CHAPTER II. DEFEAT OF THE ATHENIANS AT SYRACUSE, B.C.413.
"The Romans knew not, and could not know, how deeply the
greatness of their own posterity, and the fate of the whole
Western world, were involved in the destruction of the fleet of
Athens in the harbour of Syracuse. Had that great expedition
proved victorious, the energies of Greece during the next
eventful century would have found their field in the West no less
than in the East; Greece, and not Rome, might have conquered
Carthage; Greek instead of Latin might have been at this day the
principal element of the language of Spain, of France, and of
Italy; and the laws of Athens, rather than of Rome, might be the
foundation of the law of the civilized world." - ARNOLD. "The
great expedition to Sicily, one of the most decisive events in
the history of the world." - NIEBUHR.
Few cities have undergone more memorable sieges during ancient and mediaeval times, than has the city of Syracuse. Athenian, Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Saracen, and Norman, have in turns beleaguered her walls; and the resistance which she successfully opposed to some of her early assailants was of the deepest importance, not only to the fortunes of the generations then in being, but to all the subsequent current of human events. To adopt the eloquent expressions of Arnold respecting the check which she gave to the Carthaginian arms, "Syracuse was a breakwater, which God's providence raised up to protect the yet immature strength of Rome." And her triumphant repulse of the great Athenian expedition against her was of even more wide- spread and enduring importance. It forms a decisive epoch in the strife for universal empire, in which all the great states of antiquity successively engaged and failed.
The present city of Syracuse is a place of little or no military strength, as the fire of artillery from the neighbouring heights would almost completely command it. But in ancient warfare its position, and the care bestowed on its walls, rendered it formidably strong against the means of offence which then were employed by besieging armies.
The ancient city, in the time of the Peloponnesian war, was chiefly built on the knob of land which projects into the sea on the eastern coast of Sicily, between two bays; one of which, to the north, was called the bay of Thapsus, while the southern one formed the great harbour of the city of Syracuse itself. A small island, or peninsula (for such it soon was rendered), lies at the south-eastern extremity of this knob of land, stretching almost entirely across the mouth of the great harbour, and rendering it nearly land-locked. This island comprised the original settlement of the first Greek colonists from Corinth, who founded Syracuse two thousand five hundred years ago; and the modern city has shrunk again into these primary limits. But, in the fifth century before our era, the growing wealth and population of the Syracusans had led them to occupy and include within their city walls portion after portion of the mainland lying next to the little isle; so that at the time of the Athenian expedition the seaward part of the land between the two bays already spoken of was built over, and fortified from bay to bay; constituting the larger part of Syracuse.
The landward wall, therefore, of the city traversed this knob of land, which continues to slope upwards from the sea, and which to the west of the old fortifications (that is, towards the interior of Sicily) rises rapidly for a mile or two, but diminishes in width, and finally terminates in a long narrow ridge, between which and Mount Hybla a succession of chasms and uneven low ground extend. On each flank of this ridge the descent is steep and precipitous from its summits to the strips of level land that lie immediately below it, both to the south-west and north-west.
The usual mode of assailing fortified towns in the time of the Peloponnesian war, was to build a double wall round them, sufficiently strong to check any sally of the garrison from within, or any attack of a relieving force from without. The interval within the two walls of the circumvallation was roofed over, and formed barracks, in which the besiegers posted themselves, and awaited the effects of want or treachery among the besieged in producing a surrender. And, in every Greek city of those days, as in every Italian republic of the middle ages, the rage of domestic sedition between aristocrats and democrats ran high. Rancorous refugees swarmed in the camp of every invading enemy; and every blockaded city was sure to contain within its walls a body of intriguing malcontents, who were eager to purchase a party-triumph at the expense of a national disaster. Famine and faction were the allies on whom besiegers relied. The generals of that time trusted to the operation of these sure confederates as soon as they could establish a complete blockade. They rarely ventured on the attempt to storm any fortified post. For the military engines of antiquity were feeble in breaching masonry, before the improvements which the first Dionysius effected in the mechanics of destruction; and the lives of spearmen the boldest and most highly-trained would, of course, have been idly spent in charges against unshattered walls.