Monday, January 31, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Syracuse and hope lost

Athenian siege of Syracuse
Picture source

The Thracians, therefore, that came too late to go with Demosthenes, they presently sent back, as being unwilling to lay out money in such a scarcity: and gave the charge of carrying them back to Diitrephes, with command as he went along those coasts, (for his way was through the Euripus), if occasion served, to do somewhat against the enemy. He accordingly landed them by Tanagra, and hastily fetched in some small booty. Then going over the Euripus from Chalcis in Eubœa, he disbarked again in Bœotia and led his soldiers towards Mycalessus; and lay all night at the temple of Mercury undiscovered, which is distant from Mycalessus about sixteen furlongs. The next day he cometh to the city, being a very great one , and taketh it: for they kept no watch, nor expected that any man would have come in and assaulted them so far from the sea. Their walls also were but weak, in some places fallen down, and in others low–built: and their gates open through security. The Thracians entering into Mycalessus, spoiled both houses and temples, slew the people, without mercy on old or young, but killed all they could light on, both women and children; yea, and the labouring cattle, and whatsoever other living thing they saw. For the nation of the Thracians, where they dare, are extreme bloody, equal to any of the barbarians. Insomuch as there was put in practice at this time, besides other disorder , all forms of slaughter that could be imagined: they likewise fell upon the school–house, which was in the city a great one, and the children newly entered into it; and killed them every one. And the calamity of the whole city, as it was as great as ever befell any, so also was it more unexpected and more bitter.
(Book Seven, Chapter 29)

This post looks at Chapters 1 through 58 of Book Seven, covering events from the end of summer 414 BC into the summer of 413 BC. All quotes (and spellings) come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Book Seven begins with Gylippus, the Spartan general traveling to help Syracuse, finding out that the city may not be lost yet. While he travels overland to Syracuse, his allied Corinthian ships arrive in Syracuse just as the assembly was meeting to consider the end of the war. Hearing that help was coming gives the Syracusians heart. Gylippus arrives by passing through the exact same pass the Athenians had used—why the Athenians didn’t secure this point is a mystery. How close was Syracuse to capitulation?

At the time when he [Gulippus] arrived, the Athenians had finished a double wall of seven or eight furlongs towards the great haven ; save only a little next the sea, which they were yet at work on. And on the other side of their circle, towards Trogilus and the other sea, the stones were for the most part laid ready upon the place: and the work was left in some places half, and in some wholly finished. So great was the danger that Syracuse was now brought into.

In case it wasn't obvious, Thucydides makes it clear…by working on the double wall to the south, Nicias failed to complete the single wall to the north that would have finished the encirclement of Syracuse. Gyplippus is able to take the fortification at Labdalum and commences construction on the third counter-wall, the Syracusians able to use the stones laid out by the Athenians. Nicias changes strategies, concerned that Gylippus’ arrival diminishes the Athenian chance of winning land battles. Focusing on the sea, Nicias has three fortifications constructed at Plemmyrium, a promontory south of the harbor. Gylippus loses the first skirmish between the armies but takes full blame for the defeat. Making better use of the Syracusian cavalry, Gyllipus wins the next battle, allowing the counter-wall to be completed and ending any hope of the Athenians enclosing the city.

Nicias writes to Athens that his forces must leave immediately or receive strong reinforcements. Thucydides goes into detail about Nicais' letter read to the Athenians. Nicias paints the arrival of Gylippus and his forces as a game-changing event, forcing the Athenians to take only defensive measures. Concerning the conquest of the land, “we who seemed to besiege others, are besieged ourselves”. Nicias lays out a grim scenario: Gylippus is successfully recruiting soldiers, the Athenian navy is weakened by time and use, and he is unable to counter or offset these problems. The Athenians on Sicily are dependent on supplies from Italy, which if cut off would end the war “without another stroke.” Nicias asks the assembly to choose between recalling the forces or reinforcing him with one just as large. Regardless, he asks to be relieved of his command for health reasons.

The Athenian democracy, often painted as flighty and changing directions for little reason, stays resolute and consistent. They refuse to relieve Nicias of his command while sending more generals to assist him (in particular Demosthenes and Eurymedon) as well as additional forces. If Nicias painted a bleaker picture than really existed at Syracuse in order to have the forces brought home, his bluff failed yet again.

Unknown to the Athenians (probably), at this moment the Spartans were preparing to invade Attica and establish a fort at Deceleia. The Athenian raids on the Laconian coast had relieved Spartan guilt about their role in the breaking of the thrity-year peace that started the Peloponnesian War. Because they refused arbitration, “they thought all their misfortunes had deservedly befallen them for that cause”. Athens would find out about the decision in the Spring when Spartan forces fortified Deceleia, “in sight of the city.”

Back on Sicily, Gylippus and Hermocrates convince the Syracusians to build a fleet to challenge the Athenians. Once the ships are built and manned, Gylippus leads a combined land and sea battle at Plemmyrium. The sea battles begins first and the Syracusian fleet holds its own. The Athenian soldiers in the fort are so busy watching the naval battle that they are surprised by the Syracusian army which captures all three forts. The Athenian fleet ultimately wins the battle on the water because of Syracusian inexperience. Athenian morale, despite the sea victory, drops as casualties mount, supplies are captured, and equipment is lost. Making matters worse, Syracusian ships intercept supplies coming from Italy while Athenian ships fail to stop reinforcements arriving from Sparta.

Demosthenes leaves Athens on his way to Sicily, stopping to establish locations for pillaging Laconia on his way. It’s at this point that the atrocity in Mycalessus occurs (in the opening quotation), possibly the worst atrocity (mentioned) in Thucydides’ history of the war, all because troops from Thebes arrived too late and the Athenians didn't want to keep them on the payroll.

In a naval battle in the Gulf of Corinth, the Peloponnesian ships under the command of Polyanthes (a Corinthian) fight Athens to a draw. What makes this battle important was the change in ship construction—the Corinthian galleys had reinforced their fronts so they could ram the Athenian ships, inflicting maximum damage while sustaining little to their own. This change in construction and tactics would carry over to Sicily as the Syracusian fleet modifies its ships to match the Corinthian example. Even though Athenian troops in Syracuse are suffering, they are still able to inflict substantial damage when well led. Nicias, hearing of reinforcements arriving in Syracuse from neighboring cities, has the passes guarded (finally!) and ambushes the enemy.

Gylippus launches another land/sea battle against the Athenians. Events progress toward another draw until the Syracusians, having planned and taken a quick meal, surprise he Athenian fleet which had retired for dinner. The Syracusians are able to triumph over the weakened Athenians because of this tactic, as well as the reinforced ships and harassing darters. An Athenian loss at sea—what better marker for a turning point in the war? Even so, Demosthenes’ supply troops arrive to reinforce the Athenians and temporarily lifts morale. Demosthenes takes in the situation and believes the Athenians need to achieve a quick victory or leave.

Demosthenes puts into action a plan for a night attack on the high ground at Epipolae. After initial success the Athenians, on unfamiliar ground and falling into disorder, meet a determined band of Boeotians. The resulting disarray of the Athenian troops and their ensuing retreat insures a rout of unimaginable proportions. While the moon provided plety of light, the Athenians lash out and kill each other. Some run off the cliffs to their death. Survivors not back to their camps by the morning were cut down by Syracusian cavalry. Demosthenes expressed the need for an immediate withdrawal for the Athenians, saying troops were needed at home rather than wasting their time against an enemy they could not easily overcome. I found Demostehenes’ argument interesting compared to when we first saw him: he had decided not to return to Athens after his troops were routed by the Aetolians, frightened by what the Athenian assembly would do to him. On that occasion he had remained in the field until he chanced to lead a victory to redeem himself. Now he’s willing to face the assembly, knowing his request is for the good of Athens. Nicias, on the other hand, was holding out against the reality of the situation, living on the hope of a reversal in fortunes or the delivery of Syracuse by traitors. Here’s where Thucydides lays on the irony as thickly as possible, saying Nicias’ real reason for holding out was his fear of how harshly the Athenians would judge him, saying Nicias chose to die at the hands of the enemy than face charges of dishonorable crimes at home. The whole reason Nicias had been sent to Sicily had been for his noble piety and successful record, providing a brake upon the reckless Alcibiades who was not trusted because of self-serving motivations. If Demosthenes' advice had been followed immediately, Athens could have saved the fleet and many of its troops. Instead, Nicias’ self-interest locks the Athenians into an untenable position.

Only when the Athenians see Gylippus return after recruiting additional forces do they decide to leave Sicily. An eclipse of the full moon spooks Nicias who relies on the diviner telling him they must wait “three times nine days” to leave. The secret of their withdrawal leaks out while they wait and Gylippus determines to confront the Athenians in their weakened and demoralized state. The Syracusians win a land skirmish and the next day decisively win a sea battle. The Athenian general Eurymedon is killed in the naval battle and the loss causes the Athenians to wish they had not come to Sicily to fight.

For having come against these cities, the only ones that were for institution like unto their own, and governed by the people as well as themselves, and which had a navy and horses and greatness; seeing they could create no dissension amongst them about change of government, to win them that way, nor could subdue it with the greatness of their forces when they were far the stronger, but misprospered in most of their designs; they were then at their wits’ end: but now, when they were also vanquished by sea, (which they would never have thought), they were much more dejected than ever.

Gyllipus looks at ways to block the Athenians in the harbor while the Syracusians dream of the glory they will achieve for defeating and capturing the Athenian army and navy.


1man'sjourney said...

Thank you Dwight! I was struggling with an essay on the Peloponnesian War and this summary has greatly helped! Is there a follow up blog post regarding the last half of Thucydides' Book 7?

Dwight Green said...

I'm glad it was of help. Check here for the second half of Book 7. Notes on a lecture by Leo Strauss may be of help, too.

A summary of my notes on the work can be found here, or just click on either of the labels at the end of this post for more posts on Thucydides. Good luck!