ATHENS AND SPARTA

The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them;they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Although the repulse of the Persians in the Aegean did not end hostilities, it provided the catalyst that elevated Greek culture and society to unprecedented heights, creating the Golden Age of Athens. Supported by a vast commercial system and a most formidable navy which commanded the Aegean and adjacent waters, Athens from the early fifth to the mid-fourth centuries became the focus of urban Western thalassocratic activities, a magnet which attracted learned and ambitious Greeks from everywhere. A partial list of thinkers and artists who reflected this dynamic society (from the sixth century) is stunning in its brilliance: in poetry Pindar, in painting Polygnotus, in drama Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, in history Herodotus and Thucydides, in rhetoric Isocrates, in philosophy and physics Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Zeno, Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Protagoras, Plato, Democritus, and such later universal characters as Xenophon and Aristotle. Like the high Minoan civilization before it, however, the Athenian maritime-centered state of the Aegean rested not on political tranquility but on perpetual tension-first from the continuing external threat of Persia, then that of Sparta and from the directly related internal divisiveness of the peoples and states made subject to the fifth-century Athenian Empire. Although the endless wars of these times would sap the wealth and power of Athens, its intellectual vigor would eventually conquer and Hellenize the entire Western world.

Formed as a voluntary anti-Persian defensive and offensive alliance in 478, the Delian League of Ionian islands and coastal cities followed Athenian leadership in the spirit of Marathon and Salamis to rid the Aegean of the Persians and Phoenicians altogether. From the beginning, however, Spartan refusal to join and Athenian demands for Panhellenic cooperation and tribute brought resentment and revolts by several city-states that had to be coerced back into the alliance. In that very summer of 478 the Greeks improved their strategic position by sending naval expeditions to support a successful revolt against Persian rule over the island of Cyprus and to seize Byzantium, which commanded the approaches to the Black Sea, thus restoring the grain route thence. Two years later another force captured Eion in Thrace, ending Persian influence there and convincing nearby islands to submit to Athenian rule. But other cities, especially Naxos and Thasos, resisted or seceded and over the next ten years were forced to submit, losing their autonomy as a penalty. Under the leadership of Themistocles, until his dismissal for overambitious tendencies, Athens annually added 10 to 20 new triremes to its 200-vessel war fleet and depended upon naval vessels also from several major subject allies. Utilizing a new and stronger type trireme that could carry more troops, the Athenian admiral Cimon crossed the Aegean with 200 triremes in 466, crushed and destroyed the Persian fleet of equal size at the Eurymedon River in southern Asia Minor, then turned to destroy a reinforcing squadron off Hydrus.

The back of Persian sea power thus shattered and the Empire in chaos since the death of Xerxes in 465, Athens in 460 mounted a naval offensive throughout the Eastern Mediterranean which brought on the consternation of the League members who felt Athens had exceeded the original intent of the alliance. Powerful Aegina and Corinth, encouraged and occasionally assisted by both Persia and Sparta, revolted in 459, so that Athens had to fight a two-front war-in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean. With consummate skill, Athenian vessels crushed the Aeginetan fleet and took 70 vessels in a naval battle in 458 and raided the Peloponnesus; ground forces battled the Spartans and Corinthians and conquered Boeotia; and a League fleet cruised to Egypt via Cyprus to assist the Egyptian revolt against Persia. Moving up the Nile, the Greeks brushed aside a Persian squadron and took Memphis, only to be defeated during a Persian counteroffensive in 455-454. This reverse ended Greek aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean and encouraged more Ionian revolts, which the Athenians suppressed in the late 450s. In 451 Cimon used his 200 triremes again to attack the delta of the Nile and then to destroy a major Persian fleet of Phoenicians and Cilicians at the beach of Salamis in Cyprus, though Cimon died during the campaign. By the end of the year Athens, able to conclude favorable peace treaties with Persia and Sparta, stood at the pinnacle of her power.

The end of the hostilities with Persia heralded an acceleration of Athenian culture and overseas trade and the institution of a Pax Atheniana over the Aegean and Black seas-the greatest stability over these waters since the days of Minos. The architect of this period of Athenian Empire was Pericles, an experienced naval commander who directed Athenian naval-maritime policies and codified them in Athenian laws and the Constitution of 432. At the heart of Periclean strategy lay the notion of command of the sea over real and potential rivals: Phoenician and Greek pirates, restless subject states like Samos, and the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. Extending the walls of Athens to include the port of Piraeus, Pericles garrisoned troops in the overseas possessions and drew upon a great fleet of 300 triremes (plus another 100 in reserve) to police Athenian trade routes, keeping a permanent squadron of 60 ships at sea on maneuvers eight months out of every year. Continuing strife and reverses in mainland Boeotia, fed by Spartan intervention, convinced Pericles to abandon any continental pretensions in 446 and to rely totally on Athens’ insular position-the final cornerstone in his logical maritime strategy.

A long-term peace treaty between Athens and Sparta in 445 proved illusory, though, for as Pericles put down several revolts within the empire he alarmed the Spartans. In 440-439, for instance, Samos revolted and received some aid from Persia, only to be crushed in an eight-month blockade and siege by Pericles and his reinforced fleet of 160 triremes of Athens and another 55 from Chios and Lesbos. As penalties, Samos lost her autonomy and navy altogether. Then, in 435, war broke out on the Adriatic coast-Corinth of the Peloponnesian League and Epidamnus (later Dyrrachium, modern Durazzo) against Corcyra (Corfu)- during which, the next year, the Corcyran fleet destroyed or captured 75 Corinthian triremes in a naval battle off Actium, then blockaded and captured Epidamnus. Angered by this reverse, Corinth created a 150-trireme fleet of new and allied Peloponnesian vessels, whereupon Athens gave support-10 triremes-to Corcyra. In the naval battle off the Sybota Islands in 433 Corinth claimed 60 Corcyran ships, but was checked from finishing the job by the Athenian intervention.

Athens’ brief war against a Spartan ally, Corinth, now precipitated the general Peloponnesian War in 431 between the two major powers of the Greek world-already mutually suspicious competitors. For ten years Athens pitted her maritime strategy against the armies of continental Sparta. Aided by allied vessels from Chios and Lesbos, the Athenians used their navy to blockade and raid the Peloponnesus, the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and the Gulf of Corinth, while Spartan and Boeotian armies ravaged the Attican countryside, leading to a strategic stalemate. When, in 429, a Corinthian-Spartan fleet of 47 and then 77 triremes attempted to wrest command of the Gulf of Corinth from an Athenian squadron of 20 galleys under Phormio, he routed it in two successive engagements at Chalcis and Naupactus (Lepanto). However, the cramped conditions of insular, walled-in Athens gave rise to a disastrous plague which claimed the life of the brilliant Pericles in 429. His successors, notably Cleon and Demosthenes, continued his strategy by suppressing revolts in Lesbos and Corcyra in 427, but began to overextend Athenian energies by carrying the war overland into Boeotia and overseas into Sicily.

Then, in 425, Demosthenes brought the war home to Sparta by taking the coastal city of Pylos and offshore Sphacteria by amphibious operations, capturing a Spartan fleet in the process. Athenian warships also occupied the island of Kythera to further strangle Peloponnesian overseas communications, and the theater of active fighting shifted northward to mainland Boeotia and Thrace, where the Spartans tried to cut the Athenian grain routes to the Black Sea. Refusing to make peace following the success at Pylos, Athens suffered sufficiently in the north-where Cleon met his death-to accept a settlement in 421.

But Athens had become so aggressive, particularly under the new leadership of Alcibiades, that cold war ensued throughout the Aegean and finally grew into a full-blown world war. While Sparta crushed a revolt by Argos and other cities, Alcibiades used 30 triremes to virtually annihilate the small island state of Melos in 416 and then to extend the Athenian Empire west to Sicily. Little had happened there until 415 when the cities of Segesta and Leontini appealed to Athens for help against Syracuse, ally of Corinth. The next year Alcibiades and Nicias led a fleet of 136 galleys to Catana, Sicily, followed later by reinforcements under Demosthenes. Alcibiades fled his political enemies by defecting to Sparta, which now rallied to the side of Syracuse and again declared open war on Athens.

An Athenian blockade of Syracuse was broken by a skirmish with a Spartan Corinthian squadron in 413, thus opening maritime communications between Syracuse, Sparta and Corinth. Athens tried to disrupt these connections by stationing a 33-ship squadron off the Gulf of Corinth, only to have it ravaged by 25 Corinthian triremes equipped with a new, reinforced prow for bows-on ramming. Then the Syracusans blocked the 115 Athenian triremes returning to the blockade in the harbor of Syracuse by sinking several hulks at the harbor entrance. There, after several skirmishes, on September 9, 74 Syracusan triremes – all reinforced with the new Corinthian prow-pressed in on the cautious Nicias and aggressive Demosthenes. In cramped waters that prevented the use of their diekplous and periplous maneuvers, the Athenian fleet was roundly defeated, losing 50 triremes sunk to 30 of Syracuse. Trapped, the Athenians scuttled their surviving craft and attempted to escape overland, only to be pursued and captured, Nicias and Demosthenes being executed. Still, the loss of 200 triremes did not deter Athens from raising another fleet and conniving successfully to get Alcibiades back from Sparta to command it. More colonies revolted, Persia intervened on the side of Sparta, and long-quiescent Carthage became involved in the Sicilian theater. The Peloponnesian War had become general.

Because of the remarkable Athenian ability to recover from the disaster in Syracuse and retain command of the Aegean, the issue would have to be settled at sea-for which non-maritime Sparta only slowly and with great difficulty prepared itself. A general Ionian revolt against Athens in 412 resulted from the news from Syracuse, but under the inspired political and naval leadership of Alcibiades between 411 and 407 Athens so isolated rebellious Lesbos, Chios, Thasos and Euboea by his naval and amphibious victories that pro-Athenian parties managed to return to power throughout the Aegean, with Samos being restored as the staunchest of Athenian allies and main naval base in the eastern Aegean. Sparta developed a fleet to cut Athenian supply routes to the Black Sea, but its various inexperienced commanders suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of Alcibiades, in 411 at Cynossema and Abydos and in 410 at Cyzicus, where the main Spartan fleet was wiped out. Alcibiades restored Athenian control over the Hellespont, only to be removed from command by his political enemies in 407.

Sparta built another fleet of 170 triremes, a contingent of which under Lysander won a small engagement at Notium in Asia Minor, and then moved against Lesbos under Callicratidas. This fleet trapped 70 Athenian triremes under Conon in the roadstead of Mytilene, only to be attacked and defeated by a relieving force of 150 triremes from Athens off Arginusae which sank or took 70 ships and killed Callicratidas. By now, the Athenian thalassocracy had degenerated into a military despotism which executed six admirals, allegedly for their poor performance at the battle. By contrast, Sparta placed its fortunes in the hands of Lysander, who cemented relations with Persia and took the offensive at sea with yet another fleet. The Athenian fleet of 180 ships under Conon moved to Aegospotami near the Hellespont to guard the supply route and in 405 was there surprised at anchor and on the beach by Lysander, whose fleet made quick work of the helpless Athenians, destroying some 170 triremes. With Athenian lifelines to the Black Sea now severed and the fleet destroyed, all Aegean cities submitted to Spartan sea power, and Lysander commenced a land-sea siege of Athens itself. In April 404 Athens surrendered.

As long as Athens had followed Themistocles and Pericles in their maritime strategy aimed at commanding only the sea, she had prospered, but Athenian commitments on the mainland and abroad in Sicily had dangerously overextended her resources and irreparably undermined the thalassocracy. With the demise of Athens, maritime stability collapsed in the Aegean, and the victor states hastened to improve their fortunes.

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