A Brief History
Between 415 and 413 BCE a battle for Syracuse on the Island of Sicily was fought between the forces of Athens and the forces of Sparta. Athens and Sparta had been engaged in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) for control of Greece and its environs in the Mediterranean. This battle proved so debilitating to Athens that the war with Sparta was as good as lost, although Athens managed to hold on for a remarkable 10 more years.
Athens was the dominant city state of Northern Greece, while Sparta was the reigning heavyweight champ of Southern Greece, known as the Peoloponnesus. Sicily, a large island located off the “toe” of Italy had seen human occupants as long as 12,000 years ago, and at least by 750 BCE had been colonized by Phoenicians and Greeks.
During the war between Greek City States Athens saw what they thought was an opportunity to capitalize on seizing control of Syracuse, the dominant Greek colony on Sicily. Athens mounted what is known as The Sicilian Expedition, at first meant to be a modest effort, but one marred by a lack of focus and clear purpose. In fact, the original commander of the invasion fleet of 20 ships was recalled before the fleet even reached Sicily. Syracuse was allied with the Dorian branch of Greeks (which included Sparta and Corinth) while many smaller colonies on Sicily were aligned with the Ionians (mainly Athens).
Athenian politicians and generals argued over the plans and goals of such an expedition, resulting in serious disagreements and a lack of consensus. Compounding the problem was a lack of enthusiasm among Sicilian states in joining with Athens. Meanwhile, in Syracuse news of a possible invasion likewise met with partisan debate over what to do, with various solutions such as a preemptive naval strike against the invasion fleet presented. The Athenian commander, Alcibiades (c. 450 – 404 BC), was recalled to Athens to face charges of profaning the Gods and conspiring against his own success, but he escaped in Italy and traveled to Sparta where he revealed the Athenian plans and organization.
The invading armada was reinforced into a massive force of over 200 ships (triremes and an additional 130 supply ships) and over 12,000 soldiers, while the forces of Syracuse, Sparta and Corinth put together a force of unknown size, but one that included a large cavalry contingent of 1200 mounted men and at least 1000 Spartans. Syracuse also had at least 100 ships included in its forces.
The initial invasion took Syracuse by surprise and was largely successful, but the leader of Spartan troops, General Gylippus, arrived to rally the defenders into not only a successful defense of Syracuse, but a total defeat of the Athenians and their allies. The entire Athenian force was either killed or captured (enslaved) and the entire fleet was sunk. The defeat was so catastrophic for Athens that rebels and foreign enemies (such as Persians) were encouraged to conduct raids and operations against Athens on the home turf of the Athenians. Athens was in the decline, and stubbornly hung on to resisting its enemies for another decade before being finally overwhelmed and eclipsed by the Dorians.
The Sicilian Expedition is an example of a country at war going too far in committing too large a force to a particular campaign that proves beyond its capability to succeed. The Sicilian Expedition can thus be compared to the disastrous campaigns of Napoleon invading Russia in 1812, Robert E. Lee’s thrust into Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) in 1863, the German invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1941 or Japan attacking the United States in 1941, or even the German Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in 1944. Perhaps the Spanish Armada expedition against England can be compared, as well. Each of these expeditions proved disastrous for those mounting them, largely resulting in ultimate defeat. What other similar ill advised military forays can you think of?
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