Military history


The Final Sea Battle

Syracuse, 413 BC

By 415 BC, at the end of seventeen years of almost continuous fighting in the Peloponnesian War (begun 431), in which the futures of Sparta, Athens and their allies had swayed one way and the other, Athens, under the leadership of the brilliant orator Alcibiades, decided to seek a decision by a widening of the conflict. The objective chosen was Sicily, ‘Great Greece’, dotted with Greek colonies and regarded on the mainland as the key to the Greek maritime world, which extended from what is today the French Riviera, in the west, to the Black Sea in the east. Syracuse, a major Greek Sicilian city, which had fallen into a local quarrel with an Athenian ally, presented a target, and a fleet of 136 triremes — galleys with three banks of oars, the capital ships of Greek naval warfare - set out and landed 5,000 troops under the city’s walls. They won a victory and laid siege. When Sparta sent help to Syracuse, however, the Athenians were unable to complete their siege works and became embroiled in sea fighting in Syracuse Bay, which went against them. When Demosthenes, greatest of Athenian leaders, arrived with reinforcements of troops and ships, he decided that the expedition had been a failure and that retreat was the only safe option. Before the escape could be completed, the Syracusans blockaded the harbour and brought the Athenian fleet to battle. It culminated in a Syracusan victory, the enslavement of the defeated and the execution of Demosthenes. Athens, though it succeeded in sustaining the war for another eleven years, never fully recovered from the disaster.


70. The Syracusans and their allies had already put out with about the same number of ships as before; one detachment guarded the entrance of the harbour, the rest were disposed all round it, so as to attack the Athenians on all sides at once; while the land forces held themselves in readiness at the points at which the vessels might put in to the shore. The Syracusan fleet was commanded by Sicanus and Agatharchus, who had each a wing of the whole force, the Pythen and the Corinthians in the centre. When the Athenians came up to the barrier, the first shock of their charge overpowered the ships stationed there, and they tried to undo the fastenings; after this, as the Syracusans and allies bore down upon them from all quarters, the action spread from the barrier over the whole harbour, and was more obstinately disputed than any preceding. On either side the rowers showed great zeal in bringing up their vessels at the boatswains’ orders, and the pilots great skill in manoeuvring, rivalling each other’s efforts; once the ships were alongside, the soldiers on board did their best not to let the service on deck be inferior; in short, every man strove to prove himself the first in his particular department. As many ships were engaged in a small compass (never had fleets so large - there were almost two hundred vessels - fought in so narrow a space), the regular attacks with the beak were few, for there was no opportunity to back water or break the line; while the collisions caused by one ship chancing to run foul of another, either in avoiding or attacking a third, were more frequent. So long as a vessel was coming up to the charge the men on the decks rained darts and arrows and stones upon her; but once alongside, the heavy infantry tried to board each other’s vessel, and fought hand to hand. In many places it happened, owing to want of room, that a vessel was charging an enemy on one side and being charged herself on another, and that two, or sometimes more, ships had unavoidably got entangled round one, and the pilots had to make plans of attack and defence against several adversaries coming from different quarters; while the huge din caused by the number of ships crashing together not only spread terror, but made the orders of the boatswains inaudible. The boatswains on either side in the discharge of their duty and in the heat of the conflict shouted incessantly orders and appeals to their men; the Athenians they urged to force the passage, and now if ever to show their mettle and make sure of a safe return to their country; to the Syracusans and their allies they cried that it would be glorious to prevent the escape of the enemy, and to win a victory which would bring glory to their country. The generals, on either side, if they saw any vessel in any part of the battle backing ashore without being forced to do so, called out to the captain by name and asked him — the Athenians, whether they were retreating because they thought that they would be more at home on a bitterly hostile shore than on that sea which had cost them so much labour to win; the Syracusans, whether they were flying from the flying Athenians, whom they well knew to be eager to escape by any possible means.

71. Meanwhile the two armies on shore, while victory hung in the balance, were a prey to the most agonizing and conflicting emotions; the Sicilians thirsting to add to the glory that they had already won, while the invaders feared to find themselves in even worse plight than before. The last hope of the Athenians lay in their fleet, their fear for the outcome was like nothing they had ever felt; while their view of the struggle was necessarily as chequered as the battle itself. Close to the scene of action, and not all looking at the same point at once, some saw their friends victorious and took courage, and fell to calling upon heaven not to deprive them of salvation, while others, who had their eyes turned upon the losers, wept and cried aloud, and, although spectators, were more overcome than the actual combatants. Others, again, were gazing at some spot where the battle was evenly disputed; as the strife was protracted without decision, their swaying bodies reflected the agitation of their minds, and they suffered the worst agony of all, ever just within reach of safety or just on the point of destruction. In short, in that one Athenian army, as long as the sea fight remained doubtful, there was every sound to be heard at once, shrieks, cheers, ‘We win,’ ‘We lose,’ and all the other sounds wrung from a great host in desperate peril; with the men in the fleet it was nearly the same; until at last the Syracusans and their allies, after the battle had lasted a long while, put the Athenians to flight, and with much shouting and cheering chased them in open rout to the shore. The naval force fell back in confusion to the shore, except those who were taken afloat, and rushed from their ships to their camp; while the army, no more with divided feelings, but carried away by one impulse, ran down with a universal cry of dismay, some to help the ships, others to guard what was left of their wall, while the majority began to consider how they should save themselves. Their panic was as great as any of their disasters. They now suffered very nearly what they had inflicted at Pylos; then the Lacedaemonians, besides losing their fleet, lost also the men who had crossed over to Sphacteria; so now the Athenians had no hope of escaping by land, without the help of some extraordinary accident.

72. The sea fight had been severe, and many ships and lives had been lost on both sides; the victorious Syracusans and their allies now picked up their wrecks and dead, and sailed off to the city and set up a trophy, while the Athenians, overwhelmed by their disaster, never even thought of asking leave to take up their dead or wrecks, but wished to retreat that very night. Demosthenes, however, went to Nicias and gave it as his opinion that they should man the ships they had left and make another effort to force their passage out next morning; saying that they had still left more ships fit for service than the enemy, the Athenians having about sixty remaining as against less than fifty of their opponents’. Nicias was quite of his mind; but when they wished to man the vessels, the sailors, who were so utterly overcome by their defeat as no longer to believe in the possibility of success, refused to go on board.

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