Xenophon’s Hellenika Book II: Lysander, The Thirty Tyrants, & The Downfall of Athens

Book II of Xenophon’s Hellenika begins in the summer of 406 BC. We are introduced to a group of soldiers under the command of a Spartan named Eteonikos at Chios. The soldiers become farmers in the summer but by winter they are starving and they plan a rebellious takeover of Chios. Those who agree to this plan carry a reed as a symbol of rebellion. However, in order to re-instill fear and order, Eteonikos slaughters a man brandishing a reed. The Spartans rule by fear. Eteonikos claims tribute from the Chians and uses it to pay his men, and Lysander is then reinstated in Spartan command with more funding from Cyrus of Persia. Why does Xenophon open Book II with this brief interlude about Eteonikos? Is Eteonikos an example of a successful Spartan commander? This story of Eteonikos demonstrates how the Spartans choose to govern during times of starvation -for Eteonikos the only force more powerful than desire for food is the fear of death. As Book II progresses we witness the Athenian leaders failing to embrace this principle and they eventually capitulate while their fellow citizens starve to death.

At any rate, the Athenians are preparing for a naval battle at Samos while Lysander raids the northern coasts plundering Athenian allied cities. The Athenian navy and the Spartan navy (under Lysander) eventually confront one another at Aigospotamoi at the Hellespont, but for four days the Athenian navy shows itself to be ready for battle, however each day Lysander orders his navy to simply observe the Athenian navy, perhaps searching for weaknesses, but they do not engage in battle. Alcibiades raises a concern to the Athenian generals: the nearest city to the anchored Athenian ships in the harbor is Sestos which located is far away for supply runs, whereas Sparta has a conveniently located city at its disposal. Alcibiades notes the importance of fighting a sea battle “at any time of your own choosing” (2.1.25). However, he is roundly dismissed by the Athenian generals. On the fifth day, the Athenian fleet is scattered because it has “to get its food from afar” (the issue of food supply is a major theme in Xenophon’s Hellenika) so Lysander launches a surprise attack which devastates the Athenians. One single cohort of nine ships led by Konon escapes to Athens to echo the the dreadful tale as it rapidly spreads throughout the city and the citizens begin re-fortifying the wall, preparing for a long war of attrition.

Sparta, which has now captured most of the Athenian fleet, decides to execute nearly all the prisoners from Aigospotamoi as punishment for Athens’s cruel law of cutting the hands off its prisoners. Next, Lysander sails up the Hellespont to Byzantium where he is welcomed. Lysander sends the Athenians at Byzantium back to Athens not out of kindness, but rather as a strategic decision. With ever more citizens arriving, Lysander believes the city of Athens will “suffer from a general lack of provisions” (2.2.2.) Again, Sparta decides to starve Athens of its resources by forcing them to rely on trade and imports.

Lysander sails out of the Hellespont with two hundred triremes and he raids the allied cities of Athens, before blockading the Piraeus. The blockade is devastating, leaving the Athenians without ships, allies, or grain. The Athenians begin to “fear” being subject to the same evil fate they once doled out to Spartan allies purely out of “arrogance” (2.2.10). Athens offers the rights of citizenship to many of its starving people, yet there is no talk of surrender until all the grain supply is exhausted. Sparta rejects Athens’s appeal for peace meanwhile in Athens it becomes forbidden to discuss tearing down the walls. Sparta plays bureaucratic games with the starving and isolated Athenians until finally a group of Athenians led by Theramenes arrives in Sparta to negotiate a peace. Despite the fact that the Greeks yearn for the destruction of Athens, Sparta offers mercy along five key points: 1) Athens must take down its Long Walls and fortifications along the Piraeus; 2) hand over all their remaining ships except twelve; 3) that they allow exiles to return to Athens; 4) that they share the same friends and enemies as Sparta; and 5) that they be willing to follow Sparta on land or sea in whatever capacity future conquests demand. The negotiated settlement is believed to be a day of celebration for all of Greece as Lysander sails into the Piraeus and begins dismantling the wall. So ends the year 405 BC.

In the following year (404 BC) the infamous oligarchy rises to power. The Assembly selects thirty men to write down the ancestral laws of how Athens will be governed. Meanwhile, a tyranny under Dionysus has taken hold in Syracuse and Lysander subdues one of the last remaining Athenian outposts at Samos. He returns to Sparta brandishing immense wealth and incredible victories for the Spartans. This ends the 28 and 1/2 year war.

In Athens, the oligarchy of Thirty Tyrants delays writing down the laws and instead they form a council which begins executing former proponents of democracy against the rule of the “noblemen.” Lysander sends a military force to support the Thirty who begins slaughtering people and imprisoning innocent citizens en masse. This causes tension among the Thirty, namely between its two leaders Theramenes and Critias. Theramenes notes a contradiction among the Thirty for establishing a rule of force while also being a weaker regime than the very people they govern. His comments are not welcome and draw the ire of the Thirty. The young audacious military man, Critias (who was also a student of Socrates), delivers a speech to the council denouncing Theramenes as a traitor and that he is cause of their problems, while Theramenes offers a defense of himself and also a critique of Critias for bolstering their enemies. The council is about to acquit Theramenes when Critias sends in his goons armed with daggers. Fearing a violent reprisal, Theramenes is dragged through the agora and condemned to death by drinking the hemlock.

The Thirty continues its bloodbath, purging Athens of perhaps 5% of its population, which soon leads to a battle with Thebes led by the exiled Thrasybolous that only ends with the Thirty humiliated and removed from office. In their stead a rule of the Eleven and then the Ten is instilled to bring comity back into Athens -the city has been divided and its citizens distrust one another. However, the Thirty retires to Eleusis and appeals for military aid from Lysander who devises a plan to once again starve the Piraeus. Meanwhile the King of Sparta, Pausanius, also invades Athens and delivers a crushing blow. Peace is again re-established in Athens in 403 BC at the behest of Sparta.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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