Phormio (c. 480–428 b.c.)

The Modern Facsimile trireme Olympias

Athenian admiral recognized for his skillful use of triremes in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Little is known of the family or early career of Phormio, son of Asopios. By 440 b.c. he appears to have obtained the Athenian military office of strategos, when he shared command of 40 ships sent to reinforce a blockade of the island city-state of Samos, a rebellious member of the Athenian Empire. Some years after the successful siege of Samos, possibly in 437 b.c., Phormio commanded 30 ships on an expedition to the western Greek district of Acarnania and enlisted the Acarnanians as allies of the Athenians. In 432 b.c. he completed the investment of Potidaea, another defiant member of the Athenian alliance. By these actions Phormio helped strengthen the Athenian alliance on the eve of its great war with the Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.

Once the war with Sparta commenced, Phormio played a major role in Athenian naval operations. In 430 b.c. he led 20 Athenian triremes into the Gulf of Corinth and undertook a blockade of the city of Corinth, an important ally of Sparta. In the next year, just outside the gulf, Phormio demonstrated his superior tactical abilities when he decisively defeated a larger Peloponnesian fleet of 47 ships. Shortly after this victory, as he reentered the Gulf to protect his base at Naupactus, Phormio lost 9 of his ships to the Peloponnesian fleet, then reinforced to a total of 77 vessels. With only 11 ships remaining at his disposal, Phormio nevertheless managed to prevent an attack on Naupactus and with a brilliant counterattack dispersed the Peloponnesian fleet. The detailed descriptions of these two engagements by the Athenian historian Thucydides are among the most important sources for modern understanding of ancient Greek naval tactics.

Phormio was a brilliant admiral, endowed with both an innate and harnessed (by 429 BCE, concerning the latter attribute) capacity for adaptive and impromptu tactics in naval combat of his time; a composed and far-sighted man, he discerned the contingent funneling winds and channeled waters in the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth, calculatingly exploiting – and risking – these elements of nature to his advantage. Of course, he couldn’t control the timing that only Mother Nature could, but he could dictate when he was ready to fight immediately upon the arrival of a likely natural element to exploit. The Corinthian transports (the Corinthian commanders were Machaon, Isocrates, and Agatharchidas) were moving west in the Gulf of Corinth to aid the Spartans under Cnemus, who were succeeding on land in Acarnania. Phormio forced them into a clash in the waters of the Gulf of Patras after scouting them as they sailed through the narrow straits between Antirrhion and Rhíon (where since 2004 has existed the world’s largest multi-span cable-stayed bridge!); they saw him, too, and it was hardly foolish for them to deem it unlikely that Phormio would dare attack them with his mere 20 triremes; they numbered in all 47 galleys (often referred to in this context as a ‘Peloponnesian fleet’, which is accurate, just not a ‘Lacedaemonian’ or ‘Spartan fleet’; Phormio would soon handle them, but within a less convincing manner, arguably), and albeit many were laden as transports with inferior crews for more open-water fighting, they could still defend themselves against a smaller quantitative foe of ships arranged for combat, and did had some capable warships for protection on hand. Moreover, the best Corinthians were a match for any other seamen, specific circumstances not withstanding (like a genius attacking them with his ships and adept sailors against their bulky transports). Their conduct reflects pragmatism under the situation, but Phormio’s sagacity and experience availed his terrific crews at the ready to, as stated, utilize the physical environment which could cause contingent obstacles (or assets!), and despite that this was in restricted waters of inlets, he decisively pinned and subsequently attacked them in open enough water; the funneled winds blowing through these straits often significantly influenced the strength and path of the current, thus in turn would create choppy waters, which, naturally, heavier vessels with not highly trained oarsmen (the test applied to them realized such a handicap) are going to be stymied by more so than faster ones with highly trained crews, and – far from a secondary factor – a brilliant captain contriving such precise tactics. The only ‘loose end’ is the brief mention of why these Peloponnesian crewman, mainly out of Corinth, would be so ‘green’.

Thucydides mentions the ‘rough water’ (ἐν κλύδωνι, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2.84.3) which bedeviled the Corinthian and their allied crews in the Gulf of Patras before Phormio moved in to take them out; the action presumably took place just west of Rhíon (modern Rio) and north of Pátra (modern Patras), both of which are located on the southern shore, and south of Antirrhion (modern Antirrio). The Athenian trophy was placed at Rhíon; the Corinthians and Co. had formed a circle with prows outwards, hence precluding Phormio to penetrate any gaps in their arranged order (the diekplous tactic of ‘crossing the Ts’ – viz., the maneuver which consisted in forcing a way through the enemy’s line and attacking the broadside or stern of his ships), but he moved round and round them until the morning wind rose before he launched his decisive attack. Both acts of nature and Athenian seamanship consequently creating a condition nearly impossible for the Peloponnesian vessels to maintain their defensive order, and, added to that, Phormio’s precision of maneuver before he actually attacked compelled them to compress themselves into an increasingly narrower space, hence exacerbating that handicap. At the right time (not too soon nor too late, the best he could calculate) he assailed them, winning a smashing victory. Absolutely sublime, albeit such conduct entails risk: if they had attacked outwards with their own sense of correct timing, he could have been dealt trouble upon his flanks by the ‘five best sailors’ who were issued to strike out at ‘at a moment’s notice and strengthen any point threatened by the enemy’ (Thucydides, Book 2.83.5). But whatever the acute details of action and conduct, Phormio was too fast (context alert: the ‘rough water’ didn’t allow him to attack with full stability, either) and decisive for them. They don’t make ’em like that often. Boy, they could have used him in 415 BCE!

After leading a second expedition into Acarnania from Naupactus during the winter of 429–428 b.c., Phormio returned to Athens. In 428 b.c. Phormio was unavailable for another command. This may be attributed either to his illness or death, possibly from the plague that ravaged Athens, or to his loss of civic rights following a judgment against him in the examination to which Athenian commanders were normally subject at the expiration of their commands.

Hornblower, Simon. A Commentary on Thucydides. Vol. 1. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Morrison, John S., John F. Coates, and N. Boris Rankov. The Athenian Trireme. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Various editions.


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