How a Party Defeated an Empire: Syracuse, Wine, and the Peloponnesian War


The ancient Greeks were no strangers to warfare, or to drinking. Wine and combat pervaded Greek culture, so today we’re going to take a look at fifth-century Greece, to see how wine played a role not only as a focal point in the Peloponnesian War, but in all of ancient Greece. The Greek world of the fifth century BC was an unstable, highly polarized system in which two major city-states, Athens and Sparta, enmeshed the rest of Greece into their competing alliances: the Athenian Delian League and the Spartan Peloponnesian League. Despite history’s portrayal of Athens as cosmopolitan and intellectual, it was Athens that ruled over its allies with an iron fist. The Spartans, governed by an oligarchy, were regarded as the more temperate of the masters.

In 431 BC, Sparta realized that the Athenian taste for empire was unlimited, and the only way to stop Athens from dominating the entirety of the Greek world was to wage war against Athens before she grew any stronger. So, Sparta and her allies on the Peloponnese peninsula declared war on the maritime empire of Athens. The war would rage inconclusively for a decade. By 421 BC, the Peloponnesian War reached an uneasy cease-fire. For Athens, the price of war was steep. The mighty empire had weathered the revolt of its allies, the invasion of its homeland Attica, and a vicious plague that devastated its citizenry. Worse still, Pericles, the leading citizen in the Athenian democracy, and the only man who could moderate the will of the Athenian assembly, had perished. In the years that followed Pericles’ death, Athenian democracy ran amok. Demagogues emerged who were not interested in the safety and prosperity of Athens, but rather in growing their own wealth and prestige. These demagogues pushed the Athenian assembly to authorize a massive military expedition to the distant land of Sicily in 415 BC.

Tensions with Sparta still simmered, and war threatened to erupt between the two powers at any moment. Nevertheless, the demagogue Cleon and the vain, self-centered Alcibiades had convinced the assembly to devote a huge portion of Athens’ military power to the Sicilian expedition, leaving only a fraction of Athenian forces at home to protect Athens herself. In command of the expedition was Nicias, an aging Athenian general who had long since lost his taste for battle, and Alcibiades, who accompanied the expedition primarily to win glory for himself.

Greek historian and Athenian general Thucydides describes the expedition as “the greatest action that we know of in Greek history.” When the massive Athenian fleet arrived at Sicily, word quickly spread among Sicilians that the flotilla had come to Sicily’s shores to subjugate the island. The Sicilians intuited that Athens planned to divide the island’s cities against one another, taking advantage of the smaller conflicts to eventually conquer the island as a whole. The largest of these cities was Syracuse. As such, they were a banner around which the rest of Sicily could rally. Through skillful diplomacy, the Syracusean leader Hermocrates united the Sicilians against the Athenian expedition. Despite its newfound unity, the Sicilian alliance was still badly outmatched by the well-trained Athenians. The expedition won many of its early battles against Sicilian forces. It seemed that the tactical daring and creativity that characterized the Athenian way of war was too much for the Sicilians.

After all, the Athenians had fought the Spartans to a stalemate for 10 years during the Peloponnesian War. Spartans remain famous to this day for their martial prowess, but their commanders were conservative and cautious. They rarely committed sufficient forces to an operation, clung tightly to failing strategies, and were agonizingly slow in aiding potential allies. The Athenians meanwhile were skilled sailors and, more importantly, tactically daring. Athenians quickly realized and seized opportunities as they happened, and attacked boldly and with violence of action. Spartan leadership disliked independence in its field commanders, while the Athenians favored and rewarded boldness and freethinking.

The Sicilians were not Spartans, however. In fact, they had much in common with the Athenians. Like Athens, Syracuse was a democracy. Sicilians also had a culture that favored innovation and creativity. After their defeats, Hermocrates rallied Sicily. The Sicilians learned from their mistakes, and unified their command structure. They reached out to the Spartans and other enemies of Athens for help. The Spartans sent a small contingent with one of their most experienced field commanders, Gylippus.

Spartan tactical expertise combined with Sicilian flexibility proved to be the winning combination. The tide soon began to turn as the Athenians experienced greater and greater losses. Eventually, the expeditionary force had been whittled down to a fraction of its former size. General Nicias decided it was time for the Athenians to abandon the Sicilian quagmire and take the expedition home. However, the Athenians couldn’t be allowed to leave. Sicily knew that Athens would inevitably retreat and redouble their efforts against the island. Athens outlined this policy in their negotiations with the state of Melos.

It is not so much [Melos’] hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that, if we were on friendly terms with [Melos], our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.

Athens’ fear of being perceived as weak by their allies meant they could never abandon the expedition. Knowing this, the Sicilians had to send a message to Athens and anyone else with designs over Sicily. The Athenian expedition had to be destroyed in totality.

To flee Sicily, the Athenians had to escape the Syracuse harbor. Now fighting for their survival, the Athenians boarded their ships. The Sicilians knew that if the Athenians reached the open sea, Sicilian ships and sailors would never be able to catch their superior Athenian counterparts. When the Athenians sailed out into the harbor, the Sicilian fleet met them at its mouth to the sea. The Athenians were ill prepared for the chaos that ensued. Athenian sailors were accustomed to exploiting the open sea to maneuver on their opponents, but the Sicilian ships never ceded an inch. The fleeing Athenians never made it out of the harbor, and were eventually forced back to land. It was the first time in its history that the Athenians’ navy suffered a major naval defeat.

Athenian morale was crushed. Now more than ever, the expedition needed a strong leader to rally them to re-board their ships and break through the Sicilian blockade. Nicias was not that leader. His order to return to the ships was ignored by his troops. The expedition was on the brink of collapse. As for the Sicilians, instead of keeping up the pressure and relentlessly pursuing their enemies, they celebrated their victory with another fine Greek tradition: drinking.

Fourth-century Greece had a robust drinking culture. The first evidence of Greek winemaking are depictions of winepresses in tombs on Crete dated between 2000-3000 BC. In Homer’s account of the Trojan War, wine is ubiquitous. Wine was consumed at all times of day, by all social classes, and on occasions ranging from routine daily labor, to elaborate religious festivals.

Greek wine was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. We know from shipwrecks that the Mediterranean was a hotbed of wine trading. The Peloponnese climate and soil are excellent for viticulture. In fact, the productivity of the Attica region may have been instrumental in the economic rise of Athens, and the Greek world as a whole. Even Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, claimed “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.”

By the time of the Peloponnesian War, the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine, had evolved from a simple day of wine-drunk revelry to a multi-day celebration of the arts, sports, and of course, wine. Some of the West’s first recorded theater came in the form of Greek tragedies written and performed at the festival. To the ancient Greeks, it was simply a given that wine and art went hand in hand. They believed that the relaxed state induced by wine allowed poets and playwrights to express themselves without inhibition.

The Greek intellectual tradition also owes much to wine. The symposium was a Greek tradition in which men of the aristocracy would gather, drink wine, and recite songs or poems. They would also discuss philosophy or the issues of the day. These symposia were such cultural pillars, that writer-philosophers like Plato and Xenophon would set their philosophic dialogues as fictional symposia.

Even to relatively remote Greek territories, like those on Sicily, wine would have been a natural and logical way to commemorate a great victory. It was hardly a surprise then, that Sicilian forces celebrated their victory over the greatest maritime power in the world with a little Greek wine. This celebrating would not have been a problem if an Athenian force weren’t camped out just a few minutes’ march away. There was nothing stopping the Athenians from fleeing inland, seeking new allies, and digging in while awaiting reinforcements.

To prevent the Athenians from fleeing, Hermocrates needed to get creative. Unlike the rigid, inflexible Spartans, the Sicilians were always willing to be inventive to overcome obstacles. So, the Sicilian leader sent for a handful of civilians — old friends whom Hermocrates knew he could trust. The Sicilian leader ordered his friends to sell information to the Athenians. The Syracusean “traitors” would inform the Athenians that a network of roadblocks had been set — trip wires that promised to alert the Sicilian army when the Athenians fled. While the Athenians were being misinformed, Gylippus went about rallying a handful of sober-enough troops to man the roadblocks.

Nicias, the conservative Athenian general, believed the informants when they claimed the Sicilians were lying in wait. While the Sicilians partied, Nicias and his army stayed put. The Athenians wouldn’t break camp until much later, and would eventually be defeated by the confident, capable Sicilians. The expedition’s defeat would prove a crippling blow to Athens. The war with Sparta would reignite, and the Sicilians would partner with Sparta to eventually wear down and defeat mighty Athens.

The Sicilian expedition is a case study in imperial hubris. A powerful nation, far from home, can easily trick itself into believing that its power is indomitable. However, there is no substitute for the home field advantage. For the Sicilians, the desire to defend their homeland was powerful enough to overcome even an ill-timed night of drunken revelry.

The source of this account comes to us from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ account History of the Peloponnesian War. It influenced thinkers like Hobbes, Patton, Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson; it is one of West Point’s ten greatest works of military history.

Fifth-century Greeks drank wine, but today, Greece has another unique spirit: the liquor Ouzo. An early version was first distilled in the 14th century by Greek monks (when Ouzo was first distilled, Thucydides’ text was already 1700 years old!). Ouzo now forms the base of the Ouzini.

The Ouzini

One part Ouzo
Three parts fresh orange juice
2-4 drops of Angostura bitters

Pour into rocks glass over ice, stir, garnish with orange slice

Until next time, στην υγεια μας (cheers)!


Paul Lewandowski is a trivia nerd with a penchant for obscure and oddly named cocktails. He is also a graduate student, veteran, and writer.


Photo credit: Ian Scott