Story of Greece - Mary Macgregor
Nicias and Lamachus now determined to attack Syracuse without delay.
They succeeded in seizing the high ground which joined the town to the mainland of Sicily. Across this ground they began to build a wall, meaning to cut the Syracusans off from help by land. The Athenian fleet then sailed into the harbour of Syracuse, that so no help might reach the city by sea.
But before the wall was finished, two things had happened to frustrate the plans of the Athenians.
The Syracusans did not mean to let the enemy finish the wall if they could prevent it, so they sailed out of the city to drive them away. In the struggle which followed Lamachus was killed, and Nicias was left alone to carry on the siege.
But what was perhaps even worse for the Athenians than the death of their general, was the arrival of Gylippus the Spartan commander.
Almost before the Athenians were aware, Gylippus, at the head of his troops, marched into Syracuse. Nor did he rest until he had driven them from the hill on which they were encamped, and forced them to take up their position close to the harbour.
Nicias was ill, and his illness made him more hopeless than perhaps he would otherwise have been. He wrote to the assembly to tell it that the Spartans had wrested from the Athenians all that they had gained, and that they were now themselves in danger of being besieged.
The fleet, he said, had been drawn up on the beach for months, and would have to be repaired before it was seaworthy. Even then it would be difficult to man the vessels, for many of the crew had died and many more were out of practice.
So faint of heart was the Athenian general that, at the end of his gloomy report, he urged that the whole enterprise should be given up, or if not, that at least a new fleet might be sent out without loss of time. For himself he begged that he might be recalled, as he was ill and unfit for his duties.
The assembly refused this last request, but it sent a new fleet to his help, commanded by Eurymedon and Demosthenes.
Meanwhile Gylippus was not idle. He attacked the Athenians both by land and sea. By land he was victorious, but at sea he was defeated.
Undaunted, he at once ordered that the bows of the Spartan vessels should be made heavier and shorter. When this had been done he again attacked the enemy's fleet, and when the battle ended Gylippus held the entrance to the harbour.
The Athenians were now in great peril, for they were besieged both by land and sea. They could not leave the harbour unless they cut their way through the fleet of the victorious Syracusans, and this they had no courage to attempt.
But on the day after the battle which had seemed to seal their fate, hope awoke once more in the Athenian ranks, for the new fleet, under Eurymedon and Demosthenes, came in sight.
The new commanders at once determined that the hill above Syracuse must be retaken. So on a moonlight night the attempt was made. But although a band of Athenians gained the hill, took a fort and repulsed six hundred of the enemy, they were soon afterwards put to flight. Many of the soldiers flung away their shields, as they were driven down the hill, and fell over the cliffs. Others were pushed back upon their comrades who were still climbing upwards, so that soon the whole army was in confusion.
This disaster crushed the spirit of the Athenians. Many of the soldiers, too, had fever caused by the marshy ground on which their camp was pitched. Many more were ill or wounded.
Eurymedon and Demosthenes advised Nicias to order the whole army to sail away before the entrance to the Great Harbour was entirely blockaded, but to this he would not consent. It seemed that he was afraid to return to Athens to tell that the expedition had failed.
Demosthenes then urged Nicias at least to leave the harbour and sail to a point where their supplies could not be stopped by the enemy. This too, Nicias refused to do.
But soon after his refusal, large reinforcements reached the Spartans, and the general's obstinacy gave way. He ordered the fleet to prepare to leave the harbour.
The men were glad to desert their unhealthy quarters and got ready in haste, but secretly, that the Syracusans might not suspect their plans.
All was ready, when, on 27th August 413 B.C., the night before the fleet was to sail, an eclipse of the moon took place.
Nicias was filled with superstitious fears. What might the eclipse not portend? He sent to the soothsayers, who said that the fleet must on no account leave the harbour for twenty-seven days. To disobey the oracle would be fatal, so Nicias believed, and he at once forbade the fleet to sail until the twenty-seven days had passed.