'Three men,' says Aristotle, as quoted by Plutarch in his Life of Nicias, 'I rank first among patriots—Nicias, Thucydides, Theramenes; but I put Theramenes below the other two.' That the philosopher should have mentioned Theramenes at all is incomprehensible. We know him only as an unscrupulous oligarch, who became on occasion an equally unscrupulous democrat. Thucydides, who must be distinguished from his namesake and contemporary the historian, was a respectable and consistent, but not very able, leader of the aristocratic party in Athens, whose limitations in point of cleverness and eloquence were made more conspicuous by his having to stand forth as the opponent of Pericles. Nicias, as we shall see, had many qualities that made him worthy of Aristotle's praise; he would have added to them the distinction of a uniform success in war, if an evil fortune, taking occasion of his weakness, had not put into his hands a most formidable enterprise, one which, we may well believe, no mortal man could have carried out, and to which he certainly was not equal.
Nicias, son of Niceratus, came of one of the noblest and wealthiest families in Athens. We know nothing of his descent, except that it was such as to rank him as an aristocrat of the very bluest blood; of his wealth various particulars are given. It was indeed so great as to make him one of the most famous millionaires of Greece. Athenæus, who is the great gossip-monger of antiquity, singles him out for mention together with the wealthiest Romans. A part at least of his income came from the silver mines of Laurium, which the State used to lease out to private citizens for long periods, and, doubtless, on terms more profitable to them than to itself. He had so vast an army of slaves that after providing for his own works he could supply a master miner in Thrace with a thousand men at a charge of an obol apiece daily.
At Athens it was a great thing for a statesman to be rich. Ways were open to him of using his wealth in such a manner as to make a very favourable impression on his fellow-citizens, and that without laying himself open to the charge of ostentation. Among ourselves no one knows anything about the large cheque which the wealthy noble or merchant pays over to the collector of income-tax. The Athenian millionaire paid his income-tax in a manner which could not but bring him under public notice. In times of peace, he had to furnish the means for putting a play upon the stage at the great dramatic festivals, to provide performers at the public games, to entertain his tribe at the great yearly feasts, and to equip the embassies which were sent, from time to time, to the sacred island of Delos, or to the oracle of Delphi. There would seldom be a year in which one or other of these duties would not be imposed upon him. In the course of time he would be called upon to discharge them all. But, of course, there would be different ways of discharging them. Some men, whose income brought them within the class that was liable to these duties, would be unable or unwilling to spend more than the necessary sum. Some, on the other hand, would be anxious to do everything in as splendid a style as possible, and for such the reward of popular favour was immediate. It was an expenditure which everyone enjoyed, and for which everyone was grateful. A still more imposing form of patriotic generosity could be displayed in times of war, for then the wealthier citizens were called upon to furnish a ship for the public service, or, to put it more exactly, to supplement what the State supplied, this being the bare ship, the necessary equipment, and wages at the lowest rate.
Plutarch has given us an account of the magnificence with which Nicias performed one of these public services—the sacred embassy to the shrine of the Twin Deities of Delos, Apollo and Artemis. Part of the ceremonial of the day was the procession to the Temple from the shore, a chorus, brought for the purpose from Athens, singing, as it marched, a hymn in honour of the Twins. This might have been an imposing spectacle, but its effect was greatly marred by the confusion which prevailed. The crowd of spectators, always a disturbing element in such scenes, thronged round the landing-place at which the singers disembarked. These had to don their robes and chaplets in the midst of the multitude, and to make their way through the crush, singing all the while as best they could. Nicias, when it fell to his lot to conduct the embassy, changed all this for the better. He landed the chorus, on the previous day, at the neighbouring island of Rheneia. During the night, a bridge, which had been constructed at Athens, and was profusely decorated with gilding and tapestry, was thrown across the strait which separated Rheneia from Delos. At the appointed time the chorus crossed by this, undisturbed and in orderly array. Nicias further commemorated the occasion by consecrating a brazen palm-tree to Apollo, and by buying, at the cost of 10,000 drachmæ, a piece of land, the rent of which was to be expended in sacrifices and feasts, on the condition that prayers should be offered up for the founder. A minor instance of the same pious munificence is also supplied by Plutarch. At one of the dramatic festivals, a youth, who represented in the chorus the god Dionysus, excited universal admiration by his grace and beauty. When the applause had ceased, Nicias rose in his place and said that it was manifestly wrong that one whom the general voice had declared to bear a close resemblance to the god should be kept in slavery, and set him free on the spot.
Another characteristic that gave Nicias a high place in popular esteem was his absolute integrity. And here, too, his wealth was a help to him. Rich men are not of necessity better than poor. 'Rich but honest' describes a not very common combination of circumstances just as truly as does the proverbial 'poor but honest.' Yet it was a great advantage for a Greek statesman to be put out of the reach of money temptations. The public men of Athens yielded to these temptations with lamentable frequency, from Themistocles onwards; against Nicias no one ever breathed any reproach of the kind.
He was personally courageous in a very high degree. Courage was not conspicuous among the virtues of the Greek character. When Aristotle has to find an instance of recklessness he looks for it, not among his own countrymen but among the barbarians of Northern Europe. Thucydides, who, whether or not he puts into the mouths of his characters what they actually did say, never, we may be sure, puts into them what they could not have said, attributes to Nicias the remarkable words, 'I have less fear than other men for my own safety.' There is no quality which is more generally and ungrudgingly admired than this.
As to his temperance and chastity, virtues much more thought of by ourselves than they were by the Greeks, we have only negative evidence. Not a word of scandal against him in these respects has come down to us, and this may be fairly taken as conclusive in his favour.
His piety was conspicuous. The two instances given above of his munificence in the discharge of public duties are both concerned with religion. This is not in itself a positive proof. A rich citizen, who was personally indifferent to religion, might have gladly seized either opportunity of commending himself to the favour of his countrymen. But respect for Divine Powers was a dominant influence in the mind of Nicias. He sacrificed daily, he kept in his establishment a soothsayer whose business it was to ascertain the pleasure of the gods. These religious feelings, associated as they were in his case with a pure morality, command our respect. Nor must we harshly condemn if they were largely mingled with superstition. St Paul, when he visited the native city of Nicias, described its religious condition by a word which hovers, so to speak, between a good and bad meaning. 'I perceive ye are,' he said to his audience on the Areopagus, 'in all things,' according to the Authorised Version, 'somewhat superstitious,' according to the Revised, 'too superstitious,' with 'religious' in the margin. Nor in the eighteen centuries that have passed since then has the teaching of the apostle or of One that was greater than he sufficed to make men clearly see the border line between the two.