Famous Men of Greece - John Haaren


The admiral of the Spartan fleet in the last years of the Peloponnesian War was a man named Lysander. He was brave, but he was also cunning and frequently gained the victory by laying a trap for his enemy. It is said that he used to tell his officers, "When the lion's skin is too short you must patch it with that of a fox." This was another way of telling them that if they could not succeed by force they must try cunning.

After Alcibiades had been dismissed from the command of the Athenian fleet a commander named Konon was appointed to succeed him. Lysander decided to set a trap for him. The two fleets came in sight of each other off the shore of the Hellespont, near a place called Aegos Potamos, which means Goat's River. One morning, at break of day, Lysander drew up his ships in line as though he intended to give battle. Later in the day the Athenians rowed toward the Spartans and challenged them to fight, but not a Spartan vessel moved. The Athenians concluded from this that the Spartans were either not prepared to fight, or were afraid. The next day the challenge was again given by the Athenians, and again the Spartans paid no attention to it. The same thing happened the third day and the fourth. By this time the Athenians felt sure that Lysander was afraid of them. Many therefore went on the shore, some in search of provisions, some to take a stroll, some to sleep. Only a small guard was left with the fleet.



As soon as Lysander saw that the Athenians ships were unprotected he rowed swiftly to the place where they were lying and captured nearly the whole fleet. Of one hundred and eighty ships only about ten escaped. Three or four thousand men were taken prisoners, and all were put to death.

One of the vessels that escaped rowed direct to the Piraeus to carry the terrible tidings. It arrived at night, and a sadder night was never known in Athens. The news spread through the city. Every house became a house of mourning. Nobody slept. All feared that Lysander would sail into the harbor with his victorious fleet. This was exactly what he did. All the seaports of Athens were blockaded by the Spartan vessels. The wheat supply was cut off, so that the people of the city were soon half starving.

The Athenians had now neither army nor fleet. After a three months' siege, during part of which time there was a severe famine, the city surrendered.

The only hope of the citizens was that their conquerors might be generous. But in this they were disappointed. The Spartans' terms were hard and cruel. One mile of each of the Long Walls was to be pulled down. Athens was to have no larger fleet than twelve ships of war. The Spartans were to name her rulers.

To wound the pride of Athens as much as possible Lysander had the long walls pulled down to the sound of music, and a part of the work was done on the anniversary of the battle of Salamis, a day always celebrated in Athens in memory of her great victory over the Persians.

Thus ended the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.). It had been a fierce struggle, and all Greece had suffered. Thucydides, who wrote the history of this war, says that never had so many cities been made desolate, never had there been such scenes of slaughter.

Athens was ruined. She had lost her ships and her army, and she was helpless in the hands of Sparta. Thirty men were appointed by the Spartans to govern the city. They are known in history as the "Thirty Tyrants." Their rule was very harsh. They allowed only 3,000 Athenians to live in Athens. The rest of the people had to leave the city, and Sparta forbade all other Grecian cities to give them refuge. Thebes and Argos, however, boldly defied this cruel order, and many of the banished Athenians went to live in these cities.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


After eight months the Athenians, under a leader named Thrasybulus, overthrew the "Tyrants." But in that short time no less than fourteen hundred Athenians citizens had been put to death.

Lysander's capture of Athens made him so popular in Sparta that for some years he was the real head of the government, and he made up his mind to seize the throne.

Before he could carry out his plans, however, he was put at the head of a Spartan force and sent to the city of Thebes, against which the Spartans had declared war. His army was routed by the Thebans and Lysander himself was among the slain.