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

An Ill-Omened Start

Preparations for the expedition went briskly on, and were not far from their completion, when Athens was shocked by an extraordinary outrage. Among the multiplicity of religious images and symbols which so struck the attention of St Paul when he traversed the streets of Athens, the Hermæ  were conspicuous. These were four-sided pillars of stone surmounted by a human head, neck and bust, and stood in the doorways of many private homes and of the temples. All these, with a few exceptions, according to one account, with but one according to another, were mutilated in a single night. The city was thrown into a frenzy of rage and terror. That the religious feelings of the people were deeply wounded it is easy to understand. We can imagine what the feelings of London would be if every church and chapel within its borders were simultaneously disfigured. We all can also realise, though less vividly, the fear that would be felt of divine anger, of the vengeance which the tutelary dieties thus insulted would take upon a guilty city. But the most general and the strongest apprehension was one into which we are but little capable of entering. This outrage seemed to threaten revolution. There was, it seemed, a party, active and numerous—it could not but be such if so much was done in a single night—which was hostile to the established order of things. It might be expected at any time to break out into open violence.

If the act was anything beyond a piece of reckless folly, there are two objects which it may be supposed to have had; it is probable that it was intended to delay, or even altogether to prevent, the expedition; it is certain that it was specially aimed at Alcibiades. His notorious recklessness of demeanour at once suggested his name as one of the guilty parties, and he lost no time in endeavouring to free himself from the charge. He demanded that he should be put on his trial at once, not only for this but for a kindred accusation that he had, in company with some of his friends, celebrated a profane travesty of the mysteries. His enemies demurred. Their real reason was that the popular feeling ran strongly in favour of the accused. The reason which they alleged, putting it into the mouths of speakers whom they employed for the occasion, and on whom they enjoined a studied moderation of tone, was that the trial which Alcibiades demanded could not fail to delay the starting of the expedition and greatly diminish its chances of success. This argument prevailed and the trial was postponed. That this course was unjust, is manifest; we shall see, as we proceed, that its effects were fatal.

It was midsummer when the start took place. The gathering place of the whole armament had been fixed at Corcyra, but the contingent that sailed from Athens was imposingly great and splendid. There were a hundred ships-of-war, sixty of which were equipped for naval action, while forty were to be used as transports. The heavy-armed soldiers numbered close upon 3000; 1500 of these were from the muster-roll of Athenian citizens; 700 were of the poorer class, whose arms and armour were furnished by the state, and 750 were a contingent from Argos and Mantinea. (These last served for pay but were attracted by the personal influence of Alcibiades.) The force of cavalry was but weak, for it required only a single transport. But it was not only the number of the ships and the men, it was also the splendour of the equipment that was remarkable. Never before had the wealthy citizens of Athens shown their patriotism more conspicuously. They vied with each other in supplementing to the utmost out of their private means the state allowances, in providing gorgeous figure-heads for the ships, and attracting by extra pay strong rowers for what may be called the labour-oars. As it was the greatest expedition that Athens had ever sent out, and its aims the most ambitious, so it was the most splendidly equipped.

At dawn on the appointed day, the whole population of the city, native and foreign, flocked down to the Peiræus, to see the embarkation of the troops. Many were parting with friends and kinsfolk; all were attracted by the magnificence of the spectacle. The embarkation concluded, a trumpet gave the signal for silence. A herald then pronounced the prayers that were customarily offered before setting out to sea, and the whole armament repeated the words after him. The crews, the soldiers, and the officers offered libations out of cups of gold and silver. The crowd on the shore joined in these acts of devotion. Then the pan or war-song was sung; finally the ships moved in line out of harbour. Once outside, they raced to Ægina.

At Corcyra the force was reviewed and carefully organised in three divisions, with a special view to making it more easy to provision. Three swift ships were also sent in advance to arrange for such friendly accommodation as the Greek cities in Italy might be disposed to afford. The total numbers were now—134 triremes and two fifty-oared ships from Corcyra (the 34 being furnished by Chios and other independent allies); 5100 heavy-armed soldiers; 480 archers (the 80 being from Crete); 700 slingers from Rhodes; 120 light-armed troops (exiles from Megara). There were also 30 store ships carrying cargoes of provisions, and with them bakers, masons and carpenters, and 100 smaller vessels attending on them, besides a larger number owned by traders, who followed the expedition in hopes of profit.

The armament sailed across to the coast of Italy. It met with a discouraging reception. Not one of the cities would admit the newcomers within its walls, or allow them to buy food. Tarentum and Locri would not even allow them anchor off their shore, or supply themselves with water. Rhegium, the nearest point to Sicily, was somewhat more hospitable. It allowed them to buy food and to beach their ships. Here they received the unwelcome news that the reported wealth of Egesta was a fraud. A council of war followed. The opinions given were as follows:—

NICIAS.—'Let us sail to Selinus. This is our main business. If Egesta can furnish pay for the whole armament, we will reconsider our action; if not, we will demand the pay for the sixty ships for which they asked, and, on receiving it, either compel or persuade Selinus to make restitution. That done, we will make a demonstration of our force. Should, however, Leontini by any chance give us any help or any new alliance present itself, then again we will consider the case.'

ALCIBIADES.—'It would be disgraceful when we have collected such a force to go back without doing anything. Let us approach the other cities in Sicily, and see which will range themselves on our side. If we can secure Messené, it would be specially convenient both for our army and our fleet. Let us see also what we can do with the native tribes. If they are friendly, we shall be well supplied with provisions. This done, we should at once attack Syracuse. Of course, if Syracuse will restore Leontini, and Selinus come to terms with Egesta, the objects of our expedition will have been obtained.'

LAMACHUS.—'My voice is for attacking Syracuse at once, while it is unprepared and panic-stricken. The first impression made by a great armament is the strongest; so we shall find it. If we go now, we shall find many of the citizens still outside the walls, and secure a great amount of property; and Megara, which is now deserted, and is close to Syracuse, will be a convenient headquarters with its town and harbour.'

As the opinion of Lamachus found no favour with either of his colleagues, he withdrew it and voted with Alcibiades. There can be but little doubt that here a great opportunity was lost. It is highly probable that if the Athenians had attacked Syracuse at once they would have captured it, just as the allied armies in the Crimea would have been spared the long and tedious siege, costly both in lives and money, if they had marched on Sebastopol immediately after the victory of the Alma.

Alcibiades now began to put the plan which he had proposed into operation. He sailed to Messené, but, though allowed to address the Assembly, he could not obtain anything beyond permission to buy provisions, etc., outside the walls. Naxos accepted the proposal of alliance; Catana was gained by an accident. While Alcibiades was addressing the Assembly, some soldiers broke open an unguarded postern gate, and entered the town. The leaders of the anti-Athenian party were glad to escape, and Catana became an ally. Camarina preferred to remain neutral. Meanwhile a squadron of ten ships had been sent into the great harbour of Syracuse. From the deck of one of them a herald proclaimed, 'All citizens of Leontini that are in Syracuse may come out without fear and join their friends and benefactors, the Athenians.'

On the return of the fleet to Catana they found one of the state ships awaiting them with a summons to Alcibiades and some others to go back to Athens and stand their trial on charges of having profaned the mysteries and mutilated the Hermæ. The accused appeared to obey, and started, Alcibiades traveling with his friends in his own ship—the officers had been instructed not to arrest him. When they arrived at Thurii, they left the ship and went into hiding. Shortly after, Alcibiades betook himself to Sparta. He was condemned to death in his absence. 'I will show them that I am alive,' he remarked, when he heard of the sentence; and he set himself with all his powers and with a fatal success to make good his threat.

Nothing more of importance was done during what remained of the usual season for campaigning. Fruitless attempts were made to gain over Himera and Hybla, and a native town, Hyccara by name, was captured, and its inhabitants sold as slaves, realising 120 talents.

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