When the first phase of the Peloponnesian War ended in 421 BC, Athens and Sparta signed the peace of Nicias which was to last 50 years. Only five years later, however, an embassy from the city of Segesta in Sicily arrived in Athens with an irresistible offer.
It is also true that neither the Athenians nor the Spartans had fulfilled the conditions imposed by the peace treaty, and had engaged in skirmishes supporting one or another city in the Peloponnese. That is why when the Segestans arrived in Athens in 416 BC they knew they had a good chance of getting what they were looking for.
They had been fighting for some time with another Sicilian city, Selinunte, against which they had already lost a first battle. Now they came to ask for the help of Athens and also offered to pay for the entire expedition. In exchange, they promised to help the Athenians take over Syracuse, Sparta’s great ally in Magna Graecia. The Athenians doubted that Segesta had the necessary economic capacity, so they sent ambassadors to check it out.
These warnings of the Aegeans, which they made very often to the Athenians, exposed to the people of Athens, caused them to determine first to send their ambassadors to Sicily, to find out if the Aegeans had as much money for the war as they offered, and besides to see the preparations for war they possessed and learn about the power and strength of the Selinuntios, their opponents, and the state in which their things were found, which was done in this way.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VI.1
The Segestans managed to deceive the Athenian ambassadors, showing them a little gold and silver and making them believe that they had much more. When the ambassadors returned to Athens with 60 talents of silver, equal to a month’s pay for 60 ships, the sending of troops was enthusiastically approved.
At the beginning of the summer the ambassadors that the Athenians had sent to Sicily returned, and with them some of the leading Aegeans, who brought sixty talents of silver, unwrought, for a month’s pay for sixty ships that begged the Athenians for help. These Egestenses and the ambassadors were admitted to the Senate and, when they were given an audience before all the people, they proposed many things to be able to persuade the Athenians of their demand, and among others was that of affirming that their city had a great copy of gold and silver, both in the public treasury and in the temples, although this was not true
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VI.2
The Athenian fleet set sail in June 415 BC The army, numbering 134 triremes, 130 transport ships, 5,100 hoplites, 1,300 archers and slingers, plus ship crews and non-combatant personnel (altogether about 27,000 men), sailed north to the island of Corcyra, and from there headed for Sicily. They landed at Regio, facing the Straits of Messina, and there confirmation reached the Athenians that they had been deceived by the Segestans. There was no gold or treasure.
The Athenian generals, Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus, then decided to forget about Selinunte and go directly to attack Syracuse. When the Syracusans learned that Athens was sending a fleet to Sicily they could not believe it. With peace with Sparta hanging in the balance, how could they take advantage of the excuse of helping Segesta to invade them?
The expedition did not go as well as the Athenians had thought. By July 413 BC, two years after their arrival, they were still stuck unable to take the city. In fact, and thanks to the Spartan aid to Syracuse, they were the besieged, rather than the Syracusans. When the reinforcements arrived under the command of Demosthenes, he decided to return to Athens given the impossibility of taking the city and in view of the fact that the Spartans had occupied and fortified Decelia, some 22 kilometers northeast of Athens, seriously interrupting its supply by land, for what was necessary to return to defend Athens from the Spartan invasion.
Just when they were ready to leave, on August 28, there was a lunar eclipse and the priests advised the Athenians to wait another 27 days. This gave the Syracusans time to block the exit from the port, trapping the entire Athenian fleet inside. On September 10 they tried to break the blockade, but it was useless. So they wanted to flee by land and landed, leaving the boats on the shore where they were burned by the Syracusans.
Nicias and Demosthenes tried to reach the 40,000 Athenian survivors to the allied city of Catania, but the Spartan general Gilipo cut off their retreat and, after various battles, forced them to surrender. There were only 7,000 left.
Although it is difficult to explain the number of all those who remained prisoners, it must be taken for certain and true that they were more than seven thousand, being the greatest loss that the Greeks suffered in all that war, and as far as I can know and understand, so for hearsay stories, the greatest they experienced in previous times, resulting as much more glorious and honorable for the victors, as sad and miserable for the vanquished, who were left completely undone and disarranged, without infantry, without ships, and of such great size. number of war people, very few returned safely to their homes. This end had the war of Sicily.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VII.14
Those who were not Athenians, Italians or Sicilians were sold into slavery, and the rest forced to do forced labor in quarries, where most had already died of hunger or disease just 70 days later. A few managed to flee to Catania, and others were released because, as Plutarch tells it, they knew the works of Euripides by heart and recited them.
Most of the Athenians died in the mines, from disease and malnutrition, because they were only given two cotyles of barley and one of water per day. Not a few were sold, or because they had been stolen because, having hidden among the serfs, they passed for slaves, and as such they sold them, stamping a horse on their foreheads; having to suffer this misery more than slavery. Their embarrassment and education were of great help to them, because either they later achieved freedom or remained treated with distinction in their masters’ houses. Others owed their health to Euripides, because the Sicilians, it seems, were among the outside Greeks those who most liked his poetry, and they learned by heart the samples, and, let us put it that way, the morsels that those who arrived from all over the world brought them. parts, communicating them to each other.
Plutarch, Life of Nicias XXIX
Euripides is, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, one of the three great Greek tragic poets of antiquity. He wrote more than 90 works of which 19 have survived to this day (for only 7 of Sophocles and Aeschylus). However, he was the least successful of the three, and so it is somewhat surprising that he was so well received by the Syracusans.
In the Dionysia In spring, the Athenian festival in honor of Dionysus in which a competition of plays was held, Aeschylus won the first prize 13 times, Sophocles had 24 victories, and Euripides only 4.
And it is that the works of Euripides were too realistic for Athenian taste, as Sophocles himself tells us through Aristotle: Sophocles claimed that he represented men as they should be and that Euripides represented them as they were..
Although Euripides was a decade younger than Sophocles, he would die before him, albeit in the same year 406 BC. Dionysia of that year Sophocles honored his deceased friend by presenting the choir in mourning and without garlands. Something that surely would have pleased Euripides as much as the recognition expressed by the soldiers who achieved freedom thanks to his verses.
It is said, then, that of those who were finally able to return safely to their homes, many visited Euripides with the greatest gratitude, and some told him that, finding themselves slaves, they had achieved freedom by teaching the fragments of his poetry, which they knew by heart. , and others, who, scattered and wandering after the battle, had earned food by singing their verses; which is not surprising when it is said that, after taking refuge in one of those ports, a ship from the city of Caunus, pursued by pirates, at first they did not receive him, but instead made him leave, and later, asking the sailors if the choirs of Euripides knew, and answering yes, with this they yielded and gave them port.
Plutarch, Life of Nicias XXIX
Perhaps the satirization of many heroes of Greek mythology, his realism in the humanization of the characters and his usually intelligent and strong characters of women and slaves, won him the favor of those who, outside of Athens, were opposed to the values that this city represented.
The Sicilian Expedition, 413 BC / History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides) / Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Thomas Cahill) / The Peace of Nicias and th Sicilian Expedition (Donald Kagan) / Wikipedia.