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

At Syracuse

It will be as well, before I proceed any further, to give a brief description of Syracuse, and of the surrounding localities.

Syracuse itself consisted of an Inner and an Outer City. The Inner City occupied an island, or rather what had been an island, for, as Thucydides says, it was no longer surrounded by water. This bore the name of Ortygia. The Outer City was called Achradina. It was built partly on some level ground, separated from the island by what was called the Inner Harbour (to be described hereafter), partly on the southern portion of a plateau which came down with a gradual slope from the interior to the sea. This plateau was triangular in shape, the base being occupied by the Outer City, the apex, about four miles and a half westward from the sea, being at a point called Euryalus, where a narrow ridge connected it with the high land of the interior. The Outer City was protected by a wall, built by Gelon, which ran from the Bay of Thapsus on the north to a point on the coast not far from the Little Harbour. Outside the wall of Gelon, which seems to have been built along a slight declivity, separating two portions of the plateau, was the region of Epipolæ. This had probably been, to a certain extent, occupied by houses. Here, we may suppose, would have been found the inhabitants and the property on which Lamachus hoped to lay hands when he proposed an immediate movement on Syracuse. The Great Harbour was a natural bay, sheltered from the open sea by the island of Ortygia on the one side, and by the promontory of Plemmyrium on the other. The entrance between these two was somewhat less than a mile broad, and the bay made consequently a well-sheltered harbour. To this day it is one of the best in Sicily. The Inner Harbour included the channel between Ortygia and the mainland, and adjacent spaces of water, some of them probably excavations. It was small, but so protected by its situation as to be safe from hostile attack. The river Anapus flowed into the Great Harbour, after skirting the southern side of the plateau. On some high ground overhanging its right bank, about half-a-mile from its mouth, was a temple of Olympian Zeus, from which the whole ridge got its name of Olympieion.

Three months had now been passed either in inaction or in trifling enterprises, and, as has been said, the usual season for campaigning was closed. But Nicias, who was now practically in command of the expedition, his colleague Lamachus being a far less influential personage, could not for very shame allow the whole year to pass without some more serious effort. The Syracusans, at first terrified at the imposing force of the invaders, began to despise them. The citizen army clamoured to be led against them, if, as appeared, they were not disposed themselves to commence an attack. Horsemen would ride up to their lines at Catana, and put insulting questions, wanting to know why they had come. Was it to settle peaceably or to restore Leontini?

Nicias now devised and put in practice a sufficiently ingenious stratagem, which would not, however, have been possible but for the discreditable fact that there was scarcely a Greek community in which some citizens might not be found who were ready to play the traitor to serve a party end. His object was to make a demonstration in force which would have the effect of proving to the Syracusans that the invaders were more formidable than they seemed. But to do this he wanted to transport the army to the neighbourhood of the city unopposed. If he went by sea, he would have to disembark on a shore occupied by the enemy; if he went by land, the numerous cavalry of the enemy, to which he had none of his own to oppose, would certainly do much damage. The problem was, to get the Syracusans out of the way, and it was managed thus.

A citizen of Catana, friendly to Athens, who yet contrived to keep on good terms with the other side, went to Syracuse with what purported to be a message from sympathisers in that city. It ran thus, 'Many of the Athenian soldiers are in the habit of leaving their camp, and passing the night in the city without their arms. If you come at daybreak with a strong force you will surprise them; we will do our part, closing the gates, assailing the Athenians, and setting fire to their ships.' The Syracusan generals fell into the trap. They made a levy of the whole force of the city, and marched out in the direction of Catana, encamping for the night at a spot about eight miles from that town. That same night Nicias embarked his whole army, and sailing southward, made his way round Ortygia into the Great Harbour. At break of day he disembarked his men, unopposed, as he had hoped, a little to the south of where the Anapus flows into the sea. He broke down the bridge by which the road to Helorus crossed the river. The ridge of the Olympieion protected his left wing; some marshy ground by the sea his right; in front the ground was broken with walls, houses, gardens. He made a palisade to protect the ships, and constructed a rough breastwork of timber and stone which touched the sea at a spot called Dascon, where there were small indentations on the shore. No attempt to hinder these operations was made from the city, which was, indeed, denuded of troops. Late in the day the cavalry of the Syracusans, who had discovered the fraud practised upon them, came back; the infantry followed. Wearied as they must have been, for they had marched, going and returning, between forty and fifty miles, they offered battle. As Nicias did not accept the challenge, they bivouacked for the night outside the city.

The next day Nicias marshalled his troops in front of his position, arranging them in two divisions, one of which was kept in reserve, in the formation of a hollow square, with the baggage in the middle. Both were eight files deep. The Syracusan troops were ranged in sixteen files. They were superior in number, and had some 1200 cavalry, an arm in which their adversaries were wholly wanting. But they were ill-disciplined. Many had straggled into the city, not from any desire of shirking the fight, for they were conspicuously brave, but from the indifference which the citizen soldier feels for discipline till a sharp experience has taught him its value. Some of these, when they came back, found that the battle had begun, and joined it where they could.

Nicias, according to Greek custom, made an encouraging speech to his men. 'The best encouragement,' he said, 'is the certainty of our superiority over the enemy. This is far better than fine words and a feeble force. And how can we, men of Argos and Mantinea, Athenians and the flower of the island peoples, fail to be superior to this indiscriminate levy, a Sicilian rabble which looks down upon us because it is as ignorant as it is rash. But if you need any other thought, remember that you are fighting far away from your home. You must make yourselves masters of the country, or you will find it hard to escape from it. The enemy has a multitude of cavalry which will not fail to trouble you if you give way. Your position is one such as to make victory a necessity!'

Such language, whatever effect it might have at the moment, was of ill omen for the future. An invading army, which had to fight for its life the very first time that it met the enemy, was clearly in its wrong place. The best thing that could have happened to it, as Grote points out, would have been a defeat. Success for the present implied overwhelming disaster in the future.

Nicias at once took the offensive, charging with his first division. This was obviously the right course to follow. It was the action of an army that felt itself superior in morale to its enemies; and as Nicias, who, with all his faults, was a skilful soldier, had expected, it found the enemy unprepared. The battle that followed was stubbornly fought. A thunderstorm that occurred in the course of it helped to decide it in favour of the Athenians. Their experience taught them that it was a common incident of the season; the Syracusans, on the contrary, regarded it as a sign of divine displeasure. The left wing, attacked by the Argive heavy-armed, was the first to yield, the centre was broken by the Athenians, and before long the whole army was in retreat. The conquerors did not pursue them far, checked as they were by the hostile cavalry. Nor were the Syracusans so shattered as to forget to detach a force for the protection of the temple on the Olympieion, which had a rich treasury. The Athenians, after burning their dead, fifty in number, bivouacked for the night. On the following day the enemy sent a herald to ask for the bodies of those who had fallen on their side. These numbered two hundred and sixty. Nicias attempted nothing further, but reembarking his army, returned to Catana. The campaign for that year was over. One thing was clear to him. He must have some cavalry if he was to hold the field at all against the Syracusans. Accordingly he sent home a requisition for this, and for a fresh supply of money, while he set himself to get as much as he could of both on the spot.

When we take stock of the results of four months' operations, we see that next to nothing had been effected. In the way of local help little had been obtained. Some of the cities, which had been expected to be friendly, had stood aloof; not one of those that were doubtful had come over. Nothing had been done towards the investment of Syracuse. One success in the field was all that had been gained.

Five months of inaction now followed, probably an inevitable loss of time, but one that was most damaging to the invading force. Nicias received, indeed, the reinforcement of cavalry for which he had asked. (It will hereafter have to be considered how it was that they started without this necessary arm. The omission is all the more strange seeing that Nicias and his colleagues had only to requisition what they wanted.) He attempted to win over Messené, but failed. A democratic revolution had been plotted, but Alcibiades, who was of course in the secret, had put the aristocrats on their guard, and the attempt was crushed. This was the beginning of the damage that Alcibiades was to do to the undertaking to which he had persuaded Athens. At Camarina a formal argument was held, Hermocrates representing Syracuse, and Euphemus, whose name, if we translate it by 'fair-spoken,' was curiously appropriate, pleading for Athens. The point debated was practically this: Is Syracuse or Athens more likely to interfere with the independence of Camarina? Their arguments may be thus epitomized:—

HERMOCRATES.—'The professions of the Athenians are a sham. How is it that they are so anxious to befriend Leontini, a colony of Chalcis in Eubœa, while they keep Chalcis itself in slavery? How can they pretend to champion Ionians against Dorians here, when they tyrannise over Ionians in Asia? Their claims are obviously false. This scheme of theirs does but come from that insatiable ambition which has already enslaved their kinsmen at home and now seeks to add Sicily to its victims. Show them that you are not Ionians, only fit to be handed over from one master to another, but Dorians with a birth-right of freedom. Perhaps you think that it would be well that Syracuse should be humbled. Yes; but remember that whatever she suffers you will suffer next, for you are her neighbours. You say that you are bound to the Athenians by alliance. But the alliance is for defence, not aggression. So much I have said to show why you should not help them. Do not think to stand neutral; if we are victorious, we will take care that that policy shall not answer; if we fall, you will be rewarded for your inaction by being made slaves.'

EUPHEMUS.—'Between Ionians and Dorians there has always been enmity. We found it to be so, and we seized the opportunity of the victory over the Persians to rid ourselves of the unjust predominance of Sparta. At the same time we established our own supremacy over the island states. This was in their interest, for we were their best protectors; and it was in our interest also, for had they not aided the Persians in attacking us? This latter reason—our own safety—brings us here. Only it acts differently here and there. There we had to make these states subject to us. You we desire to make independent. It would not answer our purpose to weaken you. The stronger you are, the better for us, because the worse for Syracuse. For it is Syracuse that both we and you have reason to fear. We, because she will ally herself with our enemies at home; you, because she desires to establish an imperial sway over Sicily. It was the fear of this that made you seek our alliance in past years. Do not reject this alliance now. You will surely miss it when there are no Athenian auxiliaries at hand to help you against a powerful and ambitious neighbour.'

The Athenian pleader was right so far—Syracuse was dangerous to the smaller states of Sicily. He was less successful in showing that there was good reason for the interference of Athens. The plea of self-preservation, protection against a possible alliance of Dorians from Sicily with Dorians of the Peloponnesus, was a sham. Every one must have known that Athens could best protect herself by keeping her forces at home.

In the face of this conflict of probabilities and interests, Camarina thought it best to declare her neutrality.

With the tribes of independent natives in the centre of the island, Nicias was more successful. It was their obvious interest to play off Athens against Syracuse. Of the two Athens could certainly harm them less, because she was further away. They sent provisions and money to the camp at Naxos. Envoys were sent to Carthage to invite help, but without success. Some auxiliaries were obtained from the maritime cities of Etruria.

The Syracusans were far more successful in their application for help. Their first petition was naturally to their own mother city, Corinth. The envoys were received in the most friendly manner, the Assembly deciding to send commissioners of their own to accompany them to Sparta and support their plea with the utmost energy. At Sparta they found unexpected assistance. Alcibiades was there. He had come by the invitation of the government, sent, doubtless, in reply to a suggestion of his own, and protected by a safe-conduct. His policy had been so strongly anti-Spartan that he naturally hesitated before taking this step, but the feeling that dominated him—the passionate desire to revenge himself upon his own countrymen—prevailed. The Syracusan envoys had made their petition for help, and found but an indifferent response. The government was ready with advice—Syracuse had better not make terms with the Athenians—but it was disinclined to send troops. It was at this point that Alcibiades intervened with a most persuasive speech. Here it is in an abbreviated form,—

'Let me first set myself personally right with you. I renewed the friendship which my ancestors had repudiated. I did all that I could for your countrymen when they were prisoners; you requited me with hostility. Then and then only did I act against you. Doubtless you suspect me as being a partisan of democracy. That I am, so far as opposition to tyrants goes. But of democracy itself I am no friend. But how could I attempt to change our system of government when we were at war with you?

'Now let me tell you what we hoped to do. No one knows this better than I, for I helped to plan it. We were to begin by conquering Sicily; after this we were to attack the Greeks in Italy; from Italy we were to go on to Carthage. This, or most of it, done, we were to attack the Peloponnesus. We should bring with us a great host of Sicilian and Italian Greeks, and of barbarian tribes. Our fleet would blockade your coasts; our armies would take your cities. Then we were to become undisputed masters of Greece. This was our scheme, and you may be sure that the generals that are left will do their best to carry it out. You alone can hinder them. If Syracuse falls, nothing can save Sicily and Italy, or, indeed, you. My advice, therefore, is this: send an army to help Syracuse, and, what is still more important than an army, a general to take the command. Renew your war with Athens, and so prevent her from sending reinforcements to Sicily. Occupy and fortify Deceleia. This will intercept a large part of the revenues of Athens.'

Alcibiades ended by attempting to vindicate his conduct in thus acting against his country. This argument I may omit. The speech convinced its audience. It was resolved to send an army in the spring. This was to be commanded by a certain Gylippus, who proved himself, as we shall see, eminently worthy of the choice.

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