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

Energy of the Athenians

The cavalry which was dispatched from Athens early in the year was to be horsed in Sicily. Attica was too hilly a region, and had, for the most part, too light a soil, to be suitable for the breeding of horses. We may be certain, therefore, that at all times, when any large number was wanted, they would have to be procured elsewhere. After the beginning of the war the native supply must have ceased altogether, nor could it have had time to be renewed in the few years that had elapsed since the peace. It is difficult to suppose that a man so experienced as Nicias could have forgotten this necessary arm when making his requisitions for the expedition. Probably it had always been intended to find horses in the island, which, indeed, was famous for its breed, and one of the results of the unfriendly reception given to the expedition was the disappointment of this expectation. This important defect was now, however, remedied, and the generals began the new campaign with energy.

This campaign it was possible to carry on in one way only. The city had to be invested. During the winter the Syracusans had been busy on a work which rendered this operation more laborious and difficult. This was a new wall, built about a thousand yards in advance of the wall of Gelon, and reaching from the cliffs on the southern side of the Bay of Thapsus down to the Great Harbour. This wall had to be matched, so to speak, by an Athenian wall of equal length—I might say greater length, seeing it had to cover more ground. So far the attacking side was at a great disadvantage as compared with the position which it might have occupied if the advice of Lamachus, given in the previous summer, had been followed. If the Syracusan generals had followed up this measure of defence with another, and had occupied the high ground of Epipolæ, first with an armed force, and then with a fort, a siege would have been rendered almost impossible. This precaution they neglected, nor did Nicias think of seizing this point of vantage till he was on the point of beginning his operations. He anticipated, indeed, the Syracusan generals, but he anticipated them by but a very short time. A detachment of six hundred picked troops from the city had been told off to occupy Epipolæ, and were about to march for that purpose when intelligence reached the officer in command that the Athenians had taken possession of it. On the preceding night, so long had the step been delayed, Nicias and Lamachus had embarked a force at Catana, landed them on the south side of the Bay of Thapsus, and, marching up the north-eastern slope by which Epipolæ was approached from the sea, had occupied the position in force. The Syracusans were not disposed to acquiesce without a struggle in the loss of this commanding position. The detachment spoken of was led by the officer in command to the attack. But it had to march in haste nearly three miles, it had to breast the hill, and it found the enemy strongly posted. The assault failed, with the loss of the leader and half his men. The besiegers were able to erect forts without molestation at a spot called Labdalum, situated on the southern cliffs of the Bay of Thapsus, and at Tyke, a commanding position in the Epipolæ region, including one to be called the Circle. This last was to be, it seemed, the central point from which the investing lines were to start, being drawn north-ward to the Bay of Thapsus, southward to the Great Harbour.

The Athenians had always enjoyed, and appear to have deserved, a high reputation for the celerity and skill with which they conducted siege operations. Their vigour now terrified the Syracusans, who saw the lines which were to shut them in pushed forward with an astonishing speed. They approached with the intention of delivering an attack, but the Athenians promptly accepted the challenge, and presented so orderly and imposing an array that the Syracusan generals, contrasting it with the disorder in their own undisciplined ranks, did not venture to give battle. They retired, but left some troopers to harass the besiegers. These brought out their own cavalry, and in the skirmish which followed the latter had the advantage. This is the first and last appearance of the Athenian cavalry in the story of the siege.

The Circle Fort—if fort it was—was next finished. This done, the investing line was pushed northward towards the shore at Trogilus, one part of the soldiers building the wall, another carrying timber and stone, which they deposited according as materials would be required. Though these occupations must have put them at a disadvantage in the face of a vigilant enemy, Hermocrates did not venture to risk a battle. A defeat would have caused such discouragement as to imperil the safety of the city, and he felt compelled to adhere to a more prudent policy. His plan was to push an intercepting wall from the Syracusan fortification across the line of circumvallation; this, or at least a palisade, which would serve the same purpose for a time, he hoped to finish before the Athenians could hinder him. This intercepting wall was to be between the Circle Fort and the southern end of the Outer City, at a spot where there was a temple of Apollo surrounded by a grove (temenos) of olive trees, and known accordingly as Apollo Teminites. Hermocrates succeeded in finishing this work; perhaps I should rather say, was allowed to finish it without interruption. The heavy-armed soldiers belonging to one of the city tribes were told off to guard it, and the remainder of the army retired within their own line.

Nicias, however, had no intention of allowing this interruption to continue. While the enemy was busy with the work, he could pursue his own operations undisturbed, nor did he care to challenge a conflict for which he could detach but a portion of his forces, the other portion being wanted to protect the circumvallation. An opportunity was sure, he thought, to occur of attacking the new wall with success. Nor was he disappointed. The garrison soon began to relax its vigilance. The inaction of the Athenians had put it off its guard. It seemed as if it would be allowed to keep the position, just as it had been allowed to occupy it, without interruption. By degrees the customary watches ceased. The soldiers of the garrison, instead of manning the wall, took their ease in tents which they set up behind it to shelter them from the sun. Some even stole away at mid-day to take their meal and the siesta which followed it at their own homes. Here was the opportunity for which the Athenian generals had been waiting. They selected three hundred heavy-armed soldiers, with a number of light-armed similarly accoutred for the occasion, and sent them to attack the wall, covering the movement by a demonstration of their whole force, one half being detached to watch the postern gate at which the intercepting wall began, the other being ready to check any sally that might be attempted from other parts of the city. The assault, delivered as it was with the rapidity for which the Athenians were famous, was completely successful. The garrison, taken by surprise, fled in hot haste along the inner side of the wall towards the postern gate. The storming party followed in pursuit, and overtook them. Some were adventurous enough to press through the postern gates along with the fugitives; some soldiers from the main division, which had reached the gate at the same time, doing the same. Here, however, they met with a check. The Syracusans were in force inside the wall, and drove out the intruders with some loss. But the wall and the stockade which covered it were destroyed, the Athenians carrying off the materials to be used for their own walls. The same day an aqueduct which partially supplied the city with water was destroyed.

But the plan of the intercepting wall was not to be given up. It was a necessity to the besieged, if they were to save the city from being blockaded, and another attempt was made to construct one. The first had been pushed across Epipolæ as far as the cliffs in which that region terminated. These cliffs were now strongly occupied by Nicias, and another direction had to be taken. This time the building party, starting as before from the wall, but from a lower point, traversed the low-lying ground west of the city till they reached the River Anapus. Again they were allowed to complete their work without interruption, and again they had the mortification of seeing it destroyed. On the former occasion the attack had been timed for the noonday meal and rest; on this it was made before dawn. Lamachus was in command, Nicias, as we shall see hereafter, being on the sick-list. Lamachus came down from the fort which commanded the cliffs of Epipolæ into the low ground, his men carrying planks and door panels to help them across impassable portions of the marsh. It had been arranged that the fleet should have its anchorage in the Bay of Thapsus, and sail round into the Great Harbour. This movement had a two-fold purpose—to divert the attention of the Syracusan army, and to threaten the defenders of the new wall on the flank. While the fleet was on its way, the wall was attacked and carried. The Syracusan army sallied from the city to retake it, and a general action followed. Once more the superiority of the Athenians, a well-disciplined force, strongly leavened with the veterans of many campaigns, asserted itself. The right wing of the Syracusans was driven to take refuge within the line; the left, including the cavalry, retreated along the river bank towards the bridge by which, as has been already mentioned, the road to Helorus was carried across the stream. A body of Athenian heavy-armed, on the initiative, it would seem, of the subordinate officer in command, hurried to intercept them. But the Athenians became disordered by the rapidity of their movement, and the hostile cavalry, seizing the opportunity, charged with such energy as to drive them back on the right wing of the main army. This also was disordered by the impact of the fugitives, and the fortune of the day seemed about to change when Lamachus, who was in command on the left wing, came to the rescue with the Argive heavy-armed and as many archers as he could collect on the spur of the moment. His arrival restored the Athenian superiority, but the help that he brought cost his countrymen dear. Pressing to the front with characteristic impetuosity, he found himself with but a few followers on the further side of a dyke. There he was slain by a Syracusan horseman. A few moments afterwards the Athenians came up, but the enemy had by this time crossed the bridge, carrying the dead body of Lamachus along with them.

Fighting was not yet over for the day. The Syracusans, encouraged by the check administered to the Athenian right, made a sally against the Circle Fort. The movement was unexpected, and the garrison was probably weaker than usual, some of the troops serving for the day in the ranks of the main army. The outworks of the fort were carried, and the fort itself might have been captured but for the presence of mind of Nicias, who happened to be on the spot, an attack of illness preventing him from taking the field. By his orders a pile of timber and some battering-rams which lay in front of the walls were set on fire. The flame checked the advance of the enemy, and served also as a signal of help required to the army engaged in the lower ground. At the same time the Athenian fleet was seen to sail into the Great Harbour. This diversion was immediately effective. The Syracusan generals, anticipating an attack on their quarters, recalled all their troops, and retreated within their lines.

It is difficult to estimate the loss which Athens suffered by the death of Lamachus. The extraordinary change in the prospects of the enterprise which took place between the beginning of the campaign and the battle in which he met with his end—a period of some three months—was largely due to his energy and enterprise. When he died, Athens was within a measurable distance of success. We may be entirely convinced that the whole affair was a piece of madness, on the ground that no permanent occupation of the island was possible, and yet feel that if Lamachus had been permitted to have his way when he advised an immediate attack on Syracuse, a great victory might well have been won. That first chance was missed, and now when it seemed possible that the mistake might have been retrieved, the army lost its most vigorous leader. There is something else to be said. It was a fortunate thing for the moment that illness had kept Nicias at the Circle Fort just when his sagacity and experience were found to be particularly useful. But the cause that detained him from the field of battle had the most disastrous consequences.

We happen to know from the sufferer himself the nature of his disease. It was an affection of the kidneys. There is no ailment that is more apt to cloud the brain. In some trouble of this kind, it is believed, may be found the mysterious cause which from time to time in Napoleon's latter days seemed to paralyse the great soldier's energies. Nicias was no Napoleon, and was wholly unequal to the conduct of the great enterprise which was forced upon him, but there were occasions on which he would not have failed so disastrously as he did if he had had full command of his mental and bodily energies.

For the moment, however, the fortunes of Athens were in the ascendant. The Syracusan forces had been proved to be manifestly unequal to their antagonists; so unequal, indeed, that for a time their commanders did not venture to risk an engagement. The investing wall was not wholly finished—the northern portion, from the Circle to the Bay of Thapsus, never was completed—but not much remained to be done. It reached, or was soon about to reach, from the Circle down to the Great Harbour. Four-fifths, we may say, of the land circuit of Syracuse was blockaded; the remaining fifth was, in a way, open. But the egress and ingress thus left was not by any means easy or convenient. Everything had to pass by the narrow neck of ground which connected Epipolæ with the high lands of the interior. It only remained for Nicias to occupy this by a fort—and it is impossible to imagine why he did not—and Syracuse would have been practically cut off from communication with the outer world.

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