Conon (or Konon) was an Athenian military leader who was involved in the complicated geopolitical chaos after the end of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta and their respective alliances. During the main conflict, Sparta and Persia had often worked together against Athenian interests. After the war’s conclusion, however, Sparta and Persia quickly had a falling out. A spark was the death of the Persian ruler, Darius II in 404 BCE, which resulted in a civil war between the new ruler, Artaxerxes II, and his rebellious brother Cyrus the Younger. Many of the Greek settlements in Anatolia joined the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, but he was defeated and killed by the forces of his brother in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE). Following Cyrus’ death, the Greek settlements involved in the rebellion refused to rejoin the Persian Empire, and instead launched an independence movement. Sparta, instead of supporting its former ally, Persia, now seized the opportunity to intervene on behalf of the Greek settlements. Sparta sent multiple armies to aid the Greeks in Anatolia against the Persians, and the newly crowned King Agesilaus II of Sparta (r. 400-360 BCE) took a personal role in overseeing the campaign.
Sparta, fresh off victory in the Peloponnesian War and now throwing its weight around in the Aegean, was—as the saying goes—feeling on top of the world. Yet, the entity at the top always has to be wary of being knocked off the pedestal by rivals. Sparta, suffice it to say, had many such opponents. While the Spartans were busy battling the Persians on the other side of the Aegean, a new anti-Spartan alliance began forming between Athens, Corinth, Argos and Boeotian cities. In what would come to be known as the Corinthian War (c. 395–387), this alliance began actively fighting against the Spartans in 395 BCE, and as an enemy of an enemy can be a friend, the anti-Spartan forces found the Persians to be a willing partner to the alliance.
Conon, the aforementioned Athenian leader, was given the curious opportunity to jointly-command a Persian fleet alongside the Persian satrap, Pharnabazus. As King Agesilaus II of Sparta was repositioning himself for a war in Greece, Conon’s fleet of Athenians and Persians was able to intercept a Spartan naval force led by Peisander near Cnidus (or Knidos). There, the Spartans were dealt a decisive defeat in 394 BCE, and Peisander did not survive the battle. Plutarch (c. 50-120), in his Life of Agesilaus, described the Spartan king receiving news of the disastrous sea battle as he marched his forces toward war: “Agesilaus marched through the pass of Thermopylae, crossed the territory of Phocis, which was friendly to him, and then on entering Boeotia pitched camp near Chaeronea. He observed a partial eclipse of the sun, and at the same time learned of the death of Peisander, who had been defeated in a sea-battle off Cnidus by Pharnabazus and Conon. He was naturally very distressed at the news, for both Peisander’s sake and that of the state” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Agesilaus, chapter 17).
Conon, following his victory, returned to Athens and began a great building campaign. He rebuilt the famed walls and fortifications of the Athenian port at Piraeus, and he also added a temple there, with links to Cnidus, as a memorial for his recent battle. The traveling Greek scholar, Pausanias (c. 2nd century), wrote of the temple that Conon constructed at Piraeus, stating, “Beside the sea stands a Sanctuary of Aphrodite built by Konon when he overpowered a Spartan battle fleet off Knidos in the Carian peninsula. The Knidians pay special worship to Aphrodite and have sanctuaries of the goddess; the most ancient belongs to Aphrodite of Gifts, the next to Aphrodite of the Cape, and the most recent to Knidian Aphrodite as most people call her, though the Knidians call her Aphrodite of Good Sailing” (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.1.3). A temple to a goddess of good sailing was, indeed, a good choice of memorial after a victorious sea battle. Nevertheless, the Athenian general’s career from then on was anything but blessed. He had a falling out with the Persians, resulting in his imprisonment, and he is said to have died in 390 BCE.
As for Athens and its war effort, defeating Spartans at sea and defeating Spartans on land were two entirely different tasks, especially when the masterful tactician, Agesilaus II, was at the head of the Spartan force. The Spartan king aggressively campaigned against the coalition forces, especially putting pressure on Corinth and the region of Acarnania. King Agesilaus II’s campaigns resulted in the differing factions agreeing to the Peace of Antalcidas in 387 BCE, ending the war in Sparta’s favor. Yet, although Sparta was at its height of power, the war had also emboldened the forces of Thebes, as they discovered they performed better than expected against Sparta’s famed warriors. This paved the way for Thebes and its brilliant military leader, Epaminondas (c. 410-362 BCE), to later humble Sparta on the battlefield and break Spartan dominance in Greece.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts, by Jacopo di Arcangelo (called Jacopo del Sellaio, ca. 1465), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1: Central Greece, translated by Peter Levi. Penguin Group (Penguin Classics), 1971, 1979.
- On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.