An Athenian coalition fleet of around 130 warships, accompanied by an army of over 7,000 men, arrived in Sicily in 415 BCE. That year, the Athenians were able to talk or cajole a few Sicilian cities into joining their side (most importantly Naxos and Catana). They also won a small land battle against the army of Syracuse, Athens’ main target in the region. It was a good start for Athens, yet the defeat suffered by the Syracusan army inspired the city of Syracuse to improve the training of its warriors and to modify the ships used by the navy. As the war in Sicily escalated over the next few years, the ability for Syracuse to adapt and innovate eventually led to their victory. Interestingly, one such advantageous feat of Syracusan ingenuity was to set up a food fair on the beach of their Great Harbor.
By 413 BCE, the Athenian coalition had been camped for a year or two outside of Syracuse. It all began as a war of walls, with Athens trying to besiege Syracuse with impromptu barricades, while the Syracusans frantically set up counter-walls to thwart the plans of the Athenians. As Syracuse was not completely cut off from the outside world, the number of defenders in the city continued to increase as more allies from Sicily and the Peloponnesus slipped past the Athenian lines and entered the city. In the final leg of the siege, there were reportedly tens of thousands of warriors committed to the battle on both sides. Although the besiegers and the besieged were at a stalemate for much of the siege, the year 413 saw a dramatic shift in the balance of power.
The shift in power was largely due to Syracuse’s efforts to build a competent navy. After Syracuse gathered and manned around eighty warships, it sent out its fleet against the Athenians. In that sea battle, the Syracusans were eventually forced to retreat. Yet, the ships were able to distract the Athenians long enough for the land forces of Syracuse (led by the Spartan general, Gylippus) to rush out and capture three forts from the besiegers. The battle was considered a great success, as, not only had they captured the fortresses, but the fleet had also proved that it could hold its own against Athens, and, with more training, practice and modifications, they could even beat the Athenians at sea. Learning from the battle, the crafty shipwrights of Syracuse reinforced the sides and prows of their ships, and also developed new ramming beaks for the front of the ships. When the next confrontation between the Athenian and Syracusan fleets occurred, Syracuse had refitted at least eighty ships with these modifications.
In addition to the improved ships, the Syracusans also brought a secret weapon to the battle—a food market. Apparently, food vendors, innkeepers, and anyone else in the city who knew how to cook, were all ushered down to the beach to set up stalls on a protected stretch of beach in Syracuse’s harbor. In effect, it was ancient fast food.
With the food stalls set up on the beach, the Syracusan fleet sailed out to attack the Athenian ships in the morning. After doing some damage, the ships of Syracuse withdrew to the beach in order to have a quick mid-day meal provided by the vendors who had set up shop by the water. According to the historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the Athenians had thought that the Syracusan fleet would not return until the next day. Nevertheless, the sailors of Syracuse, reinvigorated by food and refreshments offered by the citizens on the beach, immediately hopped back onto their ships and embarked on a second attack against the Athenian fleet that very same day. The quick reappearance of the Syracusan fleet reportedly caught the Athenians by surprise. The sailors of Athens were able to scramble to their ships and meet the enemy in battle, but the combination of a surprise attack with Syracuse’s naval improvements ultimately led to a Syracusan victory. It was the first time that Syracuse had won a sea battle against Athens during the war. Syracuse continued to ride that momentum and by the end of 413, they would completely devastate the Athenian fleet and destroy the Athens’ expeditionary force in Sicily.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sale of bread at a market stall, from a fresco in Pompeii, [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.