Siege of Syracuse

Siege of Syracuse

The siege of the city-state of Syracuse in Sicily by Athens and its allies during 415–413 BCE initiated the final phase of the Second Peloponnesian War (431– 404 BCE). Alcibiades, a nephew of Pericles, convinced Athenians that if they could secure Sicily they would have the resources to defeat their enemies. The grain of Sicily was immensely important to the people of the Peloponnese, and cutting it off could turn the tide of war. The argument was correct, but securing Sicily was the problem.

A nineteenth-century engraving of the naval battle in Syracuse harbor in September 413 BCE, in which the Athenians attempted to break free but suffered defeat during the Second Peloponnesian War. (Ridpath, John Clark, Ridpath’s History of the World, 1901)

The Athenians put together a formidable expeditionary force. A contemporary historian, Thucydides, described the expeditionary force that set out in June 415 as “by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time” (Finley, The Greek Historians, 314). The naval force consisted of 134 triremes (100 of them from Athens and the remainder from Chios and other Athenian allies), 30 supply ships, and more than 100 other vessels. In addition to sailors, rowers, and marines, the force included some 5,100 hoplites and 1,300 archers, javelin men, and slingers as well as 300 horses. In all, the expedition numbered perhaps 27,000 officers and men. Three generals—Alcibiades, Lamachus, and Nicias—commanded.

The original plan was for a quick demonstration in force against Syracuse and then a return of the expeditionary force to Greece. Alcibiades considered this a disgrace. He urged that the expeditionary force stir up political opposition to Syracuse in Sicily. In a council of war, Lamachus pressed for an immediate descent on Syracuse while the city was unprepared and its citizens afraid, but Alcibiades prevailed.

The expedition’s leaders then made a series of approaches to leaders of the other Sicilian cities; all ended in failure, with no city of importance friendly to Athens. Syracuse used this time to strengthen its defenses. Alcibiades meanwhile was recalled to stand trial in Athens for impiety.

Nicias and Lamachus then launched an attack on Syracuse and won a battle there, but the arrival of winter prevented further progress, and they suspended of fensive operations. What had been intended as a lightning campaign now became a prolonged siege that sapped Athenian energies.

Alicibades, fearing for his life, managed to escape Athens and find refuge in Sparta. He not only betrayed the Athenian plan of attack against Syracuse but also spoke to the Spartan assembly and strongly supported a Syracusan plea for aid. The Spartans then sent out a force of their own commanded by Gylippus, one of their best generals.

In the spring of 414 the Athenians renewed offensive operations at Syracuse. Despite Syracuse’s work during the winter, the Athenians captured the fortifications at Euryalus close to Syracuse and drove the Syracusans behind their city’s walls. The Athenians then constructed a fortification, known as the Circle, along with other protective walls. They also destroyed several Syracusan counterwalls. Unfortunately for the Athenians, Lamachus was killed in the fighting, and leadership devolved on the ineffective Nicias.

Syracuse was now in despair, with the city on the brink of defeat. At this point a Corinthian ship made its way into the harbor with news that help was coming. Fortified by this development, the leaders of Syracuse vowed to fight on. Gylippus’s expeditionary force then landed in northern Sicily and marched to Syracuse; Nicias failed to challenge it en route. Gylippus’s men strengthened the defenses of Syracuse and, in the spring of 413, won a stunning victory over the Athenian Navy, capturing its base.

Rather than lose prestige by abandoning the siege, the Athenians decided to send out a second expedition. Led by Demosthenes, one of Athens’s most distinguished generals, it consisted of 73 triremes carrying 5,000 hoplites and 3,000 bowmen, slingers, and javelin throwers—in all some 15,000 men—and arrived at Syracuse in July 413.

Demosthenes attempted to destroy one of the Syracusan counterwalls; when this proved unsuccessful, he mounted a night attack. It caught the defenders by surprise, and the Athenians took Euryalus and much of the Epipolaen plateau. Enough of Gylippus’s troops held fast, and the Syracusans mounted an immediate counterattack that caught the Athenians disorganized and inflicted heavy casualties. Cut off from supplies and prey to enemy cavalry, the Athenians attempted a breakout from the harbor of Syracuse in September 413 with 110 ships—both fit and unfit for action—but were contained by a great boom of block ships across the mouth of the Great Harbor as well as some 76 Corinthian and Syracuse ships. The naval battle ended in Athenian defeat, with Athens losing 50 ships to its enemy’s 26.

The Athenians still had 60 triremes to their enemy’s 50, and the generals wanted to try another breakout. The crews refused and demanded an overland retreat. Instead of setting out at once in the midst of Syracusan victory celebrations, the Athenians paused for 36 hours because of a false report (which had been spread to gain time until the victory celebrations had ended) that the retreat route was blocked.

Once the retreat was under way, 6,000 Athenian men under Demosthenes were offered freedom if they would desert. They refused and fought on until the situation was hopeless. On receiving a guarantee that his men’s lives would be spared, however, the Athenian commander surrendered. Another group of 1,000 men was also forced to surrender. Nicias and Demosthenes were butchered, against the will of Gylippus. These 7,000 men—out of 45,000–50,000 who had taken part in the expedition on the Athenian side—were sent off to the stone quarries of Syracuse. The expedition also cost Athens some 200 triremes. Thucydides concluded, “This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion in, Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered” (Finley, The Greek Historians, 379).

The annihilation of the Athenian fleet and army in Sicily shook the Athenian Empire to its core. The islands of Euboea, Lesbos, and Chios now revolted against Athens. Sparta built 100 warships, and Persia set out to regain its lost Ionian dominions.

Athens might have had peace in 410, but its people were buoyed by a naval victory that year and rejected Spartan overtures. In 405 an Athenian fleet of 170 ships was taken while beached in the “Battle” of Aegospotami at the Hellespont while taking on supplies. Lysander, the Spartan naval commander, then captured the remaining Athenian garrisons at the Hellespont and severed Athenian access to Ukrainian wheat supplies. The Spartans permitted their Athenian prisoners to return to Athens in order to increase the strain on its scant food stocks. Pausanias, the second Spartan king, then brought a large land force to Athens and laid siege to the city by land, while Lysander arrived with 150 ships and blockaded it by sea. Starved into submission, Athens surrendered in 404. Corinth and Thebes urged that the city should be utterly destroyed and its people sold into slavery. To their credit the Spartans rejected these proposals, insisting that the city’s Long Walls and fortifications all be demolished. Athens also had to give up all its foreign possessions and its fleet, and the city was forced to enter into alliance with Sparta and accept its leadership. The Peloponnesian Wars were over, and so too was the period of Athenian supremacy.

References Finley, M. I., ed. The Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius. New York: Viking, 1959.

Green, Peter. Armada from Athens. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2003.

Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking, 2003.