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The Sicilian Expedition, 413 BC

"This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered."

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (I.7.87)

Although now filled with lemon trees, the quarry of Syracuse once held no fewer than seven thousand Athenian prisoners, who were left there for eight months to die of hunger and exposure before being sold as slaves (Thucydides, I.7.87). Fed only a pint of barley meal and a half-pint of water a day, most perished. And yet some were saved by their knowledge of the tragedian Euripides.

"For the Sicilians, it would seem, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, had a yearning fondness for his poetry. They were forever learning by heart the little specimens and morsels of it which visitors brought them from time to time, and imparting them to one another with fond delight. In the present case, at any rate, they say that many Athenians who reached home in safety greeted Euripides with affectionate hearts, and recounted to him, some that they had been set free from slavery for rehearsing what they remembered of his works; and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they had received food and drink for singing some of his choral hymns" (Plutarch, Life of Nicias, XXIX.2-3).

Ironically, the Athenian expeditionary force was preparing to leave Sicily, when a lunar eclipse on August 28, 412 BC prompted their commander Nicias to wait almost a month for a more auspicious date. Taking advantage of the delay, the Syracusans attacked the Athenian fleet, forcing them to beach some of their ships. Then, the entrance to the harbor itself was blocked, which constricted the ability of the armada to maneuver. These ships too were forced ashore and abandoned, their crews fleeing inland. The doomed Athenians now were trapped on the island.

References: Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (1876) translated by Richard Crawley; Plutarch: The Parallel Lives (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library).

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