May 17

The Making of a Naval Disaster

Thursday, May 17, 2018 12:01 AM


The Peloponnesian War Battle of Syracuse, 413 B.C. (Alamy)

The Peloponnesian War Battle of Syracuse, 413 BC (Alamy)

The Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BC. between the Spartan-led Peloponnesian alliance and the Delian League dominated by Athens was a seminal event in naval history. The nature of the conflict practically guaranteed that maritime control would be a critical factor, as neither of the two major power blocs had the means to launch a decisive assault on the other’s homeland and were forced into a long series of peripheral actions in an attempt to wear the other side out.

The great Athenian statesman Pericles openly and explicitly built Athenian military strategy around protecting and using the Athenian navy to raid Spartan territory and make the city impervious to siege rather than seeking a traditional phalanx vs. phalanx infantry battle on the open field. Long-term campaigns were waged in areas as distant from the Greek peninsula as the straits of the Bosporus to the island of Sicily. Maintaining armies in such far-flung locales would require naval power sufficient to keep one’s own lines of resupply, reinforcement, and communication open while attempting the cut the enemy’s own such lines.

At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians undoubtedly held the advantage at sea, as their navy was second to none. But they would manage to squander that advantage in a disastrous campaign against the Sicilian city of Syracuse that would go down as one of history’s great military debacles. This naval disaster may be 2,400 years in the past, and tactically the age of oar-powered triremes is as different from the modern age of nuclear-powered carrier strike groups as night is from day, but I believe the oldest lessons can be the most widely applicable.


Athenian naval power grew out one simple necessity: The poor soil in the Athenian homeland of Attica made overseas trade, not agriculture, the city’s only route to power and wealth. A shift from staples toward cash crops in the sixth century BC led to greater commercial prosperity, but also further increased Athenian dependence on imported grain from the Black Sea coast, making naval power necessary simply to prevent starvation. The Athenian fleet would win its first great victory at Salamis in 480 BC during the Second Greco-Persian War, and afterward it would spearhead campaigns to liberate Greek cities in the Aegean islands and along the Ionian coast.

The city’s naval might would be the basis of, and eventually lead to, Athenian domination of the Delian League. The league began as alliance of Greek cities on the Aegean coast looking to continue the war against Persia. But the practice of most member states simply making a money payment to Athens rather than providing their own ships and soldiers eventually left Athens with the lion’s share of the league’s military might, transforming it from an alliance of equals into a series of Athenian tributary states. The need to keep their fleet in top shape at all times, both to protect trade and maintain order in the empire, would make the Athenian navy the most skilled in Greece.

The Athenian High-Water Mark

The Athenian navy’s dominance over its enemies at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War is best displayed in a pair of battles fought in Gulf of Corinth in 429 BC. Commanding 20 Athenian triremes based out of the city of Naupactus, the Athenian strategos Phormio won the first of these two battles in the fight near Patras when he defeated a fleet of 47 Peloponnesian galleys, capturing 12 enemy ships while losing none of his own.

Phormio and his 20 ships had attacked the Peloponnesian force of 47 warships and various supply vessels after the latter was falling back from a failed invasion of Attica. The Peloponnesian ships formed a defensive circle with their rams facing outwards, seemingly an impregnable formation. However, the Athenians circled the formation, making feint attacks and waiting for the winds to pick up. As conditions worsened, the less skilled Peloponnesian fleet was unable to stay in formation, gaps opened in the line, and the swifter Athenian ships swooped in for the kill.

Enraged and embarrassed at this defeat, Sparta and its allies rushed additional ships to the Gulf of Corinth, quickly increasing their advantage in numbers to 77 ships verses the Athenians’ 20. Phormio did his best to delay battle until a reinforcement of 20 additional warships could arrive from Athens, but the Peloponnesians managed to force an engagement while the Athenians were transiting to their naval base at Naupactus. While moving slowly along the shoreline so as to not outpace their infantry support needed to keep the beachheads open, the Athenians were attacked by the Peloponnesian fleet, which captured nine Athenian ships and sent the rest fleeing for Naupactus at top speed.

Rather than enter Naupactus Harbor, however, the last Athenian ship to arrive conducted a daring maneuver. Using an anchored merchant ship to cover its flank while executing a turn, the ship managed to come about and ram the leading Peloponnesian pursuer. Already out of formation from the pursuit and stunned by this sudden reversal, the Peloponnesian fleet was vulnerable when the other ten remaining Athenian ships suddenly rallied and returned to the fight. Then Athenians recovered their lost ships and even took 6 more prizes, all against a fleet with a nearly 4:1 numerical advantage. When the 20 Athenian reinforcements arrived, the Peloponnesian ships retired, cowed by a force still half their size.

Maneuverability and skill had given the Athenians back-to-back victories against seemingly impossible odds. However, there were also other factors in play: The Athenians had a secure base at Naupactus and sufficient sea space to use their favored and devastating speed and maneuver tactics. The lack of these two factors, along with other conditions, would lead to the Athenian fleet suffering a crushing defeat a decade later against far less intimidating odds.


When Athens voted in 415 BC to send a large expedition to Syracuse to establish their power on Sicily, Thucydides reports that the Athenians were largely oblivious to what they were really getting into, “most of them being ignorant of its size and the number of its inhabitants.” The Athenians may not have realized at the time that they were biting off more than they could chew, but what ultimately turned a foolhardy military adventure into a full-scale debacle was a crushing Athenian naval defeat at Syracuse. This shocking change in the balance of power might be called a reversal of fortune, as if it were luck or chance, but there were hard, concrete reasons for why Athenian warships went from rulers of the waves to wreckage upon them.

The basic summary of the Syracuse campaign is that the Athenians, despite internal political issues and a shortage of local allies, won a number of early victories. Eventually however, the tide of war slowly turned over a long and grinding campaign that lasted until 413 BC and the Athenian fleet found itself bottled up in Syracuse’s harbor. A failed attempt to break through the blockade led to the destruction of the Athenian fleet and the complete collapse of the army of 40,000 men that became trapped on shore. There are three key reasons for the disaster:

Logistics. At the beginning of the campaign, Hermocrates of Syracuse argued in favor of his city making a preemptive naval attack on the Athenians around the southern end of Italy. His reasoning was that because Athens had no reliable allies in the region, their fleet would be exposed and vulnerable to any setback. At Patras and Naupactus, the Athenian navy had been operating out of a fortified base in the vicinity of allied ground forces. While Hermocrates’ proposal was not acted upon due to his city’s lack of naval preparation, he had hit on one of the great strategic realities of the Athenian campaign: The Athenian army and navy were far from home, undertaking a risky operation in hostile territory.

Exhaustion. As the siege of Syracuse dragged on for month after month, the Athenian fleet was forced to stay in constant operation to keep the city blockaded. A purely land-based siege would be ineffective against a port city, after all. However, the long periods of constant work and watchfulness drained the Athenians and degraded the fighting ability of both ships and crews. The navy of Syracuse was secure in its own home port and able to choose when to sortie and when to stay home to rest and refit. The navy of Athens, meanwhile, had to operate out of cramped and temporary facilities on the shores of Syracuse’s harbor. Only limited repairs to ships could be made on the open beach, and the men were crammed in behind defensive walls. No navy is immune to physical exhaustion and material degradation, particularly when forced to operate for long periods of time in suboptimal conditions.

Tactical Limitations. The Athenian navy’s tactical doctrine, to the extent that it had what modern navies would call a tactical doctrine, was built around speed and maneuverability. Therefore Athenian triremes carried fewer soldiers and were lighter than their opponents’ triremes. This paid off well at Patras, where the Athenian ships were able to sail circles around the Peloponnesian fleet and engage whenever and wherever they saw the most advantage, but it left them vulnerable in narrow waters. In the final stage of the Syracuse campaign, the defenders built a fleet nearly as large as that of the Athenians, and better equipped for close-quarters fighting and boarding actions.

In addition, a land assault by the army of Syracuse had managed to capture several Athenian forts at the mouth of the harbor and begun to lay obstructions across the gap, trapping the Athenian navy. In the constricted waters of the harbor, the Athenian fleet simply didn’t have room to exploit any advantages they might have had in speed or maneuverability. They were fish in a barrel when the navy of Syracuse entered the harbor prepared for a brutal head-to-head slugfest. In ideal conditions the Athenian navy was unstoppable, but when forced to fight out of their tactical element they were as vulnerable as anyone else. When the navy was beaten and demoralized after a failed breakout attempt, the Athenian army’s doom was sealed. The land forces would be scattered, exhausted, and crushed only a few short days after the Athenian navy had burned their ships rather than make a second attempt at escape.


Hubris, or excessive pride, is one of the great character flaws in Greek tragedy. Greek mythology is littered with examples of humans who forgot their limitations and paid the price. The Athenians should have taken these lessons to heart and remembered that no matter how successful they had been, the basic rules of naval strategy and operations still applied. Dangling your forces at the end of a long supply line in hostile territory for extended lengths of time is always exceptionally risky. Exhaustion can overcome any sailor and excessive use without adequate repairs can overcome any ship. Lastly, no matter how skillful your fleet is, forgetting what it can and cannot do well, the scenarios where it is strong and the scenarios where it is at a disadvantage can be the undoing of any navy.

These lessons would still apply centuries after the Peloponnesian war ended. The Spanish Armada of 1588 was undone after it mistakenly tried to stay far too long in the hostile North Atlantic to force a decisive battle with the English fleet. The Russian Baltic Fleet was exhausted and vulnerable after its months-long journey when it met the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Home Fleet in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait. The lessons of Syracuse are still valid and it would be very wise to keep them in mind.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Group, 2003).
Thucydides, and Richard Crawley, Peloponnesian War (London: Dent, 1903).
William Ledyard Rodgers, Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).
Iain G. Spence, Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Warfare (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002).
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