10] Disaster in Sicily (Thuc. 7.75ff.)

[ The Athenian forces were hampered by the overcautious strategy of Nicias, and the fleet was bottled up in the harbor of Syracuse, where they were destroyed by the resourcefulness of the Syracusans. Since in the narrow harbor the more maneuverable Athenian ships could not take advantage of their speed, the Syracusans reinforced the prows of their vessels with heavy timbers and proceeded to ram the Athenians head on]

The clash of ships in the harbor was catastrophic. Many ships and lives were lost on both sides. The victorious Syracusans and their allies now picked up their wreckage and dead, and sailed off to the city and set up a trophy. The Athenians, overwhelmed by their misfortune, never even thought of asking to recover their dead..., but wished to retreat that very night. Demosthenes (the other surviving general), however, went to Nicias and gave it as his opinion that they should man the ships they had left and make another effort to break out of the harbor 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 this mind; but when they wished to man the vessels, the sailers refused to go on board, being so utterly demoralized by their defeat that they no longer could believe in the possibility of success.

Accordingly they all now made up their minds to retreat by land. Meanwhile the Syracusan leader Hermocrates suspecting their intention, and impressed by the size of the force and the danger of allowing it to take refuge in some other part of Sicily, from thence to renew the war, went and stated his views to the elected officials, and pointed out to them that they ought not to let the enemy get away by night, but that all the Syracusans and their allies should at once march out and block up the roads and seize and guard the passes. The officials were entirely convinced, but on the other hand they felt sure that the people, who had given themselves over to rejoicing and recreation after a hardfought battle at sea, would not be easily brought to obey. Besides, they were celebrating a festival, having on that day a sacrifice to Heracles, and most of them in their excitement at the victory had started drinking at the festival and would probably agree to anything sooner than to take up arms and march out at that moment.

For these reasons the thing appeared impracticable to the magistrates; and Hermocrates, finding himself unable to do anything further with them, had now recourse to the following stratagem of his own. What he feared was that the Athenians might quietly get the start of them by passing the most difficult places during the night, therefore sent, as soon as it was dusk, some friends of his own to the Athenian camp with some horsemen who rode up within earshot and called out to some of the men, as though they were well-wishers of the Athenians, and told them to tell Nicias (who had in fact some correspondents who informed him of what went on inside the town), not to lead off the army by night as the Syracusans were guarding the roads, to make his preparations at his leisure and to retreat by day. After saying, this they departed; and their hearers informed the Athenian generals, who put off going for that night on strength of this message, not doubting its sincerity.

Since after all they had not set out at once, they now determined to stay also the following day to give time to the soldiers to pack up as well as they could the most useful articles, and leaving everything else behind, to start only with what was strictly necessary for their personal subsistence. Meanwhile the Syracusans and Gylippus [the general sent by the Spartans] marched out and blocked up the roads through the country by which the Athenians were likely to pass, and kept guard at the fords of the stream and rivers, posting themselves so as to receive them and stop the army where they thought best; while their fleet sailed up to the beach and towed off the ships of the Athenians. Some few were burned by the Athenians themselves as they had intended; the rest the Syracusans lashed on to their own at their leisure as they had been thrown up on shore, without any one trying to stop them, and conveyed to the town.

After this, Nicias and Demosthenes now thinking that enough had been done in the way of preparation, the removal of the army took place upon the second day after the seafight. It was a lamentable scene, not merely from the single circumstance that they were retreating after having lost all their ships, their great hopes gone, and themselves and the state in peril; but also in leaving the camp there were things most grievous for every eye and heart to contemplate. The dead lay unburied, and each man as he recognised a friend among them shuddered with grief and horror; while those whom they were leaving alive, wounded or sick, were far more shocking than the dead, and more to be pitied than those who had perished. These fell to entreating and bewailing until their friends knew not what to do, begging them to take them and loudly calling to each individual comrade or relative whom they could see, hanging upon the necks of their tent-fellows in the act of departure, and following as far as they could, and when their bodily strength failed them, calling again and again upon heaven and shrieking aloud as they were left behind. So that the whole,army being filled with tears and distracted after this fashion found it not easy to go on, even to escape from an enemy's land where they had already suffered too much for tears and in future feared to suffer more.

Dejection and self-condemnation spread among them. Indeed they could only be compared to a starved-out town, and that no small one, escaping; the whole multitude upon the march being not less than forty thousand men. All carried anything they could that might be of use; even the heavy infantry and troopers had to carry their own provisions as they marched in arms: some had no servants, others did not trust the servants they had, as they were deserting in ever greater numbers. At least they had a lighter load since there was little food left. Their disgrace generally, and the enormity of their sufferings, though to some extent alleviated by being shared, were still a heavy burden, especially when they contrasted the splendor and glory of their setting out with the humiliation in which it had ended. For this was by far the greatest reverse that ever befell an Hellenic army. They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans (to Apollo for victory), and now started back with omens of doom; journeying on foot instead of in their fleet.... Nevertheless the worse danger that threatened made their present hardship seem tolerable.

Nicias seeing the army dejected and greatly altered, passed along the ranks and encouraged and comforted them as far as was possible under the circumstances, raising his voice higher and higher as he went from one company to another in earnestness and anxiety that the benefit of his words might reach as many as possible:

'Athenians and allies, even in our present position still keep hope, since men have been saved from worse straits than this. You must not condemn yourselves too severely either because of your disasters or because of present undeserved sufferings. I myseIf am no stronger than any of you--indeed you see how sick I am. And in prosperity, in private life or otherwise, I think I am as fortunate as any. But I am exposed to the same danger as the meanest among you. My life has been one of much devotion towards the gods, and a life of justice, giving no offence towards men. I have therefore still a strong hope for the future, and our misfortunes do not terrify me as much as they might. Indeed we may hope that they will be lightened: our enemies have had good fortune enough; and if any of the gods was offended at our expedition, we have been already punished enough. Others before us have attacked their neighbors [and suffered defeat] without suffering more than they could bear. We may now justly expect to find the gods more kind, for we have become fitter objects for their pity than their jealousy.

' And then look at yourselves, mark the numbers and efficiency of the heavy infantry marching in your ranks, and do not give way to despair, but reflect that you are yourselves as strong as a city wherever you take a stand, and that there is no other town in Sicily that could easily resist your attack, or expel you when once established. The safety and order of the march is for yourselves to look to; the one thought of each man being that the spot on which he has to fight has to be conquered and held as his country and stronghold. Meanwhile we shall travel fast night and day alike, as our provisions are light; and if we can reach some refuge among the Sicels, (tribesmen) who are still loyal to us and have the Syracusans for fear, you may then consider yourselves safe. A message has been sent on to them with directions to meet us with supplies of food. All in all, you must be brave, as there is no safe place for cowards to run to, but if you now escape from the enemy, you may all see again what your hearts desire, while those of you who are Athenians will raise up again the great power of the state, fallen though it be. Men make the city and not walls or ships without men in them.'

As he made this address, Nicias went along the ranks, and brought back to their place any of the troops that he saw straggling out of the line; while Demosthenes did as much for his part of the army, addressing. them in words very similar.  The army marched in a hollow square, the division under Nicias leading, and that of Demosthenes following, the heavy infantry being outside and the baggage-carriers and the bulk of the army in the middle. When they arrived at the ford of the river Anapus they there found drawn up a body of the Syracusans and allies, and routing these, made good their passage and pushed on, harassed by the charges of the Syracusan horse and by the missiles of their light troops. On that day they advanced about four miles and a half, halting for the night upon a certain hill. On the next day they started early and got on about two miles further, and descended into a place in the plain and there encamped, in order to procure some eatables from the houses, as the place was inhabited, and to carry on with them water from thence, as for many furlongs in front, in the direction in which they were going, it was not plentiful.

The Syracusans meanwhile went on and fortified the pass in front, where there was a steep hill with a rocky ravine on each side of it, called the Acraean cliff. The next day the Athenians advancing found themselves impeded by the missiles and charges of the horse and darters, both very numerous, of the Syracusans and allies; and after fighting for a long while, at length retired to the same camp, where they had no longer provisions as before, it being impossible to leave their position by reason of the cavalry.

Early next morning they started afresh and forced their way to the hill, which had been fortified, where they found before them the enemy's infantry drawn up many shields deep to defend the fortification, the pass being narrow. The Athenians attacked but were greeted by a storm of missiles from the hill, which told with the greater effect through its being a steep one, and unable to force the passage, retreated again and rested. Meanwhile occurred some claps of thunder and rain, as often happens towards autumn, which still further disheartened the Athenians, who thought all these things to be omens of their approaching ruin. While they were resting Gylippus and the Syracusans sent a part of their army to throw up works in their rear on the way by which they had advanced however, the Athenians immediately sent some of their men and prevented them; after which they retreated more towards the plain and halted for the night. When they advanced the next day the Syracusans surrounded and attacked them on every side, and disabled many of them: falling back if the Athenians advanced and coming on if they retired, and in particular assaulting their rear, in the hope of routing them in detail, and thus striking a panic into the whole army. For a long while the Athenians persevered in this fashion, but after advancing for four or five furlongs halted in the plain; the Syracusans also withdrew to their camp.

During the night Nicias and Demosthenes, seeing the wretched condition of their troops, now in want of every necessity, [food, water, and shelter], and many of them disabled in the numerous attacks by the enemy, determined to light as many fires as possible [giving the appearance of staying in camp], and to lead off the army, no longer by the same route as they had intended, but towards the sea in the opposite direction to that guarded by the Syracusans. The whole of this route was leading the army not to Catana but to the other side of Sicily, towards Camarina, Gela, and the other Hellenic and barbarian towns in that quarter. They accordingly lit a number of fires and set out by night. Now all armies, and the greatest most of all, are liable to fears and false alarms, especially when they are marching by night through an enemy's country and with the enemy near. The Athenians fell into one of these panics. The leading division, that of Nicias, kept together and got on a good way in front, while that of Demosthenes, comprising rather more than half the army, got separated and marched on in some disorder.  By morning, however, they reached the sea, and getting into the Helorine Road, pushed on in order to reach the river Cacyparis, and to follow the stream up through the interior, where they hoped to be met by the Sicels whom they had sent for. Arrived at the river, they encountered a Syracusan detachment barring the ford with a wall and a palisade. Overpowering this guard, the Athenians managed to cross the river and went on to another stream called the Erineus, following the advice of their guides.

Meanwhile, when day came and the Syracusans and allies found that the Athenians were gone, most of them accused Gylippus of having let them escape on purpose, and hastily pursuing by the road which they had no difficulty in finding that they had taken, overtook them about dinner-time. They first came up with the troops under Demosthenes, who were behind and marching somewhat slowly and in disorder, owing to their panic the night before, and at once attacked and engaged them, the Syracusan horse surrounding them with more ease now that they were separated from the rest, and hemming them in on one spot. The division of Nicias was five or six miles on in front, as he led them more rapidly, thinking that under the circumstances their safety lay not in staying and fighting, unless obliged, but in retreating as fast as possible, and only fighting when forced to do so. On the other hand, Demosthenes was, generally speaking, harassed more incessantly, as his post in the rear left him the first exposed to the attacks of the enemy; and now, finding that the Syracusans were in pursuit, he omitted to push on, in order to form his men for battle, and so lingered until he was surrounded by his pursuers. He and the Athenians with him were in a terrible predicament, crowded into an enclosure with a wall all round it, a road on this side and on that, and olive-trees in great number. So they were showered with spears and arrows [like fish in a barrel]. This mode of attack the Syracusans had with good reason adopted in preference to fighting at close quarters: for them to risk a struggle with desperate men was now more for the advantage of the Athenians; besides, their success had now become so certain that they began to save themselves a little, in order not to be cut off in the moment of victory, since they were confident they would be able to subdue and capture the enemy (without much of a fight).

In fact, after hitting the Athenians and allies all day long, from every side with arows and other projectiles, they at length saw that they were worn out with their wounds and other sufferings. Gylippus and the Syracusans and their allies made proclamation, offering their liberty to any of the islanders who chose to come over to them; and some few cities went over. Afterwards a capitulation was agreed upon for all the rest with Demosthenes, to lay down their arms on condition that no one was to be put to death either by violence, imprisonment or want of the necessaries of life. Upon this they surrendered, six thousand in all. These captives laid down all the money in their possession, which filled the hollows of four shields, and this booty was immediately conveyed by the Syracusans to the town.

Meanwhile Nicias with his division arrived at the river Erineus, crossed over and posted his army on high ground upon the other side. The next day the Syracusans overtook him and told him that the troops under Demosthenes had surrendered, and invited him to follow their example. Not believing Demosthenes had surrendered, Nicias asked for a truce to send a horseman to see, and upon his return [confirming the surrender] he sent a herald to Gylippus and the Syracusans, saying that he was ready to agree with them on behalf of the Athenians to repay whatever money the Syracusans had spent upon the war if they would let his army go; and offered to give Athenians as hostages until the money was paid, one person for every talent. The Syracusans and Gylippus rejected this proposition, and attacked this division as they had the other, standing all round and raining arrows down upon them until nightfall. Food and necessary provisions were as miserably lacking to the troops of Nicias as they had been to their comrades; nevertheless they watched for the quiet of the night to resume their march. But as they were taking up their arms the Syracusans perceived it and raised their paean [song of victory], upon which the Athenians, finding that they were discovered, laid down their arms again, except about three hundred men who forced their way through and went on during the night as far as they were able.

As soon as it was day Nicias put his army in motion, pressed, as before, by the Syracusans and their allies, pelted from every side by their missiles, and struck down by their spears. The Athenians pushed on for the Assinarus river, impelled by the attacks made upon them from every side by a numerous cavalry and the swarm of other arms, fancying that they should breathe more freely if once across the river. and driven on also by their exhaustion and craving for water. Once there, they rushed into the stream, and all order was at an end. Every man wanted to cross first, but the attacks of the enemy made it difficult to cross at all. Forced to huddle together, they fell against and trod down one another, some dying immediately upon the spears, others getting entangled together and stumbling over the baggage, unable to rise again. Meanwhile the opposite bank, which was steep, was lined by the Syracusans, who showered spears and arrows down upon the Athenians, most of them drinking greedily and heaped together in disorder in the hollow bed of the river. The Peloponnesians also came down and butchered them, especially those in the water, which was thus immediately spoiled, but which they went on drinking just the same, mud and all, bloody as it was, most even fighting to have it.

At last, when many dead now lay piled one upon another in the stream, and part of the army had been destroyed at the river, and the few that escaped from thence cut off by the cavalry, Nicias surrendered himself to Gylippus, whom he trusted more than he did the Syracusans, and told him and the Lacedaemonians to do what they liked with him, but to stop the slaughter of the soldiers. Gylippus, after this, immediately gave orders to take prisoners; upon which the rest were brought together alive, except a large number secreted by the soldiery, and a party was sent in pursuit of the three hundred who had got through the guard during the night, and who were now taken with the rest. The number of the enemy collected as public property was not considerable; but those who were taken as private chattel was very large, and all Sicily was filled with them, since no convention had been made in their case, as for those taken with Demosthenes. Besides this, a large number were killed outright--the carnage of execution was as great as any battle in this Sicilian war. In the numerous other encounters upon the march, not a few also had fallen. Nevertheless many escaped, some at the moment, others served as slaves, and then ran away subsequently. These found refuge at Catana.

The Syracusans and their allies now mustered and took up the spoils and as many prisoners as they could, and went back to the city. The rest of their Athenian and allied captives were deposited in the quarries, this seeming the safest way of keeping them; but Nicias and Demosthenes were butchered, against the will of Gylippus, who thought that it would be the crown of his triumph if he could take the enemy's generals to Lacedaemon. One of them, as it happened, Demosthenes, was one of her greatest enemies, on account of the affair of the island and of Pylos (where hundreds of young Spartan nobles were captured); while the other general, Nicias, was for the same reasons one of her greatest friends, owing to his exertions to procure the release of the prisoners and to make peace. For these reasons the Lacedaemonians felt kindly towards him; and Nicias himself relied on this when be surrendered himself to Gylippus. But some of the Syracusans who had been [secretly] in correspondence with him were afraid, it was said, of his being put to the torture and [revealing their conspiracy]; others, especially the Corinthians, feared his escaping by means of bribes (as he was wealthy), and living to do them further mischief; and these persuaded the allies to put him to death. This or the like was the cause of the death of a man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved such a fate, seeing that the whole course of his life had been regulated with strict attention to virtue.

The prisoners in the quarries were at first harshly treated by the Syracusans. Crowded in a narrow hole, without any roof to cover them, the light of the sun and the stifling closeness of the air tormented them during the day, and then the nights, as it became autumn and chilly, made them ill by the sudden change. Besides, as they had to do everything in the same place for want of room, and the bodies of those who died of their wounds, or from exposure or similar causes, were left heaped together one upon another, an intolerable stench arose. Hunger and thirst never ceased to afflict them, each man during eight months having only half a pint of water and a pint of corn given him daily. There was no suffering imaginable that they did not have to endure. For some seventy days they were thus kept together, after which all, except the Athenians and any Sicelians or Italians who had joined the expedition, were sold. The total number of prisoners taken it would be difficult to state exactly, but it could not have been less than seven thousand.

[Thucydides concludes:] This victory [of the Syracusans over the Athenians] was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion in Hellenic history, at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered. They were beaten on all fronts and utterly defeated in the end, and met defeat with the greatest agony. They were destroyed, as the saying goes, with utter destruction: their fleet, their army--everything was annihilated. Out of so many very few returned home.