The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian expedition to Sicily from 415 BC to 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Athenian forces. As Thucydides recounts wryly in his History of the Peloponnesian War, the generals leading the campaign had scant knowledge of Sicily, or of its population, and thus the forces marshaled for its conquering were woefully inadequate.
Appeal from Segesta
The first phase of the Peloponnesian War had ended with the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC, and Athens and Sparta were nominally at peace in 415. That year, ambassadors from Segesta, a city in Sicily, were sent to Athens to request for help in their war against Selinute. The Segestans brought to Athens enough money to pay for sixty ships for one month. The Athenians had sent fleets to Sicily earlier in the war, and were attracted to the island's wealth in grain and other resources; by helping Segesta, they felt they could gain a foothold in Sicily which could lead to an eventual conquest. When Pericles was alive, he advised Athens not to overextend their empire, but now this advice was ignored.
Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus were chosen to lead the expedition, although Nicias had no interest in leading it. Five days after they were chosen, there was a debate in the assembly, between Nicias and those against the expedition, and those who supported it, led by Alcibiades. Nicias argued they should not be dragged into a war that did not involve them, and that Athens should not feel so secure despite the peace treaty he had set up only a few years before. Sparta was still their enemy, and they could not afford to waste time and men fighting a far-away war while their own enemies were so close to them. Even if they did somehow conquer Sicily, which Nicias felt was the underlying point of the expedition, it would be impossible to govern. Athens' own weaker and poorer allies continually revolted against them, and they were much closer. The Sicilians, he said, would be more fearful of Athens if Athens was not tested in battle, just as Athens had been more fearful of Sparta before they were able to defeat the Spartans in war. Finally, he hoped his fellow citizens would not be persuaded by the young and arrogant Alcibiades, whom he felt was only looking for personal glory.
Other speeches were made, most mostly in favour of the expedition, before Alcibiades responded to Nicias. After defending his youth and arrogance, he claimed the situation was similar to Athens fighting Persia while they had enemies closer to home. Their victory over Persia had led to Athenian glory and the foundation of the Delian League, and this expedition would bring them the same results. The expedition would also help keep Athens active in a time of peace, so that they would be ready for future Spartan attacks.
Nicias then made a second speech. He said Athens would need a much bigger fleet and army to accomplish their goal, far more than the sixty ships that Segesta offered to equip. He hoped the Athenians would begin to have doubts when they realized this, but instead, they became even more enthusiastic. Nicias reluctantly suggested that they set out with at least 100 triremes and 5000 hoplites, plus thousands more light troops and other supplies.
Destruction of the Hermai
After lengthy preparations, the fleet was ready to sail. The night before they were to leave, someone destroyed many of the hermai - the stone markers representing Hermes placed around the city for good luck. This was considered a bad omen for the expedition. In the ensuing investigation, some political enemies of Alcibiades claimed he was responsible, although there was no proof of this and Alcibiades volunteered to be put on trial under penalty of death in order to prove his innocence. However, Alcibiades was otherwise extremely popular and had the support of the entire army; he had also gained the support of Argos and Mantinea during the preparations. He was not charged, and the fleet sailed the next day. It was the largest military expedition ever produced by any Greek state, up to that point.
Reaction in Syracuse
Many people in Syracuse, the richest and most powerful city of Sicily, felt that the Athenians were in fact coming to attack them, under the pretense of aiding Segesta in a minor war. The Syracusan general Hermocrates suggested that they ask for help from other Sicilian cities, and from Carthage. He also wanted to meet the Athenian fleet in the Ionian Sea before they arrived. Others argued that Athens was no threat to Syracuse, and some people did not believe there was a fleet at all, because Athens would not be so foolish as to attack them while they were still at war with Sparta. Athenagoras accused Hermocrates and others of attempting to instill fear among the population and trying to overthrow the government.
The Athenian fleet first sailed to Corcyra to meet up with their allies, and the ships were divided into three sections, one for each commander. Three of the ships were sent ahead to look for allies in Sicily. The fleet at this point consisted of 134 triremes (100 of which were from Athens), 5100 hoplites (2200 Athenians), 480 archers, 700 slingers, 120 other light troops, and 30 cavalry, as well as 130 other supply ships and all the crews of the triremes and other non-combatants.
They had little luck finding allies along the coast of southern Italy, and when the three other ships returned they learned that Segesta did not have the money they promised. Nicias had expected this but the other commanders were dismayed. Nicias suggested they make a show of force and then return home, while Alcibiades said they should encourage revolts against Syracuse, and then attack Syracuse and Selinute. Lamachus said they should attack Syracuse right away. The fleet proceeded to Catana, where an Athenian ship arrived to inform Alcibiades that he was under arrest, not only for the destruction of the hermai, but also for supposedly profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alcibiades agreed to return, but on the way back his ship escaped to the Peloponnese, where he eventually sought refuge in Sparta; a death sentence was passed in absentia, his guilt seemingly proven.
The fleet was redivided into two parts, and the army was landed and joined with the cavalry of Segesta. However, they did not immediately attack Syracuse, and that winter as the Athenians made their camp at Catana, the Syracusans prepared to attack. When the Syracusans marched out to Catana, they learned that the Athenians had actually reboarded their ships and sailed into the harbour at Syracuse. The Syracusans quickly hurried back and prepared for battle.
First Battle of Syracuse
The Athenian troops landed outside Syracuse, and lined up eight men deep with the Argives and Mantineans on the right, the rest of the allies on the left, and the Athenians themselves in the centre. The Syracusan line was sixteen men deep, and they had 1200 cavalry, vastly outnumbering the Athenian cavalry, although the numbers of men were about the same. The Athenians attacked first, believing themselves to be the stronger and more experienced army, and after some unexpectedly strong resistance, the Argives pushed back the Syracusan left wing, causing the rest to flee. The Syracusan cavalry prevented the Athenians from chasing them, but the Syracusans lost about 260 men, and the Athenians about fifty. The Athenians then sailed back to Catana for the winter.
Winter of 415/Spring of 414 BC
Hermocrates suggested that the Syracusans reorganize their army. He wanted to reduce the number of generals from fifteen to three - Hermocrates, Heraclides, and Sicanus were elected and Hermocrates sent for help from Corinth and Sparta. During the winter the Athenians also sent for more money and cavalry, while the Syracusans built some forts, and a wall extending the territory of the city.
Meanwhile, Hermocrates and Euphemus, the archon of Athens, both went to Camarina to attempt to form an alliance with that city. Hermocrates wanted Camarina and the other cities to unite with Syracuse against Athens, but Euphemus said Syracuse only wanted to rule Camarina, and they should join with Athens if they wanted to remain free. The Camarinans decided not to join either side.
Athens then sent for help from the Carthaginians and Etruscans, and both Athens and Syracuse tried to gain assistance from the Greek cities in Italy. In Corinth, representatives from Syracuse met with Alcibiades, who was now allied with Sparta. Alcibiades informed Sparta that there would be an invasion of the Peloponnese if Sicily was conquered, and that they should send help to Syracuse and also fortify Decelea near Athens. The Athenians, he said, feared nothing more than the occupation of Decelea. The Spartans took this advice into consideration, and appointed Gylippus to command their fleet.
In the spring of 414 BC, reinforcements arrived from Athens, consisting of 250 cavalry, 30 mounted archers, and 300 talents of silver (around $180,000), which they used to pay for 400 more cavalry from their Sicilian allies. In the summer they landed on the Epipolae, the cliff above Syracuse, which was defended by Diomilus and 600 Syracusans. In the attack, Diomilus and 300 of his men were killed.
Both sides then began building a series of walls. The Athenian wall, known as "the Circle", was meant to blockade Syracuse from the rest of the island, while the Syracusans built a number of counter-walls from the city to their various forts. A force of 300 Athenians destroyed part of the first counter-wall, but the Syracusans began to build another one, this time with a ditch, blocking the Athenians from extending their wall to the sea. Another 300 Athenians attacked this wall and captured it, but were driven off by a Syracusan counter-attack in which Lamachus was killed. The Syracusans destroyed 1000 feet of the Athenian wall, but could not destroy the Circle, which was defended by Nicias. After Nicias defeated the attack, the Athenians finally extended their wall to the sea, completely blockading Syracuse by land, and their fleet entered the harbour to blockade them from sea. The Syracusans reponded by removing Hermocrates and Sicanus as generals and replacing them with Heraclides, Eucles, and Tellias.
Soon after this, Gylippus landed at Himera, and with 700 marines, 100 hoplites, 100 cavalry, and 1000 Sicilians marched towards Syracuse. They built another counter-wall on the Epipolae, but were driven back by the Athenians; in a second battle, however, Gylippus defeated the Athenians, and the Syracusans completed their counter-wall, making the Athenian wall useless. The Corinthian fleet also arrived, under the command of Erasinides.
Nicias now believed it would be impossible to capture Syracuse. He wrote a letter to Athens, not trusting messengers to give an accurate report, and suggested that they either recall the expedition or send out massive reinforcements. He hoped they would choose to recall him, if not the whole expedition, but instead they chose to send reinforcements, under Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Eurymedon left immediately with ten ships, and Demosthenes left sometime later with a much larger force. Meanwhile, in early 413 BC Sparta acted on Alcibiades' advice and fortified Decelea, and the force sent to relieve it was destroyed.
While Eurymedon was sailing, Gylippus had eighty Syracusan ships, including thirty-five triremes, attack sixty of the Athenian ships (twenty-five of which were triremes) in the harbour. Gylippus commanded a simultaneous attack on the Athenian land forces. In the harbour, the Athenians were successful, losing only three ships while the Syracusans lost eleven. However, Gylippus defeated the Athenians on land and captured two Athenian forts. Afterwards Gylippus succeeded in convincing all the neutral cities on Sicily to join him, but the allies of Athens killed 800 Corinthians, including all but one of the Corinthian ambassadors.
Demosthenes and Eurymedon then arrived with seventy-three ships and 5000 hoplites. On their arrival, eighty Syracusan ships attacked seventy-five of the Athenian ships in their harbour. This battle went on for two days with no result, until the Syracusans pretended to back away and attacked the Athenians while they were eating. However, only seven Athenian ships were sunk.
Demosthenes landed his forces and attacked the Syracusan counter-wall on Epipolae. He succeeded in breaching the wall, but was defeated by a force of Boeotians in the Spartan contingent. Many Athenians fell off the cliff to their death, and some of the rest were killed as they fled down the slope.
Demosthenes' arrival was not much of a relief to the other Athenians. Their camp was located near a marsh and many of them had fallen ill, including Nicias. Seeing this, Demosthenes thought they should all return to Athens, and defend Attica against the Spartan invasion that had taken Decelea. Nicias, who had opposed the expedition at first, now did not want to show any weakness either to the Syracusans and Spartans, or to the Athenians at home who would likely put him on trial for failing to conquer the island. He hoped the Syracusans would soon run out of money, and he had also been informed that there were pro-Athenian factions in Syracuse who were ready to turn the city over to him. Demosthenes and Eurymedon reluctantly agreed that Nicias might be right, but when reinforcements from the Peloponnese arrived, Nicias agreed that they should leave.
Second Battle of Syracuse
Just as the Athenians were preparing to sail home, there was a lunar eclipse, and Nicias, described by Thucydides as a particularly superstitious man, asked the priests what he should do. They suggested the Athenians wait for another twenty-seven days, and Nicias agreed. The Syracusans took advantage of this, and seventy-six of their ships attacked eighty-six Athenian ships in the harbour. The Athenians were defeated and Eurymedon was killed. Many of the ships were pushed on to the shore, where Gylippus was waiting. He killed some of the crews and captured eighteen beached ships, but a force of Athenians and Etruscans forced Gylippus back.
The Athenians were now in a desperate situation. On September 3, the Syracusans began to completely blockade the entrance to the port, trapping the Athenians inside. Outside Syracuse, the Athenians built a smaller walled enclosure for their sick and injured, and put everyone else (including many of the soldiers remaining on land) on their ships for one last battle, on September 9. The fleet was now commanded by Demosthenes, Menander, and Euthydemus, while the Syracusan fleet was led by Sicanus and Agatharchus on the wings and Pythen from Corinth in the centre. Each side had about 100 ships participating.
The Athenian ships were extremely cramped and had no room to manoeuvre. Collisions were frequent, and the Syracusans could easily ram the Athenian ships head-on, without the Athenians being able to move to ram them broadside, as they preferred. Javelin-throwers and archers shot from each ship, but the Syracusans deflected Athenian grappling hooks by covering their decks with animal hides.
The battle went on for some time with no clear victor, but the Syracusans eventually pushed the Athenian ships toward the coast, and the Athenian crews fled to the camp behind their wall. Demosthenes suggested that they man the ships again and attempt to force their way out, as now both fleets had lost about half their ships, but Nicias wanted to find refuge on land. Hermocrates sent some supposed informers to the Athenians to falsely report that there were spies and roadblocks further inland, so the Athenians would be safer if they did not march away. Gylippus used this delay to build the roadblocks that did not yet exist, and the Syracusans burned or towed away the Athenian ships on the beach, so that they had no way off the island.
Final Syracusan victory
On September 13 the Athenians left camp, leaving their wounded behind and their dead unburied. The survivors, including all the non-combatants, numbered 40 000, and some of the wounded crawled after them as far as they could go. As they marched they defeated a small Syracusan force guarding the river Anapus, but other Syracusan cavalry and light troops continually harassed them. Near the Erineus river, Demosthenes and Nicias became separated, and Demosthenes was attacked by the Syracusans and forced to surrender his 6000 troops. The rest of the Syracusans followed Nicias to the Assinarus river, where Nicias' troops became disorganized in the rush to find drinking water. Many Athenians were trampled to death and others were killed while fighting with fellow Athenians. On the other side of the river a Syracusan force was waiting, and the Athenians were almost completely massacred, by far the worst defeat of the entire expedition in terms of lives lost. Nicias personally surrendered to Gylippus, hoping the Spartan would remember his role in the peace treaty of 421. The few who escaped found refuge in Catana.
The prisoners, now numbering only 7000, were held in the stone quarries near Syracuse, as there was no other room for them. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed, against the orders of Gylippus. The rest spent ten weeks in horrible conditions in their makeshift prison, until all but the Athenians, Italians, and Sicilians were sold as slaves.
In Athens, the citizens did not, at first, believe the defeat. When they realized the enormity of what had happened, they panicked that Attica was now free for the taking, as Sparta was so close by in Decelea. Upon the return of the remaining prisoners, rumours spread that the captains of the returning warships had given orders to not rescue drowning warriors. The captains in turn accused the genarals to deflect blame from themselves. A trial for treason was held, and the generals were condemned to death, although they were vigrously defended by Socrates.
The defeat caused a huge shift in policy for many other states, as well. States which had until now been neutral joined with Sparta, assuming that Athens' defeat was imminent. Many of Athens' allies in the Delian League also revolted, and although the city immediately began to rebuilt its fleet, there was little they could do about the revolts for the time being.
In 411 BC the Athenian democracy was overthrown in favour of an oligarchy, and Persia joined the war on the Spartan side. Although things looked grim for Athens, they were able to recover for a few years. The oligarchy was soon overthrown, and Athens won the Battle of Cynossema. However, the defeat of the Sicilian expedition was essentially the beginning of the end for Athens. By the end of the century they were defeated and occupied by Sparta.
- Nancy Demand, A History of Ancient Greece. McGraw-Hill, 1996. ISBN 007016207
- Donald Kagan, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Cornell University Press, 1981. ISBN 0801413672
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.