Ancient History & Civilisation


The Sicilian Expedition [415-413 B.C.]

Where there is hubris and self-will, know this:

The city, after a fair voyage, in time will plunge to the bottom.


PEACE CAME TOO SOON FOR ONE AMBITIOUS YOUNG ATHENIAN. Alcibiades had just turned thirty, old enough at last to take his rightful place among Athens’ generals and civic leaders. Peacetime robbed him of his chances to shine in battle, exploit a great crisis, or pose as the savior of Athens. Happily for him, the Spartans were unwilling or unable to abide by the terms of the Peace of Nicias. So Alcibiades set out to stir up trouble among the Greeks, like a boy shoving a long stick into a hornet’s nest.

Even without his incendiary policies, Alcibiades’ flamboyant behavior and mannerisms kept him always in the public eye. The comic poets of Athens ruthlessly mimicked Alcibiades’ idiosyncratic lisp and hesitant speech. He enjoyed the glory of seeing his four-horse chariots take first, second, and fourth place at the Olympic games. Even more than his sporting victories, Alcibiades’ sexual adventures fascinated the Athenians. Far from hiding his erotic obsessions, Alcibiades went so far as to replace the traditional family crest on his shield with an image of the god Eros standing on a field of gold, wielding a thunderbolt. His marriage to the richest heiress in Athens did nothing to stop his scandalous escapades. When she sought a divorce, he seized her from the court and carried her home again through the crowds in the Agora.

Like all rich Athenians he had served the city as a trierarch, and his outrageous behavior carried over to the decks of his triremes. Alcibiades ordered the ship’s carpenters to cut away sections of the stern decks so that his bed could be slung on ropes in the gap. No hard pallets for Alcibiades. He slept as if rocking in a cradle, the first recorded swinging of a hammock on a ship at sea. His steersman, a citizen named Antiochus, was befriended on the strength of nothing more than a prank in the Assembly. One day a pet quail escaped from under Alcibiades’ cloak when he lifted his hands to applaud a speech. Antiochus happened to be standing nearby. He won Alcibiades’ eternal regard by recapturing the bird following a noisy chase through the ranks of laughing citizens.

The fragile Peace of Nicias needed constant nurture if it was to survive, but the Athenians instead gave Alcibiades free rein in his provocative ventures abroad. So long as he did not violate the letter of the peace with a direct attack on Spartan territory, they supported all his schemes. Summer after summer this ambitious and charismatic young general set out with Athenian fleets to aid anybody opposed to the Spartans.

Alcibiades was good at impulsive beginnings, but all his projects had a way of fizzling out in the end. His character lacked the steadiness to push any enterprise through to completion. Even so, the trouble that he caused was enough to win congratulations from the famous misanthrope Timon of Athens. This eccentric hater of his fellow citizens seized Alcibiades’ hand after one Assembly session and told him, “Well done! Keep this up and you will ruin them all!”

Five years after the signing of the Peace of Nicias, envoys from Segesta in Sicily arrived in Athens. The Segestan envoys asked that Athens send its navy to settle a squabble that involved the powerful Sicilian city of Syracuse. As a makeweight argument they threw in a fresh appeal from the Sicilians of Leontini, old allies of the Athenians, who had been expelled from their city by the Syracusans. Athens had already made one unsuccessful attempt to help the people of Leontini, and at least one veteran of that first Sicilian expedition, the general Eurymedon, could attest to the uselessness of another. Nevertheless the Assembly sent a delegation to find out the facts about Segesta. They returned with reports of a wealthy city along with sixty silver talents as a gift from the Segestans. It was enough money to pay the crews of sixty triremes for a month.

The veterans of the recent war with the Peloponnesians opposed new military undertakings, but younger Athenians took a different view. Their city and navy had emerged from the ten years’ war unscathed. The treasury was filling up again. They longed for great enterprises worthy of Athens’ power and glory. Even the dreary turn of events in Greece played its part. After they conquered Sicily, might they not finally subdue the Peloponnesians and make themselves masters of the entire Greek world?

In response to the appeal of the Segestan envoys, the Assembly voted to send a fleet of sixty triremes to Sicily, led by a team of generals that would include Alcibiades. A second debate was convened when Nicias urged the Athenians to change their minds while there was still time. When Alcibiades made a fervent plea that the Assembly stick to its resolve, Nicias tried to scare the citizens into abandoning the scheme. With a great show of concern he deliberately exaggerated the numbers and costs needed to win such a war. But his ploy backfired. The Athenians reaffirmed the decision to send out the expedition but also vastly increased its scope. Nicias himself, no more in control of this meeting than he had been at the debate with Cleon over Pylos, was cornered into specifying the excessive numbers that he deemed would guarantee safety and success.

The Athenians threw themselves into the preparation of the armada with feverish enthusiasm. Anyone not employed in fitting out the fleet congregated in the wrestling schools or stood on street corners in eager conversation. Those who knew Sicily used the tips of their walking sticks and drew maps of the island on the ground for their more ignorant friends. Sicily was three-cornered, and it was easy to pinpoint Syracuse on the side of the triangle closest to Athens. There was Italy! And there was Africa! Down in the sand at their feet it all looked so close, so small, so possible.

An outburst of religious piety thickened the atmosphere of runaway patriotism. Athenian oracle-mongers retailed prophecies that foreshadowed the destiny of Athens to conquer Sicily. During these days of preparation the sacred trireme Ammonias returned to the Piraeus from Africa bearing a favorable prophecy from the oracle at Siwa in the Egyptian desert. Zeus Ammon assured Alcibiades that the Athenians would capture all the Syracusans. Even the gods seemed to be urging the people forward.

Committed now to the expedition as one of its generals, Nicias worked with Alcibiades to arrange for a departure ceremony that would beggar description. As showy in his sanctimonious way as Alcibiades himself, Nicias had once paid builders to contrive an extraordinary pontoon bridge of gilded and tapestried ships for a festival. The occasion was the great musical competition of choirs that drew Athenians and other Ionians across the sea to the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos. Normally the choirboys, pipers, and chorus masters disembarked on the island in an undignified scramble. On the occasion when Nicias was sponsor, the chorus of young Athenians caused a sensation when they paraded in stately array across the bridge of boats, singing as they came. His love of lavish spectacle now guided the plans to give the great armada a spectacular send-off.

Some citizens did oppose the venture. In the open Assembly they knew the majority would call them unpatriotic if they raised their hands and voted no, so they remained silent in public. The astronomer Meton, famous for devising the nineteen-year cycle of the official Athenian calendar, secretly set a fire that destroyed his own house. Thorugh this domestic disaster he hoped to render his son exempt from service as a trierarch.

When the launching of the fleet was only a few days off, the city was shaken by the most terrible act of sacrilege in its history. One morning the Athenians awoke to find that parties unknown had mutilated the stone herms that stood outside every house and temple. These phallic statues represented the god Hermes, guardian of travelers and promoter of prosperous journeys. Apparently a well-organized gang of men had passed through the city streets by night, knocking off stone noses and genitals. The perpetrators, whoever they might be, failed to stop the armada from setting out, but their vandalism spread a cloud over the entire expedition.

The mutilation of the herms threw the city into an uproar. An investigation was launched to find the desecrators. Alcibiades’ escapades now came back to haunt him as, with sublime illogic, many Athenians made him their chief target of suspicion. Alcibiades, eager to depart, indignantly proclaimed his innocence, but the Assembly reserved the right to call him back to Athens should evidence of his guilt appear. This burden of suspicion would inevitably weaken his prestige in dealing with his two colleagues, Nicias and Lamachus. The latter general was well known for having led two Athenian squadrons into the Black Sea. The people had assigned him to the Sicilian expedition in the hope of curbing Alcibiades’ wilder impulses, while providing Nicias with some much-needed backbone.

The great armada finally set out on a midsummer morning. Before dawn the population of Athens was on the move, pouring down to the Piraeus to watch the departure of the ships. Families clustered around husbands and sons who were departing into the unknown. From docks and housetops the Athenians gazed out at a floating city, an entire community packed on board ships. The trierarchs had vied with one another in paint and gilding. Now the triremes shone resplendent in the sunlight, seeming more ready for a parade than for combat.

The dazzling hulls made it easy to overlook the hollowness within. The crews and fighting men were inexperienced in combat. So great was the city’s maritime supremacy that its navy cruised the seas unchallenged. During the recent war with the Peloponnesians only small squadrons had been called on to fight the enemy. And as leaders from Themistocles to Sophocles had observed, the strength of a navy lay not in its ships but in its men.

When all were on board, the ships rowed out to their appointed places on the harbor’s oval of blue water. Then the trumpeter sounded a signal. Immediately the multitude fell silent. A herald began to cry out the hymns and prayers for the launching of ships. To each line of the herald’s chant, all the people responded in chorus. The generals and trierarchs then poured their libations into the sea from goblets of silver and gold. The leading trireme moved toward the mouth of the harbor, and in a majestic procession the ships fell into line behind it. Once clear of the Cantharus the triremes spurted off at high speed, racing toward Aegina as if the expedition were no more than a regatta. The people watched the hulls disappear over the southern horizon, then returned to their homes to wait for news of victory.

Over the next few days the fleet circumnavigated the Peloponnese without incident. Not until they joined the advance contingent at Corcyra did the Athenians realize that a gigantic force can be its own worst enemy. The same logistical difficulties that had once beset Xerxes now confronted the imperial navy of Athens. Their numbers were so vast that they might, like the Persian host of old, “drink the rivers dry.” Nowhere on the voyage ahead would the Athenians find ports big enough to hold all their ships or supply their hordes of men. The great fleet had to be divided into three squadrons, with a general at the head of each.

In successive waves they crossed over to Italy. Many western Greek cities, alarmed by the number of ships, refused to let them land at all. Even places supposedly friendly to Athens kept their gates barred and their markets shut, providing no more than permission to land and take on water. Too late the Athenians realized that their expedition should have been preceded by a serious effort to build up a league of allies pledged to join the attack on Syracuse.

Their frustrations reached a climax at Rhegium on the Strait of Messina, an ancient ally that also refused to support the invasion. There the Athenians met the envoys with the three triremes that had been sent ahead to collect the promised money from Segesta, the money that was to cover the immense costs of the expedition. The envoys had their own tale of woe, and it was a most embarrassing one for the Athenians. The actual sum possessed by the Segestans was only thirty talents of silver, barely enough to pay the crews for seven or eight days. How had the first mission been so deceived?

The truth was soon revealed. The wretched Segestans, knowing that the Athenians would help them only if they appeared to be rich, tricked the members of the first mission with lavish dinners and seemingly limitless displays of gold and silver vessels. In fact, the Segestans had only a single set of expensive cups, bowls, and plates. Even this set had been pieced together by borrowing from neighboring Greek and Phoenician cities, who were certainly in on the joke. The glittering table service was secretly passed from house to house, always arriving at the kitchen door before the Athenians arrived for their next diplomatic dinner. The ruse had convinced the visiting envoys that even ordinary Segestans had huge fortunes.

This disastrous news led to a split among the three Athenian generals. Nicias recommended that they fulfill their original mission and leave the sixty fast triremes to aid Segesta against its enemies. The rest of the armada could then parade ceremonially around the shores of Sicily in a show of naval power before going home. Alcibiades dismissed this proposal as disgraceful. He advocated a campaign of diplomacy from city to city. When they had won over enough allies, the Athenians could attack and subdue Syracuse. The third and least prestigious general, Lamachus, had the sound est instincts. He urged an immediate assault on Syracuse before the city could organize its defenses. As this seasoned veteran knew, it was not only in Aesop’s fables that familiarity bred contempt.

Finding that neither of his colleagues would listen to him, Lamachus broke the deadlock by favoring Alcibiades’ plan of winning new allies through diplomacy. First, however, the Athenians planned a visit to Syracuse itself. In the Great Harbor they would deliver a warning to the city and justify Athens’ actions to the world.

Syracuse had of course never attacked Athens. On the contrary, the Syracusans took Athens as their model for democratic government, freedom of thought, grand public works, and inventiveness. Their city resembled Athens as it had been in the time before the Persian Wars: a place of great but as yet unrealized potential. Syracuse even had its own Themistocles in the person of a visionary and patriotic citizen named Hermocrates.

While the bulk of the Athenian fleet remained at Rhegium, Alcibiades led the sixty fast triremes down the coast in single file, an intimidating array spread out against the skyline. When they reached Syracuse, the ten leading triremes rowed straight into the Great Harbor and took up a position within hailing distance of the city walls. The herald proclaimed that the Athenians had come to restore freedom to their Sicilian allies. All those in Syracuse who favored this cause should leave the city and join the Athenians.

No one from the city answered the Athenian herald. An eerie silence prevailed. As far as the Athenians could see, the Syracusans had no navy and were not prepared to withstand a siege. Nonetheless the sheer scale of the place was overwhelming. The Great Harbor was an irregular oval more than two miles long and a mile broad, big enough to swallow all three of the Piraeus harbors. On the western shore lay reedy wetlands; elsewhere rocky flats shelved into the water. The only good mooring facilities for triremes were the city’s well-protected dockyards, one facing into the Great Harbor and the other facing the open sea.

Having surveyed the enemy’s stronghold, Alcibiades led the Athenian fleet northward and set up a new base at Catana, near the forbidding cone of Mount Etna. The rest of the armada joined them there for the winter. As long as the fair weather lasted, Alcibiades led squadrons up and down the coast on raids to secure new funds or new friends. Returning to Catana after one of these excursions, Alcibiades found that the sacred trireme Salaminia had arrived with orders recalling him to Athens. The investigation into the mutilation of the herms had exploded into a welter of related and unrelated inquiries, and the Assembly wanted Alcibiades for questioning.





He went peacefully, leaving Nicias and Lamachus in charge of the expedition. At one of the landing places on the Italian coast, however, Alcibiades eluded the crew of the Salaminia and disappeared. Convinced now of his guilt, the Athenians at home condemned their scandalous general to death. When word of the sentence reached him, Alcibiades said only, “I shall show them that I am still alive.” He soon sought refuge in Sparta, one of the few safe places for an Athenian outlaw, and offered the Spartans advice on how they might defeat his native city.

With Alcibiades no longer sharing command of the fleet in Sicily, Lamachus was able to bring Nicias briefly to life. Luring the Syracusan army overland to Catana by means of a false report, Nicias and Lamachus loaded their own troops onto the triremes and raced down the coast to the Great Harbor, where they landed unopposed. Before the Syracusans discovered the ruse and returned, Athenian carpenters and shipwrights had chopped down trees and built a stockade to protect the triremes. The next day, amid crashing thunder, lightning, and rain, the Athenians defeated the Syracusan army in a battle near the city walls. But the appearance of the enemy cavalry prevented the Athenian hoplites from gaining a decisive victory. They had no choice but to return to Catana. More optimistic now, Nicias and Lamachus sent a letter to the Assembly with a report on the expedition’s first campaigning season and an appeal for more horsemen and money.

The workmen in the camp at Catana spent the winter making bricks and implements of iron. The Athenians were preparing to surround Syracuse with a siege wall on land and a blockade of ships at sea. Meanwhile Nicias entered into secret communication with pro-Athenian Syracusans who seemed ready to open the gates, once they convinced the other citizens that resistance was futile. With more battles like the one just fought in the Great Harbor, and more help from Syracusan turncoats, the generals hoped for a speedy end to their mission.

One year later the quick victory had failed to materialize. Nicias sent a second annual report from a new camp on land that the Athenians had seized within the Great Harbor itself. Far from being over, the war was dragging on with diminishing prospects for success. Nicias now commanded alone—Lamachus had died in the fighting when they brought the fleet to Syracuse and established a permanent base there. As would happen many times during the Sicilian expedition, an Athenian victory had lost more than it gained. The untimely death of the plain-speaking veteran extinguished the spark of Athenian initiative. Never known for forcefulness, Nicias’ energy was sapped further by a debilitating condition of the kidneys. To justify his poor performance, he described the troubles that confronted the Athenian force.

“Our fleet was originally in first-class condition; the timbers were sound and the crews were in good shape. Now, however, the ships have been at sea so long that the timbers have rotted, and the crews are not what they were. We cannot drag our ships on shore to dry and clean them, because the enemy has as many or more ships than we have, and keeps us in the constant expectation of having to face an attack. We can see them at their maneuvers, and the initiative is in their hands. Moreover, it is easier for them to dry their ships, since they are not maintaining a blockade.”

He also had to report that the diplomatic initiative had proved an utter failure. The arrival of the Athenian armada had united Sicily as nothing else could have done, just as Xerxes’ invasion had once united the city-states of Greece. Faced with ever-growing numbers on the enemy side, Nicias begged the Assembly to recall the fleet or at least to recall him, in view of his illness. Trying to shock those at home into giving up their dreams of conquering Sicily, he warned that victory could be won at Syracuse only by reinforcing the original expedition with a new armada, a force of ships and men and money as great as the first.

Like his cautionary speech against Alcibiades at the original debate in the Assembly, Nicias’ letter had the opposite effect to the one intended. The Athenians ordered him to remain in command and promised to send reinforcements the following spring. Athens could not abandon an enterprise in which it had already invested so much material and prestige. To command the new fleet, the Assembly appointed Demosthenes, one of the heroes of Pylos, and Eurymedon, a veteran of the first Athenian expedition to Sicily more than ten years before.

While Nicias was corresponding with the Assembly at the end of the war’s second year, the Syracusans sent envoys to Sparta. Alcibiades supported their appeal for help. To ensure that the Spartans understood the full extent of Athens’ imperialistic ambitions, Alcibiades revealed the master plan that lay behind the Athenian attack on Syracuse. The Athenians intended first to conquer Sicily and Italy, then cross to the African coast and take Carthage and its empire. The forests of Italy would yield timber for a new and even larger fleet, manned in part by warlike Iberian tribesmen. With this fleet Athens intended to blockade the Peloponnese, defeat the Spartans, and extend their rule throughout the Mediterranean. To prevent these calamities, Alcibiades said, the Spartans should send the Syracusans a general.

The man chosen for the mission was named Gylippus, a tough disciplinarian with a gift for strategy. He won the trust and respect of the Syracusans by scoring victories on land as soon as he arrived. When Gylippus learned that the Athenians were sending a new fleet, he decided to make a preemptive strike before the reinforcements arrived. During the first two years of the war the Syracusans had not dared to challenge the Athenian navy. Nicias had positioned the fleet on the opposite side of the Great Harbor from the main Athenian military base, at a rocky promontory called Plemmyrium (“Flowing of the Sea”). From there the Athenian ships kept up a blockade of the harbor mouth, protected by a row of three forts against attacks by land. Gylippus was determined to expel the enemy fleet from this advantageous site. He would use the untried Syracusan navy as bait to distract them during his assault.

Early one morning the Athenians at Plemmyrium were startled to see eighty Syracusan ships rowing boldly toward them from the city’s two harbors. Two years after launching the great armada, the Athenians were facing a naval battle at last. At once they divided their fast triremes so that twenty-five confronted the Syracusan squadron inside the Great Harbor, while thirty-five blocked the entry of the fleet from the Little Harbor on the seaward side. A double battle began, with the outnumbered Athenians fighting on two fronts. Many Athenian soldiers from the forts came down to lend support in case any ships ran aground.

After the lines clashed, the triremes of the two sides fought each other to a standstill. Little by little the Athenians fell back. Then Syracusan inexperience began to tell. With clear water ahead of them, their ships straggled forward into the gap. Seeing the confusion, the Athenians launched a counterattack and chased the enemy back to the city walls, destroying eleven ships and losing only three of their own. After setting up a trophy on an islet, the Athenian commanders and crews attempted to return to Plemmyrium. They were too late. While they were busy fighting the Syracusan navy, Gylippus and his troops had appeared from the hinterland and taken all three forts.

Bewildered and disheartened, the victors had no choice but to join the Athenian army in the camp on the western shore. Their casualties had been heavy, and along with the three forts, Gylippus had captured the cruising masts and sails of the fast triremes and most of their naval stores. Money chests had been kept in the forts to pay for supplies, and they too joined the enemy’s windfall. At once the Syracusans sent out squadrons to seek support abroad. In southern Italy they found boats filled with provisions for the Athenian forces and stockpiles of timber on shore that Nicias had been counting on to repair his rotting triremes. The Syracusans destroyed the boats and burned the wood. No naval supplies would reach the Athenians by sea.

Meanwhile the Great Harbor was becoming the scene of naval battles almost daily. Spurred to new stratagems by the constant warfare, both sides applied all their ingenuity and engineering skills to the naval effort. At Nicias’ orders, Athenian engineers transformed the exposed shore of the main camp into an artificial harbor by driving long wooden stakes into the mud. When this offshore stockade proved insufficient, empty freighters were anchored in a widely spaced line with torpedolike “dolphins” of iron or lead suspended above the gaps. If a Syracusan trireme tried to break through, the heavy metal dolphins would plummet downward, punch holes through their hulls, and sink them.

The Athenians also converted one of their largest grain freighters into a floating fortress with wooden towers and screens. This behemoth, loaded with archers and dart throwers, was towed across to the city. In a dangerous operation, the Athenians kept up a running fire of missiles in order to cover the work of hired divers, who plunged into the water from small boats. Once under the surface these professionals pulled up or sawed through the wooden stakes that the Syracusans had hoped would protect their own naval station.

The Syracusans were not idle. Recognizing their inferior seamanship, they borrowed an innovation from the Corinthians and modified the design of their triremes. To counter Athenian maneuverability, they reinforced the forward sections of their rowing frames with long wooden beams. The Syracusan shipwrights also cut off the slender beaks of the ships’ rams to leave blunt snub noses of solid wood. With these new prows, the Syracusan ships were able to attack the Athenians head on, smashing the vulnerable Athenian rowing frames and putting the upper ranks of oarsmen out of commission. Once an enemy trireme was immobilized, daring Syracusans in small boats dashed in under the oar banks and shot darts upward to wound or kill the defenseless rowers.

Throughout these operations the tide of victory ran steadily against Nicias and the Athenians. At last the long-awaited reinforcements from Athens arrived, seventy-three triremes packed with men and commanded by Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Still they could not regain the upper hand. Within a few days Demosthenes had managed to lose a nocturnal land battle on the heights northwest of the city. After this failure he abruptly declared that the long and costly expedition should be given up before it ruined Athens altogether. His colleague Eurymedon agreed. The military and naval defeats were serious enough, but now fever was spreading from the nearby marshes through the hot and crowded camp.

Nicias continued to hint at intelligence reports that a party inside Syracuse would soon open the gates. After wasting many days he finally agreed to the withdrawal, provided that no one held him responsible. As incon spicuously as possible, the crews prepared the ships while the troops loaded gear and supplies on board. The time chosen for the retreat was a night in the middle of the month when the full moon would allow the Athenian steersmen to make their way out of the Great Harbor in safety.

After sundown on the appointed evening, the Athenians watched the moon rise from the eastern horizon into the sky above the harbor mouth. Two hours before midnight the lunar disk was blotted out by a total eclipse. As darkness covered the Great Harbor, the Athenian troops and rowers saw the event as a warning sent by the gods. Terrified, they refused to embark on their voyage. Unfortunately there was no Pericles among the Athenian commanders to explain the celestial mechanics behind eclipses. Nicias, as devout as any of the men, consulted his diviners. They told him that no action should be taken until the time of the next full moon, thrice nine days away. Full of religious fervor, Nicias postponed the evacuation.

Long before the month passed, the Syracusan fleet attacked again. In yet another disastrous engagement the Athenians lost many ships, and the general Eurymedon was killed. The Syracusans attempted to destroy the entire Athenian fleet by bringing up an old freighter, packing it with dry brush and resinous pinewood, and setting it alight. Breezes wafted the fire ship toward the huddle of triremes, but with a desperate effort the Athenians fended it off.

The Syracusans could now cruise at will around the Great Harbor for the first time since the war began. Soon the Athenians observed signs of unusual activity. A mass of old triremes, freighters, and small craft were assembling at the mouth of the harbor. The Syracusans anchored some of these ships and lashed or chained others to their neighbors on either side. Gradually a barrier of ships began to form. The Athenians and their fleet were trapped. In obedience to instructions sent out before the eclipse and never rescinded, Athenian allies had stopped sending provisions to the camp at Syracuse. Even the healthy would soon go hungry. Nicias and Demosthenes now thought only of escape. They must break through the barrier.

In the end the Athenians resolved to launch every ship that could still float for a final battle. If victorious, they would force their way to freedom and the open sea. If defeated, they planned to burn their triremes and retreat overland. There were still enough healthy rowers and fighting men to fill 110 triremes. The last task of the Athenian ironworkers was to forge claw-like grappling irons that could snag an enemy ship and prevent it from backing away after ramming. The archers and javelin throwers could then shoot straight into the opposing throng, while Athenian hoplites leaped across for hand-to-hand combat. In these primitive tactics the generals now saw their only hope.

Nicias would remain on shore with a fighting force to defend the camp. As for the thousands of sick and wounded, nothing could save them now. Whether the escape went by sea or by land, they would be abandoned. After speeches, prayers, and sacrifices, Demosthenes launched all that was left of the armada and rowed straight for the barrier. The triremes had not reached it before a hundred Syracusan ships descended on them from all corners of the Great Harbor. As the enemy swarmed in, the Athenians saw that hides had been stretched over the prows and forward sections of their ships. Spies had carried word of the Athenian grappling irons to the Syracusan commanders, who had devised this method of shielding the woodwork of their vessels. Any “iron hands” cast from an Athenian ship would bounce harmlessly off the hides.

The leading Athenian triremes managed to smash their way through the Syracusans and reach the barrier. Desperately the men attempted to cut the cables that secured the moored ships. Before they could hack through, the full force of the enemy took them from the rear. To save themselves, the Athenians had no choice but to turn and fight. In a hail of missiles the Syracusans pushed the Athenians away from the barrier. When thirty Athenian triremes had been lost, the remainder broke away from the enemy and fled for their own shore. So broken were the Athenians that they did not even send a herald to ask permission to pick up their dead and dying.

Only the two generals still clung to the idea of a naval victory. Determining that even with their losses the Athenians outnumbered the enemy, Demosthenes and Nicias ordered their exhausted and demoralized men back on board to renew the battle. At this the crews mutinied. Powerless to oppose the rebellious mob, the generals yielded. The evacuation overland would start after sundown, under cover of darkness.

At that crucial hour, cause for hope unexpectedly reached the camp. From the city came the sounds of wild revelry. Songs and shouting echoed across the water. The Syracusans, almost to the last man, were celebrating their victory. With the enemy distracted or drunk, the Athenians could expect to make their escape unopposed and march overland to friendly territory. Unfortunately, one Syracusan remained sober. He was Hermocrates, the patriot who had led the resistance from the start. He was well aware that the Athenians might slip from their grasp that night and tried but failed to put an end to the drinking and dancing. A man of mêtis, Hermocrates hit upon a stratagem to keep the Athenians from escaping. Themistocles had once used a false report to lure the Persian fleet into the strait at Salamis. Perhaps the Athenians themselves could be tricked in the same way.

Extricating a few Syracusan horsemen from the riotous party, Hermocrates instructed them to carry a message to the Athenian camp masquerading as Nicias’ covert sympathizers from the city. When these horsemen drew within hailing distance of the Athenian sentries, they called out a warning from the darkness. The Syracusan victory feast, they said, was only a sham. The main Syracusan force had in fact slipped out of the city and was waiting in ambush along the road. They would attack as soon as the Athenians left the safety of their palisade. Having delivered Hermocrates’ message, the horsemen turned and vanished into the night.

Too exhausted to think clearly, Nicias and Demosthenes made the fatal mistake of postponing the retreat yet again. Their credulity sealed their doom. When the Athenians finally broke camp two days later, the Syracusans had sobered up and were waiting for them in deadly earnest. The long line of retreating Athenians met enemies at every pass and ford. They had little food or water, and the thousands of rowers did not even have weapons. The Syracusans, mounted or on foot, harried and hounded them along like a pack of wolves around a herd. Many Athenians had already been slaughtered by the time the generals surrendered to save the lives of the rest.

A few Athenians got away into the countryside to become bandits. Most were marched back to the city as prisoners. The democratic Syracusans convened an assembly to decide their fate. Shouting down the objections of Hermocrates, Gylippus, and the other leaders, the vengeful Syracusans demanded the blood of the two Athenian generals. Nicias and Demosthenes were butchered, and their bodies were dumped outside the city gates. The seven thousand remaining captives were penned up in the city’s famous limestone quarries. These vast pits had been excavated in a hillside next to the theater of Syracuse. The theater had been inaugurated fifty years earlier by Aeschylus himself with a performance of Persians. It was a bitter irony that a place that once celebrated Athenian liberty and naval victory should have adjoined a prison for the defeated remnant of Athens’ imperial navy.

The prisoners’ daily rations were a pint of meal and half a pint of water. As the months passed they died of exposure, hunger, and sickness. Contagion spread from the rotting corpses, which were soon heaped up on all sides. By midwinter the Syracusans began to remove some prisoners. A few who knew by heart the latest songs of Euripides came to the notice of young Syracusans, who released these lucky ones to sing at drinking parties. Most of the Athenians were kept in the quarries for eight months. After that any who survived were taken out, branded, and sold as slaves.

No one escaped to carry word home. Athens knew nothing of the disaster until one day a stranger from overseas arrived at the Piraeus and sought out a barbershop. Once in the barber’s chair and engaged in the inevitable chatter, the traveler began to speak about the catastrophe in Sicily as if it were already well known everywhere. The barber, horror struck, abandoned his customer and darted out into the street. He ran all the way from the Piraeus to Athens. There he found the archons sitting in the Agora and told them what he had heard.

The officials violently denied the possibility of such a disaster, until more messengers arrived bearing the same tale. Unbelievably, the magnificent fleet launched with such fanfare from the Piraeus, as well as all the ships and men sent afterward as reinforcements, had perished to the last dispatch boat. In their fury and grief the Athenians looked for scapegoats. At first they laid the blame on Alcibiades or Nicias or the oracle-mongers. But in the final reckoning they could blame only themselves. Those whom the Assembly sent to conquer Syracuse had paid with their lives for the folly and hubris of Athens.

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