Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Last Struggle

Whatever we may think of the character of the Athenian democracy, however great the faults we may lay to its charge—fickleness, arrogance, cruelty to its dependents—there can be no doubt as to the magnificent courage and resolution, with which it struggled on under the pressure of ruinous losses, and against overwhelming odds. The disastrous end of the expedition against Syracuse had been a heavier blow to Athens than it is easy for us to conceive. We have seen that more than two thousand citizen soldiers went with the first armament, and that the number was afterwards increased. It is probable that more than half of these never returned. Comparing these numbers with the total population of the city, which probably did not include more than twenty thousand citizens of all ages, it is not too much to say that modern history records no such disaster proportionately so great. It means the loss of two fifths of the able-bodied males. France suffered heavily during the Franco-Prussian war, but to suffer as heavily as Athens in the year 416-415 she would have had to lose absolutely two million soldiers. And yet for ten years more the gallant democracy of Athens struggled on. In 406 it seemed as if the end had come. The Peloponnesian fleet, under the command of the ablest, and we may add the noblest, man that Sparta ever produced, Brasidas, perhaps, only excepted, Callicratidas, had blockaded the last Athenian fleet in the harbour of Mitylene. Conon, its commander, had, indeed, had a narrow escape of losing his fleet altogether. It was only by the superior speed, obtained by reducing the number of his ships and transferring the best rowers into the remainder, that he had been able to get to Mitylene at all. Even then his pursuers had entered the harbour along with him, and he had been compelled to fight. Thirty out of his seventy ships had been sunk, and the remaining forty saved only by hauling them up on shore, close to the wall. These forty ships, unable to put to sea, were, for the time, all that remained of the fleet, with which five-and-twenty years before Athens had ruled the seas.

Conon, though safe for the moment, was in the greatest straits. Mitylene was crowded with fugitives from the island, and had not been provisioned for a siege. The only hope was in speedy relief from Athens, and the first question was, how to convey the tidings. Two of the swiftest ships, manned by the best rowers in the fleet, were exercised for four days; at noon on the fifth, when the blockading force was in its least watchful temper, they made a rush from the harbour. Separating as soon as they were outside, one made for the Hellespont, the head of the other was pointed for Athens. Some of the Peloponnesian squadron started in hot pursuit, their most vigorous efforts being directed to the ship that was making for Athens. This was overhauled at sunset; the other escaped, and when well out of sight, changed its course, and carried the news to Athens.

Meanwhile another disaster had happened. A small squadron, which had been detached from the main force, attempted, with what seems to have been somewhat foolhardy courage, to relieve their blockaded comrades. The Spartan admiral fell upon them unexpectedly, as they lay at anchor, and captured ten out of the twelve ships.

At Athens, after the first feeling of consternation had passed away, the people rose to the situation. Every ship, old or new, if only it could float, was hastily made ready for service, and a levy en masse of the whole able-bodied population of the city was made. No class was allowed, or sought, exemption. The wealthy knights, who were not called upon to serve in any expedition in which cavalry could not be employed, hung up their bridles in the temples, as they had done before the great day of Salamis, and embarked as marines. Slaves, as well as freemen, were enlisted, and were encouraged to be faithful and brave by the promise of freedom when the danger was passed. The result of this energetic action was that one hundred and ten ships were equipped and manned in the space of thirty days. From the Piræus the fleet sailed to Samos, where it was joined by a squadron of ten ships. Thirty more came from the other allies, swelling the total number to one hundred and fifty. Callicratidas had a total force of one hundred and seventy. Fifty of these he left to continue the blockade of Mitylene; with the rest he sailed to meet the relieving fleet. He purposed making a night attack, which would probably have greatly endangered the hasty levies opposed to him, but was prevented by a heavy downpour of rain and a thunderstorm, from putting to sea. The weather cleared at daybreak, and he sailed to meet the Athenian fleet. This was massed in close bodies, the line being made so strong that the dreaded manœuvre of the "diecplus" could not be employed. The reason given by the historian, himself an Athenian, for the adoption of these tactics is that "they were inferior in sailing power." The Lacedæmonians, he adds, "trusting to their superior seamanship," endeavoured to execute the manœuvre of which their adversaries stood in so much fear. These admissions, which are made without a word of comment, are most significant. They mark the beginning of the end. In the early days of the war the nautical superiority of the Athenians had been most marked. But times had changed. The long struggle of a quarter of a century had drained Athens of its best blood. The skillful seamen of the old time had perished in countless battles, or had grown too old for service, and their place was filled by an inefficient multitude, most of whom were wholly strange to their work. On the day of Arginusæ, however, (the White Islets), for so the battle was called, from the station occupied by the Athenian fleet, something of the old splendour of Athens, in courage and skill, was to flash out again for the last time.

The Spartan admiral was advised by one of his allies to postpone an engagement till he could meet the enemy with equal numbers. He refused. "Sparta," he said, "will not suffer for losing a single citizen," and he gave the order to advance. The battle was obstinately contested. For a time the opposing fleets preserved the order in which they had been drawn up; then the struggle was waged by single ships, anyhow and anywhere, just as they happened to meet. The Peloponnesians lost their gallant commander. He was standing on the prow of his ship, as this was driven against an enemy, eager, it would seem, to head a boarding party. It was a strange purpose, one cannot but think, in an admiral who was responsible for the conduct of a hundred ships, but a Greek could seldom resist the delight of actual conflict. The shock of the impact made him lose his footing; he fell into the sea, and clad as he was in heavy armour, was drowned. Nine out of the small Spartan squadron of ten ships were destroyed at the same time, and sixty-eight from the rest of the fleet. If Conon at Mitylene could have known what had happened, he might have completed the victory by attacking the blockading squadron. This was saved by an ingenious device. The officer in command heard the news from the admiral's signal boat. He directed it to leave the harbour, and then to return, crowned with triumphal garlands, with its men uttering shouts of triumph. Conon was deceived and made no movement. That same night the squadron secretly left its station, and effected a junction with what remained of the defeated fleet.

The Athenian fleet lost twenty-five ships. Unfortunately, nearly all of the sailors and marines on board of them were drowned. From this came the melancholy sequel of my story.

The despatch announcing the victory brought, also the sad intelligence that the crews of the ships that had been lost had perished with them; the corpses of the slain had not been recovered for burial, the survivors had not been picked up. A squadron had, indeed, been told off for this service, but a sudden storm had prevented its execution.

The truth of the account was doubted at home, and not, as will be seen, without reason. Two of the generals were prudent enough not to return to the city; the others were arrested shortly after their arrival, on the charge of having neglected their duty. At first, it seemed possible that their explanations might be accepted by the majority of their fellow-countrymen. A great victory had been won, and it would ill become Athens to deal harshly with those who had saved her. It is possible that, if the matter had been decided in the first Assembly, the accused might have been acquitted. But the debate had lasted long; it was so dark it would have been impossible to count the show of hands. Accordingly, the Assembly was adjourned.

Before it met again the festival of the Apaturia had come round. It was a time of family gatherings, a time, therefore, when the loss of kinsmen would be most vividly felt. Xenophon tells us that the party adverse to the generals actually hired men to personate bereaved mourners. This seems hard to believe. It may mean nothing more than that the mourners were urged to make a parade of their loss and their sorrow. Anyhow, the number of persons seen in mourning during the festival, profoundly affected the people; and when they met at the adjourned Assembly, their temper was fiercely hostile.

That there had been neglect seems beyond doubt. Xenophon repeats at length the speech of one of the accused generals. The speaker makes admissions which prove that the anger of the people was not without justification. The truth was, that the excuse about the storm was not true. The facts were as follows: When the victory had been decided, one of the generals proposed that the whole fleet should sail out in line (so as to cover as wide a space as possible) and pick up the crews of the ships that had been sunk. Another was in favour of the whole fleet proceeding in pursuit of the enemy. A third proposed a middle course. Part of the fleet was to sail in pursuit, part was to be left to rescue the survivors. This proposal was adopted, and it was here that the default had taken place. There had been a storm, it is true, but not such a storm as to prevent all action. The speaker, it must be understood, did not admit this last statement; but he revealed a significant difference of opinion among the officers in command.

But if the people had some cause for their anger, the way in which they proceeded to vent it on the accused was blameable in the extreme. It was proposed that all the accused should be tried at once, and that the fate of all should be decided by a single vote.

This proposition was in flagrant violation of the law, which provided that every accused person should be tried separately. There were not wanting speakers who reminded the Assembly of this fact, but the majority of the voters was too excited to listen to them. Their rage had been roused to fury by the story of a man who professed to have been an eye-witness of the disaster, and to bring a message from the dead to their countrymen at home. The man, who must be ranked amongst the liars that have reached historic fame, declared that he had saved himself by clinging to an empty meal-tub, that as he kept himself up in the water, he had been surrounded by drowning men who had commissioned him, in case he should get safe to land, to tell the Athenians how they had fought for their fatherland, and how the generals had left them to drown. In vain did some of the cooler heads in the Assembly endeavour to check the fury of the people. Even the threat, commonly so effective, that the proposer of this illegal proceeding should be indicted for an unconstitutional proceeding, was made in vain. One of the accusers proposed that if those who used this threat should persist in urging it on the present occasion, they should be included in the same indictment with the incriminated generals. Some of the presiding magistrates refused to put an illegal motion to the Assembly. They were met by the same cry: "Put it or you also will be included." With one exception they yielded to the clamour. The one resolute champion of right and law who refused to give way, was Socrates. In one account Xenophon declares that he was the acting president of the day; in another he describes him as one of the magistrates. Whatever may have been the case, his opposition was overruled. His colleagues put the motion, without waiting for his consent. It was carried by a majority, after an amendment, providing for a separate trial, had been rejected, but only by a second show of hands. The accused were put to death. So did Athens undo, by an act of fatal ingratitude, the benefit of her last victory.