In 415 BCE, a fleet of over 130 Athenian and allied trireme ships, accompanied by more than a hundred supply boats, reached the eastern shores of Sicily on the pretext of combating the potential threat posed by Syracuse. While most Sicilian communities on that stretch of coastline wanted nothing to do with the Athenian expedition, the cities of Naxos and Catana allowed the foreigners into their walls, albeit the latter city took some coercion. After expelling the minority pro-Syracusan party in Catana, the Athenians built their camp there, reportedly housing more than 7,000 hoplites, skirmishers and some cavalry in or around the premises.
At least one prominent member of the pro-Syracusan party managed to stay behind in Catana. The unnamed man began taking notes about the Athenian forces, such as repetitious schedules, the locations of armories and even the positioning of their sleeping quarters. After memorizing such details, the man departed from Catana and rushed to Syracuse. As the refugee was a well-known member of the downfallen pro-Syracusan party in Catana, the contacts that he had in Syracuse vouched for his loyalty, and the military leaders of the city took his words with all seriousness. Once allowed to speak, he vividly described to the Syracusans the layout of the Athenian camp, as well as their daily routine. He claimed that the camp became especially lazy at night and that the Athenian warriors would leave their weapons outside the city walls while they slept without their armor in makeshift barracks within Catana. In addition to this, the informant also swore that there was still a spirited pro-Syracuse core of the population in Catana that would betray the Athenians if given a chance.
After being told these details, the military of Syracuse fell into a bloodlust. They assumed that a night attack, or an assault at dawn, would result in the Athenians being cut off from their weaponry and ships. If the foreigners were caught unprepared, the enemy ships and weapons outside the walls could easily be torched and then the unarmed Athenians in their stockades would not be able to avoid being slaughtered by a Syracusan assault. Thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Syracusans mobilized virtually their entire army, and, with any allied forces they had on hand, they began marching overland toward Catana.
It was a fairly slow march for the warriors of Syracuse, but their cavalry was out ahead scouting the region. When the mounted warriors reached Catana, they discovered a horrible sight—there was no sign of life in the Athenian camp at Catana. All of the foreigners were gone and the large Athenian fleet was nowhere to be seen. Taking in this unsettling information, the scouts rushed back to their army to relay the news. When the generals of Syracuse were briefed on the scene at Catana, they immediately turned the army around and began a forced march home to Syracuse.
Unfortunately for the leaders of Syracuse, they had not questioned how the informant from Catana had survived the Athenian purge of dissidents and they similarly did not investigate his supposed escape from the tight Athenian occupation of the city. Furthermore, they had not devoted enough time to discovering if his information about the Athenians in Catana was credible. It was a costly mistake—according to the Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400), the informant from Catana had defected to the Athenian side and had been sent to Syracuse by the leaders of the Athenian expedition specifically to sow disinformation.
Although Syracuse had hoped to catch the foreigners in a trap, it was the Syracusans who had fallen victim to a ploy. While the entire army of Syracuse set out on a long march to Catana, the Athenians were simultaneously sailing their whole force to the now defenseless Syracusan homeland. By the time the forces of Syracuse realized that they had been duped, they had already marched a great distance away from their city and it would take time for them to rush home.
Luckily for the Syracusans, the defenses of their city were intimidating even without a full garrison manning the walls. When the Athenians and their allies disembarked outside of Syracuse, they decided to not assault the city but instead focused on choosing a defensible location and devoted themselves to building camp fortifications. It took so long for the Syracusan army to return home that the Athenians were given enough time to demolish a bridge, build a stockade around their ships and construct a makeshift stone fort. Moreover, this was all constructed on land specifically chosen to counteract Syracuse’s vast cavalry superiority.
When the army of Syracuse finally arrived, they besieged the Athenian camp, but did not attack on the first day. On the second day, however, both sides prepared for battle. According to Thucydides, the commanding general in charge of the Athenian forces for the battle was Nicias. Even though the Athenians had spent a lot of time fortifying their position, Nicias apparently decided to make the first move. Perhaps the Syracusans had been lured into unfavorable ground, but Nicias reportedly marched his men forward to ignite a pitched battle.
Despite all of the drama, buildup and pre-battle maneuvering, the actual armed clash outside of the city of Syracuse did not last long. According to Thucydides, the battle was initially a stalemate, but as the men began to fatigue, the experience that the Athenians and their allies had picked up during the Peloponnesian War (begun in 431) began to sway the battle in their favor. After a while, the Syracusan infantry lines began to give way under pressure, and they became so disjointed that the army of Syracuse was ultimately split in half. After the Syracusan line was broken, it did not take long for the spirit of the army to break completely. With the forces of Syracuse fleeing for the safety of their walls, the Athenians were victorious.
Fortunately for Syracuse, the battle was more of a psychological defeat than a physical massacre. According to Thucydides, the Syracusan cavalry survived the battle virtually unscathed and they provided cover and support while the rest of the army fled to the city. As a result, even though the army of Syracuse had been routed, there were only 260 reported lives lost on the Syracusan side of the battle. Interestingly, the Athenians were content with the damage they had done in the battle and decided not to do anything else against Syracuse for the time being. Instead, the Athenian warriors returned to their fleet and sailed back to Catana for the winter.
As for the battle’s blow on the morale of the Syracusans, the city took the defeat as a teaching moment and strove to take the war more seriously. In response to the battle, a council of three generals reportedly took control in Syracuse to whip their city into shape militarily and diplomatically for the war to come.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (a trireme from a panel of the Temple of Isis, Pompeii; Naples Archaeological Museum, Italy, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.