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Theramenes (pronounced /θɨˈræmɨniːz/; Ancient Greek: Θηραμένης; floruit 411–404 BC) was an Athenian statesman, prominent in the final decade of the Peloponnesian War. He was particularly active during the two periods of oligarchic government at Athens, as well as in the trial of the generals who had commanded at Arginusae in 406 BC. A moderate oligarch, he often found himself caught between the democrats on the one hand and the extremist oligarchs on the other. Successful in replacing a narrow oligarchy with a broader one in 411 BC, he failed to achieve the same end in 404 BC, and was executed by the extremists whose policies he had opposed.

Theramenes was a central figure in four major episodes of Athenian history. He appeared on the scene in 411 BC as one of the leaders of an oligarchic coup, but, as his views and those of the coup's other leaders diverged, he began to oppose their dictates and took the lead in replacing the narrow oligarchy they had imposed with a more broadly based one. He served as a general for several years after this, but was not reelected to that office in 407 BC. After the Battle of Arginusae, in which he served as a trierarch, he was assigned to rescue Athenian sailors from sinking ships, but was prevented from doing so by a storm. That incident prompted a massive furor at Athens, in which Theramenes had to exonerate himself from responsibility for the failed rescue; the controversy ended in the execution of six generals who had commanded at that battle. After the Athenian defeat at Aegospotami in 405 BC, Theramenes arranged the terms by which Athens surrendered to Sparta. He then became a member of the narrow oligarchic government, known as the Thirty Tyrants, that Sparta imposed on its defeated rival. As he had in 411 BC, Theramenes soon came into conflict with the more extreme members of that government; his protests against the reign of terror the Thirty implemented led the leading oligarchs to plot his demise; he was denounced before the oligarchic assembly, and then, when that body appeared reluctant to punish him, struck from the roster of citizens and executed without trial.

Theramenes remained a controversial figure after his death; Lysias vigorously denounced him while prosecuting several of his former political allies, but others defended his actions. Modern historical assessments have shifted over time; in the 19th century, Theramenes's part in the coup of 411 BC and his use of Arginusae were widely condemned, but newly discovered ancient texts and 20th-century scholarship supported more positive assessments. Some historians have found in Theramenes a selfish opportunist, others a principled moderate. The details of his actions, his motivations, and his character continue to be debated down to the present day.


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