Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC

Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC

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Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC

The battle of Syracuse (or of the Anapus River) of 415 BC was an Athenian victory won close to the shore south of the city of Syracuse, but one that had no impact on the long-term outcome of the Sicilian expedition, which ended in total defeat (Great Peloponnesian War). The Athenian expedition to Sicily began rather badly. As their large fleet sailed around the Italian coast city after city refused to ally with them, or often even to allow them to buy supplies. Even their allies at Rhegium refused to get involved. The Athenians also discovered that the money they had been promised by Segesta, the city that had originally asked for their help, would not be forthcoming (and didn't actually exist). Faced with these early setbacks the three Athenian generals - Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus - each suggested a different plan. Nicias wanted to go directly to the aid of Segesta by attacking their enemy Selinus, then see if any Sicilian support was forthcoming. If not the fleet should return home. Alcibiades wanted to try and win allies everywhere in Sicily, and especially at Messenia, at the north-eastern corner of the island. They could then lead a major army against Syracuse from this strong base. Lamachus wanted to make a sudden attack on Syracuse, hoping to catch them unprepared and either win the war in one stroke or at least establish a siege of the city before it was fully stocked.

Alcibiades got his way, but at first his attempts to find allies met with failure. Messenia refused to let the Athenians in, as did Catane, half way between Messenia and Syracuse. The Athenians then sent ten ships into the Great Harbour of Syracuse to check the state of the defences, before returning to Catane, where this time they were admitted to the city, and finally gained a new ally on Sicily. Soon after this Alcibiades' career suffered a major setback. Back in Athens he had been accused of impiety, and the city's official trireme arrived to arrest him. He was forced to leave Sicily, although managed to escape arrest and took refuge in the Peloponnese.

This left Nicias and Lamachus in charge of the expedition, with Nicias as the senior partner. Although Athens had sent a large army to Sicily, it was weak in cavalry. In contrast Syracuse could field a large cavalry force, making it difficult for the Athenians to move on land. The Athenian generals realised that they needed to find a way to negate the Syracusan cavalry, and Nicias came up with an ingenious plan. An Athenian agent from Catana was sent to Syracuse, and informed the generals there that the Athens slept some way from their arms. If the Syracusan army marched on Catana, local supports in the city would make sure that the Athenians couldn't reach those weapons, allowing the Syracusans to win an easy victory. If the Syracusans took the bait and left their city, the entire Athenian army would be transported down the coast to Syracuse. Once there they would take up a strong position at the southern end of the Grand Harbour, where the Syracusan cavalry couldn't be used, and hopefully fight a battle on their own terms.

The plan worked exactly as hoped. The Syracusans fell for the story, and marched towards Catana. The Athenians and their local allies sailed south, and landed at the southern end of the harbour. They occupied a position between the coast and the temple of Zeus, protected by steep slopes on their left flank and the sea on the right. A fort was built behind their line to protect their rear.

The Syracusan cavalry discovered that something was wrong when they reached Catana and found that the entire Athenian fleet had put to sea. The army turned round and headed back to Syracuse, where they found the Athenians in a strong defensive position. After a brief face-off the two sides camped for the night, in preparation for a battle on the next day.

The Athenians formed up with their own troops in the centre, the Argives and Mantineans on their right (near the coast) and their other allies on the left. Only half of the army was placed in the front line. The other half formed a hollow square behind line, with orders to protect the baggage and reinforce any part of the line that looked to be in trouble. The Athenian hoplites were drawn up eight deep. Facing them the Syracusans were drawn up sixteen deep, suggesting that the two armies were about the same size. Their cavalry was posted on their right, but wasn't expected to play a major part in the battle.

The Athenians began the battle, advancing to attack. This caught the Syracusans by surprise, but they were able to resist the Athenian advance, and a hard-fought battle followed. This worried the Athenians, who had not expected such a hard fight, but eventually the Syracusan line began to give way. Their left wing, near the coast, was the first to suffer, and was pushed back by the Argives. The Athenians then broke the centre of the Syracusan line. With their line broken, the rest of the army began to flee. The Athenian inferiority in cavalry now prevented them from turning their victory into a rout. The Syracusan cavalry was able to protect their retreating troops, and the army rallied on the road to Helorus (this took them away from Syracuse, but the Athenians had cut the main bridge across the River Anapus, which ran between the city and the battlefield. The Syracusans suffered 260 dead, while the Athenians only lost 50 men, and appeared to be in a strong position to threaten the city.

In the aftermath of the battle the Syracusans were able to occupy the hill of the Temple of Zeus, close to the left flank of the Athenian army. Nicias was a superstitious commander, and may have avoided occupying this position for religious reasons, or perhaps to make sure that any plunder went to Athens and wasn't looted by the army. Whatever the reason, the Athenians would suffer for this mistake during the upcoming siege. Nicias then made a second mistake. Instead of moving to besiege the city while the inhabitants were still coming to terms with their defeat in battle, he decided to retire back to Catane for the winter and resume the siege in the following spring. This allowed the Syracusans to recover from their defeat. It also encouraged the Spartans to declare war on Athens in 414 BC, and with their help the Syracusans successfully resisted the Athenian siege, before in 413 BC the entire Athenian army was destroyed while attempting to retreat from the city.

Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC - History

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their allies continued for years in a seesaw pattern of victories and defeats. Sparta's victory at the battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, however, seemed to give it the upper hand. Athens decided that it could best recover its momentum by a bold attack across the Mediterranean against two of Sparta's allies, Syracuse on the island of Sicily and Carthage on the North Africa coast.

The Athenian leaders concluded that victory in the West would give Athens renewed strength to return its forces to mainland Greece and crush Sparta.

The Athenian fleet arrived in Sicilian waters in November 415 BC and successfully landed its army in preparation for an assault on Syracuse the following Spring. In April 414 BC the Athenians began constructing a siege wall around Syracuse while their fleet blocked the mouth of the harbor. Their plans quickly unravelled, however. The more capable of the two Athenian leaders was killed in a skirmish. Then the Syracusans engaged the Athenian fleet and dealt it a major defeat, crippling the Athenian supply chain. At that interval a Spartan army arrived to support Syracuse, and the combined forces stymied extension of the siege wall.

Athens responded by sending a second armada in July of the following year, but its troops were mauled in an unsuccessful night attack. The Athenians then compounded their problems disastrously. By late August they had decided to terminate their siege and withdraw, but instead of implementing their plan immediately, they postponed their departure because of superstitious fears caused by an eclipse of the moon on August 27. The Syracusans seized the opportunity to block the mouth of the harbor, bottling up the entire Athenian fleet. In desperation the Athenians abandoned their ships and attempted to flee into the Sicilian interior. They were swiftly overtaken and captured. Those who were not massacred were sent to the Syracusan quarries as slave laborers for the rest of their short lives. The entire Athenian attack force had been annihilated.

Despite its debacle at Syracuse, Athens managed to ward off defeat for another ten years. Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC, ending its role as a military power.

Naval Battle in the Harbour of Syracuse - stock illustration

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Siege of Syracuse I

The final sea battle in the Great Harbour at Syracuse, 413 BC. The largest single expedition that Athens mounted in the Peloponnesian War was to Sicily in 415 BC, consisting of 134 triremes. Reinforcements of 73 triremes followed the next year. In the first sea battle the Syracusans manned 76 triremes. Yet in spite of their advantage in numbers and skill, poor leadership meant that the Athenian armada was trapped in the Great Harbour, where their skill could not be exercised. The outcome in 413 BC was to be a total disaster.

Based on Thucydides 7.70, this reconstruction shows the first impetus of the Athenian attack, which carried them through the Syracusan vessels guarding the boom across the harbour mouth. The Athenians began loosening the chained merchantmen, but then other Syracusan warships joined in from all directions and the fighting became general throughout the harbour. Thucydides emphasizes that it was a harder sea-fight than any of the previous ones, but despite the best efforts of the Athenian helmsmen, because there were so many ships crammed in such a confined space, there were few opportunities to maneuver-and-ram, backing water (anakrousis) and breaking through the enemy line (diekplous) being impossible. Instead, accidental collisions were numerous, leading to fierce fights across decks and much confusion. In other words, this was an engagement in which Athenian skill was nullified.

Date 415–413 BCE
Location Syracuse in Sicily
Opponents (* winner) *Syracuse and Sparta Athens and its allies
Commander Gylippus Alcibiades, Lamachus, Nicias, Demosthenes
Approx. # Troops Sparta: 4,400 Syracuse: Unknown but probably equal to Athens and allies 42,000
Importance Leads to revolts against Athens from within its empire

The siege of the city-state of Syracuse in Sicily by Athens and its allies during 415-413 BCE initiated the final phase of the Second Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BCE). Alcibiades, a nephew of Pericles, convinced Athenians that if they could secure Sicily they would have the resources to defeat their enemies. The grain of Sicily was immensely important to the people of the Peloponnese, and cutting it off could turn the tide of war. The argument was correct, but securing Sicily was the problem.

The Athenians put together a formidable expeditionary force. A contemporary historian, Thucydides, described the expeditionary force that set out in June 415 as “by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time” (Finley, The Greek Historians, 314). The naval force consisted of 134 triremes (100 of them from Athens and the remainder from Chios and other Athenian allies), 30 supply ships, and more than 100 other vessels. In addition to sailors, rowers, and marines, the force included some 5,100 hoplites and 1,300 archers, javelin men, and slingers as well as 300 horses. In all, the expedition numbered perhaps 27,000 officers and men. Three generals—Alcibiades, Lamachus, and Nicias—commanded.

The original plan was for a quick demonstration in force against Syracuse and then a return of the expeditionary force to Greece. Alcibiades considered this a disgrace. He urged that the expeditionary force stir up political opposition to Syracuse in Sicily. In a council of war, Lamachus pressed for an immediate descent on Syracuse while the city was unprepared and its citizens afraid, but Alcibiades prevailed.

The expedition’s leaders then made a series of approaches to leaders of the other Sicilian cities all ended in failure, with no city of importance friendly to Athens. Syracuse used this time to strengthen its defenses. Alcibiades meanwhile was recalled to stand trial in Athens for impiety.

Nicias and Lamachus then launched an attack on Syracuse and won a battle there, but the arrival of winter prevented further progress, and they suspended offensive operations. What had been intended as a lightning campaign now became a prolonged siege that sapped Athenian energies. Alicibades, fearing for his life, managed to escape Athens and find refuge in Sparta. He not only betrayed the Athenian plan of attack against Syracuse but also spoke to the Spartan assembly and strongly supported a Syracusan plea for aid. The Spartans then sent out a force of their own commanded by Gylippus, one of their best generals.


Stone age in Sparta Edit

The earliest certain evidence of human settlement in the region of Sparta, consists of pottery dating from the Middle Neolithic period found in the vicinity of Kouphovouno some two kilometres southwest of Sparta. [3]

Legendary account Edit

According to myth, the first king of the region later to be called Laconia, but then called Lelegia was the eponymous King Lelex. He was followed, according to tradition, by a series of kings allegorizing several traits of later-to-be Sparta and Laconia, such as the Kings Myles, Eurotas, Lacedaemon and Amyclas of Sparta. The last king from their family was Tyndareus, father of Castor and Clytemnestra and foster-father to Pollux and Helen of Troy. Female figures in this legendary ancestry include the nymph Taygete (mother of Lacedaemon), Sparta (the daughter of Eurotas) and Eurydice of Argos (grandmother of Perseus).

Later the Achaeans, associated with Mycenaean Greece, immigrated from the north and replaced the Lelegians as ruling tribe. Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, would marry Menelaos and thus invite the Atreidae to the Laconian throne. In the end the Heracleidae, commonly identified with the Dorians, would seize the land and the throne of Laconia and found the city-state of Sparta proper. The last Atreidae Tisamenus and Penthilus, according to myth, would lead the Achaeans to Achaea and Asia minor, whereas the Heraclids Eurysthenes and Procles founded the Spartan kingly families of the Agiad and Eurypontid dynasties respectively.

Mycenaean period in Sparta Edit

Dorian invasion Edit

The Pre-Dorian, supposedly Mycenaean, civilization seems to have fallen into decline by the late Bronze Age, when, according to Herodotus, Macedonian tribes from the north marched into Peloponnese, where they were called Dorians and subjugating the local tribes, settled there. [4]

Tradition describes how, some sixty years after the Trojan War, a Dorian migration from the north took place and eventually led to the rise of classical Sparta. [5] This tradition is, however, contradictory and was written down at a time long after the events they supposedly describe. Hence skeptics like Karl Julius Beloch have denied that any such event occurred. [6] Chadwick has argued, on the basis of slight regional variations that he detected in Linear B, that the Dorians had previously lived in the Dorian regions as an oppressed majority, speaking the regional dialect, and emerged when they overthrew their masters. [7]

Dark age in Sparta Edit

Archeologically, Sparta itself begins to show signs of settlement only around 1000 BC, some 200 years after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization. [8] Of the four villages that made up the Spartan Polis, Forrest suggests that the two closest to the Acropolis were the originals, and the two more far-flung settlements were of later foundation. The dual kingship may originate in the fusion of the first two villages. [9] One of the effects of the Mycenaean collapse had been a sharp drop in population. Following that, there was a significant recovery, and this growth in population is likely to have been more marked in Sparta, as it was situated in the most fertile part of the plain. [10]

Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC the Spartans experienced a period of lawlessness and civil strife, later testified by both Herodotus and Thucydides. [11] As a result, they carried out a series of political and social reforms of their own society which they later attributed to a semi-mythical lawgiver, Lycurgus. [12] These reforms mark the beginning of the history of Classical Sparta.

The reforms of Lycurgus Edit

It is during the reign of King Charillos, [13] that most ancient sources place the life of Lycurgus. Indeed, the Spartans ascribed their subsequent success to Lycurgus, who instituted his reforms at a time when Sparta was weakened by internal dissent and lacked the stability of a united and well-organized community. [5] There are reasons to doubt whether he ever existed, as his name derives from the word for "wolf" which was associated with Apollo, hence Lycurgus could be simply a personification of the god. [14]

J. F. Lazenby suggests, that the dual monarchy may date from this period as a result of a fusion of the four villages of Sparta which had, up until then, formed two factions of the villages of Pitana-Mesoa against the villages of Limnai-Konoura. According to this view, the Kings, who tradition says ruled before this time, were either totally mythical or at best factional chieftains. [15] Lazenby further hypothesizes that other reforms such as the introduction of the Ephors were later innovations that were attributed to Lycurgus. [16]

Expansion of Sparta in the Peloponnesus Edit

The Dorians seem to have set about expanding the frontiers of Spartan territory almost before they had established their own state. [17] They fought against the Argive Dorians to the east and southeast, and also the Arcadian Achaeans to the northwest. The evidence suggests that Sparta, relatively inaccessible because of the topography of the plain of Sparta, was secure from early on: it was never fortified. [17]

Sparta shared the plain with Amyklai which lay to the south and was one of the few places to survive from Mycaenean times and was likely to be its most formidable neighbor. Hence the tradition that Sparta, under its kings Archelaos and Charillos moved north to secure the upper Eurotas valley is plausible. [10] Pharis and Geronthrae were then taken and, though the traditions are a little contradictory, also Amyklai which probably fell in about 750 BC. It is probable that the inhabitants of Geronthrae were driven out while those of Amyklai were simply subjugated to Sparta. [18] Pausanias portrays this as a Dorian versus Achaean conflict. [19] The archaeological record, however, throws doubt on such a cultural distinction. [20]

Tyrtaeus tells that the war to conquer the Messenians, their neighbors on the west, led by Theopompus, lasted 19 years and was fought in the time of the fathers of our fathers. If this phrase is to be taken literally, it would mean that the war occurred around the end of the 8th century BC or the beginning of the 7th. [21] The historicity of the Second Messenian War was long doubted, as neither Herodotus or Thucydides mentions a second war. However, in the opinion of Kennell, a fragment of Tyrtaeus (published in 1990) gives us some confidence that it really occurred (probably in the later 7th century). [22] It was as a result of this second war, according to fairly late sources, that the Messenians were reduced to the semi slave status of helots. [22]

Whether Sparta dominated the regions to its east at the time is less settled. According to Herodotus the Argives' territory once included the whole of Cynuria (the east coast of the Peloponnese) and the island of Cythera. [23] Cynuria's low population – apparent in the archaeological record – does suggest that the zone was contested by the two powers. [24]

In the Second Messenian War, Sparta established itself as a local power in Peloponnesus and the rest of Greece. During the following centuries, Sparta's reputation as a land-fighting force was unequaled. [25]

Peloponnesian League Edit

Early in the 6th century BC, the Spartan kings Leon and Agasicles made a vigorous attack on Tegea, the most powerful of the Arcadian cities. For some time Sparta had no success against Tegea and suffered a notable defeat at the Battle of the Fetters—the name reflected Spartan intentions to force the Tegea to recognise it as hegemon. [26] For Forrest this marked a change in Spartan policy, from enslavement to a policy of building an alliance that led to the creation of the Peloponesian League. Forrest, hesitantly attributes this change to Ephor Chilon. [27] In building its alliance, Sparta gained two ends, protection of its conquest of Mesene and a free hand against Argos. [28] The Battle of the Champions won about 546 BC (that is at the time that the Lydian Empire fell before Cyrus of Persia) made the Spartans masters of the Cynuria, the borderland between Laconia and Argolis. [28]

In 494 BC, King Cleomenes I, launched what was intended to be a final settling of accounts with the city of Argos – an invasion, with the capture of the city itself, as the objective. [29] Argos did not fall but her losses in the Battle of Sepeia would cripple Argos militarily, and lead to deep civil strife for some time to come. [30] Sparta had come to be acknowledged as the leading state of Hellas and the champion of Hellenism. Croesus of Lydia had formed an alliance with it. Scythian envoys sought its aid to stem the invasion of Darius to Sparta, the Greeks of Asia Minor appealed to withstand the Persian advance and to aid the Ionian Revolt Plataea asked for Sparta's protection Megara acknowledged its supremacy and at the time of the Persian invasion under Xerxes no state questioned Sparta's right to lead the Greek forces on land or at sea.

Expeditions outside the Peloponnese Edit

At the end of the 6th century BC, Sparta made its first intervention north of the Isthmus when it aided in overthrowing the Athenian tyrant Hippias in 510 BC. [31] Dissension in Athens followed with conflict between Kleisthenes and Isagoras. King Cleomenes turned up in Attica with a small body of troops to back the more conservative Isagoras, whom Cleomenes successfully installed in power. The Athenians, however, soon tired of the foreign king, and Cleomenes found himself expelled by the Athenians.

Cleomenes then proposed an expedition of the entire Peloponnesian League, with himself and his co-King Demaratos in command and the aim of setting up Isagoras as tyrant of Athens. The specific aims of the expedition were kept secret. The secrecy proved disastrous and as dissension broke out the real aims became clearer. First the Corinthians departed. Then a row broke out between Cleomenes and Demaratos with Demaratos too, deciding to go home. [32] As a result of this fiasco the Spartans decided in future not to send out an army with both Kings at its head. It also seems to have changed the nature of the Peloponnesian League. From that time, major decisions were discussed. Sparta was still in charge, but it now had to rally its allies in support of its decisions. [33]

Persian Wars Edit

Battle of Marathon Edit

After hearing a plea for help from Athens who were facing the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, Sparta decided to honor its laws and wait until the moon was full to send an army. As a result, Sparta's army arrived at Marathon after the battle had been won by the Athenians.

Battle of Thermopylae Edit

In the second campaign, conducted ten years later by Xerxes, Sparta faced the same dilemma. The Persians inconveniently chose to attack during the Olympic truce which the Spartans felt they must honor. Other Greek states which lacked such scruples were making a major effort to assemble a fleet – how could Sparta not contribute on land when others were doing so much on sea? [34] The solution was to provide a small force under Leonidas to defend Thermopylae. However, there are indications that Sparta's religious scruples were merely a cover. From this interpretation, Sparta believed that the defense of Thermopylae was hopeless and wished to make a stand at the Isthmus, but they had to go through the motions or Athens might ally itself with Persia. The loss of Athens's fleet would simply be too great a loss to the Greek resistance to be risked. [35] The alternative view is that, on the evidence of the actual fighting, the pass was supremely defensible, and that the Spartans might reasonably have expected that the forces sent, would be adequate. [36]

In 480 BC, a small force of Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans led by King Leonidas (approximately 300 were full Spartiates, 700 were Thespians, and 400 were Thebans these numbers do not reflect casualties incurred prior to the final battle), made a legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae against the massive Persian army, inflicting very high casualties on the Persian forces before finally being encircled. [37] From then on Sparta took a more active share and assumed the command of the combined Greek forces by sea and land. The decisive victory of Salamis did not change Sparta's essential dilemma. Ideally, they would wish to fight at the Isthmus where they would avoid the risk of their infantry being caught in the open by the Persian cavalry.

Battle of Plataea Edit

However, in 479 BC, the remaining Persian forces under Mardonius devastated Attica, Athenian pressure forced Sparta to lead an advance. [38] The outcome was a standoff where both the Persians and the Greeks attempted to fight on favorable terrain, and this was resolved when the Persians attacked during a botched Greek withdrawal. In the resulting Battle of Plataea the Greeks under the generalship of the Spartan Pausanias overthrew the lightly armed Persian infantry, killing Mardonius. [39] The superior weaponry, strategy, and bronze armour of the Greek hoplites and their phalanx had proved their worth with Sparta assembled at full strength and leading a Greek alliance against the Persians. The decisive Greek victory at Plataea put an end to the Greco-Persian War along with Persian ambition of expanding into Europe. Even though this war was won by a pan-Greek army, credit was given to Sparta, who besides being the protagonist at Thermopylae and Plataea, had been the de facto leader of the entire Greek expedition. [40]

Battle of Mycale Edit

In the same year a united Greek fleet under the Spartan King, Leotychidas, won the Battle of Mycale. When this victory led to a revolt of the Ionian Greeks it was Sparta that rejected their admission to the Hellenic alliance. Sparta proposed that they should abandon their homes in Anatolia and settle in the cities that had supported the Persians. [41] It was Athens who, by offering these cities alliance sowed the seeds of the Delian League. [42] In 478 BC, the Greek fleet led by Pausanias, the victor of Plataea, mounted moves on Cyprus and Byzantium. However, his arrogant behavior forced his recall. Pausanias had so alienated the Ionians that they refused to accept the successor, Dorcis, that Sparta sent to replace him. Instead those newly liberated from Persia turned to Athens. [43] The sources give quite divergent impressions about Spartan reactions to Athens' growing power and this may reflect the divergence of opinion within Sparta. [44] According to this view one Spartan faction was quite content to allow Athens to carry the risk of continuing the war with Persia while an opposing faction deeply resented Athens' challenge to their Greek supremacy. [45]

In later Classical times, Sparta along with Athens, Thebes, and Persia had been the main powers fighting for supremacy against each other. As a result of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, a traditionally continental culture, became a naval power. At the peak of its power Sparta subdued many of the key Greek states and even managed to overpower the elite Athenian navy. By the end of the 5th century BC, it stood out as a state which had defeated the Athenian Empire and had invaded the Persian provinces in Anatolia, a period which marks the Spartan Hegemony.

464 BC Sparta earthquake Edit

The Sparta earthquake of 464 BC destroyed much of Sparta. Historical sources suggest that the death toll may have been as high as 20,000, although modern scholars suggest that this figure is likely an exaggeration. The earthquake sparked a revolt of the helots, the slave class of Spartan society. Events surrounding this revolt led to an increase in tension between Sparta and their rival Athens and the cancellation of a treaty between them. After the troops of a relief expedition dispatched by conservative Athenians were sent back with cold thanks, Athenian democracy itself fell into the hands of reformers and moved toward a more populist and anti-Spartan policy. Therefore, this earthquake is cited by historical sources as one of the key events that led up to the First Peloponnesian War.

Beginning of animosity with Athens Edit

Sparta's attention was at this time, fully occupied by troubles nearer home such as the revolt of Tegea (in about 473–471 BC), rendered all the more formidable by the participation of Argos. [46] The most serious, however was the crisis caused by the earthquake which in 464 BC devastated Sparta, costing many lives. In the immediate aftermath, the helots saw an opportunity to rebel. This was followed by the siege of Ithome which the rebel helots had fortified. [47] The pro-Spartan Cimon was successful in getting Athens to send help to put down the rebellion, but this would eventually backfire for the pro-Sparta movement in Athens. [48] The Athenian hoplites that made up the bulk of the force were from the well-to-do section of Athenian society, but were nevertheless openly shocked to discover that the rebels were Greeks like themselves. Sparta began to fear that the Athenian troops might make common cause with the rebels. [49] The Spartans subsequently sent the Athenians home. Providing the official justification that since the initial assault on Ithome had failed, what was now required was a blockade, a task the Spartans did not need Athenian help with. In Athens, this snub resulted in Athens breaking off its alliance with Sparta and allying with its enemy, Argos. [48] Further friction was caused by the consummation of the Attic democracy under Ephialtes and Pericles. [50]

Paul Cartledge hazards that the revolt of helots and perioeci led the Spartans to reorganize their army and integrate the perioeci into the citizen hoplite regiments. Certainly a system where citizens and non-citizens fought together in the same regiments was unusual for Greece. [51] Hans van Wees is, however, unconvinced by the manpower shortage explanation of the Spartans' use of non-citizen hoplites. He agrees that the integration of perioeci and citizens occurred sometime between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars but doesn't regard that as a significant stage. The Spartans had been using non-citizens as hoplites well before that and the proportion did not change. He doubts that the Spartans ever subscribed to the citizen only hoplite force ideal, so beloved by writers such as Aristotle. [52]

Peloponnesian Wars Edit

The Peloponnesian Wars were the protracted armed conflicts, waged on sea and land, of the last half of the 5th century BC between the Delian League controlled by Athens and the Peloponnesian League dominated by Sparta over control of the other Greek city-states. The Delian League is often called "the Athenian Empire" by scholars. The Peloponnesian League believed it was defending itself against Athenian aggrandizement.

The war had ethnic overtones that generally but not always applied: the Delian League included populations of Athenians and Ionians while the Peloponnesian League was mainly of Dorians, except that a third power, the Boeotians, had sided tentatively with the Peloponnesian League. They were never fully trusted by the Spartans. Ethnic animosity was fueled by the forced incorporation of small Dorian states into the Delian League, who appealed to Sparta. Motivations, however, were complex, including local politics and considerations of wealth.

In the end Sparta won, but it declined soon enough and was soon embroiled with wars with Boeotia and Persia, until being overcome finally by Macedon.

First Peloponnesian War Edit

When the First Peloponnesian War broke out, Sparta was still preoccupied suppressing the helot revolt, [50] hence its involvement was somewhat desultory. [53] It amounted to little more than isolated expeditions, the most notable of which involved helping to inflict a defeat on the Athenians at the Battle of Tanagra in 457 BC in Boeotia. However they then returned home giving the Athenians an opportunity to defeat the Boeotians at the battle of Oenophyta and so overthrowing Boeotia. [53] When the helot revolt was finally ended, Sparta needed a respite, seeking and gaining a five-year truce with Athens. By contrast, however, Sparta sought a thirty-year peace with Argos to ensure that they could strike Athens unencumbered. Thus Sparta was fully able to exploit the situation when Megara, Boeotia and Euboea revolted, sending an army into Attica. The war ended with Athens deprived of its mainland possessions but keeping its vast Aegean Empire intact. Both of Sparta's Kings were exiled for permitting Athens to regain Euboea and Sparta agreed to a Thirty Year Peace.But the treaty was broken when Sparta warred with Euboea. [54]

Second Peloponnesian War Edit

Within six years, Sparta was proposing to its allies to go to war with Athens in support of the rebellion in Samos. On that occasion Corinth successfully opposed Sparta and they were voted down. [55] When the Peloponnesian War, finally broke out in 431 BC the chief public complaint against Athens was its alliance with Corinth's enemy Korkyra and Athenenian treatment of Potidea. However, according to Thucydides the real cause of the war was Sparta's fear of the growing power of Athens. [56] The Second Peloponnesian War, fought from 431–404 BC would be the longest and costliest war in Greek history.

Archidamian war Edit

Sparta entered with the proclaimed goal of the "liberation of the Greeks" – an aim that required a total defeat of Athens. Their method was to invade Attica in the hope of provoking Athens to give battle. Athens, meanwhile, planned a defensive war. The Athenians would remain in their city, behind their impenetrable walls, and use their naval superiority to harass the Spartan coastline. [57] In 425 BC, a body of Spartans surrendered to the Athenians at Pylos, casting doubt onto their ability to win the war. [58] This was ameliorated by the expedition of Brasidas to Thrace, the one area where Athens possessions were accessible by land, which made possible, the compromise of 421 BC known as the Peace of Nicias. The war between 431 and 421 BC is termed the "Archidamian War" after the Spartan king who invaded Attica when it began, Archidamus II.

Syracusan expedition Edit

The war resumed in 415 BC and lasted until 404 BC. In 415 BC, Athens decided to capture Syracuse, a colony of Dorian Corinth. The arguments advanced in the assembly were that it would be a profitable possession and an enhancement of the empire. They invested a large portion of the state resources in a military expedition, but recalled one of its commanders, Alcibiades, on a trumped-up charge of impiety (some religious statues had been mutilated) for which he faced the death penalty. Escaping in his ship he deserted to Sparta. Having defaulted on the inquiry he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death.

At first Sparta hesitated to resume military operations. In 414 BC, a combined force of Athenians and Argives raided the Laconian coast, after which Sparta began to take Alcibiades' advice. The success of Sparta and the eventual capture of Athens in 404 BC were aided partly by that advice. He induced Sparta to send Gylippus to conduct the defence of Syracuse, to fortify Decelea in northern Attica, and to adopt a vigorous policy of aiding Athenian allies to revolt. The next year they marched north, fortified Deceleia, cut down all the olive groves, which produced Athens' major cash crop, and denied them the use of the countryside. Athens was now totally dependent on its fleet, then materially superior to the Spartan navy. [58] Spartan generals showed themselves to be not only inexperienced at naval warfare but in the assessment of Forrest, they were often incompetent or brutal or both. [59]

Gylippus did not arrive alone at Syracuse. Collecting a significant force from Sicily and Spartan hoplites serving overseas he took command of the defense. The initial Athenian force under Nicias had sailed boldly into the Great Harbor of Syracuse to set up camp at the foot of the city, which was on a headland. Gylippus collected an international army of pro-Spartan elements from many parts of the eastern Mediterranean on the platform of liberation of Greece from the tyranny of Athens. Ultimately the Athenian force was not large enough to conduct an effective siege. They attempted to wall in the city but were prevented by a counter-wall. A second army under Demosthenes arrived. Finally the Athenian commanders staked everything on a single assault against a weak point on the headland, Epipolae, but were thrown back with great losses. They were about to depart for Athens when an eclipse of the full moon moved the soothsayers to insist they remain for another nine days, just the time needed for the Syracusians to prepare a fleet to block the mouth of the harbor. [60]

Events moved rapidly toward disaster for the Athenians. Attempting to break out of the harbor they were defeated in a naval battle. The admiral, Eurymedon, was killed. Losing confidence in their ability to win, they abandoned the remaining ships and the wounded and attempted to march out by land. The route was blocked at every crossing by Syracusians, who anticipated this move. The Athenian army marched under a rain of missiles. When Nicias inadvertently marched ahead of Demosthenes the Syracusians surrounded the latter and forced a surrender, to which that of Nicias was soon added. Both leaders were executed, despite the protests of Gylippus, who wanted to take them back to Sparta. Several thousand prisoners were penned up in the quarries without the necessities of life or the removal of the dead. After several months the remaining Athenians were ransomed. The failure of the expedition in 413 was a material loss the Athenians could hardly bear, but the war continued for another ten years.

Intervention of the Persians Edit

Spartan shortcomings at sea were by this time manifest to them, especially under the tuteledge of Alcibiades. The lack of funds which could have proved fatal to Spartan naval warfare, was remedied by the intervention of Persia, which supplied large subsidies. In 412 the agents of Tissaphernes, the Great King's governor of such parts of the coast of Asia Minor as he could control, approached Sparta with a deal. The Great King would supply funds for the Spartan fleet if the Spartans would guarantee to the king what he considered ancestral lands to wit, the coast of Asia Minor with the Ionian cities. An agreement was reached. A Spartan fleet and negotiator was sent to Asia Minor. The negotiator was Alcibiades, now persona non-grata in Sparta because of his new mistress, the wife of King Agis, then away commanding the garrison at Deceleia. After befriending Tissaphernes Alcibiades was secretly offered an honorable return to Athens if he would influence the latter on their behalf. He was a double agent, 411–407. The Spartans received little money or expert advice. [59]

By 408 the Great King had perceived that the agreement with the Spartans was not being implemented. He sent his brother, Cyrus the younger, to relieve Tissaphernes of his command of Lydia. Tissaphernes was pushed aside to the governorship of Caria. Exposed, Alcibiades departed for Athens in 407. In his place Sparta sent an agent of similar capabilities, a friend of King Agis, Lysander, who as "a diplomat and organizer . was almost flawless, unless we count arrogance, dishonesty, unscrupulousness and brutality as flaws." [61] He and Cyrus got along well. Upgrade of the Spartan fleet proceeded rapidly. In 406 Alcibiades returned as the commander of an Athenian squadron with the intent of destroying the new Spartan fleet, but it was too late. He was defeated by Lysander at the Battle of Notium. The suspicious Athenian government repudiated its arrangement with Alcibiades. He went into exile a second time, to take up residence in a remote villa in the Aegean, now a man without a country.

Lysander's term as navarch then came to an end. He was replaced by Callicratidas but Cyrus now stinted his payments for the Spartan fleet. The funds allocated by the Great King had been used up. On Callicratides' defeat and death at the Battle of Arginusae the Spartans offered peace on generous terms. The Delian League would be left in place. Athens would still be allowed to collect tribute for its defense. The war party at Athens, however, mistrusted Sparta. One of its leaders, Cleophon, addressed the assembly wearing his armor, drunk. He demanded the Spartans withdraw from all cites they then held as a precondition of peace. The assembly rejected the Spartan offer. It undertook a new offensive against Spartan allies in the Aegean.

In the winter of 406/405 those allies met with Cyrus at Ephesus. Together they formulated an appeal to Sparta that Lysander be sent out for a second term. Both Spartan political norms and the Spartan constitution should have prevented his second term, but in the wake of the new Spartan defeat a circumvention was found. Lysander would be the secretary of a nominal navarch, Aracus, with the rank of vice-admiral. Lysander was again entrusted with all the resources needed to maintain and operate the Spartan fleet. Cyrus supplied the funds from his own resources. The Great King now recalled Cyrus to answer for the execution of certain members of the royal family. Cyrus appointed Lysander governor in his place, giving him the right to collect taxes. [62] This trust was justified in 404 BC when Lysander destroyed the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegospotami.

Lysander then sailed at his leisure for Athens to impose a blockade. If he encountered a state of the Delian League on his way he gave the Athenian garrison the option of withdrawing to Athens if they refused, their treatment was harsh. He replaced democracies with pro-Spartan decarchies under a Spartan harmost.

The terms of surrender Edit

After the Battle of Aegospotami the Spartan navy sailed where it pleased unopposed. A fleet of 150 ships entered the Saronic Gulf to impose a blockade on Piraeus. Athens was cut off. In the winter of 404 the Athenians sent a delegation to King Agis at Deceleia proposing to become a Spartan ally if only they would be allowed to keep the walls intact. He sent them on to Sparta. The delegation was turned back on the road by the ephors. After hearing the terms they suggested the Athenians return with better ones.

The Athenians appointed Theramenes to discuss the matter with Lysander, but the latter had made himself unavailable. Theramenes found him, probably on Samos. After a wait of three months he returned to Athens saying that Lysander had delayed him and that he was to negotiate with Sparta directly. A board of nine delegates was appointed to go with Thermenes to Sparta. This time the delegation was allowed to pass.

The disposition of Athens was then debated in the Spartan assembly, which apparently had the power of debate, of veto and of counterproposition. Moreover, the people in assembly were the final power. Corinth and Thebes proposed that Athens be leveled and the land be turned into a pasture for sheep. Agis, supported by Lysander, also recommended the destruction of the city. The assembly refused, stating that they would not destroy a city that had served Greece so well in the past, alluding to Athens' contribution to the defeat of the Persians.

Instead the Athenians were offered terms of unconditional surrender: the long walls must be dismantled, Athens must withdraw from all states of the Delian League and Athenian exiles must be allowed to return. The Athenians could keep their own land. The returning delegates found the population of Athens starving to death. The surrender was accepted in assembly in April, 404, 27 years after the start of the war, with little opposition. A few weeks later Lysander arrived with a Spartan garrison. They began to tear down the walls to the tune of pipes played by young female pipers. Lysander reported to the ephors that "Athens is taken." The ephors complained of his wordiness, stating that "taken" would have been sufficient. [63]

Some modern historians have proposed a less altruistic reason for the Spartans' mercy—the need for a counterweight to Thebes [64] —though Anton Powell sees this as an excess of hindsight. It is doubtful that the Spartans could have predicted that it would be Thebes that would someday pose a serious threat, later defeating the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. Lysander's political opponents may have defended Athens not out of gratitude, but out of fear of making Lysander too powerful. [65]

The affair of the thirty Edit

In the spring of 404 BC, the terms of surrender required the Athenians to tear down the long walls between the city and the port of Piraeus. When internal dissent prevented the Athenians from restoring a government Lysander dissolved the democracy and set up a government of 30 oligarchs that would come to be known as the Thirty. These were pro-Spartan men. Originally voted into power by the Assembly with a mandate to codify the laws, they immediately requested the assistance of the Spartan garrison to arrest their enemies. [66] With them they assassinated persons who were pro-democracy and confiscated their property. [67]

The disquiet of Sparta's allies in the Peloponnesian League can be seen in the defiance of Boeotia, Elis and Corinth in offering refuge to those who opposed the rule of the Thirty. Lysander departed Athens to establish decarchies, governing boards of 10 men, elsewhere in the former Athenian Empire, leaving the Spartan garrison under the command of the Thirty. Taking advantage of a general anti-Spartan backlash and a change of regime in Boeotia to an anti-Spartan government, the exiles and non-Athenian supporters (who were promised citizenship) launched an attack from Boeotia on Athens under Thrasybulus and in the Battle of Phyle followed by the Battle of Munichia and the Battle of Piraeus defeated the Athenian supporters of the Thirty with the Spartan garrison regaining partial control of Athens. They set up a decarchy. [68]

Athens was on the brink of civil war. Both sides sent delegates to present their case before King Pausanias. The Thirty were heard first. They complained that Piraeus was being occupied by a Boeotian puppet government. Pausanias immediately appointed Lysander harmost (governor), which required the assent of the ephors, and ordered him to Sparta with his brother, who had been made navarch over 40 ships. They were to put down the rebellion and expel the foreigners.

After the Ten had been fully heard, Pausanias, obtaining the assent of three out of five ephors, went himself to Athens with a force including men from all the allies except the suspect Boeotia and Corinth. He met and superseded Lysander on the road. A battle ensued against Thrasybulus, whose forces killed two Spartan polemarchs but were driven at last into a marsh and trapped there. Pausanias broke off. He set up the board of 15 peace commissioners that had been sent with him by the Spartan assembly and invited both sides to a conference. The final reconciliation restored democracy to Athens. The Thirty held Eleusis, as they had previously massacred the entire population. It was made independent of Athens as a refuge for supporters of the Thirty. A general amnesty was declared. The Spartans ended their occupation. [69]

The former oligarchs repudiated the peace. After failure to raise assistance for their cause among the other states of Greece, they attempted a coup. Faced with the new Athenian state at overwhelming odds they were lured into a conference, seized and executed. Eleusis reverted to Athens. [70] Sparta refused further involvement. Meanwhile, Lysander, who had been recalled to Sparta after his relief by Pausanias, with the assistance of King Agis (the second king) charged Pausanias with being too lenient with the Athenians. Not only was he acquitted by an overwhelming majority of the jurors (except for the supporters of Agis) including all five ephors, but the Spartan government repudiated all the decarchs that had been established by Lysander in former states of the Athenian Empire and ordered the former governments restored. [71]

Spartan supremacy Edit

The two major powers in the eastern Mediterranean in the 5th century BC had been Athens and Sparta. The defeat of Athens by Sparta resulted in Spartan hegemony in the early 4th century BC.

Failed intervention in the Persian Empire Edit

Sparta's close relationship with Cyrus the Younger continued when she gave covert support to his attempt to seize the Persian throne. After Cyrus was killed at the Battle of Cunaxa, Sparta briefly attempted to be conciliatory towards Artaxerxes, the Persian king. In late 401 BC, however, Sparta decided to answer an appeal of several Ionian cities and sent an expedition to Anatolia. [72] Though the war was fought under the banner of Greek liberty, the Spartan defeat at the Battle of Cnidus in 394 BC was widely welcomed by the Greek cities of the region. Though Persian rule meant to the cities of mainland Asia, the payment of tribute, this seems to have been considered a lesser evil than Spartan rule. [72]

The peace of Antalcidas Edit

At the end of 397 BC, Persia had sent a Rhodian agent with gifts to opponents of Sparta on the mainland of Greece. However, these inducements served mainly as encouragement to those who were already resentful of Sparta. In the event, it was Sparta who made the first aggressive move using, as a pretext, Boeotia's support for her ally Locris against Sparta's ally Phocis. An army under Lysander and Pausanias was despatched. As Pausanias was somewhat lukewarm to the whole enterprise, Lysander went on ahead. Having detached Orchomenos from the Boeotian League, Lysander was killed at the Battle of Haliartus. When Pausanias arrived rather than avenge the defeat he simply sought a truce to bury the bodies. For this Pausanias was prosecuted, this time successfully and went into exile. [73]

At the Battle of Coronea, Agesilaus I, the new king of Sparta, had slightly the better of the Boeotians and at Corinth, the Spartans maintained their position, yet they felt it necessary to rid themselves of Persian hostility and if possible use Persian power to strengthen their own position at home: they therefore concluded with Artaxerxes II the humiliating Peace of Antalcidas in 387 BC, by which they surrendered to the Great King of the Greek cities of the Asia Minor coast and of Cyprus, and stipulated for the autonomy of all other Greek cities. Finally, Sparta and Persia were given the right to make war on those who did not respect the terms of the treaty. [74] It was to be a very one sided interpretation of autonomy that Sparta enforced. The Boeotian League was broken up on the one hand while the Spartan dominated Peloponnesian League was excepted. Further, Sparta did not consider that autonomy included the right of a city to choose democracy over Sparta's preferred form of government. [75] In 383 BC an appeal from two cities of the Chalkidice and of the King of Macedon gave Sparta a pretext to break up the Chalkidian League headed by Olynthus. After several years of fighting Olynthus was defeated and the cities of the Chalkidice were enrolled into the Peloponnesian League. The real beneficiary of this conflict was Macedon, though Paul Cartledge considers it to be indulging in hindsight, to blame Sparta for enabling the rise of Philip II. [76]

A new civil war Edit

During the Corinthian War Sparta faced a coalition of the leading Greek states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos. The alliance was initially backed by Persia, whose lands in Anatolia had been invaded by Sparta and which feared further Spartan expansion into Asia. [77] Sparta achieved a series of land victories, but many of her ships were destroyed at the battle of Cnidus by a Greek-Phoenician mercenary fleet that Persia had provided to Athens. The event severely damaged Sparta's naval power but did not end its aspirations of invading further into Persia, until Conon the Athenian ravaged the Spartan coastline and provoked the old Spartan fear of a helot revolt. [78]

After a few more years of fighting in 387 BC, the Peace of Antalcidas was established, according to which all Greek cities of Ionia would return to Persian control, and Persia's Asian border would be free of the Spartan threat. [78] The effects of the war were to reaffirm Persia's ability to interfere successfully in Greek politics and to affirm Sparta's weakened hegemonic position in the Greek political system. [79]

In 382 BC, Phoebidas, while leading a Spartan army north against Olynthus made a detour to Thebes and seized the Kadmeia, the citadel of Thebes. The leader of the anti-Spartan faction was executed after a show trial, and a narrow clique of pro-Spartan partisans was placed in power in Thebes, and other Boeotian cities. It was a flagrant breach of the Peace of Antalcidas. [80] It was the seizure of the Kadmeia that led to Theban rebellion and hence to the outbreak of the Boeotian War. Sparta started this war with the strategic initiative, however, Sparta failed to achieve its aims. [81] Early on, a botched attack on Piraeus by the Spartan commander Sphodrias undermined Sparta's position by driving Athens into the arms of Thebes. [82] Sparta then met defeat at sea (the Battle of Naxos) and on land (the Battle of Tegyra) and failed to prevent the re-establishment of the Boeotian League and creation of the Second Athenian League. [83]

The peace of Callias Edit

In 371 BC, a fresh peace congress was summoned at Sparta to ratify the Peace of Callias. Again the Thebans refused to renounce their Boeotian hegemony, and the Spartan's sent a force under King Cleombrotus in an attempt to enforce Theban acceptance. When the Thebans gave battle at Leuctra, it was more out of brave despair than hope. [84] However, it was Sparta that was defeated and this, along with the death of King Cleombrotus dealt a crushing blow to Spartan military prestige. [85] The result of the battle was to transfer supremacy from Sparta to Thebes.

Decline of the population Edit

As Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood, Sparta now increasingly faced a helot population that vastly outnumbered its citizens. The alarming decline of Spartan citizens was commented on by Aristotle, who viewed it as a sudden event. While some researchers view it as a result of war casualties, it appears that the number of citizens, after a certain point, started declining steadily at a rate of 50% reduction every fifty years regardless of the extent of battles. Most likely, this was the result of steady shifting of wealth among the citizen body, which was simply not as obvious until laws were passed allowing the citizens to give away their land plots. [86]

Facing the Theban hegemony Edit

Sparta never fully recovered from the losses that it suffered at Leuctra in 371 BC and the subsequent helot revolts. Nonetheless, it was able to continue as a regional power for over two centuries. Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to conquer Sparta itself.

By the winter of late 370 BC, King Agesilaus took the field, not against Thebes, but in an attempt to preserve at least a toehold of influence for Sparta in Arkadia. This backfired when, in response, the Arkadians sent an appeal for help to Boeotia. Boeotia responded by sending a large army, led by Epaminondas, which first marched on Sparta itself and then moved to Messenia where the helots had already rebelled. Epaminondas made that rebellion permanent by fortifying the city of Messene. [87]

The final showdown was in 362 BC, by which time several of Boetia's former allies, such as Mantinea and Elis, had joined Sparta. Athens also fought with Sparta. The resulting Battle of Mantinea was won by Boetia and her allies but in the moment of victory, Epaminondas was killed. [88] In the aftermath of the battle both Sparta's enemies and her allies swore a common peace. Only Sparta itself refused because it would not accept the independence of Messenia. [89]

Facing Macedon Edit

Sparta had neither the men nor the money to recover her lost position, and the continued existence on her borders of an independent Messenia and Arcadia kept her in constant fear for her own safety. She did, indeed, join with Athens and Achaea in 353 BC to prevent Philip II of Macedon passing Thermopylae and entering Phocis, but beyond this, she took no part in the struggle of Greece with the new power which had sprung up on her northern borders. The final showdown saw Philip fighting Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea. Sparta was pinned down at home by Macedonian allies such as Messene and Argos and took no part. [90]

After the Battle of Chaeronea, Philip II of Macedon entered the Peloponnese. Sparta alone refused to join Philip's "Corinthian League" but Philip engineered the transfer of certain border districts to the neighbouring states of Argos, Arcadia and Messenia. [91]

During Alexander's campaigns in the east, the Spartan king, Agis III sent a force to Crete in 333 BC with the aim of securing the island for Sparta. [92] Agis next took command of allied Greek forces against Macedon, gaining early successes, before laying siege to Megalopolis in 331 BC. A large Macedonian army under general Antipater marched to its relief and defeated the Spartan-led force in a pitched battle. [93] More than 5,300 of the Spartans and their allies were killed in battle, and 3,500 of Antipater's troops. [94] Agis, now wounded and unable to stand, ordered his men to leave him behind to face the advancing Macedonian army so that he could buy them time to retreat. On his knees, the Spartan king slew several enemy soldiers before being finally killed by a javelin. [95] Alexander was merciful, and he only forced the Spartans to join the League of Corinth, which they had previously refused to join. [96]

The memory of this defeat was still fresh in Spartan minds when the general revolt against Macedonian rule known as the Lamian War broke out – hence Sparta stayed neutral. [97]

Even during its decline, Sparta never forgot its claims on being the "defender of Hellenism" and its Laconic wit. An anecdote has it that when Philip II sent a message to Sparta saying "If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta", the Spartans responded with the single, terse reply: "If." [98]

When Philip created the league of the Greeks on the pretext of unifying Greece against Persia, the Spartans chose not to join—they had no interest in joining a pan-Greek expedition if it was not under Spartan leadership. Thus, upon the conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great sent to Athens 300 suits of Persian armour with the following inscription "Alexander, son of Philip, and all the Greeks except the Spartans, give these offerings taken from the foreigners who live in Asia [emphasis added]".

During Demetrius Poliorcetes’ campaign to conquer the Peloponnese in 294 BC, the Spartans led by Archidamus IV attempted to resist but were defeated in two battles. Had Demetrius not decided to turn his attention to Macedonia the city would have fallen. [99] In 293 BC, a Spartan force, under Cleonymus, inspired Boeotia to defy Demetrius but Cleonymus soon departed leaving Thebes in the lurch. [100] In 280 BC, a Spartan army, led by King Areus, again marched north, this time under the pretext of saving some sacred land near Delphi from the Aetolians. They somewhat pulled the moral high ground from under themselves, by looting the area. It was at this point that the Aetolians caught them and defeated them. [101]

In 272 BC, Cleonymus of Sparta (who had been displaced as King by Areus [102] ), persuaded Pyrrhus to invade the Peloponnese. [103] Pyrrhus laid siege to Sparta confident that he could take the city with ease, however, the Spartans, with even the women taking part in the defence, succeeded in beating off Pyrrhus' attacks. [104] At this point Pyrrhus received an appeal from an opposition Argive faction, for backing against the pro-Gonatas ruler of Argos, and he withdrew from Sparta. [105] In 264 BC, Sparta formed an alliance with Athens and Ptolomeic Egypt (along with a number smaller Greek cities) in an attempt to break free of Macedon. [106] During the resulting Chremonidean War the Spartan King Areus led two expeditions to the Isthmus where Corinth was garrisoned by Macedonia, he was killed in the second. [107] When the Achaean League was expecting an attack from Aetolia, Sparta sent an army under Agis to help defend the Isthmus, but the Spartans were sent home when it seemed that no attack would materialize. [108] In about 244 BC, an Aetolian army raided Laconia, carrying off, (it was said) 50,000 captives, [5] although that is likely to be an exaggeration. [109] Grainger has suggested that this raid was part of Aetolia's project to build a coalition of Peloponnesian cities. Though Aetolia was primarily concerned with confining Achaea, because the cities concerned were hostile to Sparta, Aetolia needed to demonstrate her anti-Spartan credentials. [110]

During the 3rd century BC, a social crisis slowly emerged: wealth had become concentrated amongst about 100 families [111] and the number of equals (who had always formed the backbone of the Spartan army) had fallen to 700 (less than a tenth of its 9000 strong highpoint in the 7th century BC). [111] Agis IV was the first Spartan king to attempt reform. His program combined debt cancellation and land reform. Opposition from King Leonidas was removed when he was deposed on somewhat dubious grounds. However, his opponents exploited a period when Agis IV was absent from Sparta and, on his return he was subjected to a travesty of a trial. [112]

The next attempt at reform came from Cleomenes III, the son of King Leonidas. In 229 BC, Cleomenes led an attack on Megalopolis, hence provoking war with Achaea. Aratus, who led the Achaean League forces, adopted a very cautious strategy, despite having 20,000 to Cleomenes 5000 men. Cleomenes was faced with obstruction from the Ephors which probably reflected a general lack of enthusiasm amongst the citizens of Sparta. [113] Nonetheless he succeeded in defeating Aratus. [114] With this success behind him he left the citizen troops in the field and with the mercenaries, marched on Sparta to stage a coup d'état. The ephorate was abolished – indeed four out of five of them had been killed during Cleomenes' seizure of power. [115] Land was redistributed enabling a widening of the citizen body. [115] Debts were cancelled. Cleomenes gave to Sphaerus, his stoic advisor, the task of restoring the old severe training and simple life. Historian Peter Green comments that giving such a responsibility to a non-Spartan was a telling indication of the extent that Sparta had lost her Lycurgian traditions. [115] These reforms excited hostility amongst the wealthy of the Peloponnese who feared social revolution. For others, especially among the poor, Cleomenes inspired hope. This hope was quickly dashed when Cleomenes started taking cities and it became obvious that social reform outside Sparta was the last thing on his mind. [116]

Cleomenes' reforms had as their aim, the restoration of Spartan power. Initially Cleomenes was successful, taking cities that had until then been part of the Achaean League [117] and winning the financial backing of Egypt. [118] However Aratus, the leader of the Achaean League, decided to ally with Achaea's enemy, Macedonia. With Egypt deciding to cut financial aid Cleomenes decided to risk all on one battle. [119] In the resulting Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC, Cleomenes was defeated by the Achaeans and Macedonia. Antigonus III Doson, the king of Macedon ceremonially entered Sparta with his army, something Sparta had never endured before. The ephors were restored, whilst the kingship was suspended. [120]

At the beginning of the Social War in 220 BC, envoys from Achaea unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Sparta to take the field against Aetolia. Aetolian envoys were at first equally unsuccessful but their presence was used as a pretext by Spartan royalists who staged a coup d'état that restored the dual kingship. Sparta then immediately entered the war on the side of Aetolia. [121]

The sources on Nabis, who took power in 207 BC, are so uniformly hostile that it is impossible today to judge the truth of the accusation against him – that his reforms were undertaken only to serve Nabis' interests. [122] Certainly his reforms went far deeper than those of Cleomenes who had liberated 6000 helots merely as an emergency measure. [123] The Encyclopædia Britannica states:

Were we to trust the accounts given by Polybius and Livy, we would dismiss him little better than a bandit chieftain, holding Sparta by means of extreme cruelty and oppression and using mercenary troops to a large extent in his wars. [5]

The historian W.G. Forest is willing to take these accusations at face value including that he murdered his ward, and participated in state sponsored piracy and brigandage – but not the self-interested motives ascribed to him. He sees him as a ruthless version of Cleomenes, sincerely attempting to solve Sparta's social crisis. [124] He initiated the building of Sparta's first walls which extended to some 6 miles. [125]

It was this point that Achaea switched her alliance with Macedon to support Rome. As Achaea was Sparta's main rival, Nabis leaned towards Macedonia. It was getting increasingly difficult for Macedonia to hold Argos, so Philip V of Macedon decided to give Argos to Sparta which increased tension with the Achaean League. Nonetheless, he was careful not to violate the letter of his alliance with Rome. [124] After the conclusion of the wars with Philip V, Sparta's control of Argos contradicted the official Roman policy of freedom to the Greeks and Titus Quinctius Flamininus organized a large army with which he invaded Laconia and laid siege to Sparta. [126] Nabis was forced to capitulate, evacuating all his possessions outside Laconia, surrendering the Laconian seaports and his navy, and paying an indemnity of 500 talents, while freed slaves were returned to their former masters. [126] [127]

Though the territory under his control now consisted only of the city of Sparta and its immediate environs, Nabis still hoped to regain his former power. In 192 BC, seeing that the Romans and their Achaean allies were distracted by the imminent war with King Antiochus III of Syria and the Aetolian League, Nabis attempted to recapture the harbor city of Gythium and the Laconian coastline. [128] Initially, he was successful, capturing Gythium and defeating the Achaean League in a minor naval battle. [128] Soon after, however, his army was routed by the Achaean general Philopoemen and shut up within the walls of Sparta. After ravaging the surrounding countryside, Philopoemen returned home. [128]

Within a few months, Nabis appealed to the Aetolian League to send troops so that he might protect his territory against the Romans and the Achaean League. [128] The Aetolians responded by sending an army to Sparta. [129] Once there, however, the Aetolians betrayed Nabis, assassinating him while he was drilling his army outside the city. [129] The Aetolians then attempted to take control of the city, but were prevented from doing so by an uprising of the citizens. [129] The Achaeans, seeking to take advantage of the ensuing chaos, dispatched Philopoemen to Sparta with a large army. Once there, he compelled the Spartans to join the Achaean League ending their independence. [130]

Sparta played no active part in the Achaean War in 146 BC when the Achaean League was defeated by the Roman general Lucius Mummius. Subsequently, Sparta become a free city in the Roman sense, some of the institutions of Lycurgus were restored [131] and the city became a tourist attraction for the Roman elite who came to observe exotic Spartan customs. [n 1] The former Perioecic communities were not restored to Sparta and some of them were organized as the "League of Free Laconians".

After 146 BC, sources for Spartan history are somewhat fragmentary. [134] Pliny describes its freedom as being empty, though Chrimes argues that whilst this may be true in the area of external relations, Sparta retained a high level of autonomy in internal matters. [135]

A passage in Suetonius reveals that the Spartans were clients of the powerful patrician clan of the Claudii. Octavians's wife Livia was a member of the Claudii which might explain why Sparta was one of the few Greek cities that backed Octavian first in the war against Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC then in the war against Mark Antony in 30 BC. [136]

During the late 1st century BC and much of the 1st century AD Sparta was dominated by the powerful family of the Euryclids which acted something like a "client-dynasty" for the Romans. [137] After the fall of the Euryclids from grace during the reign of Nero the city was ruled by republican institutions and civic life seems to have flourished. During the 2nd century AD a 12 kilometers long aqueduct was built.

The Romans fielded Spartan auxiliary troops in their wars against the Parthians under the emperors Lucius Verus and Caracalla. [138] It is likely that the Romans wished to use the legend of Spartan prowess. [138] After an economic decline in the 3rd century, urban prosperity returned in the 4th century and Sparta even became a minor center of high studies as attested in some of the letters of Libanius.

Sparta during the Migration Period Edit

In 396 AD, Alaric sacked Sparta and, though it was rebuilt, the revived city was much smaller than before. [139] The city was finally abandoned during this period when many of the population centers of the Peloponnese were raided by an Avaro-Slav army. Some settlement by Proto-Slavic tribes occurred around this time. [140] The scale of the Slavic incursions and settlement in the later 6th and especially in the 7th century remain a matter of dispute. The Slavs occupied most of the Peloponnese, as evidenced by Slavic toponyms, with the exception of the eastern coast, which remained in Byzantine hands. The latter was included in the thema of Hellas, established by Justinian II ca. 690. [141] [142]

Under Nikephoros I, following a Slavic revolt and attack on Patras, a determined Hellenization process was carried out. According to the (not always reliable) Chronicle of Monemvasia, in 805 the Byzantine governor of Corinth went to war with the Slavs, exterminated them, and allowed the original inhabitants to claim their own lands. They regained control of the city of Patras and the peninsula was re-settled with Greeks. [143] Many Slavs were transported to Asia Minor, and many Asian, Sicilian and Calabrian Greeks were resettled in the Peloponnese. The entire peninsula was formed into the new thema of Peloponnesos, with its capital at Corinth. There was also continuity of the Peloponnesian Greek population. [144] With re-Hellenization, the Slavs likely became a minority among the Greeks, although the historian J.V.A. Fine considers it is unlikely that a large number of people could have easily been transplanted into Greece in the 9th century this suggests that many Greeks had remained in the territory and continued to speak Greek throughout the period of Slavic occupation. [145] By the end of the 9th century, the Peloponnese was culturally and administratively Greek again, [146] with the exception of a few small Slavic tribes in the mountains such as the Melingoi and Ezeritai.

According to Byzantine sources, the Mani Peninsula in southern Laconian remained pagan until well into the 10th century. In his De administrando imperio, Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos also claims that the Maniots retained autonomy during the Slavic invasion, and that they descend from the ancient Greeks. Doric-speaking populations survive today in Tsakonia. During its Middle Ages, the political and cultural center of Laconia shifted to the nearby settlement of Mystras.

Sparta of the Late Middle Ages Edit

On their arrival in the Morea, the Frankish Crusaders found a fortified city named Lacedaemonia (Sparta) occupying part of the site of ancient Sparta, and this continued to exist, [147] though greatly depopulated, even after the Prince of Achaea William II Villehardouin had in 1249 founded the fortress and city of Mystras, on a spur of Taygetus (some 3 miles northwest of Sparta).

This passed shortly afterwards into the hands of the Byzantines and became the centre of the Despotate of the Morea, until the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II captured it in 1460. In 1687 it came into the possession of the Venetians, from whom it was wrested again in 1715 by the Turks. Thus for nearly six centuries it was Mystras and not Sparta which formed the center and focus of Laconian history. [5]

In 1777, following the Orlov events, some inhabitants of Sparta bearing the name "Karagiannakos" (Greek: Καραγιαννάκος ) migrated to Koldere, near Magnesia (ad Sipylum). [148]

The Mani Peninsula region of Laconia retained some measure of autonomy during the Ottoman period, and played a significant role in the Greek War of Independence.

Modern Sparta Edit

Until modern times, the site of ancient Sparta was occupied by a small town of a few thousand people who lived amongst the ruins, in the shadow of Mystras, a more important medieval Greek settlement nearby. The Palaiologos family (the last Byzantine Greek imperial dynasty) also lived in Mystras. In 1834, after the Greek War of Independence, King Otto of Greece decreed that the town was to be expanded into a city.


Carthage had previously invaded Sicily in 406 BC, in retaliation of Greek raids on Phoenician lands. This expedition was first commanded by Hannibal Mago who, after the siege of Akragas by his kinsman Himilco, had managed to capture and sack the cities of Akragas, Gela and Camarina by the summer of 405 BC. These defeats had caused political turmoil in Syracuse, and had ultimately brought Dionysius to power as tyrant. [1] Himilco and Dionysius signed a peace treaty in 405 BC, which left Carthage in direct or indirect control of 60% of Sicily. The cities of Messina and Leontini were left independent, and Dionysius was acknowledged as the ruler of Syracuse by Carthage. [2]

Dionysius gets ready Edit

Between 405 BC and 398 BC, Dionysius set about securing his political position and increasing the armed forces of Syracuse. He broke the treaty with Himilco in 404 BC by starting a war with the Sicels. While Carthage did nothing in response, Dionysius was put in a difficult situation by a revolt within his army, which besieged him in Syracuse. Fortune and incompetence of his enemies helped Dionysius to emerge triumphant from this crisis. [3] Dionysius then enlarged his territory by conquering and sacking the cities of Naxos and Catana, and annexing Leontini. [4] He hired mercenaries and enlarged his fleet, building 200 new ships. Syracuse was fortified, with Dionysius turning the island of Ortygia (where the original city of Syracuse stood) into a fortress and encompassing the Epipolae Plateau by massive walls. He hired workmen to create new weapons (such as the Catapult), and new ships (such as the Quinquereme). [5] In 398 BC, Dionysius attacked the Phoenician city of Motya with an army of 80,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, along with a fleet of 200 warships and 500 transports carrying his supplies and war machines. This ignited the first of four wars he was to lead against Carthage. [6]

The war begins Edit

The attack of Dionysius caused the Sicilian Greeks and Sikans under Carthaginian dominion to rebel, and by the time Dionysius besieged Motya, only 5 cities remained in league (Segesta, Entella, Palermo and Solus among them) with Carthage in Sicily. Lacking a standing army, Carthage could only send a fleet of 100 triremes under Himilco to aid Motya. Himilco was unsuccessful and Dionysius sacked Motya after overcoming fierce Punic resistance. [7]

After Carthage had readied its forces, Himilco sailed from Africa and landed at Palermo, and then captured Eryx. Himilco next stormed Motya, where the mostly Sicel garrison under Biton was easily overcome. [8] The Carthaginians then lifted the siege of Segesta, and Dionysius retired to Syracuse instead of offering battle in Western Sicily against a superior army. [9] Himilco returned to Palermo, garrisoned the Carthaginian territories, and then sailed to Lipara with 300 warships and 300 transports. After collecting 30 talents of silver as tribute from Lipara, [10] the Carthaginian force landed at Cape Pelorum, and the army of Messene marched north from the city to confront the Carthaginians. Himilco sent 200 ships filled with picked soldiers and rowers to Messene, and easily captured and sacked the city. The Greeks scattered to the fortresses in the countryside, and Himilco was unsuccessfully tried to capture the forts. [11]

Himilco chose not to set up base at Messina, but marched south, and founded a city in Tauromenion, which he populated with Sicels. [12] The Sicels now deserted Dionysius, so two things was achieved with one stroke, Himilco managed to detached allies away from Dionysius and at the same time gaining allies to block any activity by the still hostile Greeks of Messina in his rear. The Carthaginians resumed marching south along the coast, with the fleet sailing alongside. However, a severe eruption of Mt. Etna made the path north of Naxos impassable, so Himilco marched to detour around Mt. Etna. Mago with the fleet sailed to Catana, where he was to meet up with Carthaginian army.

Dionysius had freed all the slaves in Syracuse to man 60 additional ships, provisioned the fortresses at Syracuse and Leontini with soldiers and supplies, and hired 1000 mercenaries from Greece. [11] He moved his army and fleet to Catana to attack the Carthaginians. Due to the rash tactics of his brother Leptines, the Greek fleet was heavily defeated at the Battle of Catana (397 BC), over 20,000 soldiers/rowers and 100 ships were lost before the surviving Greek ships could retreat. [13]

Himilco led the Carthaginian army (50,000 men, 400 triremes, and 600 transports) to Sicily in 397 BC. [14] When the Carthaginians reached Syracuse, their war fleet had shrunk to 208 ships, though 2,000 transports had been employed to carry supplies to the army. [15] The number of soldiers in Syracuse is unknown, as some garrisoned the Carthaginian possessions, and the Carthaginians had been reinforced by Sicels, Sikans and Elymians after arriving in Sicily.

Dionysius had an army of 30,000 foot and 3,000 horsemen at Catana along with 180 quinqueremes. [16] After the defeat of his navy and the desertion of his allies Dionysius' forces had shrunk to 80 ships. He managed to hire some mercenaries to make up for these losses, and the population of Syracuse supplied a number of soldiers to augment his forces. 30 triremes later joined him from Greece.

Carthaginian cohorts Edit

The Libyans supplied both heavy and light infantry and formed the most disciplined units of the army. The heavy infantry fought in close formation, armed with long spears and round shields, wearing helmets and linen cuirasses. The light Libyan infantry carried javelins and a small shield, same as Iberian light infantry. Campanian, Sardinian and Gallic infantry fought in their native gear, [17] but often were equipped by Carthage. Sicels and other Sicilians were equipped like Greek Hoplites.

The Libyans, Carthaginian citizens and the Libyo-Phoenicians provided disciplined, well trained cavalry equipped with thrusting spears and round shields. Numidia provided superb light cavalry armed with bundles of javelins and riding without bridle or saddle. Iberians and Gauls also provided cavalry, which relied on the all out charge. The Libyans also provided bulk of the heavy, four horse war chariots for Carthage, but Carthage at this point of time did not make use of war elephants. [18] Himilco had lost his chariots when 50 of his transports were sunk by the Greeks off Eryx and none seemed to have served at Syracuse. Carthaginian officer corps held overall command of the army, although many units may have fought under their chieftains.

The Punic navy was built around the trireme, Carthaginian citizens usually served as crew alongside recruits from Libya and other Carthaginian domains. Carthaginian forces had captured a number of Quinqueremes from the Greeks at Catana, it is unknown if Carthaginians were constructing this type of ships themselves at this point. 40 Quinqueremes were present at Syracuse. Although the initial Punic armada at Syracuse contained 208 warships and 3,000 transports, it is unknown how many were permanently stationed there for the siege.

Greek forces Edit

The mainstay of the Greek army was the Hoplite, drawn mainly from the citizens by Dionysius, had a large number of mercenaries from Italy and Greece as well. Sicels and other native Sicilians also served in the army as hoplites and also supplied peltasts, and a number of Campanians, probably equipped like Samnite or Etruscan warriors, [19] were present as well. The Phalanx formation was the standard fighting formation of the army. Dionysius also had the option of using old men and women as peltasts if needed. The cavalry was recruited from wealthier citizens and mercenaries.

The Syracuse navy was built around the Quinquereme, an invention attributed to Dionysius, and the trireme. Dionysius also transport ships available, but the number is unknown. Citizen rowers manned the fleet.

The defeat at Catana put Dionysius in a difficult position. With the Greek fleet beaten, Mago had gained the option of making a dash at Syracuse itself, repeating the feat the Carthaginians had pulled at Messene on Syracuse. On the other hand, if Dionysius could now attack and defeat the army of Himilco, Mago would be compelled to fall back to a secure base. However, Dionysius also had to keep in mind the possibility of political trouble in Syracuse in deciding his strategy. The Greek army was opposed to facing a siege, and at first Dionysius was inclined to seek the Carthaginian army out and measure swords with Himilco. When his advisers pointed out the threat of Mago and his fleet capturing Syracuse in the absence of the Greek army, Dionysius decided to break camp, leave Catana and march south to Syracuse. [20] At this juncture, Mother Nature intervened for the embattled Greeks, as worsening weather forced Mago to beach his ships, thus making the Punic fleet vulnerable to the Greek army attacks. [21] However, luck seems to have favoured the Carthaginians, because Dionysius commenced his retreat prior to this, with the remnant of his fleet sailing parallel along the coast. This decision to face a siege proved so unpopular among the Sicilian Greek allies that they deserted the army and made for their respective cities. Once there, they manned the countryside castles and awaited the Carthaginians. [20]

Himilco arrived at Catana two days after the battle with the Carthaginian army [22] after a 110 km trek around Mt. Etna, and his presence ensured security of the Punic fleet. Both the Punic army and navy were accorded a few days rest, during which time Mago repaired his damaged ships and refitted the captured Greek ships. Himilco took the time to negotiate with the Campanians at Aetna, offering them to switch sides. They had given Dionysius hostages and their best troops were serving with the Greek army, so they chose to stay loyal. [23]

Preparations for the siege Edit

Dionysius and the Greek army reached Syracuse first and began preparations for withstanding the inevitable Carthaginian siege. The forts around Leontini and Syracuse were fully manned and provisioned. Dionysius, shaken by the desertions of the Greek allies, also sent agents to hire mercenaries from Italy and Greece (Corinth, the mother city of Syracuse and Sparta, a fellow Doric ally were especially approached), including his kinsman Polyxenos. The fortresses were either to protect the harvest and serve as bases for harassing Carthaginian foragers [24] or were to serve as bait and draw the Carthaginian army away from Syracuse, and gain time for Dionysius while Himilco reduced them. The fortresses would surrender easily and retain part of the Carthaginian force as garrisons. [25]

Himilco ignored Leontini and the forts, and his army slowly marched to Syracuse. They moved round the Epipolae Plateau and concentrated on building their encampment. The Punic war-fleet, made up of 250 triremes and captured Greek quinqueremes, sailed into the Great Harbour at the same time and in perfect order sailed past Syracuse, displaying the spoils captured from the Greeks. 2000–3000 transports then moored in the harbour, bringing in soldiers and supplies. Himilco was ready to begin the siege. The Syracusan navy, which had initially mobilised 180 ships [16] but lost 100 ships [26] at the Catana, remained at port. [ citation needed ]

Fortifications of Syracuse Edit

The original city of Syracuse stood on the island Ortyga with some structures around the Agora in the mainland before the Sicilian Expedition in 415 BC, when walls were built around the Tycha and Archadina areas. After Dionysius finished adding to the existing structures, Syracuse possessed walls with the greatest circuit in the Greek world. [27]

Dionysius had rebuilt the walls around Ortygia so that they surrounded the whole island and the isthmus connecting the mainland with a robust wall complete with towers at regular intervals which were strongly built. [28] The isthmus had docks on the west side and the little harbour, Laccius on the east side. Screens and walls were put up to enclose Laccius, and it could accommodate 60 triremes, and a gate was provided between the sea screens that would let one trireme pass at a time. [29] Two castles were also built on Ortygia, one near the isthmus, which was the home of Dionysius, [29] and one further south. Two walls were built on the isthmus itself, one separating the island from the isthmus and one the mainland from the isthmus. [30] A series of five gates built on the isthmus, the Pentaplya, controlled access between the mainland and Ortygia. [31]

Dionysius then populated the island of Orytiga with loyal mercenaries and close supporters. A massive castle with underground structures was built at Euryalos which guarded the main access to the route to the Plateau. He incorporated the walls built during the Athenian Expedition for settling the people in Achradina. The walls around the plateau, made entirely of stone may have had a thickness between 2 and 4.5 meters and a height of 6 meters. [32]

The Carthaginian camp Edit

Himilco chose to camp next to the Great Harbour in the Polichana area. The camp was either 10 stadia [33] from the Syracuse city walls, which would place it north of the Anapus river, or 12 stadia from the walls, totally south of the river. [20] Himilco chose the temple of Zeus as his quarters. [34] The main camp was probably situated on the marshy ground east of the temple of Zeus, [35] and adjacent to the Dascon bay and the Lysimeleia marsh. The berthing facilities for the ships formed part of the camp, and the camp was surrounded by a moat and palisade.

Preliminary activities Edit

Himilco marched north from his camp and formed up for battle near the city after the camp was put in order. One hundred Carthaginian warships also sailed out and took position on both sides of Ortygia, [34] ready to counter any Greek ships should they sally forth. The Greeks stayed put inside Syracuse despite the jeers of the Punic soldiers. Himilco chose not to assault the walls, and it is unclear if he had siege engines with him at that time. Himilco then unleashed his soldiers around Syracuse to strip the land of all possible supplies, and ravaged the area for 30 days, possibly to intimidate the Greeks into surrendering before winter set in, [20] and when this failed the Carthaginians went to winter quarters and began siege preparations.

The Carthaginians now began preparing for a siege in earnest, Himilco built a fort near the temple of Zeus (it is unclear if the temple was inside the fort). [36] Another fort was built at Dascon and one at Plemmyrion to safeguard the main camp and provide safer anchorage for his ships. The camp itself was surrounded by a regular wall in addition to the existing moat and palisade. [37] The tombs of Gelon and his wife were demolished in the process of building the wall. [38] Part of the fleet was dispersed while transport ships were sent to Sardinia and Africa to bring in more provisions. The forts were stocked with wine, corn, and all needful items, Himilco seemed to have spared no expense to look after his soldiers needs. [23] [39]

Carthaginian strategy Edit

The Carthaginians had successfully besieged Greek cities in the past. In 409, they had stormed Selinus using siege engines, Himera was also a victim of Carthaginian besieging skills that same year, and in 406 the Carthaginians straddled Akragas by encamping on both sides of the city. The size of the Syracusan defences made building a circumventing wall impractical. Himilco either wished to keep his forces concentrated or lacked the numbers to straddle Syracuse by building another camp, which also would have exposed Carthaginians to sudden attacks from Greeks in Syracuse or to a relief force without circumventing walls linking both camps. A direct assault on the southern side exposed the attacking soldiers to a flank attack from the fort at Eryelus. The height of the walls on top of the plateau meant it might be impossible to assault the walls without building siege ramps. [40]

Himilco basically adopted the same strategy that the Athenian leader Nicias had in 415 BC, staying put and awaiting favourable developments inside Syracuse. He went to winter quarters after completing his preparations and while Syracuse was under siege, it was not fully cut-off, Greek ships could sail in and out of the Laccius unless challenged by the Punic ships.

Nothing of consequence happened during the winter of 397 BC as the adversaries played the waiting game from their respective positions. In the spring of 396 BC, Himilco began attacking the suburbs of Syracuse. There is no mention of Carthaginians breaching the city wall, [41] but Punic soldiers captured a city section that contained several temples including one dedicated to Demeter and Kore, all of which were plundered. Dionysius also acted aggressively, sending out sorties to attack Carthaginian patrols and winning several skirmishes, but the overall tactical situation remained unchanged. In the meantime, Polyxenos had managed to gather a naval squadron in Greece, and under the command of Pharakidas of Sparta, 30 triremes managed to reach Syracuse. [37] The Spartan had apparently captured a number of Punic ships, and the Carthaginian blockade ships had let his ships through thinking a Punic squadron was returning from patrol. [42] The Greeks as well as the Carthaginians were now dependent on overseas supplies for sustaining their efforts.

Danger of success [43] Edit

Shortly after this event, Dionysius, along with his brother Leptines, sailed forth with a flotilla to escort a supply convoy crucial for Syracuse. It is not known who the commander was in Syracuse in their absence, but his actions netted a significant success for the Greeks. Firstly, after spotting an unescorted Punic corn ship in the Great Harbour, five Syracusan ships sailed out and captured it. While the prize was being brought in, 40 Punic ships sailed forth, and promptly the whole Syracusan navy (number of ships not mentioned, but probably outnumbering the Carthaginian contingent, there is no mention of who the admiral was) engaged the Punic squadron, sinking 4 ships and capturing 20 including the flagship. The Greek ships then advanced on the main Punic anchorage but Carthaginians declined the challenge. The Greeks then returned to Syracuse with their spoils.

This success was obtained without the leadership of Dionysius, and some of his political enemies tried to depose him upon his return at the citizen's assembly. The Spartans declined to support the dissenters and this caused the coup attempt to collapse. [44] Some historians speculate that the sea battle and subsequent events never actually took place and are the work of anti-tyranny authors. [45]

Whether the alleged naval battle took place or not, the strategic situation had not changed for the combatants when summer arrived in Sicily. Himilco had not been able to take Syracuse, Dionysius had failed to defeat the Punic forces, and both parties were reliant on overseas supplies. At this juncture a plague broke out among the Carthaginian troops, who had been suffering from the intense heat as well.

Plague [46] Edit

The plague, bearing similarities with the Athenian plague, may have been caused by bad hygienic practices on marshy grounds, and malaria may have played a part also. The result was that scores of soldiers and sailors succumbed to the disease, burial parties were overwhelmed, bodies were hastily buried, new burials were almost impossible, and the stench of decaying bodies hung in the air. Fear of infection may have prevented proper care being given to the sick. [6]

The cause of this calamity was attributed to the desecration of Greek temples and tombs. At the siege of Akragas (406 BC) Himilco had dealt with a similar situation by sacrificing a child and various animals to appease this alleged divine anger. Whatever measures (if any) Himilco took at Syracuse to combat the plague proved ineffective Punic forces were decimated and the fleet readiness was diminished. Himilco and the Carthaginians stubbornly stood their ground and remained in the camp, but the morale of the Carthaginians plummeted as a result of the plague, along with the combat effectiveness of their forces.

Dionysius strikes Edit

Dionysius planned to take advantage of the situation by launching a combined land and sea attack on the Punic forces before they recovered or received reinforcements. Eighty ships were manned and, under the command of Leptines and Pharakidas, [47] were to attack the Punic ships beached at the Bay of Dascon. Dionysius elected to command the soldiers attacking the Punic camp. He planned to march out on a moonless night with his army, and instead of going directly south to the Punic camp, march in a roundabout way to the Temple of Cyan and attack the Carthaginian fortifications at first light. The Greek fleet was to attack after Dionysius had engaged the Carthaginians. The success of the plan largely depended on the timely coordination between the fleet and the army, the absence of which had doomed another complicated battle plan of Dionysius in 405 BC at Gela.

Subtle treachery Edit

Dionysius successfully completed his night march and reached Cyan. At daybreak, he sent his cavalry and 1,000 mercenaries to attack the camp directly from the west. This was a diversion, Dionysius had secretly ordered his horsemen to abandon the rebellious, untrustworthy mercenaries after they engaged the Carthaginians. [48] The combined force attacked the camp, and the mercenaries were slaughtered after the Greek horsemen suddenly fled the field. Dionysius had succeeded in distracting the enemy and getting rid of some unreliable soldiers all at once.

Attack on the Punic forts [49] Edit

While the mercenaries were being butchered, the main Greek army launched attacks towards the forts near the temple of Zeus at Polichana and Dascon. The cavalry, after deserting the mercenaries, joined the attack on Dascon while part of the Greek fleet also sallied forth and attacked the Punic ships beached nearby. The Carthaginians were caught by surprise, and before they could put up a coordinated resistance, Dionysius managed to defeat the force outside the camp [50] and then storm the fort at Polichana successfully, after which his force began to attack the Carthaginian camp and the temple. The Carthaginians managed to hold off the Greeks until nightfall, when the fighting stopped.

Punic fleet decimated at Dascon Edit

The Punic fleet was undermanned as some of the crews had perished in the plague, and many of their ships were deserted. The Greek ships had also achieved total surprise, the Punic ships at Dascon, which included 40 quinqueremes, [51] could not be manned and launched in time to face the assault and soon the whole Syracuse navy joined the attack. Greek ships rammed and sunk some as they lay at anchor, some ships were boarded and captured by Greek soldiers after a brief skirmish, while the horsemen, now led by Dionysius, set fire to some of the ships, some of which drifted away when their anchor cables burnt. Punic soldiers and sailors leapt into the water and swam ashore. The fire spread to the camp but was put out after part of the camp was burnt. [52] The Punic army could not offer assistance as they were busy fending off attacking Greek soldiers. Some Greeks from Syracuse manned some of the merchant vessels and boats, sailed to Dascon and towed some of the derelict Punic ships away, along with whatever spoils they could scavenge. Meanwhile, the fort at Dascon had also fallen into Greek hands. [46] Dionysius encamped with his army near the temple of Zeus at Polichana while the fleet returned to Syracuse.

A good days work Edit

The Greeks had managed to capture the fort at Polichana and Dascon, but after a day's battle had ended, the Punic camp and temple of Zeus was still in Carthaginian hands, while a substantial part of their fleet also had survived. The initiative now lay with Dionysius, and barring reinforcements or unlooked for developments, a disaster comparable to the one at Himera might befall the Carthaginians unless Himilco acted to avert it.

Greek tyrants, especially Gelo, Hiero and Dionysius are often credited with saving the Western civilization from barbarian machinations, especially by 16th −18th century historians. However, some of their activities have more to do with saving their rule than saving western civilization, as the actions of Dionysius were to show in 396 BC.

Himilco's dilemma Edit

The Carthaginian forces had managed to survive the Greek attack, but they were still suffering from the plague, and to regain the initiative they had either to defeat the Greek army or the fleet, which was an impossible task at this stage. The Greek navy now probably outnumbered the Carthaginian one, which was devastated by the Greek raid and unable to man available ships due to crew shortage. [53] The army was in no better condition to fight a successful pitched battle. Himilco was aware of the situation and opted to open secret negotiations with Dionysius that very night, while other Greek commanders were kept in the dark as the Italian and mainland Greek contingents were in favor of totally destroying the surviving Punic forces. [54]

Duplicity of Dionysius Edit

Dionysius was also ready to make a deal although he had a good chance of totally destroying the stricken Carthaginians. It has been alleged that as a tyrant, he needed to keep the threat of Carthage alive to keep the citizens of Syracuse in control [54] saving the west was not what he was trying to achieve. He responded to Himilco's overtures, but declined to let the Carthaginians simply sail away. After some haggling, the following terms were agreed on: [55]

  • Carthaginians would pay Dionysius 300 talents immediately
  • Himilco was free to depart with the Carthaginian citizens unmolested at night. Dionysius could not guarantee their safety during the day.
  • The Carthaginian departure would take place on the fourth night.

Himilco secretly sent 300 talents either to the fort at Polichana or to Syracuse itself. Dionysius withdrew his army to Syracuse as part of his bargain, and on the appointed night Himilco manned forty ships with the citizens of Carthage and sailed away. As this fleet passed the Great Harbour mouth, the Corinthians spotted them and informed Dionysius, who made a great show of arming his fleet but delayed calling his officers to give Himilco time to get away. [54] The Corinthians, unaware of the secret pact, manned their ships and sailed out, managing to sink a few laggards, but the majority of Carthaginians ships managed to escape to Africa.

Dionysius marshalled his army after Himilco's departure and approached the Carthaginian camp, by which this time the Sicels had already slipped away to their homes [54] and most of the remaining Punic soldiers surrendered to Dionysius. Some soldiers trying to flee were captured by the Greeks. The Iberians, who stood at arms ready to resist, were hired by Dionysius for his own army. The rest of the Punic prisoners were enslaved.

Dionysius did not immediately march against the Punic possessions in Sicily but took time to order his realm. He probably did not wish to provoke Carthage more than necessary. The Sicilian Greek cities, which had thrown off the Carthaginian over-lordship, were more or less friendly with Syracuse. [56] Solus was betrayed and sacked in 396 BC. Later, 10,000 mercenaries of Dionysius revolted after Dionysius arrested their commander Aristoteles of Sparta, [57] and was placated only after their leader was sent to Sparta for judgement and the mercenaries received the city of Leontini to rule for themselves. Next Dionysius repopulated the ruined city of Messana with colonists from Italian and mainland Dorian Greeks, then founded Tyndaris with the original inhabitants of Messana [58] who had been driven out after the Carthaginian sack of their city in 397 BC. Dionysius in 394 BC unsuccessfully besieged Tauromenium, then held by Sicels allied to Carthage. In response, Mago of Carthage led an army to Messana in 393 BC, and the war was renewed.

Carthage: plagued by problems Edit

The return of Himilco, after abandoning his troops at the mercy of Dionysius, did not sit well with the Carthaginian citizens or their African subjects. Although the council of 104 did not crucify him, as unsuccessful Carthaginian commanders normally were, Himilco decided to do the deed himself. He publicly took full responsibility for the debacle, visited all the temples of the city dressed in rags and pleading for deliverance, and finally bricked himself inside his house and starved himself to death. [13] Later, despite the sacrifice done to placate the Carthaginian gods, a plague swept through Africa, weakening Carthage. To top things off, the Libyans, angered by the desertion of their kinsmen in Africa, rebelled. They gathered an army of 70,000 and besieged Carthage.

Mago, the victor of Catana, took command. The standing Punic army was in Sicily and recruiting a new one was time consuming and probably very costly (Himilco's misdeed would have made mercenaries wary), so he rallied Carthaginian citizens to man the walls while the Punic navy kept the city supplied. Mago then used bribes and other means to quell the rebels. Carthaginians also built a temple for Demeter and Kore in the city and had Greeks offer proper sacrifice to atone for the destruction of the temple at Syracuse. [57]

Mago next moved to Sicily, where he did not try to recover lost territory. Instead he adopted a policy of cooperation and friendship, giving aid to Greeks, Sikans, Sicels, Elymians and Punics regardless of their prior standing with Carthage. [59] The Greeks' cities, who had thrown off Carthaginian over-lordship after the war started, now moved from a pro-Syracuse position to a more neutral one, either feeling threatened by Dionysius or because of the activities of Mago. [60] This peaceful policy continued until Dionysius attacked the Sicels in 394 BC.

Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC - History

By Barry Porter

By the spring of 415 bc, a peace treaty between the warring city-states of Athens and Sparta had held firm for six years. The savage and unrelenting Peloponnesian War had come to the point where both sides realized that neither was in a position to vanquish the other. Peace seemed the logical choice—at least until the rivals could replenish their armed forces and come up with a new battle plan. That spring, Athens took a decisive step in that direction.

The Athenian Invasion of Syracuse

The year before, two cities on the island of Sicily had sent ambassadors to Athens to ask for help with their troublesome neighbor, Syracuse. Athens had intervened in the past to block Syracuse’s various expansions, but these attempts had been weak at best, more diplomatic than warlike, and easily rebuffed by a talented Syracusan general, Hermocrates. Now Athenians considered the advantages of taking over the entire island. Not only would it provide them with additional allies in the simmering war with Sparta, but it would also cut off a vital trading partner of Sparta and its supporters.

One of the Sicilian cities, Segesta, offered Athens 60 talents of silver, enough to equip 60 warships for a full month. Three Athenian commanders—Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus—were chosen to lead the expedition. The outspoken advocate for the invasion of Sicily was the youthful and excitable Alcibiades, a charismatic adventurer who had caught the imagination of many Athenians. He argued that the fight against Syracuse would be comparable to Athens’ struggle against Persia 70 years earlier. His chief nemesis in the debate was Nicias, the architect of the fragile peace with Sparta. Nicias felt that Athens should not become involved in a war in Sicily—that they should not waste resources, money, or men in a distant fight when nearby Sparta was close to rebuilding her own forces. Lamachus, the third leader of the expedition, was chosen mainly to help break the inevitable deadlock between the other two men. He supported the invasion, but he also respected Nicias’s position.

Seven Athenian ships were sunk and several others damaged by a Syracusan counterattack, stranding the Athenian invaders on the island of Sicily. From a 19th-century wood engraving.

After much debate, the Athenian Assembly decided to send 60 ships to Sicily, but no more. They hoped that Segesta and other allies on Sicily would provide the armies to fight the Syracusans while Athens confronted them on the high seas and in their harbors. If they were successful, Athens and its allies would control Syracuse if they were defeated, the loss would be relatively small. It was a reasoned, cautious response.

A few days later, a second debate commenced, and Nicias made the first of many serious mistakes. After Alcibiades bragged that Syracuse was not as powerful as everyone thought, Nicias realized that Athenian enthusiasm for the invasion had risen. He wanted to scare the Assembly into accepting his more diplomatic approach, and in the heat of the debate he exaggerated Syracuse’s power and the amount of Athenian resources it would take to defeat the Syracusans. Nicias insisted that Syracuse was fully prepared to mount a major battle against any invaders. They had the numerical advantage, plenty of food, and better communication with their leaders. If Athens were to have any hope of conquering Syracuse, Nicias argued, the expedition would have to be larger, stronger, and more expensive.

The Assembly agreed with him. Rather than abandon the invasion, however, the lawmakers felt the expedition should be enlarged, despite the costs. Their eagerness had bloomed under Nicias’s gloomy predictions, and he had inadvertently set into motion a potential disaster. Upon his advice, the Assembly dispatched 134 triremes, 5,100 hoplites, and thousands of light infantry to Syracuse.

Heresy in Athens

Before the three generals embarked with the armada, a strange religious heresy struck Athens. On the morning of June 7, Athenians awoke to find that numerous statues of Hermes distributed throughout the city had been desecrated. Hermes was the god of travelers, and the affront was widely interpreted as an attempt to stop the expedition. The Assembly offered rewards and immunity to any eyewitnesses to the crime. Eventually, several came forward and accused Alcibiades. He denied the charges, which he said came from his political enemies, and insisted that he be put on trial under penalty of death to prove his innocence. He wanted above all to avoid being tried in absentia, when his supporters—mostly the soldiers and sailors who would be joining him on the expedition—would be gone and his enemies would have free rein. Instead, Alcibiades was encouraged to leave on schedule and return to stand trial after a successful military campaign, when his popularity would be even greater. He agreed, much to his later regret. In June the Athenian forces, fully supplied thanks to private donations and money from the Athenian treasury, headed for Corcyra, an island off Greece’s western shores, to rendezvous with their allies. According to the historian Thucydides, it was the most expensive invasion force yet dispatched from a single Greek city.

The leaders of Syracuse were not totally ignorant of the forces being arrayed against them. Hermocrates, who had been instrumental in kicking Athens out of Sicily nine years earlier, goaded the people of Syracuse to do so again. He argued that they should seek help from Sparta and Corinth, Athens’ traditional enemies, as well as cities in Italy and Carthage in North Africa. The Syracusans were not entirely convinced of the threat until word came that a massive Greek force had landed at Rhegium, in southern Italy. Suddenly the certainty of war was driven home. Syracusans began to prepare for battle.

‘The fall of the Athenian army inSicily’. (27 August 413 BC, Battle of Syrakuse). -Woodcut after a drawing by Hermann Vogel (1854-1921).

While the Syracusans readied themselves, the Athenians found a place from which to launch their attack—Catana, a Sicilian city 40 miles north of Syracuse. Earlier, Alcibiades had sent 10 ships into the harbor at Syracuse to provide reconnaissance and call out surrender terms to the enemy. The Greek ships found no waiting fleet, no soldiers on the beach, no sign that Syracuse was prepared to fight. They returned to Alcibiades with the good tidings, not realizing that Syracuse was busy preparing for a land battle, not one at sea.

Alcibiades’s confidence was soon dampened by his own countrymen. The Athenian Assembly had continued its attack on him once he was gone, reviving the charge of sacrilege. Alcibiades’s enemies pressed for his arrest. Although they finally settled on a lesser charge of mocking a religious rite, the state trireme Salaminia was sent to catch up with the armada and bring Alcibiades back to Athens for trial. Salaminia arrived at Catana and Alcibiades was arrested. He promised to follow the ship back to Athens, but at the first opportunity he turned his trireme toward Sparta, escaping both his guards and his trial. In Athens, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death. His property was confiscated by the state.

The sudden turn of events left Nicias and Lamachus in charge of the expedition. Nicias, the stronger leader, did not feel that he could return to Athens without achieving some sort of victory in Sicily. He attempted unsuccessfully to attract allies from around the island. Valuable time passed as he debated what course to take. The element of surprise was lost. Even worse, Nicias had neglected to include a large group of cavalry on the expedition, perhaps because of the difficulty of transporting horses across the sea. It would prove to be a grievous mistake. Syracuse had a large, well-trained cavalry ready to charge the Athenians at the first opportunity.

A Repulsed Landing on Syracuse

Nicias decided to attack. Luring the Syracusan forces to Catana, he led his own navy into the Syracuse harbor near the Anapus River. Once on land, the Athenians built trenches and other fortifications to defend themselves. When the Syracusan army returned from their long, pointless trip, they found the Athenians ready and eager to fight. The Athenians were ranged in a line eight soldiers deep. Their left flank was exposed to attack by the enemy’s 1,200 cavalry, so they crossed the river and used its natural bend for protection. Their right flank bordered the open waters of the harbor and marshland. On both sides, Nicias placed archers to counter any cavalry attacks.

The swiftness of the Athenian advance surprised the Syracusans. The clash was hard and loud. The skies seemed to echo the assault, booming with thunder and slashing with rain. The tumult frightened the Syracusans, who lacked the long experience in warfare that the Athenians possessed, and the discipline of the Athenian army carried the day. The Athenian right wing forced the Syracusans back, and the center pushed forward and broke the enemy line. Syracusan soldiers ran for their lives. If Nicias had possessed adequate cavalry, he could have killed or captured the fleeing soldiers immediately. Instead, the Syracusans used their own cavalry to cut off the pursuing Athenians and save the lives of their compatriots. In the first clash between the two sides, Syracuse lost around 260 soldiers, Athens only 50. But outright victory had escaped Athens. It would not be the last time.

Realizing that the enemy was regrouping, Nicias ordered his forces to retreat to their ships and sail back to Catana. He sent an after-the-fact request for cavalry and more money, and again tried to garner allies on the island of Sicily. While he waited, the Syracusans regrouped. Hermocrates convinced Syracusan leaders to increase the size of the army by drafting poor men into the ranks. He made the war effort more manageable by reducing the number of generals from 15 to three (including himself), with full powers unrestrained by the assembly. Meanwhile, he placed forces in areas where he thought the Athenians might try to land and sent word to the Spartans asking them to mount their own attacks on Athens back in Greece. Finally, Hermocrates extended the city walls to make it more difficult for the Athenians to conduct a siege.

The Siege of Syracuse

Neither side attacked during the winter. Nicias drifted ineffectually, seeking allies, demanding supplies, and achieving little. As the spring of 414 bc bloomed, however, so did Athenian morale. They seized a strategically important position, a plateau called Epipolae that overlooked the city, and built a fort along its northern cliffs where they could store their supplies. Soon afterward, a force of 650 Athenian cavalry arrived, and Nicias ordered siege walls to be built around Syracuse to isolate it from outside help. Syracusans started to construct a counterwall, one that would cut across the intended line of the Athenian wall, but their plans were thwarted by 300 hoplites and a corps of light infantry that drove off the Syracusans and destroyed the counterwall.

The Athenian siege wall continued to grow, extending across the Epipolae to the Great Harbor in the south and surrounding a large part of Syracuse. The Athenians moved their fleet into the harbor while their soldiers held the plateau above. Then they attacked. Lamachus led the soldiers by himself—Nicias remained in his fort on the Epipolae plateau, ill from a kidney infection. Leading his men across the Lysimeleia marsh by using planks and doors to cross the soft ground, Lamachus seized the initiative. The Syracusans again were taken by surprise half their army fled back into the city, the other half raced toward the Anapus River. Three hundred Athenian hoplites moved to cut them off, but they found themselves cut off in turn by the Syracusan cavalry already waiting at the river. The cavalry pushed back the hoplites and then struck the Athenian right wing.

The Athenians scattered. Lamachus, stationed on the left wing, rushed to their aid, but found himself suddenly trapped on one side of a ditch. He was quickly surrounded and killed and his body carried off by the Syracusans to their fort at Olympieum, south of the city. It was a major blow to the Athenian campaign. The boldness of their previous attacks on the Syracusan walls had probably been devised by Lamachus, considering the hesitancy of Nicias, and now his leadership had been eliminated.

The Syracusans continued their counterattack, capturing the siege walls from the plateau down to the harbor. They nearly captured the fort where Nicias lay. Nicias had enough presence of mind, however, to order his men to build a great fire, which had the dual purpose of driving back the enemy while also warning the Athenians on the plateau and the beach that their fort—and general—were in great danger. The hoplites rallied, despite the loss of Lamachus, and pushed the Syracusans back behind their city walls. Then they raced to their remaining leader’s rescue.

After catching their breaths, the Athenians rebuilt the wall to the south and continued building one to the north. Syracuse was now in dire straits. Help from Sparta and the rest of the Peloponnese did not seem imminent. The Syracusans replaced their generals, including Hermocrates, with new ones, but the fresh leadership did little more than discuss possible surrender terms. The end of Syracuse looked mere weeks away.

Gylippus: The Expendable Spartan

But the Athenians had an Achilles’ heel the Syracusans did not know about—Nicias himself. When word came to him that Sparta was sending four ships to aid Syracuse, led by the obscure general Gylippus, he did little to stop them. Gylippus was considered a man of inferior status within Sparta, and therefore was expendable. Whatever the reason for his delay, Nicias sent only four of his own ships to stop them. By the time the Athenian ships reached Locri, the Spartans already were at Himera, in northern Sicily, drawing allies and weapons from the locals. The cities of Selinus and Gela, in the south, also joined Gylippus, and by the time he was ready to approach Syracuse by land, he commanded around 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry.

Gylippus arrived just in time. The Athenians were about to complete the southern siege wall, a double barrier that ran down to the harbor. But in their haste, they had left a vital part of the Epipolae plateau unguarded. It was through this western breach, called the Euryalus Pass, that Gylippus led his forces.

At the southern siege wall, the two armies met. Gylippus had hoped to shock the Athenians into a retreat with the sudden appearance of his army, but for once, Nicias did not flinch. Neither did he press his advantage and pursue the enemy when Gylippus withdrew his forces. It was yet another mistake on Nicias’s part, allowing Gylippus more time to better array his men and effect a new strategy. The Sicilian troops distracted the Athenians on the southern siege wall while a larger force overran the Athenians’ unfinished northern wall and took the vital fort at Labdalum on the northwest corner of the Epipolae plain. In a single stroke, Gylippus captured Athens’ supplies and treasury. Nicias’s failure to safeguard the vital position was yet another mark against his reputation.

Nicias had no choice but to create a new supply depot. He chose a most inhospitable place for one, at Plemmyrium, two miles south of Syracuse and far from any available water. The Syracusans immediately set up base at Olympieum, between Plemmyrium and Syracuse, and used their cavalry to prevent Athenian scouts from gathering water or other essentials.

With Nicias’s forces now divided, one part on the Epipolae plain, the other far off at Plemmyrium, he had few options open to him. Surrounding Syracuse with walls in order to isolate it now seemed impossible. Even a strategic retreat across land was closed off since the Sicilians held the western pass and their forces at Labdalum cut off the north. However, there was still the sea. To keep their escape route clear, Nicias managed a bit of foresight and sent out 20 ships to intercept the Corinthian fleet then approaching.

Meanwhile, Gylippus began to build a counterwall on the plateau and regularly harassed the Athenians camped there. He sensed that Nicias was not up for a fight. The Athenian troops were ready and willing, but their orders were to hold their ground and not engage the enemy unless defending themselves. This damaged the morale of the soldiers, who had come all this way to fight the Sicilians and take Syracuse, not sit around on their haunches until their leader could figure out what to do.

Unfortunately for the invaders, Gylippus knew very well what to do. When Nicias sent soldiers to stop Gylippus from cutting off their northern wall, the enemy’s javelin throwers and heavy cavalry crushed the Athenian hoplites on their left flank and forced the troops back into the safety of their fort. Once the hoplites were safely tucked away, the Sicilians finished their counterwall and kept Syracuse open to their aid. The Athenian ships sent to intercept the Corinthian fleet also failed and the Corinthians sailed into the Great Harbor with 2,000 more trained fighting men. Gylippus used the new troops to secure the Euryalus Pass on the plateau, thus cutting off the Athenians from both the plain and the escape route to the north.

Nicias Loses More Supplies

Nicias could not ignore the obvious—his entire expedition was in danger of defeat. Yet he could not muster the moral courage to admit failure and return home to face the political fallout from such a disaster. Instead, he wrote to the Assembly at Athens, arguing that the Athenian leadership must either recall their forces or send massive reinforcements and more money. If he had hoped the assembly would choose the former, thus removing some of his responsibility for a retreat, he was wrong again. The Assembly decided that since he had nearly conquered Syracuse with what forces he had, surely he could lead them to victory if he got the reinforcements he asked for. They sent two additional commanders along with these reinforcements. Eurymedon would come immediately with 10 ships and 120 silver talents, and Demosthenes would follow with an even larger force.

Ruins of the Greek fortifications of the Castle of Eurialo, dating back to 400 BC, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

The Assembly seemed to follow Nicias’s lead in making bad decisions. The solons directed their ships to attack the Laconia coast, blatantly violating the peace treaty between the two cities. Sparta was well aware of Athens’ drained resources in Sicily, and King Agis ordered his armies to begin ravaging the farmlands outside Athens in the spring of 413 bc. Cavalry that might have been sent to help Nicias in Sicily were kept home to hold the Spartan forces at bay.

As the attacks against Athens proceeded, Sparta also sent reinforcements to Sicily. Gylippus badly needed them. Despite his victories, keeping allied soldiers around Syracuse was quite expensive. Syracuse did not have a healthy treasury, and providing for foreign soldiers while building and manning warships was increasingly difficult. If Athenian reinforcements arrived and managed to retake the harbor, he might have to consider surrendering.

Gylippus had to act fast. He contacted Hermocrates, inside Syracuse, and they conceived a strategy whereby Hermocrates would send 80 triremes toward Plemmyrium as a distraction while, under cover of night, Gylippus led an army to take the Athenians by surprise. The Athenians, however, saw the ships coming and put out 60 of their own vessels to push them back. They fought the Syracusans to a standstill and sank 11 enemy ships while losing only three of their own. It would have been a resounding victory if the Athenians had not made a serious mistake back on shore. Nicias and his men watched the sea battle from the beach when they should have been keeping their attention on their backs. When Gylippus attacked on land, he caught them completely by surprise and captured the three forts the invaders had built there. Nicias’s soldiers scattered, losing their food and supplies yet again.

Taking Back the Great Harbor

Gylippus’s victory was devastating to the Athenian cause. News of the battle traveled swiftly throughout Sicily. Those cities that had remained neutral before now flocked to Syracuse’s side. Gylippus made sure that word reached Sparta as well, and he urged the Spartans to send out a fleet to cut off any supplies from Athens. He had Nicias on the run. The Athenians had lost their last base on the island they were without food or supplies. Yet Gylippus knew that as long as the Athenian fleet controlled the harbor, reinforcements could still arrive in time to save them. For both sides, the clock was ticking.

Nicias, to his credit, did not panic. He gathered his men and kept them organized. When Gylippus sent a corps of Sicilian Greeks to run down the Athenians, Nicias sprang an ambush on them and bought himself more time. Gylippus attempted another two-pronged attack, sending soldiers overland as a diversion while Syracusan warships surprised the enemy in the harbor. But the Athenians expertly defended their southern walls and sent out their fleet to fight the Syracusans to a standstill.

On the third day of the battle, the Athenians made another serious mistake. After failing to make any headway, the Syracusan fleet withdrew and headed for shore, where food merchants had gathered to feed them. The Athenians did the same, but before they could begin to eat, the Syracusans suddenly attacked again, catching the Athenians by surprise. Syracusan javelin throwers rained down death on Athenian rowers. The tactic was a shattering success. The Syracusan fleet destroyed seven Athenian ships and damaged several others. The Athenians retreated, badly beaten, and the Syracusans put up a victory trophy proclaiming to all that they now controlled the Great Harbor.

Crushing Defeat of Demosthenes

Nicias was on the brink of utter defeat when reinforcements arrived. Demosthenes and Eurymedon landed with 73 ships and nearly 5,000 hoplites, along with much-needed supplies and food. Nicias linked his army to that of Desmosthenes and waited for the new general to plan their salvation. Demosthenes did not hesitate. While the Athenian armada cut off Syracuse from the sea, they needed only take the walls at Epipolae to surround Syracuse and force its surrender. Demosthenes’s plan was bold and direct, a fast solution to the seemingly endless battle. Unfortunately for the Athenians, it did not work as planned.

The first assault failed. Demosthenes planned the next attempt at night. Some 10,000 soldiers, a mixture of hoplites and light infantry, poured through the Euryalus Pass and took the fort there, then hurried forward and captured the counterwall. But just as the darkness had helped them secure their initial victories, it now betrayed their efforts, causing confusion and spreading chaos. Gylippus sent reinforcements against the advancing hoplites and managed to turn back the Athenians. As more Athenians hurried across the plain, they saw figures running toward them. In the darkness they could not tell if they were friends or foes. Some Athenians attacked, others retreated. Friends began to fight friends. To the badly rattled Athenians, the enemy seemed to be everywhere.

The Syracusans, still organized, continued to push. Panic erupted in the Athenian ranks. Many tried to escape by jumping from the cliffs, only to find the drop much longer than they had thought. Others were herded forcibly over the edge. By daybreak the Athenian reinforcements were scattered on the plain, wandering about blindly as they were hunted down by Syracusan cavalry.

The bold and direct stroke by Demosthenes had turned into the worst Athenian disaster yet. Nearly 2,500 men were dead. The plateau still belonged to Gylippus. Struck by low morale and malaria, the Athenians listened with relief as Demosthenes recommended that they cut their losses and head for home. Surprisingly, Nicias did not agree. His spies within the city walls assured him that the Syracusans were in dire financial trouble and would probably surrender any day. Demosthenes and Eurymedon voted to return home, but Nicias’s other generals, Menander and Euthydemus, voted to stay. A suggestion to find a stronger position farther north, along the coastal cities, was also voted down. The Athenians stayed where they were and continued to die of disease in the swamps.

A Failed Naval Breakout

Eventually, the situation grew so bad that Nicias turned his mind to escape. Morale was at its lowest ebb the Athenians had been trained to fight to the death at the hands of their enemy, but they found no honor or dignity in dying a slow, feverish death from disease. Finally, Nicias acceded to the wishes of his men—they would attempt to escape under cover of darkness.

In their weakened state, superstition played havoc on their plans. On the night of August 27, 413 bc, the moon was wholly eclipsed by the shadow of the earth. A soothsayer among the soldiers advised Nicias to wait “thrice nine days” before setting sail. With the moonlight shut off for an hour, the entirety of his forces could have snuck away, but Nicias took the soothsayer at his word and ordered his men to remain in the swamp outside Syracuse for the next 27 days.

The Syracusans used the time to gather more allies and strengthen their navy. Then Gylippus attacked the Athenian southern walls while the Syracusans sent their fleet, totaling 76 triremes, to confront the madly scrambling Athenians. Eurymedon and Menander commanded the Athenian fleet. The Syracusans broke through Menander’s center, then attacked Eurymedon on the right wing, destroying seven Athenian ships and killing Eurymedon. By the end of the day, Nicias had lost 18 triremes and all of their crews. It was a particularly embarrassing failure for the preeminent Greek naval power. The Syracusans built on their victory by imprisoning the Athenian fleet inside the harbor, anchoring triremes across the entrance and linking them with great iron chains to form an impenetrable sea wall.

The Athenian invasion had turned into a desperate fight for survival. Nicias spoke to his men on the beach and aboard the triremes, encouraging them to uphold their honor. While he was exhorting his troops, Syracusan soldiers began to line the shore, watching. When Nicias gave the command, the Athenian captains aimed their ships at the mouth of the harbor and rushed the small opening the Syracusans had left for their own ships to come into the harbor. They immediately overwhelmed the enemy. The Athenians cut the chains linking the Syracusan ships, only to see more Syracusan ships attacking from their rear. Nearly 200 ships fought, in such close quarters that neither side could effectively ram the other. Hand-to-hand combat was the order of the day. The Syracusans finally chased the Athenians back into the harbor. Nicias’s men deserted the ships and ran for their camp, seeking the protection of their comrades.

The Athenian Retreat

Demosthenes suggested that they attempt another breakout at daybreak. But the morale of the Athenian soldiers had been crushed—they refused to take to sea again, insisting upon a land escape. The Syracusans, meanwhile, also suffered a collapse in discipline. In the giddiness of their victory, many of the men became incapacitated with drink. Gylippus, realizing his mistake in allowing the premature celebration, knew he had to find a way to delay the Athenians until his men were sober again. After some discussion, he sent decoys to the Athenian camp who convinced the Athenians that they were allies, working within Syracuse to hand the city over to Nicias. They warned the Athenians not to try to escape that night, since the Syracusans were guarding all the roads.

The ruse worked. Nicias kept his men in camp, instructing them to supply themselves for a long walk away from Syracuse. By then, the Syracusans were sober and alert once more. The subsequent retreat of 20,000 Athenian soldiers from their camp was an ignoble one. The sick and wounded called out for help, but their cries went unanswered. The dead lay unburied all around them. Nicias tried to encourage his men as best he could, but he was tired and ill himself. Nevertheless, his planned route was a good one. They would march west, past the plain of Epipolae, then head north toward Catana, where they could rest and gather additional supplies.

Four miles outside Syracuse, they were attacked. The Athenians rallied and broke through, but the enemy cavalry continued to rain missiles down on them as they passed. Soon water and food became an issue for the Athenians, and they had to stop to search for supplies. The Syracusans walled them in against the foot of a large cliff, and the Athenians were forced to seek another route to Catana. They were immediately set upon by Syracusan cavalry and javelin throwers. Nicias’s men fought bravely, falling back on their training, and managed to hold off their attackers for another day.

The situation was desperate. The Athenians turned southeast, following a river they hoped would take them to Catana by a more indirect route. At night they lit campfires, hoping to trick the Syracusans while they snuck away under cover of darkness. Nicias led the way with a select few men, while Demosthenes followed with the rest of the army. They made their way toward the seashore, then turned toward the Cacyparis River, intending to meet up with friends from Sicel who would escort them to Catana. The Syracusans were not fooled. They attacked again.

On the sixth day of the retreat, Syracusan cavalry attacked Demosthenes’s army with full force. They managed to cut off the Athenians in an olive grove and continued to kill them throughout the afternoon. Demosthenes, surrounded, could not break through and join up with Nicias. The situation was hopeless. At the end of the day, Demosthenes surrendered his 6,000 and tried unsuccessfully to kill himself with his own sword.

Final Disaster For the Expedition

Nicias heard about the capture the next day from the Syracusans themselves, who ordered him to surrender as well. Nicias made a counteroffer: Athens would pay for the damage done by the war if the Syracusans would let his army go. He promised to leave behind one soldier for every talent of damages. Seeing full victory in sight, the Syracusans naturally refused his offer. They surrounded Nicias and his men and rained missiles down upon them. Night came again and the Athenians attempted another escape, but only 300 broke through. The rest remained trapped along with Nicias.

The next day, Nicias attempted to break through and lead his men to the nearest river, the Assinarus, three miles to the south. Enemy missiles fell and cavalry attacked, but the surviving Athenians made it to the river, falling on the rushing water like madmen. Thucydides recounts that many of the men were trampled to death, while others fell accidentally on their own swords or were swept away by the river. While the parched Athenians gulped hungrily at the water, the Syracusans stood on the steep opposite bank and threw javelins at them at their leisure. The Spartans then came down from the plain, having traveled far to kill Athenians, and joined merrily in the slaughter.

The killing did not end until Nicias gave himself up to Gylippus. Of the 20,000 soldiers who had set out from the Athenian camp at the Great Harbor eight days before, only 6,000 remained. The great Athenian army was completely destroyed. Although Hermocrates and Gylippus argued that the lives of Nicias and Demosthenes should be spared—Hermocrates out of decency, Gylippus so that he could revel in the glory of bringing them back to Sparta with him—the Syracusans shouted them down. The bedraggled Athenian generals were executed. The survivors were made slaves for life.

The expedition had been a badly planned one from the start. The removal of Alcibiades, the absence of cavalry, and Nicias’s fatal hesistancy all contributed to a disaster of major proportions. Its navy and army both lost on a distant island they never should have invaded in the first place, proud Athens was knocked to its knees. Although it would be several more years before Athens finally surrendered to Sparta and ended the Peloponnesian War, the debacle at Syracuse had laid the groundwork for that defeat. Never again would Athens flourish—its days of glory were at an end.


Many people in Syracuse suspected that Athens was using this opportunity to intervene in Sicily to attack their city, and the Syracusan general Hermocrates sought help from other Sicilian cities and from Carthage. The tyrant Athenagoras claimed that Hermocrates and his allies were trying to instill fear in the population and overthrow the government, so Syracuse was initially left unprepared.

Divisions in the Athenian leadership

However, the Athenians were equally unprepared. Nicias proposed that the Athenians force a settlement between Selinus and Segesta and then return home unless the Segestans were willing to pay them for the full cost of the expanded expedition Alcibiades proposed that the Athenians seek allies on the island and then attack Selinus and Syracuse finally, Lamachus suggested that they sail directly for Syracuse and attack the city, hoping to take them by surprise. Ultimately, Lamachus endorsed Alcibiades' plan. The Athenians had little luck in finding Sicilian allies, and they also learned that Segesta did not have the money that it had promised them. Again, the Athenian leaders argued over their next course of action. Nicias suggested that the Athenians make a show of force and return home Alcibiades proposed encouraging revolts against Syracuse and then attacking Syracuse and Selinus and Lamachus suggested that the Athenians attack Syracuse right away. Alcibiades was arrested at Catania, only for him to escape to Sparta and inform the Spartans of the Athenians' plans. Ultimately, Lamachus' plan was chosen as the Athenians' course of action.

Attack on Syracuse

The Athenians and their allies engaged in a brief battle with the Syracusans outside of their city walls, defeating the Syracusan army before the Syracusan cavalry prevented the Athenians from giving chase. The Athenians then returned to Catania, and, from the winter of 415 to the spring of 414 BC, Hermocrates reorganized the Syracusan army and reduced the number of generals from fifteen to three. Meanwhile, the Syracusans fortified their city and asked Corinth and Sparta for help. Athens sent for aid from the Carthaginians and Etruscans, but they were ultimately forced to send reinforcements of their own.

Soon after, the 3,000-strong Spartan army under Gylippus landed at Himera to assist the Spartans, while a Corinthian fleet arrived to reinforce Syracuse. Nicias now believed that it would be impossible to capture Syracuse, and Athens chose to send reinforcements under Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Gylippus' 80 Syracusan ships attacked the Athenian fleet off Syracuse as Gylippus defeated the Athenians on land, and, while the Athenians killed 800 Corinthians (including all but one of Corinth's ambassadors), Gylippus convinced all of the neutral cities of Sicily to ally with Syracuse. Demosthenes and Eurymedon then arrived with 73 ships and 5,000 hoplites, and, while they succeeded in breaching the city walls, they were then attacked by the Boeotians in the Spartan contingent. Many Athenians fell off the cliff to their deaths, while others were killed as they fled down the slope. Nicias and several of his men fell sick while encamping near a marsh, and, while Demosthenes suggested that the Athenians return to Greece to defend Attica from Spartan invasion, Nicias refused to return home in defeat. Nicias initially sought to maintain the siege until the pro-Athenian faction in Syracuse could rise up, but, when Athens refused to send reinforcements, Nicias agreed that the Athenians should leave. After a lunar eclipse, the superstitious Nicias decided against retreating. The Syracusans then attacked the Athenian fleet and killed Eurymedon, and the Athenians themselves were blockaded at Syracuse. In September of 413 BC, the Athenians under Demosthenes surrendered, but the Syracusans ambushed and massacred Nicias' men as they fought over drinking water from the Assinarus River. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed by the Syracusans against Gylippus' orders, and the surviving Athenians were enslaved.


The civilization of Greek city-states reached its height in the period after the defeat of the Persian invasions of Europe and before the rise of Alexander the Great. During this period the Greeks found ample opportunities to turn their armies against each other, most notably during the Peloponnesian War. Fought primarily on the Peloponnesian Peninsula between the Athenian Empire and its enemies, the conflict was famous for being the first war in history in which control of the sea and overseas colonies was central to military strategy. The Battle of Syracuse, actually a series of battles fought in Sicily, was the world’s first colonial naval war, and arguably the most decisive battle of the conflict. The same locations around the city witnessed battles among the Romans and Cathaginians for control of Sicily in later centuries.


By the 410s BC, the Peloponesian War had been raging on and off throughout Greece and the Aegean region for over a decade. Beginning in 421 a long cease-fire existed between the primary antagonists, Athens and Sparta. These two greatest city-states had fought roughly to a stalemate, with the Spartans dominant on land but unable to finish off the Athenians thanks to the latter’s control of the sea.

The peace lasted until 415 BC, when war broke out in Sicily between the powerful state of Syracuse and the Segastians, who were allies of the Athenians. The Athenians resonded with a naval expeditionary force, the largest launched by a European power in pre-Roman times. Over a hundred ships loaded with over seven thousand men arrived in Sicily, and after skillfully maneuvering on both land and sea, caught the Syracusians and defeated at the first battle. However, the defeat was not decisive, and most of the Syracusians survived by fleeing into the city.

For some reason the Athenians did not press their advantage, instead preparing to take Syracuse by long siege. The two sides then spent the better part of the year 414 BC trying to gain the upper hand in a series of battles and skirmishes, all while trying to outflank each other in the construction of siege walls. In the end the Athenians failed to complete the siege, and while both sides took a beating, the Athenians were clearly becoming exhausted by the end of the year.

In 413 BC the Syracusians were finally relieved by an large force from Sparta and its allies. In September the navy of Syracuse defeated the Athenian ships in a series of engagements, thereby making the Athenian situation in Sicily precarious. The Athenian army withdrew from Syracuse and fled south until they reached the Assinaros River. There they were ambushed by another army from Syracuse, and the nearly the entire force massacred. The survivors were sold into slavery. Militarily the Athenian Empire never recovered from the battle, though the war dragged on for nearly ten more years before the final Athenian surrender.


The sites where most of the battle took place north of ancient Syracuse were later absorbed into the Roman and medieval city. However, parts of the battlefield, including ruined bits of the siege walls, can now be seen at the New City Archaeological Park. Another popular place related to the battle is along the banks of the River Asinaro, where the Athenians met their final defeat.

Battle of Syracuse, 415 BC - History

Siege of Syracuse 415-413 BC

Syracuse is a city on the east coast of Sicily. Around the year 600 BC, Syracuse was founded by Greek colonists from Corinth.

And if you like sieges, you'll like Syracuse.

Athenians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Saracens, and Normans all skulked around Syracuse at one point.

This Siege of Syracuse here was part of the Peloponnesian War .

Athens started the lengthy siege in the summer of 415 BC. In 413 BC, they collected a whipping and went home.

The Athenian fleet was 134 warships strong.

The impact of this defeat was significant.

Upon hearing the news of her defeat, several subjects revolted against Athens. It went downhill fast and in 404 BC, Athens officially lost the entire Peloponnesian War.

Here is another map of ancient Syracuse.

Watch the video: History of Battle - The Siege of Syracuse 415 - 413 BCE (August 2022).

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