The Peloponnesian War, which for almost three decades pitted Spartans against Athenians for supremacy in the Hellenic world, concluded in 404 B.C. with the victory of the Spartans. However, the true shadowy victor was the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which supported either side as it deemed fit, letting both destroy each other. Athens was so devastated that it never fully recovered its former prosperity. Yet, thanks to Alcibiades and the reconstruction of its fleet, Athens could once again challenge Sparta at sea. Ten years later, in a brilliant tactical move by the strategist Conon, Athens decisively crushed Sparta in the Battle of Cnidus.
Interestingly, Conon had suffered a resounding defeat in 405 B.C. at the hands of the Spartan admiral Lysander in the Battle of Aegospotami. In that battle, the Athenians lost one hundred and sixty-eight ships, with only a dozen managing to escape. Conon himself had to hastily flee to the court of Evagoras I in Cyprus to avoid accountability from the Athenian Assembly. There, he began negotiating an alliance with the Persians, who were receptive for an obvious reason: at that moment, the Athenians were weakened, while Sparta posed a threat.
The two major blocs in the war were the Delian League, led by Athens but now in a secondary role, and its adversary, the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. A smaller coalition emerged in which several city-states, primarily Corinth, Thebes, and Argos, aligned with the Athenians under the designation of the Synedrion (meaning council) of Corinth.
This decision stemmed from Spartan occupation of Elis, for which they had sought help from Thebans and Corinthians. However, these allies refused assistance due to the discontent caused by the Spartans retaining exclusive control over the spoils and war tributes.
In fact, they also declined to participate in an expedition against Ionia, organized by the Spartan King Agesilaus II to aid Greek cities attacked by the Persians for supporting Cyrus in the civil war against his brother Artaxerxes. The delay in tribute payments also fueled Persian aggression. Eventually, the king had to undertake the campaign alone. Despite this, his army emerged victorious, reaching the gates of Sardis. This prompted Artaxerxes II, who ascended to the throne, to dismiss and execute Tissaphernes, the satrap of Lydia and Caria (who had sheltered Alcibiades), replacing him with Tithraustes.
Tithraustes chose to pay the Spartans to redirect their focus to the Hellespontine Phrygia satrapy, ruled by Pharnabazus II. Pharnabazus, unable to stop the Spartan hoplites, opted to sow discord in mainland Greece. Agesilaus was forced to embark on restoring order, just as he was immersed in building a large fleet when news arrived that Thebes, duly paid by the Persians, initiated a war against Sparta in 395 B.C.
The Thebans did not act directly but incited their Locrian allies to withhold taxes from the Phocians. When the Phocians invaded Locris in response, the Theban army did the same in Phocis. The latter sought aid from their ally Sparta. Agesilaus II was pleased to have a casus belli to discipline the recalcitrant Thebes.
Thebes, in turn, sought help from Athens and obtained it, leading both to join the Boeotian League. However, the two Spartan armies sent to campaign in Theban territory, commanded respectively by Lysander and Pausanias, failed in their march through Boeotia.
Lysander died in combat, and Pausanias faced prosecution upon his return, fleeing to avoid a possible death sentence. Meanwhile, the anti-Spartan alliance grew, with Corinth and Argos aligning with Thebes and Athens in the aforementioned Synedrion, a somewhat paradoxical move given that the Corinthians had been part of the Peloponnesian League in the previous conflict. The situation became complex, compelling Agesilaus II to return.
He did so not by sea but by land, crossing the Hellespont and traversing Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly until facing a formidable enemy army blocking his path in Nemea. The flank defended by his Phocian allies did not hold, but the Spartans eventually prevailed, causing the enemy double the casualties they suffered. However, once again, the decisive battle was not on land but at sea, with the spotlight on the strategist who had left Athens years earlier and sought refuge in Cyprus: Conon.
Conon, as a strategist, had realized that the great danger posed by Sparta was the potential formation of a fleet to establish dominance in the Aegean, replacing the traditional Athenian naval power. He entered into negotiations with the Persians, convincing them to organize a fleet just in case. Artaxerxes heeded the advice, assembling three hundred Phoenician, Cilician, and Cypriot ships. All that was missing was an experienced admiral, and they offered the position to Conon himself, who gladly accepted the opportunity for revenge.
Conon sailed to Caria with a small squadron, where Spartan ships blocked his way. Farnabazus and Tithraustes came to his rescue with the rest of the units. Conon and Farnabazus set course for Rhodes, which they captured and turned into their operational base. They also replaced the pro-Spartan oligarchy with an Athenian-style democracy. The island was perfect for raiding the supply routes from Egypt to Sparta, prompting the Spartan fleet to be dispatched to prevent it.
The Spartan admiral, Pisander, was appointed solely because he was the brother-in-law of Agesilaus II, lacking experience at sea. The two fleets met near Cnidus, a Greek city in Asia Minor located on a peninsula in the region of Caria, in present-day Turkey. Agesilaus had gathered one hundred and twenty triremes, of which Pisander took eighty-five in search of the enemy. Thanks to the combined forces of the formidable Achaemenid Empire, the Persian fleet numbered around one hundred and ninety ships. These figures may be exaggerated, as is common with ancient sources, and current estimates suggest half of these numbers. In any case, initially, the Spartans encountered an advance guard of the enemy and attacked confidently, defeating it.
Then came the main force of Conon and Farnabazus, altering the course of events. The battle cannot be detailed extensively due to scarce sources, with the most significant one, Isocrates’ Evagoras, providing a basic account. It appears that Conon commanded the vanguard, and Farnabazus led the main body, successfully breaking Pisander’s left wing. Pisander failed to counter this maneuver, and, although he fought valiantly, he eventually died in combat.
The Spartan ships initiated a chaotic retreat towards land, where, as was customary, they had left masts and sails – only the rowers’ force was used in battle. However, Conon pursued and harassed them skillfully until the majority ran aground. Diodorus Siculus states that the Spartans lost about fifty triremes to the enemy, who suffered few casualties. This effectively marked the end of Sparta’s burgeoning fleet and, consequently, its dream of dominating the Eastern Mediterranean.
In fact, the Persians proceeded to clear the Ionian coast and adjacent islands of Spartan positions, with only Abydos (in Mysia) and Sestos (in the Chersonese) resisting. Agesilaus still held ground on the mainland, prevailing in Coronea against an army of the Boeotian League, even though most of his troops were simple helots reinforced with surviving mercenaries from the famous Ten Thousand (the contingent featured in Xenophon’s Anabasis) and some allied forces.
In the following years, Sparta sought to compensate on land for what it had lost at sea but faced defeat at Lechaeum against the peltasts of the Athenian Ificrates. Additionally, Conon and Farnabazus plundered the Laconian coast, providing economic resources to the Athenians, delivered by Artaxerxes II, to rebuild the Long Walls between the city and the port. This also allowed financing new cleruchies (colonies). Pausanias recounts that Conon celebrated his success by erecting a sanctuary in Piraeus in honor of Aphrodite, the patron goddess of Cnidus.
Meanwhile, Corinth became embroiled in a civil conflict between pro-Athenian democrats and pro-Spartan oligarchs, with the former ultimately prevailing. The Athenians then launched a counteroffensive to reclaim the islands lost in the Peloponnesian War, alarming the Persians, who withdrew their support and offered it to a rebuilt Spartan fleet. Teleutias, a half-brother of Agesilaus, achieved victory in some minor actions.
The situation threatened to deadlock, benefiting only Artaxerxes. Eventually, both sides agreed to negotiate a resolution. The war concluded in 387 B.C. with the signing of the Peace of Antalcidas, named after the Spartan general who pushed for it at the cost of his own discredit. Despite this, Sparta gained benefits.
It imposed the dissolution of the Boeotian League and the end of the alliance between Argos and Corinth. The latter had to return to the Peloponnesian League, reaffirming that Sparta remained the hegemonic power in mainland Greece, a status it held until its notable defeat at Leuctra in 371 B.C. However, simultaneously, Athens also rose from its ashes and formed the Second Athenian League, uniting like-minded city-states.
As expected, the Achaemenid Empire emerged as the ultimate winner, to the extent that the Peace of Antalcidas was also known as the Peace of the King. It solidified control over Ionia and other Aegean territories, later seizing Egypt and Cyprus without facing opposition, especially from a Greece that remained divided. At least for the time being, as a new player would enter the stage in half a century and change everything: Alexander the Great.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 17, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en La batalla de Cnido, cuando atenienses y persas se aliaron para destruir la flota espartana e impedir su dominio en el mar
Plutarch, Vidas paralelas: Agesilao | Diodoro Sículo, Biblioteca histórica | Isócrates, Evágoras | Tucídides, Historia de la Guerra del Peloponeso | Jenofonte, Helénicas | César Fornis, Las causas de la guerra de Corinto: un análisis tucidídeo | Chester G. Starr, Historia del mundo Antiguo | Hermann Bengtson, Griegos y persas. El mundo mediterráneo en la Edad Antigua | Wikipedia
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