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Risking It All

415 BCE

It took two very different mistakes to destroy the power of Athens, but with great effort the leaders of that city made them both. There are few wars that contain as many military and political mistakes as the Peloponnesian War fought between Sparta and Athens. From the very beginning of the war, when Sparta completely misjudged Athens’ response to their invasion, until the whimpering end of Athenian power, the entire conflict was a tragedy of errors. This war, due to a nearly unending series of mistakes, misjudgments, and just plain egotism, lasted twenty-seven years and ended only when Athens found a way to lose. But even among so rich a selection of errors, two stand out that changed everything and took Athens, in one year, from the edge of victory to total defeat.

Until the Battle of Mantinea, in 418 BCE, Athens had been winning its long war with Sparta, who was being financed by Persia. After the Spartan victory at Mantinea, several cities had been forced by Sparta to quit the Delian League (an alliance of city-states dominated by Athens), cutting back on the manpower and taxes available to Athens. By 415 BCE, the city’s leadership had devised a plan that they hoped would give them back the edge.

One of the Greek cities supporting Sparta was Syracuse, located not in Greece, but on Sicily. This island just south of Italy contained a number of cities that had grown from Greek colonies. As large and nearly as prosperous as Athens, the distant city was a tempting prize. Syracuse had occasionally supported Sparta in the war, and it was a source for selling supplies and ships to the primarily land-based military power. The Athenians decided that knocking out Syracuse would restore momentum to their side. Not to mention that looting the rich city would pad their flagging treasury.

Another Athenian hope was that while most of the cities in Sicily maintained a cautiously neutral stance, if the largest city on the island fell to Athens, the others would have to join the Delian League. This would greatly increase the resources Athens would have to finance future battles. The risk involved by invading was that Athens would force those cities into the Spartan camp until Syracuse fell. They had to win fast and they had to defeat a powerful city far from their own bases. A few leaders maintained that the whole venture seemed like a serious mistake. The skeptics thought there was no reason to extend the war to somewhere so far from Greece, fighting against a powerful city that would add to but was not really vital to Sparta’s power. Furthermore, the naysayers argued that Syracuse was the other leading democracy among Greek city-states, making the moral justification of the attack very tenuous. They maintained that there was very much to lose and not much to gain in attacking Syracuse. And they were, history shows, painfully correct.

So why did the expedition to Syracuse happen at all? Part of the reason has to be desperation by the Athenians to find some strategy that could end a war that had already gone on for sixteen years and seemed destined to continue forever. That is twice as long as the United States fought in Vietnam or has been in Iraq. Another reason was that old inspiration for disaster: ego. Alcibiades, a notoriously self-serving politician, had managed to become a major influence in the Athenian Senate. To further aggrandize his position he needed to lead a successful military expedition. Many argued against attacking Syracuse, but in the end, Alcibiades persuaded enough citizens to support the attack for it to happen and for him to be in charge of it.

A fleet carrying just under 9,000 veteran soldiers landed on Sicily in 415 BCE. They approached several of the smaller cities near Syracuse, requesting that they be allowed to base there, but all of them refused. Still, Syracuse was unprepared, and when the Athenian fleet was able to sail right into the city’s harbor, the populace was thrown into a panic. But for some reason, perhaps simply because there wasn’t enough glory yet, Alcibiades did not attack immediately. The Athenians instead sailed off and managed to capture Catana, a small city located a half day’s rowing from Syracuse.

At about this same time, politics intervened, and Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to stand trial for sacrilege. The trial never occurred because Alcibiades fled to Sparta. Command passed to a notoriously cautious commander, Nicias, who had opposed the entire Syracuse venture. He did not attack Syracuse. Instead he sent the bulk of the fleet and army off to rampage and threaten along Sicily’s northern coast, but the cities there were not intimidated, and none joined Athens. After they returned to their original camp, the Athenian forces managed to lure Syracuse’s army to move near the base at Catana, but even after defeating them, the Athenians were unable to pursue the fleeing enemy soldiers due to a lack of cavalry. They could not win even by winning. Soon winter came, with the invading Athenians no closer to conquering a quickly arming Syracuse, and the other cities of Sicily avoided involvement.

The next year, Nicias attempted to surround Syracuse with a wall that would have cut the city off from supplies of food and wood. The long siege and the reputation of the Athenians sapped the will of the citizens of Syracuse. Before the Syracusans could act, a Spartan commander, Gylippus, arrived, and his leadership restored Syracusan morale. Nicias knew only of the falling faith of the Syracusans and failed to realize the situation had changed. Within a few months, the Athenian efforts to build the wall were stopped, and forts were erected to ensure the city’s supplies. But even though Nicias’ strategy had been prevented, the Athenians held on. By 413 BCE the Syracusans had hired 7,000 mercenary soldiers. Then the Athenian commander discovered that the Sicilian city was in the process of building and manning a substantial navy.

Nicias asked to be relieved of command due to illness and strongly suggested the whole invasion be withdrawn. Instead, the Athenians decided to double their bet by sending a second fleet and 5,000 more hoplites (citizen-soldiers) to Sicily. Yet even the new troops failed to force Syracuse into surrendering.

Finally seeing that there was no hope of success, Nicias announced the entire expedition would return to Athens. This meant failure, but he prevented the failure from being a total disaster. That was a good decision, but a subsequent mistake nullified it and changed history.

Before the Athenians could return to their ships, there was an eclipse of the sun. Nicias was superstitious, as most Greeks were, and he saw this as a sign and ordered the retreat to be halted. Fear of the anger of the gods, often in the form of storms that could sink entire fleets, was great. So when a soothsayer advised that the Athenians wait “thrice nine days” before departing, they did.

The Syracusans did not simply wait for the invaders to leave, though. They fought a sea battle and managed to destroy a number of Athenian triremes. By this time, the Athenian fleet was anchored near Syracuse on the far side of the city’s harbor. With morale soaring after defeating what was a portion of the best navy in the world, the Syracusans used ships chained together to block the exit from the harbor, trapping all of the Athenian ships. With their ships trapped, the Athenian army was trapped as well.

An attempt to break the blockade failed. With supplies running low and morale running lower, Nicias ordered a retreat to Catana, which Athens still controlled. He split the army into two columns, made up of about 20,000 men each, and they marched toward the small city. By now the bulk of Athens’ army was in the two columns. Sicilian troops blocked every road, bridge, and pass, slowing the retreat to a crawl. Each column was pressed from behind by the main Syracusan army and harassed from all sides. With only 6,000 men still alive, Demosthenes surrendered his column. Nicias had less than a thousand soldiers left when he too surrendered. After four years of bitter siege, the leaders of Syracuse were not feeling benevolent. Of the 7,000 survivors only a few hundred ever saw Athens again. Most were worked to death in Syracusan stone quarries. Athens paid a high price that it never recovered from by invading Sicily. It was a totally unnecessary mistake that was done for all the wrong reasons, to the wrong people, and carried out in the wrong way.

That delay of twenty-seven days to retreat, for no other reason than superstition, changed the entire Peloponnesian War. Athens never recovered from the loss of more than 12,000 hoplites and twice as many rowers and light infantry. Sparta proved unable to replace Athens as the politically dominant city in Greece. The military dictatorship had lost too many of its highly trained hoplites in the war as well. Rather than a strong central leadership, such as Athens had provided for Greece before the war with the Delian League, the Greek world was once more split owing to jealousy and constant bickering among the city-states. This left the area vulnerable to the eventual conquest of one Philip of Macedonia.

Athens might have survived Alcibiades’ mistake in starting the invasion if it had not been for Nicias’ miscalculation. Without the first mistake caused by the ego of Alcibiades, Athens likely would have continued to win the Peloponnesian War and maintained its dominance of Greece. Without Nicias superstitiously forcing that last-minute, highly risky delay, the army and fleet would not have been lost and the mistake of attacking Syracuse would have embarrassed, but not crippled, the city-state. Had Athens not been drastically weakened on Sicily the world of the ancient Mediterranean and our world today would have been totally different.

If Athens had stayed strong, there would have been no Macedonian domination under Philip and so no Alexander the Great. Persia, playing a key role in Greek politics, might well have remained an intact Eastern empire for centuries longer. Instead of becoming the dominant culture in all the lands from Egypt to Babylon, Greek culture and democracy might well be a footnote rather than a force in history. That their city’s defeat and collapse led to the ideals of democracy and Greek values later being spread to all of Europe and Asia would likely be of little consolation to the people of Athens, who paid a very high price for both Alcibiades’ and Nicias’ mistakes.

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