It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare. — Edmund Burke

Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition - Alfred J. Church




The Last Struggle

The Syracusans, we may be sure, were well aware that the invading force intended to go but had delayed the execution of their purpose. Such an intention was a clear confession of defeat and inferiority, and it naturally encouraged the victorious side to push their success to the furthest. The Athenians must not be allowed to take up another position where they could be more free to do mischief; on the contrary, they must be attacked where they were, and destroyed. Gylippus accordingly had the ships-of-war exercised for a few days till the crews were, he thought, sufficiently perfect in their duties. This done, he made a demonstration of his land forces against the Athenian lines, but without obtaining, or indeed aiming at, any important result. On the day after, a great and practically decisive battle was fought. The whole of the Syracusan army marched out of the city and took up a position threatening the Athenian lines; the whole of the fleet ranged itself outside the stockade within which was the Athenian ships-of-war. In numbers there was no very considerable difference, the Syracusans having seventy-six triremes, the Athenians eighty-six. In efficiency the advantage was largely on the side of the former. The crews were at their full complement, fresh, vigorous, and made efficient by practice. Eurymedon, who was in command of the Athenian right wing, endeavoured to outflank the squadron opposed to him. This was doubtless a favourite manœuvre with Athenian seamen, but it required more space than the Great Harbour afforded. The enemy, who had by this time broken through the Athenians' centre, replied by a movement directed against Eurymedon's own left, and ultimately hemmed him and his squadron in a recess of the harbour, known by the name of Dascon. Eurymedon was slain and his squadron destroyed. The same fate nearly overtook the whole, or nearly the whole, of the Athenian fleet. Few of the ships were able to get back to the stockade; by far the greater part were driven ashore or grounded by their own crews at various points in the Great Harbour, where they were liable to attack by the land forces of the enemy. Gylippus saw his opportunity and hurried down with his troops to the water's edge, his object being to prevent the escape of the crews of the stranded ships, and at the same time to give the Syracusan captains time to secure the ships themselves. But the haste with which the troops moved threw them into confusion. Some Etrurians, who were on guard along the Athenian lines, sallied out against the foremost as they passed and routed them. As others arrived the men from within the line came out in greater numbers. A general battle followed, and the victory remained with the Athenians, who were able to save the ships and the crews. As it was, eighteen vessels were lost, the whole of the crews being either slain or captured. An attempt to destroy the Athenian station by a fireship was made the same day, but failed.

The Athenians were now almost in despair, for they had been conclusively beaten on their own element. They now recognised how insane was the enterprise on which they were embarked. It was not only the strength of the cities which they had attacked that made them feel how hopeless was the undertaking, there was also the fact that these cities had a political constitution resembling their own. On this fact Thucydides insists, and it is, as I have pointed out before, a significant comment on the average morality of Greek politics. A democratic state attacking one that was governed by an oligarchy might count with certainty on finding allies in the party that was out of power. The experience was too common to call for comment. But in Syracuse the democracy was all powerful, and the democracy was fiercely hostile to Athens. The Syracusans, on the other hand, were full of exultation and pride. They began actually to take that wider outlook into the general affairs of Greece with which the Athenians had credited, or pretended to credit, them when they resolved on the expedition. 'We must attack and disable them,' had been the argument of Alcibiades and his friends, 'or they will come over here, and, by siding with our enemies, turn the scale of power greatly against us.' In all probability the Sicilian cities had never entertained any such purpose, though the thought may have crossed the mind of a far-seeing statesman such as was Brasidas. But the unprovoked attack that had been made upon them inevitably suggested it. Syracuse felt that she had earned the gratitude of the Greek cities, which her victory would most certainly liberate from Athenian domination—that Athens should still hold her own after the destruction of the Sicilian armament seemed impossible—and her ambition was flattered by the thought that hereafter she would share with Sparta and Athens the leadership of Greece.

We have already heard of the magnificent scheme of conquest which Alcibiades entertained, or with which, anyhow, he credited himself, when he proposed the expedition against Syracuse to the Athenian Assembly. The actual scale of this conflict was scarcely inferior in magnitude. And not less remarkable than the number was the variety of the combatants, so many were the tribes engaged in the struggle, and so great the confusion of kinship among them. I have relegated to a note the remarkable passage in which Thucydides sets forth this state of things; it is too interesting to omit, but it would here interrupt the sequence of the narrative.

The Syracusans now felt that the whole Athenian force was practically in their power, and they proceeded to secure it by blocking up the entrance to the Great Harbour, a space of about 1600 yards, with a small islet about half way. A line of ships-of-war, merchant vessels and craft of various kind, anchored and chained together, was constructed obliquely across it. The work took three days to complete, and apparently no attempt was made by the Athenians to interrupt it. When it was finished the necessity for immediate action became imperative. Only a small quantity of provisions was in stock. Further supplies had been countermanded in view of their intended departure. Countermanded or not, they could hardly have been introduced with the entrance to the harbour blockaded. Two alternatives were before them—to burn their ships and retreat by land, or to make an attempt to break the blockading line. The first approved itself to many, but it was reserved for the last effort; the ships were to be tried once more. The first step was to contract their lines within the narrowest compass. Only so much as was absolutely necessary to hold the troops was retained. The object was, to make as many men as possible available for manning the ships; the numbers detailed for guarding the walls being reduced to a very small amount. Every ship that was in any sense serviceable was to be utilised, and men of all ranks and arms were compelled to man them. Each vessel had a double complement, one being its usual crew and the other consisting of heavy-armed bowmen and javelin-throwers; the heavy-armed being stationed on the prow with grappling-irons. These they were to throw on to the enemy's ships as soon as collision had taken place, with the intention of holding them fast, and so preventing a second blow. Nicias reviewed his forces when they were prepared for action. He saw that they were eager to fight; they must either fight or be starved; but it was too evident that theirs was the eagerness of despair, not of confidence or hope. He did his best to encourage them.

'You,' he said, 'are fighting for your lives and your country, as really as are the enemy. Unless you conquer you cannot see your homes again. Yet do not despair. You know the changes and chances of war. You have had many of its evil turns; look now for the good. We have provided against the advantage possessed by your enemies in their stronger ships, and in the narrow space where the battle will be fought. You are to be soldiers on shipboard rather than sailors. It is a sad change for Athenians, but you must adapt yourselves to it. You, heavy-armed men, grapple the enemy's ships and hold them fast till they have been boarded and captured. You, seamen and oarsmen, do your best. You are more numerous and you are better defended on deck than you were in the last battle. Allies, fight for the country which has made you share all the benefits of its empire. Athenians, remember that this is the last hope of your country. Here is its all. Win this battle, for the occasion can never return, either for Athens or for you.'

Thucydides very probably received a report of this oration from one of those who heard it delivered. It is less easy to imagine how he became acquainted with the substance of what Gylippus, in Syracuse, said to his men. The topics on which he enlarged were such as would occur to a speaker on such an occasion. Former successes were a pledge of victory. They had vanquished the enemy when he was in the full tide of confidence; much more easily will they repeat the success when he is only thinking of escape. Now was the time to take a just revenge for a most wanton attack, and to ensure for the future that such an attack would never be repeated.

Nicias took command of the forces that were retained to garrison the lines. The fleet he handed over to his colleagues—Demosthenes, Menander, Euthydemus. But before it started he made a special appeal to the captains. He knew that all depended on the result of that day's struggle, and he felt that no preparation could be sufficient, no exhortation to energy too urgent, when the issue was of so transcendent an importance. All the officers and citizens of high birth and station were personally known to him. He knew the parentage, the circumstances, and the personal record of each. To some he recalled their own achievements; to others he spoke of the achievements of their fathers and ancestors. To all he appealed by the memory of family, home and country, by all sacred associations, both human and divine.

The battle that followed was fiercely fought; the numbers of the opposing fleets were much the same as they had been in the last conflict. Some of the Syracusan troops were told off to guard the line of blockading vessels; others were stationed about the harbour to act where they might be wanted. Volunteers from the city manned a number of smaller craft and took their share in the conflict, being especially useful in saving or destroying the crews of disabled triremes, according as they belonged to friends or enemies. The shore and the city walls were lined with crowds of spectators, who eagerly watched the varying fortunes of the fight. The Athenian ships steered straight for the mouth of the harbour. There was an open space in the barrier, left, doubtless, for the passage of ships. Against this they directed their attack. So energetic was it that the line of ships set to guard the barrier was broken through, and the Athenian crews began to destroy it. But the other squadrons crowded in upon them, and compelled them to desist in order to defend themselves. For a time the struggle was something like that which was usually seen in a naval battle. The oarsmen rowed with all their might, the steersmen used all their skill. But it seldom happened that when one ship met another in conflict that they became separated again. While they were approaching each other the slingers and archers were busy; once locked together by the grappling irons, it was the heavy-armed that took up the struggle. Sometimes one ship would be engaged with a single adversary, sometimes with two or more. Sometimes the conflict was of her own choosing, sometimes it came about by accident. It was a sailor's or rather a soldier's battle. There was no manœuvring, no room for the skill of the officer who commanded the squadron, or the captain who had the single ship in charge. All over the harbour there were 200 ships engaged in a narrow space of scarcely two square miles—a number of furious struggles, each like a small pitched battle, were taking place.

A battle in which the combatants were so numerous, which could be seen from so small a distance, and of which the issues were so momentous, was watched by the spectators on the shore with breathless interest. With the Athenians it was a matter of life and death. Had it been a mere spectacle, it would have had an entrancing interest; what it was to men whose all depended upon it, can hardly be imagined, certainly not described. The historian tells us how they shouted encouragement when they saw their own side victorious, how they cried aloud and wailed when they witnessed the defeat of countrymen and friends; how, while they watched some struggle not yet decided, they showed, by swaying their bodies to and fro, how intensely they sympathised with each variation of the strife.

At last it became evident with whom the victory was to remain. All the Athenian ships were beaten back; some were able to get to the stockade which protected them; others were captured before they reached it; many had already been sunk. The loss on the Athenian side was a loss of 56 ships out of a total of 116; the Syracusans had 50 left out of 76. So overwhelming was the blow that the defeated did not even beg a truce for the burial of their dead. Even the pious Nicias had no thoughts to spare for this duty, one of the most solemn obligations that the Greek mind recognised.

Demosthenes, however, had not lost his energy. He proposed to Nicias that with the sixty ships remaining they should make another effort to break the barrier. Nicias consented, but the soldiers flatly refused to embark again. Their one hope now was to escape by land.