The Peloponnesian War is one of the best studied and well-known streaks of events in the European ancient history, and for good reasons. First and foremost, we have a first-class written story of the war by Thucydides that provides us with an exhaustive and compelling narrative of the conflict. Second, it has often been used in later accounts to make a decisive comparison between a strongly militant state (Sparta) and a democracy (Athens) in time of crisis. The scale of fighting, the recourses, people and cities involved in the War were unprecedented in the Greek history so far. But of all the decisive moments one stands out – it is the siege of Syracuse between 415 and 413 B.C. – a siege that saw the end of Athens as an imperial power.
My point here will not be to tell the story of the siege – as I have already mentioned the description of Thucydides can hardly be matched in quality and detail and I strongly recommend anyone who is tempted by history to read his “Peloponnesian War”. I will rather examine the reasons that lead to the siege, why the Athenians failed in the end and why was that defeat so decisive.
A Short Prelude - The Pentecontaetia
In order to understand the conflict between Athens and Sparta, one has to trace the history of Ancient Greece throughout the 5th century B.C., from the Second Persian War onwards. Of course Greece was liberated from the Persian threat, but there were two great winners in the end – Sparta and Athens. The former proved once and for all that its invincible hoplites were by far the best military land force in the Mediterranean at that time. The latter had built a powerful fleet, and exited the war as the Greek city-state with the greatest prestige – mainly because of its stunning naval victory at cape Salamis (480 BC).
But the two victors had a thoroughly opposite outlook of what had happened. Sparta was fundamentally conservative – the Persians were now gone, so things could go back to normal, once they were completely repulsed out of Europe. The Spartans strongly intended to go back to their secluded lifestyle and maintain their political and military control over the Peloponnesian Peninsula and no further.
The Athenians had completely different plans. In the beginning the war against Xerxes was a battle of survival. But the total defeat of the Persians opened a power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Athenians wanted to exploit it. During the next four decades they built what has often been described as a naval empire, somehow distinctly similar to the British empire of the 19th century. They even dared to challenge the Persians in Egypt, although their attempt failed.
The Spartans observed the Athenian rise with a mixture of unease and hidden anger. When the naval power decided to challenge the supremacy of Lacedaemon, things got out of control. The Athenians, letting pride and self-confidence cloud their judgment, interfered in the local conflict between Megara and Corinth, both of them Peloponnese cities and allies of Sparta, in 459 BC. It soon became obvious that the victors over Persia had overreached. Some historians tend to speculate that Athens simply tested Sparta’s resolve and will to fight, but that is hardly possible, as the First Peloponnesian War lasted fifteen long years. In the winter of 446/5 BC the fighting stopped and the Thirty Years Peace was signed, but the bitter anguish between the two city-superpowers remained. Still, Sparta remained conservative and pulled back in Peloponnese while Athens continued to build its imperial power, but now facing much stronger resistance in Greece itself. The Athenians managed to lose the moral high ground during those years. In 480 BC they had been the pride of Greece; in 445 they were a greedy power on the path of building an empire.
The First Stage Of The Peloponnesian War
The events of 431 BC were thus inevitable. There was only one city in Greece that could check the rise of Athens – and it was Sparta. And the Athenians knew it too, but they no longer feared the mighty hoplites. One single event however changed the balance of power. In 430 BC Athens was put under siege, and though short it was (just 40 days), it resulted in an outbreak of plague. Pericles, the greatest man of his time, a general and politician of great qualities and the mind behind the imperial policy and strategy of Athens died. It is impossible to speculate whether with him the war would have been won. But one thing is certain – the most able Athenian was now gone.
The first stage of the war dragged on for ten years and as most Greek conflicts of the age was indecisive. Both Sparta and Athens scored some significant victories, but the two most ardent proponents of war in the two cities – Brasidas and Cleon respectively, died in the battle of Amphipolis (422 BC). The parties of peace rose to power and as a result The Peace of Nicias was signed in 421 BC. To call it a peace however is incorrect. It was meant to be and it was in fact a truce – a six-year truce that was not even fulfilled. It however gave Athens the opportunity to plan and embark on the most ambitious campaign of the war – the conquest of Syracuse.
Nicias VS Alcibiades
In 415 BC deputies of the friendly Sicilian city of Segesta arrived in Athens to plea for help against the encroachments of Syracuse. It was the perfect pretext for the Athenians to jump into Sicilian affairs. In this very moment however a dramatic political power struggle began between the two most notable politicians of the city – Alcibiades and Nicias. It is worth drawing their portraits here, as the outcome of this struggle possibly decided the war.
Nicias was one of the richest men in Athens and an aristocrat who wisely invested his heritage in the silver mines of Laurium. He was a part of the conservative elite of the aristocracy, who believed that the imperial policy, undertaken by Pericles and the democrats was fundamentally wrong and would lead to the fall of his beloved city. His main political goal was to conclude a favourable peace with Sparta. This he managed to achieve in 421 BC, and the treaty remained in history with his name.
The people of Athens were divided in their opinion on the peace treaty. Some considered it a wise decision – the capital of Attica was tired after ten years of dire fighting and long campaigns. Others believed Athens was on the verge of total victory and thought the peace was extremely lenient to Sparta, which was on the brink of defeat. Nicias’s political rivals even accused him of corruption and claimed he had received significant bribes during the negotiations, but this is very unlikely, since he was very wealthy and a man of honor. Still, in 415 BC, at the age of 55, he commanded great respect and influence among the people.
Alcibiades was born in 450 BC in one of the most prominent Athenian families, the Alcmaeonidae, who could trace back their origin to the Trojan War. He swiftly rose to power in the later stages of the Archidamian War, and was one of the leaders of the War party. Historians like Arnold Gomme and Raphael Sealey claim that his strife with Nicias began in 421 BC, when his advice to continue the war was neglected on the account of his youth (Nicias was twenty years older). Such opinion responds to the accounts of both Thucydides and Plutarch and sheds light to the personality of Alcibiades.
He was a noble-born, and an aristocrat to the bone. After the death of his father his guardian was no other but Pericles himself. He was tutored in the ways of philosophy and rhetoric by no lesser man than Socrates. Alcibiades was beyond doubt a great general, and a natural-born leader, but that did not necessarily make him a great politician. He was too strong-willed and egotistical to make compromise and this proved to be his demise.
Alcibiades however was a great orator. He managed to convince the Athenian Assembly that it would be folly not to help Segesta, but he went further – he claimed Syracuse should be subdued and the whole of Sicily conquered. This would turn Athens in the most powerful city-state of Greece, actually one of the greatest powers of the Mediterranean. Alcibiades created the mirage of an empire before the dazzled eyes of the Athenians, and they were ready to follow.
This was when Nicias interfered. He thought the campaign was a folly and even worse – he saw with growing fear that the War party now had a leader almost as charismatic and powerful as the late Pericles. As a great politician however, Nicias chose a wise approach (or so he thought). He understood that to oppose the expedition outright would be a political suicide. So he decided to describe all the difficulties in detail, he tried to convince the Assembly that Athens would have to undertake the greatest military campaign since the times of Xerxes. He tried to convince the citizens that this would leave the city weaker and subtle to imminent attacks from Sparta while the expeditionary forces were away.
He failed completely. The Athenians agreed that the expedition would have to be grandiose. But instead of fear, this provoked ambition and craze. The initial plan was to send 1000 hoplites to intimidate Syracuse. The assembly voted 5100 hoplites to be sent to conquer the biggest Sicilian city. Historian Donald Kagan claims that without Nicias’s interference the expedition would have been a possible defeat, but never a catastrophe.
Reasons For The Expedition
As I have already mentioned, the immediate pretext for Athens move to Sicily was the appeal of Segesta. But the true reasons for such a massive undertaking lie elsewhere.
One of the city’s greatest logistic problems was the lack of grain. Attica could not support the huge population of Athens (possibly 150 000, even 200 000 inhabitants at this time). Since the middle of VI century BC, Athenian politicians have concentrated their attention to solving the problem. The Black Sea route was one of the possible solutions. Thrace and the Black Sea basin were one of the granaries of the ancient world and Athens wanted to monopolize the grain trade with the region. The march of the Spartan general Brasidas to Amphipolis showed that the grain route could easily be cut and Athens starved to submission. The danger was too easy and acute to recognize.
Sicily was even more productive in grain than Thrace. Wheat was actually one of the reasons of the growing trade power of the island. Of all the great beautiful trade cities, Syracuse was by far the most powerful. The Athenian logic was simple, and not necessarily wrong – the one who controls Syracuse, controls Sicily. The control of Sicily meant the end of the grain problems, as the Athenian fleet could easily secure the transportation to mainland Greece. To make matters even better – the natural position of Sicily gave control over the trade routes between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. If a powerful maritime power was to control the island, it could easily challenge the trade empire of Carthage in the West. Were these plans too far-fetched? One has to remember that 150 years later Rome’s position was far inferior to that of Athens in 415 BC, but we all know what happened afterwards.
Furthermore, Syracuse was a Dorian colony, as was the historical descent of Sparta. Racial overtures might also have influenced the decision of the Athenian assembly.
There was an imperial party in Athens at that time, who dreamt of conquering the Eastern Mediterranean and possibly beyond. They saw no limits to Athens possibility in the long run. In the short run – the conquest of Sicily would bring the command of such resources, that Sparta would have no chance to fight anymore. The die was cast. Alcibiades was chosen to lead the campaign, with Nicias and Lamachus as joint commanders.
The Expedition - Doomed?
There are moments in history when even the most trivial of things can dramatically change the course of events. In this case it was political backstabbing.
Days before the huge expeditionary force was to set sail for Sicily, Athens was shocked by a religious scandal – the images of the god Hermes, placed around the city for good luck, were destroyed. Alcibiades’s enemies immediately accused him of the crime. It was a ludicrous charge, but it poisoned the atmosphere in the city. Alcibiades sailed with the expedition, despite his request to be put on trial to prove his innocence. Just before the ships reached Italy, the armada was caught up by a ship from Athens. Alcibiades was put under arrest, but managed to escape. His anger however burst in catastrophic proportions – he fled to Sparta and revealed all the plans of the Athenian War party. The Spartans, crafty in military strategy, lost no time in grasping the gravity of the situation. They knew Syracuse could not hold the charge alone and that the loss of Sicily would be a death sentence for them. A counter expedition had to be sent to Sicily, if Sparta was to survive.
Meanwhile, with Alcibiades gone, Nicias was the only commander whom the army would follow. Was this fatal for the campaign? Nicias was a good commander, but he did not have the tactical genius of Alcibiades or his daring plans and inventive thinking of strategy. He was a brave man, but he could not inspire soldiers to follow him. Alcibiades was of the breed of Hannibal, Caesar and Alexander, Nicias was a politician. Alcibiades was 35, Nicias – 55. The chances of Athens for victory were severely cut short even before fighting had begun.
The Siege And The Athenian Disaster
At the first rumors of Athenian campaign, the main general of Syracuse – Hermocrates – suggested that the army of the city should be immediately reorganized to answer the threat. His political rivals accused him of deliberately causing fear in the city to strengthen his own position. It would be madness for Athens to mount such a campaign, especially with the war with Sparta not resolved.
As for the Athenians, their problems were just beginning. The plan of Alcibiades was very reasonable – to land on the island and to try to create a coalition of the cities, threatened by Syracuse. The isolation of the latter would inevitably lead to its surrender and leave the Athenians in virtual control of the island. It was a combination of daring strategy and wishful thinking.
With Alcibiades now gone, the Athenians decided on a plan B – to land as close to Syracuse as possible and to decide the conflict in a single battle. This was more than unrealistic, as most of the battles of the age were indecisive in character, especially between equal armies, as was the case. Besides – the Athenians did not have an exit strategy. What would happen if they win – would the victory be decisive enough to force Syracuse to talk, or there would have to be a siege? But the Athenians did not have siege weaponry, and the walls of the city were formidable enough to disregard the option. What would happen if the Athenians lose – they simply mount back on their ships and sail home? They would become the laughter of the whole world!
In all honesty, the Athenians did not have a concise strategy. Once on the battlefield, Nicias did honorably, but his actions suggest he was leading the campaign without inner conviction.
The first battle of Syracuse, in 415 BC, as was easy to foresee, was indecisive. The Athenian infantry did prevail, but the cavalry of the Sicilians saved the day and saved their troops from a massacre. Syracuse lost 250 men, Athens and its allies – a mere 50. The Athenians retreated to winter camps in Catania.
It could have ended here. The Athenians had won a victory to keep their prestige, but it was obvious that the citizens of Syracuse were willing to fight to preserve their freedom. More ominously, Sparta was about to enter the war, sending one of its most able generals – Gylippus – along with 1000 of the formidable hoplites. From this moment on the chances of an Athenian victory deteriorated by the second.
I will not retell in detail what happened in the following months – the account of Thucydides can hardly be improved. The state of siege warfare at that time did not give the Athenians any advantage – on the contrary. They decided to build a wall parallel to the city fortifications in order to cut off the supply of the city from the countryside. It was in vain – Syracuse was well supplied and could withstand a long siege. Besides, the arrival of the Spartans created the threat of encirclement – the Athenians could have ended up caught between the city walls and Gylippus – a situation resembling that of Caesar at Alesia. But Nicias was no Caesar.
The Athenians however made a capital mistake instead of cutting short their losses. Pride is never a good adviser in strategy, and so were the Athenians to find out very soon. A reinforcement of no less than 5000 man arrived off the coast of Syracuse, commanded by Demosthenes. In one of the most dramatic and tense naval battles of ancient history, the Athenian fleet managed to break through to the harbor with severe losses. Demosthenes even breached the city – a feat thought impossible by bought Gylippus and the Syracusians. What followed was immortalized by Thucydides in his description of the battle. The night was dark and cloudy, and the two armies clashed on the streets of the city, the Athenians gaining the upper hand. They were however stopped by a desperate counterattack by a Boeotian contingent in the Spartan expeditionary force. It was a bloody clash, shield against shield, spear against spear. The Athenians were utterly defeated.
From then on, it was an agony. Nicias knew that he faced a trial back home for his military failures, and probably death sentence. This steeled his resolve to fight to the last man. It was a mistake. Demosthenes, with his valiant charge had shown what should have been done in the beginning, before the Spartans had arrived. Surprisingly enough, it took the Athenians a year and a half to come so close to victory, and not in the best circumstances. The bravery of their soldiers however was not enough to compensate the strategic inability of their generals.
The second battle of Syracuse was fought on 9th of September, 413 BC. The Syracusian fleet had completely blocked the entrance of the harbor and the only tactical task of the Athenians was to break through. They failed. There only way home was lost. Later this September, Demosthenes surrendered with 6000 man. Nicias’s force was almost completely annihilated, while he personally surrendered himself to Gylippus. The two Athenian generals were executed. No single Athenian sailed home – the city had lost over a half of its standing army.
One can hardly grasp the magnitude of the Athenian defeat. To put it in modern perspective, it was larger than the French defeat at Metz in 1870 or the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943. The immediate effect was shock and panic in Attica, as the city simply did not have the manpower to defend against an attack. But the true catastrophe was the loss of the fleet, the only factor that gave Athens a significant advantage over its enemies. The city never recuperated after this defeat.
And the shock of the fall is even greater when we consider the height where it started from. In 415 BC Athens was at the head of an empire, commanding the most powerful fleet at this time. Its maritime empire could easily challenge Carthage in the Western Mediterranean, had the campaign against Syracuse been successful. One can only speculate if Athens, and not Rome, would have created a world empire, based around the Mediterranean Sea.
But the Athenian defeat was so utter and complete, that it put an end to any such speculations. The city lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, and though it rose to power again during the 60s of IV century BC, it was just a reminiscent spark of the old glory. Then the Macedonians came to the scene, followed by the Romans, and the once great birthplace of democracy turned into a provincial town of Pax Romana. But it all started on the coasts of Sicily.