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

Help from Athens

Early in the spring the Athenians sent out the promised help. The reinforcement consisted of sixty Athenian and five Chian ships-of-war, of 1200 heavy-armed soldiers from the citizen roll, and a number, not given by the historian, of troops furnished by the subject allies and by Argos. Light-armed troops were to be levied among the friendly tribes of Acarnania, and 1500 Thracians were also engaged for the same service. These latter arrived too late to accompany the expedition, and when they came, it was found impossible, so exhausted was the treasury, to pay them. They were therefore sent home. It was a stupendous effort, all the more wonderful because the pressure of war, withdrawn for a time by the peace of Nicias, was now renewed, and the Peloponnesian forces had again invaded Attica, while they fortified the fort of Deceleia (p. 65). Yet, in addition to the armament intended for Sicily, another squadron was ravaging the coasts of the Peloponnesus, and yet another was watching the exit from the Gulf of Corinth. Still there was not a ship or a man more than was wanted. Not only were reinforcements from the Peloponnesus and elsewhere on their way to Syracuse, but the besiegers had suffered a great disaster, entailing losses which it is not too much to call irreparable.

Gylippus, who had been busy during the winter raising troops in Sicily, had returned to Syracuse early in the spring. He counselled a bold policy. 'It is by boldness,' he told the Syracusans, 'that your enemies have won their successes; it is in boldness that you will find the best method of dealing with them.' By this argument he prevailed upon them to make a simultaneous attack on the besiegers by land and sea. The Small Harbour had two divisions. From one of these forty-five, from the other thirty-five, ships-of-war sailed out to engage the Athenian fleet. This, which had not expected to be so challenged, was taken by surprise. Nevertheless, the ships were hastily manned, and went to meet the enemy. There were sixty in all as against the enemy's eighty. For a time the fortune of the day seemed to go with the Syracusans, but they were wanting in skill and practice, and they were demoralised by success. The Athenians recovered from the confusion of the first shock, for which, as I have said, they were not prepared, and inflicted a serious defeat upon the enemy, who lost eleven ships, with most of their crews, three Athenian men-of-war being also destroyed. But this victory was more than counterbalanced by the loss of the forts on Cape Plemmyrium. This loss came about in a way that makes us think that Nicias was but badly served by his subordinates. The garrisons crowded down to the water's edge when the Athenian ships were being manned, and left the forts insufficiently guarded. Gylippus had probably observed some such defect of discipline before, and made arrangements to take advantage of it. He attacked the forts at daybreak, and captured the largest with ease. The other two were deserted by their garrisons. A vast amount of stores was taken with them, not the least important being the masts and sails of forty ships-of-war, and the hulls of three ships which had been drawn up on land, probably for repairs. The historian distinctly asserts, doubtless on the authority of persons who had served in the expedition, that no incident in the war was more disastrous to the Athenian fortunes, or caused more profound discouragement. The actual loss in stores and money must have caused great inconvenience. What was yet worse was this: with Ortygia on one side of the entrance to the Great Harbour, and Plemmyrium on the other, in the enemy's hand, no supplies could be brought in without at least the risk of a fight. Yet the Athenians got all their supplies in this way, and the time was come when a fight was as likely to end in a defeat as in a victory. The Athenians were now hemmed in within a very narrow space, their position being bounded by the river Anapus on the south, and their own wall of investment on the north. The shore of the Great Harbour between these two points could not have been more than 1200 yards in length. Here all the ships-of-war were drawn up. Their rear seems to have been protected.

Small skirmishing operations went on. These it is not necessary to describe in detail, especially as the losses and gains were almost equally balanced. It must be remembered, however, that for an invading force, so far away from its base as was the Athenian armament, merely to hold its own practically meant defeat. One considerable advantage, however, the Athenians gained, or, rather, they escaped a danger which, in their enfeebled condition, might have caused their immediate ruin. About a month before, envoys had been sent from Syracuse to invite help from the other Sicilian cities. These had been well received everywhere, except in Catana and Naxos, which they probably did not visit, and in Agrigentum, which adhered to a policy of neutrality. A body of more than 2000 heavy-armed collected, and began its march to Syra-cuse. But Nicias was on the alert; he prevailed upon the native tribes, through whose territory the force had to pass, to lay an ambush for them. The result was the loss of about two-fifths of the number. Demosthenes, with the relieving force, was now well on his way. Gylippus had all along intended to make a concerted effort to destroy the Athenian armament before the reinforcements arrived. The discouragement produced by the loss first mentioned induced him to postpone the execution of his plan for a short time; but when he heard that Demosthenes was but two or three days' sail distant, he felt that there must be no further delay. The time, however, had not been lost. A Corinthian seaman, of great practical skill, Ariston by name, had suggested an important change in the equipment of the ships belonging to the Syracusans and their allies. The conditions of a sea fight in the limited area of the Great Harbour were very different from those which prevailed when two fleets met in the open sea. Put briefly, in the former case it was a trial of strength, in the latter a trial of skill. The Athenian ships were built for rapid manœuvring. It was no part of naval tactics, as their skilful seamen understood them, to meet an enemy's vessel beak to beak. They did not seek to make a direct impact, and they evaded it from an adversary. Well-trained rowers and experienced helmsmen enabled the captain to avoid an advancing foe, and then by some rapid evolution to take him on the flank, striking him on some weak spot, or crashing into his banks of oars. For this purpose the prow of the ship was made narrow, with a long, projecting beak, very sharp, but hollow and thin, calculated to pierce, but only where the timbers were comparatively weak. But this mode of fighting, of which an admirable example may be found in the victory won by Phormio in the early years of the war, was impracticable in the narrow space within which the approaching battle would have to be fought. It was to this situation of affairs that Ariston addressed himself. The long, light beak, elevated so as to strike the enemy high above water-mark, was exchanged for one much shorter, heavier, and stronger, and placed much lower. The opposing ships must, he foresaw, meet directly, and the victory would go, not to the more skilfully manœuvred, but to the more strongly built.

These preparations completed, Gylippus proceeded to deliver his attack. He marched out of the city at the head of the whole available force and threatened the rear of the Athenian lines. At the same time, the garrison of the Olympieion made a demonstration on their right flank. While their attention was thus occupied, they saw the Syracusan fleet come out of the Inner Harbour, eighty strong, and ready for action. They manned their own ships and went out to meet them. That day nothing decisive occurred, but the Syracusans had a slight advantage in the desultory fighting.

Prudence would have suggested to the Athenians that they should decline a conflict to which, enfeebled as they were, they were terribly unequal. But national pride was against such cautious counsels. Nicias, who is said by Plutarch to have argued for this course, was overruled by his two colleagues. The next day passed without any movement, but on the third the Syracusan fleet repeated the proceedings of the first. Nicias, meanwhile, had done what he could in the way of preparation. One precaution which he took turned out to be very useful. He protected the approach to the mooring ground of his ships by stationing some merchant vessels at intervals of 200 feet. These were provided with heavy beams armed with massive iron heads, which could be dropped on any hostile ship that attempted to pass.

At first it seemed as if the Syracusan captains intended nothing beyond making a demonstration. They avoided anything like a general engagement, retiring to the city when the Athenians advanced to meet them. But arrangements had been made to give the crews a meal on the shore. This was taken in haste, and the ships were then manned apart, and moved forward to the attack. The Athenians, who seem to have been very badly provisioned, for many of them were still fasting, hurried on board. Even then the enemy avoided a decisive conflict, till the Athenian captains, losing all patience, assumed the offensive. What Ariston had anticipated took place. The heavier prows and beaks broke down the weaker. In another way the Syracusans had the advantage. They had a number of dart-throwers on their ships, and these kept up a destructive discharge of missiles on the Athenian decks. A number of little boats, too, took part in the action, the men who manned them throwing their darts through the port-holes. In the end the Athenians had to give way. They lost seven ships, and would have lost more but for the protection afforded by the merchant vessels.

And now, just when things were at their very worst, help arrived.

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