The End of Athens

Athenians Lose in Sicily
The Athenians' unsuccessful gamble to gain a foothold in Sicily concluded in a defeat that was to cripple them beyond repair. Here’s Thucydides’ account of the last battle:

"The Athenians pushed on to the Assinarus river, all the while being devastated by the spears, arrows and stones coming from everywhere and by the hordes of cavalry and other troops. They thought that if they could just get across the river, things would be a little easier for them. They were desperate to stop the pain, to drink some water. When they got to the river, they broke ranks and ran into it, every man struggling to make the brutal crossing first as the enemy bore down. Driven to cross all together, they fell onto one another and trampled each other down. Some were killed immediately by their own spears; others got tangled up in their equipment and with each other and sank into the river. Syracusans positioned on the other bank, which was steep, hurled down spears at the Athenians, most of whom were jumbled together ravenously drinking from the nearly dry riverbed. The Peloponnesians went down into the river after them and did most of the killing there; and though it quickly became fouled, the Athenians nonetheless fought among themselves to gulp the muddy water clotted with blood.
Finally, with dead bodies heaped atop each other in the riverbed, and the army decimated, some in the river and others-such as got across-by the cavalry, Nicias surrendered himself to Gylippus, trusting him more than the Syracusans. He told Gylippus and the Spartans to do with him what they wanted, but to stop slaughtering his men. After this, Gylippus ordered his troops to take prisoners, whereupon the surviving men were brought in alive, except for the large number who had been hidden by individual Syracusan soldiers. They also sent a search party out after the three hundred who had broken through the sentries by night and captured them….A large number, of course, were killed, for there was a great slaughter at the river, greater than any which occurred in the whole war."


The Last Battle (Show Map)
Vase painting of battling HoplitesRemarkably, it took the Spartans another eight years to finally finish off the Athenians. During this time the democracy in Athens was tested by accusations of blame, and a constant shifting political landscape between those supporting the democracy and those sympathetic to a more Spartan-styled oligarchy. The last battle came in the summer of 405 BC when the commander of the Spartan forces attacked when the Athenian crews left their vessels to go on shore to gather provisions. By the end of the day he had captured the Athenian fleet of 171 ships and overrun their camp. So outrageous was this oversight which left the whole of Athenian fleet defenseless there naturally were accusations of treason and other forms of treachery levied on those in charge. (See reference to Adimantus below)

The only question that remained was what to do with the population of Athens which was now at the mercy of Sparta and their allies. The speeches were many and most focused on past Athenian atrocities directed toward those who they defeated. Xenophon recorded the debate:

"…both with regard to all the crimes they had committed in the past and about the decree which they had passed to the effect that, if they won the naval action, they could cut off the right hand of every man taken alive; there was also the fact that, after capturing two triremes, one from Corinth and one from Andros, they had thrown every man in the crews overboard. It was Philocles, the Athenian general, who had all these men killed. Many other such stories were told, and in the end it was decided that all the prisoners who were Athenian should be put to death with the one exception of Adimantus. He had been the only man in the Assembly who opposed the decree for cutting off the hands of prisoners. He was also, it should be said, accused by some people of having betrayed the fleet. As for Philocles, who had thrown the Andrians and Corinthians overboard, Lysander first asked him this question: 'What do you deserve for having been the first to act like a criminal toward your fellow-Greeks?' He then had his throat cut."


The Thirty Tyrants (404-403 BC)
Following the defeat of Athens, Sparta attempted to bring the Hellenic world under its sway by installing oligarchy governments in any polis which heretofore had been hostile to the Spartan cause. In Athens a group of thirty oligarchs were placed in power. One of particular interest was Critias – a blood thirsty vengeful tyrant who happened to be a former student of Socrates. Although the reign of the odious oligarch was short lived, and the democracy was soon restored, it was one of the darkest periods in Athenian history. It is against this backdrop that the trial of Socrates must be understood.