The Egyptian Navy IV – New Kingdom Period – Sea Battles

From earliest times the Egyptians engaged in naval conflict. The famous Gebel el-Arak knife, which was found in Egypt and dates to the Predynastic Period, has scenes carved on its ivory handle that depict some kind of armed conflict in which a sea battle is fought out between two different types of ships. This may represent an attempt to invade Egypt, or one stage in a conflict for which one possible entry route would have been across the Red Sea and into the Eastern Desert before passing into the upper part of the Nile Valley.

There were later naval conflicts between vessels and their crews, for example, when the Egyptians captured two Syrian ships during the fifth campaign of Tuthmosis III. In the later years of the New Kingdom, however, the Egyptians fought classic sea battles against an enemy referred to as the “Sea Peoples” in the inscribed records of the conflicts preserved on the temple walls at Karnak and Medinet Habu. They were a confederation of peoples or tribes who attacked Egypt during the reigns of Merenptah and Ramesses III. They probably came from several different homelands, but after the turn of the thirteenth century they were apparently driven southward, perhaps by hunger and displacement. Some groups, however, were known in earlier times, and one— the Sherden—fought as Egyptian mercenaries in the reign of Amenhotep III.

Some Sea Peoples fought as allies of the Hittites against Ramesses II and his troops at the Battle of Kadesh. It was their increased and repeated pressure, however, together with Assyrian attacks, that eventually overthrew the Hittite kingdom. The Sea Peoples then attacked Cyprus and the coastal cities of Syria before moving down through Palestine and joining Libyan tribes to form a coalition that attacked Egypt from the west. They intended to invade the Egyptian coast and then to establish a new homeland in Palestine and the Egyptian Delta. They brought their families and possessions with them, transported in oxdrawn carts. Ramesses III finally defeated them when he blocked their entry by land into Egypt by deploying his garrisons in Palestine; simultaneously, he destroyed their fleet in a sea battle fought in one of the mouths of the Nile.

During the earlier reign of Ramesses II the Sea Peoples had been pressing down into Asia, the Aegean area, and Libya, while a coalition of Libyan tribes—the Tjemehu, Tjehenu, Meshwesh, and Libu—were possibly driven by hunger to invade and settle in Egypt. Ramesses II dealt with these incursions by building a series of forts along the western coast road, but the threat was renewed during the reign of his son Merenptah.

After the long reign of Ramesses II, his thirteenth son Merenptah was faced with several major crises. In year 5 of his reign (c.1231 BC) there was an attempted Libyan invasion. Driven by hunger to raid the western Delta, a coalition of Libyan tribes (the Libu, Kehek, and Meshwesh) joined forces with the Sea Peoples who now approached Egypt from the Aegean Islands and the eastern Mediterranean seeking new homes. They included the Sherden, Sheklesh, Lukka, Tursha, and Akawasha, and they brought their families, cattle, and personal possessions with them.

This coalition, led by a Libyan prince, engaged the Egyptians just northwest of Memphis. Merenptah mobilized his army and after a six-hour battle achieved complete victory. The Egyptians recorded that they took over 9,000 prisoners and large quantities of booty; they also killed many of their enemies, and the Libyan prince fled back to his own people in disgrace.

This conflict is recorded in several Egyptian sources, including inscriptions in the Temple of Karnak and on a stela from Athribis and the famous Israel Stela. This granite stela usurped from Amenhotep III was set up in Merenptah’s funerary temple at Thebes.

The danger posed by the Sea Peoples was temporarily halted, but under Ramesses III it reached a climax. He was the last great warrior king of Egypt although he was forced to pursue a defensive rather than an active policy. In year 5 of his reign he faced a coalition including the Libyan tribes of Sped, Libu, and Meshwesh who were again seeking land in the Delta. The king completely defeated them and took captives who were forced to become laborers in Egypt.

In year 8, however, there was an even greater threat when a confederation of Sea Peoples (including the Sheklesh, Sherden, and Weshwesh, who all occur in earlier records, and the new groups known as Peleset, Tjekker, and Denen) attacked Egypt. They planned to settle in Syria, Palestine, and the Egyptian Delta and once again brought their families, possessions, and ox carts.

This time the action involved a double attack mounted from the sea and land; one group marched down the Syrian coast, accompanied by their families, while a considerable fleet escorted them offshore. Ramesses III mobilized his garrisons in Palestine to hold off the land attack while he prepared his main troops in Egypt. At the same time the Egyptian fleet trapped the enemy ships in one of the mouths of the Nile and destroyed them. In the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu there is an important record, preserved in wall reliefs and inscriptions, of his conflict with these enemies. Details of this victory are recorded in the scenes rather than the inscriptions, providing a unique depiction of a naval battle. Various stages of the engagement are shown in one picture: Egyptian soldiers attack the enemy from the deck of their ship while opposite them an enemy vessel is held in the vice of grappling irons. Its crew is in disarray, and two fall into the water. Another enemy ship is attacked by a shower of arrows shot from the land. The inscriptions record that a net was prepared to trap the enemy. When they entered the river mouths they were caught in it and butchered to death.

These pictorial representations show the Egyptian fleet returning home with numerous bound captives; one seeks to escape but is taken by a soldier on the bank. Thus, the invaders were utterly defeated and the incursions of the Sea Peoples were arrested. Some of the attackers such as the Meshwesh managed to remain in Egypt, however, and became soldiers for the Egyptians. Eventually they were rewarded for their services with gifts of land, and a descendant of this group became the founder of Dynasty 22. Other tribes—the Peleset and Tjekker—remained and settled in Palestine where they eventually supplanted Egyptian sovereignty.

Ramesses III faced a final conflict in year 11 when he again defeated a Libyan coalition of Libu, Meshwesh, and five other unnamed tribes who tried to overrun the Delta. Supported by his forces at the frontier forts, the king engaged in a land battle and expelled the coalition, killing more than 2,000 and taking many prisoners and much booty. The commander of the Meshwesh was captured and killed. The danger of direct invasion by these people was thus eliminated, but their arrival in the region had a profound effect on Egypt and her neighbors.

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The Egyptian Navy III – New Kingdom Period – Ships and Seafaring

The famous Royal Ship of King Cheops (fourth dynasty ruler of the Old Kingdom), more formally known as Khufu, is a perfect example of a papyriform boat. Discovered around 1954, the Royal Ship is still considered to be one of the world’s most outstanding archaeological artifacts. The ancient boat had been dismantled into 651 separate parts, and its nearly perfectly preserved timbers were found in 13 scrupulously arranged layers that were buried in a sealed boat pit which was carved into the Giza plateau’s limestone bedrock. It took years for the boat to be painstakingly reassembled, primarily by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities’ chief restorer, Ahmed Youssef Moustafa (later known as Hag Ahmed Youssef). Once completed, the Royal Ship measured approximately 150 feet in length. The timbers were made of Lebanese cedar while the pegs and other small parts were made from native acacias, sycamores and sidders.

Cedar was not new to the Egypt of Cheops’ time – it had been found in predynastic graves, indicating to modern archaeologists that trade had occurred with Lebanon at least as far back as the end of the fourth millennium BC. Egyptians had what has been termed as an “emotional need” for trade with Lebanon because of that country’s large supply of the invaluable resinous woods and oils so necessary in Egyptian funerary customs. Trade with Lebanon had to be conducted over water, because the Egyptians had neither wheeled transportation nor heavy draft animals, and the brutal desert regions through which they would have had to travel hosted hostile tribes.

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Ships used by the Egyptians have aroused great interest. Sources for our knowledge include inscriptions, detailed representations on tomb walls, pottery model boats placed in tombs, and rare examples of original ships such as the solar bark found at Giza. A technical vocabulary has also survived with details of the various types of boats and their equipment.

The Egyptians were skillful sailors and navigators who had extensive experience with the Nile, canals, lakes, and the sea. The earliest boats were papyrus skiffs for Nile transport, but even in predynastic times elaborate ships with oars and cabins were being built, and there was early trade with other lands. Evidence suggests that a variety of craft were developed for different purposes: There were squat transport ships incurved at prow and stern: long ships; funerary barks to transport the dead across the Nile to the necropolis or to make the journey to Abydos, sacred city of Osiris, or for sailing in the heavens; and barges to transport animals, corn, or stone.

In the New Kingdom, specialist warships were built and several innovations were introduced. After that time, the fleet did not alter much until Dynasty 26 (c.600 BC) when new features were introduced by the Greek and Phoenician mercenaries whom the Egyptians employed. In the New Kingdom, however, the so-called Knpwt (Byblos) ships and Keftiu (Cretan) ships played their part in the Egyptian navy. The Byblos ships may have been specially built in Egypt to go to Byblos on the Syrian coast, or this term may refer to some ships that were made at Byblos and other Syrian coastal towns. It is possible that these were modeled on ships that were captured by Tuthmosis III during his Syrian campaigns and subsequently used as the nucleus and prototype for his own navy. Although it is known that two Syrian ships were captured during his fifth campaign, however, these were probably taken for their cargoes rather than as technical prototypes. Even before the reign of Tuthmosis III the Egyptians had been sailing along the Red Sea to Punt for centuries; they had a long established reputation as excellent seafarers and traders, and they had constructed wooden seagoing ships since early times. It is likely that the name “Byblos ship” indicated its use for traveling to Byblos rather than its place of origin. Also, the Keftiu ship (often translated as “Cretan ship”) was probably the term for a type of vessel rather than any reference to its place of origin or source of influence.

Pits resembling the shape of boats have been found in early cemeteries alongside some royal tombs. These were probably the predecessors of the famous pits discovered in 1954 adjacent to Cheops’s pyramid at Giza. One of these pits has been opened and the contents carefully removed and reconstructed by staff from the Cairo Museum. The pit contained a boat, dismantled into pieces for burial in antiquity, that is now housed in a glass museum alongside the Great Pyramid. Over 130 feet long and made of carved pieces of cedar bonded with small cords, this complete vessel is one of the great sights in Egypt. The second pit will be opened in due course and may contain a similar bark.

The purpose of these funerary vessels is uncertain. One explanation is that they were included among the royal funerary equipment to provide the king with the means to sail the celestial sea in the company of the gods during his afterlife. They may have been funerary barks, however, used to transport the king’s body to his burial place on his last journey. The Giza example provides evidence of great skill in shipbuilding techniques early in the Old Kingdom.

During the Pharaonic Period boats were used for religious and funerary purposes, transporting festival crowds and funerals; for the transport of cargo around the empire (which stretched from Syria to Nubia) and beyond to Punt via the Red Sea; and for military exploits both to fight the enemy and to support the army by transporting soldiers and equipment. There were permanent dockyards inside Egypt as well as at Byblos on the Syrian coast where ships were built for Egyptian campaigns. Wood from Egypt and imported timbers from Lebanon, sent via Byblos, were used in the Delta dockyards.

The ships, sometimes 200 feet in length, were well built and had decks and cabins. In earliest times several large planks lain on each other were held together by pegs or ropes and then caulked with resin. Oars used to propel these vessels were arranged in a bank on either side; in the stern a single oar was mounted to act as a rudder, or two large oars were placed in the fork of the stern posts, and one or the other was raised by means of a rope to steer the ship. The vessel also had a trapezoidal sail.

Within Egypt and Nubia the Egyptian troops were transported by boat. In Egypt’s relations with its northern neighbors the Syrian coastal town of Byblos was of great importance, and Egypt’s close association with its inhabitants from Dynasty 2 down to the Ptolemaic Period was only interrupted when Egypt faced internal problems. Coniferous woods were imported from Byblos and environs (sea pine and parasol pine) and also from northern Lebanon (firs and cedars). The rulers of Byblos not only traded with the Egyptians but provided them with support and ships for their military campaigns.

Sea journeys were also undertaken to the land of Punt. This district, known as the “Terraces of Incense” or the “God’s Land,” was where the Egyptians sought incense for use in their temples. Egypt’s relations with Punt, which probably go back to the early dynastic period, may have involved some military coercion on the part of the Egyptians rather than reflecting a true trading partnership between equals.

The Egyptians were clearly excellent sailors both on the Nile and when they traveled to other lands. Their greatest naval victories over their enemies occurred not abroad, however, but when they were forced to protect the mouths of the Delta against the Sea Peoples and their allies in the late New Kingdom.

The Egyptian Navy II – New Kingdom Period – Organization

Most information about the organization of the royal navy comes from the Nauri Decree and various biographies of officials. These indicate that the recruits (w’w) were professional sailors, often the sons of military families. They usually served on warships. At first they were assigned to training crews directed by a standard-bearer of a training crew of rowers, and then they progressed to join the crew of a ship. No exact information is available about the number in each crew, but this appears to have varied from ship to ship. Scenes in some tombs at Thebes show the sailors clothed in special leather loin cloths (two kinds apparently existed).

On board the sailors were responsible to the commander of rowers; his superior was the standard-bearer. Navigation, however, was under the control of the ship’s captain and the captain’s mates. Their overseer, the chief of ship’s captains, probably commanded several ships. Above the standard-bearer was the commander of troops, a title usually held by older men; this seems to have been an appointment with land-based duties rather than active seagoing duties. At the pinnacle of the naval hierarchy were the admirals, responsible to the commander in chief (the crown prince), who in turn answered directly to the king. Promotion could be either to a higher rank or to a larger ship, and sometimes a man was transferred from a ship to an army regiment. In some inscriptions it is not always clear if the text refers to a ship or to a regiment.

Conditions of service for soldiers and sailors must have varied greatly, and some literary texts describe the miseries of their lives. In contrast to the tough physical conditions they often had to endure, however, there were compensations. In the New Kingdom they enjoyed many rewards including access to booty from campaigns, income from their estates, exemption from taxes, and in some cases royal rewards of gold for their bravery.

The army and navy eventually included both Egyptian professional fighters and foreign mercenaries such as Nubians, Syro-Palestinians, and, toward the end of the New Kingdom, Libyans and Sea Peoples.

The Egyptian Navy I – New Kingdom Period – Overview

A stone relief from Hatshepsut’s temple shows the quarter rudder of an ancient Egyptian Punt ship. Archaeologists and ship designers based their replica ship design on historical images as well as artifacts from the caves at Wadi Gawasis.

The navy was an extension of the army. Its main role was to transport troops and supplies over long distances, although on rare occasions it engaged in active warfare. The sailors were not actually a separate force but acted as soldiers at sea. The two services were so closely associated that an individual could be promoted from the army to the navy and vice versa. During Dynasty 18 the navy played an important role in the Syrian campaigns, when Egypt was establishing and consolidating an empire, and again in Dynasty 20 when the Egyptians repelled the Sea Peoples and their allies. Essentially, however, in wartime the navy was regarded as a transport service for the army and a means of maintaining the bases that the army had set up; in peacetime it made a significant contribution to the development of trading links.

Inscriptional evidence provides useful details about the navy. The record left by Kamose, the Theban prince who helped to expel the Hyksos, relates that vessels were used as mobile bases for military operations in driving out the Hyksos. A wall relief in the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu also indicates that ships were used for fighting as well as for transport. There is also the personal account of Ahmose, son of Ebana, in his tomb at el-Kab, describing his service in the navy during the early part of Dynasty 18. Reliefs in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, provide a vivid, illustrated account of the great expedition to Punt via the Red Sea, which occurred during this queen’s reign. The Gebel Barkal stela is inscribed with the information that ships were built every year at Byblos on the Syrian coast and sent with other tribute to Egypt. Thus, the Egyptians were able to take possession of a regular supply of excellent vessels even though their own country was deficient in building timber.

Byblos also played an important part in supplying the boats that Tuthmosis III took overland to cross the river Euphrates in his campaigns against the Mitannians. He also used ships during his sixth campaign to Syria/Palestine to transport some of his troops to the coastal area, and in his next campaign he sailed along the coastal cities of Phoenicia where he proceeded from one harbor to the next, subduing them and demanding supplies for his troops for their next onslaught. Subsequently, these harbors were regularly inspected and equipped to ensure that they would provide support for the king when he marched inland to extend his attacks against the Mitannians. Even when Egypt’s power declined in the late Dynasty 18, these Syrian ports still apparently flourished.

In addition to these coastal bases, the Egyptians also developed their naval center at home. One dockyard called Perw-nefer was built near Memphis and was probably the chief port and naval base during the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II in Dynasty 18. Ships sailed to Palestine and Syria from this port. There is also inscriptional information (the Edict of Horemheb, Nauri Decree of Sethos I, and Elephantine Decree of Ramesses III) regarding the legal rights possessed by fleets belonging to temples or private individuals.

IBERIAN NAVAL POWER 1000–1650 part I

By Lawrence V. Mott

At the beginning of the eleventh century, one would have assumed the future naval power of the Iberian Peninsula would be the Caliphate of Cordoba. The Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and the counties of Catalonia, were small entities restricted to the northern portion of the peninsula, while the kingdom of Portugal did not yet exist. The Caliphate of Cordoba on the other hand had a highly developed naval organisation, due in large part to the Viking raids of 844. In that year a fleet of approximately a hundred longships attacked and sacked Lisbon, Seville, Cadiz, Medina Sidonia, and Algeciras. They were eventually driven off, but the raids had made an impact on the Muslim government. The response was to establish permanent arsenals and squadrons at the coastal cities along with a series of coastal watchtowers. When the Vikings returned in 859 they found the Caliphate to be a much tougher opponent and, though able to sack Algeciras, they suffered a series of defeats that discouraged them from ever returning in force.

By 1000 a sophisticated naval administration had developed in the caliphate headed by the amir al-bahr, who was responsible for the administration of the port squadrons and the arsenals. As such the admiral was responsible for the security of the entire coastline. The breakup of the caliphate in 1002 saw the office of the amir al-bahr disappear, although it would reappear under the later Muslim administrations of the Almoravids and the following Almohads. This administration would be absorbed when Castile finally captured Seville in 1248 and would form the basis for its naval administration.

Compared to this centralised approach to naval warfare, the Christian kingdoms relied on a rather ad hoc system in which the defence of the northern coast was left to local ports. Part of the reason for this was that Castile and Aragon were occupied with expanding their kingdoms southward on the peninsula. However, by the twelfth century both kingdoms were beginning to augment their naval presence primarily in a response to their growing maritime commerce and the problem of endemic piracy. The line between piracy and commerce was often blurred and merchants often preferred to use galleys, which could quickly switch to an offensive posture when a target of opportunity presented itself.

Whereas the use of the galley for commerce and warfare had a long history in the Mediterranean, it was also the preferred warship in the Bay of Biscay at this time. In 1120 the bishop of Santiago de Compostella hired a Genoese shipwright to build two bireme galleys at the local arsenal to combat Muslim pirates. Muslim pirates operating on the north coast were a continuing problem in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but this was somewhat diminished by the establishment of the kingdom of Portugal and the fall of their base at Lisbon in 1147. The galley would remain the preferred warship in the Atlantic well into the fourteenth century. The most common warship in the major battles fought between Castile and Portugal in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the galley, though by the thirteenth century the northern ports of Galicia and the Basque region were beginning to use armed keels, clinker-built ships based on Viking construction techniques. While primarily a merchant vessel, a keel could be quickly transformed into a warship with the addition of light castles fore and aft. In the siege of Seville in 1248 these northern vessels were used to blockade the Guadalquivir River to prevent Muslim vessels from relieving the city.

The twelfth century saw the expansion of the naval power of Castile, Aragon and Portugal, but these nascent naval powers were not dominant in any sense. Aragon was rapidly expanding its maritime presence in the Mediterranean following its merging with Catalonia in 1137. In an attempt to stamp out the endemic piracy emanating from the Balearic Islands, the count of Barcelona enlisted the help of Pisa in an expedition against the islands. Likewise the short-lived conquest of Almería in 1147 by a combined force from Castile and Aragon relied heavily on Genoese ships. The Portuguese, while having some success at sea against Muslim forces, still did not have a fleet sufficient to threaten them effectively. In 1182 the Portuguese attacked Ceuta with twenty-one galleys, but were overwhelmed by a defending Muslim fleet of fifty-four vessels. All of these states were relying heavily on private vessels for naval operations. While for specific undertakings the monarchies might build some vessels, none of them maintained a royal fleet. In large part this was due to the fact that the states had not consolidated their territories or authority, nor had they the fiscal mechanisms to maintain a permanent fleet.

The thirteenth century would see a number of profound changes in how naval warfare was conducted and organised. Much of the change was brought about by the consolidation of the territorial boundaries of Portugal, Castile and Aragon by the mid-thirteenth century. By 1251 Alfonso III of Portugal had expelled the Muslims from the Algarve, while Castile had captured Seville in 1248 and the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. The result of this expansion was that Castile found itself in possession of two significant coastlines separated by the sometimes hostile kingdom of Portugal. Aragon had expanded rapidly also, first by capturing Mallorca in 1229 and then by the complete conquest of Valencia in 1245. By 1250 the Crown of Aragon controlled the eastern seaboard of the Iberian Peninsula as well as the strategic island of Mallorca. The rapid expansion of all the kingdoms and decreasing open territory also meant that they would soon be involved in naval operations against each other as well as against the Muslims. By the second half of the thirteenth century these monarchies began to solidify their power and authority with attempts to regulate maritime trade and to control and monopolise maritime violence along their coasts. It is no coincidence then that the first state naval organisations began to appear at this time and while they had much in common, they also differed substantially. In a sense, the problems with financing and political authority encountered by these nascent organisations were precursors of the difficulties that would bedevil the Spanish monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Aragon by the second half of the thirteenth century had expanded its interests to North Africa, and in doing so had come into direct conflict with Angevin pretensions for control of the Mediterranean. When the Aragonese invaded and captured Sicily in 1282 they obtained a strategic location and, more importantly, absorbed a naval administration dating back to the Norman period. For a period of thirteen years Aragon was able to operate a permanent royal fleet on a year-round basis. The reason this was sustainable was that the Crown of Aragon was able to establish a centralised naval organisation under the control of the office of the admiral. The old Norman and Hohenstaufen administrations provided an organisation and network of arsenals capable of maintaining a fleet. More importantly, Sicily had an established system of taxes for supporting the fleet so that the crown did not have rely on Iberian sources for funding, which would have been problematic at best. The result was that, until the Aragonese left Sicily by treaty in 1295, the Catalan-Aragonese fleet was one of the most effective naval units in the Mediterranean.

The Crown of Aragon also had the additional asset of an established maritime community in Catalonia that designed and built warships for the fleet. The result was the design of galleys with particularly high forecastles and poops to accommodate and protect the deadly accurate Catalan crossbowmen. This enabled the fleet to engage the much larger Angevin fleet, which used galleys with low bulwarks, and to defeat it on a consistent basis. The Catalan community also provided experienced commanders to the fleet. The combination of the Sicilian and Catalan maritime communities, organised under the control of a central naval authority, proved highly effective and was one factor contributing to the collapse of French ambitions in the Mediterranean during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. However, when the Catalan-Aragonese fleet left in 1295, the system essentially collapsed. The Sicilians lost most of the officer corps and the amphibious units. For the Crown of Aragon it was an issue of finances. From 1285 until 1348 the Crown was constrained by the union of Aragon and Valencia, which restricted the king’s ability to impose any new taxes. This political fragmentation ensured that the Crown would not be able to introduce fleet taxes in any form. Without consistent funding for the fleet, the centralised organisation developed in Sicily could not be maintained in Aragon. The office of the admiral would remain, but it only controlled the Arsenal and ships at Barcelona and did not have the overarching control of the other ports of the kingdom as it had in Sicily. The Catalan fleet was still a force to be reckoned with as the Genoese discovered in the loss of their fleet while fighting for the control of Sardinia in 1353. In 1382 the Catalans would defeat a Milanese fleet, ensuring that Sicily stayed in the Aragonese sphere of influence. However, the inability to impose a fleet tax and a small population base would constrict Catalan-Aragonese naval power.

Battle of Arginusae, (406 b.c.)

Peloponnesian War era triremes.

Largest naval battle pitting one Greek fleet against another. It occurred during the Peloponnesian War. In the spring of 406 b.c. the Athenian general Conon was trapped in the harbor of Mytilene on Lesbos by the Spartan nauarch (admiral) Callicratidas but managed to get word of his predicament to Athens. In 30 days the Athenians readied a fleet of 110 ships, financed in part by melting down gold statues from the Acropolis; to man the oars they recruited everyone of military age, from cavalrymen to slaves. Combined with allied ships at Samos, the fleet numbered more than 150 triremes.

Callicratidas left 50 triremes at Mytilene to maintain the blockade and with 120 ships sailed south to intercept the new fleet. The two fleets met near the Arginusae Islands, off the coast of Asia Minor about eight sea miles from the southeastern tip of Lesbos. The Athenian fleet was larger, but the Athenian crews were less experienced than those of the Peloponnesian fleet.

We have two narratives of the battle, by Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus, which differ on some points. Xenophon describes the Athenian disposition in some detail; they adopted a defensive posture because of the inferior seamanship of the Athenian crews. Diodorus includes the Arginusae Islands in the Athenian line of battle. The accounts of the battle itself are sketchy and do not adequately explain why the Athenians won. The turning point came with the death of the Spartan commander Callicratidas. Xenophon’s statement that he fell into the water and disappeared when his ship rammed another is generally accepted; Diodorus says he was cut down when his flagship was boarded. The Athenians won a solid victory: their enemies lost at least 70 of 120 triremes, including 9 of the 10 Spartan ships, while the Athenians lost only 25 ships. The Spartans abandoned their blockade of Conon, who was then free to join the rest of the Athenian fleet. For a period after the battle the Peloponnesian naval forces in the Aegean were too weak to challenge the Athenians.

Either for failing to rescue the Athenians on the sinking ships after the battle, or for failing to bury the Athenian dead, the eight victorious generals were removed from office and put on trial. Victims of demagoguery, the six generals who had returned to Athens were condemned to death.

Alcibiades (c. 460–404 b.c.)

Flamboyant Athenian admiral during the 431–404 b.c. Peloponnesian War. His ambition, aristocratic lineage, great wealth, and remarkable good looks marked Alcibiades for leadership. Early in the war he participated as an infantryman in the siege of Potidaea and fought on horseback at the battle of Delium. According to Athenian tradition, in the former battle his friend, the philosopher Socrates, saved his life, and in the latter conflict Alcibiades returned the favor by protecting Socrates during the Athenian retreat.

During the Peace of Nicias, which ended the first phase of the Peloponnesian War in 421 b.c., Alcibiades advocated an aggressive policy toward Sparta. Elected general in 416 b.c., he took part in the infamous attack on the small island state of Melos and the resulting atrocities. In the following year he successfully argued for a daring military expedition to Sicily and sailed as one of its commanders.

Unfortunately, his implication in the scandalous sacrilegious activities that had marred the departure of the expedition led to his recall before the fleet reached Sicily.

Fearing prosecution in Athens, Alcibiades himself guaranteed the expedition’s failure when he defected to the Spartans and advised them on how to blunt the Athenian assault on Sicily and penetrate Athenian home defenses. By these actions he severely weakened Athens.

Serving with the Spartan fleet in 413–411 b.c., Alcibiades encouraged an oligarchic revolution at Athens but then cast his lot with the democratic government in exile, which elected him admiral. His brilliant naval victory against the Spartans at Cyzicus allowed him to return to Athens in 408 b.c. and accept an extraordinary naval command. But in 406 b.c. the defeat of his fleet at Notion in his absence led to his final exile from Athens.

Despite this rejection, in 405 b.c. Alcibiades visited the Athenian fleet on the Hellespont to warn them of their precarious position, but his advice was not trusted. This set the scene for the destruction of the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami in the final battle of the Peloponnesian War. Shortly thereafter, Alcibiades died in an ambush in Phrygia, killed either by the Spartans or by a family in revenge for his seduction of one of their women.

 

Lysander (c. 460?–395 b.c.)

Spartan admiral best known for leading Sparta to victory over Athens in the last years of the Peloponnesian War. Little is known of Lysander’s life before his appointment as admiral in 407 b.c. Because of his family’s poverty, he suffered a second-class status. In addition to his talent for command, his homosexual bond with the young royal prince Agesilaus helps explain his rise to prominence despite his inferior social status.

Appointed admiral following serious Spartan naval losses, Lysander established himself at the Ionian city of Ephesus, won the confidence and financial support of the Persian prince Cyrus, and raised a new fleet of triremes. With that force he defeated the Athenians at Notium in 406 b.c. before his nonrenewable one-year term as admiral expired.

After his successor lost his life and half the Spartan fleet in a catastrophic naval defeat off the Arginusae Islands, in 405 b.c. Lysander resumed leadership of the Spartan naval effort as the nominal subordinate of another admiral. With additional Persian subsidies, he rebuilt the Spartan fleet and proceeded to the Hellespont to menace the shipments of grain from the Black Sea region upon which Athens depended and thus to force a confrontation with the Athenian fleet. Several times the Athenians refused to give battle, and with a surprise attack at Aegospotami, Lysander caught the Athenians off guard and captured practically all of their ships and crews. Only 9 of 180 Athenian triremes managed to escape; more than 3,000 captured Athenians were executed. This brilliant victory effectively ended the long Peloponnesian War, because it allowed Lysander to blockade the city of Athens and starve the Athenians into surrender in 404 b.c.

Following these successes Lysander’s aggressiveness toward other Greek states cost him influence at Sparta, as did his cultivation of a personal following and acceptance of improper honors, such as a statue at Delphi and worship of himself as a god at Samos. Frustration apparently led him to plot the abolition of the hereditary monarchy at Sparta, but he abandoned this plan after arranging for prince Agesilaus to become king. Lysander died in 395 b.c. while leading an ill-advised infantry attack on the Greek city-state of Haliartus.