Tag Archives: oarsman

A war like no other – a fatal regatta

In the previous post your Narrator has given a glimpse in the leading players during the Peloponnesian War. Due to a continuous cycle of honour/power – pride – wrath – revenge the two main players Athens, Sparta and its allies inflict upon each other countless horrors. Sparta and its allies had the militaristic hegemony on land and they devastated at regular time the surroundings of Athens. On its turn Athens and its allies had the maritime hegemony on the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and they plundered the coasts of the Peloponnesos with their fleets. A terrible plague had broken out within the walls of Athens. This plague caused more deaths than all acts of war. In 421 BC – after 10 years mutual humiliations – a temporary armistice was decided upon. Local fighting and cruelness continued during this peace.

In 415 BC Athens begins its adventure in Sicily. Athens has some allied cities on that island. These cities ask help of Athens in a dispute with Syracuse – the ruling city in Sicily. Syracuse is also a democracy that has many similarities with the democracy of Athens. This we shall see later.

After intercession of amongst others Alcibiades, the inhabitants of Athens decide to send a fleet to Sicily with three executors including Alcibiades. Athens hopes to get a big influence in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe it gives an opportunity to move the city state of Athens in its entirety from the hornets’ nest of Asia Minor to Sicily.

The two university boats manned by the last amateurs from Cambridge and Oxford [1], are for about 17 minutes – or a day, or a year – lord and master on the River Thames in London [2]. For 150 years the 300 trireme of Athens – partly private [3] warships of Athens; per boat powered by 170 oarsmen – are lord and master of the Aegean Sea [4]. The life of a rower was hard and very uncertain: many could not even swimming. Good rowing was the only possibility to enhance the chances of survival. The hoplites on land behind their wall of bronze shields participate directly in the battle: they try to expel the enemy in a kind of rugby scrum and they use their lances to harm the opponents. The oarsmen behind their thin wall of wood and leather float at sea in their fast light boat equipped with a battering ram: the battering ram destroys the boat of the opponent. Rowers only take indirectly part in the sea-battle. Are the rhythm of the boat and the rowing stroke – with the mighty sound of “Twwhhsh” – for the rowers the real lord and master for whom they do all efforts?


The rowers were free inhabitants Athens from the lower classes. Once Athens had a lack of oarsmen available in her city: a large part of the fleet was gone. Slaves manned the boats. The battle was won. Athens thanked these rowers by recognizing them as free inhabitants of her city.

Exercise in peace time was of great importance to keep the boat at a speed of 10 knots for a long time and to perform the manoeuvres for battering the boats of the opponents quickly and correctly. Your narrator has read in a book [6] that the religion of our ancestors is based on experience, exercise and faith. Is the religion of the Athenian oarsmen and the current oarsmen also founded on these three principles?

In the second half of June 415 BC the fleet departed. The entire population of Athens with its foreign allies was in Piraeus – the harbour city of Athens – to see the spectacle. It looked more like a show of power and wealth for the Greek world than the departure of an expedition army. A trumpet sounded and the fleet departed. The boats started in a mutual contest: they raced until Aegina. It seemed to be more a regatta than the start of a long and precarious adventure [7].

In Sicily, inability, bad luck and fate struck Athenians. The siege of Syracuse failed because the city could not be sealed off on land. Always groups experienced horsemen of the opponent made passages. On the water the fleet of Athens engaged in a battle with too little room for manoeuvres. Alcibiades went back to Athens with the request for reinforcements. When this request was refused, he fled to Sparta.

After fighting and destruction of boats near the Athenian camp, the Athenians delayed their flight too long. When they finally fled by land, there was a lack of water and food and everywhere ambushes of the enemy were in place. In a valley some muddy water was found. Soon this water became red due to the attacks of the enemy. After many losses, thousands of Athenians – including many unarmed oarsmen – surrendered to avoid a further massacre. The prisoners were led to Syracuse. Against the will of its leaders the democracy of Syracuse decided to kill the two Athenian executors and to imprison the other Athenians in a stone quarry near the theatre that was opened by Aeschylus himself with a performance of the “Persians”.


Almost all prisoners were being confined here at a very low ration for eight months. Many died in the quarry and the survivors were branded and sold as slaves. No one returned to Athens. Athens lost by this expedition about 7,000 men. This number matches the number of fallen American soldiers buried in Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer. This was the price for the folly and the pride of Athens. This was the price for the verdict of the people of Syracuse.


In 413 BC the war flared up again. Athens had a major lack of good oarsmen. Many free inhabitants decided to volunteer for oarsman with all the risks and hardships. Sparta built a fleet with the help of Persia. After the democracy of Athens had alienated several allies by committing unnecessary atrocities, she was defeated on her own speciality in several sea battles. Herewith ended the Peloponnesian war.

This regatta is part of “a war like no other, a war as everyone”. Like any fight, this fight knows only losers. Athens lost a part of its population and Syracuse lost her good name. Syracuse has committed death sins against the core of the Buddhist life according to a contemporary female Buddhist recluse in China [10]. Athens and Syracuse have sinned against “benevolence, compassion, joy and detachment” for the eyes of the world.

Is this regatta also included in Indra’s net [11]? Your Narrator thinks so. He once read that the number of Avogadro is so large, that with each breath we inhale a few molecules of Julius Caesar’s last exhalation with the words: “Et tu, Brute” [12]. Are we – with every breath – in a similar way connected to this war and to this regatta? Is here also applicable: “Mysterium magnum est, quod nos procul dubio transcendit” [13], that means: “the mystery is great, that transcends us without a doubt.”? Your Narrator does not know the answer.

This ends the report of the intermezzo that the first main character has passed in preparation before entering the five easy entities. The following post gives a report of the preparations of the second main character. He has attend a graduation ceremony of one of his granddaughters. As a consequence of this ceremony, he has read the opening line of John’s Gospel in Sanskrit.

[1] See: Rond, Mark de, The last Amateurs, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2008

[2] See former post titled “Amateurs”

[3] See: Hanson, Victor Davis, A War like no other – How the Athenians an Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. London: Methuen, 2005 p. 251. Generally the the boat, the crew and the equipment was supplied by the State, but the food etc. had to be provide by the trierarch – the commander of the boat. There were also private boat supplied by rich Greecs: these boat had the best material and the best oarsmen.

[4] See: Hale, John R., Lords of the Sea – The epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democraty. London: Penguin books, 2009

[5] Source image: http://www.utexas.edu/courses/greekhistory1/outline16.html

[6] See: Lewis-Williams, David & Pearce, David, Inside the neolitic Mind. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009 p.25

[7] Source: Kagan, Donald, The Peloponnesian War – Athens and Sparta in savage Conflict 431 -404 BC. London: Harper and Collins Publishers, 2003 p. 264 and Hale, John R., Lords of the Sea – The epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democraty. London: Penguin books, 2009 p. 189

[8] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Theatre_at_Syracuse,_Sicily.jpg

[9] Source image: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/no.php

[10] See: Porter, Bill, Road to Heaven – Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1993. page 109

[11] See former post: Indra’s net.

[12] See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Et_tu,_Brute%3F

[13] See the posts “Three – Object in the middle – The Word” and “A day without yesterday – a day without tomorrow? “