The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right. — G. K. Chesterton

Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition - Alfred J. Church


The command of the fleets and armies of Athens was in the hands of a college of ten members, bearing the title of Generals (strategi), and annually elected. Nicias is said to have held this office more than once during the lifetime of Pericles. Its duties included home administration as well as command in the field, and it is possible that the former fell to the share of Nicias on the earlier occasions of his being elected to the office. Anyhow, we do not hear of him as conducting any operation of either army or fleet before the year 427 B.C. (the fifth year of the Peloponnesian war). He then distinguished himself by a success which must have been highly gratifying to his countrymen. There was no state in the Lacedæmonian alliance that was more hated by the Athenians than Megara. It had been under their power, and had successfully rebelled, slaughtering at the same time the Athenian garrison. It was close at hand, the mouth of its harbour being little more than fifteen miles from the Peiræus. A long series of mutual injuries had embittered the feelings of the two cities to the uttermost. Athens, on losing her dependency, had retaliated by forbidding the Megarians to use her markets or harbours, a measure which had been one of the provocations that resulted in the Peloponnesian War. Compelled to see her own territory ravaged by the superior forces of Sparta, she had taken the revenge of invading once, or even twice, a year the territory of Megara, and Megara, on the other hand, was always on the watch to do what injury she could to the commerce of her powerful neighbour. Freebooting ships issued from her harbour, seized Athenian merchantmen, and even committed ravages on unprotected points of the coast. An Athenian squadron was sent to blockade the harbour, but could not do this effectually because it had no anchorage nearer than Salamis. Nicias saw an opportunity of striking a heavy blow at this enemy. In the mouth of the harbour was a rocky island, Minoa by name—legend connected the famous Minos of Crete with the history of the city—which was occupied by a fort, and further protected on one side by towers and walls extending from Nisæa, the port of Megara, and on the other by a lagoon bridged over by a causeway. Nicias embarked some battering-rams on his ships of war, knocked the towers to pieces, captured the fort, and made the island, which he strongly fortified on the side of the lagoon, into a convenient base for the blockading fleet.

This was the earliest operation of the year. Later on, he sailed with sixty ships of war to Melos, an island in the southwest of the Ægean, settled in former days by a colony from Sparta, which had always declined to ally itself with Athens. He called upon the city to submit and receive a garrison within its walls, and on its refusal ravaged the surrounding country. This done, as he was not prepared to undertake a siege, he sailed away to the point where the frontier between Bœotia and Attica touched the coast. Here he was joined by some troops from Athens, and with the combined forces ravaged part of the Bœotian territory. Reembarking his army, he sailed northwards, wasting the country as he went, where there this could be done without risk, and, when the season for operations drew to an end, returned to Athens.

During the next year he seems not to have been employed, but in that which followed—the seventh of the war—he was in chief command of an expedition which was directed against the territory of Corinth. It helps us to realise the smallness of the scene on which these operations were carried on to note that, starting from the Peiræus in the evening he arrived at his destination, a point seven miles south of Corinth, before sunrise. No very great success was gained, possibly because the Corinthians had been warned of what was intended; but after a brisk engagement, in which the fortune of the day varied from time to time, the Athenians were left in possession of the field of battle. They had lost forty-seven men, their adversaries more than four times as many. Technically, however, Nicias had to own to a defeat. He discovered, when the increasing forces of the enemy had made it prudent to retreat, that he had left two of his own dead on the field. This compelled him to send a herald to ask for a truce, and to send a herald was to confess that he had been worsted.

In the eighth year of the war, Nicias conducted with success an operation of more importance, and likely to have a more permanent effect. This was the occupation of the island of Cythera, off the southern coast of Laconia. Cythera was the most vulnerable point of the Spartan territory. Chilon, one of the Seven Wise Men, himself a Spartan, had said that it would be well for his country if Cythera could be sunk to the bottom of the sea. If we imagine the Isle of Wight in the possession of the French, we have an idea of what Sparta would feel with Cythera occupied by a hostile force. Nicias, who had been in communication for some time with an anti-Spartan party in this island, sailed thither with a force of about 4000. This time he caught the enemy unprepared. The two towns of the island were simultaneously attacked. One made no resistance; the other surrendered after a brief struggle. A few prominent members of the pro-Spartan party were carried away, but the remainder of the inhabitants were leniently treated, becoming allies of Athens, and paying a tribute of four talents. Nicias, leaving an Athenian garrison in Cythera, spent some days in ravaging the neighbouring coast of the mainland.

On his way home he gratified another long-standing grudge of his countrymen against an ancient enemy. In the days when Athens was still a feeble state, she had had two hostile neighbours against whom she had hardly been able to hold up. Of one of these—Megara—I have already spoken; Ægina was the other. After various fluctuations of fortune, Ægina had become (in 456 B.C.) a dependency of Athens. When, a quarter of a century later, the Peloponnesian War broke out, the Athenians regarded with apprehension the possibility of a revolt. 'Ægina,' said the great Pericles, 'is the eye-sore of the Peiræus,' from which indeed it was but some twelve miles distant. The Athenians proceeded to expel the whole population, and to fill their place with settlers of their own nationality. The Spartans gave the exiles a home at Thyrea, a district in the eastern part of their own territory. The town itself was too far from the sea to suit the tastes of its new inhabitants, who came of a race famous for seamanship. They were at this time engaged, with the help of a contingent of Lacedæmonian troops, in building a fort upon the coast. This they abandoned when the Athenian squadron came in sight, retreating inland to Thyrea. Thyrea consisted of an upper and a lower town. The Æginetans resolved to hold the former, but could not persuade their allies to remain. The Lacedæmonians declared that the place was untenable, and retreated to the hills. Their judgment was proved to be right, for the Athenians stormed the place with but little difficulty, and captured its defenders. These were carried to Athens and there put to death. Mercy was never shown to prisoners of war except their captors believed that some advantage might be gained by keeping them alive.

It is now necessary to turn back to an event which had an important bearing on the fortunes of Athens in general, and of Nicias in particular. In the earlier part of the seventh year—the same as that in which Nicias had conducted his operations against Corinth—Athens had secured a signal advantage over its great enemy. A powerful force under the command of Demosthenes, who was probably the ablest soldier in the Athenian service, had landed on the western coast of Laconia, and, after a series of operations which it is not necessary to describe in detail, had succeeded in shutting up in the island of Sphacteria a force of about 460 Peloponnesian heavy-armed troops, of whom more than 120 were pure-blood Spartans belonging to the first families of the city. The Spartan Government was so affected by this disaster that it sent envoys to Athens to solicit peace. This mission accomplished nothing. The terms demanded were such as it was impossible to grant, and the envoys went home. Then affairs took another turn. The siege of the Spartans in the island did not seem to make any progress; the besiegers were in as bad a plight as the besieged, it may be in a worse, as they were actively employed in the blockade, while the besieged had only to sit still. Provisions they had, but they were very short of water, for there was but one spring available, and that was quite insufficient to supply the needs of so large an armament. As for the besieged, they fared pretty well. They seem not to have wanted water, and there were plenty of Helots ready to run cargoes of food, tempted by the handsome offers of reward, in the shape of pay and freedom, which the government offered. Demosthenes determined to make an assault in force, and for this purpose collected troops from friendly cities in Western Greece, and sent home a request for reinforcements.

The disappointment at Athens was intense, and the reaction of feeling against the politicians who had spoken against peace proportionately great. Of these politicians, Cleon was the leader, and Cleon felt that his popularity was in imminent danger. He began by declaring that the envoys from Demosthenes had exaggerated the difficulties of the enterprise. The answer to this was simple. 'Send commissioners to examine the state of things.' This suggestion was approved, and Cleon and another were actually named. Cleon did not like the prospect of going, and altered his tone. 'Don't waste time,' he cried, 'in sending envoys. Sail to Sphacteria and capture the soldiers that have been shut up there. If our generals were men,' and he pointed as he spoke contemptuously to Nicias, 'this they would easily do with a proper force. This I would do, if I were in their place.' There was a hostile murmur from part of the assembly. 'Why not go, if it is so easy.' Nicias caught eagerly at the idea. It seemed to put his adversary into a dilemma. 'Go, Cleon,' he said, 'and do it; I and my colleagues will put at your disposal such forces as you may think necessary.'

At first Cleon accepted, not thinking for a moment that the offer was serious. When he perceived his mistake, he drew back. 'It was Nicias's business, not his,' he said, 'to direct the campaign.' Instantly there arose a great shout from the assembly, which doubtless enjoyed the humour of the situation. They shouted to Nicias to make over the command to Cleon; they shouted to Cleon that he must accept it. There was nothing for the two but to yield. Nicias formally resigned the command; Cleon, so to speak, took the bull by the horns. 'I am not afraid,' he said. 'Give me some heavy-armed men—I don't want them from our own muster roll—some light-armed, and, say, 400 archers, and I will bring the Spartans, dead or alive, within twenty days.' And, not to lengthen the story, he did it.

It is impossible to say that the conduct of Nicias in this matter was patriotic. It may have been a telling party-stroke to take Cleon at his word, and to commit him to an undertaking which Nicias believed must end in failure, but it was made at the expense of Athens. If the man was an incompetent braggart, why should he be trusted with the lives of Athenian soldiers? It was impossible for Nicias and his friends not to wish that he might fail, and his failure meant, not only an immediate loss of men, but the missing of such an opportunity of bringing Sparta to terms as might never occur again. If, on the other hand, Cleon succeeded, a result which Nicias clearly never expected for a moment, this meant another spell of power to a politician whom he believed to be unprincipled and mischievous. And this was the result which actually followed.