, and people started to look for a traitor.

The most obvious contender was Alcibiades. The first time he was labeled a traitor was in an oration by Lysias,note who accused Alcibiades of wanting to hand over the Athenian fleet - in collaboration with Adeimantus - to Lysander. Suspicion of Alcibiades was not unsubstantiated. At the time of campaign he was in the vicinity of Aigospotamoi and he must have known that not everybody was well-disposed towards him. Still he gave unasked-for advice. If nobody would pay attention to his advice, why then would he have gone to the Athenian camp? Wylie is under the impression that Alcibiades was bought by Lysander. The aim of his visit was to stall for time, to sow dissension among the admirals and, if the occasion arose, offer bribes. Unfortunately, our sources only allow us to speculate on Alcibiades’ arrival. However, it must be noted that his timing was at least unusual and his arrival most dubious.

Nonetheless, due to his short stay, it was believed that Alcibiades had not had enough time to hand over the fleet to Lysander, as Lysias wants us to believe. So who could have been his accomplice? Philocles and Conon are not seen as traitors by the ancient authors. Modern authors do not suspect them either: Philocles eventually died, and Conon's character was respectable and his reputation sterling.

Lotze points out, however, that Conon's setting sail directly for Cyprus after the defeat is suspicious.note Was Conon a traitor? There are counter-arguments. For instance, Conon may, out of fear for his life - bearing in mind the execution of the admirals after Arginusae - have preferred voluntary exile. In addition, Ehrhardt points out that Conon was never held responsible for the disaster at Aigospotamoi, or, for that matter, seen as a traitor, because he did not hold supreme command on that fatal day.note

Menander and Cephisodotus are not seen as possible traitors by our ancient authors. Adeimantus, however, is a different story. He is considered to be a potential traitor by Lysias, by Pausanias and by Xenophon. He had ties to Alcibiades' family and Lysander did not execute him. Pausanias also accuses Tydeus of committing treason.note Reasons for this indictment are not easy to find: his relation with Alcibiades appears to have been bad. The argument Wylie puts forward to enforce his suspicion of Tydeus - that he was most likely of lower birth than the other admirals and that this made him more susceptible to treason - does not sound rational to me. I do not see a causal relationship between wealth and susceptibility to bribes.

Regrettably little more is also to be said about the possible seventh admiral Eryximachus. But if his disputable identity has been assessed correctly - as a participant to Socratic gatheringsnote - it may be presumed that Eryximachus, considering his close ties to Alcibiades, could have been the traitor.

Kagan does not interpret the rumors as reliable information about any real treason committed by the Athenian admirals, but as information delivered to Lysander by deserters.note Diodorus' account mentions deserters and it is surely plausible that they would not keep any chance knowledge on the Athenian tactics to themselves. The narrowness of the seaway would certainly allow for the crossing of deserters, and the high pay offered by the Spartans would provide them with a motive. Maybe even Alcibiades had succeeded in bribing any hesitant deserters.

We must admit that lack of evidence prevents us from finding out who the traitor was. And although many rumors and accusations suggest that a traitor did play a role in the battle, it must also be considered that the rumors may simply be figments of the imagination of the Athenian people to cope with a painful defeat. Wylie draws a parallel with the German Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back legend) after the First World War.note After all, the greater the defeat, the greater would be a desire for a scapegoat, and the less selective one would be concerning the evidence.