At Athens, meanwhile, the relieving fleet was being fitted, out with a feverish energy such as had never been witnessed within the memory of man. Nine years before, indeed, preparations on a larger scale, if cost and magnificence are to be taken into account, had been made for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse; but there was all the difference in the world between the temper of the city at the one time and at the other. Athens was at the height of her strength and her wealth when she sent out her armament, splendid, so to speak, with silver and gold, against Syracuse. It was a mighty effort, but she did it, one may almost say, out of the superfluity of her strength. Now she was sadly reduced in population and in revenue; she was struggling not for conquest but for life; she was making her last effort, and spending on it her last talent, her last man. To find a juster parallel it would have been necessary to go back a life-time, to the day when the Athenians gave up their homes and the temples of their gods to the Persian invaders, falling back on their last defences, the "wooden walls" of their ships. Many men had heard from father or grandfather, it was just possible that one or two tottering veterans may have seen with their own eyes, how on that day a band of youths, the very flower of the Athenian aristocracy, headed by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, had marched with a gay alacrity through the weeping multitude, to bang up their bridles in the temple of Athene. For the time the goddess needed not horsemen but seamen, and they gave her the service that she asked for. Now the same sight was seen again. Again the knights, the well-born and wealthy citizens of Athens, dedicated their bridles to the patron goddess, and went to serve as mariners on board the fleet. Every ship that could float was hastily repaired and equipped. Old hulks that had been lying in dock since the palmy days when the veteran Phormion led the fleet of Athens to certain victory, were launched again and manned. In this way the almost unprecedented number of one hundred and ten triremes were got ready. To man these a general levy of the population was made. Everyone within the age of service not actually disabled by sickness, was taken to form the crews, and not a few who had passed the limit volunteered. Even then the quota had to be made up by slaves, who were promised their freedom in return for their services. It was a stupendous effort, and one which Athens made with her own strength. These were not mercenaries, but her own sons whom she was sending out to make their last struggle for life. Night and day the preparations were carried on, and before a month was out from the day on which the tidings of the disaster at Mitylene reached the city, the fleet was ready to sail. Its destination was Samos, an island that had remained faithful to Athens even after the disastrous end of the war in Sicily. Here it was joined by a contingent of forty ships, made up of the same squadron scattered about the Ægean, the two triremes of Diomedon being among them. Diomedon was related to Callias, and the young man asked and obtained leave from the captain with whom he had sailed from Athens to transfer himself to his ship.
A battle was imminent. The Spartan admiral had left fifty ships to maintain the blockade of Mitylene, and sailed to meet the relieving force. His numbers were inferior, but pride, and perhaps policy, forbade him to decline the combat. He had made a haughty boast to Conon, and he had to make it good. "The sea is Sparta's bride," he had said. "I will stop your insults to her." His fleet was now off Cape Malta, the south-eastern promontory of Lesbos. The Athenians had taken up their position at some little islands between it and the mainland, the Arginusæ, or White Cliffs, as the name may be translated, a name destined to become notable as the scene of the great city's last victory.
Callicratidas had watched the arrival of the Athenians, and had concluded that, according to the usual custom of Greek sailors, they would take their evening meal on shore. Before long the fires lighted over all the group of islets showed that he was right. His own men had supped, and they were ordered to embark in all haste and make an attack which would probably be a surprise. What success his bold and energetic action would have had we can only guess. The stars in their courses fought against him. A violent thunderstorm with heavy rain came on, and prevented him from putting to sea.
The next day was fine and calm and the two fleets were early afloat. Their arrangement and plan of action showed a curious contrast, a contrast such as was almost enough to make one of the great Athenian seamen of the past turn in his grave. The Athenian ships were massed together; the Spartans and their allies were formed in a single line. Callias, who had never before been present at a great sea fight, but who had taken pains to acquire as much professional knowledge as he could, expressed his surprise to Diomedon. "How is this, sir?" he said, "how can our ships maneuver when they are packed together in this fashion?"
Diomedon, an old sailor who had been afloat for nearly forty years, smiled somewhat bitterly as he answered.
"Maneuver, my dear boy! That is exactly what we want to avoid. We can't do it ourselves, and we don't mean to let our enemies do it, if it can be helped. The generation that could maneuver is gone. Five and twenty years of fighting have used it up. But, happily, we can still fight, at least such a fleet as we have got to-day, the real Athenian grit, can fight. If the weather holds fine, and I think it will for the day, though I don't quite like the looks of the sky, we shall do well, because we shall be able to keep together
The arrangement of the Athenian line may be very briefly described. It had two strong wings, each consisting of sixty ships, formed in four squadrons of fifteen. These wings consisted wholly of Athenian galleys; the contingents of the allies were posted in the centre, and were in single line, either because they were better sailors, or because, as being directly in front of the group of islets, they were protected by their position.
The policy of the Athenian commander was successful. Arginusæ was not a battle of skillful maneuvers, but of hard fighting. Such battles are, often determined by the fate of the general, and so it was that day. Callicratidas, had that pride of valor which had often done such great things for Sparta and for Greece, but which some times resulted in immediate disaster. His sailing master, a man of Megara, had advised him to decline a battle. A rapid survey of the position, of the numbers of the enemy and of the tactics which they were evidently intending to pursue, had convinced this skillful, experienced seaman, that the chances were against him. Callicratidas would not listen to him. "If I perish," he said, "Sparta will not be one whit the worse off." It was the answer of a man who was as modest as he was brave; but it was not to the point. Sparta would be a great deal worse off if she lost not only him—and he was worth considering—but, as actually happened, nearly the half of her fleet.
The signal to advance was passed along the line, and the admiral himself took up his place in the foremost ship. The whole fleet could see him as he stood a conspicuous figure in the lead. His stately and chivalrous presence, the feeling that it was a privilege to follow him anywhere, gave, for a time, an effective encouragement. But the loss was proportionately great when that presence was removed. Early in the day his ship endeavored to ram that which carried the Athenian admiral Diomedon, itself in the van of the opposing force. Diomedon himself was at the rudder and managed his galley with remarkable skill. He avoided or rather half avoided the blow of the enemy's boat, and this in such a way that the Spartan admiral lost his balance, and fell into the water. Callias, who was standing on the rear of the Athenian galley, at the head of a detachment of men ready either to board or to repel boarders, endeavored to save him; but the weight of his armor was fatal. He sank almost instantaneously. His death, it is easy to believe, cost Athens even more than it cost Sparta. It would have been infinitely better for her to fall into his hands than to have to sue for terms, as she did not many months afterwards, to the less generous Lysander.
The battle lasted for several hours. About noon the weather became threatening. The wind changed to the south-west and the sea began to rise. By general consent the struggle was suspended. Both sides had fought with conspicuous valor, but there could be no doubt that the victory remained with the Athenians. Their losses were serious, nearly a fifth of their force, or to give the numbers exactly, twenty-nine ships out of one hundred and fifty. But they had inflicted much more damage than they had suffered. Out of the small squadron of Spartan ships, ten in number, nine had been destroyed; and more than sixty belonging to the various allied contingents were either sunk or taken. The fifty that remained—and there were barely fifty of them—made the best of their way either to the friendly island of Chios, or to Phocæa on the mainland. Without doubt the Athenians had won a great victory. Whether the opportunity could have been used to restore permanently the fortunes of the city, is doubtful; but it is certain that it was lamentably wasted.