Gateway to the Classics: Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition by Alfred J. Church
Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition by  Alfred J. Church

The Great Scheme

We have already seen an instance of the vivacity and recuperative power of the Athenian people. Their country had been desolated by repeated invasions; a plague had more than decimated their population; they had suffered from an incessant drain of blood and treasure during seven years of warfare, and yet in the eighth we find them undertaking the conquest of Bœotia. The attempt ends in a disastrous loss (p. 21), which is followed in little more than a year by another grave calamity (p. 25). And yet, in the course of a few years more, we find them eagerly accepting a still more magnificent scheme—nothing less than the conquest of Sicily, with an ulterior view to the great cities in Southern Italy, and possibly to Carthage itself.

Athens had already interfered, during the earlier years of the war, in Sicilian affairs, her aim, real or nominal, being to protect the Ionian against the Dorian cities. The first result was to be politely told that Sicily, having arrived at a general pacification, did not need her services any more. But this pacification proved to be delusive. The Ionian city of Leontini, in particular, had been actually destroyed by its powerful neighbour, Syracuse, and its dispossessed inhabitants had naturally turned in their extremity to their old protectors the Athenians. Their first application for help was made in the year of truce. Various circumstances hindered the giving of any effectual help. But in 417 B.C. their chances of being heard were materially improved. Athens was less preoccupied with other matters, and fresh troubles had occurred in Sicily to give additional force to their representations. Selinus, a Greek city in the west of the island, had quarrelled with its neighbour Egesta, which was inhabited by a people of Italian race. Syracuse came to the help of Selinus, and Egesta, which had been active on the side of Athens on the occasion of her first interference in Sicilian affairs, now applied for assistance to her old ally.

The envoys from Egesta arrived in the spring of 416 B.C. They made their appeal to the fears as well as to the hopes of the Athenian people. 'Syracuse,' they said, 'is destroying, one by one, the cities that are friendly to you; Leontini is gone; Egesta will follow. When she has accomplished this and united all the strength of Sicily in her own hands, she will combine with her fellow Dorians of the Peloponnesus to crush you!' This must have been a potent argument, even if those to whom it was addressed only half believed in its truth. Tacitus says of a pretender to the imperial throne at Rome that he sought to persuade himself that his life was in danger as an excuse for his schemes. 'To whet his ambition he even pretended to fear.' The envoys added that they could do their part in a war; if they had not men enough for their own defence, they had money. 'Send a squadron to help us,' they said, 'and we will furnish its pay.'

The feeling of the Assembly was not unanimous. Finally it was agreed that commissioners should be sent to Egesta who should see for themselves whether the city really possessed the means which it represented itself as having. The commissioners went, and were egregiously duped. They saw jars which they supposed to be full of gold coin, but which had but a thin layer at the top. The treasures of the Temple of Eryx were displayed before them as if they belonged to the city. They were entertained at banquets where the same plate, really silver gilt, but said to be gold, did duty in house after house. The result was that they brought back a glowing report of the wealth of the city, and, as an earnest of treasure to come, sixty talents in uncoined silver. Meanwhile the crew of the galley which had carried them, having had its share of Egestæan hospitality, talked with enthusiasm of the wealth of its entertainers. These representations, formal and informal, practically decided the matter. We have no record of the proceedings in the Assembly which followed, but only of the result. It was voted that sixty ships-of-war should be sent to Sicily under the command of Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus. The business of the Generals was to relieve Egesta, refound Leontini, and further Athenian interests generally.

A few days afterwards another Assembly was held, for the purpose of voting such supplies as the Generals might deem to be necessary. Nicias seized the opportunity to reopen the whole question, and entreated the Athenians to reconsider their decision. 'You are met,' he said, 'to consider ways and means; I implore you to think, while there is yet time, whether you ought not to abandon the scheme altogether. It is much more formidable than it seems, and you are undertaking it on the persuasion of strangers. I have always been wont to tell you the truth, and I shall not change my habit now. You are leaving enemies behind you here to make fresh enemies there. Do not suppose that you are protected by the peace, or rather truce, that you have with the Spartans. They made it on compulsion; there are many disputed points in it; their most powerful allies have never accepted it. Divide your forces and they will be sure to attack you, helped by these very Sicilian cities, whose alliance, indeed, they have long coveted. Your subjects in Thrace are still in revolt and you do not reduce them; you are going to champion Egesta and leave your own injuries unredressed. Thrace you will be able to hold, if you conquer it; over Sicily your sway, even should you establish it, could not possibly last, so distant is the island, and so powerful. And what does it matter to you if Syracuse should establish its rule over the rest of Sicily? It will be even less likely to attack you in that case than it is now, for why should it risk its own empire to assail yours? You are just recovering from the plague, and from the exhaustion of ten years of war; husband your strength; don't waste it on the impracticable schemes which some ruined exiles are suggesting to you!'

Then, turning to Alcibiades, he went on, 'And if there is a man who is delighted to be put into such a command—for which, indeed, he is far too young—and so urges you to this undertaking, a man who looks for admiration on the score of his racing chariots, and hopes to repair the ruin of his fortunes out of the profits of his office, do not let him gain his ends at the expense of his country. He and his fellows are as wasteful of the public means as they are of their own. I tremble to see this reckless band where they sit by their leader. Do you, men of riper years, who are near them, refuse to be shamed out of your opposition because they may call you cowards. Leave them their fatal passion for the impossible; it is foresight, not reckless impulse, that commands success. Vote against this scheme. Keep undisturbed our present relations with the cities of Sicily, and bid Egesta finish without us the quarrel with Selinus that she began without us. Do not hesitate, Mr. President, to put this question again. An act in which so many share is no real breach of the law. What you will really do will be to give the Assembly a chance of correcting a perilous mistake.'

Alcibiades immediately rose to reply. He began by a personal vindication. What the ill-disposed blamed as extravagances were really proofs of the national resources. Who, for instance, could suppose that Athens was exhausted, when one of its citizens did what no private person had ever done before at Olympia—start seven chariots in the lists, win the first prize, and also secure the second and fourth places? He then proceeded to argue the general question. The Sicilian cities were not really formidable; they were populous, indeed, but their populations were neither united nor patriotic. And the native population was universally hostile. 'Our allies there,' he went on, 'we are bound to help; they will help us in return by keeping our enemies employed. Generally it is folly for an imperial city to decline adventure; she cannot stand still; it is the necessity of her nature and position to advance, otherwise her energies will be wasted in internal strife. The only safeguard against this danger is enterprise abroad.'

The envoys from Egesta and Leontini made fresh appeals to the Assembly not to go back from its engagements, and Nicias, finding that the general sympathy was with them could see no other chance of carrying his point than by insisting on the magnitude of the forces that it would be necessary to employ. 'Supposing,' he said, 'the Ionian cities Naxos and Catana join us, there will still be seven powerful cities to deal with. They have soldiers, ships, treasure in abundance. You must have a great force, both of horse and foot, if you would be more than their match, and you must take with you all you want in the way of stores, and not depend on Sicily for anything.' And he went on to set forth a formidable catalogue of what would be required. This kind of argument was a fatal mistake. Discredited as a politician, Nicias had still a high reputation as a soldier. In the field he had always been successful. His name was a guarantee for skill and prudence. By what he now said he gave his case away. He conceded that the enterprise was practicable if Athens would only use adequate means. Nor was he allowed to retreat from this position. One of the advocates of the expedition stood up in the Assembly and said, 'Let us have no more talk and delay. Let Nicias tell us plainly what he thinks will be wanted in the way of ships and men.' To this appeal Nicias could not refuse to reply. 'I must talk over these matters quietly with my colleagues,' he said, 'but generally, I should say, we must have a hundred ships of war and transports, either of our own or from the allies, as may be wanted; of heavy-armed troops we must have 5000 at least, more if we can. Then we must have archers from here and from Crete, and slingers, and other troops as may be wanted.' The Assembly gave the Generals absolute power to settle the strength of the expedition at their discretion. Nicias was now committed to the enterprise as deeply as Alcibiades.

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