Vendetta: Athens vs. Sicily


When Athens despatched a large invasion fleet in opposition to Syracuse, it couldn’t have anticipated the cruel Sicilian vendetta that adopted

Athens invaded Sicily in 415 BC with hovering hopes and daring—albeit ill-defined—ambitions. Two years later the tattered remnant of its military was in full retreat, desperately searching for respite from the enemy it had supposed to overcome. Bloodied, fearful, ravenous and stricken by continuous assaults that thinned their ranks and destroyed their morale, the exhausted troops fled onward. There was not any considered victory—solely escape.

Harried by enemy cavalry, the Athenians sought refuge within the southern a part of the island. With ebbing power, few provisions and little water, they rushed to the Assinarus River, each to quench their determined thirst and in hopes of crossing it to security. There they discovered demise quite than deliverance. All order was misplaced as they reached the river.

Plunging into the water, many struggled to be first throughout, whereas others drank greedily. Little did they know their artful enemy lay in wait on the other financial institution. Attacked from the entrance and behind, scores died on the factors of javelins or entangled themselves hopelessly with the luggage, stumbled and drowned. Surging down each banks, the enemy butchered many others with swords, fouling the water with gore whilst determined fellow Athenians continued to drink.

Probably the most wonderful Hellenic expedition undertaken in the course of the 431–404 bc Peloponnesian Warfare perished there in bloody mud. Its generals had been executed. Any who escaped the slaughter had been condemned to toil and distress in Sicilian stone quarries or bought into slavery. The catastrophe was so devastating and so full that Athens might scarcely imagine it had occurred.


Fifth century bc Syracuse was a sprawling metropolis of 250,000 individuals, its financial system primarily based on agriculture and maritime commerce. / Jean-Claude Golvin (Actes Sud)

To totally perceive the reckless daring of Athens’ invasion of Sicily, one should study it in context, assessing its dangers, murky motivations, doubtful objectives and problematic execution.

The backdrop to the Athenian invasion of Sicily is the Peloponnesian Warfare. Six years into an armistice with Sparta, which had suspended open hostilities, the ecclesia—the Athenian meeting—ratified the choice to undertake the expedition. The Peace of Nicias was meant to final a half century, its signatories having sworn to uphold it. But the underlying causes of the struggle remained unresolved, and the respective events by no means did strictly observe the settlement. Expertise urged battle would doubtless erupt once more.

On reflection, it appeared foolhardy to undertake to overcome Syracuse, a city-state that rivaled Athens in inhabitants, dimension and wealth. Regardless, the ecclesia voted to ship a fleet west throughout the Ionian Sea.

Nicias, the statesman-general and treaty namesake, warned his fellow Athenians in opposition to taking such an pointless danger. In spite of everything, the peace was precarious, and Athens’ many enemies stood prepared to use any division of forces. It was higher to safe the possessions that they had, Nicias argued, earlier than greedy for extra. But the statesmen had been unmoved. As an alternative, they fell underneath the sway of the imperialist upstart Alcibiades.

Hungry for glory and impressive for energy, he magnified the potential rewards and downplayed the dangers of the expedition. Nicias’ pleas grew extra determined after the ecclesia, in opposition to his will, appointed him a commander of the enterprise. Conscious that blame for a defeat would fall on him, he elaborated additional on the hazards and requested untold numbers of males, ships and materiel, hoping to discourage the others and persuade them of the impossibility of the mission.

But his speech had the other impact. These advocating struggle took his warnings as sound recommendation and voted to provide Nicias with all the lads and materiel he had proposed. Thus an expedition of average dimension and restricted legal responsibility bloated into huge drive, the lack of which might be an unprecedented disaster.

The justifications for this huge endeavor had been missing. It was true the allied Sicilian cities of Segesta and Leontini had appealed to Athens for defense in opposition to the specter of absorption by the bigger, ethnically Dorian city-state of Syracuse. The ecclesia claimed the treaty certain them to return to their allies’ support, but the sincerity of such motivation appears doubtful. Athens certainly hoped to profit from its army funding; Sicily, significantly Syracuse, held truthful promise of plunder and would symbolize a helpful addition to Athenian possessions. The Athenian historian and basic Thucydides confirms revenue was Athens’ true motivation. After all, the allied Sicilian envoys weren’t so indelicate as to talk overtly of plunder. As an alternative, they careworn their fall would additional allow the Syracusans to at some point help the Peloponnesians in destroying Athens.

The members of the ecclesia voted to invade Syracuse. / Bridgeman Photographs

Warfare hawks within the ecclesia floated extra fast variations of this distant situation: A pre-emptive assault on Syracuse would deny the Peloponnesians each a army ally and Sicilian grain. But it surely wasn’t a defensive mindset that drove Athens. It thought extra of buying such benefits than of denying them to others. Additional, Sicily was not the restrict of Athenian ambition. Imperialist statesmen desired the conquest of Italy and North Africa, and certainly the rule of the entire Hellenic world.

Additional muddling the invasion plans was the ecclesia’s determination to put it underneath tripartite command, with Nicias, Lamachus and Alcibiades sharing joint management. The statesmen doubtless believed that three such completely different commanders—the conservative and cautious Nicias, the dependable veteran Lamachus and the eccentric firebrand Alcibiades—would stability each other’s strengths and weaknesses to raised guarantee success.

In the long run, nevertheless, the conflicting strategic functions and divided command solely undermined the tactical coherence of the invasion of Sicily, spelling doom for many of the officers and males tasked with finishing up the damaging mission.

The fleet that sailed from the Piraeus was grand. 100 thirty-four triremes carried 5,100 Athenian and allied hoplites, 480 archers, 700 slingers, 120 different mild troops and 30 horsemen and their mounts. Carrying meals and provides had been 30 cargo ships, with 100 small vessels to attend them. Whereas the fleet regarded spectacular in its residence harbor, its sufficiency when measured in opposition to the foe had but to be decided.

The Athenian fleet skirted greater than 800 miles of the Ionian coast with out losses or delays. When it reached the southern Italian port of Rhegium, the three commanders met to debate learn how to proceed. After all there was division of opinion. Discouraged by lack of native assist, Nicias advisable settling the quarrel between Segesta and the Syracusan-backed forces, then crusing by the coastal cities to impress locals with the would possibly of the Athenian fleet. That completed, the ships ought to sail for residence.

Such a timid course was anathema to Alcibiades, whose repute and ambitions had been intently certain with the expedition. He had wished a struggle and regarded it disgraceful to depart with out conducting something of significance. He proposed dispatching heralds to entice extra Sicilians to revolt in opposition to Syracusan hegemony, thus making allies who might present the expedition with grain and reinforcements. An alliance with Messana (present-day Messina), with its favorable location and glorious harbor, was significantly fascinating.

At the time of the Sicilian expedition, Syracuse rivaled mighty Athens (above) in size, population and wealth./ Neue Pinakothek, Munich
On the time of the Sicilian expedition, Syracuse rivaled mighty Athens (above) in dimension, inhabitants and wealth./ Neue Pinakothek, Munich

The previous warrior Lamachus thought each plans silly. This was the second of best alternative, he argued. Whereas Syracuse remained unaware of the fleet’s presence, the Athenians ought to sail on to town and assault. The outcome would terrify the Syracusans and maybe shock them into surrendering. After failing to steer the others, nevertheless, Lamachus backed Alcibiades, and the decisive second was misplaced.

Alcibiades didn’t obtain the nice and cozy reception he’d anticipated at Messana, and the Athenians spent the remainder of the season in a largely fruitless try and safe allies in Sicily, managing solely to drive their manner into Catana and set up a base of operations there. Past a reconnoiter of the harbor at Syracuse and sack of the inconsequential metropolis of Hycarra, the Athenians completed little earlier than winter descended.

However one thing of nice significance to the destiny of the invasion and the bigger struggle did happen: The ecclesia recalled Alcibiades to Athens on allegations of sacrilege and oligarchic conspiracy. The state trireme Salaminia quickly arrived to escort him to trial. However Alcibiades, suspecting an unfavorable end result, jumped ship in Italy. Quickly returning to Greece, he turned traitor, serving to the Spartans plot in opposition to his native Athens.

In the meantime, Nicias and Lamachus found they lacked enough cavalry for victory in Sicily. Any drive despatched out to forage or plunder confronted harassment by tons of of enemy horsemen and the chance of being minimize off and destroyed. Absent the safety afforded by mounted troops, the hinterlands had been inaccessible to invaders afoot. Catana had turn out to be a snare quite than a stepping stone, the Athenians extra just like the besieged than the invaders. They might come to grips with Syracuse, however an overland march was too dangerous. They resorted to subterfuge.

Arethusa, patron goddess of the city-state. In mythology she fled beneath the ocean from Greece to emerge as a fountain in Syracuse. If a goddess selected Sicily, maybe the Athenians ought to have taken heed. / Getty Photographs

By spreading misinformation, the Athenians tricked Syracuse into deploying its forces overland towards Catana in hopes of dislodging or destroying the invaders. Because the Syracusans approached town, nevertheless, the Athenians sailed by night time down the coast unopposed, touchdown and establishing a camp on the shore of the Nice Harbor, south of Syracuse, earlier than its defenders might return. Battle was joined the following day. Whereas the Athenians simply routed the inexperienced Syracusan infantry, they had been unable to press their benefit for worry of the enemy cavalry.

Because the Athenians might hardly cross the winter on the seashore so close to Syracuse, they sailed again north to Catana. Pinning their hopes on receiving requested cash and cavalry from Athens, there they waited, losing months, whereas the Syracusans revamped their command construction and fortified their metropolis. Athenian reinforcements (comprising some 250 horsemen and 30 mounted archers) arrived within the spring, bringing with them the funds to safe 400 extra mounts and riders from their Sicilian allies.

With their bolstered cavalry, the invaders lastly had enough safety to increase their fortifications, forage and meet the enemy on open floor. Lamachus should have rejoiced. Eventually the Athenians might prosecute the struggle they need to have launched instantly on arrival.

However the Athenians weren’t alone in receiving reinforcements. The Syracusans had notified Sparta of Athens’ vulnerability. Additional prompted by the insurgent Alcibiades, the Spartans declared the Peace of Nicias damaged. They resolved to ship a Peloponnesian fleet to help the Sicilians and ready to invade Attica.

In the summertime of 414 bc the Athenians seized the heights of the Epipolae—a cliff and raised plateau north of Syracuse—their first step in an effort to choke off town from the encircling countryside. They started the circumvallation by constructing a spherical fort dubbed the Circle, which might anchor partitions being constructed northward to the ocean and southward towards the Nice Harbor. The tide of struggle appeared lastly to have shifted within the Athenians’ favor.

Fearing enclosure, the Syracusans started constructing a counter wall outward from town to chop the Athenian strains. Thus started an odd struggle of partitions during which either side sought to outbuild the opposite whereas mounting skirmishes and raids to disrupt the opposite’s efforts. The Athenians received the primary contest and demolished the Syracusans’ counter wall. The defenders instantly set to work on one other, this one supported by an adjoining trench. Whereas the Athenians additionally took these fortifications with a swift, decided assault, it got here at a excessive price. Lamachus was killed. Along with his demise the final embers of initiative and army experience within the Athenian command perished. Nicias, timid by comparability, was left in sole management.

When Syracusans moved to seal the mouth of the Great Harbor with moored boats, the Athenians prepared their ships for a breakout. / Alamy
When Syracusans moved to seal the mouth of the Nice Harbor with moored boats, the Athenians ready their ships for a breakout. / Alamy

Stories of the approaching Peloponnesian fleet underneath the Spartan commander Gylippus did not spur Nicias sufficiently to finish the circumvallation. Although the Athenian line within the north remained in need of the ocean, he dawdled, and the window of alternative closed. The Peloponnesians’ arrival drastically altered the scenario, robbing Nicias of each his psychological and numerical benefits.

Touchdown at Himera, Gylippus marched overland with 700 sailors and marines, 1,000 hoplites, and 1,000 allied Sicilian mild troops and cavalry. He arrived on the crucial second, because the wall was so close to completion the Syracusans had contemplated give up. The Spartan’s look breathed new life and hope into the defenders. Battle raged on the heights because the Athenians strove to finish their works whereas the defenders sought to disrupt them, elevating yet one more counter wall. After a lot of hard-fought clashes, the Syracusans constructed previous the Athenian line, delivering town from the hazard of encirclement. Athens had misplaced the struggle of partitions.

Nicias’ place was grim. Eluding the Athenian fleet, the Peloponnesian ships had sailed safely into the Nice Harbor. In the meantime, Syracuse had been outfitting and coaching its personal fleet. The mixed Spartan-Syracusan naval drive posed an existential menace to the deteriorating Athenian navy, its ships waterlogged and its allied crews deserting. Gylippus efficiently recruited his personal allies throughout the island, urgent them for any reinforcements that might be spared with a purpose to hammer victory residence. As Syracusan hopes soared, Athenian morale plummeted, and their indecisive commander turned much more cautious and despondent.

That winter Nicias dispatched a letter to Athens expounding the difficulties in Sicily. The scenario was so crucial, he argued, the ecclesia should both recall the fleet or massively reinforce it. Citing a kidney ailment, he additionally requested to be relieved of command.

Athens responded with convulsive power. Nicias wouldn’t be relieved, however he could be strengthened by an auxiliary fleet underneath Demosthenes. Pouring reinforcements into Sicily, the Athenians had inside two years dedicated greater than half of their army property—virtually 45,000 males and 216 ships—to this one marketing campaign. When the ultimate reinforcements arrived, the Spartans had been encamped simply 13 miles from their partitions, and the Athenians’ tribute-paying allies had been on the verge of revolt. Athens was straddling a skinny line between daring and insanity.

When Demosthenes arrived in Sicily in the summertime of 413 BC, the Athenian scenario had not improved. Annoyed on the Epipolae, Nicias had moved his base of operations to Plemmyrium, on the south entrance to the Nice Harbor, the place he’d constructed three forts. He’d additionally transitioned to a naval technique, planning to take to the offensive within the harbor. However the Athenian ships had not fared properly in opposition to the Corinthian and Syracusan fleets. The Syracusans relentlessly attacked by land and sea, thwarting the Athenians on the heights and taking the forts at Plemmyrium, which housed many of the fleet’s provides.

Resolving to not succumb to Nicias’ lethargy and lose the momentum of his arrival, Demosthenes launched a direct assault on the Syracusan counter wall. When the assault failed, Demosthenes, pushed by the strain of the second, determined to assault the Syracusan fortifications on the Epipolae by night time. Hampered by darkness, unfamiliar terrain and confusion, the assault become a catastrophe. Although the audacious commander had struck swiftly with all the facility at his disposal, his efforts fell brief.

Harried by enemy cavalry, the Athenians found themselves pinned against the Assinarus River. With no escape, they died in droves. / Alamy
Harried by enemy cavalry, the Athenians discovered themselves pinned in opposition to the Assinarus River. With no escape, they died in droves. / Alamy

Demoralized by his failure, Demosthenes advisable withdrawing the invasion drive, astutely concluding its army power could be higher used at residence than in a hopeless wrestle to subdue Sicily. But now it was Nicias—evidently extra involved for his personal repute than about army outcomes—who adamantly opposed departure. Not desperate to return residence bearing accountability for a wartime catastrophe, he most popular demise by the hands of the enemy than by a judicial sentence in Athens.

Arguing Syracuse couldn’t bear the pressure of the siege for much longer, he persuaded Demosthenes to stay. However as enemy reinforcements continued to flood into Syracuse, Nicias eventually agreed to sail away. At that crucial juncture, a sudden lunar eclipse satisfied the superstitious Nicias to delay one other 27 days.

Decided to not let the Athenians slip the noose, the Syracusans started to seal the mouth of the harbor with moored boats. Observing their efforts, the Athenians ready each ship that they had left for a breakout try. To inspire his males, Nicias appealed alternately to their patriotism, self-interest, glory, delight, wives, youngsters and gods—as if attempting to conjure a spell that may convey success. The respective fleets joined battle with nice zeal. With little room to maneuver, the harbor turned a tangled mass of colliding ships whose crews and marines fought throughout the decks virtually as in the event that they had been on land.

In the end, the Athenian fleet was routed. Ready anxiously ashore, the Athenian military watched as trireme after trireme slipped beneath the debris-strewn floor. Surrendering to panic and despair, surviving crews grounded their ships and fled into camp.

The Athenians’ solely hope lay in an overland retreat, however once more there was a delay. Duped by misinformation from the enemy to not march by night time, lest they be ambushed, the Athenians spent one other day ashore packing up what might be carried. The Syracusans used the time to occupy strategic factors alongside the potential escape routes. On the third day after the naval battle the Athenian military departed. Leaving our bodies unburied and ignoring pleas from the sick and wounded to be taken alongside, the 40,000-strong military marched out considering solely of survival.

By the point Nicias encamped on excessive floor to muster the Athenian military’s remaining power for the following stage of their grueling march from Syracuse, Demosthenes and the 6,000 males of the rearguard had already surrendered.

When knowledgeable, Nicias provided his enemies a good-looking bribe if they’d permit the rest of his forces to proceed unhurt. The Syracusans met the proposal with howls of derision and showers of missiles. The watchful enemy thwarted Nicias’ subsequent try to flee in darkness, and the Athenians handed one other disagreeable night time with no provisions or water to ease their weariness. The following day they pushed on. They might not escape.

Thucydides’ account of the Athenian invasion of Sicily ends with a sorrowful reflection: “Few out of many returned residence.” MH

Justin D. Lyons is an affiliate professor of historical past and authorities at Ohio’s Cedarville College and a frequent contributor to Army Historical past. For additional studying he recommends Historical past of the Peloponnesian Warfare, by Thucydides; A Warfare Like No Different, by Victor Davis Hanson; and The Peloponnesian Warfare, by Donald Kagan.

This text appeared within the Could 2021 concern of Army Historical past journal. For extra tales, subscribe right here and go to us on Fb:

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