Lysander (d.395 BC)

Lysander (d.395 BC) was a Spartan general who was largely responsible for the Athenian defeat in the Great Peloponnesian War, but whose harsh rule helped to trigger a series of revolts against Spartan authority that eventually triggered the Corinthian War and played a part in the decline of Sparta. 

According to some of our sources Lysander came from humble origins, growing up as a mothax, a poor Spartan who was put through the Spartan childhood training regime as the foster brother of a child from a richer family. However he also had royal connections and was linked to the Heraclid family.

The final stage of the Great Peloponnesian War began after the Athenian defeat at Syracuse. This weakened Athens, and allowed King Agis II to move to Decelea in Attica in 413, from where he imposed an effective land blockade of the city. This policy caused serious long term damage to Athens, but it did nothing to defeat their impressive naval power. That task fell to Lysander, who was appointed admiral of the Spartan fleet in 408 and reached Asia Minor towards the end of the summer of that year.

During his year in command Lysander won a naval victory at Notium (407 BC). Alcibiades, the Athenian commander, was away from the fleet and had appointed the steersman of his flagship, Antiochus, as commander in his absence. Antiochus ignored orders not to risk a battle and instead tried to lure Lysander into an ambush. Lysander was aware that Alcibiades was absent, and prepared his own ambush. The Athenians lost 22 ships. As a result of this battle the Athenians removed Alcibiades from command. Lysander also gained the support of Cyrus the Younger, the Persian viceroy in Asia Minor, who had been sent west to organise the Persian support for Sparta. Persian money allowed the Spartans to recover from a series of naval defeats, and slowly wear down Athenian naval power.

Under Spartan law it was illegal to hold the post of admiral twice. This was solved in 405 BC by making Lysander officially second-in-command of the fleet, but giving him the actual power (although only after his first successor had been defeated and killed at the battle of the Arginusae Islands). Lysander's greatest moment came at Aegospotami (405 BC). For four days the Athenians under Conon came out to sea to offer battle to the Spartans, but Lysander refused to budge. On the fifth day the Athenians came out as normal and returned to their base as normal. At that point Lysander launched a surprise attack and wiped out the Athenian fleet. Conon, with 20 ships, managed to escape, but the rest of his fleet was lost. This was the last Athenian fleet, and Lysander was able to move to besiege Athens. The city surrendered in 404, ending the Great Peloponnesian War.

Lysander attempted to set up a new government system at Athens, with control held by a Board of Thirty, who quickly became known as the Thirty Tyrants. He also replaced the Athenian governors who had ruled the empire with harmosts, commanders who ruled through boards of ten (decarchy). These harmosts would soon make themselves very unpopular and lead to a series of revolts against Spartan power. By now Lysander's power was probably causing some concern at Sparta, where he was seen as more powerful than the two monarchs.

In 403 Thrasybulus led a revolt against the Thirty at Athens. Lysander was sent to try and put down the revolt, and was close to success when Spartan policy changed. The Athenians were allowed to restore their democracy, although they were still forbidden to rebuild their city walls, destroyed after the defeat of 404.

Battles of the Corinthian War
Battles of the
Corinthian War

His failure at Athens was a major setback for Lysander, and probably saw the end of most of his government reforms around the Greek world. It didn't break his political power, and in 399 he helped Agesilaus II come to the throne. Earlier in life Agesilaus had probably been Lysander's lover, and more certainly his protégé, but once he was in power the relationship almost inevitably came under stress. In 396 both men went to Asia Minor to take part in a war against the Persians (Persian-Spartan War). Once they were there the war hero Lysander got more attention than the relatively new king Agesilaus, who soon began to oppose anything Lysander suggested. Agesilaus managed to manoeuvre Lysander into leaving the main army and operating separately, a sign of his declining power. As a result Lysander wasn't available to take command of the Spartan fleet in Asia Minor and instead Agesilaus appointed his brother-in-law Peisander, who led the fleet to defeat and destruction at Cnidus in 394 BC, although he did have some successes in the Hellespont after leaving the main army.

By then Lysander was dead. In 395 the Corinthian War broke out in Greece, partly because of the harsh Spartan rule after 404. The immediate cause of the war was a border clash between Locris and Phocis, almost certainly triggered by Theban intrigues. Thebes and Boeotia supported Phocis and Sparta Locris. Lysander, who had now returned to Greece, was given command of a force of Spartan allies, including a Phocian contingent. A Spartan army was raised in the Peloponnese, under the command of King Pausanias, and the two armies were probably meant to meet up at Haliartus in the west of Boeotia. Lysander advanced into Boeotia from the west. He gained control of Orchomenus, and then marched around Lake Copais before reaching Haliartus. It isn't exactly clear what happened outside the city, but according to Xenophon Lysander decided to attack the city after a failed attempt to win it over and was killed in a battle close to the walls. Pausanias and the Spartan army arrived soon afterwards, but then entered into negotiations for the return of the bodies, before returning to Sparta without fighting a battle. He was duly exiled, and so the minor battle at Haliartus deprived Sparta of two of her most senior commanders right at the start of a war. As a result Agesilaus had to be recalled from Asia. In the aftermath of his death Lysander was found to have been in relative poverty, despite all of the money he had generated for Sparta, making him rather unusual in this period.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 April 2016), Lysander (d.395 BC) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_lysander.html

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