Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Fall of Athens

The traitor Alcibiades had led Athens into the attack upon Sicily, he had shown her enemies how to overcome her powerful fleet and her thousands of men, and it was by his advice that they had seized Decelea. The country round about Decelea had been made as bare of food as the sand of the shore. The sheep and cattle had been killed, and more than twenty thousand slaves had deserted. Food could be obtained by the Athenians from the island of Eubœa as usual, but now it could not be brought directly across the strait to Decelea and thence to Athens; it had to come by a long sea voyage around Sunium. This was slow, expensive, and what was worse, it was dangerous; for the Spartan ships might dash out at any moment from behind some sheltering point, and never would the Athenians see either ship or cargo. Their only comfort had lain in the hope that the conquest of Sicily would bring them untold wealth, and that the return of their army would make it possible to drive away the Spartans from Decelea. Then came the news of the Sicilian defeat. The Athenians had no longer ships, money, or men, and almost every house was in mourning. At first they were crushed by the awful disaster; they felt sure that the Syracusans, the Spartans, the Corinthians, the Bœotians, every tribe that had ever been envious of their glory, would now attack them; the colonies would revolt, and they were helpless. Then they raged at every one who had said a word in favor of the expedition; and then, with a magnificent courage and determination, they went to work to make the best of things. They raised as large an army as possible, and called home every banished man to join it; they sent to Thrace and Macedonia for timber and built warships; and they cut down the city expenses to the lowest point. The assembly and the thoughtless multitude of voters were thoroughly frightened. They were not so sure as they had been that whatever they wanted to do was wise, and they appointed ten elderly men to serve as a council.



The Persians had been watching Greece closely, and just at this time the king, Darius II, issued a declaration claiming that every foot of land which had been in the hands of his ancestors for even a moment belonged to him and must pay him tribute. This would include Attica itself and many of the cities and islands of the Ĉgean, indeed, nearly all the Athenian empire. His manner of making sure of the tribute was simple and easy; he merely sent an order to the satraps, or governors in Asia Minor to this effect: "Collect this money for me as best you can." The satraps were in a great fright. They could not collect the tribute without help, and they offered to pay well for the aid of Sparta. Now was the chance for the firebrand Alcibiades. He helped Chios and other islands and cities to revolt from Athens, and he arranged a treaty between the Spartans and the Persians. Against Athens, then, were the Spartans and their Grecian allies, the Syracusans, the Persians, and many of the cities of the Delian League. Samos remained friendly.

But Alcibiades was becoming rather tired of Sparta, and in spite of all that he had done for them, the Spartans were beginning to be tired of him. When he went to their country, he had shaved off his heavy beard, dressed like a native, had been quiet and grave in manner, lived as simply as any one of them, and even claimed to be fond of black broth. This won the hearts of the Spartans, but after a while he began to do things contrary, not only to the customs, but to the laws, and even committed a crime against the king himself. He expected the Spartans to bear like the Athenians whatever he chose to do; but nevertheless he watched them closely. There came a time when he had reason to believe that his life was in danger. Then he slipped away to the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. Once on Persian soil, he forgot his fondness for black broth; he let his beard grow; he wore the richest and most costly robes that could be obtained; he slept on the softest couches and covered his floors with the thickest carpets; he had his expensive horses, his perfumers, his skillful cooks, and his long train of attendants. The satrap Tissaphernes was not fond of the Greeks, but he was quite dazzled by the flatteries and the brilliant conversation of his new friend. He had beautiful gardens, and the most charming one of all, with fresh green meadows, sparkling streams, and royal pavilions, he named the Garden of Alcibiades.

But Alcibiades had no idea of becoming a Persian. He dreamed of a return to Athens, and he was planning how to bring it about. He began by persuading Tissaphernes not to help the Spartans so lavishly. "If you let Sparta crush Athens," he said, "then you will have to fight Sparta. Why not let the two states keep on fighting till they have worn each other out? Then it will be an easy matter to overcome them both." Never was there a shrewder man than the fascinating Alcibiades. He had given the Persians advice that they could not help seeing was wise; he could say to the Athenians that he had done them a good turn with the Persians; and in preventing the Spartans from crushing Athens he had saved himself from ever falling into their victorious hands—and he was terribly afraid of being again in their power. His next move was to send messages to his friends at Samos. "The Persians hate a democracy," he said, "but if Athens were only governed by an oligarchy, I could win their friendship for you, and they would supply you with money. I would gladly return to my own country and cast in my lot with yours." Alcibiades's friends sent men secretly to Athens; and one day the army at Samos were astonished to learn that the government was in the hands of a company of nobles, the Four Hundred, as they were called. Then the soldiers reasoned, "Alcibiades declares that he has had nothing to do with this new government. He can win friends and money for us from the Persians; let us make him general." So it was that, while claiming to be a friend of the Spartans and the Persians, Alcibiades became general of the Athenian army.

A stranger thing than this came to pass a little later. Some Athenian ships were defeated by the Spartans, and Eubœa fell into the hands of Sparta. The Athenians were alarmed and indignant. They threw the blame upon their new government and at once abolished the council of the Four Hundred. Then they began to wonder whom they should make their leader. Alcibiades was already at the head of the army in Samos; he was a successful general, and he had said that he was longing to come home to his own countrymen. In spite of all that he had done, they forgave him and commanded him to return.

The Spartans had not been blind. They had soon found that Tissaphernes made fine promises, but did not keep them. Another satrap, Pharnabazus, who ruled in the northern part of Asia Minor, had long been seeking their help to conquer the Greek cities in his province, and especially about the Hellespont. His wishes fell in with those of the Spartans, for if they kept even a small guard at the Hellespont, Athens could no longer get grain from the country about the Black Sea. Now that no food came to her from Eubœa, her only hope was to get it from this region.

The Spartan and Persian forces gathered about the Hellespont. There, too, went the Athenian fleet. They won a victory, a second, a third. Alcibiades was doing his best for the country that he had ruined. Once more gold and silver and arms and prisoners and ships fell into the hands of the Athenians. Once more the Spartans asked for peace; and once more the Athenians, elated by their new successes, refused. Alcibiades continued his victories. Byzantium was in the hands of the enemy; he captured it, and also Chalcedon, on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus. The way to the Black Sea was now clear, and if the ships of the Athenians did not fail them, there need be no lack of grain.

In spite of the command to return to Athens, the shrewd and cautious Alcibiades had not thought it wise to show himself in his home city; but now in this glory of victory he thought he might venture. His ships were all aglow with flags and shields that he had taken from the enemy, but still he did not land until he saw so many of his friends at the wharf of the Pirĉus that he felt sure not only of a welcome but also of protection in case of need. It would have been hard for any country not to welcome a general who brought such trophies of victory; but this was the charming, brilliant, eloquent Alcibiades, and the people were wild with delight. They paid no attention to the other generals, but shouted, "Alcibiades! Alcibiades! Alcibiades has come!" They pointed him out to their children. That is Alcibiades," they said; and then they told of his glorious victories. They crowned him with flowers; they wept for sorrow when they remembered all that they had lost; and they wept for joy when they thought of all that he would gain for them. "If he had been in command, we should not have lost Sicily," they lamented; "but he will make Athens powerful again.' A meeting of the assembly was held, and Alcibiades made a speech. He was grieved, but ready to forgive. They had treated him a little unkindly, he said, but it was his fate and must have been caused by some evil spirit. He talked about their enemies and explained how he expected to get the better of them. The assembly could hardly pass decrees fast enough. They gave him back his estates; they ordered golden crowns for him; and they put him in command of all the forces.

Alcibiades received these honors graciously, but as if they were merely his due. He knew how easily the Athenians could be turned, and he meant to have still another hold upon them. His enemies might yet bring up the old charge of mimicking the Eleusinian Mysteries; and he intended to let the ships and the army wait for their commander until he had put himself right with the priests by enabling them to celebrate the Mysteries with all the ancient honors. Since the Spartans had held Decelea, the journey by land had not been safe, and there had been merely a hasty voyage to Eleusis by sea. Alcibiades sent out a strong guard, and the procession of priests and others, bearing the image of Dionysus and leading the animals for sacrifice, marched slowly along the road to Eleusis. The sacred dances were performed, no detail of the old rites was neglected, and the celebrants returned in safety. "Our noble Alcibiades is not only a great general, but to-day he has filled the place of a high-priest," said the Athenians; and when he again sailed from the Pirĉus, they watched him out of sight, talking together of the victories that he would win and the glory he would surely bring to Athens.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


It was but a little while before these devoted Athenians were listening angrily to a man from the seat of war who reported that a battle had just been lost, and that it was all the fault of Alcibiades. The truth was that the commander had been obliged to leave the army for a short time to get money to pay his men. He had given strict orders that there should be no fighting while he was gone; but the officer in charge had disobeyed and had been beaten in a small engagement. The Athenians, however, took no pains to learn the exact truth, and perhaps, even after all their praise of him, they did not really feel sure of his faithfulness. They called a meeting of the assembly and appointed new generals. Alcibiades feared for his life, left the army, and built himself a castle in Thrace. He could not be idle. He picked up men here and there until he had a little army of his own. Then he made war against the Thracians, who had no king. If he had had a long life, he might perhaps have been at the head of a state.

The Spartans now sent out an able general, Lysander; and the king of Persia sent out his equally able son Cyrus in the place of Tissaphernes. He had concluded that it was best to help the Spartans generously. Money became plentiful in the Sparta army. Soldiers were paid high wages, and ships were built. The Spartans and Persians were encamped on the Asiatic side of the Hellespont, and the Athenians on the European side, at Ĉgospotami. Every morning the Athenians sailed out and offered battle. The Spartans did not accept the challenge. Then the Athenians returned to their own side of the strait and spent the day wandering about to amuse themselves, and going to Sestos two miles away, for their supplies. Alcibiades was not far distant and he was watching events at the Hellespont. He rode to the camp and told the Athenian commanders that he did not think it was safe to let the seamen leave their vessels and roam about on the shore; nor was it well to camp where there was no town and no good harbor for their ships, and to keep their supplies so far away. He advised them to remove to Sestos. No officer need have felt ashamed to receive advice from so successful a commander but the generals replied curtly, "We are giving orders now, not you. Begone!"

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Alcibiades went away, the Spartans still refused to fight, and the Athenians became more and more careless. Suddenly the Spartan and Persian ships swept across the strait. Only one general was on the watch. He gave the signal to man the vessels, but the sailors had gone to Sestos, and only nine of the one hundred and eighty ships could be fully manned. There was hardly an attempt to resist. The Spartans had little to do but to tow the captured vessels across the strait. Eight or ten ships escaped; the rest of the fleet and thousands of men were captured. All among them who were Athenians, about four thousand, were at once put to death.

When the awful news came to Athens, every one realized that the empire had vanished and that Athens itself must fall. The ships of Lysander blocked the Pirĉus. The troops of the Spartans and their allies surrounded the city. A few weeks passed, then came famine and unconditional surrender.

What should be the fate of the Athenians? The allies discussed the question. "Tear down the city to its foundations and sell every man, woman, and child as a slave," demanded the angry Thebans and Bœotians. "We will never consent to put out one of the eyes of Greece," replied the Spartans. This sounded merciful, but there were some who whispered that the Spartans were shrewd rather than generous; for if Athens was utterly destroyed, either Thebes or Corinth would probably become stronger than Sparta herself. At length they decided that the Long Walls and the fortifications of the Pirĉus should be leveled, that only twelve ships should be left to the conquered city, and that she should agree to obey the orders of Sparta on land and sea.

In Athens there was heart-breaking sorrow. Loved ones were gone from every home. There were poverty and starvation and utter misery. At the Pirĉus women were playing the flute, there were singing and dancing and all sorts of merry-making; for men were tearing down the mighty walls. "Greece is free! Liberty has come to the Greeks!" they shouted gleefully. High up on the Acropolis rose the Parthenon, strong and beautiful. Near it stood the statue of Athene, serene and stately. Around it was a land in ruins, an empire overthrown.


The Athenians were almost crushed by the Sicilian disaster.

Darius II claimed nearly all the Athenian empire. Alcibiades arranged a treaty between Persia and Sparta.

Alcibiades fled to Tissaphernes, but planned to return to Athens.

The Athenian government fell into the hands of the Four Hundred. The Athenian soldiers made Alcibiades general.

Spartans, Persians, and Athenians gathered at the Hellespont. Alcibiades won several victories. He was welcomed in Greece. He enabled the priests to celebrate the Mysteries. He was blamed for a lost battle and left the army.

The Spartan Lysander and the Persian Cyrus overcame the Athenians at Ĉgospotami. Athens surrendered. Her fortifications were leveled.

Suggestions For Written Work

Two Athenians discuss the Sicilian disaster.

Alcibiades describes his life among the Spartans.

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