Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Sicilian Expedition

The chief good accomplished by the Peace of Nicias was to stop the fighting for two or three years. During this time so many leagues and alliances were formed among the Greeks that it is a wonder how any state could make sure who were her friends and who were her enemies. The allies of Sparta were indignant because, as they claimed, she had done well for herself in the treaty, but had taken no care of their interests. Many of the captured towns objected to being given back to their former rulers, as the treaty required. Then Athens and Sparta made a private agreement to force their allies to obey the treaty. The state of Argolis had kept neutral during the war and had spent the time in growing rich and strong. Argolis now made a league with some of Sparta's dissatisfied allies; and to cap the climax, Athens joined this league also. Sparta saw that unless the Argolic league was broken, she would lose her power in the Peloponnesus, so she attacked the Argolians, who were aided by the Athenians. A battle was fought at Mantinea, and the Spartans won such a victory that Argolis gave up all hope of ever leading the Peloponnesus.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Meanwhile the Athenians had fixed their eyes upon Melos, one of the two islands in the Ăgean Sea that they did not rule. They sent a fleet against it and ordered the Melians to yield or lose their city. "We are Dorians, and surely the Spartans will come to help us," thought the Melians; but no help came. The city fell. All the grown men were put to death, and the women and children sold as slaves. Such barbarity was nothing new in those days, but there had been no reason for attacking the island except that Athens wanted it, and Greece was horrified at the deed.

The Athenians, however, were thinking of nothing but how to make their empire larger. They seemed to feel that if they owned a great deal of land or could oblige many cities to pay them tribute, they must be powerful. They ruled the islands to the east of Greece,—why should they not go west and conquer the wealthy island of Sicily? To be sure, they knew well that the Peloponnesian War was not over by any means, and that Pericles had said it would be ruinous for them to try to enlarge their empire while war was going on; but they had begun to think the ideas of Pericles were old-fashioned. The able general Nicias reminded his countrymen how many men they had lost by war and by the plague, and urged them not to send troops to Sicily, when with only a few days' warning every soldier might be needed at home. "An expedition to Sicily is a serious business," he declared, "and not one which a mere youth can plan and carry into execution off-hand." So said Nicias, but the Athenians were beginning to call Nicias slow and cautious, and they paid no heed to his words.

Socrates and Alcibiades


The "mere youth" was a young man named Alcibiades. He was rich, handsome, and of a noble family. He was the most eloquent speaker in Athens, and of so brilliant a mind that the wise and kindly philosopher Socrates became very fond of him and tried his best to keep him from being spoiled. This was not an easy thing to do, for there was something about Alcibiades that seemed to dazzle people and make them forget to be reasonable and sensible. He won the favor of the crowd by paying for the production of plays to amuse them, by keeping fast horses, by winning Olympian prizes in the chariot races, and by a certain daring and boldness that fascinated them. To almost every one but Socrates he was rude and impudent; and yet people usually forgave him. They would say, "Oh, it is only Alcibiades's way," and watch to see what his next prank would be. He once refused an invitation to a feast; but when the other guests were at table, he suddenly appeared at the door with his servants and swept away half of the golden dishes; but the host still remained his admiring friend. Alcibiades's wild companions "dared" him to commit all sorts of insolent acts. One was to walk up to one of the most dignified citizens of Athens and box his ears. This man disapproved of the young noble, and refused to look upon such boorishness as a merry jest; but early the next morning Alcibiades appeared at his door, threw off his trailing purple robe, and said, "I have come that you may beat me. Chastise me as you please"; and he was forgiven. If all his freaks had been merely as silly and impudent as these, he might perhaps have been pardoned; but in spite of all of Socrates's teaching, he was utterly dishonorable. The wiser people of Athens saw this; but the masses were pleased with any one who entertained them.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Such was the leader whom the Athenians were ready to follow on the maddest expedition that a people ever undertook. Nicias spoke once more and told the assembly that the cities of Sicily were rich and had large numbers of troops. "If you decide to make this invasion," he said, "you must have at least one hundred triremes, a multitude of soldiers, a vast supply of food, and a great sum of money." He had hoped that they would not be so eager if they realized what immense preparations were needed; but, on the contrary, the excitable, hot-headed people were half beside themselves with delight because they were entering upon so prodigious an undertaking. They had perhaps lost a few cities in Thrace and Macedonia, but why should they trouble themselves to win them back when they would so soon be lords of a splendid new empire in the west? They would first overcome Sicily; but this was only a beginning, for they would then press on to the conquest of Italy and Africa. There would be adventures and wealth and glory for every one. It was a quest for the golden fleece, and they never doubted that they should slay the dragon.

Sicily had been settled by colonists from various countries. Few of those who came from Greece were Athenians, but there were many Dorians. Syracuse was founded by Corinthian Dorians, and it was now the largest and richest of the Greek cities except Athens. The cities of Sicily had sometimes quarreled, and the Athenians had once sent a fleet to help a Eubťan city against Syracuse. The pretext for invading the island again was that a little town called Egesta had asked Athens for help in her quarrel with Selinus, another little town that was aided by Syracuse. "We are ready to pay all costs," declared the EgestŠans, "if Athens will only help us with her fleet and forces." The Athenians did one sensible thing, they sent envoys to find out whether Egesta really had the wealth of which she boasted. When the envoys returned, they brought back with them money enough to pay the crews of sixty triremes for one month, and they had amazing stories to tell of the magnificent silver bowls and flagons and other offerings that they had seen in the temples. "We were feasted again and again," they said, "and at every feast we were served from superb drinking-vessels of silver and gold." They had not been observing enough to wonder why all the EgestŠans had precisely the same kind of dishes and ornaments, and it never entered their minds that those enterprising colonists had been borrowing of one another and of the neighboring cities in order to persuade the Athenians that they were exceedingly wealthy.

Great was the bustle of preparation. Food, arms, ships, money, troops, must all be made ready. In the midst of the cheerful confusion the Athenians awoke one morning and were horrified. Some one had gone through the city mutilating the HermŠ, or heads of Hermes into which the stone posts were carved that stood at the doors of houses and temples. "It is a fearful insult to the gods, and they will avenge it upon us," whispered the Athenians in dismay. Then their dismay turned to anger. Who had done such a deed? They remembered that only one man had ever played such mad pranks as this. "It was surely Alcibiades," declared his enemies boldly. "He hoped for a revolution that should throw the government into the hands of the nobles." "Give me a fair trial," Alcibiades demanded; but his enemies urged that the expedition ought not to be delayed, and the ships sailed. The whole population of Athens flocked to the PirŠus to see them off, for this was the most costly armament ever sent out by any state of Greece. There were men from every city that was subject to the Athenians. The ships were perfectly equipped, the crews were the best that could be found. The soldiers vied with one another in the excellence of their arms and accoutrements. When all was ready, the trumpet sounded for silence, and all those thousands stood hushed and motionless. Then a herald repeated a prayer to the gods; the whole fleet and the multitudes on the shore said it with him. On every ship, wine mingled with water was poured out in sacrifice to the gods from bowls of silver or of gold. The crews sang a hymn in honor of Apollo. Then the ships put out to sea in single file, sailing and rowing rapidly toward Corcyra.



When they reached Rhegium, the Italian town nearest to Sicily, they landed and sent envoys to Egesta. Nicias had never believed in the vast wealth of the EgestŠans, and now their falsehoods and boasting were revealed. The three generals consulted. "Let us oblige the EgestŠans to pay what they promised, force Selinus to come to terms, and then go home," urged Nicias. "Let us attack Syracuse at once, before she can prepare for war," advised Lamachus. "Let us first gain as many allies in Sicily as we can and then attack Syracuse," counseled Alcibiades. This last plan was decided upon.

Suddenly a ship arrived from Athens with orders for Alcibiades to come home for the trial that had been refused him before the fleet set out. His enemies had delayed it until the troops were in Sicily, for they knew that so popular a commander would surely be acquitted if they were in Athens. He was now accused of another crime, ridiculing with some of his wild companions the holy Eleusinian Mysteries. These were the most sacred and most secret of the religious rites of the Greeks; to reveal them or to mimic them was looked upon as a crime deserving death. Alcibiades had no idea of standing trial under such circumstances. He had been allowed to start for home in his own ship, guarded by the messenger vessel. It was not difficult for him to escape; and the messenger vessel had to return to Greece without him.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


It was some months before the plan to lay siege to Syracuse was carried out, but both sides were busy. The Athenians sent home for money and cavalry and formed alliances with as many of the people of Sicily as possible. The Syracusans built new fortifications for the city and strengthened the old ones. They also sent envoys to Corinth and Sparta, asking for help and begging Sparta to renew the war against Athens, so that the Athenians would have to send for their soldiers. When these envoys reached Sparta, they met there an eloquent, fascinating young traitor who was all ready to make a speech to the Spartans in their behalf. It was Alcibiades himself. "I know the secrets of the Athenians," he declared. "I have lost an ungrateful country, but I have not lost the power of doing you service, if you will listen to me." There was no question about his hearers being attentive, for he proceeded to tell the Spartans and the Syracusan envoys all about the Athenian plans for taking first Syracuse, then Carthage, and then attacking Sparta and her allies., "The safety, not of Sicily alone, but of the Peloponnesus is at stake," he declared, as earnestly as if he had been born a Spartan. Then he gave them some sound advice. In the first place, he urged them to send forces to Syracuse, and above all a skillful Spartan commander; then, to make war against Athens at once. "You ought to fortify Decelea straightway," he said; "the Athenians are always in dread of this." He went on to explain to them that if the Spartans held Decelea, the Athenians would lose the usual tribute, the income from the land and from the silver mines; and as the place was only fourteen miles from Athens, there was no question that numbers of slaves would escape from Athens to Decelea. The Spartans concluded to follow his advice. They began to prepare their fleet and they took possession of Decelea.

In Sicily all was working so well for the Athenians that the Syracusans were on the point of arranging for a surrender. Suddenly a Corinthian ship appeared in their harbor. "Ships are coming from Sparta," said the commander. "Gylippus, the greatest Spartan general, is on his way to help you." Soon Gylippus appeared with ships and men. The Athenians were cheerfully building a wall around Syracuse, but that work had to stop abruptly, for Gylippus built a cross-wall. The Athenians sent more ships and another general, Demosthenes, who had built the fort at Pylos. They made attacks by sea and by land, but they did not take Syracuse. The Athenian camp was in an unhealthy place and many of the soldiers were ill. "The city cannot be taken," declared Demosthenes. "Let us retreat while we are able." The moon was full, but suddenly it went into eclipse. "What does it signify?" Nicias demanded anxiously of the soothsayers. "It signifies that for three times nine days the army must not move," they replied. Nicias believed firmly in the soothsayers. The army waited and lost its one chance of escape.



The Syracusans were no longer afraid of losing their city. Now they were in quest of glory, and they planned to capture the whole fleet of the invaders. Then followed a most terrible battle. The Syracusan ships blocked the entrance of the harbor; the Athenian triremes could not escape to the open sea. Two hundred vessels were crowded into the narrow space. Ships were driven against ships, sometimes two or three dashed into one. "Force your way or never see Greece again!" cried the Athenian generals to their men. "Win the victory! Make your city glorious!" shouted the Syracusan officers; but the creaking, the crashing, the screeching, the groaning, the clanking of chains, the sound of savage blows, and the heavy thud of men falling dead upon the decks—these were so loud that only those nearest could hear the words of their officers. Except for the troops on board the two fleets, all Syracuse was on one part of the shore, and all the Greeks on another. The Greeks pressed down to the water's edge; they groaned and sobbed and shrieked in agony when one of their vessels was disabled; they shouted with joy when one appeared for a moment to have escaped; they swayed to and fro; they threw themselves on the ground; they stretched up their arms in prayer to the gods. The Syracusan ships were here, there, and everywhere. The Athenians rowed frantically toward the entrance to the harbor; they were thrust back upon the shore; they threw themselves headlong from their ships and dashed through the water to the land and their camp. "They now suffered what they had done to others at Pylos," wrote Thucydides. "Even now there is a chance," declared the Athenian generals, "even now we have more vessels than the enemy. At break of day we will man them and try to force the passage." But the horrors of the battle had thrown the men into a panic; they refused to go on board the ships.

The Greeks' only hope of safety was to retreat, and perhaps make their way to some friendly city; and they began their sorrowful march. The dead lay unburied, the wounded and dying cried to their old friends by name as they passed, and prayed to be taken with them; then called down the anger of the gods upon them as they paid no heed to the appeals. The whole army were in tears; they were in the utmost misery. Demosthenes and part of the army became separated from the rest; but Nicias pushed on. Food gave out, water could not be found. At last they came to a river. They were so wild from thirst that they plunged into it and stood in the shallows, drinking again and again, even though the Syracusans were shooting at them and hurling darts and spears and stones. Men were trampled under foot; they were pierced by the spears of their friends, even by their own spears; they were struck by masses of baggage and swept down stream. Heaps of dead bodies lay where the water was shallow, and the river ran red with blood. Then Nicias yielded. "Do what you please with me," he begged, "but spare my men."

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Both Nicias and Demosthenes were put to death. The whole Grecian army was captured, save a few who had succeeded in escaping to some friendly city. The prisoners, seven thousand or more, were crowded into the stone quarries. The sun beat down upon them by day; at night they shivered with the cold. Half a pint of water and a pint of food were given them daily. They died by scores, and the dead bodies lay heaped one upon another. At the end of ten weeks, those who still lived were sold as slaves. Thus ended the expedition that was to have made Athens the ruler of the Mediterranean world. Such is the glory and the splendor of warfare.


Many leagues were formed among the states.

The Athenians took Melos. They planned an expedition against Sicily under Alcibiades.

To help Egesta was the pretext of the expedition. The EgestŠans deceived the Athenians by showing them borrowed treasures.

The ships sailed. At Rhegium the deceit of the EgestŠans was discovered The question was whether to collect what the EgestŠans had promised, force Selinus to terms, and go home; whether to attack Syracuse at once; or whether to win Sicilian allies and then make an attack.

Alcibiades was recalled to be tried for mutilating the HermŠ, but fled to Sparta and became a traitor to his country.

Sparta came to aid Syracuse.

The Athenians waited, as the soothsayer advised, and their attack failed. They made a disastrous retreat, and the whole army was captured.

Suggestions For Written Work

Why did the Athenians wish to overcome Sicily?

A boy describes the sailing of the fleet for Sicily.

What the Syracusans talked about the day before the Corinthian Ship arrived.