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The Fatal Expedition


It would be for the historian, not for a writer who aims at nothing more than to present a few picturesque scenes from Greek story, to describe at length the causes which resulted in the disastrous expedition of the Athenians to Sicily. Athens had recovered from the disasters that had overtaken her in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, and was, to say the least, as strong as she had ever been. It was natural that she should look about for fresh fields for her superabundant activities, fresh occasions for aggrandizement. Ambition cloaked itself, as usual, under plausible pretexts. There were kinsmen of the Ionian stock, the inhabitants of Leontini, whom it was only right to protect from the oppression of their Dorian neighbours at Syracuse. There was the possible danger, which it was merely prudence to anticipate, of a great Dorian League, in which the wealthy and populous cities of Sicily would give a preponderating power to the enemies of Athens. These and other similar arguments were urged by the war party, and by none more emphatically than by Alcibiades. Nicias, the representative of the propertied and conservative classes, strongly advocated abstention from Sicilian affairs, and a general avoidance of all entanglements abroad. Outvoted in the Assembly, he conceived the idea of alarming the people by the magnitude of his demands, and estimated the necessary number of ships and men at a figure so high as would, he thought, terrify the supporters of the expedition. This hope was disappointed. His estimates were received with enthusiasm, and Nicias found himself committed to a scheme which engaged the whole available strength of the city. He and Alcibiades were made joint commanders, a third general, Lamachus, who had a high reputation for courage, being associated with them.

It was about Midsummer in the year 415 B.C. when the great armament set out. There were one hundred ships of war, sixty of them being fitted for action, while forty were to be used as transports for troops. The number of citizen heavy-armed soldiers was two thousand two hundred, one thousand five hundred of these being taken from the select roll, and representing the very flower of Athenian manhood. The remaining seven hundred were of the poorer class, whose accoutrement was supplied by the State. These served, for the most part, as marines. The number was swelled to nearly five thousand by contingents from Mantinea and Argos, troops who seem to have been mercenaries rather than allies.

This was an imposing force, but the effect was increased by the splendour with which it had been equipped. The ships of war were furnished by private citizens of the wealthier class, who were specially taxed for this purpose. Commonly content, we may suppose, with satisfying legal requirements, they now vied with each other in the costliness of their preparations, hiring the most efficient rowers at their private expense, and covering the vessels themselves with the richest ornaments. The sight attracted, not only the whole population of the city, which flocked to the harbour in numbers which reminded aged spectators of the migration to Salamis sixty-five years before, but strangers from all parts of Greece.

The farewells ended—and in these there must have mingled, with all the pride and hope of the day, some whispers of misgiving—a trumpet was blown to give the signal for silence. A herald stood forth, and uttered a prayer for success. In this all the crews and the multitude on shore joined with one voice. Then all sang the Pæan together, and the Pæan ended, libations were poured out from goblets of gold and silver. These ceremonies completed, the fleet started, the swift galleys racing as far as Ægina.

The first point to be reached was Corcyra, where the meeting-place for the contingents from allied and subject states had been fixed. The strength of the armament was materially increased by these additions. There were now five thousand one hundred heavy-armed, one thousand five hundred and eighty light-armed troops (one hundred and twenty of these being exiles belonging to the democratic party of Megara, and seven hundred slingers from Rhodes). The cavalry could hardly have numbered more than twenty or thirty, for a single transport sufficed for them. The fleet was increased by thirty-seven ships. Five hundred vessels, laden with stores, implements of war, and artisans of various kinds, accompanied the expedition; these vessels were hired by the state; a number, not stated, chartered by private adventurers, still further increased the vast array.

From Corcyra the fleet crossed to the promontory, of Iapyx in Apulia, the most easterly point of Italy. The Greek cities on the coast, even Thurii, though owing its foundation in a great measure to Athens, showed no friendly temper. They not only shut their gates against the new-comers, but refused to allow them to purchase provisions. At some places the fleet was not allowed to water. Rhegium, an Ionian colony, allowed the accommodation of a market and a convenient place for an encampment, but was not hospitable enough to open its gates.


At Rhegium the Athenians made a stay of considerable length. They wanted to clean the bottoms of their ships—a ship could not move at full speed unless this was done—and they had also some important business to transact. Among the inducements that had been used to persuade the Assembly to vote the expedition was a promise of a large sum of money from the town of Egesta towards the pay of the fleet. The Egestæans, who were of an Italian stock, had quarrelled with their Greek neighbours of Selinus, had been worsted in the war which followed, and hoped to repair their losses by the help of Athens. It was now found that they had practised a gross deception. Jars, that had been described as full of coin, were found to contain nothing but base metal or stones with a thin layer of precious metals at top. The rich gold and silver plate with which the Athenian envoys had been greatly impressed—for envoys had actually been sent to examine into the resources of the town—had been carried, it was discovered, from house to house. In fact, the thirty talents of silver which the Egestæan ambassadors had brought as an earnest of a much larger sum to follow, were found to be all that could be expected from this source.

This appointment gave Nicias the opportunity for which he had been looking. "Sail to Egesta," he said to his colleagues, "demand their promised contribution; when they fail, as fail they must, to produce it, make as good terms as possible for them with Selinus, and then return home without running any more risk, or spending any more money."

Alcibiades was opposed to this timorous policy, as he called it. His advice was to make alliance with the other Greek cities in Sicily—all of them jealous of Syracuse—and with the native inhabitants of the interior. Having secured all available help, they should then, he thought, proceed to attack Syracuse and Selinus.

Lamachus advocated a bolder course—to attack Syracuse at once, before their preparations for defence were complete. If his advice had been taken, the expedition might, it is quite possible, have had a different result. He was overruled, and finding that he could not have his own way, gave in his adhesion to the plan of Alcibiades.

The latter at once set about carrying his scheme into execution. He presented himself at Messana in the hope of bringing the city over. He was admitted within the walls and allowed to address the assembly, but could not persuade the people to follow his advice. From Messana he went to Naxos, escorted by an imposing fleet. Naxos gave in its adhesion. At Catana, the next place visited, he was refused admittance. The next thing was to make a formal demand on Syracuse to restore their town to the people of Leontini. This was done by a herald from the deck of a ship, one of a squadron of ten which entered the Great Harbour of Syracuse for the purpose, and at the same time to make observations on the sea-defences of the city.

From Syracuse the generals returned to Catana. Here a lucky accident gave them what had been before refused. While Alcibiades was addressing the assembly, some Athenian soldiers broke open a gate which happened to be insufficiently guarded, and made their way into the market-place. Their presence was a practical argument to which no answer was possible. The opposition were quite satisfied with making their escape from the town, and Catana became an ally of Athens.

A few days after, a fatal blow—for such it proved to be—was dealt to the undertaking. For causes which must be sought by the reader elsewere, Alcibiades was recalled. Afraid to return to Athens, he fled to Sparta, and did his utmost to harm his country. It is possible, even probable, that he made a great mistake when he opposed the bold policy of Lamachus; but he made no mistakes when he ranged himself among the enemies of his country. His policy was supremely able and supremely mischievous.

Soon after his departure a small success was achieved in the capture of the little town of Hikkara, inhabited by one of the native tribes. The prisoners were sold or ransomed for one hundred and twenty talents. The money doubtless was useful, but it may have cost the captors dearly if this act alienated the native tribes.

Three months had now passed since the arrival of the armament in Sicily, and next to nothing had been done. The soldiers were growing weary and dispirited; the Syracusans, on the other hand, who had at first been terrified by the magnitude of the invading force, were daily gaining confidence, and were even beginning to despise the enemy. Are you going to stay here as peaceful settlers?" their troopers would ask, as they rode up to the Athenian lines, "or are you going to restore the Leontines?" Nicias, compelled to take some action by the dissatisfaction of his own men, conceived an ingenious plan, by which he could turn the careless temper of the Syracusans to his own advantage, and was lucky enough to find a man who was admirably qualified to help in carrying it out. This was a native of Catana, really an Athenian partisan, but one who concealed his views so carefully that he was liked and trusted by the other side. This man made his way into Syracuse, and gave to the authorities some information which seemed to make a successful coup  of easy accomplishment. (It is curious to see how the grossest treachery is accepted as a matter of course in a political partisan. An aristocrat was always supposed to be ready to betray his country if he could damage the Athenians thereby, a democrat to do the same, if he could serve them.) The man declared that many of the Athenian soldiers were in the habit of passing the night within the walls of Catana. It would be easy therefore to take them at a disadvantage by delivering a vigorous attack at day-break. The Syracusan party in Catana would assist by closing the gates, attacking the Athenians, and setting fire to the ships. The Syracusan generals eagerly caught at the chance, and making a levy en masse, marched to a spot about eight miles from Catana. Nicias put his whole available force on shipboard the very same day, and reaching the Great Harbour, which, it should be explained, lay to the south of Syracuse, at daybreak, landed his force without opposition. The spot chosen was the southern bank of the river Anapus. His left wing was protected by a steep hill crowned by a temple of Olympian Zeus and named the Olympieion, his right by the sea, his rear by the houses, walls, etc., of a little hamlet and by a fence which he hastily constructed; a bridge, which crossed the Anapus at a little distance from the sea, was broken down. His ships were guarded by a palisade. The Syracusans, discovering that they had been deceived, hurried back with all speed, and, wearied though they were by their long march, offered battle. This, Nicias declined for the time. The next morning, however, he left his camp and moved to meet the Syracusan army, which was now, it seems, on the south side of the Anapus. He disposed his troops in two lines, each eight deep, the second being held in reserve. The right wing was occupied by the mercenaries from Argos and Mantinea; the Athenians were in the centre; the other allies on the right. The Syracusan army was probably far more numerous, for it contained the whole of the able-bodied population, and had been reinforced by allies from Selinus, Gela, and Camarina. It was especially strong in its cavalry, which numbered twelve hundred. But it was ill-disciplined and unaccustomed to concerted movements. On this occasion the troops were fatigued, and many, availing themselves of the license taken by citizen soldiers, had gone to their own houses for rest and refreshment.

Nicias led on his troops to the attack at a brisk pace, a movement which had decided the issue of the day at Marathon, and was again to prove successful. The Syracusans though taken by surprise and unprepared—so vigorous an initiative on the part of the Athenians was wholly unexpected—made a stout resistance. It was not till a sudden storm of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, discouraged them—the unpractised Syracusans regarded it as an unfavourable portent, the veteran Athenians as a common incident of the season—that they began to give way. The Argives and Mantineans were the first to drive back the troops opposed to them, and the Athenians soon followed their example. The whole line now broke into a retreat. But the Athenians did not venture on a pursuit, which, indeed, was impossible in the face of the powerful cavalry force of the Syracusans. They contented themselves with encamping on the field of battle. The Syracusans were so little discomfited by their defeat that they posted a strong guard in the Olympieion, where there was a very rich treasury. Nicias, whether from caution or from a religious scruple—and he was scrupulous to a degree—did not attempt to plunder the shrine. The next day he gave back to the enemy their dead (numbering two hundred and fifty) and paid the last honours to his own, of whom there were fifty.

No further operations were attempted. The same day the Athenians returned to Catana. Afterwards they went to Naxos, where they had determined to spend the winter. A Sicilian winter would not, indeed, seem a bad season for campaigning to a soldier of the present day, very likely he would prefer it to the sultry summer. But the practice of suspending active operations during the cold season was too firmly established to be disturbed. And it must be remembered that a Greek army was so ill provided with many necessaries of life that continuous campaigning was scarcely possible. Nicias utilized the time by sending home for a force of cavalry—without which it would be impossible, he said, to prosecute hostilities—and for a further supply of money. The Syracusans, on the other hand, built a new wall, which would materially increase the difficulties of the invading force when it should attempt to invest the city. Beginning at the Great Harbour on the south, it reached northward to the sea north of the town. Their including the whole of the city, made it necessary for a besieger to make his circumvallating wall of much larger dimensions. The deserted town of Megara to the north of the city was also fortified, as was the Olympieion, already mentioned, on the south. All spots in the Great Harbour and elsewhere where landing was easy were protected by stakes. It is clear that on the whole the position of affairs, nine months after the opening of the campaign, had become less favourable to the invading force.

But the most powerful factor in the situation has yet to be mentioned. Neither the inaction of the Athenian generals, nor the energy of the Syracusans, contributed so much to bring about the final result as did the influence of Alcibiades. He had taken refuge in Sparta, and he was now doing his utmost to counteract the efforts of his country. He was in the secret of her plans; he was aware of her weaknesses; he had the means of detecting the intrigues which her partisans in various cities, Sicilian and others, were contriving. All this knowledge he used with the utmost cleverness, and without a vestige of scruple.


Very early in the spring the Athenian forces were in motion. Their operations were of little importance, but they kept the troops in activity and so far were useful. In March two hundred and fifty cavalry arrived from Athens—they were to be horsed in Sicily—and thirty mounted archers. Three hundred and more troops of the same arm were raised among the Sicilian allies. Nicias consequently could now muster more than six hundred cavalry, and he lost no more time in setting seriously about the work of investing Syracuse.

The Syracusans had done something during the winter to increase the difficulty of his work; they now took another step in the same direction. North-west of the city was a tract of high ground, called Epipolæ (the word may be translated by the English "Overton"). This they attempted to occupy. But it was too late. The Athenians had cast their eyes on the spot, and they were beforehand with their antagonists. They had actually reached the coveted ground, approaching it from the north, when a chosen force of six hundred Syracusans came hurrying up from the meadows of the Anapus, where the city forces were being reviewed. The new-comers were in disorder and out of breath—they had just accomplished a march of three miles at the double—and were easily routed with the loss of their leader and half their number. The Athenians built a fort at Labdalon, the highest point of the cliffs of Epipolæ on the north. This they followed up by building another redoubt, at the top of the slope which descended towards the city. This was to serve as a store for munitions of war and for a meeting point for the two lines of circumvallation, one of which was to touch the Great Harbour, the other the Outer Sea. This done they set about building the walls themselves, and carried on this work with a speed which struck terror into the Syracusans. An attempt of the latter to check the work by a general attack had to be abandoned. The infantry refused to meet the Athenians heavy-armed, and had to be led back into the city. The cavalry was, for a time, more successful, and interfered seriously with the work. But they, too, were worsted in an encounter with a detachment of Athenian infantry, supported by the whole of the mounted force.

The next effort of the besieged was to build a counter-wall, which would cut off the Athenian line at a point between the second redoubt and the Great Harbour. This also failed. The Athenians took the opportunity of a time—the hour of the mid-day meal—when the new erection was indifferently guarded. (The citizen soldiers, it will be observed, were again found wanting in vigilance and energy.) A detachment was told off to attack it, while the main body of the army supported the movement by threatening the city. The manœuvre was completely successful. The assailants got possession of the work and entirely destroyed it, carrying off the materials for their own lines.

The same attempt was repeated still further south, in the low ground that bordered the Great Harbour. But an accident turned what was in other respects a considerable victory, into a deplorable disaster. The battle had been won, but in the ardour of pursuit some Athenian troops got into trouble. Lamachus came to their assistance, at the head of a body of archers and of the Argive infantry. With characteristic courage he pressed on in advance of his men, was cut off from the main body and slain. His death left Nicias in sole command.

While this was going on, some of the Syracusan fugitives had rallied and made an attack on the Athenian lines, near the second redoubt. By a happy chance Nicias, who was suffering from illness, was there in person. Some mischief was done; but the assault was checked by the general's presence of mind. He ordered a huge quantity of timber, which had been collected on the spot, to be fired. The enemy could not approach for a time, and before another attack could be delivered, strong reinforcements came up. The same day the Athenian fleet entered the Great Harbour, and the Syracusans retired within their city walls. They made no more attempts to interfere with the circumvallation; their utmost hope was to hold out in the City.

The prospects of the Athenians, on the other hand, were bright in the extreme. They had shown again and again a decisive superiority in the field. On the sea there had not been even an attempt at resistance. Their lines were within a measurable distance of completion. That done, the capture of Syracuse was only a matter of time. These prospects of success brought them new friends and allies. The native tribes were now almost united in their support of him. The Greek cities of Italy, with one or two exceptions, among which Tarentum, a Spartan colony, was conspicuous, furnished his army with an abundance of supplies. Three vessels of war from some town on the coast of Etruria, offered their services. This time, which may be fixed as June, 414, was the culminating point of the Athenian fortunes. After this everything began to change for the worse.

Alcibiades had urged at Sparta the necessity of appointing a Spartan officer to command the Syracusan forces, and Gylippus had been named to the post. This officer had been busy since the winter, in getting together a force for the relief of Syracuse, but had met with but little success. Corinth, the enemy of Athens in politics and her rival in trade, was most energetic in supporting him, and even Corinth did very little. He was still waiting when news of the Athenian victory, in which Lamachus had fallen, reached Mainland Greece. The news was exaggerated. Syracuse, so the report ran, was now completely invested, and could not be saved. Gylippus, however, resolved to start. Though Syracuse might be lost, it was still possible to save the Dorian Greeks of Italy, who would be the next object of Athenian ambition. He set sail with four ships, two furnished by Sparta, two from Corinth. A squadron of fifteen more was to follow as speedily as possible. He reached Tarentum in safety, attempted in vain to bring over Thurii to his cause, and after visiting some other Greek cities on the coast, was driven back to Tarentum by bad weather.

Nicias had, of course, been informed by Athenian partisans in Thurii of the arrival of Gylippus, but took no steps in consequence, looking upon him as an insignificant adventurer. But when he heard of the Spartan's presence at Locri, a town much nearer to Sicily, he thought it time to act, and sent out a squadron of four ships to intercept the new-comer. It was too late. Gylippus had already landed in the island. In a few days he was at the head of a considerable force. He took seven hundred men from his ships. Himera, the town where he landed, furnished him with some troops. Other Sicilians, attracted by his reputation as a Spartan and by his character as an adventurous leader, joined his standard. He had altogether about three thousand men. The investing lines had not yet reached completion, though they were within a short distance of it. But even without them Gylippus might have been easily prevented from making his way into the city. He had to cross Epipolæ, and the approach to this high ground could be conveniently made by one road only, which the besiegers could easily have secured. With incredible supineness, Nicias allowed this formidable adversary to collect his army, to march nearly across the island, and to make his way into the city without any attempt to hinder him. The blockading ships were equally remiss. They failed to intercept either the single ship which brought the Corinthian admiral Gongylus, or the squadron of twelve ships which soon afterwards followed.

Gylippus was met by a Syracusan force as he approached the city over Epipolæ. Without entering the city, he turned and offered battle to Nicias. It is true that with a soldier's eye he noted the irregularity of the citizen soldiers, and retired to a more protected situation, but Nicias did not venture to follow him, and the result of the day was to make a most important change in the situation of the combatants. The Spartan general had expressed this fact with emphasis on the day when, immediately on his arrival, he had sent a herald to Nicias with the offer of a five days' truce, if he would evacuate the island within that time.

Another effort, successful this time, was made to build a cross wall, cutting off the lines of investment. At first, indeed, Gylippus, who had chosen his ground badly, where he could not use either cavalry or his light troops, was defeated. In a second encounter he gained a decided victory. The Athenians were driven within their lines; the cross wall was completed. From that moment the capture of Syracuse by land was impossible.

With this the operations of the second campaign were practically concluded. The Athenian army held its ground without difficulty; for it was still strong, and it was well posted, but it could not assume the offensive. The fleet was sadly depreciated in quality. Many of the rowers, most of whom were slaves, had deserted; the crews generally were weakened by desertion. And there had been, of course, the wear and tear of a year and a half's campaigning. Nicias told the truth to his countrymen in a letter of which Thucydides has preserved what is probably a verbatim copy. I shall now give a summary of it.

"What has happened in the past, men of Athens, I have described in many letters; but now I would have you know how things stand with us. After we had defeated the Syracusans in many battles, and had built the walls within which we now lie, Gylippus the Spartan came against us, bringing an army which he had gathered in the Peloponnesus and in certain cities of Sicily. In the first battle he was beaten by us, in the second we were driven from the field by help of his cavalry and dart-throwers. And now we have ceased to work at our lines of investment, for the enemy are superior in numbers; many also of our men are taken up in guarding our walls; also the enemy have carried a wall past us, and unless we can take this by a superior force, we shall not be able to invest the city. Rather, we who thought to besiege are ourselves besieged.

"Even now they are gathering together a yet larger army, wherewith to storm our walls, while they also attack us by sea. Let no one think it strange that I say 'by sea.' At first, indeed, our fleet was in excellent condition; the ships were sound, and the crews complete; now, because they have been long at sea, the ships are leaky and the crews are decayed. The ships we have not been able to draw up on the shore and careen, for the fleet of the enemy practises daily in our sight and can attack us at their pleasure. As for our crews, many of the seamen, while fetching wood, or foraging, or watering at a distance, have been cut off by the horsemen; our slaves have deserted, our enemies being as well off as ourselves; the foreigners whom we have pressed into our service have gone back to their cities, while they who joined us, persuaded by the high pay and thinking that they should grow rich rather than fight, now that they see our adversaries to be as strong as ourselves, either go over to the enemy, or leave us in some other way. Some have bribed the captains to take slaves from Hykkara in their places. You know that a crew is at its best but for a short time, and that there are but few who will get a ship under weigh, or row in time. I cannot stop these misdoings, nor can I find recruits. Our allies are of no avail. And if the Syracusans gain one thing more, and prevail upon the Italus cities, which have provisioned us, to send us food no longer, verily they will conquer us without so much as fighting, for we shall be starved out.

"I might have written to you more agreeable things, but not more useful, as you ought to know the true state of affairs before you deliberate upon them. Your temper is always to demand statements that please at the time, and afterwards to be angry if the result is other than what you wish. Therefore I have judged it best to tell the truth.

"For the purpose for which you sent us hither neither the army nor the generals were inadequate. But the circumstances are changed. All Sicily is banded against us, and an army is coming from the Peloponnesus. You must either recall your troops, or send another armament as large to reinforce them, both men and ships. And send someone to be general in my place, for I am suffering from a grievous disease, which forbids my remaining at my post. This consideration I may claim at your hands, for while I had health and strength I expended them in your service. And whatever you do, do it without delay in the very beginning of spring."

Thucydides does not tell of the temper with which this letter was received at Athens. That it caused a bitter disappointment we cannot doubt; but the people did not go back from their resolution. When they had staked so much they would stake still more. The request of Nicias, that he should be relieved of his command, was refused, but colleagues were appointed to share this responsibility. Two of these were officers on the spot, two were at Athens. One of the latter sailed at mid-winter, with ten ships and a considerable sum of money. He was to reassure his countrymen with the promise that liberal help would be sent.


Both sides were busy during the winter, preparing for the final struggle. Early in the spring operations were commenced by the Syracusans, who were now confident enough to assume the offensive. At the suggestion of Gylippus, who was strongly backed by some influential Syracusans, an attack by sea was resolved upon. The Athenians, it was thought, would be dismayed by being thus challenged on what they considered to be their own element. Eighty ships, accordingly, were manned, thirty-five of them sailing from the Great Harbour, and forty-five from the other. The Athenians hastily manned sixty to meet them, dividing them in similar proportions. The hostile fleet met at the mouth of the Great Harbour. At first the Syracusans more than held their own in the fierce struggle that ensued, actually forcing their way through the Athenian line. After this their want of practice in naval tactics told fatally against them. They lost all order, and even got entangled with each other.

In the end the Athenians sank eleven ships, capturing the crews of three and killing most of the others. Three of their own ships were sunk.

But this success was more than counterbalanced by a disaster on land. Nicias had erected three forts on Plemmyrium, the southern headland of the Great Harbour. It was against these, more than against the fleet, that Gylippus directed the blow that he meant to strike that day. He had marched out with the whole available force of the city the night before, taking the route over Epipolæ and making a wide compass which brought him out in the rear of the Plemmyrium forts. The Athenian generals, who must have been very badly served by their intelligence department, had no notion of what was going on. The garrison of the forts were equally off their guard. Many of them actually left their posts to watch the fight that was going in the Great Harbour. The largest fort was carried after a short struggle, the other two were evacuated by their garrisons when the first fell. Nothing contributed more, says Thucydides, to the disastrous end of the Sicilian expedition than the capture of these forts. Apart from the number of the killed and prisoners, and this was considerable, there was the loss of a large quantity of stores, among them the masts and other equipments of forty ships of war. Thenceforward, also, the provisioning of the army became more and more difficult. The Syracusans did not, indeed, hold the command of the sea, but they disputed it. Nothing could be brought into the Great Harbour—and it was by this way that all the provisions came—without a battle, and a battle now was far less likely to end in an Athenian victory than it had been in the first or even the second campaign.

This fact was, we may be sure, not unobserved by the Sicilian cities, and it decided the action of some that had hitherto stood aloof from the contest. A force of between two and three thousand men was raised, and set out for Syracuse. Nicias, however, was less sanguine than he had been when Gylippus was doing the same thing in the previous campaign. He induced his native allies to lay an ambuscade. The allied troops fell into it and suffered the loss of about two fifths of their number.

This was a gleam of light in the Athenian prospects. Another, was the approach of Demosthenes with his reinforcements. Gylippus determined to strike a blow before the new forces arrived. An experienced Corinthian seaman had suggested an alteration in the structure of the ships of war, which would give them a greater ramming, power. The beak was to be made shorter and stronger and to be put lower in the water. This alteration would not have served any useful purpose but for the circumstances under which the fighting would be carried on. The Athenian captain relied on the skill with which they manœuvred their ships. They never met an antagonist beak to beak, but rammed it somewhere on the side. This, however, could not be done except where there was room to move freely, and such room the Athenians could not command. They were reduced, in short, to a trial of sheer strength, and in strength this change of structure put them at a disadvantage. Now were they able to meet the danger by a corresponding change in their own ships. They had neither sufficient materials nor the opportunity of making use of what they had.

Thus prepared, the fleet sailed out of the docks, while at the same time the land forces threatened the Athenian lines. On the first day little was done, though whatever advantage there was rested with the Syracusans. It would have been prudent if the Athenians had declined any further engagement, at least till the expected reinforcements had arrived, and this, indeed, was the counsel of Nicias. He was overruled by his colleagues, and when, after an interval of a day, the Syracusan fleet reappeared, the Athenian fleet moved out to meet them. During the morning little was done, and as the enemy withdrew at noon, the Athenians supposed that the fighting for the day was over, and separated to take their meal as usual, on shore. While they were so engaged, the enemy's fleet reappeared, and they hastily manned their own ships. More indecisive skirmishing followed, till the Athenian captains were provoked into assuming the offensive. This was what their antagonists had been expecting. The heavier metal and superior ramming powers of the Syracusan ships were brought into play, and the Athenian fleet suffered severely. Nicias, who, supine as he certainly was, was nevertheless a man of resources, had anchored a number of merchant-men in front of the station of his ships of war, and had furnished them with an apparatus, for letting down a heavy weight on any enemy that might attempt to pass between them. The Athenian ships were thus protected in their retreat. Two of the victorious fleet that attempted to follow them were sunk. Seven ships, however, were sunk and many more disabled.

The besieged were now preparing for a general attack, which would complete, it was hoped, the destruction of the invaders, when once again the destruction was changed. Demosthenes entered the Great Harbour with a force little, if at all, inferior to that which had appeared before Syracuse, at the beginning of the first campaign. He had seventy-three ships of war, five thousand heavy-armed, and a multitude of light troops. The Syracusans were struck with astonishment and dismay. It seemed as if they would have to do all their work again.

Demosthenes, on the other hand, was but ill pleased with what he found—an army sadly reduced in number, suffering in health, and dispirited. He saw that immediate action was absolutely necessary. Before his own strength was impaired, and before the enemy had recovered from the depression caused by his arrival, a general attack must be made. If this was successful, Syracuse might even yet be taken; if it failed, there was nothing left but to return home, before further losses had been incurred.

His first thought was to take the Syracusan works by storm. He made an effort and failed. The defence was too vigorous. The alternative was to turn them, and this he proceeded to attempt. He chose a moon-light night, for it was necessary that the movement should be a surprise, and arrived, without exciting the attentions of the enemy, at the highest point of Epipolæ. The fort that protected the extremity of the cross wall built by the Syracusans, fell into his hands, a Syracusan regiment that hastened up to the rescue was driven back; even the main body, when it hurried out under the personal command of Gylippus, was compelled to retreat. The conquerors began to pull down the cross wall, an operation of extreme importance. If they had contented themselves with this, all might have been well. But the excitement of the success carried both the generals and their troops away. They pursued the flying Syracusans in such haste as to fall into disorder. In this state they encountered a solid force of Bœotian infantry, which had taken no part in the battle. The Bœotian troops were of the very best quality. In all the course of Greek history they were but once only ably led, but they showed several times of what quality they were. And now they turned the fortunes of the day. The victorious Athenians were, in their turn, beaten. The usual consequences of an unsuccessful night-attack followed. Friends and foes could not be distinguished. The watchwords became known, and ceased to be of any use. The Dorian allies of the Athenians, many of them new-comers and personally unknown to their fellow-soldiers, were, in particular, mistaken for foes. Their war-cry or pæan was the same as the Syracusans, and so became a special cause of confusion, striking terror into the Athenians, who fancied, when they heard it, that they had enemies in their midst and in their rear. There was soon a general flight. The narrow road that led from Epipolæ to the Athenian camp was so crowded with fugitives as to become impassable. Many of the terror-stricken soldiers tried to climb down the cliffs, and perished in the attempt. Others who contrived to get safely to the bottom, lost their way, especially the new-comers, and were cut down by the cavalry. The loss of the army was between two and three thousand men.

Demosthenes now urged immediate departure. It was clearly impossible, he said, to capture Syracuse. The best thing that could be done was to save as much of the armament as possible. All were greatly wanted at home, where Attica had been again invaded and ravaged by a Peloponnesian force. Retreat, too, for the present was possible. The new ships, brought by Demosthenes, had restored their naval superiority. Nicias vehemently opposed the proposition. Whatever his arguments were, his real motive is plain. He was simply afraid to return to Athens, when he had such an utter failure to confess. Two of his colleagues (the two associated with him in the command before the arrival of the reinforcements) voted with him, and Demosthenes had to yield.

Failing absolute retreat, Demosthenes urged departure from the position occupied in the Great Harbour to Catana or Thapsus. Nicias again opposed, and was again supported in his decision by a majority of votes. The Athenians remained where they were, doing nothing, but gradually losing both strength and hope.

About a month later, Gylippus, who had been absent, recruiting new troops and finding more allies, returned with a considerable force. The sight seems to have convinced even Nicias that retreat was now the only possible course, or, anyhow, overcame his opposition. Orders were privately circulated through the camp, that the armament was to depart when a certain signal should be given. Everything was prepared, the ships were loaded, the men were ready to depart, when an unexpected cause led to a fresh delay. On the night proceeding the appointed day, the moon was eclipsed. It has been said that the superstitious temper of Nicias is responsible for this fatal postponement, for fatal it certainly was. This is not fair. Nicias did but express the general feeling of the army, which actually demanded the delay. The prophets declared that the departure must be postponed for a whole lunar month.

The intentions, so strangely baffled, did not escape, we may be sure, the knowledge of the Syracusans. They took it for what it actually was, a confession of defeat, and were made proportionately confident. A few days afterwards Gylippus made a combined demonstration with his fleet and army. The fleet, though inferior in number—seventy-six against eighty-six—won a complete victory. The centre division was broken through, and the left driven ashore in the Bay of Daskon, a recess in the Great Harbour. The commander, one of the board of five generals, was slain.

Something like absolute destruction of the armament was averted, or rather postponed, only by an incautious movement on the part of Gylippus. He hurried down with some companies, to prevent the escape of the crews from the stranded ships. But his march was so disorderly that some Etrusean auxiliaries who were guarding the extreme right of the Athenian position fell upon his men as they passed, and drove them with some loss into the marshes that skirted the left bank of the Anapus. Other Syracusan troops came to their help, and the Etruseans were also reinforced from the Athenian lines. The victory rested at last with the latter. They did not inflict much loss on the enemy, but they saved the ships and the crews.

The Syracusans would not have been content with anything short of the absolute annihilation of the Athenian force. To bring about this result, they proceeded to close the mouth of the Great Harbour, a space of about a mile, the inner city of Syracuse being one end of the line, the promontory of Plemmyrium the other. All kinds of vessels, ships of war, merchantmen, and fishing boats, were strongly bound together by iron chains, while they were kept in their place by anchors. The work was accomplished without any attempt at interruption, as far as we know, on the part of the Athenians.

The generals had now to choose between two possible chances of escape. Should they endeavour to break through the line of ships, or should they try an overland march, in the hope of reaching the country of the friendly tribes of the interior? Not a few were in favour of the second course. The army had held its own better than the fleet, and a start at least might be made without opposition. On the other hand, if they could only regain the mastery of the sea, their escape was practically assured; the fleet had only to make for home, carrying all the survivors of the expedition with it. An army, almost without provisions, and encumbered by a multitude of non-combatants, would be almost as helpless after its escape, as before it. The generals accordingly resolved to try what the ships could do. They abandoned the greater part of the investing lines, so as to reduce, as far as possible, the force needed for guarding them, and put every available man on shipboard to serve, either as rower or combatant, while they did the best that their stores permitted to increase the efficiency of their ships. One hundred and ten, in the end, were manned and equipped. Before the crews embarked, Nicias addressed them. He explained the arrangements which had been made, the unusual number of combatants which had been crowded on to the decks, and the grappling irons which were to be freely used as soon as they came to close quarters with the enemy. No appeals were made to the old Athenian reputation for seamanship. The battle to be fought was to be a land-battle on the water. The hope of victory depended upon the resolution of the boarding parties, to make good their footing on the decks of the enemies' ships. To the allies in the first, privileged, as he said, to share the glories of Athens, to the Athenians in the second, heirs as they were of a great empire, now seriously imperilled, Nicias addressed an urgent appeal. Victory would retrieve everything; defeat meant destruction, both for themselves and their country.

The address concluded, the crews embarked. But Nicias had yet something to say to the captains. He addressed them one by one, and urged them by every argument, personal or general, that he could think of, to do their duty.

The Syracusan fleet numbered seventy-six only, but it was well equipped, well manned, and confident. And the whole of it, it must be remembered, was free to assume the offensive. The Athenians had to break the blockading line; their antagonists could assail them as and where they pleased, while they were making the attempt. For a short time the effort to break through seemed as if it might succeed. It would, doubtless, have succeeded, had there been nothing else to do. But the Athenians had to defend themselves from attack from behind, and before long the struggle was transferred from the blockading line, to the area of the Great Harbour. The whole of this was the scene of a fierce conflict, fiercer than had ever been fought before in this war, and more crowded—nearly two hundred ships, in a space measuring only two miles by one. Of manœuvring, there was but little; even the ram was scarcely used. The battle was a long succession of chance encounters, fought as the generals had foreseen, like a battle on land. As the hostile ships were nearing each other the javelin-men and stingers did their part; when they closed, the heavy-armed attempted to board. Evidently it was a soldiers' battle; the din and confusion made it impossible even to hear the orders that were given. Victory could but rest with the most vigorous, the freshest, the most confident side.

The spectators on shore watched the struggle with an intensity of interest never surpassed. Had it been but a mimic spectacle, it would have been a profoundly exciting sight. But those who watched knew that their own life and liberty were at stake, and showed it by their cries, running down all the scale from triumph to despair—for the fortune of the day changed from hour to hour, and varied in this place and in that—by their very gestures, involuntary expressions of quickly succeeding moods. The conflict was obstinate and long, for the vanquished did not yield till they could fight no more, but it ended in the absolute defeat of the Athenians. Fifty of their ships were disabled, of their adversaries more than half as many.

This nominal superiority suggested to Demosthenes, the most vigorous and sanguine of the Athenian commanders, that another attempt should be made the next day to break through the line of blockade. The seamen, however, had lost all heart, and flatly refused to go. The alternative was to retreat by land, and this, by common consent, it was resolved to do. It is possible that, if this movement had been executed at once, some advantage might have been gained. The army was still a formidable force, and if it could have escaped from its present position and have reached a place where defence was possible and supplies—for the commissariat was the chief difficulty—attainable, it could have obtained favourable terms. The Syracusan generals foresaw, this possibility, and were anxious at once to copy positions which would cut off retreat. But the soldiers could not be induced to move. The pressure of anxiety was now finally removed, and the people could think of nothing but enjoying themselves. A great festival happened to coincide with the day of victory, and the whole population had abandoned itself to revelry. The generals had, therefore, recourse to the following device: Nicias, as they well knew, had friends within the city who informed him of what was going on. A message, purporting to come from them, was sent to the Athenian camp. It was to the effect that the army had better not attempt a retreat that night, for the roads were guarded. It would be better to postpone it for a day, when the watchfulness of the Syracusan force would be relaxed, while they would themselves be better prepared for the operation. It does not appear that anything, even a forged letter, was used to gain credence for this advice. Some horseman rode up to the Athenian line and shouted out the information, and Nicias, by what seems to us extraordinary simplicity or infatuation, believed it. The start was postponed, and that for two days.

When it took place, the scene, as the historian describes it, was most deplorable. That the dead were left unburied, was shocking to the conscience of a Greek; but it was a still more piteous thing that the sick and wounded had to be abandoned. These poor deserted creatures protested and prayed; they clung to departing friends or comrades or kinsfolk; some followed the army till their strength failed them. Nothing could be done to help them; the able-bodied had but the faintest hope of escaping, for it was a cumbrous body, ill suited for rapid movement, like a whole city in flight, as the historian puts it. It numbered no less than forty thousand, marching in the form of a hollow square, with the non-combatants and the baggage in the middle.

The first obstacle encountered was the river Anapus. Here they found the ford occupied by a hostile force. This, however, was driven back without much loss, and the river was crossed. Five miles only were accomplished on the first day. On the second no progress at all was made. The Athenians, indeed, advanced a little over two miles in the morning, but they had to halt to secure some provisions, and the enemy availed themselves of this delay to occupy a narrow pass in the road which, as it had become evident, they intended to take. But the fugitives could not even reach this place. The attacks of the cavalry and the skirmishers were so harassing, that they returned to the camp which they had occupied the night before. The next day, the same hopeless struggle was repeated and with almost the same result. They did not, indeed, return to the camp, but the spot at which they bivouacked was but a mile in advance of it.

The generals now resolved on a change of route. Instead of forcing their way over the high ground which lay between them and the interior, they determined to turn to the southern coast. They might thus strike one or other of two river valleys, by which they might reach the interior—still, as being inhabited by friendly native tribes, the point at which they aimed.

Numerous fires being left burning to deceive the enemy, a start was made during the night. By day-break the front division, which Nicias commanded, had reached the nearer of the two river valleys. By the end of the day he had made some progress, encamping on some high ground on the further side of the second river.

The division under Demosthenes, comprising as it did the larger and less effective part of the army, was later in starting and even slower in movement, so great were the confusion and panic in its ranks. Soon overtaken by the Syracusans, it was compelled to turn and defend itself. Defence, however, in any real sense of the word, was impossible. The enemy would not come to close quarters, but overwhelmed the unhappy objects of their attack with showers of missiles. Again the division attempted to move onward. They found themselves in a large enclosure, the olive-yard of Polyzelus as it was called. Egress from this, at the further end, was blocked, while the walls were covered with slingers and javelin-men, who showered missiles on the helpless mass. Gylippus, who was in command of the pursuing force, sent a herald, promising liberty to all islanders (natives, i.e. of the islands included in the Delian confederation) who chose to leave the Athenians. Few only responded to this appeal. He then offered their lives to all who would give up their arms. These terms were accepted. Prisoners, to the number of six thousand in all, were disarmed, and taken to Syracuse. Demosthenes was on the point of killing himself, when he was disarmed.

Gylippus now followed in pursuit of the division led by Nicias, and overtook it about twelve miles from the point from which it had started. He sent a horseman to inform its commander of the surrender of Demosthenes with his division, and to summon him to follow his example. Nicias, alleging that he could not believe the news, asked leave to send a messenger, who might have it confirmed by the mouth of his colleague. The man went and returned, with the result that Nicias proposed terms of capitulation. Athens should reimburse the Syracusans for all the expenses of the war, and a certain number of Athenian citizens should remain as hostage for payment, one man for each talent. Gylippus refused these terms. Early the next morning Nicias recommenced his march. The point at which he now aimed was the ford of the river Asinarus, some five miles further on. The ford, when he reached it, was found to be held in force by the Syracusan cavalry. Here all the discipline of the Athenians broke down. Maddened with thirst, for want of water was now added to their sufferings, they rushed into the river and were slaughtered in crowds, while they attempted to quench their thirst. Even when the water grew turbid and tainted with blood, the new-comers still crowded in and drank. Nicias could do nothing now but surrender. He gave himself up to Gylippus. He had been, during all his public life, a partisan of Sparta, and he hoped that he should receive from a Spartan general kinder treatment than the Syracusan authorities would be likely to accede to him. It was some time before the slaughter could be stopped. When it was, the survivors, about four thousand in number, were disarmed. The Athenian army had ceased to exist; even a company of three hundred which had got away in the night, was overtaken by the cavalry and compelled to surrender.

It is difficult to estimate the loss which Athens suffered by this disastrous expedition. It was such as, in the judgment of the historian, no Greek city had ever suffered before. Though no complete division of the army made good its retreat, some stragglers escaped to Catana, where they found a friendly welcome, which they were able to return by defending that city against its powerful neighbour, Syracuse. Many of the prisoners captured with Nicias, and some of those who had belonged to the division of Demosthenes, were secreted and sold for the private profit of their captors. Some of these contrived to get away; others were ransomed by their friends. The lot of those who fell into the hands of the Syracusan authorities was more unhappy. They were confined in stone quarries, of which there were several both within and without the walls of the city. Crowded together in these places, exposed to the sun by day and the cold by night—it was now autumn—with the scanty provision of about half a pint of water and a pound of bread, they endured frightful sufferings. They died in numbers, and the dead bodies were left to rot among the surviving. It was only when the place became an intolerable nuisance, and a serious danger to health, that the survivors were removed.


Gylippus made an effort to save the captive generals. Demosthenes had inflicted on Sparta the most serious loss that it had suffered, the loss of the prisoners of Sphakteria; Nicias, as has been said, had always been Sparta's friend. Both; accordingly, though for different reasons, would have been a welcome sight in the streets of Sparta, if Gylippus had been permitted to take them thither. But he was overruled. The Syracusan Assembly passed a desire that both should be put to death. All that Gylippus could do, was to save them from the ignominy of a public execution, by enabling them to put an end to their own lives.

In this dismal story there is one redeeming feature. "Some," says Plutarch, telling the story of the Sicilian expedition in his Life of Nicias, "owed their safety to the poems of Euripides, whose poems were more popular among the Syracusans than among any other Greeks. Any passages from these they gladly learnt and repeated to each other. And some of the survivors of the expedition, returning to Athens, thanked Euripides for the service which his verses had done them, in earning for them the kindness of their masters."