Callixenus was the name of an Athenian politician and orator who was involved in prosecuting a case against a group of Athenian generals in the year 406 BCE. To set the scene, Athens had just won the sea battle of Arginusae, in which they destroyed more than half of the fleet of their enemy, the Peloponnesians. Athens and its allies, contrastingly, lost only 25 ships of the 150 vessels that they deployed for the battle. This victory, which should have been a moment of jubilation, quickly devolved into a horrible scandal when a combination of rough storms and poor communication led to a tragic outcome—the crews of the 25 lost Athenian ships were left in the water to die, and adding insult to injury, their bodies were not recovered for funerals.
When news of the abandoned sailors reached Athens, the city became filled with a passion for vengeance. Eight Athenian generals from the battle of Arginusae were ordered to return to Athens to answer for neglecting the men under their command. Only six of the generals willingly sailed home—Pericles, Diomedon, Lysias, Aristocrates, Thrasyllus and Erasinides—the other two fled into exile.
In Athens, the trial quickly became a debacle. The generals blamed their officers and the officers blamed the generals. Grieving families of the dead sailors appeared at the site of the trial to show their anger. Socrates, too, was there, being his usual wise, but inflammatory, self. The most scandalous part of the whole affair, however—at least for ancient Athenians—was that Callixenus and the other prosecutors of the case decided to try the generals in a single mass trial. Instead of giving each of the six generals a separate and individual hearing, as was the law at that time, Callixenus and his comrades in the prosecution were able to arrange for all of the six generals to stand trial together, each beholden to the same verdict. If one was guilty, then all would be unilaterally found guilty. Unfortunately for the generals, the prosecution was calling for the death penalty, and, therefore, the emotionally charged mass trial was deciding whether they would all live or die. Although several men in the Athenian Assembly, such as Socrates and Euryptolemus, did speak in defense of the generals, the Assembly ultimately did sentence the six defendants to death. As the executions were being carried out, however, the Peloponnesian War between the alliances of Athens and Sparta was still ongoing. Ironically, the battle of Arginusae that the condemned generals had orchestrated was the final major Athenian victory in the conflict. From then on, Sparta and the Peloponnesians would regain their momentum in the war and force Athens to surrender by 404 BCE.
Not long after the six Athenian generals were executed, Athens soon regretted how the trial had turned out, or, at least, were ashamed about the manner in which the trial had been conducted. As the heated emotions cooled, and as the Athenian war effort foundered, the anger of the Athenian public began to shift away from the executed generals to the men who prosecuted the case at the trial. In the end, Callixenus and several of his colleagues were arrested and a trial was scheduled. Callixenus, however, would not appear before the Assembly, for he broke out of prison and fled to the Peloponnesians. Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) recorded this tale, writing, “Callixenus, when once the populace had repented, was brought to trial on the charge of having deceived the people, and without being allowed to speak in his defence he was put in chains and thrown into public prison; and secretly burrowing his way out of the prison with certain others he managed to make his way to the enemy at Decelea” (Library of History, XIII.103). Callixenus remained in exile until the end of the war, and eventually returned to Athens in 403 BCE. Yet, his part in the trial had not been forgotten, and although allowed to live in the city, he was reportedly treated as a pariah. As told by the contemporaneous scholar and mercenary, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), “everyone loathed him and he died of starvation” (Hellenica, I.7.35). Such was the fate of Callixenus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), c. 450 BC, attributed to the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.