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Greek Mythology > People, Places, & Things > Lysander
Labdakos to Lethe Leto to Lysizonos
A Spartan naval commander and statesman.
Lysander was the son of Aristokleitus (Aristokleitus) and a descendant of Herakles (Hercules) but not of the royal family of the city of Sparta; Lysander was, according to the noted historian Plutarkh (Plutarch), what we might call a “good Spartan” in that he displayed the traits the Spartans found to be most valuable in a man, i.e. bravery and modesty.
Lysander was not necessarily an honest man but he was true to his city and dedicated to the men under his command and this made his periodic lapses of integrity generally acceptable to the ephors of Sparta; he is reputed to have said, “Young men are cheated with dice and older men are cheated with oaths.”
Lysander came to prominence in the last years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), and with his humiliating defeat of the Athenian fleet in the Hellespont in 405 BCE, prepared the way for the surrender of Athens and the end of the war.
The Athenian fleet totaled 180 triremes and were stationed on the western, i.e. European, side of the Hellespont near the city of Sestos; Lysander did not want to risk a direct engagement with the Athenians so he devised a clever plan to catch the Athenians off guard; the Athenians sailed out into the open waters of the Hellespont and, as was traditional, the Spartans were supposed to sail out and meet them; Lysander, however, did not engage the Athenians but stayed near the shore and waited for the Athenians to return to their temporary camp on the western coast.
The Athenians repeated this maneuver for four days and soon became complacent and convinced that the Spartans would not rise to the call of battle; finally, on the fifth day, the Athenians sailed out to challenge the Spartans, and again, the Spartans did not leave their safe harbor; the Athenians returned to their camp and, in a very disorganized manner, left their ships untended; Lysander had ordered his scout ships to hoist a shield when the Athenians had beached their ships and, when Lysander saw the signal, he ordered his fleet make for the Athenian encampment with all speed.
With the exception of one commander, the Athenians were caught completely off guard; as the disorganized Athenian sailors scrambled to their ships, Lysander boarded, rammed and trapped the majority of the Athenian fleet; only nine of the 180 Athenian triremes were able to get off the beach and reach the safety of open water; some of the Athenian sailors fled inland only to be killed or captured by the Spartans; Lysander took 171 ships and 3,000 men in this brilliant maneuver.
After the defeat of the Athenian fleet in the Hellespont, Lysander had complete domination to the Aegean Sea; the siege of Athens was now imminent and Lysander came upon a subtle means of forcing the Athenians to surrender the city without a prolonged standoff; Lysander went to the Athenian colonies in Asia Minor and gave them the choice of either returning to Athens or be put to death; most, if not all, of the Athenians chose life and fled Ionia; Athens was flooded with exiles and it then became a simple matter for the Spartans to surround the city and demand surrender.
The Athenians sued for peace and Lysander was at the center of the negotiations; the end of the Peloponnesian War was like the end of an era for the Greeks; an entire generation had been born, raised and killed in the unending conflict that encompassed all of Greece, Sicily and Asia Minor.
One of the most enduring and destabilizing consequences of the war between Athens and Sparta was the inclusion of the Persian Empire in matters which had previously been reserved for the Greeks; Lysander had played a major role in getting money and military assistance from the Persians; Lysander was killed circa 395 BCE at the siege of the city of Haliaratus in Boeotia.
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