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Text #9108

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Series: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. Vol. 4
[Thuc. 7.50. Translated by Charles Forster Smith. Harvard University Press. 1923. (4 Vols.) p. 101]

The Athenian generals, on the other hand, seeing that the enemy had been reinforced by a fresh army, while their own situation was not only not improving, but on the contrary was daily growing worse in all respects, and especially through the distress caused by the sickness among the troops, repented that they had not moved away before. And since even Nicias no longer opposed as earnestly as before, but only urged that the matter be not openly put to a vote, they sent out word as secretly as possible to all the officers for a departure by sea from the camp, and that they should be ready whenever the signal should be given. But after all was ready and when they were about to make their departure, the moon, which happened then to be at the full, was eclipsed.1 And most of the Athenians, taking the incident to heart, urged the generals to wait. Nicias also, who was somewhat too much given to divination and the like, refused even to discuss further the question of their removal until they should have waited thrice nine days, as the soothsayers prescribed. Such, then was why the Athenians delayed and stayed on.

  1. August 27, 413 BC [OF]

Text #8644

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Vol. 5
[Diod. 13.12.1--13.12.6. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Harvard University Press. 1935. (12 Vols.) pp. 157--159]

The Athenians, now that their affairs had taken a turn for the worse and a wave of pestilence had struck the camp because the region round about it was marshy, counselled together how they should deal with the situation.[…]

Consequently, since the multitude was in an uproar and all the others were eager to take to the ships, Nicias found himself compelled to yield on the matter of their returning home. When the generals were agreed, the soldiers began gathering together their equipment, loading the triremes, and raising the yard-arms; and the generals issued orders to the multitude that at the signal not a man in the camp should be late, for he who lagged would be left behind. But when they were about to sail on the following day, on the night of the day before, the moon was eclipsed.24 Consequently Nicias, who was not only by nature a superstitiously devout man but also cautious because of the epidemic in the camp, summoned the soothsayers. And when they declared that the departure must be postponed for the customary three days, Demosthenes and the others were also compelled, out of respect for the deity, to accede.

Text #1633

Plutarch. Lives. Series: Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Vol. 3
[Plut. Nic. 23. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press. 1916. (11 Vols.) p. 289]


But just as everything was prepared for this and none of the enemy were on the watch, since they did not expect the move at all, there came an eclipse of the moon by night. This was a great terror to Nicias and all those who were ignorant or superstitious enough to quake at such a sight. The obscuration of the sun towards the end of the month was already understood, even by the common folk, as caused somehow or other by the moon; but what it was that the moon encountered, and how, being at the full, she should on a sudden lose her light and emit all sorts of colours, this was no easy thing to comprehend. Men thought it uncanny, — a sign sent from God in advance of divers great calamities.

The first man to put in writing the clearest and boldest of all doctrines about the changing phases of the moon was Anaxagoras. But he was no ancient authority, nor was his doctrine in high repute. It was still under seal of secrecy, and made its way slowly among a few only, who received it with a certain caution rather than with implicit confidence. 3 Men could not abide the natural philosophers and “visionaries,” as they were then called, for that they reduced the divine agency down to irrational causes, blind forces, and necessary incidents. Even Protagoras had to go into exile, Anaxagoras was with difficulty rescued from imprisonment by Pericles, and Socrates, though he had nothing whatever to do with such matters, nevertheless lost his life because of philosophy.

It was not until later times that the radiant repute of Plato, because of the life the man led, and because he subjected the compulsions of the physical world to divine and more sovereign principles, took away the obloquy of such doctrines as these, and gave their science free course among all men. At any rate, his friend Dion, although the moon suffered an eclipse at the time (9 August 357 BC) when he was about to set out from Zacynthus on his voyage against Dionysius, was in no wise disturbed, but put to sea, landed at Syracuse, and drove out the tyrant.

However, it was the lot of Nicias at this time to be without even a soothsayer who was expert. The one who had been his associate, and who used to set him free from most of his superstition, Stilbides, had died a short time before. For indeed the sign from Heaven, as Philochorus observed, was not an obnoxious one to fugitives, but rather very propitious; concealment is just what deeds of fear need, whereas light is an enemy to them. And besides, men were wont to be on their guard against portents of sun and moon for three days only, as Autocleides has remarked in his “Exegetics”; but Nicias persuaded the Athenians to wait for another full period of the moon, as if, forsooth, he did not see that the planet was restored to purity and splendour just as soon as she had passed beyond the region which was darkened and obscured by the earth.

Text #8647

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria . Vol. 1
[Quint. Inst1. 1.10.46--1.10.48. Translated by H. E. Butler. Harvard University Press. 1920. (4 Vols.) pp. 181--183]

But geometry soars still higher to the consideration of the system of the universe: for by its calculations it demonstrates the fixed and ordained courses of the stars, and thereby we acquire the knowledge that all things are ruled by order and destiny, a consideration which may at times be of value to an orator. When Pericles dispelled the panic caused at Athens by the eclipse of the sun by explaining the causes of the phenomenon, or Sulpicius Galluse discoursed on the eclipse of the moon to the army of Lucius Paulus to prevent the soldiers being seized with terror at what they regarded as a portent sent by heaven, did not they discharge the function of an orator? If Nicias had known this when he commanded in Sicily, he would not have shared the terror of his men nor lost the finest army that Athens ever placed in the field.

Text #1632

Pliny. Natural History. Series: Natural History. Vol. 1
[Plin. Nat. 2.8. Translated by H. Rackham. Harvard University Press. 1967. (10 Vols.) pp. 203--205]

O mighty heroes, of loftier than mortal estate, who have discovered the law of those great divinities and released the miserable mind of man from fear, mortality dreading as it did in eclipses of the stars crimes or death of some sort (those sublime singers, the bards Stesichorus and Pindar, clearly felt this fear owing to an eclipse of the sun), or in the dying of the moon inferring that she was poisoned and consequently coming to her aid with a noisy clattering of cymbals (this alarm caused the Athenian general Nicias, in his ignorance of the cause, to be afraid to lead his fleet out of harbour, so destroying the Athenians resources: all hail to your genius, ye that interpret the heavens and grasp the facts of nature, discoverers of a theory whereby you have vanquished gods and men.

Text #9109

"Siege of Syracuse", in Wikipedia.

The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian military expedition to Sicily, which took place during the period from 415 BC to 413 BC (during the Peloponnesian War). The expedition was hampered from the outset by uncertainty in its purpose and command structure—political maneuvering in Athens swelled a lightweight force of twenty ships into a massive armada, and the expedition’s primary proponent, Alcibiades, was recalled from command to stand trial before the fleet even reached Sicily—but still achieved early successes. Syracuse, the most powerful state on Sicily, responded exceptionally slowly to the Athenian threat and, as a result, was almost completely invested before the arrival of a Spartan general, Gylippus, galvanized its inhabitants into action. From that point forward, however, as the Athenians ceded the initiative to their newly energized opponents, the tide of the conflict shifted. A massive reinforcing armada from Athens briefly gave the Athenians the upper hand once more, but a disastrous failed assault on a strategic high point and several crippling naval defeats damaged the besiegers’ fighting capacity and morale, and the Athenians were eventually forced to attempt a desperate overland escape from the city they had hoped to conquer. That last measure, too, failed, and nearly the entire expedition surrendered or was destroyed in the Sicilian interior.

The impact of the defeat was immense. Two hundred ships and thousands of soldiers, an appreciable portion of the city’s total manpower, were lost in a single stroke. Athens’s enemies on the mainland and in Persia were encouraged to take action, and rebellions broke out in the Aegean. The defeat proved to be the turning point in the Peloponnesian War, though Athens struggled on for another decade. Thucydides observed that contemporary Greeks were shocked not that Athens eventually fell after the defeat, but rather that it fought on for as long as it did, so devastating were the losses suffered. […]

On September 13, the Athenians left camp leaving their wounded behind and their dead unburied. The survivors, including all the non-combatants, numbered 40,000, and some of the wounded crawled after them as far as they could go. As they marched they defeated a small Syracusan force guarding the river Anapus, but other Syracusan cavalry and light troops continually harassed them. Near the Erineus river, Demosthenes and Nicias became separated, and Demosthenes was attacked by the Syracusans and forced to surrender his 6,000 troops. The rest of the Syracusans followed Nicias to the Assinarus river, where Nicias’s troops became disorganized in the rush to find drinking water. Many Athenians were trampled to death and others were killed while fighting with fellow Athenians. On the other side of the river a Syracusan force was waiting, and the Athenians were almost completely massacred, by far the worst defeat of the entire expedition in terms of lives lost. Nicias personally surrendered to Gylippus, hoping the Spartan would remember his role in the peace treaty of 421. The few who escaped found refuge in Catana.

The prisoners, now numbering only 7,000, were held in the stone quarries near Syracuse, as there was no other room for them. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed, against the orders of Gylippus. The rest spent ten weeks in horrible conditions in their makeshift prison, until all but the Athenians, Italians, and Sicilians were sold as slaves. The remaining Athenians were left to die slowly of disease and starvation in the quarry. In the end some of the very last survivors managed to escape and eventually trickled to Athens, bringing first-hand news of the disaster. […]

In Athens, the citizens did not, at first, believe the defeat. Plutarch, in his Life of Nicias, recounts how the news reached the city:

It is said that the Athenians would not believe their loss, in a great degree because of the person who first brought them news of it. For a certain stranger, it seems, coming to Piraeus, and there sitting in a barber’s shop, began to talk of what had happened, as if the Athenians already knew all that had passed; which the barber hearing, before he acquainted anybody else, ran as fast as he could up into the city, addressed himself to the Archons, and presently spread it about in the public Place. On which, there being everywhere, as may be imagined, terror and consternation, the Archons summoned a general assembly, and there brought in the man and questioned him how he came to know. And he, giving no satisfactory account, was taken for a spreader of false intelligence and a disturber of the city, and was, therefore, fastened to the wheel and racked a long time, till other messengers arrived that related the whole disaster particularly. So hardly was Nicias believed to have suffered the calamity which he had often predicted.

When the magnitude of the disaster became evident, there was a general panic. Attica seemed free for the taking, as the Spartans were so close by in Decelea.

The defeat caused a great shift in policy for many other states, as well. States which had until now been neutral joined with Sparta, assuming that Athens’s defeat was imminent. Many of Athens’s allies in the Delian League also revolted, and although the city immediately began to rebuild its fleet, there was little they could do about the revolts for the time being. The expedition and consequent disaster left Athens reeling. Some 10,000 hoplites had perished and, though this was a blow, the real concern was the loss of the huge fleet dispatched to Sicily. Triremes could be replaced, but the 30,000 experienced oarsmen lost in Sicily were irreplaceable and Athens had to rely on ill-trained slaves to form the backbone of her new fleet.

In 411 BC, the Athenian democracy was overthrown in favour of an oligarchy, and Persia joined the war on the Spartan side. Although things looked grim for Athens, they were able to recover for a few years. The oligarchy was soon overthrown, and Athens won the Battle of Cynossema; however, the defeat of the Sicilian expedition was essentially the beginning of the end for Athens. In 404 BC they were defeated and occupied by Sparta.

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