In the middle of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE), Athens launched a disastrous expedition against the Sicilian city of Syracuse, which had aligned with Athens’ rival, Sparta. This Athenian expedition began in 415 BCE and imploded by 413 BCE. When the Athenians were successfully ejected from Sicily, Syracuse sought payback by dramatically ramping up their military contributions to the Spartan alliance’s war effort. In the new wave of battles that soon ensued, the Athenians captured a large number of Syracusan sailors in Greece, and set the captives to work in a quarry that provided stone for Piraeus, Athens’ vital fortified port. These Syracusan POWs did indeed work hard mining in the quarry, yet providing stone for Athenian fortifications was not their ultimate goal. As the story goes, the prisoners were able to tunnel their way to freedom, a task they reportedly completed during the winter of 409 BCE. Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), an Athenian philosopher and mercenary, reported the tale in his Hellenica or History of My Times, writing, “It was now nearly winter, and in the course of this winter the Syracusan prisoners, who had been shut up in the stone quarries at Piraeus, dug through the rock and escaped by night” (Hellenica, I.2.14). After making their great escape, many of the Syracusans managed to reach Peloponnesian military camps in places such as Sparta’s fort at Decelea so as to rejoin the war effort against Athens.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Mined Cave painting by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.
- A History of My Times by Xenophon, translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 1979.