The Battle of Arginusae: Victory at Sea and its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War. Debra Hamel. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.
Strategists have been studying the Peloponnesian War since Thucydides first put pen to scroll. As a war that spanned more than a generation, one can focus on its strategy in its entirety, or study one of its many parts. Without a doubt, one of the most controversial events of the war was the Athenian naval victory at Arginusae that became one of the most infamous chapters in the history of ancient Athens.
Debra Hamel aims The Battle of Arginusae perfectly at a generalist audience with no expertise in Greek history. She gives all the background one needs to understand the Athenian-Spartan rivalry. She traces the story from the second Persian war to 406 BCE when the Athenians launched the fleet that would fight at Arginusae. Combining an eminently readable style with discussion of the tactical intricacies of Greek naval warfare is not easy, but she brings life to the events by recreating the claustrophobic and unhygienic conditions in which the ships crews operated.
The win at Arginusae paradoxically resulted in one of the worst disasters to befall the Athenians during the twenty-seven year war. Because of incompetent leadership, a sudden storm, and the weariness of the sailors, the commanders on the scene failed to rescue the crews of twenty-five Athenian ships that had been disabled during the battle. Thousands of men, many of them injured, were left clinging to the wreckage of their ships only to die abandoned. When the Athenians back home got the news they were horrified. They deposed the eight generals who had been in command during the battle. Two of the leaders went into exile from Athens, and the six who returned to Athens were tried, convicted, and eventually executed, including Pericles the Younger, son of the the archon of Athens early in the war.
We know very little about the actual battle, so analyzing the story is not an easy thing for Hamel, or any other scholar. Our ancient sources, the fourth-century BCE military writer Xenophon, and the first-century chronicler Diodorus of Sicily, do not have much to tell us about the actual fighting, and when they do, they often disagree. Sometimes, we can only guess at the tactics and narrative.
For readers unfamiliar with the story, the setting is the summer of 406 BCE in the last two years of the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans, who had traditionally fought on land but could not seem to inflict much damage on the Athenian homeland, ultimately adapted their strategy to fighting a war at sea. In the summer of 406 BCE they found themselves in the north Aegean Sea attacking Mytilene, an ally on the island of Lesbos. Within the month, this attack resulted in a showdown with the Athenians themselves, whose 150 ships had taken up a position off the tiny Arginusae islands.
The Athenian victory was not a foregone conclusion, given the Spartan fleet they faced was much more experienced and the Athenians were fighting with hastily summoned, untrained, and untested recruits.
Hamel admirably demonstrates the massive scale of the battle. It would involve nearly three hundred Athenian and Spartan ships carrying between 40-60,000 men. This is the equivalent of a small Greek city on the water. At the time, it was the largest naval battle ever fought between warring Greeks. It would be a crucial win for the Athenians, as losing the battle would have led to their total defeat by the Spartans. The Athenian victory was not a foregone conclusion, given the Spartan fleet they faced was much more experienced and the Athenians were fighting with hastily summoned, untrained, and untested recruits.
Hamel does an excellent job of explaining, in two thematic chapters, how Greek naval warfare worked. She expertly describes the tactical limitations of the trireme that would be seen very clearly at Arginusae. Triremes did not operate well in rough weather. Strong winds and choppy seas made it difficult for the oarsmen to maintain their cohesion; rowing into the wind would exhaust the crew in no time. The lowest level of rowers had it particularly bad because of their position deep in the ship’s hull. Depending on the height of the waves and the cant of the ship, a large percentage of their oar shafts might be under water.
The question of how the Athenians won at Arginusae has long puzzled historians. The best we can do is speculate that one of their leaders was smart enough as a tactician to recognize the potential benefits of their location, and the Athenians had enough ships to make the battlefield work for them. The extra thirty ships may have proven proved decisive. The Athenians overcame their technical deficiencies with numbers and the smart pre-positioning of their ships. Once they forced the Spartans to flee, the battle was won.
When the Athenians regrouped at Arginusae to take stock of how many ships were destroyed and how many men were lost at sea, the generals should have used this information to mount an organized rescue operation. There were close to 14,000 enemy bodies floating in the water south of the islands. The primary Athenian goal should have been to rescue their own men, while capturing or killing any of the enemy found alive in the water. Speed in getting to them was essential for a rescue operation, and since the Athenians had lost twenty-five ships, even by rough estimate, this meant that some 5,000 of their own men were in the water after the battle. Once the dead were collected, they could tow any salvageable wrecks and put up a trophy on some nearby piece of land to commemorate the victory at sea. The forty-seven ships given the task of saving their comrades were under the command of the trierarchs, Theramenes and Thrasybulus. Unfortunately, a great storm came up and prevented the Athenians from accomplishing either task. Diodorus blames the crews and says they were reluctant to pick up the dead bodies because of the hardships and the size of the waves. The best they could do was ride out the weather.
Since our sources say nothing about what happened to those 5,000 bodies bobbing up and down in the water around Arginusae, Hamel must reconstruct the events from the little we are told. Diodorus claims the Athenian commanders allowed the men who died in the battle to go unburied, which suggests they had blithely sailed off in the storm. This was the basis for the commanders’ later prosecution. Xenophon does not say the dead were left unburied, but that the chief concern of the Athenians back home was their failure to rescue the survivors. Hamel rightly points out that just because no one mentions it does not mean there was not a rescue attempt. There was no tactical reason for the Athenian commanders to abandon the project of recovering the dead, and Hamel has a hard time believing they did that; yet, this is exactly the crime for which the Athenians prosecuted them. Hamel believes the forty-seven ships tasked with the rescue did what they could after the storm, and the rest of the fleet sailed off towards Lesbos to reinforce Conon’s fleet.
When news of the lost men got back to Athens, citizens were furious. They may have been happy with the victory, but they were more stricken with grief over the losses. The Athenians tended to look for scapegoats when military engagements ended with less than a satisfactory outcome. The Athenian generals all wrote letters to the citizen body making it perfectly clear Theramenes and Thrasybulus had been tasked with picking up the dead. The Athenians would already know part of the story, because Theramenes and Thrasybulus had already returned to Athens with six tons of human remains and the crews of their ships would not have remained silent. This resulted in a general round of finger pointing.
A month or so after the battle of Arginusae, the eight generals who had led the Athenians to victory were removed from their commands and ordered to return to Athens. Six of those generals obeyed orders and returned, two generals refused the summons and, so far as we know, never went home again. Hamel carefully follows the legal proceedings against the generals as they developed by stages, in different venues, over the course of many days. It was a complicated and lengthy business, interrupted by debates over procedure. Eventually, the generals were handed over to the Assembly to determined their fate. The generals were imprisoned and, in the end, the Assembly voted to convict and execute them.
Hamel argues the conclusion of the Arginusae business was lamentable. Modern historians have portrayed the Arginusae proceedings as an example of mob rule or the moral nadir of democracy. Hamel argues, however, that the verdict was the result of deliberate consideration rather than rash action, and our sources are hardly neutral. Xenophon hated democracy and was therefore biased. To him, the mob had made the wrong decision at Mytilene, in the aftermath of Arginusae, and in the case against Socrates. Hamel comes to Athens’ defense, though, saying that bad decisions get made by other forms of government, not just democracies, and juries can get fed wrong information or are misled.
In the end, Arginusae was important…because of the hostility it caused towards Athenian democracy.
Hamel has written a book for the general reader, but with all the documentation one needs to do further reading on the subject. There is a timeline, a series of excellently clear maps, and diagrams of the positions of the Spartan and Athenian ships. She has both copious notes and a detailed section on further reading. She makes good use of Donald Kagan’s seminal studies, and while her bibliography is not exhaustive, she lists the key secondary literature one may turn to if one wants to know more about the scholarly disagreements. This section alone tells one how many individual subjects had to be researched to create such a book.
In the end, Arginusae was important not just because it was the last Athenian victory in the war, or because it was a shameful event in the history of Athens, but because of the hostility it caused towards Athenian democracy. The book closes with a brief look at the end of the Peloponnesian War and the damage done by Arginusae to the reputation of Athens in the millennia since the battle was fought. This book makes it eminently understandable how great that tragedy was.
Rose Mary Sheldon is a Professor of History at the Virginia Military Institute and holds the Henry King Burgwyn, Jr. Chair in Military History. She received her Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Michigan. Her special field of study is ancient intelligence history. Her books include Espionage in the Ancient World: An Annotated Bibliography, Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify, Spies in the Bible, Operation Messiah: St. Paul, Roman Intelligence and the Birth of Christianity, Rome’s Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand, Ambush! Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare and Kill Caesar! Assassination in the Early Roman Empire.
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Header Image: Greek Naval Battle (Classical Wisdom Weekly)