Gateway to the Classics: Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition by Alfred J. Church
Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition by  Alfred J. Church

Decline of the Athenians

I have already related how two attempts were made by the Syracusans to cut off the investing line of the besiegers by a cross wall and how both had failed. A third attempt was now made by Gylippus. From the Circle Fort southward to the Great Harbour the Athenian wall was complete; of the northern portion, from the Circle to the Bay of Thapsus, much remained to be done. It was here, then, that Gylippus set to work. He began at a point some 500 yards south of the northern end of Epipolæ, and succeeded in carrying it beyond the Athenian fortifications. Not only did his men work with untiring energy, but their general also kept the besiegers employed by constant demonstrations against their works. Within a month or so of the arrival of the Spartan commander, the prospect of capturing Syracuse was practically lost.

Nicias acknowledged so much by the next step that he took. He fortified the promontory of Plemmyrium, the southern arm of the Great Harbour. Up to this time the Athenian ships had been stationed at the point where the blockading wall touched the Great Harbour. From this spot they had kept up their watch over the Inner Harbour with its two entrances. The new station was much more convenient. It gave more accommodation, and was more conveniently occupied, but it practically meant that the investment of the city on the land side was no longer possible. And it had this positive disadvantage—there was no water supply, and there was no wood at hand. For both of these necessaries the crews had to range for considerable distances inland, and were, consequently, exposed to incessant attack from the force which occupied the Olympieion. At the same time desertion became more easy. The ships were largely manned by slaves. These had never had any reason for not escaping, except the difficulty of doing it safely, and this difficulty was now removed. Besides the slaves there were many foreigners in the crews. These would be faithful to their service as long as they were paid, and as long as they saw a prospect of success. Their pay was still regular, but success was evidently becoming to all observers more and more doubtful. We shall see before long how these causes operated to destroy the effectiveness of the Athenian fleet.

A gleam of success now brightened the prospects of the Athenians. Gylippus, after challenging an engagement several times to no purpose, ventured to attack the Athenian lines. He met with a severe repulse. The battlefield was ill chosen, for it did not give space enough for the arms in which he was especially strong—cavalry and skirmishers—to be properly utilised. He confessed his mistake in the Assembly next day, and by thus accounting for his defeat did away with much of its injurious effect. 'It is monstrous,' he said in conclusion, 'to suppose that we, men of the Peloponnesus and Dorians as we are, should not be able to drive out of the country this rabble of Ionians and islanders.'

A few days afterwards he did something towards making his boast good. This time it was Nicias who attacked, encouraged, doubtless, by his former success. But Gylippus had chosen his ground better. He had plenty of room for the movements of the skirmishers and the cavalry. The latter charged and broke the left wing of the Athenians, and the engagement ended in the hurried retreat of the whole army. On the night of this same day the intercepting wall was carried beyond the Athenian line. Practically the investment was at an end; the besiegers had not been able to hinder the completing of the wall, and it was not likely that they would capture it when it was completed.

The remainder of the Corinthian squadron now arrived; the crews were disembarked, and helped in completing the defences of the city. The most important of the new works was the construction of a fort at Euryalus, the western extremity of Epipolæ. Communication with the interior was thus secured, while, at the same time, the Athenians were cut off from the Bay of Thapsus. Gylippus felt confidence enough in the position of affairs to quit the city for a time, in order to visit various cities from which he hoped to obtain reinforcements. Meanwhile, at his suggestion, the Syracusan ships were manned, and daily practised in naval manœuvres. Already able to hold their own on land, the Syracusans now hoped to meet the enemy successfully on his own element—the sea.

Nicias, on the other hand, was profoundly discouraged. His army was shut up within the lines, for it could not venture forth in the face of the enemy. It was even doubtful whether, should that enemy receive any considerable reinforcements, it would be able to resist an attack. The fleet, it was true, still commanded the sea, but, as has been before mentioned, it was deteriorating in efficiency. The crews were growing weaker; the ships, which had to be kept continually afloat, were suffering from want of cleaning and repair. A strong man, so circumstanced, would probably have given up the enterprise as hopeless, and evacuated his position while it was still possible to do so in safety. But Nicias was not a strong man; he feared responsibility. He left, as we shall see, the Assembly to make a decision which he ought to have made himself. One thing, however, was evident. If he was to stay, he must have reinforcements. This he put plainly to the people. Thucydides has preserved the dispatch which he sent him when the second campaign was drawing to an end. It is doubtless a verbatim  copy of the original. The speeches with which Thucydides intersperses his narrative probably represent with sufficient fidelity the thoughts of the speakers. Possibly they do not all stand on the same level of probability. Some of the debates the historian must have himself heard. Of others—that, for instance, which took place in the Syracusan Assembly—he must have had but a general report. All are greatly shortened, unless politicians in Greek cities were much more given to brevity than they have been in any other age or country. But the dispatch of Nicias is probably exactly as he wrote it, and is, from every point of view, a highly interesting document. It runs thus:—

'Of what has happened up to this time you have been kept informed, men of Athens, by frequent dispatches. The present crisis is such as to need on your part, when you have been told how matters stand, a not less full deliberation. We defeated in frequent engagements the forces of Syracuse, and it was against Syracuse that we were sent, and we constructed the fortified lines which we now occupy. Then Gylippus, the Spartan, came with an army raised partly in the Peloponnesus, partly in some of the Sicilian cities. Him, too, we conquered in our first engagement; in the second we were so overwhelmed by a multitude of cavalry and javelin-throwers that we had to retreat within our lines. We have been thus constrained, by the superior forces of the enemy, to suspend our investment of the city and indeed all action. Having to keep some of heavy-armed to guard our lines, we cannot bring our whole force into the field. Meanwhile, the enemy have carried a single intercepting wall across our line of investment. Unless we can attack and storm this wall, we cannot finish our line. In fact, things have come to this pass—we profess to be besieging others; we are in fact besieged ourselves. By land we are certainly so, for the cavalry do not leave us free to move. More than this, the enemy has sent envoys to the Peloponnesus to ask for more help, and Gylippus himself is going on a tour of the Sicilian cities. He is trying to bring over the neutral, and to obtain additional help in soldiers and ships from the friendly. It is, I understand, the purpose of the enemy not only to assail our lines, but to attack our ships.

'You must not think it strange to hear that they are actually going to take the offensive even by sea. When we came, our fleet was in excellent condition. Our ships were dry; the crews were excellent. Now our ships are leaky, having remained too long at sea, and our crews greatly depreciated.

'First, as to our ships. We can never haul them ashore to refit; for the enemy's fleet, equal, if not superior, in numbers, is always ready to attack. They can keep their ships high and dry, for they are not maintaining a blockade; we are bound to have all our fleet always afloat. It is only a vast superiority of numbers that could enable us to keep one fleet on guard and another under repair. If we relax our vigilance in the least, we risk losing our supplies, which are already brought close under the walls of the city, and, therefore, with no little difficulty.

'Second, as to the crews. They have been, and still are, wasting away from various causes. Of our citizen seamen, many have been cut off by the enemy's cavalry, either when they were fetching wood and water, or when they were pillaging. The slaves desert now that we are no longer superior to the enemy; the foreigners whom we have induced to enter our service leave us to make their way to one or other of the neighbouring cities. Those who joined us, tempted by high pay to make a profit rather than to fight, change our service for that of the enemy, or stray away somewhere in the wide area of Sicily. Others, again, while they busy themselves in trafficking on their own account, bribe their captains to take slaves for substitutes. You know as well as I that a crew never remains for long in a really good condition; of the first-class seamen, the men who take the time from the stroke-oar, there are but few.

'Of all these troubles the worst is, that I, as your general, can find no remedy for the mischief. Athenians are not easy to manage; nor can I find, as the enemy can easily do, recruits to fill the vacant places. We have only the force that we brought with us at the first from which to make good our losses and to supply present needs. Naxos and Catana, our only allies, are but insignificant places. If the enemy secure one further advantage, if the cities in Italy, from which we now draw our supplies, turn against us, in the conviction that our condition is hopeless, and no reinforcement comes from you, we shall be starved out; the enemy will gain a complete victory without even having to fight for it.

'I could easily have sent you a more agreeable account of our fortunes, but not a more useful. It is absolutely necessary, if you are to deliberate to any good purpose, that you should have a full knowledge of the state of our affairs. And it is, I feel, the safer policy to tell you the undisguised truth, for I am well acquainted with your temper. You hate, indeed, to hear any but the most favourable accounts, but you are furious if, in the end, the results are not favourable. Do not doubt but that the force which you sent out at the first has done itself credit as to both officers and men. But now all Sicily is united against us, and fresh forces are coming from the Peloponnesus; this is the prospect before us, and remember that we are no match even for those whom we now have against us. Either tell us to come home or send us a reinforcement of men, as well as ships, equal to our present strength, and with it a large supply of money. And send a successor to myself; I am incapable of service, suffering as I am from a disease of the kidneys. I think that I have a right to ask this favour of you; while my health lasted, I did you much service in various commands. And whatever you do, do it without delay, as soon the spring begins. The help which the enemy is expecting from Sicily, or which will come from the Peloponnesus, will not be here, indeed, as soon as that; yet, unless you are on the watch, it will forestall your action, as it has done already.'

Athens was, it seems, too deeply committed to the Sicilian undertaking to draw back. To persist in the face of such a story as Nicias had told them in the dispatch given above seems to us, who can view the circumstances without passion, little better than madness. But it was passion that distorted the popular judgment. The pride and the anger of the people forbade them to draw back. They did exactly as other nations have done in a similar situation—as we did when the American colonies struggled for their independence, and we persisted in the conflict long after it had become absolutely hopeless; as Spain did recently, carrying on a war for years in Cuba which was as hopeless as it was ruinous both to herself and to her colony. The Assembly refused to supersede Nicias in the command, but named two subordinate officers, who were already serving in the expedition, to assist him in his duties. Reinforcements to the full extent demanded were to be sent out as soon as possible in the spring. Two fresh commanders were named—Eurymedon and Demosthenes—the latter being, perhaps, the most distinguished soldier that the city then possessed. Eurymedon was to go out at once—it was then mid-winter—with twelve ships of war and 120 talents of money.

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