The Sicilian Expedition. Episode notes

I hope you enjoyed the episode. It was tricky not to go too much into how Thucydides framed the expedition from the get go, but I did an episode on this titled ‘Wish you weren’t here: The Sicilian Expedition‘ which you can find on the podcast.

I also hope you got my hand-map, as you expect the maps do a far better job so check them out.


In order to orientate yourself here’s a map with the main locations mentioned in the episode. The eastern coast has Naxos, Catana (on the map as Katane) and Syracuse.

ancient sicily

An aspect I didn’t want to go into too much (in terms of description) was the walls built on Epipolae. Below is a very good map and you can see how important it was for Syracuse to build those couter walls to escape being cut off.

The walls around Syracuse
Work by T8612 (Wiki).

A nice sketch of what Syracuse might have looked like. In the background you can see Epipolae and how it dominated the landscape.

As for Nicias and the eclipse – here’s a post I did on this.

Below is a map showing the route the Athenian force took overland when trying to escape. Note how they initially tried to go around Epipolae before realising how difficult it would be. Presumably they were trying to get to Catana. Instead they moved south and were eventually caught.

Reading List / Sources used.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.

Kagan, D. The Peloponnesian War.

Kagan, D. Thucydides.

Hale, J. Lords of the Sea.

Rush, S. Sparta at War.


As ever this may differ on a couple of words at most.

Hi and welcome, my name’s Neil and in this episode I am covering a famous or infamous episode in Greek history. The Sicilian Expedition which took place between 415 and 413 BC involved Athens getting directly involved in the affairs of Sicily though as you’ll hear it had made tentative moves earlier than this. As such this episode will concern itself with events which took place from around 427 BC up till 413 BC and on that point all dates are BC, just in case I forget to say it.

Before I begin, the standard appeal for reviews and ratings, there must be something in the water as these are starting to occur more frequently and I want to say thanks to everyone who has been able to supply one. If you want to get in touch I’m ancientblogger on Instagram, YouTube, X and TikTok. There’s also HoundAncient on X and Ancient History Hound has its own subreddit.

Finally, my website – where I will be posting episode notes for this episode which will include a transcription, map, sources used and anything else I think might help. I would certainly recommend the maps in case of the walls I’ll be discussing, as you’ll hear – it gets quite complex.

Ok then, let’s begin.

In the last episode I covered the events from 467 BC through to 440 BC. These involved the removal of a tyrant at Syracuse, following civil unrest there and the appearance of a rebel leader called Ducetius. Following the removal of Thrasybulus, the tyrant at Syracuse a democracy was installed at Syracuse and seemingly so in other cities on the island though some, such as Acragas seem to have had them already.  We now need to skip forward to 427 BC where two Greek cities were, shock horror, at each other’s throats once more.

The two in question were Syracuse and nearby Leontini. The former had risen to be the dominant Greek city on the island, though I should also add the caveat that technically it was a colony, in this instance, of Corinth. In the opposite corner was nearby Leontini. Unlike many Greek colonies this had been settled not on the coast, but some 10 km inland. The rationale for this was that it had been founded by an existing Greek colony on the island, Naxos. As such it was belonged to a practice I discussed in episode 1 where Greek colonies on the island sometimes founded sub-colonies to mark out there zones of control. You might also remember an important point made in that episode. Greek colonies weren’t homogenous and all friends, they often inherited the rivalries of the parent city states they had come from. This meant that there was often tension in the air.

In the 5th century the tyrants of Syracuse had made Leontini something of a plaything. It had become subordinate to Syracuse and the tyrant Hieron had moved populations from Naxos and Catana there. As such perhaps there wasn’t much goodwill between Leontini and Syracuse. We could even read into a recent event to find evidence of this, when Syracuse had risen up against Thrasybulus they appealed for help. Leontini wasn’t listed as a city which sent any.

In the previous episode I used Diodorus Siculus as a primary source, he was a Greek born on Sicily in the 1st century BC. In this episode I’m able to use the Athenian Historian, Thucydides. His famous work recorded the events of the Peloponnesian War, an event which started in 431 BC and ended in 404 BC, though we only have his account up to 411 BC. Thucydides is a fantastic resource in a number of ways, as well as being contemporary he was also involved directly. In 424 he was a general and exiled after failure to hold Amphipolis and so he had excellent insight. But he also had a certain bias, and this is very evident in the formation and lead up to the Sicilian Expedition and how he handles it. I won’t go into it here as this is about Sicily and the events there but it’s worth knowing that Thucydides framed the Sicilian Expedition as a fool’s errand, of Athens overreaching its power which resulted from a democracy which had been easily swayed to an idea of conquering Sicily. Now there is plenty of criticism to be shared out about the Expedition and how it worked but the idea that it was to conquer Sicily is not backed up at all. However, that’s an argument for a different time and perhaps a different episode. So, let’s get back to Sicily.

When, in 427 BC Leontini found itself at war with Syracuse it looked around for support. Athens was approached to provide help and it agreed to help. According to Thucydides Athens respected a kinship with Leontini, but it also realised the opportunity to disrupt the supply of food sent from Syracuse to the Peloponnese and on to its enemies. It also made sense to accept this type of invitation. Both sides in the war were keen to keep the allies they had and court new ones. If Leontini was successful in resisting Syracuse, then perhaps other Sicilian Greeks would see Athens as a suitable ally.

In 427 BC Athens sent 20 ships which took the standard route to Sicily. They headed south and round the Peloponnese before sailing west along southern Italy and the Greek colonies there, some of which had recently been founded (and you can listen to a bit about them on an episode called Magna Graecia). At Rhegium they put in and this would be their base of operations.

From here they launched several small operations. They attacked Locri in southern Italy and tried to take Messina unsuccessfully. On Sicily they also tried to take a local town called Inessa, you may remember this from the previous episode where it was known as Aetna. It’s not clear where this was but the intention seems to have been to drive out an existing Syracusan garrison there and even using locals to do so. This wasn’t successful, but elsewhere Athens allied with local Sicilians to raid areas, such as that near Himera.

Returning to Rhegium the Athenian force was reinforced with 40 more ships. However, this became redundant as in 424 BC there was a meeting of the Greek cities on Sicily at Gela. Here the Syracusan Hermocrates, someone you’ll be hearing more of, argued that the incessant infighting between them all didn’t achieve much and risked weakening them against an outsider. He named Athens as exactly this type of opportunist.

Like many of the speeches Thucydides’ recorded he wasn’t there, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have captured the essence of it. Hermocrates makes sensible points, the continual infighting between the Greek cities on Sicily was detrimental in a wider perspective. It could also have unintended consequences with respect to outside factions. After all the Battle of Himera, which I covered in episode two, brought a large Carthaginian force into what was a battle between two Greek cities on the island.

In 416 BC the Athenian interaction with Syracuse and Sicily escalated and became a dedicated section within Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. It’s often referred to as the Sicilian Expedition and it was one of the first pieces of Greek history I ever studied.

The story of the Sicilian Expedition is a great example of a chaotic cascade of events, and it started with a simple request from Egesta (sometimes known as Segesta). If you have listened to any of the previous episodes in the miniseries on Sicily you might recall that Egesta was a Sicilian settlement in the west of Sicily. It had grown and become Hellenised by the late 5th century, one of the great temples of Sicily was found at Egesta, though it wasn’t completed. An issue which Egesta had was that it had a rival, the Greek city of Selinus and the two had bad relations, often resulting in skirmishes. Thucydides reported that the topic of land and marriage rights had escalated into a full-blown battle between the two. Egesta had lost and was concerned that Selinus, with the backing of Syracuse, might press an advantage.

A plea was sent to Athens asking for support. For Athens this request seemed perfectly feasible. It wouldn’t require much in the way of resources and would allow it to check once more against Syracuse. It also made sense for Athens in the wider context of what was going on. A very tenuous peace was in effect, the Peace of Nicias, which kept Sparta and Athens from making direct war with each other. Here then was an opportunity for Athens to flex its muscles and impress, as well as continue a policy of destabilising support in Sicily for its enemies.

Oh, and Egesta was very wealthy so it would be able to fund much of the expedition. Athens even sent emissaries to verify this. In terms of deciding what to do there were two debates at Athens, the first resulted in a small force decided upon with three basic objectives. Beat Selinus, resettle Leontini, which presumably had become an issue again and the wonderfully vague ‘pursue anything which benefits Athens. It also agreed on three generals, Lamachus, Alcibiades and Nicias. It’s worth knowing that Nicias had no interest in going, at the second debate he tried to bluff the assembly by stating that the initial force was too small and that a much larger one would be required. He hoped that this would douse the enthusiasm for it. Sadly, it had the opposite effect, and the result was a much, much larger force. I should also point out that in the duration of the debates the notion of Athens conquering Sicily, a theme Thucydides continually plays upon, is not made explicit. Indeed, the first debate, where the outline of the Expedition was agreed and where you’d expect to find this condition gone into in detail is in fact given the briefest of overviews.

The Athenian force which sailed from the Piraeus with cheering crowds numbered some 134 triremes and along with these were the support and supply ships. The military force numbered some 5,100 hoplites and along with these were 1,300 light troops. Though this force sailed from Athens it’s important to remember that these weren’t all Athenians. For example, of those 5,100 hoplites only 1,500 were Athenians, this was because much of the expedition was made up using the allies of the Athens. To avoid confusion though I will refer to these as Athenians or the Athenian force. Just remember that there a great many non-Athenians fighting for Athens as well.

At Syracuse the news of the expedition caused a debate at the assembly. Hermocrates, who you might remember from earlier, warned of the Athenian threat and as you might imagine, linked it to the wider ambitions Athens had. Set against him was a character called Athenagoras. It’s unclear if Athenagoras ever existed and he may have been a way for Thucydides to critique democracy, something he wasn’t that keen on. Athenagoras was a manifestation of what Thucydides didn’t like about democracy and invariably he gets things wrong, claiming that Athens wouldn’t launch an expedition. He’s also used for gutter politics, he slings mud at Hermocrates, claiming that he is merely trying to scare everyone so that he can make a grab for sole power.

This instance of a debate is also used to bolster the idea that there was an active democracy in action at Syracuse at this time. That’s something I mentioned in the previous episode.

When the Athenian force arrived it landed near Catana which refused it access due to a pro-Syracusan faction there.

The entire journey to Sicily hadn’t been an easy one, for example no Greek colony in Southern Italy on the journey there had received them with open arms and importantly open gates. Even Rhegium had provided sparse hospitality, allowing them only to camp outside the city. Alongside this was money problems. Egesta had promised to fund the expedition, but news had come that Egesta only had 30 talents, a drop in the ocean of what was needed. There had also been an issue with Alcibiades, one of the generals and in fact the most ardently pro-Expedition general. He’d been the advocate for this and now found himself arrested when a ship from Athens arrived to take him back there for trial. Three generals now became two.

There were some small successes though. The first action taken on Sicily involved a detachment going to Egesta to collect money and to raid the area near to Himera. Here the Athenians were joined by local tribes, and they were able to collect a decent chunk of money out of it. They also sent a small unit of triremes into the Great Harbour of Syracuse where they stated their intentions for Leontini.

Athens even managed to secure Catana as a base of operations, this was done by sneaking in some soldiers. When the pro-Syracusan faction saw what was going they duly scarpered. Catana then voted to ally with Athens. Despite the problems Athens had secured a base of operations and through raiding brought in some much-needed funds. But what would happen now and what would Syracuse do?

To understand the basic layout of Syracuse I thought I’d give a go at describing it using my left hand or rather your left hand. Stay with me on this. Though of course there will be maps in the episode notes which give a bit more clarity to it all.. So, here’s a brief description of Syracuse using your left hand.

To start with make the letter c with the forefinger and thumb of your left hand.  Much of your left forefinger is Syracuse, the fingertip being the island of Ortygia which was connected to the mainland upon which Syracuse eventually spread to. This finger poked out into the sea; it was a great defendable position.

Your thumb is the southern headland and the gap between it and the forefinger was the mouth of the Great Harbour which formed the space inside the letter c you have made. Syracuse governed much of the northern part of this, but there was plenty of shoreline which could be used and would be by the Athenian navy through temporary camps it made there.

The Great Harbour was one of the two main locations for the activity between Syracuse and Athens. The second was on land and was where the initial engagements took place. Now, you can either visualise this or give it a go but whilst keeping your thumb and forefinger in the letter C bring your middle finger up and into a tight knuckle. This was and is a plateau north and northwest of Syracuse called Epipolae, which translated as the heights. It dominated the area north of Syracuse and therefore the main routes to the city by land.

Ok, I hope that made sense. Even if it didn’t work entirely, I hope you understand that there were two different areas which would stage the following events I’m going to get into: Epipolae and the Great Harbour. And again, don’t forget those maps on

The response from Syracuse was simple, to move a force by land and attack Athens in its new base of Catana. However, Athens didn’t want to hang around there. Instead, their intention was to move a force into the great harbour where it could make a temporary camp on the shoreline to the south of Syracuse. But this wasn’t easy. If they marched by land they’d likely be attached at points and Syracuse would take defensive positions making this very costly. If they went by sea they’d be safe whilst at sea because the Athenian navy was at this point far superior. The problem would be disembarking. They would simply have a welcome party waiting for them, the Syracusans would then attack them whilst they were at their most vulnerable.

What Athens needed was a cunning plan, to ensure that the Syracusan forces were out at a set point so they could move into the Great Harbour. And they came up with one.

A resident of Catana was sent to Syracuse with the intention of bating the Syracusan forces at a set date. He informed the relevant people that the Athenians at Catana were an easy target because they were barracked away from their weapons, and they were also very unpopular there. If Syracuse were to attack at a set date rebels in Catana would set fire to the ships and lock the gates, preventing the Athenians from getting to their gear. It was a perfectly feasible plan, after all Catana had been pro-Syracuse so there was presumably a faction within it ready to revolt.

So it went that the ruse was believed. Whilst the Syracusan force marched near to Catana the Athenians were in their ships and sailing into the Great Harbour with the knowledge that they could safely disembark and make camp. The Syracusans, once they realised what had happened, had to turn back knowing that now they’d face Athenians who were formed up and in good order and had chosen where they wanted to fight. The Athenian camps was south of Syracuse and just the other side of the river Anapus, or as it’s known today the Anapo.

It was here that the first big battle between the two sides was fought. It was also here where the Syracusan line broke and its men retreated. The exact mechanics of battles in ancient Greece are debated but when one side broke it went from a group of men in tight formation to a group of individuals fleeing for their lives. Here then was the chance for Athens to sweep all before them and win a big victory.

But to do this Athens required something it didn’t have. Cavalry. Thucydides did mention 30 horses being brought over. Even if this was present it represented a negligible amount, you couldn’t do much with that. Without cavalry the pursuit if the fleeing Syracusans wasn’t as easy, worse still the Syracusan cavalry were able to cover their retreating colleagues and help prevent the pursuit. The battle had been won by Athens, but the opportunity lost. Thucydides wrote that 250 Syracusans fell that day, and this would have been much, much higher if Athens had cavalry to take advantage. It’s been speculated that Athens could have won the war here. With cavalry inflicting ruinous casualties the outcome might have been Syracuse forced to accept a treaty.

As for why Athens had neglected cavalry, it’s unlikely that they simply forgot. It’s more likely that they expected to be able to recruit horses once on Sicily. This would be much easier than transporting them in that large force which left Athens. However, for whatever reason Athens was unable to source horses at this time.

Whilst Syracuse was licking its wounds the Athenians packed up and sailed back to Catana and Naxos where they wintered. At Syracuse Hermocrates made a speech in which he appealed for support to be requested from overseas, specifically Corinth and Sparta. Syracuse also realised that Athens’ next move would be to cut them off and lay siege. This would involve walls constructed to the north and northwest. All eyes turned upwards to the plain o, and a small counter wall was started by Syracuse from the city toward it.

The work of hands was matched with words. Camarina, as mentioned in previous episodes, had an interesting relationship with its parent city of Syracuse. Located to the southwest it would be a loss if they threw their lot in with Athens. Hermocrates visited Camarina, where the Athenian representative was already making diplomatic overtures. Cue a scene where Thucydides has Hermocrates banging the drum of island conquest but also taking it up a notch. When Athens fought against Persia it wasn’t to free the Greeks, it was so they could enslave the Greeks with their own empire. Yet more Thucydidean subtlety in action.

Camarina decided to go with Syracuse, though only just which if true underlines how loyalties on Sicily were rarely permanent. Thucydides commented in line with this – that even though they had agreed to support Syracuse, it sent minimal aid.

At Epipolae competitive wall building was taking place. Athens was trying to build walls to cut off routes to Syracuse and Syracuse in turn was intent on building walls which would intercept those of the Athenians preventing them from encircling them. Athens also received the much-needed cavalry. This was formed of riders arriving by sea with horses bought for them locally, they therefore had 650 cavalry. What a difference they could have made earlier.

The action now descended into raids and counter raids against the walls of either side. Athens built a central fort, known as the circle, on Epipolae. The action also continued down from Epipolae with a wall being extended south to the harbour. This ran across marshland and the two sides met in a skirmish which, though Athens won, cost the life of Lamachus the general. Nicias was now on his own. Even with that loss the Athenian position was strong, it had fortifications on the Epipolae and now the navy had made camp in the Great harbour. The pieces were in place and Syracuse started to panic.

This panic was to almost lead Syracuse to surrender, but I say almost because it was at this crucial moment that a Corinthian called Gongylus appeared and delivered much needed news. There was support coming and this included a Spartan called Gylippus. With that Syracuse was reassured.

Gylippus arrived near Himera where he set about recruiting an army. Sparta hadn’t sent any forces. Remember the Peace of Nicias was still in place which prevented Athens and Sparta from attacking each other directly. The lack of Spartan soldiers might also have been because Sparta didn’t consider this theatre of conflict that important.

And we might see the lack of commitment from Sparta in the form Gylippus himself. He was a mothax meaning that his mother was most likely a helot. But as you’ll hear he was certainly up to the job regardless of his parentage or social standing.

In the west of Sicily Gylippus assembled an army of around 3,000. He then marched this force eastwards across the island and past the bewildered Athenians at Epipolae who chose not to attack. It seems a strange decision by Nicias not to take the advantage here, there were raw recruits and Athens may have fared well. But this line of safety-first thinking was how Nicias seems to have conducted himself throughout the entire campaign. It’s plausible that he considered these troops more valuable to Athens alive where they would be in  Syracuse and needing to be fed rather than risking his troops against them. The gift of hindsight does mark this moment has been noted as an important opportunity missed.

The arrival of Gylippus energised Syracuse which devoted more men and time to building counter walls. Nicias now turned his attention to the Great Harbour. Though Athens had made a temporary camp there it needed something more permanent and so fortifications were set at Plemmyrium. This wasn’t located in the harbour itself, instead it was on the tip of the southern promontory at the mouth of the harbour. If you remember my improvised hand map of Syracuse it was the tip of your left thumb. What this afforded Athens was a place to stow important supplies and also where they could receive supplies.

The fortification of Plemmyrium was one more step in applying a grip around Syracuse, but it wasn’t complete and perhaps the soldiers based there watched as reinforcements from Corinth sailed into the harbour and turned north to the Syracusan docks. Back on land the tide was turning, Syracuse, now with more men had managed to complete a counter wall meaning that Athens wouldn’t be able to complete its encirclement to the north. At this point Thucydides recounted the contents of a letter sent to Athens. It made for desperate reading. The ships were in a poor state, the morale was low, and Nicias was in poor health. He even offered to stand down and to be recalled. With that said the letter was written in such a way to ensure enough of the blame lay with factors outside his control. Generals were often scrutinized after a campaign and Nicias must have felt worried about this.

The response from Athens wasn’t what Nicias had wanted to hear. He was to stay on with two temporary generals being named to support him. Reinforcements were coming along with two new generals.

Where the earlier encounters between Athens and Syracuse had been land based the action now became more naval and a series of engagements took place in the Great Harbour. Athens, even though its navy wasn’t exactly shipshape, still had a strong advantage. Their crews were much more experienced and in a warfare where ramming and manoeuvring were key this gave them much more opportunity to succeed.

In the initial naval battle Syracuse sent out 80 triremes against an Athenian force of 65. Athens was victorious but this had in part been a sideshow to what Syracuse had intended. Whilst the battle took place in the Great Harbour a Syracusan force was led round to the forts at Plemmyrium. These were overrun and valuable resources for the Athenian fleet were lost as well as an important strategic position.

In the next naval engagement Syracuse looked to level the watery playing field with a development to their ships. The standard attacking tactic of a trireme was for it to hit the enemy ship at an angle or sheer off the enemy oars. As mentioned this took skill, for example knowing at what point to start to row back just before the collision so the trireme didn’t get stuck in its opponent. Triremes generally avoided ramming each other head on, that is to say hitting the enemy prow because you could easily damage your ship as much as the one you were hitting.

The new development was to reinforce the area around the front, the epotis, so that ramming head on was now an option. This provided the less skilled Syracusan crews an easier option.

The following naval battle took place over a few days. The Syracusan fleet withdrew which was read by Athens as a break in the fighting. A perfectly reasonable assumption. Except the break was shorter than Athens had expected. A market had been brought close to the shore meaning the men were back on the triremes and back in action much quicker. This caught Athens off-guard. They were also attacked with small ships filled with men hurling javelins at the rowers. The result was the Athenian navy retreating and only saved by the naval defences they had set up at their camp on the shore of the Great Harbour.

Things were looking up for Syracuse. But then the reinforcements for Athens arrived under Demosthenes and Eurymedon – the two new generals. This numbered some 5,000 hoplites and supporting forces. It was exactly the lift Athens needed. Demosthenes wasn’t interested in continuing with a naval strategy. He decided that the fight should be continued back on land and back to the walls on Epipolae. If the Syracusan forts there could be taken then so could that counter wall and with-it Athens could finish the land encirclement of Syracuse.

Keen to retain the element of surprise Demosthenes took his men up the narrow track to Epipolae by night. At first the tactic worked with a fort taken and confused cries in the dark. 600 Syracusans met the Athenian charge but were routed, better still the counter wall was taken. But then it started to go wrong. The Athenian’s perhaps drunk on their successes kept moving forward but did so in an increasingly disordered and disorganized manner. Eventually this loosely formed line of cheering men met a Syracusan force which was far more organised. This wave of men broke against a line of spears.

Thucydides wrote how the Athenians now panicked and ran back towards their own lines and into men who were pushing forward, oblivious to what had happened. The moonlight offered confusing outlines. Who was friend or foe, what was happening? Athenians mistook those running against them for the enemy, not their retreating colleagues. Confusion reigned with colleagues mistakenly attacking each other.

What made things worse was that many of these men had no experience of their surroundings. They ran off cliffs accidentally, some apparently intentionally. Panic and rout, the bane of any hoplite battle made merry amongst the cries in the darkness. Some made it back down from Epipolae, others were killed the following morning by Syracusan cavalry which picked them off at ease.

The situation for Athens was becoming ever worse. For a while they had had to camp on marshland down from Epipolae and near the great harbour. This wasn’t a great place and sickness was becoming a real issue. There was a glimmer of hope an opportunity to retreat and sail back to another location nearby, perhaps Catana? However, this opportunity was lost through a most unlikely occurrence. A lunar eclipse.

Eclipses in antiquity were often considered omens. They also offer a date. Not just a date but a day, hour and minute because eclipse don’t occur at random and it’s possible to calculate both ones to happen and ones which have occurred. I go into more detail on the episode but just so you know a lunar eclipse was visible at Syracuse on the night of the 27th of August 413 BC. Through calculations we even know its duration, it started at 9.41pm and ended at 10.30 pm.

The soothsayers at the Greek camp decided that it was a warning for the Greeks not to leave for 27 days and Nicias, famous for his piety wouldn’t hear of any argument against it. So, the Greeks stayed and this was great news for Syracuse. Their main concern that the Greeks might yet escape and regroup somewhere on Sicily.

Gylippus knew that more naval battles would be required and so spent the time the Greeks had kindly provided drilling his navy and its crews. This paid off, when fighting resumed 86 Athenian ships took on 76 Syracusan ones, with Syracuse winning and the general Eurymedon falling in battle. On land Gylippus led an attack which almost took the Greek camp, it succeeded in capturing 18 ships and killing their crews.

There was one last stand to be had. Athens had to break out and leave with their navy, but Syracuse was guarding that narrow mouth into the harbour. It was here that around 100 ships on either side fought with desperation at their backs. Athens had to force a way out and Syracuse couldn’t let them win and thus allow them to pick up their army and escape.

Syracuse took the day and the Athenian triremes headed back to camp. The navy was broken, when it was suggested that they might try once more to make a dash for it at dawn the sailors refused to board their ships. If Athens wanted out it would be by foot.

At Syracuse Hermocrates had a headache and one not caused by a hangover but indirectly by many would-be hangovers. His men had been celebrating their fantastic victory and spent the time drinking. Hermocrates was concerned that the drunken state his men were in, and would be for a few days, would allow Athens to steal a march and make a break for it whilst his men were busy searching for painkillers and swearing that they would never drink again. Ok, I made that bit up but you get the point.

What Hermocrates needed was a way of keeping Athens in camp and not on the road whilst his men rested up. As mentioned, if they made it back to say Catana they would regroup, and all the success would be for nothing. Here was the chance to repay Athens for that ruse which had been used by them when drawing Syracuse out to Catana. Riders were sent to the Greek camp who feigned that they were sympathetic to the Athenians and wanted to warn them not to take the roads by night as these were being watched and guarded.

A day later the Athenian force broke camp. Some 40,000, which included large numbers of non-combatants began a gruelling march with only what provisions they could carry. The sick and wounded were left behind. The plan, as much as there was one, was to head north and then meet up with friendly locals who could help them get to Catana. However, at every point they were harassed and attacked by Syracusan cavalry or light armed units. Worse still was that key roads and passes moving north were now blockaded. After suffering greatly, the army turned southeast and made for the sea hoping that they could still find somewhere safe to camp or some local allies.

This unlikely event never took shape. Instead, more flying missiles, and more dead lying in a trail behind them. At this point the Athenians had formed two separate groups, one under Demosthenes and one under Nicias. The main Syracusan force caught up with Demosthenes who duly surrendered. Nicias carried on for a while but he had to accept the situation and surrender.

Thucydides painted a truly pitiful scene where his men, tormented by thirst made a dash for the Assinarus river. They fell on each other, on their weapons and stampeded into the waters. The Syracusans watched and eventually Nicias realised that after some 3 years of fighting it was finally over.

The survivors were taken to the quarries where they were to be sold as slaves though many perished in the hot sun there. Demosthenes and Nicias were both executed, though it’s noted that Hermocrates was against this. Instead, it was Diocles pushed for this extreme action. We’ll hear a bit about him in the next episode in discussing the reforms at Syracuse and his curious death.

The effect of the failure was huge for Athens. Sometimes it’s painted as a crucial turning point in the Peloponnesian War. This is true in a sense, the failure caused Athens to lose prestige and in a material context a large amount of men and resources. Perhaps a more significant outcome from the Expedition was that it broke the Peace of Nicias and so Sparta was able to resume actions directly against Athens. This wasn’t because of what went on at Sicily, but because Athens had relied on support from its allies heavily in the Expedition. Some of these allies now demanded that in return Athens needed to restart raiding the Spartan coast as it had done prior to the peace. By resuming this activity the Peace of Nicias, much like the man himself, was no more.

For Syracuse this was a huge success, it wasn’t just that it had won. The action had caused some cities on the island to ally with them. Nothing unites like a common enemy. In addition, it had defeated a large invading force and won naval battles against the supposedly unbeatable Athenian navy.

In the next episode I’ll be picking up with what happened next. Though Athens and her Empire had been put back in their place there was another Empire which would come out of retirement and at Syracuse there would be the return of something else which would collide against it.

Until then, keep well and stay safe.


If you like then share!

Leave a Comment