The Sicilian Expedition Ends

The impact of the defeat on Athens 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' 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 crucial 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.

Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus were chosen to lead the expedition, although Nicias had no interest in leading it. Five days after they were chosen, there was a debate in the assembly, between those against the expedition, led by Nicias, and those who supported it, led by Alcibiades. Nicias argued they should not be dragged into a war that did not involve them, and that Athens should not feel so secure despite the peace treaty he had negotiated just a few years before. Sparta was still their enemy, and they could not afford to waste time and men fighting a distant war while their own enemies were so near. Even if they did somehow conquer Sicily, which Nicias felt was the underlying point of the expedition, it would be impossible to govern. Athens' weaker and poorer allies continually revolted against them, and they were much closer. The Sicilians, he said, would be more fearful of Athens if Athens was not tested in battle, just as Athens had been more fearful of Sparta before they were able to defeat the Spartans in war. Finally, he hoped his fellow citizens would not be persuaded by the young and arrogant Alcibiades, who he felt sought only personal glory.

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' 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.