Siege of Syracuse, 414-413 BC

The First Year of the Siege
The Second Year of the Siege
Defeat and Disaster


The Athenian siege of Syracuse of 414-413 BC was a two year long epic that ended with the total defeat and destruction of the Athenian army, and that put Athens onto the defensive in the renewed fighting in the Great Peloponnesian War.

The siege of Syracuse followed a different pattern to most sieges. The Syracusans were never entirely blockaded within the city, and for most of the time had a sizable field army and fleet at their disposal. The siege thus developed into a series of battles fought around the city, both on land and at sea. At different stages in the battle it was the Athenians who felt besieged, and eventually they would even suffer a naval defeat.  

The Athenian invasion of Sicily began in 415 BC. A large army and fleet under Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus were sent to the island, officially to aid an Athenian ally, but in reality in an attempt to conquer Syracuse and that city's allies. The expedition didn't begin well. An attempt to find allies amongst the Greek cities of Italy failed, and very few Sicilians supported them. The key city of Messenia, at the north-eastern tip of the island, refused to let them in, but eventually they found a base at Catane, half way between Messenia and Syracuse. Soon after this success a trireme arrived from Athens to arrest Alcibiades, who managed to escape into exile in Sparta. This left Nicias in effective command of the expedition.

Nicias realised that it would be difficult to march overland to Syracuse in the face of the enemy cavalry. Instead he tricked the Syracusans into marching towards Catane, then transported the army by ship to the Great Harbour, south of Syracuse. The Syracusans marched back, but were forced to fight on ground of the Athenians choosing. The resulting battle of Syracuse (415 BC) was the one clear-cut Athenian success of the war, but afterwards they abandoned their camp near Syracuse and returned to Catane.

While this was going on Syracusan envoys reached Corinth to ask for help. The Corinthians agreed to provide troops, and also to help persuade the Spartans to help. At Sparta the envoys met Alcibiades, who helped convince the Spartans to offer support. Even then the Spartans only agreed to send a small force, under the command of Gylippus, a 'mothax' rather than a full 'Spartiate' (he was probably the son of a Spartiate who didn't qualify for some reason).

The course of the siege was largely dictated by the geographical layout of the area around Syracuse. The city was built at the south-eastern corner of a large peninsula. To its south was a large bay - the Great Harbour. The peninsula of Ortygia stuck out from Syracuse across the entrance to the bay, pointing towards Plemmyrium, at the southern end of the bay. The Great Harbour thus had a fairly narrow entrance. Inland the position was dominated by the heights of Epipolae, which fill most of the large peninsula to the north-west of Syracuse. Although the Syracusans had been quite active during the winter, they did fail to fortify the heights,

The First Year of the Siege

The Athenians finally decided to besiege Syracuse in the spring of 414 BC. They moved by sea down the coast to Leon, on the coast to the north of the heights, and hidden from view from Syracuse. They then marched onto the heights via the pass of Euryalus, on their western side. By a remarkable coincidence the Syracusans had finally realised the importance of the heights, and on the very same day prepared to send a force to occupy them. Their army was parading on the shores of the Grand Harbour as the Athenians occupied the heights. The Syracusans rushed to the scene in an attempt to push the Athenians off the heights, but this failed. After this victory the Athenians erected the first of a series of trophies that they would build to commemorate their victories around Syracuse. After this first success the Athenians marched to Syracuse, where they offered battle, but the defenders refused to come out.

The Athenians planned to build a wall to blockade Syracuse by land. This would run from the coast at Trogilus, east of their landing point at Leon, across the heights and down into the lower land west of the city, before reaching the sea again in the middle of the Great Harbour. Their first step was to build a fort at Labdalum, at the western edge of the heights, which they used to protect their stores. They then moved to Syca, on the southern side of the heights, where they built a fort called 'the Circle'. This was to stand at the centre of their blockading wall.

The Syracusans responded to this building work by bringing their army out of the city to offer battle. A major pitched battle was only avoided because of the poor discipline of the Syracusan infantry, which struggled to form a proper line. Seeing this, their generals decided to withdraw back into the city, leaving a cavalry force to harass the Athenians. For once the Athenians got the better of a cavalry battle, sending their entire cavalry force, supported by some hoplites, to deal with the Syracusans. A second victory followed, and a second trophy was built.

The Syracusans next decided to build a counter-wall of their own. This would run south-west from the city and cross the Athenian wall running from the Circle to the Great Harbour. At first this work went well, and a wooden counter-wall soon began to take shape, but the Athenians waited until the Syracusans guard was down and launched a counter attack. A picked force of 300 hoplites and heavily armoured light troops captured the stockade protecting the counter wall. The Syracusans fled back towards the city, followed by the Athenians, who were in turn counter-attacked and forced to retreat back towards the rest of their army. This victory allowed the Athenians to destroy this first counter wall and erect a third trophy.

The Syracusans were not discouraged by this setback, and began to build a second counter-wall a little further to the south. This wall had to cross the marsh that bordered the Great Harbour, making for difficult working conditions. Once again the Athenians decided to attack the builders, and at the same time move their fleet into the Grand Harbour. This triggered another, rather more complex battle. At first the Athenians were victorious. The Syracusan force split in two, with the right wing fleeing into the city and the left wing towards the Anapus River. The 300 Athenians selected for the previous attack pursued the Syracusan left, hoping to prevent them from crossing the river. Instead they came under attack from the Syracusan cavalry, and were routed. The cavalry then attacked the main part of the Athenian right wing, causing a second rout. Lamachus, who was commanding the army on this occasion, attempted to restore the situation, but was isolated and killed. The main part of the Athenian army then arrived on the scene, and the Syracusans retreated.

Meanwhile these successes had encouraged the troops who had fled into the city. Some of them formed up against the main Athenian force, while others moved to attack the Circle, expecting to find it weakly guarded. They were correct, and were able to destroy around 1,000ft of the Athenian wall on the heights, but the fort itself was saved by Nicias, who was suffering from illness at the time and was thus unable to take part in the battle. He ordered the wooden supplies around the fort to be set on fire. This stopped the Syracusan advance, and alerted the rest of the Athenian army who began to move back towards the Circle. At the same time their fleet entered the Great Harbour. The Syracusans retreated back into the city, and the Athenians erected a fourth victory trophy.

Morale within the city now fell to a low ebb. The current generals were removed, three new generals elected, and many within the city began to discuss possible peace terms. The city was saved by the arrival of Gylippus and his small force of Spartans. At first Gylippus believed that the Athenians had completed their walls, and the blockade was complete. If this was the case then he wouldn't be able to reach the city, and so instead he decided to visit the Greek cities of Italy to make sure they didn't decide to side with the Athenians. Once in Italy he discovered that Syracuse was not yet entirely blockaded. Gylippus decided to land on the east coast of Sicily and march overland to Syracuse. He landed at Himera, and immediately gained local support. His original tiny force of 700 men soon expanded to one of 3,000. As Gylippus approached the city overland, a single boat containing the Corinthian commander Gongylus managed to slip past the Athenians and enter Syracuse. He arrived just in time to prevent an assembly from discussing peace terms, and was able to convince the Syracusans to prepare to cooperate with Gylippus.

At this stage the Athenian walls were almost complete to the south, but there was quite a large gap to the north of the Circle, on the heights of Epipolae. This wouldn't have been a problem if Nicias had defended the pass of Euryalus, but he failed to take this elementary precaution, and Gylippus was able to lead his men onto the heights and join up with the Syracusans. Their united army offered battle, but Nicias refused to leave the shelter of the walls, and so Gylippus camped just outside Syracuse. On the following day he captured the Athenian fort at Labdalum, on the western edge of the high ground. An attack on a weak part of the Athenian line failed, but the momentum on land had shifted from the Athenians to the Syracusans and their allies. The Syracusans now began to build another counter wall, this time across the heights towards Labdalum, cutting across the last major gap in the Athenian lines.

Nicias responded by turning his attention to the naval war. Plemmyrium, at the southern entrance to the Great Harbour, was fortified and the fleet made its base there. The Athenians were now rather widely spread, for most of their army was still facing Gylippus on the heights. Yet another battle was fought, this time between the two walls, and yet again the Athenians won. A fifth victory trophy followed.

Gylippus learnt from his mistakes. As the counter wall came close to cutting across the line of the Athenian wall he offered battle again. This time the fighting took place further away from the walls. The Athenian left was routed by the Syracusan cavalry and javelin throwers and the entire army forced to retreat. The defenders took advantage of their victory, and extended their wall across the line of the Athenian wall. Thucydides claimed that after this it was no longer possible for the Athenians to blockade the city from the land, although of course they could have either built a wall a little further to the west, or captured the Syracusan wall (this second tactic would soon be tried).

The real significant of this battle was that it marked the beginning of a decline in the morale of the first Athenian army. Even the naval blockade was weakening - twelve ships were able to enter the harbour without being stopped, and Gylippus was able to slip away to tour the island, where he was able to gather new allies. The Syracusans also sent ambassadors to Sparta and Corinth to ask for more help, and began to train their fleet.

Nicias also sent a message back home, in his case to tell the people of Athens how dangerous a position he was in, how weak his fleet was and how little he could do with the army at his disposal. If Nicias was hoping that the expedition, which he had always opposed, would now be withdrawn, he was to be disappointed. The messengers reached Athens in the winter of 414-413 BC, and the Athenians decided to send a second, equally large army, to join him. Eurymedon, a commander with experience on Sicily, and Demosthenes, the real victor at Pylos, were appointed to command the new army.

The Second Year of the Siege

Gylippus returned to Syracuse in the spring of 413 BC, with significant reinforcements. He then convinced the Syracusans to risk a naval attack on the Athenians, while at the same time he would take the army around their positions and attack Plemmyrium.

The naval attack ended in failure. The Syracusan fleet was split in two - thirty-five triremes attacked from the Great Harbour and 45 from the little harbour (on the eastern, sea-ward side of the city). The Athenians sent 25 ships to face the 35 and 35 ships to face the 45. At first both Athenian forces were put under heavy pressure, and the fleet outside the Great Harbour was actually forced back into the harbour. At this point the Syracusans lost their discipline, and the Athenians were able to defeat them as they sailed into the harbour. The combined Athenian fleet then defeated the Syracusan ships inside the harbour.

On land the battle went against the Athenians. The garrisons of the three forts at Plemmyrium were distracted by the naval battle, and Gylippus was able to capture all three of them. The Syracusans were able to erect three trophies to celebrate the fall of the three forts, while the Athenians built their sixth trophy, to commemorate the naval victory.

The Athenians were now in a fairly desperate position. Their fleet was now almost trapped inside the Great Harbour, and supply convoys had to fight their way in. Morale in the army fell even more. Worse was to come. In an attempt to win before the Athenian reinforcements could arrive, the Syracusans launched another naval attack. This time their ships had been given stronger prows to give them an advantage in head-on ramming attacks. In contrast the Athenians relied on skill to allow them to ram triremes in their vulnerable sides. The Syracusan modifications took advantage of the battlefield inside the Great Harbour, where there wasn't really room for the Athenian manoeuvres. On the first day of fighting neither side gained an advantage. No fighting took place on the next day, but on the following day the Syracusans came out again. This time the food market for the sailors was moved to the harbour to allow the Syracusans made two attacks in the same day after a short break for food. This tactic was a great success - the Athenians held their own during the first attack, but were caught out when the Syracusans put back to sea so quickly. After a brief standoff the Athenians decided to attack, but their head-on attack played into their enemies' hands. Seven Athenian ships were sunk and more disabled and their crews captured and killed. The Syracusans only lost two ships.

Just as the Syracusans must have been expected an imminent victory, Demosthenes finally arrived with his fleet. He had 1,200 Athenian hoplites, 3,800 allied hoplites, sixty-five triremes and a large number of javelin troops and slingers. Athenian morale soared, and Syracusan morale plummeted, but the change would only be temporary.

Demosthenes realised that he needed a quick victory, and so decided to try and retake control of Epipolea. He decided to risk a night attack, and this decision would end in disaster. At first things went well, and the Syracusan counter wall was occupied and some of it was destroyed. After this the difficulties of a night battle took over. The defenders rallied, and the larger and unwieldy Athenian force began to retreat. The retreat turned into a disaster, and the army's newly found confidence was shattered.

Defeat and Disaster

In the aftermath of this defeat the Athenian commanders debated their next move. Demosthenes wanted to abandon the entire venture and return to Athens. Nicias was less willing to admit that he had failed. He kept hinting that he was in contact with elements in Syracuse who were ready to surrender, but without giving any details. Demosthenes responded by suggesting that they leave Syracuse and move to somewhere else on Sicily to continue the war. The discussions ended in stalemate, and the army remained where it was.

Meanwhile Gylippus had been travelling around Sicily gathering more reinforcements. When this fresh army reached Syracuse even Nicias was willing to order the retreat. The Athenians were on the verge of escaping to sea when there was an eclipse of the moon. The soothsayers regarded this as a bad omen and demanded that the army wait 27 days before moving. Many of the more superstitious men supported them, as, fatally, did Nicias. The army was forced to sit and wait while the Syracusans prepared to try and stop them from leaving.

The delay proved fatal to the entire Athenian army. The Syracusans learnt both of the Athenian decision to leave, and the reason for the delay. Just before the Athenians would have attempted to leave, the Syracusans went onto the attack. On the first day they attacked the Athenian walls and won a sharp action. On the second day seventy-six Syracusan ships put to sea. The Athenians responded with eighty-six ships, but despite their numerical advantage were beaten. Their only consolation was that they were able to fight off an attempt by Gylippus to capture the ship's crews as they were forced ashore. The Athenians raised a seventh trophy, but the day had been a disaster for them.

The Syracusans now began to make efforts to trap the Athenians within the harbour. They blocked the entrance to the Great Harbour with a line of triremes and merchants ships moored side on, and prepared for another naval battle. This meant that the Athenians were now besieged inside the Great Harbour, with no way to get fresh supplies.
In the meantime the Athenians prepared to make a breakout. They built a second wall to protect a small area around their anchorage. The plan was to leave a small garrison in this fort, and use every other man in the army to man the ships. If the attempt to escape by sea failed, then the army would attempt to march overland to the nearest friendly city.

This time it was the Athenians who relied on numbers and brute force, instead of skill. Their plan was to use their heavily laden ships to board the enemy triremes and fight what would have been a land battle at sea. Between them the two fleets contained 200 ships, all fighting within the Great Harbour. Eventually the Athenians were forced to give way, and suffered a second major naval defeat in a short period. Demosthenes and Nicias were unable to persuade their sailors to make a second attempt to escape. The army's only hope was to escape overland.

This was a desperate venture. The Syracusans still had their advantage in cavalry, and much of the surrounding countryside was friendly to them. The Athenians were already short of food, and would have to march and fight for several days before they had any hope of finding fresh supplies. The Athenians didn't help themselves by delaying their departure in order to give the soldiers time to pack! This gave the Syracusans the time they needed to post guards at key points on any potential Athenian route, blocking river crossings and passes.

The retreat eventually began two days after the naval defeat. The Athenians and their allies still had 40,000 men, a potentially very dangerous army if it could escape from the trap at Syracuse. On the first day the army marched in a hollow square, with Nicias commanding the front half and Demosthenes the rear. On that day the army forced its way across the Anapus River, and marched for only four and a half miles before camping on a hill. On the second day they made even less progress, only moving two and a half miles before camping in an inhabited area, where they expected to find supplies. The third day was even worse. The Syracusans blocked the pass the Athenians were planning to use (the Acreaen cliff), and after failing to force they way though the Athenians were forced back to their starting point. On the fourth day the Athenians actually attacked the Syracusan fortifications in the pass, but were repulsed and forced to retreat again. On the fifth day the two sides fought a slow moving battle, and the Athenians were only able to advance by half a mile. By now food and water were both running short.

That night Nicias and Demosthenes realised that they were unlikely to be able to reach Catane, their first target. Instead they began a night march in a different direction, hoping to reach Camaraina or Gela, on the southern coast of the island. The night march didn’t go well. Nicias was able to keep his half of the army together, but Demosthenes had less success. His half of the army became separated from Nicias and began to scatter. During the following day the Syracusans caught up with Demosthenes and attacked his men. Demosthenes attempted to form up and fight, but the Syracusans didn't offer him a chance for a battle. Instead they bombarded his troops with javelins all day, and eventually Demosthenes and his troops surrendered on terms. None were to be put to death, be killed in prison or to be starved. Only 6,000 men surrendered here, suggesting that the army had suffered heavy losses during the march from Syracuse, for half of the army should have numbered 20,000.

Meanwhile Nicias and his half of the army continued their march. They crossing the River Erineus and took up a position on high ground. On the seventh day the Syracusans caught up with Nicias, who refused to believe that the other half of the army had surrendered until his own scout confirmed it. When it was clear that the news was true Nicias offered to pay the entire cost of the war if the Syracusans and their allies would let his men return to Athens, but these terms were turned down. Nicias' men were then subjected to a day-long bombardment.  That night they planned to make one final attempt at a breakthrough, but this was discovered before it started, and the attempt was abandoned. On the eighth day of the retreat they advanced to the River Assinarus, but when they reached the river thirst broke the army. The desperate survivors of the retreat attempted to take a drink while under attack from both banks. Eventually Nicias surrendered to Gylippus, but even this didn't stop the slaughter. When it eventually finished fewer men were captured than on the previous day, although a larger number were taken privately by members of the Syracusan army.

The surrender didn't end the suffering of the Athenian soldiers, very few of whom would return home. Nicias and Demosthenes were both executed by the Syracusans, despite Gylippus's attempts to save them, while the surviving soldiers were placed in the stone quarry near Syracuse. The Athenians and Italian Greeks remained in the quarries for some time and very few would have survived the terrible conditions, but the rest of the prisoners were sold into slavery after ten weeks.

The disaster at Syracuse was a massive blow to Athenian power. Thousands of men were lost, as were two fleets and a vast amount of money. Sparta and Athens's other enemies in Greece were greatly encouraged, and even the Persians would soon become involved. Despite the odds against them, the Athenians managed to hold on for another ten years, but for most of that time they were on the defensive.

The Tyrants of Syracuse: War in Ancient Sicily Volume I: 480-367 BC, Jeff Champion. A study of the military history of ancient Sicily, from the battle of Himera in 480 BC to the death of Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, in 367 BC. This period saw the Greeks of Sicily fight the Carthaginians, the invading Athenians, the natives Sicilians, and perhaps most frequently each other [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 July 2011), Siege of Syracuse, 414-413 BC ,

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