Aegospotami means “goat’s rivers” and was a small village named after a small river that emptied into a channel of water in modern day Turkey connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. This channel of water and its surrounding shores is known today as The Dardanelles. In 405 BCE the Dardanelles was called The Hellespont by the ancient Greeks and it was of as much economic and strategic military importance then as it is today. It was the site of the last major battle, a naval battle, of the Peloponnesian War.
Setting the Stage: The war has been going for twenty-seven years and both Athens and Sparta have stretched their resources to the limit. Athens needs to preserve the water route from the Black Sea region through the Bosporus Strait and the Hellespont into the Aegean Sea. It is their primary source of grain not only to feed their military personnel, but to feed their people as well. Maintaining control of this passage is of utmost importance to the Athenians.
Sparta’s fleet has been hit hard and Lysander, the Spartan epistoleus (secretary and vice admiral of the navy) has been doing everything he can to rebuild. Lysander had previously held the position of navarch (commander-in-chief of the navy) and according to Spartan law, he could not hold that position again. Therefore, his position as epistoleus is what we would call a paper position. In actuality he is the commander of the fleet. The fate of Sparta and the war rests on his shoulders.
Getting to Aegospotami: Lysander had to rebuild his fleet. For that he needed men, supplies, and ships. He pursued this goal in two ways. He took by force and he appealed to Cyrus, son of the Persian king Darius, to support his efforts. And support he did received! Cyrus basically wrote Lysander a blank check allowing him the necessary resources to build ships and to pay his men thus regaining/revitalizing their loyalty to him.
Lysander collected the Spartan fleet at Ephesus and from there began a series of brutal raids on cities loyal to Athens, killing and enslaving as he went. He took anything of value from these people and at the same time enticed the Athenian fleet into pursuit. In a cunning feat of maneuver, Lysander managed to avoid direct contact with the Athenians, gained access to the Hellespont, and established a foothold at Abydos. There he increased his army strength. Soon after, he conducted a successful combination land/naval assault on Lampsacus and took the city and its harbor. This put him in a good position to threaten Byzantium and Chalcedon and control of the Bosporus. The Athenians, although in pursuit of the Spartan fleet were one to two days behind and could not overtake the Spartans to prevent these events from occurring. By the time they arrived in the Hellespont, the Spartans were already established at Abydos and had taken Lampsacus. The Athenians put into the beaches of Aegospotami.
The Standoff: Lysander had done well in taking Lampsacus. The harbor provided a good base from which to stage an attack. He had access to supplies and was able to keep his men and ships in a ready state. Plus he was in a good position across the channel to observe the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami. However, the Athenians were not so fortunate. Aegospotami was really little more than an empty beach. There was no significant source of supplies immediately available. The nearest adequate port was at Sestos, 12 miles away. Why the Athenians chose Aegospotami is actually tactically sound.
It was imperative to keep a close watch on the Spartan fleet and proximity was key. The Athenian commanders could not allow the Spartans to outmaneuver them again. They must contain them in the Hellespont and provoke them to battle. If they could destroy the Spartan fleet, they would destroy their ability to wage war and the they would regain control of the Hellespont; their lifeline. Failure meant ultimate defeat. The Athenians had no choice but to stay put and manage as best they could.
Every day the Athenians would row out to confront the Spartans and the Spartans would remain battle ready but would not leave the harbor to engage the Athenians. Over several days the Athenians developed a routine of beaching their ships, disembarking and scrounging for supplies; scattering their forces and leaving themselves vulnerable. The Athenians were commanded by a group of six men who rotated as commander each day. On the fifth day of the standoff, something changed.
Finally, the battle: On the fifth day of the standoff command of the fleet fell to Philocles. His reasons are a source of debate, but Philocles took a squadron of 30 ships to sea that day instead of the entire fleet. Seeing this golden opportunity and always at the ready, Lysander ordered the attack. The Spartans cut off the Athenian squadron from heading to Sestos and forced them in a retreat towards their own fleet. Many of the ships were still beached and poorly manned or completely unmanned. The Athenians were caught totally by surprise and quickly fell into panic and disarray. Lysander landed troops taking the Athenian camp while grappling many of the ships and pulling them out to sea. Any Athenian ships who chose to engage him in battle were quickly dispatched. Only a few Athenian ships managed to escape under the command of one of the Athenian admirals named Conon. The Spartans captured most of the Athenian ships and scattered there soldiers. Those men who were captured were put to death.
This battle marked the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens and its allies, under seige and faced with starvation, surrendered in 404 BCE. Lysander was commemorated at the Monument of the Admirals thought to have been along the Sacred Way in Delphi.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online, https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Aegospotami
Kagan, Donald. The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Cornell University Press, (1987), pp. 376-393.
Cartwright, Mark. Trade in Ancient Greece. Ancient History Encyclopedia, (2012), http://www.ancient.eu/article/115/
by: Craig Henderson