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Mediterranean Chronology

Athenian Expedition to Syracuse

415-413 BC


In 431 BC, the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League went to war against the Athenian-led Delian League in what is called the Peloponnesian War.  The two sides agreed to a Fifty-Year Truce in 421 BC that only lasted until 415 BC when the Athenian attack on the Sicilian city of Syracuse provoked the Spartans to recommence the war against Athens.

Back to "Peloponnesian War" Chronology 

In 416 BC, the Sicilian city of Segesta sent ambassadors to Athens to ask for help against Selinus, a Dorian city with the backing of the powerful Greek city of Syracuse.  The Athenian Assembly debated the issue and was persuaded by Alcibiades, an ambitious demagogue, to send a large expedition led by Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus to Syracuse.  The Athenians hoped to gain a foothold on the island of Sicily and procure control of the sea.

 While Athens was preparing for the expedition almost all of the busts of Hermes outside of the Hermae were mutilated in one night, an act of great sacrilege that was believed to have been committed by Alcibiades and his friends while drunk.  Alcibiades was charged with involvement in the mutilation but was nevertheless sent on the expedition, only to be recalled to Athens to stand trial.  However, Alcibiades escaped and fled to the court of the Spartan King Agis II.  Therefore, the expedition set out without one of its generals.

 In 414 BC Nicias led an attack on Syracuse and was successful in fighting outside its walls.  However, instead of immediately following up on his success, Nicias withdrew his forces to rest in Catana for the winter so they could resume fighting in the spring.  In the meantime, the Syracusans asked for help from Corinth and Sparta as well as strengthened their city wall.  In the spring of 414 BC the Athenians took over strategic places outside the city of Syracuse and then the Athenian fleet moved into the Great Harbor of Syracuse.

 Alcibiades encouraged the Spartans to aid Syracuse in its defense against the Athenian attack by telling them of Athens’ plans to use the resources gained from the subjugation of Sicily against the Pelponnese.  This information, combined with Athens’ breach of the Fifty-Year Truce in its destruction of Epidaurus, Limera, and Prasiae, prompted the Spartans to help Syracuse.  The Spartan general Gylippus was appointed to command the Syracusan army.  Corinth also came to the aid of Syracuse.

 Gylippus led an attack against the Athenian Calvary and the Athenians suffered their first defeat.  After the defeat, Nicias sent a letter home to Athens, pleading with the Assembly to recall the expedition.  Instead of recalling it, Athens sent two officers to assist Nicias.  They also sent a fresh Athenian force to Syracuse.

 In 413 BC the Spartans occupied Decelea, putting a stranglehold on Athens and causing great difficulty for the city.  Then, in a joint land and sea battle near Syracuse on September 9, the Athenians were severely defeated by Gylippus.  Nicias was captured and executed, ending the Athenian expedition to Syracuse.

 The defeat of the Syracuse expedition in 413 BC was the beginning of the end for Athens.  The Athenians lost many of their allies while the Spartans continued to gain allies and strength.  Athens finally surrendered in 404 BC, never to regain


Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5, second edition, pp. 446-462.

Chronology of World History, vol. 1, 1999, pp. 63-66.

Edited, Researched and Written by:
Emily Ekstrand
September 19, 1999

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