Not long after the conclusion of peace the Athenians were
persuaded by a brilliant and ambitious politician, named Alcibiades, to
undertake an expedition against Syracuse in Sicily. This city was a colony of
Corinth, and hence was a natural ally of the Peloponnesian states. The Athenians,
by conquering it, expected to establish their power in Sicily. But the siege of
Syracuse ended in a complete failure. The Athenians failed to capture the city,
and in a great naval battle they lost their fleet. Then they tried to retreat
by land, but soon had to surrender. Many of the prisoners were sold as slaves;
many were thrown by their inhuman captors into the stone quarries near
Syracuse, where they perished from exposure and starvation. The Athenians, says
Thucydides, "were absolutely annihilated—both army and fleet—and of the
many thousands who went away only a handful ever saw their homes again."
Athens never recovered from this terrible blow. The
Spartans quickly renewed the contest, now with the highest hopes of success.
The Athenians had to guard their city against the invader night and day; their
slaves deserted to the enemy; and they themselves could do no farming except
under the walls of the city. For supplies they had to depend entirely on their ships.
For nearly ten years, however, the Athenians kept up the struggle. At length
the Spartans captured an Athenian fleet near Aegospotami on the Hellespont.
Soon afterwards they blockaded Piraeus and their army encamped before the walls
of Athens. Bitter famine compelled the Athenians to sue for peace. The Spartans
imposed harsh terms. The Athenians were obliged to destroy their Long Walls and
the fortifications of Piraeus, to surrender all but twelve of their warships,
and to acknowledge the supremacy of Sparta.