This edited article about the Siege of Syracuse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.
Few cities suffered more sieges in ancient and mediaeval times than the city of Syracuse, in South-east Sicily, and the successful resistance it put up to some of its attackers was of the deepest importance to the history of the world. The Syracusans’ triumphant repulse of the great Athenian expedition was of particularly wide-spread and enduring importance.
A city built close to the sea, like Syracuse, could be considered almost impregnable, except against the combined operations of a superior fleet and army. Syracuse, backed by sizeable military and naval resources, had always considered itself secure from a successful attack. But by the Spring of 415 B.C., the Athenian navy dominated much of the Mediterranean Sea. The Athenian army had defeated the armies of Syracuse and had cooped them up within the city walls. Now the Athenians were building a wall of their own, which would cut the Syracusans away from any help from the interior of Sicily, leaving them completely at the mercy of the Athenian generals.
The Athenians were gambling the flower of their forces and the accumulated fruits of seventy years of glory on one bold throw for the domination of the Western world. If they failed, they would have to pause in their career of conquest, and sink from being an imperial republic to ruin and subservience.
To understand why the Athenians were willing to do this, it is necessary to know something about the race. All republics in history that have acquired supremacy over other nations, ruled them selfishly and oppressively. The Athenians were no exception, but at least they were honest about it. They stated frankly that their empire was based on tyranny, and that to be safe, it was necessary for Athens to have an unbounded empire. Over a number of years this policy had succeeded. With relatively few exceptions, the islands of the Aegean Sea, and many Greek cities, paid tribute to Athens. This dominant city had colonies in Sicily and South Italy, and their galleys were exacting tribute from the western seas. To have achieved so much with a State whose members of an age fit for service never numbered more than thirty thousand, Athens had relied almost entirely on its navy, which was an enormously powerful one, for the reason that every Athenian was trained to be a sailor.
For some years, however, Athens had been at war with the rival Greek state of Sparta. Finding her supremacy threatened, she turned to the West. To capture Syracuse, and master the western Mediterranean, would put her power beyond all challenge.
The army which the Athenians equipped against Syracuse was worthy of their ambitions. The fleet was a formidable one of 134 war galleys, supported by a vast number of store-ships. A powerful force of heavily-armed infantry travelled on the ships, together with a smaller number of slingers and bowmen.
In number, the Syracusans were fully equal to the Athenians, but far inferior to them in discipline. They were also far too over-confident. When the possibility of an Athenian invasion was suggested by some of the wiser citizens, the mass of the Syracusans dismissed it with scornful incredulity. But it was not long before the invaders landed, and if they had then immediately attacked the city, the Syracusans would have paid bitterly for their arrogance.
At this point, Athens made the fatal mistake of dismissing their most able general, Alcibiades, who promptly fled to Sparta, Athens’ foe. Turning renegade, Alcibiades pointed out to the Spartans that if Syracuse fell, Italy would also fall and Sparta would then be threatened. In an impassioned speech, he begged them to send war galleys filled with regular troops. “Above all,” he exhorted them, “let a man from Sparta take the chief command to bring order and discipline to the forces in Syracuse. A Spartan general in this crisis will do more to save the city than a whole army.”
Acting on Alcibiades’ advice, the Spartans mounted a relief force under their most famous general, Gylippus.
The Syracusans were almost on the point of surrendering, although they had not been unduly harassed since Alcibiades’ departure, when they heard that a Spartan was coming to command them. Their drooping spirits revived immediately, and they decided to continue their resistance. Now the attention of all Greece was fixed on Syracuse. Every enemy of Athens felt that this was the ideal opportunity to check Athenian ambitions, and large reinforcements began to arrive from Corinth, Thebes and other cities, much to the dismay of Nicias, the Athenian general, who had taken over from Alcibiades. Weak-willed and thoroughly dispirited, he pleaded for his countrymen to recall him and put an end to the siege. Athens answered by sending another fleet of galleys and another army to support him. These were placed under the command of Demosthenes.
Demosthenes arrived at a critical stage. By then, Gylippus had also arrived and had encouraged the Syracusans to attack the Athenians by sea as well as by land, with such success that the Athenian navy had already sustained their first defeat ever, at the hands of a numerically inferior foe. Gylippus was preparing to follow up his advantage by fresh attacks on the Athenians, when the arrival of Demosthenes completely changed the battle situation. Now once more, the superiority was with the Athenians.
With seventy-three war galleys, manned with a force of five thousand picked men of the regular infantry of Athens, and a still larger number of bow-men, javelin-men and slingers on board, Demosthenes led his ships around the great harbour to the sound of loud cheers and martial music coming from their decks.
Demosthenes and his soldiers landed and scaled the cliffs and then pressed forward against the now thoroughly demoralised Syracusan detachments, which broke and fled. One brigade of their allies held, however, long enough for the Syracusans to recover their courage. Inspired by Gylippus, they counter-attacked with such force that the Athenians retreated rapidly in a disorganised mass. Desperately, Demosthenes and his officers tried to re-form their ranks. But by now it was dark, and the fighting had become so confused that the Athenians who did attempt to put up some show of resistance, more often than not found themselves fighting each other.
Keeping their ranks close, the Syracusans and their allies pressed the Athenians back and back, until they found themselves being driven over the cliffs which only a few hours before they had scaled so confidently.
The Syracusans then took to the sea, and a series of naval battles took place in which all the Athenian galleys were either destroyed or captured. Nicias and Demosthenes were captured and put to death: their followers who survived were either sold into slavery or left to perish miserably in the Syracusan quarries.
The menace of Athens as a potential world power was now at an end. The Athenians continued to struggle against their combined enemies for many years, but they were never able to restore themselves to the glory they had once known.
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