Siege of Syracuse, 414-413 BC

Siege of Syracuse, 414-413 BC

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Siege of Syracuse, 414-413 BC

The First Year of the Siege
The Second Year of the Siege
Defeat and Disaster


The Athenian siege of Syracuse of 414-413 BC was a two year long epic that ended with the total defeat and destruction of the Athenian army, and that put Athens onto the defensive in the renewed fighting in the Great Peloponnesian War.

The siege of Syracuse followed a different pattern to most sieges. The Syracusans were never entirely blockaded within the city, and for most of the time had a sizable field army and fleet at their disposal. The siege thus developed into a series of battles fought around the city, both on land and at sea. At different stages in the battle it was the Athenians who felt besieged, and eventually they would even suffer a naval defeat.

The Athenian invasion of Sicily began in 415 BC. A large army and fleet under Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus were sent to the island, officially to aid an Athenian ally, but in reality in an attempt to conquer Syracuse and that city's allies. The expedition didn't begin well. An attempt to find allies amongst the Greek cities of Italy failed, and very few Sicilians supported them. The key city of Messenia, at the north-eastern tip of the island, refused to let them in, but eventually they found a base at Catane, half way between Messenia and Syracuse. Soon after this success a trireme arrived from Athens to arrest Alcibiades, who managed to escape into exile in Sparta. This left Nicias in effective command of the expedition.

Nicias realised that it would be difficult to march overland to Syracuse in the face of the enemy cavalry. Instead he tricked the Syracusans into marching towards Catane, then transported the army by ship to the Great Harbour, south of Syracuse. The Syracusans marched back, but were forced to fight on ground of the Athenians choosing. The resulting battle of Syracuse (415 BC) was the one clear-cut Athenian success of the war, but afterwards they abandoned their camp near Syracuse and returned to Catane.

While this was going on Syracusan envoys reached Corinth to ask for help. The Corinthians agreed to provide troops, and also to help persuade the Spartans to help. At Sparta the envoys met Alcibiades, who helped convince the Spartans to offer support. Even then the Spartans only agreed to send a small force, under the command of Gylippus, a 'mothax' rather than a full 'Spartiate' (he was probably the son of a Spartiate who didn't qualify for some reason).

The course of the siege was largely dictated by the geographical layout of the area around Syracuse. The city was built at the south-eastern corner of a large peninsula. To its south was a large bay - the Great Harbour. The peninsula of Ortygia stuck out from Syracuse across the entrance to the bay, pointing towards Plemmyrium, at the southern end of the bay. The Great Harbour thus had a fairly narrow entrance. Inland the position was dominated by the heights of Epipolae, which fill most of the large peninsula to the north-west of Syracuse. Although the Syracusans had been quite active during the winter, they did fail to fortify the heights,

The First Year of the Siege

The Athenians finally decided to besiege Syracuse in the spring of 414 BC. They moved by sea down the coast to Leon, on the coast to the north of the heights, and hidden from view from Syracuse. They then marched onto the heights via the pass of Euryalus, on their western side. By a remarkable coincidence the Syracusans had finally realised the importance of the heights, and on the very same day prepared to send a force to occupy them. Their army was parading on the shores of the Grand Harbour as the Athenians occupied the heights. The Syracusans rushed to the scene in an attempt to push the Athenians off the heights, but this failed. After this victory the Athenians erected the first of a series of trophies that they would build to commemorate their victories around Syracuse. After this first success the Athenians marched to Syracuse, where they offered battle, but the defenders refused to come out.

The Athenians planned to build a wall to blockade Syracuse by land. This would run from the coast at Trogilus, east of their landing point at Leon, across the heights and down into the lower land west of the city, before reaching the sea again in the middle of the Great Harbour. Their first step was to build a fort at Labdalum, at the western edge of the heights, which they used to protect their stores. They then moved to Syca, on the southern side of the heights, where they built a fort called 'the Circle'. This was to stand at the centre of their blockading wall.

The Syracusans responded to this building work by bringing their army out of the city to offer battle. A major pitched battle was only avoided because of the poor discipline of the Syracusan infantry, which struggled to form a proper line. Seeing this, their generals decided to withdraw back into the city, leaving a cavalry force to harass the Athenians. For once the Athenians got the better of a cavalry battle, sending their entire cavalry force, supported by some hoplites, to deal with the Syracusans. A second victory followed, and a second trophy was built.

The Syracusans next decided to build a counter-wall of their own. This would run south-west from the city and cross the Athenian wall running from the Circle to the Great Harbour. At first this work went well, and a wooden counter-wall soon began to take shape, but the Athenians waited until the Syracusans guard was down and launched a counter attack. A picked force of 300 hoplites and heavily armoured light troops captured the stockade protecting the counter wall. The Syracusans fled back towards the city, followed by the Athenians, who were in turn counter-attacked and forced to retreat back towards the rest of their army. This victory allowed the Athenians to destroy this first counter wall and erect a third trophy.

The Syracusans were not discouraged by this setback, and began to build a second counter-wall a little further to the south. This wall had to cross the marsh that bordered the Great Harbour, making for difficult working conditions. Once again the Athenians decided to attack the builders, and at the same time move their fleet into the Grand Harbour. This triggered another, rather more complex battle. At first the Athenians were victorious. The Syracusan force split in two, with the right wing fleeing into the city and the left wing towards the Anapus River. The 300 Athenians selected for the previous attack pursued the Syracusan left, hoping to prevent them from crossing the river. Instead they came under attack from the Syracusan cavalry, and were routed. The cavalry then attacked the main part of the Athenian right wing, causing a second rout. Lamachus, who was commanding the army on this occasion, attempted to restore the situation, but was isolated and killed. The main part of the Athenian army then arrived on the scene, and the Syracusans retreated.

Meanwhile these successes had encouraged the troops who had fled into the city. Some of them formed up against the main Athenian force, while others moved to attack the Circle, expecting to find it weakly guarded. They were correct, and were able to destroy around 1,000ft of the Athenian wall on the heights, but the fort itself was saved by Nicias, who was suffering from illness at the time and was thus unable to take part in the battle. He ordered the wooden supplies around the fort to be set on fire. This stopped the Syracusan advance, and alerted the rest of the Athenian army who began to move back towards the Circle. At the same time their fleet entered the Great Harbour. The Syracusans retreated back into the city, and the Athenians erected a fourth victory trophy.

Morale within the city now fell to a low ebb. The current generals were removed, three new generals elected, and many within the city began to discuss possible peace terms. The city was saved by the arrival of Gylippus and his small force of Spartans. At first Gylippus believed that the Athenians had completed their walls, and the blockade was complete. If this was the case then he wouldn't be able to reach the city, and so instead he decided to visit the Greek cities of Italy to make sure they didn't decide to side with the Athenians. Once in Italy he discovered that Syracuse was not yet entirely blockaded. Gylippus decided to land on the east coast of Sicily and march overland to Syracuse. He landed at Himera, and immediately gained local support. His original tiny force of 700 men soon expanded to one of 3,000. As Gylippus approached the city overland, a single boat containing the Corinthian commander Gongylus managed to slip past the Athenians and enter Syracuse. He arrived just in time to prevent an assembly from discussing peace terms, and was able to convince the Syracusans to prepare to cooperate with Gylippus.

At this stage the Athenian walls were almost complete to the south, but there was quite a large gap to the north of the Circle, on the heights of Epipolae. This wouldn't have been a problem if Nicias had defended the pass of Euryalus, but he failed to take this elementary precaution, and Gylippus was able to lead his men onto the heights and join up with the Syracusans. Their united army offered battle, but Nicias refused to leave the shelter of the walls, and so Gylippus camped just outside Syracuse. On the following day he captured the Athenian fort at Labdalum, on the western edge of the high ground. An attack on a weak part of the Athenian line failed, but the momentum on land had shifted from the Athenians to the Syracusans and their allies. The Syracusans now began to build another counter wall, this time across the heights towards Labdalum, cutting across the last major gap in the Athenian lines.

Nicias responded by turning his attention to the naval war. Plemmyrium, at the southern entrance to the Great Harbour, was fortified and the fleet made its base there. The Athenians were now rather widely spread, for most of their army was still facing Gylippus on the heights. Yet another battle was fought, this time between the two walls, and yet again the Athenians won. A fifth victory trophy followed.

Gylippus learnt from his mistakes. As the counter wall came close to cutting across the line of the Athenian wall he offered battle again. This time the fighting took place further away from the walls. The Athenian left was routed by the Syracusan cavalry and javelin throwers and the entire army forced to retreat. The defenders took advantage of their victory, and extended their wall across the line of the Athenian wall. Thucydides claimed that after this it was no longer possible for the Athenians to blockade the city from the land, although of course they could have either built a wall a little further to the west, or captured the Syracusan wall (this second tactic would soon be tried).

The real significant of this battle was that it marked the beginning of a decline in the morale of the first Athenian army. Even the naval blockade was weakening - twelve ships were able to enter the harbour without being stopped, and Gylippus was able to slip away to tour the island, where he was able to gather new allies. The Syracusans also sent ambassadors to Sparta and Corinth to ask for more help, and began to train their fleet.

Nicias also sent a message back home, in his case to tell the people of Athens how dangerous a position he was in, how weak his fleet was and how little he could do with the army at his disposal. If Nicias was hoping that the expedition, which he had always opposed, would now be withdrawn, he was to be disappointed. The messengers reached Athens in the winter of 414-413 BC, and the Athenians decided to send a second, equally large army, to join him. Eurymedon, a commander with experience on Sicily, and Demosthenes, the real victor at Pylos, were appointed to command the new army.

The Second Year of the Siege

Gylippus returned to Syracuse in the spring of 413 BC, with significant reinforcements. He then convinced the Syracusans to risk a naval attack on the Athenians, while at the same time he would take the army around their positions and attack Plemmyrium.

The naval attack ended in failure. The Syracusan fleet was split in two - thirty-five triremes attacked from the Great Harbour and 45 from the little harbour (on the eastern, sea-ward side of the city). The Athenians sent 25 ships to face the 35 and 35 ships to face the 45. At first both Athenian forces were put under heavy pressure, and the fleet outside the Great Harbour was actually forced back into the harbour. At this point the Syracusans lost their discipline, and the Athenians were able to defeat them as they sailed into the harbour. The combined Athenian fleet then defeated the Syracusan ships inside the harbour.

On land the battle went against the Athenians. The garrisons of the three forts at Plemmyrium were distracted by the naval battle, and Gylippus was able to capture all three of them. The Syracusans were able to erect three trophies to celebrate the fall of the three forts, while the Athenians built their sixth trophy, to commemorate the naval victory.

The Athenians were now in a fairly desperate position. Their fleet was now almost trapped inside the Great Harbour, and supply convoys had to fight their way in. Morale in the army fell even more. Worse was to come. In an attempt to win before the Athenian reinforcements could arrive, the Syracusans launched another naval attack. This time their ships had been given stronger prows to give them an advantage in head-on ramming attacks. In contrast the Athenians relied on skill to allow them to ram triremes in their vulnerable sides. The Syracusan modifications took advantage of the battlefield inside the Great Harbour, where there wasn't really room for the Athenian manoeuvres. On the first day of fighting neither side gained an advantage. No fighting took place on the next day, but on the following day the Syracusans came out again. This time the food market for the sailors was moved to the harbour to allow the Syracusans made two attacks in the same day after a short break for food. This tactic was a great success - the Athenians held their own during the first attack, but were caught out when the Syracusans put back to sea so quickly. After a brief standoff the Athenians decided to attack, but their head-on attack played into their enemies' hands. Seven Athenian ships were sunk and more disabled and their crews captured and killed. The Syracusans only lost two ships.

Just as the Syracusans must have been expected an imminent victory, Demosthenes finally arrived with his fleet. He had 1,200 Athenian hoplites, 3,800 allied hoplites, sixty-five triremes and a large number of javelin troops and slingers. Athenian morale soared, and Syracusan morale plummeted, but the change would only be temporary.

Demosthenes realised that he needed a quick victory, and so decided to try and retake control of Epipolea. He decided to risk a night attack, and this decision would end in disaster. At first things went well, and the Syracusan counter wall was occupied and some of it was destroyed. After this the difficulties of a night battle took over. The defenders rallied, and the larger and unwieldy Athenian force began to retreat. The retreat turned into a disaster, and the army's newly found confidence was shattered.

Defeat and Disaster

In the aftermath of this defeat the Athenian commanders debated their next move. Demosthenes wanted to abandon the entire venture and return to Athens. Nicias was less willing to admit that he had failed. He kept hinting that he was in contact with elements in Syracuse who were ready to surrender, but without giving any details. Demosthenes responded by suggesting that they leave Syracuse and move to somewhere else on Sicily to continue the war. The discussions ended in stalemate, and the army remained where it was.

Meanwhile Gylippus had been travelling around Sicily gathering more reinforcements. When this fresh army reached Syracuse even Nicias was willing to order the retreat. The Athenians were on the verge of escaping to sea when there was an eclipse of the moon. The soothsayers regarded this as a bad omen and demanded that the army wait 27 days before moving. Many of the more superstitious men supported them, as, fatally, did Nicias. The army was forced to sit and wait while the Syracusans prepared to try and stop them from leaving.

The delay proved fatal to the entire Athenian army. The Syracusans learnt both of the Athenian decision to leave, and the reason for the delay. Just before the Athenians would have attempted to leave, the Syracusans went onto the attack. On the first day they attacked the Athenian walls and won a sharp action. On the second day seventy-six Syracusan ships put to sea. The Athenians responded with eighty-six ships, but despite their numerical advantage were beaten. Their only consolation was that they were able to fight off an attempt by Gylippus to capture the ship's crews as they were forced ashore. The Athenians raised a seventh trophy, but the day had been a disaster for them.

The Syracusans now began to make efforts to trap the Athenians within the harbour. They blocked the entrance to the Great Harbour with a line of triremes and merchants ships moored side on, and prepared for another naval battle. This meant that the Athenians were now besieged inside the Great Harbour, with no way to get fresh supplies.

In the meantime the Athenians prepared to make a breakout. They built a second wall to protect a small area around their anchorage. The plan was to leave a small garrison in this fort, and use every other man in the army to man the ships. If the attempt to escape by sea failed, then the army would attempt to march overland to the nearest friendly city.

This time it was the Athenians who relied on numbers and brute force, instead of skill. Their plan was to use their heavily laden ships to board the enemy triremes and fight what would have been a land battle at sea. Between them the two fleets contained 200 ships, all fighting within the Great Harbour. Eventually the Athenians were forced to give way, and suffered a second major naval defeat in a short period. Demosthenes and Nicias were unable to persuade their sailors to make a second attempt to escape. The army's only hope was to escape overland.

This was a desperate venture. The Syracusans still had their advantage in cavalry, and much of the surrounding countryside was friendly to them. The Athenians were already short of food, and would have to march and fight for several days before they had any hope of finding fresh supplies. The Athenians didn't help themselves by delaying their departure in order to give the soldiers time to pack! This gave the Syracusans the time they needed to post guards at key points on any potential Athenian route, blocking river crossings and passes.

The retreat eventually began two days after the naval defeat. The Athenians and their allies still had 40,000 men, a potentially very dangerous army if it could escape from the trap at Syracuse. On the first day the army marched in a hollow square, with Nicias commanding the front half and Demosthenes the rear. On that day the army forced its way across the Anapus River, and marched for only four and a half miles before camping on a hill. On the second day they made even less progress, only moving two and a half miles before camping in an inhabited area, where they expected to find supplies. The third day was even worse. The Syracusans blocked the pass the Athenians were planning to use (the Acreaen cliff), and after failing to force they way though the Athenians were forced back to their starting point. On the fourth day the Athenians actually attacked the Syracusan fortifications in the pass, but were repulsed and forced to retreat again. On the fifth day the two sides fought a slow moving battle, and the Athenians were only able to advance by half a mile. By now food and water were both running short.

That night Nicias and Demosthenes realised that they were unlikely to be able to reach Catane, their first target. Instead they began a night march in a different direction, hoping to reach Camaraina or Gela, on the southern coast of the island. The night march didn’t go well. Nicias was able to keep his half of the army together, but Demosthenes had less success. His half of the army became separated from Nicias and began to scatter. During the following day the Syracusans caught up with Demosthenes and attacked his men. Demosthenes attempted to form up and fight, but the Syracusans didn't offer him a chance for a battle. Instead they bombarded his troops with javelins all day, and eventually Demosthenes and his troops surrendered on terms. None were to be put to death, be killed in prison or to be starved. Only 6,000 men surrendered here, suggesting that the army had suffered heavy losses during the march from Syracuse, for half of the army should have numbered 20,000.

Meanwhile Nicias and his half of the army continued their march. They crossing the River Erineus and took up a position on high ground. On the seventh day the Syracusans caught up with Nicias, who refused to believe that the other half of the army had surrendered until his own scout confirmed it. When it was clear that the news was true Nicias offered to pay the entire cost of the war if the Syracusans and their allies would let his men return to Athens, but these terms were turned down. Nicias' men were then subjected to a day-long bombardment. That night they planned to make one final attempt at a breakthrough, but this was discovered before it started, and the attempt was abandoned. On the eighth day of the retreat they advanced to the River Assinarus, but when they reached the river thirst broke the army. The desperate survivors of the retreat attempted to take a drink while under attack from both banks. Eventually Nicias surrendered to Gylippus, but even this didn't stop the slaughter. When it eventually finished fewer men were captured than on the previous day, although a larger number were taken privately by members of the Syracusan army.

The surrender didn't end the suffering of the Athenian soldiers, very few of whom would return home. Nicias and Demosthenes were both executed by the Syracusans, despite Gylippus's attempts to save them, while the surviving soldiers were placed in the stone quarry near Syracuse. The Athenians and Italian Greeks remained in the quarries for some time and very few would have survived the terrible conditions, but the rest of the prisoners were sold into slavery after ten weeks.

The disaster at Syracuse was a massive blow to Athenian power. Thousands of men were lost, as were two fleets and a vast amount of money. Sparta and Athens's other enemies in Greece were greatly encouraged, and even the Persians would soon become involved. Despite the odds against them, the Athenians managed to hold on for another ten years, but for most of that time they were on the defensive.

Siege of Syracuse II

The Athenian siege of Syracuse, 415-413 BC. The scene is from 414 BC, when the Athenians bad established a fort at Syca (‘the fig tree ‘) on the Epipolae plateau above Syracuse, and embarked upon their usual strategy of periteichismos [encirclement]. Specialist masons and carpenters appear to have accompanied the army to Sicily, and tools for construction work were a normal part of their equipment.

In the spring of 414 the Athenians renewed offensive operations at Syracuse. Despite Syracuse’s work during the winter, the Athenians captured the fortifications at Euryalus close to Syracuse and drove the Syracusans behind their city’s walls. The Athenians then constructed a fortification, known as the Circle, along with other protective walls. They also destroyed several Syracusan counterwalls. Unfortunately for the Athenians, Lamachus was killed in the fighting, and leadership devolved on the ineffective Nicias.

Syracuse was now in despair, with the city on the brink of defeat. At this point a Corinthian ship made its way into the harbor with news that help was coming. Fortified by this development, the leaders of Syracuse vowed to fight on. Gylippus’s expeditionary force then landed in northern Sicily and marched to Syracuse Nicias failed to challenge it en route. Gylippus’s men strengthened the defenses of Syracuse and, in the spring of 413, won a stunning victory over the Athenian Navy, capturing its base.

Rather than lose prestige by abandoning the siege, the Athenians decided to send out a second expedition. Led by Demosthenes, one of Athens’s most distinguished generals, it consisted of 73 triremes carrying 5,000 hoplites and 3,000 bowmen, slingers, and javelin throwers-in all some 15,000 men-and arrived at Syracuse in July 413.

Demosthenes attempted to destroy one of the Syracusan counterwalls when this proved unsuccessful, he mounted a night attack. It caught the defenders by surprise, and the Athenians took Euryalus and much of the Epipolaen plateau. Enough of Gylippus’s troops held fast, and the Syracusans mounted an immediate counterattack that caught the Athenians disorganized and inflicted heavy casualties. Cut off from supplies and prey to enemy cavalry, the Athenians attempted a breakout from the harbor of Syracuse in September 413 with 110 ships-both fit and unfit for action-but were contained by a great boom of block ships across the mouth of the Great Harbor as well as some 76 Corinthian and Syracuse ships. The naval battle ended in Athenian defeat, with Athens losing 50 ships to its enemy’s 26.

The Athenians still had 60 triremes to their enemy’s 50, and the generals wanted to try another breakout. The crews refused and demanded an overland retreat. Instead of setting out at once in the midst of Syracusan victory celebrations, the Athenians paused for 36 hours because of a false report (which had been spread to gain time until the victory celebrations had ended) that the retreat route was blocked.

Once the retreat was under way, 6,000 Athenian men under Demosthenes were offered freedom if they would desert. They refused and fought on until the situation was hopeless. On receiving a guarantee that his men’s lives would be spared, however, the Athenian commander surrendered. Another group of 1,000 men was also forced to surrender. Nicias and Demosthenes were butchered, against the will of Gylippus. These 7,000 men-out of 45,000-50,000 who had taken part in the expedition on the Athenian side-were sent off to the stone quarries of Syracuse. The expedition also cost Athens some 200 triremes. Thucydides concluded, “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” (Finley, The Greek Historians, 379).

The annihilation of the Athenian fleet and army in Sicily shook the Athenian Empire to its core. The islands of Euboea, Lesbos, and Chios now revolted against Athens. Sparta built 100 warships, and Persia set out to regain its lost Ionian dominions.

Athens might have had peace in 410, but its people were buoyed by a naval victory that year and rejected Spartan overtures. In 405 an Athenian fleet of 170 ships was taken while beached in the “Battle” of Aegospotami at the Hellespont while taking on supplies. Lysander, the Spartan naval commander, then captured the remaining Athenian garrisons at the Hellespont and severed Athenian access to Ukrainian wheat supplies. The Spartans permitted their Athenian prisoners to return to Athens in order to increase the strain on its scant food stocks. Pausanias, the second Spartan king, then brought a large land force to Athens and laid siege to the city by land, while Lysander arrived with 150 ships and blockaded it by sea. Starved into submission, Athens surrendered in 404. Corinth and Thebes urged that the city should be utterly destroyed and its people sold into slavery. To their credit the Spartans rejected these proposals, insisting that the city’s Long Walls and fortifications all be demolished. Athens also had to give up all its foreign possessions and its fleet, and the city was forced to enter into alliance with Sparta and accept its leadership. The Peloponnesian Wars were over, and so too was the period of Athenian supremacy.

References Finley, M. I., ed. The Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius. New York: Viking, 1959. Green, Peter. Armada from Athens. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2003. Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking, 2003.


Carthage had previously invaded Sicily in 406 BC, in retaliation of Greek raids on Phoenician lands. This expedition was first commanded by Hannibal Mago who, after the siege of Akragas by his kinsman Himilco, had managed to capture and sack the cities of Akragas, Gela and Camarina by the summer of 405 BC. These defeats had caused political turmoil in Syracuse, and had ultimately brought Dionysius to power as tyrant. [1] Himilco and Dionysius signed a peace treaty in 405 BC, which left Carthage in direct or indirect control of 60% of Sicily. The cities of Messina and Leontini were left independent, and Dionysius was acknowledged as the ruler of Syracuse by Carthage. [2]

Dionysius gets ready Edit

Between 405 BC and 398 BC, Dionysius set about securing his political position and increasing the armed forces of Syracuse. He broke the treaty with Himilco in 404 BC by starting a war with the Sicels. While Carthage did nothing in response, Dionysius was put in a difficult situation by a revolt within his army, which besieged him in Syracuse. Fortune and incompetence of his enemies helped Dionysius to emerge triumphant from this crisis. [3] Dionysius then enlarged his territory by conquering and sacking the cities of Naxos and Catana, and annexing Leontini. [4] He hired mercenaries and enlarged his fleet, building 200 new ships. Syracuse was fortified, with Dionysius turning the island of Ortygia (where the original city of Syracuse stood) into a fortress and encompassing the Epipolae Plateau by massive walls. He hired workmen to create new weapons (such as the Catapult), and new ships (such as the Quinquereme). [5] In 398 BC, Dionysius attacked the Phoenician city of Motya with an army of 80,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, along with a fleet of 200 warships and 500 transports carrying his supplies and war machines. This ignited the first of four wars he was to lead against Carthage. [6]

The war begins Edit

The attack of Dionysius caused the Sicilian Greeks and Sikans under Carthaginian dominion to rebel, and by the time Dionysius besieged Motya, only 5 cities remained in league (Segesta, Entella, Palermo and Solus among them) with Carthage in Sicily. Lacking a standing army, Carthage could only send a fleet of 100 triremes under Himilco to aid Motya. Himilco was unsuccessful and Dionysius sacked Motya after overcoming fierce Punic resistance. [7]

After Carthage had readied its forces, Himilco sailed from Africa and landed at Palermo, and then captured Eryx. Himilco next stormed Motya, where the mostly Sicel garrison under Biton was easily overcome. [8] The Carthaginians then lifted the siege of Segesta, and Dionysius retired to Syracuse instead of offering battle in Western Sicily against a superior army. [9] Himilco returned to Palermo, garrisoned the Carthaginian territories, and then sailed to Lipara with 300 warships and 300 transports. After collecting 30 talents of silver as tribute from Lipara, [10] the Carthaginian force landed at Cape Pelorum, and the army of Messene marched north from the city to confront the Carthaginians. Himilco sent 200 ships filled with picked soldiers and rowers to Messene, and easily captured and sacked the city. The Greeks scattered to the fortresses in the countryside, and Himilco was unsuccessfully tried to capture the forts. [11]

Himilco chose not to set up base at Messina, but marched south, and founded a city in Tauromenion, which he populated with Sicels. [12] The Sicels now deserted Dionysius, so two things was achieved with one stroke, Himilco managed to detached allies away from Dionysius and at the same time gaining allies to block any activity by the still hostile Greeks of Messina in his rear. The Carthaginians resumed marching south along the coast, with the fleet sailing alongside. However, a severe eruption of Mt. Etna made the path north of Naxos impassable, so Himilco marched to detour around Mt. Etna. Mago with the fleet sailed to Catana, where he was to meet up with Carthaginian army.

Dionysius had freed all the slaves in Syracuse to man 60 additional ships, provisioned the fortresses at Syracuse and Leontini with soldiers and supplies, and hired 1000 mercenaries from Greece. [11] He moved his army and fleet to Catana to attack the Carthaginians. Due to the rash tactics of his brother Leptines, the Greek fleet was heavily defeated at the Battle of Catana (397 BC), over 20,000 soldiers/rowers and 100 ships were lost before the surviving Greek ships could retreat. [13]

Himilco led the Carthaginian army (50,000 men, 400 triremes, and 600 transports) to Sicily in 397 BC. [14] When the Carthaginians reached Syracuse, their war fleet had shrunk to 208 ships, though 2,000 transports had been employed to carry supplies to the army. [15] The number of soldiers in Syracuse is unknown, as some garrisoned the Carthaginian possessions, and the Carthaginians had been reinforced by Sicels, Sikans and Elymians after arriving in Sicily.

Dionysius had an army of 30,000 foot and 3,000 horsemen at Catana along with 180 quinqueremes. [16] After the defeat of his navy and the desertion of his allies Dionysius' forces had shrunk to 80 ships. He managed to hire some mercenaries to make up for these losses, and the population of Syracuse supplied a number of soldiers to augment his forces. 30 triremes later joined him from Greece.

Carthaginian cohorts Edit

The Libyans supplied both heavy and light infantry and formed the most disciplined units of the army. The heavy infantry fought in close formation, armed with long spears and round shields, wearing helmets and linen cuirasses. The light Libyan infantry carried javelins and a small shield, same as Iberian light infantry. Campanian, Sardinian and Gallic infantry fought in their native gear, [17] but often were equipped by Carthage. Sicels and other Sicilians were equipped like Greek Hoplites.

The Libyans, Carthaginian citizens and the Libyo-Phoenicians provided disciplined, well trained cavalry equipped with thrusting spears and round shields. Numidia provided superb light cavalry armed with bundles of javelins and riding without bridle or saddle. Iberians and Gauls also provided cavalry, which relied on the all out charge. The Libyans also provided bulk of the heavy, four horse war chariots for Carthage, but Carthage at this point of time did not make use of war elephants. [18] Himilco had lost his chariots when 50 of his transports were sunk by the Greeks off Eryx and none seemed to have served at Syracuse. Carthaginian officer corps held overall command of the army, although many units may have fought under their chieftains.

The Punic navy was built around the trireme, Carthaginian citizens usually served as crew alongside recruits from Libya and other Carthaginian domains. Carthaginian forces had captured a number of Quinqueremes from the Greeks at Catana, it is unknown if Carthaginians were constructing this type of ships themselves at this point. 40 Quinqueremes were present at Syracuse. Although the initial Punic armada at Syracuse contained 208 warships and 3,000 transports, it is unknown how many were permanently stationed there for the siege.

Greek forces Edit

The mainstay of the Greek army was the Hoplite, drawn mainly from the citizens by Dionysius, had a large number of mercenaries from Italy and Greece as well. Sicels and other native Sicilians also served in the army as hoplites and also supplied peltasts, and a number of Campanians, probably equipped like Samnite or Etruscan warriors, [19] were present as well. The Phalanx formation was the standard fighting formation of the army. Dionysius also had the option of using old men and women as peltasts if needed. The cavalry was recruited from wealthier citizens and mercenaries.

The Syracuse navy was built around the Quinquereme, an invention attributed to Dionysius, and the trireme. Dionysius also transport ships available, but the number is unknown. Citizen rowers manned the fleet.

The defeat at Catana put Dionysius in a difficult position. With the Greek fleet beaten, Mago had gained the option of making a dash at Syracuse itself, repeating the feat the Carthaginians had pulled at Messene on Syracuse. On the other hand, if Dionysius could now attack and defeat the army of Himilco, Mago would be compelled to fall back to a secure base. However, Dionysius also had to keep in mind the possibility of political trouble in Syracuse in deciding his strategy. The Greek army was opposed to facing a siege, and at first Dionysius was inclined to seek the Carthaginian army out and measure swords with Himilco. When his advisers pointed out the threat of Mago and his fleet capturing Syracuse in the absence of the Greek army, Dionysius decided to break camp, leave Catana and march south to Syracuse. [20] At this juncture, Mother Nature intervened for the embattled Greeks, as worsening weather forced Mago to beach his ships, thus making the Punic fleet vulnerable to the Greek army attacks. [21] However, luck seems to have favoured the Carthaginians, because Dionysius commenced his retreat prior to this, with the remnant of his fleet sailing parallel along the coast. This decision to face a siege proved so unpopular among the Sicilian Greek allies that they deserted the army and made for their respective cities. Once there, they manned the countryside castles and awaited the Carthaginians. [20]

Himilco arrived at Catana two days after the battle with the Carthaginian army [22] after a 110 km trek around Mt. Etna, and his presence ensured security of the Punic fleet. Both the Punic army and navy were accorded a few days rest, during which time Mago repaired his damaged ships and refitted the captured Greek ships. Himilco took the time to negotiate with the Campanians at Aetna, offering them to switch sides. They had given Dionysius hostages and their best troops were serving with the Greek army, so they chose to stay loyal. [23]

Preparations for the siege Edit

Dionysius and the Greek army reached Syracuse first and began preparations for withstanding the inevitable Carthaginian siege. The forts around Leontini and Syracuse were fully manned and provisioned. Dionysius, shaken by the desertions of the Greek allies, also sent agents to hire mercenaries from Italy and Greece (Corinth, the mother city of Syracuse and Sparta, a fellow Doric ally were especially approached), including his kinsman Polyxenos. The fortresses were either to protect the harvest and serve as bases for harassing Carthaginian foragers [24] or were to serve as bait and draw the Carthaginian army away from Syracuse, and gain time for Dionysius while Himilco reduced them. The fortresses would surrender easily and retain part of the Carthaginian force as garrisons. [25]

Himilco ignored Leontini and the forts, and his army slowly marched to Syracuse. They moved round the Epipolae Plateau and concentrated on building their encampment. The Punic war-fleet, made up of 250 triremes and captured Greek quinqueremes, sailed into the Great Harbour at the same time and in perfect order sailed past Syracuse, displaying the spoils captured from the Greeks. 2000–3000 transports then moored in the harbour, bringing in soldiers and supplies. Himilco was ready to begin the siege. The Syracusan navy, which had initially mobilised 180 ships [16] but lost 100 ships [26] at the Catana, remained at port. [ citation needed ]

Fortifications of Syracuse Edit

The original city of Syracuse stood on the island Ortyga with some structures around the Agora in the mainland before the Sicilian Expedition in 415 BC, when walls were built around the Tycha and Archadina areas. After Dionysius finished adding to the existing structures, Syracuse possessed walls with the greatest circuit in the Greek world. [27]

Dionysius had rebuilt the walls around Ortygia so that they surrounded the whole island and the isthmus connecting the mainland with a robust wall complete with towers at regular intervals which were strongly built. [28] The isthmus had docks on the west side and the little harbour, Laccius on the east side. Screens and walls were put up to enclose Laccius, and it could accommodate 60 triremes, and a gate was provided between the sea screens that would let one trireme pass at a time. [29] Two castles were also built on Ortygia, one near the isthmus, which was the home of Dionysius, [29] and one further south. Two walls were built on the isthmus itself, one separating the island from the isthmus and one the mainland from the isthmus. [30] A series of five gates built on the isthmus, the Pentaplya, controlled access between the mainland and Ortygia. [31]

Dionysius then populated the island of Orytiga with loyal mercenaries and close supporters. A massive castle with underground structures was built at Euryalos which guarded the main access to the route to the Plateau. He incorporated the walls built during the Athenian Expedition for settling the people in Achradina. The walls around the plateau, made entirely of stone may have had a thickness between 2 and 4.5 meters and a height of 6 meters. [32]

The Carthaginian camp Edit

Himilco chose to camp next to the Great Harbour in the Polichana area. The camp was either 10 stadia [33] from the Syracuse city walls, which would place it north of the Anapus river, or 12 stadia from the walls, totally south of the river. [20] Himilco chose the temple of Zeus as his quarters. [34] The main camp was probably situated on the marshy ground east of the temple of Zeus, [35] and adjacent to the Dascon bay and the Lysimeleia marsh. The berthing facilities for the ships formed part of the camp, and the camp was surrounded by a moat and palisade.

Preliminary activities Edit

Himilco marched north from his camp and formed up for battle near the city after the camp was put in order. One hundred Carthaginian warships also sailed out and took position on both sides of Ortygia, [34] ready to counter any Greek ships should they sally forth. The Greeks stayed put inside Syracuse despite the jeers of the Punic soldiers. Himilco chose not to assault the walls, and it is unclear if he had siege engines with him at that time. Himilco then unleashed his soldiers around Syracuse to strip the land of all possible supplies, and ravaged the area for 30 days, possibly to intimidate the Greeks into surrendering before winter set in, [20] and when this failed the Carthaginians went to winter quarters and began siege preparations.

The Carthaginians now began preparing for a siege in earnest, Himilco built a fort near the temple of Zeus (it is unclear if the temple was inside the fort). [36] Another fort was built at Dascon and one at Plemmyrion to safeguard the main camp and provide safer anchorage for his ships. The camp itself was surrounded by a regular wall in addition to the existing moat and palisade. [37] The tombs of Gelon and his wife were demolished in the process of building the wall. [38] Part of the fleet was dispersed while transport ships were sent to Sardinia and Africa to bring in more provisions. The forts were stocked with wine, corn, and all needful items, Himilco seemed to have spared no expense to look after his soldiers needs. [23] [39]

Carthaginian strategy Edit

The Carthaginians had successfully besieged Greek cities in the past. In 409, they had stormed Selinus using siege engines, Himera was also a victim of Carthaginian besieging skills that same year, and in 406 the Carthaginians straddled Akragas by encamping on both sides of the city. The size of the Syracusan defences made building a circumventing wall impractical. Himilco either wished to keep his forces concentrated or lacked the numbers to straddle Syracuse by building another camp, which also would have exposed Carthaginians to sudden attacks from Greeks in Syracuse or to a relief force without circumventing walls linking both camps. A direct assault on the southern side exposed the attacking soldiers to a flank attack from the fort at Eryelus. The height of the walls on top of the plateau meant it might be impossible to assault the walls without building siege ramps. [40]

Himilco basically adopted the same strategy that the Athenian leader Nicias had in 415 BC, staying put and awaiting favourable developments inside Syracuse. He went to winter quarters after completing his preparations and while Syracuse was under siege, it was not fully cut-off, Greek ships could sail in and out of the Laccius unless challenged by the Punic ships.

Nothing of consequence happened during the winter of 397 BC as the adversaries played the waiting game from their respective positions. In the spring of 396 BC, Himilco began attacking the suburbs of Syracuse. There is no mention of Carthaginians breaching the city wall, [41] but Punic soldiers captured a city section that contained several temples including one dedicated to Demeter and Kore, all of which were plundered. Dionysius also acted aggressively, sending out sorties to attack Carthaginian patrols and winning several skirmishes, but the overall tactical situation remained unchanged. In the meantime, Polyxenos had managed to gather a naval squadron in Greece, and under the command of Pharakidas of Sparta, 30 triremes managed to reach Syracuse. [37] The Spartan had apparently captured a number of Punic ships, and the Carthaginian blockade ships had let his ships through thinking a Punic squadron was returning from patrol. [42] The Greeks as well as the Carthaginians were now dependent on overseas supplies for sustaining their efforts.

Danger of success [43] Edit

Shortly after this event, Dionysius, along with his brother Leptines, sailed forth with a flotilla to escort a supply convoy crucial for Syracuse. It is not known who the commander was in Syracuse in their absence, but his actions netted a significant success for the Greeks. Firstly, after spotting an unescorted Punic corn ship in the Great Harbour, five Syracusan ships sailed out and captured it. While the prize was being brought in, 40 Punic ships sailed forth, and promptly the whole Syracusan navy (number of ships not mentioned, but probably outnumbering the Carthaginian contingent, there is no mention of who the admiral was) engaged the Punic squadron, sinking 4 ships and capturing 20 including the flagship. The Greek ships then advanced on the main Punic anchorage but Carthaginians declined the challenge. The Greeks then returned to Syracuse with their spoils.

This success was obtained without the leadership of Dionysius, and some of his political enemies tried to depose him upon his return at the citizen's assembly. The Spartans declined to support the dissenters and this caused the coup attempt to collapse. [44] Some historians speculate that the sea battle and subsequent events never actually took place and are the work of anti-tyranny authors. [45]

Whether the alleged naval battle took place or not, the strategic situation had not changed for the combatants when summer arrived in Sicily. Himilco had not been able to take Syracuse, Dionysius had failed to defeat the Punic forces, and both parties were reliant on overseas supplies. At this juncture a plague broke out among the Carthaginian troops, who had been suffering from the intense heat as well.

Plague [46] Edit

The plague, bearing similarities with the Athenian plague, may have been caused by bad hygienic practices on marshy grounds, and malaria may have played a part also. The result was that scores of soldiers and sailors succumbed to the disease, burial parties were overwhelmed, bodies were hastily buried, new burials were almost impossible, and the stench of decaying bodies hung in the air. Fear of infection may have prevented proper care being given to the sick. [6]

The cause of this calamity was attributed to the desecration of Greek temples and tombs. At the siege of Akragas (406 BC) Himilco had dealt with a similar situation by sacrificing a child and various animals to appease this alleged divine anger. Whatever measures (if any) Himilco took at Syracuse to combat the plague proved ineffective Punic forces were decimated and the fleet readiness was diminished. Himilco and the Carthaginians stubbornly stood their ground and remained in the camp, but the morale of the Carthaginians plummeted as a result of the plague, along with the combat effectiveness of their forces.

Dionysius strikes Edit

Dionysius planned to take advantage of the situation by launching a combined land and sea attack on the Punic forces before they recovered or received reinforcements. Eighty ships were manned and, under the command of Leptines and Pharakidas, [47] were to attack the Punic ships beached at the Bay of Dascon. Dionysius elected to command the soldiers attacking the Punic camp. He planned to march out on a moonless night with his army, and instead of going directly south to the Punic camp, march in a roundabout way to the Temple of Cyan and attack the Carthaginian fortifications at first light. The Greek fleet was to attack after Dionysius had engaged the Carthaginians. The success of the plan largely depended on the timely coordination between the fleet and the army, the absence of which had doomed another complicated battle plan of Dionysius in 405 BC at Gela.

Subtle treachery Edit

Dionysius successfully completed his night march and reached Cyan. At daybreak, he sent his cavalry and 1,000 mercenaries to attack the camp directly from the west. This was a diversion, Dionysius had secretly ordered his horsemen to abandon the rebellious, untrustworthy mercenaries after they engaged the Carthaginians. [48] The combined force attacked the camp, and the mercenaries were slaughtered after the Greek horsemen suddenly fled the field. Dionysius had succeeded in distracting the enemy and getting rid of some unreliable soldiers all at once.

Attack on the Punic forts [49] Edit

While the mercenaries were being butchered, the main Greek army launched attacks towards the forts near the temple of Zeus at Polichana and Dascon. The cavalry, after deserting the mercenaries, joined the attack on Dascon while part of the Greek fleet also sallied forth and attacked the Punic ships beached nearby. The Carthaginians were caught by surprise, and before they could put up a coordinated resistance, Dionysius managed to defeat the force outside the camp [50] and then storm the fort at Polichana successfully, after which his force began to attack the Carthaginian camp and the temple. The Carthaginians managed to hold off the Greeks until nightfall, when the fighting stopped.

Punic fleet decimated at Dascon Edit

The Punic fleet was undermanned as some of the crews had perished in the plague, and many of their ships were deserted. The Greek ships had also achieved total surprise, the Punic ships at Dascon, which included 40 quinqueremes, [51] could not be manned and launched in time to face the assault and soon the whole Syracuse navy joined the attack. Greek ships rammed and sunk some as they lay at anchor, some ships were boarded and captured by Greek soldiers after a brief skirmish, while the horsemen, now led by Dionysius, set fire to some of the ships, some of which drifted away when their anchor cables burnt. Punic soldiers and sailors leapt into the water and swam ashore. The fire spread to the camp but was put out after part of the camp was burnt. [52] The Punic army could not offer assistance as they were busy fending off attacking Greek soldiers. Some Greeks from Syracuse manned some of the merchant vessels and boats, sailed to Dascon and towed some of the derelict Punic ships away, along with whatever spoils they could scavenge. Meanwhile, the fort at Dascon had also fallen into Greek hands. [46] Dionysius encamped with his army near the temple of Zeus at Polichana while the fleet returned to Syracuse.

A good days work Edit

The Greeks had managed to capture the fort at Polichana and Dascon, but after a day's battle had ended, the Punic camp and temple of Zeus was still in Carthaginian hands, while a substantial part of their fleet also had survived. The initiative now lay with Dionysius, and barring reinforcements or unlooked for developments, a disaster comparable to the one at Himera might befall the Carthaginians unless Himilco acted to avert it.

Greek tyrants, especially Gelo, Hiero and Dionysius are often credited with saving the Western civilization from barbarian machinations, especially by 16th −18th century historians. However, some of their activities have more to do with saving their rule than saving western civilization, as the actions of Dionysius were to show in 396 BC.

Himilco's dilemma Edit

The Carthaginian forces had managed to survive the Greek attack, but they were still suffering from the plague, and to regain the initiative they had either to defeat the Greek army or the fleet, which was an impossible task at this stage. The Greek navy now probably outnumbered the Carthaginian one, which was devastated by the Greek raid and unable to man available ships due to crew shortage. [53] The army was in no better condition to fight a successful pitched battle. Himilco was aware of the situation and opted to open secret negotiations with Dionysius that very night, while other Greek commanders were kept in the dark as the Italian and mainland Greek contingents were in favor of totally destroying the surviving Punic forces. [54]

Duplicity of Dionysius Edit

Dionysius was also ready to make a deal although he had a good chance of totally destroying the stricken Carthaginians. It has been alleged that as a tyrant, he needed to keep the threat of Carthage alive to keep the citizens of Syracuse in control [54] saving the west was not what he was trying to achieve. He responded to Himilco's overtures, but declined to let the Carthaginians simply sail away. After some haggling, the following terms were agreed on: [55]

  • Carthaginians would pay Dionysius 300 talents immediately
  • Himilco was free to depart with the Carthaginian citizens unmolested at night. Dionysius could not guarantee their safety during the day.
  • The Carthaginian departure would take place on the fourth night.

Himilco secretly sent 300 talents either to the fort at Polichana or to Syracuse itself. Dionysius withdrew his army to Syracuse as part of his bargain, and on the appointed night Himilco manned forty ships with the citizens of Carthage and sailed away. As this fleet passed the Great Harbour mouth, the Corinthians spotted them and informed Dionysius, who made a great show of arming his fleet but delayed calling his officers to give Himilco time to get away. [54] The Corinthians, unaware of the secret pact, manned their ships and sailed out, managing to sink a few laggards, but the majority of Carthaginians ships managed to escape to Africa.

Dionysius marshalled his army after Himilco's departure and approached the Carthaginian camp, by which this time the Sicels had already slipped away to their homes [54] and most of the remaining Punic soldiers surrendered to Dionysius. Some soldiers trying to flee were captured by the Greeks. The Iberians, who stood at arms ready to resist, were hired by Dionysius for his own army. The rest of the Punic prisoners were enslaved.

Dionysius did not immediately march against the Punic possessions in Sicily but took time to order his realm. He probably did not wish to provoke Carthage more than necessary. The Sicilian Greek cities, which had thrown off the Carthaginian over-lordship, were more or less friendly with Syracuse. [56] Solus was betrayed and sacked in 396 BC. Later, 10,000 mercenaries of Dionysius revolted after Dionysius arrested their commander Aristoteles of Sparta, [57] and was placated only after their leader was sent to Sparta for judgement and the mercenaries received the city of Leontini to rule for themselves. Next Dionysius repopulated the ruined city of Messana with colonists from Italian and mainland Dorian Greeks, then founded Tyndaris with the original inhabitants of Messana [58] who had been driven out after the Carthaginian sack of their city in 397 BC. Dionysius in 394 BC unsuccessfully besieged Tauromenium, then held by Sicels allied to Carthage. In response, Mago of Carthage led an army to Messana in 393 BC, and the war was renewed.

Carthage: plagued by problems Edit

The return of Himilco, after abandoning his troops at the mercy of Dionysius, did not sit well with the Carthaginian citizens or their African subjects. Although the council of 104 did not crucify him, as unsuccessful Carthaginian commanders normally were, Himilco decided to do the deed himself. He publicly took full responsibility for the debacle, visited all the temples of the city dressed in rags and pleading for deliverance, and finally bricked himself inside his house and starved himself to death. [13] Later, despite the sacrifice done to placate the Carthaginian gods, a plague swept through Africa, weakening Carthage. To top things off, the Libyans, angered by the desertion of their kinsmen in Africa, rebelled. They gathered an army of 70,000 and besieged Carthage.

Mago, the victor of Catana, took command. The standing Punic army was in Sicily and recruiting a new one was time consuming and probably very costly (Himilco's misdeed would have made mercenaries wary), so he rallied Carthaginian citizens to man the walls while the Punic navy kept the city supplied. Mago then used bribes and other means to quell the rebels. Carthaginians also built a temple for Demeter and Kore in the city and had Greeks offer proper sacrifice to atone for the destruction of the temple at Syracuse. [57]

Mago next moved to Sicily, where he did not try to recover lost territory. Instead he adopted a policy of cooperation and friendship, giving aid to Greeks, Sikans, Sicels, Elymians and Punics regardless of their prior standing with Carthage. [59] The Greeks' cities, who had thrown off Carthaginian over-lordship after the war started, now moved from a pro-Syracuse position to a more neutral one, either feeling threatened by Dionysius or because of the activities of Mago. [60] This peaceful policy continued until Dionysius attacked the Sicels in 394 BC.

Siege [ edit ]

The city was fiercely defended for many months against all the measures the Romans could bring to bear. Realizing how difficult the siege would be, the Romans brought their own unique devices and inventions to aid their assault. These included the sambuca, a floating siege tower with grappling hooks, as well as ship-mounted scaling ladders that were lowered with pulleys onto the city walls.

Despite these novel inventions, Archimedes devised defensive devices to counter the Roman efforts including a huge crane operated hook – the Claw of Archimedes – that was used to lift the enemy ships out of the sea before dropping them to their doom. Legend has it that he also created a giant mirror (see heat ray) that was used to deflect the powerful Mediterranean sun onto the ships' sails, setting fire to them. These measures, along with the fire from ballistas and onagers mounted on the city walls, frustrated the Romans and forced them to attempt costly direct assaults.

The Siege of Syracuse 415-413 BC

"The Romans knew not…how deeply the greatness of their own prosperity and the fate of the whole Western world were involved in the destruction of the fleet of Athens in the harbor of Syracuse.” -- Arnold

Say what? The ‘fate of the whole Western world?’ Syracuse? How?

Simple. If the Athenians had taken Syracuse, during their invasion of 415 BC, they would have captured Sicily and become a major superpower. They would dominate the Italian boot as well, and make it much harder for a city-state named Rome to expand.

Maybe one of the oddest things about the lengthy Peloponnesian War is that, after decades of balance, the Athenians actually lost it with a campaign well away from the Greek mainland.

The Athenians have a mighty host of fleets and men, filled with confidence. The Syracusans have a long history of clinging to their independence (and powerful allies coming to foil Athens).

Combat units include cavalry, light troops, peltasts, and the heavily armed hoplites—the backbone of both sides’ armies. You the players can decide your best approaches for attack and defense, selecting from pitched battles or skirmishes…or building miles of siege walls.

Can you extend the Golden Age of Athens or maintain the freedom of the most powerful city in the mid Mediterranean?

The Siege of Syracuse includes:
One full color, 11” x 17” mounted mapboard
One 8.5” x 11” Battle Board
176 large, full color, die-cut counters
12 page rulebook

Part of the TPS "Decisive Battles" series

That means straightforward rules, key insights into the history behind the game, and designs aimed at one-session conclusions and high replay value.

Base postage cost: £3.00

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The Siege of Syracuse: a Roman General vs. a Greek Genius

The Second Punic War, fought between ancient Rome and Carthage, is most well-known for the clashes of the legendary Hannibal with Roman commanders. An often-overlooked engagement during this war is the Siege of Syracuse, from 213-212 BC, which tested strategic military might against feats of engineering. This contest pitted Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a Roman general renowned for his power in single combat, against the Greek mathematical genius Archimedes.

Although it took place in ancient times, the Siege of Syracuse arguably foreshadowed many problems presented in modern warfare. It was essentially a battle of technology–with opposing forces each initially associating victory with the successful use of it. Yet the battle also proved that advanced technology, lacking a superior strategy, is doomed to fail. It is also interesting to note Marcellus’ changed approach when he realized enemy technology could not be matched by his own force—a recurring issue in the history of modern warfare.

At the time of the battle, Syracuse, located on the coast of Sicily, was a large city torn by civil strife. Its dictator, Hieronymus, had recently been assassinated after pledging allegiance to the enemies of Rome. The inhabitants of the city were predominantly Greek and—unlike the Romans—were largely focused on arts and had little appreciation for warfare. The city’s location and geographic characteristics gave it great strategic value. However, by Roman estimation it would not be especially difficult to conquer due to the civic unrest. The Roman general assigned to capture the city was Marcellus.

The ancient biographer Plutarch in his Lives series describes Marcellus as “a man of war, of a sturdy body and a vigorous arm.” He adds that Marcellus was “naturally fond of war,” yet was also “modest” and “humane.” Marcellus was beloved by the men under his command and had great prowess as a swordsman.

“Marcellus was efficient and practiced in every kind of fighting, but in single combat he surpassed himself, never declining a challenge, and always killing his challengers,” according to Plutarch. One of Marcellus’s greatest triumphs in single combat was killing a Gallic king on the battlefield and confiscating his armor in an achievement known as the spolia opima.

Marcellus hoped to take Syracuse without undue bloodshed. However, his plans were foiled by the spread of misinformation in the city by enemy Greek commanders, who claimed he was a vengeful conqueror. Surrender was refused. Therefore Marcellus drew up Roman forces on land and sea to besiege the city.

The Greeks, however, had a secret weapon which gave them confidence against the invaders—a man called Archimedes, whose brilliance in geometry and theory was matchless. The former King Hiero had been so impressed with Archimedes’ demonstration of a pulley system––dubbed siege engines––moving a heavily loaded ship that he had ordered him to design a stockpile of them. Archimedes allegedly disdained using his intellect to design weapons, viewing it as crude and only participating as a matter of duty.

To the Greeks of Syracuse, Archimedes was the answer to all major problems of the impending battle. Plutarch describes him during the siege as “the one soul moving and managing everything for all other weapons lay idle, and his alone were then employed by the city both in offence and defense.”

Like many great minds, Archimedes was a distracted genius. According to Plutarch, he spent most of his life absorbed in developing his theories—to the point of forgetting to eat and neglecting his personal health and appearance. It is said that force was needed to drag Archimedes away from his studies and induce him to bathe and tidy up. His myopic focus on mathematics and abstracted thoughts later played a role in his demise.

By the time the Romans brought forth their land and sea forces to attack Syracuse, the city’s inhabitants had at the ready a stockpile of never before used siege engines designed over the years by Archimedes. The Romans were unprepared for the effectiveness of the groundbreaking technology hurled at them in combat.

Plutarch writes that the engines of Archimedes “shot against the land forces of the assailants all sorts of missiles and immense masses of stones, which came down with incredible din and speed” and “knocked down in heaps those who stood in their way, and threw their ranks into confusion.”

Some of the engines included massive beams shot out from over the city walls which sank ships in the ocean below, while other machines described as “iron claws” or “beaks like the beaks of cranes” threw Roman ships into the air and cast them in disarray back into the water or against cliffs, killing the crews.

The "Claw of Archimedes" by artist Giulio Parigi. (Stanzino delle Matematiche)

“Frequently, too, a ship would be lifted out of the water into mid-air, whirled hither and thither as it hung there, a dreadful spectacle, until its crew had been thrown out and hurled in all directions, when it would fall empty upon the walls, or slip away from the clutch that had held it,” according to Plutarch.

For once in his military career, Marcellus was baffled. He attempted to deploy innovative siege ships, called sambuca, equipped with ramps in order to scale the walls, but these also proved unsuccessful. Afterwards he withdrew his forces and attempted to outwit Archimedes by sending infantry over the city walls in a stealth assault. Marcellus estimated that the enemy’s large engines would not be effective at close range.

Archimedes, however, was poised and ready—he had prepared a variety of projectile weapons with adjustable ranges and when the Romans tried to sneak over the walls, “huge stones came tumbling down upon them almost perpendicularly, and the wall shot out arrows at them from every point.”

The effect on the legionnaires was total demoralization, according to Plutarch. “The Romans seemed to be fighting against the gods, now that countless mischiefs were poured out upon them from an invisible source.”

Indeed the men of the mighty Roman army were so terrorized that “whenever they saw a bit of rope or a stick of timber projecting a little over the wall, ‘There it is,’ they cried, ‘Archimedes is training some engine upon us,’ and turned their backs and fled,” Plutarch wrote.

The determined Marcellus, however, left no opportunity to chance. By this time the siege had already lasted over a year. Taking advantage of a lull in action caused by negotiations, Marcellus reconnoitered a tower at the edge of the city that appeared poorly defended.

He decided to apply the principle of Schwerpunkt—concentration of force—to that tower and planned to strike when the Greeks were feeling comfortable and oblivious.

Marcellus “seized his opportunity when the Syracusans were celebrating a festival in honor of Artemis and were given over to wine and sport, and…not only got possession of the tower, but also filled the wall round about with armed men, before the break of day, and cut his way through” the city, according to Plutarch.

Archimedes was not fated to survive the sack of Syracuse. Plutarch and other ancient sources hold that the mathematician remained, as ever, typically distracted even as the Romans plundered the city. He was said to have been blissfully lost in his equations when he encountered a Roman soldier. Accounts differ as to what actually happened during the encounter. What is known is that the soldier killed Archimedes on the spot.

The death of Archimedes. (Getty Images)

Despite the considerable trouble that Archimedes had put the Romans through, Marcellus mourned the death of his rival. It seems Marcellus had developed soldierly respect for the eccentric genius by the siege’s end. The Roman commander was “afflicted at his death, and turned away from his slayer as from a polluted person, and sought out the kindred of Archimedes and paid them honor.”

In the end, the war machines of Archimedes did not save the city of Syracuse from carelessness. Although they possessed superior technology than their enemies, the Greeks lack of a cohesive strategy and great military leadership—and their overreliance on the genius of Archimedes—led to their downfall. Although the Romans were technologically inferior, their commander’s resourcefulness and above all, his will to achieve victory, led him to complete his objective.

Siege of Syracuse

In the summer of 414 BC, Athenians came to Syracuse and besieged the city. By the end of the year, Syracuse was considering surrender, but after the arrival of Sparta, the Syracusans became more confident. In Athens, they decided to send reinforcements to Sicily. In the winter, 10 ships under the command of the strategist Eurymedon arrived in Syracuse, and in the spring Demosthenes was exp-ected with 73 ships. In the meantime, the Syracusans entered into battle with the Athenians on land and at sea. In the sea battle on September 3, the Athenians suffered complete defeat. After this battle, the Syracusans blocked exit from the harbor, where the Athenian vessels were stationed.

Siege of Syracuse I

The final sea battle in the Great Harbour at Syracuse, 413 BC. The largest single expedition that Athens mounted in the Peloponnesian War was to Sicily in 415 BC, consisting of 134 triremes. Reinforcements of 73 triremes followed the next year. In the first sea battle the Syracusans manned 76 triremes. Yet in spite of their advantage in numbers and skill, poor leadership meant that the Athenian armada was trapped in the Great Harbour, where their skill could not be exercised. The outcome in 413 BC was to be a total disaster.

Based on Thucydides 7.70, this reconstruction shows the first impetus of the Athenian attack, which carried them through the Syracusan vessels guarding the boom across the harbour mouth. The Athenians began loosening the chained merchantmen, but then other Syracusan warships joined in from all directions and the fighting became general throughout the harbour. Thucydides emphasizes that it was a harder sea-fight than any of the previous ones, but despite the best efforts of the Athenian helmsmen, because there were so many ships crammed in such a confined space, there were few opportunities to maneuver-and-ram, backing water (anakrousis) and breaking through the enemy line (diekplous) being impossible. Instead, accidental collisions were numerous, leading to fierce fights across decks and much confusion. In other words, this was an engagement in which Athenian skill was nullified.

Date 415� BCE
Location Syracuse in Sicily
Opponents (* winner) *Syracuse and Sparta Athens and its allies
Commander Gylippus Alcibiades, Lamachus, Nicias, Demosthenes
Approx. # Troops Sparta: 4,400 Syracuse: Unknown but probably equal to Athens and allies 42,000
Importance Leads to revolts against Athens from within its empire

The siege of the city-state of Syracuse in Sicily by Athens and its allies during 415-413 BCE initiated the final phase of the Second Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BCE). Alcibiades, a nephew of Pericles, convinced Athenians that if they could secure Sicily they would have the resources to defeat their enemies. The grain of Sicily was immensely important to the people of the Peloponnese, and cutting it off could turn the tide of war. The argument was correct, but securing Sicily was the problem.

The Athenians put together a formidable expeditionary force. A contemporary historian, Thucydides, described the expeditionary force that set out in June 415 as "by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time” (Finley, The Greek Historians, 314). The naval force consisted of 134 triremes (100 of them from Athens and the remainder from Chios and other Athenian allies), 30 supply ships, and more than 100 other vessels. In addition to sailors, rowers, and marines, the force included some 5,100 hoplites and 1,300 archers, javelin men, and slingers as well as 300 horses. In all, the expedition numbered perhaps 27,000 officers and men. Three generals—Alcibiades, Lamachus, and Nicias—commanded.

The original plan was for a quick demonstration in force against Syracuse and then a return of the expeditionary force to Greece. Alcibiades considered this a disgrace. He urged that the expeditionary force stir up political opposition to Syracuse in Sicily. In a council of war, Lamachus pressed for an immediate descent on Syracuse while the city was unprepared and its citizens afraid, but Alcibiades prevailed.

The expedition’s leaders then made a series of approaches to leaders of the other Sicilian cities all ended in failure, with no city of importance friendly to Athens. Syracuse used this time to strengthen its defenses. Alcibiades meanwhile was recalled to stand trial in Athens for impiety.

Nicias and Lamachus then launched an attack on Syracuse and won a battle there, but the arrival of winter prevented further progress, and they suspended offensive operations. What had been intended as a lightning campaign now became a prolonged siege that sapped Athenian energies. Alicibades, fearing for his life, managed to escape Athens and find refuge in Sparta. He not only betrayed the Athenian plan of attack against Syracuse but also spoke to the Spartan assembly and strongly supported a Syracusan plea for aid. The Spartans then sent out a force of their own commanded by Gylippus, one of their best generals.

How a Mathematician Stopped the Roman Army: The Siege of Syracuse

When a small group of Roman soldiers made their way quietly to the walls of Syracuse in 212 BCE, they were looking to end an almost two-year-long siege that had left the Roman army frustrated and desperate.

It was the festival of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and nature, and though it was being celebrated by the Greeks within the city walls, the darkness of the night seemed to favor the exhausted Romans.

The Syracusans had become over-confident, but they had reasons for believing in their success. Every time the Romans had tried to breach their walls, the inhabitants had beaten them back.

Archimedes directing the defenses of Syracuse.

For the Roman general and Proconsul, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, it had been a disaster. Too many ships had been sunk, too many soldiers lost. His decision to siege the city had taken its toll. Now, victory or defeat lay in the hands of his best men.

Marcellus knew the source of his problems and why the city seemed impregnable. A local engineer had joined in the city’s defense, but this was no ordinary man of mechanics and math. It was Archimedes who had been orchestrating Syracuse’s staunch resistance, and it was his brilliance that had stopped the Romans dead in their tracks.

This man’s mind was their true enemy. Science was the weapon being wielded against them. An entire army of professional soldiers was losing to the genius of one man.

Statue of Marco Claudio Marcello – Museum Capitolini – Rome

The Great Mind of His Time

To this day, Archimedes is considered the greatest scientist and engineer of ancient Greece. Known for his inventions and knowledge of mathematics, he was a man whose mind reached far beyond his time.

He left a profound legacy in a wide variety of scientific fields, calling his approach to such complex studies the “mechanical” method. A philosophy centered on understanding the world through math, physics, engineering, and astronomy permeated all of his work.

Archimedes Thoughtful by Domenico Fetti (1620)

Though we know more about Archimedes than any other scientist of his time, much of what is known comes to us through anecdotal stories and tales. To later historians and scientists, he remained a larger-than-life figure, a paragon of mathematical precision and understanding.

The legends surrounding his defense of Syracuse reflect the immense respect and reverence the world has had for him throughout history.

Syracuse was a city-state on the east coast of Sicily, founded in 734 BCE by Corinthian and Tenean Greeks. Becoming one of the most powerful states by the time of the Classical Greece period, it had already played major roles in the wars between super-powers of the time.

Aerial view of Siracuse. Attribution: CC BY 2.0

Its strategic location within the Ionic Sea and an alliance with Sparta was enough for Athens to invade Sicily, attacking Syracuse in 431 BCE during the height of the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenians would never recover from the catastrophe that followed. Their loss in Sicily would mark a massive turning point that would eventually lead to Sparta’s victory in the war.

Despite its contentious position, Syracuse remained a beacon of art, science, and commerce. It reached a level of cultural achievement that rivaled Athens itself.

By Archimedes’s time, the Syracusans had continued to live up to this reputation. But changing times would once again pull them into the ambitions of two great powers.

The Roman amphitheater, Syracuse. Photo: Berthold Werner / CC BY-SA 3.0

An Island at War

Rome and Carthage had already concluded the First Punic War in 241 BCE, a war that had left the victorious Romans in control of Sicily. Though the island became a province of the Roman Republic, Syracuse retained their independence and influence within the Mediterranean world.

The city-state enjoyed a period of peace with Rome under the reign of King Heiro II. His assistance during the war had cemented an alliance with the growing Italian power.

Coin of Hiero II of Syracuse. Photo: Sailko / CC BY 3.0

Archimedes held a close relationship with the king of Syracuse, frequently being employed by him to solve complex and difficult problems around the city. His abilities were not lost on the ruler.

From inventing a water pump to remove rainwater from ships to testing the amount of gold in the king’s crown, Archimedes’s genius made him the most famous and well-respected scientist of his time.

In his youth, Archimedes studied in the cultural and scientific center of the Greek world: the prestigious city of Alexandria. Following in the footsteps of famous mathematicians such as Euclid and Eratosthenes, his immense knowledge of geometry and physics was no doubt a product of his tutelage under the brilliant successors of Alexandrian science and discovery.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Hiero II calls Archimedes to fortify the city, 1720’s

When he returned home to Syracuse to solve the practical problems of Heiro II, he was more than prepared to apply his skills in the service of his king. But according to the Roman historian Plutarch, he viewed this application of his abilities as boring and a waste of time.

His pride and passion were in pushing the limits of maths and physics to achieve a better understanding of the world around him. Focusing on the trivial tasks presented to him by the king were an interruption to his true work.

Nonetheless, when Heiro II asked him to construct mechanical devices for the defense of his city, Archimedes obliged.

A Battle for Machines

After the death of Heiro II in 215 BCE, a pro-Carthaginian movement within Syracuse began to grow under the rule of his grandson, Hieronymus. Though he and the leaders behind this political shift were soon assassinated, an alliance was made with Carthage under the new republican government that came to power.

This radical change in disposition was enough for Rome to see the city-state as a growing threat to their dominating presence in Sicily. In 214 BCE, the two states declared war.

The famous Claw of Archimedes as imagined by the Renaissance artist Giulio Parigi.

Although Rome was busy fighting the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War, they still found the time and opportunity to attack Syracuse. Marcus Claudius Marcellus laid siege to the city by land and sea in 213 BCE.

Faced with the difficult task of overcoming the well-built fortifications of Syracuse, Marcellus and his army were repulsed in every assault. With Archimedes behind the walls, the soldiers and citizens within had become willing tools to operate his instruments.

Well-versed in the importance of engineering in siege warfare, the Romans brought their own contraptions. Ships carrying ladders and grappling hooks sailed toward the city with the intention of scaling its walls. But the quick mind of Archimedes was already formulating plans to counter the might of Rome.

Though most of what we know about the battle is through the words of later Roman historians like Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch, it is clear that Archimedes’s involvement in the Siege of Syracuse left an impact important enough to be remembered in an almost mythical fashion.

Coin of Marcus Claudius Marcellus.

One of his inventions was said to be a large wall of mirrors that could set the Roman ships on fire by reflecting light from the sun.

A more probable construction was the Claw of Archimedes, described as a massive crane with a grappling hook that extended into the sea. According to Plutarch, this device could lift a ship out of the water and drop it back down with devastating effect — flipping, crushing or capsizing the vessel.

Besides the novel instruments Archimedes is believed to have built, much of his tenacious defense of the city came from the more traditional use of physics in war.

Siege equipment and artillery were his primary weapons in the fight against Rome. He utilized onagers and ballistae with an almost impossible precision at incredibly long distances. Even when Roman soldiers reached the walls of Syracuse, they would be met by a hail of mechanical fire from smaller machines.

Onager with sling.

Marcellus could not afford any more direct attacks after suffering such heavy losses. He was forced to keep his army outside the city walls to wait for an advantage. But the Romans could not maintain their blockade at sea well enough to prevent a flow of supplies from slipping through to Syracuse.

What began as a siege had become a stalemate.

The Beginning of the End

The Roman soldiers that climbed up the walls of Syracuse in 212 BCE must have anxiously anticipated some strange trap set by Archimedes to annihilate them. But the festival of Artemis proved to be a valuable distraction, providing the Romans with the time they needed to open the gates and allow the army of Marcellus to storm the city.

Having a great respect for his legendary foe, Marcellus ordered his troops to find Archimedes and bring him back unharmed. Unaware of his city’s fate, the scientist remained fixated on geometric designs he had drawn into the dust.

A mosaic depicting Archimedes’s confrontation with a Roman soldier.

Enthralled by his desire for his discovery, he ignored a group of Roman soldiers when they ordered him to follow them back to Marcellus. He was intent on finishing his work and insisted that he be allowed to complete it before leaving. While the reasons vary as to why he was killed, in all accounts he was slain on the spot.

According to the Roman writer Valerius Maximus, “Noli obsecro, istum disturbare,” or “Do not, I entreat you, disturb that,” were his last words, referencing the work he had laid out in the sand. Whether this is true or not, the phrase is a testament to Archimedes’s devotion to science and its mysteries.

The Journey of Genius

Archimedes would remain a source of inspiration for genius minds of later times. Men of similar caliber and intellect like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci would consider themselves disciples of his work.

A medieval copy of Archimedes’ work called a palimpsest found in 1906.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the Roman general that had been his opponent for so long, declared his killers murderers and personally apologized to his relatives. On his tomb was placed a sculpture featuring a sphere and cylinder of equal height and diameter, a symbol of his favorite discovery in mathematics.

In 75 BCE, the famous Roman orator Cicero would claim to find it, but its location to this day remains a mystery.

However, the extraordinary legacy left behind by such an incredible man can never truly be forgotten. The tales surrounding his intellect during the Siege of Syracuse exemplify the immense respect he has earned within the annals of history.

Watch the video: Belagerung von Syrakus