Girl washing near Reggio, Calabria,
When matters were thus settled in a preliminary manner, a period of peace and extraordinary prosperity began, which lasted nearly sixty years and which offers little of interest to the general reader, but which resulted in a vast development of art, literature, and general culture. Of course, men appeared from time to time whose personal influence rendered them dangerous to democracy. For their own safety the Syracusans introduced the law of petalism, corresponding almost exactly to the ostracism of the Athenians. Instead of the fragments of pottery used by the latter to vote the expulsion of a citizen, the Syracusans used the 'petals,' that is the leaves, of the olive tree, and the citizen for whom the greatest number of these were cast into the urns was obliged to exile himself from the city for five years, p100whereas the time of exile imposed by the Athenian ostracism was ten. As usual, however, the common people promptly made use of this method to get rid of every one with more than average intelligence, and the custom was abolished.
An extraordinary and not altogether unromantic attempt on the part of the Sicelians to regain the principal power in the island produced the only wars fought in this period. Ducetius, who suddenly appears as the Sicelian king, succeeded in raising a considerable force with which he dislodged the inhabitants of the newly founded city of Aetna and seized several other important points; but the Syracusans, though not friendly with the sufferers, looked upon their defeat as a slight upon Greeks in general, and gathering their allies, soon drove Ducetius to desperate straits. Seeing himself lost, he conceived the strange idea of throwing himself upon the mercy of his enemies. Under cover of a dark night he rode alone across the intervening country, entered the city at dawn and took sanctuary upon the altar in the market-place; the people assembled in multitude from all parts of the city, and in the presence of a vast throng the vanquished king declared that he gave up his leadership and all his possessions to the Syracusans. Immediately a great discussion arose. Some were for making an end of him at once, but more generous counsels prevailed, and as in the great revolution the tyrant Thrasybulus had p101been allowed to go his way in peace and security, so also now the Syracusans voted that Ducetius should go free, on condition, however, that he would exile himself to Corinth and promise faithfully to remain there during the rest of his life. He swore the required oath and departed, but he found means to elude the obligation; for it was in the interest of Greece to weaken the Greek power in Sicily if possible, and an opportune oracle, doubtless inspired by Corinthian gold, bade Ducetius return to Sicily and found a peaceful colony upon the shore known as 'the beautiful.' With the full consent of the Corinthians, the Sicelian king, who was in their eyes no better than a barbarian, sailed away with many ships and a great body of armed Greeks, and actually became the founder and father of a flourishing Hellenic colony on the north coast, where he was practically beyond the reach of his former enemies. The strange result of this move was that the people of Akragas regarded it as a stratagem of the Syracusans, gathered an army, attacked the latter, and were badly beaten, while neither party molested Ducetius in his new city. He lived about eight years more and died a natural death. After the defeat of the forces of Akragas, Syracuse became once more the leading power in the island, not without exciting jealousy among the other cities and stirring up the envy of the Athenians by her extraordinary prosperity and magnificence.
p102 The chief fault of the Greeks was a direct result of that gift of individuality, which has never belonged in the same degree to any other nation. They loved freedom as few people have loved it, but at no time in their history were they ever reconciled in any sort of unity or harmony. The wonderful talents displayed by men born in every part of the Greek world produced both a variety and an opposition of initiatives which were easily fostered into violent dissension by the competitive spirit that was so strong in the Hellenic race. All opponents, not Greeks, seemed unworthy to men who had vanquished the Carthaginians in the west, and made a laughing stock of Persia's gigantic attack from the east. If after the battles of Himera and Salamis the whole Greek nation, from Asia Minor to Western Sicily, and from Italian Naples to the shores of Africa, had united to effect the conquest of the known world, Europe, Asia, and Africa would have been theirs, and the Hellenes would have filled the part afterwards played by Rome. But their instinct threw them into competition with each other, rivalry led to strife, and strife to destruction; their patriotism was local pride, their loyalty was incapable of any broad interpretation, and they squandered in petty wars with each other the strength, the courage, and the military genius that should have made them the masters of mankind. If the famous line of Nathaniel Lee, 'When Greeks joined Greeks, then was the tug p103of war,' has passed into a proverb, the reason is that the saying is profoundly true. To them it seemed hardly worth while to fight except against each other. The long period of peaceful prosperity, during which the free democracies of Sicily rose to supremacy in culture as well as in wealth, was brought to an end by the jealousy of the Athenians, who seized the opportunity of a quarrel between Syracuse and Leontini to interfere in favour of the latter, which represented the party disaffected under the Syracusan leadership of the island; and this interference had its origin in the long struggle between the Dorian and Ionian Greeks which we call the Peloponnesian War, and which was practically fought to a finish in the harbour of Syracuse. It was the outbreak in Greece of the old enmity between the two great branches of the Hellenic race which revived the same almost forgotten hatred between the Sicilian cities.
At that time, taking free men and slaves together, the population of Sicily seems to have been about three millions and a half, all of whom, both the original Sicelians and Elymians, and the Phoenician colonists and traders, were so far Hellenized that they used the Greek language and practised Greek art, even in cities such as Panormus, which were not at all under Greek political domination. Sicily was already the granary of the Mediterranean, and just then was a commercial rather than a military power, p104possessing but few ships and a limited number of trained soldiers. On the whole, Syracuse and the principal Sicilian cities were more closely allied with the Peloponnesian confederation than with the Athenian state, and it was natural that a city like Leontini, hard pressed by the Syracusans, should turn to Athens for help, and that Athens should promptly grant the request, by sending a small expedition of twenty ships. The force was absurdly inadequate, the generalship of the leaders was lamentably insufficient, the result was a miserable defeat before Inessa, and the Athenians barely made good an ignominious retreat. A year later, when they had succeeded in seizing Messina, which was distracted by factions, the Syracusans made interest with the stronger party and in alliance with the men of Italian Locri drove the Athenians out again without difficulty, but lost the day in a sea-fight soon afterwards; and so the small warfare went on from year to year with very little result except to stir up old enmities between the Sicilian cities, some of which feared Syracuse, while some feared the possible domination of Athens; but their own general interests soon got the upper hand, and holding a peace conference in Gela, they were easily persuaded by the Syracusan Hermocrates that it was necessary to face Athens as a common foe. Therefore the Athenians retired altogether and left the island to itself for a time.
The great expedition under Alcibiades was made p105against Syracuse, and against Sicily generally, at the instigation and on the representations of Segesta. The latter city was at war with it neighbouring enemy Selinus, and being worsted, began, as most of the states did in those days, to appeal to its powerful friends for help, and first of all to Carthage. The Selinuntians, on their side, asked assistance from Syracuse, which was granted in a small measure. But Carthage would do nothing for Segesta, and the latter, allying itself with Leontini, always oppressed by Syracuse, sent an embassy to Athens, ever ready to interfere, making great promises of payment for the alliance. The Athenians took the precaution of sending representatives by sea to Segesta to find out whether there was any probability of obtaining the promised payment in case the required assistance were given. It was on this occasion that the Athenians became the victims of one of the most extraordinary and amusing frauds in history. Their ambassadors were received with unsurpassed splendour, and the Segestans, who were in reality very poor, succeeded in producing upon their guests the impression that they possessed vast wealth. Leading them up to the ancient temple of Aphrodite on Mount Eryx, above Drepanon, which is Trapani, they showed them what they called their war treasure, an immense collection of sacred vessels of fine workmanship and seemingly of precious metals, but of which a great number were in reality worthless imitations, apparently p106made for the occasion. The ambassadors were dazzled by the display and were doubtless told that the treasures were too sacred to be touched or examined. It appears certain that such objects as were really of any value had been borrowed from Sicelian cities that hoped to profit by the coming of the Athenians. The ambassadors were then entertained for some time in Segesta with the most profuse hospitality, and the sailors from their ships were feasted by the inhabitants. For these occasions every available dish and vessel of gold or p107silver was collected together, and as much plate as possible was borrowed from the Sicelians, all of which was sent secretly from house to house to make a fresh appearance at every feast. On a less magnificent scale the same was done for the entertainment of the soldiers and sailors, who drank the rich wines of Western Sicily from vessels of wrought silver for the first time in their lives, and formed a correspondingly high opinion of their hosts. The whole fraud was perfectly successful, and the ambassadors sailed away to tell the citizens of Athens that Segesta was one of the richest cities in the world and well able to pay for any assistance in war. To confirm the impression they had thus created the Segestans soon afterwards sent ambassadors to Athens bearing sixty talents of silver in bullion, borrowed from their friends, and asking for sixty ships; the silver was offered as payment in advance for the first month's service. What would have happened to Segesta if the Athenians had ever been in a position to enforce their demand for more, when they discovered how they had been imposed upon, may be left to the imagination of the reader; as it turned out, matters took another direction.
At that time Alcibiades was the representative in Athens of all that meant change, movement, and popular excitement. He had long dreamt of a conquest of Sicily, in which he saw magnificent opportunities for satisfying his boundless vanity; he was at that time p108thirty-five years of age, the handsomest, the bravest, the wittiest, and the most worthless of mankind. He advocated the Sicilian expedition with irresistible eloquence and claimed the right to command it, in a speech of which the brazen impudence is historical.
"It belongs to me," he said, "above all others, to be in command, and to tell the truth I consider myself worthy thereof. The very things for which I am so noisily attacked are not only an honour to my family and to myself, but also a benefit to my country. If the Greeks admit that Athens is greater than she ever was, this is in a measure due to the display I made as your representative at the Olympic Games, where I entered seven chariots, which no private citizen had ever done before, and won the first prize, and had the second and fourth places, and did everything in a manner suitable to such a victory. And if I give choruses and dances at home, my fellow-citizens of course envy me, but the strangers who come here see the outward appearance of greatness. The unfortunate do not share their misfortunes with others; why should a man who glories in his own prosperity set himself down to the level of common mankind?"
It seems strange that a man should carry his point by talking in such a strain, but of all men living Alcibiades knew his fellow-citizens best, and Nicias, the leader of the conservative party, made no attempt to oppose him on his own ground, but contented himself p109with making a fair statement of the possible advantages and evident risks which would attend the expedition, giving at the same time an opinion as to the manner in which it should be conducted.a He concluded by modestly offering to withdraw his claim to any command it any one understood the matter better than he. The result was that he and Alcibiades were appointed joint leaders with Lamachus, and preparations were at once made on a very great scale. Meetings succeeded meetings, speeches were made without end, and Athens went mad over the anticipated conquest and possession of one of the richest spots in the world. Nothing else was talked of for many weeks; strolling lecturers held forth upon the subject to delighted crowds at the corners of the streets, and drew imaginary maps of Sicily in the dust. It was clearly demonstrated and proved in the mind of every patriotic Athenian that as soon as Sicily was taken, Athens would take Italy, Carthage, and the western islands of the Mediterranean, and lord it over all the coasts of the sea to the very Pillars of Hercules.
In the final discussion from which I have quoted fragments of Alcibiades's speech, the latter, in order to persuade the people, spoke disparagingly of the Sicilian power and declared the conquest of the island an easy matter. Nicias, who disapproved of the expedition at heart and understood its real difficulty, did not hesitate to say that the force must consist of p110at least a hundred triremes, sixty being full war-ships and the rest transports, and five thousand heavy-armed troops, with all the light-armed men and followers which such an armament implied. He perhaps thought it probable that the Athenians would be discouraged from the enterprise by his demands; but if so, he has miscalculated their tempers. They granted without hesitation all that he asked, and would have given more also. For, as Thucydides tells us, the city had recovered from the effects of the plague and from the long war, and a new generation of young men had grown up, and there was abundance of money in the public treasury.
But Alcibiades had many enemies, who hated and envied him. They hit upon an unexpected way of injuring him, and he might have been ruined and even executed before the departure of the expedition, if only they had all agreed. There were in Athens a great many images, called Hermae, which were heads of different gods set on pillars of stone squared and tapering to the foot. In earlier times the head had always been that of Hermes, whence the name. These were set up in doorways both of private houses and of temples, in honour of the tutelary divinities, and were regarded with a certain degree of reverence. Some enemies of Alcibiades took advantage of a dark night to mutilate almost all these images throughout Athens, hacking the features of p111them to pieces, and in the midst of the excitement that followed they accused Alcibiades and his friends of having perpetrated the outrage in a drunken frolic, as a direct and wilful insult to the gods. Athens was in an uproar, the gods had been offended on the eve of the greatest expedition ever sent out, the mutilation of their images was an omen of shipwreck and defeat, and the Athenians trembled for their reputation, their lives, and their money. Great rewards were offered to any one who would give information against the impious evil-doers. In a moment Alcibiades was accused of a hundred crimes of sacrilege, the greatest of which was that of holding mock celebrations of the mysteries, and as for the Hermae, it was clear that he had broken them, because the great statue of Hermes near his own house was almost the only one that was untouched. Informers also swore that they had seen him and his friends doing the deed and had recognized them by the bright light of the moon, forgetting in broad daylight that the moon was new on that very night. Alcibiades demanded immediate trial, but his enemies feared the army, for he was beloved by the soldiers, and insisted that he should set sail with his command, yet hold himself ready to stand his trial when called upon to do so. He was obliged to submit to this iniquitous decision, and it being now midsummer, the great fleet set sail with solemn pomp and ceremony.
p112 Before they got under way the sixty men-of‑war and the forty transports were drawn up in line at the Piraeus, with all their flags and their standards in the morning sun; and a trumpet call rang out upon the air, high and clear, calling the host of warriors and seamen to offer the last libation and the final prayer. So the gold and silver goblets were filled with purple wine, and the dark red libations stained the dark blue sea, while the orisons of those who were departing and of all those who were gathered on the shore went up to the gods together. This being done, they weighed anchor at once, and the great array went forth upon the calm waters; and the ships raced with each other from the Piraeus to Aegina and then steered for Corcyra, where the allies were to muster with transports and provisions. Then, with all the allies, there were a hundred and thirty-four triremes besides two fifty-oared Rhodian galleys, with more than seven thousand fighting men, a noble army and fleet if one considers the size of the Athenian state, but an inadequate force for the conquest of a civilized country having three and a half million of inhabitants. Holm, however, whose authority is generally indisputable, reckons that with the crew of the fighting ships and the necessary number of squires for the heavy-armed soldiers, the whole company must have numbered about thirty-six thousand p113souls; and before the war was over Athens had sent more than sixty thousand men and two hundred warships to Sicily. Not a single vessel ever returned, and few indeed were the wretched stragglers who found their way back to Greece at last.
Eucalyptus trees near the site of Sybaris
One of the decisive struggles of the world was at hand, and there was to be no compromise from first to last; it was to be fought to the end, and the end was to be destruction. The greatest sea-power in existence was determined to get possession of the richest island in the sea, and the greatest Greek power, the power of the south, was united in self-defence. The news of the coming fight went out and rang along the shores of the Mediterranean and was carried inland by traders and merchants, and the p114whole civilized ancient world watched the contest with anxiety.
The Athenian command was divided between three men of entirely different natures, — the slow and obstinate Nicias, the boastful and ill-advised Alcibiades, and Lamachus, who was the best soldier of the three but the least influential by his political position. As matters developed, each proposed a different plan, according to his character.
The Athenian fleet, having met the allies at Corcyra, crossed the narrow part of the Adriatic to the Iapygian headland, and bringing to before one city after another endeavoured to induce the inhabitants to join in a general movement against Syracuse. But these efforts were vain, and the cities declared that they would afford no help, but would ultimately act in accordance with the decision of the other Greek cities of Italy. Reaching Rhegium, the Athenians were for the first time treated with some friendliness; for though the city would not admit them within its walls, it gave them permission to encamp on the shore without, and to establish a market whither the country people might bring them provisions for sale; and there the whole Athenian force established itself for a time. In the first place three ships were detached from the fleet and sent to Segesta in order to obtain some part of the great sum of money the latter city had promised. To the dismay and disappointment of the p115Athenians, the messengers soon returned bringing word that the Segestans could only raise the absurdly small sum of thirty talents. A discussion then arose between the three generals as to the conduct of the war. Nicias, who had been opposed to it from the beginning, advocated a naval demonstration against Selinus, during which efforts should be made to extract money from Segesta, failing which the city should at least be forced to provide a large quantity of provisions. These being obtained, he advised that the whole expedition should return to Athens.
Lamachus, who was the practical soldier, said that Syracuse was wholly unprepared for resistance, and that it would be an easy matter to fall upon it unexpectedly, gain a brilliant victory, and return home with vast spoil and sufficient honour.
Alcibiades, who was always the evil genius of his country when he did not appear as her deliverer, was bent upon permanent and extensive conquest. With his usual eloquence and more than accustomed insistence, he addressed the council of war, and proposed that before attacking Syracuse, the Sicilian cities should be systematically canvassed in order to secure an overwhelming body of allies for the great undertaking. He proceeded to exhibit the advantages of this course in the most brilliant and attractive light; his momentary great popularity with the troops gave him an unfair advantage over his colleagues, and the p116discussion ended in their reluctantly approving his design.
Had the situation been anything like what he supposed it to be, the plan might have succeeded; but he was in reality altogether ignorant of the state of Sicilian feeling. Many Sicilian cities were indeed envious of Syracuse, and the great body of the original Sicelians resented its supremacy; but none desired to fall under the rapacious rule of Athens, and the vast majority would have considered such subjection as calamitous to their country as a Carthaginian conquest.
The plan of campaign having been decided, a number of ships sailed southward along the Sicilian coast to Naxos and Catania, the only cities which were known to be unchangeably hostile to Syracuse; and Naxos indeed promised the Athenians such assistance as she could give, but in Catania there was a party that favoured the cause of the Syracusans and was strong enough to keep the Athenians out. Thereupon a squadron of ten ships was detached to make a sort of declaration of war in the very harbour of Syracuse, at a time when the appearance of the whole of the Athenian force there might have terminated the war in a week. Instead of this, however, the whole expedition returned to Catania and succeeded in seizing that city by a stratagem which caused the Syracusan party to depart secretly and in haste. But nothing of any importance was accomplished, and the hour of p117victory was squandered in puerile negotiations with Camarina and other small places.
At this juncture the Athenian senate, having agreed upon a plan for sentencing Alcibiades to death, sent a ship for him with orders to bring him back to stand his trial. Being fully aware of the danger to which he was exposed, he embarked upon his own vessel, under convoy of the Athenian man-of‑war, but cleverly slipped away from the latter under cover of the night and escaped to Sparta, after which he was in due course sentenced to death, in contumacy; and therewith he disappears from the history of the south, leaving behind him the evil he had done to the Athenian cause.
Nicias and Lamachus being now left together in command, the counsels of the former prevailed, and the whole fleet began to sail round Sicily by the north, striking a blow here and there, taking a few prisoners who were afterwards sold as slaves to raise money, and receiving at last the thirty talents which Segesta was able to give. They sailed on by the west and south, but a large body of the soldiers appear to have crossed the island by land to Catania. So more time was wasted which was of immense advantage to the Syracusans for making preparations.
Two years had passed since the first arrival of the Segestan ambassadors in Athens when the Athenians at last laid formal siege to Syracuse, nearly one-half p118of which time had been shamefully wasted on the one hand by the assailants and had been used with great profit by the assailed on the other. Some reference has already been made in these pages to the position of the city and the nature of the land adjoining it, but a more complete description is now necessary in order to understand the nature of the great struggle which took place there.
Let the name of Syracuse mean for us not only the p119city as it is, and the five cities that once composed it, or the two, with their suburbs, of which it consisted at the time of the Athenian invasion, but the whole, with the neighbouring land and including both the great and the small harbours; let it take in what the traveller can see below him and around him when he stands on the rampart of Epipolae, facing northwards first and then turning by his right till he faces south — one of the most wonderful sites in the whole world, consisting of two small peninsulas of gentle outline and of even height, extending outwards and towards each other like the claws of a crab and enclosing the great harbour between them, with the island of Ortygia across the entrance. The island was the beginning of the city, which was first founded there and afterwards bridged the narrow channel and grew out to Achradina, thence westwards to Tyche and Neapolis, then down through the Lysimeleian swamp and across the Anapus, the swift and silent stream where grows in rich profusion the papyrus, extinct in Egypt now and everywhere but here — and up to the Olympieum, due west of the harbour — spreading at last all round Plemmyrium to the sea again, to face its starting-point across the water; and in its great days the whole was •fourteen miles round about. But by great catastrophes and again by small degrees, in the alternating haste or slow delay of ruin, it has all shrunk back to the island, saving only a few newer buildings just on the mainland p120below Achradina; and now it may have come to life once more, to overgrow its long-buried destruction with all the profitable dulness of a modern commercial city. For the history of the south is not ended, and he who gazes at the most magnificent natural harbour in the Mediterranean, and then turns his eyes to the most fertile lands of Italy behind him, and upwards to the mountains stored with rich minerals, and who is able to forget his prejudice and see that though the Sicilians are a hot-blooded tribe, prone to use the knife and not averse to bloodshed, they are nevertheless a manly and a hard-handed race, fearing neither danger nor toil — he who judges these things at their value, understands that the future holds some good thing for such a country and for such men. Moreover, guessing at what Syracuse was in the past, he can understand also why the Athenians so much coveted it for themselves that they fought for it on the spot for a whole year, to their utter ruin and destruction.
Syracusan coin with the head of Arethusa
Of all Sicilian cities, Syracuse was the richest in pure water, and even now, though the old aqueducts are in part destroyed, there is such abundance in this respect as few cities would not envy. Arethusa first, the matchless and mysterious spring, rises almost from the sea under Ortygia, within the harbour. It is certain that the p121water passes in some way under the sea, but whence it comes will perhaps be never known. The Greeks said that it was Alpheius, the river of Arcadia, which plunged into a mountain chasm and disappears from sight.b The lonely nymph of the Acroceraunian mountains, chased by the strong river god, sent up a piteous prayer to Artemis and sank beneath the stream; and the goddess brought her back to the sun by the Syracusan bay, and Shelley's magic voice has sung her song. Science conjectures that the mysterious water rises in the neighbouring hills, in a spur of Thymbris, and, flowing under Achradina, passes below the small harbour and beneath Ortygia to its rising place. We do not surely know, for it is a mystery still, and a wonder. At this spring Nelson watered his fleet when he anchored in the harbour on his way to fight the battle of the Nile. It is well cared for now, and the Syracusans have planted the lovely papyrus in the central pool. Then beside Arethusa there were three great aqueducts, and a fourth, the greatest of all, which draws its water from the higher part of the river Anapus, •eighteen miles away. Southward, too, in the Plemmyrian peninsula, I myself have explored a part of a great subterranean channel which I do not find mentioned in books, cemented for the flow of abundant water and having openings at intervals for the air; but in some later age this was used as a catacomb, and rough cells were hewn here and there in the walls. It is quite certain p122that the united waters that supplied the old city in Greek days would fill a river.
It would have been strange if the Syracusans had felt much apprehension, after their enemies had wasted so much time in futile excursions along the coast and in objectless waiting in their camp at Catania. Bands of Syracusan riders traversed the country in all directions, and cantering up to the Athenian lines, inquired sarcastically whether their inactive foes had come to restore the rights of the Leontini or to settle as colonists. At last Nicias decided to act. He began by sending a treacherous message to inform the Syracusans that if they would attack the camp at Catania before sunrise on a certain day, a large number of the Athenians would then be within the city, that the party which favoured Syracuse would shut and hold the gates, and that it would thus be an easy matter to destroy the Athenians who were left in the camp. The Syracusans believed the message and appeared at the appointed time, only to find the camp deserted and the Athenians gone, for they had sailed away on the preceding evening and were entering the harbour of Syracuse at the very time when the Syracusan cavalry reached the empty camp.
At the last minute the city was therefore unprepared for the arrival of the armament. The Greeks had already carefully observed the harbour when their ten ships had entered it to make the declaration of war, and p123they now took advantage of the knowledge gained on that occasion to establish themselves in a position which was all but impregnable. Without approaching the inner side of Ortygia, they sailed directly across the harbour, landed to the southward of the mouth of the Anapus, and immediately occupied the heights of Olympieum. They then proceeded to beach their vessels upon the sand, and according to the custom of those times erected a strong palisade to protect the ship-yard from a land attack. Finally they destroyed the bridge over the Anapus by which the so‑called Helorine road crossed from the swamp to the Olympieum. They thus commanded the principal height in the bay, were at liberty to launch or beach their ships as they pleased, and were protected from the city by the narrow but very deep and rapid stream. They could accept or refuse battle as they pleased.
The Syracusans were bitterly disappointed to find that the enemy had left Catania, and fearing the worst they rode furiously back to the city. The Athenians were already encamped and intrenched and the bridge was destroyed. Crossing the stream at a highest point, probably on the road to Floridia, the Syracusans rode round the great spring of Kyane, and skirted the hill of the Olympieum on the west side till they reached the camp. They then endeavoured to lure the Athenians out to fight, but without success, and having failed in this first attempt they withdrew, crossed the road that led to Helorus, and bivouacked for the night.
p124 The battle took place on the following day, and Thucydides describes it with graphic clearness. The Athenians drew up their forces before their camp, taking the centre themselves, with the Argives on the right and the rest of the allies on the left. They divided their forces into two portions, half of which were drawn up in advance, eight deep, while the rest were formed in a hollow square behind them close to the tents. Opposite them, and therefore facing the sea, the Syracusans placed their heavy infantry in a line sixteen deep, having their twelve hundred horse on their right towards the Olympieum, and the road, which they had again crossed, being behind them.
Before the Athenians began the attack, Nicias made a short speech to the soldiers, in which he did not rise above the level of his usual dulness on such occasions. It appears that even at the last moment the Syracusans did not really believe that there was to be a battle, and that some of them even rode away to the city to their homes. Nevertheless, when the time came, they took up their arms and advanced to meet the Athenians. The stone-throwers, slingers, and archers skirmished on each side, driving each other backwards and forwards. Under cover of the heavy infantry the priests in their robes and fillets brought up victims to sacrifice on the field of battle, and at last the trumpets sounded the general charge of the heavy-armed men on each side. So they rushed upon each other, the Syracusans p125to fight for their lives, their country, and their freedom, the Athenians for the hope of conquest and wholesale robbery.
The forces met with the shock of heavy arms and fought savagely hand to hand, the Athenians with the coolness and steady fence of veteran soldiers, the Syracusans with fitfully furious energy; and when the combat was at its height all along the line the sky grew suddenly dark and a great storm burst upon the field with thunder and lightning and much rain. The experienced Athenians laughed at the tempest, but the Syracusans were suddenly chilled and disheartened; the Argives drove in their left wing, the Athenian centre forced back the other, and in a few moments their lines were broken. Yet the Athenians could not pursue them far, for the Syracusan cavalry, which had not suffered, charged again and again and held them in check. So they returned to their camp, and collecting the richest armour from the slain, set up a trophy after their manner; but the Syracusans, though they had been defeated, retired in good order, and sent a garrison up to the temple of Zeus on the Olympieum to protect the treasure there before they returned to the city. The Athenians, however, made no attack upon the sacred building, and immediately proceeded to burn their dead upon a funeral pile. On the following day, under a truce, they restored to the Syracusans their dead to the number of about two hundred and sixty and collected p126the ashes and bones of their own, who numbered not more than fifty; and thereupon they launched their ships again and sailed back to Catania. They spent the rest of the winter there and in Naxos, after ascertaining that Messina was too cold. Nicias seemed incapable of following up an advantage, and moreover it was winter, and the Greeks seemed to have considered it impossible to fight successfully, even in such a climate as that of Sicily, except in the summer months. The consequence was that the Syracusans had ample time to remedy the defects in their organization which had been evident in the first engagement; they elected three competent generals, despatched envoys to Corinth and Sparta, and built a great wall of defence on the mainland between the city and Epipolae. They also erected palisades along the beach wherever it was easy to land and built forts at Megara on the north, and on the Olympieum.
Meanwhile Alcibiades had established himself in Sparta, and was exciting his old enemies the Lacedaemonians to make a general attack upon Athens, by way of revenging himself for having been unjustly sentenced to death.
"And now," he said, addressing the Lacedaemonians at the conclusion of a long speech, "I entreat that you may not think the worse of me because I am now strenuously attacking my own country on the side of its bitterest enemies, though I once was called a p127patriot; for though I am an exile from Athens by the villainy of those who banished me, I am not one here, if you will hearken to my words; and the party that was really hostile to me was not you, who only hurt your enemies, but rather they who compelled their friends to become their foes. I was a patriot while I safely enjoyed my civil rights; I am none now, since I am wronged, for I am turning against the land that is still my country, and I am recovering that country which is mine no more."
The speech was well timed, the man's reputation in Greece was enormous, and the advice he gave the Spartans was diabolically wise. He planted a thorn in the side of Athens which weakened her resources and hastened her defeat in Sicily, if it did not directly cause it, and he taught his former fellow-citizens and present enemies to believe that he alone could save them from destruction; and besides following his advice in other respects the Spartans deliberated with Corinth about sending help to the Sicilians. Meanwhile, the Athenians had sent a trireme to Athens, asking for money and for cavalry, without which they felt unable to meet the Syracusans on equal terms; and when the spring was come, the Athenian force did some damage to the Sicilian crops near Syracuse, but gained no signal advantage. Athens sent them money, but only sent two hundred and fifty horsemen, without horses, supposing that they could be mounted in Sicily. p128They afterwards got about four hundred more cavalry from Segesta and Naxos, and from the Sicelians.
The Syracusans had in the meantime finished their wall, completely enclosing the city with its suburbs towards Epipolae, from the harbour to the sea on the north, and taking in the theatre, the ridge above it, and the quarter called Temenites, from a portion of it sacred to Apollo, as well as the extensive inhabited suburb called Tyche, the whole being a gigantic piece of work, but extremely necessary for defence. It must have followed very nearly the modern road by which one drives from the esplanade northwards, and out of which, to the right, the narrower road leads, at right angles, to the Latomia dei Cappuccini. The Syracusans knew that when they were at last besieged the Athenians would attempt a systematic circumvallation, and try to blockade them by land and sea and starve them out; for in those days of small armies, the besiegers rarely ran the risk of losing a number of men in an assault. The Carthaginians alone, who did not fight themselves, but employed mercenaries altogether, sacrificed men with the recklessness familiar in modern warfare. From the great wall they had built, the Syracusans hoped to throw out counter-walls at right angles to westward, so as to hinder the Athenian works. Before the siege was over the Syracusans alone had built •seven and a half miles of fortified stone wall, a fact which gives some insight p129into ancient methods of attack and defence. But even after building the first great wall, the Syracusans saw that it was more or less commanded by the still higher ground of Epipolae, which means the upper town, and they selected for the defence of that place a band of six hundred chosen heavy-armed men, who p130afterwards distinguished themselves in many feats of courage.
Map of Syracuse B.C. 414‑413.
The siege now began in earnest. The Athenians did not bring their fleet into Syracuse at first, but anchored in the small but safe natural harbour of Thapsus, just north of the Syracusan promontory, and surprised Epipolae while the Syracusans were reviewing their troops in the meadow below. After some desperate fighting, in which the leader of the six hundred was killed, the Athenians remained in possession of the high ground, whence they descended after the usual truce for burying the dead, and offered battle before the new wall. But the Syracusans would not face them, and the Athenians then proceeded to fortify the heights, constructing a storehouse there for their baggage and money. They had previously provided themselves with an immense supply of bricks and building tools, which they brought up from Thapsus, and the road they built, some of which is hewn in the rock, is still distinctly traceable. They hastened to begin the tedious work of circumvallation by constructing a circular fort of which the nearest point was •about half a mile from the Syracusan wall. Not a trace remains of those works. The fort was intended as starting-point from which to build a fortification north and south. Such was the extraordinary rapidity with which they worked that the Syracusans hastily determined upon a sally that p131ended in a cavalry engagement on the broken ground, in which the Athenians ultimately succeeded in bringing up a detachment of infantry and got the better of the fight.
It was but a small affair, however, and the Athenians had no sooner begun to build their wall northwards from the central point, at the same time collecting stones, lumber, and other material along the projected line, than the Syracusans set to work to build a counter-work due west in order to intersect that of the Athenians. The Athenian fleet being still at Thapsus, the Athenians were obliged to bring up their provisions and materials from that place to Epipolae by land. The Athenians next succeeded in cutting off at least one of the aqueducts which supplied the city with water. Then, one day, when the Syracusans had completed their first counter-wall and had retired within their tents during the noonday heat, some having even returned to the city, the Athenians suddenly sent a strong picked force at full speed to seize the counter-wall, moving up the rest of their army in two divisions at the same time. The counter-wall appears to have been at first lightly constructed as a sort of stockade with stones heaped up against it, and the Athenian advance guard had no difficulty in taking possession of it and in tearing it down. The Athenians then carried off the material to their own lines and erected a trophy, which they p132did on every occasion when they had obtained the smallest advantage. Works and counter-works were now carried on with the greatest energy for some days, and when the Athenians considered that their works were sufficient they ordered their fleet to sail round from Thapsus into the great harbour, whither they themselves descended, crossing the swamp in the firmest part by laying planks upon the mud. And here again a short and bloody engagement was fought near the river Anapus, and the Syracusans succeeded in driving in the picked three hundred of the Athenian van, which produced something like a panic among the heavy-armed troops upon whom they fell back. Lamachus, seeing the danger, came up at full speed with a few archers and a body of Argives, crossed a ditch, and being followed only by a few men, was surrounded and killed, the Syracusans carrying off his body in triumph just as the main Athenian force came up.
Seeing from a distance that the Athenians had lost the bravest and most energetic of their officers, those of the Syracusans who had at first been driven back to the city took heart and came back to charge the Athenians once more, and destroyed •a thousand feet of a new outwork built by the enemy upon the heights of Epipolae. But within the lines Nicias himself lay ill, and he at once ordered his attendants to set fire to all the timber collected at that point so as p133to defend himself by a wall of flame, for he had no soldiers with him. So the Syracusans withdrew as the Athenians were bringing up reënforcements. At that moment the fleet from Thapsus entered the great harbour, and the whole Syracusan army immediately retired into the city.
Matters now looked very badly for the besieged. The Athenians continued their works unhindered, and built a double wall down to the harbour not far from the city gate. From all parts of Italy provisions began to arrive in great quantities, and the Sicelians, seeing that the invaders were getting the advantage, offered themselves as allies. The Syracusans had received no answer from Sparta, and supposing themselves deserted by their friends lost hope altogether, for they were completely cut off from the mainland by the circumvallation, and the Athenian fleet had destroyed their communications by sea. They began to discuss terms of capitulation, and to treat with Nicias, who held the sole command after the death of Lamachus. There was confusion within the city, they had lost confidence in their generals and chose others, they were entirely dependent upon Arethusa for their water, which therefore had to be carried •nearly three miles to supply the furthest extremity of Achradina, and its clear that before long there would be a scarcity of provisions.
But at the very moment when despair was settling p134upon the Syracusans help was at hand. The Spartans had despatched Gylippus to the aid of the beleaguered city, and he was already off the Italian coast. He was a man of brilliant resources and untiring energy, a most complete contrast in mind and character to the hesitating but obstinate Nicias who was soon to be his opponent. The latter had heard of his expedition and looked upon him with scorn, considering him to be rather than a pirate than a general, for he had only about fifteen ships and no great number of soldiers. But he possessed in abundance the military genius which was wholly lacking in Nicias, and nothing else was necessary to turn the fortunes of war.
After experiencing violent storms and being obliged to refit in Tarentum, instead of making directly for Syracuse, by which course he would probably have been obliged to fight the Athenians at sea, he sailed round by the north and picked up considerable auxiliary forces in Himera, Selinus, and Gela. Meanwhile Corinth had sent more ships, and the one which put to sea last of all, but was the fastest sailor, reached Syracuse first, just in time to prevent the Syracusans from capitulating. Gylippus appears to have left his ships either at Himera or at Gela. By forced marches and with less than three thousand men he arrived suddenly under the heights of Epipolae. The Syracusans meanwhile came out in force and effected a junction with the army of rescue. A better general p135than Nicias would have prevented the enemy from obtaining such an advantage, and it proved his ruin. The united forces now seized the heights, and the Athenians formed to give them battle. Gylippus sent forward a herald with a daring message to the Athenians. They might choose, he said, whether they would depart from Sicily within five days or remain where they were and fight to an issue. The Athenians returned no answer and sent the herald back with contempt. Nicias had chosen, and his choice had fallen upon his own destruction. Gylippus boldly seized the Athenian fort on the height and slew the garrison, and on the same day the Syracusan a captured one of the Athenian triremes. The Syracusans then set to work upon building an enormous wall, •over two miles in length, from the city right across Epipolae, thus effectually shutting off the Athenians from the sea on the north side.
Nicias now made that mistake which has been considered to be his greatest by military men. He wasted time and labour in fortifying the Plemmyrium, south of the great harbour, and he transferred thither the greater part of his stores, regardless of the scanty water supply in the newly occupied region. By this time also the other Corinthian vessels were known to be rapidly approaching, so that Nicias was obliged to send out twenty armed vessels to cruise in search of his assailants.
p136 Gylippus experienced a slight reverse, for he attacked the Athenians in the narrow space between their works and his, where the Syracusan cavalry had no room to manoeuvre and was consequently useless. Once more the Syracusans were driven back with slaughter, and the Athenians erected another trophy. Undaunted by this check, however, Gylippus rallied his men with an energetic speech, continued the works actively, and waited for a more favourable opportunity. It was not long in coming. Gylippus succeeded in giving battle with both walls ended; the Syracusan cavalry charged the Athenian flank at furious speed, while the heavy infantry engaged the centre. The Athenians were completely routed, and during the night that followed the whole Syracusan force worked at the wall. In the morning it had reached the Athenian works and crossed them, and all hope of completely investing the city was lost.
Fortune now favoured the Syracusans in every way. The Corinthian vessels eluded the flying squadron which Nicias had sent out to cruise for them, and entered the harbour unexpectedly, before the Athenians could get ships under way to oppose them. Reënforced by the arrival of these allies, the Syracusans completed their works, and began to get their own ships ready for sea and to exercise their crews. Gylippus then made a journey through Sicily to raise more p137troops and money from the friendly cities, and sent messages to Sparta and Corinth asking for further help, for the Athenians were sending to Athens to make a similar request.
Indeed, the letter written by Nicias and read aloud in Athens by the secretary of state is a confession of powerlessness, if not of defeat, and is, moreover, a singularly honest statement of the situation; for he frankly says therein that from being the besieger he was become the besieged, that his ships were leaky and could neither be beached nor hove down for caulking, in the face of the enemy's fleet; that it was becoming extremely difficult and dangerous to get supplies of food, either from Italy or the island, and that he himself was almost helpless from nephritis.
Both parties, Corinth and Sparta on the one hand, and Athens on the other, responded in the most liberal way to these appeals. The Athenians sent ten ships at once, and sixty later on under Demosthenes, with several thousand men; and Gylippus having raised large reënforcements in Sicily, the armies on both sides began to assume formidable proportions. At this time, Demosthenes not having yet arrived, Gylippus planned an engagement which, though only in part successful, ultimately decided the fortunes of the war. A part of the Syracusan fleet lay in the small harbour outside of Ortygia and north of it; the rest were anchored in the great harbour within a sort of defence made by driving p138huge piles into the bottom, leaving •about twenty feet projecting above water, with a narrow entrance. The leader determined upon a general battle, by land and sea; the two divisions of the Syracusan fleet were to sail round the opposite sides of Ortygia and effect a junction at the mouth of the harbour, where the Athenian ships would of course meet them, and, as Gylippus hoped, would be caught between them and easily destroyed. Meanwhile, he himself intended to march his army round the bay and storm the forts on Plemmyrium. It was clear that if both movements succeeded, the Athenians would be caught in the harbour like mice, with no possibility of escape.
The operation began under cover of the night, of course, and the engagement opened at daybreak. The Athenians, warned, perhaps, of their danger, succeeded in getting thirty-five ships out of the harbour in time to engage the outer Syracusan division in open water, while, with twenty-five more, the inner squadron of the Syracusans was kept at bay. The outer squadron forced its way through the Athenian ships, instead of driving them in, or sinking them, and was caught, as they should have been. The fighting continued in the harbour, and eleven of the Syracusans' vessels were sunk and most of their crews killed. The remainder of the fleet withdrew inside the stockade of piles, badly damaged. The Athenians only lost three vessels. Nevertheless, the result of the day was a victory for p139Syracuse. Gylippus had carried out his plan on land without a check. He had seized Plemmyrium, with its three forts, its vast stores of grain and lumber, and the considerable treasure which was deposited there. He razed one of the forts to the ground and placed strong garrisons in the other two. The Syracusans now held every point, all round the bay, from the city to Plemmyrium, the Athenians were driven back to their old camp below the Olympieum, opposite the entrance of the harbour, and, being completely hemmed in by land, were obliged to fight their way in and out of the harbour in order to maintain communications and receive supplies. Their destruction was now clearly a question of time.
They exerted every energy to prevent the safe arrival of the Corinthian reënforcements, and made desperate attempts to destroy the ships anchored within the stockade. To this end they moved up to it one of their largest ships, a vessel of ten thousand talents' burden, equal to about two hundred and fifty tons by our measurement, fitted with cranes and windlasses that were protected by armoured screens; and making fast ropes to the piles as far below water as possible, they hove them out and towed them away. There were divers among the Athenians who, for a reward, went down with saws and sawed some of the piles off at such a depth that the stumps could not injure the vessels; and the Syracusans had also purposely driven p140in stakes at certain places, below the surface, that the Athenian ships might run upon them, but these also the divers succeeded in sawing away. Now no man can work at sawing below water for more than thirty or forty seconds at a time without coming up for breath, so that the divers must have worked many hours, and perhaps a whole day, at cutting through a single pile. The Syracusans, however, were not slow to replace those which the Athenians removed or destroyed, and the latter gained no advantage in that way, while the difficulty of obtaining provisions increased daily, and the malarious fever caused by the Lysimeleian swamp in the summer months made ravages in the Athenian camp.
At this juncture the fleet commanded by Demosthenes appeared off Syracuse in magnificent array. Seventy-three galleys sailed down in even order, their signals streaming on the wind, their richly adorned and painted bows rising high above the blue water. From the decks gleamed the shields and helmets of five thousand heavy-armed men, and as they neared Ortygia, soldiers and seamen raised the song of war and the loud Grecian trumpets blared out triumphant notes.
Street of ancient tombs,
p143 Nicias had expected nothing better, but yet he would not hear of a general retreat, and Demosthenes, having failed in his first enterprise, attempted no further action for some time. At last, as fresh reënforcements strengthened the Syracusan army, Nicias reluctantly consented to withdraw and gave the order to embark the troops. But on that very night, the moon, being full, was totally eclipsed,c and not only Nicias himself, but all the Greeks with him, were paralyzed with fear by what they considered a terrific portent. After consulting a diviner, Nicias declared that the army could not embark until the moon had completed another revolution. He was approaching his destruction, and even nature seemed to conspire with ill fortune to ruin him. In total inactivity he passed his time in sacrificing to the gods, while his diviner consulted the auguries presented by the victims. His ships lay idly at anchor, their seams opening under the blazing sun; his disheartened soldiers made no attempt to prevent the Syracusans from hemming them in; hundreds died of the malarial sickness spread by the pestilential swamp. The Syracusan fishermen and boatmen pulled out to the men-of‑war and jeered at them, offering them fight. A boy, Heraclides, the son of a great Syracusan house, ventured in a skiff close under an Athenian vessel that was unmoored, and reviled the captain amid the laughter of the other boys. Furious at being insulted by a child, the officer manned the p144oars and gave chase. Instantly ten Sicilian galleys, now always ready for fight, put out to save the lad, others followed, and a sharp engagement ensued in which the Syracusans did considerable damage to the Athenian vessels and slew a general and a number of men.
The Syracusans lost no time in completely blocking the entrance of the harbour, after this success, and Nicias was reluctantly driven to fight where starvation and death by fever were the only alternatives. He embarked the best of his heavy infantry, and chosen detachments of archers and spearmen, manning a hundred and ten vessels, and he marshalled the rest of his army on the shore to await the event.
It was the end. The swift Syracusan ships pulled out in wide order, provided with their catapults, and with vast numbers of stones which could be discharged terrible effect at short range, and against which the Athenians had no missiles but darts and arrows. The Athenian fleet was so crowded together that the ships could barely advance, and were unable to execute any manoeuvre; the Syracusans, on the contrary, could charge, turn, and retire as they pleased; from the shore and from the city a hundred thousand spectators watched the struggle for life or death. Driven together upon each other, rammed and battered by their assailants, the Athenian ships sank one by one with the living and the dead together, and p145as the sun declined to the west what had been a battle became but a universal massacre; at evening the Athenian fleet was totally destroyed, and no alternative remained for the survivors ashore but to cut their way through the Syracusan lines in a hopeless attempt to escape by land. Gylippus would have fallen upon them in their camp without delay, but the Syracusans, in wild rejoicing at their great victory, could not be induced to postpone a universal feast. Hermocrates, however, whose counsels and ready wit had helped his countrymen throughout the war, sent a treacherous message to Nicias, warning him that every pass was held and every point of the works completely manned, and he was deceived and waited for the morning. Then indeed the Syracusans, having feasted and rested, went out and held the whole line during all that day and the following night. At last the Athenians, still forty thousand strong, began to move, going up from their camp with tears and loud lamentations, and leaving their sick and wounded behind them. They broke a passage through the lines indeed, but the whole Syracusan force was upon them, flanking them continually, following them, and slaying them like sheep as they struggled hopelessly and almost without food through the valley towards Floridia. Eight days the massacre lasted, until there was no hope, and the remnant of the greatest army of that age surrendered unconditionally p146to Spartan Gylippus. Some say that Demosthenes and Nicias killed themselves, and this is more likely, but others say that the Syracusans stoned them to death. Then the Syracusans dressed those tall trees that still grow by the river for miles, with the arms of their fallen foes, making blood-stained trophies all the way; and they plucked leaves and autumn flowers and made themselves garlands for their helmets and adorned their horses too; and thus marched back in a glorious triumph, driving their prisoners before them; for the war was over, and of all the vast armament that had come against Syracuse not one vessel was ever to return to Greece, and not one man had escaped to bear arms or to lift a hand against the victorious city, but all were dead or slaves. There was not even one to bring the frightful news to Athens, and it was late in the autumn when a travelling merchant carelessly told the story to a barber in the Piraeus, supposing that all Greece knew it. Thus ended the great Athenian expedition, and thus was Alcibiades revenged.
Forty thousand men had left the Athenian camp to begin the retreat. After the battle about seven thousand prisoners remained alive. They suffered a hideous condemnation; let any one who wishes to understand their fortunes go down into the great quarries of Syracuse and see for himself; for, saving that the quarries are larger now than they were then and full of trees p147and flowers, they are the same in their shape and in their appalling isolation. They are still called the Latomie, the 'places of stone cutting,'d and the tale of what once happened in them is told still, handed down perhaps without a break, through the changing generations of many races of inhabitants, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards, and Italians. They are situated on an irregular line which leads eastward from the one nearest to the theatre, across Achradina to the last and most extensive of all, called the Latomia dei Cappuccini, which is very near the sea. In all that region the soil is thin but very rich, and below it the yellowish white stone lies in a solid mass, perhaps hundreds of feet deep. Straight down from the surface the stone has been quarried to depth of •from eighty to a hundred feet, making sheer walls of rock on every side, so that the only means of descent is by wooden ladders, and neither man nor beast can scale the height without help from above.
Latomia dei Cappuccini, Syracuse
Below, it is all an enchanted garden now; two thousand and three hundred years ago it was a bare quarry of white stone, strewed with stone chips and stone dust. By day the sun beat down into it, with the glare of the unpitying sky, and was reflected from its sides, and the rock radiated an intolerable heat; at evening the upper air, suddenly chilled at sunset, rushed down and filled it with an icy dampness. A furnace in summer, bitterly cold in winter, a fever hole in the autumn rains, a hell at all times save in the spring, p148the Syracusans found it ready to their hand to be a place of torture and death for their beaten enemies. Therefore they let them down into by the cranes that served to lift the stone, being seven thousand men in all; and lest it should be said that they had starved prisoners to death, they sent to them rations, for every man half a pint of water every day, or very little p149more, and twice as much of raw barley or other grain; and this was only half the measure of food that was given to common slaves in those days, and the slaves had water in abundance.
Path under rocks,
When seventy days had gone by, the Syracusans took out those of the living who were not Athenians, p150and sold them for slaves, many being not worth a day's purchase; but they left the Athenians to suffer a little longer, and when at last they brought them up, they heated branding-irons red hot, and branded them all in the forehead with the mark of the Syracusan horse, and sold them as slaves for the public benefit. Yet amid so much shadow of cruelty there is one redeeming light. The Syracusans loved the verses of the tragic poet Euripides above all other poetry, and in the great theatre, carved with its high ranks of seats from the solid rock in the hollow side of the mountain, they had been used to sit enthralled and listen to the 'Medea' and the 'Alcestis' and the other great plays, through long summer afternoons, when the sun was behind them, and behind the mountains. Among the Athenian captives there were many who could repeat and sing long passages from Euripides' plays; and these men were favoured far above the others when they were sold as slaves, so that some of them were even freed for the poet's sake, and long afterwards went back and found him and thanked him, branded though they were, for life and liberty. Nothing we know of to tell, and no story that a man might build up with the material of imagination, could show as this does the difference between that age and ours. There was divinity in the poet then, and his inspiration was from a god, deserving to be worshipped and revered as a heavenly gift; and those who had skill to sing his words, as he would p151have them sung, were sharers in his genius and blessed with a talent half divine, which others recognized and loved.
There is a sort of taste in nations which belongs to their young days, when they have not done their best, a living and creative taste that is closely akin to hope and aspiration; and there is another sort that comes with decadence and is satisfied more with the past than with the present or the future, that knows neither the elation of hope nor the satisfaction that lies in creation, but which is easily cast down, sad, self-tormenting, and as often a source of pain as of pleasure. So the degenerate Sybarite writhed upon a ruffled rose leaf p152and ached at the sight of a man digging hard ground, and the modern exquisite utters poor little cries of distress at the sound of a false note or the glare of a false colour.
In those days Sicily was in the stronger, brighter, earlier stage of life, and it would have asserted itself in a vast artistic productiveness after the failure of the Athenian invasion, if that event had been followed by a period of peace. The first impulse of the Syracusans and of the other free Greek cities of Sicily was to build temples and to raise up statues to the gods, in gratitude for the greatest victory ever won by Greeks over Greeks; and as peace followed war, and plenty grew up where famine had followed the destruction of crops, the hearts of the people were lightened and the song of rejoicing filled the land. While the law-givers they chose at home were occupied in framing a code that would not disgrace a modern civilization, Sicilian fleets and Sicilian soldiers sailed eastward to the islands and even to the shores of Asia Minor, paying back war with war, allied with the Peloponnesians for the final destruction of Athens, the common enemy, and bringing home shiploads of treasure and booty. Could this condition of things have lasted, there is no telling to what heights the prosperity of Sicily might have risen in a few years. But the old causes were at work to produce new disasters; the Athenians had invaded the island ostensibly to right the wrongs inflicted upon p153Segesta by Selinus and on Leontini by Syracuse; in the terrific struggle with Syracuse, Selinus had been more than half forgotten, and one year's crop had not been sown and reaped before those very circumstances renewed themselves which had led to the destruction of a great fleet and of sixty thousand men. The Selinuntians fancied that since Athens had fallen they could harass their enemies at their pleasure, and boldly crossing the border they made havoc of the Segestan country. Now the land subject to Segesta lay in a broad tract between the Phoenician colonies of Panormus and of Lilybaeum, and a free and safe passage across was essential to the commerce of both, the distance by sea being far greater and the voyage not always free from danger. It was therefore to the interest of Carthage that Segesta, which had always been friendly to her, should not be overrun by the Selinuntians who had always been her enemies, and when Segesta appealed to her for help as it had appealed to Athens some six years earlier, a ready assistance was granted on interested grounds. The despatching of a few thousand men to help the oppressed state had the natural result of sending Selinus of Syracuse for assistance in its turn, and Syracuse promised it readily, not dreaming of the magnitude of the undertaking. Carthage, mindful of the ignominious defeat suffered at the hands of the Syracusans in Himera seventy years earlier, and dreading lest, since Athens was fallen, Syracuse should p154obtain the empire of the Mediterranean, put forth all her strength and began to raise an enormous army.
In the spring of the year 409 B.C. sixty Carthaginian men-of‑war convoyed no less than fifteen hundred small vessels from Carthage to Lilybaeum, carrying an army of something like two hundred thousand foot-soldiers and four thousand cavalry, together with an immense supply of war material and siege engines. At the head of this formidable force was the grandson of Hamilcar, who had perished in his own sacrifice at Himera. This was Hannibal, the second of the name who appears in history, and who is said to have sworn a solemn oath to avenge his grandsire. Landing on the headland of Lilybaeum, he at once began to lay waste the country, and moving rapidly forwards, attacked Selinus itself with all the energy which Nicias had lacked. He fell upon the city from the north; six iron-headed battering rams were brought to make a breach in the walls, six lofty towers, which overtopped the fortifications, slung masses of stone into the city, while slingers and archers picked off the defenders one by one. Nevertheless, the people defended themselves courageously, trusting to the speedy arrival of help from Syracuse. The young men fought, the old provided them with fresh weapons and missiles, and the women brought food and drink to the combatants. But Hannibal promised the soldiers the whole plunder of the city, and the siege was prosecuted p155with surprising energy. The men fought in watches and by turns, marching up to relieve each other with trumpet call and war-cry. Day and night the battering rams, hanging in their frames by iron chains, pounded the walls with the sound of unceasing thunder. A breach was broken, and Hannibal's Campanian mercenaries charged in; but as their need grew greater the defenders fought more desperately, and the first attack was repulsed with frightful slaughter. Messengers rode for life and death to Akragas and Gela and Syracuse, bearing the news of their city's supreme need. But it was too late. The battering rams still pounded at the wall, and still the catapults hurled large stones from the towers; the breach was widened and held by the enemy, while still the defenders fought like madmen and looked eastward for help through nine long days. Driven back from the breach at last, as a great cry of woe went up from their women, they defended themselves to the end. They threw up barricades of stones, fighting from street to street; the old men, the wounded, the women and the children, climbed to the roofs and dashed down stones and tiles upon the Carthaginians. But at last it was over and the city was won. Then fire and the sword did the rest, for Hannibal knew his men and kept his word and gave them their hearts' desire. Slaying every living thing they met, they broke into every house, flung the booty p156into the streets, and set each dwelling on fire before they left the door. The soldiers paraded the streets, bearing on their spears the heads of the vanquished, and hideous festoons of hands cut off and strung together. Only those women and children were spared who had taken refuge in the temples, not from any reverence for the gods, but in fear lest they should fire the temples in self-defence and destroy the rich treasures preserved there. On that day sixteen thousand lives fell to the Carthaginian swords; less than three thousand persons escaped alive to Akragas, and, weary of slaughter, the victors carried off five thousand prisoners.
Then at last the first three thousand of the Syracusan troops appeared and sent heralds demanding that Hannibal should at least respect the temples and give up their prisoners for a ransom; but Hannibal answered roughly that since the Selinuntians had not been able to defend their freedom they must learn to be slaves, and so far as the temples were concerned the gods appeared to have abandoned both them and their city. From this destruction Selinus never recovered.
Hannibal crossed unhindered to Himera next, and proceeded at once to a formal siege, undermining the walls and soon producing a wide breach. A Syracusan fleet of five and thirty sail came in sight, and the hopes of the city rose to enthusiasm; but by p157treacherous messages Hannibal made the admiral of the fleet believe that he was about to raise the siege because the whole Syracusan army was advancing by land, and that Syracuse being therefore undefended he intended to attack it without delay. The admiral made ready to go to the rescue, and seeing themselves about to be deserted, a great part of the population abandoned the city to the enemy, crowding the ships until there was no more room, and the remainder marching out by land. On the following day the Carthaginians entered Himera; the women and children were carried out to the camp to be sold as slaves in Africa, and on the spot where his grandsire had perished, Hannibal appeased his unquiet spirit by the mutilation and slaughter of three thousand Himeran warriors. Last of all he burned the whole city and razed the ruins to the ground.
Here in the story appears for the last time Hermocrates, in a short and brilliant campaign that ended in his violent death at the gates of Syracuse. From the beginning of the Athenian invasion his counsels had helped Syracuse, his labours had been unceasing, his submission to the generalship of Gylippus exemplary; he had seemed a man above passion, inspired only by the purest love of country. But his country feared the return of a tyranny like that of Thrasybulus, and accusing him of plotting to get the despotism, Syracuse exiled her best and bravest. In exile he had not p158turned against the state, as Alcibiades had turned against Athens; he remained faithful and devoted, waiting and longing for an opportunity to return. He saw his chance when the Carthaginians withdrew after the final slaughter at Himera. Provided with large sums of money, he came to Messina, built five warships of his own and raised a thousand men. He collected the fugitives from Himera, sailed round to Selinus, and rapidly fortified the ruins left by the Carthaginians. Without losing time, but gathering an army of six thousand men, he dashed across the island, surprised Motye and Panormus, and laid waste the country. Even then Syracuse would not recall him from banishment. He marched down to Himera and collected from the field of battle the unburied bones of the Syracusans who had perished there, and sent them reverently to Syracuse; but yet his native city would not receive him back. Mad with longing to see his home, and believing that if he appeared in person, the false accusations would be forgotten, he rode with a few followers to the very gate of the city. His friends received him, but could not save his life, for his enemies spread the report that he had returned with an army, and they fell upon him and cruelly slew him on the threshold of his home. But some of his followers saved themselves, and though they were all banished, there was one among them who, being desperately wounded, was given out to be dead, and escaped p159the ban; he was Dionysius, who was to save Syracuse from the Carthaginians, and was to be her lord and despot before many years should pass.
Garden of the church of S. Nicola,
Ruined rampart of Girgenti
But Himilcon learned that an immense supply of corn was on the way to Akragas from Syracuse. He bribed his soldiers to wait a few days, sent out warships, overcame the Greek triremes that formed the convoy, and seized the whole provision. Among the defenders were Spartans and other allies, who began to sell themselves to the Carthaginian general, and presently all the allies deserted almost in a body. The luxurious Akragantines were paralyzed with fear, p162for they remembered the horrid fate of Selinus and Himera. Incredible as it must seem though there was not so much as a breach in the walls, the whole population abandoned the city, leaving the old and the sick to their fate. Himilcon entered at daybreak and slew all these. The rich Gellias had collected such of his treasures as he could gather quickly into a temple, to which he set fire, and he perished in the flames. A few patriots who would not fly destroyed themselves. The vast booty fell into the hands of the Carthaginians without a blow, and Akragas ceased to play a part in Sicily. There is hardly a parallel in all history to such an ignominious evacuation.
p165 Another opportunity for gaining fresh power soon presented itself. It was clear that Gela would be the next city to fall, and its garrison was under the orders of one of the captains who had sold himself to Carthage at Akragas. Dionysius hastened thither, to find the city in a frenzy of excitement. He presented himself as the protector and liberator of the people, he paid the troops the stipend which had long been owing to them, and he brought the suspected traitors, chiefly the richest in the city, to prompt trial and execution, their property being seized for the public good. Having thus settled matters for a time, he returned with speed to Syracuse. Entering the city at sunset, just as a great audience was leaving the theatre, and being asked what news he brought from Gela, he delivered a magnificent speech in which he told the people that their worst enemies were not the Carthaginians, but their own corrupt and grasping generals. They were selling their country inch by inch for Carthaginian gold, and he would no longer be one of them. His words were received with unbounded applause and wild acclamation; on the following day a public meeting of the people was called, he addressed them again, his friends rose up in force to support all he said, and amid the universal enthusiasm a measure was carried which removed the other generals from office, and conferred upon him the sole military command.
The tyranny was now restored in fact, and all but p166acknowledged in name. Dionysius needed only a devoted body-guard to protect him from the assassin's knife, in order to assume the position of absolute lord. He obtained this also, and by the same stratagem which had served Pisitratus for the same end. He called upon the whole available force of armed men which Syracuse could furnish, bidding them meet him in Leontini as if for a great review. That night a great tumult arose in the camp, Dionysius rushed from his tent, declaring that an attempt had been made upon his life, and fled to the acropolis, calling upon all who trusted him to follow him up thither. Then and there the soldiers, to whom he was already a hero and almost a demigod, voted him a life-guard of six hundred men. He was to choose them himself, and he took advantage of the privilege to select a thousand. Armed to perfection and receiving twice the pay of other soldiers, their fate was now bound up with his, and he could count upon every man to the death. The blow was struck, the tyranny was restored, and Dionysius was the despot of Syracuse.
In Syracuse he established himself in the arsenal, which became at once his palace and his stronghold; he strengthened his position by marrying the daughter of the ill-fated Hermocrates, giving his own sister in marriage to the latter's brother-in‑law. He caused the people to execute the two men who had principally opposed his advancement, and he issued orders for p167gathering together into one army, besides the Syracusans, every soldier of fortune in Sicily who would serve for pay.
What he had foreseen was not long in coming. Himilcon had spent the winter with his army in Akragas; when the spring came, and he no longer needed shelter, he ordered the city to be destroyed and marched upon Gela. The inhabitants determined to send their wives and children to Syracuse, but the devoted women clung to the statues of the gods and to the altars in the market-place, crying out that they would share the fate of their men. As usual Himilcon moved up his battering rams and towers to the walls; but though he broke down great breaches in the fortifications, the besieged men fought with fury by day, and by night even the women and children helped to build up the broken ramparts. In spite of Himilcon's ceaseless exertions the city was held against him until Dionysius came up with fifty thousand men. He formed a plan to surround the enemy and the whole city and to make three simultaneous attacks. The well-conceived scheme failed in execution; Dionysius lost many men, and was at once accused of betrayal, since he had done no better than his predecessors. Yet he kept his command, being most likely preserved from instant death by his life-guard, and by a clever stratagem he so far retrieved himself as to effect the safe evacuation of the city with the women and children, and the sick p168and wounded. Two thousand light-armed troops, men of heroic courage, remained behind in the city, and completely deceived the Carthaginians by making bonfires and simulating a tumult in the streets. In the end they also escaped unhurt.
Little by little the Greeks were being driven from city to city towards Syracuse, where the final struggle was to take place. The enemy came upon them as the Huns fell upon Europe many centuries later. The Carthaginians spared neither man nor beast, nor woman nor child, and prisoners were horribly tortured, torn to pieces, and crucified by hundreds. Before such an enemy the people fled to their last refuge like sheep to the fold when the wolves are upon them. That Dionysius should have been able to direct the storm of such a panic and regain all his power and influence proves his genius; that he afterwards attacked Carthage with success demonstrates his masterly military talent; but that he utterly vanquished and blotted out his foes in the end is little short of miraculous.
The spectacle of a whole population hurrying in desperate confusion to their last shelter, women and children and old and sick and dying of exhaustion by the way amid the tears and lamentations of the survivors, roused the Syracusan soldiers to exasperation against the leader to whom alone they attributed such disaster; the well-born youths who composed the cavalry p169watched for an opportunity to slay him, but finding him too well protected by his mercenaries, they rode on before and reached Syracuse in time to stir up a revolution against him; they seized his house and treasure, and in their blind rage so frightfully treated his wife that she died of her injuries. But they had to deal with a man of genius and action who knew no fear. Dionysius had no sooner learned of their desertion than he hastened to follow them with a chosen band of seven hundred men. At midnight he was before the closed gate of Achradina, where brave Hermocrates had been murdered; in an hour the doors were burned down; when the day dawned his enemies lay dead in the market-place, and as the sun rose he was once more master of the city.
And now the Carthaginian advance was checked by the plague, which ever wrought havoc among the Phoenician mercenaries, and Himilcon made a treaty of peace, with an exchange of prisoners and of ships taken in the war, and an extension of the Phoenician territory. More than half of the Carthaginian army perished in the pestilence, Himilcon withdrew to Carthage, and the first part of the conflict came to an unexpected termination. The strong man set about consolidating his power.
He occupied the arsenal, and the island of Ortygia, allowing none but his most faithful adherents to set foot upon the island; using the methods of Gelon p170and Hiero, he conferred citizenship upon his mercenaries and even upon freed slaves, and created a new body of devoted friends. He matured his plan for dominating all Sicily in order to make war upon Carthage, but at his first attempt at extending his power a mutiny broke out, his chief lieutenant was murdered, and he saw himself obliged to fall back upon his fortified home in Ortygia, while the mutineers encamped upon Epipolae and besieged the city, setting a price on the tyrant's head. The situation was perilous in the extreme, and for once the iron man seems almost to have lost hope. Yet he held his stronghold grimly, and secretly communicated with certain Campanian soldiers of fortune, while proposing terms of capitulation for himself to the besiegers. In their simplicity they believed him, many of their force dispersed. Twelve hundred Campanian soldiers swept down like a whirlwind upon the Syracusans, slew all they met, broke through their siege works, and joined Dionysius in the fort. The besiegers now disagreed among themselves and, choosing his time, Dionysius sallied out and defeated them in one of the suburbs, but checked all useless slaughter, that the vanquished mutineers might owe him their lives; and he honourably buried their dead.
Master of Syracuse once more, he entered into close alliance with Sparta. Tyranny was growing popular in theory, if not yet in practice, and the Lacedaemonians, p171while still in name recommending a democracy, privately gave their whole support to Dionysius, although their conduct brought them into opposition with Corinth, which faithfully advocated the freedom of Syracuse. Thus strengthened, he began the conquest of Sicily. Henna, which is Castrogiovanni now, and Catania and Naxos fell successively under his dominion, and Leontini surrendered on condition that the inhabitants should receive the citizenship of Syracuse. His plan was to destroy the Greek commonwealths, to spare the Sicelian ones, and to found Italian cities, in order to equalize the various elements and produce a homogeneous Sicilian nation; and as the Syracusans began to understand that he was not cruel but ambitious, and as much for them as for himself, their confidence in him rose and his influence became unbounded. Remembering what Syracuse had suffered during the Athenian invasion, and mindful of his own experience during the mutiny, he determined to extend the fortifications so as to take in Epipolae. The huge ramparts that still crown the height are his work. Knowing that there was still some danger of revolution in the city, he exerted his whole energy to accomplish this quickly, and the great wall, more than three miles in length and made of large hewn stones, was completed in twenty days. It was built by sixty thousand free men, who received double wages for their labour; thirty-six thousand, in one hundred and eighty detachments p172of two hundred each, worked upon sections •one hundred feet long, each section being under a master-mason, and every six sections under an architect. Four and twenty thousand men, with six thousand carts, quarried the stone and hauled it up the heights. Most of the stone was quarried in the Latomie, in Syracuse. Dionysius himself hardly left the works till all was finished.
The main wall being built, he soon afterwards prepared to attack Carthage, and set to work upon the vast equipment which he knew to be necessary for such an undertaking, for the success of the Carthaginians had generally been due to their superior numbers and excellent munitions of war. Dionysius worked on a great scale; he built two hundred new ships of war and refitted a hundred and ten old ones; one hundred and forty thousand shields with an equal number of swords and helmets were made, and fourteen thousand cuirasses with their fittings. Great engines were constructed for hurling stones; and it is known that in the year 399 he called together a general meeting of engineers, who planned the first ships ever built with five banks of oars, and the first long-range catapults, though what the range of the latter may really have been we do not know: those in use earlier could hurl a stone six hundred feet.
The first five-banked ship, splendid with gold and silver, brought home from Locri one of two brides whom the despot married on the same day, — a wedding p173unexampled, I believe, in Greek history. A few days later he addressed the people and exposed his plans with the fervid eloquence that had seldom failed him, stirring up the hatred that was not yet old, and firing every hearer with the spirit of revenge. The news of the unequalled preparations at Syracuse had already gone forth; the tidings of the master's speech spread like flame through straw.
All Sicily rose, and wheresoever, in cities that once had been all Greek, there were Punic masters, or merchants, or landowners, or travellers, they were put to death; and wheresoever the Carthaginians had torn to pieces or burnt or crucified a Greek, there the Greeks tortured and impaled a Carthaginian.
At last, in 397, when all the African coasts were exhausted by a pestilence that had raged for two whole years, Dionysius declared war, and his ambassadors gave proud warning to the high council of Carthage that she must set free and evacuate every Greek city in Sicily or fight to an issue. As soon as the ambassadors returned, and without giving Carthage time to collect the mercenary troops on which she always most depended, Dionysius struck the first blow, and attacked Eryx, now Monte San Giuliano above Trapani, and Motye, a dozen miles to southward. Eryx surrendered without a blow; Motye had received a small reënforcement from Carthage, and made a brave defence.
p174 In those times the two small islands with lie north of Marsala, or Lilybaeum, formed a part of the mainland and enclosed a wide harbour; in the midst of this a sheet of shallow water Motye was built upon the little island which now bears the name of San Pantaleo and was connected with the land by a narrow causeway on the northeast side. The town itself was strongly fortified and was one of the most valuable points held by the Carthaginians. Before the arrival of Dionysius the inhabitants destroyed the causeway. Dionysius determined to rebuild it, entered the harbour, and beached his war-vessels north of the little island. He left his admiral Leptines to see to the reconstruction of the dam and withdrew his land forces for a time in order to make a raid upon the Phoenician country. Meanwhile Himilcon reached Syracuse with a small fleet of ten vessels, hoping to draw Dionysius away from Motye; but failing in this intention and having done such damage as he could with so small a force, he sailed back again and appeared before Motye at daybreak, with one hundred of his best ships. Having easily destroyed the few Greek vessels that were lying outside, he at once blockaded the entrance to the harbour, within which the whole of the Greek war fleet was drawn up high and dry. It seemed as if the Greeks were caught in a trap from which they could not escape, but the courage and decision of Dionysius were not at fault, and he turned the tables upon his adversary in a day. p175The north side of the harbour was separated from the open sea by a low neck of sand about four thousand yards wide. Across this space Dionysius actually hauled eighty ships of war on chocks, in a single day, and at the same time he moved his newly invented long-range catapults down to the entrance of the harbour. The war-ships he had now launched sailed down in a body and attacked the Carthaginian fleet from seaward, driving it in, and at the same time the astonished Carthaginians, who believed themselves well out of range from the shore, received a terrific volley of stones from the catapults. Himilcon himself would have been driven into the harbour and caught, if he had not at once made good his escape; but he lost no time, left Motye to its fate, and breaking through the line of Syracusan vessels, got out to sea.
During the siege of Motye which followed, the inhabitants made a memorable defence, opposing the engines of the Greeks with every conceivable device, and sometimes setting them on fire; and when at last a breach was made in the walls, and Dionysius believed that the city was in his hands, he still had to carry on the siege from street to street and from house to house through many days and nights. When the last defence was broken down, the Greeks wreaked their vengeance in a wholesale slaughter, in which neither women nor children were spared, until Dionysius himself bade them take refuge in their temples. The Carthaginians p176who were taken alive were sold as slaves, but every Greek who was found on their side was crucified at once.
Intending to follow up his victory, Dionysius at once moved upon Segesta, the city of all others in Sicily the most hateful to the Syracusans; but here, as if misfortune were attached to the mere name of the place, he suffered a considerable reverse almost before the siege had begun. Meanwhile the Carthaginians had set on foot for the third time a vast army of mercenaries, and we now hear for the first time that war chariots accompanied the host. Those that had left Carthage at the beginning of the first invasion had been lost at sea.
Dionysius awaited him near Panormus, but only succeeded in destroying some fifty ships and about five thousand of his soldiers, the rest entering the harbour in safety. In a few days Himilcon had undone all that the Syracusans had accomplished; Eryx was won back, Motye was retaken, and the other Phoenician cities of the west found themselves free. In face of such an enemy Dionysius was reluctantly obliged to withdraw to Syracuse. Himilcon now marched eastward and seized Messina, whence the greater part of the population had already escaped. Out of two hundred who sprang into the sea and attempted to swim the straits fifty reached the Italian shore in safety. Himilcon saw the great difficulty of holding Messina and, lest it should be of use to his enemies, determined to destroy p177the city. The allies of Dionysius now began to desert him, but he did not lose heart; he fortified and provisioned the Syracusan towns and completed the fortifications of Syracuse, while Himilcon was marching down upon Naxos. At Catania he attacked the Carthaginian fleet in the hope of preventing it from effecting a junction with the land force, but suffered an overwhelming defeat in which he lost one hundred ships and twenty thousand men. Retreating upon Syracuse again, he prepared to make a final stand, while Himilcon advanced upon the city by land and encamped •a little more than a mile north of Epipolae.
Seeing the enormous strength of the fortifications raised by Dionysius before the war began, Himilcon determined to starve the city to a surrender, and built three forts which commanded the southern side of the harbour. Meanwhile, however, reënforcements of ships arrived from Sparta, and the Syracusans, gathering courage, fell upon a detachment of vessels which were bringing corn to the Carthaginians; a naval engagement followed in which the Carthaginians were badly beaten and lost twenty-four ships.
The position of Dionysius was dangerous, but not desperate, and before long the plague, which seems to have accompanied the Carthaginians wherever they went, came to his assistance. The men died at such a rate that it was impossible to bury the bodies, and the condition of Himilcon's camp was too hideous to p178be described. Quick to take advantage of everything that could weaken his enemy, Dionysius now executed a general movement which terminated the war. On a night when there was no moon the Syracusan fleet got under way in the harbour, and Dionysius himself marched a large force round Epipolae to surprise the Carthaginian camp and one of Himilcon's forts. He sent a thousand mercenaries against the camp, and a body of cavalry, instructing the latter to pretend flight as soon as the enemy came out. These mercenaries were men whom he distrusted, and he coolly sacrificed them for the sake of occupying the enemy on that side. He himself seized the fort on the Olympieum, and sent the cavalry down to take the next, which was near the shore. At daybreak the Greek ships surprised the Carthaginian fleet, and gained a complete victory over the vessels which were afloat. Dionysius himself set fire to forty ships that were on the beach, and a strong wind drove the flames out to the transports. In an indescribable confusion the whole sea force of the Carthaginians was destroyed before their eyes, while every kind of small craft, manned even by old men and boys, put out from the city to plunder the half-burned wrecks, and thousands of women and little children climbed the roofs of the city to watch the tragedy of fire and sword. By land the fighting lasted all the day, and at night Dionysius encamped by the Olympieum. All but forty of Himilcon's p179ships were destroyed or crippled, and more than half his army of three hundred thousand men lay dead in the camp or on the field. He humbly treated for his life and safety, and at last for the sum of three hundred talents, which was perhaps all he had left to give, Dionysius suffered him to depart and to take with him, upon his forty ships, those of his soldiers who were Carthaginian citizens. When the Greeks entered the Carthaginian camp at last, it is told that they found within it the unburied bodies of a hundred and fifty thousand men. Thus ended the great Carthaginian expedition for the conquest of Sicily.
At first sight one may wonder why Dionysius did not completely destroy the remains of Himilcon's host, execute their general himself, and drive out the Phoenicians from the western part of the island; but a little reflection will show how much wiser that course was which he actually pursued. The strength of Carthage lay, not in a warlike population, but in the great wealth by which she commanded the service of numerous mercenaries, and although she had now suffered an extraordinary defeat, which was followed by something like a revolution, her losses were chiefly financial, while her resources were practically inexhaustible. By not driving her to extremities, Dionysius both practised wisdom and displayed magnanimity. Moreover, his real ambition was to be the ruler of the western p180Greeks rather than a mere conqueror of barbarous nations. By treachery or arms, indeed, he soon got the lordship of the Sicelian cities of the interior, but these were already so completely hellenized as to be practically Greek, and were so situated as to be necessary to him. His fortune, however, did not follow him everywhere, and in attempting to seize Tauromenium he once more suffered defeat, in spite of the most tremendous exertions. Climbing the steep ascent behind the modern town, on a dark winter's night when it was bitter cold, he seized the castle, the 'Castello' of to‑day, and thence tried to storm the city; but the Sicelians drove him back into the darkness, slaying six hundred of his men; he himself fell, and barely escaping with his life rolled down the hill, bruised and bleeding, with no arms left but the cuirass on his body. But his defeats were always followed by victories. He crossed the straits and attacked Rhegium on the mainland; failing to take the strong place at once, he laid waste the country. When he took it at last it was by starving the garrison to a surrender. In their agony of hunger the people crept out from the beleaguered city and devoured the grass under the walls, but Dionysius turned cattle and sheep upon it, that cropped it close while his soldiers guarded them. When at last he had possession of a city half full of dead men, he allowed the rest to buy their freedom, and sold the poor for slaves, but he took evil vengeance p181upon their brave general Phyton, for he drowned his son, and told the unhappy father what he had done, then scourged him through the city, and drowned him also at last, with all the rest of his family.
Straits of Messina abeam of Rhegium,
So strong a despot might well have been free from little vanities; yet he wrote verses for public competition, and after proving himself a soldier of genius showed the whole world that he was a poet without talent. Fortunate in great undertakings and at the most critical moments of his life, he could not win a prize at Olympia, his horses ran away on the track, p183and the ship that brought home his representatives went to pieces on the Italian coast. His small undertakings failed, and his small talents betrayed him into fits of inordinate vanity, followed by disappointment out of all proportion with their cause. In this respect the man whom Publius Scipio called the bravest and keenest of his time was not superior to many other sovereigns and men of genius; for the man of genius looks upon his favourite minor talent as a prodigal son to whom all sins are forgiven, and it is perhaps only he whose chief gift is not beyond question, who dares not trust himself to play with a small accomplishment. Dionysius was great enough to have written even worse poetry than he probably produced.
What he did for Syracuse was so great that after two thousand and three hundred years, the remains of his work belong to the greatest monuments of antiquity, and it is impossible to follow the wall of Epipolae, or to wander through the enchanted gardens of the vast quarries, without marvelling at the man who deepened the one and built the other.
Cavern called the "Ear of Dionysius"
Of his cruelties, so far as concerns those of which there is historical evidence, it seems certain they were perpetrated from no bloodthirsty motive, but were necessary to his system of self-defence at a time when the murder of tyrants was so common as to seem natural and logical. Of temperate life and untiring industry, ambition was the only passion that could hold him. Long afterwards, during a drinking bout, Philip of Macedon asked the younger Dionysius how his father had found time to write poetry. "He used the time," answered the son, "which happier men like you and me spend in drinking together." Holm considers it a sign of his firm character that he lived in harmony with p186two wives at a time, dining daily with them both together, and indeed he seems to have lived peacefully with them and with his seven children. The great man's only weakness seems to have been for his own verses, and when at last, doubtless for political reasons, the prize was awarded in Athens to his tragedy, the 'Ransom of Hector,' he only outlived that great and final satisfaction to his vanity by a few days. It is even told that in his delight, he, the most moderate of men, drank so deeply as to cause his death. Yet he encouraged joyous excesses among his subjects, as many another despot has done since, and there is evidence that while himself leading what may almost be called a moral life, he preferred for his amusement the society of rakes, gamesters, and spendthrifts. Though it is said that he rarely laughed, he made jests of the kind that seemed witty to historians, but which have either lost their savour by two thousand years of repetition, or offend our sense of fitness by vulgar blasphemy of the gods, to whom, though false in our view, he owed the respect which good taste concedes to all objects of devotion and civilized belief.
Under him the Sicilian power reached its height, and we may make the sad reflection that in the past history of all great nations the acme of strength and culture has been attained under a despot, often under the first who has appeared after a long period of freedom. Dionysius ruled alone during thirty-eight years, p187one of the most extraordinary men of any age; he saved Hellenism from destruction in the central Mediterranean and he reduced chaos to order in founding a new and powerful state; but he destroyed freedom and the very meaning of it, root and branch.
a If you want a primary source, Plutarch's Life of Nicias will do as well as any; on the other hand, Crawford has done a very good job of making the story much clearer than that given in any of the primary sources.
c The eclipse dates the battle: August 27, 413 B.C.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
of the South
Siege of Syracuse
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 20 May 14