The last battle of the Peloponnesian War was fought in the Hellespont in 405 b.c. The Athenians had drawn up their ships near a desolate spot named Ægospotami, and they soon found that it was an awkward place from which to get provisions for the army. There were no houses near, from which they could demand help, so the sailors were forced to leave their ships and scour the country round about for food. So dreary was the spot that the Athenians longed to fight at once.
But Lysander was in a strong position on the other side of the strait; he had, too, a plentiful supply of food, so that he did not mean to let himself be forced into a battle.
Again and again the Athenians sailed across the strait, hoping to tempt the Spartans to fight, but Lysander refused to move.
As the weeks passed, the Athenians grew careless of an enemy that seemed too lazy or too cowardly to fight. They left their ships well-nigh unguarded, and wandered over the country in large numbers in search of food.
Alcibiades, from his castle not far off, saw that the Athenians were in a dangerous position, and that they were leaving their ships unprotected. He rode over to Ægospotami to warn the generals to seek a safer position. At Sestos, a town but two miles off, they would be better able to defend themselves from the Spartans, should they be attacked. They would also be able to command provisions.
But the generals did not wish to listen to Alcibiades, and their pride forbade them to follow his advice. They spoke rudely to him, telling him to be gone, that now not he but others had the command of the forces.
The very day after Alcibiades had warned them, the Athenians, leaving their ships for the most part unmanned, set out to search the countryside for food.
Lysander knew how the enemy usually spent the afternoons. Now that they had grown heedless of danger he determined to attack the forsaken ships without further delay.
So he ordered his vessels to row quickly across the strait and he found, as he expected, the Athenian fleet utterly unprepared for battle.
There was indeed no battle fought, for the Spartans easily captured one hundred and seventy ships, and took more than four thousand prisoners, among whom were three or four admirals.
Conon alone, with eight ships, succeeded in escaping. But he dared not return to Athens with tidings of the disaster, for he knew that if he did so he would be condemned to death. So he sent a ship to carry the terrible news to the city.
It was evening when the vessel reached Piræus.
"The noise of wailing spread all up the Long Walls into the city, as one passed the tidings on to another; that night no one slept." For now there was no fleet to hinder the Spartans from stopping the supply of corn, and the Athenians knew that they must starve or surrender.
For a little while the city refused to yield. But she had no allies, no ships, no money, and no corn could enter the town. The wretched people were dying of hunger before Athens surrendered to the Spartans in March 404 b.c.
She expected no mercy from her conqueror. Even as she had destroyed many a Spartan town, so she thought that now she herself would be utterly ruined.
But Sparta proved less harsh than Athens had deemed was possible. The city was indeed to be "rendered harmless for ever, but not destroyed."
All that was left of her fleet was taken away, and the walls of Piræus and the walls leading to Athens were pulled down.
Lysander stood near, looking on, as the Athenians and the Spartans together began to break down the walls.
It was not so gloomy a scene as you might have expected. Perhaps the Athenians were glad that at length the long and desperate struggle had come to an end. Flute players and dancers were present, and added a strange touch of gaiety to the crowd.
Soon after the surrender of Athens, Lysander was ordered to put Alcibiades to death, lest he should encourage the Athenians at any time to throw off their allegiance to Sparta.
Plutarch tells us that "those who were sent to assassinate him had not courage enough to enter the house, but surrounded it first and set it on fire.
"Alcibiades, as soon as he perceived it, getting together great quantities of clothes and furniture, threw them upon the fire to choke it, and having wrapped his cloak about his left arm, and holding his naked sword in his right, he cast himself into the middle of the fire, and escaped securely through it, before his clothes were burnt.
"The barbarians, as soon as they saw him, retreated, and none of them durst stay to wait for him, or to engage with him, but, standing at a distance, they slew him with darts and arrows."