Some historians say the loss of leadership may have contributed to Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War. But a scholar who wrote a book on the battle says the Spartans would have won whether or not Athens executed the generals.
The ancient city of Kane was on one of three Arginus Islands in the Aegean Sea off the west coast of Turkey. The exact location of the city was lost in antiquity because earth and silt displaced the water and connected the island to the mainland.
Geo-archaeologists working with other experts from Turkish and German institutions discovered Kane, where the Athens and Sparta did battle in 406 BC. Athens won the Battle of Arginusae, but its citizens tried and executed six of eight of the city-state’s victorious commanders.
Depiction of a battle between Athens and Sparta in the Great Peloponnese War, 413 BC. (Image source)“The Athenian people soon regretted their decision, but it was too late,” writes J. Rickard at History of War. “The execution of six victorious generals had a double effective—it removed most of the most able and experienced commanders, and it discouraged the survivors from taking command in the following year. This lack of experience may have played a part in the crushing Athenian defeat at Aegospotami that effectively ended the war.”
Debra Hamel, a classicist and historian who wrote the book The Battle of Arginusae, however, says she thinks Athens would have lost anyway.
“Sparta at that point was being funded by Persia, so they could replace ships and hire rowers indefinitely,” Dr. Hamel wrote to Ancient Origins in electronic messages. “Athens did not have those resources. Allies had revolted. They weren’t taking in the money they had in earlier days.”
Google Earth image shows the general vicinity of the islands, near Bademli Village in Turkey on the Aegean Sea.Dr. Hamel, via e-mail, describes how the Battle of Arginusae was likely fought:
The Battle of Arginusae was only fought at sea. … The state-of-the-art vessel of the period was the trireme, a narrow ship about 120 feet [36.6 meters] long that was powered by 170 oarsmen, who sat in three rows on either side of the ship. There was a bronze-clad ram that extended about six and a half feet [2 meters] at waterline from the prow of the vessel. The purpose of the ram was to sink enemy ships. The goal of a ship's crew—the 170 oarsmen and various officers onboard—was to maneuver a trireme so that it was in position to punch a hole in the side of an enemy ship while avoiding getting rammed oneself. In order to do this you needed to have a fast ship--one that wasn't waterlogged or weighed down by marine growths--and you needed a well-trained crew.Athens sent 150 ships, the Spartans 120. The Athenian line was about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long or longer because it was interrupted by one of the Arginusae islands. The Spartan line was a bit less than 1.5 miles [2.4 km] long, Dr. Hamel estimates.
Greek trireme, drawing by F. Mitchell; note the battering ram on the prow to the right at the waterline. (Wikimedia Commons)Dr. Hamel’s book on the battle explores not just the battle but its aftermath too. Winning the battle “was a great triumph, saving Athens—at least temporarily—from almost certain defeat in the war,” she wrote in e-mail. “The victory was cause for celebration, but paradoxically, because of what happened afterwards, it was also one of the worst disasters to befall Athens in the war: A series of legal proceedings led ultimately to the Athenians' execution of (most of) their victorious generals. This was the stuff of tragedy.
Because the Battle of Arginusae is tied intimately with the legal proceedings that it led to, I was able to discuss in my book not only the battle itself and the intricacies of naval warfare (which are really very interesting), but also the proceedings back in Athens and Athens' democracy and democratic institutions. All of this was necessary to round out the story for readers who are approaching the book without any prior knowledge of the period.Later, from 191 to 190 BC, Roman forces used the city of Kane’s harbor in the war against Antiochas III’s Seleucid Empire. That war lasted from 192 to 188 BC and ended when Antiochus capitulated to Rome’s condition that he evacuate Asia Minor. Most of Antiochus’ cities in Asia Minor had been conquered by the Romans anyway. He also agreed to pay 15,000 Euboeic talents. The Romans did not leave a garrison in Asia Minor but wanted a buffer zone on their eastern frontier.
The island on which Kane was situated, which is known from ancient historians’ texts, is in the sea off İzmir Province’s Dikili district Researchers, led by the German Archaeology Institute, included those from the cities of İzmir, Munich, Kiel, Cologne, Karlsruhe, Southampton and Rostock. Prehistorians, geographers, geophysics experts and topographers all worked on the project.
“During surface surveys carried out near Dikili’s Bademli village, geo-archaeologists examined samples from the underground layers and learned one of the peninsulas there was in fact an island in the ancient era, and its distance from the mainland was filled with alluviums over time,” reports Hurriyet Daily News. “Following the works, the quality of the harbors in the ancient city of Kane was revealed. Also, the location of the third island, which was lost, has been identified.”
Featured image: Main: Google Earth image shows the general vicinity of the islands, near Bademli Village in Turkey on the Aegean Sea. Inset: A representation of an ancient Greek ship on pottery (Photo by Poecus/Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller