At the start of the second phase of the decades-long Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE) between the alliances of Athens and Sparta, an Athenian expeditionary force was sent to Sicily to besiege the city of Syracuse. Athens’ Sicilian campaign lasted from 415-413 BCE, ending in dismal failure. Syracuse, with the help of Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies, resisted the Athenian assault and went on to destroy the expeditionary force and its accompanying fleet. With the Athenian efforts in Sicily thwarted, the focus of the war shifted back toward Greece, as the emboldened Peloponnesians pressed to gain naval superiority in the Aegean and the Hellespont/Dardanelles. The loss of sea dominance, however, was something that the Athenians could not abide. Athens’ military, desperate after the embarrassing loss in Sicily and a subsequent oligarchic coup in their flagship city a few years later, made the bold decision to recall from exile the unscrupulous, but brilliant, Athenian statesman and general, Alcibiades. Rejoining the Athenian military in 411 BCE, Alcibiades greatly aided his countrymen’s efforts to maintain a strong naval presence in the Aegean and the Hellespont.
With Alcibiades’ help, the Athenian fleet won a string of victories against the Peloponnesian fleet, led by the Spartan admiral Mindarus. The gem of these successes was the Battle of Cyzicus in 410 BCE, where Alcibiades and the Athenians ambushed or outmaneuvered the Peloponnesian fleet, destroying its ships and killing its admiral. Cyzicus was such a disaster for Sparta that it sent an offer of peace after news of the battle spread. Unfortunately for the Athenians, who could not foresee that they would eventually lose the war, the offer of peace was rejected and the war continued. Perhaps if the Athenians had known just how committed the Persians were becoming toward the Spartan side of the war, they would have spent more time considering the peace offer.
On the Persian-controlled side of the Aegean, the survivors of the Peloponnesian fleet that had been destroyed at Cyzicus were sheltered and provided for by the satrap Pharnabazus. Unbeknownst to the Athenians, this satrap was about to orchestrate a project that would undo most of the damage that Alcibiades had done in 410 BCE. The mercenary and philosopher, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), recounted the event:
“He [Pharnabazus] gave each man a cloak and two months’ rations; and he armed the men who had served in the fleet and put them on guard duty along his own coastline. He then called together the ship-captains and generals from the various cities and instructed the men from each city to build at Antandrus the same number of triremes as those which they had lost. He himself supplied the money, and told them to take the timber from Mount Ida” (Hellenica, I.1.25).
News of the rebuilding of this fleet was no doubt greatly frustrating and annoying to the Athenians, who had worked hard in their attempts to thwart Peloponnesian ambitions of posing a threat from the sea. With such aid from the Persians, the Spartans and their allies were eventually able to gain naval supremacy in the Peloponnesian War and force Athens to surrender in 404 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Agesilaus and Pharnabazus by Henry M. Paget (c. 1856-1936), work dated 1882, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.