The First Armada: 415 BC, The Great Athenian Expedition to Syracuse
Yes, it’s another fun history post. The usual caveats apply, while this is a post about a real event in history, I am telling a story, not writing a dissertation. And this is an especially complex story, so I am going to cut some corners. As always with my war stories, I am both repeating a story that is interesting in and of itself, and at the same time the story has at least some lessons for the student of the human condition. And as is often the case with my history stories, there was someone standing around at the time muttering “This is a really bad idea.” In this story his name is Nicias.
OK, some background. It was 415 BC. Much of the Eastern Mediterranean was dominated by Greek city states, including southern Italy and the island of Sicily. Rome was but yet a promising upstart in central Italy. Athens, the greatest Greek city state, was at war with Sparta. This was the Peloponnesian war, one of the longest wars of Greek antiquity. And as in all wars, allies were crucial, so both sides tried to recruit other city states into their cause. As we start our story, a peace treaty had been signed, but Athens wanted an excuse to resume the war. They got their wish when an Athenian aligned city in Sicily, Segesta, went to war against another city, lost a battle, and asked Athens for help. And just to be sure, they sent along a huge pile of money and told the Athenians that they had even more money (they didn’t) if the Athenians sent a fleet to their aid. The Athenian Assembly (Athens’ ruling body) fell for it, and approved a modest fleet under the command of Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus.
All good so far. Here’s where it gets interesting. Five days later the Assembly convened again to work out the logistics for the expedition, where Nicias passionately made the case that this expedition was very risky, based on questionable information, would make Athens new enemies, and that Alcibiades and his supporters were inexperienced young men promoting war for their own selfish ends. There’s no question Nicias’ plea moved the Assembly, just not the way he had intended. The Assembly decided to send a vastly larger force than originally decided, at fabulous expense. Athens bet the farm on the expedition, much to Nicias’ dismay. The expedition was prepared and set off under the original three commanders, each of whom had different ideas about what the expedition was about and how to achieve it. There was one last hitch, the night before the fleet set sail a number of the municipal good luck shrines around the city were defaced, much to the people’s dismay. Alcibiades and his supporters were blamed, but he sailed with the fleet anyhow.
In the fall of 415 BC the fleet arrived off southern Italy. To their dismay, they found that the city states in southern Italy were not nearly as welcoming as they had been led to believe. Worse, fast ships set ahead to Segesta returned with the news that the Segestan’s most definitely did not have the promised money to pay for the fleet. Much debate among the three commanders as to what to do, Nicias counselling against continuing the folly. He was overruled, and the fleet sailed on to Catania in Sicily. And was met by an Athenian ship there to arrest Alcibiades and return him to Athens for trial in the defacement of the shrines. Imagine Patton (though Alcibiades was no Patton) being sent back to Washington on the eve of D-Day to stand trial for vandalizing the Washington Monument. Alcibiades agreed to return, but escaped and defected to Sparta, giving them crucial information about the Athenian fleet and alliance.
Now until the arrival of the Athenian fleet, Syracuse had not taken the threat seriously. It really was a crazy idea. When the Athenians landed at Catania, they got serious, and marched out to do battle. Upon approaching Catania, they discovered that the Athenians had boarded their fleet and sailed south to attack Syracuse directly. Syracuse’s army hot footed it back to Syracuse and did battle. The Athenians had the better trained force, and Syracuse’s army broke and fled. Syracuse had far more cavalry than the Athenians though, and they prevented the Athenians from pursuing and destroying the Syracusan army. Both armies then dug in for the winter, with the Athenians sending messages to Athens asking for reinforcements, while the Syracusans sent pleas for help to Sparta. 415 BC passed into history, and 414 BC began. Yes, calendars were very confusing in those days.
Both these maps aren’t the best, but hey, I’m back in a “post five days a week” mode, so time is short. The top one is in German, which should be easy enough to figure out, and the lower one has a lot of detail, but shows the city and its’ environs decently enough. The Athenians are blue. OK, spring, 414 BC. The Athenian reinforcements arrive and the Athenians start to build a wall to cut off Syracuse from the land side. The Syracusans tried to build counter walls and foil the Athenian’s plans. A number of minor battles were fought, in one of them, Lamachus, Nicias’ remaining co-commander, was killed. By mid summer the Athenians had prevailed, and encircled Syracuse by land. Then they moved their fleet into the Great Harbour, cutting off Syracuse by sea as well. The Syracusan’s, dismayed by this turn of events, sacked their army’s commanders and appointed new ones. Nicias must have been feeling pretty relieved at this point, the Athenians had overcome many obstacles, and now had the great city of Syracuse surrounded, with a huge army and fleet at his disposal. And with Lamachus dead and Alcibiades disgraced, he, Nicias would get all the credit! Babes, gold, and talk show appearances, oh my.
Alas, as Nicias was looking out to sea and dreaming of his awaiting rewards, what should appear but a great fleet! More Athenian reinforcements! No, not at all. It was a Corinthian fleet flying a Spartan flag. History does not record Nicias’ reaction to this unforeseen development, but the gentle reader can no doubt make a discerning guess. And until tomorrow, the gentle reader will have to guess as to the outcome of this, well, epic struggle. No cheating!
(The images are from Wikipedia, basically free to use for non-commercial purposes, find them there for all the relevant details. And one last relevant detail, in ancient times virtually all cities, certainly a great city like Syracuse, had imposing walls. This was why siege was often the best, or even only way, to get a city to surrender, a state of affairs that basically lasted until the introduction of gunpowder.)