In the third year of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan and Corinthian combined navy, having been taken by surprise and handily defeated by a much smaller force of Athenians led by Phormio, are determined to get revenge. Having assembled a force of 77 ships the Peloponnesian force now faces off across the Corinthian Gulf against a small patrol force of 20 Athenian triremes. Phormio addresses his nervous Athenian sailors:


89. ‘Soldiers, I have summoned you because I see that you are alarmed at the numbers of the enemy, and I would not have you dismayed when there is nothing to fear. [2] In the first place, the reason why they have provided a fleet so disproportionate is because we have defeated them already, and they can see themselves that they are no match for us; next, as to the courage which they suppose to be native to them and which is the ground of their confidence when they attack us, that reliance is merely inspired by the success which their experience on land usually gives them, and will, as they fancy, equally ensure them by sea. [3] But the superiority which we allow to them on land we may justly claim for ourselves at sea; for in courage at least we are their equals, and the superior confidence of either of us is really based upon greater experience. [4] The Lacedaemonians lead the allies for their own honour and glory; the majority of them are dragged into battle against their will; [5] if they were not compelled they would never have ventured after so great a defeat to fight again at sea. So that you need not fear their valour; they are far more afraid of you and with better reason, not only because you have already defeated them, but because they cannot believe that you would oppose them at all if you did not mean to do something worthy of that great victory.4 [6] For most men when, like these Peloponnesians, they are a match for their enemies rely more upon their strength than upon their courage; but those who go into battle against far superior numbers and under no constraint must be inspired by some extraordinary force of resolution. [7] Our enemies are well aware of this, and are more afraid of our surprising boldness than they would be if our forces were less out of proportion to their own. Many an army before now has been overthrown by smaller numbers owing to want of experience; [8] some too through cowardice; and from both these faults we are certainly free. If I can help I shall not give battle in the gulf, or even sail into it. For I know that where a few vessels which are skilfully handled and are better sailors engage with a larger number which are badly managed the confined space is a disadvantage. Unless the captain of a ship see his enemy a good way off he cannot come on or strike properly, nor can he retreat when he is pressed hard. The manœuvres suited to fast-sailing vessels, such as breaking of the line or returning to the charge, cannot be practised in a narrow space. [9] The seafight must of necessity be reduced to a land-fight in which numbers tell. For all this I shall do my best to provide. Do you meanwhile keep order and remain close to your ships. Be prompt in taking your instructions, for the enemy is near at hand and watching us. In the moment of action remember the value of silence and order, which are always important in war, especially at sea. Repel the enemy in a spirit worthy of your former exploits. [10] There is much at stake; for you will either destroy the rising hope of the Peloponnesian navy, or bring home to Athens the fear of losing the sea. [11] Once more I remind you that you have beaten most of the enemy’s fleet already; and, once defeated, men do not meet the same dangers with their old spirit.’ Thus did Phormio encourage his sailors.

trireme-in-water90. The Peloponnesians, when they found that the Athenians would not enter the straits or the gulf, determined to draw them in against their will. So they weighed anchor early in the morning, and, ranging their ships four deep, stood in towards the gulf along their own coast, keeping the order in which they were anchored. The right wing, consisting of twenty of their fastest vessels, took the lead. [2] These were intended to close upon the Athenians and prevent them from eluding their attack and getting beyond the wing in case Phormio, apprehending an attack upon Naupactus, should sail along shore to its aid. He, when he saw them weighing anchor, was alarmed, as they anticipated, for the safety of the town, which was undefended. [3] Against his will and in great haste he embarked and sailed along the shore; the land forces of the Messenians followed. [4] The Peloponnesians, seeing that the enemy were in single file and were already within the gulf and close to land, which was exactly what they wanted, at a given signal suddenly brought their ships round, and the whole line faced the Athenians and bore down upon them, every ship rowing at the utmost speed, for they hoped to cut off all the Athenian fleet. [5] Eleven vessels which were in advance evaded the sudden turn of the Peloponnesians, and rowed past their right wing into the open water; but they caught the rest, forced them aground, and disabled them. All the sailors who did not swim out of them were slain. Some of the empty ships they fastened to their own and began to tow away; [6] one they had already taken with the crew, but others were saved by the Messenians, who came to the rescue, dashed armed as they were into the sea, boarded them, and, fighting from their decks when they were being already towed away, finally recovered them.

trireme91. While in this part of the engagement the Lacedaemonians had the victory and routed the Athenian ships, their twenty vessels on the right wing were pursuing the eleven of the Athenians which had escaped from their attack into the open water of the gulf. These fled and, with the exception of one, arrived at Naupactus before their pursuers. They stopped off the temple of Apollo, and, turning their beaks outward, prepared to defend themselves in case the enemy followed them to the land. [2] The Peloponnesians soon came up; they were singing a paean of victory as they rowed, and one Leucadian ship far in advance of the rest was chasing the single Athenian ship which had been left behind. [3] There chanced to be anchored in the deep water a merchant vessel, round which the Athenian ship rowed just in time, struck the Leucadian amidships, and sank her. [4] At this sudden and unexpected feat the Peloponnesians were dismayed; they had been carrying on the pursuit in disorder because of their success. And some of them, dropping the blades of their oars, halted, intending to await the rest, which was a foolish thing to do when the enemy were so near and ready to attack them. Others, not knowing the coast, ran aground.

Atheniannavy92. When the Athenians saw what was going on their hopes revived, and at a given signal they charged their enemies with a shout. The Lacedaemonians did not long resist, for they had made mistakes and were all in confusion, but fled to Panormus, whence they had put to sea. [2] The Athenians pursued them, took six of their ships which were nearest to them, and recovered their own ships which the Peloponnesians had originally disabled and taken in tow near the shore. The crews of the captured vessels were either slain or made prisoners. [3] Timocrates the Lacedaemonian was on board the Leucadian ship which went down near the merchant vessel; when he saw the ship sinking he killed himself; the body was carried into the harbour of Naupactus. [4] The Athenians then retired and raised a trophy on the place from which they had just sailed out to their victory. They took up the bodies and wrecks which were floating near their own shore, and gave back to the enemy, under a flag of truce, those which belonged to them. [5] The Lacedaemonians also set up a trophy of the victory which they had gained over the ships destroyed by them near the shore; [6] the single ship which they took they dedicated on the Achaean Rhium, close to the trophy. Then, fearing the arrival of the Athenian reinforcements, they sailed away at nightfall to the Crisaean Gulf and to Corinth, all with the exception of the Leucadians. [7] And not long after their retreat the twenty Athenian ships from Crete, which ought to have come to the assistance of Phormio before the battle, arrived at Naupactus. So the summer ended.