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Monday, July 15, 2019

The Captain from Kythera - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Eurybiades was the Spartiate elected admiral of the combined Greek fleet that faced the Persians in 480. We know almost nothing about him, but I knew he had to be a character in my biographical novel about Leonidas -- and I couldn't resist associating him with my own home: Kythera.

In this scene, an Aegian penteconter has been terrorizing Athenian shipping in Lacedaemonian waters, and Leonidas has joined his fledgling navy to try to intercept her. After successfully forcing her to surrender, the officers of the penteconter are brought aboard the Lacedaemonian trireme.

"The crew of the penteconter is first rate," the [Perioikoi] captain continued, "but then, that's what you'd expect of the Aeginans. It's no wonder their symbol is the sea turtle. No sooner is an Aeginan born that he waddles down to the sea and starts to swim. They can row and sail before they can talk."

Leonidas glanced back at their prize, and then forward to where two perioikoi marines were escorting the Aeginan officers to him. "But they failed to capture their prize," Leonidas pointed out.

"Pah! They never intended to capture her. They drove her on the rocks intentionally."

"Why would they do that?" Leonidas wanted to know. "There's no booty from a wrecked grain carrier."

The captain shrugged. "We'll have to ask them." He nodded toward the two prisoners. One was a grizzled veteran with shoulder-length hair, more grey than brown, and wearing the breastplate, greaves, and helmet of a marine. His face and arms were burned a dark brown from decades on decks in the blaze of the Mediterranean sun, and the lines around his eyes were cut deep into his skin. The other man looked much younger by contrast, although he was no youth. His almost-black hair was cut short at the back and his beard was neatly trimmed.

Leonidas started violently. The elder man was none other than his childhood friend Prokles, who had been exiled for dereliction of duty just before reaching citizenship. Almost as astonishing, he was accompanied by a young Spartiate, whose name escaped Leonidas at the moment.

"Prokles! What are you doing preying on innocent ships -- and under the turtle of Aegina?"

Prokles, who had been fussing at the guard and not focused on the men on the afterdeck, broke into a grin. "Well, I'll be damned! I never expected a landlubber like you to catch me off guard like that." He glanced at the perioikoi captain and nodded once in respect, giving credit where he thought it was due.

"You didn't answer my question," Leonidas pointed out and turned to the younger man, who at least had the decency to look worried, to add, "and you need to explain yourself, young man!"

"I went off active service at the winter solstice, my lord," he spoke up at once, "and I'm on leave from my syssitia."

"With what possible excuse?" Leonidas wanted to know.

"To look after my affairs, my lord. My estates are on Kythera."

"Since when did looking after your affairs include attacking innocent merchant ships?"

"That's the second time you've used the adjective 'innocent,'" Prokles pointed out. "But you are using the term inadvisably. The Aeginans provided our ship and are paying us. The Aeginans do not view Athenian ships as 'innocent,' while Eurybiades here has a grudge against the Argives, whose ships have been our principal target."

"The Argives burned my kleros to the ground and murdered every man, woman, and child on it," Eurybiades explained at once.

Leonidas well remembered the damage wrought by the Argives on Kythera, but he still did not approve of someone taking the law into his own hands. "In my waters, I'll decide who can be attacked and who can go free," Leonidas countered. 

"Your waters be damned!" Prokles spat in the direction of the side of the ship, and the perioikoi marines stiffened in alarm, looking to Leonidas for orders to put the impudent man in his place. Leonidas signaled for them to relax, even as Prokles continued. "Power has gone to your head, Leo. We didn't break any law. Can we help it if an Athenian captain puts his own ship on the rocks?"

Leonidas addressed himself to the baffled perioikoi marines, who appeared ready to slit Prokles' throat for his impudence. "Untie them. They will do us no harm." The perioikoi obeyed with obvious reluctance, and then moved a short distance away, both curious and suspicious.

Prokles demonstratively stretched and wriggled his shoulders, while Leonidas asked, "Just what are the terms of your commission with Aegina?"

Prokles shrugged. "Ask Eurybiades. He's the captain. I'm just the commander of marines."

Leonidas looked at the younger Spartiate, even more amazed. "How did you come by an Aeginan commission? And where did you learn seamanship?"

Eurybiades, his hands now free, gestured vaguely around them. "Here, my lord. I spent my holidays here, not just on Kythera, but on the waters around it."

"Who is your father?"

"Eurykleides, my lord."

The name was familiar. Eurykleides had a distinguished career behind him and had served once as ephor. He stood a good chance of election to the Gerousia when the next vacancy came up. Generally seen as conservative, he had nevertheless, Leonidas now remembered, spoken forcefully in favor of the building of a fleet, and he also supported the law to allow helots to improve their status through service on Lacedaemonian ships. 

"My mother killed herself when she realized the Argives had breached the wall of the courtyard," Eurybiades continued, breaking in on his thoughts. "My father remarried and has two younger sons by his second wife. I inherited my mother's property here."

"Where did you recruit the crew of the penteconter?" Leonidas asked next.

"Oh, mostly in Skandia."

"They're Kytheran, not Aeginan?" the perioikoi captain asked astonished.

"For the most part," Eurybiades agreed, "maybe a third are Aeginan."

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Spartan Admiral

In 480 BC, the Persian invasion of Greece was confronted at sea by a rag-tag fleet composed of 271 triremes and 16 penteconters. Although the bulk of this fleet (147 triremes) was built in Athens, the command was entrusted to a Spartan, Eurybiades, son of Eurycleides. He is a forgotten Spartan hero.

According to Herodotus, this was because “the other members of the confederacy [against Persia] had insisted on a Lacedaemonian commander, declaring that rather than serve under an Athenian they would break up the intended expedition altogether.” (The Histories: Book 8:2)

Herodotus rightly stresses the refusal of the allies to accept Athenian command, and this undoubtedly had historical reasons. Athens was not a significant sea power in the 6th century BC, and it did not build its massive fleet until after the discovery of silver in Laurium in 493 BC. In short, in 480, Athens was a parvenu naval power. The naval powers of the 6th Century, Corinth and Aegina, both had good reason to be wary of Athens. Aegina and Athens had been involved in an undeclared war for more than a decade, while Corinth and Athens were manufacturing centers that increasingly competed in trade. It is not, therefore, surprising that these and other cities rejected Athenian leadership. Noteworthy is that they wanted a Spartan commander. After all, Corinth provided the second largest contingent of ships (40 triremes) and four-times as many as Sparta’s modest if respectable contribution. Corinth, with a long history of naval power and such a significant number of ships, could have claimed command for itself.

That Corinth instead requested a Spartan commander cannot be dismissed as mere subservience to Sparta. Corinth was the city that had forced Sparta to break-off an invasion of Attica and ended Sparta’s ability to take the Peloponnesian League to war without the consent of all members. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, not a vassal-state or satellite. That Corinth joined other allies in insisting upon a Lacedaemonian commander, therefore, suggests that the demand was more than anti-Athenian and not merely pro-Spartan; it indicates that Sparta was considered a naval power capable of providing competent leadership at sea.

We know that Sparta conducted a campaign against Samos in the last quarter of the 6th Century which required considerable naval power in the form of transports and fighting ships to defend those transports. In addition, Cleomenes’ first attempt to depose the Athenian tyrant Hippias also entailed naval capability since the Spartan task force was landed at Phalerum. Theoretically, these earlier naval expeditions could have been conducted with perioikoi ships and crews, but Herodotus explicitly tells us Eurybiades was Spartiate. 

Furthermore, in Herodotus’ list of ship contingents to the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, he makes a notable distinction between ten “Spartan” ships at Artemisium and sixteen “Lacedaemonian” ships at Salamis. This implied that ten ships were financed and at least officered by “Spartans,” whereas the sixteen ships at Salamis included an additional six ships provided and manned by Perioikoi. Significantly, one year later, King Leotychidas led a naval expedition, demonstrating that naval command was not ipso facto beneath the dignity of Sparta’s kings. In short, at least some Spartiates at the start of the 5th century BC, most notably Eurybiades, had obtained naval experience and demonstrated competence at sea.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that Eurybiades was a mere figurehead. While Eurybiades was not the originator of the winning strategies (all of which are attributed to Themistocles), Herodotus makes it clear that Eurybiades' support was essential for the implementation of Themistocles plans. Eurybiades commanded enough respect to be obeyed once he made up his mind, which would not have been the case if his position had been purely nominal.

The two instances in which Eurybiades opposed Athenian wishes/suggestions highlight his very real power. At Salamis, the position of greatest honor was given to the Aeginans, to the disgruntlement of the Athenians. While Athens had every reason to feel that they deserved pride of place because they provided half the fleet and had lost their city, Eurybiades’ decision was the right one for the commander of a multi-national force. Athens was going to fight regardless, but Eurybiades had to retain the loyalty and morale of the smaller contingents that resented Athenian dominance. Aegina’s was an important naval power with a significant contingent of triremes. By honoring Aegina, Eurybiades effectively prevented the smaller allied contingents from falling away or losing heart at a very critical moment.

Even more significant is Eurybiades’ role in preventing a fool-hardy destruction of Xerxes’ bridge across the Hellespont. The Persian fleet withdrew across the Aegean after the battle of Salamis. The victorious Greeks, waking up on the day after the Battle to find the Persian ships gone, gave chase. They reached the island of Andros without even catching sight of their quarry and stopped to consult. Themistocles at once proposed sailing north to destroy the bridge across the Hellespont by which the Persians had entered Greece and would need to retreat. Eurybiades wisely pointed out that trapping the undefeated Persian army in Greece was the last thing that the Greeks wanted! (This was before the battle of Plataea, and Persian land forces were only marginally weakened by the brief delay at Thermopylae.) Without an escape route, the Persians would have no choice but to lay waste to all Greece, using their superior numbers to slaughter everything in their path. The fact that Themistocles could even suggest such a course of action will not have endeared him to the men from cities other than Athens that had not already been raised to the ground. Certainly, Eurybiades was supported by all a majority of those voting and the plan was abandoned.

This was Eurybiades last significant act. Herodotus records that he was honored in Sparta, along with Themistocles,  for his role in defeating the Persians at sea. Then he disappears from history. So what do we know of him?

In Herodotus, Eurybiades serves primarily as a foil for Themistocles. Themistocles is the intriguer. He is constantly seeking and taking bribes, he sends secret messages to Xerxes, he takes credit for ideas that are not his own. Themistocles is depicted as a brilliant tactician and a gifted orator (something Athenians particularly admired), and he saves Greece. But as Herodotus portrays him, he is a shady character nevertheless.

Beside Themistocles, Eurybiades is an almost featureless shadow. At Artemisium, Herodotus claims he took a bribe from Themistocles to stop him from ordering the fleet to withdraw. Yet according to Herodotus, Themistocles was himself bribed by the local inhabitants. Given the fact that this was at the very moment when Eurybiades' King was making his unequivocal stand at Thermopylae, I personally find it inconceivable that Eurybiades considered retreat. After Thermopylae fell and Artemisium was militarily worthless, yes, but not before. Some of the other contingents might have been in a panic (so were many of the other Greeks who fought with Leonidas) but Eurybiades is unlikely to have been any less steadfast than Dienekes and rest of Leonidas' troops. In short, like Themistocles himself, may have taken the money without any intention of retreating.di

Otherwise, Herodotus depicts him diligently consulting with the commanders of the various contingents, calling conferences to discuss the course of action, and hearing everyone out before taking a decision. He appears to have been scrupulously respectful of the independence and rights of all the allies and to have diplomatically kept Athens from dominating the alliance. Once a decision was made, he acted decisively and commanded the respect of all involved – including the Athenians. His performance at sea is not singled out for special praise, but he positioned the Lacedaemonian ships in the middle of the line, where, as admiral, he would have the best overview.

The fact that he disappeared from history after this short moment of glory in 480 hints at one last characteristic: Eurybiades was no Pausanias and no Lysander, who turned his military success into a political agenda. He appears to have faded again into the anonymous ranks of the Spartan line, but his successful foray into history suggests that Sparta had greater naval competence than is widely recognized and foreshadows Sparta’s victory over Greece’s greatest naval power a half-century later – at sea.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels. Eurybiades is given a small role in "A Heroic King":


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