The Peloponnesian War
The Delian League
The end of the Persian Wars did not bring in its train the
end of the Persian threat. Persian fleets still operated in the
Aegean, Persian armies were still present in Asia Minor, and
Persia had a number of allies still loyal to it among the islands.
Athens' aim after Plataea was to drive the Persians from the
Aegean Sea, but Sparta was not interested in this vigorous and
distant foreign policy. So, leadership of the project fell naturally
A league was formed in 477, with a common treasury (a war
chest) at the sacred island of Delos. Athens was the dominant
member and an Athenian was always to be admiral of the combined
fleet. The other members contributed men and ships and money.
Sparta was not a member. Because the treasury was kept at Delos,
we call this the Delian League.
The League was successful in its immediate aim of driving
the Persians from the northern Aegean. By the later 470s, the
League had cleared much of the southern Aegean, too, and some
of the League's members began to consider the work complete.
The Athenian Empire
In 470, when Naxos wanted to withdraw from the League, Athens
refused, arguing that the island was benefiting from the protection
of the continued presence of the League's fleet and so must contribute
to it. Naxos disagreed and a brief war ensued. Athens defeated
the city and dismantled its walls.
Membership in the League was no longer optional, and increasingly
Athens demanded money payments rather than contributions in ships.
You will find some books that refer to the Athenian Empire, but
such a thing never existed. Rather, Athens used the League in
a manner reminiscent of modern imperialism and so we call it
Land Empire Athens also began to expand within the
Greek mainland. She did this mostly by treaty, but she was not
afraid to use force when negotiations failed. In 457 Athens invaded
and conquered most of Boeotia. Her expansionist policies made
an enemy of both Sparta and Corinth, a powerful combination.
In 454 Pericles transferred the Delian treasury to the Temple
of Athena, arguing that the treasury would be safer within the
Acropolis. Any pretense of a league was now very hard to
maintain. The Persians had been driven from most of the
Aegean Sea. Members of the League could not withdraw and
their "contributions" were mainly in cash. The treasury
itself was physically in Athens and the monies were being used
for non-League purposes including the beautification of the city.
And now Athens was annexing her neighbors within Greece itself.
Small wonder that Sparta and Corinth (and others) regarded
Athens as the chief danger to Greek liberty.
If anyone can be credited with creating the Athens that you
picture when you hear the word, it is this man. Pericles was
the architect of Athenian foreign policy. Pericles was the force
behind many of the buildings on the acropolis, including the
Parthenon itself. Pericles made Athens the most powerful city
in Greece, and the most beautiful. And the richest.
He finally arranged peace with Persia, in 449, a peace that
lasted almost 40 years. That treaty in turn allowed Pericles
to transfer the treasury of the Delian League to Athens, where
it became a convenient and deep extension to the city treasury.
The sudden influx of wealth paid for the beautiful Parthenon
and other statues and buildings. It paid also for the fortification
of the Piraeus, making the port of Athens vulnerable only by
sea. And from the port to Athens itself he caused to be built
the famous Long Walls--a pair of walls seven miles long with
space between them for four wagons across. The Long Walls, and
the fortifications at Piraeus, essentially extended Athens down
to the sea, where her magnificent navy ruled.
The Drift Towards War
Athens and Sparta had a brief war in the 440s, which ended
in a treaty that was supposed to assure peace between them for
the next 30 years. By the terms of the treaty, Athens gave up
her entire land empire, in return for which Sparta recognized
Athenian supremacy at sea.
Sparta still feared Athens, however, and she was not alone.
In particular, Corinth disliked the arrangements because Corinth
was the second-largest naval power in Greece. Corinth took the
lead in painting Athens as a threat to Greek liberty, a picture
readily believed in Sparta and elsewhere. For her part, Athens
insisted that she was the natural leader of the Greeks, her worthiness
having been proved in both war and peace.
Outbreak of the War
Corinth and Athens fought indirectly, through their colonies
and allies, each unwilling to have their respective forces face
one another. At Corcyra and Potidaea in 433, Corinthian and Athenian
ships fought one another, though only in the role of protectors
of their colonies.
In 432, land forces engaged over Megara, which is on the isthmus
of Corinth. Then, in 431, Thebes attacked Plataea in an attempt
to force that city to join its own Boeotian League. Plataea,
you should recall, was the one city to fight alongside Athens
at Marathon. The Athenians still offered special thanks to the
city every five years in remembrance. There was no way Athens
would tolerate Theban domination of Plataea. Athens declared
war on Thebes, Sparta sprang to the defense of its ally, and
everybody chose up sides, and the war was on.
Now all Pericles' careful work was to pay off. The people
of Attica withdrew from their farms and villages, and retired
to the protection of the city walls. The Spartan army invaded
Attica, ravaged the countryside, but was quite unable to lay
effective siege to the city, for supplies flowed freely under
the protection of the Long Walls and the fleet.
In turn, Athenian ships raided all along the Peloponnesian
coast. The aristocrats didn't much like seeing their estates
burn, but everyone had to admit that Pericles' strategy looked
to be effective.
There were flaws in Percles' plan, however. For one thing,
his strategy protected Athens well, but it proved less effective
in attacking Sparta. More immediately, though, it soon appeared
that Pericles had not reckoned the effect of stuffing thousands
more people inside the city.
Within two years, plague broke out in Athens and revisited
regularly. One of its early victims was Pericles himself.
The Archidamian War
In 429, Pericles--the man who had authored and engineered
Athenian politics for a generation--died of the plague. After
his death, the split between the oligarchs (who favored a settlement
with Sparta) and the democrats (who favored all-out war) became
The democrats soon gained the upper hand, led by Cleon. This
man, a tanner by trade, argued for an invasion of the Peloponnese
and an assault on Sparta itself. The Spartans, he said, would
never dare attack Attica with an Athenian army in their homeland,
and an invasion would likely spur a revolt of the helots.
So, Cleon got an army and he invaded the peninsula in 425
at Pylos. The invasion was a near thing, but in the end it failed.
A few years later, in 422, Cleon died in battle.
This whole period is called the Archidamian war, after one
of the kings of Sparta at the time. In general, despite the effort
at Pylos and Sphacteria, the first ten years of the war are marked
by minor defeats and minor victories, with neither side able
to do the other serious harm. All the time, of course, trade
suffered and there were problems with allies (below).
And all the time, the oligarchs were urging peace.
This is a much-quoted passage from Thucydides. He gives
the background and context, but he presents the material in such
a way that it has become a timeless examination of the rights
of states. Melos argues for independence and neutrality; Athens
argues pragmatism, the demands of war, and the rights of power.
THE next summer Alcibiades sailed with twenty ships to Argos
and seized the suspected persons still left of the Lacedaemonian
faction to the number of three hundred, whom the Athenians forthwith
lodged in the neighbouring islands of their empire. The Athenians
also made an expedition against the isle of Melos with thirty
ships of their own, six Chian, and two Lesbian vessels, sixteen
hundred heavy infantry, three hundred archers, and twenty mounted
archers from Athens, and about fifteen hundred heavy infantry
from the allies and the islanders. The Melians are a colony of
Lacedaemon that would not submit to the Athenians like the other
islanders, and at first remained neutral and took no part in
the struggle, but afterwards upon the Athenians using violence
and plundering their territory, assumed an attitude of open hostility.
Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son of Tisimachus, the
generals, encamping in their territory with the above armament,
before doing any harm to their land, sent envoys to negotiate.
These the Melians did not bring before the people, but bade them
state the object of their mission to the magistrates and the
few; upon which the Athenian envoys spoke as follows:
Athenians. Since the negotiations are not to go on before
the people, in order that we may not be able to speak straight
on without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multitude
by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for
we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before
the few), what if you who sit there were to pursue a method more
cautious still? Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up
at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any
farther. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits
The Melian commissioners answered:
Melians. To the fairness of quietly instructing each other
as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military
preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say,
as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that
all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if
we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and
in the contrary case, slavery.
Athenians. If you have met to reason about presentiments of
the future, or for anything else than to consult for the safety
of your state upon the facts that you see before you, we will
give over; otherwise we will go on.
Melians. It is natural and excusable for men in our position
to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However,
the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of
our country; and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in
the way which you propose.
Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious
pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because
we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong
that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not
be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking
to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians,
although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong,
will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments
of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the
world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while
the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Melians. As we think, at any rate, it is expedient- we speak
as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and
talk only of interest- that you should not destroy what is our
common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to
invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments
not strictly valid if they can be got to pass current. And you
are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be
a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world
to meditate upon.
Athenians. The end of our empire, if end it should, does not
frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon
was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished
as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers.
This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will
now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest
of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to
say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise
that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for
the good of us both.
Melians. And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to
serve as for you to rule?
Athenians. Because you would have the advantage of submitting
before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying
Melians. So that you would not consent to our being neutral,
friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.
Athenians. No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as
your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness,
and your enmity of our power.
Melians. Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those
who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples
that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered
Athenians. As far as right goes they think one has as much
of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence
it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them
it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire
we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that
you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the
more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters
of the sea.
Melians. But do you consider that there is no security in
the policy which we indicate? For here again if you debar us
from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest,
we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two
happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing
neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another
you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the
enemies that you have already, and to force others to become
so who would otherwise have never thought of it?
Athenians. Why, the fact is that continentals generally give
us but little alarm; the liberty which they enjoy will long prevent
their taking precautions against us; it is rather islanders like
yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the
yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead
themselves and us into obvious danger.
Melians. Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire,
and your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great baseness
and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything
that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.
Athenians. Not if you are well advised, the contest not being
an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty,
but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those
who are far stronger than you are.
Melians. But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes
more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one
to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while
action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.
Athenians. Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by
those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all
events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and
those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see
it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long
as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is
never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are
weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the
vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still
afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible,
to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude
men with hopes to their destruction.
Melians. You may be sure that we are as well aware as you
of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune,
unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant
us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against
unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the
alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very
shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore,
after all is not so utterly irrational.
Athenians. When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may
as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions
nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe
of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe,
and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they
rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first
to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing
before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all
we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else,
having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.
Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no
reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But when we
come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you
to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless
your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians,
when their own interests or their country's laws are in question,
are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others
much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given
than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most
conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and
what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise
much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.
Melians. But it is for this very reason that we now trust
to their respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying
the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence
of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.
Athenians. Then you do not adopt the view that expediency
goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed
without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court
as little as possible.
Melians. But we believe that they would be more likely to
face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than
for others, as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for
them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.
Athenians. Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not
the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority
of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even
more than others. At least, such is their distrust of their home
resources that it is only with numerous allies that they attack
a neighbour; now is it likely that while we are masters of the
sea they will cross over to an island?
Melians. But they would have others to send. The Cretan Sea
is a wide one, and it is more difficult for those who command
it to intercept others, than for those who wish to elude them
to do so safely. And should the Lacedaemonians miscarry in this,
they would fall upon your land, and upon those left of your allies
whom Brasidas did not reach; and instead of places which are
not yours, you will have to fight for your own country and your
Athenians. Some diversion of the kind you speak of you may
one day experience, only to learn, as others have done, that
the Athenians never once yet withdrew from a siege for fear of
any. But we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would
consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion
you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think
to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and
the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared
with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.
You will therefore show great blindness of judgment, unless,
after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent
than this. You will surely not be caught by that idea of disgrace,
which in dangers that are disgraceful, and at the same time too
plain to be mistaken, proves so fatal to mankind; since in too
many cases the very men that have their eyes perfectly open to
what they are rushing into, let the thing called disgrace, by
the mere influence of a seductive name, lead them on to a point
at which they become so enslaved by the phrase as in fact to
fall wilfully into hopeless disaster, and incur disgrace more
disgraceful as the companion of error, than when it comes as
the result of misfortune. This, if you are well advised, you
will guard against; and you will not think it dishonourable to
submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the
moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing
to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the
choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded
as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who do not
yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and
are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best.
Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect
once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting,
that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation
depends its prosperity or ruin.
The Athenians now withdrew from the conference; and the Melians,
left to themselves, came to a decision corresponding with what
they had maintained in the discussion, and answered: "Our
resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will
not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited
these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune
by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help
of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and
save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends
to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country
after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both."
Such was the answer of the Melians. The Athenians now departing
from the conference said: "Well, you alone, as it seems
to us, judging from these resolutions, regard what is future
as more certain than what is before your eyes, and what is out
of sight, in your eagerness, as already coming to pass; and as
you have staked most on, and trusted most in, the Lacedaemonians,
your fortune, and your hopes, so will you be most completely
The Athenian envoys now returned to the army; and the Melians
showing no signs of yielding, the generals at once betook themselves
to hostilities, and drew a line of circumvallation round the
Melians, dividing the work among the different states. Subsequently
the Athenians returned with most of their army, leaving behind
them a certain number of their own citizens and of the allies
to keep guard by land and sea. The force thus left stayed on
and besieged the place.
About the same time the Argives invaded the territory of Phlius
and lost eighty men cut off in an ambush by the Phliasians and
Argive exiles. Meanwhile the Athenians at Pylos took so much
plunder from the Lacedaemonians that the latter, although they
still refrained from breaking off the treaty and going to war
with Athens, yet proclaimed that any of their people that chose
might plunder the Athenians. The Corinthians also commenced hostilities
with the Athenians for private quarrels of their own; but the
rest of the Peloponnesians stayed quiet. Meanwhile the Melians
attacked by night and took the part of the Athenian lines over
against the market, and killed some of the men, and brought in
corn and all else that they could find useful to them, and so
returned and kept quiet, while the Athenians took measures to
keep better guard in future.
Summer was now over. The next winter the Lacedaemonians intended
to invade the Argive territory, but arriving at the frontier
found the sacrifices for crossing unfavourable, and went back
again. This intention of theirs gave the Argives suspicions of
certain of their fellow citizens, some of whom they arrested;
others, however, escaped them. About the same time the Melians
again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but
feebly garrisoned. Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens
in consequence, under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas,
the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking
place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians,
who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the
women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five
hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.
The Peace of Nicias
The war had exhausted fortunes and lives and patience. By
the time Cleon died, those favoring peace had their chance. The
leader of the peace faction was Nicias, and it was he who negotiated
a truce with Sparta.
The treaty did not end the war, but it was to be a thirty
year truce. It lasted only seven years, and even then there were
skirmishes. But this stretch of years was essentially a breathing
space for both sides, and Nicias was the political beneficiary
of it. The aristocrats went back to the farms and were content.
As you might expect, the war party did not simply vanish.
The common citizens of Athens had prospered in the war, for the
navy employed many of them, directly or indirectly. The quarrel
with Sparta was by no means settled, and there were plenty of
incidents during the years of "peace" to provide fuel
What the pro-war faction lacked was a leader, someone of Nicias'
stature. When one finally emerged, he turned out to be more than
a match for the old aristocrat.
The new leader of the war party was everything they could
want. His name was Alcibiades: he was young, handsome, brilliant,
daring, vain, highly educated, socially outrageous. He was clever,
well-spoken, and he threw the best parties in town. Even better,
he was the nephew of Pericles.
He was also politically amoral. He was not really a hawk;
rather, he chose the war party because it fit his temperment
and because he wanted to be a leader and the position was open.
It was easy for him to lampoon Nicias and his followers. He loved
to mock authority and to rile the conservatives.
Alcibiades became strategos in 420 and immediately began maneuvering
for war. The politics of all this is most complex, but in the
end Alcibiades was able to get what he wanted: a renewal of the
war effort, with a new plan--his plan--and under his leadership.
The Sicilian Expedition - Origins
The plan was pure Alcibiades: daring, outrageous, with the
potential for brilliant victory. His uncle had figured out how
to defend Athens but not how to defeat Sparta. Alcibiades had
solved the other half of the equation. Athens had been unable
to make large gains anywhere in Greece. Sparta was secure from
direct invasion, but Sparta depended on getting supplies from
Magna Graecia. And her ally, Corinth, likewise depended on trade
from the area.
Syracuse was the chief city of Sicily and was one of the largest
Greek cities anywhere. Take Syracuse and the rest of Sicily would
follow. Take Sicily, and both Corinth and Sparta would be cut
off from their supplies and wealth. Victory for Athens would
If it worked, it would work. If the military victory could
be achieved, the economic and political consequences would follow.
But could the military aims be achieved? Could Athens send a
fleet that could avoid the Corinthians? Could it land an Athenian
army that could take Syracuse? Could Athens afford such an undertaking?
Nicias opposed the expedition from the start. As the architect
of the 30 year truce, he thought Alcibiades little short of mad.
But Alcibiades knew how to speak well and how to win friends,
and Nicias soon found himself out-maneuvered. Too many people
favored the idea of an expedition.
Nicias tried to be clever. He tried to out-fox the fox. He
tries to dissuade the Athenians by proposing a fleet of unprecedented
size, hoping they would say no because of its cost. Instead,
they granted all he asked.
In fine Athenian tradition, the assembly named both Nicias
and Alcibiades as commanders of the expedition. That way, neither
political faction in Athens could claim that its leader was undermining
the efforts of the other. To mediate and accomodate, they named
a third commander, Lamachus. But there was little doubt that
the expedition belonged to Alcibiades.
The Expedition Begins
The force sent to Sicily consisted of 134 triremes and 27,000
men, the largest Athens had ever fielded. It all but exhausted
the Athenian treasury, which represented the income of its entire
empire and not just of Attica. But it would all be worth it to
bring Sparta to its knees.
On the eve of the departure of the fleet there occurred one
of those rare events that would be ludicrous if their consequences
had not been so dire. Certain public statues were defaced all
over the city, and it was widely said that the deed had been
done by Alcibiades and his buddies in a drunken rout.
Certainly it was the sort of thing Alcibiades was infamous
for: outrageous, impious, more than a little loony. But equally
certainly it was just the sort of story that would be manufactured
by his enemies to do him mischief.
The fleet sailed. No more than it was gone, charges were brought
in the matter of the statues against Alcibiades. Since this was
a democracy, and Alcibiades was after all no more than a citizen
now accused of a crime, a state ship was sent after the fleet
to bring Alcibiades back.
The ship caught up with the fleet and Alcibiades was duly
arrested, accused of sacrilege. It was an Athenian madness to
gamble on such an expedition and then arrest the man who had
conceived it. But it was plain bad policing to let the man get
away on the return to Athens.
As the state ship rounded the Peloponnese, Alcibiades gave
his captors the slip, dove over the side and swam to shore. Whereupon
he went directly to Sparta and proceeded to tell the Spartans
every detail of the expedition.
Lamachus was killed in the fighting, leaving Nicias. Nicias
was a lousy general - he procrastinated and hesitated, and his
forces died off slowly. Opportunities presented themselves and
he managed to fumble each of them. The army grew demoralized,
for everyone understood that the key was a rapid victory. Of
course, it didn't help that the chief architect of the plan had
gone over to the enemy and its chief opponent was now in command.
Nicias presented situation as hopeless, expecting that the
Athenian assembly, when it heard how poorly the expedition was
proceeding, would order him to come home. Instead, Athens sent
him 15,000 more men, under Demosthenes, creating thereby the
largest army ever assembled in Greece.
Demosthenes was a dynamic general and tried an immediate offensive.
But Syracuse was well defended and the attack failed. This attack
was probably their best hope. When it failed, all the commanders
began thinking of ways to withdraw the army safely.
The one thing that the expedition had to do was to keep the
fleet safe, for those ships were their only way home again. The
one thing it had to avoid at all costs was the destruction of
Of course Nicias failed. Even as the commanders at last recognized
the hopelessness of ever winning Syracuse, even as they had given
the orders to sail, even indeed the very night before they were
to depart, Nicias hesitated. The Athenians were caught by surprise,
the fleet was bottled up in the harbor and destroyed by fire
There was now no way home. The only alternative, and a desperate
one it was, was to try to cross the interior of Sicily and reach
a port friendly to Athens, where some ships might be had.
35,000 Athenians (and allies) set out across Sicily. The army
was already suffering from diseases contracted in the swamps
outside Syracuse. They now suffered from lack of supplies, particularly
lack of water, as they crossed the arid interior of Sicily. And
they suffered further because the Sicilians were dogging their
every step, cutting down stragglers and harassing the lines.
At the last, the army was almost without water and was dying
on its feet. When scouts reported a river ahead, the army dissolved
into a mob and ran for it.
The Syracusans were waiting on the opposite bank. As the Athenians
tumbled into the small river, the Syracusans attacked. The result
was slaughter. Much of the army perished at the river, and most
of the rest were captured. Those captured were enslaved. Only
a handful ever made it back to Athens.
So ended the expedition to Sicily. Never had a single Greek
city mobilized such an army, and never had a single Greek city
suffered such terrible losses.
Thucydides can tell you more about the end of the Sicilian
Such were the auxiliaries brought together on either side,
all of which had by this time joined, neither party experiencing
any subsequent accession. It was no wonder, therefore, if the
Syracusans and their allies thought that it would win them great
glory if they could follow up their recent victory in the sea-fight
by the capture of the whole Athenian armada, without letting
it escape either by sea or by land. They began at once to close
up the Great Harbour by means of boats, merchant vessels, and
galleys moored broadside across its mouth, which is nearly a
mile wide, and made all their other arrangements for the event
of the Athenians again venturing to fight at sea. There was,
in fact, nothing little either in their plans or their ideas.
The Athenians, seeing them closing up the harbour and informed
of their further designs, called a council of war. The generals
and colonels assembled and discussed the difficulties of the
situation; the point which pressed most being that they no longer
had provisions for immediate use (having sent on to Catana to
tell them not to send any, in the belief that they were going
away), and that they would not have any in future unless they
could command the sea. They therefore determined to evacuate
their upper lines, to enclose with a cross wall and garrison
a small space close to the ships, only just sufficient to hold
their stores and sick, and manning all the ships, seaworthy or
not, with every man that could be spared from the rest of their
land forces, to fight it out at sea, and, if victorious, to go
to Catana, if not, to burn their vessels, form in close order,
and retreat by land for the nearest friendly place they could
reach, Hellenic or barbarian. This was no sooner settled than
carried into effect; they descended gradually from the upper
lines and manned all their vessels, compelling all to go on board
who were of age to be in any way of use. They thus succeeded
in manning about one hundred and ten ships in all, on board of
which they embarked a number of archers and darters taken from
the Acarnanians and from the other foreigners, making all other
provisions allowed by the nature of their plan and by the necessities
which imposed it. All was now nearly ready, and Nicias, seeing
the soldiery disheartened by their unprecedented and decided
defeat at sea, and by reason of the scarcity of provisions eager
to fight it out as soon as possible, called them all together,
and first addressed them, speaking as follows:
"Soldiers of the Athenians and of the allies, we have
all an equal interest in the coming struggle, in which life and
country are at stake for us quite as much as they can be for
the enemy; since if our fleet wins the day, each can see his
native city again, wherever that city may be. You must not lose
heart, or be like men without any experience, who fail in a first
essay and ever afterwards fearfully forebode a future as disastrous.
But let the Athenians among you who have already had experience
of many wars, and the allies who have joined us in so many expeditions,
remember the surprises of war, and with the hope that fortune
will not be always against us, prepare to fight again in a manner
worthy of the number which you see yourselves to be.
"Now, whatever we thought would be of service against
the crush of vessels in such a narrow harbour, and against the
force upon the decks of the enemy, from which we suffered before,
has all been considered with the helmsmen, and, as far as our
means allowed, provided. A number of archers and darters will
go on board, and a multitude that we should not have employed
in an action in the open sea, where our science would be crippled
by the weight of the vessels; but in the present land-fight that
we are forced to make from shipboard all this will be useful.
We have also discovered the changes in construction that we must
make to meet theirs; and against the thickness of their cheeks,
which did us the greatest mischief, we have provided grappling-irons,
which will prevent an assailant backing water after charging,
if the soldiers on deck here do their duty; since we are absolutely
compelled to fight a land battle from the fleet, and it seems
to be our interest neither to back water ourselves, nor to let
the enemy do so, especially as the shore, except so much of it
as may be held by our troops, is hostile ground.
"You must remember this and fight on as long as you can,
and must not let yourselves be driven ashore, but once alongside
must make up your minds not to part company until you have swept
the heavy infantry from the enemy's deck. I say this more for
the heavy infantry than for the seamen, as it is more the business
of the men on deck; and our land forces are even now on the whole
the strongest. The sailors I advise, and at the same time implore,
not to be too much daunted by their misfortunes, now that we
have our decks better armed and greater number of vessels. Bear
in mind how well worth preserving is the pleasure felt by those
of you who through your knowledge of our language and imitation
of our manners were always considered Athenians, even though
not so in reality, and as such were honoured throughout Hellas,
and had your full share of the advantages of our empire, and
more than your share in the respect of our subjects and in protection
from ill treatment. You, therefore, with whom alone we freely
share our empire, we now justly require not to betray that empire
in its extremity, and in scorn of Corinthians, whom you have
often conquered, and of Siceliots, none of whom so much as presumed
to stand against us when our navy was in its prime, we ask you
to repel them, and to show that even in sickness and disaster
your skill is more than a match for the fortune and vigour of
"For the Athenians among you I add once more this reflection:
You left behind you no more such ships in your docks as these,
no more heavy infantry in their flower; if you do aught but conquer,
our enemies here will immediately sail thither, and those that
are left of us at Athens will become unable to repel their home
assailants, reinforced by these new allies. Here you will fall
at once into the hands of the Syracusans- I need not remind you
of the intentions with which you attacked them- and your countrymen
at home will fall into those of the Lacedaemonians. Since the
fate of both thus hangs upon this single battle, now, if ever,
stand firm, and remember, each and all, that you who are now
going on board are the army and navy of the Athenians, and all
that is left of the state and the great name of Athens, in whose
defence if any man has any advantage in skill or courage, now
is the time for him to show it, and thus serve himself and save
After this address Nicias at once gave orders to man the ships.
Meanwhile Gylippus and the Syracusans could perceive by the preparations
which they saw going on that the Athenians meant to fight at
sea. They had also notice of the grappling-irons, against which
they specially provided by stretching hides over the prows and
much of the upper part of their vessels, in order that the irons
when thrown might slip off without taking hold. All being now
ready, the generals and Gylippus addressed them in the following
"Syracusans and allies, the glorious character of our
past achievements and the no less glorious results at issue in
the coming battle are, we think, understood by most of you, or
you would never have thrown yourselves with such ardour into
the struggle; and if there be any one not as fully aware of the
facts as he ought to be, we will declare them to him. The Athenians
came to this country first to effect the conquest of Sicily,
and after that, if successful, of Peloponnese and the rest of
Hellas, possessing already the greatest empire yet known, of
present or former times, among the Hellenes. Here for the first
time they found in you men who faced their navy which made them
masters everywhere; you have already defeated them in the previous
sea-fights, and will in all likelihood defeat them again now.
When men are once checked in what they consider their special
excellence, their whole opinion of themselves suffers more than
if they had not at first believed in their superiority, the unexpected
shock to their pride causing them to give way more than their
real strength warrants; and this is probably now the case with
"With us it is different. The original estimate of ourselves
which gave us courage in the days of our unskilfulness has been
strengthened, while the conviction superadded to it that we must
be the best seamen of the time, if we have conquered the best,
has given a double measure of hope to every man among us; and,
for the most part, where there is the greatest hope, there is
also the greatest ardour for action. The means to combat us which
they have tried to find in copying our armament are familiar
to our warfare, and will be met by proper provisions; while they
will never be able to have a number of heavy infantry on their
decks, contrary to their custom, and a number of darters (born
landsmen, one may say, Acarnanians and others, embarked afloat,
who will not know how to discharge their weapons when they have
to keep still), without hampering their vessels and falling all
into confusion among themselves through fighting not according
to their own tactics. For they will gain nothing by the number
of their ships- I say this to those of you who may be alarmed
by having to fight against odds- as a quantity of ships in a
confined space will only be slower in executing the movements
required, and most exposed to injury from our means of offence.
Indeed, if you would know the plain truth, as we are credibly
informed, the excess of their sufferings and the necessities
of their present distress have made them desperate; they have
no confidence in their force, but wish to try their fortune in
the only way they can, and either to force their passage and
sail out, or after this to retreat by land, it being impossible
for them to be worse off than they are.
"The fortune of our greatest enemies having thus betrayed
itself, and their disorder being what I have described, let us
engage in anger, convinced that, as between adversaries, nothing
is more legitimate than to claim to sate the whole wrath of one's
soul in punishing the aggressor, and nothing more sweet, as the
proverb has it, than the vengeance upon an enemy, which it will
now be ours to take. That enemies they are and mortal enemies
you all know, since they came here to enslave our country, and
if successful had in reserve for our men all that is most dreadful,
and for our children and wives all that is most dishonourable,
and for the whole city the name which conveys the greatest reproach.
None should therefore relent or think it gain if they go away
without further danger to us. This they will do just the same,
even if they get the victory; while if we succeed, as we may
expect, in chastising them, and in handing down to all Sicily
her ancient freedom strengthened and confirmed, we shall have
achieved no mean triumph. And the rarest dangers are those in
which failure brings little loss and success the greatest advantage."
After the above address to the soldiers on their side, the
Syracusan generals and Gylippus now perceived that the Athenians
were manning their ships, and immediately proceeded to man their
own also. Meanwhile Nicias, appalled by the position of affairs,
realizing the greatness and the nearness of the danger now that
they were on the point of putting out from shore, and thinking,
as men are apt to think in great crises, that when all has been
done they have still something left to do, and when all has been
said that they have not yet said enough, again called on the
captains one by one, addressing each by his father's name and
by his own, and by that of his tribe, and adjured them not to
belie their own personal renown, or to obscure the hereditary
virtues for which their ancestors were illustrious: he reminded
them of their country, the freest of the free, and of the unfettered
discretion allowed in it to all to live as they pleased; and
added other arguments such as men would use at such a crisis,
and which, with little alteration, are made to serve on all occasions
alike- appeals to wives, children, and national gods- without
caring whether they are thought commonplace, but loudly invoking
them in the belief that they will be of use in the consternation
of the moment. Having thus admonished them, not, he felt, as
he would, but as he could, Nicias withdrew and led the troops
to the sea, and ranged them in as long a line as he was able,
in order to aid as far as possible in sustaining the courage
of the men afloat; while Demosthenes, Menander, and Euthydemus,
who took the command on board, put out from their own camp and
sailed straight to the barrier across the mouth of the harbour
and to the passage left open, to try to force their way out.
The Syracusans and their allies had already put out with about
the same number of ships as before, a part of which kept guard
at the outlet, and the remainder all round the rest of the harbour,
in order to attack the Athenians on all sides at once; while
the land forces held themselves in readiness at the points at
which the vessels might put into the shore. The Syracusan fleet
was commanded by Sicanus and Agatharchus, who had each a wing
of the whole force, with Pythen and the Corinthians in the centre.
When the rest of the Athenians came up to the barrier, with the
first shock of their charge they overpowered the ships stationed
there, and tried to undo the fastenings; after this, as the Syracusans
and allies bore down upon them from all quarters, the action
spread from the barrier over the whole harbour, and was more
obstinately disputed than any of the preceding ones. On either
side the rowers showed great zeal in bringing up their vessels
at the boatswains' orders, and the helmsmen great skill in manoeuvring,
and great emulation one with another; while the ships once alongside,
the soldiers on board did their best not to let the service on
deck be outdone by the others; in short, every man strove to
prove himself the first in his particular department. And as
many ships were engaged in a small compass (for these were the
largest fleets fighting in the narrowest space ever known, being
together little short of two hundred), the regular attacks with
the beak were few, there being no opportunity of backing water
or of breaking the line; while the collisions caused by one ship
chancing to run foul of another, either in flying from or attacking
a third, were more frequent. So long as a vessel was coming up
to the charge the men on the decks rained darts and arrows and
stones upon her; but once alongside, the heavy infantry tried
to board each other's vessel, fighting hand to hand. In many
quarters it happened, by reason of the narrow room, that a vessel
was charging an enemy on one side and being charged herself on
another, and that two or sometimes more ships had perforce got
entangled round one, obliging the helmsmen to attend to defence
here, offence there, not to one thing at once, but to many on
all sides; while the huge din caused by the number of ships crashing
together not only spread terror, but made the orders of the boatswains
inaudible. The boatswains on either side in the discharge of
their duty and in the heat of the conflict shouted incessantly
orders and appeals to their men; the Athenians they urged to
force the passage out, and now if ever to show their mettle and
lay hold of a safe return to their country; to the Syracusans
and their allies they cried that it would be glorious to prevent
the escape of the enemy, and, conquering, to exalt the countries
that were theirs. The generals, moreover, on either side, if
they saw any in any part of the battle backing ashore without
being forced to do so, called out to the captain by name and
asked him- the Athenians, whether they were retreating because
they thought the thrice hostile shore more their own than that
sea which had cost them so much labour to win; the Syracusans,
whether they were flying from the flying Athenians, whom they
well knew to be eager to escape in whatever way they could.
Meanwhile the two armies on shore, while victory hung in the
balance, were a prey to the most agonizing and conflicting emotions;
the natives thirsting for more glory than they had already won,
while the invaders feared to find themselves in even worse plight
than before. The all of the Athenians being set upon their fleet,
their fear for the event was like nothing they had ever felt;
while their view of the struggle was necessarily as chequered
as the battle itself. Close to the scene of action and not all
looking at the same point at once, some saw their friends victorious
and took courage and fell to calling upon heaven not to deprive
them of salvation, while others who had their eyes turned upon
the losers, wailed and cried aloud, and, although spectators,
were more overcome than the actual combatants. Others, again,
were gazing at some spot where the battle was evenly disputed;
as the strife was protracted without decision, their swaying
bodies reflected the agitation of their minds, and they suffered
the worst agony of all, ever just within reach of safety or just
on the point of destruction. In short, in that one Athenian army
as long as the sea-fight remained doubtful there was every sound
to be heard at once, shrieks, cheers, "We win," "We
lose," and all the other manifold exclamations that a great
host would necessarily utter in great peril; and with the men
in the fleet it was nearly the same; until at last the Syracusans
and their allies, after the battle had lasted a long while, put
the Athenians to flight, and with much shouting and cheering
chased them in open rout to the shore. The naval force, one one
way, one another, as many as were not taken afloat now ran ashore
and rushed from on board their ships to their camp; while the
army, no more divided, but carried away by one impulse, all with
shrieks and groans deplored the event, and ran down, some to
help the ships, others to guard what was left of their wall,
while the remaining and most numerous part already began to consider
how they should save themselves. Indeed, the panic of the present
moment had never been surpassed. They now suffered very nearly
what they had inflicted at Pylos; as then the Lacedaemonians
with the loss of their fleet lost also the men who had crossed
over to the island, so now the Athenians had no hope of escaping
by land, without the help of some extraordinary accident.
The sea-fight having been a severe one, and many ships and
lives having been lost on both sides, the victorious Syracusans
and their allies now picked up their wrecks and dead, and sailed
off to the city and set up a trophy. The Athenians, overwhelmed
by their misfortune, never even thought. of asking leave to take
up their dead or wrecks, but wished to retreat that very night.
Demosthenes, however, went to Nicias and gave it as his opinion
that they should man the ships they had left and make another
effort to force their passage out next morning; saying that they
had still left more ships fit for service than the enemy, the
Athenians having about sixty remaining as against less than fifty
of their opponents. Nicias was quite of his mind; but when they
wished to man the vessels, the sailors refused to go on board,
being so utterly overcome by their defeat as no longer to believe
in the possibility of success.
Accordingly they all now made up their minds to retreat by
land. Meanwhile the Syracusan Hermocrates- suspecting their intention,
and impressed by the danger of allowing a force of that magnitude
to retire by land, establish itself in some other part of Sicily,
and from thence renew the war- went and stated his views to the
authorities, and pointed out to them that they ought not to let
the enemy get away by night, but that all the Syracusans and
their allies should at once march out and block up the roads
and seize and guard the passes. The authorities were entirely
of his opinion, and thought that it ought to be done, but on
the other hand felt sure that the people, who had given themselves
over to rejoicing, and were taking their ease after a great battle
at sea, would not be easily brought to obey; besides, they were
celebrating a festival, having on that day a sacrifice to Heracles,
and most of them in their rapture at the victory had fallen to
drinking at the festival, and would probably consent to anything
sooner than to take up their arms and march out at that moment.
For these reasons the thing appeared impracticable to the magistrates;
and Hermocrates, finding himself unable to do anything further
with them, had now recourse to the following stratagem of his
own. What he feared was that the Athenians might quietly get
the start of them by passing the most difficult places during
the night; and he therefore sent, as soon as it was dusk, some
friends of his own to the camp with some horsemen who rode up
within earshot and called out to some of the men, as though they
were well-wishers of the Athenians, and told them to tell Nicias
(who had in fact some correspondents who informed him of what
went on inside the town) not to lead off the army by night as
the Syracusans were guarding the roads, but to make his preparations
at his leisure and to retreat by day. After saying this they
departed; and their hearers informed the Athenian generals, who
put off going for that night on the strength of this message,
not doubting its sincerity.
Since after all they had not set out at once, they now determined
to stay also the following day to give time to the soldiers to
pack up as well as they could the most useful articles, and,
leaving everything else behind, to start only with what was strictly
necessary for their personal subsistence. Meanwhile the Syracusans
and Gylippus marched out and blocked up the roads through the
country by which the Athenians were likely to pass, and kept
guard at the fords of the streams and rivers, posting themselves
so as to receive them and stop the army where they thought best;
while their fleet sailed up to the beach and towed off the ships
of the Athenians. Some few were burned by the Athenians themselves
as they had intended; the rest the Syracusans lashed on to their
own at their leisure as they had been thrown up on shore, without
any one trying to stop them, and conveyed to the town.
After this, Nicias and Demosthenes now thinking that enough
had been done in the way of preparation, the removal of the army
took place upon the second day after the sea-fight. It was a
lamentable scene, not merely from the single circumstance that
they were retreating after having lost all their ships, their
great hopes gone, and themselves and the state in peril; but
also in leaving the camp there were things most grievous for
every eye and heart to contemplate. The dead lay unburied, and
each man as he recognized a friend among them shuddered with
grief and horror; while the living whom they were leaving behind,
wounded or sick, were to the living far more shocking than the
dead, and more to be pitied than those who had perished. These
fell to entreating and bewailing until their friends knew not
what to do, begging them to take them and loudly calling to each
individual comrade or relative whom they could see, hanging upon
the necks of their tent-fellows in the act of departure, and
following as far as they could, and, when their bodily strength
failed them, calling again and again upon heaven and shrieking
aloud as they were left behind. So that the whole army being
filled with tears and distracted after this fashion found it
not easy to go, even from an enemy's land, where they had already
suffered evils too great for tears and in the unknown future
before them feared to suffer more. Dejection and self-condemnation
were also rife among them. Indeed they could only be compared
to a starved-out town, and that no small one, escaping; the whole
multitude upon the march being not less than forty thousand men.
All carried anything they could which might be of use, and the
heavy infantry and troopers, contrary to their wont, while under
arms carried their own victuals, in some cases for want of servants,
in others through not trusting them; as they had long been deserting
and now did so in greater numbers than ever. Yet even thus they
did not carry enough, as there was no longer food in the camp.
Moreover their disgrace generally, and the universality of their
sufferings, however to a certain extent alleviated by being borne
in company, were still felt at the moment a heavy burden, especially
when they contrasted the splendour and glory of their setting
out with the humiliation in which it had ended. For this was
by far the greatest reverse that ever befell an Hellenic army.
They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of
being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and
paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary;
travelling by land instead of by sea, and trusting not in their
fleet but in their heavy infantry. Nevertheless the greatness
of the danger still impending made all this appear tolerable.
Nicias seeing the army dejected and greatly altered, passed
along the ranks and encouraged and comforted them as far as was
possible under the circumstances, raising his voice still higher
and higher as he went from one company to another in his earnestness,
and in his anxiety that the benefit of his words might reach
as many as possible:
"Athenians and allies, even in our present position we
must still hope on, since men have ere now been saved from worse
straits than this; and you must not condemn yourselves too severely
either because of your disasters or because of your present unmerited
sufferings. I myself who am not superior to any of you in strength-
indeed you see how I am in my sickness- and who in the gifts
of fortune am, I think, whether in private life or otherwise,
the equal of any, am now exposed to the same danger as the meanest
among you; and yet my life has been one of much devotion toward
the gods, and of much justice and without offence toward men.
I have, therefore, still a strong hope for the future, and our
misfortunes do not terrify me as much as they might. Indeed we
may hope that they will be lightened: our enemies have had good
fortune enough; and if any of the gods was offended at our expedition,
we have been already amply punished. Others before us have attacked
their neighbours and have done what men will do without suffering
more than they could bear; and we may now justly expect to find
the gods more kind, for we have become fitter objects for their
pity than their jealousy. And then look at yourselves, mark the
numbers and efficiency of the heavy infantry marching in your
ranks, and do not give way too much to despondency, but reflect
that you are yourselves at once a city wherever you sit down,
and that there is no other in Sicily that could easily resist
your attack, or expel you when once established. The safety and
order of the march is for yourselves to look to; the one thought
of each man being that the spot on which he may be forced to
fight must be conquered and held as his country and stronghold.
Meanwhile we shall hasten on our way night and day alike, as
our provisions are scanty; and if we can reach some friendly
place of the Sicels, whom fear of the Syracusans still keeps
true to us, you may forthwith consider yourselves safe. A message
has been sent on to them with directions to meet us with supplies
of food. To sum up, be convinced, soldiers, that you must be
brave, as there is no place near for your cowardice to take refuge
in, and that if you now escape from the enemy, you may all see
again what your hearts desire, while those of you who are Athenians
will raise up again the great power of the state, fallen though
it be. Men make the city and not walls or ships without men in
As he made this address, Nicias went along the ranks, and
brought back to their place any of the troops that he saw straggling
out of the line; while Demosthenes did as much for his part of
the army, addressing them in words very similar. The army marched
in a hollow square, the division under Nicias leading, and that
of Demosthenes following, the heavy infantry being outside and
the baggage-carriers and the bulk of the army in the middle.
When they arrived at the ford of the river Anapus there they
found drawn up a body of the Syracusans and allies, and routing
these, made good their passage and pushed on, harassed by the
charges of the Syracusan horse and by the missiles of their light
troops. On that day they advanced about four miles and a half,
halting for the night upon a certain hill. On the next they started
early and got on about two miles further, and descended into
a place in the plain and there encamped, in order to procure
some eatables from the houses, as the place was inhabited, and
to carry on with them water from thence, as for many furlongs
in front, in the direction in which they were going, it was not
plentiful. The Syracusans meanwhile went on and fortified the
pass in front, where there was a steep hill with a rocky ravine
on each side of it, called the Acraean cliff. The next day the
Athenians advancing found themselves impeded by the missiles
and charges of the horse and darters, both very numerous, of
the Syracusans and allies; and after fighting for a long while,
at length retired to the same camp, where they had no longer
provisions as before, it being impossible to leave their position
by reason of the cavalry.
Early next morning they started afresh and forced their way
to the hill, which had been fortified, where they found before
them the enemy's infantry drawn up many shields deep to defend
the fortification, the pass being narrow. The Athenians assaulted
the work, but were greeted by a storm of missiles from the hill,
which told with the greater effect through its being a steep
one, and unable to force the passage, retreated again and rested.
Meanwhile occurred some claps of thunder and rain, as often happens
towards autumn, which still further disheartened the Athenians,
who thought all these things to be omens of their approaching
ruin. While they were resting, Gylippus and the Syracusans sent
a part of their army to throw up works in their rear on the way
by which they had advanced; however, the Athenians immediately
sent some of their men and prevented them; after which they retreated
more towards the plain and halted for the night. When they advanced
the next day the Syracusans surrounded and attacked them on every
side, and disabled many of them, falling back if the Athenians
advanced and coming on if they retired, and in particular assaulting
their rear, in the hope of routing them in detail, and thus striking
a panic into the whole army. For a long while the Athenians persevered
in this fashion, but after advancing for four or five furlongs
halted to rest in the plain, the Syracusans also withdrawing
to their own camp.
During the night Nicias and Demosthenes, seeing the wretched
condition of their troops, now in want of every kind of necessary,
and numbers of them disabled in the numerous attacks of the enemy,
determined to light as many fires as possible, and to lead off
the army, no longer by the same route as they had intended, but
towards the sea in the opposite direction to that guarded by
the Syracusans. The whole of this route was leading the army
not to Catana but to the other side of Sicily, towards Camarina,
Gela, and the other Hellenic and barbarian towns in that quarter.
They accordingly lit a number of fires and set out by night.
Now all armies, and the greatest most of all, are liable to fears
and alarms, especially when they are marching by night through
an enemy's country and with the enemy near; and the Athenians
falling into one of these panics, the leading division, that
of Nicias, kept together and got on a good way in front, while
that of Demosthenes, comprising rather more than half the army,
got separated and marched on in some disorder. By morning, however,
they reached the sea, and getting into the Helorine road, pushed
on in order to reach the river Cacyparis, and to follow the stream
up through the interior, where they hoped to be met by the Sicels
whom they had sent for. Arrived at the river, they found there
also a Syracusan party engaged in barring the passage of the
ford with a wall and a palisade, and forcing this guard, crossed
the river and went on to another called the Erineus, according
to the advice of their guides.
Meanwhile, when day came and the Syracusans and allies found
that the Athenians were gone, most of them accused Gylippus of
having let them escape on purpose, and hastily pursuing by the
road which they had no difficulty in finding that they had taken,
overtook them about dinner-time. They first came up with the
troops under Demosthenes, who were behind and marching somewhat
slowly and in disorder, owing to the night panic above referred
to, and at once attacked and engaged them, the Syracusan horse
surrounding them with more ease now that they were separated
from the rest and hemming them in on one spot. The division of
Nicias was five or six miles on in front, as he led them more
rapidly, thinking that under the circumstances their safety lay
not in staying and fighting, unless obliged, but in retreating
as fast as possible, and only fighting when forced to do so.
On the other hand, Demosthenes was, generally speaking, harassed
more incessantly, as his post in the rear left him the first
exposed to the attacks of the enemy; and now, finding that the
Syracusans were in pursuit, he omitted to push on, in order to
form his men for battle, and so lingered until he was surrounded
by his pursuers and himself and the Athenians with him placed
in the most distressing position, being huddled into an enclosure
with a wall all round it, a road on this side and on that, and
olive-trees in great number, where missiles were showered in
upon them from every quarter. This mode of attack the Syracusans
had with good reason adopted in preference to fighting at close
quarters, as to risk a struggle with desperate men was now more
for the advantage of the Athenians than for their own; besides,
their success had now become so certain that they began to spare
themselves a little in order not to be cut off in the moment
of victory, thinking too that, as it was, they would be able
in this way to subdue and capture the enemy.
In fact, after plying the Athenians and allies all day long
from every side with missiles, they at length saw that they were
worn out with their wounds and other sufferings; and Gylippus
and the Syracusans and their allies made a proclamation, offering
their liberty to any of the islanders who chose to come over
to them; and some few cities went over. Afterwards a capitulation
was agreed upon for all the rest with Demosthenes, to lay down
their arms on condition that no one was to be put to death either
by violence or imprisonment or want of the necessaries of life.
Upon this they surrendered to the number of six thousand in all,
laying down all the money in their possession, which filled the
hollows of four shields, and were immediately conveyed by the
Syracusans to the town.
Meanwhile Nicias with his division arrived that day at the
river Erineus, crossed over, and posted his army upon some high
ground upon the other side. The next day the Syracusans overtook
him and told him that the troops under Demosthenes had surrendered,
and invited him to follow their example. Incredulous of the fact,
Nicias asked for a truce to send a horseman to see, and upon
the return of the messenger with the tidings that they had surrendered,
sent a herald to Gylippus and the Syracusans, saying that he
was ready to agree with them on behalf of the Athenians to repay
whatever money the Syracusans had spent upon the war if they
would let his army go; and offered until the money was paid to
give Athenians as hostages, one for every talent. The Syracusans
and Gylippus rejected this proposition, and attacked this division
as they had the other, standing all round and plying them with
missiles until the evening. Food and necessaries were as miserably
wanting to the troops of Nicias as they had been to their comrades;
nevertheless they watched for the quiet of the night to resume
their march. But as they were taking up their arms the Syracusans
perceived it and raised their paean, upon which the Athenians,
finding that they were discovered, laid them down again, except
about three hundred men who forced their way through the guards
and went on during the night as they were able.
As soon as it was day Nicias put his army in motion, pressed,
as before, by the Syracusans and their allies, pelted from every
side by their missiles, and struck down by their javelins. The
Athenians pushed on for the Assinarus, impelled by the attacks
made upon them from every side by a numerous cavalry and the
swarm of other arms, fancying that they should breathe more freely
if once across the river, and driven on also by their exhaustion
and craving for water. Once there they rushed in, and all order
was at an end, each man wanting to cross first, and the attacks
of the enemy making it difficult to cross at all; forced to huddle
together, they fell against and trod down one another, some dying
immediately upon the javelins, others getting entangled together
and stumbling over the articles of baggage, without being able
to rise again. Meanwhile the opposite bank, which was steep,
was lined by the Syracusans, who showered missiles down upon
the Athenians, most of them drinking greedily and heaped together
in disorder in the hollow bed of the river. The Peloponnesians
also came down and butchered them, especially those in the water,
which was thus immediately spoiled, but which they went on drinking
just the same, mud and all, bloody as it was, most even fighting
to have it.
At last, when many dead now lay piled one upon another in
the stream, and part of the army had been destroyed at the river,
and the few that escaped from thence cut off by the cavalry,
Nicias surrendered himself to Gylippus, whom he trusted more
than he did the Syracusans, and told him and the Lacedaemonians
to do what they liked with him, but to stop the slaughter of
the soldiers. Gylippus, after this, immediately gave orders to
make prisoners; upon which the rest were brought together alive,
except a large number secreted by the soldiery, and a party was
sent in pursuit of the three hundred who had got through the
guard during the night, and who were now taken with the rest.
The number of the enemy collected as public property was not
considerable; but that secreted was very large, and all Sicily
was filled with them, no convention having been made in their
case as for those taken with Demosthenes. Besides this, a large
portion were killed outright, the carnage being very great, and
not exceeded by any in this Sicilian war. In the numerous other
encounters upon the march, not a few also had fallen. Nevertheless
many escaped, some at the moment, others served as slaves, and
then ran away subsequently. These found refuge at Catana.
The Syracusans and their allies now mustered and took up the
spoils and as many prisoners as they could, and went back to
the city. The rest of their Athenian and allied captives were
deposited in the quarries, this seeming the safest way of keeping
them; but Nicias and Demosthenes were butchered, against the
will of Gylippus, who thought that it would be the crown of his
triumph if he could take the enemy's generals to Lacedaemon.
One of them, as it happened, Demosthenes, was one of her greatest
enemies, on account of the affair of the island and of Pylos;
while the other, Nicias, was for the same reasons one of her
greatest friends, owing to his exertions to procure the release
of the prisoners by persuading the Athenians to make peace. For
these reasons the Lacedaemonians felt kindly towards him; and
it was in this that Nicias himself mainly confided when he surrendered
to Gylippus. But some of the Syracusans who had been in correspondence
with him were afraid, it was said, of his being put to the torture
and troubling their success by his revelations; others, especially
the Corinthians, of his escaping, as he was wealthy, by means
of bribes, and living to do them further mischief; and these
persuaded the allies and put him to death. This or the like was
the cause of the death of a man who, of all the Hellenes in my
time, least deserved such a fate, seeing that the whole course
of his life had been regulated with strict attention to virtue.
The prisoners in the quarries were at first hardly treated
by the Syracusans. Crowded in a narrow hole, without any roof
to cover them, the heat of the sun and the stifling closeness
of the air tormented them during the day, and then the nights,
which came on autumnal and chilly, made them ill by the violence
of the change; besides, as they had to do everything in the same
place for want of room, and the bodies of those who died of their
wounds or from the variation in the temperature, or from similar
causes, were left heaped together one upon another, intolerable
stenches arose; while hunger and thirst never ceased to afflict
them, each man during eight months having only half a pint of
water and a pint of corn given him daily. In short, no single
suffering to be apprehended by men thrust into such a place was
spared them. For some seventy days they thus lived all together,
after which all, except the Athenians and any Siceliots or Italiots
who had joined in the expedition, were sold. The total number
of prisoners taken it would be difficult to state exactly, but
it could not have been less than seven thousand.
This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in thig
war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious
to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. They were
beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was
great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction,
their fleet, their army, everything was destroyed, and few out
of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily.
Aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition
The expedition against Syracuse consumed nearly all of Athens'
resources. She had lost a fleet and an army. The government of
Athens had made enormous demands on its citizens and on its empire.
Athens had shot her best bolt and had failed. The issue now was
not how to win but how to avoid defeat.
Still, Athens was not defeated. She still had great resources
among her allies and much wealth still flowed into the Piraeus.
It was a measure of her resources to note that Athens now raised
yet another fleet and was able to continue the war.
Three serious problems confronted Athens now. The most serious
was that she still had not the means of defeating her enemies,
other than holding on and hoping for a settlement. She also now
lacked a great leader such as Pericles or even Alcibiades. And,
finally, politics kept interfering with the war--the ancient
conflict between the aristocrats and the democrats.
In 414, as a result of the defeat in Sicily, the oligarchs
were able to seize power. They conduct the war for a few years,
but they prove incompetent. Athens suffered more losses, and
the oligarchs were widely suspected of colluding with Sparta
for an end to the war that would be detrimental to Athens. By
410, sentiment had again swung around in favor of the democrats.
Feelings ran so strongly that Athens welcomed back her prodigal
The Later War Years
The last part of the war was a grim time for Athens. The oligarchs
proved themselves unable to bring the war to a conclusion, for
Sparta was now demanding virtual surrender. Eventually, the democratic
party again threw the oligarchs out of power and again tried
to prosecute the war vigorously.
They went so far as to forgive and recall Alcibiades. He gave
Athens four years of victories before he again fell from favor.
The victories brought no permanent results, though, and served
merely to prolong the end.
The end came finally in 405, at the Aegospotami River. The
Athenian fleet was operating in the northern Aegean, with a combined
Corinthian and Spartan navy (now financed by Persian gold) in
pursuit. The Athenians put in at the Aegospotami River to gather
fresh water and supplies.
Such an expedition is always tricky. The crews have to put
to shore, leaving the fleet under-manned. It was imperative at
such a time to know the location of the enemy and to keep a sharp
eye for ships. This was not done.
The Athenians were surprised by the Corinthians and Spartans,
and the fleet was almost completely destroyed. Athens lost the
better part of her 180 ships, while the 200 Spartan ships survived
the battle in good shape.
The Athenian treasury was empty. There could be no heroic
recovery as there had been after the disaster in Sicily. And,
without the fleet, the strategy of Pericles failed at last.
A Spartan army invaded Attica in 404. After a short resistance,
Athens was forced to surrender.
The terms of the peace were harsh. Sparta demanded the destruction
of the walls around the Piraeus, as well as the Long Walls running
from Athens to the port. The citizens of Athens themselves were
forced to pull down their own handiwork.
The Athenian war fleet was reduced to twelve ships--barely
enough to protect her shipping. Athens was also forced to become
a junior ally of Sparta, and so lost the right to form her own
Sparta of course blamed much of the behavior of Athens on
her form of government. The exiled aristocrats were restored
to power, and the entire government was placed in the hands of
a committe of thirty. These instituted reprisals against their
enemies so bloody (about 1,500 political murders in the space
of eight months) that they earned for themselves the name of
the Thirty Tyrants. They in fact behaved so outrageously that
a milder demoracy was restored in 403, but Athens was still subject
Results of the War
The war was a catastrophe for Athens. She lost her empire
so thoroughly that she never regained it. The city continued
to enjoy a level of wealth, and as a center of culture she still
counted among the leading towns of Hellas. But her political
influence was never again decisive.
Sparta won the war, but scarcely knew what to do with the
fruits of victory. Her attempts to lead the Greeks were heavy-handed
and soon called forth new champions of liberty. Chief among these
was Thebes. But Sparta did not become a great city, nor did it
build a new empire.
Did the war harm the Greeks as a whole? That's one I will
not answer here, but rather will suggest two contrary interpretations.
By the first, the war was detrimental because only Athens could
have united the Greeks and only a united Greece could have withstood,
first Alexander and, later, Rome. Athens' defeat was Greece's
By the second argument, Sparta's victory was Greece's victory.
A united Greece was never a possibility. More to the point, it
was contrary to what the Greeks themselves wanted. Theirs was
the world of independent city-states, and Athens was a threat
to that world. Sparta's victory preserved Greek liberty--as the
Greeks themselves understood the word--for another 250 years.