Naval Victories of Phormio by H. L. Havell


During the last half-century the art of naval warfare had made great progress in Greece. The Greek war-galley, or trireme, a vessel propelled by three banks of oars, had always been furnished with a sharp-pointed prow, for the purpose of ramming an opponent's ship; but many years elapsed before the Greeks attained genuine skill in the use of this formidable weapon. According to the ordinary method of fighting, after the first shock of collision the affair was decided by the hoplites, or heavy-armed infantry, stationed on the decks of the two contending ships; and in this manner was fought the engagement between the Corcyraean and Corinthian fleets which occurred in the year before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. There the ship was simply a vehicle, which served to bring the antagonists together, and the rest was left to the prowess of the hoplites.

The Athenians were the first to abandon this crude and clumsy style of fighting, and in the course of two generations their seamen had become renowned throughout Greece for the unrivalled skill which they showed in working and manoeuvring the trireme. A few hoplites were still carried, to serve in cases of emergency; but by far the most important part in the encounter was played by the trireme itself, with its long, tapering, sharp-pointed prow. To use this deadly but delicate instrument with effect required great coolness, dexterity, and judgment, on the part of the steersman, and a crew under perfect command. The tactics usually employed were as follows: watching his opportunity, the captain gave the order "full speed ahead!" and darting rapidly through the enemy's line, wheeled suddenly round, and drove the beak of his galley with terrible force against the stern or side of the vessel selected for attack. One blow from the long lance-like point, propelled by the whole weight and impetus of the trireme, was sufficient to sink or disable an enemy's ship, and the attacking galley was then backed away from the wreck, and directed against another victim.

The incessant practice of nearly half a century had enabled the Athenians to attain consummate mastery in this new method of naval warfare; and they were now to give signal proof of their immense superiority over the other maritime powers of Greece.

In the same summer which witnessed the investment of Plataea, the Spartans planned an expedition against Acarnania, the westernmost province of Greece, which they wished to detach from the Athenian alliance. A Spartan officer, named Cnemus, was sent off in advance, with a thousand hoplites, to raise the wild mountain tribes, and led an attack against Stratus, the capital of Acarnania; and in the meantime orders were sent round to equip a numerous fleet, which was to support the operations of Stratus by harassing the coast districts.

The attack on Stratus failed altogether, chiefly in consequence of the impetuosity of the rude mountaineers serving under Cnemus, who advanced unsupported against the town, and meeting with a severe repulse embarrassed the movements of their Greek allies. About the same time the Peloponnesian fleet, consisting of forty-seven ships, was sailing down the Corinthian Gulf to co-operate with Cnemus. It was known that Phormio, the Athenian admiral, was stationed at Naupactus with a squadron of twenty vessels; but the Peloponnesian captains never dreamed that he would venture to attack them with so small a force, and they pursued their voyage along the southern shore of the gulf, without making any preparations for a battle. Phormio, however, had other intentions: keeping close to the opposite shore, he followed their movements, and allowed them to pass through the narrow strait which divides the inner from the outer gulf, wishing to avoid an engagement until they reached the open water. The Peloponnesians dropped anchor for the night at Patrae in Achaia, and Phormio took up his station at Chalcis, a harbour-town of Aetolia, at the mouth of the Evenus. Being now convinced that Phormio meditated an encounter, for which they had little inclination, the Peloponnesian admirals made an attempt [Footnote: I have adopted the reading of Bloomfield, approved by Classen (4th Edition).] to steal across under cover of darkness. But this manoeuvre was detected, and they found their way barred by the Athenian squadron in the middle of the channel. Being thus driven to bay the Peloponnesians drew up their ships in a circle, with their prows turned outwards, like a flock of sheep assailed by a dog. Within the circle were placed the smaller vessels accompanying the fleet, and five of the swiftest galleys, which were intended to lend assistance against any attack of the enemy.

To keep a large flotilla in such a position, even in a calm sea, where no hostile movement was made against them, would have been a task to try the skill of the most accomplished mariners. But the Peloponnesian crews were untrained, the decks of their ships were crowded with soldiers, and they were hampered by the crowd of smaller craft. Worst of all, they were threatened in every direction by the agile Athenian galleys, which, moving in single file, swept round and round them, approaching closer and closer at every circuit, so that they were penned together in an ever-narrowing space, and in danger of fouling one another. To complete their confusion, the morning breeze began to blow from the gulf; and Phormio, who had been waiting for this, now gave the signal for attack. The Peloponnesians hardly attempted any defence; for the unskilful crews of the galleys could not manage their oars in the rising sea, and the steersmen had consequently no control of their vessels. All their efforts were employed in keeping clear of one another, warding off a collision with long poles, amid a hubbub of curses and abuse. Into this huddled, swaying mass of war-galleys and merchant-craft mingled together now dashed the Athenian triremes, wrecking every vessel which they met. A wild panic ensued among the Peloponnesian crews, and as fast as they could extricate themselves they rowed off and sought shelter in the harbour of Patrae. From here they afterwards sailed to Cyllene, the dockyard of Elis, where they were joined by Cnemus with the troops from Acarnania. Twelve ships fell into the hands of the Athenians, and taking these with them they sailed first to Rhium, a level headland on the Locrian Coast, on which stood a temple of Poseidon. Having left one of the captured ships as a thank-offering to the god of the sea, they made their way back to the original station at Naupactus.


The authorities at Sparta were highly indignant at the failure of their expedition in Acarnania, and the defeat of the Peloponnesian fleet by so inferior a force. For this was their first experience of a sea-fight since the outbreak of the war, and they made no allowance for the want of skill in their own crews, attributing the disaster to mere cowardice. They did not reflect how vast was the difference between raw sailors, lately transferred from the plough to the oar, and the veteran seamen of Athens, trained under a system which had been slowly perfected in the course of half a century. So they sent three commissioners to Cnemus, with peremptory orders to prepare for another sea-fight, and not allow himself to be shut up in harbour by the feeble squadron of Phormio. One of these commissioners was Brasidas, a brilliant young officer, who had gained distinction two years before by saving the harbour-town of Methone, on the coast of Messenia, from being captured by the Athenians. We shall hear much more of him in the sequel.

On the arrival of Brasidas and his colleagues, the ships lying at Cyllene were made ready for immediate service, and orders were sent round to the allied cities for other ships. Phormio also sent an urgent despatch to Athens announcing his victory, and asking for reinforcements; and the Athenians sent twenty triremes to his aid. These vessels, however, arrived too late, for the admiral, acting on instructions from Athens, sailed first to Crete, where he was delayed a long time by contrary winds. Phormio, with his twenty triremes, was therefore compelled to engage the whole Peloponnesian fleet, numbering seventy-seven ships, which had now sailed round from Cyllene, and taken up its station just within the strait, close to the Achaean town of Panormus. A strong force of Peloponnesian soldiers was encamped on the shore, to co-operate with the fleet. Phormio anchored his ships just outside the strait, being resolved, if it were in any way possible, not to fight the Peloponnesians in the narrow waters. As the Peloponnesians, on their side, were equally determined not to be lured out into the open sea, the two fleets remained confronting each other for a whole week, without attempting any aggressive movement. At last the Peloponnesian leaders decided to give battle with Phormio at once, fearing that if they delayed any longer he would be reinforced from Athens.

It was the universal custom of Greek commanders to wind up the courage of their men on the eve of a battle by a short and pithy address, calculated to inspire them with confidence, by giving them a reasonable hope of victory. Such a practice, strange as it may seem to us, was natural among a people whose armies and fleets were recruited from the general body of the citizens, accustomed to free speech in their public assemblies. They were not men of war by profession, trained in habits of blind obedience, but sensitive Greeks, who carried into the camp the noble freedom of civic life, and were not prepared to shed their blood without sufficient cause, and a fair prospect of success.

Seldom was there greater need of this sort of military eloquence than on the present occasion. On both sides there was much discouragement, and a general reluctance to begin the fight. The Peloponnesians were cowed by their recent defeat, and dreaded the naval skill of the Athenians, which seemed to them almost supernatural; and Phormio's men shrank from an encounter with such enormous odds. Accordingly the Peloponnesian captains on one side, and Phormio on the other, did what they could to argue their crews into a more hopeful frame of mind. The Peloponnesian seamen who had taken part in the first battle were reminded that they had been caught unprepared, and assured that this time every precaution would be taken to prevent a second reverse. They were flattered by the confident assertion that the superior skill of the Athenians was far outweighed by their own superior courage. "Look," said one of the admirals, speaking to his own division, "at this powerful armament, outnumbering the enemy by four to one—look at the army drawn up on the shore, ready to lend aid to any who are hard pressed—and you will see that with such advantages defeat is impossible. Do your duty like men, and expect to be rewarded or punished according to your deserts." Similar addresses, combining encouragement with threats, were heard in the other parts of the fleet.

Among the Athenian sailors there had been much jesting about the land-lubbers of Peloponnesus, and in the first flush of their victory they had been ready to face any odds on the sea. But now, seeing themselves confronted by such overwhelming numbers, they had lost heart for the moment, and were seen standing about in little groups, shaking their heads and whispering fearfully together. It was an anxious moment for Phormio; he knew the immense importance of maintaining, at any cost, the naval reputation of Athens, and if his men went into battle in their present temper, they were certain to suffer a crushing defeat. Determining, therefore, if possible, to allay the panic which was fast spreading throughout the fleet, he summoned the crews into his presence, and harangued them as follows:—

"Comrades, I have called you hither to assure you that you have no cause for alarm. The numbers of the enemy, which seem to you so formidable, should, if properly considered, be a ground of confidence; for this unwieldy armament is a sign that they are thoroughly terrified, and seek safety in a huge crowd of ships. The firmness and discipline which they have acquired by long experience of land warfare will avail them little on the sea For courage is largely a matter of habit, and the bravest landsman is a mere coward when he is taken away from his own element, and set down on the heaving deck of a war-galley where he can hardly keep his feet. The disorganized multitude with which we shall have to deal is a mere mob, held together by the authority of Sparta, demoralized by their late defeat, and forced to fight against their will. Face them boldly, and our very audacity in assailing such numbers will sink them still deeper into helpless terror, for they will think that we must be invincible, or we should never run such risks. It shall be my business to bring on the engagement in blue water, where we shall have them at our mercy. Now every man to his station; be prompt, and be silent, and attend to the word of command. Remember your old spirit, and reflect that the honour of Athens is in your hands to-day."

The great object of the Peloponnesian leaders was to compel Phormio to give battle in the confined space of the strait. With this intention they determined to make a sudden movement towards the northern coast of the gulf, threatening an attack on Naupactus. At daybreak they drew up their ships in four lines, with the coast of Peloponnesus behind them, and with twenty fast-sailing triremes stationed on the right wing, to cut off Phormio's fleet, if, as they anticipated, he advanced to the defence of Naupactus. Wheeling then to the right, the ships sailed some distance, four abreast, towards the inner gulf; and when they came opposite to Naupactus, they changed their course, and moved in column, with the right wing leading towards the northern shore.

The manoeuvre, so far as concerned its immediate purpose, was completely successful. Phormio, much against his will, was obliged to leave his station outside the strait, and go to the aid of Naupactus, which had been left undefended. Great was the delight of the Peloponnesian captains when they saw the little Athenian squadron creeping close, in single file, along the northern side of the gulf, for they thought that not one of the twenty would escape them. At a given signal, the whole fleet formed into line, resuming its original order, four deep, and bore down upon the Athenians. Eleven of Phormio's triremes succeeded in clearing the strait, and getting into the open waters in the direction of Naupactus; but the remaining nine were overtaken and driven aground, and their crews, except those who escaped by swimming, were put to the sword. Some of these vessels were towed off as prizes by the Peloponnesians, and one they captured with all her crew. The rest were saved by the valour of the Messenian soldiers, who had followed the movements of Phormio's vessels along the shore, and now did good service by boarding the stranded triremes, and hauling them to land, after a sharp tussle with the enemy.

Meanwhile the eleven ships which had eluded the attack were hotly pursued by the twenty fast-sailing vessels on the Peloponnesian right wing. All but one got through in safety, and took refuge in the harbour of Naupactus, and drawing up in line, with their prows outwards, prepared to defend themselves if the enemy advanced further against them. But the rearmost vessel was hard pressed by a Leucadian ship, and the rest of the pursuers followed at a considerable distance, singing the paean [Footnote: A song of victory.] as they rowed, and expecting an easy victory. Now, however, occurred one of those sudden turns of fortune so frequent in the course of a sea-fight. The Athenian trireme which had been left far behind in the chase, made a sudden sweep round a merchant-vessel anchored at the mouth of the harbour, struck her pursuer amidships, and sank her.

This splendid feat of seamanship filled the Peloponnesians, who were advancing in disorder, with amazement and terror. On every trireme the cry of "Hold her!" [Footnote: This was done by thrusting the oars, with the blades held flat, deep into the water] was heard, and some of the vessels, losing way suddenly, ran aground on the shallows. The others hung back, waiting until the main body of the fleet should come to their support. Seeing them drifting thus, stupefied and helpless, the Athenians took heart again, and raising a shout rowed swiftly from their station within the harbour, and charged down upon them. The Peloponnesians, after a feeble attempt at resistance, took to flight, heading for their original station on the opposite coast. Six of their vessels were captured, and the Athenians, not content with this, fell upon the main body of the fleet, and recovered their own ships which had been taken in the strait. The victorious crews of Phormio then returned to Naupactus, and set up a trophy at the place where they had been moored when this splendid rally was made, opposite to the temple of Apollo. The Peloponnesians also raised a trophy, to commemorate their first success, and then, fearing the arrival of the fresh ships from Athens, they sailed off to Lechaeum, the northern harbour of Corinth.


In strange contrast with the disgraceful exhibition of cowardice and incompetence which we have just witnessed, we have now to record a daring attempt, undertaken shortly afterwards, to strike at the very heart of the Athenian power. While the beaten crews of the Peloponnesian fleet were waiting to be paid off at Lechaeum, they suddenly received orders to take their oars and rowing-cushions, and proceed to Nisaea, the port of Megara. The plan was to embark them on forty vessels, which were lying in the dockyards, and make a night-attack on Peiraeus. The suggestion came from the Megarians, but in carrying it out the Peloponnesians were probably influenced by the bold and enterprising spirit of Brasidas. And in fact, the meditated descent on Peiraeus was neither so wild nor so rash as it may at first sight appear. For the Athenians, never dreaming that they might be taken by surprise, had not taken the precaution to close the entrance of their harbour, or to station guard-ships for its defence.

Without delay, the officers in charge of the expedition mustered their crews at Nisaea, and embarking by night, got their ships under way. But at the last moment their hearts failed them, and instead of sailing to Peiraeus, they landed on the island of Salamis, and after attacking a sea-side fort, and capturing three triremes which were riding at anchor near it, they spread themselves out, and began ravaging and plundering the country.

Meanwhile fire-signals had been raised, conveying the alarm to Peiraeus and Athens. A wild panic ensued, and a rumour ran through the upper city that the enemy had sailed into Peiraeus, while in the harbour-town it was generally supposed that Salamis was lost, and Peiraeus on the point of being invaded. The Peloponnesians employed in this adventure afterwards pretended that they had been hindered by contrary winds from carrying out their original design. But this was a mere excuse, and if they had chosen they might have sailed unopposed to Peiraeus, and inflicted terrible injury on Athens. But it was now too late, for the Athenians, as soon as the news was brought, had marched down with their whole military force to Peiraeus, and occupied every assailable point in the harbour, while at the same time every ship in the docks was launched and manned, and sent off in headlong haste to Salamis.

By this time it was broad daylight, and the Peloponnesians, being warned that a rescue was on the way from Peiraeus, made off with their booty, and getting, on board their ships, sailed back to Nisaea. They had the more reason for hastening their departure, as the Megarian ships which had carried them to Salamis, having lain a long while in dry-dock, were leaky and unseaworthy; for the harbour of Megara had for some time past been kept in close blockade by the Athenians.

This memorable incident, following close on the brilliant victories of Phormio, taught the Athenians to take better precautions for the future. Hitherto they would have scoffed at the suggestion that their own arsenals and dockyards were exposed to attack. But now they provided for the safety of Peiraeus by closing the harbours and keeping a vigilant watch. And that terrible night left an impression on their minds which was not soon forgotten.