The Sicilian Expedition - Why Did It Fail?
The Sicilian Expedition marked a crucial moment in the history of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides' account thereof.1 Having recovered from the plague, a defeat at Delium, and the confusion surrounding the Peace of Nicias, the Athenians voted to dispatch an unprecedented armada to Sicily in order to take Syracuse and possibly expand their conquests to Italy and Carthage. After initial enthusiasm and military victories, the force under the command of Nicias deteriorated and eventually perished. Through hubris, a lack of adequate cavalry, and incompetence at home as well as abroad, the Athenians allowed the expedition to turn into a monumental failure, foreshadowing their ultimate defeat in the Ionian War a decade later.
An inquiry into the failure of the expedition must begin with the decision-making process in Athens leading up to the campaign. In the winter of 416/5, envoys from the Sicilian city of Egesta arrived at Athens to ask for help in their conflict with the Selinuntines—who were allied with Syracuse reminding the Athenians of their alliance made under Laches.2 The Athenians were inclined to offer assistance, but, according to Thucydides, were ''ambitious in real truth of conquering the whole'' of Sicily.3 In a remarkable passage, Plutarch goes even farther in asserting the hubristic spirit unleashed in Athens with a view to Sicily and beyond, particularly by the young and ambitious hothead Alcibiades:
Before the Assembly had even met, Alcibiades had already dazzled the imagination of the people and corrupted their judgement with the glittering prospects he held out, so that the young men in the wrestling-schools and the old men in the shops or the public meeting-places sat about tracing maps of Sicily or charts of the sea and the harbours and the coast-line facing Africa. For the Athenians had already come to regard Sicily not as a prize which would end this war, but as the spring-board for another, the advanced base from which they could embark on a struggle with Carthage and make themselves masters of Libya and the whole Mediterranean up to the Pillars of Heracles.4
The cautious Nicias tried to dissuade his fellow Athenians from embarking on so ambitious an enterprise, warning of a ''mad dream of conquest,'' a division of Athenian military power, possible revolts by their subject states, and ''grasping at another empire before we have secured the one we have already.''5 The Assembly, however, sided with Alcibiades and his audacious imperialism. Nicias, seeing that his argument had failed, urged them to at least provide an overwhelming fleet adequate to the endeavor. Contrary to his intention, now more than ever ''[e]veryone fell in love with the enterprise'' and the Athenians chose to give full powers to Nicias as commander, who went on to demand no less than one hundred triremes and five thousand hoplites drawn from Athens and the subject states.6 Characteristically and foolishly, the Athenians chose the reluctant Nicias to lead the expedition, along with the forthright Lamachus and the firebrand Alcibiades, hoping that the three generals' different temperaments would somehow profitably complement one another.7 Appointing Nicias, who was against the expedition from the beginning, was a curious expression of democratic capriciousness; as Victor Davis Hanson writes: ''Such was the peculiar nature of Athenian command that sometimes generals who did not approve of expeditions were put in charge of them, on the dubious logic that they would provide a critical accountability both in the field and, later, at home.''8 And so they sailed.
Unsurprisingly, once the imperial fleet arrived in Sicily in the summer of 415, it was met with resistance. Failing to match its splendid appearance with an initial and decisive show of force, the Athenians allowed the Syracusans to regain their composure and confidence.9 Additionally, it soon transpired that the role that cavalry would play in the campaign had been critically underestimated by the Athenians; in the winter after their arrival, Syracusan horsemen first rode up to the Athenian camps and started insulting them on account of their military inactivity.10 With the danger of Syracusan cavalry now in mind but without one of their own adequate to the challenge, the Athenians employed a stratagem to lure enemy forces away from Syracuse in order to attack the city.11 Only in this way were they able to secure a favorable position for the first real battle, which they accordingly won, although they were prevented from engaging in effective pursuit by the belatedly arriving ''numerous and undefeated Syracusan horse, who attacked and drove back any of their hoplites whom they saw pursuing in advance of the rest.''5 This pattern of effective Syracusan cavalry warfare became characteristic of the entire expedition, especially since the Athenian efforts at siegecraft and circumvallation were vulnerable to mounted skirmishes, so that they sent to Athens for more cavalrymen.6 Tellingly, in the next summer, things having further deteriorated, Nicias wrote home that ''the besieger in name has become . . . the besieged in reality; as we are prevented by their cavalry from even going for any distance into the country.''7
The Athenians at home themselves made a great mistake by deciding to relieve Alcibiades of his command and recall him to stand trial in Athens over a paranoid and most likely trumped-up charge of having made a mockery of the Mysteries.8 Thucydides disapprovingly describes the attitude of the Athenians, whom he accuses of ''arresting and imprisoning the best citizens upon the evidence of rascals.''9 Not only was the Athenian armament in Sicily now deprived of a talented general, Alcibiades, fearing a death sentence in Athens, sabotaged a military operation and fled to Sparta where he incited the Peloponnesians to fight Athens in Sicily and provided them with valuable information, including his suggestion that Sparta fortify Decelea in Attica.10
Despite a massive reinforcement mission being sent from Athens under Demosthenes, the Athenians were unable to turn the tide of war, especially since the Peloponnesians under the Spartan Gylippus had now joined the fray, lifting the spirits of the Syracusans and recruiting allies in the rest of the island. Nicias, whose role had been augmented by Alcibiades' recall and the death of Lamachus, foolishly paid little attention to the arrival of Gylippus and is believed to have otherwise conducted the war overly cautiously.11 After the devastating defeat of Demosthenes' forces at Epipolae, Nicias refused to order a withdrawal, not, according to Plutarch, because he misjudged the strength of the Syracusans, ''but because he was still more afraid of the Athenian people and of the accusations and trials which would follow at home . . . he would rather meet his death at the hands of the enemy than of his fellow-citizens.''12 What followed was a last grand battle in the Syracusan harbor and a long pursuit of the Athenians in panic, ending in their slaughter and enslavement, especially at the hands of the Syracusan horsemen, for whom their own cavalry was no match either quantitatively or qualitatively. As Hanson notes: ''At almost every key juncture the absence of sufficient cavalry ruined the Athenians.''13
If Diodorus is to be believed, eighteen thousand of the Athenians and their allies were eventually slain and seven thousand captured.14 The enormous dimensions of the Sicilian expedition were thus reflected in its catastrophic failure. The outcome could have been very different had the Athenians taken with them a cavalry up to the task, been guided by a more decisive and aggressive general than Nicias, and had a less capricious demos at home. In the absence of these things, miscalculation, combined with a lack of spirit, produced the greatest military disaster of the Peleponnesian War. The beneficiaries were of course the Spartans, who, having defended their interests in Sicily, took it upon themselves to deal the final blow to the Athenian empire in the Ionian War.
1 Thucydides points to the Sicilian disaster already in the second book of his history at 2.65 and devotes great care to his description of the campaign in the sixth and seventh book. All translations from Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press 2008).
2 Thuc. 6.6.2. According to Plutarch, the embassy also contained envoys from Leontini, the restoration of which became one of the objectives of the Sicilian expedition, see Nicias 12. Thuc. mentions the Leontine exiles at 6.19.1. The Egestans also warned the Athenians of a possible Dorian conspiracy hatched by Syracuse and Sparta against them.
3 Thuc. 6.6.1.
4 Plut. Nicias 12, all translations from Ian Scott-Kilvert, The Rise and Fall of Athens. Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch, (Penguin Classics, 1960).
5 As quoted in Thuc. 6.13.1 and 6.10.5, respectively.
6 Thuc. 6.24-5, quote at 6.24.3.
7 Plut. Nicias, 12.
8 A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, (New York: Random House, 2005), 206.
9 Thuc. 6.63.2.
11Ibid. 6.64. The failure of the Athenians to produce a formidable cavalry can be ascribed to the large costs involved, difficulties in transportation, and what one might call ''hoplite bias,'' the belief that (land) battles everywhere would continue to be decided by hoplite infantry, as had been the case in earlier times. Ironically this is the bias that the Spartans suffered from during the futile hoplite excursions of the Archidamian War but from which they recovered at least to some extent when they realized that they would need to build a fleet to beat the Athenians.
12 Ibid. 6.65.3 and 6.70.3.
13 Ibid. 6.74.2, 6.93.4, 6.94.4; for the role of cavalry in the construction of the Athenian walls, see 6.98.3-4.
14 Quoted in ibid. 7.11.4. It should perhaps be noted that Nicias, unlike Alcibiades, before the expedition seemed to have appreciated the importance of horses. In his second speech to the Athenians on the expedition he mentions their role three times, in 6.20.4, 6.21.1, and 6.22.1. Alcibiades, on the other hand, in 6.17.5 demonstrates hoplite bias (cf. n. 11 above) by arguing that ''the Sicilians have not so many hoplites as they boast; just as the Hellenes generally did not prove so numerous as each state reckoned itself, but Hellas greatly overestimated their numbers, and has hardly had an adequate force of hoplites throughout this war.''
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- Peloponnesian War Peloponnesischer Krieg Sicilian Expedition Sizilianische Expedition Athen Athens Sparta Sicily Sizilien Ionian War Ionischer Krieg Alcibiades Alkibiades Nicias Nikias disaster Thucydides Thukydides Plutarch War Strategy