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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

They were again attacked by the Syracusans

His exploits illustrate, too, at the very outset of naval history, the vital truth that the man counts more than the machine. In these later days, when the tendency is to measure naval power merely by counting dreadnoughts, and to settle all hypothetical combats by the proportion of strength at a given point on the game board, it is well to remember that the most overwhelming victories have been won by the skill and audacity of a great leader, which overcame odds that would be reckoned by the experts as insuperable.

The Peloponnesian war dragged on with varying fortunes for ten years. The Athenians were regularly successful on the sea and unsuccessful on land. They seem to have laid an unwise dependence on their navy for a state situated on the mainland with land communications open to the enemy. They attempted to make an island of their state by withdrawing into the city of Athens the entire population of Attica, leaving open to the invader the rest of the province. The repeated ravaging of Attica by Peloponnesian armies weakened both the resources and the morale of the Athenians, and the crowding of the inhabitants into the city resulted in frightful mortality from the plague. At the same time the naval expeditions sent out to harry the coast of the Peloponnesus accomplished nothing of real advantage.

In 421 a truce was agreed upon between Athens and Sparta, which was to last fifty years. Both sides were sorely weakened by the protracted struggle and neither had gained any real advantage over the other. Without waiting to recuperate from the losses of the war, Athens embarked in 415 on an ambitious plan of conquering Syracuse, and gaining all of Sicily as an Athenian colony. In the event of success Athens would have a western outpost for the eventual control of the Mediterranean, as she already had an eastern outpost in Ionia, which gave her control of the AEgean.

In the light of the event it is customary to refer to this expedition as the climax of folly, and yet it is clear that if the commander in chief had not wasted time in interminable delays the Athenians might easily have won their objective. At first the Syracusans felt hopeless because of the large army and fleet dispatched against them, and the great naval prestige of their enemy, but as delay succeeded delay, assistance arrived from Corinth and Sparta, and the besieged citizens took heart. The siege dragged on for the greater part of two years, with the offensive gradually slipping from the Athenians to the Syracusans, till finally the invaders found their troops besieged on shore and their ships bottled up in the harbor by a line of galleys anchored across the entrance. The Syracusans knew that they were no match for the Athenians on the open sea, but with a fleet crowded into a harbor with no room for maneuvering, the problem was not essentially different from that of fighting on land. They built a fleet of ships with specially strengthened bows for ramming and erected catapults for throwing heavy stones on the decks of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Athenian ships had deteriorated from lack of opportunity to refit and their crews had been heavily reduced by disease. In a pitched battle between the two fleets in the harbor, the Athenians were worsted. Shortly after as the Athenians were attempting to break through the barrier and escape, they were again attacked by the Syracusans. There was no room for maneuvering; the Athenian ships were jammed together in a mass in which all advantage of numbers was lost. Moreover, against the deadly rain of huge stones the Athenians had no defense whatever.

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