25 April 404 BC: Athens surrenders to Sparta

The brutal Peloponnesian War comes to a poignant end


The Peloponnesian War, pitting Athens against Sparta, is one of the best-chronicled events in ancient history. For more than 20 years they and their respective allies were locked in bitter conflict, devastating large swathes of the Greek countryside. But at last, in 405 BC, the Spartan commander Lysander virtually annihilated the Athenian fleet.

When news of the defeat reached the city, wrote the historian Xenophon: “The sound of wailing ran from Piraeus through the long walls to the city, one man passing on the news to another; and during that night no one slept, all mourning, not for the lost alone, but far more for their own selves.”

For a few months the Athenians tried to hold out. But “without ships, without allies, without provisions, the belief gained hold upon them that there was no way of escape. They must now, in their turn, suffer what they had themselves inflicted upon others.”

Eventually, on a date traditionally given as 25 April 404, the Athenians recognised the war was lost. They accepted Lysander’s terms that their walls should be demolished and acquiesced to an oligarchic pro-Spartan regime. According to the biographer Plutarch, Lysander then “sent for a number of flute-women out of the city, and collected together all that were in the camp, and pulled down the walls, and burnt the ships to the sound of the flute, the Spartans’ allies being crowned with garlands, and making merry together”. At long last, it was over. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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25 April 1461

In order to secure their support for her husband Henry VI against Edward IV's Yorkists, Margaret of Anjou handed the crucial border town of Berwick over to the Scots.

25 April 1792: The guillotine claims its first victim

Having witnessed a landmark execution, Parisians are appalled by the lack of entertainment

Even as he was led towards the scaffold, Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier can never have imagined that his name would go down in history. A violent criminal in his early thirties, he had been arrested in October 1791 for a brutal attack on a man in the streets of Paris. At the end of the year he was sentenced to death. But for months, nothing happened. Unknown to Pelletier, he had been chosen to become a guinea pig for France’s latest invention – the guillotine.

On a warm afternoon in April, Pelletier was led into the square outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where for hours a large crowd had been waiting for the fun to begin. Dressed in a blood-red shirt, Pelletier was palpably shocked by the sight of the scaffold and reportedly fainted at least once as the guards dragged him up the steps.

At the top, beside the strange contraption, stood Charles-Henri Sanson, the veteran executioner, who had argued passionately for the new machine on the grounds of efficiency and reliability. No longer did he need to swing a sword; all he had to do was press a lever.

Around 3.30pm, all was ready. Sanson released the blade, and in the blink of an eye Pelletier’s life was over. The first execution by guillotine had been a triumph, yet there were groans of discontent from the crowd. Where was the spectacle, the entertainment, the blood? Up went the chant: “Bring us back our wooden gallows!” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 April 1859

Construction work on the Suez Canal begins as French developer Ferdinand de Lesseps breaks the ground at Port Said. The canal will take ten years to complete and thousands of Egyptian forced labourers will die during its construction.

25 April 1898

The United States of America declares war on Spain. As a result of the ensuing three-month conflict Cuba gains independence from Spain while America is ceded the former Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam.

25 April 1980

Jimmy Carter announces the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the airborne attempt by US Special Forces to rescue the hostages held in the US embassy in Tehran, Iran.

25 April 1982

British Marines recapture South Georgia from the Argentines.


25 April 1983

German weekly magazine Stern published the first extracts from what it claimed were diaries written by Adolf Hitler. These had initially been authenticated by British historian lord Dacre, but were soon proved to be fakes.

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