CHAPTER II. DEFEAT OF THE ATHENIANS AT SYRACUSE, B.C.413.
The Syracusans themselves, at the time of the Peloponnesian war, were a bold and turbulent democracy, tyrannizing over the weaker Greek cities in Sicily, and trying to gain in that island the same arbitrary supremacy which Athens maintained along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. In numbers and in spirit they were fully equal to the Athenians, but far inferior to them in military and naval discipline. When the probability of an Athenian invasion was first publicly discussed at Syracuse, and efforts were made by some of the wiser citizens to improve the state of the national defences, and prepare for the impending danger, the rumours of coming war and the proposals for preparation were received by the mass of the Syracusans with scornful incredulity. The speech of one of their popular orators is preserved to us in Thucydides, [Lib. vi. sec. 36 et seq., Arnold's edition. I have almost literally transcribed some of the marginal epitomes of the original speech.] and many of its topics might, by a slight alteration of names and details, serve admirably for the party among ourselves at present which opposes the augmentation of our forces, and derides the idea of our being in any peril from the sudden attack of a French expedition. The Syracusan orator told his countrymen to dismiss with scorn the visionary terrors which a set of designing men among themselves strove to excite, in order to get power and influence thrown into their own hands. He told them that Athens knew her own interest too well to think of wantonly provoking their hostility: - "EVEN IF THE ENEMIES WERE TO COME," said he, "SO DISTANT FROM THEIR RESOURCES, AND OPPOSED TO SUCH A POWER AS OURS, THEIR DESTRUCTION WOULD BE EASY AND INEVITABLE. THEIR SHIPS WILL HAVE ENOUGH TO DO TO GET TO OUR ISLAND AT ALL, AND TO CARRY SUCH STORES OF ALL SORTS AS WILL BE NEEDED. THEY CANNOT THEREFORE CARRY, BESIDES, AN ARMY LARGE ENOUGH TO COPE WITH SUCH A POPULATION AS OURS. THEY WILL HAVE NO FORTIFIED PLACE FROM WHICH TO COMMENCE THEIR OPERATIONS; BUT MUST REST THEM ON NO BETTER BASE THAN A SET OF WRETCHED TENTS, AND SUCH MEANS AS THE NECESSITIES OF THE MOMENT WILL ALLOW THEM. BUT IN TRUTH I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THEY WOULD EVEN BE ABLE TO EFFECT A DISEMBARKATION. LET US, THEREFORE, SET AT NOUGHT THESE REPORTS AS ALTOGETHER OF HOME MANUFACTURE; AND BE SURE THAT IF ANY ENEMY DOES COME, THE STATE WILL KNOW HOW TO DEFEND ITSELF IN A MANNER WORTHY OF THE NATIONAL HONOUR."
Such assertions pleased the Syracusan assembly; and their counterparts find favour now among some portion of the English public. But the invaders of Syracuse came; made good their landing in Sicily; and, if they had promptly attacked the city itself, instead of wasting nearly a year in desultory operations in other parts of the island, the Syracusans must have paid the penalty of their self-sufficient carelessness in submission to the Athenian yoke. But, of the three generals who led the Athenian expedition, two only were men of ability, and one was most weak and incompetent. Fortunately for Syracuse, Alcibiades, the most skilful of the three, was soon deposed from his command by a factious and fanatic vote of his fellow-countrymen, and the other competent one, Lamachus, fell early in a skirmish: while, more fortunately still for her, the feeble and vacillating Nicias remained unrecalled and unhurt, to assume the undivided leadership of the Athenian army and fleet, and to mar, by alternate over-caution and over-carelessness, every chance of success which the early part of the operations offered. Still, even under him, the Athenians nearly won the town. They defeated the raw levies of the Syracusans, cooped them within the walls, and, as before mentioned, almost effected a continuous fortification from bay to bay over Epipolae, the completion of which would certainly have been followed by capitulation.
Alcibiades, the most complete example of genius without principle that history produces, the Bolingbroke of antiquity, but with high military talents superadded to diplomatic and oratorical powers, on being summoned home from his command in Sicily to take his trial before the Athenian tribunal had escaped to Sparta; and he exerted himself there with all the selfish rancour of a renegade to renew the war with Athens, and to send instant assistance to Syracuse.