THE ATHENIAN FLEET IS DEFEATED 413 BC

 

…..The following poem is based on an account in Thucydides’ great historical work, THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR.  He wrote contemporaneously of the events of the epic military struggle between the Athenian and Spartan alliances.  In one phase of the war a huge Athenian and allied naval force carrying an army of invasion sailed for Sicily.  They intended to subdue the rich and powerful city of Syracuse.  This expedition was motivated more by a lust for greed than strategic necessity but the Assembly of Athens was persuaded to proceed principally by the charismatic Alcibiades.  Just before departure, some persons carried out an act of sacrilege by overturning statues of the god Hermes.  Hermes served as messenger to the Olympian gods. The religious and superstitious Athenians were shocked and outraged by this event and there was a great sense of foreboding that the venture would be doomed to disaster as a consequence.  Regardless, the armada sailed for Sicily.  There was considerable suspicion that one of the generals with the invasion force, Alcibiades himself, was responsible for the desecration.  Ships were sent to overtake the fleet and return him to Athens to stand trial but Alcibiades fled before he could be taken.  He made his way to Sparta and became an extremely damaging advisor against his fellow Athenians.

…..The fleet landed in Sicily and the army was at first successful under the command of an elderly but steadfast and skillful general named Nicias.  He suffered , we are told, from painful kidney stones.  He was able to bring his army to the brink of defeating the Syracusians and taking their city.  But ultimately, he was unable to complete his blockade and siege.

…..It became apparent that he must withdraw his army rapidly to avoid being overwhelmed.  He was prepared to evacuate by sea when a lunar eclipse occurred.  Nicias interpreted this as an omen forbidding him to leave at that moment.  While he waited, the Syracusians seized the opportunity and launched a surprising and devastating naval attack on the Athenian Fleet.  Nicias and his troops watched helplessly in horror as their navy was decimated.

…..Now, with no chance for withdrawal or resupply, it was obvious that the army was in imminent peril.  They made an attempt to break out into open country but were cut off and all were killed or captured.  Nicias was taken before the enemy generals.  He knew some of these men from earlier days and these were inclined to spare his life.  Others were intent on eliminating him and, with these men prevailing, Nicias was summarily put to death.  The other troops in his army were not as fortunate.  They were imprisoned in a stone quarry and forced to endure stifling heat, starvation and complete lack of sanitation. They perished painfully or were sold into slavery.  With this defeat, Athens began a long decline which finally ended in her capture by the Spartans in 404 BC.

…..Today most would likely ascribe the fate of the Athenians to an ignorance of astronomy and the superstitious nature of Nicias, driving him to make his fatal error of judgement.  Despite his rational insight into most matters and his clear understanding of the military imperatives, he betrayed his instinct to flee.  But to the contemporaries of Nicias and Thucydides, brilliant men by acclaim, the forces at work were far more mysterious.  The omens were multilayered and ominous.  Surely the guilt of hubris for this unnecessary and  risky adventure loomed heavy on their minds.  The desecration of their sacred images cried out for retribution.   We who think we know better today might step back and ponder further.  Even in our modern empirical age, the interplay between free will and the circumstances that surround us continues to be uncertain.  Religion and rationality remain gravitational and integral to the human experience and each generation examines this relationship through the prism of its own perspective.   Thucydides has touched the elements of myth as it approaches the horizon of the Great Mystery.

 

 

THE ATHENIAN FLEET IS DEFEATED 413 BC

( VIEW FROM THE BEACH )

 

Nicias

Captain of men

Interpreter of omens

So worn and weary when swallowed up

Not far from the gates of Syracuse.

 

How nearly he had flown

But for the darkened moon

That seemed to speak of certain death 

But never told for whom

Not until this moment 

Of oars and men consumed.

 

Nicias 

Eagle-minded man

Racked with pain 

Haunted by the image of Hermes overturned

You have hovered by the water’s edge

And now must bear sad witness to your ruin.

Soon you will pray for pity

But feel the anger cast against your cheek.

 

Was it Fate that drove the wheel that day?

 

Who can say what forces work

When instincts are betrayed.

 

INDEX