Syracuse, Italy (415-413 BC)
The civilization of Greek city-states reached its height in the period after the defeat of the Persian invasions of Europe and before the rise of Alexander the Great. During this period the Greeks found ample opportunities to turn their armies against each other, most notably during the Peloponnesian War. Fought primarily on the Peloponnesian Peninsula between the Athenian Empire and its enemies, the conflict was famous for being the first war in history in which control of the sea and overseas colonies was central to military strategy. The Battle of Syracuse, actually a series of battles fought in Sicily, was the world’s first colonial naval war, and arguably the most decisive battle of the conflict. The same locations around the city witnessed battles among the Romans and Cathaginians for control of Sicily in later centuries.
By the 410s BC, the Peloponesian War had been raging on and off throughout Greece and the Aegean region for over a decade. Beginning in 421 a long cease-fire existed between the primary antagonists, Athens and Sparta. These two greatest city-states had fought roughly to a stalemate, with the Spartans dominant on land but unable to finish off the Athenians thanks to the latter’s control of the sea.
The peace lasted until 415 BC, when war broke out in Sicily between the powerful state of Syracuse and the Segastians, who were allies of the Athenians. The Athenians resonded with a naval expeditionary force, the largest launched by a European power in pre-Roman times. Over a hundred ships loaded with over seven thousand men arrived in Sicily, and after skillfully maneuvering on both land and sea, caught the Syracusians and defeated at the first battle. However, the defeat was not decisive, and most of the Syracusians survived by fleeing into the city.
For some reason the Athenians did not press their advantage, instead preparing to take Syracuse by long siege. The two sides then spent the better part of the year 414 BC trying to gain the upper hand in a series of battles and skirmishes, all while trying to outflank each other in the construction of siege walls. In the end the Athenians failed to complete the siege, and while both sides took a beating, the Athenians were clearly becoming exhausted by the end of the year.
In 413 BC the Syracusians were finally relieved by an large force from Sparta and its allies. In September the navy of Syracuse defeated the Athenian ships in a series of engagements, thereby making the Athenian situation in Sicily precarious. The Athenian army withdrew from Syracuse and fled south until they reached the Assinaros River. There they were ambushed by another army from Syracuse, and the nearly the entire force massacred. The survivors were sold into slavery. Militarily the Athenian Empire never recovered from the battle, though the war dragged on for nearly ten more years before the final Athenian surrender.
The sites where most of the battle took place north of ancient Syracuse were later absorbed into the Roman and medieval city. However, parts of the battlefield, including ruined bits of the siege walls, can now be seen at the New City Archaeological Park. Another popular place related to the battle is along the banks of the River Asinaro, where the Athenians met their final defeat.
The New City Archaeological Park is located in the heart of modern Sicily on the eastern coast of Sicily. As of this writing no visitor information was available. The Asinaro River site is located just southeast of the modern-day city of Noto, approximately 15 miles southwest of Syracuse. Web: www.italia.it/en/discover-italy.sicily (official tourism website of Sicily).
Leave a Reply