The Sicilian Expedition

Some historical background…

In 415 BC, the ancient Athenians launched a major and ultimately disastrous venture which today we call “The Sicilian Expedition”. At the time, Athens and her allies were embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, a bitter struggle with Athens’ arch rival Sparta and Spartan allies which began in 431 BC and did not end until 404 BC, with the surrender of Athens to Sparta. The Sicilian Expedition, which took place between 415-413 BC, was one factor in the downfall of the great and prosperous state of Athens.

In the 5th century BC, Sicily was home to a number of rich and powerful Greek states: cities such as Syracuse (Siracusa), Akragas (Agrigento), Selinus (Selinunte) and Gela had risen from humble beginnings as settlements founded in the 8th -6th centuries BC to become some of the wealthiest and most prominent states in the Greek world. In large part their success was due to the enormous agricultural wealth of Sicily, which throughout the history of the island has always attracted foreign powers, from the Greeks to the Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish.

As the Peloponnesian War raged on, Athens became increasingly concerned that if the Greek Sicilian states were not allied to Athens, then they might support the Spartans – and accordingly strengthen the Sparta cause, especially through supplies of provisions to the armies. Accordingly, Athens set about trying to gather allies in Sicily. There was already some Sicilian support for Athens: a few years earlier the city of Segesta had called upon Athens for help in its war against neighbouring Selinus and had impressed the Athenian ambassadors with a display of the wealth of Segesta, which might have included the now famous (but unfinished) Greek temple of Segesta.

Despite some misgivings about the venture in Athens, the Athenians launched the Sicilian Expedition in 415 BC with a view to gaining control of the island. A fleet of 134 triremes (warships with triple banks of oars), together with 130 supply ships, set sail from Athens amid much excitement – almost the whole population of the city went down to the harbour at Piraeus to see the fleet off with prayers, hymns and libations (ritual offerings of wine). Those who left included 5,100 hoplites (foot soldiers) as well as archers, slingers, cavalry and non-combatants such as the ships’ crews. While Athens provided the bulk of the force and equipment, her allies contributed also.

Although they managed a few victories, by 414 BC the Athenians had met with relatively little success in Sicily: they had trouble attracting allies; the promised wealth of Segesta had proved largely illusory; the crews were depleted and demoralised; and the ships were beginning to rot in the water because the Athenians had no opportunity to drag them on shore for drying and cleaning. More worryingly still, the Spartan general Gylippus had come to the aid of the Syracusans and arrived in Sicily with new forces. The Athenian general Nicias – now encamped with his army outside Syracuse – wrote to Athens requesting either
 reinforcements or the recall of the expedition. The Athenians chose to send reinforcements and another 73 ships and 5,000 hoplites arrived in Sicily.

Meanwhile, Gylippus had also increased the forces on the Spartan side through allies he garnered in Sicily. He advised the Syracusans to do battle with the Athenians at sea – something of a tall order, since the Athenians were a formidable naval power. In this he was supported by Hermocrates, a Syracusan statesman and general. The Athenians – now stricken with illnesses as well – reviewed their situation and decided to leave. As they made their preparations, however, a lunar eclipse occurred. Nicias, described as a superstitious man, consulted the priests regarding the significance of the eclipse. The priests advised staying for a further 27 days – a fatal decision, because it gave the Syracusans time to press home their advantage.

The final battle took place in September 413 BC. The Syracusans trapped the Athenians in the Great Harbour at Syracuse by blockading the narrow harbour entrance with triremes and any other available craft. The Syracusans had also made adjustments to their warships: knowing they would have little room for manoeuvre in the confined space of the harbour, they had shortened and strengthened the prows of their ships, so that they could turn and ram enemy vessels more easily. Having learnt that the Athenians planned to use grappling irons to board enemy ships for hand-to-hand fighting, the Syracusans had stretched hides over the upper parts of the ships so that the grappling irons would slip off.

Although the outcome of the battle hung in the balance for a while, ultimately victory went to the Syracusans. The Athenians were routed and those who survived fled by land, leaving the Syracusans to burn their ships and their only means of escape from Sicily. Eventually, some 7,000 Athenians were imprisoned in the stone quarries which are still visible in Syracuse (possibly in the Latomia dei Cappuccini) from where, after 10 weeks of enduring thirst, starvation and extremes of heat and cold, those that survived were sold into slavery. Nicias, who had surrendered himself to Gylippus, was executed.

The Sicilian Expedition – with its grand finale of the Battle in the Great Harbour at Syracuse – is one of the great battles in history. It is recounted in all its poignant detail by the 5th century BC Greek historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides had himself previously served as a general in the Athenian army. It was, Thucydides concluded, “the greatest action that we know of in Hellenic history: to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats; for they were utterly and entirely defeated.”

For Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War and the Sicilian Expedition were current affairs worthy of recording for posterity. But for him and other ancient Greeks, history also included another great set of battles and adventures: the Trojan War and its aftermath. The stories of heroes like Achilles, Odysseus and Hector were told and retold through epic poems, especially Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In this lecture, Professor Chris Mackie, an expert on Homeric epic, takes a closer look at Thucydides’ story: how influenced was Thucydides by Homer? Despite his criticisms of Homer and other poets, did Thucydides draw upon the great epic poems of ancient Greece – especially the Iliad and the Odyssey – when recounting the events of his own time?

This lecture is the 2013 A.D. Trendall Lecture presented by La Trobe University. A.D. “Dale” Trendall (1909-1995) was a leading authority on the painted vases produced in Sicily  and South Italy in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. He bequeathed his extensive library, archive of some 40,000 photographs and antiquities collection to La Trobe University, where it now forms the A.D.Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies. For more information on the work of the Trendall Centre, visit the Trendall Centre.

Optional preparatory reading:

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  • Homer, Iliad and Odyssey (any translation, but those by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press and Harper and Row respectively) are excellent).
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  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Rex Warner’s translation is very good and readily available in the Penguin Classics edition). Books 6 and 7 relate specifically to the Sicilian Expedition.