Battle of Sybota

By Legion Of Hell

The Battle of Sybota was a clash in mid-September 433 BCE. It would be the spark that led up to the deadly Peloponnesian War, plunging the Greek world into chaos and destruction.


The battle of Sybota originated from the little known city of Epidamnus, located just off the Ionian Gulf near the Illyrian tribal borders. In 436 BCE the city was paralysed by a bloody civil war where the pro-democracy factions drove out the repressive aristocratic rulers. In revenge the oligarchs formed an alliance with the Illyrian tribes and besieged the city held by the democrats. This forced the democrats to call for aid from the city that founded Epidamnus: Corcyra, modern day Corfu.

But Corcyra refused their pleas of help. This was done because the Corcyraeans were isolationists and didn't feel this civil war at Epidamnus was their problem to deal with. So the democrats sent a delegation to Corinth who happily decided to assist. There were multiple reasons why they wanted to aid the democrats. Firstly Corinth hated the Corcyraeans and had fought bitter wars against them. In addition the democrats offered Epidamnus to be a colony of Corinth in return for their assistance. Such a deal would alarm Corcyra, as they would have a potential rival on their doorstep.

But more importantly Corinth had always craved a sphere of influence in the northwest where the lucrative sea trade was based. But to do this would almost certainly mean war with Corcyra. But the power of Corinth had declined during the 5th century BC, while Corcyra's gradually grew. By 433 BCE the Corcyraeans had the second largest navy behind Athens with one hundred twenty warships.

Assistance arrived to the city of Epidamnus as the Corinthians sent hundreds of troops along with hundreds of their citizens to impose the agreement on Epidamnus being their colony. Needless to say the Corcyraeans acted quickly. They sent forty warships to blockade Epidamnus and issued an ultimatum to take back the exiled aristocrats. Corinth simply refused and declared that the city was their colony and settlers from the Peloponnesian League (of which they were a member) could reside in Epidamnus. This meant funds and ships from the League's members arrived. A series of attempts were made to try and forge a solution, but the Corinthians purposely stalled any peace talks. There was no choice for the Corcyraeans but to declare war on Corinth.

By 435 BCE the Corinthians sent a relief force of two thousand men and a fleet of seventy-five ships to Epidamnus. However the potent Corcyraean fleet intercepted and ripped apart the Corinthian fleet at the Battle of Leucimne. To make matters worse Epidamnus fell to the aristocrats and Corcyraeans at the same time. For two years the Corinthians vowed revenge against the Corcyraeans and began to build a new fleet.

Corcyra now ruled the seas in the region, but knew they needed help in trying to fend off the Corinthian threat. Therefore the Corcyraeans tried to persuade the Athenians with an alliance by sending a delegation to Athens. However when Corinth got wind of this they sent their own ambassadors to persuade the Athenians not to help Corcyra. After a debate in the Pnyx the Athenians decided not to seek a full alliance, but a defensive one. The Pnyx, where Athenian policy was decided, ordered ten warships to be sent to the Ionian Gulf to help the island nation of Corcyra. The small fleet had explicit orders not to engage the Corinthians unless they tried to invade Corcyra itself. By mid September 433 BCE the Corinthians had finished rebuilding the fleet and headed towards Corcyra.

The Deployment

The Corinthians along with their allies arrived at the island south of Corcyra called Sybota. With them came a massive fleet. It numbered at around one hundred fifty triremes with at least twenty thousand crewmen, hoplites and missile troops. The Corcyraeans that came to meet the threat had just one hundred and ten ships. The Athenians had ten Athenian triremes.

The Corinthian warships were lined up with their allied members of the League the Megarians and Ambracians on the right flank. The Corinthian ships were on the left and the remainder of their allies in the centre. Both sides had hoplites on their ships, along with archers and javelin-throwers. Their intent was to harass their enemy before using the hoplites to board the ships. The Corcyraeans placed their line that consisted of three squadrons, while the Athenian contingent were placed on the right flank.

The Battle

Throughout the day the seas around Sybota was full of fighting. Things went well for the Corcyraeans as their left flank smashed through the allied right and pursued the routing ships all the way towards the Corinthian's camp on the mainland. After driving the Megarians and Ambracians away they landed on the mainland and began to loot the camp before burning it. However despite the success on their left, the opposite flank was under serious strain. Xenoclides, the Corinthian commander had based his main strength on his left flank where his best ships were positioned. He used his triremes to bulldoze through the enemy's right with ease, crushing all opposition that lay before them. Corcyraean ships that were sinking and were full of wounded men were given no mercy by the Corinthians, although a thousand prisoners were taken during the battle.

The Athenians who were observing this breakthrough on their flank decided they had to do something. The three Athenian commanders Lacedaimonius, Diotimus and Proteas put their small fleet into the battle, trying to plug the gap that had been opened by Xenoclides. Despite their bravery the Athenians and Corcyraeans were forced to pull back towards the island of Corcyra. While the Corcyraeans and Athenians were doing this the Corinthians were busy killing enemy troops who were clinging onto the wreckage of their triremes.

The Luck Of The Gods

Not long after the Corcyraean and Athenian retreat the Corinthians had managed to corner their enemy near the shores of Corcyra itself. However just as Xenoclides and his fleet were about to go for the kill, the gods smiled upon the Corcyraeans and Athenians. The Corinthians suddenly retreated away from the island just as they commenced their attack. Xenoclides had given the order to retreat when they had sighted Athenian ships that were under the command of Glaucon arriving from their rear.

The Corinthians and their allies believed Glaucon's force was the main Athenian fleet and the original ships they had fought in the battle were just a small token force. However Glaucon's force numbered just twenty ships. They had been sent to Corcyra after the Pnyx felt the ten Athenian ships that had been sent to Corcyra were too few to defend the island. The next day the Athenians sought battle again with the Corinthians. Xenoclides refused, knowing that Corinth's golden chance to capture Corcyra had gone, and headed back home.

The battle, like all naval battles during the 5th century BC, had been a bloody one. Athenian casualties had been light, but the Corcyraeans had suffered badly. Out of the one hundred ten ships deployed at the start of the battle seventy triremes had been sunk, with at least seven thousand killed. The Corinthians had lost just thirty ships. Sybota had been the largest naval battle since the battle of Salamis during the Greco-Persian Wars almost fifty years ago.


The result of Sybota was that Corinth and Athens were now at war. Within a year a series of events such as the Theban nighttime attack on Plataea, the siege of Potidaea, and Athen's harsh Megarian Decree, would plunge Corinth's ally Sparta into the war. This would spark off the bloody Peloponnesian War. By the time it ended in 404 BCE Greece would be devastated. It would also be a bitter fight where the traditional rules of Ancient Greek warfare would be ripped apart, replaced by ones more cruel and tragic.


Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (Penguin Books 2003)