Thucydides’ emphasis on vision in the battle between Athenian and Sicilian forces in the Great Harbor of Syracuse (7.70-1), the moment at which the Sicilian Expedition becomes an inescapable disaster for Athens, was noted as early as Plutarch (Moralia 347a), but the significance of this aspect of the text has not been fully explored. I argue that Thucydides’ presentation of this conflict is highly reminiscent of sculptural depictions of battle, and especially funerary reliefs, works that would have been innovative and conspicuous in his time. The historian’s treatment of this episode thus both challenges the visual arts’ capacity to preserve memory and creates a literary version of a tombstone to those who fell in Sicily.
Thucydides encourages the reader to visualize the scene. For many, the most striking example of this motif is when he describes the anguished feelings of the soldiers on shore at the height of the clash, with those looking in one direction cheering a victory, while those looking elsewhere despair at the sight of defeat, some rendered slave-like by the vision before them (7.71.3). The historian stops the progress of the narrative to describe the crisis they behold for nearly three OCT pages, breaking with his usual tendency to omit details that do not influence the outcome of a conflict.
Following a speech by Nicias that “is more properly a funeral oration in the traditional sense than is Pericles’” (Rawlings 157), this description of a struggle frozen in time resembles funerary monuments to those fallen in battle. The text describing the last honorable struggle of these Athenians’ lives is dedicated almost entirely to the impressive effort of the fighters. Every man strains to be seen to be the best (7.70.3), they shoot unceasingly at one another (7.70.5), and try to board each others’ ships in hand-to-hand combat (7.70.5) as the Athenians attempt to force their way out of the harbor (7.70.7), among other such efforts. Instead of the usual battle lines, Thucydides describes individuals locked in combat, emphasizing the qualities of the conflict that resemble visual representations of battle even though elsewhere he suggests that it is the Syracusans’ technological advances that decide the outcome (e.g. 7.62.2-4, 67.2). The conflict hanging in the balance has a particular affinity to funerary reliefs, on which, as argued by Arrington, normally “both poles of victory and defeat are elided in order instead to thematize struggle and undecided contest” (198-9). Verbal evidence reinforces the shared imagery: “agon” is the word regularly used in the inscriptions accompanying friezes for the war dead (Arrington 183), and is used by Thucydides frequently to describe the Great Harbor fight (e.g. 7.56.3, 61.1, 64.2, 66.1, 68.3, 71.1).
Thucydides’ insistence on the closeness of the battle further resembles the compressed action of visual depictions of war. He reports that this conflict featured the most ships in the smallest space (7.70.4), an unusual claim to fame. There is little space for them to maneuver (7.70.4), and the attacks are πυκνότεραι (7.70.4). Unusually, he uses polyptoton to describe the clash (e.g. 7.70.3 ναῦς νηί, 70.4 ναῦς νηί); ships are verbally piled on top of one another, just as elements of sculpture depicting conflict often are (e.g. Athens, National Museum 2744).
Thucydides’ life overlapped with a vibrant era in visual arts, and works such as that on the temple to Athena Nike sought to preserve the past much as he or Herodotus did. Similarly, the use of decorative elements depicting war dead on gravestones seems to have arisen in precisely this period (Arrington 185). Rivalry with this alternative form of memorialization is suggested in Herodotus’ first words, claiming to preserve deeds from “fading” (1.1.1). Thucydides’ appropriation of the imagery of a competing artistic field, sculpture, would thus be fitting. His Great Harbor battle scene serves as a literary memorial for those who fell in Sicily, one that, unlike stone, remains impervious to the passage of time.
Political and Military Conflict in the Greek World