Syracusan: Unknown, although probably roughly equal to Athenians; included 4,400 Spartans. Commander: Gylippus.
Athenian: Approximately 200 galleys and 45,000 to 50,000 men. Commander: Nicias and then Demosthenes.
Athenian defeat broke the naval dominance of the eastern Mediterranean by the Athenians, led to their downfall as the dominant Greek polis, and kept them from possibly establishing their authority throughout the Mediterranean world, including Carthage and Rome.
The first Peloponnesian War pitted Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian League against Athens and its allies in the Delian League. Since the defeat of the Persian invaders at Salamis and Plataea in 480 and 479 b.c., Athens had risen to the top in Greek politics. As the leading naval power, Athens had made itself the strongest member of the Delian League, a grouping of Greek poleis (city-states) dedicated to stopping Persian expansion and carrying the war to Persian possessions in Asia Minor. No polis could challenge Athenian dominance, and Athens reached the point where it could demand virtually any dues to the League from the member poleis and did not have to account for the money sent to the League treasury. Rather than focus on defense spending, the Athenians spent much of that money turning their city into a cultural and architectural showplace. Not surprisingly, this did not please the poleis contributing the money.
Athens entered into a shifting set of alliances, some voluntary and some that it forced on weaker neighbors. Between 460 and 445, Athens challenged the armies of Sparta and its allies in a number of battles, at the same time trying to aid Egyptian rebels against Persia. With no clear outcome to the fighting, Sparta and Athens agreed on a truce in 445, but their political rivalry continued. It is difficult, anywhere in history, to find a set of circumstances as convoluted as the ones that started the second Peloponnesian War. Continued Athenian domination over the northern Greek poleis kept them resentful, while yet more diplomatic maneuvering and alliance making resulted in Athens seemingly being poised to establish a Greek Empire. The Athenian navy continued to enforce as well as to expand Athenian dominion over as much of the Mediterranean as possible. Finally fed up with the cavalier attitude of the Athens, most Greek poleis turned to Sparta for leadership. When Athens attempted to meddle in the political affairs of the southern Greek Peloponnese peninsula, long Sparta’s sphere of influence, fighting resumed in 431.
The war often has been described as the classic struggle between the elephant and the whale. Sparta had the finest army of the day and Athens possessed the finest navy, but neither could come to grips with the other. Sparta and its allies laid siege to Athens after capturing the countryside around it, but they were unable to capture the port of Piraeus, so Athens kept a constant supply of food and other necessaries brought in by its shipping. The Athenian navy also conducted raids on the coastline of Sparta, liberating the helots who toiled under harsh Spartan rule. Both powers could hurt the other, but not finish the other off. Fighting was fairly constant for 10 years, but another peace was finally negotiated in 421.
The two main adversaries were glad of the break, but some of their allies were unhappy without a peace treaty that restored lands that they had lost in the war. Although Sparta and Athens had a treaty, their client states argued and fought among themselves and, when pressed, called on the two powers for aid. Peace was kept between the two for 6 years, but much of the blame for the renewal of war between them in 414 can be laid at the feet of Alcibiades, a rabble-rousing general in Athens.
Alcibiades convinced the citizenry of Athens to go to war against the city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Syracuse was providing valuable foodstuffs to Sparta, he claimed, and if Athens could establish itself in Sicily (Syracusans were originally Greek colonists), then it would be in a commanding position. Not only could Athens cut off the needed food to Sparta, weakening it to the point of subjection, but possession of Syracuse would give Athens the key to dominating the western Mediterranean as well. Defeating the nascent power of Carthage and Rome, Athens would be able to draw on the people of Italy, North Africa, and Iberia (homeland of most of Carthage’s mercenary army) to defeat Sparta and make Athens the ruler of the known western world. Alcibiades’s speaking ability won over the citizens in support of his plan over the more cautious suggestions of his political rivals. Athens voted to mount the attack. Better still, the Sicilian city of Segesta offered to pay for the expedition; it was currently being threatened by Syracuse. Alcibiades was sent to Sicily, with Nicias and Lamachus as co-commanders.
The Athenian invasion force, totaling about 27,000 troops and departing in June 415, included 134 triremes and 130 transports, the latter carrying about 5,000 hoplites (heavy infantry), 1,300 archers, various javelin throwers and slingers, and 30 horses. Another 130 supply ships sailed with them as well. For the most part, the Syracusans ignored rumors of a Greek invasion until the enemy arrived in sight. The only thing that saved them was the well-known Greek inability to agree on anything. Nicias wanted to go home once it was learned that the city of Segesta could not pay for the mission. Lamachus wanted to launch an immediate attack on Syracuse, taking advantage of its lack of preparation and their low morale. The oratory of Alcibiades again won the day; he argued that the Athenians should travel across the island, amassing support from the local cities that disliked Syracuse. That, however, gave the Syracusans time to begin training their troops and repairing their defenses. Alcibiades’s plan was a failure because no Sicilian city voluntarily joined them.
Word soon arrived from Athens that Alcibiades had been tried in his absence for blasphemy and must return for judgement. He was taken away, but managed to escape his jailors when the ship stopped in Italy. He fled to Sparta, which he had spent most of his life trying to provoke. There he revealed Athens’ plan for empire and the detrimental effect the loss of Syracuse would have on Sparta’s supplies. At first, Sparta refused, still observing their latest truce with Athens, but altered their stand somewhat when emissaries from Syracuse arrived. The Spartans promised to send a general to command the Syracusan army; further, a fleet from Corinth, Sparta’s ally, was dispatched.
With Alcibiades gone, the Athenians began to attack Syracuse. They defeated a poorly prepared Syracusan force, but failed to win a complete victory because of their lack of cavalry; even worse, Lamachus was killed in the fighting, leaving Nicias in sole command. He was not a decisive leader. As winter approached, they settled into siege warfare, building a wall parallel to the defensive wall protecting Syracuse. This would cut the city off from any help from the land, while the superior Athenian fleet was supposed to keep the seaward side of the city covered. Both strategies failed. The Syracusans raided the Athenians just often enough and successfully enough to keep their wall from being finished. Still, morale in the city was slipping. A town meeting was called to discuss opening surrender negotiations, but the Corinthians arrived and stopped them. The Spartan general, Gylippus, landed up the coast and roused some support for a force of some 2,000 men to fight with him against the Athenians. He marched them onto the high plateau just to the west of Syracuse, so surprising Nicias that the Athenians were unable to stop Gylippus from reaching the city. Gylippus oversaw the construction of a counterwall to stop the Athenian effort; it split the plain and gave Syracuse control of the northern half, which gave it access to the rest of the island.
In the summer of 414, Nicias sent a message to Athens, counseling abandonment of the invasion or the dispatch of a second force equal to the first. Athens reinforced, but Sparta broke the truce and attacked to delay or cancel the second force. The summer of 414 in Sicily was spent in wall building, and Gylippus gained the advantage. When the spring of 413 arrived, he was ready to begin his attacks on the Athenians. This he did with a two-pronged assault. His navy attacked Nicias’s base at Plemmyrium on the southern end of Syracuse’s harbor. When the soldiers left their positions defending the town in order to watch the sea battle, then Gylippus attacked and captured the town. The Athenian fleet badly hurt the attacking Corinthians, but lost its base. They were obliged to move to another mooring deeper in the harbor, which would severely limit the navy’s superiority in maneuverability. This was the beginning of the end for the Athenian military effort in Sicily.
A few weeks later, Gylippus heard of the dispatch of the second Athenian force, and he determined to win if possible before they arrived. He launched another attack at the Athenians, this time using his army first to distract the Athenian sailors. In this he succeeded; when his ships entered the harbor bent on close-quarters action with the Athenians, they found a disorganized navy scrambling to operate its ships and engage. The engagement lasted intermittently for 3 days, but this time the combined fleet of Corinth and Syracuse gained the upper hand. At close quarters, they were able to rain arrows down on the Athenian ships, killing large numbers of sailors. It was a major defeat, but still not decisive. When the second Athenian force under Demosthenes arrived in July 413, hope for a successful invasion reappeared.
Demosthenes received command of the entire Athenian force from an ailing Nicias, and immediately went on the offensive to regain control of the plateau overlooking the city in order to restart the siege. He sent a force secretly up the steep slope of the western end of the plateau, and it captured a surprised Syracusan force at the town of Euryalus. However, Gylippus ordered a counterattack, and, in the confusion of the night fighting, the Athenians lost their momentum and lost the battle. Unable to reestablish a position on the plain, Demosthenes decided to abandon the entire mission. The Athenian force loaded onto ships for the return home and then stopped at the last minute because of a full lunar eclipse on 27 August 413. The superstitious Nicias decided to wait a month before sailing, and that gave Gylippus his last chance to win. He parked his fleet across the mouth of the harbor and chained the ships together. Again the small space the harbor provided kept the Athenians from using their superior maneuverability and they lost fifty ships to the Syracusans’ twenty-six. At that point, the Athenian crews refused to fight and demanded a retreat by land. On open ground, Gylippus was able to separate the Athenians into two groups and defeat each individually.
Of the 45,000 to 50,000 men that Athens had sent to gain control of Syracuse and Sicily, only 7,000 survived the final battles. They were all sold into slavery, although Nicias and Demosthenes were killed, against Gylippus’s orders. The Syracusans, poorly prepared for this war and on the verge of surrender, survived thanks to the organizational and fighting ability of Gylippus. This kept the city free and a major power in the western Mediterranean for another couple of centuries, until finally crushed in the conflict between Rome and Carthage in the third century b.c.
Athens’ fortunes took a definite turn for the worse. The ships and crews lost in Sicily were not irreplaceable, but it severely damaged Athenian naval power and, more importantly, their prestige. Members of the Delian League seized the opportunity to break away, Persian forces opened an offensive to regain their lost territory in Asia Minor, and Sparta began exploring the possibility of sea power, both with their own ships and with others provided by Persia, which was eager to wreak vengeance on Athens. That refocused Athenian attention on its eastern possessions, and, when its lost ships were replaced, that was where Athens sent them. The replacement crews, however, did not match the quality of those lost in Sicily. In spite of the occasional victory, Athens was destroyed as a naval power at Aegospotami in 405. There, in the Hellespont connecting the Aegean and the Black Seas, a Spartan fleet commanded by Lysander attacked the last Athenian fleet as it was drawn up on the beach and its crews were ashore gathering provisions. Lysander captured intact 170 ships and their crews, almost all of which were slaughtered by sailors who either were or knew victims of previous Athenian depredations. Without their fleet, the city of Athens could not resist the siege that Sparta was then conducting. The city held out through the winter of 405–404, but surrendered in the spring.
Athens’ defeat at Syracuse made all of that possible. Had they followed Lymachus’s advice and attacked as soon as they landed, Syracuse certainly would have fallen easily. A strong Athenian force stationed there could soon have gained the loyalty (albeit grudgingly) of the Sicilian population, and a major power center could have been established. Carthage and Rome were at that point mere shadows of the power that they became two centuries later, and it would have been little problem for Athenian ships and troops to control them as well. With the supplies and forces available from these acquisitions, no one would have been able to match Athenian power, and the empire of which Alcibiades dreamed could have existed. Rome either without power or with delayed power may never have built their empire, and Europe, at least, would never have been the same. As it was, the defeat ended Athens’ reign as the dominant polis. Sparta for a time tried to rule Greece, but its militaristic society was not meant for other cities and it too failed to establish hegemony. No one dominated Greece after this time until Philip of Macedon arrived in the 340s to unite the poleis under one ruler; his son Alexander took that unity and built an eastern empire instead of the western one Athens would have built. Thus, the fate of Asia changed as well.
Creasy, Edward S. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. New York: Harper, 1851; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954; Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War. New York: Doubleday, 1995; Thucydides. The Peloponnesian Wars. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963.