The Sicilian Expedition is a story of military overambition, stemming from a lingering expansionist ideology fuelled by national pride. The parallels to current geopolitical affairs are quite clear. The disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily presents an invaluable insight into why such ‘expeditions’ occur even in the modern-day, and why they might fail.
Athens had set its sights on military intervention in Sicily several years before the expedition. In 422 B.C., a powerful enemy, the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse, intervened in the civil strife of Leontini, their smaller neighbour, in support of the oligarchs. Athens, in their self-appointed role as defenders of democracy, sent ambassadors to assess the possibility of renewing war against their old adversary. However, no opportunity presented itself.
Six years later, in 416 B.C., Segesta (a previous ally of Athens) attacked Selinus. After initial losses, they appealed to Athens for help; Selinus, in return, appealed to Syracuse. The Segestaians even promised they would fund the expense of the Athenians sending a fleet. With the opportunity of achieving the long-term Athenian goal of expanding influence in Sicily, it was an attractive proposition.
Opinions on foreign policy were divided in Athens: there was a ‘peace party’ led by Nicias, and a ‘war party’ led by Alcibiades. The initial Athenian assembly approved the dispatch of a small force of 60 triremes (Greek naval vessels), with no hoplites (heavily-armoured foot soldiers). But a second debate still had to be held to discuss the logistics of this expedition.
Nicias and Alcibiades represented either side of the debate. Nicias branded the plan a “mad dream of conquest” and strongly advised against the expedition. He feared that the Athenian military would become overstretched, leaving the city, and the rest of the empire, vulnerable to attacks from Sparta (with whom they were still at war). He accused Alcibiades of “grasping at another empire before we have secured the one we already have.” He also attacked Alcibiades’s own credibility, claiming that he was a young, brash man only out for personal glory.
Alcibiades responded with an appeal to the unconquerable spirit and initiative that had built the Athenian empire in the first place: a quasi-nationalist pride. Indeed, Thucydides stated that the real motive behind this ‘assistance’ of Segesta was the Athenian desire “of conquering the whole” of Sicily. Sicily was not the end in itself, either: it presented a platform for further expeditions against Carthage and Libya in North Africa.
The assembly favoured Alcibiades’ approach. Nicias realised that he would have to change tactic. Therefore, rather than continuing to oppose the expedition, Nicias tried arguing for the complete opposite – a massive expedition. By lavishing excessive resources onto the planned invasion, he hoped that the proposal would become so unreasonable the assembly would have no choice but to reconsider.
This backfired severely. The assembly were even more enthused by Nicias’s proposal and “fell in love with the enterprise”, arranging for an even larger force of 100 triremes and 5,000 hoplites to be sent to Sicily, with Nicias as commander. In his attempt to avoid a defeat, Nicias had instead created a disaster – one which he would have to lead. And, though Nicias may not have not responsible for the, perhaps foolish, decision to send a force to Sicily at all, he was responsible for the scale of catastrophe that followed. In the words of Donald Kagan: “there would have been an Athenian expedition […], but there could not have been a disaster.”
The fleet set sail with three commanders: Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus (an experienced career soldier, perhaps selected to balance out the brashness of the two other young commanders). Each of the three had their own agenda: Nicias, naturally, desired to end the expedition quickly and cleanly by forcing a settlement between Selinus and Segesta; Alcibiades wished to gather allies on the island and then attack Selinus and Syracuse; Lamachus wanted to sail directly to Syracuse and attack the city directly, believing that this would catch them off guard and force their surrender. In the end, Lamachus sided with Alcibiades to settle the decision.
On their arrival, while waiting for their allies to gather, the Athenians failed to act decisively, losing the element of surprise and allowing the Syracusans to regain composure. Syracusan horsemen even rode up to the Athenian camp in the winter after they had arrived to taunt them for their inactivity.
Moreover, the importance of the cavalry force had been severely underestimated by the Athenians, who were lacking a substantial cavalry in return. This proved fatal for the expedition. Even when Athens’ hoplite force saw some success, they could not match the mobility of the opposing cavalry. Constant skirmishes started to wear away the Athenians’ confidence. Any attempt at siege warfare by surrounding the city walls was made impossible by the cavalry force. Indeed, Nicias wrote home the next summer after their arrival that “the besieger in name has become … the besieged in reality; as we are prevented by their cavalry from even going for any distance into the country.”
The Athenian force also suffered from a loss of command. Alcibiades’s enemies wanted to charge him for allegedly defacing the Hermai (statues of Hermes) and profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. They had waited until his, and the military’s, departure to call a vote on charging him, since they wanted to ensure the vote passed, and Alcibiades has substantial support amongst the military. Their motion was successful: Alcibiades was relieved of his command and recalled to Athens to stand trial. Thucydides disapprovingly writes that the Athenians were “arresting and imprisoning the best citizens upon the evidence of rascals.” This was doubly damaging. Firstly, the Athenian forces in Sicily lost a highly skilled general. Secondly, Alcibiades, fearing the death penalty, fled to Sparta and fed them inside information about Athens and its military plans.
The Athenian force in Sicily tried desperately to salvage their position. Under Demosthenes’s command, a large reinforcement fleet was sent to provide support, but this was too little, and far too late. Syracuse had received their own back-up – a force of hoplites from Sparta, led by Gylippus, who encouraged further allies from the rest of the island to join their cause.
Nicias, after the desertion of Alcibiades to Sparta and the death of Lamachus in battle, was now in sole command of the force in Sicily. He had never wanted this expedition to take place, and likely would have liked nothing more than to withdraw from the conflict and cut Athens’s losses. He became increasingly cautious, less confident now than ever before in his chances of salvaging the Athenian position. But, given the abject failure of the expedition, the extreme losses incurred and the waste of resources, he feared the judgement of the Athenian people should he retreat.
Therefore, he continued the mission, preferring to “meet his death at the hands of the enemy than of his fellow citizens.” But he severely misjudged the Syracusans’ force and, in a final battle in the Syracusan harbour, the entire Athenian expedition force was either killed or captured and enslaved. This amounted to 18,000 dead for Athens and their allies, and 7,000 captured.
The disaster of the Sicilian Expedition came from a combination of poor planning, a lack of swift and decisive decision-making, and the hubris of an overambitious and arrogant population who could not fathom the possibility of loss to their seemingly invincible empire. With such a blow dealt not only to Athens’s military capacity but also to their confidence in their city, this marked the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire, which eventually surrendered to Sparta in the spring of 404 B.C.
Thucydides, Rex Warner. History of the Peloponnesian War. Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, 1968.
Kagan, D., 1981. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Cornell University Press.