For a brief period, scarcely longer than the summer of 411, the Four Hundred ruled. Who were they? Whence did they come, what did they do? Why did they fall? In making sense of the story, the reader must begin with the failure of Athens in its Sicilian expedition of 413 BC. The Athenian democracy could hold itself together when the war was going well, but at any sign of imbalance, the constitution strained; the campaign at Sicily proved to be a greater imbalance than any event theretofore, and Athens responded accordingly.
When news of the Sicilian disaster came, the immediate reaction of the Athenians was incredulity, followed by a near-frenzied resolve to, though crippled, continue the war. This resolve was not looked upon kindly by the other Greeks, who saw it rather as insanity than bravery. Though Athens was determined to remain in the arena unto the end, the Spartans by then had the undisputed favor of the audience. Among the various effects of this was a seemingly unending series of revolts: notably Euboea, Lesbos, and, of particular relevance here, Chios.
The Chians sought the aid of a nearby Persian satrap called Tissaphernes in organizing their revolt. No less eager to see Athens lose its subjects were the Spartans, who could not resist throwing their weight behind the revolts as well; Alcibiades, now a Spartan advisor, was sent to negotiate with Chios and Tissaphernes and to aid them in their revolt against Athens. The Athenians, with their newly revived determination, refused to cede their empire without a good fight and quickly arrived to contest their subjects’ hopeful aspirations to sedition; other cities in the area revolted and the two sides skirmished back and forth, each side winning and losing in turns.
Then Alcibiades defected once again (probably in hopes of eventually returning to Athens). This time allying himself with the Persians, he found his way to the ear of Tissaphernes and filled it with new ideas: perhaps it would be better, from the Persian perspective, for Athens to win; and anyway, was Persia really getting as much out of its Spartan alliance as could be gotten? Why not squeeze them for a little more – cut back their funding, stretch them out a bit more? Alcibiades then turned to the Athenians at Samos with a similar proposal: this satrap could be got as an ally, if only the Athenians would toss their petulant and unpredictable democracy and install a more reliable oligarchy. There was some opposition – would not an oligarchical revolution only further alienate their allies? – but the Athenians had already seen in their minds’ eyes the victories that would accompany their soon-to-be supportive satrap and decided to go ahead with the plan.
The “plan,” of course, was a canard. Tissaphernes would not support Athens, but the events had already been set in motion and Pisander began to agitate for oligarchy. At Athens he was met with little sympathy, but his anti-democratic invective, replete with warnings against the growing powers of Sparta and Persia, would inflame the Athenians’ fear in his absence. After going next to supplicate Tissaphernes, whose demands in the case of an alliance were calculated as to exceed the limits Athens would accept, Pisander finally arrived back at Samos, empty-handed but full of oligarchical conviction.
From there the seeds finally began to sprout. Thrasos accepted oligarchy; when Pisander arrived again at Athens, he found that the Athenian anxiety made for fertile soil and his revolution had taken root and begun to bloom. The people’s champions were quickly weeded out and the masses themselves quickly abandoned all convictions to their overwhelming fear (which was carefully tended and watered by roving gangs of pro-oligarchical agitators). An interim committee of ten was installed to see to the details of the new constitution, and finally the budding oligarchs came to power; the Four Hundred were ushered in and the oligarchy was in full flower. Some prevarications were necessary – vague and insincere gestures about the Five Thousand who would, in name, govern the city, were made, but of course the real power remained in the hands of the Four Hundred. Finally they could use it.
Use it they did. It was decided that all tax revenue would go to the war effort and to nothing else; all bureaucratic salaries were suspended. Hopes of victory were apparently forgotten and a letter was sent to Sparta seeking peace, to which the Spartan king Agis replied by inviting the Athenians to send, perhaps inauspiciously, a delegation. Ten men were sent to Samos to win favor for the new government back in Athens, where they found a party of Samian oligarchs plotting their own ascendancy. The would-be oligarchs were then discovered and their conspiracy crushed. Soon after, Chaereas, a crewmember of the Paralus, arrived at Samos with terrible, if exaggerated, tales of the events at Athens – his ship, unware of the regime change, had arrived at the city only to have its entire crew locked up by the new despots.
In a somewhat less-than-vexing decision, the Athenian armies at Samos, though originally so eager to bring the oligarchy about, took a hard look at the evidence and changed their minds. They solemnly professed their democratic faith and vowed to support democracy both at Samos and back at Athens, afterwards electing new generals whose mission, it was agreed, would be to seek the restoration of democracy. Alcibiades again reappeared at Samos; the generals, having not forgotten the traitor’s influence at the court of Tissaphernes, brought him back in hopes of using his Persian influence to their gain; he quickly joined their ranks and wandered back to Tissaphernes’ court while the other generals began to plan for their voyage to Athens. Alcibiades returned, followed quickly by emissaries from the Four Hundred who had been waiting at Delos for some of the fervor to dissipate.
It hadn’t; for some time they found it impossible to speak over the jeers. Eventually the democrats ran out of breath and the despots’ emissaries gave their speech, presenting the same fibs that had been given at Athens about the preservation of the city and the real power of the Five Thousand. Fortunately for the beleaguered envoy, Alcibiades turned coats again and came to their aid, convincing the generals in the audience not to sail against Athens. Less propitious was the arrival thereafter of a pro-democratic Argive embassy accompanied, as living evidence, by the rest of the crew of the Paralus whom the Four Hundred had treated so poorly.
Nevertheless, the relieved ambassadors returned to Athens with the news. The Four Hundred were not as receptive to Alcibiades’ optimism about the war as they could have been. Some discontent had begun to rise in certain members of the oligarchy, and a rift developed between those who then had begun to want the Five Thousand around as more than a convenient fiction and those who still did not. Another peace embassy was sent to Sparta; the Four Hundred had begun to fear their own internal opposition more than their external enemies, and believed that peace with Sparta would allow them to concentrate on placating their own malcontented countrymen. They simultaneously began to build a wall at the Pireaus under the pretense of keeping “enemies” out; in fact, the enemies they sought to exclude came not from Persia nor Sparta but from Samos. This project was met with resistance by Theramenes, who recognized the pretenses for what they were and accused the Four Hundred, quite reasonably, of preferring to maintain their own power over victory against the Spartans.
Finally the Four Hundred’s anxiety-ridden reign began to topple. First came the unsettling assassination of one of the ambassadors to Sparta, Phrynichus, as he walked through the market; his killer could not be discovered, no matter how much the Four Hundred tortured his Argive accomplice. Suspecting Theramenes of conspiracy, they arrested him. He agreed to accompany them on their rescue mission to Piraeus where, having had enough and, emboldened by the failure of the Four Hundred to prove their power in something as simple as a murder case, he instead had the hoplites tear down their beloved wall. The Four Hundred began to sense that their defeat was imminent. The Athenian people had tired of fighting a war on two fronts: against their enemies and against their own rulers. The legend of the Five Thousand was increasingly talking its way into reality. An assembly was convened between the two and negotiations began.
Just then the Four Hundred were granted a temporary reprieve: news arrived that a massive Spartan fleet was approaching the Piraeus and the Athenians scrambled aboard their ships and sailed out to meet them. The Spartans, surprised to find that their oligarchic allies had been deposed and their wall razed, simply sailed right past, choosing instead to target the island of Euboea (which housed a critical base for Athens). The Athenians couldn’t allow that, either, and frantically followed in pursuit. A battle was fought at Eretria and the Spartans triumphed; cities all over Euboea, seeing this, took the opportunity to revolt. Clearly, the Athenians saw, the installation of the oligarchs had not been all they were promised it would be.
At long last the hammer fell. The ultimate assembly was called to order at Pnyx and the Four Hundred were deposed. The Five Thousand, who promised to supply their own armor, were handed the reins of the state and Theramenes had his revenge. The frightened ex-tyrants escaped to Sparta and (could it end in any other way?) Alcibiades was summoned to Athens once again.