Corinth and Corcyra by H. L. Havell


It was in a remote corner of the Greek world that the trouble began which was destined to breed such mischief and havoc for the whole of Greece. At the beginning of the seventh century before our era the island of Corcyra had been colonised by the Corinthians. The colony grew and flourished, and in its turn founded other settlements on the opposite coasts of Epirus and Illyria. Among these was Epidamnus, called by the Romans Dyrrachium, and in Roman times the ordinary landing-place for travellers from Italy to Greece. After many years of prosperity the resources of Epidamnus were much crippled by internal faction, and by wars with the neighbouring barbarians. Four years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the nobles of Epidamnus, who had been expelled in the last revolution, made an alliance with the native tribes of Illyria, and by constant plundering raids reduced the Epidamnians to such straits that they were compelled to apply to Corcyra for help. But the Corcyraeans, whose sympathies were on the side of the banished nobles, refused to interfere.

Epidamnus, as we have seen, was a colony founded by a colony, and according to Greek custom the original settlers had been led by a citizen of Corinth, the mother-city of Corcyra. Seeing, therefore, that they had nothing to hope from the Corcyraeans, the distressed people of Epidamnus began to turn their thoughts towards their ancient metropolis, and considered whether they should appeal to her to save them from ruin. But as this was a step of doubtful propriety, they first consulted the oracle of Delphi, the great authority on questions of international law. Receiving a favourable answer, they sent envoys to Corinth, and offered to surrender their city to the Corinthians, in return for their countenance and protection.

The Corcyraeans had long been in evil odour at Corinth, for they had grown insolent in prosperity, and neglected all the observances which were due from a colony to the mother-city. They were, in fact, superior to the Corinthians in wealth and power, and their fleet, numbering a hundred and twenty triremes, was second only to that of Athens. Corcyra was famous in legend as the seat of the Phaeacians, a heroic sailor race, whose deeds are sung by Homer in the Odyssey; and the Corcyraeans regarded themselves as the lawful inheritors of their fame. For all these reasons they despised the Corinthians, and made no secret of their contempt. Remembering the many occasions on which they had been publicly insulted by Corcyra, the Corinthians lent a favourable ear to the petition of Epidamnus, and determined to appropriate the colony to themselves. Accordingly they invited all who chose to go and settle at Epidamnus, and sent the new colonists under a military escort, with instructions to proceed by land to Apollonia, for fear lest they should be obstructed by the Corcyraean fleet, if they went by sea.

Great was the indignation at Corcyra when the news arrived that her colony had been surrendered to Corinth, and a force of forty ships was sent off in haste, bearing a peremptory demand to the Epidamnians that they should receive back their exiles and send away the new colonists. As the citizens refused to obey their mandate, they prepared to lay siege to the town, which is situated on an isthmus.

When the Corinthians heard of the danger of Epidamnus, they began to make preparations on a much larger scale, collecting a host of new colonists, and a fleet of seventy-five ships to convoy them on their passage to Epidamnus. Apprised of these proceedings, the Corcyraeans sent envoys to Corinth, with a civil remonstrance against the arbitrary interference with their own colony. They were willing, they said, to submit the matter to arbitration, and in the meantime to suspend all hostilities against the revolted city. But the Corinthians paid no attention to their overtures, and all being now ready, the great multitude, drawn from all parts of Greece, set sail for Epidamnus. When they reached Actium, at the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf, they were met by a herald, sent out from Corcyra in a skiff, to forbid their approach. This was a mere manoeuvre, to throw the guilt of commencing hostilities on the Corinthians; and meanwhile the Corcyraeans manned their ships, to the number of eighty, and put out to meet the enemy's fleet. In the sea-fight which followed the Corcyraeans gained a complete victory, and on the same day Epidamnus was compelled to capitulate to the besieging force.

By this victory the Corcyraeans gained complete command of the western or Ionian sea, and for the rest of the summer they sailed from place to place, plundering the allies of Corinth. The Corinthians, however, were not at all disposed to acquiesce in their defeat, and during the whole of the following year they were busy organising a fresh expedition on a vast scale, being resolved at all costs to put down the insolence of Corcyra. These preparations caused no small anxiety to the Corcyraeans. Hitherto they had stood apart, and refused to take any share in the complicated game of Greek politics. The course of affairs during the last forty years had tended more and more to divide the Greek world into two opposite camps, arrayed under the banners of Athens and Sparta. As Dorians, the Corcyraeans would naturally have enrolled themselves among the allies of Sparta,—as islanders and seamen, they might have leaned to the side of Athens: but confident in their remote situation, and in the power of their fleet, they had chosen to remain neutral. But finding themselves threatened with destruction, they now resolved to abandon their policy of selfish isolation, and sue for admission into the Athenian alliance. Ambassadors were sent to Athens to urge their plea; and the Corinthians, hearing of their intention, sent representatives of their own to oppose the application.

The Athenians were fully alive to the gravity of the question which they were called upon to decide, and after listening to the arguments of the Corcyraean and Corinthian orators, they adjourned the debate until the next day. To Corinth they were bound by old ties of obligation; for on three distinct occasions the Corinthians had done them signal service. More than seventy years before the date which we have reached, the Spartans summoned their allies to consider whether it was expedient to compel the Athenians to receive back the banished tyrant Hippias; and it was chiefly by the eloquence of the Corinthian speaker Sosicles, who drew a vivid picture of the miseries of despotical government, that they were shamed out of their purpose. A few years later, when the Athenians were at war with Aegina, they were aided by twenty Corinthian ships. And quite recently, in the great peril which menaced Athens at the revolt of Samos, Corinth had once more shown herself a friend. At a congress of the Peloponnesian allies, summoned to consider an appeal from the Samians for help, the Corinthians had spoken strongly against interference with the revolted allies of another city. Corinth was a place of old renown, the queen of the Isthmus, a centre of civilisation; whereas Corcyra was a remote island, and her people, though Greeks by descent, were in manners and character more than half barbarians.

But there were two arguments put forward by the Corcyraean orator, which outweighed all other considerations of policy or friendship. The first was addressed to the fears of the Athenians, the second to their ambition. War, he argued, was inevitable, and it was of the utmost importance for Athens to secure the alliance of the Corcyraean fleet, and prevent it from being added to the naval forces of her enemies. And his concluding words struck a note which found a response among the more daring spirits among his hearers, whose thoughts, as it would seem, were already turning to the western colonies of Greece, as a new field of enterprise and conquest. "It will not do," he said, "to be too nice. While you are hesitating, and weighing nice points of international right, you will be outdistanced in the race for power, if you tamely give up a great naval station which holds the key to Italy and Sicily."

Such reasoning, hollow and false as it was, turned the scale in favour of Corcyra, and a defensive alliance was concluded, pledging the Athenians and Corcyraeans to aid each other against any attack on the territory or allies of either state. For the Athenians wished to avoid breaking the Thirty Years' Truce, and therefore refrained from entering into any agreement which might oblige them to acts of open aggression against Corinth.

There can be little doubt that Pericles, who was mainly responsible for this decision, committed a fatal error in advising the Athenians to take up the cause of Corcyra. By this act Athens incurred the implacable hostility of Corinth, and revived the old grudge which that city had conceived against her when Megara joined the Athenian alliance. In the constantly shifting currents of Greek politics, Athens might well, under wise guidance, have steered her way safely through the perils which surrounded her. The Corinthians had half forgotten their grievance, as is proved by their conduct at the revolt of Samos; and the tone of their representative at the Corcyraean debate is decidedly friendly. The Spartans were sluggish and procrastinating by nature, and required some powerful impulse to induce them to act with vigour; and this impulse was now supplied by Corinth. By accepting, therefore, the alliance of Corcyra, Athens barred the way to all compromise, and gathered into one head all the scattered causes of jealousy and hatred which had been accumulating against her in the last fifty years.

Early in the following year the Corinthian fleet, numbering a hundred and fifty sail, put to sea from Corinth, to renew the war with Corcyra, and a battle was fought off the coast of Epirus. The engagement was long and fierce, and the event was finally decided by a small squadron of Athenian ships, which had been sent with instructions to hinder any attempt of the enemy to land on the island Seeing that the Corcyraeans were being forced back upon their own coast, the Athenian captains, who had hitherto looked on, and taken no part in the battle, now assumed the offensive, and lent such effectual aid that the Corinthians were held in check until the sudden appearance of twenty additional ships from Athens, which had been sent off immediately after the others, put an end to the action. This timely interference saved Corcyra from ruin; for next day the Corinthians, after a formal remonstrance, set sail for home, taking with them two hundred and fifty prisoners, belonging to the noblest families in Corcyra, whom they kept in safe custody, but treated with great consideration, hoping by means of them at some future time to recover their influence in the island.


It was not long before the effects of this impolitic breach with Corinth were sensibly felt by Athens. In the course of the following summer, Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, situated on the borders of Macedon, and included in the Athenian alliance, openly raised the standard of revolt, encouraged by promises from Sparta, and by the presence of a strong body of hoplites, sent for its support from Corinth. Potidaea was presently closely invested by an Athenian army and fleet, and the Corinthians pretended to make this a fresh ground of complaint, though they had themselves incited the city to throw off its allegiance to Athens.

Feeling that matters were now approaching a crisis, the Spartans summoned a congress of their allies, and invited all who had any grievance against Athens to state their case. Then some spoke of the wrongs of Aegina, formerly not the least among Greek cities, but now so crushed under the yoke of Athens that she had not dared to raise her voice openly against the tyrant-city. The Megarians complained of the restrictions on their commerce, which threatened them with an empty exchequer and a starving population; and others followed in the same strain. When all the rest had spoken, the Corinthian orator, who had reserved his eloquence till the end, came forward and delivered a vehement harangue, containing hardly any specific charge against Athens, but well calculated to inflame the passions and provoke the pride of the Spartans. Though the acknowledged leader of Greece, and champion of her liberties, Sparta, he said, had always been the last to see the dangers which menaced the common country, and the last to take measures for her defence. Spartan apathy and indolence had brought the Greeks to the brink of ruin in the Persian War; and when that danger was passed, the same fatal indifference had enabled Athens to advance step by step on the path of aggrandisement; until now she had grown so strong that the united force of the whole Peloponnesian league would be required to put her down. Why had not the Spartans listened to the warnings which they had heard, when the Athenians were rebuilding their walls? Then they might have stopped the evil at its source, and saved a multitude of cities from slavery and oppression. "Consider," cried the orator, warming to his subject, "what manner of men these Athenians are, and how vast is the difference between them and you. While you are shut up in this inland valley, treading the dull round of mechanical routine, they are continually pushing forward the boundaries of their empire, toiling night and day to make their city great, never satisfied with what they have, always thirsting for more. Cautious, timid, and conservative as you are, hardly to be roused from your sloth by the most imminent perils, how can you hope to curb the flight of Athenian ambition, which knows no limit, and is checked by no reverse?

"Men of Sparta, I speak as a friend, and you will not take my candour amiss. New times require new manners, and if you would maintain your great position you must move with the march of events, and abandon your old-fashioned ways. Do not mistake stagnation for stability, but learn a lesson even from these hated Athenians, who have risen to their present pitch of greatness by adapting themselves to every new need as it arose.

"You know what you have to do, if you would wipe out the reproach which rests upon you, and keep the respect of your faithful allies. Send an army into Attica, and compel the Athenians to withdraw their forces from Potidaea. And let it be done speedily, for while we are talking our kinsmen are perishing."

It happened that an Athenian embassy was present in Sparta, having been sent there on some other business, and not for the purpose of representing Athens at the debate. But when they heard of the outcry which had been raised against their city, the envoys asked permission for one of their number to address the Spartan assembly, wishing to explain the true character and origin of the Athenian Empire, and to warn the Spartans against plunging the whole country into the horrors of civil war. Leave being granted, the Athenian orator entered on his subject by sketching the course of events for the last sixty years. Athens, he said, had twice saved Greece, first at Marathon, and afterwards at Salamis. On the first of these occasions she had stood almost alone against an overwhelming force of Persians; and ten years later, though betrayed by her allies, she had borne the brunt against the navy of Xerxes. Who, then, was worthier than she to hold empire over Greeks? That empire had been forced upon her by the inertness of Sparta, and by the cowardice and sloth of her own allies in the Delian league. The power thus gained had been used with moderation, in marked contrast to the previous tyranny of Persia exercised over the same cities, and the arrogance of Spartan officers when engaged on foreign service. But a light yoke, it would seem, was harder to bear than a heavy one; if Athens had openly oppressed her subjects, she would never have heard a murmur.

Having thus tried to combat the prejudice against Athens, the orator addressed himself directly to the Spartans, and said: "Consider the awful responsibility which you will incur, if you suffer yourselves to be carried away by the invectives of your allies, and drive us against our will to tempt with you the dark uncertainties and perilous issues of war. There is still time for an amicable settlement of our differences: Athens is prepared to make all reasonable concessions, and to submit to arbitration, as the terms of the treaty direct. And if you decline to accept this offer, the guilt of the aggressor will lie with you."

It is remarkable that the speaker, in tracing the later course of Athenian policy, lays no claim to those high motives of patriotism which had inspired his people with sublime self-devotion two generations back. He boldly asserts the principle that it is lawful for the stronger to rule the weaker, and claims merit for Athens in abstaining from excessive abuse of her power. The Athenians, we may believe, had been tainted by the baseness of their confederates. In the early days of the Delian league they had not attempted to educate the Greeks whom they led up to the standard of their own splendid zeal,—or, if the attempt had been made, it was unsuccessful. They had taken upon themselves the whole burden of a great public duty, and standing alone, without moral support from their countrymen, they had gradually fallen away from the pure and lofty virtues of their ancestors. This decay of public morality proceeds with rapid strides in the years which follow, and we shall presently hear the doctrine that might is right proclaimed with cynical frankness by the lips of an Athenian.

Having heard the complaints of their allies against Athens, and the reply of the Athenian orator, the Spartans ordered all but those of their own race to withdraw, and continued the debate with closed doors. A great majority of the speakers were in favour of declaring immediate war on Athens. But there was one important exception: the aged Archidamus, who for the last fourteen years had been reigning as sole king at Sparta, spoke strongly against the imprudence of assuming the aggressive, before they had made adequate preparations to cope with the offending city. It was an opinion generally held by the war-party that the Athenians would be ready to make any concessions, in order to save the land of Attica from ravage. This, said Archidamus, was a great error; and the event proved that he was right. The Athenians, with their great colonial empire, and complete command of the sea, were quite independent of the products of their own estates in Attica. And many years must elapse before the states of Peloponnesus could train a fleet, and attack them on the sea, where alone they were assailable. It was folly to suppose that such a contest could be decided by a single summer campaign, as was commonly believed by the enemies of Athens. "I fear rather," said the king, with prophetic foresight, "that we shall leave this war as an inheritance to our children; such is the power, and such the pride, of the state with which we have to contend." On the other hand, the Spartans, as champions of the liberties of Greece, must not allow the common oppressors of their countrymen to continue their career of tyranny unchecked. Let them first, however, try what could be effected by negotiation, and in the meantime prepare for war, by building ships, and above all by collecting money, without which all their valour would be useless. Then, if Athens still refused to listen to reason, they might declare war with better hope of success.

The speech of Archidamus shows a true insight into the nature of the crisis which the Spartans were called upon to face, and his views were amply justified by subsequent events. His wise words were no doubt applauded by the older and more sober-minded among his hearers. But there was another and a much more numerous party at that time in Sparta, filled with bitter envy and hatred against Athens. Their passions had been inflamed by the invectives of the Corinthian orator, and without counting the cost they were resolved to try the issues of immediate battle. Their blind rancour found expression in the curt and pithy harangue of Sthenelaidas, one of the five Ephors, a college of magistrates which in recent years had greatly encroached on the authority of the kings. Sthenelaidas spoke with true laconic brevity. "I don't understand," he said, "all the fine talk of these Athenians. They have told us a great deal about their own merits, but have not said a word in answer to the charges brought against them. Even if we accept their own account of themselves, their good conduct in the past only lends a darker colour to their present crimes. We have one plain duty to perform, and that is to save our faithful allies from ill-treatment. The time for words is past—leave them to the transgressor. Our part is to act, at once, and with all our might, and put down the overwhelming insolence of Athens."

Then, in his capacity as Ephor, Sthenelaidas, without staying for further argument, forthwith put the question to the Spartan assembly. According to their ordinary procedure, the Spartans gave their votes by cries of "Ay" and "No." But on this occasion Sthenelaidas pretended to be unable to distinguish whether the "Ays" or "Nos" had it, and wishing to encourage the war-party by showing how much they were in the majority, he ordered the house to divide on the question whether the treaty was broken, and whether the Athenians were in the wrong or not. The division was made, and a great majority were in favour of the motion, recording their votes against Athens. The allies were then called in, and informed to the result of the private debate, and a day was named for a general synod of the whole Peloponnesian league, to reconsider the situation and decide whether war was to be declared.

In the interval, before the final assembly of the allies, the Spartans sent to ask the oracle at Delphi whether it was expedient for them to make war; and the answer, according to common report, was that if they fought with all their might they would conquer, and that the god [Footnote: Apollo.] would be on their side. The Corinthians were at the same time carrying on an active canvass against Athens, sending their agents from city to city to blow up the flames of war.

In the autumn of the same year the allies met in full synod at Sparta, and once more the Corinthian speaker led the cry against Athens, and called for a unanimous war-vote, flattering his hearers with hopes of a speedy victory. The Spartans, he said, had at last set a good example to their allies, and shown themselves convinced that imperial cities had imperial obligations, by pronouncing in favour of war. Every member of the league must join heartily in the struggle, whether he belonged to an inland or to a maritime city; for if the seaports were closed by the Athenian fleets, the inland towns would be prevented from exporting their products, and importing what they wanted from abroad. War, then, was in the interest of the whole body of allies. And on the moral side their position was equally sound, for they were only acting on desperate provocation, and the common god of Greece had promised success to their arms. But to deserve that success, all must co-operate heartily, contributing freely from their private purses to raise a fleet which would make them a match for Athens on her own element. And they must watch the course of events with a vigilant eye, and be ready to seize any opportunity which might arise to aim a decisive blow at their common enemy. Let them be warned by the experience of the Ionians, and put out all their strength to save themselves from being swallowed up by the devouring ambition of Athens. Justice, heaven's favour, the good-will of all Greece, were on their side.

Others spoke to the same effect, and then the representatives of each city were called up in turn to give their vote; and by far the greater number voted for war. But many months elapsed before any overt act of hostility occurred, and the time was occupied in preparations for an invasion of Attica, and in a series of demands sent by Sparta to try the temper of the Athenians, and put them in the wrong, if they refused to comply. The first of these messages was conveyed in mysterious terms, bidding the Athenians "to drive out the curse of the goddess." The meaning of this was as follows: nearly two hundred years before a certain Cylon tried to make himself tyrant of Athens: the attempt was frustrated, and some of his adherents, who had taken refuge in the sacred precinct of Athene, were put to death by the magistrates, after they had surrendered under a solemn promise that their lives should be spared. The illustrious family of the Alcmaeonidae was especially concerned in this act of murder and sacrilege, and the Spartans, in reviving the memory of an ancient crime, were aiming a blow at Pericles, who was descended on his mother's side from the Alcmaeonidae. For the Athenians were highly sensitive in all matters of religion, and it was possible that they might even banish Pericles, if their consciences were suddenly alarmed. And though this was not likely, the Spartans hoped at any rate to lessen his influence, which was adverse to themselves, and fasten on him the odium of being, in some sense, the cause of the war. But their manoeuvre was unsuccessful, and the Athenians retorted by bidding the Spartans drive out the curse of Taenarus, in allusion to the murder of certain Helots who had taken sanctuary in the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus. And they further charged the Spartans to rid themselves of the curse of Athene of the Brazen House. This was a holy place in Sparta, where Pausanias, when convicted of treasonable correspondence with Persia, had sought refuge from the vengeance of the Spartans. He was kept a close prisoner in the temple by the Ephors, who set a watch on him, to prevent him from being supplied with food, and when he was reduced to the last extremity, brought him out to die. But though his death occurred outside the temple, this did not save them from the sin of sacrilege, and a public reprimand by the Delphic God.

The game of diplomatic fencing went on for some time, and envoys were continually passing to and fro between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians were required to raise the siege of Potidaea—to allow the Aeginetans to govern themselves—to rescind the decree against Megara; and when all these demands were met by a firm refusal, the Spartans sent two ambassadors, bearing their ultimatum, which was worded as follows: "The Lacedaemonians wish that there should be peace, and war may be averted if ye will let the Greeks go free." Knowing that the decisive moment had now arrived, the Athenians met together in full assembly, to decide on their final answer. There were many speakers on either side, some arguing for peace, others for war: and then was heard that majestic voice, which, for more than thirty years, had guided the counsels of Athens—the voice of the Olympian Pericles. He had chosen his line of policy a year before, in the fatal affair of Corcyra, and it was now too late to draw back: peace with honour was no longer possible for Athens. The furious zeal of Corinth had united her enemies against her, and they were bent on her ruin. The demands put forward by Sparta were a mere pretext, and if the Athenians had yielded the smallest point, new concessions would have been required of them, until they were stripped of all that had been won by the strenuous toil and devotion of two generations. "We must listen," said Pericles, in the course of a long speech, "to no proposal from Sparta which is not made as from an equal to an equal. Dictation is not arbitration. If we are to fight at all, the occasion matters little, be it small or great. What right has Sparta to require of us that we should rescind the decree against Megara, when her own laws jealously exclude all strangers from entering her streets? Or why should we relax our hold upon our allies, or break off the relations with them which were sanctioned by the Thirty Years' Truce? No, all this is a mere pretence, and if we are deceived by it, we shall be led on step by step to deeper and still deeper humiliation. It may seem a hard thing to give up the fair land of Attica to pillage and devastation. But think how far greater was the sacrifice made by our grandsires, who refused the fairest offers from Persia, and gave up all they had, rather than betray the common cause. Athens and Attica were then all the country they had, and these lost they had nothing left but their ships, their strong arms, and their stout hearts. In our case, on the other hand, all the essential elements of our power—our city, our fleet, our colonial empire—remain untouched. Shall we, then, sell our honour to save a few vineyards and olive-grounds from temporary damage? That would be a short-sighted policy indeed, and in the end would involve not only dishonour, but the loss of our whole empire. Let us act, then, in the spirit of our fathers, and send away the Spartan ambassadors with the only answer which is consistent with our dignity and our interest."

The reply to the Spartan ultimatum was framed as Pericles had directed, and from this moment all negotiations ceased. And here we close our account of the events which led to the Peloponnesian War.