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Just Win, Baby: Nicias, Alcibiades and the Sicilian Expedition
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Just Win, Baby: Nicias, Alcibiades and the
Sicilian Expedition

Joseph Spisak

The Sicilian Expedition was a catastrophe for the Athenians that all but made certain that they would lose the Peloponnesian War. It was a defeat not only for Athens, but also for the high point in civilization, intellectual originality and genius which Athens had produced. Two Athenian generals deeply involved in the decision to mount the Sicilian Expedition and to execute it were Alcibiades and Nicias. Conventionally, Alcibiades is considered in large part responsible for the disaster because he was a vainglorious rascal who unnecessarily created many enemies at home and because of his scandalously impious views and behavior. Both of these factors led to Alcibiades being dismissed from joint command of the expedition while it was en route to Sicily. Likewise, Nicias is conventionally viewed as a tragic figure because he was considered one of the most pious men of his society and advocated making peace with the Spartans.

The truth is, though, as we shall see, that the Athenians would have been wise to have left Alcibiades in charge of the Sicilian expedition, instead of Nicias. Focusing on actions taken by the two men leading up to this expedition will hopefully show both the faults and the virtues of Alcibiades and Nicias. We can then we can see how their characters in action either made the individual a desirable or undesirable leader for this campaign.

Two events in Nicias' career will be analyzed at length: his relinquishing his generalship of the Athenian army at Pylos to the Athenian demagogue Cleon and secondly the role he played in the debacle of the Sicilian expedition.

Events in Alcibiades' life that will be analyzed at length are his plan and actions to insure Athenian endorsement of the Sicilian expedition. Secondly, I will evaluate Alcibiades' character in terms of his switching allegiance from the Athenians to the Spartans, to the Persians, and back to the Athenians.

However, for us to better understand the character of Nicias and Alcibiades, some background concerning their lives leading up to the Sicilian expedition should be mentioned.

Nicias lived from 470-413 B.C. He was a rich and devoutly religious individual who came from a distinguished Athenian family that made its fortune leasing slaves to silver mining operations. Upon the death of Pericles, the general Nicias became heir to the conservatively defensive war strategy left him. Nicias was the political head of the conservative party, which was composed of the upper class. His main opponent was the pro-war radical Cleon, a demagogue, to whom Nicias resigned his generalship during the siege of Pylos. After Cleon took Pylos, both the Athenians and the Spartans wanted peace and Nicias played so integral a part in the swearing of this peace between Sparta and Athens that it was known as the Peace of Nicias.

After a period of approximately seven years, however, the Athenians grew restless, and out of avarice decided upon, contrary to the strategy Pericles had pursued prior to his death, the conquest of Sicily. The Athenians felt that by taking Sicily they would simultaneously cut off Sparta economically, surround her militarily and insure victory for themselves while enriching themselves enormously by this enlargement of their empire.

Nicias was appointed, against his will, to command this expeditionary force to Sicily. He believed the Athenians were acting impetuously, but in spite of this, he was still assigned as a co-general with Lamachus, and for a brief time, Alcibiades.

However, as Orwin points out, "Alcibiades' . . . presumed impiety made it necessary for the Athenian demos to entrust the expedition to Nicias' . . . whom they could perfectly trust because he surpassed every one of them in piety" (197). Even so, it was Alcibiades who was the driving force for this mission, and after he was ordered back to Athens, Nicias proved to be an indecisively self interested man, who was also morbidly superstitious to the point of paralyzing incompetence. It was this mixture of Nicias’ character, combined with a deteriorating military situation on the Sicilian mainland, that led to the final defeat and slaughter of Athenian forces.

Afterwards, Nicias surrendered himself to Gyllppus, the Spartan general, in vain hopes of mercy. The Syracausans, whose city was the main focus of the Sicilian operation, executed him.

Alcibiades lived circa 450-404 BC and was born into a rich and powerful Athenian family, the Alcmaeonids. "[This family had a long history] of plotting to seize supreme power and were considered to be living under a hereditary curse from the days when an Alcmaeonid commander had impiously slaughtered the conspirators of Cylon" (Sacks 12). Alcibiades, in other words, came from a family that was not trusted by the Athenian people for this and many other reasons such as treasonous actions connected with the Battle of Marathon and their closeness to the ex-tyrant, Hippias. After Alcibiades' father was killed, Alcibiades was raised by his mother's kinsman, Pericles, who was the supreme Athenian statesman. Later, as a teen, Alcibiades became a follower of Socrates but did not emulate the philosopher’s values at all. For example, Alcibiades flamboyantly sponsored seven chariots at the Olympic Games of 416 BC, which were the most ever entered by an individual in an Olympic contest. This act alarmed many right-wing conservative Athenians, as this was reminiscent of the gaudy displays put on by tyrants in the past (Sacks 12).

Nevertheless Alcibiades reached manhood near the start of the Peloponnesian War and became one of Athens' ten generals by the age of thirty (Sacks 12). While he was a general, however, he pursued fame and glory through extravagance. As Peter J. Fleiss writes, “Pericles would not have condoned Alcibiades’ consuming ambition in fixing his sights upon the far corners of the world well beyond Sicily" (156). Also, out of self-promotion and self-interest, Alcibiades was responsible for sabotaging the Peace of Nicias. After many battles and sworn allegiances to different countries, Alcibiades settled in the European coast of Hellespont. Eventually he moved to Asia Minor where he was ultimately tracked down and murdered by the Spartans.

In brief, Alcibiades was not a virtuous man as was Nicias. But since in questions of who should lead forces in battle, the highest priority is for one who can produce victories and avoid defeats, the question still remains: should the Athenians have left Alcibiades in charge of the Sicilian expedition instead of Nicias? This can only be answered by looking at specific actions decided upon and courses taken by each individual in his own respective life.

A good example of Nicias' character is revealed to us through the relinquishing of his generalship of the Athenian army at Pylos to the Athenian demagogue, Cleon. Nicias was the general in charge of the siege of Pylos. He was a general with the record of never having been defeated, but was in the midst of a siege that was faltering. Cleon, Nicias' political enemy, in an attempt to save face after urging the Athenians to reject the latest Spartan peace offering, stated that he would have already taken this island by force if he were in charge of Nicias' army. Nicias quickly became tired of Cleon's boasts and was well aware of the public’s sentiment concerning this siege. So to preserve and increase his own self-interest and reputation, he decided to resign his commission in Cleon's favor (Johnson 174-175). Through a course of fortunate turns, however, Cleon succeeded in fulfilling his incredible promise by taking Pylos.

However the incident may appear at first sight, the so-called pious Nicias in this incident shows himself to be a man driven by self-interests at the expense of his beloved Athens. Although the results of Nicias' abdicating his responsibility were favorable for Athens, the motive was not intended as such. It appears that Nicias' motivation was self interest. He wanted to keep his reputation intact and deliver himself from public scrutiny by letting Cleon take responsibility for his mission. Nicias did this, knowing that Cleon was a politician without any military experience. In doing this, Nicias put Athens' fate and the lives of soliders who would be going into battle under the command of the untrained civilian Cleon; that is, in the hands of chance. In this action, he shows himself to be an egotistical individual, instead of a well- intending leader whose self-interests still serve the interests of his country. As Laurie Johnson points out, “Nicias' decision to [relinquish full] responsibility was irresponsible and selfserving" (175-176).

The next and best example for us to judge the character of Nicias comes from the debacle of the Sicilian expedition. Originally, Nicias tried to dissuade the Athenians from undertaking the Sicilian project, but his efforts failed and in fact only encouraged them to desire this course of action more. So, instead of resigning his commission again, what Nicias then did was to suggest an expedition that was much greater and more costly than that which Alcibiades suggested. It seems Nicias did this for two reasons.

To understand this, we must recall Nicias' trouble with Pylos and how he resigned his position to Cleon. After he had done that, Cleon had astonishing success which stopped Nicias' political ascendancy because it showed Nicias to be a somewhat ineffective leader (Johnson 176). Keeping this in mind, we can see Nicias' motive. Do we think he would resign his commission here, so as to allow Alcibiades a chance similar to Cleon, to prove either his ineffectiveness or indecisive ineptitude? No, it would be illogical for him to do so. He would not make the same mistake again.

This leads to Nicias’ real motivation: self-preservation. By getting the Athenian populace to greatly enlarge the expeditionary force (only to later attempt relinquishing his command), Nicias bettered his chances for political and bodily survival. During the debate about whether to approve the Sicilian expedition, Nicias says, to Cleon, "If anyone is of a contrary opinion I offer to resign my command to him" (Thucydides 122). Here, he seemed to be afraid of such a large undertaking. When suggesting such a large force, he said: "...it would be a disgrace to be forced to withdraw, or to send afterwards for help ... so we should leave here with sufficient forces... " (Thucydides 12 1). It appears odd that a general in his position would even expose a thought of this nature. He states, "That is what I am afraid of, and I know that this business requires a great deal of planning and even more good luck - a difficult matter, since we are only human" (Thucydides 122).

In fact, during the Sicilian Expedition itself, his fear and piety were exemplified when he kept his men from carrying out a vital retreat because of his superstitious fears due to a lunar eclipse. Nicias desired a way out, just as he had at the formation of this expedition. Also, when Nicias offered to resign his command, it appears that he was making a habit of this willingness to act in such a way. He did it at Pylos, and he offered to do so here, and would do the same again when he asked to be relieved in the middle of this war. This seems to be inappropriate behavior of an Athenian leader.

Also, it is here where I feel Nicias starts to show more apprehension for the mission as well as a compulsion for divination. This especially happens when he and his army finally decide to retreat, and then a full moon goes into eclipse. The army defers to Nicias' “piety” and stays. As Thucydides stated, “Nicias who put too much faith in divination and such practices - said he would not even consider moving now until they had waited the twenty-seven days . . . "(Thucydides 137). Faith in superstition caused this great disaster to the Athenian empire.

This shows that if Nicias had been rational and commanded his army to retreat in spite of his religious beliefs, they still would have lost this war, but would have returned home and supplied Athens with naval superiority against her then current enemies. It is not just this faith in things divine which I feel caused Nicias to delay. Again, he was a man who took his own interests into account, albeit, in a practical way. An example of this practical manner of thinking had come from his seeing what would happen to him had he returned to Athens a defeated general. Nicias wanted no part of returning to Athens, where he would unjustly be judged by those who were not in Sicily and did not experience the things that he did. This, one could argue, is understandable. But Nicias, in thinking practically about his own desires not to return and be judged, condemned the Athenian empire to suffer a Melian fate (Orwin 122), and so proved himself an undesirable leader for this expedition.

One might perhaps object that Nicias wasn't just thinking of himself, but in his conservatively moderate way, he was truly trying to save the Athenians from a loss to the Spartans as well as to preserve the main advantage they brought to the Peoloponneisan conflict, naval superiority. After all, in both of his speeches, Nicias tells how Athens' security would be violated and tries to show them that it would take much more effort than what they might be prepared for. As critic Finley writes, "One reason for [Nicias'] views, so far at least as Athens is concerned, is several times expressed [in his speeches]: it was of course ... [Athenian avariciousness] “which led to this downfall "(130). Also, Nicias does show great concern for his city of Athens, as he wants it to rebuild itself in troops, money, and power, before going out and attempting to assimilate Sicily into her empire.

However, I must point out that Finley states that Nicias was, simply a rich, respected, conscientious man who was primarily interested in keeping his good reputation" (216). Nicias’ resignation of his command at Pylos disregarded Athenian interests to serve his own need of an unscathed reputation. Also, if Nicias felt strongly enough as a leader who intensely cared for his city, even when his own interests did not mesh with hers, he should have opposed the expedition at all costs. Instead, he realized that he could not dissuade the populous and tried to stop them in other previously mentioned ways, eventually giving in and going along with the plan.

The point is that, if Nicias believed this to be the wrong thing to do, then why go along with it? He went along so as not to seem like an Athenian who lacked love for Athens. And in doing so, he promoted his self-interest by keeping his reputation as a good general who was a lover of Athens intact. It was in this halfhearted support of the expedition and his indecisiveness in battle that Nicias did a mortal disservice to Athens.

Let us now examine Alcibiades, a man unlike the ineffectual Nicias who ultimately seemed to tailor his actions to the public consensus. Alcibiades was able to create the consensus himself. Later, as an exile in Sparta, Alcibiades told the Spartans defiantly that he is a true lover of Athens because he does not go along with what is wrong in his city, but " . . . will attempt to recover it by any means" (Thucydides 128).

Also, in contrast to Nicias' conservative attitude and character, Alcibiades was the flamboyant, persuasive, and manipulative Athenian general, albeit one also concerned with his own needs, who could manipulate the emotions of his fellow statesmen by appealing to their love for glory. In a speech given in front of the general assembly, for example, he assures them that they will be ready for battle and thus will secure their place in history, meanwhile securing his own glory. In this speech he says “if we do not rule others we run the risk of being ruled by them ourselves" (Thucydides 119). It was this speech at the general assembly that eventually convinced the statesmen to break the Peace of Nicias by accepting Argos as an ally.

Alcibiades' success in breaking the Peace of Nicias came at a time when Athens was getting militarily restless. It had been seven years since they had engaged in all-out war. So, when the Spartans came to speak before the assembly of Athens to discuss their alliance with Boeotia, Alcibiades went behind Athens' back and struck a secret deal with the Spartans that had the subsequent effect of making the Spartans look untrustworthy to the Athenians (Johnson 176). When the Athenian assembly discovered the deceit of Sparta, they rejected them and pursued an alliance with Argos.

A short while later, Nicias advised the assembly to seek friendship with the Spartans. The assembly agreed to this advice and sent an envoy to Sparta in an effort to get Sparta to drop its alliance with Boeotia, with the warning that if they did not rescind this alliance, the Athenians would make Argos her ally. The Spartans refused, much to the surprise of the Athenians, who were expecting a peace to come of all this which would leave them in a favorable position compared to Sparta. When the envoy returned, therefore, Alcibiades fought in the Argives, with their allies, to make an alliance with Athens. Thus, Alcibiades was known as the author of the new alliance (Johnson 177).

This example shows Alcibiades' quest for leadership and hunger for glory. It demonstrates his knowledge of strategy, and skill of negotiation: all things associated with being a good leader. By plotting against the Peace of Nicias, yet pretending to be on the Spartans' side, Alcibiades shows insight into human nature by tempting the Spartans' greed. In doing this, he strategically places them in a position in which they cannot win, thereby himself becoming the victor and gaining the chance for glory he so desperately seeks.

In the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades was assigned a split leadership alongside Nicias and Lamachus. Alcibiades wanted sole leadership, but as previously stated, the Athenian people did not trust him. Upon arrival at Sicily, Athenian envoys caught up and beckoned Alcibiades back to Athens for criminal prosecution. Knowing that his demagogue enemies were behind this, and that he would receive an unfair trial, and probably be put to death on false accusations, Alcibiades accompanied the envoys by ship, but eventually escaped. He wound up defecting to Sparta where he betrayed Athenian war plans to the Spartans.

It was due to Alcibiades’ counsel, that the Spartans sent the general Gyllppus to Sicily. This tactic was a major factor in the Athenian loss as well as Alcibiades' direction that the Spartans occupy Decelea as a permanent base near Athens. A few years after he defected to Sparta, the Spartans sent Alcibiades to the eastern Aegean to stop Sparta's allies from revolting, and to help bring Persia into the war on their side. While he was there, he was condemned to death for having seduced King Agis's wife. While a great general, Alcibiades was capable of amazing blunders in other areas.

With both Athens and Sparta against him, he fled to Persia and became a close acquaintance with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. A year later, he became the general of Athenian Samos, and a few months after that, he was reinstated as a citizen and general of Athens. In this generalship, he guarded Athenian food supplies in the Hellespont seaway, where he was quite successful until he was voted out of his office due to a major loss in battle by one of his subordinates.

Alcibiades switched allegiances to different countries but as can be plainly seen, it was not done for money or on a whim, but out of self-preservation. While it may seem odd that a general, in search of glory, keeps switching allegiances, he is in fact acting skillfully by making strategic decisions, although it is true that he planned in all these things to prosper personally. As critic David Grene points out [it is sometimes necessary to have] the extraordinary tricks, tergiversations, and popular coups . . . of an Alcibiades, that brilliant personage who played the [democratic game] when he had to” (39).

Admittedly, Alcibiades' motives were self-serving, but they had to be, for it was this self-interest that often led him to triumph as well as trouble. Yet, to be a successful general, who obtains glory, Alcibiades needed to "play the game" as he showed he could easily do. Although Alcibiades' skill did hurt Athens, if the Athenian assembly had ignored the plots and accusations against him by his domestic enemies and kept him in charge of the Sicilian Expedition, his skill would have been used and directed properly and likely would have proven extremely beneficial to Athens. For wasn't it Alcibiades' motive to bring Athens and himself glory?

So if we were to compare Alcibiades in this sense to Nicias, then we would have to claim that Nicias' conservatively indecisive attitude, as well as his religious divinations, proved him an inadequate leader for this task. He didn't have the drive to succeed like Alcibiades, and only negated the possibility of victory for Athens. As previously discussed, Alcibiades' strategy of going behind Athens' back to discuss a "deal" with Sparta demonstrated his desire for glory and a chance to prove his mettle in battle. And due to his wily planning along with careful negotiations, he was responsible for singlehandedly demolishing the Peace of Nicias, which resulted in the restart of the war. He states this in his speech to the general assembly: “we brought together the greatest powers of the Peloponnesus and made the Lacedaemonians stake everything they had on one day's battle ... and though they won the battle, they have not yet recovered their confidence" (Thucydides 118). Alcibiades shows himself to be an intelligent and greatly talented speaker with skills that are desirable in a leader and which would have proven extremely useful in the Sicilian expedition.

However, an objection may be made that Alcibiades was too self serving and disloyal to have really served Athens well for any length of time. As in every war, there would be rough times, and as he had shown, he had the propensity to "jump ship" when the going got tough. This is a solid point, for it is based on concrete evidence. Alcibiades did have the urge to move from loyalty to loyalty when it suited him.

But it also should be pointed out that he wanted to bring great glory both to himself and Athens. He wanted this until the Athenians called him back to Athens to stand trial. Up until then, he had shown no signs of ever leaving Athens. Very arguably, then, Alcibiades would have remained an Athenian, and would have used his intelligence and perhaps his oratorical skills to manipulate Athenian enemies to gain victory and glory for Athens and himself.

Lastly, one might object that Nicias was the better general because after all he followed Pericles’ advice to conduct a strictly defensive war. As Pericles said to the Athenians, "Many other things give me hope that we shall win through, unless you intend to enlarge your empire while still engaged in the war, or choose to take new risks. I am more afraid of our own mistakes, you see, than I am of our opponents' schemes" (Thucydides 35). Had the Athenian assembly followed Pericles’ and Nicais’ advice, the Sicilian Expedition, which Alcibiades argued successfully for, which resulted in a total catastrophe however, would have happened.

However, Pericles gave evidence that he would have been in favor of Alcibiades' plan and his course of action. For Pericles also said, "Of the sea, you rule as much as you use now, and more if you want" and "...remember that it is more shameful to lose what you have than to fail in an attempt to get more" (Thucydides 54). Hence it seems clear that Pericles would have supported Alcibiades' drive to push the empire to grow and he would have supported Alcibiades even though he himself proposed a defensive policy at the outset of the war. But to this point, we must consider that times and consequences had changed from when Pericles suggested his plan for Athens and when Alcibiades gave his diatribe.

In conclusion, we might ask who then was the more Periclean leader? Nicias, in his cautious, conservative actions or Alcibiades in his similar "Periclean" outlook towards expansionistic policy? It appears to be Alcibiades. And as Pericles was the best leader Athens ever had, so too Alcibiades would have been, at least in the Sicilian campaign. For "where Alcibiades... failed, Nicias succeeded: his cautious and dilatory conduct of the Sicilian campaign kept him from losing his command, [but more importantly] it led in the end to total defeat" (Woodruff xxix).

Works Cited

  • Finley, John H. Three Essays on Thucydides. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.
  • Thucydides. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967
  • Fliess, Peter J. Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity. Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1966.
  • Grene, David. Man In His Pride. A Study in the Political Philosophy of Thucydides and Plato. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.
  • Johnson, Laurie M. Thucydides, Hobbes and the Interpretation of Realism. Dekalb:Northern UP, 1993.
  • Orwin, Clifford. The Humanity of Thucydides . New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1994
  • Sacks, David. "Alcibiades." Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. 1995 ed.
  • "Nicias." Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. 1995 ed.
  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Paul Woodruff. On Justice Power and Human Nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993.
  • Woodruff, Paul. trans.-On Justice Power and Human Nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993

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