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Lysander outside the walls of Athens 19th century lithograph.jpg
Lysander outside the walls of Athens, ordering their destruction. 19th century lithograph
Battles/warsPeloponnesian War

Corinthian War

Lysander (/lˈsændər, ˈlˌsændər/; Greek: Λύσανδρος Lysandros; died 395 BC) was a Spartan military and political leader. He destroyed the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, forcing Athens to capitulate and bringing the Peloponnesian War to an end. He then played a key role in Sparta's domination of Greece for the next decade until his death at the Battle of Haliartus.

Lysander's vision for Sparta differed from most Spartans; he wanted to overthrow the Athenian Empire and replace it with Spartan hegemony.[1]

Early life[edit]

Little is known of Lysander's early life. Some ancient authors record that his mother was a helot or slave.[2] Lysander's father was Aristocritus,[3] who was a member of the Spartan Heracleidae; that is, he claimed descent from Heracles but was not a member of a royal family. According to Plutarch, Lysander grew up in poverty and showed himself obedient, conformed to norms, and had a "manly spirit".[4]

It was custom in the Spartan upbringing for a young adult to be assigned as the "inspirer" (eispnelas) or "lover" (erastes) of an adolescent, and Lysander was matched in this role with the future king Agesilaus, the younger son of Archidamus II.[5] Nothing is known of Lysander's actual career before he was elected, in 408, to Sparta's annual office of admiral, to conduct the long-running Peloponnesian War against Athens.[6]


From Sparta Lysander set out to gather ships at Rhodes, then sent for more from Chios, made his way through Cos and Miletus, and finally arrived with 70 ships at Ephesus, Sparta's main naval base in Ionia.[7] His arrival was shortly followed by that of Cyrus, young son of the Persian king Darius, who had been appointed by his father as governor of the provinces of Asia Minor in response to an earlier Spartan embassy requesting increased aid in the war against Athens. Lysander promptly went to meet Cyrus at his headquarters in nearby Sardis, and with calculated deference made a deep impression on the young prince, developing with him a close friendship that was to have a decisive effect in the course of the war.[8] Cyrus began funding Sparta's war effort on a large scale, and was encouraged to increase the pay of Lysander's crews from three to four obols, increasing their morale and Lysander's popularity among them.[9] Once back in Ephesus, Lysander summoned a conference of influential oligarchs from all over the Greek cities in the Aegean, encouraged them to organize into political clubs (hetaireiai), and promised to put them in power in their respective cities in the event of Athens' defeat. In return, Lysander's new contacts contributed to Sparta's war effort with increasing eagerness, and they became in effect his own clients, loyal to him personally.[10]

As Lysander was fitting out his fleet at Ephesus - its size in the meantime grew to 90 ships - an Athenian fleet led by Alcibiades set up anchor at the nearby port of Notium.[11] At first Lysander was content to stay put and let his higher wages, funded by Cyrus, deplete the enemy's crews with desertions.[12] However, while Alcibiades was away seeking supplies, the Athenian squadron was placed under the command of Antiochus, his helmsman. During this time Lysander managed to engage the Athenian fleet and they were routed by the Spartan fleet (with the help of the Persians under Cyrus) at the Battle of Notium in 406 BC.

However, Lysander ceased to be the Spartan navarch after this victory and, in accordance with the Spartan law, was replaced by Callicratidas. Callicratidas' ability to continue the war at sea was neatly sabotaged when Lysander returned all the donated funds to Cyrus when he left office.[13]


After Callicratidas was defeated and killed at the battle of Arginusae (406), Cyrus and Lysander's new oligarch contacts all sent embassies to Sparta requesting Lysander's return as commander. The Spartan government consented, a sign of confidence in his ability and an endorsement of his policy of supporting friendly oligarchies in the Greek cities.[14] As Spartan law did not allow an admiral to hold office twice, Lysander was instead appointed the secretary (epistoleus) or second-in-command to Callicratidas's successor, Aracus, with the understanding that the latter would allow Lysander to take the lead.[15] Cyrus, being especially pleased, once again started to supply the Spartan fleet with funds, even allowing Lysander to run his satrapy in his absence.[16]

Once back in command, Lysander directed the Spartan fleet towards the Hellespont. The Athenian fleet followed him there. In 404 BC, the Athenians gathered their remaining ships at Aegospotami (near the Thracian Chersonese). The Athenian fleet under Admiral Conon was then destroyed by the Spartans under Lysander in the Battle of Aegospotami.

Then, Lysander's forces went to the Bosporus and captured both Byzantium and Chalcedon, expelling the Athenians living in those cities. Lysander also captured Lesbos Island.[4][17]

Defeat of Athens[edit]

Encounter between Cyrus the Younger (left), Achaemenid satrap of Asia Minor and son of Darius II, and Spartan general Lysander (right) in Sardis. The encounter was related by Xenophon.[18] Francesco Antonio Grue (1618–1673).

Following the victory at Aegospotami, the Spartans were in a position to finally force Athens to capitulate. The Spartan king, Pausanias, laid siege to Athens main city while Lysander's fleet blockaded the port of Piraeus. This action effectively closed the grain route to Athens through the Hellespont, thereby starving Athens. Realising the seriousness of the situation, Theramenes started negotiations with Lysander. These negotiations took three months, but in the end Lysander agreed to terms at Piraeus. An agreement was reached for the capitulation of Athens and the cessation of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.

Lysander has the walls of Athens demolished

The Spartans required the Athenians to raze the walls of Piraeus as well as the Long Walls which connected Athens main town and the port (Piraeus); that the Athenians should abandon their colonies, and that Athens should surrender all but twelve of their ships to the Spartans. However, Theramenes did secure terms that saved the city of Athens from destruction. Greek towns across the Aegean Sea in Ionia were again to be subject to the Achaemenid Empire.

Command in Athens[edit]

Lysander then put in place a puppet government in Athens with the establishment of the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants under Critias which included Theramenes as a leading member. The puppet government executed a number of citizens and deprived all but a few of their former rights as citizens of Athens. Many of Athens' former allies were now ruled by boards of ten (decarchy), often reinforced with garrisons under a Spartan commander (called a harmost, meaning "regulator".[19]). The practice started the period of Spartan hegemony.

The assassination of the exiled Athenian general Alcibiades was organized by Pharnabazes, at the request of Lysander.[4][17]

After storming and seizing Samos, Lysander returned to Sparta. Alcibiades, the former Athenian leader, emerged after the Spartan victory at Aegospotami and took refuge in Phrygia, northwestern Asia Minor with Pharnabazus, its Persian satrap. He sought Persian assistance for the Athenians. However, the Spartans decided that Alcibiades must be removed and Lysander, with the help of Pharnabazus, arranged the assassination of Alcibiades.[4][17]

Lysander amassed a huge fortune from his victories against the Athenians and brought the riches home to Sparta. For centuries the possession of money was illegal in Lacedaemonia, but the newly minted navy required funds and Persia could not be trusted to maintain financial support. Roman historian Plutarch strongly condemns Lysander's introduction of money;[4] despite being publicly held, he argues its mere presence corrupted rank-and-file Spartans who witnessed their government's newfound value for it. Corruption quickly followed; while general Gylippus ferried treasure home, he embezzled a great amount and was condemned to death in absentia.

Resistance by Athens[edit]

The Athenian general Thrasybulus, who had been exiled from Athens by the Spartans' puppet government, led the democratic resistance to the new oligarchic government. In 403 BC, he commanded a small force of exiles that invaded Attica and, in successive battles, defeated first a Spartan garrison and then the forces of the oligarchic government (which included Lysander) in the Battle of Munychia. The leader of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias, was killed in the battle.

The Battle of Piraeus was then fought between Athenian exiles who had defeated the government of the Thirty Tyrants and occupied Piraeus and a Spartan force sent to combat them. In the battle, the Spartans defeated the exiles, despite their stiff resistance. Despite opposition from Lysander, after the battle Pausanias the Agiad King of Sparta, arranged a settlement between the two parties which allowed the re-establishment of democratic government in Athens.

Final years[edit]

Lysander still had influence in Sparta despite his setbacks in Athens. He was able to persuade the Spartans to select Agesilaus II, his younger lover,[20][21] as the new Eurypontid Spartan king following the death of Agis II, and to persuade the Spartans to support Cyrus the Younger in his unsuccessful rebellion against his older brother, Artaxerxes II of Persia.

Hoping to restore the juntas of oligarchic partisans that he had put in place after the defeat of the Athenians in 404 BC, Lysander arranged for Agesilaus II, the Eurypontid Spartan king, to take command of the Greeks against Persia in 396 BC. The Spartans had been called on by the Ionians to assist them against the Persian King Artaxerxes II. Lysander was arguably hoping to receive command of the Spartan forces not joining the campaign. However, Agesilaus had become resentful of Lysander's power and influence. So Agesilaus frustrated the plans of his former mentor and left Lysander in command of the troops in the Hellespont, far from Sparta and mainland Greece.

Back in Sparta by 395 BC, Lysander was instrumental in starting a war with Thebes and other Greek cities, which came to be known as the Corinthian War. The Spartans prepared to send out an army against this new alliance of Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Argos (with the backing of the Achaemenid Empire) and ordered Agesilaus to return to Greece. Agesilaus set out for Sparta with his troops, crossing the Hellespont and marching west through Thrace.


The Spartans arranged for two armies, one under Lysander and the other under Pausanias of Sparta, to rendezvous at and attack the city of Haliartus in Boeotia. Lysander arrived before Pausanias and persuaded the city of Orchomenus to revolt from the Boeotian League. He then advanced to Haliartus with his troops. In the Battle of Haliartus, Lysander was killed after bringing his forces too near to the walls of the city.

Following his death, an abortive scheme by Lysander to increase his power by making the Spartan kingships collective and that the Spartan king should not automatically be given the leadership of the army, was "discovered" by Agesilaus II.[4][22] There is argument amongst historians as to whether this was an invention to discredit Lysander after his death. However, in the view of Nigel Kennell, the plot fits with what we know of Lysander.[23]


Lysander is one of the main protagonists of the history of Greece by Xenophon, a contemporary. For other (later) sources he remains an ambiguous figure. For instance, while the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos charges him with "cruelty and perfidy",[22] Lysander – according to Xenophon – nonetheless spared the population of captured Greek poleis such as Lampsacus,.[17]

The Westland Lysander aircraft has been named after him.


According to Duris of Samos, Lysander was the first Greek to whom the cities erected altars and sacrificed to him as to a god and the Samians voted that their festival of Hera should be called Lysandreia.[24] He was also the first Greek who had songs of triumph written about him.[citation needed]


  • Bommelaer, Jean-François (1981). Lysandre de Sparte. Histoire et traditions (in French). Paris: De Boccard.


  1. ^ Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Cornell University, 1987, p. 300.
  2. ^ Smith, William (1867). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and co. p. 861.
  3. ^ Mitchell, Lynette G. (2 May 2002). Greeks Bearing Gifts: The Public Use of Private Relationships in the Greek World, 435-323 BC. Cambridge University Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-521-89330-5.. Some manuscript sources have "Aristocleitus," but "Aristocritus" appears in contemporary inscriptions, e.g. Inscriptiones Graecae II2 1388, l. 32.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Plutarch, Lives. Life of Lysander. (University of Massachusetts/Wikisource)
  5. ^ Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, London: Duckworth, 1987, 29
  6. ^ Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, London: Duckworth, 1987, 79
  7. ^ Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, 301
  8. ^ Charles D. Hamilton, Sparta's Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, 36, 37; Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, 305-306
  9. ^ Charles D. Hamilton, Sparta's Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, 37
  10. ^ Diodorus 13.70.4; Charles D. Hamilton, Sparta's Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, 37-38; Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, London: Duckworth, 1987, 81
  11. ^ Diodorus 13.71
  12. ^ Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, 310-311
  13. ^ "Spartans, a new history", Nigel Kennell, 2010, p126
  14. ^ Charles D. Hamilton, Sparta's Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, 38, 60
  15. ^ Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987, 380
  16. ^ "Spartans, a new history", Nigel Kennell, 2010, p127
  17. ^ a b c d Xenophon, Hellenica. (Wikisource/Gutenberg Project)
  18. ^ Rollin, Charles (1851). The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Grecians, and Macedonians. W. Tegg and Company. p. 110.
  19. ^ Bury, J. B.; Meiggs, Russell (1956). A history of Greece to the death of Alexander the Great. London: Macmillan. p. 515.
  20. ^ Cartledge, Agesilaos, pp. 28, 29.
  21. ^ Hamilton, Agesilaus, p. 19.
  22. ^ a b Cornelius Nepos, Life of Eminent Greeks .[1]
  23. ^ "Spartans, a new history", Nigel Kennell, 2010, p134
  24. ^ The Hellenistic World by Frank William Walbank Page 213 ISBN 0-674-38726-0

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