Callicratidas was a good-natured, but militarily inexperienced, Spartan officer. In 406 BCE, he was appointed nauarch (a one-year title similar to that of admiral), in charge of the navies of Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). Although Callicratidas showed promise, his appointment to the office of nauarch was met with hostility by many of the officers in the alliance navy. Much of the opposition against the new nauarch had to do with Callicratidas’ formidable predecessor, Lysander—the Spartan officer whose crafty strategies and willingness to make brutal decisions would eventually lead Sparta to victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Lysander had spent his term as nauarch doing such deeds as repairing and modifying the Spartan alliance’s fleet, negotiating with the Persians for them to increase their military aid to Sparta, and, finally, winning a naval victory against an Athenian fleet at Notium in 406 BCE. Therefore, the momentum of the Spartan fleet was just starting to build under Lysander when his term as nauarch expired and Spartan law forced him to give up his command.
Callicratidas, whose talents apparently came from training instead of battlefield experience, needed time to adjust on the job. Yet, Callicratidas found his officers to be anxious and restless during this period of adjustment. It also did not help that Lysander had apparently set obstacles in Callicratidas’ path to sabotage the new nauarch’s term. Within the military and back in Sparta, Lysander and his friends were said to have waged a propaganda war against Callicratidas, criticizing his inexperience and leadership. In a more tangible blow to the new nauarch’s war effort, Lysander had also supposedly sent a portion of Persia’s financial aid back to the Persians, which forced Callicraticas to spend the first part of his term fundraising instead of campaigning against the enemy. Yet, after obtaining his funding and pulling together a fleet between 140 and 170 ships strong, Callicratidas began his campaigns, targeting Athenian-aligned cities in Ionia, and the islands of Chios and Lesbos.
Callicratidas first led his fleet in an attack against an Athenian fortress at the city of Delphinium, in Chios. A much more forgiving man than Lysander, Callicratidas reportedly allowed the garrisoned warriors at Delphinium to surrender and walk away from the fortress with their lives. After the Athenians retreated, Callicratidas demolished the fort and embarked his troops back onto their ships for their next attack. Teos, in Ionia, was the new target, and the Peloponnesian fleet raided the place before sailing on to the island of Lesbos. There, Callicratidas first defeated an Athenian garrison in Methymna, and then redirected his fleet toward the city of Mytilene. At that city, the Peloponnesian fleet spotted an Athenian leader named Conon, who was commanding around 70 ships. The larger Peloponnesian fleet chased Conon into Mytilene’s harbor. During that push, Callicratidas reportedly destroyed or captured 30 of Conon’s ships. With the Athenians cornered in Mytilene, the Peloponnesians besieged the city by land and blockaded the harbor from the sea.
At this point, some of Callicratidas’ inexperience began to show. The siege and blockade that he set up was not effective enough to prevent the Athenian general, Conon, from sending out messengers to find help. When news of Conon’s predicament reached Athens, the city and its allies quickly mustered a fleet of around 150 ships, which were sent to the vicinity of Lesbos to aid the Athenians stuck in Mytilene. While this relief force was still en-route, Callicratidas became aware of its existence. With this knowledge, the Spartan nauarch made a curious decision—he chose to split his forces in two. Callicratidas left an officer named Eteonicus behind at Mytilene with enough ships and men to continue the siege of the city, while the nauarch, himself, sailed off with around 120 to 140 ships in hopes of intercepting the incoming Athenians. Callicratidas obtained his wish, and the two large fleets clashed at the nearby Arginusae Islands. Callicratidas’ lack of naval experience, however, proved costly in this instance. The Battle of the Arginusae Islands turned out to be a devastating defeat for the Peloponnesians. Over 70 of Callicratidas’ ships were reportedly lost—more than half of the fleet—and Callicratidas, himself, died in battle. Contrastingly, the Athenian fleet was said to have lost the much-more-manageable number of 25 ships. When news of this defeat reached Eteonicus, he had to promptly end the siege of Mytilene in order to flee to safer waters, and the Peloponnesian coalition would need to rebuild their navy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Salamis, painted by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (c. 1805–1874), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).