Sparta, Athens, and their respective leagues of allies brawled for decades in the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE), fighting on land and sea from the coastal cities of Anatolia, to the Greek colonies in Sicily. Advantage and momentum fluctuated often during the war, but the Spartan leader, Lysander (and his Persian-funded fleet), was able to deal a decisive, war-ending blow to the Athenians at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE. In the battle, Lysander caught approximately 180 enemy ships completely off guard. Of all the many Athenian ships at Aegospotami, only 8 or 9 were said to have been able to escape from Lysander’s clutches. After the battle, Lysander executed his Athenian prisoners, forced a few nearby cities to surrender, and then sailed for the city of Athens, which was promptly besieged. After months of negotiating, the hungry and tired city of Athens surrendered to Sparta.
Despite Athens’ surrender, there was still some fighting spirit left on the island of Samos, which had been used by the Athenians and their allies as a strategic base during the final years of the Peloponnesian War. How much military might was left on Samos at that time is unknown, but it was apparently enough for local leaders and officers to contemplate carrying on the war. Nevertheless, when Lysander blockaded the island and began preparing for an assault, the defenders of Samos started to reconsider their stance. The ancient Greek scholar and mercenary, Xenophon (420-350 BCE), described the situation:
“The people of Samos were now completely blockaded by Lysander. At first they refused to come to terms, but when Lysander was on the point of launching a general assault, they came to an agreement that every free man should be allowed to leave, keeping just one cloak; everything else was to be surrendered. On these conditions they left the city. Lysander gave it back with everything it contained to the exiled party and appointed a governing body of ten men to see to its security. He then dismissed the naval contingents of his allies to their various cities and himself sailed to Sparta with the Laconian ships…So ended the twenty-eight years and six months of the war” (Xenophon, Hellenica, II.3.6-9).
It was only after the problem at Samos was resolved that the bulk of the Peloponnesian alliance’s military could be disbanded and sent home. Yet, armies would soon need to be mustered again. Sparta, emboldened by their victory over Athens, would overextend and (as the saying goes) bite off a bit more than they could chew. The Spartans would unsuccessfully try to help Greek-populated cities in Anatolia rebel against Persia, and this would be followed by the Corinthian War (395–387 BCE), and Epaminondas of Thebes’ dismantling of Spartan dominance between 371-362 BCE. Curiously, a hostage in Thebes at the time of Epaminondas was Philip II (eventual king of Macedon, r. 359-336), who would lead the Macedonians to dominance in Greece.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chalcedony scaraboid with a ship engraving, dated c. 525–500 BC, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.