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How Syracuse beat the mighty Athens

THE HISTORY OF SICILY

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Siracusa was always the most important and powerful Greek city in Sicily and in 413BC it became arguably the most powerful city in the whole of the Mediterranean. Bellicose Athens had had its eye on the western Mediterranean for some time and Siracusa, and Sicily in general, was certainly well-known to them and the great Herodotus himself gave considerable space to the subject in his Histories.

There was, however, a little problem: southern Italy and Sicily was really the stamping ground of the Corinthians and the Spartans (Siracusa had itself been founded by Corinthians). After recently having been at war with both, Athens did not particularly want to provoke them unnecessarily.

What they really needed was an excuse, and this conveniently came along when Selinus and Segesta, two important cities of western Sicily, fell out once more in 416BC. Segesta appealed for help to Athens which promptly obliged, by despatching a large army and fleet under three commanders, Lamachus, Nicias, and Alcibiades. It was, however, an expedition doomed to failure.

Siracusa was always the most important and powerful Greek city in Sicily and in 413BC it became arguably the most powerful city in the whole of the Mediterranean.

Initially, everything went to plan, but then, just as preparations were being made for the siege of Siracusa, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens. The Athenian tactics were to cut off all supplies to the town and starve the population out. The Siracusans, however, under the leadership of Hermocrates, counter-attacked and killed Lamachus, leaving just Nicias in control. Worse was to come, as Spartan and Corinthian forces under Gyllipus arrived to help Siracusa.

The Athenians desperately attempted to stop Siracusa from completing its defensive walls but were pushed back to three fortresses at Plemmyrium. Desperate, Nicias wrote home for reinforcements which, in the early months of 413BC, duly arrived under the command of Demosthenes.

The Athenian situation rapidly deteriorated, however, and after several naval defeats, the two Athenian generals decided to call the whole thing off. Superstition then played its hand as a partial eclipse persuaded Nicias to postpone his navy’s departure for a night. The Siracusans seized their opportunity and attacked, all but destroying the Athenian fleet. The Athenian armies fled towards Catania and Naxos, but many, some say up to 20,000, were captured and taken to Siracusa’s great stone quarry to work and, sooner rather than later, to perish.

While this was not exactly the final act of the Peloponnesian Wars, it certainly signalled a change in the balance of power and triggered the fall of Athens, which culminated in the break up of its great empire in 404BC.

Meanwhile, Siracusa basking in its glory, underwent a political upheaval, with Dionysius the Tyrant deposing the town’s democratic hero, Hermocrates. Then, the bell rang, signalling that it was time for the next round, this time against Carthage!

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