This artwork, commissioned by J. G. Vogt for the first volume of his Illustrierte Weltgeschichte (published 1893), depicts the cataclysmic defeat of the Athenian military campaign in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). Athens’ expedition against their Sicilian foe, Syracuse, lasted from 415-413 BCE. It started well for the Athenians, and they quickly began literally walling off Syracuse for a prolonged siege. The Syracusans, however, managed to stop the Athenians from completely isolating their city by building counter-walls, which successfully kept channels open for reinforcements and supplies to be sent to Syracuse. As the siege dragged on, the defenders in Syracuse slowly began gaining the advantage against Athens’ besieging forces—most importantly, Syracuse built up, improved, and modified their navy so that the Syracusans gained naval superiority over Athens in Sicily. Before long, Syracuse and its allies were able to turn the tables on the invaders by besieging the Athenian camp by land and sea. As the Athenian ships in Sicily could not escape Syracuse’s new and improved navy, Athens’ expeditionary force attempted to flee by land to a safer region of Sicily. This escape attempt, a days-long debacle, ultimately ended in a complete and crushing annihilation of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily. Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), a historian who had been an Athenian military leader during the war, analyzed the costly disaster in his history about the conflict:
“This was the greatest Hellenic action that took place during this war, and, in my opinion, the greatest action that we know of in Hellenic history—to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats; for they were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only few returned. So ended the events in Sicily” (History of the Peloponnesian War, book 7, section 87).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.