Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: The agony of defeat

The Athenians hasted to get the river Asinarus; not only because they were urged on every side by the assault of the many horsemen and other multitude, and thought to be more at ease when they were over the river, but out of weariness also and desire to drink. When they were come unto the river, they rushed in without any order, every man striving who should first get over. But the pressing of the enemy, made the passage now more difficult. For being forced to take the river in heaps, they fell upon and trampled one another under their feet; and falling amongst the spears and utensils of the army, some perished presently; and others catching hold one of another , were carried away together down the stream. And [not only] the Syracusians standing along the farther bank, being a steep one, killed the Athenians with their shot from above, as they were many of them greedily drinking, and troubling one another in the hollow of the river: but the Peloponnesians came also down and slew them with their swords, and those especially that were in the river. And suddenly the water was corrupted: nevertheless they drunk it, foul as it was with blood and mire; and many also fought for it.
(Book Seven, Chapter 84)

As for those in the quarries, the Syracusians handled them at first but ungently. For in this hollow place, first the sun and suffocating air (being without roof) annoyed them one way: and on the other side, the nights coming upon that heat, autumnal and cold, put them, by reason of the alteration, into strange diseases: especially doing all things, for want of room, in one and the same place; and the carcasses of such as died of their wounds, or change [of air] or other like accident, lying together there on heaps. Also the smell was intolerable: besides that they were afflicted with hunger and thirst. For for eight months together, they allowed no more but to every man a cotyle of water by the day, and two cotyles of corn. And whatsoever misery is probable that men in such a place may suffer, they suffered. Some seventy days they lived thus thronged. Afterwards, retaining the Athenians, and such Sicilians and Italians as were of the army with them, they sold the rest. How many were taken in all, it is hard to say exactly: but they were seven thousand at the fewest. And this was the greatest action that happened in all this war, or at all, that we have heard of amongst the Grecians: being to the victors most glorious, and most calamitous to the vanquished. For being wholly overcome in every kind, and receiving small loss in nothing, their army, and fleet, and all [that ever they had], perished (as they use to say) with an universal destruction. Few of many returned home. And thus passed the business concerning Sicily.
(Book Seven, Chapter 87)

This post looks at Chapters 59 through 87 of Book Seven, covering the activities at the end of summer 413 BC. All quotes (and spellings) come from the Thomas Hobbes translation. As you can tell from the opening quotes, the Sicilian expedition ends rather badly for the Athenians.

I’m not going to go into as much detail on this section since the text is rather straightforward but after a quick recap I want to highlight a few items I found interesting. The last post ended with the Athenians shut up in and around the harbor at Syracuse. Thucydides provides speeches by Nicias and Gylippus before the final battle in the harbor where the Syracusians rout the Athenians, destroying much of their fleet. Nicias realizes their only hope is to escape by land. The Athenians first head northwest from Syracuse but are blocked by the construction of a wall across a narrow river valley. The troops now head south from Syracuse but Demosthenes and Nicias become separated. Demosthenes’ disorderly troops slow his retreat and he is the first to surrender. Nicias’ troops fall or surrender at the Asinarus river as detailed in the opening quote. Surviving Athenians or allies were confined to nearby stone quarries.

A few parts I found interesting:

If you needed any more evidence that Nicias wasn’t the right man to lead the Athenian expedition, look no further than his decision to cut off provisions being sent from the base at Catana to the fleet and army in Syracuse. My guess is he didn’t want his men to be loaded down when leaving Syracuse for Catana, but once bottled up in and around Syracuse harbor food and provisions because scarce.

Nicias’ speeches once again stress the “hope that fortune will once also be of our side”. For an earlier Athenian take on the role of hope in a conflict, see the Melian dialogue.

As an indicator of how soundly the Athenians were defeated in the final battle at Syracuse, they “never thought upon asking leave to take up their dead”. The only thing the survivors could focus on was escape.

Speaking of escape, Hermocrates of Syracuse played a trick that kept the Athenians bottled up near the harbor. Nicias had planned on escaping the evening after the battle. Hermocrates, anticipating such a plan, asked for reinforcements to block all possible passages away from the city but the combination of the victory and a holiday saw most of the soldiers drinking or reluctant to continue the fight. Knowing Nicias had spies in the city, Hermocrates sent false intelligence to the Athenian camp that the passes had been fortified to prevent their escape. The Athenians stay put based on this advice which gives the Syracusians time to carry out the fortifications Hermocrates had bluffed.

“For whereas they came with a purpose to enslave others, they departed in greater fear of being made slaves themselves; and instead of prayers and hymns with which they put to sea, they went back again with the contrary maledictions; and whereas they came out seamen, they departed landmen, and relied not upon their naval forces but upon their men of arms. Nevertheless, in respect of the great danger yet hanging over them, these miseries seemed all [but] tolerable.” (Chapter 75)

In one of Nicias’ speeches he says “Make account of this, wheresoever you please to sit down, there presently of yourselves you are a city: such as not any other in Sicily can either easily sustain, if you assault, or remove, if you be once seated. … For the men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city.” This echoes Themistocles’ retort just before the battle of Salamis (in the Greek wars with Persia) when told to be quiet because the Athenians no longer had a city to call theirs.

Gylippus tried to keep Nicias and Demosthenes alive but the Syracusians killed the Athenian generals. Thucydides goes into detail about the respect the Spartans had for Nicias and then gives his own opinion: “For these, or for causes near unto these, was he put to death; being the man that, of all the Grecians of my time, had least deserved to be brought to so great a degree of misery.” History hasn’t been as kind to Nicias, but I think Thucydides’ opinion provides some insight into why the Athenians had kept the general in charge against his will in addition to providing him everything he (exaggeratedly or bluffingly) requested. Combine that with Plutarch’s glowing history and you see a man the Athenians’ revered for his piety and his success. They couldn’t conceive of such a man leading Athens to a stunning defeat.

Also in Plutarch’s “Life” on Nicias is an interesting tidbit about the fate of some Athenians held prisoner in the Sicilian quarries:

Several were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose poetry, it appears, was in request among the Sicilians more than among any of the settlers out of Greece. And when any travellers arrived that could tell them some passage, or give them any specimen of his verses, they were delighted to be able to communicate them to one another. Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgments to Euripides, relating how that some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems, and others, when straggling after the fight, been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics.

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