Nothing could have exceeded the astonishment, one might almost say the dismay, with which the Syracusans and their allies beheld the entrance of Demosthenes with his fleet into the Great Harbour. The new armament came with all the pomp of war. The ships were handsomely adorned, the armour glittered in the sun, the flute-players gave time to the rowers with an inspiriting tune. And, indeed, it was a magnificent effort. There were seventy-three ships of war, and these carried soon heavy-armed, besides a great number of light troops, archers, slingers and javelin-throwers, with the requisite engines of war. That Athens beset with foes, with an invading army actually within sight of her walls, should send such a force on so distant an expedition was indeed astonishing.
The encouragement given to the besieging army, if we may use the term of what was itself practically besieged, was proportionately great. But the newcomers were dismayed at the condition of things which they saw. It was almost desperate; if it was to be retrieved at all, it must be retrieved by an immediate effort. Demosthenes realised how terrible was the mistake which the generals had made in not attacking the city when they first arrived and while they still possessed their full strength. That mistake he must not repeat. He must strike at once, before his resources had begun to waste, and while the enemy were still impressed by the unexpected magnitude of his armament. He resolved, therefore, at once to attack, and if he failed to raise the siege and go home.
One thing was distinctly encouraging—the Athenians had, for the time at least, recovered their superiority. Neither by sea nor by land did the Syracusans venture to encounter them. Demosthenes accordingly took the offensive. The first necessity was obviously to beat down or capture the intercepting wall which the besieged had built. Demosthenes began by attacking it in front, using the usual methods of a siege—the battering-ram and other engines. Nothing could be effected in this way. The engines were burnt by the enemy; the storming parties were repulsed. The other alternative was to turn the position by attacking the fortification at its western extremity where it terminated in the fort with which the Syracusans had occupied the neck of land so often mentioned in this narrative. This was a difficult operation, almost impossible, in the face of the enemy, to be effected, if effected at all, by a surprise. He therefore resolved on a night attack; to this his colleagues consented. He took the command himself, Nicias remaining within the lines. Besides a very considerable force of heavy and light-armed troops, he had with him some masons and carpenters, as it would be necessary, should he make himself master of the position, to occupy it permanently. Starting not long after sunset on a moonlight night, and making a long circuit that his movements might be neither seen nor heard, he reached Euryalus, the fort on the ridge. The surprise was complete. The garrison, after a very feeble resistance, evacuated the position. Some were slain, the rest succeeded in escaping to three redoubts which had been erected in rear of the wall. Shortly after a battalion of heavy-armed, under the command of Hermocrates, whose special duty it was to be ready for all emergencies, came up, but it was charged and routed by the Athenians. The wall was now in possession of Demosthenes, and the artisans whom he had brought with him began to pull it down. If he could have maintained his position till this operation was completed, the object of his movement would have been attained. Unfortunately he was not content with this success. Anxious to complete the rout of the enemy, he pressed forward with an eagerness that threw his troops into confusion. For a time, indeed, all went well. Gylippus hurried up from the city with some fresh troops, but could not withstand the impetuous charge of the Athenians. It was the Bœotians, says Thucydides, with marked emphasis, suggested doubtless by earlier events, who first checked the Athenian advance. A forward movement followed, and the Athenian van was hurled back upon the troops that were coming up from behind, and communicated to them their confusion and terror. A scene of wild confusion followed. A night attack is a great success if it succeeds, but, if it fails, the failure is ruinous. This was attempted on a scale which far exceeded any previous experiences in the war, and the disaster in which it ended was proportionately great. The night, as has been said, was moonlight, and the combatants could, in a way, see both each other and the locality in which the battle was being fought. But moonlight is deceptive, and is far more useful to those who know the ground than to those who do not. Then, again, the loud and incessant shouting of the Syracusans made it impossible for their adversaries to hear the words of command, and without direction they could not act with any effect. Then the watch-word of each army became known to the other. Here, again, the Syracusans had the advantage. Being at home they had a better chance of learning the watchword of the Athenians than the Athenians had of learning theirs. When they challenged, they often found the enemy at a loss to answer; challenged themselves, they frequently contrived to escape. Another fertile cause of terror and loss was the battle-cry. There were not a few Dorians in the Athenian army, men from Argos, Corcyra and other countries, and these used a battle-cry closely resembling that of the enemy. The Athenians hearing it raised, it might be, close to them, were as much confused and alarmed as if the enemy himself had been at hand. Not unfrequently they actually came to blows with their own friends and allies. The result of all this was a general rout. The path by which the attacking force had reached the battlefield was steep and narrow, and the hurrying crowd of fugitives choked it completely. Many leaped down from the cliffs and were killed, others lost their way and were killed next day by the Syracusan cavalry. One historian estimates the Athenian loss at a total not short of two thousand.
The victorious army, their confidence now fully restored, entertained no doubt of being able to destroy the invaders. But they thought it best to spare no pains to ensure the result. Gylippus started on another tour to solicit help, and an envoy was sent to Agrigentum, which, it was hoped, was about to renounce its neutrality.
Meanwhile, in the Athenian camp, Demosthenes was urging with all his powers the adoption of the second of the two alternatives which he had set before them immediately on his arrival. The first had been attempted, and had failed. An assault which he had made with all his available strength, and which he could not hope to repeat under circumstances equally favourable, had been repulsed with loss. The second remained to be tried. For the present it was still practicable. The new ships had restored them the command of the sea, and the season—it was now probably August—was not too far advanced for a prosperous voyage. On the other hand, it was useless and even perilous in the extreme to remain. The army was utterly discouraged, and sickness was rife among them, for they had come to the most unhealthy season of the year. At home, where the invaders had established a fortified fort in Attica itself, they were sorely wanted.
Nicias vehemently opposed this proposal. He acknowledged, and indeed he could not deny, the deplorable state of the armament, but he maintained that the enemy was not better off. They were sorely pressed for want of money, and must give in sooner or later if the Athenians firmly persisted in their purpose. He had received assurances from the pro-Athenian party in Syracuse which did not permit him to doubt that this was the fact; under these circumstances it would be bad policy to go; it would be perilous, for the purpose, once adopted, would soon become generally known, and at Athens such a step would excite the greatest anger. 'Those who will have to decide,' he went on, 'will look at the matter from a point of view very different from ours. We know the circumstances of the case, and they do not. Yes, and the very men who are now crying out the loudest about the danger in which they stand will then alter their cry and declare that the general betrayed their country for a bribe. I know my countrymen; I would far sooner die here with credit by the hand of the enemy than meet a criminal's doom at Athens.'
Nicias was doubtless right in his anticipations of what would happen at home, and he was in possession of facts that proved the financial exhaustion of Syracuse. His friends in the city had furnished him with these. He could assert that it had already spent 2000 talents and owed a large sum in addition. These things were, it is true, no adequate answer to the imperious necessities which Demosthenes urged; but they seem to have convinced the generals who had been commissioned to act before the arrival of Demosthenes, for though Eurymedon supported Demosthenes, Nicias had a majority in the council of war.
Demosthenes then fell back on another proposal—let them at least leave their present position on the Great Harbour, and return to Catana and the Bay of Thapsus. 'We shall not be shut up,' he said, 'in the close quarters in which we are now. We shall have the enemy's country to ravage at our pleasure, and we shall have the open sea in which to manœuvre our ships.' Nicias again opposed, and again carried the majority with him. He saw, doubtless, that to abandon their present position was virtually to raise the siege.
And so the armament remained where it was, doing nothing, but gradually losing its strength and energy. Nicias probably persuaded himself that his anticipations of a financial crisis in Syracuse were well founded. To us such hopes seem ridiculous; history teaches us that a victorious state can always command money for its necessities, or dispense with it. But the really overpowering motive of his conduct was his dread of public opinion at home. Brave in the field, he was timid in the Assembly, and he did not dare to confront his angry countrymen at home. He had made himself responsible for the expedition, and the charge of mismanaging it, whether true or untrue, would be held to have been proved. Results were against him, and it is by results, as he well knew, that a popular assembly is accustomed to judge. There was, it is probable, scarcely a man in the army but was eager to go, but Nicias went on hoping against hope and refused to give the word. Perhaps he had a 'plan,' such as General Trochu secretly cherished during the Siege of Paris, possibly this plan was the hope—as it is said to have been in the case of General Trochu—of a Divine interposition in favour of a person so eminent for piety as himself.
So things went on for nearly another month. Then Gylippus returned to Syracuse with a considerable reinforcement, consisting partly of contingents sent by Sicilian cities, partly of a body of Peloponnesian heavy-armed which had come by the roundabout way of Cyrene and the North African coast. His arrival settled the disputed question of retreat in favour of the counsel of Demosthenes. Nicias still clung to his hopes or his 'plan,' but he had nothing to urge in support of them and he could not but give way. No council was held, but it was unanimously agreed to go. Preparations for departure were made with secrecy and speed, and things were nearly ready when there occurred an eclipse of the moon. The day was August 28th (B.C. 412).
It would be a mistake to suppose that the superstitious fears of Nicias availed on this occasion to overrule a general anxiety in the army to depart. Possibly, if it had come to a question, he would have positively refused to move in the face of what seemed to him so direct a prohibition. But he was not by any means alone in his feeling. On the contrary, he had the majority of the army with him. Indeed, there seems to have been no difference of opinion. Whatever Demosthenes and Eurymedon may have thought, they did not attempt to go against the general feeling. It was decided on the advice of the sooth-sayers to make a delay of twenty-seven days, and to perform during that interval various expiatory sacrifices.
The irony of the situation lies in the fact that, according to the best opinion on the subject, Nicias and the army were wrong. An eminent soothsayer, Philochorus by name, who flourished at Athens about a century later, gave it as his opinion that for an enterprise requiring secrecy an eclipse was of the happiest significance. Possibly, if the adviser to whom Nicias had been accustomed for many years to go for advice had been still alive, this interpretation, so rational, or at least so convenient, might have been suggested. If it had, Nicias, we may be sure, would have had no difficulty in inducing his countrymen to accept it.