An Island Too Far: The disastrous Sicilian Expedition

Sparta and Athens fought the epic Peloponnesian War over several decades, which involved massive battles on land and sea, it saw one of the first instances of Spartan troops surrendering, and many traitors. Few events were as impactful over the course of the 27-year war than the absolutely disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415.

Over the course of the war, Sicily became a strategic place of interest for the Athenians. The large city of Syracuse was seen as a threat as they were more culturally similar to the Spartan dominated Peloponnese region of Greece though many culturally Ionic Greek towns that might ally with Athens were scattered all over Sicily. It was thought that if left alone, Syracuse might dominate the island and provide Sparta with a steady flow of resources and even troops as the war progressed. On the same side, an Athenian conquest of the island would remove that threat and give Athens a powerful base on the other side of Greece, possibly corralling Spartan influence.

Sicily and the Peloponnesian War

These arguments were made in Athens after the city of Segesta, on the west coast of Sicily, made a plea for Athenian intervention on the island. Syracuse had begun to assert its power and the people of Segesta were so desperate for help that they offered to fund any Athenian expedition. They were actually too poor to afford such an expense, so the whole city arranged the most valuable goods in full view of the Athenian ambassadors to give off the impression that they were could indeed pay.

The proposed plan would send 60 ships with light troops but no hoplites or infantrymen. One of the biggest opponents of the proposed invasion was Nicias. He firmly believed that Syracuse would be too strong for Athenian troops to simply invade and capture it. he also had strong doubts about the ability of Segesta to fund a major expedition. With the war against Sparta being so much closer it seemed unwise to send forces so far away when Sicily had not had any real impact on the war yet.

Nicias made a risky move and proposed that the expedition must be significantly largely or he would not support it. he assumed that the people would not be ok with organizing a larger force with the aforementioned Spartans so near. Nicias’ plan backfired spectacularly as it was approved for over forty additional ships and a land force of 5,000 hoplites to be assembled. The Athenian allies supplied small contingents of men and ships as well, and the expedition was underway by 415.

The leaders of the expedition were the established general Lamachus, Nicias, who had ironically not supported the mission earlier, and Alcibiades, a skilled general with many political enemies. Just after they set sail, Alcibiades was called back to Athens to stand trial for a multitude of crimes that could have led to death or exile. Instead of returning, he sailed himself straight to the Peloponnese and sold his services to the Spartans.

The Athenian expedition, now down one leader, set to landing on the western coast of Sicily, north of Syracuse. Soon they sailed into the open port of Syracuse and a land battle broke out between the Syracusians and the Athenians and allies. The Athenians won the day with their veteran core of hoplites, but the Syracusians had cavalry superiority, which stopped the Athenian pursuit short. The presence of their cavalry allowed the Syracusian defeat to be more of a bad skirmish than a devastating defeat, keeping their aura of power over Sicily intact.

During the winter of 415-14, the Syracusians and Athenians attempted to win over other cities by diplomacy. Though many of the smaller towns had some sympathy for the Athenians, most were too fearful of Syracuse to become Athenian allies, and even some so-proclaimed neutral cities sent secret aid to Syracuse, as it seemed clear that the great city would eventually prevail.

Diplomacy was the big hope for Nicias, who had simply wanted to make a show of force to keep the region largely out of the war. With little hope of gaining allies, he sent word to Athens hoping for a recall of the expedition saying it was hopeless without additional forces. Athens responded by sending an additional 5,000 hoplites, 73 ships and many thousands of light troops under Demosthenes. Demosthenes had actually been the general responsible for the first instance of Spartan forces surrendering during the war at the battle of Sphacteria. Athens was now fully invested in the Sicilian expedition and Syracuse was now directly targeted.

The back and forth Siege of Syracuse
The back and forth Siege of Syracuse

The thinking was that taking Syracuse would give Athens full control of the island and they could even use the hopefully victorious expeditionary force to invade the Peloponnese from the West. Alcibiades wisely instructed the Spartans to send troops to support Syracuse, while also telling them to target the key Greek city of Decelea in Athenian controlled Attica.

The siege of Syracuse was a series of counter walls. First the Athenians attempted to build walls to trap the Syracusians in their city, using a fortified camp as a base to build outwards. Initially, the Athenians had the upper had due to their more experienced hoplites and large numbers. Soon the Syracusians launched their own attacks and built siege walls to counter the Athenians’ walls. In the fierce fighting, the Athenian general Lamachus was killed. Though the Syracusians were repulsed, it was not until they finished building a third siege wall that extended enough to prevent any further Athenian walls, keeping the city relatively open.

It was only after the siege walls reached a stalemate, that Demosthenes arrived with the Athenian reinforcements from Greece. Initially confident, they breached the outlying siege walls, but by this time the Spartan reinforcements had long since arrived to aid Syracuse. The heavy, disciplined Spartans and their allies pushed back the Athenians with many casualties.

Athenian troops fleeing the walls of Syracuse
Athenian troops fleeing the walls of Syracuse

Seeing how well fortified and reinforced Syracuse was, Demosthenes quickly lost hope. Any remaining hope was further dashed when he entered the camp of the original expedition force. Illness had swept through the camp leaving many of the men dead or too ill to move. The original commander Nicias was one of those struck by illness. Seeing the state of the expedition the commanders decided that they needed to leave Sicily as soon as possible, especially after learning of more Spartan-allied reinforcements reaching the city.

On the eve of their departure a solar eclipse occurred, prompting the priests to urge the expedition to wait a month before actually departing. Taking advantage of the  Athenian position the Syracusians and their Peloponnesian allies made the bold decision to attack the Athenian navy in Syracuse’s harbor. Though the Athenians were sick and tired they were still the undisputed masters of the sea, as proven through countless battles, so this decision was a quite a risky decision for the allied forces.

The gamble paid off as the Athenians simply could not withstand the enthusiastic onslaught of the combined navy. Though the battle was fairly even at sea, the force of the attack pushed many of the Athenian ships back onto the shore where they became beached and the men had to disembark. While the Athenians tried to reorganize themselves the Syracusans took advantage of the break to tow away many of the Athenian ships, leaving the force effectively stranded on a mostly hostile island.

The hopeless flight of the Athenian expedition
The hopeless flight of the Athenian expedition. y codas2 CC BY-SA 3.0

At this point, almost all hope was lost and the leaders of the expedition decided to retreat to the south, hoping to find an allied city, a fortified area or anything to get them out of Sicily. Unfortunately for them, no such options existed and the expeditionary force was relentlessly harassed until they were split into groups and annihilated. About 7,000 men were captured, so large that they were kept locked into a quarry to await slavery or starvation. The commanders Demosthenes and Nicias were both executed.

Tens of thousands of experienced rowers, 10,000 heavy hoplites and many thousands of light troops, marines and cavalry were completely lost. Survivors were hunted down all through Sicily and at most a few dozen escaped back to Athens. The first man to deliver the news was tortured by the Athenians because they thought he was spreading false rumors. Athens was dealt a shocking blow to the power of their navy and their army as well as the loss of some of their veteran commanders. To add to that, Alcibiades continued to give pertinent information to the Spartans, resulting in the Spartan control and fortification of the Attic town of Decelea, which severely disrupted the trade and agriculture of Athenian territory. Athens would limp on through the war for many more years, and even had their own share of victories, thanks to Alcibiades actually returning to Athens, but would ultimately fall to the Spartans in 404 BCE.

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE