|The Story of Greece|
|by Mary Macgregor|
| Stories from the history of ancient Greece beginning with mythical and legendary stories of gods and heroes and ending with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Gives short accounts of battles and sieges, and of the men who made Greece a great nation. Ages 10-14 |
THE SIEGE OF SYRACUSE
 NICIAS and Lamachus now determined to attack Syracuse without
They succeeded in seizing the high ground which joined
the town to the mainland of Sicily. Across this ground
they began to build a wall, meaning to cut the
Syracusans off from help by land. The Athenian fleet
then sailed into the harbour of Syracuse, that so no
help might reach the city by sea.
But before the wall was finished, two things had
happened to frustrate the plans of the Athenians.
The Syracusans did not mean to let the enemy finish the
wall if they could prevent it, so they sailed out of
the city to drive them away. In the struggle which
followed Lamachus was killed, and Nicias was left alone
to carry on the siege.
But what was perhaps even worse for the Athenians than
the death of their general, was the arrival of Gylippus
the Spartan commander.
Almost before the Athenians were aware, Gylippus, at
the head of his troops, marched into Syracuse. Nor did
he rest until he had driven them from the hill on which
they were encamped, and forced them to take up their
position close to the harbour.
Nicias was ill, and his illness made him more hopeless
than perhaps he would otherwise have been. He wrote to
the assembly to tell it that the Spartans had wrested
from the Athenians all that they had gained, and that
they were now themselves in danger of being besieged.
 The fleet, he said, had been drawn up on the beach for
months, and would have to be repaired before it was
seaworthy. Even then it would be difficult to man the
vessels, for many of the crew had died and many more
were out of practice.
So faint of heart was the Athenian general that, at
the end of his gloomy report, he urged that the whole
enterprise should be given up, or if not, that at least
a new fleet might be sent out without loss of time.
For himself he begged that he might be recalled, as he
was ill and unfit for his duties.
The assembly refused this last request, but it sent a
new fleet to his help, commanded by Eurymedon and
Meanwhile Gylippus was not idle. He attacked the
Athenians both by land and sea. By land he was
victorious, but at sea he was defeated.
Undaunted, he at once ordered that the bows of the
Spartan vessels should be made heavier and shorter.
When this had been done he again attacked the enemy's
fleet, and when the battle ended Gylippus held the
entrance to the harbour.
The Athenians were now in great peril, for they were
besieged both by land and sea. They could not leave
the harbour unless they cut their way through the fleet
of the victorious Syracusans, and this they had no
courage to attempt.
But on the day after the battle which had seemed to
seal their fate, hope awoke once more in the Athenian
ranks, for the new fleet, under Eurymedon and
Demosthenes, came in sight.
The new commanders at once determined that the hill
above Syracuse must be retaken. So on a moonlight
night the attempt was made. But although a band of
Athenians gained the hill, took a fort and repulsed six
hundred of the enemy, they were soon afterwards put to
flight. Many of the soldiers flung away their shields,
as they were driven
 down the hill, and fell over the cliffs. Others were
pushed back upon their comrades who were still climbing
upwards, so that soon the whole army was in confusion.
This disaster crushed the spirit of the Athenians.
Many of the soldiers, too, had fever caused by the
marshy ground on which their camp was pitched. Many
more were ill or wounded.
Eurymedon and Demosthenes advised Nicias to order the
whole army to sail away before the entrance to the
Great Harbour was entirely blockaded, but to this he
would not consent. It seemed that he was afraid to
return to Athens to tell that the expedition had
Demosthenes then urged Nicias at least to leave the
harbour and sail to a point where their supplies could
not be stopped by the enemy. This too, Nicias refused
But soon after his refusal, large reinforcements
reached the Spartans, and the general's obstinacy gave
way. He ordered the fleet to prepare to leave the
The men were glad to desert their unhealthy quarters
and got ready in haste, but secretly, that the
Syracusans might not suspect their plans.
All was ready, when, on 27th August 413 B.C., the night
before the fleet was to sail, an eclipse of the moon
Nicias was filled with superstitious fears. What might
the eclipse not portend? He sent to the soothsayers,
who said that the fleet must on no account leave the
harbour for twenty-seven days. To disobey the oracle
would be fatal, so Nicias believed, and he at once
forbade the fleet to sail until the twenty-seven days
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