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Peloponnesian War
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Map of the Greek world at the start of the Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC between the Athenian Empire (or The Delian
League) and the Peloponnesian League which included Sparta and Corinth. The war was
documented by Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian, in his work History of the
Peloponnesian War. Most of the extant comedies of Aristophanes were written during
this war, and poke fun at the generals and events. The war lasted 27 years, with a 6-year
truce in the middle, and ended with Athens' surrender in 404 BC.
The Sicilian Expedition
In the 17th year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily
was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian, while
the Athenians, and their ally in Sicily, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist
their ally.
The Athenians people did not act solely from altruism: they held visions of conquering all
of Sicily. Syracuse, the principal city of Sicily, was not much smaller than Athens, and
conquering all of Sicily would have brought Athens an immense amount of resources. In
the final stages of the preparations for departure the hermai (religious statues) were
mutilated by unknown persons, and Alcibiades, the Athenian general in charge of the
expedition, was charged with religious crimes. Fearing that he would be unjustly
condemned, Alcibiades defected to Sparta and Nicias was placed in charge of the
mission. After his defection, Alcibiades informed the Spartans that the Athenians planned
to use Sicily as a springboard for the conquest of all of Italy, and to use the resources and
soldiers from these new conquests to conquer all of the Peloponnese.
The Athenian force consisted of over 100 ships and some 5000 infantry. Upon landing in
Sicily, several cities immediately joined the Athenian cause. Instead of attacking at once,
Nicias procrastinated and the campaigning season of 415 BC ended with Syracuse
scarcely damaged. With winter approaching, the Athenians were then forced to withdraw
into their quarters, and they spent the winter gathering allies and preparing to destroy
Syracuse. The delay allowed the Syracusans to send for help from Sparta, who sent their
general Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. Upon arriving, he raised up a force from
several Sicilian cities, and went to the relief of Syracuse. He took command of the
Syracusan troops, and in a series of battles defeated the Athenian forces, and prevented
them from invading the city.
In More Detail: Sicilian Expedition
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian expedition to Sicily from 415 BC to 413 BC,
during the Peloponnesian War. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Athenian forces. As
Thucydides recounts wryly in his History of the Peloponnesian War, the generals leading
the campaign had scant knowledge of Sicily, or of its population, and thus the forces
marshaled for its conquering were woefully inadequate.
1 Appeal from Segesta
2 The debate
3 Destruction of the Hermai
4 Reaction in Syracuse
5 Athenian landing
6 First Battle of Syracuse
7 Winter of 415/Spring of 414 BC
8 Spartan intervention
9 Demosthenes' arrival
10 Second Battle of Syracuse
11 Final Syracusan victory
12 Athenian reaction
13 Sources
Appeal from Segesta
The first phase of the Peloponnesian War had ended with the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC,
and Athens and Sparta were nominally at peace in 415. That year, ambassadors from the
Sicilian city Segesta (Egesta in Greek) were sent to Athens to request for help in their war
against Selinus. The Segestans brought to Athens enough money to pay for sixty ships for
one month. The Athenians had sent fleets to Sicily earlier in the war, and were attracted
to the island's wealth in grain and other resources; by helping Segesta, they felt they
could gain a foothold in Sicily which could lead to an eventual conquest. As long as
Pericles was still alive, he had advised Athens not to overextend their empire, but by now
this advice had been all but forgotten.
The debate
Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus were chosen to lead the expedition, although Nicias
had no interest in leading it. Five days after they were chosen, there was a debate in the
assembly, between those against the expedition, led by Nicias, and those who supported
it, led by Alcibiades. Nicias argued they should not be dragged into a war that did not
involve them, and that Athens should not feel so secure despite the peace treaty he had
set up only a few years before. Sparta was still their enemy, and they could not afford to
waste time and men fighting a far-away war while their own enemies were so close to
them. Even if they did somehow conquer Sicily, which Nicias felt was the underlying
point of the expedition, it would be impossible to govern. Athens' weaker and poorer
allies continually revolted against them, and they were much closer. The Sicilians, he
said, would be more fearful of Athens if Athens was not tested in battle, just as Athens
had been more fearful of Sparta before they were able to defeat the Spartans in war.
Finally, he hoped his fellow citizens would not be persuaded by the young and arrogant
Alcibiades, who he felt was only looking for personal glory.
Other speeches were made, mostly in favour of the expedition, before Alcibiades
responded to Nicias. After defending his youth and arrogance, he claimed the situation
was similar to Athens fighting Persia while they had enemies closer to home. Their
victory over Persia had led to Athenian glory and the foundation of the Delian League,
and this expedition would bring them the same results. The expedition would also help
keep Athens active in a time of peace, so that they would be ready for future Spartan
Nicias then made a second speech. He said Athens would need a much bigger fleet and
army to accomplish their goal, far more than the sixty ships that Segesta offered to equip.
He hoped the Athenians would begin to have doubts when they realized this, but instead,
they became even more enthusiastic. Nicias reluctantly suggested that they set out with at
least 100 triremes and 5000 hoplites, plus thousands more light troops and other supplies.
Destruction of the Hermai
After lengthy preparations, the fleet was ready to sail. The night before they were to
leave, someone destroyed many of the hermai – the stone markers representing Hermes,
placed around the city for good luck. This was considered a bad omen for the expedition.
In the ensuing investigation, some political enemies of Alcibiades claimed he was
responsible, although there was no proof of this and Alcibiades volunteered to be put on
trial under penalty of death in order to prove his innocence. However, Alcibiades was
otherwise extremely popular and had the support of the entire army; he had also gained
the support of Argos and Mantinea during the preparations. He was not charged, and the
fleet sailed the next day. It was the largest military expedition ever produced by any
Greek state, up to that point.
Reaction in Syracuse
Many people in Syracuse, the richest and most powerful city of Sicily, felt that the
Athenians were in fact coming to attack them, under the pretense of aiding Segesta in a
minor war. The Syracusan general Hermocrates suggested that they ask for help from
other Sicilian cities, and from Carthage. He also wanted to meet the Athenian fleet in the
Ionian Sea before they arrived. Others argued that Athens was no threat to Syracuse, and
some people did not believe there was a fleet at all, because Athens would not be so
foolish as to attack them while they were still at war with Sparta. Athenagoras accused
Hermocrates and others of attempting to instill fear among the population and trying to
overthrow the government.
Athenian landing
The Athenian fleet first sailed to Corcyra to meet up with their allies, and the ships were
divided into three sections, one for each commander. Three of the ships were sent ahead
to look for allies in Sicily. The fleet at this point consisted of 134 triremes (100 of which
were from Athens), 5100 hoplites (of which 2200 were Athenians), 480 archers, 700
slingers, 120 other light troops, and 30 cavalry, as well as 130 other supply ships and all
the crews of the triremes and other non-combatants.
They had little luck finding allies along the coast of southern Italy, and when the three
other ships returned they learned that Segesta did not have the money they promised.
Nicias had expected this but the other commanders were dismayed. Nicias suggested they
make a show of force and then return home, while Alcibiades said they should encourage
revolts against Syracuse, and then attack Syracuse and Selinus. Lamachus said they
should attack Syracuse right away. The fleet proceeded to Catana, where an Athenian
ship arrived to inform Alcibiades that he was under arrest, not only for the destruction of
the hermai, but also for supposedly profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alcibiades
agreed to return, but on the way back his ship escaped to the Peloponnese, where he
eventually sought refuge in Sparta; a death sentence was passed in absentia, his guilt
seemingly proven.
The fleet was redivided into two parts, and the army was landed and joined with the
cavalry of Segesta. However, they did not immediately attack Syracuse, and that winter
as the Athenians made their camp at Catana, the Syracusans prepared to attack. When the
Syracusans marched out to Catana, they learned that the Athenians had actually
reboarded their ships and sailed into the harbour at Syracuse. The Syracusans quickly
hurried back and prepared for battle.
First Battle of Syracuse
The Athenian troops landed outside Syracuse, and lined up eight men deep with the
Argives and Mantineans on the right, the rest of the allies on the left, and the Athenians
themselves in the centre. The Syracusan line was sixteen men deep, and they had 1200
cavalry, vastly outnumbering the Athenian cavalry, although the numbers of men were
about the same. The Athenians attacked first, believing themselves to be the stronger and
more experienced army, and after some unexpectedly strong resistance, the Argives
pushed back the Syracusan left wing, causing the rest to flee. The Syracusan cavalry
prevented the Athenians from chasing them, but the Syracusans lost about 260 men, and
the Athenians about fifty. The Athenians then sailed back to Catana for the winter.
Winter of 415/Spring of 414 BC
Hermocrates suggested that the Syracusans reorganize their army. He wanted to reduce
the number of generals from fifteen to three; Hermocrates, Heraclides, and Sicanus were
elected and Hermocrates sent for help from Corinth and Sparta. During the winter the
Athenians also sent for more money and cavalry, while the Syracusans built some forts,
and a wall extending the territory of the city.
Meanwhile, Hermocrates and Euphemus, the archon of Athens, both went to Camarina to
attempt to form an alliance with that city. Hermocrates wanted Camarina and the other
cities to unite with Syracuse against Athens, but Euphemus said Syracuse only wanted to
rule Camarina, and they should join with Athens if they wanted to remain free. The
Camarinans decided not to join either side.
Athens then sent for help from the Carthaginians and Etruscans, and both Athens and
Syracuse tried to gain assistance from the Greek cities in Italy. In Corinth, representatives
from Syracuse met with Alcibiades, who was now allied with Sparta. Alcibiades
informed Sparta that there would be an invasion of the Peloponnese if Sicily was
conquered, and that they should send help to Syracuse and also fortify Decelea near
Athens. The Athenians, he said, feared nothing more than the occupation of Decelea. The
Spartans took this advice into consideration, and appointed Gylippus to command their
In the spring of 414 BC, reinforcements arrived from Athens, consisting of 250 cavalry,
30 mounted archers, and 300 talents of silver (around $180,000), which they used to pay
for 400 more cavalry from their Sicilian allies. In the summer they landed on the
Epipolae, the cliff above Syracuse, which was defended by Diomilus and 600
Syracusans. In the attack, Diomilus and 300 of his men were killed.
Both sides then began building a series of walls. The Athenian wall, known as "the
Circle", was meant to blockade Syracuse from the rest of the island, while the Syracusans
built a number of counter-walls from the city to their various forts. A force of 300
Athenians destroyed part of the first counter-wall, but the Syracusans began to build
another one, this time with a ditch, blocking the Athenians from extending their wall to
the sea. Another 300 Athenians attacked this wall and captured it, but were driven off by
a Syracusan counter-attack in which Lamachus was killed. The Syracusans destroyed
1000 feet of the Athenian wall, but could not destroy the Circle, which was defended by
Nicias. After Nicias defeated the attack, the Athenians finally extended their wall to the
sea, completely blockading Syracuse by land, and their fleet entered the harbour to
blockade them from sea. The Syracusans reponded by removing Hermocrates and
Sicanus as generals and replacing them with Heraclides, Eucles, and Tellias.
Spartan intervention
Soon after this, Gylippus landed at Himera, and with 700 marines, 100 hoplites, 100
cavalry, and 1000 Sicilians marched towards Syracuse. They built another counter-wall
on the Epipolae, but were driven back by the Athenians; in a second battle, however,
Gylippus defeated the Athenians, and the Syracusans completed their counter-wall,
making the Athenian wall useless. The Corinthian fleet also arrived, under the command
of Erasinides.
Nicias now believed it would be impossible to capture Syracuse. He wrote a letter to
Athens, not trusting messengers to give an accurate report, and suggested that they either
recall the expedition or send out massive reinforcements. He hoped they would choose to
recall him, if not the whole expedition, but instead they chose to send reinforcements,
under Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Eurymedon left immediately with ten ships, and
Demosthenes left sometime later with a much larger force. Meanwhile, in early 413 BC
Sparta acted on Alcibiades' advice and fortified Decelea, and the force sent to relieve it
was destroyed.
While Eurymedon was sailing, Gylippus had eighty Syracusan ships, including thirty-five
triremes, attack sixty of the Athenian ships (twenty-five of which were triremes) in the
harbour. Gylippus commanded a simultaneous attack on the Athenian land forces. In the
harbour, the Athenians were successful, losing only three ships while the Syracusans lost
eleven. However, Gylippus defeated the Athenians on land and captured two Athenian
forts. Afterwards Gylippus succeeded in convincing all the neutral cities on Sicily to join
him, but the allies of Athens killed 800 Corinthians, including all but one of the
Corinthian ambassadors.
Demosthenes' arrival
Demosthenes and Eurymedon then arrived with seventy-three ships and 5000 hoplites.
On their arrival, eighty Syracusan ships attacked seventy-five of the Athenian ships in
their harbour. This battle went on for two days with no result, until the Syracusans
pretended to back away and attacked the Athenians while they were eating. However,
only seven Athenian ships were sunk.
Demosthenes landed his forces and attacked the Syracusan counter-wall on Epipolae. He
succeeded in breaching the wall, but was defeated by a force of Boeotians in the Spartan
contingent. Many Athenians fell off the cliff to their death, and some of the rest were
killed as they fled down the slope.
Demosthenes' arrival was not much of a relief to the other Athenians. Their camp was
located near a marsh and many of them had fallen ill, including Nicias. Seeing this,
Demosthenes thought they should all return to Athens, and defend Attica against the
Spartan invasion that had taken Decelea. Nicias, who had opposed the expedition at first,
now did not want to show any weakness either to the Syracusans and Spartans, or to the
Athenians at home who would likely put him on trial for failing to conquer the island. He
hoped the Syracusans would soon run out of money, and he had also been informed that
there were pro-Athenian factions in Syracuse who were ready to turn the city over to him.
Demosthenes and Eurymedon reluctantly agreed that Nicias might be right, but when
reinforcements from the Peloponnese arrived, Nicias agreed that they should leave.
Second Battle of Syracuse
Just as the Athenians were preparing to sail home, there was a lunar eclipse, and Nicias,
described by Thucydides as a particularly superstitious man, asked the priests what he
should do. They suggested the Athenians wait for another twenty-seven days, and Nicias
agreed. The Syracusans took advantage of this, and seventy-six of their ships attacked
eighty-six Athenian ships in the harbour. The Athenians were defeated and Eurymedon
was killed. Many of the ships were pushed on to the shore, where Gylippus was waiting.
He killed some of the crews and captured eighteen beached ships, but a force of
Athenians and Etruscans forced Gylippus back.
The Athenians were now in a desperate situation. On September 3, the Syracusans began
to completely blockade the entrance to the port, trapping the Athenians inside. Outside
Syracuse, the Athenians built a smaller walled enclosure for their sick and injured, and
put everyone else (including many of the soldiers remaining on land) on their ships for
one last battle, on September 9. The fleet was now commanded by Demosthenes,
Menander, and Euthydemus, while the Syracusan fleet was led by Sicanus and
Agatharchus on the wings and Pythen from Corinth in the centre. Each side had about
100 ships participating.
The Athenian ships were extremely cramped and had no room to manoeuvre. Collisions
were frequent, and the Syracusans could easily ram the Athenian ships head-on, without
the Athenians being able to move to ram them broadside, as they preferred. Javelin
throwers and archers shot from each ship, but the Syracusans deflected Athenian
grappling hooks by covering their decks with animal hides.
The battle went on for some time with no clear victor, but the Syracusans eventually
pushed the Athenian ships toward the coast, and the Athenian crews fled to the camp
behind their wall. Demosthenes suggested that they man the ships again and attempt to
force their way out, as now both fleets had lost about half their ships, but Nicias wanted
to find refuge on land. Hermocrates sent some supposed informers to the Athenians to
falsely report that there were spies and roadblocks further inland, so the Athenians would
be safer if they did not march away. Gylippus used this delay to build the roadblocks that
did not yet exist, and the Syracusans burned or towed away the Athenian ships on the
beach, so that they had no way off the island.
Final Syracusan victory*
On September 13 the Athenians left camp, leaving their wounded behind and their dead
unburied. The survivors, including all the non-combatants, numbered 40.000, and some
of the wounded crawled after them as far as they could go. As they marched they
defeated a small Syracusan force guarding the river Anapus, but other Syracusan cavalry
and light troops continually harassed them. Near the Erineus river, Demosthenes and
Nicias became separated, and Demosthenes was attacked by the Syracusans and forced to
surrender his 6000 troops. The rest of the Syracusans followed Nicias to the Assinarus
river, where Nicias' troops became disorganized in the rush to find drinking water. Many
Athenians were trampled to death and others were killed while fighting with fellow
Athenians. On the other side of the river a Syracusan force was waiting, and the
Athenians were almost completely massacred, by far the worst defeat of the entire
expedition in terms of lives lost. Nicias personally surrendered to Gylippus, hoping the
Spartan would remember his role in the peace treaty of 421. The few who escaped found
refuge in Catana.
The prisoners, now numbering only 7000, were held in the stone quarries near Syracuse,
as there was no other room for them. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed, against the
orders of Gylippus. The rest spent ten weeks in horrible conditions in their makeshift
prison, until all but the Athenians, Italians, and Sicilians were sold as slaves.
Athenian reaction*
In Athens, the citizens did not, at first, believe the defeat. When they realized the
enormity of what had happened, they panicked that Attica was now free for the taking, as
the Spartans were so close by in Decelea.
The defeat caused a huge shift in policy for many other states, as well. States which had
until now been neutral joined with Sparta, assuming that Athens' defeat was imminent.
Many of Athens' allies in the Delian League also revolted, and although the city
immediately began to rebuild its fleet, there was little they could do about the revolts for
the time being.
In 411 BC the Athenian democracy was overthrown in favour of an oligarchy, and Persia
joined the war on the Spartan side. Although things looked grim for Athens, they were
able to recover for a few years. The oligarchy was soon overthrown, and Athens won the
Battle of Cynossema. However, the defeat of the Sicilian expedition was essentially the
beginning of the end for Athens. By 404 BC they were defeated and occupied by Sparta.