The conventional wisdom at the beginning of the Peloponnesean War said that neither side could win it. The Spartan Army was too strong to be defeated, but their strength was offset by the Athenian Navy which had control of the seas. To win the war, one side had to figure out how to win on land and sea.
It took twenty-seven years for this obstacle to begin to resolve itself and the man that turned the tide was one of the greatest of the Spartans – Lysander, the man who defeated the Athenian Navy. Humbled by poverty in his youth, Lysander had to get a sponsor to support his entrance into the Agoge, but later rose through the ranks to a position of leadership.
Positioned perfectly in 407 B.C, he was named admiral (Navarch) of the Spartan Navy. Lysander proceeded to build a fleet at Ephesus where he met Cyrus the Younger, son of Darius II of Persia, who would become his friend and benefactor. When the new fleet was threatened by Alcibiades and the Athenians, Lysander waited until the Athenian commander was away and attacked while they were under the command of a subordinate. This victory at Notium meant the end of Alcibiades command and a setback for the Athenians. Lysander was relieved of command following the Spartan custom of rotation of leadership, returned to Sparta, and the navy was put under the command of Callicratidas. Later that year, the Spartans were defeated by the Athenians at Arginusae and Callicratidas was killed.
Lysander travel map (click on it)
New calls to reinstate Lysander as admiral were ignored and he was relegated to second in command under Aracus. All, including the new commander, knew who the sailors would obey in battle. Once the fleet was rebuilt, Lysander met with Cyrus at Sardis and then sailed on to the Hellespont, with the Athenians in pursuit. Then, after several days of maneuvering, Lysander caught them unprepared and won a decisive victory at Aegospotami. With Athens starving and their fleet destroyed, the men of Athens had no choice but to negotiate a peace. Lysander was recalled to Piraeus to represent Sparta after he had stopped off and taken Lesbos.
The following years were not kind to Lysander. He was pulled off command over Athens when the Spartan King Pausanius thought he was gaining too much power. Then he became involved with the Spartan succession in 401 B.C. when he convinced the Ephors to elect Agesilaus II Spartan King after the death of Agis II.
That same year, Lysander convinced the Spartans to take the side of Cyrus in attacking the Persian King Artaxerxes II. With a Spartan army fighting becide him, Cyrus was killed in the attack and his army defeated. Lysander then had Agesilaus named commander a war against the Persians hoping to find glory for himself, but the plan backfired when Agesilaus refused to let him participate. Agesilaus was about to attack the Persians when he was recalled to help in a new war against Thebes, caused by Lysander who had challenged split of spoils from Thebes victory over Phocis.
The Spartans planned to attack Thebes with two armies – one under command of Lysander and the other under the second Spartan King, Pausanius. Unfortunately, Lysander came under attack at Haliartus before the king arrived and was killed. Pausanius had him buried on the road between Delphi and Chaeronea.
To this day, Lysander remains a enigmatic figure in Spartan History. Distaining wealth but coveting power, he carried the Spartan code of honor to the extreme. He was honored, even deified, by his fellow Greeks for accomplishments in battle, but also ridiculed for abusing power for selfish gain.