Battle of Rhium

A group of Acarnanian men came to Athens, looking for aid. It was now the second summer since the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the plague had cut short the Athenian naval expedition around the Peloponnese and that left the enemies fleet the ability to venture around the sea unopposed. The Corinthians and other Spartan allies had made landings on the territory of Acarnania and other western allies. It seemed clear that the Peloponnesian fleet would return the following year to continue on with the job unless Athens sent a force to prevent them.

The Acarnanians wanted the Athenian General Phormio to help them, he had been a hero in their country from a long time before when he arrived with thirty triremes, stormed a hostile city, and handed it back to it's rightful Acarnanaian owners. Local families had even named their sons Phormio in his honor as liberator. But now it was late summer's end and after their dangerous voyage, they had come to Athens, only to be told that the man whom they sought was now banned from office, and resided on his farm.

The envoy then journeyed through Attica to Phormio's farm, hoping to persuade him to abandon the Athenians and come west with them as a general at large, an honored guest who would take into his own hands the defense of their country. If Athens didn't want Phormio, Acarnania made it quite clear that their country did. At first Phormio declined the offer, he had no intention of renting out his services as a mercenary.

Meanwhile, back in Athens a strong reaction had emerged in Phormio's favour, probably because he was now in demand with other Greeks or they realised that a presence around the Peloponnese should be made. The Athenians got his fine paid and restored his honor. The Athenian assembly then reelected him general in charge of a special mission: the defense of Acarnania and other western allies. They granted him a small fleet of twenty triremes to take with him, the plague had left Athens incapable of more.

As a comparison, when the Peloponnesian War started, the Athenians had launched a war fleet of 180 ships, then with the outbreak of the plague 150 was later sent. Phormio's 20 triremes seems pitiful and more a token effort on behalf of the Athenians. The lead flagship given to them was the Paralos, which was at that time the pride of the Athenian fleet.

Phormio sailed out of the Piraeus and led his little force around the Peloponnese to the city of Naupactus. The city had been given to the Messenian exiles after the Spartan's did a deal to get them to leave Mt Ithome, but now they had set up their tiny city well and while the harbour had room for about 20 ships, the fortifications came right down to the beach and joined the harbour walls to create a complete defensive circuit.

Red brackets indicates roughly where the battle took place. We can see here that the Messenian city of Naupactus is nestled nicely in the 'teeth of the Corinthian Gulf', all shipping to and from Corinth must past through this narrowings part of the gulf, to which Naupactus dominate. The Spartans who reside on the Peloponnese to the south, need to cross the gulf to be able to engage the citizens of Naupactus. Subsequently, all trophies and awards set up by the city of Naupactus refer to themselves as 'the Messenians of Naupactus', which shows us that even though the Spartans exiled the Messenians from Messina to Naupactus even after many years later, the citizens of Naupactus always regarded themselves as Messenians.


The Athenians had plenty of time to set up their defenses and held their station unchallenged through the winter and into the spring. At about midsummer two messengers arrived at Naupactus almost simultaneously, both bearing bad news. From Acarnania came a desperate appeal: the Spartan admiral Cnemus had dodged Phormio's blockage and landed an army that was about to attack the cities that Phormio had been sent out to protect. From the opposite direction Phormio received a report that a large fleet was ready to put to sea from Corinth and other Peloponnesian ports.

Phormio was caught in a dilemma, he could not be in two places at once. But he knew without his help Acarnania might fall. He had already failed his friends by letter the Spartan ships elude him, but his first duty was to block the gulf. The co-ordinated attacks were no doubt done to put untolled pressure on the Athenians. Phormio decided not to split his forces between both theatres of war and told the Acarnanian messenger that he could not abandon his post and that they would have to defend themselves as best they could. The messenger left with the grim news....and the Athenians did not have long to wait.

Within a few days they spotted enemy warships cruising westward along the gulf's opposite shore. At once Phormio launched his full force of twenty triremes and rowed south to observe them. A closer view revealed that forty-seven triremes with a flotilla of small support vessels bobbing in their wake. Only a few were fast triremes; the rest were heavily laden troop carriers. Phormio had no intention of challenging them inside the gulf. Instead he mealy shadowed them as they passed between the capes and entered the open sea to the west. That evening the Peloponnesian fleet camped at Patras. Instead of returning to Naupactus, Phormio chose to camp on the opposite silence and in darkness.

He suspected with all those troop carriers that the enemy would attempt a night crossing.

Several hours before sunrise the Athenians were again at sea, feeling their way southward across the dark waters, the sea was flat and still. Ahead they could hear the sounds of an approaching fleet, but the enemy was already aware of their presence.

In the early morning both fleets were at sea and both realised their opposition fleet was close by. By the time the fleets got closer, the Peloponnesians had arrayed their forces in the same kyklos or wheel formation that the Greeks had used with such good results at the Battle of Artemisium. The troops carriers formed a wide circle with their rams pointed outwards, protecting the support vessels like dogs around a flock of sheep. They also kept the five fast triremes stationed inside the circle, ready to attack any Athenian that dared to break through.

To the Peloponnesians the kyklos was still the latest in navy defense that had worked so well at the Battle of Artemisium, where the Spartans first saw it in action. However, Phormio was a naval commander who knew how the kyklos worked, evolution in military tactics was a survival skill, and to the Athenians the kyklos was by now old news and did have it's own weakness'

After studying the enemy's wheel, Phormio decided on an oblique (1a) and delayed attack. He saw the Peloponnesians as a sitting duck. The site of the battle was of Phormio's choosing, in the open seas, the Peloponnesians would have liked to have landed their transports and make a land battle of it. The Peloponnesians were not going anywhere, encircled as they were, the battle would start when Phormio wanted it to.

While the Peloponnesian fleet was being encircled (2b), at times a single trireme broke from the line to make a ramming charge at a Peloponnesian troop carrier (1a). The threaten ship would retreat deeper into the circle (2a), and it's companions on either side would pull back to close the gap. At the last moment the Athenian steersman veered away and resumed his place amount the prowling triremes in the line. Little by little the Peloponnesian circle contracted. At last the Athenians drew the noose so tight that the oar banks of the troops carriers became enmeshed in a tangled ring.

Even at this stage, Phormio held off initiating the battle. He was waiting for dawn, and the stiff easterly wind that blew every morning out of the Corinthian Gulf (4b). It came at last, catching the Peloponnesian hulls and driving them against one another. Long poles struck as mariners tried to fend off neighboring vessels. Choppy waves kicked up by the wind added to the confusion of the colliding ships. In the rough sea the raw Peloponnesian rowers could not lift their oar blades clear of the water, and without steerage way the steersmen were helpless. An uproar of shouts, warning, and curses drowned the orders of the officers. In the centre of the chaos lay the five fast triremes, trapped between small craft and troop carriers.

When the confusion reached its height, Phormio gave the signal to attack. Each of the twenty Athenian triremes aimed for an enemy ship on the outer edge of the struggling mass. The flagship of one Peloponnesian contingent was struck in the first charge. Others followed as the Athenians settled down to the business of ramming every ship within reach. As the mass of ships brokeup, those Peloponnesians who could get free fled back towards Patras. Before the morning's work was over, the Athenians had captured twelve enemy triremes and most of their crews: more than two thousand men. At that point they abandoned the chase. With many more prizes they ran the risk of being outnumbered by their prisoners. Not one Athenian ship had been lost.

At Cape Rhium the Athenians raised their victory trophy and sand their paeans. This was the first major success at sea since the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. An extra measure of thanks seemed due to the sea god, so Phormio ordered his crews to haul one of the captured triremes onto he consecrated ground. A stone was inscribed with a dedication to Poseidon and the Athenian hero Theseus.



1a: The Athenians fleet line up in an oblique line (like a staircase)
1b: The Peloponnese setup their fleet the old fashion way of much like the cowboys did in the westerns. The triremes outside while the troops carriers and smaller vessels inside, with 5 trireme's inside to be able to take on any Athenians that might break through.

2a: The Athenian fleet would send one trireme directly on the attack, which would make the Peloponnesian vessel picked on start to backwater to get away. The vessels on either side of the reversing ship would shift into the vacuum to cover the space left. The Athenian ship would then reverse back into his his own fleet. The reversed Peloponnesian ship now lost in the scuffle of the interior could not make his way back out as the other ships next to him had moved in to fill the void.
2b: The Athenian fleet encircles the Peloponnesian, much the same way as fishermen do in catching fish.

3a: The Athenian ships continue to pick on one Peloponnesian trireme at a time forcing them to move back, causing more confusion in the middle.

4a: Phormio, the Athenian General, continues the pressure on the Peloponnesians, acknowledging that they had no quick escape.
4b: He waits for the sun to rise proper, heating up the sea outside the gulf water more. This causes the wind to quickly rush in from the east in the early morning, and the Peloponnesian fleet already in disarray, begin to smash into each other and be in total confusion.

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