- The Battle of Arginusae: Victory at Sea and Its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War by Debra Hamel
One of the most decisive contests of the Peloponnesian War, the Battle of Arginusae in 406 bce, proved more important and infamous for what occurred after the fighting than for the stunning victory of the Athenians. Having failed to recover the dead and dying from the cool waters of the Aegean, the Athenians voted to execute all eight generals involved; in fact, they killed the six who returned to the polis. The trial and its outcome figured prominently in the events leading up to the death of Socrates several years later. Since antiquity, the entire series of actions, from the sea fight to the role played by the philosopher in the trial of the generals, has featured in any important judgment on the outcome of the war and on the nature of Athenian democracy. In The Battle of Arginusae, Debra Hamel argues that scholars and historians have often overrated the significance of the trial of the generals when they condemn direct democracy and explain why Athens lost the Great War. But in the course of reconstructing the actions taken by the Athenians in the immediate aftermath of their victory, the book accomplishes far more than making a well-reasoned defense of their democracy.
The book comprises five chapters: the first sets the stage with an introduction to the two leading protagonists of fifth-century Greek history — Athens and Sparta — and provides a summary history of the period from the second Persian invasion to the siege of Mytilene. Chapter two explains the intricacies of Greek naval warfare, including a detailed discussion of the trireme and its tactics. This enables the reader to appreciate the experience of the oarsmen and understand the critical battle maneuvers, the diekplous and the periplous. Chapter three provides a vivid reconstruction of the battle of Arginusae, ranging from the deployment of the ships of both navies to the failed rescue and recovery operation. The author makes sense of numerous contradictions in the main primary sources, Xenophon and Diodorus, and gives a convincing analysis of some of the main scholarship on the topic. The mechanics of Athenian democracy, its court system [End Page 326] and methods for holding its generals accountable occupy the fourth chapter. Just as the explanation of the trireme and naval warfare prepare the reader for discussion of the battle, the analysis of the government in Athens makes intelligible the detailed narrative of the two council meetings and two assemblies, and the trial that ended with the condemnation of the generals, discussed in chapter five. The epilogue contains the author's reflections on what the battle and its dramatic aftermath allow modern readers to conclude about direct democracy and the culture of fifth-century Athens.
The book is a welcome addition to the extensive literature on the Peloponnesian War — which surprisingly lacks such a detailed account of this critical aspect of the war — and also a key event surrounding the trial of Socrates. This text is ideal for any upper division undergraduate course or graduate seminar that deals with either the Great War between Athens and Sparta or the trial of Socrates, as well as Athenian political thought and its legal system. Specialists in the field will enjoy the original reconstruction and interpretation of the battle and the various legal procedures. But the book should also be welcome to the general reader, including non-specialist classicists.
Perhaps the author lets the Athenians off the hook too lightly and underestimates the effect the trial of the generals had on the outcome of the war. It is quite possible that the Athenian empire was headed toward failure in the war anyway, but executing the generals no doubt hastened the downfall of the city and its empire. The regrettable actions of the Athenians and their tragic consequences have given pause to all...