Lysander rose to fame by defeating the Athenian navy at Aegospotami in 405 BC which led to victory for Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.  His rise to power both enabled and heralded the establishment of the brief Spartan empire, yet it also prompted the further unravelling of the Lycurgan laws.  A deceitful, selfish and ruthless character, Lysander was not only a remarkable tactician and strategist, but also a vainglorious politician whose ambition threatened the Spartan constitution.


Younger Years

The young Lysander, Plutarch tells us, came from a poor family, yet one that made claim to Heraclidean lineage.  The family may not have been able to afford the agoge fees for their son, or perhaps Lysander’s mother was not a Spartiate (there is speculation that perhaps Lysander was the illegitimate son of a helot mother and Spartan father).  In any case, Lysander’s enrolment in and attendance of the agoge was sponsored by another Spartiate family. The young boy thus had the status of mothax – a “stepbrother” of sorts. As a mothax, Lysander gained a “natural subservience to men of power and influence, beyond what was usual in a Spartan, and content to endure an arrogant authority for the sake of gaining his ends,” as Plutarch put it.


Given his status as a mothax, it is unsurprising that little was recorded of Lysander’s time in the agoge or as a hebontes.  What is known that he had a homosexual affair with the young Agesilaus when the future Eurypontid king was in the agoge. Ordinarily, the heirs to the thrones of Sparta were exempt from the agoge, but Agesilaus who was half-brother to King Agis, was not first-in-line in succession.  Agesilaus was lame in one leg and yet he excelled in the agoge. The affair with the older Lysander would forge an important bond between the two men which came to play a critical role as they both ascended to power.


The First Admiralcy

Lysander was named admiral of the Spartan navy in 407 BC.  He was not the first mothax to be chosen to lead forces against Athens (another mothax, Gylippus, had achieved great success against Athens in the campaign for Syracuse in 413 BC) but the position was a singularly important one in 407 BC.  It is no exaggeration to say that Sparta’s hopes for winning the Peloponnesian War lay in defeating what remained of the Athenian navy. It seems reasonable to assume then that his military record until then must have been exemplary in order for him to have achieved the admiralcy which at the time was the single most powerful military rank and on par with that of the two kings.  Alternatively, Lysander may have benefited from powerful patronage amongst Sparta’s elite. At any rate, naming him admiral was a decision from which Sparta would soon reap rewards.


At this late point in the Peloponnesian war, the might of imperial Athens had been severely diminished and its coffers were nearly empty.  Still victory eluded the Spartans who year after year were proving hopelessly incapable of defeating the Athenian fleet. The Athenian fleet critically guaranteed resupply of grain to Athens from the Black Sea, and secured access and control of its Aegean empire of tributary cities.  Sparta had already succeeded in disrupting the Aegean empire by helping some cities rebel against Athens, but it had only done so with Persian funds and support. The Persian funds had been inconsistent and the alliance was neither steady nor strong – a situation which was not helped by successive Spartan defeats by the far more competent Athenian admirals.  To call the situation a stalemate would be to oversimplify it; the outcome of the war was at a tipping point. Without Persian aid, Sparta was incapable of threatening Athens at sea or winning the war, and Athens with its limited funds was only one major naval loss away from total defeat.


Basing his fleet at Ephesus on the Ionian coast, Lysander set about building more triremes and making Ephesus more prosperous that it might support a large fleet.  At this time fortune smiled on the Spartans when Great King Darius of Persia replaced the local satrap Tissaphernes with Darius’ younger son, Cyrus. Cyrus was an ambitious prince with a desire to foster closer ties with Sparta that they might one day assist his future claim to the Persian throne.  He was thus eager to build a relationship with the incoming admiral. For his part, Lysander proved to be a highly adept diplomat. In the estimation of Kagan, Lysander was the only Spartan capable of building a close relationship with the young prince.

The two hit it off right away, and Lysander succeeded in getting a pay raise for his oarsmen.  This was critical as oarsmen would tend to work for the fleet offering the highest pay and the pay raise would make it more difficult for the Athenians to man their triremes.  Next Lysander called meetings amongst the leading Ionian Greeks from the cities nearby and promised them that they would rule autonomously if they supported the Spartan war effort.  While this tactic may have served Sparta’s interests, Lysander was making promises he could not necessarily keep. His aim however was to make these arrangements part of his personal patronage network rather than the official policy of Sparta.

The Battle of Notium, 407 BC

The build-up of the Spartan fleet and the desertion of oarsmen for better pay put the Athenian admiral, Alcibiades, in a bind.  The longer he waited to confront Lysander’s fleet, the worse odds he would face. At the same time, he had no way to force the Spartan fleet out of its berth at Ephesus.  From a strategic perspective, the prime objective of the Athenian fleet based at Samos was to prevent northward movement of the Spartan fleet toward the Hellespont, because a Spartan fleet operating in the Hellespont could interdict the grain fleets to Athens and bring the city to its knees.


The Athenian fleet was moved to Notium, north of Ephesus, blocking the route to the Hellespont.  Facing near equal numbers, the Spartans refused to come out of Ephesus to battle. Lysander preferred that they train and equip themselves, and build their strength.  With no action imminent, Alcibiades took twenty triremes to Phocaea to assist in the Athenian siege there. For reasons unclear, he left a petty officer and helmsman, Antiochus, in charge of the fleet at Notium.  Antiochus was under strict orders not to engage the Spartans, but the temptation for a great victory proved too much for him. The helmsman tried to lay a trap for the Spartans.


Lysander was well aware of the situation at Notium and the absence of Alcibiades; perhaps he sensed an opportunity was arising.  Antiochus decided to bait the Spartans by sending ten lone triremes to Ephesus with the hope of inducing the Lacedaemonian fleet out of the harbor.  Lysander was ready and launched a quick attack on the ships, sinking the lead trireme which was carrying Antiochus and immediately launching the fleet towards Notium.  The remaining nine Athenian ships turned and fled, but the Spartan force was close on their heels as they returned to Notium and the remaining Athenian fleet did not have time to line up.  Instead they engaged the Spartans in no order whatsoever, and were roundly defeated, losing twenty-two ships that day.


Alcibiades hastened back to Notium with reinforcements, but Lysander would not be tempted to another battle.  The victory had been sufficient psychologically to change the sense that the Athenians would always have the upper hand in naval battles.  More importantly to Lysander, it had cemented his name as the one Spartan admiral capable of defeating the Athenians. Lastly, Lysander had learned important lessons about catching the Athenians off guard which would serve him well at Aegospotami two years later.


Plotting His Return

As his term of service ended in 406 BC (a Spartan admiral could serve for one year only), Lysander decided to make life difficult for his replacement Callicratidas.  He returned the funds he had from Cyrus to the young prince, and, it may be speculated, agreed with Cyrus not to give it to Callicratidas. This wily tactic, given the precariousness of Sparta’s situation, was illoyal to the patrimony and against the Lycurgan ethos to the point of being treasonous. But Lysander had tasted power and wanted more, no matter the risk to Sparta.  


Callicratidas, an admirable Spartan but no great diplomat, made the best effort he could with his fleet financed by Ionian Greeks.  He was defeated and killed by a brilliant Athenian defence at the battle of Arginusae.


When it came time to find a replacement for Callicratidas, both Persian and the Ionian Greeks sent emissaries to Sparta urging for Lysander to be named admiral again.  The emissaries said that they would support and prosecute the war more vigorously with Lysander in charge. Spartan law forbade two terms however, so the Ephors, eager to accommodate the allies, had to find a way around it.  Aracus was named admiral, and Lysander his second-in-command, but their official ranks were but a smokescreen for the truth: against all traditions, Lysander had effectively won a second term in office.


The Battle of Aegospotami, 405 BC

Returning to Asia Minor, Lysander was called to Sardis by Cyrus.  The prince once again donated funds to Lysander’s campaign, and, as he had been summoned to the court in Persia, arranged that Lysander would rule in his place.  This decision was an outstanding declaration of faith in the Spartan admiral and a testament to the close alliance between the two men.


Once his fleet was trained and up to strength, Lysander headed south to Miletus.  In Lysander’s absence, a democratic government had taken power there. While still pro-Spartan, the government was no longer under his personal patronage and this did not suit Lysander’s grand ambitions.  He pretended to reconcile between disputing factions there, but in secret urged assassination of the democratic faction and those who had displeased him. Hundreds were killed and over a thousand driven from the city because of his desire for power.  Thus through deceit and murder, he re-established his dominion on the peninsula.


At its station at Samos, the Athenian fleet still blocked the route north to the Hellespont.  There was much hesitation and indecisiveness amongst the Athenians, so Lysander remained free to roam the Aegean at will.  He did so, attacking Rhodes, Aegina and Salamis and even landed at Attica where he met the Spartan King Agis who led the Spartan army.  When the Spartan fleet approached Attica, the Athenians were forced to abandon their position on Samos and give chase. Lysander anticipated this and soon crossed back to Asia Minor, circumventing the Athenian fleet and gaining access to the Hellespont.


Once in the narrows of the Hellespont, Lysander attacked and captured Lampsacus.  This key port was central to his plan as it allowed him to interdict the grain fleets travelling through the narrow waters and to launch potential attacks on key ports such as Byzantium further up the grain route.  The Athenians were now facing strategic defeat in the face and had no choice but to meet Lysander in battle on his terms. They sailed up the Hellespont and made camp on the beaches of Aegospotami (Goat Streams) opposite Lampsacus.


Aegospotami was a problematic location, and Lysander must have known it.  It had insufficient food and water for the large Athenian fleet which forced the sailors to go foraging on a daily basis.  Moreover, funds were running low and the Athenians were pressed for time. Each day they sailed to Lampsacus to offer the Spartans to battle, but for four days Lysander refused.  Kagan points out that Lysander anticipated what happened next: the Athenians would be forced to leave or split their force to get provisions, or at least to feign doing so in order to entice battle.  As it turned out, the Athenian admiral Philocles decided to feign it in the hopes of tempting Lysander to give chase.


The Athenians sent thirty triremes downstream away from their encampment, and had orders for the remainder of the fleet to attack Lysander’s ships from the rear if he followed the thirty downstream.  Spartan command and control were much better and quicker than their enemy’s however. The Spartan ships closed rapidly with the thirty and cut off them off. Outmatched, the thirty Athenians turned and fled back towards the base at Aegospotami only for it to become apparent that the rest of the fleet was, if not in disarray, then at least disorganized.  The Spartans landed a corps of marines and progressed to attack the undefended camp. The few Athenian ships that did engage were destroyed while others, whose sailors had fled, were pulled off the beach by the Spartan ships. Only ten Athenian triremes managed to escape, and Lysander put the prisoners to the sword. The final, decisive battle of the Peloponnesian War was over.

The Surrender of Athens

Lysander was now for a brief period perhaps the most influential leader in Greece.  He crossed the Aegean, turning cities from Athenian tributaries into Spartan tributaries and expanding the Spartan empire.  Critically, he ensured the personal loyalty of the oligarchs which he helped to install in cities and he amassed enormous wealth from the tribute.  Spartan interests across the empire were represented by harmosts – a type of military governor and garrison commander. Many of these were Spartans loyal to Lysander’s political faction at home.


Arriving in Attica, Lysander met boths the kings, Agis and Pausanius, at the head of the entire Spartan army.   The combination of the entire army and navy was an unprecedented show of force, but it was not enough to cow Athens into submission.  Safe behind their walls but cut off from any resupply, the Athenians slowly starved. When it was clear that the siege would be a long affair, Lysander left to the island of Samos where an Athenian-allied faction was still holding out.  Laying siege to the Samians, Lysander was sought out by an Athenian envoy named Theramenes. Theramenes persuaded Lysander that the outright destruction of Athens was not in the Spartan interest, and that some semblance of autonomy and power should be retained in Athens as a bulwark against the rising power of Thebes (which at that point was ostensibly a Spartan ally).   Kagan speculates that though the Athenians were starving, time was not necessarily on Lysander’s side in this matter, for the Great King Darius was on his deathbed and with the elder prince Artaxerxes set to succeed to the throne. Thus the financial support of Cyrus, so critical to both Lysander and Spartan hegemony, was no longer guaranteed. Ultimately, Lysander lent his support in Sparta to the idea of a reduced, but not destroyed, post-war Athens.  In Sparta itself, this idea became the prevalent one too, and in 404 BC a peace treaty was concluded which forced Athens to tear down the long wall to Piraeus and limit the size of its navy. Lysander sailed to Athens to oversee the process and install a harmost, and an oligarchic faction which later came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants.


After the War

Lysander had reached the apex of his power and wealth with the surrender of Athens, but with the end of the war came a decline in his influence as he left the Navy and Cyrus turned his attention eastwards towards the struggle for succession.  Unlike the Spartan kings who enjoyed life-long status, Lysander was in principle still a rank-and-file Spartiate, albeit with riches and substantial political influence. He returned the spoils of war and tribute he had collected to Sparta, but kept a significant deposit of coin and expensive gifts outside of Sparta.  Being a mothax with likely no land of his own except the statutory allotment, one can understand the temptation he must have felt.


In Sparta the influx of such wealth was inconsistent with the Lycurgan laws which frowned on such an accumulation.  A debate ensued and it was decided that the funds would be put to public use. As Plutarch notes however the presence of such wealth quickly serves to legitimate its possession and use for personal gain, and the powerful Spartans now had it at their fingertips and the means to extract from their new empire.   The economic egalitarianism and asceticism which Lycurgus had made a public virtue would never recover from this development.


For his part, Lysander professed asceticism in Sparta but indulged a narcissism and public worship elsewhere which defied that semblance of humility.  In Samos, which had fallen and was ruled by a pro-Spartan faction, his allies named a religious festival after him, the Lysandrea. Such deification of a mortal man was unheard of in Greece.  Apparently, Lysander considered it appropriate; in Delphi, home of the oracle, he had a bronze statue built of himself, receiving the crown of victory from no other than the god of the sea, Poseidon.  These were expressions of hubris so great and so lacking in piety and humility that it would be an understatement to call them unspartan.


The Death of Agis, and the Succession Controversy

The Eurypontid King of Sparta, Agis II, died around 400 BC.  Being the eldest, his son Leochrytidas was first in line to the throne. A troubling Delphic prophecy had warned the ephors though of the damage that a ‘lame kingship’ would do to Sparta.  This inauspicious omen was unclear and stirred up controversy; Lysander leveraged the doubt introduced into the succession by pushing forward his preferred candidate and former lover, Agesilaus.  While Agesilaus was lame in one leg, the narrative successfully propagated by Lysanders faction in the Assembly was that Leochrytidas was not actually the son of Agis. Rather they claimed, he was an illegitimate child whose real father was the Athenian Alcibiades (the Admiral at Notium who had sojourned in Sparta during the Peloponnesian War).  Whatever the truth of the matter, Leotychridas was rejected and Agesilaus was crowned king.


Agesilaus was no longer the fresh-faced youth that had been romanced by Lysander.  A recognized and accomplished Spartiate in his forties, Agesilaus had plans of his own for his kingship and was not about to become Lysander’s puppet.  Campaigning against the Persians in the eastern Aegean satrapies, the king demonstrated a high level of strategic military skill and won deserved acclaim, but he was jealous of the reverence the Ionians showed to his old friend.  Such a situation was insufferable to the king who turned his back on Lysander and eventually relegated the mothax to a minor ambassadorship. Lysander had hoped to ascend to the pinnacles of power in the Aegean again, but instead he was sorely disappointed and humiliated.


The Man Who Would Be King

According to Plutarch, Lysander was enraged by this treatment.  He felt he had led Sparta to victory in the Peloponnesian War, and that he was a better leader than Agesilaus.  While historians still debate the veracity of the claims, it is entirely fitting with what we know of Lysander to believe that he did contemplate or plot revolution in Sparta upon his return.  Being of Heraclidean descent himself, Lysander wanted to abolish the notion that only the Agiad and Eurypontid houses could be kings of Sparta. Instead, Plutarch claims, Lysander wanted the best candidate of Heraclidean descent to be selected for the kingship.  While this notion of overturning the centuries-old order of the totalitarian and conservative Spartan regime may seem fantastic, it is not implausible. And who other, if not someone like Lysander, the ruthless, rags-to-riches, military marvel, would contemplate such a scheme?


Lysander’s plan was two-pronged: first, he had a speech prepared for him with which to sway the Assembly.  Secondly, he attempted to bribe the Oracle at Delphi and various others that would act as harbingers of a divinely-sanctioned revolution of the Lycurgan constitution.  In the end the carefully-orchestrated scheme never launched – apparently one of the participants got cold feet – and Lysander’s plans were overtaken by another event: war with the rising power of Thebes.

Lysander’s army was defeated at Haliartus

War with Thebes and the Death of Lysander, 395 BC

Despite not holding a formal office, Lysander’s reputation and connections gave him substantial influence political in Sparta.  Agesilaus was still across the Aegean, campaigning against the Persians, when the conflict with Thebes erupted in full.  The proximate issue was a border struggle with Phocis in which Boeotia refused to submit to the will of Sparta. Angered, Sparta sought to militarily punish Boeotia, however the Lacedaemonians probably did not realize that they faced a coordinated uprising against their leadership, and that Athens and Thebes would join forces against them.


Lysander convinced the Ephors to name him general, and he set out to with a force towards Boeotia via Phocis.  Pausanias, the Agiad king, would lead another force on a different trajectory toward Boeotia via Plataea. The campaign began well with two cities, Orchomenus and Lebadeia, falling to Lysander’s army.  The next city, Haliartus, would serve as an excellent meeting point for the two Spartan armies, and Lysander suggested this in a letter to Pausanias. The information however fell into the hands of the Thebans, and unbeknownst to Lysander they marched to Haliartus and a contingent entered the city.  Lysander arrived at Haliartus, and settled down to wait for Pausanias. Later in the day though, the Spartan general was tempted to approach the walls of the city with his army; he was caught flat-footed when the Thebans and Haliartans sortied from the city gates and attacked his vanguard. There below the walls of Haliartus, Lysander fell, and his army was routed, suffering heavy losses.  When Pausanias turned up, he elected to recover the general’s body under truce and withdraw.


Epitaph: The False Hero

Lysander earned himself a worthy Spartan death on the battlefield, but his many flaws belied his heroic, public image.  When he died, he was greatly revered in Laconia, and such was the indignation of the Spartans at his death that King Pausanias was put on trial for having failed to avenge it.  The king fled, and ended his days in exile. The legend of Lysander lived on, until King Agesilaus, returned from Persia, found the revolutionary speech which Lysander had wanted to give.  The King was eager to publish it but was dissuaded from doing so by the Ephors, who probably wanted to protect the hero-worship of the old admiral as an inspiration to the Spartans, despite it being a golden-calf. In parallel, a great deal was made of the fact that Lysander did not leave much of an inheritance to his daughters, which some took as a sign of his profound and noble asceticism, but which in reality probably masked the fact that his riches were hidden and held outside of Sparta.  For how else could he have afforded the great bribes he paid to the Oracles?


Whatever debt that Sparta owed Lysander for grasping elusive victory in the Peloponnesian War, it must be calculated against the damage done to that austere society by his introduction of such great wealth, and the potential damage that his attempted revolution would have caused.  Moreover, Lysander was among those Spartans who wanted an empire to rule, though it turned out, Sparta was ill-suited for empire and it can be argued that the empire hastened the fall of the city-state. Little of this though was foreseeable in 404 BC when the long and terrible war was finally at an end.  Nor is it possible not to empathize even slightly with the mothax who rose from the bottom rungs of the Spartiate class to briefly become perhaps the most powerful man in Greece. When all is said and done however, Lysander was a most unspartanlike Spartiate. Time and again he put him own goals before the common good, used his position for self-benefit, and promoted and celebrated himself in the most unpious fashion.  In many ways, he exemplified the human flaws which characterized the unravelling of Lycurgan Sparta and its decline from power.




Further Reading:

Victory in the Peloponnesian War: the Downfall of Sparta


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