The Athenian expedition to Sicily was destroyed in 413 BCE, leaving Athens militarily weakened and extremely demoralized. Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies hoped to exploit Athens’ moment of vulnerability by sending out Peloponnesian fleets and armies to inspire revolts among cities in the Athenian Empire. The Peloponnesians, encouraged by Persian support, first began by promising aid to cities in or around Ionia, including Miletus, Clazomenae, Mitylene and Cnidus, as well as islands such as Chios, Lesbos and eventually Rhodes. A Spartan admiral (nauarch) named Astyochus was appointed as supreme commander of the Peloponnesian naval forces and tasked with organizing the new overseas operations. Unfortunately, he quickly proved himself to be the stereotypical slow and overcautious Spartan. Although Sparta received a line of eager ambassadors from cities ready to rebel against Athens, Admiral Astyochus seemed unwilling or unable to intercept Athenian fleets heading toward Ionia or to adequately protect the rebel cities when the Athenian forces arrived to crush the rebellions.
Eventually, Sparta appointed a council of eleven officers to advise (and, if needed, overthrow) the sluggish admiral. If the council agreed unanimously, they had the power to remove Astyochus from office. These officers set sail for Ionia independently from the rest of the Peloponnesian fleet and eventually anchored at the city of Caunus. Interestingly, it was while Astyochus was sailing with his fleet of sixty-seven ships along the coast of Anatolia to meet with this oversight counsel that the admiral won one of his few victories at sea.
After raiding Cos and then stopping by the allied city of Cnidus, Astyochus learned that a fleet of twenty Athenian ships was patrolling through the islands off the coast of southwest Anatolia, searching for the Spartans officers who had just sailed to Caunus. Astyochus, upon hearing this news, decided to sail with his fleet into a dark and cloudy night, reportedly in hopes of catching the Athenians by surprise. Yet, a skeptic might also say he wanted to avoid his enemies in the cloudy darkness. Whatever the case, Astyochus continued on his journey and sailed toward the island of Syme in the middle of the night. During this nighttime journey, the clouds condensed into a storm and scattered Astyochus’ fleet. The separated ships became lost in the darkness, and, by morning, several fragments of the Peloponnesian fleet found themselves alone in the sea.
As luck would have it, the Athenian patrol happened to also reach Syme that very morning. The Athenians spotted a small group of Peloponnesian ships and, not seeing any other hostile vessels close by, decided to immediately attack. Yet, the storm had not scattered the Peloponnesian fleet too far apart. When the sounds of sailors shouting and hulls clashing began to emanate from Syme, the other individual ships of the Peloponnesian fleet began making their way toward the noise of battle. Astyochus’ scattered sailors closed in on Syme from all directions, eventually surrounding the horrified Athenians in a tightening ring of hulls. As more and more of the sixty-seven Peloponnesian ships arrived at the site of the battle, the Athenians decided it was time to detach themselves from the fray and sail away. The majority of the Athenians did successfully flee, but six ships were lost during the battle or in the escape.
After his unplanned victory at Syme, Astyochus met up with his council of advisors at Caunus and continued on with his overcautious methods at sea. As more and more rebel cities fell or faced difficulties in the absence of effective aid, the Peloponnesian forces began to grow ever more mutinous toward their admiral. Astyochus was removed from his command before the end of 411 BCE and replaced with Mindarus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (19th-century depiction of the Athenian Navy from the Peloponnesian War, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book VIII) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.