Monday, September 21, 2015

Disaster Strikes Athens at Syracuse and Decelea

Meanwhile, what of the Sicilian expedition?  The historian Diodorus Siculus (himself a Sicilian, but writing centuries later), reports that the Athenians planned to sell the inhabitants of Syracuse  and  Selinus as slaves to require the other Sicilians to pay tribute.  This may be so, although Thucydides never mentions it.

In any event, there is something different about the Sicilian expedition, unlike the previous phases of the war.  For one, it was launched against a fellow democracy, although the Athenians' policy up till then had been to promote democracy and treat democrats as allies.  For another, we start hearing for the first time about conflicts between Dorian Greeks and Ionian Greeks.  Up until then, although the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies were generally Dorians, while the Athenians and their Aegean satellites were generally Ionians, ethnic differences got less attention than ideological ones.  Indeed, the Dorian but democratic Argives were happy to ally with the Ionian and democratic Athenians.  But in the case of Syracuse, the fact that the Syracusans were also Dorians gets great emphasis.  Perhaps it was because of the lack of ideological differences that ethnic difference got so much emphasis.

Another difference was that up until now, democratic politics have generally been associated with belligerent nationalism.  In Syracuse that was not the case.  In Syracuse the most belligerent politician was Hermocrates, evidently a man of oligarchic leanings, because the leading democratic politician dismissed his warnings as mere fear-mongering, probably with the intent to  establish an oligarchy.  Thucydides believes that Syracuse proved a particularly tough nut for the Athenians to crack because it was a fellow democracy and therefore not subject to internal subversion by a discontented populace.  Yet he also makes clear that the Athenians did, in fact, have subversives within who served as their spies.*  Thucydides also makes clear that the fear-mongering about the Syracusans conquering all of Sicily and then coming to the aid of the Spartans and conquering Athens was just that -- fear-mongering.  The Syracusans had no such grandiose designs and were actually inexperienced and poorly trained compared to the mainland Greeks who were invading.

The Athenians had three general, who disagreed on how to proceed.  The conservative Nicias, who has opposed the expedition in the first place, favored only intervening in the immediate quarrel that was the pretext for the expedition, giving a general show of strength, and then sailing home.  Alcibiades favored starting with diplomacy, seeing how many allies they could gain, and then attacking Syracuse.  Lamachus, the third general, favored attacking Syracuse at once.  In the end they agreed to adopt Alcibiades' approach.  it was not a success.  City after city refused alliance.  The only city to agree was Catana, and only because Catana had a badly-built gate, so the Athenians were able to sneak in and make the Assembly and offer it couldn't refuse.  Alcibiades had some success cultivating a fifth column in Messene, but when he was recalled he promptly revealed the plot, and the conspirators were executed.  This would prove typical of his character.  Without Alcibiades, the Athenian forces raised some money by capturing the minor town of Hyccara, taking its inhabitants captive, handing the city over to displaced allies, and either ransoming the inhabitants or selling them as slaves.  (Probably the latter, since there are later references to Hyccarian slaves).  They also established camp outside Syracuse, won a minor battle, and then withdrew to winter over in Catana.  Both sides devoted the winter to diplomacy, seeking allies.  The overall outcome was that the Italian Greeks either sided with Syracuse or remained neutral, while the Sicels (indigenous Sicilians) and Etruscans allied with the Athenians.  The Athenians' acceptance of so many non-Greek allies must have looked like treason to the Syracusan side.

On the subject of treason, Alcibiades, upon being recalled to face trial on capital charges, fled.  Such flight was by no means unprecedented.  As we have seen, many Athenians accused in the matter of the Mysteries and vandalism of the herms fled.  Andocides mentions two defecting directly to the enemy, but does not say where the others went.  Flight to an ally was not an option, since an ally would presumably extradite.  Flight to a neutral was becoming more difficult since Athens was doing its best to end neutrality, with its destruction of Melos and attack on the neutrals in Sicily.  Andocides himself, not formally exiled but barred from the marketplace and temples, went  to Cyprus  and  Macedonia, where he prospered as a merchant.  Thucydides is believed to have gone into exile in Thrace.

So fleeing to a neutral was certainly an option.  He went directly to Sparta, where he did all he could to harm his home city.  He promptly resumed the game of fear-mongering, claiming that the Athenians intended to conquer not only Sicily and all of Italian Greece, but then to move on to conquer Carthage, and then to surround and conquer the Peloponnese.  In effect, he accused Athens of trying to be Rome before its time.  There is nothing else in Thucydides' account to suggest that the Athenians held such grandiose designs, although it is certainly possible that Alcidiades privately entertained such schemes.  So he urged the Spartans to send relief to Syracuse, and to fortify Decelea.

The following spring (413 B.C.), the Spartans took Alcibiades' advice.  They invaded Attica  and established a fortified position in Decelea, a village about 13-14 miles from Athens.  This proved far more devastating than previous expeditions laying waste to the countryside.  All such expeditions until then had been short-lived  and allowed the Athenians to return to the countryside after.  Now the Spartans had a permanent presence in Attica and were able to cut Athens off from the countryside altogether, reducing it to a fortress, receiving all its supplies from the sea. (Though apparently without a return of the plague).  The Spartan King Agis established himself in Decelea, and some 20,000 slaves, mostly skilled craftsmen, deserted.  The city was constantly harassed by excursions from the fort.  Yet still the Athenians continued with their war in Sicily, which Thucydides seems to regard as sheer folly.

Meanwhile, when spring arrived, the Athenians resumed their siege of Syracuse.  They attempted to wall the city off and the Syracusans to build a counter-wall.  I have struggled to understand what that meant.  The map on the side is the best explanation I have seen.  Syracuse was a sort of peninsula and could not be cut off from the sea.  However, the Athenians, in the harbor on one side of the city, attempted to build a wall cutting Syracuse off from land access.  The Syracusans attempted to build a wall to protect their land access.  All such attempts had failed, the wall was nearly complete, and the Syracusans were on the verge of surrender when the Spartan general Gylippus  showed up.  The force he brought was small, but he brought military know-how and renewed allies.  They build a successful counter-wall (other maps show prior, unsuccessful attempts) and defeated Athenian attempts to stop him.  From then on, the Athenian position constantly deteriorated.  They lacked sufficient land to beach and dry their ships, so the timbers deteriorated.  Without an open sea to practice maneuvers, their skills also deteriorated.  So large a force required support personnel, many of them slaves, and increasingly deserting.  Foraging for food took up more and more time.  And as summer began, malaria and dysentery set in.  The Syracusans and Corinthians developed a new kind of ship, better suited to head-to-head ramming instead of ramming from the side.  With the Athenian navy hemmed in the harbor, this new force gave the Athenians their first defeat in naval warfare,  shattering their aura of invincibility.  Nicias requested reinforcements.

Attempts at counter-walls
Despite the crisis at Decelea, the Athenians send reinforcements under the command of Demosthenes, the same general who had captured Pylos and taken Spartans prisoner.  Demosthenes put his reinforcements to quick action.  He set out to destroy to counter-wall, hoping for victory, but intending to withdraw if defeated.  The  attempt was defeated.  Demosthenes then proposed that they return home and deal with the crisis at Decelea.  Nicias disagreed for three reasons.  He did not believe he had authority to withdraw without approval of the Assembly; he feared the fate of defeated generals, to be tried and possibly executed for his failure; and hoped that a pro-Athenian faction within Syracuse could still deliver the city to them.**  Demosthenes replied that if they were not authorized to return home, they should at least withdraw to Catana.  Reinforcements arrived.  By this time even Nicias was forced to admit the need to withdraw, but just as they were preparing to retreat under the cover of darkness, there was an eclipse of the moon.  The troops panicked and Nicias "who was too much under the influence of divination and such like," consulted with his soothsayers, who told him to wait until the next full moon.  This decision doomed the Athenian forces.***  Their situation deteriorated further during the wait.  Syracusans blocked the harbor.  An attempt to break out failed.  (Thucydides describes this battle in greater detail than any other).

This left no option but to attempt to withdraw over land.  This meant abandoning the sick and wounded:
Their prayers and lamentations drove their companions to distraction; they would beg that they might be taken with them, and call by name any friend or relation whom they saw passing; they would hang upon their departing comrades and follow as far as they could, and, when their limbs and strength failed them, and they dropped behind, many were the imprecations and cries which they uttered. So that the whole army was in tears, and such was their despair that they could hardly make up their minds to stir
The Athenians might yet have gotten away if they had left immediately after their defeat because the Syracusans were too busy celebrating to block the paths out.  But Hermocrates foresaw this and sent a few men masquerading as spies (Nicias did, after all, have real spies in the city) to urge delay.  So the army delayed for two days, which the Syracusans blocked the road leading out.  They withdrew, 40,000 strong (an immense army for those days), exhausted and starving, only to run into Syracusans blocking the roads.  Many were killed; the survivors were held captive in stone quarries.  For ten weeks they were held there, crowded, exposed to the elements, with no more than a pint of food and a half-pint of water a day, with the dead not removed.  After ten weeks, they were sold as slaves, excepts the Athenians (seen as the movers behind the whole attack) and the Italians Greeks who had joined them (seen as traitors).  These were kept for eight months.

Thucydides reports that Gylippus, the Spartan general, wanted to spare the two generals, Nicias in the belief that he was a friend who was forced to do this, and Demosthenes as an enemy to be brought home and put on display.  The strongest advocates of killing Nicias, Thucydides reports, were the pro-Athenians Syracusans who feared he would give them away, and the Corinthians who feared he would use his great wealth to bribe his way out.  Plutarch reports that Hermocrates, though the most hawkish of the Syracusans in opposing the Athenians, was also the foremost advocate of mercy once they were defeated, but that he was overruled by the angry populace.  Diodorus Siculus agrees about Hermocrates, but says that it was none other than Gylippus who persuaded them to refuse mercy. This is nowhere else confirmed although Plutarch has a low opinion of Gylippus' character and Thucydides has him speak in harsh terms about the Athenians, so it is possible.  Diodorus says that some of the better educated prisoners were spared, presumably to serve as tutors.  Plutarch says that the Syracusans spared any Athenians who could sing choruses from Euripides, that starving fugitives would receive food if they knew Euripides, that ships fleeing pirates would be admitted to Syracuse only if someone on board knew Euripides, and that Athenian survivors who made their way back home went straight to Euripides to thank him.  It seems unlikely.  If Euripides had done his country such service, presumably it would have put a stopper on Aristophanes, who loved trashing him.

It seems unlikely. Thucydides says that "few returned" from that great expedition. Yet it is obvious from his account that there were survivors, and that Thucydides had talked to them. Nothing else could account for the detail and emotional intensity of this section of the History, a vividness matched nowhere else in the work, except in the author's description of the plague, which he himself witnessed. Masters of Rome has a teen aged Brutus showing his intellectual bent by writing a summary of Thucydides. Certainly Thucydides is tough going. I strongly recommend that anyone who reads him have a map handy to show where all those places are, or his work will make no sense. And I would recommend a summary, reading only the "good parts" in full. Among "good parts" I would include his account of events following the Persian Wars (often our best source on the subject); the funeral oration of Pericles, the outstanding expression of what Athens stood for in the ideal, even as the rest of the history shows the sordid reality; the description of the great plague and accompanying breakdown in morale; the Mytilene debate; the Corcyran civil war and reflections on civil strife in general; the battle of Pylos with the capture of the Spartans and accompanying debate in the Assembly; Brasidas' expedition to the Chalcidici; the Melian dialogue; and, I would add, his description of tsunamis. But nowhere is this otherwise often dull work so dramatic and so intense as in its description of the Athenian defeat at Syracuse. It has you sitting on the edge of your chair, scarcely remembering to breath. Thucydides does not approve of Athenian imperialism. He makes his disapproval particularly clear during the Sicilian expedition. But obviously he retained some fellow-feeling for his countrymen, or he would not be able to describe their suffering in such vivid and sympathetic terms, unmatched anywhere else.

 In Plutarch's biography of Nicias, he begins by saying that he cannot hope to compete with "what Thucydides has inimitably set forth, surpassing even himself in pathos, vividness, and variety."  Indeed.  But, unlike Plutarch, I can at least link.  Read it for yourself.

*And call this ridiculous if you want, but see also Aristophanes, The Birds.  In the play the birds blockade the gods and starve them into submission by cutting off the sacrifices to them!  Obviously this is fantasy, and to the extent that it is topical, the characters compare it to the siege of Melos.  But I have to think that it has to be influenced by the contemporaneous siege of Syracuse.  Talk of walling off Mount Olympus, secret meetings with spies from within giving them tips (Prometheus, of course), and final negotiations of the terms of surrender match closely the events that Thucydides describes in Syracuse.  Of course, they may also match other sieges during the war that he did not document as well.
**As a personal aside, I would say that that second reason was probably decisive for Nicias, but it should not have been.  He always had the option of voluntary exile.  Granted, if he went into voluntary exile, he would probably become scapegoat for the expedition's failure and never be allowed back home, but for the sake of his troops he should have accepted such a fate.
***Plutarch, who does believe in such things, quotes a learned astrologer as saying that Nicias' mistake was not to consult his soothsayer, but in their both misreading the sign, because darkness is favorable to stealth.  But, of course, he had the benefit of hindsight.

No comments:

Post a Comment