"If we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves." - Alcibiades
Between the years 431 and 404 BC, the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta fought against each other in a series of conflicts we know as the Peloponnesian War. This is a modern term that fails to convey the scope of the war, since far from being constrained to the Peloponnese or even Greece, the two sides and their allies would fight in -- among other places -- Macedonia, Thrace, the Hellespont, Anatolia, and most significantly for us Sicily. It's also possible to argue that it wasn't just a single war but that it was really multiple wars that took place over the course of 27 years, although I don't think anyone wants to get bogged down in that debate, so we'll leave that alone.
For various reasons, a lot of people today think that this was a conflict between a freedom-loving democratic underdog and an aggressive military superpower bent on imposing its will on its neighbors. There was definitely an ideological component to the Peloponnesian War, but that wasn't really the whole story. The real issue was whether the whole of Greece should be led by Athens or Sparta. Contrary to the stereotypes about Spartan militarism, the Athenians were actually more expansionist in worldview. Sparta wanted Greece to become a self-reliant fortress over which it would naturally become the leading city. The Athenians believed that Greece was an ideal rather than a geographical region, and that Greece was wherever the Greeks were; it therefore behooved the Greeks to spread themselves across the Mediterranean basin and assert their power to the fullest extent with Athens at the head of a massive maritime empire.
It was in the furtherance of the latter ambition that Athens embarked on a military campaign to the island of Sicily in 415 BC. Greeks had begun to set up colonies in Sicily around the year 730 BC and eventually Syracuse would rise to become the most powerful polis on the island, rivaling even the cities of mainland Greece in terms of wealth and military strength. Another less powerful but still important Greek city was Selinus. Additionally, the pre-Greek tribes of Sicily -- including the Sicels, who either took their name from or lent their name to the island -- had their own cities and settlements. One of these barbarian cities was Segesta on the northwestern coast of Sicily.
Selinus and Segesta had been in conflict with one another off and on for over 150 years by the time of the Peloponnesian War. A relatively small force from Athens had landed in Sicily in 426 BC to reinforce some of their other allies on the island. It was during this excursion that Segesta formed an alliance with Athens. Selinus, wary of their barbarian rivals' rapprochement with the Greek world's greatest naval power, would go on to enter into an alliance with Syracuse. The problem with Segesta's alliance with Athens is that it might as well have been an alliance with Ethiopia: their enemies were now backed by a major power on the island while their trump card would have to come across the sea to help them if necessary. Emboldened by their seemingly more advantageous alliance, Selinus resumed hostilities against Segesta. The Segestans scrambled to find closer allies; they appealed to both Greek and barbarian cities in Sicily for aid. They reached out to the Etruscans and others in Italy. They tried to solicit the assistance of Carthage in north Africa. Having had no success, they decided they should make a desperate appeal to Athens to come back to Sicily to fulfill the terms of their alliance.
Luckily for Segesta, their request for Athenian aid came at a fortuitous time. By the time of Segesta's appeal to Athens in 416 BC, there had been no major fighting in Greece for two years. The two sides had signed a truce in 421 BC at a time when the Spartans' military fortunes were at an all-time low. The peace was supposed to last for 50 years according to the terms of the treaty. Sure, there had been some scattered fighting since that time, and maybe certain conditions of the treaty weren't being met, but overall, the mood in Athens was one of supreme confidence.
Segesta promised the Athenians that if they would send military aid, they would at least partially reimburse them for their trouble. The Athenians were somewhat taken aback by this proposal because while Segesta was not a primitive village of huts and tents, it was not exactly famous for its wealth. Athenian ambassadors were sent to Segesta to determine whether or not the city could afford such a venture. When they arrived, they were dazzled by what they saw. Gold and silver everywhere! Every cup and dish was made of some type of precious metal. The city's monuments were ornate. Nobody seemed to want for anything. The Athenians were suitably impressed and returned to Greece with Segestan envoys and 60 talents of silver as a down payment. This was enough money to fully staff 60 ships for a month.
As you probably suspect, the ostentatious displays put on by the people of Segesta for the benefit of the Athenians were not entirely genuine. The truth was that Segesta did not have much wealth beyond the 60 talents sent back to Athens. It's difficult to translate ancient monetary values into modern terms, but it's estimated that a talent of silver would have had the equivalent purchasing power of about $20,000 today, meaning that Segesta was sending about $1.2 million back with their heralds. Most of the gold and silver cups and dishes were apparently borrowed from other towns in Sicily and then returned after the departure of the Athenian party.
Beginning of the Campaign
In Athens, the assembly listened to the Segestans and the Athenians who delivered a glowing report about the great economic position of the city and voted to send the requested 60 ships back. The command of the force was divided between three generals: Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus. From the outset, Nicias did not want to go to Sicily, and he argued as much during the debates on whether to send aid to Segesta. He was the author of the peace treaty that Athens had signed with Sparta in 421 BC (it is known as the Peace of Nicias) and he believed that sending even 60 ships to Sicily would leave Athens dangerously vulnerable to attack. Nicias is probably the oldest example of the Peter principle that comes to mind. By virtue of the fact that he was extremely wealthy -- and that he was generous with his wealth -- he was able to get himself appointed to various military commands. He was not, however, a bold, creative, or even skilled leader. For example, he enthusiastically resigned his command during the Athenian siege of the island of Sphacteria when the politician Cleon challenged him on the protracted nature of the stalemate; Cleon ended it fewer than three weeks later and even managed to get the Spartans who survived the battle to surrender, a virtually inconceivable scenario that provided the Athenians (and more specifically Cleon) with a massive military, diplomatic, and propaganda victory. Nicias was cautious to a fault and if he were alive today, he'd probably be one of those sheriffs who takes the SWAT team to serve a warrant for jaywalking. Now in all fairness, there's something to be said for not being reckless in war, but Nicias was desirous of military glory without taking any risks to earn it. Ironically, the name "Nicias" means "victorious."
Alcibiades was essentially the opposite of Nicias. At 35, he was 20 years younger than Nicias, and even at that relatively young age, his reputation for boldness far outstripped that of his older co-general. A lot of people think history is boring because they just don't think these guys with weird names who have been dead for thousands of years are interesting or relatable. Alcibiades was nothing if not interesting. All of the ancient sources agree that he was a very handsome man and that he took full advantage of his good looks with partners of both sexes. His wife tried to divorce him because of his cavorting with prostitutes but he apparently literally picked her up and carried her home when the case was going to be presented in court. Bizarrely, he had a sexual fixation on the philosopher Socrates who had saved his life in battle on multiple occasions; it is unknown whether he ever consummated his love for the notoriously unattractive Socrates, but he evidently respected Socrates' opinions more than those of any other person.
Despite his youth, Alcibiades was considered a major political player partly because of his familial and professional connections to Pericles, the effective ruler of Athens during the first years of the Peloponnesian War. He was also renowned for his personal bravery in battle. Perhaps most significantly, Alcibiades was the creator of an audacious plan to bring together a massive anti-Spartan coalition in the Peloponnese following the Peace of Nicias that would have seen Sparta surrounded by enemies on all sides. This coalition fought a battle against Sparta at Mantinea and was decisively defeated; however, he was not held responsible for this failure because he was not in personal command of the allied army.
Lamachus was (and is) less renowned than either Alcibiades or Nicias. There is not much evidence as to his opinion on the wisdom of the invasion of Sicily, but he apparently follows the Hunter S. Thompson opinion that suggests that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. While Nicias argued that the most prudent course of action would be to sail around the coast of Sicily in a display of naval might and Alcibiades thought that the Athenians ought to trap their foes on the island by gathering allies from east-to-west and north-to-south and moving toward Syracuse, Lamachus believed that the best course of action was to attack Syracuse immediately with overwhelming force in what we might now call a Blitzkrieg or shock and awe campaign, which would compell the other poleis of Sicily to bend the knee.
While Nicias has gone down in histroy as overly cautious and perhaps even cowardly, the fact of the matter is that his instinctive skepticism of the Sicilian adventure would ultimately prove to be justified. The night before the ships were supposed to sail for Sicily, all of the statues of the god Hermes in Athens had their dicks cut off. Yeah, read that sentence again. The leading members of the Athenian assembly assumed that this was the work of Alcibiades and his buddies, who were allegedly drunk and rambunctious. There was no real evidence for this assertion beyond the fact that the aforementioned leading members hated Alcibiades, but as hilarious as this sounds today, it was considered not only an extremely ill omen for the campaign but also a type of blasphemy worthy of the death penalty.
Alcibiades demanded an immediate trial with the opportunity to face his accusers and defend himself. The assembly told Alcibiades that they would postpone the trial until after he got back from Sicily, and he warily left Athens on a ship that day. As soon as his boat had cleared the port of Piraeus, the assembly convicted him of the crime and sentenced him to death in absentia. The Athenian generals landed at Catania, north of Syracuse, and shortly thereafter a messenger from Athens arrived to tell Alcibiades that he needed to return to be executed. Alcibiades naturally agreed, but for some strange reason, the boat he paid for sailed to Sparta and he defected.
With the main advocate of the war now gone, Nicias and Lamachus were left to figure things out for themselves. While I will confess that I have never been a military commander outside of online video games, the resulting debacle is a great example of why a divided command is a bad idea. Nicias and Lamachus decided to enact smaller versions of their previous strategies, with the former waiting for various allies and the latter making preparations for a quick attack. Lamachus, who was in his 70s or 80s, was killed with a small force after getting trapped in a ditch. The primary opponent of the whole expedition was now the main commander of the Athenian effort in Sicily. Since Nicias was now the only Athenian general in Sicily, he made the decision that Syracuse ought to be besieged. Due to his cautious nature, though, the siege was both incomplete and inconsistent, which created a stalemate.
The Syracusans were naturally upset by the fact that they were the targets of a war that they did not want. Since their main opponents were the Athenians, they appealed to Sparta for help. At this point, Athens and Sparta were locked into an uneasy cold war. The Spartans' pride had certainly been wounded by the events of the previous few years, but they were unwilling to antagonize the Athenians by sending a massive force to fight what was effectively a proxy war. The Spartans were not especially opposed to kicking a little bit of sand into the Athenians' eyes, however, and they agreed to send a small contingent under the leadership of Gylippus to help Syracuse. Not only that, the city of Corinth decided to send some men to help the Spartan effort.
Let me use a more modern comparison to help you understand the stature that Gylippus held in the ancient world at this time. Imagine that you are the leader of a small island nation that is facing an invasion from a much larger power. Your main weapons are from World War II. You appeal to the United States for assistance. You ask for a general with the presence and capability of Norman Schwarzkopf, who won the Gulf War in 100 days. The US agrees to send you Schwarzkopf's subordinate's subordinate's subordinate and Australia says it will pitch in too. In other words, Gylippus was a nobody.
Imagine, though, how you would feel when several hundred American and Australian soldiers step off some boats with the most modern weapons led by a grim and energetic commanding officer. Gylippus was neither bold nor inventive, but he was -- if nothing else -- determined to accomplish the task he'd been set out to complete.When the Spartan force landed in the harbor, the Syracusans' morale jumped right away. Nicias attempted on several occasions to fall back to more defensible positions, but Gylippus, the Spartans, the Corinthians, and the Syracusans were able to cut them off at almost every turn.
At the beginning of the invasion, the Athenians controlled the plains to the north of Syracuse. Under the cover of darkness, however, Gylippus and his forces were able to take complete control of the fortresses there. Nicias understood very quickly that the Sicilian war was not going in Athens' favor. He sent an urgent letter to the Athenian assembly letting them know that they either needed to end the war and bring everyone home or send every man and ship available. Which option do you think the assembly chose?
The Athenians sent virtually all of their forces to Sicily under the command of the talented generals Demosthenes and Eurymdeon. While the Athenian ships took control of the harbor of Syracuse, the land invasion was absolutely disastrous. Glyippus annihilated the landing forces and his victory convinced most of the other cities of Sicily and almost all of the Spartan allies in Greece to send soldiers to defend Syracuse. The Athenian situation grew more and more desperate as one ploy after the other failed.The three generals debated amongst themselves how to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, but eventually they agreed the situation was hopeless and the best bet was an escape back to mainland Greece.
Considering that the Athenians and their handful of allies were trapped in the southeastern portion of Sicily but still had control of the harbor directly to the north of them, it was determined that they should board their ships and quickly escape. There were two factors working against them, though: first, Gylippus anticipated this move and gave orders to the Spartan, Syracusan, and Corinthian ships to hold the harbor at all costs; and second, an eclipse occurred the night before the attempted break-out and the Athenians were convinced that this was a horrible omen and that they should wait 4 whole weeks before trying an escape by sea.
In the following weeks, the stagnant Athenian fleet and its allies were utterly destroyed by the Spartan fleet and its allies (which in the intervening period included most seaworthy powers of Greece and Sicily). While many observers claim that Nicias et al could have escaped during this period, I honestly do not believe that it would have made any difference. Had they attempted to board their ships, their rear could have been harassed by the opposition, and whichever boats that were left would probably have been sunk anyway. Regardless of the hesitation, the only path open to the Athenians and their allies was a dangerous trek to the extreme northeast of Sicily where they could maybe, possibly, potentially hope for assistance from the neutral poleis of Megali Hellas -- Greater Greece, i.e., the Greek cities of southern Italy -- to ferry them back home. This was an extremely desperate situation, but they were out of options.
Amazingly, the Athenians made good progress toward the north. In truth, though, this was because the Syracusan army was following them and waiting for them to reach a fork in the river to the north of Catania. When this happened, predictably, the forces of Demosthenes and Eurymedon on the one hand and Nicias on the other separated. The Syracusans launched a vicious attack on the former force and Eurymedon was killed, leaving Demosthenes with no choice but to surrender what remained of his forces. Nicias was caught in a similar trap further north. When Gylippus learned what had happened, he ordered the Syracusans to spare Demosthenes and especially Nicias, the latter of whom had brokered the peace between Athens and Sparta previously.
The Syracusans were in no mood for mercy, however. First, they separated the Athenians from their allies. The allies were held and sold into slavery. Next, the Athenians were marched into a cave with a deep mineshaft. There, they were commanded to act out the plays of Euripides. Those who could not complete this task to the satisfaction of the Syracusans were thrown to their deaths into the mine. Imagine being asked to sing the entire catalogue of Michael Jackson word-for-word or to act out all of the Star Wars movies line-for-line, and you'll understand the situation better. The Syracusans ignored Gylippus' pleas and executed both Demosthenes and Nicias. To a man, the Athenian expedition was either killed or enslaved.
Because there were literally no survivors, the Athenians had no earthly idea what was going on in Sicily. The news of the disaster apparently only reached the city when a traveler from Megali Hellas went to a barbershop in Athens and off-handedly asked how the city was dealing with the situation. It is said that when the news spread and it was confirmed, the screaming and crying of the wives, mothers, and daughters of Athens could be heard at the port of Piraeus, some 25 miles from the main city. Even though this is certainly an exaggeration, the fact remains that the psychological impact would have been just as severe.
Nowadays, people like to say that Germany lost World War II after the Battle of Stalingrad, which happened in 1943, even though the war itself was not over until 1945. In a similar way, Athens effectively lost the Peloponnesian War in 414 BC with the catastrophe in Sicily, despite the fact that their final defeat did not occur until 404. Obviously, a lot can happen in 10 years, but to put it in perspective, imagine that 90% or more of your country's army was destroyed in one campaign, and to add insult to injury, almost all of your country's money was flung into that campaign. In a time before trucks, tanks, planes, and ICBMs -- as well as in an age when both sides of a conflict would stop fighting to harvest crops -- this would have been absolutely devastating.
To their credit, the Athenians tried to rebuild their forces. However, the Sicilian defeat was a turning point in a variety of ways. The few neutral Greek cities that remained allied themselves with the Spartans. Some of the cities that had been Athenian vassals rebelled. In my opinion, however, the most significant shift came when Persia involved itself more directly in the conflict. While the movie 300 probably gives you the impression that the Spartans were the archenemies of Persia, the truth is a lot more complicated. Without getting too in-depth, the Persians had essentially given up on the direct conquest of mainland Greece, but they were wary of the instability that had taken root on their western border. Additionally, they knew that the Athenians wanted to "liberate" all the Greek cities of Anatolia (i.e., the Asian portion of what is now Turkey), which the Persians considered their territory, while the Spartans wanted all of the Greeks there to move back to the mainland. After the collapse of Athenian power in Sicily, the Persians sent massive amounts of money to Sparta for the specific purpose of building a navy to overwhelm that of Athens.
The ultimate result was that by the year 404 BC, Athens was surrounded on all sides by hostile forces and they were in desperate need of food. Even the most basic things could not reach the city by land, so their only hope was a small bit of wheat from the exclave of Aegospotomai which could possibly be reached by sea. However, the Persian-funded Spartan navy was so massive by this point that the town was blockaded and the Athenian vessels had no hope of reaching it. Athens ultimately had to surrender to the Spartans, ending the impossibly destructive war that had engulfed the Greek world for nearly 30 years up to that point.
At this point, the Athenians had good reason to suspect that their city would be leveled, their men would be killed, their women would be raped, and their children would be sold into slavery. This was, after all, the fate that had befallen cities that had stood in the way of Athens' imperial dreams. Indeed, this was what nearly all of Sparta's allies -- notably Corinth and Thebes -- demanded. The Spartans, however, refused to do any of that. It was their opinion that Athens and its people ought to be spared in consideration of the pivotal and valiant role the polis had played as a Spartan ally in previous wars. The Spartans did, however, install a new anti-democratic government in Athens that has gone down in history as the Thirty Tyrants, the fallout from which would eventually lead to the state-ordered suicide of the philosopher Socrates. After the "battle" of Aegospotomai, the leading Spartan general Lysander paid for a monument at the site of the Oracle of Delphi (which was like the Mecca, Jerusalem, and Vatican City of the pre-Christian Greek world) that read:
These men, sailing with Lysander in the swift ships, humbled the might of the city of Kekrops
And made Sparta of the beautiful choruses the high city of Hellas