416 B.C., democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta had been fighting
for 15 years. The war had commenced in 431 B.C., when the Spartans
took to the field in an effort to put a stop to the imperial expansions
of Athens. But 15 years may as well have been a lifetime, because
it was a time of pain that did not cease. Certainly, those 15 years
had cost the lives of many thousands killed in battles on land and
sea, or by the deadly plague that struck Athens in 429 B.C. In battle
after battle, the armies collected their dead and raised the traditional
funeral pyres. The bones of the deceased made their way back to
the home state, there to be interred in crypts of honor and to the
accompaniment of fine speeches. But was there some end in sight?
across the lands that are now Greece. Life was austere, even for
the wealthiest families. Travel was difficult, and certainly dangerous.
Social norms were breaking down. Nothing was safe. Few things were
even sacred. “What have we done?” the people must have thought.
“Into what pit have we fallen?”
A few people
recalled the warnings of Sparta’s leader Archidamus, who had counseled
against the original expedition against powerful Athens. “I fear,”
he said, “that it is more likely that we shall be leaving (this
war) to our children after us.” Anticipating an aspect of waging
successful war that Carl von Clausewitz would write down 22 centuries
later in his great work On War, Archidamus was forecasting no quick
decisive victory. Yet still, the Spartans invaded.
leader Pericles also wanted to avoid a war with Sparta. But if war
came, Pericles had counseled caution, and a strategy of defense.
Pericles explained that “if the Athenians would remain quiet, take
care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire
in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail.”
But this strategy relied on the enemy Spartans to fail, and not
on the Athenians to take some move toward victory. In all likelihood,
Pericles had never read, let alone heard of, the military scholar
Sun Tzu. But in Chapter 4 of Sun Tzu’s great work, The Art of War,
the Chinese master had stated that “invincibility lies in the defense;
the possibility of victory in the attack.” In a great strategic
error, Pericles had set forth only half of the equation.
So after 15
years, the war had cost much, but at the same time had reached no
outcome. There was no point in sight that could mark a real termination
of fighting and hostilities. All of the blood and treasure, which
had been poured into bitter combat, had not served to effect a fundamental
change in the power relationships between Athens and Sparta. The
war was ongoing.
would have said, the centers of gravity of each state remained intact.
Sparta still possessed its powerful army, and Athens maintained
its dominating navy. There had been no culminating engagement, and
neither side had won a decisive victory over the other. Skirmishing
continued at the periphery of each state, as did each side’s attempts
to form new alliances to the detriment of the other. But both sides
faced the daunting prospect of their war with each other continuing
for an indeterminate number of years. Something had to change.
or subconsciously, the Athenians were prepared to adopt a new strategy.
And it was a man named Alcibiades, a dynamic young officer, who
came up with a bold plan to expand the war in a manner that, he
claimed, would ultimately benefit Athens and weaken Sparta. Alcibiades
proposed to invade Sicily and assist a group of smaller city-states
in attacking Spartan-related colonies there, specifically Syracuse.
Although Sicily was 1,000 miles from Athens, the Athenian thinking
was that bringing down Syracuse would lead to a serious weakening
of Spartan power.
plan of Alcibiades was to send a contingent of 60 Athenian ships,
called “triremes,” and a modest number of troops to Sicily. Once
there, they were to form alliances with groups of Sicilian cities
and tribes that were presumed to be friendly to Athens. Then, leveraging
these local parties, the Athenian plan was to take over Syracuse
and gain control over a main source of food and supplies that were
being exported to Sparta. With Sicily in the Athenian alliance,
it would be possible for Athens to use its naval power to blockade
the regions around Sparta until the Spartans were starved into submission.
It was a plan with relatively low material risk to Athens, yet potentially
high strategic payoff.
One of the
key Greek leaders, Nicias, was opposed to the Sicilian plan of Alcibiades
as a costly and distant diversion. But rather than oppose the Alcibiades
plan directly on its merits, Nicias pretended to support it while
pointing out its dangers and immense cost. In the tumult of the
debate, the Athenians turned logic on its head and voted to send
100 triremes on the expedition instead of the 60 proposed by Alcibiades.
The formerly low-risk plan was beginning to become a higher-risk
also appointed Nicias as well as Alcibiades and another military
leader named Lamachus as generals. In what we would today call an
“intelligence failure,” Athens apparently did not realize that Syracuse
was a large and powerful city and, having been founded as a colony
of Athens’ traditional competitor and Spartan ally Corinth, a probable
enemy. Did the Athenians truly understand the scope of effort that
would be required in Sicily?
The night before
the expedition was to leave Athens, someone (probably enemy saboteurs)
mutilated numerous statues of gods throughout Athens. Alcibiades
was accused of profaning these god-images, a very serious crime
against religion in that era. He wanted to answer the charges. But
a significant number of Athenian allies and fighting auxiliaries
had agreed to join in with the expedition to Sicily solely due to
the presence of Alcibiades. Athens could not lose this key man,
who was the architect of its strategy, so his trial was postponed.
In the winter
of 415 B.C., the Athenians embarked for Sicily on 134 triremes with
over 5,000 ground troops and a total force of more than 30,000.
Logistically, it was an undertaking of immense scale. And also,
in an early case of what we today call “mission creep,” the original
“low-risk” plan of Alcibiades had more than doubled in scope.
Sicily, the cautious strategy of Nicias and Alcibiades to use diplomacy
and small engagements won over some small cities, and led to the
establishment of an Athenian base camp. The plan of Alcibiades was
beginning to take shape.
and summarily, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to stand trial
for impiety. This cost this major Athenian expedition its true leader,
its original planner, its prime architect. At home in Athens, the
political leadership utterly misunderstood the implications of its
obligation, and certainly its failure, to support the military leadership
in the field. By way of comparison, this would have been the equivalent
of President Lincoln firing General Grant based on rumors of Grant’s
excessive drinking, instead of offering to send a barrel of Grant’s
favorite whiskey to each of his other generals in the field.
sensed that treachery and political intrigue in Athens was the cause
of his recall. So Alcibiades took an opportunity to escape while
en route to Athens, and in an act of utter treason, went over to
the Spartans. Alcibiades made a plethora of self-serving justifications
for his defection, that he “loved his country” and hence was obliged
to resist the evil leaders who were driving Athens to ruin. But
in the end, Alcibiades went on to explain in detail the Athenian
plan to the Spartans.
13 of his work, Sun Tzu writes of the use of spies in war, and the
necessity of understanding what is going on in the enemy camp: “Spies
are a key element in warfare. On them depends an army’s every move.”
was more than a spy and turncoat. He provided the Spartans with
a complete tutorial on Athenian weaknesses and helped Sparta to
develop a strategy for defeating Athens. Among other key insights,
Alcibiades urged the Spartans to take and fortify a strategic region
on the approaches to Athens, as well as to reinforce Syracuse. This
was all but a road map to the heart of Athenian power. The Athenians
condemned the absent Alcibiades to death, and his property was confiscated.
But the damage was done.
loss of Alcibiades and probable compromise of not just operational
security but the entire strategic plan, the Athenians continued
to execute his strategy in Sicily. This was utter foolhardiness
on the part of the Athenians. It was as if events on the ground
in Sicily had taken on a life of their own, and the Athenians were
incapable of re-assessing their situation, let alone of regaining
control of their own destiny despite the defection of Alcibiades.
Initially, the Athenians won some small battles against forces allied
with Syracuse, but Nicias failed to press his advantage.
had received promises of support from many smaller Sicilian cities
before they set out. But when the Sicilians saw the tremendous size
of the Athenian force, they became more afraid of the foreign Athenians
than the local masters of Syracuse and refused to help.
Good will began
to break down between the Sicilians and Athenians as the former
began to question the motives of Athens in its pursuit of objectives
in Sicily. In a debate with one Sicilian tribe, the local leader
accused the Athenians of trying to win another empire. The Athenians
admitted that they held their empire by fear but claimed they were
concerned about security, not enslaving anyone. This tribe decided
to remain technically neutral, but later supported Syracuse. Thus
were events turning against the Athenians.
Athenians were confident that their army was powerful enough to
besiege Syracuse without the need for local forces, and so they
commenced this effort. The siege of Syracuse started promisingly
enough. Generals Lamachus and Nicias took strong positions near
the harbor of Syracuse and began to confront the walls of Syracuse.
Within days, Athenian general Lamachus was killed in the fighting.
But the Athenians pressed on with their siege.
After one good
spell of advances toward Syracuse, Nicias believed that the people
of the besieged city were on the point of giving up. Nicias delayed
finishing the siege works that he had been constructing while he
negotiated with factions inside the city. That is, he neglected
to focus on the military principle of seizing the advantage. In
fact, the delay worked to his detriment.
a Spartan general named Gylippus, freshly briefed by Alcibiades,
had arrived in Sicily to aid Syracuse. Upon learning that Syracuse
was not yet entirely cut off by land, he gathered his own troops
as well as some Sicilian allies and succeeded in fighting his way
into the city. His arrival immediately bolstered morale within Syracuse.
From this point on, things began to go wrong for the Athenians.
It was certainly friction of battle and fog of war at work. But
it seems also as if the fates had conspired to throw all of their
ill winds against the Athenians.
It was bad
enough that Lamachus had been killed in action. Then Nicias fell
ill from the effects of the Sicilian climate. Nicias wrote to the
leaders in Athens for reinforcement, and asked to be replaced. The
Athenians in Sicily had lost their entire leadership and command
structure. The Sicilian expedition, which had started as what Clausewitz
labeled as a “bold stroke,” was rapidly transforming into not just
error, but a colossal blunder.
Were the Athenians
simply unwilling to reassess their situation? Or were they perhaps
unable to do so, due to the stubbornness and hubris of their character?
Certainly, they did not entertain the prospect of conceding the
defeat of their Sicilian plan, nor to make arrangements to salvage
what was possible. Instead, Athens sent a second expedition to Syracuse
led by two more generals, Eurymedon and Demosthenes, with 73 more
triremes and 5,000 more foot soldiers. Now the Athenians had staked
more than half of their navy, and about one-third of their army,
on this distant expedition to Sicily. Athens had risked its fleet
and army, but for what?
At one point,
an otherwise prudent Athenian attempt to retreat failed to occur,
due entirely to Athenian superstition regarding an eclipse of the
moon, which occurred the night before the Athenians had planned
to leave. Superstitious Nicias refused to sail until the Athenians
had waited the required 27 days. To the detriment of military necessity,
Nicias was subservient to convention.
by Nicias proved fatal. In the narrow harbor of Syracuse, the Athenians
were at a disadvantage, and the soldiers of Syracuse, like the Greeks
against the Persians at Salamis in an earlier time, were fighting
for their freedom against foreign invaders.
of Syracuse had obtained a technical advantage in, of all things,
their navy by adopting a procedure to strengthen the hulls of their
ships. Thus could the ships of Syracuse better fight at close quarters
with Athenian vessels. As a result, the much smaller navy of Syracuse
defeated the Athenian fleet, killing Athenian general Eurymedon
in the process. The victors began mooring a line of ships across
the entrance to trap the Athenians completely.
sailed out again into the harbor of Syracuse to try to destroy this
blockade, but they were driven back in a furious battle in the confined
space of the body of water. Athenian warriors were confused by the
shouts and war cries, called “paeans,” of their Sicilian allies,
which sounded like the war calls of the forces of Syracuse. In the
fog of battle, this confusion gave advantage to the opponent. Athens
wanted to attack the barrier again the next morning, in that the
Athenians still had more ships than the navy of Syracuse, but the
demoralized Athenian sailors refused to man their stations. The
Athenian fleet was trapped, defeated, and destroyed. This was, in
its own way, an Athenian Tsushima.
The only choice
left was to retreat by land. Athenian general Nicias, however, lacked
an appreciation of the urgency of his predicament. In his own fog
of war, he gave his troops one day to pack their equipment before
decamping. But this delay allowed Spartan general Gylippus to move
and position troops at strategic points along the Athenian route
of march. Thus the Athenian army struggled on for eight days under
constant attack by horse-mounted cavalry of Syracuse. After his
main body was surrounded, Demosthenes surrendered.
of the Athenian army, under its general Nicias, kept on for two
more days until the soldiers of Syracuse caught up with it at the
Assinarus River, on the southeast side of Sicily. There, the thirsty
Athenians were slaughtered in droves as they trampled each other
trying to get to the water.
and Nicias were quickly executed. Most of the other survivors of
their mighty Athenian expedition perished while imprisoned by the
victorious forces of Syracuse, in horrid conditions in a rock quarry.
In one of the saddest accounts in all of military literature, Thucydides
called the Sicilian Expedition the “greatest achievement” in Greek
history. But in the end “they were destroyed, as the saying is,
with total destruction, their fleet, their army, everything was
destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events
was destroyed,” we are told. So with such an outcome we are entitled
to ask, was the Sicilian campaign a good strategy, but poorly executed?
Or was it simply bad strategy from the outset? It is too facile
merely to look at the result and reason backwards. We must know
more. The first rule of winning a war is to avoid defeating yourself.
So let us ask
questions and think in terms of principles of war. If Alcibiades’
proposal to send 60 triremes and a modest number of troops was a
good idea, was it “better” operational planning to adopt Nicias’
proposal and more than double the force? This gets into issues of
simplicity versus complexity, mass versus economy of force, maneuver
versus security. If the original plan was for a relatively small
force of Athenians to make allies on Sicily, and leverage these
allies to subdue Syracuse, was it “better” to send a larger force
that was perceived by the locals as an army of conquest?
And what would
have happened had the Athenians pardoned Alcibiades for any perceived
slight to the gods, and kept him fighting in the field instead of
recalling him to stand trial? This poses a contrast between the
leadership at home interfering in personnel issues, versus supporting
As to the things
that you cannot foresee, what would have happened had Alcibiades
not defected in the process, and compromised the security of the
entire Athenian plan? Here we see an issue involving having to take
a known objective, versus working without the element of surprise.
Would the forces of Syracuse have been able to defeat the Athenian
effort, absent the treachery and insider knowledge of Alcibiades,
leveraged with the able assistance of Sparta’s Gylippus?
if Nicias had not hesitated at crucial moments in a series of battles,
again and again, and on numerous occasions, thus handing the initiative
to the opponent? Here are issues of when to seize the offensive,
versus when to remain defensive.
As Sun Tzu
said, “The skillful warrior can achieve his own invulnerability.
But he can never bring about the enemy’s vulnerability.” The Sicilian
campaign highlights a litany of Athenian strategic, operational,
and tactical mistakes that brought about their vulnerability, and
led ultimately to their “total destruction.”
The news of
the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition stunned Athens. At first,
people simply did not believe that their mighty forces could have
suffered defeat in a distant land and at the hands of what the Athenians
viewed as primitive people. Could anyone have seen this coming?
If so, why did no one listen? This raises the question of when and
how should the messenger break the news of catastrophe to the leadership,
let alone to the people? How do people mentally process such unwelcome
information of utter disaster?
How does a
nation absorb the magnitude of its loss? By way of example, during
World War II, it was several months before the leadership of the
Imperial Japanese Navy even informed the emperor of the losses at
Midway. And after Stalingrad, German citizens were seen to wear
black armbands for many months.
But with the
news of the Sicilian disaster, it was as if the end of the Athenian
Empire was at hand. The Athenian treasury was nearly empty, her
docks were depleted, and thousands of her soldiers were dead and
unburied, or imprisoned as slaves in a foreign land. Was this the
beginning of the end?
correctly feared that the disaster in Sicily would inspire revolts
throughout their empire and lead to redoubled efforts by the Spartans.
Closer to home, war with Sparta had broken out again earlier that
year, 413 B.C., when the Spartan king, weary of suffering raids
on his territories without retaliation, invaded the agricultural
lands of Athens for the first time since 425 B.C. This time, however,
following the template provided by Alcibiades, he constructed a
fortress in the midst of the Athenian territories, and thus controlled
access to the Athenian hinterland. For the rest of the war, this
Spartan garrison wore down Athenian morale with constant raids.
The garrison also provided refuge for many thousands of runaway
slaves, which greatly harmed the Athenian economy.
the Athenians managed to survive a while longer. How did they accomplish
this? Thucydides said it best. “(I)n the panic of the moment they
were ready to be as prudent as possible…. Summer was now over.”
The war between
Athens and Sparta continued for another nine years, until Sparta
was able to defeat the remaining elements of the Athenian navy at
a place called Aegospotami. In this battle, the Athenians lost 168
ships, or essentially all that remained of their navy. Only 12 Athenian
an empire, and its continuous expansion caused Sparta such great
fear as to convince the Spartans to start a war. After much fighting
in their own regions, Athens attempted to widen the war by invading
and subduing Sicily, but this turned out to be an utter disaster
for the Athenians. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided.
But the facts of history are that the Athenians gambled and lost,
and blundered their way to defeat on Sicily.
the Athenians returned to their strategic element, which was the
sea. They fought on for a time, and bravely. But they did so only
because they were using their last strategic reserves of ships and
funds. At this stage, the Athenians could not afford to make mistakes,
let alone to incur losses that could not be replaced. And as Sun
Tzu might have put it, after many years of “bringing about their
own vulnerability,” the Athenians made their fatal mistake at Aegospotami.
the Athenians were compelled, by an accumulation of acts of force,
to do the will of the Spartans. Facing starvation and disease from
prolonged siege on her landward side, and now with her navy defeated,
Athens surrendered in 404 B.C. Her allies soon surrendered as well.
The terms of surrender stripped Athens of her walls, her fleet,
and all of her overseas possessions. The war ended. Athens was ruined.
The world and its destiny would belong to others.