UNIVERSAL HISTORY-THE ANCIENT WORLD.
attempt to take Epipolae, but was repulsed. He then urged Nicias to
withdraw from his dangerous position in Great Harbor and retire to
Thapsus; but just as this movement was about to begin an eclipse of the
moon occurred, and the seers declared that the fleet must not leave its
moorings for a lunar month. (1) Their decision was complied with, and the
Syracusans, learning how matters stood, determined to make a league with
superstition and destroy the foe before the next full moon. They
accordingly blocked up the mouth of Great Harbor with a cordon of
galleys. So the Athenian squadron of one hundred and ten triremes was
cooped up, with no opportunity of escape except by battle.
It was, however, resolved to break through at all hazards. Accordingly,
on an appointed morning, the fleet of Nicias loosed its moorings and
proceeded to the attack. Nearly the whole population of the city lined
the shores of the bay. The larger part of the Athenian land-forces were
put on board of the ships, and the remainder looked on from the
fortifications. The attack was directed first against the line of galleys
by which the mouth of the harbor was blockaded. But the latter held their
position. Presently the whole armament on both sides was engaged, and for
some time the battle hung dubiously between the combatants. Then the
Athenians began to give way. Nearly a half of their vessels were
destroyed, and the rest driven back to the protection of the shore. The
victory was in every respect complete and overwhelming.
The Athenians were still about forty thousand strong. As soon as the
battle was decided, they determined, if possible, to escape from their
perilous position. The only course remaining was a retreat overland to
the shelter of some friendly town, where they might defend themselves
until succored by reinforcements. But instead of taking advantage of the
confusion of the first night after his defeat, Nicias waited till the
next; and the Syracusans thus found time to gather and fall upon the
retreating column. In the attempt to reach the coast, Demosthenes, who
commanded the rear division, was cut off, and after fighting until his
forces were greatly reduced, was obliged to surrender. Finally, Gylippus
overtook Nicias, who, with the army, now numbering no more than ten
thousand men, was still struggling to gain the coast. Arriving at the
river Erineus, they attempted to cross, but the enemy crowded them down
the banks and into the stream. All hope was abandoned. The army became a
disorganized mass and was forced to surrender at discretion. The
remainder of the fleet had been given up at the beginning of the retreat.
Not a vestige remained. No such complete destruction of an army and
squadron had ever been known. The prisoners were sent to work in the
stone-quarries, where, huddled together, driven to their tasks without
sufficient food, and exposed to the elements, they soon began to die of
exhaustion and pestilence, until the survivors sickened and fell over the
bodies of the dead. All were enslaved except the Athenians and the
Sicilian Greeks. Among these were many men of culture and refinement; and
a tradition recites that not a few of these gained the esteem of their
masters by enacting for them the plays of the Greek dramatists.
Demosthenes and Nicias were both condemned to death, the only favor shown
them being the concession of suicide instead of a public execution.
Soon after the appalling disaster just recorded, the news was carried
into Athens by a barber of Piraeus. So incredible appeared his story that
the authorities put him to the torture. Presently, however, straggling
fugitives began to arrive with confirmation of the awful intelligence.
The Athenians were first furious and then gave themselves up to despair.
It was seen at a glance that no power could much longer prevent the
capture of the city by the Lacedaemonians. Nevertheless the authorities
began to bestir themselves for the public defense. It was, however, the
misfortune of the city of Athens that military success was constantly
necessary to preserve the loyalty of her dependent cities and islands.
Whenever the tide turned against her, these dependencies would not only
abandon her interests, but enter into leagues for her destruction.
___________________ 1 This eclipse occurred August 27, B. C. 413.