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Culture History
Culture: Athenian Idol: Alcibiades and the Sicilian Expedition
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Friday, 26 May 2006 Written by Alexander G. Rubio
Some time ago an army was dispatched over seas under the banner of crusading democracy. Not only would it break the back of tyranny, it would also secure untold riches and resources in the process, the politician in charge promised.

The year was 415 BC, the expeditionary force hailed from Athens, its destination was Syracuse in Sicily, and it was the brainchild of Alcibiades.

Athens was at war with her rival for supremacy in the Greek world, Sparta, in an internecine bloodletting which was to range across the Mediterranean and would rage on for a generation. Men would fight in this war who were not born when it first began. When it ended, both victor and vanquished would have reason to rue its beginning.



Allies and Cold War




Spartan and Athenian allies in mainland
Greece and the Aegean during the
Peloponnesian War (Click for larger image)


Athens and Sparta had actually been allies not long before. Together the two major powers in Greece had united to fend off the onslaught of the mighty Persian Empire at the battles of Thermopylae, Marathon, Salamis and Plataiai, in a titanic struggle to safeguard Greek independence, and, incidentally, the nascent Western culture they had founded.

But even though language and culture bound them together, profound ideological differences lay between the two states.

Athens, belonging to the eastern, Ionian branch of the Greek people, was a mercantile trading state, turned to the sea, and quick to absorb new ideas and impulses. It had also, some years before, thrown off the rule of first oligarchic aristocracy, and then dictatorship, to become a democracy.

Dorian Sparta, on the other hand, was a monarchy, but of a peculiar kind. Rather than the traditional city state (Polis), with a fortified acropolis surrounded by an urban centre with an agora, a marketplace, it was a conglomeration, a synoikismos, of four (later five) separate "villages", or obai, ruled by a dual set of kings.

The power of these kings was severely curtailed however by the oligarchic institutions of the Ephors, who wielded extensive civilian powers, and the council of elders, the Gerousia. Only in times of war did the kings, in their role of generals of the army, enjoy anything approaching true regal powers, a fact that tended to make the kings more keen on war than the conservative Ephors.

Sparta was also a thoroughly militaristic society, arguably the most extreme such in recorded history. Spartan men were mercilessly drilled in the art of war from early childhood, and lived their lives with their fellow soldier in barracks most of their lives. The result was hardly a glut of intellectual and artistic giants, but did on the other hand allow the state to field the finest infantry troops, or hoplites, of perhaps any army at any time. This might lead one to the conclusion that Sparta was an aggressive power. But this was not really the case.

There were two, interlocked, reasons for this. Some hundreds of years before, Sparta was much like any other Greek state. It had fought its neighbours in periodical border wars over arable lands in a country that was poor in them.

One neighbouring state on the great peninsula of the Peloponnesus was the Messenians. War was waged between them for many years. And in the end the Spartans prevailed.

But then they did something out of the ordinary, something which would shape the character and future of Spartan society. Instead of just laying claim to some border area, and fighting over the same piece of land a generation later, the Spartans subjugated the whole Messenian nation and enslaved the population as helots, to work the land for their new masters.

The Spartans, who were never many, now sat astride a state, where they ruled a majority population of resentful slaves. To keep the restless masses in check, they now had to turn Sparta into a military state, and themselves into purely fighting machines.

A strictly regimented regime of barrack life meant that they married late in life, and had few offspring. Foreign wars could endanger the army which was the foundation of their state, and invite uprisings at home. They became a conservative, rigid society. That is, except in one matter. Spartan women, forced to fill many of the roles their men could not now allot time to, and tasked to bear as perfect specimens of new Spartans as could be achieved (those deemed less than perfect were thrown off a cliff at birth), enjoyed a level of freedom and, not least, food rations, that was unheard of in Athens, where the women lived a life of Eastern subjection.

Ever wary, bordering on the paranoid, of unrest at home, the Spartans prized good order, eunomia, above all else. In their view, newfangled notions like minted currency and democracy could only lead to political conflict and the dreaded civil strife, stasis, which tore apart many of the Greek polis on a regular basis.

Following the victory against the Persians, the Spartans were happy to leave the out-going Athenians to do what they would, as long as it did not intrude upon their direct interests.



Periclean Golden Age and the route to War




Pericles
(Click for larger image)


With the immediate danger of Persian invasion past, but the giant to the east still a menacing presence, the smaller Greek nations looked towards the most powerful state for leadership. Militarily that was Sparta. But the Spartans had little interest in foreign entanglements. So that left Athens, a city not long before burned to the ground, to assume the position.

What the Athenians lacked in material resources, they made up for in know-how and sense of purpose. The unlikely victory at Marathon, followed by the naval victory at Salamis, had filled the fledgling democracy with a new found confidence. Its population was also boosted by immigrants fleeing the Ionian cities in Asia Minor, such as Miletos, which had been the cradle of Greek intellectual advances, but which were now either subject to, or threatened by, the Persian king.

At the battle of Salamis it had been the rowers of the navy's trireme ships, their "wooden walls", who had saved the Athenian people, after the city itself had been burned. This was to have a couple of important consequences. One was that the rowers, recruited from the lowest rungs of society, those with no property to speak of, demanded, and were given, suffrage and their democratic say in politics, thus deepening Athen's commitment to the democratic system.

Another was that it confirmed the importance of naval power, which the trading state Athens was better suited for to begin with, to make any future Persian invasion of the Greek islands and mainland difficult to stage. A strong navy was also paramount for securing the trade routes, which ever more densely urbanised and populous Athens was becoming more and more dependant upon for its very survival.

To this end Athens, along with smaller Greek city states in the Aegean, formed the Delian League. The alliance was formally based on the small island of Delos, where its treasury was also located. From the beginning each of the member states also had an equal vote, and would contribute a certain number of manned ships to the common naval forces.

But the reality was that Athens dwarfed all other members from the start, making them the dominant partner. Furthermore, many of the junior partners found it an inordinate burden to muster their own fleet of ships, with all the logistical problems such an undertaking implies. So a system was devised whereby members of the league might be spared the trouble of contributing actual military forces, in favour of a monetary contribution, which would go towards an expanded Athenian fleet. It doesn't take a political genius to spot the imbalance of power, and possibilities for the abuse of same, that this system made all but inevitable.

It wasn't long before an alliance of equals resembled nothing as much as an Athenian empire. And an Athenian empire was another matter altogether from a Spartan point of view. More importantly, it was a matter of grave concern for some traditional allies of Sparta, who now found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to trade.

Initial hostilities broke out in 458 BC and ended with an armistice in 446, which resolved few of the underlying conflicts. It was during these years that Athens encircled their entire polis and the port of Pireus with massive walls and fortifications. The treasury of the Delian League was also transferred to Athens, for security reasons. The armistice agreement stipulated that both parties would keep the peace for 30 years. It would last 15.

This brief period, between the armistice and the Peloponnesian War proper, was the golden age of classical Greek culture. Most of what we today think of as quintessentially Greek was created in a few short years, in Athens, under the leadership of Pericles. Much of the literature and art, without which later European culture would be unthinkable, was produced at this time, to be performed and displayed at lavish public festivals. The noble columns of the Parthenon were erected, along with other great works of civic architecture, some of which endures to this day.

But most of it was produced as part of public works programs for the poor of the city, who might not have much economic power, but still had the vote, and almost all of it was in one way or another done at the expense of other Greek states, either through the levies paid by the Delian League (money which should have gone towards the common defence), or through profits derived from the unfair advantage Athenian merchants enjoyed by dint of the city's superior naval power.

The citizens of Athens, who paid no taxes, had also made themselves dependant upon the contributions from the other member states of the Delian League, to not only finance public works, but also the grain import to feed the city. When There peace had been declared with both the Persians and the Spartans, a number of members suggested that the league could now be dissolved, or at least that the financial contributions be suspended.

Athens replied by occupying the most quarrelsome states. The contributions were now a tribute. And the league was an Athenian empire, complete with garrisons of troops, governors and spies.

While Sparta itself was self-sufficient, and had little interest in over seas trade, allies such as Corinth were dependant on it. They now found themselves shut out of the Athenian market and penalised by the Athenian near monopoly in the grain trade, which was centred on the Athenian port of Pireus. Corinth would play the role of the Balkans powder-keg that set off the clash of greater powers, in a conflict that in many ways mirrors the multi-generation fratricidal madness which began in 1914 and ended in 1945, in which the nations of Europe would tear each other apart to little gain for any but outside powers.

Tensions escalated, with Athens subverting their competitors' position in the far flung network of Greek colonies around the Mediterranean, until the city states of Corinth, Megara and a few others called together the Peloponnesian League, the dominant member of which was Sparta, where Sparta was more or less shamed into issuing Athens a humiliating ultimatum guaranteed to lead to war.



Man against his Brother




The Mourning Athena,
now in the Acropolis Museum
(Click for larger image)


When war finally broke out in 431 BC, it came as no surprise to Pericles. He had known for some time that Athens would have to defend her new found position of power from Sparta sooner or later. And he had already decided on a strategy.

They would basically fight a rope-a-dope war, trying to avoid giving battle to the Spartans and their allies on land, where the advantage decidedly lay on the side of the Spartan hoplite phalanxes, and retreating behind the walls and fortifications of the city proper, even at the cost of leaving the rest of Attica undefended and its farms and crops subject to plunder and destruction.

While the army would play a purely deffensive role on land, the navy would harry enemy shipping and soft targets along the coast, striking at economic targets, and prolonging the war beyond the economically backwards Spartan's ability to fight it. The plan did not involve any thought of conquest or further expansion of the Athenian sphere of interest.

Pericles was all too aware of the limitations of Athenian power and resources, and the precarious position it was in, wedged between hostile Greek neighbours and the Persians, who would like nothing more than to get back at the Athenians for their support of the rebel Greek cities in Asia Minor. The best that Athens could hope for, in his view, was a formal recognition by all parties of the status quo.

And the first stages of the conflict indeed developed according to expectations, with the Spartan led army moving into Attica, and the Athenians, while heartbroken at seeing their ancient olive groves and farmsteads put to the torch, holed up behind their massive city walls that encircled both Athens and it's port of Pireus.

While the Spartan strategy would have proved sufficient to bring most any other state to its knees, it did however contain one major flaw. Athens could not be starved into submission by a land blockade. The bulk of its food stuffs were shipped in from Egypt and the Crimea, even in peacetime; and the farms of Attica produced but little other than olives and wine, much of it for the export market, and nothing which could not be made up for in imports funded by the Delian League.

At the end of the first year of the war, the Athenians held a solemn festival in remembrance of their fallen, at which Pericles held one of the most famous speeches in the history of oratory. In it he praised the virtues that not only had made their city great, but also free, and how its democratic system of government would be a model for other states in the present and future.¹


Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.
(...)
And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils which they face.
(...)
If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the better for it? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; thus our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger.



Noble words. But as we have already seen, the foreign policy justified by this democratic ideology, was at times less than benevolent.

The second year of war however, did not turn out as well at all. A trading vessel from the Middle East had put in at Pireus, as many did each day. But this one was carrying the plague. The city, over crowded with refugees from the surrounding countryside, and its sanitation systems pushed beyond capacity, was ripe for infectious diseases.

For two whole years, with a renewed outbreak some time later, the plague tore through the city, claiming as much as a third of the population. The people wanted a scape-goat, and Pericles, whose deffensive strategy could be construed as inviting the plague, for little obvious military gain, was the obvious target. He was voted out of office, and even fined quite heavily.

The Athenians sued for peace with the Spartans. But the terms were such that there was little choice but to fight on. The only comfort was that even though a concerted effort by the enemy to take the city would probably have been successful, the Spartans made no such attempt, for fear of the plague spreading to their own men.

But otherwise the war was going badly for the Athenians. The army was proving to be unequal to the task of the new and more aggressive tactics the popular assembly had voted through. Ever more fickle and whipped into hysterias of alternating bouts of panic and arrogance, they voted to recall Pericles to power.

The plague had one more victim to claim though. Having witnessed most of his family succumb to the illness, Pericles himself fell ill and died. The loss of the great statesman, who had guided Athens through almost forty years, now, at the hour of need, was a grievous loss. It was also one made all the more unfortunate, as in truth, Athens did not produce any leader following his death able to fill his role. In reality the Athenian state would now enter a period of permanent anarchy, only interrupted by some populist demagogue or another, such as Cleon the tanner, seizing power for a year or two.

Now, it has been argued by some that Pericles was overly cautious, both in his aims and tactics, acting more like the prudent mayor of a small city, than a leader of a state at war. But they'd have a stronger case, were it not that later developments, when leaders whose aims were nothing, if not bold, took the reins of power, to a great measure would vindicate his assessment of the situation.

The war would drag on, year after year, in long phases, fought with ever greater barbarity, without any side gaining the decisive advantage, every chance at peace squandered by politicians and populace driven by fear one day and greed the next.



Prince Hal with a vengeance




Jean-Baptiste Régnault - "Socrates Tears
Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual
Pleasure"
(1785) (Click for larger image)


It is at this point a young man of aristocratic birth enters the political stage. Alcibiades was related to such notable figures in Athenian history as Kleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy, Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and Pericles himself, who raised the boy, after he was orphaned at a young age.

No less a figure than the philosopher Socrates acted as his tutor. And indeed the beautiful youth was by no means deficient in mental abilities, but possessed a keen mind and artistic gifts. Seldom has anyone been so blessed both by nature and circumstance, and so admired and coddled by his surroundings, as Alcibiades. But he was also wilful, proud and somewhat lacking in moral fibre.

It would be mainly his doing that the third, and final stage of hostilities in the Peloponnesian War commenced.

His relationship with Socrates stemmed from an episode when the young man, foolhardy as always, had rushed recklessly into the fray in a battle, was wounded, and about to make a short career of it, when the older man had saved his life. He became the only person who was ever able to instill some semblance of seriousness into Alcibiades, and chances are that without him, he would have gone completely to the dogs, his homeland being the better for it. A young ambitious man with designs on power needed a tutor in the art of rhetoric. And he could hardly have asked for a better teacher than his older friend.

At first it seemed like the influence of Socrates would tame this young lion, tempering his wild nature into the servant of his prodigious gifts, and gifting Athens with a man worthy of his great ancestors. But as time went by tensions started to build between them, as Alcibiades began to resent Socrates' tiresome attempts to get in the way of his pleasures. In the end they went their separate ways.

And the philosopher would have had to have been blind at this point not to see that his efforts to build the character of this obstinate nature were wholly wasted. To instill any thought for anybody other than himself, or any sense of duty to country, or any higher purpose whatsoever, in such a thoroughly egotistical creature, was nought but folly.

Like a latter day rock idol however, the people loved him all the better for all his scandals and excesses. And though ideological niceties and political principles were a matter of no importance whatsoever to him, he decided to cast himself in the role of democratic populist leader, employing the popular assembly to propel himself to power. His ambitions were not for power in Athens alone however. His eyes were now fixed on an empire of all the Greek states, centred on Athens, with him at the head.

All the while more moderate politicians on both sides had been struggling towards some sort of peaceful settlement. After more than a decade of war, they rightly felt that nothing would be gained by either side by the continuation of the war. An agreement was reached whereby the parties committed to maintaining the peace for 50 years.

Upon being told of the peace agreement, Alcibiades simply remarked, "Those years are likely to have very short months."

The means to undermining the peace presented itself through the city state of Argos. Argos, situated on the Peloponnesus peninsula, had been the traditional enemy of nearby Sparta. Alcibiades now convinced the assembly, over the objections of his rival, and leader of the aristocratic party, Nikias, who had negotiated the peace agreement, to ally with Argos. The Spartans of course saw this as the provocation it was meant to be, and war resumed.

It did not start off well. In 418 BC the allied army was defeated at Mantinea, knocking Argos out of the war and boosting Spartan prestige among the states in central Greece, which until this point had been loath to throw their hat into the ring.

Alcibiades, and the ever more pathological popular assembly, got their victory however, in 416 BC, at the island of Melos (later Milos). The people of Melos, of Dorian stock, had tried to remain neutral, and had refused to join the Delian League. The Athenians sent a fleet and began to lay siege to the city.

In the end the city was forced to surrender. The popular assembly voted to execute all the male prisoners of war. Women and children would be sold into slavery, and Melos was to be resettled with Athenian colonists. Outright genocide was now acceptable policy.

The following year envoys from the city of Segesta in Sicily arrived in Athens. They were there to implore for military aid in their struggle against the most powerful city on the great island, Syracuse.



Sailing to Syracuse




Map of the route of the Athenian force
(Click for larger image)


This opportunity to meddle in the affairs on Sicily seemed a blessing to Alcibiades. And there was indeed a case to be made for getting involved.

The Greek cities in Sicily were part of that vast network of Greek colonies across the Mediterranean world, that had been founded during the turbulent early iron age. Many Greeks had manned boats in that time and left overpopulated cities in the old country for greener pastures, as Greeks have done on more than one occasion, the last wave having washed up on the shores of America.

Now Syracuse was trying to expand its domain over all the other cities on Sicily. This could potentially constitute a danger to Athens, as Syracuse was a Dorian colony, and sympathetic to their Spartan brethren. If they gained supremacy of the whole island, the Spartan position would be strengthened.

Aside from the fact that Syracuse was aligned with Sparta, their fellow Dorians, there was another, and more basic, reason behind the planned invasion, one that went to the heart of the Peloponnesian War itself.

Athens needed an over seas empire for its very survival. Unlike the Eurotas valley, the homeland of the Spartans, which to this day is one of the few truly fertile agricultural regions of Greece, Attica had long been denuded of most of its vegetation and subject to extensive soil erosion.

There was simply no way its rocky soil could support its large, mainly urbanised, population. Olives and wine were the only agricultural products which could be produced off it in any quantity. And while these, and industrial products such as the pottery from the Kerameikos district of Athens, could be traded for grain elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, such as Egypt, the cost of imports were beginning to strain the economy.

Establishing colonies and dependencies, or gaining them through force of arms, in fertile regions seemed the obvious answer. While access to commodities such as coal, or oil, were the life blood of later nations, and sent them on colonial ventures, grain would make or break Athens. Sicily, dominated by the city state of Syracuse, was at this time the bread basket of the Greek world.

Here was an opportunity not only to raise the fortunes of Athens, but himself as well. Through a Sicilian campaign, Alcibiades saw the possibility of gaining further glory, but not least enough spoils of war to put him up nicely for the rest of his life and able to indulge his costly weakness for horse racing to his heart's desire.

He may even have dreamt of following up the conquest of Sicily by uniting the Greek states in a national war on Carthage, the later mortal enemy of Rome, and the most powerful Phoenician state, which was located in present day Tunisia, just across from Sicily. Having done so, the western Mediterranean would be theirs for the taking, and a united Greek empire, under the leadership of Athens, would dominate the entire sea.

He set to work convincing the popular assembly. He was aided in this by the fact that very few ordinary Athenians had any idea at all how large and populous Sicily actually was. The Island is in reality ten times the size of Attica. A ship would take a whole week just circumnavigating it. And Syracuse herself rivalled Athens both in wealth and population.

Augurs, oracles and soothsayers of questionable integrity proclaimed the favour of the gods to the proposed venture. Political propagandists worked the masses with visions of ships laden with treasure putting in at the port of Pireus.

The envoys from Segesta, the city which had asked for Athenian aid, spun tales of how rich their country was, and assured the citizens of Athens that their government would be willing to underwrite the entire cost of the expedition. A fact finding mission was dispatched to Segesta tasked with reporting back to the assembly on the veracity of the claims.

While there, they were wined and dined in the homes of the local big wigs. And they were dazzled by the gold and silver in every home they visited. Little did they know that it was the same plates and dishes, which had been collected from the whole countryside, and which was just being moved from house to house ahead of the impressed visitors.

The Athenians were further impressed when the envoys from Segesta accompanied the fact finding mission back to Athens and handed over 60 talents, a rather tidy sum, for the first month's wages for the fleet. There could hardly be any doubt as to the financial muscle of the city.

Gold fever gripped the people. Even the old and infirm were eager to join up in the hope of making their fortune. The streets over there were paved with gold!

In the spring of 415 BC the fleet was ready to set sail. The assembly had attempted to square the political circle however, by conferring joint command of the expedition on Alcibiades and his old foe Nikias. Then something happened which was to have profound consequences for the course of the war.

One morning they woke up to discover that the Hermai, stone markers representing the god Hermes, set in front of houses and in public places for good luck, had been desecrated. Ears, noses and the prominent phalluses had been broken off. Hermes, the god of trade and commerce, who brought fair winds at sea, was naturally very dear to the Athenians.

Like modern Westerners, the urbane Athenians might not be very religious, in the true sense of the word; but, just as most people today, reading horoscopes and fearing bad omens, they were still superstitious.

To get an idea of the impact of this desecration, imagine the reaction of the inhabitants of a Spanish or Italian town even of today, were they to wake up one morning and find the statues of their saints and Madonnas vandalised.

And this was no deed of some ribald youngsters after a few too many at the tavern. This was wide spread and looked deliberate. And it might very well have been. One thought that comes immediately to mind, is that it might have been the political enemies of Alcibiades and the expedition in the aristocratic party.

If such was the case, it worked like a charm. Suspicion was quickly directed at Alcibiades and his entourage of young hangers-ons. Had he not derided religion on more than one occasion? Had they not made the streets unsafe at night for honest folk with their drunken carousing?

For once, chances are that Alcibiades was blameless in a scandal he was accused of. But witnesses, of dubious credibility, were produced who pointed the finger at him and his supporters.

He moved for a speedy trial, so the matter could be resolved before the fleet set sail. The opposition however managed to delay the case, as they feared his personal charm and eloquence would sway the jury.

And so the mighty fleet set out from Pireus, while throngs of people waved them off. Never had so great an armada been dispatched from a single Greek city. And the pride of the Athenians knew no bounds.



The Quarry




Map of the end of the Sicilian campaign
(Click for larger image)


The reception the expeditionary force received in Sicily though left something to be desired. It probably dawned on the recipients of the "aid" that such a huge fleet was not simply there to give them a helping hand and then leave quietly. But no matter. The die had been cast. And the real prize lay in Syracuse.

It was then that a ship arrived with news from Athens. In his absence, Alcibiades' political opponents had trotted out some new, but equally dubious, evidence in front of the fickle assembly. The short of it was that he had been ordered to return home to stand trial.

He obeyed the summons. But when the ship stopped over in the south of Italy, he snuck ashore and made a run for it. When news reached Athens, his estate was confiscated, and he was sentenced to death in absentia.

But his countrymen were soon to discover that he was very much alive. He turned up in, of all places, Sparta! He went before the Spartan assembly. And, even though they distrusted his motives, the famously taciturn and untalkative Spartans couldn't help but be impressed by this dashing figure with the honeyed gift of the gab.

It didn't hurt either that he came bearing a plan for the defeat of his fellow Athenians. Ever the unscrupulous equestrian enthusiast, he had changed horses mid race. Effortlessly he now shed his old image as the decadent party animal, and transformed himself into a puritanical Spartan. He walked around barefoot in a coarse cloak. And seemingly relished the same "black soup" made from pork blood that the Spartan warriors ate.

On his advice, the Spartans now sent their eminently able general Gylippos to Syracuse to aid in the defence of that city. He also directed them to occupy Decelea, a strategically important town in northern Attica. This not only cut the Athenians off from some of their allies and supplies, but more importantly, forced them to abandon the rich silver mines of Laurion, which were paramount in financing the war effort.

Now things went from bad to worse for the Athenians. Nikias and his fellow commanders decided to lay siege to Syrcuse from land and sea. And for some time it looked like they would actually be successful. But the effort petered out in a trench warfare reminiscent of the Western front of World War I.

Nikias sent word to Athens that the best course of action would be to abandon the siege and return the army home. Instead seventy-three ships and 5000 hoplites were dispatched under the command of Demosthenes (not to be confused with the later famous orator) to reinforce them.

Their arrival did little to improve the strategic situation though. And the arrival of Spartan reinforcements, and just as importantly a naval force from Corinth, made their situation ever more untenable. Illness and fatigue were now taking their toll.

It was finally decided that there was no option but retreat. But now they discovered that even that option had been taken from them. The fleet had been bottled up inside the harbour bay, and all attempts at breaking through the blockading ships were unsuccessful. In the end the Athenian crews were forced back towards shore, and had to abandon the ships, which were then burned by the enemy. They were now marooned in hostile territory.

In despair the army, which still numbered north of 40.000 men, retreated into the barren interior of the island and then south, in the hope of reaching an allied city. The dead were left unburied. And the sick and wounded, who would slow them down, were left to fend for themselves. Some managed to crawl after them for a while, but not for long.

Wracked by hunger and thirst, with the enemy nipping at their heels, retreat soon tuned into rout. The army split up into two groups, one lead by Nikias, the other by Demosthenes. The latter was surrounded by the Syracusans and forced to surrender, along with 6000 men.

Nikias pushed on south, in the faint hope of making it across the Assinaros river. Thucydides writes in his history of the Peloponnesian War that,


When they finally reached the river, [the parched men] threw themselves into the water with no thought to keeping any order in the ranks. In their desperation to quench their thirst, they fell upon and trampled each other. Some were killed by the lances of their comrades in arms, while others lost their footing and were swept away by the current in large numbers.



It now became apparent that the Syracusans, led by Gylippos, had overtaken the Athenians and already crossed the river. Massed on the steep bank across from Nikias' forces, they could pick them off at will with slings and arrows. Nikias had no alternative but to order a surrender.

What remained of the once proud army was herded together in the terrible stone quarries of Syracuse, where they had to endure the burning heat of day, and the cold of night, with little food and water, for 70 days. Those who survived that stinking Hellhole were sold off as slaves.

A few won their freedom by being able to recite scenes from the plays of Euripides from memory. Their Syracusan captors were inordinately fond of the playwright. But only a handful ever saw their homes and families in Athens again. Among those who didn't were Demosthenes and Nikias, who were put to death.

So ended the Sicilian expedition, in 413 BC, in one of the greatest military disasters in history. When news reached Athens the people simply could not believe it. More than 200 ships and 50.000 men had been lost to Athens and her allies. The treasury was depleted, the enemy entrenched in Attica, and the aura of invincibility which had surrounded the Athenian navy ever since the Battle of Salamis was gone for good. So were any grand dreams of world conquest. The war was now one of mere survival.

As for Alcibiades, he had managed to fall foul of the Spartan king Agis. While the king was away at war, he had seduced the queen, and openly boasted that the child she was carrying, which would one day sit on the throne, was his.

So he changed horses once again. This time he joined the Persians, who saw an opportunity to make a move on the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, now that Athens was weakened. He now transformed into a splendid oriental courtier, yet another role to play for the consummate chameleon.

Before the end of the war, he would return to Athenian service, and, in all fairness, almost saved the day. But by this time, the Spartans had found a military commander to match him, Lysander, and a fleet to match the battered Athenians. At the first set back, his compatriots, who had learned to distrust him, once again put Alcibiades on trial. But for all his faults, they had no commander to replace him. The end was now well and truly nigh.

He had no cause, other than his own, and no convictions other than those feigned for personal advantage. In the end his actions, guided as they were by no fixed star, profited neither himself, nor those who put their trust in him.



Epilogue




Alcibiades
(Click for larger image)


The loss of the flower of Athenian fighting forces and much of their navy at Syracuse was a fatal blow. The war would drag on a while longer. But the outcome was now a foregone conclusion. No longer supreme in their own waters, Athens could not keep up the fight.

The final blow was struck in the naval battle of Aegospotamoi in 405 BC, where the previously inferior Spartan fleet, under the command of Lysander, tore up the remaining Athenian naval forces, leaving the city besieged by land and sea and unable to import food supplies. The war was over. Sparta was now the undisputed hegemon of Greece. The hated wall around Athens was torn down and an oligarchic puppet regime was installed on the Acropolis along with a Spartan military garrison.

But even though Sparta had triumphed, it too had been bled almost white by the struggle. Never many, the number of fighting men it could field had been whittled down to a mere thousand odd. It would not be long until the price of victory would be brought home. Previously inconsequential Greek and semi-barbarian states, who had taken little part in the war were about to make their move.

At Leuctra in 371 BC, the city state of Thebes, led by the military genius of Epaminondas put an end to the hegemony of Sparta.²

And to the north, on the fringe of the Greek world, lay Macedon. It was not a city state, but a regional state with vast reserves of men and resources waiting to be marshaled. In less than a generation a king would ascend the throne able to do just that. In 338 BC, at Chaeronea in Boeotia, Philip II of Macedon's forces, spearheaded by his young son Alexander, engaged the combined forces of the Thebans and Athenians and cut them down. The story of the independent Greek city states, which had laid the foundation of Western civilisation, was at an end. The idea of democratic self-determination was also at an end. The future belonged to empire.




"Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt."

Emperor Hadrian - "Memoirs of Hadrian"
- Marguerite Yourcenar, 1954





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¹ Pericles' Funeral Oration from Thucydides' "The Peloponnesian War" is translated by Benjamin Jowett (1881). The full text can be found here. Thucydides' work, which is our main historical source for these years, can be found here, at the Gutenberg Project.

² Further information on Epaminondas and the short lived hegemony of Thebes can be found in this earlier article at either Bitsofnews.com or The European Tribune.


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This article is also available at The European Tribune and Daily Kos.