The same winter the Athenians, with greater forces than they had before sent out with Laches and Eurymedon, resolved to go again into Sicily; and if they could, wholly to subdue it: being for the most part ignorant both of the greatness of the island, and of the multitude of people, as well Greeks as barbarians, that inhabited the same; and that they undertook a war not much less than the war against the Peloponnesians. For the compass of Sicily is little less than eight days’ sail for a ship; and though so great, is yet divided with no more than twenty furlongs, sea measure, from the continent.
(Book Six, Chapter 1)
And though it were thus great, yet the Athenians longed very much to send an army against it, out of a desire to bring it all under their subjection; which was the true motive; but as having withal this fair pretext, of aiding their kindred and new confederates . But principally they were instigated to it by the ambassadors of Egesta, who were at Athens and earnestly pressed them thereto.
(Book Six, Chapter 6)
But they [Athenian leaders] that came after [Pericles], being more equal amongst themselves, and affecting every one to be the chief, applied themselves to the people and let go the care of the commonwealth. From whence amongst many other errors, as was likely in a great and dominant city, proceeded also the voyage into Sicily; which was not so much upon mistaking those whom they went against, as for want of knowledge in the senders of what was necessary for those that went the voyage. For through private quarrels about who should bear the greatest sway with the people, they both abated the vigour of the army, and then also first troubled the state at home with division. Being overthrown in Sicily, and having lost, besides other ammunition, the greatest part of their navy, and the city being then in sedition; yet they held out three years , both against their first enemies and the Sicilians with them, and against most of their revolted confederates besides, and also afterwards against Cyrus the king’s son, who took part with, and sent money to the Peloponnesians to maintain their fleet; and never shrunk till they had overthrown themselves with private dissensions.
(Book Two, Chapter 65)
"Fool!" cried the hunchback. "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia,' but only slightly less well known is this: 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.'"
(The Princess Bride)
This post looks at Chapters 1 through 62 of Book Six, covering the activities of the spring and summer of 415 BC. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.
Athens previous involvement in Sicily: Beginning in 427 BC, Athens had answered an ally's call for help in Sicily. In 424 BC after the conference at Gela, Athens had been asked to leave Sicily. Hermocrates the Syracusian had rallied support for “Sicily for the Sicilians” but his meddling in other cities’ affairs after Athens left makes it clear he was more interested in Sicily for Syracuse. Two years after leaving Sicily, Athens had sent a general to try and rally anti-Syracuse support but failed to build any coalition.
The ambassadors from Egesta arrived in Athens during the winter of 416/5 BC requesting help against Selinus, an ally of Syracuse. Each time the topic of Sicily arises Thucydides claims that the Athenian aim was to conquer it and add it to their empire. Athens responds to the request by sending their own ambassadors to Egesta to see (1) if they had the money to support such an expedition, and (2) how did the war between Egesta and Selinus stand? The ambassadors return with enough silver to cover the cost of sixty ships for a month, plus reports of a great store in the Egestaean treasury and temples.
Athens agrees to send sixty ships to Sicily with Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus as commanders with absolute authority to aid Egesta, resore the people of Leontine back in their city (if there was time), and “to order all other the affairs of Sicily as they should think most for the profit of the Athenians.” This hardly seems like a call to expand the empire, although it does attempt to expand their influence on the island. Furthermore, sixty ships was the total sent on their previous Sicilian expedition (twenty ships initially, forty ships approved later). As much as Thucydides wants to pin empire-building on the earlier expedition it was clear that sixty ships was not going to subdue the island. More importantly, what did the Athenians believe? They were angered with the generals that abandoned the earlier campaign, fining or banishing the commanders, but was their anger for not adding more to the empire or underachievement in the stated goals?
Thucydides does not provide any speeches from the assembly called to send the sixty ships to Sicily. Five days after that decision the assembly met again to discuss the ways and means of assembling such a force. Nicias requests to speak, hoping to change their mind from the earlier decree. Looking at his argument and what he addresses is the closest we can come to divining what the arguments were at the earlier meeting. His initial complaints were that the decision was made after only a short deliberation, the mission was a weighty affair, and the decision was made on the claims of the Egestaeans’ (“strangers”) wealth. After claiming he is seeking to “apprehend the best” for the city and not over concern for “the danger of my person”, he acknowledge the weakness of the peace with Sparta he had championed. Foreseeing the possibility that enemies might renew the war while the forces were away or if something bad happened to those forces, he echoes Pericles’ admonition not to “seek a new dominion before we assure that which we already have.” He also acknowledges that the signing of the peace had relied on “the misfortunes of our enemies”, hardly a long-term basis for stability.
Nicias continues to address the more modest goal of helping Egesta while keeping Athens safe: “The question with us therefore, if we be well advised, will not be of the Egestaeans in Sicily, but how we may speedily defend our city against the insidiation of them that favour the oligarchy.” Nicias then directly attacks Alcibiades and adds an appeal to the older crowd who would remember the plague and earlier troubles in war. His final rebuke is aimed at the Egestaeans, telling them that Athens’ reply should be they can finish the war they started. Nicias focuses on the more modest goals during his oration instead of the call for expanding the empire, although empire-building is addressed. Combined with ‘only’ sixty ships having been initially approved, I find Thucydides claim of subjecting all of Sicily overstated. Those approving such a measure, however, may have had Thucydides’ goal in mind as a secondary matter after the initial, more modest goals were achieved.
Thucydides gives a brief description of Alcibiades. While everyone acknowledged the good things Alcibiades had done for Athens they doubted his motives. Thucydides describes Alcibiades as a self-interested prick keen on excess, using his public achievements to increase his personal wealth. His first concern addresses the attacks from Nicias, saying his personal splurges bring the city “glory and profit”, allowing strangers to marvel at Athens’ greatness. His portrait of the Sicilians looks at their lack of arms and defense—if his opinion in this matter were shared by others, Thucydides would be correct in Athens’ underestimation of the opposition.
During the Melian dialogue, the Athenians repeated the point that hope was not a plan. Yet that is what we find here from Alcibiades, who forecasts “we shall have many of the barbarians, upon hatred of the Syracusians, to take our parts against them there”. He is not worried about the Peloponnesians attacking while the ships are gone since the generals will leave a “navy sufficient to oppose theirs behind us”. Alcibiades also reminds the Athenians why they took Egesta on as an ally—not that Athens expected direct help from them but that Egesta would harass Athenian enemies in Sicily. Alcibiades brings to the forefront a motif that has been hinted at several times, that of rest versus motion. Athens became the empire it is through motion, and “a state accustomed to be active, if it once grow idle, will quickly be subjected by the change.” In Book One the description of Spartan and Athenian characteristics by the Corinthians used different words but included the concept of rest (Sparta) and motion (Athens). Also, we see the idea of pre-emption again as Alcibiades states “it is as necessary for us to seek to subdue those that are not under our dominion, as to keep so those that are”. Ever since Delium the need to frame a conflict as pre-emptive and defensive becomes standard in a call to arms.
Nicias, seeing approval of the expedition still popular, speaks one more time. Thucydides says Nicias intended to scuttle the invasion by ludicrously inflating the requirements of the trip and judging by his speech I think that’s an fair assessment. Nicias has already failed at bluffing once when Cleon took Nicias up on the offer to lead the expedition to Pylus. His bluff here provides one of the major miscalculations guaranteeing Athens’ failure if they sustain a sizeable loss. He begins by noting all the things Syracuse has that an expedition of only sixty ships will not have. If he is to be one of the leaders of the expedition, Athens needed to provide a much larger contingency and make sure they are sufficiently provided to insure success. Ironically, he notes that many possible allies might be scared of the Athenians and their designs—by significantly inflating the invasion force his concern becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He concludes by offering to resign his commission to anyone “of a contrary opinion”, effectively guaranteeing no one will oppose him. The assembly follows along with his disastrous bluff and swells the size of the expedition.
The additional irony of this expedition lies with Athens regeneration during the peace: “The city had by this time recovered herself from the sickness and from their continual wars, both in number of men fit for the wars, grown up after the ceasing of the plague, and in store of money gathered together by means of the peace: whereby they made their provisions with much ease.” Yet they were willing to risk this recovery in order to go to war again.
Distractions during the preparation for the Sicilian expedition occur. Gary Corby has a good blog entry on the mutilation of the statues of Hermes that occurred one night (although most translations say most of them were scarred, not every one…it’s difficult to tell from the text). This action was viewed as an ominous sign about the expedition in addition to a political action against democracy in Athens. (Sidenote—this provides yet another irony with the Melian dialogue in which the Athenians deride Melos’ reliance on the gods. Now that purported omens appear unfavorable to Athens, its citizens go berserk.) Soon after the defacements, various men step forward and make claims about mutilations to other statues and how certain high-standing officials “had in private houses acted the mysteries of their religion in mockery”. Alcibiades’ name surfaces as one of the accused in the latter. Alcibiades demands a trial before he leaves with the expedition, not wanting to be tried in absentia. His enemies successfully delay the trial, though.
Thucydides goes into detail on the Athenian fleet setting off, a fantastic production that excited the city. Leaders in Syracuse are split on believing the news of the Athenian fleet’s sailing to Sicily. Hermocrates speaks to the Syracusian assembly, stressing Sicilian unity again (with Syracuse leading the way, of course), recommending ambassadors be sent out to talk about the “common danger” and unite as many as possible. He perceives that the greatness of the Athenian fleet will terrify other Sicilians, effecting more confederations with Syracuse. Like Thucydides, the believes “in truth they aspire to the dominion of all Sicily.” Thucydides has Hermocrates say that “the man of most experience amongst their [Athenian] commanders hath the charge against his will; and would take a light occasion to return”, an incredible piece of intelligence so early in the conflict. The leaders of Syracuse are still divided on believing the Athenians are coming. Athenagoras, the chief magistrate, finds it incredible that Athens would come while a war “not yet surely ended” (echoing Nicias acknowledgement to the non-believers of the peace). Athenagoras’ oration goes all over the place, including the bizarre claim that he knows the Athenians aren’t bringing horses with them but he doesn’t believe they are coming. He also echoes ideas found in other speeches, such as the need for pre-emption and how sedition is more to worry about than any outside enemy. After a ringing defense of democracy over oligarchy, Athenagoras yields the floor to a general so that the city can prepare for Athens while scouts are sent to ascertain if they really are coming.
From Corcyra, Athens sends its own scouts to Sicily to see if cities would receive them. Things begin to go wrong almost immediately. Most cities, even former allies, refuse to receive Athenian ships. Did the increase in the size of the fleet and additional men cause concern? Or would they have been denied even with a smaller fleet? The fleet sails to Rhegium (on the toe of Italy) where they camp but aren’t allowed into the city. Even worse, Rhegium refuses further help in the expedition. So much for hope as a plan. Speaking of false hope, the scouts return with word about the lack of money in Egesta, the promise of plenty having been an elaborate ruse played upon the initial Athenian delegation. Their “first hope” crossed, the three generals present their opinions on the next steps. Nicias thought it best to go to Selinus, “against which they were chiefly set forth”, and if money were not forthcoming from Egesta they should sail home after a show of power. Alcibiades wants to send heralds to every Sicilian city offering an alliance, at which point they can evaluate restoring the Messanians and then attacking Selinus and Syracuse. Lamachus thought it best to go directly to Syracuse, taking them before they had much time to prepare for an attack. The element of surprise or unpredictability has played a key role in many of the battles of this war, which makes such an audacious plan believable.
Lamachus eventually seconds Alcibiades’ plan. The Athenians try but fail to secure alliances with Messana, Naxos, and Catana (all along the eastern coast of Sicily). Ten ships sail into the harbor of Syracuse to reconnoiter it and proclaim their intentions. Catana ends up allying with the Athenians through accident and provides a new base for the fleet. Camarina, on the southern shore, also refuses to receive the Athenians—at some point Alcibiades’ plan should be recognized as unworkable. And then the weirdness set in…
An official ship from Athens arrives to recall Alcibiades and some of his soldiers, some for charges related to the profanation of the mysteries and others for damage to the Hermae. After the expedition left for Sicily, the Athenians had accepted all theories and claims of responsibility with little inquiry, throwing one and all into prison and executing many. Memories of the tyrannies that Athens had suffered (which Thucydides takes pains to correct) convinced many that the profanation and destruction were part of a plot to restore a tyranny or install an oligarchy. A witch-hunt ensues and Alcibiades name occurs repeatedly as one of the plotters and many minor incidents are interpreted to create more suspicion. The savagery of citizen against citizen recalls the licentiousness in Athens during the plague. Alcibiades begins the trip back to Athens but escapes at Thurii (in the ‘arch’ of Italy’s boot), eventually making it to the Peloponnesus. His trial continues without him and he is condemned to death.
The remaining generals divide the fleet. Many towns refuse to accept them and the Athenians compound the Sicilians distrust by taking the city of Hyccara (enemies with Egesta) and enslave the inhabitants, ransoming them to fund the expedition. The summer ends on this inauspicious start of the Sicilian expedition.
Several times the Sicilian expedition is described as the equal to the war with Sparta (by Thucydides and Athenagoras, among others), yet it didn’t have to be that way. The initial sixty ship commitment was significant but would not have proved an overwhelming defeat, even if completely destroyed. There was always the risk of escalation once underway, just as the earlier commitment swelled from twenty to sixty ships. During the debate, Nicias’ bluff changes everything—with more ships and a large number of troops and support staff going to Sicily, their loss had the potential to be devastating. I don’t know if I’m reading it correctly, but the assembly turned everything over to the generals upon approving the expanded mission. If so, this confirms Diodotus’ concern that the people make decisions but do not hold themselves accountable for them. Making matters worse are the questionable motives of the new leaders.
It was clear Nicias’ heart wasn’t in the expedition, wanting to return once the promised money from Egesta wasn’t forthcoming. The sheer size of the fleet and army may have terrified supposed or potential allies as few cities received them. Alcibiades may have been the one general bold enough to make the expedition work although Lamachus’ plan to immediately attack Syracuse, catching them by surprise, might have worked, too. Now Alcibiades was a fugitive. The disunity in post-Periclean Athens, where public and private interests were no longer in harmony, gives credence to Cleon’s claim that a democracy cannot head an empire. This struggle between what is best for the individual and what is best for the state permeates this section of Thucydides, especially during Nicias’ and Alcibiades’ speeches before the assembly.