Never perhaps was a battle fought under circumstances of such intense interest, or witnessed by so many spectators vitally concerned in the result. The basin of the Great Harbour, about 5 miles in circumference, in which nearly 200 ships, each with crews of more than 200 men, were about to engage, was lined with spectators. The Syracusan fleet was the first to leave the shore. A considerable portion was detached to guard the barrier at the mouth of the harbour. Hither the first and most impetuous attack of the Athenians was directed, who sought to break through the narrow opening which had been left for the passage of merchant vessels. Their onset was repulsed, and the battle then became general. The shouts of the combatants, and the crash of the iron heads of the vessels as they were driven together, resounded over the water, and were answered on shore by the cheers or wailings of the spectators as their friends were victorious or vanquished. For a long time the battle was maintained with heroic courage and dubious result. At length, as the Athenian vessels began to yield and make back towards the shore, a universal shriek of horror and despair arose from the Athenian army, whilst shouts of joy and victory were raised from the pursuing vessels, and were echoed back from the Syracusans on land. As the Athenian vessels neared the shore their crews leaped out, and made for the camp, whilst the boldest of the land army rushed forward to protect the ships from being seized by the enemy. The Athenians succeeded in saving only 60 ships, or about half their fleet. The Syracusan fleet, however, had been reduced to 50 ships; and on the same afternoon, Nicias and Demosthenes, as a last hope of escape, exhorted their men to make another attempt to break the enemy's line, and force their way out of the harbour. But the courage of the crews was so completely damped that they positively refused to re-embark.
The Athenian army still numbered 40,000 men; and as all chance of escape by sea was now hopeless, it was resolved to retreat by land to some friendly city, and there defend themselves against the attacks of the Syracusans. As the soldiers turned to quit that fatal encampment, the sense of their own woes was for a moment suspended by the sight of their unburied comrades, who seemed to reproach them with the neglect of a sacred duty; but still more by the wailings and entreaties of the wounded, who clung around their knees, and implored not to be abandoned to certain destruction. Amid this scene of universal woe and dejection, a fresh and unwonted spirit of energy and heroism seemed to be infused into Nicias. Though suffering under an incurable complaint, he was everywhere seen marshalling his troops and encouraging them by his exhortations. The march was directed towards the territory of the Sicels in the interior of the island. The army was formed into a hollow square with the baggage in the middle; Nicias leading the van, and Demosthenes bringing up the rear. The road ascended by a sort of ravine over a steep hill called the Acraean cliff on which the Syracusans had fortified themselves. After spending two days in vain attempts to force this position, Nicias and Demosthenes resolved during the night to strike off to the left towards the sea. But they were overtaken, surrounded by superior forces, and compelled to surrender at discretion. Out of the 40,000 who started from the camp only 10,000 at the utmost were left at the end of the sixth day's march, the rest had either deserted or been slain. The prisoners were sent to work in the stone-quarries of Achradina and Epipolae. Here they were crowded together without any shelter, and with scarcely provisions enough to sustain life. The numerous bodies of those who died were left to putrify where they had fallen, till at length the place became such an intolerable centre of stench and infection that, at the end of seventy days, the Syracusans, for their own comfort and safety, were obliged to remove the survivors, who were sold as slaves. Nicias and Demosthenes were condemned to death in spite of all the efforts of Gylippus and Hermocrates to save them.
Such was the end of two of the largest and best appointed armaments that had ever gone forth from Athens. Nicias, as we have seen, was from the first opposed to the expedition in which they were employed, as pregnant with the most dangerous consequences to Athens; and, though it must be admitted that in this respect his views were sound, it cannot at the same time be concealed that his own want of energy, and his incompetence as a general, were the chief causes of the failure of the undertaking. His mistakes involved the fall of Demosthenes, an officer of far greater resolution and ability than himself, and who, had his counsels been followed, would in all probability have conducted the enterprise to a safe termination, though there was no longer room to hope for success.
THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR.--THIRD PERIOD, FROM THE SICILIAN EXPEDITION TO THE END OF THE WAR, B.C. 413-404.
The destruction of the Sicilian armament was a fatal blow to the power of Athens. It is astonishing that she was able to protract the war so long with diminished strength and resources. Her situation inspired her enemies with new vigour; states hitherto neutral declared against her; her subject-allies prepared to throw off the yoke; even the Persian satraps and the court of Susa bestirred themselves against her. The first blow to her empire was struck by the wealthy and populous island of Chios. This again was the work of Alcibiades, the implacable enemy of his native land, at whose advice a Lacedaemonian fleet was sent to the assistance of the Chians. Their example was followed by all the other Athenian allies in Asia, with the exception of Samos, in which the democratical party gained the upper hand. In the midst of this general defection the Athenians did not give way to despair. Pericles had set apart a reserve of 1000 talents to meet the contingency of an actual invasion. This still remained untouched, and now by an unanimous vote the penalty of death, which forbad its appropriation to any other purpose, was abolished, and the fund applied in fitting out a fleet against Chios. Samos became the head-quarters of the fleet, and the base of their operations during the remainder of the war.
After a time the tide of success began to turn in favour of the Athenians. They recovered Lesbos and Clazomenae, defeated the Chians, and laid waste their territory. They also gained a victory over the Peloponnesians at Miletus; while the Peloponnesian fleet had lost the assistance of Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap, through the intrigues of Alcibiades. In the course of a few months Alcibiades had completely forfeited the confidence of the Lacedaemonians. The Spartan king Agis, whose wife he had seduced, was his personal enemy; and after the defeat of the Peloponnesians at Miletus, Agis denounced him as a traitor, and persuaded the new Ephors to send out instructions to put him to death. Of this, however, he was informed time enough to make his escape to Tissaphernes at Magnesia. Here he ingratiated himself into the confidence of the satrap, and persuaded him that it was not for the interest of Persia that either of the Grecian parties should be successful, but rather that they should wear each other out in their mutual struggles, when Persia would in the end succeed in expelling both. This advice was adopted by the satrap; and in order to carry it into execution, steps were taken to secure the inactivity of the Peloponnesian armament, which, if vigorously employed, was powerful enough to put a speedy end to the war. In order to secure his return to Athens, Alcibiades now endeavoured to persuade Tissaphernes that it was more for the Persian interest to conclude a league with Athens than with Sparta; but the only part of his advice which the satrap seems to have sincerely adopted was that of playing off one party against the other. About this, however, Alcibiades did not at all concern himself. It was enough for his views, which had merely the selfish aim of his own restoration to Athens, if he could make it appear that he possessed sufficient influence with Tissaphernes to procure his assistance for the Athenians. He therefore began to communicate with the Athenian generals at Samos, and held out the hope of a Persian alliance as the price of his restoration to his country. But as he both hated and feared the Athenian democracy, he coupled his offer with the condition that a revolution should be effected at Athens, and an oligarchy established. The Athenian generals greedily caught at the proposal; and though the great mass of the soldiery were violently opposed to it, they were silenced, if not satisfied, when told that Athens could be saved only by means of Persia. The oligarchical conspirators formed themselves into a confederacy, and Pisander was sent to Athens to lay the proposal before the Athenian assembly. It met, as it might be supposed, with the most determined opposition. The single but unanswerable reply of Pisander was, the necessities of the republic; and at length a reluctant vote for a change of constitution was extorted from the people. Pisander and ten others were despatched to treat with Alcibiades and Tissaphernes.
Upon their arrival in Ionia they informed Alcibiades that measures had been taken for establishing an oligarchical form of government at Athens, and required him to fulfil his part of the engagement by procuring the aid and alliance of Persia. But Alcibiades knew that he had undertaken what he could not perform, and he now resolved to escape from the dilemma by one of his habitual artifices. He received the Athenian deputation in the presence of Tissaphernes himself, and made such extravagant demands on behalf of the satrap that Pisander and his colleagues indignantly broke off the conference.
Notwithstanding the conduct of Alcibiades the oligarchical conspirators proceeded with the revolution at Athens, in which they had gone too far to recede. Pisander, with five of the envoys, returned to Athens to complete the work they had begun.