Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Eye of Greece

The victory of Arginusæ was barren of all results, except, indeed, the fatal lesson that the Athenian democracy was an ill mistress to serve. Certain it is, that she found no one to serve her during the year that followed the events related in my last chapter. The fleet was not wanting in numbers. The losses at Arginusæ had been more than made up, for the total was now one hundred and eighty ships. And Conon, an able and energetic officer was in command. Still, something seems to have been wrong. The summer was wasted in vague and desultory movements. Little was done, and that little always too late. The final catastrophe came in September. The Lacedæmonian fleet, under its able commander, Lysander; had made a rapid movement northwards, and had captured and sacked the wealthy town of Lampsacus, situated on the European side of the Hellespont, and an old ally of Athens. The Athenian fleet followed him, was too late to give any help to the friendly Lampsacenes, and finally, in the hope of bringing about a general engagement, took up its position at Ægospotami (Goat's-rivers), a spot on the Asiatic shore directly opposite to Lampsacus. The position was singularly ill chosen. There was neither harbour nor anchorage; nor could any supplies be obtained for the crews nearer than at Sestos, nearly two miles distant by land and more than twice as much by sea. If the Lacedæmonian fleet could have been persuaded to give battle, all might have been well, but the wary Lysander hoped to win his victory at a smaller cost. On the morning after their arrival, the Athenians manned their vessels and sailed across the Hellespont to Lampsacus, where the enemy lay. They found him prepared for battle, his fleet drawn up in regular array, and his land force standing on the shore, ready to give such help as might be wanted. He declined, however, to advance, and the Athenians, on their part, dared not hazard an attack. For four days these proceedings were repeated. The Athenians sailed across the Hellespont, and returned to their position, each time becoming more confident, because more contemptuous of what they considered to be Lysander's cowardice in declining battle. But the Spartan was on the watch. Every day the Athenian ships were followed by some swift galleys, who observed carefully how the crews disposed of themselves when dismissed for the day.

Another observer, not less keen and more friendly, was at hand. Alcibiades was watching events from his Thracian castle, and saw plainly enough the perilous position in which his countrymen were placed. In the course of the fifth day he rode up to the Athenian camp. "You are putting yourselves," he said, "at great disadvantage; the enemy have a convenient harbour at their command, and supplies within easy reach; your ships lie on an open beach, and your men have to fetch everything they want from a distance." This advice was contemptuously repulsed. "It is we," said one of the generals to whom he had addressed himself, "that are in command, not you." Alcibiades, believing that there was more than mere incompetence behind this extraordinary disregard of the commonest precautions, departed. He "suspected treachery," says Plutarch, and, indeed, it is difficult to assign any other cause for conduct, of which the most inexperienced civilian would have seen the danger.

For five more days the same state of things continued. The Athenians grew more and more reckless in their own neglect of precautions. Then the end came. The Athenian fleet had made its usual demonstration, and had returned to its station at Ægospotami; the crews had dispersed to get their mid-day meal. Lysander's swift galleys, following these movements as on the previous days, hoisted the signal—a bright shield—which was to indicate that the moment for attack had come. The Peloponnesian fleet, which had been kept ready for action, moved out of the harbour of Lampsacus, crossed the Hellespont at full speed, and fell upon their defenceless enemy. Some of the ships were absolutely empty, others had but two or even one of their three banks of rowers complete; their missing seamen and marines were scattered far and wide over the country. Of the generals only one was on the alert. This was Conon. He signalled, as soon as he saw the enemy's fleet in motion, that all hands were to return to their ships. It was all that he could do, but it was too late. In his own ship and in eight others he had contrived to keep up discipline. These were ready for action; so was the Paralus, one of the two sacred vessels which were kept for special services. It was hopeless, of course, to attempt resistance with so small a force. The Paralus was despatched to Athens with the news. With the remaining eight, Conon made the best of his way to Salamis in Cyprus, where he could count on a welcome from Evagoras, a prince whose friendly feeling to Athens had been, a few years before, acknowledged by the gift of citizenship. Before starting he secured his retreat by an act of great promptitude and courage, sailing across the strait to where the stores of the Peloponnesian fleet were kept, and seizing the great sails of the ships. Of the other Athenian ships not one escaped. A few of the crews escaped to fortresses in the neighbourhood; the rest were taken prisoners. This overwhelming success was secured without the loss of a single man to the victorious armament.

The fate of the prisoners was left by Lysander to the decision of the allies. This was, that all the Athenian prisoners with the exception of one of the generals, Adeimantus by name, should be put to death. It was a merciless act, but the sufferers were only receiving the same measure which they had dealt out to others. Only a few months before, the Assembly had decreed that every prisoner of war should have his right hand cut off. And the massacre of the crews of two Peloponnesian vessels, one from Corinth, the other from Andros, was fresh in the remembrance of the conquerors. This had been personally ordered by Philocles, one of the captive generals, and Lysander asked him what the man who had done such deeds deserved to suffer. "It is idle," replied the prisoner, with unbroken courage, "to bring charges for which you can find no proof; you are conqueror; do what you certainly would have had to suffer if you had been conquered." And he went to his death with unfaltering step, arrayed in his gayest apparel.

The Paralus reached Athens at night, probably on the fourth or fifth day after the disaster, the distance between the scene of action and Athens being something less than three hundred miles. Xenophon, probably an eye-witness of the scene, thus describes it: When the Paralus reached the city with the evil tidings, "a bitter wail of woe broke forth. From Piræus, following the line of the Long Walls, up to the heart of the city it swept and swelled, as each man to his neighbour passed on the news. On that night no man slept. There were mourning and sorrow for those that were lost, but the lamentation for the dead was mingled in even deeper sorrow for themselves, as they pictured the evils which they were about to suffer, the like of which they had themselves inflicted upon others;" and he goes on to give a dismal catalogue of the cities which Athens had shamefully ill-treated. The particulars were so well known to his readers that he mentions only the names. This is the dismal list.

1. The town of Melos in the island of the same name was captured in 416. All the adult males had been put to death and the women and children sold into slavery. This cruelty was the more atrocious, because the Athenians had not even the poor excuse that Melos had revolted. The island had never joined the Delian confederacy. It was a Dorian colony, and had remained faithful to its mother city, Sparta.

2. Histiæa, one of the Eubœan towns, had revolted along with the rest of the island, against Athenian rule in 445. When this was restored, the inhabitants were expelled and their land divided among Athenian settlers.

3. Scione, a town in Thrace, had been treated in the same way as Melos, the adult males slain, the women and children sold into slavery. The Athenians were enraged by the fact that the town had revolted from them to the Spartans, two days after the conclusion of a truce, and that the Spartans had refused to give it back.

4. Torone was another town in Thrace and had revolted with its neighbour Scione. In this case there was no special aggravation, and the Athenians contented themselves with selling the women and children, and taking the men as prisoners to Athens, where they were afterwards exchanged.

5. The inhabitants of Ægina were expelled from their country in 431 at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war. They were old enemies and rivals of Athens, but had given no fresh offence. They were removed because they were dangerously near to the great harbour of Athens, the Piræus—"the eye-sore of the Piræus," Pericles was wont to call Ægina.

"And many another Greek city," adds the historian, quite truthfully, no doubt, but with a bitterness heightened by the recollection of his own wrongs, for Athens had banished him. We cannot wonder that a city with such a past behind her should look forward with dread to the future. Fugitives from all the dependencies now came flocking in. Before many days were past, scarcely a town in the great Athenian confederacy remained. Many revolted; others were taken. But no more severities were exercised on the prisoners so taken. They were not even detained. Only it was strictly enjoined upon them to return at once to Athens. If taken again elsewhere they would be put to death. Lysander reckoned on the aid of famine in reducing the city, and famine would operate the more speedily the more crowded the population within the walls.

The city was closely blockaded, both by land, where the Spartan king Agis occupied the fort of Decelea, and by sea, which was held by Pausanias with a fleet of a hundred and fifty ships. On the other hand, the Athenians prepared for a vigorous defence, blocking up all the harbours but one, and manning the walls. On the other hand, a large additional force from the Peloponnesus came to reinforce the army, which the Spartan king Agis had kept the summer through before the walls, while Lysander with a fleet of a hundred and fifty ships, blockaded the harbour.

The resolution of the besieged soon failed under the pressure of famine. Envoys were sent to king Agis with proposals to form an alliance with Sparta, every point in dispute being yielded, except that Athens was to keep its fortifications and its great harbour, the Piræus. Agis declared, that he had no power to treat; the envoys must go to Sparta. To Sparta, accordingly, they went. On reaching Laconian territory, and communicating the terms which they were instructed to offer to the Spartan authorities, they received a peremptory order to depart. If they really wanted peace, they must be the bearers of more satisfactory terms. With this answer they returned to Athens. A small minority was in favour of accepting the inevitable, but the spirit of the people was not yet broken. A senator who proposed yielding to the Lacedæmonian terms, was thrown into prison. The situation was critical. Submission was inevitable, but the counsellor who might recommend it, would run a great risk of his life. Nothing remained but to cajole the people into accepting the inevitable. A patriotic citizen might quite properly have undertaken this task; the man who actually undertook and carried it through, cannot be credited with honourable motives. That he was keen enough to see the state of the case may be conceded; this, indeed, was patent to every reflecting person. But it is doing him no injustice to say that personal ambition was the ruling motive of his conduct.

Theramenes had already made his mark as a prominent politician on the oligarchical side. In the affair of Arginusæ he had behaved with peculiar baseness. Responsible himself, as much as any man, for the loss of the shipwrecked men—for the task of picking them up had been assigned to him, among others—he led the attack on the generals. So strong was the feeling against him that, when afterwards he was appointed to a command, the fleet refused to accept him. He now saw an opportunity of ingratiating himself with the state which would soon, he perceived, have the disposal of political power at Athens. Standing forth in the Assembly, dispirited and dismayed as it was by the failure of the embassy, he said: "Send me to Lysander, and I will find out why the Lacedæmonians insist upon destroying the walls; whether it is because they wish to enslave you, or because they simply desire a guarantee of your good faith." He was sent accordingly, but he made no attempt to fulfil his mission. He simply lingered with Lysander and the blockading fleet for three months, waiting till the pressure of famine in the city should become so intolerably hard that the besieged would be ready to accept any conditions. When this time had, as he thought, arrived, he returned to Athens and declared that Lysander had detained him, and now, after all this time had been lost, told him that he had no power to treat and that he must go to Sparta.

The treacherous messenger found his countrymen in the state which he had expected, ready to submit to anything. They chose him to go to Sparta, along with nine colleagues, with full powers to treat. The Spartan government, on their arrival, called an assembly of their allies, and submitted the question to them. Two at least of the powers were against granting any terms. Nothing but the absolute destruction of Athens would satisfy them. Many other states, Xenophon tells us, showed this feeling but none expressed it so decidedly. The Spartans put a veto on the proposal. Athens had done great service to the common race in the past. They would not, as one of them expressed it, put out one of the eyes of Greece. Little, however, beyond bare existence was conceded. The walls were to be destroyed, the Piræus harbour blocked up, and all the ships of war but twelve handed over to the conquerors. Theramenes and his colleagues returned, and shameful as were the conditions which they brought back with them, were received with enthusiasm. Anything seemed better than the destruction which seemed imminent and which they felt to be not undeserved. A small minority still resisted, but this cheap exhibition of independence, not intended, as we may be sure, to succeed, was overruled. The fleet was handed over to the Peloponnesians; the walls were pulled down to the sound of joyous music. And the day by a singular coincidence, was the anniversary of that on which, seventy-five years before, Athens had saved Greece in the Bay of Salamis. It is possible that there may have been old men who remembered the culmination of their country's glory, and now they looked upon her fall.