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They now took courage and prepared for battle. Gylippus marched into
the town, and at once led the Syracusans out to attack the Athenians.
When Nikias had likewise brought his army out of their camp, Gylippus
halted his men, and sent a herald to offer them an armistice for five
days, on condition that they would collect their effects and withdraw
from Sicily. Nikias disdained to answer this insulting message; but
some of his soldiers jeeringly enquired whether the presence of one
Spartan cloak and staff had all at once made the Syracusans so strong
that they could despise the Athenians, who used to keep three hundred
such men, stronger than Gylippus and with longer hair, locked up in
prison, and feared them so little that they delivered them up to the
Lacedæmonians again. Timæus says that the Sicilian Greeks despised
Gylippus for his avaricious and contemptible character, and that when
they first saw him, they ridiculed his long hair and Spartan cloak.
Afterwards, however, he tells us that as soon as Gylippus appeared
they flocked round him as small birds flock round an owl, and were
eager to take service under him. This indeed is the more probable
story; for they rallied round him, regarding his cloak and staff to be
the symbols of the authority of Sparta. And not only Thucydides, but
Philistus, a Syracusan citizen by birth, who was an eye-witness of the
whole campaign, tells us that nothing could have been done without
Gylippus. In the first battle after his arrival, the Athenians were
victorious, and slew some few Syracusans, amongst whom was the
Corinthian Gongylus, but on the following day Gylippus displayed the
qualities of a true general. He used the same arms, horses, and ground
as before, but he dealt with them so differently that he defeated the
Athenians. Checking the Syracusans, who wished to chase them back to
their camp, he ordered them to use the stones and timber which had
been collected by the Athenians, to build a counter-wall, reaching
beyond the line of circumvallation, so that the Athenians could no
longer hope to surround the city. And now the Syracusans, taking fresh
courage, began to man their ships of war, and to cut off the
stragglers with their cavalry. Gylippus personally visited many of the
Greek cities in Sicily, all of whom eagerly promised their aid, and
furnished him with troops; so that Nikias, perceiving that he was
losing ground, relapsed into his former desponding condition, and
wrote a despatch to Athens, bidding the people either send out another
armament, or let the one now in Sicily return to Athens, and
especially beseeching them to relieve him from his command, for which
he was incapacitated by disease.

XX. The Athenians had long before proposed to send out a reinforcement
to the army in Sicily, but as all had gone on prosperously, the
enemies of Nikias had contrived to put it off. Now, however, they were
eager to send him assistance. It was arranged that Demosthenes should
employ himself actively in getting ready a large force, to go to
reinforce Nikias in the early spring, while Eurymedon, although it was
winter, started immediately with a supply of money, and with a decree
naming Euthydemus and Menander, officers already serving in his army,
to be joint commanders along with him. Meanwhile, Nikias was suddenly
attacked by the Syracusans both by sea and land. His ships were at
first thrown into confusion, but rallied and sank many of the enemy,
or forced them to run on shore; but on land Gylippus managed at the
same time to surprise the fort of Plemmyrium, where there was a
magazine of naval stores and war material of all kinds. A considerable
number of the garrison, also, were either slain or taken prisoners;
but the most serious result was the stoppage of Nikias's supplies,
which heretofore had been easily and quickly brought through the Great
Harbour, while it remained in the hands of the Athenians, but which
now could not reach his camp by sea without a convoy and a battle.[2]
Moreover, the Syracusan fleet had not been defeated by any superiority
of force of the Athenians, but by the disorder into which it had been
thrown by pursuing the enemy. They therefore determined to renew the
conflict with better success.

Nikias, on his part, was unwilling to fight a second time, thinking it
was folly to fight with a diminished and disheartened force when he
knew that Demosthenes was hurrying to his aid with a large and
unbroken armament. However, Menander and Euthydemus, the newly-elected
generals, were eager to distinguish themselves by performing some
brilliant action before the arrival of Demosthenes, and to eclipse the
fame of Nikias himself. The pretext they used was the glory of Athens,
which they said would be dishonoured for ever if they should now
appear afraid to accept the Syracusans' offer of battle. The battle
was fought: and the Athenian left wing, we are told by Thucydides, was
utterly defeated by the skilful tactics of the Corinthian steersman
Aristion. Many Athenians perished, and Nikias was greatly
disheartened, for he had now proved unfortunate both when sole
commander and when acting with colleagues.

XXI. Matters were in this posture when Demosthenes was descried in the
offing, approaching with a splendid armament which struck terror into
the hearts of the enemy. His fleet consisted of seventy-three ships,
on board of which were five thousand heavy-armed troops, and three
thousand javelin men, archers, and slingers. The glittering arms of
the troops, the flaunting banners of the ships of war, and the music
of the flutes to which the rowers kept time with their oars, made a
gallant display, which delighted the Athenians as much as it depressed
the Syracusans. These latter, indeed, were struck with dismay, and
thought that their last victory had been won in vain, and that they
were labouring to no purpose against a foe whose ranks were
continually reinforced.

Nikias was not long allowed to feast his eyes on this welcome
spectacle undisturbed. Demosthenes, as soon as he landed, insisted on
the necessity of instantly attacking Syracuse, and putting an end to
the siege, either by capturing the place, or by returning at once to
Athens in case of failure. Against this Nikias, who was alarmed at the
idea of such vigorous action, urged that it would be unwise to run
such a risk. Delay, he argued, favoured the besiegers more than the
besieged, as their resources must soon fail, in which case their
allies would desert them and they would again be brought to the
necessity of capitulating. Nikias adopted this view because of what he
heard from his secret correspondents within the city, who urged him to
continue the siege, telling him that already the Syracusans began to
feel the war too great a burden for them to support, and that Gylippus
was very unpopular among them, so that in a short time they would
utterly refuse to hold out any longer, and would come to terms with
the Athenians. Nikias could only hint at these secret sources of
information, and so his counsels were thought by his colleagues to be
mere cowardice. They declared loudly that the original mistake was
about to be repeated, and the first terror-stricken impression of the
armament frittered away, until familiarity with the sight of it had
bred contempt in the breasts of their enemies. They therefore eagerly
seconded the proposal of Demosthenes, and forced Nikias, though sorely
against his will, to yield to their representations. Accordingly,
Demosthenes with the land force assaulted the outlying fort on the
high ground of Epipolæ by night, and took it by surprise, killing part
of its garrison and putting the remainder to flight. He did not halt
there, but followed up his success by marching further on towards the
city, until he was met by some Bœotian heavy-armed troops, who had
been the first to rally, and now in a compact mass met the Athenians
with their spears levelled, and with loud shouts forced them to give
way with severe loss. The whole Athenian army was by this thrown into
confusion and panic, as the fugitives broke the formation of those
troops who were still marching to the front, so that in some cases
they actually fought with one another, each believing the others to be
enemies. Thus the Athenians fell into sad disorder and ruin; for they
were unable to distinguish friends from foes in the uncertain light,
as the moon, now nearly setting, glanced upon spear-points and armour
without showing them clearly enough to enable men to see with whom
they had to deal. The moon was behind the backs of the Athenians: and
this circumstance was greatly against them, for it made it hard for
them to see the numbers of their own friends, but shone plainly on the
glittering shields of their antagonists, making them look taller and
more terrible than they were. Finally, attacked as they were on every
side, they gave way and fled. Some were slain by the enemy, some by
their own countrymen, and some were dashed to pieces by falling down
the precipices; while the rest, as they straggled about the country,
were cut off by the Syracusan cavalry. Two thousand men perished, and
of the survivors few brought back their arms.

XXII. Nikias, who had expected this reverse, now cast the blame of it
upon Demosthenes; and he, admitting his error, besought Nikias to
embark his army and sail away as quickly as possible, pointing out
that no further reinforcement could be hoped for, and that they could
not hope for success with the force now at their disposal. Even had
they been victorious, he argued, they had intended to leave their
present camp, which was unhealthy at all times, and was now in the hot
season becoming pestilential. The time was the beginning of autumn,
and many of the Athenians were sick, while all were disheartened.
Nikias, however, opposed the idea of retreat, not because he did not
fear the Syracusans, but because he feared the Athenians more, and the
treatment which as an unsuccessful general he would probably meet
with. He declared that he saw no reason for alarm, and that even if
there was, that he would rather perish by the hands of the enemy than
those of his countrymen. A very different sentiment to that which was
afterwards uttered by Leon the Byzantine, who said, "My countrymen, I
had rather be put to death by you than to be put to death together
with you."

With regard to the place to which it would be best for them to remove
their camp, that, Nikias said, was a question which they might take
time to discuss.

Demosthenes, seeing that Nikias was thus obstinate, and conscious that
his own project, when adopted, had led to a frightful disaster, ceased
pressing him to raise the siege, and gave the other generals to
understand that Nikias must have secret reasons, from his
correspondents within the city, which led him to persevere thus
obstinately in remaining where he was. This caused them also to
withdraw their objections to remaining; but when another army came to
assist the Syracusans, and the Athenians began to perish from malaria,
even Nikias himself agreed that it was time to retreat, and issued
orders to his men to hold themselves in readiness to embark.

XXIII. When all was ready, and the enemy off their guard, as they did
not expect the Athenians to retreat, an eclipse of the moon took
place, which greatly terrified Nikias and some others who, from
ignorance or superstition, were in the habit of taking account of such
phenomena. That the sun should be sometimes eclipsed even the vulgar
understood to be in some way due to the moon intercepting its light:
but what body could intercept the moon's light, so that suddenly the
full moon should pale its light and alter its colour, they could not
explain, but thought that it was a sinister omen and portended some
great calamity.

The treatise of Anaxagoras, the first writer who has clearly and
boldly explained the phases and eclipses of the moon, was then known
only to a few, and had not the credit of antiquity, while even those
who understood it were afraid to mention it to their most trusted
friends. Men at that time could not endure natural philosophers and
those whom they called in derision stargazers, but accused them of
degrading the movements of the heavenly bodies by attributing them to
necessary physical causes. They drove Protagoras into exile, and cast
Anaxagoras into prison, from whence he was with difficulty rescued by
Perikles; while Sokrates, who never took any part in these
speculations, was nevertheless put to death because he was a
philosopher. It was not until after the period of which I am writing
that the glorious works of Plato shed their light upon mankind,
proving that Nature obeys a higher and divine law, and removing the
reproach of impiety which used to attach to those who study these
matters, so that all men might thereafter investigate natural
phenomena unreproved. Indeed, Plato's companion Dion, although the
moon was eclipsed when he was starting from the island of Zakynthus to
attack the despot Dionysius, was not in the least disturbed by the
omen, but sailed to Syracuse and drove out the despot. Nikias at this
time was without a competent soothsayer, for his intimate friend,
Stilbides, who used to check a great deal of his superstition, died
shortly before this. Indeed, the omen, if rightly explained, as
Philochorus points out, is not a bad one but a very good one for men
who are meditating a retreat; for what men are forced to do by fear,
requires darkness to conceal it, and light is inimical to them.
Moreover men were only wont to wait three days after an eclipse of the
moon, or of the sun, as we learn from Autokleides in his book on
divination; but Nikias persuaded them to wait for another complete
circuit of the moon, because its face would not shine upon them
propitiously before that time after its defilement with the gross
earthy particles which had intercepted its rays.[3] XXIV. Nikias now
put all business aside, and kept offering sacrifices and taking omens,
until the enemy attacked him. Their infantry assailed the camp and
siege works, while their fleet surrounded the harbour, not in ships of
war; but the very boys and children embarked in what boats they could
find and jeered at the Athenians, challenging them to come out and
fight. One of these boys, named Herakleides, the son of noble parents,
ventured too far, and was captured by an Athenian ship. His uncle
Pollichus, fearing for his safety, at once advanced with ten triremes
which were under his command; and this movement brought forward the
rest of the Syracusan fleet to support him. An obstinate battle now
took place, in which the Syracusans were victorious, and many of the
Athenians perished, amongst whom was their admiral Eurymedon. And now
the Athenians refused to remain before Syracuse any longer, and called
upon their generals to lead them away by land, for the Syracusans
after their victory had at once blockaded the entrance to the harbour,
so that no passage was left. Nikias and the other generals refused to
agree to this proposal, as they thought it would be a pity to abandon
a fleet of so many transports, and nearly two hundred ships of war.
They placed the flower of the land force on board the ships, with the
best of the slingers and darters, and manned one hundred and ten
triremes, for they had not sufficient oars for a larger number.
Nikias now abandoned the great camp and walls of investment, which
reached as far as the temple of Herakles, and drew the army up on the
beach as spectators of the battle. Thus the Syracusan priests and
generals were able for the first time since the siege began to
sacrifice to Herakles, as they were wont to do, while the people were
manning their fleet.

XXV. The Syracusan soothsayers promised them the victory if they
awaited attack and did not begin the attack: for Herakles himself
never struck the first blow, but always waited for his enemies to
attack him. The sea-fight which now took place was the fiercest and
most obstinately contested of all those which took place throughout
the war, and its varying fortunes were shared with agonizing interest
by the Athenian army and the citizens on the walls of Syracuse, who
were able from their respective positions to overlook the whole battle
and watch the manœuvres of each ship. The Athenians were placed at a
great disadvantage by having all their ships collected into one mass,
where they were attacked from all sides by the lighter and more
manageable vessels of the enemy. The Syracusans also used stones as
missiles, which strike with equal effect, however they are thrown,
while the Athenians replied with volleys of arrows and javelins, whose
aim was often spoiled by the motion of the vessels, and which are
useless unless they fly with the point foremost. All these details had
been foreseen and taught to the Syracusans by Aristion the Corinthian
steersman, who fell in the moment of victory. The Athenians were
finally routed and driven ashore with great slaughter, and their
retreat by sea completely cut off. Knowing how difficult it would be
to make their way to any place of safety by land, they allowed
themselves to be so paralyzed by despair, that they let the Syracusans
tow away their ships as prizes, without making an effort to save them,
and actually neglected to ask for a truce for the burial of their
dead. They seemed to think that the case of the sick and wounded whom
they saw amongst them, and whom they must perforce abandon when they
left their camp, was even more pitiable than that of the floating
corpses, and they actually envied the lot of the slain, knowing well
that after a few more days of suffering they themselves were all
destined to share their fate.

XXVI. They were all eager to depart during the night which followed
this disastrous day; but Gylippus, perceiving that the people of
Syracuse were so given up to feasting and merry-making, celebrating
both their victory and the festival of their national hero Herakles,
to whom the day was sacred, that they could not be either forced or
persuaded into attempting to harass the enemy's retreat, sent some of
those men who had formerly been in correspondence with Nikias to tell
him not to attempt to retreat that night, as all the roads were
occupied by Syracusans lying in wait to attack him. Deceived by this
intelligence, Nikias waited to find what he feared in the night turned
into a reality on the following day. At daybreak the passes were
occupied by the Syracusans, who also threw up entrenchments at all the
places where rivers had to be forded, and broke all the bridges,
stationing their cavalry upon the level ground, so that the Athenians
could not advance a step without fighting. The Athenians remained for
all that day and the following night in their camp, and then set out,
with such weeping and lamentation that it seemed rather as if they
were leaving their native country than a hostile one, so distressed
were they to see the miseries of their friends and relatives, and of
the sick and wounded who were unable to accompany their march and had
to be left to their fate, while they themselves had a presentiment
that their present sufferings were nothing in comparison with those
which awaited them. Among all these piteous sights, Nikias himself
offered a glorious example. Worn out by disease, compelled by the
exigencies of the retreat to forego the medicines and treatment which
his condition required, he nevertheless, weak as he was, did more than
many strong men could do, while all his men knew well that he made
those efforts, not from any wish or hope to save his own life, but
that it was solely on their behalf that he did not give way to
despair. The tears and lamentations of the rest were prompted by their
own private sorrows and fears, but the only grief shown by Nikias was
that so splendid an expedition should have ended in such miserable
failure. Those who watched his noble bearing and remembered how
earnestly he had opposed the whole scheme, were filled with compassion
for his undeserved sufferings. They began to despair of the favour of
Heaven being shown to themselves, when they reflected that this man,
careful as he had always been to perform every religious duty, was now
no better off than the humblest or the most wicked soldier in his
army.

XXVII. Nikias made heroic efforts by cheerful looks, encouraging
speeches, and personal appeals to his followers, to show himself
superior to fortune. Throughout the retreat, although for eight days
in succession he was constantly harassed by the attacks of the enemy,
he nevertheless kept the division under his command unbroken and
undefeated, until the other part of the army under Demosthenes was
forced to surrender, being completely surrounded in an enclosed
olive-ground, the property of Polyzelus, brother of the despot Gelon.
Demosthenes himself drew his sword and stabbed himself, but not
mortally, for the Syracusans quickly interposed and forced him to
desist. When the Syracusans told Nikias of this disaster, and allowed
him to send horsemen to convince him of its truth, he proposed terms
to Gylippus, which were that the Athenians should be allowed to leave
Sicily, on condition of the repayment of the whole expenses of the
war, for which he offered to give hostages. These terms were refused,
and the enemy with insulting cries and threats proceeded to shoot with
missiles of all kinds at the Athenians, who were now completely
without food or drink. Yet Nikias prevailed upon them to hold out
during that night, and on the following day he led them, still under
fire from the enemy, across the plain leading to the river Asinarus.
There some were forced into the stream by the enemy, while others cast
themselves in to quench their thirst. A most dreadful slaughter now
took place, the Athenians being wild with thirst, and the Syracusans
killing them as they drank, until Nikias surrendered himself to
Gylippus, saying, "I beseech you, now that you are victorious, to show
some mercy, not to me, but to the Athenian troops. Consider how
changeful is the fortune of war, and how gently the Athenians dealt
with your men in their hour of victory."

Gylippus was visibly affected by the words, and by the sight of
Nikias; for he knew how well the Spartan prisoners had been treated by
him, when the peace was made with Athens; moreover, he thought that it
would be a great honour to him if he could carry home the enemy's
commander-in-chief as a prisoner. He received Nikias with kindness,
and gave orders to take the rest of the Athenians alive. It was long,
however, before these orders were understood and obeyed, so that more
Athenians were slain than survived, although many were spared by the
Syracusans in order that they might be sold for slaves.

The prisoners were now assembled together, and their arms and armour
hung upon the trees by the river side, as a trophy of the victory. The
victors next crowned themselves with garlands, decorated their horses,
cut off the manes and tails of the captured horses, and marched back
into their own city, having by their courage and skill won the most
complete victory ever gained by one Greek state over another.

XXVIII. At a public assembly of the Syracusans and their allies which
was shortly afterwards held, the orator Eurykles proposed that the day
on which Nikias was taken should be kept as a festival for ever, upon
which no work should be done, and sacrifice should be offered to the
gods, and that the feast should be called the Asinaria, from the name
of the river where the victory was won. The day was the twenty-sixth
of the Dorian month Karneius, which the Athenians call Metageitnion
(September 21st). Furthermore, he proposed that the Athenian slaves
and allies should be sold, that the Athenians themselves, with what
native Sicilians had joined them, should be confined in the stone
quarries within the city of Syracuse, and that their generals should
be put to death.

These propositions wore accepted by the Syracusans, who treated
Hermokrates with contempt when he urged that to be merciful in victory
would be more honourable to them than the victory itself. Gylippus
too, when he begged that he might carry the Athenian generals alive to
Sparta, was shamefully insulted by the excited Syracusans, who had
long disliked the irritating Spartan airs of superiority natural to
Gylippus, and now, flushed with victory, no longer cared to conceal
their feelings. Timæus tells us that they accused him of avarice and
peculation, a hereditary vice, it appears, in his family since his



Online Library46 PlutarchPlutarch's Lives Volume III → online text (page 3 of 55)