The Battle of Sybota | part 2: Aid and succour for the Corcyraeans

In part 1: The siege of Epidamnus, and embassies to Athens, we left the forces gathering after the Athenians sent ten ships to assist Corcyra against the assembled Corinthians and their allies.

The Corcyraeans positioned their fleet of 110 ships, under the command of Meikiades and two others, near the Sybota Islands, where also the ten Athenian ships were present. The land forces that were posted at Leukimme included a thousand men that came from Zakynthos.[1]

Having completed their preparations, the Corinthians took three days’ provisions and at the hour of early dawn they put out to sea, where they were waited for by the Corcyraeans. Both sides took position in the line for battle. The ten ships of Athens took position on the far-right side of the combat line, closest to the shores of Corcyra, which they were ordered to protect. The rest of the line was formed by three divisions, each commanded by one of the three Corcyraean admirals.[2]

Sunrise, Leukimme
Figure 1: The Greek mainland viewed from Antipaxos at the hour of early dawn[3]
The ships from Corinth had the ships of their allies, Megara and Ambrakia, on their far-right wing and those of their colonies in the center. The Corinthian ships, which were manned by the best sailors, opposed both the ships of Athens and the right wing of the Corcyraeans.[4]

The ships then displayed their military standards [sēmeia] and commenced the battle. Due to the large number of , combatants on the decks [katastrōmata], hoplites, archers [toxotai] and javelin throwers [akontistaí], the battle was fought like a battle by land [pezomakhía] rather than like a combat at sea [naumakhia].[5] No clever and modern maneuvers, such as breaking the line of the enemy [diékplous], were exercised.[6] Instead of a controlled attack at the aftbody of the enemy’s ships, the two opponents rammed each other’s ships head-to-head, puncturing each other in such a way that the ships by no means could get loose anymore.[7]

The infantry then continued their fight as a tumultuous land battle, carried out on stationary ships at sea. The ten Athenian ships, however, kept aside, following their instructions to alarm by their presence only and not to join the battle.[8]

The Corcyraeans succeeded in defeating the Megarians and Ambraciots of the Corinthian right wing, and with twenty ships, they chased them back to their camp on the mainland in the marshes [limnai] of the Acheron. They ravaged and plundered the camp, after which they put it to fire. The group of Corcyraeans that had separated from the main force considered themselves victorious already, but their pursuit had left their compatriots in a weak position; they were defeated and spread out over the sea in complete disorder. The Athenians watched the Corcyraean defeat and when they eventually joined the battle, their number was too small to change the turn of the events.[9]

The Corinthians did not take possession of the many disabled vessels [nauágion, piece of wreckage] and tow these hulls [skáphea] to a safer place; instead, they sailed through them, butchering the sailors and not taking too many prisoners. The large numbers of ships on each side and the size of the combat area made that it was not always clear whether the one engaged was a friend or foe. In the confusion many were killed by their own overwhelmed compatriots.[10]

Map of Greece showing locations
Map 1: Locations of Corcyra and Sybota

After the Corinthians had chased the remaining Corcyraeans to the shores of Corcyra, they recovered as much of their own men and ships as possible and retreated to Sybota, a Thesprotian desert harbor on the Greek mainland, just opposite of Leukimme. Here they joined the land forces of their barbarian allies.

In the evening, the Corinthians boarded their vessels again and sailed in the direction of Corcyra. Also, the Corcyraeans regrouped themselves and were joined by the Athenian task force. The song of war, the paean, had been sung already when late in the afternoon the Corinthian observed a new fleet of warships arriving on the scene. These fresh ships, under command of Glaukon and one other admiral, had been sent out by the Athenians, who had justly feared that the initial fleet of ten ships would not be able to protect Corcyra. More probably, however, Athens had made its fleet arrive in two steps, thus increasing the chance of escalating combat between their two opponents.[11]

Seeing the second part of the Athenian fleet arrive, the Corinthians backed water, withdrawing their vessels without even turning them [prúmnan kroúesthai]. They counted twenty new Athenian ships, but feared that these could be only the first part of an even larger fleet.[12]

Sunset Sybota
Figure 2: Corcyra viewed from the islands in front of Sybota, at the hour of sunset

The Corcyraeans, still positioned behind the promontory of Leukimme, sighted the new Athenian fleet only after the Corinthians broke up the regular order, turned around and started their retreat. They firstly feared that these unsuspected ships, approaching through a mass of corpses and wrecks, were hostile ships. By then it was night and the Corcyraeans returned to their camp at Leukimme, while the twenty Attic ships dropped anchor nearby.[13]

The next morning, the fleet, Athenian and Corcyraean, departed from Leukimme and crossed the strait of Sybota. Meanwhile, the Corinthians, in the harbor of Sybota had provisionally prepared their damaged ships for departure and loaded them with prisoners. Seeing the substantial number of Athenian ships and not sure whether the treaty was still in place, they formed a line in the open sea, but did not begin a new fight. The Attic ships indicated that the rules of Athens were still in place; they would not interfere with a departure but would do everything to prevent any further attack on Corcyra.[14]

The Corinthians then set up a trophy on the mainland of Sybota and prepared for their voyage towards home. This allowed the Corcyraeans to recover their dead, which had been spread out wide over the area, after which they set up their own trophy on one of the islands off Sybota.

Technically both parties could and did claim victory over this cruel and largest sea battle in the history of the Hellenes. The Corinthians had been victorious at sea on the first day of the battle. They carried over a thousand prisoners of war and sunk about seventy ships. The Corcyraeans had destroyed about thirty ships and had taken up the wrecks and bodies of the dead on their side, which also was a sign of victory. They had prevented an invasion of their territory, and seen the Corinthians backing water upon arrival of the Athenian reinforcement. Also, they had abstained from a continued fight on the second day, and all of these were formal signs of a victory.[15]

The tragic weakening of both Corinth and Corcyra provided Athens both with Schadenfreude[16] and with valuable information on the limitations of the naval capabilities of their opponents. The next step of Athens would be that they forced Potidaea, another colony of Corinth, to participate in the Delian League and start paying tribute to Athens.[17]


[1] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 1.47.
Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices. Volume 1. Thucydides. Benjamin Jowett. translator. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1881. Online on Perseus.
The interest and policy of Zakynthos coincided with those of Corcyra. [Notes to 1.47 by E.C. Marchant]

[2] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 1.48. Plutarch adds that the small number of Athenian ships may have been the effect of Perikles’ desire to humiliate the family of Kimon. Plutarch, The Life of Perikles 29.2. In practice, the limited number of Athenian ships allowed the conflict of Corinth and Corcyra to escalate to the level that it did.

[3] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 1.47. The image illustrates the Homeric expression that describes the moment of dawn: “Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared,” [Homeric Odyssey 2.1, etc.]

[4] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 1.48.1.

[5] Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 1.49.2. It was exceptional to have many fighting men on a trireme. Themistoklēs had improved the art of fighting at sea by focusing on ships that were “agile” [amphielissa]; built for speed and maneuverability. Later, Kimon would increase the capacity for carrying hoplites, assuming this would make the ships more efficient in warfare. Thucydides, however, displays some disdain about how the neighbors of Athens fight after the old fashion of a land fight on sea.

[6] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.49.3.

[7] Diékplous: the favored Athenian maneuver of sailing through the enemy’s lines. Their ships could then turn around and target the stern of the ships in the line. The damaging of the steering- and rowing- oars, or the puncture of the ship’s hull in a vulnerable spot, could then be carefully executed. A rapid withdrawal of the beak-shaped ram, by backing water, would both ensure safety of the own ship and maximize the damage to the enemy’s ship. For other examples of this tactic, see for instance Herodotus, The Histories 6.12, 8.9, and Polybius 1.51.9. Katà stóma is an offensive prow-to-prow contact; How & Wells’ notes (to Herodotus 8.11) describe this as “a sign of indifferent seamanship … perhaps explained by the confined space,” which could similarly apply here in this battle.

[8] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.49.4.

[9] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.46, 1.49.5–1.49.7.

[10] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.50. anadoúmenos heîlkon; to take in tow: from hélkō (pull, drag) and anadéō (tie up, attach).

[11] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.51.1.

[12] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.50. (ana)kroúesthai prúmnan; to row backwards so that the fore part of the ship remains turned towards the enemy. Also: to row backwards into a harbor when intending to moor stern-first.

[13] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.51.2.

[14] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.52–1.53.

[15] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.54.

[16] The ancient Greek term would be epikhairekakía: “Joy over one’s neighbor’s misfortune, spite, malignity” (LSJ).

[17] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.56.

Image credits

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

Photos: author


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