Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.13

Bruno Bleckmann, Athens Weg in die Niederlage. Die letzten Jahre des Peloponnesischen Krieges. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 99.   Stuttgart and Leipzig:  B.G. Teubner, 1998.  Pp. 675.  ISBN 3-519-07648-9.  DM 168.  

Reviewed by Ralf Behrwald, TU Chemnitz (
Word count: 2618 words

In his 1996 habilitation, Bleckmann (B.) returns to the crucial problems of the history of the Deceleian war. Divided into three parts, each with its own introduction and almost a monograph of its own, the book first gives a detailed account of the relation between Xenophon's Hellenica and what B. terms the "alternative tradition" (Hellenica Oxyrhynchia [Hell. Oxy.], Diodorus Siculus and later sources largely dependent on these) (part 1, pp. 17-266). This is followed by a chapter on the notoriously unresolved chronology of the years 410-406 B.C. (part 2, pp. 267-314) and, once problems of sources and chronology have been disentangled, a number of case studies in the interrelation of Athenian politics and warfare between 411 and 404, including an analysis of the constitution of the 5,000 (part 3, pp. 315-614). There follow a summary, an ample bibliography and indexes.

The analysis of the source problems, central to the book and the indispensable firm ground for any account of the Fall of the Athenian Empire (part 1), obviously is where B. feels most at home, and it is not unfair to say that this is where his book offers the most important insights. B. necessarily draws upon a number of assumptions, clearly laid out on pp. 31-40, among which the most important is the "Einquellentheorie", the presupposition that Diodorus is based exclusively (or almost so) on Ephorus (and, as B. demonstrates, via Ephorus on the Hell.Oxy.), thus ultimately offering a fairly reliable picture of the Hell.Oxy., whose account of the Deceleian war is almost entirely lost. This has been the traditional view, recently called into question but convincingly defended by B. In this part and throughout the whole book B. pursues the central issue of identifying the anonymous author of the Hell.Oxy., identified by him as Theopompus.

In order to establish the reliability of the conflicting traditions, B. in a first step compares the descriptions of naval battles, starting from the obvious factual contradictions between the two traditions necessarily attesting to modification if not invention on one side (pp. 42-148). The method is not new (as B. himself stresses on p. 41 n. 2), but has never been applied with the rigour and general overview of B. Only rarely can B. draw on information from independent parallel sources, as in the question of the involvement of slaves in the battle at the Arginusai, where Aristophanes proves Xenophon to be correct (p. 105). Consequently, B. in most cases after a detailed analysis of each battle, amply commenting on matters of tactics as well as on the topographical situation and local background, is forced to decide on grounds of factual plausibility.

Given the sheer amount of detail and the meticulous argument presented by B. in every single case, the present reviewer can offer only a few examples as illustration. The first battle not described in Thucydides (Abydos, 410 B.C.), which Xenophon describes as succession of three stages, in Diodorus is amalgamated into one single event, depicted in a much more dramatic mood but with factual blunders such as the confusion of Tissaphernes and Pharnabazos, fused into one person also elsewhere in Diodorus (p. 50). As opposed to the usually brief but well-structured accounts in Xenophon, Diodorus tends both to dramatise and to render his descriptions more colourful through the ample use of detail -- at times highly esteemed by modern critics but basically made up by Diodorus' ultimate source, as B. argues in the case of the battle of Byzantion (pp. 83 sqq.). Additional information in Diodorus is often inspired by topographical detail, as in the case of the battle of Mytilene (p. 104), or merely modifies details given in Xenophon. For instance, the total of allied forces under Athenian command at the battle of the Arginusai is the same in both traditions, but their composition differs (110 Athenian and about 40 allied in Xenophon as against 60 Athenian and about 90 allied in Diodorus). The pre-eminence of allied ships oared by experienced rowers (while the Athenian seamen had entered service only after the loss of Konon's fleet) in Diodorus leads to a remarkably different strategy on the Athenian side, entailing complicated manoeuvres wholly absent in Xenophon's account. Both authors however, while differing on major issues, agree in so many details that B.'s conclusion that Diodorus' narrative ultimately draws on the information given by Xenophon is plausible if not cogent. Any attempt to harmonise these different versions is flawed, as B. points out.

If some of these results have been achieved or at least anticipated by earlier scholars (e.g. Tuplin or Gray, who, however, attributes errors and falsifications to Diodorus and not his source), their work is superseded by the exhaustive analysis of B. Nevertheless, B.'s Xenophon at times seems to stand in too bright a light as opposed to the garbled accounts found in Diodorus. If, for instance, Diodorus' treatment of the battle of Abydos is misconceived and basically a doublet of the first battle at Kynosema, are we then really to believe (with Xenophon and B., p. 47) that Persian cavalry under Pharnabazus played a major rôle in the naval engagement, riding into the water and fighting offshore (ἐπεισβαίνων τῷ ἵππῳ εἰς τὴν θάλατταν μέχρι δυνατὸν ἦν ἐμάχετο, Xen. 1.1.6), a feat not even Pharnabazus himself would boast of (Xen. 4.1.32)?1

In a discussion of two fragmentary descriptions of naval battles from the Deceleian War in the extant Hell.Oxy. (pp. 149-182), B. demonstrates Diodorus' dependence on the former and the close literary relations between Hell.Oxy. and Xenophon. In order to establish their relationship, B. brings literal quotations into play that link the "alternative tradition" with Xenophon (Diodorus: pp. 133-137; Theopompus: pp. 139-142; Hell.Oxy.: pp. 191-196): a complicated matter, given the fact that longer quotations are entirely absent in the Hell. Oxy. Including also events after 404, B. assembles phrases in the Hell.Oxy. that might derive from Xenophon in an analysis which is highly acute -- and at times perhaps overly so, as in the case of the Spartans' reactions to their allies' request for Lysandros as commander (Xen. Hell. 2.1.7; D.S. 13.100.8), where actually only the beginning οἱ δὲ Λακεδαιμόνιοι (not the verb!) is identical, and Diodorus' νόμον ἔχοντες δὶς τὸν αὐτὸν μὴ πέμπειν is said to recall the οὐ γὰρ νόμος αὐτοῖς δὶς τὸν αὐτὸν ναυαρχεῖν of Xenophon. However, it would be unfair only to single out examples which the present reviewer feels not to be compelling; most observations do indeed strengthen the general argument to which, as B. stresses, they are only accidental.

Part I concludes with a discussion of the methodological pretensions of the Hell.Oxy., demonstrating that the modifications and fabrications of its author derive from an attempt to equal if not surpass his precursor, Thucydides. That the Hell.Oxy. sets in exactly after the end of Thucydides' book 8 is demonstrated in a detailed discussion of Hell.Oxy. frg. 5 (pp. 202-216). Other examples taken from Diodorus serve to corroborate the argument (assuming a second revolt in Thasos in 410, so that Hell.Oxy. 10.3 does not refer to a doublet of Thuc. 8.64). However, while paying due respect to his precursor, the Hell.Oxy. (as documented in Diodorus) stress the paramount importance of their subject; thus, to B. (p. 251) the characterisation of the battle of the Arginusai as μεγίστη ... ναυμαχία γεγενημένη Ἕλλησι πρὸς Ἕλληνας (Diodorus 13.98.5) is a direct replica of Thucydides 1.50.2 (on the battle of the Sybota islands). Isocratean overtones, as well as the mixture of esteem of Thucydides and the eager attempt to surpass him, to B. are indicative of an author deeply influenced by Athenian discussions of the fourth century, who already perceived Thucydides as a classical model. This perfectly suits Theopompus, while arguments repeatedly adduced in favour of the authorship of Cratippus are shown by B. not to be compelling.

In the second part of his book, B. discusses the chronology of the years 411-404 B.C. In a debate which has literally been going on for centuries, no one should, as B. himself points out, expect groundbreaking new arguments. After a detailed account of the expedition of Thrasyllos, the date of the return of Alcibiades to Athens (where B. rejects Robertson's third chronology) and of his second exile, B. follows the chronology of Haacke. An attempt of B.'s to identify the chronological pattern of Hell.Oxy. (which counted, as Thucydides had done, in war campaigns and consequently must have been fairly reliable) in Diodorus' account of 411-409 (the information that Pylos was recaptured by Sparta fifteen years after Demosthenes' fortification is attributed to the Hell.Oxy.) is a new and seducing argument in favour of this chronology.2

While B.'s discussion of sources and chronology is exhaustive, his discussion of a number of aspects of Athenian history during the Deceleian War (part 3) primarily demonstrates that Athenian politics after the Sicilian debacle was far from being doomed to failure. This was also the view of Thucydides (I., pp. 317-333): not even the Persian involvement was decisive in the first place (p. 322). B. stresses the coherence of the views expounded by Thucydides (pp. 327-330), which were neither pessimistic nor deterministic.

Athenian politics after 411 did indeed not, as B. continues to demonstrate (II, pp. 334-357), suffer from the existence of three groups rallying around different political ideals (oligarchs, 'moderates' and radical democrats), as Aristotle and Diodorus would have us believe. This picture is not shared by contemporary sources and Xenophon, who know of no 'moderate' group (pp. 337f.). B. discusses in detail the career of Theramenes, stressing the role of tactical considerations in the changing political leanings of this politician, whose 'programmatic' views are revealed to be just later additions (p. 347). It is only consistent with this concept of Athenian politicians acting largely independently of programmes or even social groups that to B., the constitution of the 5,000 is a brief period of transition and no clearly defined 'third way' (III, 358-386). B. questions whether to contemporary Athenians this was anything other than oligarchy, with access to the assembly restricted and payment for participants and officials abolished (p. 369 sq.) -- a result of tactical, not programmatic considerations, which led to a domination of the ekklesia by Theramenes' followers and, in the course of growing enmity among the oligarchs, to the liquidation of Theramenes' rivals in the autumn of 411.

When an agreement with the democratic fleet became urgent, it was quickly reached. According to B., it was not the success of Kyzikos that led to the reinstallation of democracy in Athens (IV, pp. 387-442). The presence of Thrasyllos among the strategoi of 410/09 to B. indicates the beginning of cooperation between Athens and its fleet already in the winter of 411/10. Again, Diodorus, stressing the crucial importance of the victory at Kyzikos, is discounted in favour of Xenophon, even if the latter does not mention the Spartan peace offer of 410 (which, together with all other attested offers, B. accepts as historical on pp. 394-399). Diodorus' account of the debate, and especially the importance attributed to Kleophon, according to B. echo the Thucydidean account of 425 and are mere literary fabrications (p. 405). Accordingly, the introduction of the diobelia in 410 to B. does not mark the final victory of radical democracy under Kleophon; instead, B. sees the diobelia as irregular payments to relieve poor citizens, only later to be abused by demagogues and leading to the reinstalment of payment for judges and officials.

Accordingly, also in 409 there were no different programmatic groups that projected their (democratic or oligarchic) intentions upon an Alcibiades returning in triumph, as depicted by Diodorus. On pp. 443-508 (V), B. demonstrates that again the account of Xenophon is to be preferred: dissenting views rallied around the groups of followers and opponents of Alcibiades, whose return therefore had to be engineered cautiously. It is remarkable that B. in his discussion of the sources for both accounts departs from the one-source-hypothesis central to his earlier argument: different authors of the 4th-century-debate focussing on Alcibiades and his role might, according to B., have been used by Xenophon and by Diodorus (pp. 468-472). The contradicting versions of a triumphant or a hesitant return of Alcibiades to Athens are repeated in the different narratives of the first assembly meeting after his return and in the characterization of his status after 409: ἡγεμὼν αὐτοκράτωρ, as Xenophon terms him, or στρατηγὸς αὐτοκράτωρ, as he is called in Diodorus. B. accepts Xenophon as precise, even if the title ἡγεμὼν αὐτοκράτωρ is not technical, while Diodorus' account according to B. is derived from Xenophon -- an assumption that causes B. to refuse the title στρατηγὸς αὐτοκράτωρ as unhistoric (pp. 480 sq.).

In concluding his chapter on Alcibiades, B. emphasizes that Athenian disfavour led to his not being reelected strategos, but did not amount to the apocheirotonia reported by Nepos and Plutarch. Athens' democratic institutions continued to work properly, as B. also argues in the chapter on the trial of the Arginusai (VI, pp 509-571). To B., the trial did not amount to hysteria but was one of a number of political trials which appal the modern viewer but were inherent in Athens' political system. In a detailed account of the trial B. sets out to prove that the accusation met Athenian legal prerequisites, that the collective trial was a consequence of the collective character of the deed, and that constant disturbance and terror in the course of the trial are exaggerated in the sources -- which applies to Xenophon, too, who like all ancient accounts stresses the elements of disorder and lawlessness in the course of the trial. Especially if one agrees with B.'s demonstration (pp. 539-569) that the account given by Xenophon has to be preferred to the version found in Diodorus (again, largely derived from Xenophon), it remains difficult to follow B. in assuming that Xenophon's characterization of the trial and the manipulations instigated by Theramenes were all made up by antidemocratic and Socratean authors (pp. 538f.).

Ultimately (VII, pp. 572-614), according to B., the lack of able strategoi after Arginusai and the superior strategy of Lysandros led to the defeat of Aigospotamoi -- a defeat which, even then, Athens might have been spared if her fleet had followed the advice of Alcibiades. His return to Athens was impossible since after the trial of the Arginusai the different factions in Athens checked one another too effectively. Even after the battle, the disintegrating factions would come together only for a brief period of time; negotiations with Lysandros were already dominated by the interests of single Athenian politicians, especially Theramenes.

This book attests to B.'s magisterial command of a vexed problem, and if many of the views it expounds are not new (as is always made clear in footnotes that give an ample documentation without ever offering polemics), a glimpse into the most recent handbook on the period (CAH) will immediately demonstrate the importance of a book that calls into question what was to become a communis opinio. Problems remain regarding the degree of contamination the "alternative tradition" must have undergone at each level (cf. p. 489 or the possible use of Xenophon already by Ephoros: p. 157 n. 29). Repeatedly B. allows Diodorean material to come from sources other than Xenophon, among which the most irritating might be local sources possibly already used by the Hell.Oxy. (e.g. p. 230 on Thasos). And time and again, B. accuses the Hell.Oxy. (and also Xenophon) of tendentious fabrications -- just what this tendency amounted to exactly is never explored. To investigate these questions, one would have to go beyond the chronological limits B. has set himself. For the period covered, however, B.'s excellent book can claim to have provided the firm ground for any future research.3


1.   Given the large impact of military and nautical details on B.'s approach, it also should be noted that J.S. Morrison/J.F. Coates, The Athenian trireme: the history and reconstruction of an ancient Greek warship (Cambridge 1986) (whom B. fails to mention), while accepting Xenophon's account of the battle Arginusai (pp. 87-91), for the battle of Kyzikos -- again on considerations of factual plausibility -- arrive at exactly the opposite result (pp. 83-87). The authors, however, largely draw on the results achieved by A. Andrewes, "Notion and Kyzikos: The Sources Compared", JHS 102 (1982) 15-25, plausibly rejected by B. (pp. 58-63).
2.   For the most recent debate of the chronological interpolations in Xenophon cf. the article of G.E. Pesely, "The Date of Thrasyllos' Expedition to Ionia", AHB 12.3 (1998) 96-100.
3.   No review without pedantry: misprints occur regularly but never hinder understanding; note, however, that the quotation of Isocrates on p. 82 n. 149 must read VIII 98 instead of VII 98 (the slip recurs in the index). The reference to Hinrichs 1981 (p. 231 n. 105), lacking in the bibliography, is to F.T. Hinrichs, "Hermokrates bei Thukydides", Hermes 109 (1981), 46-59; only two omissions (of small importance) in the bibliography struck the present reviewer: P. Krentz, "Xenophon and Diodoros on the Battle of Mytilene (406 B.C.)", AHB 2.6 (1988) 128-130 and id., "Xenophon and Diodoros on the Battle of Abydos", AHB 3.1 (1989) 10-14. It might be irritating to non-specialist readers that the abbreviation 'P' commonly used for the author of the Hell. Oxy. is not introduced until p. 237, where it appears without an explanation.

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