21. Historical Summary of the Sicilian Expedition
Ellis L. Knox
Boise State University
Disaster

The one thing that the expedition had to do was to keep the fleet safe, for those ships were their only way home again. The one thing it had to avoid at all costs was the destruction of the fleet.

Of course Nicias failed. Even as the commanders at last recognized the hopelessness of ever winning Syracuse, even as they had given the orders to sail, even indeed the very night before they were to depart, Nicias hesitated. The Athenians were caught by surprise, the fleet was bottled up in the harbor and destroyed by fire ships.

There was now no way home. The only alternative, and a desperate one it was, was to try to cross the interior of Sicily and reach a port friendly to Athens, where some ships might be had.

35,000 Athenians (and allies) set out across Sicily. The army was already suffering from diseases contracted in the swamps outside Syracuse. They now suffered from lack of supplies, particularly lack of water, as they crossed the arid interior of Sicily. And they suffered further because the Sicilians were dogging their every step, cutting down stragglers and harassing the lines.

At the last, the army was almost without water and was dying on its feet. When scouts reported a river ahead, the army dissolved into a mob and ran for it.

The Syracusans were waiting on the opposite bank. As the Athenians tumbled into the small river, the Syracusans attacked. The result was slaughter. Much of the army perished at the river, and most of the rest were captured. Those captured were enslaved. Only a handful ever made it back to Athens.

So ended the expedition to Sicily. Never had a single Greek city mobilized such an army, and never had a single Greek city suffered such terrible losses.

Source: http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/peloponn/13.htm
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