The Athenians in Sicily by H. L. Havell


The Peloponnesian War may be conveniently divided into four chief periods. The first of these periods lasted for ten years, down to the peace of Nicias. The second extends from the peace of Nicias to the massacre of Melos. In the third, the scene of war was shifted from Greece to Sicily, and it was there that the Athenian power really received its death-blow. The fourth and final period begins after the overthrow of the Athenians at Syracuse, and ends, nine years afterwards, with their final defeat at Aegospotami, and the downfall of the Athenian empire.

It is the third of these periods which will occupy our attention for the remainder of the present volume, and as the momentous events which we have to relate occurred entirely in Sicily, it is necessary to say something of the previous history of that great island. The connexion of the Greeks with Sicily begins in the latter half of the eighth century before Christ, when settlers from Chalcis in Euboea founded the city of Naxos on the north-eastern coast, under the shadow of Aetna. Naxos in its turn sent out colonists, who built the cities of Leontini and Catana, the former on an inland site, commanding the great plain which extends southwards from Aetna, the latter on the coast, in a line with the centre of the same plain. These were Ionic colonies, and we may close the list with the name of Messene [Footnote: Originally called Zancle.] founded twenty years later on the Sicilian side of the strait which bears its name.

We have now to enumerate the principal Dorian cities. First among these in time, and by far the first in importance, was Syracuse, founded from Corinth a year after the settlement of Naxos. Between Syracuse and the mother-city there was a close and intimate tie of friendship, which remained unbroken throughout the course of Greek history. The original city was built on the island of Ortygia, but a new town afterwards arose on the low-lying coast of the mainland, and spread northwards till it covered the eastern part of the neighbouring heights. Ortygia was then converted into a peninsula by the construction of a causeway, connecting the new city with the old. Under the despotism of Gelo, who made himself master of the city in the early part of the fifth century, [Footnote: 485 B.C.] Syracuse rose to great power and splendour, and her territory extended over a great part of eastern Sicily. Gelo gained immortal renown by defeating a mighty host of Carthaginians, who invaded Sicily at the time when the confederate cities of old Greece were fighting for their existence against Xerxes and his great armada. After his death the power passed to his brother Hiero, whose victories in the Olympian and Pythian Games are commemorated in the Odes of Pindar. Hiero reigned for twelve years, and was succeeded by his brother Thrasybulus; but a year later the despotism was overthrown, and the government returned to a democracy.

A bare mention must suffice for Gela, founded from Rhodes and Crete nearly half a century after Syracuse, and the more famous Agrigentum, a colony from Gela, and next to Syracuse the greatest city in Sicily. These played no part in the struggle with Athens; but Selinus and Camarina, the two remaining Dorian cities of southern Sicily, will occupy an important place in the following narrative.

Thus the whole coast districts on southern and eastern Sicily were held by opulent and flourishing Greek cities. On the north was Himera, an Ionic colony, and the scene of Gelo's great victory over Carthage; while the western and north-western district was divided between the Phoenicians and the Elymi, a people of unknown origin, whose chief seats were at Eryx and Egesta. The inland parts were held, in the west, by the Sicans, who are believed to have come from Spain, and in the east by the Sicels, a people of Latin race, who gave their name to the island.


Since the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had been meddling in the affairs of Sicily, under pretence of aiding the Ionian cities, who dreaded the encroaching ambition of Syracuse. That these fears were not unfounded was proved when, a few years afterwards, the Syracusans expelled the commons of Leontini, and took possession of their territory. The Leontine exiles sought refuge at Athens, but their appeal for help remained for a time unanswered, as the Athenians were then fully occupied in Greece. But six years after the conclusion of the Peace of Nicias, an appeal came to Athens from a remote corner of Sicily, which stimulated the Leontine exiles to fresh efforts, and led to most important results.

Between the Greeks of Selinus and the Elymians of Egesta there was a long-standing quarrel, and in a war which had recently broken out the Egestaeans were reduced to severe straits by the combined forces of Selinus and Syracuse. In their distress they turned to Athens for help, and envoys were sent to plead their cause before the Athenian assembly. In aiding Egesta, argued the envoys, Athens would be serving her own interests; for if the Syracusans were not speedily checked in their aggressions, they would soon make themselves masters of the whole of Sicily, and in that case they could bring such an accession of strength to the enemies of Athens in Greece as to make them irresistible. They had good reason, therefore, to take sides against the enemies of Egesta, and the more so as the Egestaeans promised to defray all the expenses of the war.

The Athenians generally were inclined to take up the quarrel of Egesta, but as a measure of precaution it was decided to send agents of their own to make an inspection on the spot, and see whether the Egestaeans were as wealthy as they pretended. On their return to Athens these men reported that Egesta was possessed of fabulous riches. At every house where they had been entertained, the tables and the sideboards had been one blaze of gold and silver plate. The fact was that the Egestaeans had collected all the gold and silver vessels in the town, and others borrowed from the neighbouring cities, and by passing them on from house to house, wherever these important guests were invited, had contrived to make a great display. As an earnest of all this wealth, the Athenian commissioners brought back with them sixty talents of silver.

The smallness of this sum ought to have been sufficient to arouse the suspicions of the Athenians; but they were willing to be deceived, and they gave ready credence to reports of their commissioners. Voting in full assembly, they passed a decree that sixty ships should be sent to Sicily, under the command of Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus. The fleet was first to be employed in helping Egesta, and when that contest had been brought to a successful issue the Leontines were to be restored to their homes; finally, the generals were empowered to act as might seem best in the interests of Athens. The real purpose of the enterprise is indicated in the last clause. Vague plans of conquest were floating before the minds of the Athenians, and at a time when their whole energies should have been employed to repair the breaches in their empire, they dreamed of founding a new dominion in the west.

Five days later the assembly met again to vote supplies and discuss any further details which remained to be settled. But Nicias determined to take the opportunity of reopening the whole question, wishing, if possible, to divert his countrymen from their purpose, and put an end to the expedition altogether. It was folly, he argued, to take up the cause of needy foreigners, and drain the resources of Athens for a distant and hazardous enterprise, when their subjects in Thrace were still in open revolt, and their enemies in Greece were on the watch to take them at a disadvantage. If they trusted in the treaty with Sparta, they would soon find how infirm was the ground of their confidence. That treaty had been forced upon the Spartans by their misfortunes, and they would be only too glad to repudiate it, which they could easily do, as many of the conditions were still under dispute. Moreover, the most powerful cities of the Peloponnesian League had refused to sign the treaty, and were ready, at the first hint from Sparta, to renew the war. Athens was beset with perils, which were enough to tax her strength to the utmost: and yet they talked of sailing to Sicily, and raising up a new host of enemies against her! Even if the expedition succeeded, they could never keep their hold on that vast and populous island, while, if it failed, they would be utterly ruined. As to the supposed danger from the ambition of Syracuse, that was mere idle talk. The schemes of conquest, with which the Egestaeans had tried to alarm the Athenians, would keep the Syracusans busy at home, and prevent them from meddling in the affairs of Greece. "Leave the Greeks of Sicily alone," said Nicias with true prophetic insight; "and they will not trouble you. Do not disturb the prestige which belongs to a distant and unfamiliar power. If they once learn to know you, they may learn to despise you."

Then fixing his eyes on Alcibiades, who was sitting surrounded by his own partisans, young profligates like himself, Nicias concluded thus: "There is another danger against which I would warn you, men of Athens—the danger of being led astray by the wild eloquence of unscrupulous politicians, who seek to dazzle you with visions of new empire, that they may rise to high command, and restore their own shattered fortunes. Yes, Athens is to pour out her blood and treasure, to provide young spendthrifts with the means of filling their racing-stables! Against the mad counsels of these desperate men I invoke the mature prudence of the elder members of this assembly, and call upon them to show by a unanimous vote that neither flattery nor taunts can induce them to sacrifice the true interests of Athens."

It must have been a severe ordeal for the young Alcibiades to sit and listen to this keen and bitter invective, which set in a glaring light the worst features in his character—his selfish ambition, his shameless life, his total want of principle, his vulgar ostentation. The last quality, so alien from the best traditions of Athenian character, had been conspicuously displayed only a few weeks before at the Olympic festival, where he had entered seven four-horsed cars for the chariot-race, and won the first, second, and fourth prizes. Every word of Nicias went home, galling him in his sorest point—his outrageous vanity; and hardly had the elder statesman concluded his speech, when he sprang to his feet, and burst without preface into a wild harangue, which is a remarkable piece of self-revelation, disclosing with perfect candour the inner motives of the man on whom, more than on any other, the future of Athens depended. He began by defending his barbaric extravagance, recently displayed at Olympia, which, as he pretended to believe, had covered his native city with glory, and spread the fame of Athenian wealth and power from one end of Greece to another. The lavish outlay, and haughty demeanour, which would be justly blamed in a common man, were right and proper in him, one of the elect spirits of the time, inspired with great aims, and treading the summits of public life. He had already shown what he could do in the highest regions of diplomacy, by raising a great coalition in Peloponnesus, which had faced the whole might of Sparta in the field, and struck terror into the enemies of Athens.

After this impudent defence of his own pernicious policy, which had led to the crushing defeat at Mantinea, and thus enabled the Spartans to restore their damaged reputation, Alcibiades proceeded to deal with the question of the day, and exerted all his sophistry to confirm the Athenians in their design of invading Sicily. That island, he asserted, was inhabited by a mixed population with no settled homes, and no common patriotic sentiment; and among these motley elements they would find plenty of adherents. The Siceliots [Footnote: Greeks of Sicily.] were poorly armed, ill-furnished with heavy infantry, and in constant danger from the hostile Sicels. The risk of attack from the Peloponnesians would not be increased by sending part of the Athenian fleet to Sicily: for Attica was in any case always exposed to invasion, and a sufficient force of ships would be left at home to keep command of the sea.

"We have no excuse, then," said Alcibiades in conclusion, "for breaking our word to the Egestaeans, and drawing back from this enterprise. Both honour and policy are pointing the way to Sicily. An empire like ours is an ever-expanding circle, which lives by growing, and cannot stand still. It is only by getting more, and always more, that we can keep what we have. And let not Nicias succeed in his attempt to set the old against the young, neither let us believe, like him, that the stability of a state consists in stagnation. It is only by a hearty co-operation of all ages and classes that any state can prosper, and a community which finds no outlet for its energies abroad is soon worn out by discord and faction at home. Above all is this true of us Athenians, to whom ceaseless toil and endeavour is the very element in which we live."

The advice of Alcibiades, thus tendered in the garb of political wisdom, was of fatal and ruinous tendency, and in direct opposition to the oft-repeated warnings of Pericles. But his speech was exactly suited to the temper of his audience, and most of those who followed him spoke to the same effect, and when the Egestaeans and Leontines renewed their entreaties it became evident that the original motion would be confirmed by a large majority. Nicias, however, resolved to make one more effort, and he came forward to speak again, hoping by a new device to check the torrent of popular enthusiasm. Affecting to regard the matter as settled, he entered into an estimate of the force required for the proposed expedition, prefaced by an alarming picture of the wealth and power of the Sicilian Greeks. To act with effect against such an enemy, they must send, not only an overwhelming naval force, but a numerous body of troops, both cavalry and infantry, and a fleet laden with supplies for many months. They must proceed, in fact, as if they were founding a great city on a hostile soil. On no other condition, added Nicias, would he undertake the command. Nicias had intended, by exaggerating the difficulties of the undertaking, to damp the ardour of the Athenians; but to his utter dismay, these timid counsels were greeted with a great shout of applause. It was supposed that he had changed his opinion, and even the elder men began to think that so prudent a leader, backed by such an armament, could not fail of success. A great wave of excitement swept over the assembly, and the few who still doubted were cowed into silence. When the tumult had subsided, a certain Demostratus, [Footnote: The name is given by Plutarch.] who had spoken strongly in favour of the expedition, addressing Nicias in the name of the assembly, asked him to state plainly what force he required. Thus driven into a corner, Nicias answered, with great reluctance, that the number of triremes must be not less than one hundred, with five thousand heavy-armed infantry, and slingers and bow-men in proportion. This enormous estimate was carried without demur, and by the same vote full powers were conferred on the generals to fix the scale of the armament as they might think best for the interests of Athens.

Thus, by a strange freak of fortune, the Athenians, at the most momentous crisis of their history, were urged along the road to ruin by the most opposite qualities in their leaders, the cold caution of Nicias, and the wild energy of Alcibiades.


During the whole of the following spring [Footnote: B.C. 415.] preparations for the invasion of Sicily were actively pushed on, and the whole city was in a bustle and stir of excitement. Athens had recently recovered from the ravages of the plague, and six years of peace had recruited her resources, both in men and money. Since the first outbreak of the war a new generation had grown up, and these young and untried spirits joined, with all the fire of youth, in an enterprise which promised them a boundless field of adventure. Others were attracted by the baser motive of gain, or by mere curiosity, and the love of travel. No thought of danger or hardship, no hint of possible failure, clouded the brilliant prospect; it was a gay holiday excursion, and at the same time a grand scheme of conquest, offering fame to the ambitious, wealth to the needy, and pleasant recreation to all. Thousands flocked eagerly to enter their names for the service, and the only trouble of the recruiting officers was in choosing the stoutest and the best.

The great armament was on the eve of departure, and all hearts were full of joyful anticipation, when an event occurred which suddenly chilled this happy mood, and cast a shadow of evil augury on the whole undertaking. The Athenians of that age, like their descendants nearly five centuries later, [Footnote: See Acts xvii. 22.] were "more god-fearing than other men." They worshipped a multitude of divinities, and their city was thronged with the temples and statues of heroes and gods. Conspicuous among the objects of popular adoration was the god Hermes, who is exhibited by ancient poets and artists as a gracious and lovely youth, the special patron of eloquence and wit, the guardian spirit of travellers and merchants, and the giver of good luck. A familiar feature in the streets and public places of Athens was the bust of Hermes, surmounting a quadrangular stone pillar. Many hundreds of these pillars, which were called Hermae, were scattered about over the whole city, standing before the doors of houses and temples, at cross-ways and places of public resort. Wherever he went, whatever he did, the Athenian felt himself to be in the presence of this genial and friendly power, who attended him, with more than human sympathy, in all his ways.

If such were the feelings of the Athenians towards their favourite deity, what must have been their horror when they awoke one morning to find that all the busts of Hermes, with one or two exceptions, were shattered and mutilated beyond all recognition. The whole population was thunderstruck, and wild rumours ran from mouth to mouth concerning the perpetrators and the motive of this shocking outrage. It was evident that many hands must have been employed on the work of destruction, and those who had so foully insulted the most hallowed affections of their fellow-citizens were believed to be capable of any enormity. It was loudly asserted that a black conspiracy was hatching against the liberties of the people, and that the worst days of the tyranny were about to be revived. For in those days religion and politics were associated with a closeness of intimacy unknown in modern Europe, and sacrilege might well be regarded as a prelude to treason. Active measures were at once taken to bring the offenders to justice, and great rewards were offered to anyone, whether citizen, slave, or resident foreigner, who gave information concerning this or any similar crime. At first nothing was disclosed as to the mutilation of the Hermae, but other recent acts of profanation were brought to light, and among these was mentioned a derisive parody of the great Eleusinian Mysteries, alleged to have been performed in the house of Alcibiades, and elsewhere. The enemies of Alcibiades, who were both numerous and powerful, eagerly seized this handle against him; but when the matter was debated in the public assembly, it became evident that, if he were brought to trial at once, his present popularity, as chief promoter of the Sicilian expedition, would ensure his acquittal. Seeing, therefore, that their attack had been premature, those who had led the outcry against him now drew back, reserving themselves for a more favourable occasion. Being known as the bitter opponents of Alcibiades, they could not, without exciting grave suspicions, propose the adjournment of his trial; but other speakers, prompted by them, urged on grounds of public expediency that the charges against him should be held in suspense, so as not to delay the departure of the fleet. Alcibiades saw plainly that this manoeuvre was contrived to get him out of the way, to remove his adherents from Athens, and leave his enemies free to pursue their machinations during his absence. But it was in vain that he exposed the malicious motives of the last speakers, and pleaded earnestly for an immediate trial. The Athenians were still possessed by their daring scheme of conquest, and they decreed that Alcibiades should keep his command, and sail at once to Sicily.


At last the great day arrived, and in the first light of a mid-summer dawn, a vast multitude was seen pouring along the broad highway which led, between the Long Walls, from Athens to Peiraeus. The Upper City was almost deserted by its inhabitants, for there was hardly one Athenian who had not some cherished comrade, or some near relation, enrolled for service in Sicily, and the crowd was swelled by thousands of strangers, who came as spectators of that memorable scene. Little now appeared of that sanguine and joyous temper which had prevailed among the Athenians when they first voted for the expedition. Their feelings had lately been fearfully harrowed by the mutilation of the Hermae, and now that the moment of parting was at hand, all the perils and uncertainties of their grand enterprise rose up vividly before them. They were restored, however, to some degree of cheerfulness, when they reached the harbour of Peiraeus, and saw the magnificent fleet riding at anchor. Nearly all the vessels lying in the bay were Athenian; for the main body of the allies, and the commissariat ships, had been ordered to muster at Corcyra. The triremes furnished by Athens numbered a hundred, of which sixty were fully equipped as war-galleys, while forty were employed as transports. These numbers had been equalled more than once before during the war; but in efficiency, in splendour of appearance, and in the quality of the crews, this was by far the finest fleet that ever sailed from Peiraeus. Only the bare hulls of the ships were provided by the state, and each vessel was assigned to some wealthy citizen, who defrayed all the expense of fitting her for active service. Sometimes the cost of equipping a ship was divided between two or more citizens, and at ordinary times this form of taxation must have been felt by the rich as a heavy burden. But such was the popularity of the Sicilian expedition that the wealthy Athenians who were charged with this duty went far beyond what was required of them, each striving to surpass the others by the superior beauty and speed of his own ship. The crews were all composed of picked men, attracted by the double rate of pay which was furnished from the state exchequer; and in addition to this, the trierarchs [Footnote: Citizens charged with the duty of equipping a trireme.] paid special premiums to the petty officers and to the highest class of rowers. The same spirit of emulation extended to the whole body of Athenians enrolled in the army and fleet; every man felt that whatever he spent on his own personal equipment was spent for the honour and glory of Athens. And the effect produced on the public mind in Greece was, in fact, prodigious: after all the ravages of the plague, and ten years of exhausting warfare, Athens, it seemed, was stronger than ever, and in the mere exuberance of energy was making this imposing display of wealth and power. As to the ostensible object of the expedition—the conquest of Sicily—few doubted that it must follow as a matter of course.

The last farewell had been spoken, the troops were all embarked, and the rowers sat ready at their oars. The trumpet sounded, commanding silence, and the voice of the herald was heard, repeating a solemn prayer, which was taken up by the whole multitude on sea and on shore, while the captains and soldiers poured libations of wine from goblets of silver and gold. When this act of worship was ended, the crews raised the paean, and at a given signal the whole fleet was set in motion, and passed, in single file, out of the harbour. On reaching the open water, they quitted this order, and engaged in a friendly contest of speed as far as Aegina. Then the crews settled down to their work, and the great armament swept on, high in heart and hope, to join the allied contingents, and commissariat fleet, now assembled at Corcyra.

As yet only general rumours of the intended invasion had reached Syracuse, and few of the citizens were aware of the imminent peril in which they stood. Among those who were better informed was Hermocrates, a Syracusan of high rank, who for many years had been the guiding spirit in Sicilian politics. Speaking at a public assembly, about the time when the Athenian fleet sailed from Peiraeus, he urged the necessity of taking prompt measures for placing the city in a thorough state of defence. He had no fear, he said, of the ultimate triumph of Syracuse in the approaching struggle: only let them be on their guard, and not underrate the power of the enemy whom they would have to face. The words of Hermocrates, who enjoyed a high reputation for valour, patriotism, and sagacity, were not without their effect, and it was resolved that the generals should at once set about organizing the military resources of Syracuse, and providing all things necessary for the public safety. Some steps in this direction they had already taken; and tidings soon arrived at Syracuse which caused them to redouble their exertions.

For in the meantime the Athenians had reached Corcyra, where they held a final review of all their forces. The total number of the triremes was a hundred and thirty-four, and with these sailed a vast fleet of merchant ships, and smaller craft, laden with stores of all kinds, and carrying a whole army of bakers, masons, and carpenters, with the tools of their crafts, and all the engines required for a siege. Besides these, there was a great number of other vessels, small and great, fitted out by private speculators for purposes of trade. The military force was on a corresponding scale, comprising five thousand, one hundred hoplites, of whom fifteen hundred were full Athenian citizens, four hundred and eighty archers, seven hundred slingers from Rhodes, and a hundred and twenty exiles from Megara, equipped as light-armed troops. The force of cavalry was but small, being conveyed in a single transport.

The whole armament now weighed anchor from Corcyra and sailed in three divisions, each commanded by one of the generals, to the opposite coast of Italy. On arriving at Rhegium, an Ionic city on the Italian side of the strait, they received permission to beach their ships, and form a camp outside the walls; and here they waited for the return of three fast-sailing triremes, which had been sent forward from Corcyrato carry the news of their approach to Egesta, and claim the promised subsidy, and at the same time to sound the temper of the Greek cities in Sicily. Before long the ships came back with their report, and the Athenians now learned to their great chagrin that all the fabled wealth of Egesta had dwindled to the paltry sum of thirty talents.

The three generals now held a council of war, to decide on a plan of campaign. It was evident that no help was to be obtained from Egesta, and the attitude of the Rhegini, who declined to enter their alliance, boded ill for the success of the expedition. As their prospects were so discouraging, Nicias proposed to confine their operations within the narrowest limits, to patch up a peace between Selinus and Egesta, to aid the Leontines, if it could be done without risk or expense, and after making a display of the Athenian power, to sail home to Athens. Alcibiades protested strongly against such a course, as disgraceful to Athens, and unworthy of the splendid armament entrusted to their command. Let them try first what could be effected by negotiation with the Greek cities and native tribes of Sicily, and after gaining as many allies as possible in the island, let them proceed to the attack of Selinus and Syracuse. Lamachus, on the other hand, a plain, downright soldier, was for sailing straight to Syracuse, and striking immediately at the heart of Sicily. The city, he argued, would be found unprepared, and if they acted at once, in the first terror of their presence, they were certain of victory; but if they waited, their men would lose heart, the efficiency of the fleet would be impaired, and the Syracusans would gather strength and courage from the delay.

How true was the forecast of Lamachus was proved by the event; but his bold plan was distasteful alike to the timid temper of Nicias, and to the tortuous, intriguing spirit of Alcibiades. Finding, therefore, that he had no hope of convincing his colleagues, he voted for the middle course, and accordingly the plan of Alcibiades, unquestionably the worst of the three, was adopted.

In pursuance of this fatal policy Alcibiades crossed over to Messene, and tried to win over that city to the side of Athens. Meeting with no success, he returned to Rhegium, and immediately afterwards he and one of his colleagues sailed with a force of sixty triremes to Naxos. Here the Athenians found a hearty welcome, but at Catana, which was then under the influence of Syracuse, their overtures were rejected, so they continued their voyage southwards, and made their camp for the night at the mouth of the river Terias. Starting early next day, they proceeded along the coast, and, crossing the bay of Thapsus, came in sight, for the first time, of their great enemy, Syracuse. The main body of the fleet remained in the offing, but ten triremes were sent forward to reconnoitre the Great Harbour, and get a nearer view of the fortifications. When the little squadron came within hearing of the walls, a herald proclaimed in a loud voice that any of the Leontines now present in Syracuse should leave the city without fear, and come over to their faithful kinsmen and allies, the Athenians. After this futile demonstration, better calculated; to excite laughter than terror, the reconnoitring triremes withdrew, and the whole fleet sailed back in the direction of Rhegium. On their return voyage the Athenians succeeded, by a lucky accident, in gaining the adherence of Catana, which henceforth became the head-quarters of the whole armament. Soon after they had effected this important change of station the Salaminian state trireme arrived with momentous news from Athens. We have seen what a panic of superstitious fear had been caused among the Athenians by the mutilation of the Hermae. Arrested for the moment by the all-absorbing interest of the Sicilian expedition, the excitement broke out with renewed violence after the departure of the fleet. The enemies of Alcibiades saw that the time was now ripe for bringing up against him the charge of violating the mysteries, and pressing for a judgment. A formal indictment was laid before the senate, and it was decided that he should come home and stand his trial. But it was necessary to proceed with caution, for Alcibiades was popular with the troops serving in Sicily; and it was possible that, if any violence were attempted against his person, they might break out into mutiny. Accordingly the captain of the Salaminian trireme was instructed to treat him with all respect, and allow him to return to Athens in his own vessel. On receiving the summons Alcibiades affected to obey, and set sail from Catana, with the state trireme in attendance. The two ships remained in company as far as Thurii, a Greek town of southern Italy, but there the great criminal disappeared, and after searching for him in vain the officers of the Salaminia were obliged to return to Athens without him. When the news of his flight was brought to Athens, he was arraigned in his absence, and condemned to death. But if his enemies supposed that they had heard the last of Alcibiades, they soon learnt how deeply they were mistaken.


The conduct of the campaign in Sicily was thus left in the feeble hands of Nicias; for though Lamachus nominally held an equal command, his poverty and political insignificance prevented him from holding the position to which his military talents entitled him. The few remaining weeks of summer were frittered away in trivial operations on the western coasts of the island, and then the Athenians withdrew into winter quarters at Catana. The predictions of Lamachus now began to be fulfilled: seeing that Nicias, with the vast force at his disposal, attempted nothing against them, the Syracusans began to despise their enemy, and thought of taking the offensive. Horsemen from Syracuse rode repeatedly up to the Athenian outposts at Catana, and tauntingly inquired if the Athenians had come to found a colony in Sicily. At last even Nicias felt that some display of activity was necessary to save himself from contempt. He had learnt from certain Syracusan exiles that there was a convenient place for landing troops, on the low-lying shore where the river Anapus flows into the Great Harbour. Here he determined to make a sudden descent, and in order to avoid disembarking in the face of an enemy, he contrived a stratagem to remove the whole Syracusan force out of reach. A citizen of Catana, who was attached to the Athenian interest, was sent with a message to the Syracusan generals, which held out a tempting prospect of gaining an easy and decisive advantage over the Athenian army. Professing to come from the partisans of Syracuse still remaining in Catana, he promised on their behalf that if the Syracusans made a sudden assault on the Athenian camp, their friends in Catana would simultaneously fall upon the Athenian troops, who were in the habit of deserting their quarters and straggling about the town, and set fire to their ships.

This plausible story found ready credence with the Syracusan generals, and they named a day on which they promised to appear in full force before the walls of Catana. When the time appointed drew near, they marched out with the whole Syracusan army, leaving the city to be garrisoned by their allies, and took up a position within easy reach of Catana. Thereupon Nicias, who was fully informed of their movements, embarked his troops by night, sailed down the coast past Syracuse, and entering the Great Harbour, came to land near the outlying suburb of Polichne, where stood the great temple of the Olympian Zeus. Here he planted a breastwork of palisades to defend his ships, and drew up his army on ground which offered many obstacles to the advance of the Syracusan cavalry. Then, having broken down the bridge over the Anapus, he waited for the enemy to appear.

Meanwhile the Syracusan generals had marched upon Catana, and finding that they had been duped, returned with all speed to the defence of their own city. After a long and fatiguing march, they came in view of the Athenian position, and drew up their forces for battle. But Nicias declined the challenge, and the day being now far advanced, they fell back and encamped for the night in the open field.

Next morning Nicias, acting with unusual vigour, drew up his army in two equal divisions, and leaving one half to defend the camp, and act as a reserve, with the other he advanced rapidly upon the enemy. The Syracusans, who had perhaps reckoned too much on the known indolence of Nicias, were taken by surprise. Their discipline was lax, and many of them had left their posts, and gone off into the town. Nevertheless, they met the attack with firmness: those who were on the spot hastened to assume their weapons, which they had laid aside, while the stragglers came running back, and took their stand wherever they saw a gap in the ranks. After some preliminary skirmishing between the light-armed troops, the heavy masses of the hoplites came to close quarters, and a fierce hand to hand struggle ensued. While the issue was still uncertain, a violent thunderstorm broke over the contending armies, and struck terror into the Syracusans, who regarded it as an omen of defeat. But the seasoned soldiers of Nicias saw nothing unusual in an autumn tempest, and perceiving the enemy to waver, they pressed their attack, and broke through the opposing lines. The whole Syracusan army now fell back upon Syracuse, but they retired without haste or disorder, and their retreat was covered by a numerous and efficient body of cavalry, so that their total loss amounted only to two hundred and sixty.

The victory thus remained with the Athenians; but the moral advantage was entirely on the side of the Syracusans. With an army composed of raw recruits, they had met the flower of the Athenian forces, trained by years of warfare, and led by experienced generals, in fair fight, and though attacked at a disadvantage, they had fought with spirit, and retreated with coolness and deliberation. They had good reason to be satisfied with the result of their first encounter with the invader, and they might well share the high and confident hopes expressed by their most eminent citizen, Hermocrates. Speaking at a general assembly, immediately after the battle, the great patriot congratulated his countrymen on the courage which they had displayed, and at the same time pointed out the necessity of improving their discipline and military organization. One important reform should be made at once; the number of the generals, which had hitherto been fifteen, should be greatly reduced, and those appointed to the supreme command should be given absolute power, so that they might act with secrecy and despatch. Further, let the whole adult male population be placed under arms, and kept in constant drill all through the winter. If these measures were vigorously carried out, they might successfully defy the Athenians to do their worst.

Acting on this advice, the Syracusans deposed the existing generals, and chose Hermocrates, with three others, to fill their place. The reform of the army was at once taken in hand, and ambassadors were sent to Corinth and Sparta to ask for aid. Corinth, as the mother-city of Syracuse, might well respond to the call, and it was hoped that the Spartans would be induced to declare open war on Athens, so as to compel the Athenians to withdraw their forces from Sicily, or at least prevent them from sending reinforcements.

Various defensive works were undertaken by the Syracusans during the winter. The most important of these was a new wall, extending from the northern sea to the Great Harbour, and taking in a wide space of ground, outside the old line of wall, to the west of the city. By thus increasing the area of Syracuse, they made it much more difficult for Nicias to draw his line of blockade, when the siege began in the following spring. They also constructed a fort, with a permanent garrison, to guard the temple of Zeus in the suburb of Polichne, and drove piles into the sea at all the landing-places of the Great Harbour.

Soon after the battle Nicias shifted his winter quarters to Naxos, and learning this the Syracusans marched in full force to Catana, laid waste the territory, and burnt the deserted huts of the Athenians. The insult was tamely endured, and shortly afterwards the ever-active Hermocrates had an opportunity of thwarting the Athenian intrigues among the Greek cities of Sicily. The scene of this diplomatic encounter was Camarina, a Dorian city which had hitherto wavered between its hatred of Syracuse and its fear of Athens. Early in the winter Athenian envoys appeared at Camarina with overtures of alliance, and Hermocrates was sent to represent the interests of Syracuse. Speaking first in the debate, Hermocrates set himself to unmask the designs of the Athenians, who, under the thin pretence of helping the Ionic cities of Sicily, had come (he said) to make a conquest of the whole island. The Ionians of Greece had long groaned under their yoke, and the same fate was in store for the Ionians of Sicily, if they allowed themselves to be beguiled by specious lies. The plea of friendship and goodwill might pass with the degenerate Greeks of Asia and the Aegaean, born to be cajoled and enslaved; but the Camariaeans were of the stout Dorian race, the hereditary foes of tyranny, too wise and too brave to lend themselves as tools to a bare-faced scheme of aggression. If not, let them beware: Syracuse was fighting in a righteous cause, and must prevail in the end; help was coming from Peloponnesus, and if the Camariaeans stood aloof, the day would come when they would regret their disloyalty.

There can be no doubt that Hermocrates was right in his view of the motive which brought the Athenians to Sicily, and the arguments of Euphemus, the advocate for Athens, who strove to confute him, will not bear examination. But the people of Camarina were in a difficult position; their city had suffered many things in the past at the hands of Syracuse, and they had reason to fear that her oppressions might be renewed, if she emerged triumphant from the present struggle. On the other hand, if the Athenians were victorious, they might forfeit their independence altogether. In this dilemma they determined to play a waiting game, and when the time came for action, to throw their weight on the winning side. For the present they answered that they chose to remain neutral.

The debate at Camarina, though interesting and instructive from the light which it throws on the passions and motives of the combatants, had little influence on the final issue of the war. But about the same time a scene was being enacted in another part of the Greek world, which led to most momentous consequences. Early in the winter the Syracusan envoys arrived at Corinth, and made an earnest appeal for help. The Corinthians were warmly attached to their famous colony, which had never wavered in its allegiance to the mother-city, and moreover they were the implacable enemies of Athens. They therefore took up the cause of Syracuse with enthusiasm, and they sent the envoys on to Sparta, accompanied by delegates of their own, to urge the immediate resumption of hostilities against Athens, and the sending of prompt aid to Sicily.

At Sparta they found an able and unscrupulous ally, the very last whom they had expected to meet there. This was the outlaw Alcibiades, who, after eluding the vigilance of the Athenian officers at Thurii, had crossed over in a merchant ship to Cyllene, the port of Elis. While staying there, he received an invitation from the Lacedaemonians to proceed to Sparta, and made his way thither, having first stipulated for a safe-conduct; for he dreaded the vengeance of the Spartans, to whom he had done much mischief by raising the coalition which led to the battle of Mantinea. So there he was, the guest of his old enemies, burning with all an exile's hatred, and ready to strike some deadly blow against the city which had cast him out.

At first the Spartans gave but a cool and qualified response to the application of the envoys from Corinth. They were prepared to lend moral support to the Syracusans, by sending an embassy to encourage them in their resistance, but of more substantial aid they said little or nothing. Now was the time for Alcibiades to play his part. He knew, far better than any of his hearers, all the vulnerable points of Athens, and had no scruple in using his knowledge for her ruin. Having obtained permission from the magistrates, he rose to address the Spartan assembly; and his speech is given at full length by the historian, who was himself an exile at the time, and may possibly have been present [Footnote: The suggestion is made by Grote.] on this important occasion.

The Spartans might smile when they heard this accomplished traitor professing friendship towards themselves, and zeal for their service; they might be disgusted at the flippant sophistries by which he strove to defend his unexampled villainy. But far different feelings must have been awakened, when he went on to unfold the gigantic scheme of conquest, to which, as he pretended, the invasion of Sicily was no more than a prelude. According to this statement, the Athenians intended, after subjugating the Greeks of Sicily, to turn their arms against the Italian Greeks, and finally to attack Carthage. If all these designs were successful, they would build a great number of new ships, taking their materials from the forests of Italy, raise a vast military force, both of Greeks and barbarians, and then return, backed by the whole power of the West, and draw a ring of war round Peloponnesus. With such resources they would be irresistible, and all Greece must inevitably fall under their sway.

"Such," continued Alcibiades, "is the secret history of the Sicilian expedition, which you have heard from the mouth of him who knows it best. Remember, then, that the issue before you concerns not Syracuse only, but Sparta also: for if Syracuse falls—and fall she must, if left without support—all Sicily will be under the heel of Athens; then will come the turn of Italy, and after that you will soon have the enemy at your own doors. Now learn what you must do, if you would avert all the evils which I have foretold. You must send a fleet to Sicily at once, with hoplites who can row the ships themselves, and serve in the army as soon as they land, and with them a Spartan commander, to organize the fighting men of Sicily, and compel those who are hanging back to do their duty. Such a man will be a host in himself, and will infuse new life and energy into the defence. Further, you must establish a fortified camp at Decelea, a position which commands the whole territory of Attica; for by so doing you will reduce Athens to a state of siege, and compel the whole male population to serve on garrison duty; you will deprive the Athenians of their revenues from the silver-mines at Laurium, and you will put new heart into the cities subject to Athens, and encourage them to withhold their tribute. Let these measures be carried out with promptitude and vigour, and you will soon reap your reward, in the humiliation of Athens, and the honour and gratitude of all Greece."

At these words of Alcibiades the sluggish Spartans took fire, and recognizing the importance of his advice they determined to follow the course which he had indicated. Gylippus, a Spartan of high rank, received orders to proceed at once to Syracuse, and assume the control of the war, and the Corinthians were directed to provide ships for the conveyance of troops. But after this brief display of energy the Spartans relapsed into their wonted torpor. Many months elapsed before Gylippus was able to embark for Sicily, and meanwhile important events had been occurring at the seat of war. We return, therefore, to the head-quarters of Nicias, which had once more been removed from Naxos to Catana.


For the next year and a half [Footnote: Spring 414—autumn 413 B.C.] the scene of our narrative lies almost entirely in the immediate neighbourhood of Syracuse, so that it now becomes necessary to describe in some detail the site of that city, and the character of the adjacent country. Mention has already been made of the island of Ortygia, the site of the original colony, connected with the mainland of Sicily by a bridge or causeway. At the southern extremity of Ortygia there is a narrow strip of land, pointing like a finger towards the rocky peninsula of Plemmyrium; and between these two points lies the entrance to a spacious bay, already alluded to under the name of the Great Harbour. At the western end of the bay there is a long stretch of low, marshy ground, intersected by the little rivers Cyana and Anapus, and infested with fever during the heats of summer. On a rising ground, south of the Anapus, stood the suburb of Polichne, with its great temple, sacred to the Olympian Zeus. A little to the north of Ortygia the coast rises abruptly in a bold line of cliffs, facing eastwards, and forming the base of a triangular plateau, which slopes upwards from the sea, and gradually grows narrower until it ends in a point, called the hill of Euryelus. This plateau, which bore the name of Epipolae, is guarded on all its three sides by rocky precipices, only to be ascended at two or three places. Its eastern end, called Acheadina, from the wild pear-trees which once flourished there, was occupied by a new city, now included with Ortygia in the same wall of defence. Here were situated the famous stone-quarries, which afterwards acquired so tragic an interest from the sufferings of the captive Athenians; and southwards from this district the ground shelves gently to the shores of the Little Harbour, a sheltered inlet at the northern end of Ortygia.

At the opening of spring the operations against Syracuse began in good earnest. The first object of Nicias was to obtain possession of the heights of Epipolae, for since the construction of the new Syracusan wall it had become impossible for him to draw his line of blockade from the side of the Great Harbour. His preparations were already far advanced, when the Syracusan generals resolved to anticipate him, by occupying all the approaches to Epipolae. With this intention they issued an order for a full muster of troops in a meadow by the Anapus, and after a general review and inspection of arms they appointed a picked body of six hundred hoplites to guard the heights of Epipolae, and hold themselves ready for any other pressing service. But the precaution was taken too late. On the night before the review Nicias set sail with his whole army from Catana, and landed at a place called Leon, not more than six or seven furlongs from the northern side of Epipolae. The fleet then took up its station in the sheltered water behind the peninsula of Thapsus, while the land forces, advancing at a run, crossed the level ground, and then, breasting the ascent, gained the summit of Euryelus.

News of their approach presently reached the Syracusans, who were still mustered by the Anapus, and breaking off the review, they marched in haste towards Epipolae, hoping still to dislodge the Athenians from their position. But in their rapid advance over a distance of nearly three miles their ranks became disordered, and their attack was so straggling and ineffectual that they were easily repulsed, and driven back with considerable loss into the town. On the following day Nicias led his troops down the slope, and offered battle before the walls of Syracuse; but the challenge was declined, and the Syracusans remained within their defences, leaving the Athenians in undisputed possession of Epipolae.

After this important success the Athenian generals prepared at once to form the siege of Syracuse. They first constructed a fort at a place called Labdalum, on the northern verge of Epipolae, and near its western extremity, to serve as a safe depositary for their baggage and money. Then, taking up a position near the centre of Epipolae, they built a circular wall, covering a considerable space of ground, and defended on the side towards the city by an outer breastwork, a thousand feet long. This enclosure, which was called the Circle, was intended as a shelter for the men employed on construction of the blockading wall, which started from either side of the Circle, and was to be carried north and south until it reached the sea. The work made rapid progress, and greatly alarmed the Syracusans, who saw themselves in danger of being cut off from all hope of succour on the land side. Dismayed by this prospect, they resolved to make one more effort to drive the Athenians from their position, and marching out in full force, offered battle. Advancing in haste and disorder, they would certainly have suffered a crushing defeat, but for the prudent caution of their generals, who were so much impressed by the superior discipline of the Athenians, that they gave the order to retire, and led their troops back into the city, leaving only a detachment of horse to skirmish with the besiegers. But the Athenians had now an efficient force of cavalry, which had been raised by successive reinforcements to the number of six hundred and fifty men; and these, backed by a small force of infantry, soon drove the horsemen of Syracuse from the field.

The Athenians then completed the building of their Circle, and began to lay the materials for the northern line of wall. By the advice of Hermocrates the Syracusans made no further attempt to attack them in full force, but began to build a counterwall, running out from the city in a direction south of the Athenian Circle, so as to cross the line to be followed by the wall of blockade, and prevent it from reaching the Great Harbour. The work proceeded without interruption, for the Athenians were engaged in their building operations north of the Circle, and did not choose to divide their forces. When it was completed, this counterwork consisted of a solid stone wall, crowned with wooden towers, and defended in front by a palisade. The blockade of Syracuse was thus rendered impossible, as long as the defenders could keep possession of their counterwall. But unfortunately the guards left in charge of the new wail soon began to neglect their duty, and erected tents in the shade, where they passed the hot hours of the afternoon, while some even left their posts, and went off to refresh themselves in the city. The Athenian generals did not fail to take advantage of this negligence. Watching their opportunity, when most of the Syracusan guards were reposing under the shelter of the tents, they sent a chosen troop of some three hundred men to make a sudden assault on the counterwall. Then, having divided the main body of the Athenian army between them, they disposed their forces so as to prevent any rescue from the town. One division was drawn up before the principal gate in the new Syracusan wall, while the other proceeded to a postern-gate, at the point where the counterwall started from the city. The combined movement was completely successful; the three hundred carried the stockade and cross-wall by storm, and compelled the defenders to take refuge within the ramparts of Syracuse. The whole Athenian army then marched up to the counterwall and stockade, which they speedily demolished, carrying off the materials for their own use.

Wishing to prevent any second attempt on the part of the Syracusans to cut them off from the southern slope of Epipolae, the Athenian generals now fortified that part of the cliff which looks towards the Great Harbour. By occupying this point they obtained a new centre, commanding the space between the Circle and the southern edge of the cliff, and placing them in communication with the level valley of the Anapus, across which they had to carry their line of blockade. For the present building operations were suspended on the northern side of the Circle, as they wished first of all to complete the investment of Syracuse towards the south.

Perceiving their intention, the Syracusans began a second counterwork, consisting of a stockade and ditch, which started at the point of junction between the old city-wall and the new, and ran across the low swampy ground as far as the Anapus. Thus the Athenians were confronted by a new obstacle, which had to be removed, before they could make any further progress. Acting with energy and decision, they sent orders to the fleet, which was still lying at Thapsus, to sail round into the Great Harbour; and without waiting for its arrival, before daybreak Lamachus led his troops down the cliff, and advanced against the stockade. His men carried hurdles and planks, to secure their footing in the most treacherous parts of the swamp, and, proceeding thus, in the first light of dawn they came up to the stockade. They found the Syracusans assembled in force to resist them, and an engagement ensued, which speedily ended in favour of the Athenians. The right wing of the Syracusan army fled back into the city, while the left wing retreated towards the suburb of Polichne, hotly pursued by the picked troop [Footnote: P. 203.] of Athenian hoplites, who wished to cut them off before they reached the river. By this rash movement the Athenians came near to forfeiting the advantage which they had gained, and brought upon themselves an irreparable loss. For the Syracusan cavalry turned on their pursuers, and drove them back in disorder upon the Athenian right. The sudden reverse created something like a panic in that part of the line, and Lamachus, who was in command of the left wing, hastened to their relief, and threw himself, with a handful of men, between the Syracusan cavalry and the fugitives. This gallant action turned the tide of battle once more, and gave the Athenians on the right wing time to rally; but Lamachus and his followers, pushing forward too hotly, were attacked by the enemy in a place where their retreat was cut off by a ditch, and slain to a man.

Meanwhile the Syracusans who had fled into the city, observing the temporary defeat of the Athenians, had taken courage again, and they returned to the field, having first sent a detachment to attack the Athenian Circle, where Nicias, who was disabled by sickness, had been left in charge with a small garrison. Thinking to make an easy capture, the party sent on this service ran up the slope of Epipolae, and reached the breastwork of the Circle, which they took and demolished. With the scanty force at his disposal, Nicias had little hope of repelling the attack, so he had recourse to a desperate expedient. He ordered the camp-servants to set fire to a great pile of timber, which was lying, together with a number of siege engines, in front of the wall. They did as he directed, and a great flame arose, which drove back the assailants, and gave warning of his danger to the Athenians in the plain below, where the whole Syracusan army was now in full retreat. Almost at the same moment the Athenian fleet was seen sailing into the Great Harbour, and a strong contingent from the victorious army came swarming up the hill to the rescue. Thereupon the storming party from Syracuse turned and fled back to the city, where they found the streets thronged by their beaten and dispirited comrades.

The result of this battle was to leave the Athenian in undisputed possession of the whole country round Syracuse. Lamachus, indeed, had fallen, and the loss of that daring and active spirit soon made itself severely felt. But for the present the fortunes of Athens were in the ascendant, and everything seemed to promise a speedy triumph. The Syracusans were thoroughly cowed by their defeat, and looked passively on, while a double wall of blockade crept steadily forwards from the southern edge of Epipolae towards the Great Harbour, where the Athenian fleet had now taken up its permanent station. The native Sicels, who had hitherto held back through fear of Syracuse, now joined the Athenians in great numbers. Even the distant Etruscans, the ancient enemies of Syracuse, sent three war-galleys to take part in the sack of the great Dorian city.

Day by day the spirits of the Syracusans sank lower and lower. They now began to feel the actual pressure of a siege. Months had passed since their envoys had sailed for Greece, and there was still no sign of help from Corinth or Sparta. They had lost all hope of saving themselves by their own unaided efforts, and no course seemed left to them but to make the best terms they could with Nicias. Negotiations were accordingly opened with the Athenian general, but after much discussion no definite result was attained. In this hour of weakness and distress, the Syracusans became divided against themselves, and every man suspected his neighbour of treason. Then they turned upon their generals, who, after holding out such high promises, had brought them to this pass, either by mismanagement, or by deliberate treachery. Hermocrates and his colleagues were deposed from their command, and three other generals succeeded to their place.

In the eyes of all those who were watching the struggle, the fate of Syracuse was sealed; she was destined to fall a prey to the devouring ambition of Athens. But at this very moment a little cloud was approaching from the east, which was fraught with disaster and ruin to the besieging army.


Just at the time when the Syracusans were brought to the brink of despair, Gylippus, after so many months' delay, was on his voyage to Sicily. While lying at Leucas, a Corinthian settlement in the Ionian sea, he received the alarming intelligence that Syracuse was already completely blockaded, and the report was confirmed by every vessel that came in from the west. Deceived by these false rumours, he gave up all hope of saving Sicily, but hoping still to forestall the Athenians in Italy, he put out from Leucas with four ships, and steered a straight course for Tarentum. From this city, which was friendly to Sparta and Syracuse, he started on his mission among the Italian Greeks, and putting in at Locri he heard for the first time that the Athenian wall was still unfinished on the northern side of Epipolae, leaving a wide gap, through which a relieving force might enter the town.

Two courses now lay open to Gylippus. He might sail southwards, and make an attempt to run the blockade of Syracuse—or he might land on the northern coast of Sicily, march across the island, and fight his way into the city through the unwalled interval. In either case, the enterprise seemed desperate enough. By a very moderate exertion on the part of Nicias, employing only a fraction of the immense force at his disposal, Gylippus might have been destroyed, before he had time to become dangerous. But Nicias was lulled into a fatal confidence. He had heard of the mission of Gylippus, but made no attempt to oppose his voyage to Italy, regarding him as a mere free-booter, unworthy of serious notice. At last, learning that Gylippus was at Locri, he was induced to send out four triremes against him. They were instructed to take station at Rhegium, and cut off the daring intruder as he passed through the strait. But when they reached Rhegium, the wary Spartan was already beyond their reach. He had decided to approach Syracuse by land, and was now far advanced on his voyage to Himera, the only Greek settlement on the north coast of Sicily. Himera, though an Ionic colony, was attached to the Dorian interest, and her citizens gave a hearty welcome to the Spartan deliverer. Before long, a little army of about three thousand men was assembled at Himera, and ready to follow the fortunes of Gylippus. Seven hundred of these were the sailors and marines from his own vessels, armed as hoplites, and the Himeraeans furnished a thousand infantry, light and heavy-armed, and a hundred cavalry. Owing to the recent death of a powerful chieftain, who had been a strong partisan of Athens, the northern Sicels had now changed sides, and they sent a thousand men to serve under the Spartan leader. Small contingents also arrived, in answer to the call of Gylippus, from Gela and Selinus. With this little force, composed of such motley elements, Gylippus started from Himera, and entered on his march for the relief of Syracuse. The fate of Syracuse was already wavering in the balance. As yet no news of approaching succour had reached the beleaguered city, and the Syracusans had abandoned all hope. To save themselves from a worse calamity, they resolved to surrender, and an assembly was summoned to settle the terms of capitulation. But at this very moment a message came to them by sea, which kindled their courage afresh, and banished these counsels of despair. When Gylippus left Leucas, a Corinthian fleet of some fifteen vessels was preparing to sail from that port for Syracuse. One of the ships, commanded by a certain Gongylus, was delayed in the harbour, and started after the rest. But Gongylus, instead of steering the ordinary course, which would have taken him first to Italy, made a bold dash, straight across the sea, and just when the momentous decision was pending, his ship came to anchor in the Little Harbour. Forthwith the joyful tidings spread like wildfire through the city: Gylippus was coming, armed with full authority from Sparta—Corinth had taken up their cause—Syracuse was saved! All thought of surrender was instantly flung away, and news arriving shortly afterwards that Gylippus was near at hand, the whole Syracusan force marched out to meet him, and escorted him triumphantly into the town.

Thus, without a blow being struck, an immense access of strength had been brought to the besieged, and the grand condition of successful resistance, on which Alcibiades had laid such weight, was fulfilled. A Spartan officer of consummate ability was now in Syracuse, and he had made his way into the city, not alone, not by stealth, but at the head of an army, and before the very eyes of the enemy. Weeks must have elapsed between the departure of Gylippus from Leucas, and his arrival at Syracuse; and during all this time, with one trifling exception, Nicias made no effort to oppose his progress. Prudent men might well have regarded the enterprise of Gylippus as a wild and desperate adventure; and such it must have proved, but for the astounding blindness and apathy of Nicias.

At the time when Gylippus reached Syracuse the Athenian lines of circumvallation were all but completed on the side of the Great Harbour; but a wide interval was still left between the Circle and the northern sea, and it was here that Gylippus had effected an entrance. To keep this space open was a matter of supreme importance, and the scene of action is now shifted again to the northern slope of Epipolae. On the day after his arrival Gylippus succeeded in capturing the Athenian fort at Labdalum, and the command of this position gave increased facilities for the construction of a third counterwall, which was forthwith taken in hand, and carried in the direction of Labdalum, until it crossed the blockading line at its northern end.

If the Syracusans succeeded in completing and holding this counterwork, the blockade of Syracuse would be rendered impossible. Yet for some time Nicias made no attempt to interrupt its progress. As if already convinced of his inferiority in the field, he took steps to keep his communications open by sea, and with this object he employed a part of his forces in fortifying the headland of Plemmyrium, which commanded the entrance to the Great Harbour. Here he built three forts which served as an arsenal for the Athenian stores; and henceforth Plemmyrium became the chief station for his fleet. This removal had a disastrous effect on the Athenian crews; for the place being almost a desert, and the springs distant and scanty, they were compelled to go far from their quarters in search of forage and water, and while thus engaged they were cut off in great numbers by the Syracusan horse, who had been posted at Polichne for this purpose. A rapid demoralization of the crews was the consequence, and desertions became more frequent every day.

Meanwhile the counterwall was advancing steadily up the hill, and every day Gylippus drew up his army, to cover the operations of the workmen. At last he determined to force on an engagement, and in the first encounter the Syracusans, fighting in a confined space, which prevented their cavalry from coming into action, suffered a defeat. In no wise discouraged by this reverse, on the next day they took up a position in the more open ground, and offered battle again. By this time the Syracusan counterwork had almost passed the end of the Athenian wall, and if it were carried a few yards further, the siege of Syracuse would be brought to a standstill. Roused by the imminence of the crisis, Nicias determined to make one more effort to regain his mastery in the field, and led his troops to the attack. The main body of the hoplites were soon hotly engaged on both sides, and in the midst of the action Gylippus directed his cavalry and light-armed infantry to make a sudden charge on the Athenian left. This movement was executed with so much skill and resolution that the Athenians in that part of the line gave way, and drew after them the rest of their comrades, who broke their ranks, and fled for shelter behind the siege works.

The Syracusans lost no time in turning their victory to account. On the very same night their wall was extended some distance beyond the blockading line, and until this new barrier was overthrown, the investment of Syracuse had now become impossible.

Whichever way he looked, Nicias saw himself menaced with failure and defeat. He had sent twenty ships to intercept the Corinthian squadron on its voyage from Leucas; but the little fleet of rescue succeeded in avoiding the snare, and made its way into the port of Syracuse, thus adding twelve fresh vessels to the defending force. Gylippus himself was marching unhindered up and down the island, passing from city to city, and raising reinforcements of ships and men; and a second embassy had been despatched by the Syracusans, to carry the news of their victory to Corinth and Sparta, and ask for further help. Another ominous sign of coming events was the bustle and activity now visible in the dockyards of Syracuse and the waters of the Little Harbour; for the Syracusans had turned their attention seriously to their fleet, and thought of nothing less than attacking the Athenians on their own element.

These symptoms of renewed confidence and energy were observed by Nicias with growing disquiet. And if he turned his eyes to his own camp, he saw little to relieve his anxiety. For the predictions of Lamachus had been fulfilled to the letter. By his fatal policy of procrastination Nicias had frittered away the resources of the most splendid armament that ever set sail from Peiraeus. His soldiers were infected by the despondency of their leader, and many of them were stricken by the marsh-fever which haunts the unwholesome district of the Anapus. Above all the condition of the fleet showed the lamentable effect of long inaction and delay. All the supplies of the Athenians came to them by sea, and in order to keep their communications open, it was necessary to keep the whole of the fleet on constant duty. In consequence of this, the hulls of the triremes had become sodden with water, which made them leaky, and difficult to row. Moreover the crews, which were largely composed of foreign seamen, had grown restive and mutinous under the severe strain of hardships and privation, so different from the easy and lucrative service in the hope of which they had enlisted. Some took the first opportunity of deserting to the enemy, while others ran away to remote parts of Sicily; and there was no means of filling the places thus left vacant.

Such was the burden of care and apprehension which lay heavy on the feeble shoulders of the Athenian general. He was naturally a weak man, haunted by superstitious terrors, irresolute, easily cast down; and this infirmity of character was aggravated by a painful and incurable disease. There was no longer any question of laying siege to Syracuse: he himself was now besieged, and it was all he could do to maintain his position within his defences, and keep the sea open for the conveyance of supplies. In this desperate situation he determined to send a written despatch to Athens. We are led to suppose that this was an unusual proceeding, and that news from the seat of war was generally sent by word of mouth. The document is given at full length, with all its grievous confessions of incompetence and failure. After setting forth the facts of the case as stated above, Nicias insists that one of two things must be done: either the army now lying before Syracuse must be recalled to Athens, or the Athenians must send out a second army, equal in strength to the first, and a general to relieve him of his command.

At the conclusion of his despatch Nicias peevishly complains of the exacting temper of the Athenians, and their readiness to blame anyone but themselves if anything untoward occurred. Whatever may be the truth of the general charge, it was most ill-timed and ungrateful in his own case. Towards him, at least, the conduct of his fellow-citizens was marked by an excess of generosity, amounting to actual infatuation. Nothing is more remarkable than the unshaken confidence of the Athenians in their feeble general, after hearing this terrible indictment, drawn up by his own hand. They refused to accept his resignation, and passed a decree that large reinforcements should be sent to Sicily, with Demosthenes and Eurymedon as generals; and in the meantime they appointed Menander and Euthydemus, two officers already serving before Syracuse, to share with Nicias the burden of command. Before the winter was ended Eurymedon started with ten ships for Sicily, to announce that effectual help was coming; while Demosthenes was charged with the duty of enlisting troops and organizing a fleet.

Meanwhile new perils were gathering round the Athenians at home, which should have warned them to abandon their wild plans of conquest, and concentrate all their strength for their own defence. The Spartans had long been restrained by a scruple of conscience from an open declaration of war, wishing to avoid the guilt which is associated with the first act of aggression. Eighteen years before they had refused all offers of arbitration, and deliberately provoked an encounter with Athens, in direct violation of the Thirty Years' Truce, which provided for an amicable settlement of differences; and by so acting they had, as they believed, incurred the anger of heaven, and brought on themselves a long train of disasters. But now the position was reversed: for in the previous year the Athenians had made descents on the coasts of Laconia, and other districts of Peloponnesus; and they had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the friendly overtures of the Spartans, who proposed to submit all disputed matters to a peaceful tribunal.

Thus relieved of their scruples, the Spartans prepared to renew the war in good earnest, and early in the following spring [Footnote: B.C. 413.] they summoned their allies to the Isthmus, and marched under Agis their king into Attica. After ravaging the plain, they encamped at Decelea, fourteen miles north of Athens, and here they established a fortified post, which was garrisoned by contingents of the Peloponnesian army, serving in regular order. Once more Alcibiades had cause to exult in the success of his malignant counsels, which had sent Gylippus to Syracuse, and had now planted this root of bitter mischief on the very soil of Attica.

While the allies were thus engaged at Decelea, a considerable body of troops had embarked at Taenarum and at Corinth, and sailed to take part in the defence of Syracuse. In Greece, all the old enemies of Athens were arming against her, and beyond the sea her prospects grew darker and darker every day. Yet nothing, it seemed, could break the spell of fatal delusion which rested on the doomed city. While Attica lay in the grip of the enemy, a fleet of sixty-five triremes, carrying a great military force, weighed anchor from Peiraeus, and steered its course, under the command of Demosthenes, for Sicily.


We must now return to Syracuse, where fortune was preparing a new blow for the ill-fated Athenian army. Gylippus came back from his mission at the beginning of spring, bringing with him the reinforcements which he had gathered from various parts of Sicily. At once resuming the offensive, he planned an attack on the forts recently erected by Nicias at Plemmyrium, and in order to divide the attention of the Athenians, he determined to make a simultaneous movement against them by sea and land. He himself took command of the army, and setting out at night, made his way round to the rear of the Athenian position at Plemmyrium. Meanwhile the Syracusan fleet lay ready in two divisions, one of which, consisting of thirty-five vessels, was moored in the docks, within the Great Harbour, while the other, to the number of forty-five, had its station in the Lesser Harbour. At the hour appointed by Gylippus, just as day was breaking, both squadrons got under weigh, and bore down upon Plemmyrium, from the opposite sides of Ortygia. Though taken by surprise, the Athenians put out in haste with sixty triremes, and a sea-fight ensued, in which the Syracusans for some time had the advantage. By this time Gylippus was at hand with his army, and by a sudden assault on the Athenian forts he made an easy capture of all three; for the greater part of the garrison had flocked down to the sea, to watch the progress of the action in the Great Harbour. Fortunately for these men, who had so grossly neglected their duty, the Athenian fleet had now gained a decisive victory, and they were thus enabled to make their escape by water, and cross over to the camp of Nicias, on the other side of the bay.

By the capture of Plemmyrium a great treasure fell into the hands of the Syracusans. The loss to the Athenians, in money, stores, and men, was serious enough; but further consequences ensued, which were nothing less than disastrous. The enemy now commanded both sides of the entrance to the Great Harbour, and not a ship-load of provisions could reach the Athenian camp without an encounter with the Syracusan triremes. Well might despondency and dismay take possession of the beleaguered army, cramped in their narrow quarters on the swampy flats of the Anapus.

All Sicily, with one or two exceptions, had now declared for Syracuse, and reinforcements came pouring in from every side. Gylippus was resolved, if possible, to destroy the armament of Nicias, before the fresh succours from Athens had time to arrive; and, as before, the attack was to be made simultaneously by sea and land. Since the loss of Plemmyrium, the Athenian fleet had been penned up in the confined space at the head of the Great Harbour. Outside of these narrow limits, the whole coast was in the hands of the enemy, and any Athenian trireme which ventured out into open water ran the risk of being driven on a hostile shore. Unless they chose to incur this great peril, the Athenians would have to fight in close order, with the long, tapering prows of their vessels exposed to collision.

The Syracusans skilfully availed themselves of the advantage thus offered. The impact of prow with prow, which had hitherto been regarded as a disgraceful evidence of bad seamanship, had now become the most effective method of attack; and in order to execute this simple manoeuvre without damage to their own ships, the Syracusans shortened the prows of their triremes, and strengthened them with heavy beams of timber, thus converting them into a broad and solid mass, which could be driven with crushing force against the slender beaks of the Athenian galleys.

When all was ready, Gylippus led out his troops, and assailed the Athenian wall which faced towards Syracuse, and at the same time the garrison stationed at Polichne left their quarters, and made another attack on the opposite side. The assault had already commenced, when the Syracusan fleet, which numbered eighty triremes, was seen advancing towards the inner shore of the bay, where the ships of Nicias lay moored; and the Athenian seamen, who had not expected to be called into action, hastened in some confusion to man their ships, seventy-five of which were presently engaged with the enemy. After a day passed in irregular and desultory fighting, the battle ended slightly in favour of the Syracusans. During the next day the Syracusans remained inactive, and Nicias employed the interval in repairing the ships which had suffered damage, and providing for the defence of his fleet. The Athenian naval station was protected by a row of piles, rammed into the bottom of the sea, forming a semi-circular breastwork, with an opening about two hundred feet wide, where the ships passed in and out. On either side of this entrance Nicias caused a merchant vessel to be moored, and each vessel was provided with an engine called a dolphin, a heavy mass of lead, suspended from the yard-arm, which could be dropped on the deck of any hostile trireme attempting to pass.

Early on the following morning the Syracusans resumed hostilities both by sea and land, and after several hours of desultory fighting, they drew off their fleet, and sailed back to their station under the walls of the city. The Athenians were well pleased by this sudden relief, and concluding that their work was done for the day, they disembarked at leisure, and began to prepare their midday meal. But before they had time to snatch a mouthful, the whole Syracusan fleet was seen advancing again from the opposite shore, and the hungry and weary Athenian crews were summoned on board to repel a second attack. This crafty manoeuvre was due to a suggestion of Ariston, the most skilful of the Corinthian seamen, by whose advice provisions had been brought down to the beach, so that the Syracusan crews were kept together, and ready to renew the action, after a brief interval for repose and refreshment.

For a little while the two fleets faced each other, without venturing to attack; then the Athenians, who were feverish with hunger and fatigue, could restrain themselves no longer, but with one consent they dashed their oars into the water, and with shouts of mutual encouragement charged down upon the enemy. The Syracusans kept a firm front, and opposing their massive prows to the rash assault, inflicted great damage on the Athenian triremes, many of which were completely wrecked by the shock of the collision. On every side the Athenians were hard beset; the light-armed troops posted on the decks of the Syracusan vessels, plied them with a shower of javelins, while the waters swarmed with a multitude of boats, manned by daring adventurers, who rowed boldly up to the sides of the Athenian triremes, broke the oars, and hurled darts through the port-holes at the rowers. After fighting for some time at a great disadvantage, with exhausted crews, and in a narrow space, where they had no room to manoeuvre, the Athenians were compelled to fall back, and sought refuge behind their palisade.

This important success raised the spirits of the Syracusans higher than ever. They had gained a decisive victory over the greatest naval power in Greece, sunk seven triremes, disabled many more, and slain or taken prisoners a large number of men. Flushed with pride and hope, they immediately began to prepare for a final attack, which was to end in the complete destruction of their enemies both by sea and land. But these high expectations received a sudden check; for on the day after the battle, [Footnote: Or possibly two days.] the watchers on the walls of Syracuse descried a great fleet on the northern horizon. Presently the regular beat of ten thousand oars could be distinctly heard; it grew louder and louder, and as the vanguard came into full view, the alarmed Syracusans recognized the truth. There was no mistaking the peculiar build and familiar ensigns of the renowned Athenian galleys. This could be no other than the fleet of Demosthenes, arrived just in time to save the shattered armament of Nicias, and once more turn the tide of war against Syracuse. A great multitude rushed to the battlements, and gazed with keen pangs of anxiety as the long line of triremes, seventy-three in number, swept past the walls of Ortygia, rounded the southern point, and crossing the Great Harbour, dropped anchor at the naval station of Nicias. If anyone not concerned in the struggle had been present, he might have admired the grand exhibition of military pomp and power, the perfect trim and condition of the triremes, the precision of the rowing, and the glittering ranks of the hoplites, javelin-men, archers, and slingers, who thronged the decks. But no such feeling could find room in the minds of the Syracusans. After their long trials and sufferings, on the very eve of their crowning triumph, a new host of enemies had sprung up against them, and all their toils were beginning anew.


When Demosthenes arrived at Syracuse, the position of affairs was as follows: the blockading wall of the Athenians still extended in an unbroken line from the circular fort on Epipolae to the camp and naval station of Nicias at the head of the Great Harbour; but the Athenians were cut off from access to the northern slope of Epipolae by the Syracusan counterwall, which had been carried up the whole length of the plateau as far as the hill of Euryelus. Along the northern edge of the cliff the Syracusans had established three fortified camps, where the defenders of the counterwall had their quarters, and on the summit of Euryelus a fort had been erected, which held the key to the whole system of defence.

Demosthenes saw at once that, before any progress could be made with the siege of Syracuse, it was necessary to gain possession of the counterwall, and confine the Syracusans within the limits of their city. The sooner he made the attempt, the greater was his chance of success; for every day wasted would give new confidence to the enemy, and the condition in which he found the troops of Nicias was a visible warning against the fatal consequences of delay. An attack made on the cross-wall from its southern side ended in total failure; his siege-engines were burnt, and the storming-parties repulsed at every point. The only course which remained was to march round to the north-western extremity of the plateau, carry the fort of Euryelus, and assail the Syracusans within their own lines. After consulting with his colleagues, Demosthenes determined to try the hazardous method of a night-attack, hoping thus to take the garrison on Euryelus by surprise. He himself, with Eurymedon and Menander, took the command, and the whole Athenian army was engaged in the adventure, except those who remained behind with Nicias to guard the camp. On a moonlight night in August, at the hour of the first watch, the march began. Moving cautiously up the valley of the Anapus, they turned the northern end of the hill, and reached the path by which Lamachus had ascended in the spring of the previous year. At first all seemed to promise success to the Athenians unobserved by the enemy, Demosthenes ascended the hill, stormed the fort, and, drove the garrison back on the three fortified camps which flanked the Syracusan counterwall on its northern side. The fugitives raised the alarm, and the call was promptly answered by a picked troop of six hundred hoplites, who were stationed nearest to the point of danger. These men made a gallant stand, but they were overpowered by superior numbers, and thrust back on the main body of the Syracusans, who were now advancing under Gylippus to the rescue. They in their turn were forced to give ground before the impetuous charge of Demosthenes, and a general panic seemed about to spread through the whole Syracusan army. Already the Athenians had begun to throw down the battlements of the counterwall, and if they were allowed to proceed, Syracuse would once more be exposed to imminent danger.

But now occurred one of those sudden turns of fortune which were so common in Greek warfare. As the soldiers of the Athenian van rushed forward too hotly, wishing to complete the rout of the enemy they fell into disorder, and in this condition they were confronted by a stout little troop of Boeotian hoplites, who had found their way to Syracuse earlier in the summer. This unexpected resistance checked the furious onset of the Athenians, and the Boeotians, pursuing their advantage, charged in solid phalanx and put them to flight. Once more the tide of battle had turned against Athens. Restored to confidence by the steady valour of their allies, the Syracusans closed their ranks, and advanced in dense masses up the hill. A scene of indescribable horror and confusion ensued, so that no one was afterwards able to give a clear account of what had happened. On the narrow neck of land which forms the western end of Epipolae two great armies were rushing to the encounter. On one side was the main body of the Athenians, still ignorant of the defeat of their comrades, and hurrying forward to share in the victory. On the other side was the whole host of Syracuse, advancing with deafening shouts to meet them; and in the middle were the men of Demosthenes, flying in headlong rout before the conquering Boeotians. In the uncertain light, the fugitives were at first mistaken for enemies, and many of them perished miserably by the spears of their own countrymen. On came the Syracusans, bearing down all before them; but the Athenians, as they strove to escape, were flung back upon the enemy by fresh bodies of their own men, who were still thronging by thousands up the northern path of Euryelus. All semblance of order was now lost in the Athenian army, which was broken up into detached parties, some flying, some advancing, and shouting their watchword to all whom they met, so as to learn whether they had to do with friend or foe. But the Syracusans soon learnt the watchword, which thus became a means of betraying the Athenians to their own destruction. To add to the confusion, the Dorian allies of Athens raised a paean, or war-song, so similar to that of the Syracusans, that the Athenians fled at their approach supposing them to be enemies. The grand army of Demosthenes, which had set out with such high hopes, was now no better than a mob of wild and desperate men, friend fighting against friend, and citizen against citizen. At length the whole multitude turned and fled, each man seeking to save himself as best he could. Some, hard pressed by the enemy, flung themselves from the cliffs, and were dashed to pieces on the rocks below; others succeeded in reaching the plain, and found their way back to the camp of Nicias; while not a few lost their way, and wandered about the country until the following day, when they were hunted down and slain by the Syracusan horseman.

Demosthenes had done all that a man could to recover the ground lost by Nicias, and resume the aggressive against Syracuse. His well-laid scheme had ended disastrously, and only one course remained, consistent with public duty and common sense. To waste the blood and treasure of Athens in Sicily any longer would be suicidal folly. The Athenians at home were in a state of siege, and needed every man and every ship for the defence of their own territory, and the maintenance of their empire in Greece. Sickness and despondency had already wrought dire havoc among the troops encamped before Syracuse. To remain was utter ruin, both to themselves and their fellow-citizens. The sea was still open, and the new armament, with what remained of the old, would be strong enough to secure their retreat. Let them embark without delay, turn their backs on the fatal shores of Sicily, and hoist sail for home.

These arguments were urged by Demosthenes with unanswerable force at a private meeting of the generals which was held immediately after the defeat on Epipolae But unhappily for all those most nearly concerned in the debate, the influence of Nicias was still supreme in the Athenian camp; and to spur that gloomy trifler into decisive action was beyond the power even of Demosthenes. Nicias knew that, if he gave the word to retreat, in a few weeks he would have to stand before the bar of his countrymen, and give an account of the great trust which he had betrayed. It would be better, he thought, to perish under the walls of Syracuse, than to brave that stern tribunal, and read his doom on those angry, accusing faces. And apart from these selfish terrors, he was still in communication with his partisans in Syracuse, who encouraged him to wait for a favourable turn of affairs. Thus fettered to the spot both by his hopes and his fears, he obstinately refused to move.

While Demosthenes argued, and Nicias demurred, Gylippus had not been idle. A day or two after the battle, he once more left Syracuse, and traversed the whole length of the island, collecting troops on his way. At Selinus he was joined by the Peloponnesian and Boeotian soldiers who had sailed from Taenarum early in the spring, and had just reached that port, after a long and adventurous voyage. With this welcome addition to his forces, and thousands more who had answered his call from all parts of Sicily, he returned to Syracuse, and prepared to put out all his strength in a general assault on the army and fleet of Athens.

The Athenians had not yet abandoned their lines on the southern side of Epipolae, and from this position they watched the arrival of the new army raised by Gylippus, as it defiled down the slope, and poured through the gates of Syracuse to swell the ranks of their enemies. In their own camp the state of things was growing worse every day, and even Nicias now became convinced that to remain any longer would be sheer madness. With the hearty concurrence of his colleagues, he gave his vote for immediate departure, and the order was secretly passed round the camp that every man should hold himself in readiness to go on board, as soon as the signal was given. It was necessary to proceed with caution, for if the enemy were informed of their purpose, they would have to fight their way through the Syracusan fleet. The preparations were accordingly made with as little noise as possible and in a short time all was ready for the voyage. Night sank down on the Athenian camp, but among all that vast multitude no one thought of sleep, for the whole host was waiting in breathless eagerness for the signal to embark. Over the eastern waters the full moon was shining, making a long path of silver and pointing the way to home. But suddenly a dark shadow touched the outer rim of that gleaming disk, and crept stealthily on, until the whole face of the moon was veiled in darkness. A whisper, a murmur, a shudder went round among those anxious watchers, and before the shadow had passed away, ten thousand tongues were eagerly discussing the meaning of that mysterious portent. Most were agreed that it was a warning from heaven, forbidding their departure until the angry powers had been appeased by sacrifice and prayer. In the mind of Nicias, enslaved by the grossest superstition, there was no room for doubt. He was surrounded by prophets, whose advice he sought on every occasion, and guided by them he proclaimed that for thrice nine days, the time required for a complete circuit of the moon, there could be no talk of departing.

But the Athenians were soon engaged in a sterner task than the vain rites of propitiation and penitential observance. The news of their intended retreat, and its untoward interruption, so raised the spirits of the Syracusans, that they resolved to risk another sea-fight, and after some days spent in training their crews, they sailed out with seventy-six ships, and offered battle, and Gylippus at the same time attacked the Athenian lines by land. The Athenians succeeded in repulsing the assault on their walls, but in the encounter between the fleets, though they out-numbered the enemy by ten ships, they suffered a decisive defeat. Eurymedon was slain, and eighteen vessels fell into the hands of the Syracusans, who put all the crews to the sword.

The pride and ambition of the Syracusans now knew no bounds. Relieved from all fear for the safety of their city they began to take a loftier view of the struggle, and to grasp the full compass and grandeur of the issues involved. It was no mere feud between two rival states, but a great national conflict, which was to end in the downfall of a wide-spread usurpation, and the deliverance of a hundred cities from bondage. The whole naval and military forces of Athens lay crippled and helpless within their grasp; they would shatter to pieces the instrument of tyranny, and win an immortal name as the liberators of all Greece. Their first care was to prevent the escape of the Athenians, and for this purpose they began to close the mouth of the Great Harbour by a line of triremes and vessels of burden, anchored broadside across the channel.


The Athenians were thus caught in a trap, and their only hope of saving themselves was to force the barrier of the Great Harbour, and escape by sea, or, failing that, to make their way by land to some friendly city. As a last sad confession of defeat, they withdrew the garrison from their walls on Epipolae, and reduced the dimensions of their camp, confining it to a narrow space of the coast, where the fleet lay moored. Every vessel which could be kept afloat was prepared for action, and when the whole force was mustered, out of two great armaments only a hundred and ten were found fit for service. A small body of troops was left to guard the camp, and all the rest, except such as were totally disabled by sickness, were distributed as fighting-men among the ships. For the countrymen of Phormio had now reverted to the primitive conditions of naval warfare, in which the trireme was a mere vehicle for carrying troops, and not, as in the days of that great captain, the chief weapon of offence. Every foot of standing-room on the decks was occupied by a crowd of hoplites, javelin-men, archers, and slingers, and on their prowess the issue of the battle depended. To lay their vessels aboard the enemy with as little delay as possible, and leave the rest to the soldiers, was now the chief object of the Athenian captains; and the better to effect. this, men were stationed on the prows, armed with grappling-irons, to hold the attacking trireme fast, and prevent her from backing away after the first shock of collision.

With hearts full of sad foreboding, the great multitude mustered on the beach, and waited for the word to embark. On a rising ground, fronting the camp, the generals; stood grouped in earnest consultation; then every voice was hushed, as Nicias came forward, and beckoned with his hand, commanding silence. The form of the general was bowed with years, and his face lined with pain and sickness, but in his eye there was an unwonted fire, and his tones rang clear and full, as he reminded his hearers of the great cause for which they were to fight, and the mighty interests which hung in the balance that day. "Men of Athens," he said, "and you, our faithful allies, your lives, your liberty, and the future of all who are dear to you, are in your own hands. If you would ever see home again, you must resolve to conquer fortune, even against her will, like seasoned veterans, inured to the perils and vicissitudes of war. Hitherto we have generally got the better of the enemy on land and we are now going to fight a land battle on the sea. As soon as you come within reach of a Syracusan vessel, fling your grappling-irons, and hold her fast, until not a man is left alive to defend her deck. This will be the task of the soldiers, whom I need not tell to do their duty. And you, seamen of the Athenian fleet, be not dismayed because we have forsaken our former tactics, but trust to the strong arms of the fighting men. Remember, those of you who are not of Attic descent, how long you have enjoyed the high privileges of Athenian citizens, and the honour reflected on you by your connection with Athens.

"My last word shall be spoken to you, fellow-citizens, Athenians born and bred. You know what you have to expect from the Syracusans, if this last struggle should end in defeat. But consider further what will be the fate of your friends at home. Their docks are empty, their walls are stripped of defenders, and if you fail them, Syracuse will unite with their old enemies, and bear them down. Here, where we stand, are the army, the fleet, the city, and the great name of Athens; go, then, and fight as you never fought before, for never yet had soldier such a prize to win, and such a cause to defend."

When Nicias had concluded his stirring appeal, the embarkation of the troops began. As the fatal moment drew nearer and nearer, the anxiety and distress of the Athenian general became unbearable. Feeling that he had not said enough, he hurried to and fro, addressing each captain with an agony of supplication, and imploring him by every sacred name,—his wife, his children, his country, and his country's gods,—to play a man's part, forgetting all thoughts of self. Having exhausted every topic of entreaty, and seen the last man on board, he turned away, still unsatisfied, and addressed himself to the task of drawing up the troops left under his command for the defence of the camp. These were disposed along the shore in as long a line as possible, that they might encourage those fighting on the sea by their presence, and lend prompt help in case of need. Behind them, every point of outlook was held by a throng of anxious spectators,—the sick, the maimed, and the wounded,—every man who had strength to crawl from his bed, and watch that last desperate struggle for liberty and home.

And now the Athenian admirals, Demosthenes, Menander, and Euthydemus, raised the signal, and the great fight began. The foremost ships succeeded in reaching the mouth of the Great Harbour, and began to break through the barrier, when the whole Syracusan fleet closed in upon them on all sides, and forced them back Then the battle became general, and soon the two fleets were scattered over the whole surface of the bay in little groups, and each group engaged in a wild and furious melee. There was no attempt to manoeuvre, but ship encountered ship; as accident brought them together, and advanced to the attack, under a shower of javelins and arrows. Then followed the dull crash of collision, and the fierce rush of the fighting-men, as they endeavoured to board. Here and there could be seen knots of three or four triremes, locked together with shattered hulls and broken oars, while the soldiers on the decks strove for the mastery. Nearly two hundred triremes, and some forty thousand men, were engaged in that tumultuous fight; and the thunder of the oars, the crash of colliding triremes, and the yells of the assailants, raised an uproar so tremendous that it was impossible to hear the voice of command. All order and method was lost, yet still they fought on, the Syracusans with a savage thirst for vengeance, the Athenians with the fury of despair; and for a long time the issue remained doubtful.

All this scene of havoc and carnage was witnessed by the whole population of Syracuse, who thronged the walls, or stood in arms along the shore, and followed every incident with breathless interest. But above all among the Athenians left behind in the camp excitement was strained to the point of anguish. Here the view was more restricted, and each group of spectators had its attention fixed on some one of the many encounters which were raging in different parts of the bay. Some who saw their friends conquering, shouted with joy and triumph; some shrieked in terror, as an Athenian ship went down; and others, when the combat long wavered, rocked their bodies to and fro in an agony of suspense. Thus at the same moment every shifting turn of battle, victory and defeat, panic and rally, flight and pursuit, was mirrored on those pale faces, and echoed in a thousand mingled cries.

But at length these discordant voices were united in one general note of horror, as the whole Athenian fleet, or all that was left of it, was seen making in headlong rout for the upper end of the bay, with the victorious Syracusans pressing hard behind. Then most of those who were watching from the shore were seized with uncontrollable terror, and sought to hide themselves in holes and corners of the camp; while a few, who were more stout-hearted, waded into the water, to save the ships, or rushed to defend the walls on the land side. But for the present the Syracusans were contented with their victory, and after chasing the fugitive triremes as far as their defences, they wheeled and rowed back across the Great Harbour, through floating corpses, and the wrecks of more than seventy vessels. On their arrival at Syracuse they were hailed with such a burst of enthusiasm as had rarely been witnessed in any Greek city. The victory, indeed, had been dearly bought, but it was well worth the cost, and the power of Athens had sustained a blow from which it could never recover. But among all the thronging hosts of Syracuse, who now gave themselves up to revel and rejoicing, there was one man at least who knew that even now the danger was not yet past. Forty thousand Athenian soldiers were still encamped within sight of the walls, and if they were allowed to escape, they might establish themselves in some friendly city, and begin the war again. All this was strongly felt by Hermocrates, and he lost no time in imparting his cares and anxieties to the responsible leaders. The Athenians, he urged, would be almost certain to decamp during the night: let a strong force be sent out at once from Syracuse, to occupy all the roads, and cut off their retreat. The advice was good, but in the present temper of the army it was felt to be impracticable. The whole city had become a scene of riot and wassail, and if the order were given to march, it was but too evident that not a man would obey. Baffled in this direction, the keen-witted Syracusan hit upon another plan, which he at once proceeded to carry into effect.

Hermocrates was not mistaken in his conjecture. The beaten and dispirited Athenians had now but one thought,—to break up their camp with all despatch, and make their escape by land. They had still sixty triremes left, and Demosthenes proposed to make one more attempt to force the entrance of the Great Harbour; but when his suggestion was made known to the crews, they broke into open mutiny, and flatly refused to go on board. The generals were therefore compelled to adopt the only alternative, and it was resolved to set out on that very night. But Fortune had not yet exhausted her malice against the hapless Athenians. The order to strike camp had been issued, and the soldiers were busy preparing for the march, when a party of horsemen rode up to the Athenian outposts, and hailing the sentinels, said that they had a message to Nicias from his friends in Syracuse. "Tell him," said the spokesman of the party, "That he must not attempt to stir to-night, for all the roads are held by strong detachments of the Syracusans. Let him wait until he has organised his forces, for a hasty and disordered flight is sure to end in disaster."

The message, of course, came from Hermocrates, who had contrived this trick to delay the departure of the Athenians, until time had been gained to occupy the passes on their route. That Nicias should have fallen into the snare is not surprising, but it is less easy to explain how Demosthenes and the other generals came to be deceived by so transparent a fraud. Yet such was in fact the case; the insidious hint was accepted as a piece of friendly advice, and the march was postponed. For a whole day and night the Athenians still lingered on the spot, and thus gave ample time for their enemies to draw the net round them, and block every avenue to safety.

On the third day after the battle, the order was given to march. As the great army formed into column, the full horror of their situation came home to every heart. This, then, was the end of those grand dreams of conquest with which they had sailed to Sicily two years before! On the heights of Epipolae their walls and their fort was still standing, a monument of failure and defeat. Each familiar landmark reminded them of some fallen comrade, or some disastrous incident in the siege. If they glanced towards the Great Harbour, they could see the victorious Syracusans towing off the shattered hull of an Athenian trireme, the last sad remnant of two great armaments. If they turned their thoughts towards Athens and home, they found no comfort there; for their beloved city was beset with enemies, and in themselves, beaten and broken as they were, lay her chief hope of salvation. The past was all black with calamity, and the future loomed terrible before them, threatening captivity and death; and the present, in that last hour of parting, was full of such sights and sounds of woe as might have stirred pity even in the breasts of their enemies. Around them, the camp was strewn with the unburied corpses of brothers, comrades and sons, and thousands more were tossing on the waves, or flung up on the shores of the bay. And while the neglect of that sacred duty pressed heavily on their conscience, still more harrowing were the cries of the sick and wounded, who clung round their knees, imploring to be taken with them, and when the army began to move followed with tottering steps, until they sank down exhausted, calling down the curse of heaven on the retreating host. Such was the anguish of that moment, that it seemed as if the whole population of some great city had been driven into exile, and was seeking a new home in a distant soil.

In this dire extremity, when the strongest spirits were crushed with misery, one voice was heard, which still spoke of hope. It was the voice of Nicias, who, when all others faltered, rose to a pitch of heroism which he had never shown before. Bowed as he was with care, and wasted by disease, he braced himself with more than human energy, and moved with light step from rank to rank, exhorting that stricken multitude in words of power. "Comrades," he said, "even now there is no need to despair. Others have been saved before now from calamities yet deeper than ours. You see in what state I am, cast down from the summit of human prosperity, and condemned, in my age and weakness, to share the hardships of the humblest soldier among you,—I, who was ever constant in the service of the gods, and punctual in the performance of every social duty. Yet have I not lost faith in the righteousness of heaven, nor should you give up all for lost, if by any act of yours you have fallen under the scourge of divine vengeance. There is mercy, as well as justice, among the gods, and we, in sinking thus low, have become the proper objects of their compassion. Think too what firm ground of confidence we have, in the shields and spears of so many thousand warriors. There is no power in Sicily which can resist us, either to prevent our coming or to shorten our stay. A few days march will bring us to the country of the friendly Sicels, who have already received notice of our approach. Once there, we can defy all attack, and look forward to the time when we shall see our homes again, and raise up the fallen power of Athens."

These and similar exhortations were repeated by Nicias again and again, as the army moved slowly forwards up the valley of the Anapus, keeping a westerly direction, towards the interior of the island. The troops were formed in a hollow oblong, with the baggage animals and camp-followers in the middle, and advanced in two divisions, Nicias leading the van, and Demosthenes bringing up the rear. The vigilance and activity of Nicias never relaxed for a moment. Careless of his many infirmities and exalted rank, he passed incessantly up and down the column, chiding the stragglers, and attending to the even trim of his lines. On reaching the ford of the Anapus, they put to flight a detachment of the enemy which was stationed there to oppose their passage, and crossing the river, continued their march. But now the real difficulties of the retreat began to appear. The Syracusans had no intention of hazarding a pitched battle, but their horsemen and light infantry hung upon the flanks of the Athenian army, making sudden charges, and keeping up a constant discharge of javelins.

At nightfall the Athenians encamped under the shelter of a hill, some five miles from their starting-point, and setting out at daybreak on the following day, they pushed on with pain and difficulty, harassed at every step by the galling attacks of the Syracusan troops. [Footnote: Thucydides, with characteristic brevity, leaves this to be inferred from the slowness of their progress.] A march of two miles and a half brought them to a village, situated on a level plain, and here they halted, wishing to supply themselves with food, and replenish their water-vessels; for the country which they had now to traverse was a desert, many miles in extent. Directly in their line of route there is a narrow pass, when the road, on entering the hill country, drops sheer down on either side into a deep ravine, and if they could once cross this dangerous point they would be within reach of their allies, the Sicels. But it was too late to proceed further that day, and while they lay encamped in the village, the Syracusans hurried on in advance, and blocked the pass by building a wall across the road. When the Athenians resumed their march next morning, they were fiercely assailed by the enemy's light horse and foot, who disputed every inch of ground, and at last compelled them to fall back on the village where they had encamped the night before. Provisions were now growing scanty, and every attempt to leave their lines in search of plunder and forage was baffled by the Syracusan horse.

On the fourth day they broke up their camp early, and by incessant fighting succeeded in forcing their way as far as the pass. But all further advance was prevented by the wall, and the dense masses of infantry posted behind it. In vain the Athenians flung themselves again and again upon the barrier. The troops stationed on the cliffs above assailed them with a shower of missiles, and the solid phalanx of hoplites repulsed every assault. Convinced at last that they were wasting their strength to no purpose, they desisted, and retiring from the wall halted at some distance for a brief interval of repose. During this pause a storm of rain and thunder broke over their heads; and to the weary and disheartened Athenians it seemed that the very elements were in league with the enemy against them. But they had little time to indulge in these melancholy reflections; for while they were resting, Gylippus stole round to their rear, and prepared to cut off their retreat by building a second wall across the pass. The news of this imminent peril roused the Athenians from their stupor, and they marched back with all speed along the road by which they had come. A picked body of troops, sent on in advance, scattered the soldiers of Gylippus, and the whole army then emerged from that death-trap, and encamped for the night in the open plain.

The next day was spent in a last desperate effort to reach the hill country. But being now on level ground, they were exposed on all sides to the attacks of the Syracusan horse, who charged them incessantly, and slew their men by hundreds, with hardly any loss to themselves. The hopeless struggle continued until evening, and when the enemy drew off, they left the Athenians not a mile from the place where they had passed the previous night.

The original plan of the Athenian generals had been to penetrate the highlands of Sicily to the west of Syracuse, and then strike across country, until they reached the southern coast, in the direction of Gela or Camarina. [Footnote: I have followed Holm, as cited in Classen's Appendix (Third Edition, 1908).] But after two days' fighting they had utterly failed to force an entrance into the mountains. Many of their soldiers were wounded, the whole army was weakened by famine, and a third attempt, made in such conditions, must inevitably end in utter disaster. They resolved therefore to change their route, and march southwards along the level coast country, until they could reach the interior by following one of the numerous glens which pierce the hills on this side of Sicily. Having come to this decision, they caused a great number of fires to be lighted, and then gave the order for an immediate start, hoping by this means to steal a march on the enemy. This sudden flight through the darkness, in a hostile country, with unknown terrors around them, caused something like a panic in the Athenian army.

Nicias, however, who was still leading the van, contrived to keep his men together, and made good progress; but the division under Demosthenes fell into great disorder, and was left far behind. By daybreak, both divisions [Footnote: See note, p. 242.] were within sight of the sea, and entering the road which runs north and south between Syracuse and Helorus, they continued their march towards the river Cacyparis. Here they intended to turn off into the interior, with the assistance of the Sicels, whom they expected to meet at the river. But when they reached the ford of the Cacyparis, they found, instead of the Sicels, a contingent of Syracusan troops, who were raising a wall and palisade to block the passage. This obstruction was overcome without much difficulty, and the whole Athenian army crossed the river in safety. But the presence of the enemy on this side of Syracuse was sufficient to deter them from taking the inland route by the valley of the Cacyparis, and following the advice of their guides, they kept the main road, and pressed on towards the south.

We must now return for a moment to the Syracusans under Gylippus, who remained in their camp all night, not far from the pass which they had so successfully defended. When they found in the morning that the Athenians had departed, they were loud in their anger against Gylippus, thinking that he had purposely suffered them to escape. The tracks of so many thousands left no room for doubt as to the direction which the fugitives had taken, and full of rage at the supposed treachery of their leader, the Syracusans set out at once in hot pursuit. About noon, on the sixth day of the retreat, they overtook the division of Demosthenes, which had again lagged behind, and was marching slowly and in disorder separated from the other half of the army by a distance of six miles. Deprived of all hope of succour from his colleague, and hemmed in on all sides by implacable enemies, Demosthenes called a halt, and prepared to make his last stand. But his men, who from the first had held the post of honour and danger, were fearfully reduced in numbers, faint with famine, and exhausted by their long march. Driven to and fro by the incessant charges of the Syracusan cavalry, they could make no effective resistance, and at last they huddled pell-mell into a walled enclosure, planted with olive-trees, and skirted on either side by a road. They were now at the mercy of the Syracusans. who surrounded the enclosure, and plied them with javelins, stones, and arrows. After this butchery had continued for many hours, and the survivors were brought to extremity by wounds, hunger, and thirst, Gylippus sent a herald, who was the bearer of a remarkable message. "Let those of you," he said, "who are natives of the islands subject to Athens, come over to us, and you shall be free men." The offer was addressed to the Greeks from the maritime cities of the Aegaean, who might be supposed to be serving under compulsion, and it speaks volumes for the loyalty and attachment of these men to Athens that most of them refused to accept their freedom from the hands of her enemies. At length, however, the whole army of Demosthenes, which had now dwindled to six thousand men, was induced to surrender, on condition that none of them should suffer death by violence, by bonds, or by starvation. At the command of their captors they gave up the money which they had with them, and the amount collected was so considerable that it filled the hollows of four shields. When the capitulation was concluded, Demosthenes, who had refused to make any terms for himself, drew his sword, and attempted to take his own life; [Footnote: This interesting fact is recorded by Plutarch and Pausanias, who copied it from the contemporary Syracusan historian, Philistus.] but he was prevented from effecting his purpose, and compelled to take his place in the mournful procession which was now conducted by a strong guard along the road to Syracuse.

Meanwhile the vanguard under Nicias, in total ignorance of the fate which had befallen their comrades, marched steadily forwards, and crossing the river Erineus, encamped for the night on a neighbouring hill. Here they were found next morning by Gylippus and the Syracusans, who informed them that Demosthenes and his men had surrendered, and called upon them to do the same. Doubting their good faith, Nicias obtained a truce, while he sent a horseman to ascertain the facts; and even when he had learnt the truth from his messenger, he still tried to parley, offering, in the name of the Athenian state, to defray the whole cost of the war, and to give hostages for payment, at the rate of an Athenian citizen for each talent, on condition that he and his men were allowed to go. But the Syracusans were in no mood to listen to such proposals, even if Nicias had spoken with full authority from Athens. Bare life they would grant, but no more, and as the Athenians refused to yield on these terms, they closed in upon them, and the cruel, hopeless struggle began again, and continued until evening. The wretched Athenians lay down supperless to snatch a few hours of rest, intending, when all was quiet, to steal away under cover of darkness. But when they rose at dead of night, and prepared to march, a shout from the Syracusan camp warned them that the enemy were on the alert, and they were compelled to return to their comfortless bivouac. Three hundred, however, persisted in their intention, and forcing their way through the Syracusan lines, gained for themselves a brief respite from capture.

A whole week had now elapsed since the ill-fated army left its quarters on the shores of the Great Harbour, and a few thousand starving and weary men were all that remained of that great host. At dawn on the eighth day Nicias gave the word to march, and they pressed on eagerly towards the Assinarus, a stream of some size, with high and precipitous banks, not more than two miles distant from their last halting-place. They had still some faint hope of making good their escape, if they could but cross the river. So they fought their way onwards, through the swarming ranks of the Syracusans, who closed them in on all sides, and thrust them together into one solid mass. There was life, there was freedom a little way beyond,—or, if that hope proved futile, at any rate there was water; and every fibre in their bodies ached and burned with intolerable thirst. They reached the river; both banks were already lined by the Syracusan horse, who had ridden on before, and stood guarding the ford: but there was no stopping the wild rush of that maddened, desperate multitude. Down the steep bank they plunged, trampling on one another, and flung themselves open-mouthed upon the stream, with one thought, one wish, overpowering every other impulse,—to drink, and then to die. Some fell upon the spears of their comrades, and perished, others slipped on the floating baggage, lost their foothold, and were swept away by the flood. Yet still they poured on, by hundreds and by thousands, drawn by the same longing, and thrust downwards by the weight of those behind, until the whole riverbed was filled with a huddled, surging mob of furious men, who drank, and still drank, or fought with one another to reach the water. All this time an iron storm of missiles rained down upon them from the thronging hosts of their enemies on the banks above, while some, in the midst of their draught, were pierced by the spears of the Peloponnesians, who followed them into the river, and slew them at close quarters. The water grew red with blood, and foul from the trampling of so many feet, but the thirsty multitude still came crowding in, and drank with avidity of the polluted stream.

For a long time the slaughter raged unchecked, and the river-bed was choked with heaps of slain. A few, who escaped from the river, were pursued and cut down by the Syracusan horse. Nicias had held out until the last moment; but when he perceived that all was lost, his men being powerless either to fight or fly, he made his way to Gylippus, and implored him to stop the useless carnage. "I surrender myself," he said, "to you and the Spartans. Do with me as you please, but put an end to this butchery of defenceless men." Gylippus gave the necessary order, and the word was passed round to kill no more, but take captive those who survived. The order was obeyed, though slowly and with reluctance, and the work of capture began. But few of those taken in the river ever found their way into the public gaol, where Demosthenes was now lying, with the six thousand who had surrendered on the day before. For, as there had been no regular capitulation, large numbers of the prisoners were secretly conveyed away by the Syracusans, who afterwards sold them into slavery for their own profit. As for the three hundred who had broken out of camp on the previous night, they were presently brought in by a party of cavalry despatched in pursuit.

When the first transports of joy and triumph were over, an assembly was called to decide on the fate of the two Athenian generals, and of those state prisoners, some seven thousand in number, who were the sole visible remnant of two great armies. Then arose a strange conflict of motives. The first who put forward his claims was Gylippus, to whose genius and energy the victorious issue of the struggle was mainly due. As a reward for his services, he asked that Nicias and Demosthenes should be left to his disposal, for he wished to have the honour of carrying home with him these famous captains, one the greatest friend, the other the greatest enemy of Sparta. But the general voice of the assembly was strongly against him. Nothing but the blood of the two principal offenders could satisfy the vengeance of the Syracusans, and those who had intrigued with Nicias were anxious to put him out of the way, in fear lest he should betray them. Moreover the Corinthian allies of Syracuse, who for some reason had a special grudge against Nicias, demanded his immediate execution. In vain Hermocrates pleaded the cause of mercy, [Footnote: Plutarch, Nicias, c. 28.] and urged his fellow-citizens to make a generous use of their victory. Sentence of death was passed, and these two eminent Athenians, so different in character and achievement, were united in their end.

Far worse was the doom pronounced on the six thousand men of Demosthenes, and the thousand more who were brought to Syracuse after the massacre at the Assinarus. They were condemned to confinement in the stone quarries, deep pits surrounded by high walls of cliff, under the south-eastern edge of Epipolae. Penned together in these roofless dungeons, they were exposed to the fierce heat of the sun by day, and to the bitter cold of the autumn nights, and having scarcely room to move, they were unable to preserve common decency, or common cleanliness. Many died of their wounds, or of the diseases engendered by exposure, and their bodies were left unburied, a sight of horror and a source of infection to the survivors. To these frightful miseries were added a perpetual burning thirst, and the lingering torture of slow starvation, for each man received as his daily allowance a poor half pint of water, and a mere pittance of food, just enough to avoid breaking the letter of the conditions which Demosthenes had made for his troops. In this state they were left without relief for ten long weeks; then all except the Athenians themselves, and their allies from the Greek cities of Sicily and Italy, were taken out and sold as slaves.