The Battle of Sybota | part 1: The siege of Epidamnus, and embassies to Athens

By 433 BCE, the trade network of Athens reached from the Crimea to Egypt and as far west as Marseille. The navy served to protect the trade routes between the colonies and the mētropolis. Corinth was an ally of Sparta. Corcyra (Corfu) was an unwilling colony of Corinth and not part of either the Athenian or the Peloponnesian League. Corcyra operated a fleet of 120 galleys.[1]

Figure 1: Gorgon at the Artemis temple in Corfu.2

By then, a conflict between Corinth and Corfu escalated to the level that, on both sides, the obsession to win [philonikeîn] had become self-destructive.[3] The conflict had started at the city of Epidamnus (modern Durrës, Albania), a colony of Corcyra that also gave home to some Corinthians and other people of the Dorian race. There were some frictions and actually one of the last events before the start of the war, was that the ruling oligarchs, noblemen of Epidamnus, were exiled from the city by an upcoming democrat movement. [4]

Map of the Isthmus of Corinth
Map 1: The Isthmus of Corinth

The exiled oligarchs started to harass the democrats and the noblemen, who had chosen to stay in the city, both from the land and the sea. The democrats from Epidamnus then sent ambassadors to Corcyra, asking Corcyra’s support in resolving this matter. The Corcyraeans, however, chose to ignore their responsibility and refused to accept this supplication.[5]

The Epidamnians, desperate for a solution, then sent an envoy to Delphi for independent but divine advice. The priests of Delphi suggested the city to place themselves under Corinthian protection.[6] Hence the Epidamnians traveled to Corinth to demonstrate the Corinthian roots of their city and begged for assistance. The Corinthians recognized that the colony indeed belonged to them as much as it belonged to the Corcyraeans and agreed to provide the much-desired support.[7]

When the Corcyraeans received the news that a force of Ambraciots, Leucadians and Corinthians had settled at Epidamnus, they took fire. They mobilized a fleet of forty ships to Epidamnus and proceeded to besiege the city, which stands on an isthmus, insisting that the exiled aristocracy should be reinstated into their rightful positions.[8]

The Corinthians, having received news of the siege, proclaimed Epidamnus a colony and mobilized a fleet of 8 ships from Megara, 4 ships from Pale in Cephalonia, 5 from Epidaurus, 1 from Hermione, 2 from Troezen, 2 from Leukas and 8 from Ambracia. The Thebans and Phliasians were asked for funding and the Eleans for hulls as well. Corinth herself furnished 30 ships and 3000 heavy infantries. Ironically here the Corinthian oligarchs, opponents of the rise of democratic power, now come to the aid of the dēmos of Epidamnus. The total Corinthian force consisted of 70 ships and 10,000 infantry.[9]

Map showing locations of Corcyra, Epidamnus, Corinth
Map 2: Locations of Epidamnus, Corcyra, Corinth

The Corcyraeans heard about the mobilization of this large fleet and sent envoys to Corinth to convince the rulers of this city that the Corinthians had nothing to do with Epidamnus and they bade the city to withdraw the garrison and settlers. Should Corinth, however, have any claims then Corcyra suggested to submit the matter for arbitration to a council of mutual agreement. Both parties should commit themselves to accept the outcome of the arbitration as binding.[10] Corcyra added the inflammatory note that if, despite their protestations, a war would start, then they too would be compelled to seek the help of friends to support them.[11]

After a non-successful exchange of arguments, the ships of the Corinthians and their allies were manned and ready for the battle. Their 75 ships and 10,000 heavy infantries sailed for Epidamnus to give battle to the ships of Corcyra.[12] The Corcyraeans put out to sea with a fleet of 80 ships, leaving 40 at Epidamnus.[13] Their vessels still had to be undergirded to make them seaworthy, as it had not been the expectation to bring this force of 80 ships into action. The 40 Corcyrian ships formed line against the 70 ships of Corinth and successfully destroyed 15 of the Corinthian vessels.[14] On that same day the people of Epidamnus capitulated to the Corcyraeans. The foreigners would be sold and for the moment the Corinthians were kept as prisoners of war.[15]

A trophy was set up on the Corcyrian headland of Leukimme and the captives were killed with the exception of the Corinthians, whom were kept as prisoners of war.[16] The Corcyraeans, then sailed to Leukas, a Corinthian colony, and ravaged the territory.[17] For almost the whole of the summer and winter that followed the battle, the Corcyraean ships would harass the allies of Corinth at sea.[18] Corinth assessed that this situation could not be allowed to continue and spent the whole year, and the next, in building ships and in attracting the best rowers from the Peloponnese and from the rest of Hellas.[19]

The Corcyraeans became suddenly aware that they did not have a single ally in Hellas and approached the rulers of Athens for their support.[20] The Corinthians, hearing of these intentions also sent an embassy to Athens.[21] An assembly was arranged in which the Corcyraeans were the first to speak.[22]

The plea of the Corcyraeans started with an explanation of their past policy of isolation. Once, this policy had been wise, but now in their war with Corinth this policy was unsustainable. The Corinthians had raised a large army against them and without the support of others, they argued, they could not defend themselves against the dangers that subjection to them implied. Their old policy of complete political isolation and trust on their own naval power now proved to be an error in judgement.[23]

Next, the Corcyraeans congratulated Athens that Corcyra had come to them to ask for aid. This gave Athens the opportunity to support someone who is the victim of injustice, and Corcyra added that her gratitude would be eternal. Apart from Athens, Corcyra was the largest naval power in Hellas and it was a stroke of good fortune that they now had the chance to work together. Few parties in history had had the opportunity that Athens now had. With the war between Corinth and Athens becoming unavoidable, an alliance with Corcyra would strengthen Athens, while a defeat of Corcyra would strengthen Corinth, the enemy of Athens in the war to come.[24]

The ambassadors admitted that Corcyra was a colony of Corinth, but added, “all colonies honour their mother-city when she treats them well, but are estranged from her by injustice. For colonists are not meant to be the servants but the equals of those who remain at home.”[25]

After many more equally passionate and convincing words, the envoys argued in closing their speech that the neutral state of Corcyra was now in the position to offer this opportunity of an alliance to Athens. The alternative, letting them fall into the hands of the Corinthians, would only increase the strength of the enemies of Athens.[26]

parts of a trireme
Figure 2: Reconstruction of a votive offering with representation of a trireme.27

After the Corcyraeans finished their plea, it was the turn of the Corinthians to speak. The Corinthian envoys described how the Corcyraeans had misrepresented their own position as well as that of Corinth. The reason for the Corcyraeans to be not part of either the Athenian or Peloponnesian League was that their isolation allowed them to carry out their wrong-doing, in a reckless way, without a check by others.[28] Corinth, at least was in treaty with Athens; with Corcyra they never had been.[29]

Receiving a colony of another mother-city into alliance, they argued, would undermine the understanding of the formal relation between colonies and mother-cities, thus creating a precedent that would not be in the interest of Athens.[30] Secondly, Athens was still bound by the terms of the weakening agreement between the Athenian and the Lacedaemonian confederacy, and an alliance with Corcyra, owner of the second largest fleet of Hellas, would certainly escalate the risk of war.

Corcyra, they argued, had behaved to Corinth, their mother-city, in the most reckless way. This had occurred in many former instances and most recently in the case of Epidamnus. Corinth argued that only after having carried out their wrong-doing, the Corcyraeans applied for arbitration.[31] Moreover, Athens would break their obligations under the treaty, acting against the interests of Corinth who had a claim on the Athenian gratitude for services rendered to Athens in earlier days.[32] The Corinthians continued to argue that their claims were reasonable, neither violent nor greed. Lastly, the Corinthians claimed that it was now their turn to benefit by the agreed principle that every power had a right to punish its own allies.[33]

The Athenians, considering all these words in their assembly, decided not to honor the Corcyraean request for an offensive alliance [summakhia] in which both would have the same friends and enemies.[34] Instead they agreed to enter into a defensive alliance [epimakhía], making sure to promise no more than was permitted by the treaty with the Peloponnesians. The defensive alliance was to be to the advantage of Corcyra, but not to the injury of others.[35] Within those terms, Athens agreed with Corcyra to provide mutual support in case a third party would invade any part of the allied territory.

Not long after the departure of the Corinthian embassy, Athens sent ten ships, under the command of Lakedaimonios and two others, to the assistance of Corcyra.[36] The rules of engagement were such that interaction with the fleet of Corinth was to be avoided. Should however, the Corinthians attempt a landing on the coast of Corcyra, then Lakedaimonios would have to do everything to prevent this to happen. The background of this arrangement was the intention to not breach the treaty with Corinth.[37]

Meanwhile the Corinthians, with a fleet of 150 ships manned with the best of their sailors, under the command of Xenokleides and four others, sailed for Corcyra. The 150 ships included 10 from Elis and 12 from Megara, both allies from Corinth. Furthermore there were ships from the colonies of Corinth: 10 from Lefkas, 27 from Ambracia, 1 from Anactorium. The remaining 90 ships were from Corinth.[38] This fleet assembled off Leukas, and anchored as one collective fleet at Cheimerium, a harbor on the mainland of Greece through which the waters of the Acheron flow into the sea.[39] The forces were joined by large numbers of people from the mainland, eager to prove alliance to Corinth.[40]

To be continued—part 2: Aid and succour for the Corycraeans


1 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.25.4.
Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices. Volume 1. Thucydides. Benjamin Jowett. translator. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1881. On Perseus

2 Medusa of Corfu (c. 580 BCE). “The insane grin, the bulging eyes, the hissing ringlets of snake-like hair, the spatulate tongue stuck out as far as it will go – no wonder she turned men to stone if they dared to gaze on her”! [Durrell, L.G. 1978, Corfu]

3 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 3.82.8.

4 1.24.5–6.

5 1.24.6-7.

6 1.25.1.

7 1.25.3.

8 1.26.1–3.

9 1.27.1–2.

10 1.28.2.

11 1.28.3.

12 1.29.1.

13 1.29.4.

14 1.29.3.

15 1.29.5.

16 1.30.1.

17 1.30.2.

18 1.30.4.

19 1.31.1.

20 1.31.2.

21 1.31.3.

22 1.31.4.

23 1.32.3-5.


25 1.34.1.

26 1.36.3.

27 Lenormant Trireme Relief. (dated between circa 410 and circa 400 BCE). Reconstruction.

28 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.37.1-5.

29 1.40.1.

30 1.40.5–6.

31 1.39.2.

32 1.40.5-6, 1.41 2. At the time of the Persian invasion, Corinth had supplied forty vessels to Athens. Furthermore, during the rebellion of Samos, in 440-439 BCE, Corinth was unwilling to participate in a war against Athens (440-439 BCE). Lastly, Corinth enabled Athens to conquer Aegina. Corinth, however, stepped back from Athens, when Athens turned down the rebellion and severely punished Samos.

33 1.43.1.

34 1.44.1 Summakhia: offensive alliance. An agreement, based upon friendship, to stand for each other in times of war.

35 1.44.1-2 It was recognized that the Peloponnesian War was unavoidable and sacrificing the fleet of Corcyra to Corinth was not the right thing to do. Instead, if the fleets of Corinth and Corcyra could weaken each other in a battle than it would be beneficial to Athens.

36 1.45.1 Lakedaimonios was a son of Kimon, who gave him this name because he was Proxenos of Sparta.

37 1.45.3.

38 1.46.

39 A location just south of modern Parga. The Acheron was known as a river of Hades. [Homeric Odyssey 10.513]. The name of the port, Cheimerium, means wintry. For the mariner, both names have a negative connotation.

40 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.47.3.

Image credits

Gorgon at the Artemis Temple, Corfu.
Photo: Dr.K. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. via Wikimedia Commons

Korinth Isthmus
Author: Fremantleboy Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. via Wikimedia Commons

Parts of a votive relief with a depiction of a trireme, 4th century BCE
Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. via Wikimedia Commons.

Location map, based on Satellite imagery of Greece and Albania
NASA, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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