In 406 BCE, Eteonicus was a trusted officer serving under the Spartan nauarch (or admiral), Callicratidas. Together, they campaigned against Athenian positions in the vicinity of Ionia, Chios and Lesbos. At that last island, Callicratidas’ fleet of approximately 140-170 ships defeated an Athenian garrison at the city of Methymna and followed that up by cornering a small fleet of Athenian ships, led by a general named Conon, within the city of Mytilene. Although Callicratidas attempted to besiege the city by land and to blockade its port by sea, Conon still managed to successfully send out a plea for help. Athens and its allies heeded the call, quickly pulling together a new fleet of around 150 ships to rescue Conon. When Callicratidas learned of this fleet, the Spartan nauarch decided to make a bold move—he sailed off with around 120 or 140 ships in hopes of intercepting the incoming Athenians. Before setting sail, however, Callicratidas put Eteonicus in charge of the remaining ships (between 30-50), and tasked him with keeping up pressure on Mytilene until the rest of the fleet could return.
Unfortunately for Callicratidas, his decision to split up his numerically superior fleet proved to be a mistake. The Spartan nauarch clashed with the new Athenian force at the Arginusae Islands, and the battle went abysmally for the Spartan side. Callicratidas was killed in action and over 70 ships—more than half of the fleet he brought to the battle—were lost. Contrastingly, Athens and its allies reportedly lost only 25 of the 150 ships that they deployed at the Battle of the Arginusae Islands.
When Eteonicus learned the depressing results of the battle, he knew that he needed to promptly withdraw the ships and troops under his command away from Mytilene. Yet, he also knew that he needed to be careful in how he explained the situation to his forces—morale could plummet and mutinies might arise if he blatantly told the sailors that their admiral was dead, half the fleet was destroyed, and around 125 Athenian ships would soon arrive at Mytilene. Eteonicus, unwilling to face the possible chaos and confusion that might have occurred if he told the truth, reportedly decided to instead lie to his troops until he brought them to safety. The scholar and mercenary, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), wrote of what he heard about Eteonicus’ curious deception:
“A fast dispatch-boat had reached Eteonicus and given him the full story of what happened in the battle. Eteonicus ordered the boat to sail away and told those aboard to sail out quietly and not to say a word to anyone while they were leaving the harbour; they were then to sail right back again to his fleet, wearing garlands and shouting out that Callicratidas had won a great victory and that the whole Athenian fleet had been destroyed. They carried out these instructions and, as they came sailing in, Eteonicus began to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving for the good news. He told the soldiers to take their meal, and ordered the traders to put their goods quietly aboard their ships and then set sail (as the wind was in the right quarter) for Chios; the triremes were to follow at full speed. He himself set fire to the camp and led the army back to Methymna” (Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.6.36-38).
Through such trickery, Eteonicus was apparently able to orchestrate an orderly retreat, sending his fleet to Chios and leading the surplus warriors by land to friendly cities in Lesbos. After seeing to the garrisons of Spartan-aligned cities on the island, Eteonicus left Lesbos to rejoin the fleet in Chios. Although the Battle of the Arginusae Islands was a major blow to Sparta and its allies, they quickly rebuilt their fleet through the generous aid of Persia and forced Athens to surrender in 404 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (19th-century woodcut print of a Peloponnesian War era fleet, [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).