The Embarrassing Way An Athenian Fleet Broke Into The Sicilian City of Catana

 

In 415 BCE, Athens and its allies launched an expedition to Sicily reportedly consisting of over 130 warships, plus more than 100 smaller supply boats. Accompanying the sailors was a combined force of over 7,000 hoplite infantry, skirmishers and even some cavalry. When the expeditionary force reached Italy and Sicily, it met with a cold reception. The Italian cities were extremely suspicious of the Athenians, and they usually gave the expedition members some water and allowed the fleet to anchor offshore, but no more—after this brief show of hospitality, most Italian cities barred their gates and manned their walls. Of all the coastal cities in Italy, Rhegium behaved the friendliest toward the Athenians. It was near that city that the Athenians set up their first prolonged expedition camp. Rhegium also opened up a temporary market from which the Athenians could buy supplies, but like the rest of the Italian cities, they refused to let the foreigners inside their walls.

After resting up near Rhegium, the expedition force turned its gaze to the true target of the campaign—Sicily, especially the city-states of Selinus and Syracuse. The three generals in charge, Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus, had differing views on how to make their approach. In the end, Alcibiades convinced his comrades that recruiting Sicilian cities to the Athenian cause was the best first step. Following Alcibiades’ plan, Athenian ships sailed from Rhegium toward Sicily. Yet, just like in Italy, the local city-states gave the newcomers a cold reception. Messina, the city that Athens most wanted to have as an ally, refused to align with the expedition and closed their gates, although they did open up a market for trade. The city of Catana also refused to allow the Athenians inside their walls and told the fleet to keep sailing. Only Naxos allowed the expedition to freely enter their city.

Before long, the Athenian fleet encountered the powerful city of Syracuse. Here, the Athenians laid out the conditions that had to be met to avoid war. The main demand was that swaths of land be returned to Athens’ ally, Leontini. With the ultimatum delivered, the diplomats took a tour of the city and did reconnaissance work. After assessing Syracuse’s strength, the Athenian fleet began backtracking toward the camp at Rhegium, where some of their ships had stayed behind.

When the expedition force returned to Catana, they found the city slightly more willing to negotiate. The leaders of Catana reportedly invited the leading generals of the expedition to come inside the city and talk things over. This offer was accepted and the generals entered the city (presumably with some bodyguards), but left their ships and men nervously waiting outside the walls.

The Athenian generals walked into an interesting situation, to say the least. The city was in a state of disrepair, and even its walls and gates were poorly maintained. Moreover, the leaders of Catana were apparently very unpopular with their people and unrest was on the rise. With their city crumbling and their political power waning, perhaps the local leading party was willing to align with the expedition to maintain power. Alas, we will never know, for the arranged one-on-one meeting between the generals and the ruling party of Catana never occurred.

Not long after the generals had entered the city, the loitering Athenian fleet began to feel restless. Thucydides (460-400 BCE), the main historian of the period, did not provide a motive for the army’s behavior, but it is possible that they feared their leaders were walking into a trap. Otherwise, maybe the Athenians were just fed up with so many Italian and Sicilian cities closing their gates against the expedition. Whatever the case, large numbers of Athenian warriors began gathering by the walls of the city. There, the expeditionary forces saw what their generals had witnessed earlier—the city defenses were in a horrible state. Incredibly, the Athenians were reportedly able to simply push their way through the city gates without using any siege weaponry.

Once the unruly Athenian warriors had broken into the city, they found their generals were safe. In fact, Alcibiades was reportedly giving a speech to the assembled masses of the city when the worried Athenians broke down the front gate. When the generals were found safe and sound, the Athenian forces calmed down and, according to Thucydides, many decided to awkwardly “stroll about in the market-place” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VI, section 51).

With Athenian forces suddenly appearing in the city, the leaders of  Catana decided to flee. Alcibiades’ speech to the masses must have been well-received, for the people of Catana agreed to an alliance with Athens and decided to allow (or did not resist) the expeditionary force to build a new camp for their Sicilian campaign near the city.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Black-Figure amphora depicting Achilles and Ajax playing a board game overseen by Athena, c. 510 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

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