Greek Sicily

The Athenian siege of Syracuse, 415-413 BC. The scene is from 414 BC, when the Athenians bad established a fort at Syca (‘the fig tree ‘) on the Epipolae plateau above Syracuse, and embarked upon their usual strategy of periteichismos [encirclement]. Specialist masons and carpenters appear to have accompanied the army to Sicily, and tools for construction work were a normal part of their equipment.

One consequence of this broad diaspora is that there are as many superb Greek sites in Italy, Sicily and Asia Minor as there are in the area we now know as Greece. The greater part, inevitably, has been lost; and yet, in Sicily alone, at Selinunte—formerly Selinus—there are at least seven temples of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in tolerable states of preservation, though most of those still standing do so only thanks to a long and ambitious program of reconstruction in the past half-century. Of the nine at Agrigento, five are more impressive still and, particularly around sunset, quite astonishingly beautiful. Loveliest of all is Segesta, set in a fold of hills an easy drive from Palermo (but just out of sight, thank God, of the motorway). It is actually unfinished—the projecting bosses used for shifting the blocks of stone were never filed away—but the general impression is one of quiet perfection, everything a late-fifth-century B.C. Doric monument ought to be. There is also, high on the opposite hillside, a beautifully preserved third-century theater, from which one can look down on the temple and marvel that such a sublime building should have survived virtually intact after two and a half thousand years.

Finally, the cathedral of Syracuse, one of the only cathedrals to have been built five centuries before the birth of Christ. Its splendid baroque façade gives no hint of what lies within, but the interior tells a very different story. The columns that support the building are those of the original Doric temple of Athena, erected by the tyrant Gelon to celebrate his victory over Carthage in 480 B.C. and famous for its magnificence all over the ancient world. Under the Romans, its greatest treasures were stolen by the unspeakably corrupt Governor Verres, against whom Cicero so famously thundered. The Byzantines converted it for the first time into a Christian church; the Arabs turned it into a mosque. Normans and Spaniards both made their own contributions; a series of earthquakes did their worst; and there was a major reconstruction in 1693 after the collapse of the Norman façade. Those ancient columns, however, survived all their tribulations, and still stand to prove once again that most curious of historical-religious phenomena: that once a place is recognized as holy, then, regardless of all changes in the prevailing faith, holy it remains.

But who, you may ask, was this tyrant Gelon, who started the whole thing? Of all the tyrants—those men who ruled their cities as virtual dictators and who played all too large a part in Greek-Sicilian history—Gelon could boast the most distinguished parentage. Herodotus claims that his ancestors had founded the city of Gela. The prototypes of these tyrants first make their appearance in the early sixth century B.C.—Panaetius in Leontini, Phalaris in Acragas and one or two others. About Panaetius we know next to nothing, and of Phalaris very little except that he greatly enjoyed eating babies and small children, and that he possessed a huge, hollow bull of bronze in which he tended to roast those who displeased him. We are a good deal better informed about Pantares of Gela, whose four-horse chariot was victorious in the Olympic Games of 512 or 508, and whose sons Cleander and Hippocrates ruled successively after him. It was on the death of Hippocrates in 491—killed in battle with the Sicels on the slopes of Mount Etna—that Gelon, his former cavalry commander, seized power. He ruled in his native city for six years, then in 485 moved to Syracuse, taking more than half its population with him. The move was sensible, if not inevitable. Gela, as we have seen, had no harbor; but no one beached ships anymore if they could avoid it, and in all the Greek world there were few harbors more magnificent than that of Syracuse.

But Syracuse was more than its harbor. It also possessed an island, separated from it by no more than a hundred yards, which could serve as a huge, self-contained fortress. It was here that the first Greek colonists founded their city, which they called Ortygia after one of the epithets of Artemis. Almost miraculously, the island possessed a seemingly inexhaustible spring of freshwater at the very edge of the sea; this they dedicated to Arethusa, one of the goddess’s attendant nymphs.

Over the next few years Gelon transformed his new conquest into a powerful and prosperous city. In this he was greatly aided by an idiotic attack on Syracuse by another Greek city, Megara Hyblaea, some ten or twelve miles up the coast. Herodotus tells us the story:

[Gelon] brought to Syracuse the men of substance, who had instigated the war and therefore expected to be put to death, and he made them citizens. The common people, who had no share in the responsibility for the war and therefore expected to suffer no evil, he also took to Syracuse and there he sold them into slavery for export outside Sicily….He did this because he thought the commons were the most unpleasant to live with.

It was not long before Gelon, with his ally, the immensely rich Theron of Acragas, had extended his power across the greater part of Greek Sicily. Selinus and Messina alone managed to preserve their independence; and it was Anaxilas of Messina who took what appeared to be the only course open to him if he and his people were to escape absorption. He appealed to Carthage.

At this point—and before we go any further—it might be a good idea to say something about Carthage. It was originally Phoenician, and the Phoenicians—the Canaanites of the Old Testament—were a very curious people indeed. Unlike their contemporaries in Egypt, they seem to have made little or no attempt to found a single, coherent state. The Old Testament refers to the people of Tyre and Sidon, and we read in the First Book of Kings how Hiram, King of Tyre, sent King Solomon timber and skilled craftsmen for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. His people had developed one memorable home industry: gathering the shells of the murex—a form of mollusc which secreted a rich purple dye,worth far more than its weight in gold.*2 But their principal interest lay always in the lands to the west—with whom, however, they traded more as a loose confederation of merchant communities than as anything resembling a nation. Today we remember them above all as seafarers, a people who sailed to every corner of the Mediterranean and quite often beyond, setting up trading colonies not only in Sicily but in the Balearic Islands and along the shores of North Africa. Beyond the Strait of Gibraltar they had important settlements on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and on the promontory of Cádiz; they probably even crossed the English Channel in search of Cornish tin.

As for Carthage, it had gained its independence around 650 B.C., and by the fifth century it had developed into a formidable city-state, by far the most important and influential of all the Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean, occupying the site of what is now Tunis. People are always surprised when they look on the map to find that Tunisia is not south of Sicily but due west of it, and that the distance between the two is barely a hundred miles. Carthage was highly centralized and efficiently governed. It was not, in short, a presence that could be taken for granted. It responded to Messina’s appeal—and on a scale far beyond anyone’s expectation or, indeed, understanding. The response was not immediate, but that was simply because the Carthaginians meant business. They were not interested in just helping out small-time tyrants in distress; they were aiming at something a good deal more ambitious. They spent the next three years amassing a huge army, not only from North Africa but from Spain, Corsica and Sardinia, while building up an equally massive fleet; and in 480, under the command of their Chief Magistrate Hamilcar, they landed at Palermo. From there they advanced eastward along the coast to Himera, and attacked.

What happened next is almost as incomprehensible as the size and scale of the expedition itself. Theron—Gelon’s principal ally—who had been carefully following the passage of the Carthaginian fleet and was now standing ready to resist the invaders, at first found himself hopelessly outnumbered; but he was able to hold the situation until the arrival of Gelon from Syracuse, with an army comparable in size to that of Hamilcar but infinitely better equipped and trained. Meanwhile, to their bewilderment, the Carthaginians found themselves entirely alone. Of Anaxilas and his Messinans—who had invited them in the first place—there was not a sign; nor was there any help from Selinus. In the desperate encounter that followed Hamilcar was killed—or, as some say, took his own life by leaping into a blazing fire; his ships, drawn up defenseless on the beach, were burned to cinders. Vast numbers of prisoners were enslaved, and Carthage was obliged to pay an immense indemnity, of which Gelon made excellent use, building not only his great temple of Athena but two lesser temples in a developing quarter of Syracuse, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone—the goddess of fertility and the harvest, and her daughter, queen of the dead.

After the Battle of Himera—which, Herodotus tells us, was fought on the very same day as the great Athenian victory against the Persians at Salamis—it was as if the Carthaginian expedition had never been. Carthage retired to lick her wounds; she made no attempt to take her revenge or resume hostilities, remaining quiet for the next seventy years. Anaxilas was allowed to continue in Messina as before; indeed, he felt secure enough to travel to Olympia, where he won a not very exciting race for mule carts at the Games. He seems gradually to have reconciled himself to Syracusan hegemony; a year or two later he married his daughter to Hiero, Gelon’s younger brother and successor. As for Gelon himself, he died in 478 B.C. For many years he had been the most powerful figure in the entire Greek world—perhaps in all Europe. Despite Herodotus’s nasty little story above he had shown himself, for a tyrant, unusually just and merciful; we are told that, as one of the conditions of the peace treaty, he insisted that the Carthaginians should give up their traditional practice of human sacrifice—which they somewhat regretfully did. It was not only in Syracuse, but in many other cities of Magna Graecia, that Gelon was deeply and genuinely mourned.

The immense popularity and respect in which Gelon was held should have rubbed off on Hiero, but it somehow failed to do so. Hiero meant well enough, but he possessed little of his brother’s ability and intelligence. Some basic insecurity led him to establish a formidable secret police, which had little effect other than to make him more unpopular still. Like Gelon, he was a great mover of populations, transporting the people of Naxos and Catania to Leontini, and actually refounding Catania under a new name—Etna—and populating it with immigrants from the Peloponnese. He was ambitious too: in 474 B.C., in response to an appeal from Cumae, he sent a fleet across to the Bay of Naples, where it inflicted a crushing defeat on the Etruscans.

Perhaps his most attractive feature was his love of the arts: Pindar and Simonides, together with many other lesser poets and philosophers, were welcomed to his court at Syracuse, as was the tragedian Aeschylus, but somehow the old magic was gone. It is the inherent weakness of autocracies that their success depends entirely on the character and strength of the autocrat. Hereditary monarchy can take the occasional weak ruler in its stride; tyranny collapses. Hiero, alas, was found wanting. He survived long enough to win an Olympic chariot race in 468 B.C., but died the following year. He was briefly and ingloriously succeeded by two more of his brothers, who were thrown out one after the other.

At this point it was certainly on the cards that some new, unrelated adventurer might have seen his chance and staged a coup d’état; for some reason, however, tyranny suddenly dropped out of fashion. It was not only Syracuse—by far the most important city in Sicily—that reverted to a form of democracy, but almost all the petty tyrannies (whose fortunes we have no time, space or reason to follow here) across the island. This change of heart raised its own problems: so many local populations had been uprooted and transported to other cities that it was almost impossible to determine who deserved a vote and who did not, and the result was half a century of considerable confusion. It was this, perhaps, which in 415 B.C. emboldened the Athenians to launch against Syracuse what Thucydides described as the most splendid and costly fleet ever to have sailed from a single Greek city—more than 250 ships and some 40,000 men.

For reasons not entirely clear, Athens had been showing a faintly sinister interest in Sicily since the 450s, when she had most improbably signed a treaty of friendship with Segesta—a diplomatic coup comparable, perhaps, to a pact today between China and Paraguay. A number of similar treaties followed, and when in 427 Leontini appealed for help in resisting an attack by Syracuse, the Athenians immediately sent twenty ships. This might have seemed generous enough at any time; during the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was fighting for her very existence, it was little short of astonishing. Thucydides claims, not very convincingly, that their object was to prevent the dispatch of grain to their enemies.

The Peloponnesian War—which was basically a struggle between Athens and Sparta—had had little effect on Sicily until 415; in the previous year, however, hostilities had flared up—not for the first time—between the two western cities of Segesta and Selinus. Segesta, being by far the weaker of the two, having appealed in vain for help to Acragas, Syracuse and Carthage, finally in despair sent an embassy to Athens. Athens was still technically at war, but warfare had given way to a period of uneasy truce and she had large numbers of bored fighting men who needed employment. She also had a dazzling young senator named Alcibiades—a former ward of the great Pericles—who enthusiastically championed the idea of a large-scale expedition to Sicily. He had no very high opinion of the Sicilians; and in a long speech to the Senate, he explained why:

Although the Sicilian cities are populous, their inhabitants are a mixed multitude, and they readily give up old forms of government and receive new ones from outside. No one really feels that he has a city of his own….They are a motley crew, who are never of one mind in counsel and are incapable of any concerted action.

The Athenians believed him, and launched their expedition.

Almost immediately, the plight of Segesta seems to have been forgotten; the Athenians had bigger fish to fry. They may well have had in mind the subjection of all Sicily, but it was clear that their first objective must be the island’s most important city, Syracuse. To Syracuse, therefore, they sailed; but the army had hardly landed before its commanders began to quarrel. Alcibiades, who was by far the ablest of them, was recalled to Athens almost at once to answer charges of profanation, and played no further part in the fighting; had he done so the expedition might have ended very differently. None of his fellow generals seems to have had any overall plan of attack; for weeks they shilly-shallied, giving Syracuse plenty of time to prepare a firm resistance—and to appeal for help. Sparta with its superbly trained army and Corinth with its magnificent navy were swift to respond, and the Athenians soon found that the conquest of Sicily, or even only of Syracuse, was by no means to be the walkover that they had expected.

Moreover, unlike Athens, Syracuse possessed a superb commander. His name was Hermocrates. He is described by Thucydides as highly intelligent, experienced in war and of conspicuous courage, and by Xenophon as thorough, diligent and, as a general, unusually accessible to his men. In 415 he had been among the first to warn his countrymen of the Athenian danger, and had made a determined attempt to unite all Sicily—together with Carthage—against Athens while there was still time. In this he had failed, being by some written off as an alarmist, by others reviled as a warmonger; and more than a vestige of these suspicions seems to have remained, as the Syracusans absolutely refused to entrust him with supreme command, electing him instead as merely one of three generals who would share the executive authority between them. This asinine arrangement meant that, to a very considerable extent, his hands were tied.

The fighting continued for two full years, and on at least two occasions the Athenians had the city almost within their grasp. In 414 a major slave revolt was narrowly averted, and later the same year Hermocrates was obliged to open peace negotiations; only the timely arrival, with substantial reinforcements, of the Spartan general Gylippus saved the situation. Gylippus was not initially popular in Syracuse, but he soon showed himself a thoroughgoing professional and Hermocrates, swallowing his pride, accepted him as his superior officer. It was these two men together who were ultimately responsible for the Athenian defeat—a defeat which Athens was to take a long time to live down.

But there were other causes as well. As time went by the Athenian soldiers became ever more homesick and demoralized, and thus increasingly vulnerable to epidemics, particularly of malaria—unknown in Athens but rampant in Sicily. At last the Athenian commanders accepted that they had failed and gave the order to withdraw. But they were too late. The Syracusans and their allies launched a sudden last-minute attack; the Athenian fleet was trapped inside the harbor and annihilated. What followed was little short of a massacre. After it, the two principal Athenian generals, Nicias—despite being seriously ill—and Demosthenes, were executed, while some 7,000 of their men were captured and forced to work in those fearsome limestone quarries that can be visited just outside the city. The marks of their pickaxes can still be seen. In the next few months many of them were to die of cold and exposure. Countless others were branded on the forehead with the mark of a horse and then sold into slavery. (Plutarch’s claim that a few lucky ones were set free because they could recite a chorus or two of Euripides can, alas, be discounted.) Thucydides summed it up: “the victors earned the most brilliant of successes, the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats.”

Sicily was victorious and, for the moment, safe from foreign invaders; but the Peloponnesian War was by no means over and Hermocrates, now unemployed, assumed command of a fleet of twenty triremes to fight for Sparta in the Aegean. For two years all went well; but in 410 fate turned against him. Perhaps he was less gifted as an admiral than he was as a general; at any rate, in the course of a grim battle off Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara every one of his ships was destroyed by an Athenian fleet. He returned to Sicily, only to find the gates of Syracuse firmly closed against him—perhaps because, despite his excellent past record, the citizens mistrusted his obvious ambition and feared that he might make himself a tyrant. Their fears were probably well justified, but we shall never know: in 407, while making a determined bid to force his way into the city, he was surrounded and killed.


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