28 November 2017
The Peloponnesian Errors
The Peloponnesian Wars were a time of great conflict and strife in Ancient Greece. As is true of almost all conflicts, military mistakes and tactical blunders were plentiful and attributed to multiple cities and states during the war. No one was exempt from these mistakes; the larger states of Athens and Sparta accrued their fair share of mishaps, and so did the smaller cities of Sicily and Ionia. Thucydides portrays these mistakes with a varying degree of ridicule and doom, depending on the situation. He also seems to illustrate the idea that it was very difficult for the states, cities, and generals involved in the Peloponnesian Wars to learn from their mistakes and blunders; therefore, they were unable to learn from the disasters that greatly hindered their prospects of victory.
To begin, the Athenians’ expedition to Sicily was littered with tactical and logistical failures by all parties involved in the conflict. These mistakes begin to take place at the very outset of the decision to launch the expedition by the Athenian Assembly. The Athenian Empire is already on the verge of war with the Peloponnesian League, led by their bitter rival Sparta. It was extremely unwise to invest such a large amount of manpower, ships, and money to the distant island of Sicily when the outbreak of another war with half of Greece loomed ahead. Thucydides uses Nicias to voice these concerns. “… and to understand that the one thought awakened in the Spartans by their disgrace is how they may even now, if possible, overthrow us and repair their dishonor; inasmuch as they have for a very long time devoted themselves to the cultivation of military renown above all. Our struggle, therefore, if we are wise, will not be for the barbarian Egestaeans in Sicily, but to defend ourselves most effectively against the oligarchic machinations of Sparta” (Thuc. 6.11.6-7).
Alcibiades argues in favor of the Sicilian Expedition and convinces the Assembly to vote in favor of the expedition, to the eventual ruin of Athens and its empire. Within this speech to the Assembly, Alcibiades commits another grievous error: he underestimates the strength of his potential opponent. “The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, and easily change their institutions and adopt new ones in their stead… Moreover, the Sicilians have not so many hoplites as they boast; just as the Hellenes generally did not prove so numerous as each state reckoned itself, but Hellas greatly overestimated their numbers… Our ability to stay if successful, or to return if not, will be secured to us by our navy, as we shall be superior at sea to all the Sicilians put together” (Thuc. 6.17-18). Perhaps the most important rule of warfare is to never underestimate what your enemy is capable of, and Alcibiades and his arrogance would learn that lesson throughout the duration of this failed campaign. While the other cities in Sicily initially did not openly support Syracuse, neither did they give much support to Athens. Furthermore, as the war dragged on and Sparta began to aid Syracuse, the rest of the Sicilian cities supported Syracuse also, contrary to Alcibiades’ claim that “… we shall have the help of many barbarians, who from their hatred of the Syracusans will join us in attacking them” (Thuc. 6.17.6). Such a gross underestimation and lack of respect for the Sicilians was perhaps the most destructive mistake that Athens made during the war.
As he is leading the Athenian forces in Sicily, Alcibiades gets recalled back to Athens to stand trial for his alleged role in the Hermae and the Mysteries affair. However, instead of returning to Athens, Alcibiades flees to Sparta because he knows he will be convicted and executed if he returns to Athens. This is a crucial and unnecessary military and political blunder by the Athenian government. They allowed their paranoia regarding Alcibiades to cause the Athenian forces in Sicily to lose a gifted general, and allowed Sparta to gain a powerful ally that had sensitive information regarding Athens’ plans in Sicily. Alcibiades would prevent the betrayal of Messana to the Athenians by revealing the plot before it got started and helped Syracuse gain an ally in the war (Thuc. 6.74). Alcibiades would also act as the Spartan ambassador to the Persian satrap and advise the Spartans to fortify their position at Decelea in Attica, which would prove extremely advantageous to the Peloponnesians. “The fortification in question, while it benefits you, will create difficulties for your adversaries, of which I shall pass over many, and shall only mention the chief. Whatever property there is in the country will most of it become yours, either by capture or surrender; and the Athenians will at once be deprived of their revenues from the silver mines at Laurium… (Thuc. 6.91.7). The Athenians lost so much more than they gained by forcing Alcibiades into exile, and the Sicilian Expedition might have gone better for Athens had Alcibiades been leading it.
The army of Syracuse makes a particularly terrible mistake early in their war with Athens. Feeling disrespected by the Athenians because they refuse to fight an actual battle, the Syracusans become somewhat overconfident and overly eager to fight, and are therefore more susceptible to deception and trickery. The Athenians were well aware of this, so they sent a man to inform the Syracusans that the native Catana people would help them trap and kill the Athenians. The Syracusan leadership believed the man and the entire army left Syracuse to march on Catana. However, the Athenians slipped away during the night and sailed down the Sicilian coast and established more favorable fighting positions near the city of Syracuse. The battle is pretty evenly matched until a thunderstorm disrupts the inexperienced Syracusan army’s ability to fight and they are forced to retreat (Thuc. 6.63-71). Even though the Athenians return to Catana to prepare for the upcoming spring campaign, they could have easily occupied the city of Syracuse after defeating their army. The Syracusans almost let their rashness decide the entire war.
The Spartans were traditionally a very slow, cautious, and deliberate group of Greeks. They carefully weighed their options and planned their strategies before going into battle, often to the detriment of their allies, and often resulting in missed opportunities. Thucydides describes one such missed opportunity when he recounts the Spartan naval victory near Eretria. The victory inspires almost all of Euboea to revolt against their Athenian masters, putting immense pressure on the city of Athens itself. The defeat of the Athenian fleet meant that if the Spartan fleet sieged Piraeus, then the Athenian fleet at Samos would have to come to their aid, thus allowing the Peloponnesians absolute control over the Hellespont and the Ionian islands. The Athenians were expecting the victorious Spartans to do just that, but Thucydides claims that Spartan caution prevented them from taking such a risk. “… the enemy, emboldened by his victory, might make straight for them and sail against the Piraeus, which they no longer had ships to defend; and every moment they expected the enemy to arrive. This, with a little more courage, he might easily have done… the Spartans proved the most convenient people in the world for the Athenians to be at war with. The wide difference between the two characters, the slowness and want of energy of the Spartans as contrasted with the dash and enterprise of their opponents, proved of the greatest service, especially to a maritime empire like Athens” (Thuc. 8.96.3-5). Perhaps if the Spartans had been quicker to aid the Sicilians or took some favorable risks, then the war might not have dragged on for so long.
Another mistake committed by Athens’ military leadership, in this case Nicias, is ignoring sound battle strategy in favor of supernatural omens and other signs. After a costly defeat at Epipolae, Demosthenes wants to withdraw all of the Athenian forces out of Sicily and sail back to Athens to defend their territory. However, Nicias refuses, claiming to have information from Syracusan informants that Syracuse is nearly out of money to finance their war effort. Demosthenes urges that the Athenians should at least find a more favorable location from which to battle the Syracusans. Nicias again refuses, but after the Spartan general Gylippus returns to Syracuse with Sicilian reinforcements, the Athenians make preparations to leave the region. However, a lunar eclipse occurs, and Nicias insists that they have to wait at least twenty-seven days before leaving, regardless of the enemy reinforcements. The Syracusans press their advantage against the Athenian forces, winning a naval battle and killing the Athenian general Eurymedon. This shatters Athenian morale, results in a devastating naval defeat in Syracuse’s Great Harbor, and leads to the eventual surrender of the Athenian forces in Sicily. “… they were on the point of sailing away when an eclipse of the moon, which was then at the full, took place… Nicias, who was somewhat overaddicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers” (Thuc. 7.50.4). The refusal to leave when overwhelming enemy reinforcements arrived was a foolish and critical mistake by Athenians in the war, as it led to the destruction of all Athenian forces in Sicily.
In conclusion, many mistakes are made by several of the parties that participated in the Sicilian Expedition and Peloponnesian Wars. Some of these were foolish mistakes that did not result in critical disaster, such as the Syracusans being tricked by the Athenians, and others were pivotal errors that changed the course of the war, such as Athenian overconfidence and underestimation of the Sicilians. One trend that all of these blunders share, interestingly enough, is that none of the cities and nations seemed to learn from their mistakes. After rebuilding its naval strength, Athens revived an air of overconfidence and arrogance regarding their naval prowess; and Sparta stayed true to its cautious tradition up until the end of the war.