Saturday, May 14, 2011

Roundships Redux

The round ships of the Mediterranean came from Roman ships with a 3:1 ratio of width to length. They were constructed with caravel-built hulls and no oars, but instead 1-3 masts often with lateen sails. They were used for transport and trade, and were know in the later 12th and 13th centuries to add castles, for and aft, to the ship, which later became part of the hull design. These were more decorative and helped hold more cargo and passengers; the aft castle often held the captain's quarters.

Marshall, Michal. Ocean Traders. Facts of File, NY: 1990. VM15.M368

Medieval ship type popular in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries and the Christian Crusaders’ transport of choice. Unlike the swift, more comfortable galleys that transported the wealthiest crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land, the round ship was ungainly and slow. Because of the need for large amounts of cargo space for retainers, equipment, and horses, it was, however, ideal.

Round ships had a length-to-beam ratio of three or even two to one, giving them a round appearance and their name. Most were single-masted and square-rigged vessels. The cog of northern Europe was a typical round ship.

Slow because of their hull shape, round ships had to await favorable winds before sailing from each port of call. However, the increase in carrying capacity made a slower passage economically feasible. In traveling to and from the Holy Land, round ships moved along the coasts, rarely venturing offshore. In their inevitable stops along the way, these ships opened up markets for the Italian merchants whose goods they carried. Over time these markets became regular trading ports for the maritime republics. The round ship began to disappear in the fifteenth century, replaced by the carrack and other ship designs.

The Nef as Ship

Nef is an old term for a type of boat, originally referring a largish sort of Knarr or "Halfskip" (which was a double ended sort of canoe shape, about 2.5 to 3 times as long as wide, and used by Northern European travellers and trades for exploration and cargo).

A fully rigged medieval sailing merchantman and warship. Developed in France, the nef had a broad beam, rounded ends, and a carvel-planked (flush rather than overlapping) hull. Similar in design and purpose to the cog, this type of ship was normally single masted with a more rounded stern than the cog. Fore and after castles were part of the hull structure. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the vessel had grown to almost 400 tons and carried three masts. Its basic purpose as a naval vessel was to serve as a fighting platform.

Nef: 1.Also called a roundship, a single-masted clinker-built ship used in Europe during the middle-ages until the 14th century, for example as transportation for the crusades. Descendant of the Viking longship a Nef still had a side-rudder and was used in Northern regions a century or two longer with a sternpost-rudder. 2.A French word for ship.

Variegated Reference for 'nef' as ship, from
Lewis, A.R. and Runyan, T.J.  European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500.  Indiana University Press.  Bloomington.  1985.

p.66  "... the so-called _naves_ or _nefs_, which were large round-ships, lateen-rigged, with two masts ..."

p.73  has a line-drawing of a Genoese nef based on the best available evidence.

p.74  "They may have been cheaper to build or to operate than a_nef_."  The word _nef_ is used two more times on this page.

p.82  "Already by 1400, as we have noted, the older Mediterraneanround-ships such as _nefs_ and _taurides_ had been replaced by more efficient northern European _cogs_."

p.83  "Often built as large as 700 or 1,000 tons, _carracks_,which were sometimes also called _nefs_ in the fifteenth century, carried most of the heavy bulk cargoes, such as salt, wheat, cotton, and timber, throughout the Mediterranean."

Featured Website: Engineering the Medieval Achievement

Shipping Systems


Battles of the Azores, (1582–1583)

Naval battles between Spain and France, the first in the Central Atlantic. Although the death of King Sebastian of Portugal in 1578 had made Philip II of Spain the clear heir to the Portuguese throne, eight of Portugal’s nine strategic Azores islands opted to recognize as king Sebastian’s illegitimate son, Dom Antonio de Crato. Forced into exile as the Spanish occupied Portugal, Antonio nonetheless managed to secure aid for his cause from England and France, which were keen to disrupt the powerful Hispano-Portuguese union and saw the Azores as a prime base for attacks on Spanish treasure fleets returning from America. French regent Catherine de’ Medici also had laid claim to the Portuguese throne and had been promised Brazil by Dom Antonio in return for aid. She sent a fleet of 63 ships and some 5,800 troops under the command of her cousin, former army general Filippo Strozzi, to seize the only Azorean island loyal to Spain, São Miguel, and to protect the other islands from a large Spanish fleet that had sailed from Cádiz.

This fleet consisted of 28 ships under Spain’s greatest sailor, Álvaro de Bazán, Marqués de Santa Cruz, with some 6,700 veteran soldiers aboard. Strozzi arrived in the islands six days before Santa Cruz and, despite a successful amphibious landing on São Miguel, failed to carry the crucial fort of Ponta Delgada. The French were in the process of re-embarking their infantry when the Spanish fleet appeared. The ensuing battle on 26 June 1582 lasted some five hours, with the French trying to stand off and cannonade, and the Spaniards seeking to grapple and board.

The French tactic failed for lack of a sufficient number of heavy guns and the early departure of 30 ships. Santa Cruz’s fleet sank six French ships. Some 2,000 French soldiers and sailors died, including their commander, Filippo Strozzi; another 390 were taken prisoner. The Spaniards lost 224 dead and 533 wounded. Five days later, Santa Cruz had all the prisoners executed, a much-decried act he tried to justify by claiming that the victims were lawless pirates.

But Santa Cruz sailed back to Spain without forcing the surrender of the main rebel island of Terceira, and a second French expedition to safeguard the island was mounted in May 1583 under the command of Aymar de Chastes, governor of Dieppe. Eager to crush the Azores rebellion once and for all, Philip II ordered Santa Cruz to return to the islands in 1583 with an even larger armada of 98 ships carrying over 15,000 men. After defeating the French fleet, the marquis, in one of the early modern world’s classic amphibious landings, overwhelmed the rebel stronghold and put most of its French, English, and Portuguese garrison to the sword.

Santa Cruz’s victory was hugely acclaimed in Spain, since it sealed the union of two great world empires. He himself saw the Azores victory as the prologue to an invasion of England, which he thought might take place as early as 1584. He seems to have believed that the fleets he had so easily defeated were partly English and thus reckoned that defeating England would be less difficult than heretofore believed. Chosen to lead Spain’s Enterprise of England, Santa Cruz died before it set sail. The battles off the Azores also underlined for the powers concerned the necessity of maintaining fleets that could operate efficiently in the Atlantic, which meant accelerating construction of galleons.

Fernandez Duro, Cesáreo. La conquista de las Azores en 1583: Descrita por el capitan de navio Cesareo Fernandez Duro. Madrid: Sucessore de Rivadeneyra, 1886.
Ibanez de Ibero, Carlos. Santa Cruz: Primer Marino de Espana. N.p., 1946.
Mariejol, Jean. Philip II: The First Modern King. Trans. Warre B. Wells. New York: Harper & Bros., 1933.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


During the past 5,000 years the expansion of the Austronesians from Taiwan into Southeast Asia, and from there into the Pacific and to Madagascar, has always been carried out, out of necessity, across the seas and upstream along the rivers of the major islands. At the turn of the first millennium C.E., local and regional maritime exchange networks had expanded into long-distance overseas commerce that brought local ships and traders to harbors of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Linguistic, ethnographic, archaeological, and historical research has all contributed to a considerable body of knowledge on Austronesian shipbuilding traditions. Other peoples of Southeast Asia, particularly the Mon, appear in time to have developed their own shipbuilding industries. However, for lack of proper studies, it is not clear how much of it was indigenous, or how much they owed to borrowings during interaction with the neighboring Austronesians (Austronesian nautical terms appear in Old Mon inscriptions).

The typical Austronesian vessel appears to have been developed from a dugout canoe. As its size grew, side-planks were added to the dugout hull, which progressively turned into a keel. In the early stages of seafaring, as in historical and modern smaller and narrower boats, outriggers were necessary stabilizing devices. As these smaller vessels grew into bulkier, high seas trading ships with rounded hulls, however, it appears that outriggers were not used: the earliest descriptions of Austronesian ships, in third- to eighth-century Chinese texts, do not mention stabilizing devices. What they do describe are very large ships, carrying hundreds of tons of cargo and passengers, propelled by multiple sails rigged on several masts. According to these early witnesses, no iron was ever used in fastening the planks of these ships, only strings made of vegetal fibers. Archaeological work carried out in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and the Philippines has indeed brought to light an indigenous tradition of shipbuilding that fully confirms these early texts. Sites from the third to the twelfth centuries C.E. have yielded remains of hulls made of planks fastened together by wooden dowels and stitches of palm-sugar fiber strings. Some of these shipwrecks were as much as 30 meters in length. These sites also yielded some side rudders, a feature described in later ships that survived in twentieth century Javanese and Bugis traders. Their sails and masts were reconstructed from iconography, as depicted on a few early seals and on the famous eighth-century relief of the Borobudur temple: they carried multiple tripod masts and canted square sails made of matting. This early stitched technique partly survived in seventeenth- century Philippines and Moluccan boats and in modern whaling boats of Lomblen.

By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, much of the local large-scale trade was carried out in ships known in Malay or Javanese as jong, a local term that gave birth to the word “junk” in European languages (later to be used only for Chinese ships). Their hulls were still being assembled without any iron fastenings: wooden dowels had by then completely replaced the earlier fiber lashings to keep the planks fastened together, and the shell was in turn dowelled to the sturdy frames. These were huge sailing vessels, even by European standards of the times: Malay and Javanese jong that hauled 500 tons of merchandise and a few hundred people were regularly described in Portuguese sources. Like earlier vessels, they were steered with a pair of side rudders and carried multiple masts, and as many lug sails of fiber matting, including a typical bowsprit sail.

The fleets of large indigenous jong were to disappear in the second half of the sixteenth century because of a combination of economic and political factors that laid considerable strain on the capacities of local powers to maintain their own trading fleets. As a result of increased warfare at sea, much of the local capital and energy was then spent on building and maintaining profusely armed war fleets of long craft. The largest were new ships for the region, galley-type craft built according to Mediterranean standards learned from Portuguese renegades and Turkish shipwrights, built in such a way as to allow them to carry and shoot the large cannon necessary for battles at sea.

Shipwreck archaeology has also proved that, by the fifteenth century, indigenous Malay and Javanese jong were no longer the only large trading ships built locally. Southern Chinese vessels had conquered their own share of the local shipping. However, the ban on shipbuilding and overseas shipping imposed by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appears to have prompted many Chinese to settle in Southeast Asia and to build their ships locally. This contributed to the birth of the so-called South China Sea shipbuilding tradition, a blend of two nautical traditions, Austronesian and southern Chinese.

In Indonesian seas, a significant fleet of lesser coasters (under 100 tons) survived the disappearance of the large oceangoing jong. The building of these vessels kept the local shipbuilding traditions alive until modern times. Together with the fishing boats, these fleets of small to medium-size Madurese, Butonese, and Bugis ships were the last to bear witness to the earlier grandeur of Malay world shippers.

References: Green, Jeremy, and Rosemary Harper. 1987. The Maritime Archaeology of Shipwrecks and Ceramics in Southeast Asia. Special Publication no. 4.Albert Park: Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology. Horridge, G.Adrian. 1982. The Lashed-lug Boat of the Eastern Archipelagoes. Monographs and Reports, no. 54. London: National Maritime Museum. Manguin, Pierre-Yves. 1980.“The Southeast Asian Ship: An Historical Approach.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 11, no. 2: 266–276. ———.1989.“The Trading Ships of Insular Southeast Asia: New Evidence from Indonesian Archaeological Sites.” Vol. I, pp. 200–220 in Proceedings Pertemuan Ilmiah Arkeologi V, Yogyakarta 1989. Jakarta: Ikatan Ahli Arkeologi Indonesia. ———.1993.“Trading Ships of the South China Sea: Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the Development of Asian Trade Networks.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 36: 253–280. ———.1996.“Southeast Asian Shipping in the Indian Ocean during the 1st Millennium AD.” Pp. 181–198 in Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean. Edited by H. P. Ray and J.-F. Salles. Lyon and New Delhi: Manohar (Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen/NISTADS). Scott, William Henry. 1982.“Boatbuilding and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society.” Philippine Studies 30: 335–376.

Alamannic raiders

When assessing the overall effectiveness of Roman frontier defense, therefore, it is necessary to factor into the equation that substantial economic losses to outside raiding were also part of the picture, since it took a fair amount of raiding to trigger a response. How substantial that raiding might have been has emerged from an exciting archaeological find made while dredging in the Rhine near the old Roman frontier town of Speyer. Late in the third century, some Alamannic raiders had been trying to get their booty back home across the Rhine when their boats were ambushed and sunk by Roman river patrol ships. This booty consisted of an extraordinary 700 kg of goods packed into three or four carts, the entire looted contents of probably a single Roman villa, and the raiders were interested in every piece of metalwork they could find. The only items missing from the hoard were rich solid silver ware and high-value personal jewelry. Either the lord or lady of the house got away before the attack or else the very high-value loot was transported separately. In the carts, however, was a vast mound of silverplate from the dining room, the equipment from an entire kitchen (fifty-one cauldrons, twenty-five bowls and basins, and twenty iron ladles), enough agricultural implements to run a substantial farm, votive objects from the villa’s shrine, and thirty-nine good-quality silver coins. If this haul represents the proceeds of just one localized raid, the magnitude of the more sustained disturbances required to trigger an imperial campaign should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, the overall pattern of the evidence is unmistakable. Late Roman emperors did not leave their troops passively behind the frontier merely waiting for trouble. Periodically, the field armies were trundled out in force to establish an overwhelming level of immediate military dominance, which was then used to dictate an overall diplomatic settlement for the region that was in line with the empire’s priorities, to maximize the cost-value ratio of the original campaign.

The Athenian Empire

The Athenian Empire, like all its predecessors, had been achieved by war, and many people could not conceive of one without the other. The problem was intensified by the character of the Athenian empire, a power based not on a great army dominating vast stretches of land but on a navy that dominated the sea. This unusual empire dazzled perceptive contemporaries. The Old Oligarch pointed out some of its special advantages:

It is possible for small subject cities on the mainland to unite and form a single army, but in a sea empire it is not possible for islanders to combine their forces, for the sea divides them, and their rulers control the sea. Even if it is possible for islanders to assemble unnoticed on one island, they will die of starvation. Of the main land cities which Athens controls, the large ones are ruled by fear, the small by sheer necessity; there is no city which does not need to import or export something, but this will not be possible unless they submit to those who control the sea.

Naval powers, moreover, can make hit-and-run raids on enemy territory, doing damage without many casualties; they can travel distances impossible for armies; they can sail past hostile territory safely, while armies must fight their way through; they need not fear crop failure, for they can import what they need. In the Greek world, besides, all their enemies were vulnerable: “every mainland state has either a projecting headland or an offshore island or a narrow strait where it is possible for those who control the sea to put in and harm those who dwell there.”

Thucydides admired sea power no less and depicted its importance more profoundly. His reconstruction of early Greek history, describing the ascent of civilization, makes naval power the dynamic, vital element. First comes a navy, then suppression of piracy and safety for commerce. The resulting security permits the accumulation of wealth, which allows the emergence of walled cities. This in turn allows the acquisition of greater wealth and the growth of empire, as the weaker cities trade independence for security and prosperity. The wealth and power so obtained permit the expansion of the imperial city’s power. This paradigm perfectly describes the rise of the Athenian Empire. Yet Thucydides presents it as a natural development, inherent in the character of naval power and realized for the first time in the Athens of his day.

Pericles himself fully understood the unique character of the naval empire as the instrument of Athenian greatness, and on the eve of the great Peloponnesian War he encouraged the Athenians with an analysis of its advantages. The war would be won by reserves of money and control of the sea, where the empire gave Athens unquestioned superiority.

If they march against our land with an army, we shall sail against theirs; and the damage we do to the Peloponnesus will be something very different from their devastation of Attica. For they cannot get other land in its place without fighting, while we have plenty of land on the islands and the mainland; yes, command of the sea is a great thing.

In the second year of the war, Pericles made the point even more strongly, as he tried to restore the fighting spirit of the discouraged Athenians:

I want to explain this point to you, which I think you have never yet thought about; it is about the greatness of your empire. I have not mentioned it in my previous speeches, nor would I speak of it now, since it sounds rather like boasting, if I did not see that you are discouraged beyond reason. You think you rule only over your allies, but I assert that of the two spheres that are open to man’s use, the land and the sea, you are the absolute master of all of one, not only of as much as you now control but of as much more as you like. And there is no one who can prevent you from sailing where you like with the naval force you now have, neither the Great King, nor any nation on earth.

This unprecedented power, however, could be threatened by two weaknesses. The first resulted from an intractable geographic fact: the home of this great naval empire was a city located on the mainland and subject to attacks from land armies. Since they were not islanders, their location was a point of vulnerability, for the landed classes are reluctant to see their houses and estates destroyed.

Pericles made the same point: “Command of the sea is a great thing,” he said. “Just think; if we were islanders, who could be less exposed to conquest?” But Pericles was not one to allow problems presented by nature to stand in the way of his goals. Since the Athenians would be invulnerable as islanders, they must become islanders. Accordingly, he asked the Athenians to abandon their fields and homes in the country and move into the city. In the space between the Long Walls they could be fed and supplied from the empire, and could deny a land battle to the enemy. In a particularly stirring speech, Pericles said, “We must not grieve for our homes and land, but for human lives, for they do not make men, but men make them. And if I thought I could persuade you I would ask you to go out and lay waste to them yourselves and show the Peloponnesians that you will not yield to them because of such things.”

But not even Pericles could persuade the Athenians to do that in mid-century. The employment of such a strategy based on cold intelligence and reason, flying in the face of tradition and the normal passions of human beings, would require the kind of extraordinary leadership that only he could hope to exercise, and even in the face of a Spartan invasion in 465–446, Pericles was not able to persuade the Athenians to abandon their farms. In 431 he imposed his strategy, and held to it only with great difficulty. But by then he had become strong enough to make it the strategy of Athens.

The corvus

To compensate for their lack of nautical expertise, however, the Romans introduced a technical innovation that exploited their legionaries' aptitude for close-quarter fighting. A 12-foot pillar of wood with a pulley on the top was fitted to the prow of every vessel. To this pillar a boarding bridge was attached which could be hoisted up and swung around in the required direction. At the end of the bridge there was a large pointed spike called a COITUS which, when released, drove itself into the deck of the opposing vessel, locking the two ships together. Then the legionaries could storm aboard and slaughter the near-defenceless crews. As an example of a technical innovation which led to a precipitous reversal of battlefield superiority that had endured for centuries, the corvus outclassed all subsequent developments such as gunpowder, the tank, radar, submarines, air power and electronic warfare.

Like the Rhodians, the Carthaginians had a long tradition of naval warfare, and their experience in this area meant that in the First Punic War their main tactic was ramming, whereas the Romans preferred to grapple and board.152 Early in the First Punic War, the Romans introduced a new form of boarding involving the use of a special piece of equipment, a boarding-bridge called the ‘crow’(Latin corvus). The circumstances of this development are sketchy. The Romans had built a fleet in the latter part of 260, based on a captured Carthaginian vessel. The first proper voyage for this new fleet took it the along western coast of Italy towards the Straits of Messina. An advance force of seventeen ships, under the command of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, one of the consuls of 260/59, headed directly to Messana. Its aim was to arrange for supplies and other facilities for the main fleet (Polyb. 1.21.4). Scipio was diverted to the Lipari Islands, possibly by the promise that they would be betrayed to him, but he was captured by Boodes, a Carthaginian commander who sailed out with a large naval force from Panormus and caught Scipio off guard. He abandoned his small squadron of ships and surrendered, earning the nick-name ‘Asina’ (she-ass). It is most likely that the new Roman ships did not have the corvus fitted to them, otherwise the Carthaginians would have been better prepared for it in the battle at Mylae, which occurred soon afterwards. Similarly, when the Carthaginian admiral Hannibal went out to reconnoitre the approaching Roman fleet with fifty ships and lost most of them, having come upon the Romans unexpectedly, it was a straightforward naval encounter, again not featuring the corvus (Polyb. 1.21.9–11).

It was apparently after these two episodes that the Romans introduced the corvus, probably as a result of appraising their tactical performance in the recent clash with the fifty Carthaginian ships under Hannibal. It would certainly seem logical for them to have introduced such a tactical innovation in order to counter a perceived weakness in their combat methods. For a description of the corvus we are reliant upon Polybius (1.22). The key details are as follows. It consisted of a pole 7.3 m (24 feet) high and 22–5 cm (9–10 inches) thick, with a pulley on top, from which was suspended the boarding bridge itself. This was 11 m (36 feet) long and 1.2 m (4 feet) wide. It had a spike on the underside at the far end to fix it into the deck of an enemy ship. A slot 3.65 m (12 feet) from the lowest end enabled it to slide up the pole (probably less than all the way to the top) and to be swung around. Rings were used to attach ropes to the far end so that it could be raised and lowered via the pulley. Polybius says it was mounted on the prows of the Roman warships, but it must have been set some way back from the very end of the prow, as it seems to have been swivelled around to grapple with ships on either side of the Roman vessel. The device was designed for a dual function: it held enemy ships fast and provided a relatively easy means for the Roman marines to board them. It also offered an alternative naval combat tactic to ramming.

Polybius implies that the corvi were a late addition to the Roman ships, a last-minute modification in anticipation of imminent naval combat. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the Romans made as much use as possible of existing fixtures and fittings. They may even have incorporated the footings or tabernacle used for masts. The fact that they are described as being on the prows of the Roman ships and swivelled around to grapple ships approaching from the sides could indicate that they were positioned where the foremast would have been.
The invention of the corvus could be characterized as a typical Roman response to a military problem by engineering a technological solution. Alternatively, it could just be seen as a desperate gamble aimed at turning sea-battles into land-battles and relying on the training and determination of the Roman legionaries turned marines to succeed in close-quarter fighting. However it is viewed, this bold tactical innovation certainly worked. The ensuing battle of Mylae in 260 was the first major naval battle of the First PunicWar (Polyb. 1.23; Diod. Sic. 33.10). About 100 Roman ships defeated about 130 Carthaginians. The Carthaginians were puzzled by their first sight of the corvi, but attacked the Roman fleet with determination. They lost their thirty lead ships immediately, all having been grappled by corvi and boarded. This included the admiral Hannibal’s flagship, a ‘seven’, but he escaped in a skiff. The remaining Carthaginian ships tried to use their superior speed and manoeuvrability to get at the Romans from better angles to avoid the corvi, but the swivel mechanism allowed the Romans to grapple some of these as well. The Carthaginians retreated after losing about fifty ships, and the victorious Roman commander, the consul Gaius Duilius, was honoured with a column in the forum, decorated with the prows of the captured ships.

Four years later, another major sea-battle at Ecnomus also ended in defeat for the Carthaginians. This battle was a deliberate attempt by one large naval expeditionary force to intercept and destroy another. It produced a sprawling, multi-part confrontation which happened within sight of the land, and may have been partly influenced by the proximity of the shoreline, but it was essentially a battle at sea between two fleets of warships heavily laden with marines. The Romans won because their various squadrons were able to defeat and drive off the Carthaginian squadrons in direct confrontations and then come to the aid of their fellows. Polybius insists that Carthaginian ships were faster (1.26.10, 1.27.10), but that does not seem to have made a great deal of difference. Most of the Roman captains were able to avoid being rammed in their vulnerable stern quarters and either grapple with the enemy or keep them at bay. For all their speed, the Carthaginians seem to have been too intimidated by the corvi to engage the Romans properly on the open sea.

Siege of Syracuse II

The Athenian siege of Syracuse, 415-413 BC. The scene is from 414 BC, when the Athenians bad established a fort at Syca ('the fig tree ') on the Epipolae plateau above Syracuse, and embarked upon their usual strategy of periteichismos [encirclement]. Specialist masons and carpenters appear to have accompanied the army to Sicily, and tools for construction work were a normal part of their equipment.

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.

Siege of Syracuse I

The final sea battle in the Great Harbour at Syracuse, 413 BC. The largest single expedition that Athens mounted in the Peloponnesian War was to Sicily in 415 BC, consisting of 134 triremes. Reinforcements of 73 triremes followed the next year. In the first sea battle the Syracusans manned 76 triremes. Yet in spite of their advantage in numbers and skill, poor leadership meant that the Athenian armada was trapped in the Great Harbour, where their skill could not be exercised. The outcome in 413 BC was to be a total disaster. 

Based on Thucydides 7.70, this reconstruction shows the first impetus of the Athenian attack, which carried them through the Syracusan vessels guarding the boom across the harbour mouth. The Athenians began loosening the chained merchantmen, but then other Syracusan warships joined in from all directions and the fighting became general throughout the harbour. Thucydides emphasizes that it was a harder sea-fight than any of the previous ones, but despite the best efforts of the Athenian helmsmen, because there were so many ships crammed in such a confined space, there were few opportunities to maneuver-and-ram, backing water (anakrousis) and breaking through the enemy line (diekplous) being impossible. Instead, accidental collisions were numerous, leading to fierce fights across decks and much confusion. In other words, this was an engagement in which Athenian skill was nullified.

Date 415–413 BCE
Location Syracuse in Sicily
Opponents (* winner) *Syracuse and Sparta Athens and its allies
Commander Gylippus Alcibiades, Lamachus, Nicias, Demosthenes
Approx. # Troops Sparta: 4,400; Syracuse: Unknown but probably equal to Athens and allies 42,000
Importance Leads to revolts against Athens from within its empire

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.

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 offensive 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.