After losing the decisive sea battle with Syracuse, the Athenian army decided to make a run for it:
Nicias and Demosthenes [Athenian generals] now thinking that enough had been done in the way of preparation, the departure of the army took place upon the second day after the sea fight.
It was a lamentable scene, not merely from the single circumstance that they were retreating after having lost all their ships, their great hopes gone, and themselves and their state in peril; but also in leaving the camp there were things most grievous for every eye and heart to contemplate.
The dead lay unburied, and each man as he recognized a friend among them shuddered with grief and horror; while the living whom they were leaving behind, wounded or sick, were to the living far more shocking than the dead, and more to be pitied than those who had perished.
These fell to entreating and bewailing until their friends knew not what to do, begging them to take them and loudly calling to each individual comrade or relative whom they could see, hanging upon the necks of their tent-fellows in the act of departure, and following as far as they could, and when their bodily strength failed them, calling again and again upon heaven and shrieking aloud as they were left behind. So what the whole army being filled with tears and in a distraught state, found it not easy to go, even from an enemy’s land, where they had already suffered evils too great for tears and in the unknown future before them feared to suffer more.
Dejection and self-condemnation were also rife among them. Indeed they could only be compared to a starved-out city, and that no small one, escaping; the whole multitude upon the march being not less than forty thousand men. All carried anything they could which might be of use, and the hoplites and troopers, contrary to their custom while under arms, carried their own provisions, in some cases for lack of servants, in others through not trusting them; as they had long been deserting and now did so in greater numbers than ever. Yet even thus they did not carry enough, as there was no longer food in the camp.
Moreover their disgrace generally, and the universality of their sufferings, although to a certain extent alleviated by being borne in company, were still felt at the moment a heavy burden, especially when they contrasted the splendor and glory of their setting out with the humiliation in which it had ended.
For this was by far the greatest reverse that ever befell an Hellenic army. They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary; traveling by land instead of by sea, and trusting not in their fleet but in their hoplites. Nevertheless the greatness of the danger still impending made all this appear tolerable.
It did not take long for Syracuse to chase down the army and accept their surrender. The two Athenian generals were executed and the soldiers imprisoned. Two-hundred naval ships were lost. The government back in Athens was in disbelief.
The Sicilian Expedition was a tipping point that eventually led to Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. On a larger scale, this war brought the beginning of the end for Athens. In spite of Greek victory in Marathon against the Persians a half-century earlier, city-states could not compete with the vast amounts of resources that large empires have.
Read Next: A Sea Battle For The Ages