By the mid-5th century BC, Athens had overthrown its tyrannical rulers, invented democracy, beaten back two invasions by the largest empire of the day, and expanded its Delian League to glorious heights and riches. Athens had never had it so good. However, not everything great can last forever; Athens's arch rival, Sparta, had its own Peloponnesian League keeping a concerned eye on the exponential growth of their maritime counterpart, and the cold war of the First Peloponnesian War would prove to merely be a calm before the storm; unforeseen events abroad would plunge the two most powerful Greek city-states into what would be among the most devastating wars in ancient history.
[The Peloponnesian War] far exceeded the Persian War in length, and over its course the suffering that resulted for Greece was unparalleled in such a timescale. Never before were so many cities captured and desolated…
Check out my previous post on Athens's Golden Age under Pericles
THE EPIDAMNIAN AFFAIR, 436 - 433 BC
To find the causes of this war, one must travel first to Epidamnos, a Greek colony city founded in Illyria. Illyria was a region roughly aligning with the modern Yugoslav nations, predominantly inhabited by the native Illyrians, who the Greeks often described as semi-barbarian, being between the Greek kingdom of Epirus to the South and the more unknown lands of the Celts to the north. Epidamnos also bordered the nearby island of Korkyra, modern Corfu. Korkyran colonists had founded the city in the late 7th century BC, but Korkyra in turn was founded by the city of Corinth.
[ABOVE: Map of Ancient Greece showing Epidamnos, 5th century BC]
While Epidamnos would grow to become a great power in the nearby region, several years of internal strife and invasions from Illyrian tribes would cause the state to drive out its incompetent political figureheads, who in 435 BC supposedly aided the Illyrians in raiding the city both by land and sea. Beleaguered citizens of Epidamnos would call to Korkyra for aid, but this was turned down.
AID FROM CORINTH
Desperate, Epidamnos consulted the Delphic Oracle for advice, who told them to ask Corinth for aid instead, by handing their city over to them entirely. Corinth gained Epidamnos and its territory, and sought to aid the city against the Illyrians, resentful of Korkyra for not sending aid. At the time, Corinth was one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in the Greek world, said to be able to muster a fleet of some 120 triremes.
[ABOVE: The ruins of Delphi, central Greece]
With aid from its allies, Corinth sent a force of settlers and allied troops to its other colony of Apollonia, just to the south of Epidamnos. Korkyra, meanwhile, became embittered by the news of Epidamnos’s handover to Corinth, sending two fleets to Epidamnos. One arrived earlier than the other, containing only twenty-five ships in total, demanding Epidamnos reinstate its exiled politicians and dismiss the Corinthian forces. These demands were rejected, and Korkyra set about attacking the Epidamnians. Among the Korkyran forces were the twenty-five ships, reinforced by their later contingent of forty reinforcing vessels, the exiled Epidamnian politicians, and some hired Illyrian mercenaries. Besieging the city, Korkyra said they would permit any Epidamnians who wished to leave the city free passage unharmed, while any who chose to stay would be regarded as enemies.
Epidamnian messengers reached Corinth with news of their city being under siege. In response, Corinth mustered a force of thirty ships and three-thousand hoplites, with aid from their several allies: eight ships from Megara, four from Pale, five from Epidaurus, one from Hermione, two from Troezen, ten from Leucas and eight from Ambracia - sixty-eight ships in total.
Korkyra in further response came to Corinth with other Greek spokesmen, including Spartans, demanding Corinth stand down and withdraw their settlers. If Corinth refused, Korkyra and the spokesmen were prepared to refer the entire matter to the Peloponnesian League, Sparta’s alliance network established to provide a check to the Athenian’s Delian League. Epidamnos would thus belong to whichever side the League decided, with entrustment in the matter from the Delphic Oracle. Corinth was also cautioned by the envoys not to start a war, a statement which Corinth said they would be willing to discuss, if only Korkyra withdrew their forces from Epidamnos, and Korkyra in turn said they would be willing to negotiate if Corinth withdrew their forces from Epidamnos.
Corinth turned down this proposal, sending envoys to Korkyra to declare war, followed soon after by two-thousand hoplites and seventy-five warships. Corinth’s fleet was commanded by Aristeus, Callicrates and Timanor, while the land forces were under the command of Archetimus and Isarchidas. Reaching Actium, Corinth warned the Korkyraeans not to come out to engage them, while the Korkyraeans too set their forces - some eighty warships in total - to meet the Corinthians in battle. Fifteen Corinthian ships were sunk in the engagement, and the Koryraeans won the day. Meanwhile, the other forty Korkyraean ships besieging Epidamnos also forced the city into surrender. Korkyra’s terms were harsh: Corinth’s captured settlers were either executed or sold into slavery, and the armed forces were imprisoned.
Once Corinth had left the area, Korkyra began attacks on several local Corinthian colonies, including Leucas and Cyllene, since those states had been militarily funding Corinth. This almost led to another conflict, but a long stand-off of both side’s forces which lasted until winter, dwindled both sides’ supplies, forcing them both to withdraw.
SEEKING ATHENIAN AID
For the next two years, until 433 BC, Corinth spent its days building up its navy, buying in ships and rowers from across Greece. Outside of both the Athenian and Spartan alliances, Korkyra became increasingly alarmed, and in a panic turned to Athens for aid, asking to join their Delian League - by now, the Athenian Empire in all but name. Learning of this move, Corinth too came to Athens, arguing that a combined Athenian-Korkyraean fleet would forever stop Corinth from bringing their war to their own desired outcome. The Korkyraean envoys spoke first, saying that they saw no possibility of survival against this new Corinthian fleet, and that Athens would benefit greatly from the other great Greek naval power of the day, who now offered their services to Athens’s League for free. They argued that Corinth came into the conflict with Epidamnos uninvited, and that their escalation of the matter from one of diplomacy and arbitration to one of warfare and direct intervention should serve as a warning to Athens of Corinth’s trustworthiness.
The main selling point of Korkyra’s though was that Corinth was allied of Sparta. Should Corinth be accepted by Athens instead, relations between Corinth and Sparta would break down, thus leading to conflict between Athens and Sparta; Athens and Korkyra had shared rivals. Corinth, on the other hand, argued that Korkyra was the only disloyal one of their colonies; if the majority of their colonies could be satisfied with Corinth, Korkyra had no good reason to be dissatisfied.
Assemblies were held after these meetings, and Athens eventually came down in favour of joining Korkyra in a defensive alliance; any attacks made on either one of their territories an/or allies would be considered an act of war against both states.
THE BATTLE OF SYBOTA, 433 BC
Athens soon after sent a fleet of ten ships under the command of the son of Cimon, Lacedaemonius, to support Korkyra, under the instruction to not attack Corinthian forces unless they made the first aggressive move. Plutarch states that Cimon was only granted a meagre force of ten ships by Pericles due to Cimon's family’s Spartan sympathisers; should this expedition fail, support for Sparta within Athens would surely fall. Corinth did exactly as predicted; a fleet of one-hundred and fifty warships - ninety from Corinth itself and sixty from Corinth’s various allies. Each allied contingent had their own respective native commander, but in overall command was the Corinthian commander, Xenocleides. The Corinthian fleet lined up by the mainland opposite Korkyra.
[ABOVE: Bust of Cimon, father of Lacedaemonius, now in Larnaca, Cyprus]
Learning of Corinth’s manoeuvres, Korkyra manned one-hundred and ten ships - ten Athenian ships among them - commanded by Miciades, Aesimides and Eurybatus, making camp on one of the two small islands south-east of Korkyra called Sybota. Their land forces positioned themselves on the promontory called Leucimme, with the state of Zacynthus supplying an extra one-thousand hoplites. Corinth too had their own foot soldiers, with many being supplied by local friendly Illyrian tribes.
[ABOVE: Location of the Battle of Sybota, 433 BC, near the island of Korkyra (Corfu)]
Preparing supplies for three days, Corinth finally moved in the middle of the night from their anchored position to attack the Korkyraean-led fleet. Korkyra, however, had begun to descend down on the Corinthians from the high seas, and Corinth caught site of them come dawn. Once they were both in sight of each other, both lines readied into battle lines. On the Korkyraean side, Lacedaemonius and his Athenians took up the honorary right wing, with the rest of the line being the Korkyraean contingents, divided up into three squadrons, each under the command of Miciades, Aesimides and Eurybates. The Corinthian side had the states of Megara and Ambracia on the right wing, other allies in the centre, and the Corinthians themselves, the fastest ships of their fleet, under Xenoclides on the left opposite the Athenians. With a total of two-hundred and sixty warships, the Battle of Sybota would be the largest naval engagement, in terms of ship count, in Greek history up to that point.
[ABOVE: Modern recreation of the trireme, the primary ancient Greek warship, photo taken in 2008]
At a signal, both sides rowed forward to engage head-on in traditional manner: attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy, ram them with the harder front of their ships and potentially board with hoplite marines, with some javelin/archer support from the decks along the way. The Battle of Sybota was more brutal than it was tactically stand-out, with both sides bogged down in sloe-quarter combat to the point where it became more like a land battle at sea. No attempts were made to break free from the stationary positions each side rammed their ships into. Lacedaemonius commanded his Athenian contingent to aid the Korkyraeans whenever they came under heavy pressure - a sound strategy that deterred their enemy.
Corinth’s Megaran and Ambracian right wing, meanwhile, was in trouble; a squadron of twenty Korkyraean ships had routed them from the field completely, pursuing them back to their mainland camp, whereupon they reached the enemy camp and plundered it of goods before setting it ablaze. Corinth’s own left-wing, however, was doing much better against their Athenian rivals, since the twenty ships that routed the Corinthian right-wing had now left the other wing exposed. This caused Lacedaemonius to intervene directly with his Athenian ships. Both sides initially avoided ramming, Corinth pressed their advantage, forcing them and Athens into an engagement.
The ensuing rout left the Corinthian wing victorious, killing any survivors attempting to stay afloat in the water rather than capture them. Allegedly, they got into such a killing frenzy that they began killing their own allies in the water too, all while they were unaware of the defeat of their right wing. The battle was looking even, with each side winning on one flank each. Corinth chased the Korkyraean detachments back to the mainland before turning back to their own shipwrecks, bringing survivors back to their camp on Sybota, where their land army (and Illyrian allies) were stationed. Corinth reformed and returned to the engagement. It was here that the Corinthians caught sight of an unexpected reinforcing Athenian fleet, under the command of Glaucon, which Athens had previously sent for in case their Korkyraean allies proved too incompetent.
Seeing this fleet, and worrying that even more would arrive soon, Corinth withdrew. Korkyra too had parted from the fight, thinking Glaucon’s fleet was actually an enemy reinforcing fleet, and as nighttime set in, both sides withdrew from the combat. The battle was a stalemate.
The following day, all seaworthy Athenian and Korkyraean ships lined up at the harbour of Sybota, where the Corinthians were anchored, to see if Corinth would fight again. Corinth too lined up for battle, but did not move. This was likely because of a combination of fear of the extra twenty ships under Glaucon, a diminishing of supplies, too many injured soldiers and rowers to now look after, and a concern that Athens would now block their route back home since they broke the treaty of non-engagement. Instead of a head-on charge again, Corinth sent a tiny test detachment forward - without a truce flag - to send the following message:
Athenians, you are at fault in starting a war and breaking the treaty. We are pursuing a grievance against our own enemies, and you have taken arms to stand in our way. If it is your decision to prevent us sailing against Korkyra or anywhere else we may wish, and are thereby breaking the treaty, you should make us here your first prisoners and treat us as enemies.
Those Korkyraeans who could hear them simply shouted back,
Take them now and kill them!
However the Athenians too responded,
Peloponnesians, we are not starting a war nor are we breaking the treaty. The Korkyraeans here are our allies, and we have to come to help them. If you wish to sail anywhere else we offer no hindrance. But if you sail against Korkyra or to any other place in its control, we shall intervene to our best ability.
With these responses, both sides set up their war trophies on mainland Sybota and agreed to sail home. Athens thus claimed victory since their side’s threats and warnings seemed to cause the Corinthians to withdraw. Corinth, however, set up their own trophy on the island of Sybota, symbolically claiming victory themselves since they saw their nighttime victory on their left wing as the sign that they had won, as they were also able to reclaim their dead and wounded - around a thousand in total - and had ruined seventy enemy vessels.
On their return home, Corinth took the town of Anactorium, an island settlement within the Ambraciot Gulf, near Actium. This was a settlement founded by both Corinthian and Korkyraean settlers, and Corinth now settled their own settlers on the island. They then sold off their eight-hundred Korkyraean slaves and kept two-hundred and fifty as POW’s, hoping they could be a bargaining piece should they return to Korkyra.
NEXT POST: THE BATTLE OF POTIDAEA, 432 BC: Catalyst 2 of the Peloponnesian War
- Thucydides, "History of the Peloponnesian War", Book 1.24 - 1.55
- Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History", Book XII.30
- Plutarch, "Lives: Pericles"
- Paul Cartledge, "Sparta and Lakonia - A Regional History", pg's 192-227
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"Ancient Greek History - Part 1 of the Peloponnesian War - 17" by "Historyden"
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