BMCR 2016.05.02

The Battle of Arginusae: Victory at Sea and its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War. Witness to Ancient History

, The Battle of Arginusae: Victory at Sea and its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War. Witness to Ancient History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. $19.95. ISBN 9781421416816. ixx, 125.


Part of the Witness to Ancient History series edited by Greg Aldrete, Debra Hamel’s The Battle of Arginusae is a great little book. The subject, Arginusae, which the Athenians famously won in 406 BC, was, without a doubt, one of the most important naval engagements of the Peloponnesian War. That long war, as Thucydides stresses, was a peculiar, asymmetric contest between states whose chosen means of power projection were diametrically divergent: Athens, with her maritime empire, developed into a naval superpower, whilst Sparta, as the head of the Peloponnesian League, maintained the only professional army in Greece. To complement further the oppositional nature of the protagonists, Thucydides also emphasises their very different characters: the Spartans are conservative, traditional, predictable, whereas the Athenians are restless and innovative.

In this portrayal, of course, Thucydides plants the seeds of one of his favourite motifs—the unexpected reversal of fortune. Naturally, in a contest between the forces Thucydides describes, there were only two ways to win: either Sparta had to develop a fleet capable of defeating Athens at sea, or Athens had to produce an army capable of defeating Sparta on land. The difficulty of such a transition, of course, explains the protracted nature of the Peloponnesian War, and given their respective ‘national’ characteristics, any reader of Thucydides would expect the innovative Athenians to adapt before the conservative Spartans. By 406 BC, however, it was clear that this was not the case. The Spartans, with Persian aid, had finally learned to project their power across the Aegean, and slowly, but surely, they were heading up the west coast of Asia Minor. The Athenians had to stop them, because if they did not, the Spartans would prevent them importing grain from the Black Sea region. Such a development, of course, would be fatal: the Athenians were already denied access to their arable land by the Spartan epiteichismos at Decelea, and without imported grain they would be unable to continue the war.

It is at precisely this dramatic point in the Peloponnesian War that the focus of Hamel’s study, the battle of Arginusae, was fought. The book, however, does far more than examine the engagement itself. The first chapter, helpfully entitled ‘Setting the Scene’, does just that. Starting from the Persian Wars, it offers a narrative overview of Greek history up to the eve of Arginusae. This naturally includes a brief account of the Peloponnesian War as well as an outline of Athenian and Spartan power. What emerges is the time-honoured picture of a war between an Athenian ‘whale’ and a Spartan ‘elephant’, which then acts as a firm foundation for the rest of the book.

Chapter two is just as useful. This offers a very succinct summary of the nature of naval warfare in the fifth century BC, which starts with an introduction to the trireme and the struggles of historians and archaeologists to understand and reconstruct it. This includes, interestingly, links to videos of the Olympias on YouTube, so that, having seen a modern reconstruction of a trireme at sea, the reader can fully appreciate its potential in combat, as well as its technical limitations and the need for a professional crew. With this additional groundwork laid, chapter two moves on to a more sophisticated analysis of naval tactics that includes a good overview of, as well as Hamel’s own opinion on, the ongoing debate about the diekplous and periplous.

Chapter three then examines the battle itself, starting with the social make-up of the crews raised by Athens and their uneven readiness for combat. As part of this chapter, Hamel offers a very useful exploration of the problematic nature of the evidence, the debates that dog its interpretation, as well, of course, as a reconstruction of the evolution of the engagement itself. The aftermath, naturally, also receives considerable attention. Hamel examines the conflicting demands faced by the victorious Athenians, the role of the weather, the decisions made by the commanders, and finally, the resultant delay in launching an effective rescue mission.

Chapter four pauses to analyse Athenian command structures, and the influence democratic theory and practice had on the nature of military leadership. This is definitely one of the most useful chapters. Hamel, of course, is the author of an excellent monograph on the subject ( Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period (Boston, 1998)), and her authority underpins a very clear and persuasive argument. This reveals how, in order to stomach the aggregation of military expertise and nascent professionalism in a regime predicated on institutionalised amateurism, the Athenians subjected their commanders to a considerable degree of democratic accountability. This constant overwatch, however, stifled the willingness of Athenian commanders to take the sometimes necessary risks required to transform tactical challenges into stunning victories, and inculcated instead a command culture that made safe decisions irresistibly attractive.

Chapter five returns to the events following the battle, and focuses on the reaction thereto back in Athens. This, as Hamel explicitly acknowledges, is the most speculative chapter of the book, but also the most original. It offers, essentially, a reconstruction of the events leading up to the trial of the generals, as well as an analysis of the trial itself, and concludes (p.90), disturbingly, that ‘the Athenians, with due consideration and in accordance with all standing statutes, reached a verdict in the Arginusae affair that was perfectly legal but at the same time perfectly reprehensible.’

The book ends with an epilogue that takes the story of the Peloponnesian War to its grim conclusion. This examines the role of Persia and the Athenian failure at Aegospotami. The main aim of the epilogue, however, is to normalise the trial of the generals and situate it, albeit as a notable mistake, within the wider context of successful Athenian governance. The book, then, provides the reader with far more than an expert discussion of a famous battle—as discussed, the author expends a great deal of effort establishing the historical context and setting out the nature of naval warfare and command at sea, and this strongly suggests a wide audience is envisaged.

This audience, of course, does not exclude academics and students, but the focus, presumably, is a more popular readership. Despite this target audience, Hamel combines accessibility with historical good practice. Her prose, certainly, is lively and entertaining, and maps, timelines and a guide to further reading support the general reader. However, the clear narrative and the thematic explanations offered are also coupled with source analysis, references in endnotes, and even, in chapter three, extended discussion of Xenophon’s Greek.

Naturally, the focus on a popular audience entails some limitations. Although Hamel contributes to the debate regarding naval manoeuvre, brings her expertise on Athenian command to the discussion of the battle and subsequent trial, and offers a reconstruction of the trial itself and the events at Athens leading up to it, the aim is not to generate new knowledge, but to bring existing knowledge to a popular audience. This aim, happily, is admirably achieved. The book is lively, accessible, interesting, and it will, no doubt, be well received by the popular audience for which it is intended. The scholarly rigour with which the book is written, as well as the valuable discussions about evidence, naval warfare, and particularly the complexities of democratic command, however, will also make it extremely useful for undergraduates. Certainly, it is now on my reading lists, and I suspect my students will, like me, very much enjoy reading it.