The Peloponnesian War, Book VI: Sicily, Alcibiades, and the Hermae

Book VI of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War begins with the Athenians voting to attack Sicily, despite their ignorance of the size of the island and despite Nicias’s pleas to the masses not to invade. Thucydides gives an intriguing overview of the history of the peoples of Sicily, including a settlement of escaped Trojans after the sack of Ilium. He goes on to discuss the founding of other minor Greek cities in Hellas.

Nicias asks for a second vote on the ill-fated Sicilian expedition. Alcibiades, however, persuades the multitude by claiming their choice is between one of conquest or else be conquered. He is the voice of the reckless Athenian empire, while Nicias is the voice of caution. Curiously, at the outset of the expedition the statues of Hermae throughout the city of Athens are all found mutilated, the Mysteries profaned, and all citizens are encouraged to come forward regarding all forms of blasphemy. Alcibiades is implicated, but the expedition is all ready to route to Sicily. He denies the charges strongly and he leaves for Sicily at once but is called back to answer the charges of blasphemy. A wild mood overtakes Athens, and Thucydides spends considerable time correcting the popular opinion of the Athenians regarding paranoia of previous tyrannies, like Pisistratus, nearly one hundred years prior. A witch hunt ensues with many people implicated and executed. In this climate, Alcibiades flees Sicily, not to return to Athens. He goes as far as Thurri and then disappears.

Eventually Alcibiades flees to Sparta where he laments the absurdity of democracy, despite its occasional successes in Athens. Alcibiades betrays Athens and offers his knowledge for Sparta’s advantage (note: Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, takes the opposite approach of Socrates with regard to the city of Athens). Recall the image of Alcibiades in simpler times as portrayed in Plato’s Symposium.

Book VI concludes as Athens and Sparta resume open conflict with one another in both Argos and the Peloponnesus.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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