The Images of Hermes Are Destroyed
In the island of Sicily there were many different states. In some of these dwelt Greeks who owned Corinth as their mother-city. Trade between Sicily and Corinth was good, and because of this Corinth was growing more powerful than Athens liked.
War broke out in 416 b.c. between Segesta and Selinus, two cities in the west of Sicily. When Selinus was joined by another town named Syracuse, the Segestans in dismay sent to the Athenians to ask for their help.
It had long been the ambition of Alcibiades to conquer Sicily. He believed, too, that it would add to the glory of Athens if the island became part of the Athenian empire.
So he now urged the assembly to send a fleet to Sicily, reminding them that if it could conquer Syracuse, it would then be in its power to ruin the trade of Corinth with Sicily.
He did not tell the Athenians how great his ambitions were, but he told them enough to make them wish to help the Segestans, that they might in this way gain new territory for Athens.
The assembly made up its mind to send ambassadors to Segesta, to find out if the town was able, as she said she was, to provide money to carry on the war, if the Athenians provided soldiers.
When the ambassadors returned in the spring of 415 b.c. they brought back with them a sum of money from the grateful Segestans. They reported, too, that the wealth of the city was far greater than they had dreamed. But although the ambassadors did not know until too late, they had been deceived by the townsfolk.
For the rich plate and splendid ornaments with which the Segestans had adorned each feast to which the ambassadors had been invited, were taken secretly from house to house. So that the gold and silver dishes that dazzled the eyes of the Athenians were always the same, although they believed that each of their hosts owned the splendid dishes with which his table was laden.
The sacred treasures of their temples, too, the Segestans pretended were of gold, while in reality they were of silver.
But the ambassadors were convinced that the people they had visited were rich, and their report made the Athenians ready to do as Alcibiades and his party wished. So it was agreed that sixty vessels should be sent to the help of Segesta.
Nicias, bent as ever on peace, did all he could to hinder the expedition. But when, in spite of all he could say, the assembly still determined to send a fleet to Sicily, he persuaded it at least to increase the number of ships from sixty to a hundred. Nicias himself, along with Lamachus and Alcibiades, was appointed commander of the expedition.
But the night before the fleet was to sail a strange event took place.
All over the city, at the corner of streets, in some niche of a public building, in front of the houses of the citizens, stood statues or busts of the god Hermes, on short pedestals or pillars.
These figures were reverenced by the Athenians, just as the image of the Madonna by the roadside or in villages and towns abroad is worshipped by Roman Catholics.
On the night before the expedition the statues of Hermes were chipped and broken, so that the god could no longer be recognized.
In the morning as the Athenians went along the streets of the city, bent on their usual business, these poor defaced images stared them in the face. Little groups gathered at street corners, before public buildings, wherever they had been used to see the statues of Hermes. At first they gazed at their mutilated god in fear, but fear soon changed to anger.
Who had dared to do this impious thing, they asked one another. It would surely bring down the wrath of the gods on the Sicilian expedition.
It was perhaps natural that the people should suspect their favourite Alcibiades. Was he not often reckless and ever a mischief maker? They were too excited to remember that he was not likely to do anything to delay the expedition on which his heart was set.
When he heard that the people thought that he had defaced the images, Alcibiades demanded to be brought to trial. But no proof had yet been found of his guilt, and it was decided that the fleet should sail, and that Alcibiades should go with it.