In 445, Athens and Sparta put an end to a war that had lasted fifteen years. Both sides were exhausted. The Spartans had had to cope not only with the Athenians, but also with a revolt of the helots, and the Athenians had been fighting both Sparta and Persia. But now, negotiators swore that for thirty years, they would refrain from violence and would ask arbiters to solve any problems that might arise. This was more than just a peace treaty between nations, because Athens allowed the Spartans to swear the oaths on behalf of their allies (the "Peloponnesian League"), and Sparta recognized that the Athenians spoke on behalf of the cities with which they were allied (the "Delian League"). If the two former enemies had not achieved their war aims, they could at least expand their power vis-à-vis their allies, and from this moment, we read about "the cities that are ruled by the Athenians".
Both sides were sincere in their longing for peace. The following year, the Athenians were invited to found a colony in southern Italy, Thurii, and they called it an all-Greek ("panhellenic") town to prevent irritation in Sparta and its ally Corinth, which traditionally were interested in the far west. This gesture was appreciated, and when the island of Samos revolted against Athens (440), the Corinthians and Spartans refused to support the rebels. Peace reigned and few would have believed that within seven years, Corinth and Athens would clash in a big naval battle, and that in 431, war between the two alliances would be renewed.
Our main source for the new conflict, the Peloponnesian War, is the Greek historian Thucydides (c.460-c.395), an austere author with a vision on the historical process that looks surprisingly modern. He refuses to blame the gods for what is a human activity, and argues that war is - as long as human nature remains the same - understandable in terms of the human intellect. His analysis is therefore rational, and so convincing that in many handbooks of ancient history, the section on the Peloponnesian War is nothing but a summary of Thucydides. In his view, the Athenians and Spartans were at first unwilling to go to war, but were also unable to find a way out of a conflict that ought not to have had serious consequences. Perhaps, however, the two superpowers stumbled to disaster even more clumsily.
In 436, the Corinthians, allies of Sparta, attacked their colony Corcyra (modern Corfu), to solve a conflict over Epidamnus (modern Dürres), claimed by both. The Corcyrans defeated their mother-city, but soon learned that Corinth was building a new fleet. Early in 433, they sent envoys to the Athenian Assembly, asking for help. A Corinthian ambassador happened to be present as well, and reminded the Athenians that seven years before, Corinth had allowed Athens to punish Samos. The Corinthians, he argued, would appreciate a similar neutrality now that they wanted to punish their colony. The parallel was only seemingly convincing, because Samos had been recognized as an Athenian subject and Corinthian interference in 440 would have been a treaty violation, whereas Corcyra was a neutral state with which Athens was allowed to ally itself.
Still, the Athenians did not want to treat the Corinthians with contempt, as that would lead to bad relations with the Peloponnesian League. On the other hand, ignoring the Corcyran request meant that Corinth would sooner or later obtain the Corcyran navy and could challenge Athenian naval superiority. The solution to this dilemma was a diplomatic innovation: the Assembly offered an alliance to Corcyra that was defensive only. It is the first entirely defensive pact known from Greek history, and modern historians believe that the idea was due to Pericles, the often reelected political leader of Athens.
Ten Athenian triereis were sent to Corcyra, with the explicit order never to fight against the Corinthians except if they tried to land on the island. In this way, the Athenians wanted to protect their new ally and show the Spartans and Corinthians that there was no reason to fear a change in the balance of power. Unfortunately, Thucydides does not report whether the Corinthians understood this diplomatic innovation.
The Corinthians set out with 90 triereis and 60 ships of their allies, and built their base on the mainland, southeast of Corcyra. Their opponents countered by sending 110 galleys and the 10 Athenian ships to the bay of Sybota (the modern marina of Mourtos). Thucydides says that the Corinthians wanted to land on Corcyra, and indeed, when the attackers - taking three days' provisions with them - started to row to the north, the Corcyrans and Athenians could only interpret this as an attack. Both sides now prepared themselves for battle.
On the right Corcyran wing were the Athenian ships. The Corcyrans themselves occupied the center and the left wing, and were drawn up in three divisions, each under the command of one of the generals. On the right wing of the Corinthians were the Megarian and Ambraciot ships, in the center the contingents of their other allies; they themselves with their swiftest vessels formed the left wing, which was opposed to the Athenians and to the right division of the Corcyrans.note[Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.48; tr. Benjamin Jowett.]
These words might give the impression that on both sides, two lines of ships - one of 150 ships wide and one of 120 ships - approached each other. If this were true, the Corinthians could have executed the maneuver known as periplus, outflanking the enemy. However, parallels from more recent naval warfare with oared ships indicate that it is not possible to keep a line intact if it is wider than about sixty ships. It is possible that the divisions mentioned by Thucydides were two or perhaps three ships deep, but this is just a hypothesis. In fact, we can only conclude that the ships met and that the real battle array cannot be reconstructed.
The two fleets met and fought. The decks of both were crowded with heavy infantry, with archers and with javelin-men; for their naval arrangements were still of the old, clumsy sort. The engagement was obstinate, but more courage than skill was displayed.note[Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 1.49.]
That the fight was one "of the old, clumsy sort" is a topical remark. It means that the ships were not ramming each other, as the Athenians often did: but for these tactics (the periplus and the diekplus, breakthrough), great skill was needed, and only Athens had taught its rowers how to perform these maneuvers. So the battle was of an altogether different nature: the ships tried to come close to each other, and hoplites and archers did the actual fighting.
When two ships once charged one another, it was hardly possible to part company, for the throng of vessels was dense, and the hopes of victory lay chiefly in the heavy-armed, who maintained a steady fight upon the decks, while the ships remained motionless. There were no attempts to break the enemy's line [diekplus]. Brute force and rage made up for the want of tactics. Everywhere the battle was a scene of tumult and confusion. At any point where they saw the Corcyrans distressed, the Athenians appeared and kept the enemy in check; but the generals, who were afraid of disobeying their instructions, would not begin the attack themselves.note[Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 1.49.]
It turned out that the Corinthian allies were no match for twenty Corcyran triereis, which forced their enemies to run their ships ashore and proceeded to loot the Corinthian base.
But the left wing of the Corinthians, where their own ships were stationed, had greatly the advantage, because the Corcyrans, whose numbers were originally inferior, had now twenty vessels detached in the pursuit. When the Athenians saw the distress of the Corcyrans, they began to assist them more openly. At first they had abstained from actual collision, but when the Corcyrans fled outright and the Corinthians pressed them hard, then every man fell to work.note[Thucydides,Peloponessian War 1.49.]
For the outcome of the engagement, it did not matter very much: having lost seventy ships, the remaining Corcyrans were fleeing - not to their base near Sybota, but to the southern part of their island. Thus came an end to the greatest battle between two Greek navies until then.
The Corinthians, who had lost thirty triereis, made their way through the drifting wrecks, trying to recover people living and dead. Thucydides tells that they killed the shipwrecked people without giving quarter, sometimes even killing their own allies. The Corinthians did not tow away the floating hulls, but after some time resumed their northward progress. The Corcyrans and Athenians, thinking that the Corinthians wanted to disembark on Corcyra, swiftly prepared to attack their enemies before they would land on the shore.
It was now late in the day, when the Corinthians suddenly began to row astern. They had descried sailing towards them twenty vessels which the Athenians had sent to reinforce the former ten. The Corinthians, who had the first view of these vessels, suspected that they were Athenian and that there were more of them, began to retreat. The Corcyrans could not see them and wondered why the Corinthians rowed astern. At length some of them saw the advancing fleet. Then the Corcyrans, as it was getting dark, retired, and the Corinthians turned about and sailed away.note[Thucydides, Peloponesian War 1.50-51; italics added.]
The new vessels proceeded through the dead bodies and wrecks to the island, where people - who did not know that Athens had sent reinforcements - at first believed that they were being attacked. They must have felt relief when they discovered that the ships were not enemies, but must still have spent an uneasy night. The Corinthians and their allies, who had occupied Sybota, must have had mixed feelings: they had destroyed the enemy fleet, and this was a victory, but it was unclear what their victory meant.
Next day, the united Corcyran-Athenian navy sailed to Sybota, where the enemy was waiting without showing great zeal to renew the engagement. The Corinthians now had more urgent things to think of: they were afraid that the Athenians would judge that the peace had already been broken now that a fight had taken place, which would give them an excuse to intercept them on their return. And although there were only thirty Athenian triereis to pursue the 120 Corinthian ships, the Athenian had a deserved reputation for superior tactics. So the Corinthians decided to send an envoy to the Athenians, without the herald's staff that was - like a white flag in our age - to protect negotiators in a situation of war. Both parties stated that it was not their desire to go to war and blamed the other from breaking the treaty, and the Corinthians were glad that this meant that they could return home unchallenged.
The Corcyrans and Athenians claimed they had been victorious: they had prevented a landing on the island. Or had they? The truth is that Thucydides includes three remarks that may lead to doubt. In the first place, he says that the Corinthians took with them three days' provisions. That suggests - although it does not completely prove - a different plan: to move past Corcyra, along a rocky shore where water would be hard to obtain, to Epidamnus. After all, control of that city was why Corinth and its colony had decided to go to war.
Had the Corinthians really wanted to attack Corcyra itself, they would not have burdened each of their ships with water and food. Instead, they would have taken fewer supplies with them, knowing that after the first naval engagement, they would either - after a spectacular success - make a direct landing on an island with excellent wells, or return to the mainland, have some rest, and prepare for another day of fighting. This is corroborated by the second clue: Thucydides mentions sails, which were hardly needed if the Corinthians wanted to land on Corcyra. It is therefore possible that the Corinthians were not heading for the island, but tried to pass along it, although they were certainly prepared to fight if they had to.
If Epidamnus was indeed the ultimate goal of the Corinthian expedition, it becomes understandable why Thucydides stresses - the third remark - that the Corinthians, after the battle, "never stopped to take in tow the hulls of the disabled vessels". That would have been the logical thing to do if another day of fighting was expected. Damaged ships could be refitted and were useful, even when they could not be put to use immediately. Leaving valuable spoils, however, makes sense if the Corinthians were heading for Epidamnus, and damaged hulls would be a burden.
We can no longer establish the aims of the Corinthians. Had they understood the nature of the first defensive treaty in Greek history? Thucydides does not digress on the political debate in Corinth after the embassy had returned. Did the Corinthians really want to disembark on the island? Thucydides' Greek is ambiguous: he says that the Corinthians and their allies were sailing epi Corcyra, which can mean "against", but also "toward".
According to Thucydides, the Athenians really tried to prevent war, but found themselves opposed by a Corinth that was unwilling to appreciate the defensive alliance, felt snubbed and decided to attack Corcyra anyhow. The alternative is that the Corinthians did understand it, tried to pass along the island, and found themselves under attack from an enemy that misunderstood the northward move of the Corinthians. Whatever reading one prefers, it is certain that the battle of Sybota created rancor in Corinth.
It is also certain that the Athenians knew that the idea of a defensive alliance had been unsuccessful. They started to prepare for a war against Corinth: Athens demanded sureties from Potideia (a Corinthian colony that was a member of the Athenian alliance), punished the Corinthian ally Megara by excluding it from both Athenian markets and harbors, and interrupted the expensive building projects on the Acropolis to redirect funds to the war treasury. Probably, the Athenians were still counting on Spartan neutrality - after all, Corinth had been the aggressor. In the end, this policy failed as well: the Megarans and Corinthians successfully requested Spartan help.
And the war came. Had the two parties at Sybota better understood what the opponent was doing, the catastrophe might have been averted. But diplomacy failed and a great evil was coming to Greece.
This article was first published in Ancient Warfare 2.3 (2008).