Aigospotamoi (9)

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.

Battle 3: Confrontation

Aigospotamoi, seen from the European side; Lampsacus across the Hellespont
Aigospotamoi, seen from the European side; Lampsacus across the Hellespont

After Alcibiades' departure, the daily routine set in once more. In the morning, the Athenian navy set out to challenge the Spartans to battle. From this point on, however, our sources appear to disagree. Xenophon believes that the Spartan victory can be attributed to Lysander's brilliant tactics. According to Xenophon, Lysander employed reconnaissance ships. They notified him by means of a signal when the Athenians ships were drawn back upon the shore, after their daily challenge of the Spartan fleet. Lysander waited until the crews had scattered in search of food before descending upon them. So, according to Xenophon's account, no naval battle took place. The affair was nothing more than a surprise attack on the Athenian camp in the evening hours. Only the Paralus and eight other triereis, commanded by Conon, managed to escape.

Xenophon's description of the battle of Aigospotamoi has in recent times been criticized. One point of criticism is Xenophon's often imaginative portrayal of the situation - or better maybe, his sense of poetical drama, which is thought to color certain aspects of the battle. For instance, the statement that Spartan reconnaissance ships would have been able to give a sign to Lysander from halfway across the strait - according to Xenophon approximately 1.35 kilometers - has met with disbelief.note The impossibility of Lysander's receiving this signal is believed to undermine Xenophon's credibility.

A second point of criticism stems from the modern day historians' conviction that Xenophon did not understand naval affairs well. Careful research of the naval battles of Notium, Cyzicus and Mytilene demonstrates that Xenophon's interpretation too often differs too much from other accounts. Many historians are, for this reason, sceptical when Xenophon reports on maritime matters.note

Finally, the incompleteness of Xenophon's account is often criticised. For instance, he does not mention Philocles' manoeuvre (to which we shall return). The fact that Xenophon does not mention a naval battle also contradicts other sources. The orations of Lysias, who was in Athens at the time, include twelve references to Aigospotamoi, six of them explicitly to a naval battle (naumachia). A statement by Eryximachus also implies a naval battle had taken place. He writes: "after damaging the enemy severely, I drew back my ship from battle and brought it back". All this strongly suggests that a naval battle did take place, and that Xenophon's account is incomplete.note

Diodorus' account is completely different. He says that the increasing hunger in the Athenian camp, combined with the Spartan unwillingness to fight, made Philocles decide to sail to Sestos. Lysander was alerted to this manoeuvre by deserters, and confronted Philocles. He was able to route Philocles' squadron and followed him back to the Athenian camp. In the resulting chaos, Lysander beached a landing party under the command of Eteonicus. The ensuing battle was quickly fought and the Athenians fled in all directions. According to this sequence of events, a naval battle did occur, however short it may have been.note

Whether Lysander actually employed reconnaissance ships, as Xenophon wants us to believe, it is apparent that Diodorus does not mention such a tactic. Unfortunately this is not the only omission in Diodorus' account. Only two of the admirals' names are mentioned, Philocles and Conon. From the above it is safe to say that either Diodorus was not fully informed, or that he applied certain selection criteria when writing his account. Anyhow, Diodorus' portrayal, just as that of Xenophon, appears to be incomplete.

One aspect of Diodorus' account deserves some attention. On the day of the battle the supreme commander was Philocles. As usual, he set out in the morning to confront the Spartans and tempt them into battle. Noteworthy is the fact that he sailed out with only thirty triereis, while the rest of the fleet was still getting ready. Why Philocles sailed out is, regrettably, not mentioned. However, several scenarios are possible.

What to make of this? It does not seem probable that Philocles would knowingly take up position with thirty triereis, while the rest of the fleet was still readying itself. The proximity of the enemy would in fact demand close coordination between the separate squadrons of the fleet. Of course Philocles' perilously forward position could be accredited to the incompetence of the other admirals in setting their squadron afloat. But Philocles should have noticed this and he would have, if merely for his own safety, waited. Thus the first scenario does not seem plausible.

The second scenario, an ambush, does not seem very promising either. At least, not if one suggests the type of ambush as that set up at Cyzicus and Notium. Kagan rightly points out that Lysander was well aware of the strength of the Athenian navy, and would therefore not be tempted by Philocles' decoy of thirty triereis.

Consequently, Kagan proposes an alternative ambush scenario. Lysander was to be tempted into an ambush by Philocles, who, with his thirty triereis, was supposed to feign a withdrawal to Sestos. Lysander's ambition to destroy the Athenian navy would not allow him to let this squadron escape.

However, I believe this does not make sense either. The division of the Athenian fleet would actually benefit Lysander. He would have a numerical superiority over either of the fleets, which would substantially increase his chances for victory. Even if Philocles was able to reach the port of Sestos safely - approximately twenty kilometers southwest of Aigospotamoi - it would still be too far to reinforce the main fleet if necessary, and vice versa. Recent research on the speed of triereis, quoted by Strauss and Wylie,note has shown that a triere could reach a maximum speed ranging from anything between 10.2 and 31.5 kilometers per hour. That speed could be maintained for five to ten minutes. From this one can conclude that Philocles' squadron would be en route for at least an hour. This would be too long to be able to reinforce the main Athenian fleet. More importantly though, Philocles' crews would be exhausted by the time they reached the battle scene. Furthermore, such an ambush would require discipline and careful coordination from the Athenian side. The absence of both these aspects, in my opinion, underscores the lack of preconceived intention to ambush Lysander (unless the other admirals are labeled incompetent). Bleckman adds that Diodorus does not mention anything about such an ambush. Besides, he mentions that the narrowness of the seaway did not permit the elusive manoeuvring needed to carry out such an ambush. Both the Athenians and the Spartans would have known this. The combination of these strong arguments, in my opinion, rules out the possibility of the ambush scenario.

Several comments have been made on the third scenario, that Philocles decided to move his fleet to Sestos. Kagan objects that he cannot find any reasons why Philocles would have moved his base camp at the last moment. After all, the situation had not changed. It was still precarious. Lotze and Bleckman believe that Philocles left for Sestos due to a lack of provisions. Regrettably, they do not mention whether they believe Philocles' expedition to be a one-way voyage, or a return voyage to Sestos.

I tend to disagree with Kagan's allegation that a lack of provisions could not be reason for Philocles to depart. Kagan himself strengthens my skepticism by making contradictory comments. His statement: "After all, the Athenians could not stay at Aigospotamoi forever", in my opinion confirms the possibility of departure. Therefore I am inclined to accept Lotze's view as the most complete. However, his sensible omission of any presumptions concerning Philocles' motive for departure, feels incomplete.