The siege of Athens in to 404 was the final
act of the Great Peloponnesian War, and confirmed the Spartan victory that had
been made almost inevitable at the naval battle of
in 405. Athens had been on the defensive since suffering a major disaster at Syracuse in 413, but she had won a number of
victories in the intervening years, and her position looked to have improved.
In reality Athenian power was increasingly precarious, especially since the
Spartans began to built and improve their own fleet and gained support from
Persia. Things came to a head in the Hellespont in 405. A Peloponnesian fleet
under Lysander moved into
the Hellespont, and was followed by the last major Athenian fleet. This fleet
was almost completely destroyed in the disastrous battle of Aegospotami, and
only ten of the one hundred and eighty ships in the Athenian fleet survived.
News of this disaster reached Athens on the state trireme 'Paralus'. The
Athenians were used to having a Spartan army close by on land, and had repulsed
a number of direct attacks on the city in recent years, but now they faced the
prospect of being blockaded from the sea as well. Little or no outside help
could be expected, and the fall of Athens seemed inevitable. The Athenians were
now uncomfortably aware of their harshness towards many captured cities during
the war, and began to imagine the city destroyed and its population killed or
sold into slavery. Work began on blocking the harbours and improving the walls.
Three Peloponnesian forces now converged on Athens. King Agis had an army at
Deceleia, in Attica, and so was closest to the city. King
Pausanias, the second
Spartan king, raised a new army in the Peloponnese and marched on Athens.
Finally Lysander appeared off the Piraeus at the head of a fleet of 200 ships.
The defences of Athens actually held out quite well against this test, but it
was clear that starvation would soon force the city to surrender, and the
Athenians began peace negotiations. Their first peace offer was very
optimistic. The Athenians offered to become allies of Sparta as long as they
were allowed to keep their fortifications and the Piraeus. These terms were
turned down by the ephors, who demanded that the Athenians demolished at least
one mile of the long walls connecting the city to the sea at Piraeus. In the
early stages of the siege these terms were unacceptable, and the assembly even
passed a decree making it illegal to propose demolishing the walls. After this
decree was passed Theramenes offered to go to
Lysander and find out why the Spartans wanted the walls demolished. He stayed
in the Spartan camp for three months, and on his return was appointed as one of
then ambassadors who were sent to Sparta with full powers to negotiate
surrender terms. Theramenes and his fellow ambassadors eventually reached
Sparta, where the surrender terms were discussed before a general assembly,
with Sparta's allies present.
Corinth and Thebes were at the head of a party that wanted to see Athens
destroyed, but the Spartans were more moderate. Their argument was that Athens
was a key part of the Greek world, and had played a noble part in the defence
against Persia. The Spartan terms were surprising generous. Athens would remain
an independent city, but she would have to become an ally of Sparta, following
her lead in diplomacy and supporting her in war. The long walls and the
fortifications of Piraeus were to be destroyed. The Athenian navy was to be
almost destroyed, and was reduced in size to only twelve ships. Finally all
exiles were to be allowed to return to the city.
The ambassadors returned to an Athens that was on her last legs, with large
numbers dying daily of starvation. The Spartan terms were accepted by a large
majority of the people, and the Great Peloponnesian War finally came to an end.
Lysander led his fleet into the Piraeus, and began work on demolishing the
walls. Sparta emerged from the long wars victorious, but her dominance in
Greece would be short-lived. Spartan attempts to take Athens's position around
the Aegean failed, and within a few years all of the restrictions on Athens had
been removed, while an attempt to replace the democracy was very short-lived.
For a brief time Athens, Thebes and Corinth were even allied against Sparta (Corinthian War,
395-387). The most important long term result of the war was that it ended any
chance of Athens becoming a major Imperial power, and left a power vacuum that
would be filled by Macedonia.