In 411 BCE, the once-mighty Athens was in a dire state. Two years prior, Athens had lost tens of thousands of lives (including a few of its greatest generals) and over a hundred ships in their ill-fated expedition to Sicily. Now, with Peloponnesian strength growing and Persian interest in the massive Greek civil war increasing, a group of Athenian officers launched a remarkably ill-timed coup. In 411, conspirators in military and political spheres overthrew the Athenian democracy and, through assassination and intimidation, succeeded in setting up a group of oligarchic leaders in Athens, calling themselves the Four Hundred. Yet, the oligarchs underestimated the pro-democracy passion of the Athenian military and also did not take into account the jealousy that would be felt by the lower ranking oligarchs who were unsatisfied with the power they were allotted after the coup. Ultimately, although the Four Hundred did indeed capture Athens, they were bitterly opposed by the Athenian military (which camped at Samos). At the same time, disgruntled and disillusioned oligarchs plotted against their superiors.
In was at this time, while the Athenian military was in rebellion against the oligarchic government, and while the Athenian people were terrorized by the thoughts of government informants and assassins, that a reported fleet of forty-two Peloponnesian ships sailed past Athens. The enemy fleet continued along the shoreline of Attica, heading up to the Gulf of Euboea and eventually anchoring in Oropus, on the southern coast of the gulf. The Athenians rightly feared that the Peloponnesian fleet would cut off their access to Euboea and could inspire revolts against Athens in the region. The fear was so powerful that the rival oligarchic factions worked together to mobilize ships to drive off the Peloponnesians. Yet, since the proper Athenian military refused to acknowledge the oligarchs, the city of Athens could only manage to mobilize thirty-six ships, manned by inadequately-trained sailors and undistinguished officers, and sent them off without much in the way of rations.
The Athenian fleet of thirty-six ships pursued the Peloponnesians into the Gulf of Euboea. As the Peloponnesians had anchored on the southern shore, the Athenians instead sailed to the north and stopped at the Euboean city of Eretria. With no food onboard their ships and no supply-line set up, the Athenian sailors disembarked and wandered through Eretria in search of food. According to the historian and Athenian general, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the Eretrians had all of their food stockpiled inland, far away from the coast. Yet, the locals began cooking and serving this food for the Athenians in houses near the inland storehouses.
Although the Eretrian picnic for the Athenian sailors may have seemed friendly, it was all a calculated trap. After Athens suffered its catastrophe in Sicily, many cities under Athenian authority reached out to the Peloponnesians for support in potential rebellions against Athens. Eretria was evidently one such city that wanted to be free from Athenian control. Unfortunately for the Athenian sailors, the Eretrians had been in contact with the Peloponnesian fleet in Oropus and had coordinated a plan on what to do if the Athenians should drop anchor at Eretria. With everything going as planned, the Eretrians somehow signaled to the Peloponnesians, perhaps with smoke from their cooking fires, indicating to the fleet in Oropus that the Athenians were distracted and away from their ships. Seeing this signal, the Peloponnesian fleet set sail and crossed over to the harbor of Eretria before the Athenians ever realized that their foes were on the move.
When the Athenian commander, a certain Thymochares, finally saw that the Peloponnesians were just outside the harbor, he pulled his sailors away from their meals and herded them frantically back to the ships. The surprised and unprepared Athenian fleet sailed out to meet the Peloponnesians and were said to have held their ground for some time. Yet, the Athenian defenses eventually began to give way, and then shattered completely. The defeated sailors fled in at least three directions: some toward a nearby Athenian fort in Euboea, others toward Chalcis, and a third group unfortunately returned to Eretria. By this point, however, the Eretrians were no longer pretending to be friendly, and they slaughtered the unfortunate Athenians who fled back to the city.
According to Thucydides, the Athenian oligarch fleet lost at least twenty-two of their thirty-six ships in the disastrous sea battle at Eretria. In the aftermath of the battle, nearly all of the Euboean cities rebelled against Athens. Yet, the disaster did have one benefit for Athens—it was ammunition that lesser members of the oligarchy could use against the leading oligarchs. Before the end of 411 BCE, the so-called Four Hundred was overthrown and was replaced by the more inclusive Five Thousand, which could be joined by any Athenian man who had the means to purchase a full set of heavy infantry hoplite gear. The Five Thousand became more democratic through reform and eventually gained the approval of the Athenian military, reuniting the city of Athens with its armed forces.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Triremes depicted in Ship: The New Student’s Reference Work, v. 4, 1914, [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.