Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

How The Long Walls Went Down

The retreat of the Persians from Athens left that city without a wall or a home. On the return of the Athenians, and the rebuilding of their ruined homes, a new wall became a necessity, and, under the wise advice of Themistocles, the citizens determined that the new wall should be much larger in circuit than the old,—wide enough to hold all Attica in case of war.

But no sooner was this begun than a protest arose from rival states. The Spartans in particular raised such a clamor on the subject that Themistocles went to that city and denied that he was fortifying Athens. If they did not believe him, they might send there and see. They did so, and the Spartan ambassadors, on arriving there, found the walls completed and themselves held as hostages for the safe return of Themistocles. Not only Athens was thus fortified, but a still stronger wall was built around Piraeus, the port, four miles away.



Years afterwards, when Athens was in a position to defy the protest of Sparta, her famous Long Walls were built, extending from the city to the port, and forming a great artery through which the food and products brought in ships from distant lands could flow to the city from the sea in defiance of foes. These walls it was that enabled Athens to survive and flourish when all the soil of Attica lay in the hands of the Spartan enemy. But the time came when these walls were to fall, and Athens to lie helpless in the hands of her mortal foe.

The Peloponnesian war was full of incident, victories and defeats, marches and countermarches, making and breaking of truces, loss of provinces and fleets, triumphs of one side and the other, and still the years rolled on, and neither party became supreme. Athens had its ill-advisers, who kept it at war when it could have won far more by concluding peace, and who induced it to forget the advice of Pericles and make war on land when its great strength lay in its fleet.

Its great error, however, was an attempt at foreign conquest, when it had quite enough to occupy it at home. War broke out between Athens and Sicily, and a strong fleet was sent to blockade and seek to capture the city of Syracuse. This expedition fatally sapped the strength of the Athenian empire. Ships and men were supplied in profusion to take part in a series of military blunders, of which the last were irreparable. The fleet, with all on board, was finally blocked up in the harbor of Syracuse, defeated in battle, and forced to yield, while of forty thousand Athenian troops but a miserable remnant survived to end their lives as slaves in Syracusan quarries. It was a disaster such as Athens in its whole career had not endured, and whose consequences were inevitable. From that time on the supremacy of Athens was at an end.

Yet for nine years more the war continued, with much the same succession of varying events as before. But during this period Sparta was learning an important lesson. If she would defeat Athens, she must learn how to win victories on sea as well as on land. After every defeat of a fleet she built and equipped another, and gradually grew stronger in ships, and her seamen more skilful and expert, until the old difference between Athenian and Spartan seamen ceased to exist. Persia also came to the aid of Sparta, supplied her with money, and enabled her to replace her lost ships with ever new ones, while the ship-building power of Athens declined.

In 405 B.C. the crisis came. Athens was forced to depend solely for subsistence on her fleet. That gone, all would be gone. In the autumn of that year she had a fleet of one hundred and eighty triremes in the Hellespont, in the close vicinity of a Spartan fleet of about the same force, under an able admiral named Lysander. Ĉgospotami, or Goat's River (a name of fatal sound to all later Athenians), was the station of the Athenian fleet. That of Sparta lay opposite, across the strait, nearly two miles away.

And now an interesting scene began. Every day the Athenian fleet crossed the strait and offered battle to the Spartans, daring them to come out from their sheltered position. And every day, when the Spartans had refused, it would go back to the opposite shore, where many of the men were permitted to land. Day by day this challenge was repeated, the Athenians growing daily more confident and more careless, and the crews dispersing in search of food or amusement as soon as they reached the shore. Lysander, meanwhile, fog-like, was on the watch. A scout-ship followed the enemy daily. At length, on the fifth day, when the Athenian ships had anchored, and the sailors had, as usual, dispersed, the scout-ship hoisted a bright shield as a signal. In an instant the fleet of Lysander, which was all ready, dashed out of its harbor, and rowed with the utmost speed across the strait. The Athenian commanders, perceiving too late their mistake, did their utmost to recall the scattered crews, but in vain. The Spartan ships dashed in among those of Athens, found some of them entirely deserted, others nearly so, and wrought with such energy that of the whole fleet only twelve ships escaped. Nearly all the men ashore were also taken, while this great victory was won not only without the loss of a ship, but hardly of a man. The prisoners, three or four thousand in number, in the cruel manner of the time, were put to death.

This defeat, so disgraceful to the Athenian commanders, so complete and thorough, was a death-blow to the dominion of Athens. That city was left at the mercy of its foes. When news of the disaster reached the city, such a night of wailing and woe, of fear and misery, came upon the Athenians as few cities had ever before gone through. Their fleet gone, all was gone. On it depended their food. Their land-supplies had long been cut off. No corn-ships could now reach them from the Euxine Sea, and few from other quarters. They might fight still, but the end was sure. The victor at Salamis would soon be a prisoner within her own walls.

Lysander was in no hurry to sail to Athens. That city could wait. He employed himself in visiting the islands and cities in alliance with or dependent upon Athens, and inducing them to ally themselves with Sparta. The Athenian garrisons were sent home. Lysander shrewdly calculated that the more men the walls of Athens held, the sooner must their food-supply be exhausted and the end come. At length, in November of 405 B.C., Lysander sailed with his fleet to Pirĉus and blockaded its harbor, while the land army of the Peloponnesus marched into Attica and encamped at the gates of Athens.

That great and proud city was now peopled with despair. The plague which had desolated it twenty-five years before now threatened to be succeeded by a still more fatal plague, that of famine. Yet pride and resolution remained. The walls had been strengthened; their defenders could hold out while any food was left; not until men actually began to die of hunger did they ask for peace.

The envoys sent to Sparta were refused a hearing. Athens wished to preserve her walls. Sparta sent word that there could be no peace until the Long Walls were levelled with the earth. These terms Athens proudly refused. Suffering and privation went on.

For three months longer the siege continued. Though famine dwelt within every house, and numbers died of starvation, the Athenians held out with heroic endurance, and refused to surrender on humiliating terms. But there could be only one end. Where famine commands man must obey. Peace must be had at any price, or death would end all, and an envoy was sent out with power to make peace on any terms he could obtain.

It was pitiable that glorious Athens should be brought to this sad pass. She was so cordially hated by many of the states of Greece that they voted for her annihilation, demanding that the entire population should be sold as slaves, and the city and the very name of Athens be utterly swept from the earth.

At this dread moment the greatest foe of Athens became almost her only friend. Sparta declared that she would never consent to such a fate for the city which had been the savior of Greece in the Persian war. In the end peace was offered on the following terms: The Long Walls and the defences of Pirĉus should be destroyed; the Athenians should give up all foreign possessions and confine themselves to Attica; they should surrender all their ships-of-war; they should admit all their exiles; they should become allies of Sparta, be friends of her friends and foes of her foes, and follow her leadership on sea and land.

When the envoy, bearing this ultimatum, returned to Athens, a pitiable spectacle met his eyes. A despairing crowd faced him with beseeching eyes, in terror lest he brought only a message of death or despair. Thousands there were who could not meet him, victims of the increasing famine. Peace at any price had become a valued boon. Nevertheless, when the terms were read in the assembly, there were those there who would have refused them, and who preferred death by starvation to such disgrace. The great majority, however, voted to accept them, and word was sent to Lysander that Athens yielded to the inevitable.

And now into the harbor of the Pirĉus sailed the triumphant Lacedĉmonian fleet, just twenty-seven years after the war had begun. With them came the Athenian exiles, some of whom had served with their city's foes. The ships building in the dock-yards were burned and the arsenals ruined, there being left to Athens only twelve ships-of-war. And then, amid the joyful shouts of the conquerors, to the music of flutes played by women and the sportive movements of dancers crowned with wreaths, the Long Walls of Athens began to fall.

The conquerors themselves lent a hand to this work at first, but its completion was left to the Athenians, who with sore hearts and bowed heads for many days worked at the demolition of what so long had been their city's strength and pride.

What followed may be briefly told. Athens had, some time before, fallen under the power of a Committee of Four Hundred, aristocrats who overthrew the constitution and reigned supreme until the people rose in their might and brought their despotism to an end. Now a new oligarchy, called "The Thirty," and mostly composed of the returned exiles, came into despotic power, and the ancient constitution was once more ignored.

The reign of The Thirty was one of blood, confiscation, and death. Supported by a Spartan garrison, they tyrannized at their own cruel will, murdering, confiscating, exiling, until they converted Athens into a prototype of Paris during the French Revolution.

At length the saturnalia of crime came to an end. Even the enemies of Athens began to pity her sad state. Those who had been exiled by these new tyrants returned to Attica, and war between them and The Thirty began. In the end Sparta withdrew her support from the tyrants, those of them who had not perished fled, and after nearly a year of terrible anarchy the democracy of Athens was restored, and peace once more spread its wings over that frightfully afflicted city.

We may conclude this tale with an episode that took place eleven years after the Long Walls had fallen. As they had gone down to music, they rose to music again. In these eleven years despotic Sparta had lost many of her allies, and the Persians, who had become friends of Athens, now lent a fleet and supplied money to aid in rebuilding the walls. Some even of those who had danced for joy when the walls went down now gave their cheerful aid to raise them up again, so greatly had Spartan tyranny changed the tide of feeling. The completion of the walls was celebrated by a splendid sacrifice and festival banquet, and joy came back to Athens again. A new era had begun for the city, not one of dominion and empire, but one marked by some share of her old dignity and importance in Greece.