Monday, November 16, 2009


The Fall of Athens: 406–404
From 410, Athenian fortunes steadily rose. The Spartans now held only Abydos, Chios, and a few cities on the Ionian coast; the momentum of the war had clearly turned in favor of Athens. However, a number of events in 406 would doom the Athenian war effort. The first was the appointment of a new Spartan navarch, Lysander. Lysander would prove to be the best admiral Sparta produced in the war. The second blow was the Battle of Notium. Alcibiades was very popular with many Athenians, but there was still a bitter minority that for various reasons was looking for an opportunity to ruin him. Alcibiades was in command of the fleet at Notium, and one day he led some of his soldiers inland on a plundering expedition. He had left the navy under the command of Antiochus and had ordered that under no circumstances was he to lead the navy out. However, once Alcibiades was gone, Antiochus did exactly that, looking for his opportunity to win military glory. The Athenian fleet found the Spartans led by Lysander and suffered a minor defeat in which Antiochus was killed. Though this was not a major disaster, it was the opportunity that enemies of Alcibiades were looking for. In the assembly, the blame for the defeat was placed squarely on his shoulders, and he was ordered to return to stand trial for negligence. Fearing he would not get a fair trial, he fled into exile, where he died a few years later.

The year 406 did provide one last great moment for the Athenian navy at the Battle of Arginousae, in what was the largest naval battle between Greek fleets in history. Through a massive effort, which included melting the gold and silver from their statues, the Athenians outfitted a fleet of 155 triremes to face 120 Spartan ships. In a huge Athenian victory, the Spartans lost 77 triremes while the Athenians lost 25. Seemingly, in one stroke, the Athenians had regained complete naval mastery of the Aegean. However, the victory did come at a huge price. After the battle, there were maybe a thousand Athenians from the 25 wrecked ships in the water. Usually, when battles were fought close to shore, it was much easier to pick up the survivors. However, this battle was fought in the open sea over a large area, and, to make things worse, a storm hit, making it very difficult to find the survivors. Conditions became so bad that the sailors refused to continue the search. Many of the bodies were never given proper burial, and those men who might have still been alive were lost. In Athens, this created a huge political firestorm. The eight generals were put on trial; all were convicted, and six were executed (two had never returned to Athens, guessing their probable fate). Theramenes and Thrasybulus, who were not in command but who had been involved in the unsuccessful rescue operation, were not convicted but fell into disfavor and were not elected to serve as generals for 405. The Athenians had managed in less than a year to drive out, execute, or keep from office Alcibiades, the eight experienced admirals who had planned the great victory at Arginousae, and Thrasybulus and Theramenes, who had contributed so much to the Athenian recovery since 411. The various blows suffered by Athens in 406 served to negate their one great success at Arginousae and paved the way for defeat the next year. Even worse, when the Spartans offered to end the war in 406, their proposal was rejected by the Athenian assembly. After so many years of war and so much loss, and because of their series of victories since 411, they were now unwilling to contemplate anything less than total victory. An Athenian politician named Cleophon, supposedly drunk and wearing a breastplate, convinced the assembly in very threatening language to continue the war.

The decisive battle of the war took place at Aegospotomae, in the Hellespont, in 405. The Spartans, thanks to the seemingly limitless treasury of Persia, had been able to build a new fleet and had put it under the command of their best navarch, Lysander. After extensive training of his crews, Lysander wished to open the Hellespont as a theater of war to threaten the Athenian lifeline, something Sparta had been unable to do since the Athenian victories of 411–410. The Athenian fleet was based at Samos, blocking Lysander’s route into the Hellespont. He therefore moved west, making a run at Athens itself. This maneuver served its purpose: the Athenians raced to protect their home city, allowing Lysander to move quickly back to Rhodes and then north along the Ionian coast, since the Athenians were no longer at Samos. Lysander entered the Hellespont and moved to Abydos, which was still allied to Sparta, though there had been no navy based there since 410; from there the Spartans attacked and conquered Lampsacus. The Athenians, realizing what had happened, moved to their base at Sestos and then to the beach of Aegospotami, just across the Hellespont from the Spartans at Lampsacus. Unfortunately, overconfidence, stemming from six years of naval victories, and the absence of their best admirals led the Athenians to make a number of blunders. Aegospotomae was not a suitable base: it was only a beach, with no nearby city or sources of water and food. The men had to leave their ships repeatedly to move inland to pick up needed supplies. Plutarch describes an Athenian force unprepared for battle: “They would spend most of the day ashore, abandoning all discipline without even posting a lookout as though they despised the enemy.”

Alcibiades happened to be living in exile nearby, so he went down to the Athenian camp and tried to warn the Athenians admirals that their position was weak and that the fleet should be moved immediately. They responded by saying, “We are in command, not you.”

Each day, the Athenians would sail out and try to provoke Lysander into battle; when that failed, they would return to the beach and then go off in every direction seeking supplies. On the fifth day, the Athenians again tried to bait Lysander into battle, but again he seemingly refused. The Athenians returned to shore, only to find Lysander and the Spartan fleet suddenly bearing down on them. Only nine Athenian triremes escaped; the rest, almost 200 triremes, were captured on the beach along with their crews. Lysander then executed more than 3,000 Athenian prisoners. The Athenian general Philocles faced his fate bravely. When asked by Lysander what punishment he deserved for treating other Greeks so badly, Philocles brazenly replied:

“Lysander do not play the prosecutor in a case where there is no judge, deal out the exact same punishment you would have suffered had you been defeated.” Then Philocles bathed, put on a splendid cloak, and led his fellow Athenians to execution, offering himself as the first victim.

Without its navy, Athens had effectively lost the war. The news of the disaster was brought to Athens by the Paralus (which along with the Saliminia was one of two fast triremes used by the Athenian state to send messages). The news came at night to the Piraeus, and, according to the Athenian historian Xenophon (430–355), who may have been an eyewitness, a “wail” went up from the harbor, along the Long Walls and into the city as the news passed from one person to another. No one in Athens slept that night, so upset were they by the great defeat and also because of their fears of the immediate future as they saw a fate similar to that which they had meted out to Melos as a very real possibility.

Lysander, meanwhile, sailed around the Aegean overthrowing governments friendly to Athens and installing narrow oligarchies of 10 (native) men to rule on Sparta’s behalf. He then arrived outside the Piraeus at the same time the Spartan army, led by the two kings, Agis II (r. 427–400) and Pausanias (r. 408–395), encamped just outside the Long Walls. The Spartans had been unable throughout the war to break into Athens; now they would not have to, for they would wait outside the city until the food ran out and Athens was forced to surrender. By 404, with the population of Athens starving, Athens sued for peace. The Spartans held a congress of their allies to decide Athens’ fate. Some states, most notably Thebes and Corinth, wanted to impose andrapodismos (killing all the men and enslaving the women and children) as punishment for Melos and other atrocities. The Spartans refused, but they did impose harsh peace terms: the end of the Athenian Empire, the end of the Athenian navy except for 12 triremes, the destruction of the Long Walls, and the installation of a new narrow oligarchy of 30 men (which would last only until 403) to replace the democracy. The Spartans and their allies then celebrated their victory on the sixteenth day of the month of Munychion (September 20, 404), the anniversary of the great victory over the Persians at Salamis 76 years before. People came from all over Greece to watch as the Long Walls, the hated symbol of Athenian power, were pulled down. According to Plutarch:

Lysander sent for a great company of flute girls from the city and collected all those who were in his camp. Then to the sound of their music, he pulled down the Long Walls and burned the triremes while the allies garlanded themselves with flowers, rejoiced together, and hailed that day as the beginning of freedom for Greece.


The Rules of Naval Warfare in Action: The Battles of Cynosemma, Abydos, and Cyzicus, 411–410
In 411, with the naval war in Ionia not producing the proper results, the Spartans decided on a bold new strategy: a move against Athenian control of the Hellespont. As noted earlier, the Hellespont was literally the lifeline of Athens, as most of the food for its besieged population came down this waterway from the Black Sea. The Athenians already held many of the cities in the Hellespont and had established various lookouts and patrols to deny the Spartans entry. However, the Spartans had managed to establish a base at Abydos, on the southern shore of the Hellespont, by marching an army overland through Anatolia from Miletus; it now had 16 triremes stationed there. For the Spartans, acquiring the base at Abydos was a good start, but as yet they could not seriously threaten Athenian control of the Hellespont. Mindarus, the new navarch (admiral) of the Spartan fleet, was stationed with 73 triremes at Miletus far to the southwest along the coast of Ionia. He wanted to move these ships into the Hellespont to join with those at Abydos. He knew his arrival there would represent such a serious threat to Athenians’ survival that they would be forced to fight a battle in the confined waters of the Hellespont, which would negate their superior speed and tactical ability. If the fighting did not go well, the nearby beaches would also provide places of refuge on which the superior Spartan marines, possibly with help from the nearby Persians, would have an advantage.

The problem was getting his 73 ships past the 75 Athenian triremes stationed at Samos. The Athenian base was well positioned to see the movement of the Spartans, and Mindarus did not want to fight the superior Athenian fleet in the open sea. He devised a ruse: he carefully organized the preparation for the voyage in such a way as to not alert the Athenian lookouts. He then waited until the last possible minute before ordering his men to leave immediately without the overt preparations with which a long voyage usually commenced. Most likely, the move out of Miletus took place at night, since Athenians did not discover the Spartan departure for some time. Apparently, Mindarus intended to head west into the open sea, skirting the western end of the island of Samos rather than going along the coast of Ionia and the eastern end of the island, where there was only a very narrow channel visible to the Athenians. A storm, though, forced him further west, to the island of Icarus, where the fleet was delayed nearly a week. At some point, the Athenians realized that the Spartans had departed and correctly guessed they were making for the Hellespont; they, too, now raced north to bar the Spartans entry. Because of the delay, Mindarus did not make an immediate run to the Hellespont but set off north across the open sea to Chios, an ally of Sparta. The Athenians learned of this and therefore halted their dash toward the Hellespont and instead stopped at Lesbos, directly north of Chios. The Athenians now expected the Spartans to remain at Chios, since their way north was blocked. Unfortunately, during the second part of the war, the Athenians had two missions that often pulled them in different directions and served to divide their forces, something they could ill afford after the disaster in Sicily. The Athenians not only had to fight the new Spartan fleet and keep it out of the Hellespont but also had to prevent revolts by its subjects, which threatened its tribute. Now, in 411, Eresus, one of the subject cities on the southwest coast of Lesbos, revolted. The Athenians posted lookouts on the east coast of Lesbos and on the mainland opposite, believing they would be alerted if the Spartans attempted to sail past. Then, most of the Athenian ships and men moved to crush the revolt. This meant that the main Athenian fleet was out of position when the Spartans moved from Chios. The Spartans received from their allies on Chios supplies and pay for their men; this provisioning took two days. On the third day, far sooner than the Athenians had expected any type of move, they sailed out. Mindarus did not immediately sail north into the open sea as he had before because he wished to avoid the main Athenian fleet at Eresus. Instead, he sailed east, skirting the promontory of Mount Mimas, to the Ionian coast, far to the south of the Athenian lookouts. The sailors disembarked to eat in the neighborhood of Phocaea before spending the rest of the day moving north along the coast. They ate their dinner at the Arginousae Islands, just out of range of the Athenian lookouts, who were directly north along the coast and northwest on Lesbos. They then waited for darkness and sailed between Lesbos and the coast at night, thwarting the efforts of the Athenian lookouts to detect their passing. They halted again to eat at Harmatus, which was just across the straight from Methymna, a city allied to Athens. If it had been light, they surely would have been spotted, but, again through careful planning and a little bit of luck, they arrived at Harmatus before dawn. The next day, they moved quickly north along the coast until, a little before midnight, they came to Rhoeteum, just inside the Hellespont. It had taken a little less than two days to move 73 triremes from Chios to the Hellespont, and the Spartans had been successful in avoiding detection or confrontation with the Athenians trying to block their passage. For the first time in the war, the Spartans had arrived in strength in the Hellespont. They would remain a threat to it for the war’s duration. The nature of the Peloponnesian War and the focus of the naval battle had now switched theaters.

The Athenians stationed at the base at Sestos, on the Hellespont’s northern shore, were alerted to the Spartan’s arrival by the signal fires from the lookouts and by the sudden and dramatic rise in the enemy campfires across the Hellespont on the southern shore. Now massively outnumbered, the 18 Athenian triremes at Sestos then tried to sneak out of Hellespont to rejoin the rest of the fleet. They left by night and so were hidden from the view of the Spartan base at Abydos as they moved along the northern shore of the Hellespont. However, they did not time their run well, for at daybreak they were still in the Hellespont and were spotted by the ships of Mindarus. The Spartans chased the tiny Athenian fleet, and four ships were sunk; the rest got away. The Spartans returned to Abydos, their combined fleet now numbering 86. Meanwhile, the Athenians at Eresus had finally been informed of the Spartans’ success in reaching the Hellespont despite their efforts. Realizing immediately the threat to Athens’ survival, they raced to the Hellespont, picking up the stragglers from Sestos along the way. The Athenians now had 76 triremes.

Both sides were now ready to fight a major naval battle. Mindarus wanted to fight a naval battle in the confined waters in the hope of negating the Athenian advantages in speed and experience. Also, since the battle would be fought close to land, Mindarus hoped to block the Athenians’ escape out to the open sea and instead to drive the Athenians onto shore and there use his superior marines; he could also use the beach or Abydos as a refuge in case the attack did not go well. The Athenians had to fight as well; they could not allow a Spartan fleet to exist in the Hellespont because it would threaten the shipments of grain on which Athens depended.

The battle was fought in October 411 off Point Cynossema. Both lines of triremes stretched from the north to the southwest toward the Hellespont entry. Syracusans manned the Spartan right, while Mindarus held the left. Thrasybulus, one of Athens’ great naval heroes, held the right wing of the Athenian line, while Thrasyllus, who was responsible for allowing the Spartans to sneak past him in the first place, commanded the left. When the battle began, Mindarus headed southwest to block the Athenians, but even in the narrow channel the Athenian ships were still faster, so Thrasybulus was able to avoid the encircling move and instead get around the Spartan left. He immediately turned back to the northwest, hitting the Spartan ships from the sides and from behind. He broke the Spartan left and then continued north to attack the Spartan center, which had pushed the Athenian center back to the beach. However, the Spartan ships had become disorganized during their pursuit of the Athenians, and they were easy prey for Thrasybulus and the Athenian right. The Spartan center scattered as it attempted to make it back to the southern shore or the base at Abydos. When the Syracusans on the right saw their line disintegrating, they too broke and fled, and Thrasyllus and the Athenian left, which had been hard pressed, now went over to the attack. The Athenians won the battle. Diodorus, a Greek historian from Sicily, described the causes of Athenian success:

The pilots of the Athenian fleet, being far superior in experience, contributed greatly to the victory. For although the Peloponnesians had more ships and the valor of their marines, the skill of the Athenian pilots rendered useless the superiority of their opponents. Whenever the Peloponnesians charged forward to ram, the Athenian pilots would maneuver their own ships so skillfully that their opponents were unable to strike them at any spot but could only meet them ram against ram. When Mindarus saw that the force of his rams was ineffective, he gave orders for his ships to come to grips in small groups or one at a time. . . . The Athenians though cleverly avoided the on-coming rams of the ships and struck them on the side and damaged many.

The Athenians set up a trophy, and the dead were collected under truce. The Athenians destroyed 21 enemy ships. Though the numbers were not great, they had avoided defeat in the battle and therefore had avoided defeat in the war. A trireme was sent to Athens with the good news, and after all the recent disasters Athens had suffered, the victory served to revive the Athenian population. According to Thucydides, “the good news . . . greatly heartened the Athenians and they came to believe that if they fought resolutely, final victory was still possible.”

 In the immediate aftermath of Cynossema, the Spartans were still in the Hellespont with a substantial fleet, significant bases, and Persian support. Both sides now called for reinforcements from home and from their allies and subjects. Triremes raced to the Hellespont from all over the Greek world. Both sides still desired battle for the same reasons as at Cynossema. In November of 411, a second major battle was fought at Abydos. Fourteen Spartan ships attempted to sneak into the Hellespont to join up with their comrades at Abydos. They were spotted by the Athenian lookouts, who warned the Athenian commanders at Sestos. The Athenian fleet sailed out to attack, while Mindaurs and the Spartans at Abydos raced in to protect their comrades. A tense battle ensued that lasted much of the day until 18 new ships appeared from the west heading toward the battle. The 18 ships were Athenian vessels commanded by Alcibiades; when he came into sight of the battle, he hoisted a red flag to alert his comrades that he was indeed Athenian. His sudden appearance at Abydos turned the battle in favor of the Athenians. The Spartans fled back to Abydos after losing 30 ships.

During the winter of 411–410, both sides prepared for the coming campaign season; the Spartans at Abydos, with Persian money, spent time repairing their ships and building new ones, while the Athenian commanders in the Hellespont Thrasybulus and Theramenes spent their time in the northern Aegean collecting money either through tribute or by plundering. In 410, both sides were again willing to give battle. The Spartans moved first, capturing Cyzicus with the help of the Persians. The Spartans now had a base further east in the Hellespont; Mindarus and 80 triremes were stationed there. The Athenians, again recognizing a threat to their very survival, devised a complicated strategy. Their fleet would be led by their most successful admirals of the war: Thrasybulus, Theramenes, and Alcibiades. They moved toward Cyzicus in heavy rain to conceal their approach, then divided up their forces: Alcibiades took 40 triremes and headed straight for Cyzicus, while Thrasybulus and Theramenes remained hidden to the north of the city. When Mindarus saw only 40 ships approaching, he believed he had a great numerical advantage, so he led out his 80 ships. Alcibiades and his ships pretended to flee to the west, dragging the Spartans further out to sea. Then Alcibiades suddenly turned to fight, and Theramenes and Thrasybulus appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Theramenes moved south to cut off a Spartan retreat back to the city, and Thrasybulus moved southwest to prevent a Spartan escape out of the Hellespont. Mindarus realized he was trapped and immediately ordered his men to make for the beach at Cleri. Thrasybulus realized what was happening and devised a new strategy, somehow signaling the other two squadrons to attack the beach. The naval battle turned into a land battle as the Athenians followed in pursuit. There was a long, drawn-out struggle among the ships, but when Mindarus was killed, the Spartans and their Persian allies, now surrounded on all sides by the marines of Alcibiades, Theramenes to the east, and Thrasybulus to the west, suddenly broke and fled, giving Athens the victory. In one of the great laconic messages in the history of war reporting, the surviving Spartans sent a brief letter back to Sparta describing the situation: “Ships lost. Mindarus dead. Men starving. Don’t know what to do.”

The Athenians set up two trophies to commemorate their victories, one for the naval victory and one for the victory on land.

The Battle of Cyzicus, coming so soon after Cynossema and Abydos, was huge for the Athenians. The Spartan presence in the Hellespont was ended, and the trade routes that fed Athens were again safe. The Athenians captured Cyzicus and were able to collect tribute from the city and the surrounding areas. The Athenians also established a new fort at Chrysopolis to tax trade that flowed through the Bosporus, and this became an important source of revenue for the cash-strapped city. Despite the disasters in Sicily, the revolts in the empire, and the new challenge of a Spartan navy, seemingly the Athenians had now weathered the worst of the storm.


The Rules of Naval Warfare - Peloponnesian War

There were eight important rules under which the naval war would be conducted.
First, there were two vital theaters of war: Ionia, meaning both the mainland coast and the islands, and the Hellespont. Ionia was important because so many Athenian subjects were in this region. The Hellespont, a narrow body of water connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean, was the lifeline of Athens; through it flowed supplies and especially food from the shores of the Black Sea that the city needed to survive.

Second, money was vital to a naval war effort. For the Spartans, that meant securing Persian help even if it meant bargaining away Greek cities to Persian control. Persian cash meant pay for Spartan rowers, supplies, and even clothing. The amount contributed was huge: during one period, the Persians contributed 30 talents to keep 55 Spartan triremes in service for one month. Without this money, there would be no Spartan fleet and, consequently, no challenge to the Athenians. For the Athenians, it was vital to control their subjects who provided them with tribute. Their empire ensured that tribute would continue to flow into Athens to finance the Athenian navy, which protected the imports that literally kept the Athenians alive. For the Athenians, continued control of their empire was vital because it provided the necessary funds to finance their navy and offset Persia’s economic aid to Sparta. To supplement their revenues, both Sparta and Athens used their navies to collect extra money from both friendly and hostile poleis. In 411, Athenian forces were operating in Thrace, Thasos, and Macedonia, all in an effort to acquire money, through plunder if necessary. Not surprisingly, the more money plundered or collected, the happier the men and the better their morale.

Third, keeping a fleet well supplied was a very difficult job. Even a modest naval force of 30 triremes would have at least 6,000 men to feed. Money was vital because it paid for the necessary supplies. If tribute collection from states did not suffice, plundering enemy states of money or goods would substitute.

Fourth, it was vital for both sides to protect their allies and subjects from hostile attack so that these sources of goods and tribute would not be lost. This meant helping allied or subject states by providing soldiers or ships when necessary. It was also important to try to detach allies and subjects from their enemy. Various methods were used to seduce poleis. For example, Athens or Sparta could encourage either democratic or oligarchic revolutions through bribery, through a blockade, or by using military force or the threat of force to influence the local people within a given polis to overthrow a hostile government from the inside. Sometimes relatively small forces could bring about the necessary changes; in smaller poleis even three or four triremes with marines might be sufficient. Whatever the methods necessary, it was imperative to win over as many poleis as possible because new allies or subjects could then provide so many things vital to the war effort: supplies of all kinds, especially food, and tribute. At the same time, these things would then be denied to the enemy.

Fifth, possessing and maintaining naval bases was vital to all the operations just listed. A base had to have a good harbor, natural or manmade, to protect ships from storms and from the enemy. The harbor had to be easy to defend from land, and, if necessary, fortifications could be built on the spot. The base must also be close to the enemy or to hostile cities or astride vital sea lanes to permit soldiers to easily spot enemy movements and to launch attacks when the opportunity arose. Bases would provide the necessary space for crews to eat their meals and to sleep, both of which were impossible on board the narrow deck and in the limited space of a trireme. A base would also provide a place to repair damaged ships or merely a place to drag them on to land to dry them out, which was necessary from time to time. Bases could be used as supply depots and also as places to store equipment such as the sails when speed was of the essence. On one occasion, when the Athenians wished to attack Chios, they surrounded the island with a string of four forts: two were placed on the mainland across from Chios, another was built on a small island just off the island, and the last was on the island of Lesbos, to the north. These bases could be used to launch plundering raids on Chios and to intercept any shipping going to or from the island.

Sixth, the gathering of reliable information concerning the enemy’s whereabouts and movements was crucial. Bases could provide a place from which to keep a close eye on the enemy. Small lookout posts could be established in places of vital interest where there was insufficient space to establish a large permanent base. Since fleets usually hugged the coasts, lookouts could be established along the coasts watching well-traveled sea lanes. Because the Hellespont was so vital to their interests, the Athenians stationed lookouts on Lesbos and on the mainland coast across from the island to ensure that no Peloponnesian warships could pass north through the narrow channel towards the Hellespont. They also had lookouts at the entrance to the Hellespont. If an enemy fleet was sighted, they used fires to signal their admirals and the fleet, which were further into the channel, at a permanent base at Sestos. The Athenians also had nine triremes always on patrol in the Hellespont to watch for enemy vessels and to protect their merchant ships. Patrols were often sent out to spy on an enemy or search for an enemy. Information could be gleaned from other sources: neutral merchant vessels or local populations, whether friendly or unfriendly, could be mined for information even if bribery or force was necessary.

Seventh, new naval tactics developed over the course of the fifth century. There was the periplous (“sailing around”), in which fast triremes manned by experienced crews attempted to quickly outflank enemy naval lines and then swiftly change direction in order to ram enemy ships broadside. The diekplous (“sailing through”) was a similar tactic in which fast ships sailed into an enemy line between enemy ships and then suddenly turned to hit one of the ships broadside. The modern trireme Olympias has proven that such maneuvers were indeed possible. Generally, navies with faster ships and better crews preferred to fight in the open sea, where their speed and experience would be an advantage. Through most of the war, the Athenians had these advantages and often attempted to draw the Spartans ships away from coastal refuges. Often, navies would send out small groups of ships first to entice an enemy to sail out away from the coast and then surprise the enemy by having a larger number of ships suddenly appear on the scene. Sometimes entire fleets would sail out in an effort to provoke combat, heckling their opponents in the process; sometimes this type of direct challenge was so humiliating that admirals would feel obligated to fight. Marines also became an integral part of naval war. Hoplites would be stationed with the fleet, as would lightly armed troops and, sometimes, even rowers armed specifically for the occasion. Marines would be stationed on deck to prevent enemy soldiers from getting on board, and they would also seize opportunities to board enemy ships and take possession of them. It was considered a great coup if enemy ships could be captured intact, since they could obviously then be used in future battles. Squadrons in trouble could attempt to outrun enemy vessels, or they could quickly head for shore and beach their ships. They would then rely on their marines to hold off the marines of the enemy and to preserve control of the ships. If things looked dire, sailors often resorted to burning their own ships rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands. Blockades could also be used to trap the enemy ships in a narrow confined space, since without supplies the marines would either have to fight their way out or surrender.

Eighth, naval defeats could never weaken the power of the Spartan army and therefore could not threaten Sparta’s survival or its prosecution of the war. Persian wealth was practically inexhaustible, so the destruction of one fleet simply led to an influx of Persian money to finance a new one. For Athens, though, every naval battle threatened its very existence. After the Sicilian disaster, Athens no longer had the naval or economic resources to absorb more than one major defeat. One Spartan victory and Athens would lose its fleet, control of its empire, and the wealth the empire produced. Without its fleet, and without money to build new ships, the Athenians could not control vital trade routes and the supply lines upon which the city depended. In short, an Athenian defeat on the sea now meant an end to the war.


The half century after the Persian Wars saw a change in the balance of power and political alignments in the Greek world. Athens emerged from the war as the strongest naval power in the Aegean and in the course of the following decades forged an empire with tributary territory in the Aegean, the mainland of Asia Minor and in Greece itself that made her one of the two great powers on the mainland. Her rival was Sparta, the preeminent Greek land power.

The latter’s strength lay in her own peculiar social system, in the military specialists she produced in a world of amateurs and in the Peloponnesian League whose military forces she controlled. By 431 the two rivals had clashed openly and in mobilizing their allies created a conflict on a scale that its historian Thucydides recognized dwarfed earlier wars between Greeks.

The prolonged and exhausting conflict, lasting with pauses from 431 to 404, was a watershed in Greek military, social and political history. The strength of the two protagonists and the length of the struggle transformed warfare from a seasonal activity to one in which at least low-scale conflict lasted throughout the traditionally inactive winter months. Low-level conflict was in fact characteristic of most of the war. Only two large hoplite battles were fought, Delium in 424 and First Mantinea in 418 during a formal lull in the war. There were also large-scale engagements by Athenian forces attacking Syracuse between 415 and 413 but for the most part the traditional decisive encounter did not take place. Much of the low-level activity on the Athenian side was in the nature of seaborne raids on the Peloponnese, and the war showed the limitations of traditional rules of conflict. Because of her dominance at sea and in fortifications Athens could allow enemy occupation of her land without abandoning her food supply, which could be transported from the Black Sea and other grain growing regions. The war also illustrated the limits of that seapower. It could be useful in stalemating an enemy overwhelmingly more powerful on land without being able to bring about a decisive result on its own.

The hard-line policies of Pericles (495–429), Athens’ most influential politician, helped bring Athens into the war. Now he had a plan for how the Athenians were going to survive. He knew that the Athenians were outnumbered and outclassed on land, but the Athenians did have huge advantages on the sea. The Athenians had 300 triremes, and with those of their free allies such as Corcyra, Chios, and Lesbos the number may have reached 500. Sparta had no ships of its own; its allies had maybe 100 triremes. As on land, there was a disparity not just in quantity but also in quality: the Athenian sailors were the best in the Mediterranean.

Therefore, the Athenians would not challenge Sparta in a land battle. Instead, most of the population of Attica, and at least some of their property, would be pulled back inside the Long Walls that connected the city of Athens to the harbor at the Piraeus, five miles away. In essence, Pericles intended to turn the city of Athens into an island, while the Athenian navy would protect Athenian control of the seas; this would allow the Athenians to import all the goods, especially food, they needed to survive. The navy would also maintain control of the empire, ensuring that the tribute necessary to finance their war effort, and especially the expensive navy, would continue to flow into the city. The navy would also be used to carry out offensive missions against the Peloponnesus and other enemy targets. Pericles’ defensive policy of course meant handing over most of Attica to Peloponnesian depredations, so restraining his own countrymen was going to be difficult, yet he hoped Athens could hold out for a few years until the Spartans finally realized that the war was pointless and gave up, in the process acknowledging Athens as an equal and recognizing the legitimacy of the Athenian Empire. Once the Spartans quit, Athens’ other enemies would not be able to fight on alone.

Both sides therefore believed they could achieve their strategic goals. However, as often happens in history, so many unforeseen factors intervene once war begins that conflicts rarely unfold as expected. To the great shock of the Greeks, at least to those who were still left alive in 404, it would take 27 years and much destruction and bloodshed before the Peloponnesian War came to an end.

The Naval Campaign: Peloponnesian War, 413–404
In 415, Athens made one of the great blunders of the war by attempting to conquer the island of Sicily. In 413, almost the entire Athenian expeditionary force was wiped out near the Sicilian city of Syracuse, leaving Athens with barely 10,000 hoplites and 100 triremes. The Syracusan disaster was only the beginning: between 413 and 410 Athens suffered numerous external and internal blows that nearly destroyed the city. The Spartans decided to renew the Peloponnesian War and invaded Attica in 413. For the first time, they built a permanent fort in Athenian territory at Decelea. Many subjects of the Athenian Empire now decided it would be a great time to rise up in rebellion. In 411, oligarchs in Athens, who had suffered the most economic losses because of the war, seized power and drove out the democrats. The Athenian fleet was at Samos at the time of the coup, and, since most of the sailors were lower-class Athenian citizens, they were not at all happy with the change in government. The sailors at Samos then declared that they represented the true government, the democratic government of Athens. So, on top of all the external crises, the Athenians were now literally divided.

In addition to these problems, what would prove in the long run to be the most dangerous threat to the Athenians was the sudden reappearance on the Greek stage of the ancient enemy Persia. By the Peace of Callias in 449, the Persians had essentially agreed to stay away from all Greek lands. Yet the Persians were not content with the new status quo, which gave Athens control of cities that had once belonged to the great king. So the Persians now saw an opportunity to bring down Athens by providing financial aid to its enemies. Persia would follow a similar strategy even after the Peloponnesian War had ended; when one Greek state became too powerful and potentially a threat to Persia, Persia would again intervene in Greek affairs by aiding those Greek states fighting against the growing power. In this way, with minimal effort, the Persians were able to help keep the Greeks weak and divided for nearly eight decades.

In the Peloponnesian War, the Persians intervened in Greek affairs on the side of the Spartans. Specifically, they provided funds to allow the Spartans to build a navy in return for Spartan assurances that in case of an Athenian defeat its subject cities in Asia would be turned over to Persia. Not surprisingly, Sparta kept this part of the bargain secret. Now, for the first time in the war, Sparta could challenge the Athenians on the sea. Previously, neither side could challenge the other in its position of strength, meaning that no decisive battle could be fought. Now the Spartan navy could challenge Athenians’ control of their empire and the trade routes that allowed Athens to survive the long blockade. More important, Persian money was nearly unlimited, meaning that even if the Spartans lost a fleet or even more than one, the Persians could provide more money to build replacements. The Second half of the Peloponnesian War would be very different from the first as the entire dynamic of the war had changed. The outcome would now be decided on the sea.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book: Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800.

Diogo Ramada Curto, Francisco Bethencourt, eds. Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xx + 536 pp. $36.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-60891-6.
Reviewed by Catia Antunes
Published on H-Atlantic (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Jordana Dym

Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400-1600
This collection of essays is a handbook for the English-speaking world interested in the Portuguese expansion overseas, in which Francisco Bethencourt and Diogo Ramada Curto set an agenda for a new set of approaches to the study of the Portuguese expansion. First, they wish to provide a global and comparative perspective of the Portuguese expansion. Second, they want to break with the traditional notion that the Portuguese empire should be studied according to different geographical areas. They give precedence to the exchange of peoples, goods, and cultural values throughout and between the different areas of the empire. Third, the editors refuse to bind their book to a clear short- or medium-term chronology. They call for a study of long-term developments and effects of the Portuguese presence throughout the world. Fourth, Bethencourt and Curto look beyond the political borders imposed by  Portuguese settlements overseas, as well as the relationships established between local and regional powers and the royal administration ad hoc. Finally, both editors refuse to make use of the history of the Portuguese empire as a political manifesto, as has happened in the past. Hence, they suggest the revision of most of the traditional historiography and the construction of new models of analysis that may liberate the history of the Portuguese expansion from its past political constraints.

In order to achieve these goals, Bethencourt and Curto organized this volume in three different parts. The first part of the book focuses on the economy of the Portuguese empire, where the traditional view of imperial economic cycles is replaced by a focus on the circulation of products, the build-up of financial networks, and the development of markets, resulting in the creation of distinct colonial societies within a single imperial framework. This part of the book shows that although there was a direct link between the economic needs of the kingdom of Portugal and the economic cycles throughout the empire, it seems that from an early stage, the empire was able to follow its own economic development, acquiring a certain amount of disentanglement from the kingdom. The Portuguese empire allowed for the coexistence of cycles of agricultural production, mercantile exchange between the colonies and the kingdom, and a certain degree of intracolonial trade. It is in the Atlantic where this combination is clearest.

The metropolis seems to have profited from the empire. If in the beginning of the fifteenth century the forts in the north of Africa were a financial liability, by 1506, the empire was already contributing about 60 percent of the crown’s income. In the beginning of the nineteenth century that had been reduced to about 27 percent, mainly through the collection of custom duties. The income provided by the empire to the crown came from the direct exploitation of royal monopolies, the direct participation in trade, and the direct and indirect taxation of commerce and mining. One distinctive feature of the Portuguese kingdom was that it never became a "fiscal state." Portugal remained an "entrepreneurial domain state," mostly interested in the income provided by agricultural and mining production, characteristics of the Atlantic system.

If the benefits of empire seem obvious, the costs are analyzed at two levels. The ordinary costs were often covered by the benefits and therefore we can generally speak of a positive balance. However, the costs of empire were truly felt through the system of extraordinary expenses. Those were mainly provoked by factors external to the empire itself, as was the case of the costs of warfare or political instability. These extraordinary expenses engendered significant deficits, contributing to the general increase of the public debt.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the understanding of the institutions behind the Portuguese empire. Instead of stressing solely the role of the state, this particular set of articles shows how the state, church, local, regional, and other institutions coexisted in the same framework, competing for both political leverage and economic power. The policy of settlement in the empire is an example of a local institution whose multiculturalism was the basis of an idea of empire, perceived differently in Europe and overseas.

The idea of locality as being the key to institutional power-sharing presupposes what Bethencourt has called a "nebula of power," defined as an attempt to maintain a balance of power between local, regional, and central institutions, all of which competed to control the imperial system. This almost decentralization of interests in the empire promoted the development of an idea of metropolitan centralization on the part of the crown. Therefore, this "nebula of power" provoked a clear seizure between the crown and the "imperial state," being the latter in charge of social control, monopoly of violence and regulation of social conflicts.

The coexistence of a centralized royal ideal of empire and an actual decentralized "imperial state," subject to adaptation and assimilation of institutions ad hoc, shows the flexibility of the Portuguese institutional framework to act in a decentralized manner. Although territorial settlements and political institutions were of great importance in keeping the Portuguese colonial empire together, the church played a significant institutional role in promoting the idea of a diverse, but global empire through four mechanisms: the Padroado Régio, the military orders, the Inquisition and the confraternities.

The third part of the book covers several cultural developments initiated or influenced by the Portuguese expansion. These include the development of the Portuguese language, art, and literary production as means of contact and the transactions among different cultural forms inside the empire and between these and the kingdom.

The idea of a "nebula of power" introduced by Bethencourt is brought up again by Curto when he emphasizes the levels of local, regional, and metropolitan cultural contributions to a concept of empire. Arguing perhaps in favor of a "cultural nebula," the third part emphasizes the complex transactions between cultural diversity, the practices of tradition, and the means of political action, all of them identifiable through the use of the Portuguese language, different art forms, and technological development. Nonetheless, the editors claim the need for new research into the development and formation of different political or cultural identities throughout the Portuguese empire.

This volume of essays ends with a chapter by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose main goal is to place the Portuguese expansion in a global context. According to Fernández-Armesto, Portugal's contribution to global history was that a small kingdom set the example for others to follow, making an undeniable contribution to the construction of an Atlantic world by being the first European country to put in motion the environmental changes provoked by the general European expansion overseas.

Overall, this is a well-balanced book, whose articles fulfill the goals set in the introduction. Its value goes beyond the general information it provides about Portuguese expansion, offering excellent insight and an innovative framework for further research on this theme. This book is particularly successful when explaining the construction of concepts and ideas of empire, giving voice to metropolitan institutions and actors as well as to ad hoc communities, institutions, and societies. However, the collection fails to adequately situate of Portuguese expansion in the general debate about world history, globalization, and the "rise of the West."

Although the articles by Schwartz, Pedreira, Alencastro, Bethencourt, and Curto provide an outstanding basis for further explorations in that direction, Fernández-Armesto's article fails to explain how a reasonably balanced empire, controlled by a small country, was unable to take part in the wealth and prosperity distribution process common to other European empires that succeeded in creating enough socioeconomic and cultural leverage to initiate an industrial revolution and by doing so contribute to the "rise of the West" and a significant acceleration of the process of globalization. The lack of a structural theoretical framework to make such an assessment leaves unexplained the relative economic and industrial retardation of both metropolis and empire as well as Portugal’s possible contribution to a transition to modernity in early modern Europe.