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

The End

Escape might still have been possible, if all energy had not been beaten, so to speak, out of the defeated army. Once again the want of discipline which was so conspicuous in the citizen soldiers of Syracuse might have served the Athenians well. Hermocrates, who was evidently a man of remarkable ability, saw how inexpedient it was to allow an army which had done, and might do yet again, so much damage to Syracuse, to escape and renew the war from a position of greater advantage, say from the country of the independent native tribes. He strongly represented this view to the generals in command, urging them to occupy positions on the route which the Athenians would have to take in escaping. They thought that he was right, but were sure that the plan could not be carried out. They might order their troops to march, but the troops would certainly not obey. A great victory had been gained, finally delivering the city from a terrible danger which had been long hanging over it. The occasion was one that called for joyous celebration. It happened also to coincide with the great festival of Heracles, and the combined attraction to revelry was such as it would be useless to contend against. If the Athenian army had started that night, they might, for the time at least, have made their escape. But Hermocrates had recourse to a stratagem which, thanks to the credulity of Nicias, succeeded. He sent some friends of his own with a message to the Athenian generals, purporting to come from their correspondents within the city. This was to the effect that the Syracusan army had occupied some strong points on the route, and that the Athenians had better make proper preparations for overcoming this obstacle to their escape. Nicias, who had always been too ready to give credence to communications proceeding from this quarter, took the message as genuine, and acted upon it. The order to march, if indeed it had been given, was countermanded. Such delays, once permitted, are apt to be extended. The next day was also lost. There was indeed much to be done. It was only natural that the soldiers should try to select their most valuable and most portable property to take with them, and they had also to provision themselves for the march. At the same time the pitiable necessities of the situation tended to delay. The dead had to be left unburied; the sick and wounded had to be abandoned to the mercy, or rather the cruelty, of the enemy. Such resolutions, if time is once taken to think about them, are not carried out in a moment. If on the night of the battle in the Great Harbour all the able-bodied men had hurriedly crammed into their haversacks such food as came to their hands, and left everything else except their arms behind, the starting might have been effected in an hour. As it was, it did not take place till the morning of the second day after the battle.

Thucydides draws a harrowing picture of the scene of departure. To leave the body of friend or comrade without due rites of sepulture was shocking to the best sentiments of the Greek. But when he had to desert the sick and the wounded, all of them bound to him by the associations of a common service, some of them friends, among them, it might well be, a kinsman, or a brother, even a father, or a son, it was a blow that struck deeper still. Those who were being left behind seemed to themselves to be losing a last hope of safety. It was not so in reality. The doom of such as were able to go was not less terrible or less instant than the doom of those who were compelled to remain. But these helpless ones did not think so, and they made piteous appeals to their more vigorous comrades not to desert them. Such as still possessed any feeble remnant of strength followed their departing friends as far as they could, and only dropped behind when they were utterly exhausted. If this was a deplorable spectacle, that of the army as it marched was not hopeful. A mixed multitude of forty thousand struggled along, loaded, many of them, to the utmost capacity of their strength with the property from which they could not bring themselves to part. These encumbrances diminished their fighting power. So also did the necessary burden of food which the horse soldiers and the heavy-armed were forced, contrary to habit, to carry; forced, because the slaves who usually were charged with this duty could not be trusted. It was a lamentable contrast between all this misery and the splendid, even boastful, promise with which, little more than two years before, the armament had sailed out of the Peiræus.

All that was best and noblest in the character of Nicias made him rise to the occasion. He addressed the soldiers in words of sympathy, comfort and encouragement. 'Do not despair,' he said; 'men have been saved out of circumstances even worse than these. You see to what a condition my disease has reduced me; yet I, deprived though I am of all the advantages of prosperous fortune, and on a level with the meanest soldier, yet I still hope. And one of my reasons is this: I have never failed in my duty to the gods, and therefore I fear the dangers of the situation less than their magnitude might seem to warrant. Surely our enemies have had their full turn of good fortune, and we have suffered enough to have satisfied the jealous wrath of heaven. Remember, too—I speak to the heavy-armed—how many there are of you, and how excellent is your quality as soldiers. There is no city in this island that can repulse your attack, or drive you away if you are bent on remaining. Keep your firmness and order; let every man remember that the spot on which he stands is his fortress. We have but small store of food, therefore we must press on day and night till we reach the country of the friendly natives; friendly to us because they are bound to be enemies of Syracuse. We have sent a message to them, begging them to meet us with a supply of provisions. And now, bear yourselves like men if you would save your own lives and restore the falling fortunes of your country. There is no state to which you can flee for shelter; but the real essence of a state is not to be found in walls or ships, but in men.'

The order of march was in squares, the heavy-armed enclosing the camp-followers and the rest of the multitude. Nicias led the van, Demosthenes the rear. The first incident was the passage of the Anapus. Here they found a force of Syracusans and allies posted, but were able to dislodge it and cross the river. Continuously attacked by the cavalry and skirmishers, they moved slowly, very slowly, on, the whole distance accomplished in the day being but five miles. Starting early next day they marched about two miles and a half. They had now but little food left, and as their march would be for some time to come over a country without springs or streams, they were obliged to provide themselves with water. While they were searching for these necessaries, the Syracusans occupied in force a pass through which they would have to make their way. The road here was over a steep hill, with precipices on either side. That day the Athenians made no further advance. On the morning of the third they attempted to move forward, but were so harassed by the cavalry and the light-armed troops of the enemy that after a day of incessant fighting they could do nothing but return to their encampment of the night before. On the fourth day they did succeed in, at least, approaching the fortified pass mentioned above. But they found a Syracusan force, many files deep, drawn up in front of it. It was in vain that they tried to force their way. The heavy-armed of the enemy formed a solid obstacle in their front, and they were incessantly harassed by the missiles showered upon them from the javelin-throwers, who occupied the rising ground on either side. Frequent thunderstorms completed their confusion and dismay. Two years before, as Grote remarks, they had viewed this phenomenon with indifference. Now, such was their depression, they regarded it as a sign of the anger of heaven. They defeated, indeed, an attempt to block their retreat, and made their way back again to the level ground on which they had encamped. The next day, the fifth, they again attempted to march, but suffered so much from the incessant attacks of the enemy that they could not accomplish even a mile, and returned to their encampment.

That night Nicias and Demosthenes resolved on a change of plan. Their purpose hitherto had been to reach the interior, where they hoped to get help from the independent native tribes. They now altered the direction of their march, which was to be the southern coast of the island, to the neighbourhood of Camarina and Gela. Employing the familiar device of leaving their camp fires burning, they started that same night. The start was not made without much panic and disturbance. The van, under Nicias, was the more successful of the two divisions of the army in keeping together and in making progress. At dawn they reached the sea. Arrived at the river Cacyparis they found the ford staked and guarded by some Syracusan troops, but forced their way over, and reached another stream named the Erineus. Nicias's division had now got a start of about six miles over that of Demosthenes'. The latter had been overtaken by the Syracusans, who had started in pursuit of the Athenian army immediately on discovering the change of route. (Their first impulse had been to accuse Gylippus of a treacherous understanding with the enemy.) The Athenians turned to defend themselves. When they did so, a detachment of the enemy hurried forward and got between the two divisions of the retreating army. Demosthenes and his troops found what seemed a temporary shelter in an orchard of olive trees surrounded by a wall. But the spot afforded no real protection, for the light-armed troops of the enemy occupied the walls and poured showers of missiles into the crowded ranks. When they sought to leave the enclosure, they found the exit strongly guarded. Late in the day Gylippus and his colleagues proclaimed that any islander in the Athenian army surrendering himself would be allowed to go free. Some few accepted the offer. Afterwards a general capitulation took place, the terms being that no prisoners should be executed or done to death by intolerable conditions of imprisonment or by starvation. Six thousand surrendered on these conditions. The prisoners gave up their money, of which they still had so much as to fill the hollows of four shields, and were escorted back to the city.

The next day the Syracusan forces came up with Nicias, and summoned him to surrender on the terms which Demosthenes had accepted. He refused to believe what they told him, but sending, by permission, a horseman to ascertain the fact, found that it was true. He then offered, on behalf of Athens, to pay the whole expense of the war, and to leave, as a guarantee for payment, a number of hostages—one for each talent of the indemnity. These terms were refused, and an attack was commenced and continued till evening. The fugitives endeavoured to renew their retreat during the night, but, finding that the enemy had discovered their purpose, they abandoned it. Three hundred men, however, neglecting the order to stop, forced their way through and escaped. The next day at dawn Nicias altered his route somewhat so as to reach the river Assinarus. The thirst of the troops was such that it had to be satisfied at any cost. The river, once reached, became a scene of frightful confusion. The men rushed pell-mell into the stream, heedless of everything, so that they could get to the water. Many were slain by the enemy, who followed them even into the river; some were killed by the spears of their own comrades, against which they fell or were pushed; others were carried down by the stream. Even when the water was fouled with blood and dirt, the wretched fugitives still sought to relieve their thirst with, and even fought with each other for, the nauseous draught. Nothing was left but to surrender. Nicias gave himself up to Gylippus, begging that his helpless soldiers might be spared. The Spartan general issued an order that the massacre should cease, but many were slain before it reached the Syracusan troops. Few of the beaten army escaped, the 300 mentioned above being soon captured. Of Nicias's division only a thousand prisoners were saved for the state, the greater part were seized by private persons and sold for their own profit.

It is not easy to estimate the Athenian loss in killed and wounded—the two words mean much the same in ancient warfare, where we are thinking of the defeated side. The state secured 7000 prisoners, private persons, perhaps, 3000 or 4000 more (chiefly, it would seem, from the detachment of Nicias). Few of those who remained with the main bodies till the end escaped, but many of those who had straggled away on the march were more fortunate. It is not improbable that half of the 40,000 perished during the six miserable days of this most disastrous retreat.

The fate of the survivors was wretched in the extreme. Gylippus made an effort to save the lives of the two captive generals. He would dearly have liked, we may well imagine, to exhibit at Sparta the two most distinguished of Athenian soldiers—one notorious as Sparta's friend, the other as her enemy. But this was not permitted. The Syracusans insisted on their execution, and all that the liberal-minded Spartan could do was to give his prisoners an opportunity of putting an end to their own lives. The other prisoners were confined in certain stone quarries excavated in the southern cliffs of the Epipolæ. One pound of wheaten bread and half-a-pint of water was all the provision furnished to them. There they were kept for seventy days, and there they died in crowds. Released when the place became an intolerable nuisance and danger to the city, the survivors were sold for slaves. A few—only, we may well believe, a very few—got back to Athens. Some of them, we are told, won the favour of their masters by reciting the verses of Euripides, a favourite poet among cultured Sicilians. This is the one bright spot in a story of unequalled gloom.

Plutarch, who writes his Lives of Illustrious Men in pairs, gives a parallel to Nicias in Crassus, the third member of the so-called First Triumvirate. Some points of resemblance are sufficiently obvious. Both led invading armies; both had some reputation for military skill; both showed themselves incompetent, and both perished miserably, involving thousands of their countrymen in their fall. But the difference between the two is great. Crassus was largely responsible for a war which he had wantonly provoked; Nicias did his best to stop the fatal expedition, but used a method which had the effect of committing him hopelessly to it. As to private worth there is no comparison. Nicias is the most blameless as he is the most pathetic figure in the long list of Greek statesmen and soldiers.

After remarking that the struggle at Syracuse involved a variety and number of combatants, surpassed only by the great catalogue of tribes and states that took part in the Peloponnesian war itself, Thucydides goes on to say:—

'These many races that came to share in the conquest or in the defence of Syracuse ranged themselves on one side or the other, not from the sense of right or obligation of kinship, but from the accident of private interest or the constraint of superior force. That the Athenians, being of Ionic race, should attack Syracuse, a Dorian state, was natural enough, and with the Athenians, as using the same speech and institutions, came the men of Lemnos, of Imbros, of Ægina (as it then was), and of Histiæa in Eubœa, all of them Athenian colonists. Of the other combatants on this side, some were subjects, others self-governing allies, and others, again, mercenaries. Among the subjects and tributaries must be reckoned the men of the Eubœan cities, Eretria, Chalcis, Styria and Carystus; islanders from Ceos, Andros and Tenos; Ionians from Miletus, Samos and Chios. The Chians, however, were not tributaries; they furnished ships, and served as self-governing allies. Generally speaking, these were Ionic (with the exception of Carystus, which is Æolic) and of Athenian origin. Subjects they were, it is true, and acting under constraint, but still Ionians, fighting against a Dorian foe. With these were Æolic contingents from Methymna (which furnished ships but did not pay tribute), from Tenedos and from Ænos, tributary cities both of them. It was under constraint that these Æolic peoples fought against their own founders, the Æolic state of Bœotia, which was on the side of Syracuse. One Bœotian city, however, Platæa, ranged itself, in pursuance of an ancient feud, against its Bœotian kinsmen. Then there were two Dorian contingents, the men of Rhodes and of Cythera. The Cythereans were Lacedæmonian colonists, but bore arms on the Athenian side against the Lacedæmonians serving with Gylippus; the Rhodians, though Argive by descent, were now constrained to fight against the Dorian state of Syracuse, and against their own colonists of Gela, who were serving in the Syracusan ranks. With Athens also were contingents from the islands near the Peloponnese, Cephalonia and Zacynthus, both independent states, but practically compelled so to act by their position as islanders, in view of the Athenian command of the sea. With the Corcyreans it was otherwise. Dorians as they were, and not only Dorians but Corinthians, they openly bore arms against their mother-city of Corinth and their kinsfolk of Syracuse. They made constraint a pretext, but their action was really voluntary, for they hated the Corinthians. The Messenians, as the dwellers in Naupactus were then called, and from Pylos, which was then held by Athens, were enlisted on the Athenian side; so was a small company of exiles from Megara, who thus found themselves opposed to fellow Megarians in the people of Selinus. As to the other Dorian allies, their service was more entirely voluntary. There were the Argives, for instance; they were allies of Athens, it is true, but their real motive was either their enmity to Sparta or considerations of private gain. So, Dorians as they were, they fought, side by side with Ionians, against a Dorian antagonist. The Mantineans and the other Arcadian mercenaries fought, as is their habit, against those whom they were instructed for the time to regard as enemies, and were ready, on this occasion, so to regard the, other Arcadians who were in the pay of Corinth. It was for hire also that the Cretans and Ætolians served. The Cretans found themselves paid to fight against the men of Rhodes, a state associated with their own in the founding of Gela. As for the Acarnanians, some indeed served for pay, but most of them were brought by their regard for Demosthenes and their goodwill to Athens. So much for the nations that border the Ionian Sea. Of the Italian Greeks came the men of Thurii and Metapontum, acting under the necessities of domestic revolution. Of the Sicilian Greeks there were the inhabitants of Naxos and Catana. The barbarians of Egesta also were there—it was at their invitation that the expedition had come—and the majority of the Sicel tribes. From outside Sicily there were some Etrurians, always on bad terms with Syracuse, and some Iapygian mercenaries. These, then, were the people that fought for Athens.

On the side of Syracuse was Camarina, its next neighbour, Gela, the nearest state beyond Camarina, and—Agrigentum, the next in order, being neutral—Selinus. These cities are on that coast of the island that faces Africa. From the coast facing the Etrurian Sea came the men of Himera, the only Greek city and only ally of Syracuse in that region. All these cities were Dorian, and all independent. Of the native Sicels they were but the few who did not ally themselves with the Athenian invader. Of the Greeks from outside Sicily there were the Lacedæmonians, who supplied a Spartan general and troops, both slave and freedmen. Corinth was the only state that furnished both a fleet and an army. With these came Leucadians and Ambraciots; Corinth also paid some Arcadian mercenaries, and compelled some natives of Sicyon to serve. From Greece outside the Peloponnese came the Bœotians.'

It will be observed that the Syracusan catalogue is much shorter than the Athenian. But the historian tells us that any inferiority in this respect was made up by the wealth and populousness of the Sicilian cities.

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