O N the death of Pericles the rich and powerful men of Athens exerted themselves to place Nicias at the head of the government, feeling convinced that he would be the best person to keep Cleon, an insolent, daring politician, in check. Cleon was in high favor with the common people, who liked his off-hand, familiar way of addressing them, and he had won the good will of some of the poorest of them by liberal presents. Nicias was favored by them because he always treated them with due consideration. This being the case, he was likely to prove an offset to Cleon. But he had one serious fault for a statesman, and that was excessive timidity, which often prompted him to shirk responsibility and remain in retirement instead of taking a decided stand. In one sense this weakness was a drawback to Nicias, but it rendered him popular, because no one felt awed in his presence.
Nicias was noted for his piety, and made offerings of the most costly character to the gods. This he was enabled to do because he was a very wealthy man, being the owner of some rich silver-mines. Once a handsome slave of his represented the god Bacchus at a religious ceremony, and the audience applauded him loudly. Thereupon Nicias rose and said, "I should think it impious to keep a slave whom the public voice seems to consecrate to a god; I therefore give him his freedom."
It was the custom for the principal cities of Greece to send a select band of musicians to Delos every year to sing praises to Apollo. The procession was called Theoria, and it was considered a great honor to have the management of it. When the musicians landed, the people of the island would flock to the shore and press them to sing, so that they were forced to do so even while putting on their robes and garlands, and otherwise preparing for the ceremony. In order to prevent the disorder which this caused, Nicias, when taking charge of the Theoria, landed first on the isle of Rhenia, in the Ægean Sea (now called Sdili), with the choir, the victims for the sacrifices, and all the other necessary matters. Then during the night he had a bridge, which he had brought from Athens, thrown across the narrow channel to Delos. This bridge was gayly decorated and hung with garlands and tapestry; at break of day he marched over it at the head of the choir, who, dressed in the costliest of robes, sang hymns to the gods as they moved decorously along. After the sacrifices, games, and feasts were over, Nicias consecrated a palm-tree of brass and a large open field to Apollo, and arranged that the interest on the sum of money he paid for the field should be used in purchasing sacrifices, and that the Delians should always pray for the blessings of the god on himself as the founder.
Nicias was so sensitive about what people might say of him that he kept aloof as much as possible. He would never attend parties of pleasure, nor would he stop to converse with anybody in the street. When he was Archon, he was the first to enter the court and the last to leave, and if he had no public business on hand, he would shut himself up at home and refuse to see any one. If persons came to his gate and demanded to see him, his friend Hiero, who was brought up in his house, would go out and say that he was occupied with important public affairs, and had no time for repose or pleasure. Whether this was true or not, it had its effect; the people honored a man who was so occupied for their welfare, and did nothing to prevent his advancement to glory.
Nicias possessed great military talent, and when he took command of the army he proved this by making it his study to do nothing rash. For this reason he was generally successful, and though the Athenians met with many misfortunes in those times, Nicias was not to blame for them. He won some very important victories, and gained a large amount of territory, but once, when at war with the Lacedæmonians, he prolonged a siege until his soldiers lost all patience. Then Cleon undertook it, and within the time he had fixed for victory came back with all the Spartan soldiers who had not fallen in the field as captives. This threw some disgrace on Nicias, and made Cleon more arrogant than ever, but when Cleon was killed in battle some time afterwards, Nicias worked so hard to bring about a peace between the Lacedæmonians and Athenians that he became famous. Then nothing was talked of but Nicias, who was said to be beloved of the gods on account of his great piety. It was decided that the long-wished-for blessing should bear his name, and so the peace agreed to for fifty years was called the "Nician Peace."
All Athens rejoiced at the return of peace, but it was not to be enjoyed very long, for it was soon broken by those who wanted to be always engaged in war. Alcibiades was the principal of the war party, because he was not willing to form an alliance with the Lacedæmonians, being angry with them for having once treated him with neglect. So, taking advantage of Nicias's absence when he was sent on a public errand to Sparta, he had himself appointed general, and then did not rest until the war broke out again.
When Nicias returned, he and Alcibiades kept up such a constant quarrelling that it was proposed to banish one of them by ostracism, which process we have already explained. The younger men, who were for war, wanted Nicias banished, while the older ones, who had learned the value of peace, desired to get rid of the warlike Alcibiades.
While this matter was under discussion, one Hyperbolus, a wicked wretch, who hoped to gain influence with one of the generals as soon as the other should be removed, went about Athens secretly abusing both, because it made little difference to him which got the number of votes that were necessary for banishment. Nicias and Alcibiades heard of the man's doings, so they had a private interview, and agreed to work together to turn the ostracism against him instead of themselves. This was a punishment that had fallen on some of the greatest patriots, such as Thucydides and Aristides, but it was a great deal too easy for a creature who deserved the gibbet, and no one was more surprised than Hyperbolus himself when he found that his name was to appear among those of good and honest men. He was the last person ever banished by ostracism; Hipparchus had been the first.
Then Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to join other Greek nations and undertake the Sicilian expedition, and this was considered very important, because he told them it would open the way to Carthage and to all Africa. Such a glorious picture did he paint of the victories that awaited them that very few, either of the commons or the nobility, openly sided with Nicias, though many of the more sober-minded Athenians did so privately.
Nicias worked for peace even after the decree for war was passed, but he worked in vain, and he was appointed to command with Lamachus and Alcibiades. The priests were opposed to the expedition, but Alcibiades had his own diviners, who promised great glory for the Athenians in Sicily, and those who were sent to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon returned with the answer that the Athenians would surely capture the whole Syracusan nation. It is true that there were some unfavorable signs, but those who knew of them tried to conceal them, not thinking it worth while to object to an expedition that nearly all their countrymen were determined upon. One of these unfavorable signs was that during a certain night all the statues of Mercury had their heads cut off. This was the more remarkable because there was one in the gateway of each temple and before most of the private houses in Athens. Another bad omen was this: the golden statue of Pallas, which had been put up to celebrate the victory of the Athenians over the Medes, had been pecked at by crows for several days. There were other signs that made the cautious shake their heads when they thought of the splendid army fitted out at so great an expense and likely to come to grief. Socrates, the learned philosopher, said that the expedition would prove fatal to Greece, and he probably had reasons for his opinion grounded on a more important basis than bad omens; but Alcibiades and the majority of the Athenians would listen to no objections, and so the army started.
Before anything had been accomplished, Alcibiades was called home to stand his trial, an account of which is given in his life. Lamachus was killed on the battlefield shortly after, and Nicias was left to command alone. Meanwhile, he had astonished the Syracusans by building a wall almost around their city in a very short space of time, and when this was done his success seemed sure, for the inhabitants began to send messages offering terms of peace, and ceased to show themselves outside their walls. Then if Nicias had been active and energetic he would soon have brought the war to a close, but he delayed until his troops lost confidence in him.
Meanwhile, Gylippus, the Spartan commander, went to the relief of the Syracusans with a large force, and soon brought about such a change in the condition of affairs that the Athenians found themselves besieged instead of being the besiegers. Nicias became so much discouraged, and his health was so bad, that he wrote home desiring to be recalled. This was refused, but large reinforcements were sent to Sicily under Demosthenes and Eurymedon. Before they arrived, Nicias had lost a naval battle, which proved that the Athenian fleet was not so powerful as it had been.
Demosthenes came with fresh troops and plenty of energy, but he too was defeated again and again, and then preparations were made for the Athenian army to depart secretly. But on the very night when this was to be carried into effect there was an eclipse of the moon, and the soothsayers said that the army must not leave its position for three times nine days. Of course Nicias obeyed, because he was too pious and superstitious to do otherwise, so he gave up all thought of war, and passed his time in prayer and sacrifices, while the enemy took possession of the walls and forts, and filled the harbor with their vessels. Not only the men from the ships, but the boys from the fishing-boats challenged the Athenians to come and fight, and offered them every kind of insult they could think of.
At last the Syracusans made an attack, and a furious sea-fight took place, which resulted in the defeat of the Athenians, who, as it was out of the question for them to escape by sea, wanted to do so by land, but their force was still large, and Hermocrates, the Syracusan general, fearing that if they escaped they might make a stand in some other part of Sicily and renew the war, resorted to this stratagem: he sent persons whom he could trust, bidding them to pretend friendliness for Nicias, and to warn him not to march in the night, because the Syracusans had laid several ambushes for him and had seized all the passes. Nicias believed them, and stayed where he was. The next morning the enemy got off before he could do so, and then really did take the passes, break down the bridges, and place their cavalry everywhere, so that the Athenians could scarcely advance a step without fighting. They were in a dreadful condition, and, what was worse, they were forced to leave their sick and wounded friends and comrades behind them. Nicias was more to be pitied than any one, for not only was he ill and suffering bodily, but he had to bear the disgrace of defeat after having hoped for honor and success. He had opposed the war with all his might, it is true, but when fighting was to be done, he had shown the spirit and energy of a true hero. In spite of all difficulties, he strove hard to conceal his sufferings from his soldiers, and during an eight days' march, with frequent attacks by the way, he kept his division of the army in good order until Demosthenes was taken prisoner. Then he offered to pay the Syracusans the whole cost of the war if they would suffer his army to quit Sicily; but they indignantly refused to treat with a man who had entered their country to take possession of it.
Nicias reached the river Asinarus the next day with his men in a state of exhaustion; for the enemy's troops had galled them all the way. When they came to the banks of the river, some plunged into the water to quench their burning thirst, but they were butchered while they drank, and a cruel scene of bloodshed followed. At last, throwing himself at the feet of Gylippus, Nicias spoke in heart-rending tones, "Gylippus, let pity move you in your victory; I ask nothing for myself; what is life to a man who has had so many misfortunes? But for the other Athenians I ask your mercy; you should remember that the chances of war are uncertain, and that my countrymen treated you with mildness and moderation when they were prosperous."
Gylippus was touched by the words and appearance of Nicias, for he remembered that he had been friendly to the Lacedæmonians; besides, to capture two generals alive would be great glory; so, raising the conquered Nicias from the ground, he bade him take courage, and ordered the fighting to cease. Then the prisoners were collected, and, adorning themselves and their horses with garlands, the Syracusans returned to their city in triumph.
A general assembly was called, and it was resolved that the Athenian servants and allies should be sold as slaves, the freemen, and those Sicilians who had sided with them, should be sent to work in the quarries, and the generals should be put to death. But Hermocrates sent a messenger to inform Demosthenes and Nicias of what their fate was to be, and they both committed suicide.
As for the other Athenians, many of them died of disease and poor food in the quarries, for they were allowed only a pint of barley and half a pint of water a day. Those that were sold as slaves had the figure of a horse branded on their foreheads, but they behaved so well that they were either soon set free, or won the love and respect of their masters, with whom they continued to live. Several were pardoned because they were able to recite the poems of Euripides, the Sicilians being great admirers of his writings, and the captives were often released from slavery merely because they remembered and could teach something that poet had written.
Once a ship pursued by pirates ran into the harbor of Syracuse for protection, and was only received because the seamen, on being questioned, were found capable of repeating the poems of the favorite bard of the citizens.