Athenian generals, elected to their positions, found that appeasing citizen overlords can spell disaster in the field.

The Sicilian expedition of 415–413 BC proved disastrous for the Athenians. They had undertaken the venture during what turned out to be only a temporary cessation of hostilities with Sparta: the Peloponnesian War had been under way since 431 but the belligerents had nominally been at peace since 421. When the city of Egesta in Sicily, an Athenian ally, asked the Athenians to send a naval expedition to help it against its enemies, the Athenians decided to comply, partly to help Egesta and partly because they thought they might be able to conquer Sicily—perhaps even all of Italy—while they were there.

Things didn’t go as planned. The Athenians sent an enormous armada west, and committed yet more troops and ships to the campaign later on, but the Syracusans, allies of the Egestaeans’ enemy, were themselves reinforced by a Spartan fleet. The war between the two great powers of Greece simply moved to a new stage.

The whole business ended in an Athenian defeat. They were routed in a final battle in the Great Harbor of Syracuse in 413 BC, and in a last-ditch effort to survive they retreated overland—sick and wounded and harried by the pursuing Syracusans. Many Athenians died on the march and many more were captured and cruelly imprisoned in the Syracusan quarries, where they were half starved and exposed to the elements, with the rotting bodies of their dead heaped around them.

The expedition could have ended far differently. Earlier that summer, in the wake of their defeat at Epipolae (the heights overlooking Syracuse), the Athenian generals in charge of the expedition had discussed the possibility of withdrawing and returning to Athens—cutting their losses, living to fight another day. But Nicias argued against it.

Even earlier, Nicias had been incapacitated by kidney trouble and had all but begged the Athenian government to allow him to return home; he had opposed the expedition from the start. Now he asserted that the Athenian soldiers would never approve of their retreat. “Many of the soldiers here, indeed the majority,” he said, “who now cry that they are in distress, will say the opposite when they get to Athens: that their generals were bribed to withdraw. I myself, understanding the Athenian character, do not want to meet my end at the hands of the Athenian people, condemned unjustly on a disgraceful charge, instead of, if need be, risking the same fate on my own at the hands of the enemy.”

Nicias’s remarks make it clear that Athenian generals—who had been elected to their position by citizens of Athens, the demos—were not free to make important decisions on the ground. It is not surprising that the Athenian military was under the control of the home government, and required direction from Athens. But the radical democracy of Athens put generals in a particularly difficult position. They held the most powerful office in a state that was supremely wary of granting authority to individuals. They commanded their troops, yet the men who served under them, although temporarily subordinate to the generals while on campaign, were ultimately equal insofar as they, as citizens, shared in the authority of the state.

Indeed, while democracy thrived in Athens, the price the city-state and its generals paid for such a noble exercise of popular power could be steep, with Nicias and other commanders forced to make poor battlefield decisions for fear of the penalties Athens imposed on unsuccessful and unlucky leaders.

During much of the sixth century BC,Athens was a tyranny, governed by a “tyrant”—someone who had seized power extra-constitutionally but who was not necessarily tyrannical in the modern sense. Pisistratus first came to power in 560 BC and after a roughly 10-year interruption while he was in exile, ruled until 527. His eldest son, Hippias, came to power next, but after the ruler’s brother Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Hippias ruled much more harshly, exhibiting the sort of behavior that would give tyranny a bad name. Hippias became correspondingly less popular, and he was finally exiled in 510 after he and his supporters were besieged on the Athenian Acropolis. The Athenians had had enough of tyrants.

Democratic reforms followed. The Athenian population was divided into 10 new, geographically based tribal units: each new tribe included citizens from three different geographical swaths of Attica, the area that constituted the city-state (polis) of Athens. The reorganization had the effect of breaking up old power patterns. Residents of each of the three areas of the polis were now divided among the different tribes, and were less likely to identify solely with other residents of that area or to champion local leaders. A would-be tyrant would thus find it harder to solidify his base in a particular district.

Athenian citizens now were bonded with others in their local communities, or demes—Attica was divided into some 139 demes—but they also had political and social ties with citizens across Attica, the region surrounding Athens. The Athenian Council, one of the principal organs of the state, was now organized around the 10 new tribes. The board of generals, the strategia, which was also tribally based, was introduced in 501 BC: 10 strategoi were elected annually, one from each tribe.

These and other reforms were accompanied by societal changes: Athens’s development into a naval power elevated the status of the commoners who manned the triremes. Power that had been in the hands of an aristocracy devolved upon the lower classes. Athens became a radical democracy, and the Athenians, with their sour memories of the latter days of the tyrant Hippias, were stingy in allocating their power. They put a number of safeguards in place that were meant both to preclude a coup and to prevent any one individual from becoming too powerful.

One such safeguard was the process of ostracism, a procedure that was introduced shortly after they ended Hippias’s tyranny. If there was sufficient interest, the Athenians could vote once per year to ostracize someone, exiling him from Athens for a period of 10 years. To vote, Athenians scratched the name of the person to be ostracized on potsherds, broken pottery pieces called ostraka—hence the name of the procedure.

Ostracism served as a sort of release valve: It allowed the Athenians to remove from the scene anyone they perceived as a threat to the state. It was not used with abandon. In fact, the Athenians didn’t ostracize anyone until 487 BC, 20 years after ostracism was instituted. The first person ostracized, interestingly enough, was Hipparchus, a relative of the former tyrant Hippias.

To a surprising degree, amateurs picked by lottery rather than election ran the Athenian state. According to the author of the Athenaion Politeia—a description of the Athenian constitution written probably by a student of Aristotle in the fourth century BC—there were some 700 public officials (archons) in fourth-century Athens. That’s a large number of officials considering that there were perhaps only 30,000 male citizens then: a large percentage of the citizenry was involved in making the city-state run. The Athenaion Politeia lists, for example, 10 restorers of the temples and 10 city controllers who, among other things, had to make sure that flute girls weren’t being paid too much and that the dung collectors didn’t deposit what they had collected too close to the city’s walls. Most offices could only be held once, and most of the offices were collegiate, so that the authority vested in any particular position was very often divided among the multiple members of a board of officers.

There was a limit to how much Athenians relied on amateurs. They had to protect themselves from foreign aggression, and they were, of course, aggressive themselves in the fifth century sometimes through force—an empire of states that were allied to them. Of the some BC, building and maintaining— 700 archonships that existed in the fourth century BC, only about 100 were not filled by lot but were elected, including all of Athens’s military officials: 10 generals, 10 regimental commanders, 2 cavalry commanders, and the 10 commanders who served under the cavalry commanders.

Another difference between the generalships and other archonships was that, unlike with other offices, there was no limit on how many times an individual could annually be elected to the post of general. This makes sense: the Athenians needed skilled military commanders; limiting the number of qualified men available to fill the position by instituting term limits would have been foolhardy.

As a result, some generals are known to have enjoyed lengthy careers: Pericles, for example, one of the leading political figures of the fifth century BC, is said to have served as general for 15 straight years in the mid-fifth century; and Phokion, in the fourth century, allegedly served as general 45 times.

But the generalship was similar to other offices in that it was collegiate. The Athenians divided the responsibilities and authority of the office among 10 men, correspondingly reducing the authority they invested in any individual general. Having a board of 10 generals allowed the Athenians to campaign on multiple fronts simultaneously. It also made it possible for the Athenians to send out armies under the command of more than one general, which they often elected to do.

In 433 BC, for example, not long before the Greek world was riven by the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sent a fleet of 10 ships west to reinforce the islanders of Corcyra. The fleet was under the command of three generals: Lacedaimonius, Diotimus, and Strombichus.

Likewise, the Athenians dispatched three generals to Sicily in 415: Alcibiades, who would be recalled to Athens shortly after the Athenian fleet arrived in Sicily; Lamachus, who would die in battle against the Syracusans in 414; and Nicias, who, despite his kidney disease and his earlier opposition to the expedition, would survive to its bloody end.

When the Athenians sent more than one general out on a campaign, leaders made decisions in the field jointly, with each general contributing to the deliberations. When Alcibiades, Lamachus, and Nicias arrived in Sicily in 415, for instance, they considered collectively what their immediate strategy should be. Each of the generals had a different opinion, but in the end Lamachus gave his support to the suggestion Alcibiades proposed— that they should win over allies and then proceed to attack the city of Syracuse—and that was the plan the generals ultimately adopted.

Presumably, having multiple commanders on an expedition could be advantageous for strategic and practical reasons. But it seems clear that the key goal and benefit to sending armies out under a divided command was that it would have decreased the likelihood that any one general would use the troops he commanded as a power base from which he might establish himself as a tyrant.

Consider Rome’s bloody history of civil wars, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar both marching on Rome in the first century BC with loyal armies at their backs. That sort of thing never happened in democratic Athens.

The Athenian citizen assembly—the principal decision-making body of the polis—was regularly involved in

overseeing the conduct of military campaigns, controlling generals by issuing instructions to them before and sometimes even during a campaign. When Lacedaimonius and his two colleagues were dispatched to Corcyra in 433 to lend the islanders support against the Corinthians, for example, the Athenians gave the generals explicit directions about the circumstances under which they were to engage the enemy. The generals were told to avoid battle unless the Corinthians attempted to land on Corcyraean territory, in which case they were authorized to do what they could to prevent such a landing.

The situation required that the Athenians be particularly cautious: if they attacked the Corinthian fleet outright, they would breach an existing treaty with Corinth and other Peloponnesian states. As they were instructed, their role in the conflict between Corinth and Corcyra was supposed to be defensive only.

During the naval battle, the historian Thucydides recorded, the Athenian generals were careful to follow the instructions of their government. They drew up their ships in support of the Corcyraeans repeatedly but did not engage the Corinthians until the situation became desperate.

Toward the end of the battle, when the Corcyraeans were on the verge of defeat, the Athenian generals did support them openly, and thus were acting in opposition to the instructions they had been given. But their behavior during the earlier part of the battle suggests that they did not deliberately set out to violate the instructions.

The Athenians back home sometimes sent instructions to their generals in midcampaign as well. Thucydides tells us, for example, that in the summer of 414 Nicias wrote to let the Athenians know about the worsening situation in Sicily and to request that he be re- called to Athens because of his health problems. Thucydides quotes the whole of Nicias’s letter—or what is purportedly Nicias’s letter—and he prefaces it with a remark about the frequency of correspondence between the forces in Sicily and their home government: Nicias, we are told, had often sent reports to Athens in the past, and felt obliged in particular to do so again in the current circumstances.

Unfortunately for Nicias, the Athenians refused to recall him. They instead sent reinforcements under two new generals.

The Athenian generals who were sent to the aid of Corcyra in 433 did not in the end adhere to the instructions they had been given. But their obedience prior to that suggests that the instructions they received mattered to them. Thucydides tells us directly why this should be so: The generals did not engage the Corinthians in battle, he writes, because they feared countermanding the instructions from the Athenian demos. Nicias in Sicily is a case in point. In arguing against withdrawing from that island in 413, he said he would prefer to die at the hands of the enemy rather than be condemned unjustly by the Athenian people. The general Demosthenes, to whom

Nicias was making the argument, was probably receptive to this line of reasoning. Some 14 years earlier, Demosthenes had been commander when the Athenians were routed in western Greece. The enemy killed his fellow general Procles along with some 120 hoplites, whose bodies Demosthenes retrieved under armistice.

The Athenians who survived the battle sailed back to Athens, but Demosthenes stayed behind, “fearing the Athenians because of what had happened.” Generals of Athens would have been foolish not to fear their home government: their fellow citizen could be as lethal as any enemy.

Indeed, Athenian generals were liable to prosecution throughout their tenure in the strategia. From at least the 430s on, the Athenians had some mechanism in place for deposing generals. Pericles, for example, was removed from office and fined in 430/29 BC. (Athenians reckoned years summer to summer, thus 430/29 represents the summer of 430 BC to the summer of 429.)

The son of Pericles—also named Pericles—and seven other generals were deposed and brought to trial a generation later, after the disastrous Battle of Arginousai in 406/5. Athens actually routed the Peloponnesian fleet, but because of rough seas the successful generals failed to rescue Athenian sailors from some 25 disabled ships, and a large number died. Of those eight generals, six were executed. The remaining two, who failed to return to Athens when they were recalled, were sentenced to death in absentia.

A general who was not recalled to Athens in midterm to stand charges was still subject to prosecution at the conclusion of his tenure in office. Athens’s magistrates were obliged to undergo an examination (called a euthyna) of their financial accounts and conduct in office once their terms were over. Generals likely had to submit to a similar process: A preliminary investigation into the official’s financial accounts, followed by a sort of open hearing, during which anyone could bring a charge against him for financial misconduct in connection with his service—for taking bribes or embezzlement, for example.

Following scrutiny of the man’s finances, there was a three-day period in which anyone could accuse an outgoing magistrate of misconduct that was not financial in nature. If a charge had merit, it would be referred to the proper authorities, who would bring a case against the magistrate.

Given the large number of such audits that must have occurred annually in Athens, it is at first glance surprising that we know of only two cases in which euthyna led to the prosecution of a general. Phormio was fined as a result of his euthyna in 429/8, and he suffered disfranchisement as a debtor when he was unable to pay the fine. In the following year the general Paches was likewise found guilty at his euthyna. Later sources report that Paches responded to the verdict by drawing his sword in the courtroom and killing himself, but that story may be apocryphal.

That there are so few known cases of euthynai ending in prosecution need not imply, however, that the procedure was merely a formality. According to the orator Demosthenes (not to be confused with the general of that name), the fourth-century general Timotheus once left Athens to avoid his euthyna, which suggests that the procedure had at least some legal bite. It may be, however, that we know of relatively few generals being given trouble at their euthynai because they were subject to scrutiny throughout their tenure, so that any irregularities in their conduct could already have been addressed before they left office.

They may, in fact, never have been completely safe. The general Adeimantus, for example, was prosecuted in 393/2 BC in connection with his generalship more than a decade earlier, in 405/4. It is difficult to quantify the risk generals faced from prosecution because the information is so incomplete. Sources have not preserved anything like a complete record of the careers of Athenian military personnel.

This much can be pieced together: During 27 years of the Peloponnesian War (from 431 to 404), at least 7 percent and perhaps as many as 12 percent of the generalships (that is, the slots filled by generals: 10 per year) ended in some kind of prosecution. In other words, on average at least seven generals were tried during every decade of that war. We know of 22 generals who died in office during the same years.

During the next roughly 50 years, from about 404 to 355, between 17 percent and 20 percent of the generalships ended in prosecution. Only a handful of generals (four or five) are known to have been killed in action during the same period.

Obviously, if the same man served as general more than once—as many did—his chances of being prosecuted in connection with his service increased. The probability that a man serving as general twice in his lifetime between 431 and 355 would be prosecuted at some point in connection with his service was roughly 20 percent. In sum, being deposed and recalled to Athens to face charges or otherwise stand trial in connection with one’s strategia was not merely a theoretical possibility but a fairly regular occurrence.

However frequently Athens prosecuted its generals, the threat of discipline would not have controlled military leaders if their trials routinely ended in acquittal or if the sentences imposed were lenient. Neither seems to have been the case. The evidence suggests that most generals who were brought to trial were convicted. Once convicted, they were punished severely.

We know the outcome of 20 trials that were brought against generals during the Peloponnesian War years. Of those trials, 19 ended in conviction. Fourteen of the 19 un- lucky generals were sentenced to death, some of them in absentia. Three other men were punished with fines, at least two of which were cripplingly large.

We only know of one general, Anytus, acquitted during the Peloponnesian War. In his generalship of 409/8, Athenians had ordered Anytus to sail to the western Peloponnesus to relieve allies the Spartans were besieging. But storms prevented Anytus from rounding Cape Malea—the easternmost peninsula of the Peloponnesus—and he was forced to return to Athens without having accomplished anything. He was charged with treason as a result, but acquitted: the notorious difficulty of navigating around Cape Malea presumably lent him credibility when Anytus justified his failure. Still, later sources reported that Anytus was acquitted because he had bribed the jury.

We need not believe the accusation, but it is a telling one nevertheless. It wasn’t usual for Athenian political trials to end in acquittal; when they did, there was room for suspicion. (Anytus’s acquittal may have been unusual, but this is not his most notable act. Ten years later Anytus would stand as one of the three accusers who brought charges against the philosopher Socrates, a trial that ended with Socrates being convicted and sentenced to death by drinking a cup of poisonous hemlock.)

There were more acquittals between 404 and 321: as many as 7 of the 26 trials whose outcomes are known ended in acquittal. Nine of the remaining 19 generals were sentenced to death. Six men are known to have been fined. As in the fifth century, these fines were large. A certain Pamphilus, unable to pay his fine, died a debtor. Timotheus fled the country in 356/5 to avoid paying his fine and died shortly afterward.

When they were away from Athens on campaign, Athenian generals were wise to act in accordance with the instructions of the demos. The threat of punishment was sufficiently serious to influence the behavior of generals— for good and ill—as the example of Nicias shows. It was fear, after all, of what might happen to him on his return to Athens that prompted Nicias to argue against withdrawing from Sicily in 413, a move that could have saved the lives of many of the Athenian soldiers. In making his argument against withdrawal to his fellow generals, Nicias alluded to the potential threat posed by the men under their command. Many of those men, Nicias claimed, would go back to Athens and, whatever their current sentiments, claim that the generals had been bribed to withdraw. Nicias preferred to face the enemy ranged against him than to turn tail and face the angry mob back home.

The fear Nicias expressed about the influence his soldiers could have back in Athens points to another way the demos exercised control over generals on campaign, albeit indirectly. Athenian generals who were leading citizen troops (as opposed to mercenaries, who came to be used increasingly in the fourth century) were surrounded by potential witnesses for the prosecution. Their colleagues and subordinates were witnessing their behavior on campaign. When the soldiers returned to Athens, they could testify against the general, or themselves initiate prosecution against him. This occurred a number of times that we know of. In 406/5, for example, two trierarchs (subordinate naval officers) provided testimony against the eight generals who were tried en masse after the Battle of Arginousai. Conon, a fellow general, prosecuted Adeimantus in 393/2.

Even if a general’s subordinates or colleagues on a campaign did not participate in trials related to the campaign, they could threaten his career less directly: as constituents of the Athenian demos, they had a vote in elections. If they weren’t satisfied with a general’s leadership on campaign, they were unlikely to reelect him to the strategia. They could, moreover, damage a general’s reputation by simply spreading reports about their campaign experiences to family and friends.

Nicias was wise, then, to be nervous about the potential danger his troops in Sicily posed for him. He and his fellow generals, weighing their options after the defeat at Epipolae, elected to stay the course. But soon enough, the option to withdraw under favorable circumstances was no longer left to them. In the final battle in the Syracusan harbor, the Athenians, hemmed in by the enemy, tried in vain to force their way out into open water.

The small area was filled with some 200 ships, so that the normal naval tactics of backing water and ramming an enemy amidships were for the most part impossible. The oarsmen churned the water into a froth, the wooden hulls of their triremes crashing against one another frequently but ineffectually in the tight space.

Sometimes two or three ships would be jammed together as they rammed and were rammed at once, like bumper cars at sea. On the decks, the marines fought hand to hand, trying to board the enemy’s ships when they got close enough, javelins and arrows and stones flying about. On shore, the Athenian infantry, lined along the beach, watched and cheered and waited impotently for the result that would determine their own fates.

Finally the Athenian resistance was broken, their ships either captured at sea or chased back to land. Two days later, after a period of indecision that gave the Syracusans time to block their escape routes, the Athenians fled on foot to the southwest, leaving their dead unburied and their wounded to the enemy. In the end, the Athenians who survived that final retreat were forced to surrender. The enemies executed Nicias, who had stayed in Sicily at least in part because of his fear of being prosecuted back home.

The losses the Athenians sustained in Sicily were devastating. Their defeat was a turning point in the Peloponnesian War, partly because the new weakness of Athens emboldened their allies across the Aegean to revolt. Yet the Athenians managed to fight on against Sparta and her allies for another decade.

The allies finally defeated Athens in 405, at Aegospotami, and the war ended a year later. Although the city was not destroyed, it lost much of its offensive and defensive capabilities. Athens would remain a democracy—with a few short-lived interruptions and with some constitutional changes—until 338 BC, when Philip II of Macedonia defeated the city’s army at Chaeronea. By 322 BC, Athenians had lost their independence, and their leadership experiment, at once an inspiration to future democrats and a cautionary example of the dangers of mob rule, ended.


Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here