“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!”

– Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.

(To read Part 6, go here; or to start at the beginning, go here.)

The Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC was the largest hoplite battle of the Peloponnesian War. The one-sided victory over her rivals secured Sparta’s hegemony in the Peloponnese and confirmed the reputation of the Spartan hoplite as the foremost soldier in Hellas.

The prime agent behind the anti-Spartan alliance that collapsed at Mantinea was the Athenian Alcibiades son of Cleinias. A kinsman of the late renown Athenian leader Pericles, Alcibiades was perhaps the most charismatic politician of his generation. He had wealth, wit, good looks and boundless ambition. While not a great public speaker, he was charming and persuasive in private conversation. Unfortunately for Athens and his own fortunes he was also completely lacking in scruples, and his primary loyalty was to no one other than himself.


Herm portrait of the young Alcibiades

Following the failure of his efforts to sabotage Sparta’s position in the Peloponnese, he began to champion another project; one that would thrust him into a position of great influence and responsibility in the Empire. In 415 BC delegates from the Ionian/Elymian city of Segesta in Sicily requested Athenian support in their war against neighboring Selinus. They requested a force of 60 triremes, the cost of which they offered to pay for a year. Alcibiades very quickly became the champion for this proposed intervention in Sicily. But Alcibiades argued for an even greater military effort, to not only aid Segesta but with the purpose of subduing the entire island!

This opening of a new war, when conflict with the Spartans and their allies yet smoldered and was likely to erupt anew was foolish in the extreme. But Alcibiades argued persuasively before the citizen assembly (Ecclesia) that the Athenian Empire needed to expand to survive. That if they didn’t conquer Sicily, and particularly Dorian Syracuse (the largest and most powerful Greek city on the island), they risked having these cities join Sparta against her:

Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.“[1]

This was a stark repudiation of Pericles’ warning to the Athenians at the dawn of the war, not to succumb to the temptation to undertake new foreign ventures while the war against Sparta yet raged.


In Athens debate raged over the wisdom and practicality of the proposed expedition.

While Alcibiades was its chief proponent, the respected conservative leader Nicias argued against. Alcibiades reasoned that the conquest of Sicily would make Athens and all Athenians fabulously wealthy, and their empire supreme. Nicias argued for caution, and warned of the dangers and the immense cost of such an expedition.

The debate in the Assembly turned in his favor when Alcibiades asked Nicias to explain, in his considered opinion, what it would take to conquer Sicily. To discourage them, Nicias laid out a plan of immense proportions and cost: That such an expedition would require nearly twice the proposed number of ships, and an army to operate on land as well. Far from being daunted, Nicias’ warning was taken for a suggestion and accepted eagerly. The Athenians decided to send a fleet not of 60 triremes, but nearly 140; with an army of 5,100 hoplites and another 1,300 light infantry archers, slingers, and javelineers.[2] The crews and soldiers were the best and most accomplished the city had to offer, and the captains (trierarchs) of each ship vied to make his more splendidly decorated and adorned than any others. Alcibiades was appointed one of three commanders of the expedition. To temper his youthful boldness, Nicias (who had no confidence in the enterprise) was sent as well, along with an experienced old soldier named Lamachus.

At this point, on the eve of leading a great and glorious campaign of conquest, Alcibiades’ previous life of wild and dissolute behavior came back to bite him.

One morning the city awoke to sacrilegious horror. On every doorstep of every home, the sacred statues of Hermes (called “Hermae“) which were thought to bring good luck to the household, had been defaced and mutilated. No one knew who had done this outrage. But wild rumors quickly spread, of planned revolution to overthrow the democracy. Alternately, that this impiety was the work of drunken revelers, wandering through the streets at night. His past behavior remembered, Alcibiades was named by many as the likely culprit.


Vase painting showing man putting a Herm in place


Examples of Herms

We know not who was actually responsible for this outrage. But Alcibiades must be considered low on the list of suspects. A man at last entrusted with great responsibility and on the verge of seeing his life’s ambition fulfilled is unlikely to have acted so foolishly. Most scholars (including Thucydides) are skeptical. What is more likely is that the desecration of the Hermes was done by one or more of Alcibiades’ many enemies, in order to discredit him. Or by desperate opponents of the Sicilian venture, as many now said no good could come to any enterprise launched while the city was under the cloud of sacrilege.

Alcibiades demanded immediate trial, in order to clear his name before the Sicilian expedition, expressing the desire “to be punished if found guilty, but if acquitted, to be allowed to take command”. But his political enemies had no desire to face Alcibiades in open hearing before the Assembly, with so many of the voting body soldiers and sailors preparing for the expedition and loyal to their presumptive commander. Instead, they pushed to delay trial till after the expedition:

“….(They proposed) he ought at present to sail and not delay the departure of the army, and be tried on his return within a fixed number of days; their plan being to have him sent for and brought home for trial upon some graver charge, which they would the more easily get up in his absence. Accordingly it was decreed that he should sail.” [3]


The harbor of Piraeus, with Athens in the background. It was from here in 415 BC that the great Athenian armada sailed forth on the Sicilian Expedition.

The Athenian armada prepared to launch amidst great fanfare in midsummer, 415. The city turned out as though on a festival day, to give family members, friends, and fellow countrymen a tumultuous send-off. It was a spectacle not to be forgotten, and is vividly recorded by Thucydides:

…the Athenians themselves, and such of their allies (Argives and Messenians) as were there with them went down to Piraeus upon a day appointed at daybreak, and began to man the ships for putting out to sea. With them also went down the whole population, one may say, of the city, both citizens and foreigners; the inhabitants of the country each escorting those that belonged to them, their friends, their relatives, or their sons… at this moment, when they were now upon the point of parting from one another, th danger came more home to them… although the strength of the armament, and the profuse provision which they remarked in every department, was a sight that could not but comfort them. As for the foreigners and the rest of the crowd, they simply went to see a sight worth looking at and passing all belief… Indeed this armament that first sailed out was by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time.

To the singing of hymns and the pouring of libations, the fleet launched. Majestically, their great oars sweeping, the galleys left the harbor of Piraeus one behind the other; forming into column and sailing southeast out of the Saronic Gulf.

1505566.jpgThe Spartans were surprisingly unconcerned as the Athenian armada cruised around the Peloponnese, and then sailed northwestward toward Italy and Sicily. War-weary in the extreme and still trying to honor the terms of the Peace of Nicias, they took no action, diplomatic or otherwise. All of their energies were concentrated on pacifying the Argives, defeated at Mantinea but still defiant.

The Athenians put in at Corcyra (modern Corfu), where the fleet divided into three tactical squadrons. Sending ahead three triremes to approach the cities along the Italian and Sicilian coast and gauge their welcome, the armada crossed to Italy; arriving first at Taras/Tarentum (modern Taranto), then sailing southeast along the southern Italian coast. They found the cities closed against them, allowing them only water and anchorage (and Tarentum, a Spartan colony, and Locri not even that). At Rhegium, at the toe of Italy, the fleet landed and was greeted with a market. The Athenians asked the Rhegians to join them, but the Rhegians replied they would wait to see which way the other Italiot Greek cities went.


The fleet sailed on to Catania, which was seized by a coup de main. The pro-Syracusan party fled without a fight, and the citizens voted to ally with Athens and allow their city to be used as a base of operations.

It was at Catana that Alcibiades’ enemies back home caught up with him. The state trireme, the Salaminia, arrived with orders for him to return with them to Athens to stand trial for the desecration of the Herms, and for another charge: that years before he had profaned the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alcibiades agreed to return, and leaving Nicias and Lamachus in charge of the expedition, boarded the Salaminia and departed. But when the ship stopped at Thurii in southern Italy, he jumped ship and fled. Under no illusions, Alcibiades realized that his enemies would have carefully prepared (fabricated?) a case against him and justice would not be forthcoming.

Asked by a local if he didn’t trust his own people (the Athenians) to do justice by him, he replied: “In all else; but in the matter of life I wouldn’t trust even my own mother.”

His suspicions were perhaps confirmed when he was convicted in absentia and condemned to death.  When learning of his sentence, he reputedly said, “I will give them reason to know I am alive”.

Now an outlaw, Alcibiades caught a small boat from Thurii to the Peloponnese. He went first to Argos, where he had many friends. But as in informal ally of Athens, he knew Argos could not long shelter him. So he sent overtures to the very people he had done the most in his life to injure: the Spartans!


It must have been with surprise and wry amusement that the Spartans received overtures from Alcibiades, the Athenian mischief-maker who’d caused them nothing but trouble since the Peace of Nicias was negotiated. But he now promised “to render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy”[4] if they would but grant him immunity from prosecution and take him into their confidence. The Spartans agreed, and Alcibiades was made welcome in Sparta.

Here he showed his chameleon-like talent for appearing to be whatever his hosts wished to see. In Sparta, he adopted the habits of the Spartans: he bathed in cold water, he devoted himself to exercise and lived sparingly and maintained a serious demeanor. He exchanged his fine linens for a simple woolen cloak,and the man who once employed a personal chef now dined heartily of black Spartan broth. He became, in essence, the most Spartan of the Spartans.


Sparta, where Alcibiades found refuge in 414 BC. The ruins of an ancient temple are in the foreground, while the modern city can be seen beyond. The majestic Taygetos Mountains loom in the distance.


The Eurotas River, winding its way through the valley of Laconia. In ancient times, Spartan boys slept along its stoney banks, in summer and winter; only a single threadbare cloak for garment or blanket.


“Hollow Lacedaemon”: Looking at Sparta from the north

From this his popularity grew rapidly, and the Spartans quickly forgot that he was once their greatest enemy. He repaid them with good advice; much to the detriment of his home city.

First, he advised them to send aid to Syracuse; to bring about the defeat of the very expedition he had himself conceived. He did this by convincing them, through his prodigious power of persuasion, that Syracuse would be just a jumping-off place from which the Athenians would soon dominate not only Sicily; but Carthage and Italy as well. These conquered and their resources marshaled, what chance would the Peloponnesians have against them? The Spartans agreed (414 BC) to send to Syracuse a general, Gylippus son of Cleandridas; to organize the defense of the city.

He also urged them to a renewal of hostilities, and proposed a strategy to further vex his native city: he advised that a Spartan army march into Attica; and seize and  fortify the village of Decelea in northern Attica, midway between Athens and Boeotia.  This the Spartans did in 413;  King Agis II establishing a permanent garrison on Athen’s doorstep. From here the Spartan garrison could cut-off Athens from its farmland; forcing the farmers to move permanently behind the Long Walls. For the next 9 years, till the end of the war, this was a thorn in Athen’s side; and a refuge for runaway slaves from the city.


By this spiteful counsel, Alcibiades reignited the Peloponnesian War. As it was his actions in Athens that led the Athenians to undermine the Peace of Nicias by first allying with Argos, Sparta’s bitterest foe; and then in attacking Syracuse it can be fairly said that no one man is more responsible for the disasters that befell Athens than Alcibiades.

While Agis was away at Decelea, Alcibiades seduced his wife, Timaea. The two engaged in a love affair, and when she gave birth to a son, Leotychides, she reputedly told her friends that the baby was in truth Alcibiades’ son. When Agis learned that his wife had given birth, he knew that it was not his. From this time forward he became Alcibiades’ enemy.

With Alcibiades’ advice and aid the Spartans gathered a naval squadron from contributions by their allies. He then sailed with this fleet to Ionia, where he convinced certain Ionian cities to revolt against Athens. However, despite his numerous services to Sparta, the enmity of Agis forced him to flee to the court of the Persian  Satrap of Lydia, Tissaphernes (grandson of Hydarnes, the commander of the Immortals at Thermopylae).

Meanwhile, in Sicily, the seeds of trouble sowed by Alcibiades bore golden fruit for Sparta. At Syracuse, Gylippus took charge of the defenses; and changed the course of history.


(If you enjoyed this, than you might like Deadliest Blogger’s piece on the ancient trireme here!)


[1] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (VI, 89)

[2] Thucydides (VI, 26-27); and Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: Alcibiades (20). Thucydides gives the most complete breakdown of the force, as it marshalled at Corcyra (Corfu):

One hundred and thirty-four galleys in all (besides two Rhodian fifty-oars), of which one hundred were Athenian vessels- sixty men-of-war (triremes), and forty troopships- and the remainder from Chios and the other (Delian League) allies; five thousand and one hundred heavy infantry in all, that is to say,  fifteen hundred Athenian citizens (hoplites) from the rolls at Athens and seven hundred Thetes (lower-class citizens, usually serving as rowers) shipped as marines, and the rest allied troops, some of them Athenian subjects, and besides these five hundred Argives, and two hundred and fifty Mantineans serving for hire; four hundred and eighty archers in all, eighty of whom were Cretans, seven hundred slingers from Rhodes, one hundred and twenty light-armed exiles from Megara, and one horse-transport carrying thirty horses.

An impressive force; though the paucity of cavalry would prove problematic for the Athenians throughout the campaign, in the face of large number of Syracusan horsemen.

 [3] Thucydides (VI, 29)

[4] Plutarch, Alcibiades (23)


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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  2. Michael Park says:

    I believe the bloke most responsible for the disasters which befell Athens was the politician (unknown) which led her into supporting the rebel satrap Pissuthes. That ensured Persian involvement and the enabling of Spartan operations in the eastern Aegean. Something she was unable to do minus Persian money and ships.

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