Time alone reveals the just man; but you might discern a bad man in a single day. — Sophocles

Story of Greece - Mary Macgregor

The Siege of Syracuse

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.


Front Matter

The Great God Pan
The Six Pomegranate Seeds
The Birth of Athene
The Two Weavers
The Purple Flowers
Danae and Her Little Son
The Quest of Perseus
Andromeda and Sea-Monster
Acrisius Killed by Perseus
Achilles and Briseis
Menelaus and Paris Do Battle
Hector and Andromache
The Horses of Achilles
The Death of Hector
Polyphemus the Giant
Odysseus Escapes from Cave
Odysseus Returns to Ithaca
Argus the Hound Dies
The Bow of Odysseus
The Land of Hellas
Lycurgus and His Nephew
Lycurgus Returns to Sparta
Training of the Spartans
The Helots
Aristomenes and the Fox
The Olympian Games
The Last King of Athens
Cylon Fails to be Tyrant
Solon Frees the Slaves
Athenians Take Salamis
Pisistratus Becomes Tyrant
Harmodius and Aristogiton
The Law of Ostracism
The Bridge of Boats
Darius Rewards Histiaeus
Histiaeus Shaves His Slave
Sardis Is Destroyed
Sandal Sewn by Histiaeus
Earth and Water
Battle of Marathon
Miltiades Sails to Paros
Aristides is Ostracised
The Dream of Xerxes
Xerxes Scourges the Hellespont
Bravest Men of All Hellas
Battle of Thermopylae
Battle of Artemisium
Themistocles at Salamis
Themistocles Tricks Admirals
Battle of Salamis
Battle of Plataea
Delian League
Themistocles Deceives Spartans
Themistocles is Ostracised
Eloquence of Pericles
Pericles and Elpinice
The City of Athens
Great Men of Athens
Thebans Attack Plataeans
Attica Invaded by Spartans
Last Words of Pericles
Siege of Plataea
The Sentence of Death
Brasidas Loses His Shield
The Spartans Surrender
Brasidas the Spartan
Amphipolus Surrenders
Alcibiades the Favourite
Socrates the Philosopher
Alcibiades Praises Socrates
Images of Hermes Destroyed
Alcibiades Escapes to Sparta
The Siege of Syracuse
Athenian Army is Destroyed
Alcibiades Returns to Athens
Antiochus Disobeys Alcibiades
Walls of Athens Destroyed
March of the Ten Thousand
Pelopidas and Epaminondas
Seven Conspirators
Battle of Leuctra
Death of Epaminondas
The Two Brothers
Timoleon exiles Dionysius
Icetes Attacks Timoleon
Battle of Crimisus
Demosthenes' Wish
Greatest Orator of Athens
The Sacred War
Alexander and Bucephalus
Alexander and Diogenes
Battle of Granicus
The Gordian Knot
Darius Gallops from Battle
Tyre Stormed by Alexander
Battle of Gaugamela
Alexander Burns Persepolis
Alexander Slays Foster-Brother
Porus and His Elephant
Alexander Is Wounded
The Death of Alexander
Demosthenes in the Temple