The Sicilian Expedition: Alcibiades and Nicias in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (Books VI-VII)

Thucydides claims the Peloponnesian War is the greatest event or movement in human history, and the most important part of this great war takes place in Books VI-VII: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

The Sicilian Expedition represents the turning point in the war. Thucydides begins to explain the expedition by offering a history of the origins of Sicily and its people. He continues by discussing the current zeitgeist in Athens. A rising and powerful love of Athens or a fervent patriotism arises among the Athenians. The old, middle-aged, and young citizens all see an easy occupation of Sicily that will yield great riches and power (i.e. the old and young, rich and poor are all united in support of the expedition as is necessary for an empire), while the skeptics are forced into silence for fear of being unpatriotic.

Thucydides offers two contrasting views on the Sicilian proposition: Nicias, the sober-minded Athenian general (or strategos) who is fervently opposed to interventionism. Nicias was the voice for moderation in Athens. Nicias had negotiated the aptly-named Peace of Nicias previously in 421 BC which paused the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta until the Athenian Sicilian Expedition 421 BC.

In contrast to Nicias’s moderation, Thucydides also shows us Alcibiades, the demagogic follower of Socrates and bombastic son of the old Athenian aristocracy, who successfully takes up the mantel of Pericles. Alcibiades rouses the passions of the Athenian public by claiming an either/or situation with regard to Sicily. The choice is between conquering or being conquered, though the idea that Athens is facing imminent conquest is absurd. Alcibiades is a proponent of aggressive expansionism and, in the end, he wins the day and leads the expedition to Sicily. Consider the way Thucydides describes the general mood of the Athenians regarding the invasion of Sicily:

“Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund to pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet” (6.24).

According to Thucydides, there is a kind of erotic love for conquest that grips the people of Athens, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Madison would have called it, takes hold. However, this eroticism takes different forms depending upon age and station: the older men thought their army was so powerful it could not possibly be defeated, those in the prime of their lives were longing for adventure (new things, ‘foreign sights and spectacles’), and the common people and soldiery were hungry for riches and security. In war, each group sees their own deprivation as an opportunity: strength, adventure, and riches, respectively.

At any rate, as happens with the superstitions of crowds, on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition all the stone statues of Hermes, the “Hermae,” are mutilated throughout the city of Athens. And rumors surface about drunken parties in private homes where the Mysteries of profaned (for reference see Socrates in Plato’s Symposium). Immediately, Alcibiades is blamed and it bears a foreboding sign for the expedition, while the enemies of Alcibiades hope to elevate the rule of the People, rather than leaders like Pericles and Alcibiades. These leaders win the moment and Alcibiades is brought to trial but he flees in exile to Sparta -his allegiances now in question, Alcibiades defects to the enemy. Meanwhile, the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster as the Athenian invasion fails to claim ground, and all the retreating Athenians are slaughtered in Syracuse.

Later, Thucydides makes note of the foremost cause of ruin for the Athenian army:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [a harbor port near Syracuse where the Athenians retreated], even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army” (7.24).

In response, Athens votes to send a massive force of reinforcements led by the general Demosthenes, not be confused with the great Athenian orator and speechwriter, but the Athenian armies become separated, decimated, enslaved, starved, and both Demosthenes and Nicias are executed. A few Athenian prisoners escape to deliver the dismal news back home in Athens.

Timeline of Events in the Peloponnesian War:

  • 6th-5th Centuries BC: The Peloponnesian League is created and led by Sparta over the surrounding Peloponnesus: Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and others. Also the Delian League was created under the leadership of Athens.

  • 435 BC: The city of Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra located right at the entrance to the Ionic Gulf, undergoes an internal revolt and requests help from Corcyra which is denied so they request help from soft rival to Corcyra, Corinth. It causes a proxy war between Corinth and Corcyra, with Corcyra winning back its colony. In response Corinth begins building up a vast navy.

  • 433 BC: Both Corinth and Corcyra call upon Athens, a fellow member of the Delian League, for aid. After both making their cases, Athens votes with an eye toward war with the Peloponnesus by siding with Corcyra. However, when both sides do battle, Corinth wins the day so they send reinforcements and the escalation calls upon the Peloponnesian League to break the standing peace treaty.

  • 432 BC: Athens fortifies its new ally Corcyra against Corinthian forces at Potidaea, as well. The Siege of Potidaea brings an end to Sparta’s inaction, with many denouncing Athens. Athens sent a fleet to Potidaea after Sparta and allies encouraged a revolt on the island in response to Athenian support for Corcyra against Corinth. Sparta declares Athens to be the aggressor and declares war on Athens.

    The powerful orator Pericles rises in Athens who is vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Sparta, in contrast to Archidamus King of Sparta, who urges caution, tact, and discipline. Sparta peddles a rumor that Athens is cursed by the goddess (thus subtly implicating Pericles as accursed). Athens, under Pericles, rejects offers to allow the Hellenes to remain free.

  • 431 BC: War begins. Thebes attacks and defeats Plataea, with Athenian help for Plataea arriving too late. Sparta invades Attica. Athens sends a fleet to attack the Pelopponesus and draw troops off their country farms. Pericles delivers his famous “Funeral Oration Speech” in Winter 431 BC.

  • 430 BC: Again Sparta invades Athens and shortly thereafter a great plague falls upon the land “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” It began perhaps in Egypt or Ethiopia and infected Athens through the Piraeus. A rumor spreads that Sparta poisons the water of Athens. The plague brings lawlessness and mass death.

    Pericles “The First Citizen” of Athens delivers a more tempered speech in Summer defending himself and wishing the Athenians had heeded all of his advice and not capitulated in any way to Sparta.

    Athens conquers Potidaea. Sparta attacks Plataea.

  • 428 BC: Sparta invades Athens again, Lesbos revolts from Athens. Mytilene turns to Sparta for help but Athens votes to spare Mytilene against the advice of Cleon a zealot and war hawk.

  • 425 BC: The Athenians outmaneuver the Spartans at Pylos under the generalship of Demosthenes (not be confused with the great Athenian orator).

  • 422 BC: War hawks Cleon (Athens) and Brasidas (Sparta) battle to the death at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

  • 421 BC: After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias is able to negotiate a peace – the Peace of Nicias which lasted six years.

  • 415 BC: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition is undertaken initially by Alcibiades who takes up the expansionist agenda from Pericles and Cleon, but the expedition ends in 413 BC in spectacular failure. Both leaders Nicias and Demosthenes are executed in the surrender at Syracuse.

  • 413 BC: In order to escape punishment in Athens, Alcibiades defects to Sparta and advises them on how to attack Athens. From here, Athens was beset by revolts, both internal and external by allies, as well as a troubling alliance between Persia and Sparta.

  • 407 BC: Alcibiades returns to Athens only to be exiled once again over questions of his loyalty.

  • 404 BC: Athens finally surrenders to Spartan general Lysander who defeated the Athenian navy and claimed the Dardanelles, a chief source of Athenian grain. Amidst death and starvation Athens surrenders. Sparta welcomes Athens into its network of allies but destroys Athens’s wall, navy, and riches.

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.

Reflections on Thucydides

Reading Thucydides is familiar to modern audiences. His succinct style of political and military history is perhaps the most commonly mirrored practice for writing contemporary history. However, his project is still somewhat elusive. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not explicitly call his work a “history” (historia), and he calls his book a work for all time, a claim that modern historians cannot make because their many varying histories do not claim to be definitive. Additionally, he claims the focus of his work is of the “greatest” motion of the city, thus undermining the authority of all earlier texts on war, including Herodotus and Homer.

Unlike the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the objective of Thucydides is not to discover the best possible regime, or a “city in speech.” Instead, he stands among the clamor of the crowd as we experience the chaos of battle between two cities engaged in bloody struggle for dominance. Thucydides presents us with the speeches of great men, and unlike Plato, he sympathizes with leaders who look to expand the Athenian empire, like Pericles, though he notes the blame for the war lies primarily with Athens and its character. In another similarity to Plato, Thucydides presents a particular skepticism toward the poets with his opening lines praising the greatness of the Peloponnesian War over all previous wars, thus drawing swords with, and questioning the authority of, Homer.

Although, Thucydides and Plato may have differences, we can find common ground in Plato’s Timaeus, the sequel to the Republic, in which Socrates longs to see his mere “city in speech” put into “motion,” which implies a city at war. In this way, Thucydides provides what the Timaeus dialogue was unable to deliver: a real city in “motion.” The recollection of Critias in the Timaeus is dependent on a distant rumor, though the story, including Atlantis, mirrors the failed Sicilian Expedition in the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides makes several explicit judgments: first, that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest war, thus diminishing the splendor of the ancients. He devotes considerable time to this judgment in Book I. Because of the poverty of their soil, Athens was able to grow in relative peace much earlier than Sparta. Does Thucydides believe the power and success of a city comes from peace or from war? His statements about the growth of Athens would seem to indicate the former. Athens was the first city to relax ancient barbaric practices and engage in luxury -the seeds of empire. Meanwhile Sparta enjoyed an ordered life of republican simplicity, and consequently their regime remained the same for roughly 400 years. Here, Thucydides agrees with Plato in his praise of moderation.

The question of moderation forces us to ask: what did Thucydides think of moderation? He reveals to us his tastes when describing the general depravity that overcame the Greek world during the war: abandonment of custom, praise of recklessness, decay in speech and respect for law. Peace is preferable to war. War is a teacher; a teacher of violence. War is an intermediate stage between peace and civil war. Depravation destroys moderation in situations of war.

Pericles, and his popular funerary speech, is the example of Pericles being the superior leader of Athens, guiding the city safely peace and in war. His speech is fundamentally a praise of the Athenian way -a praise of daring and hope, as opposed to the caution and fear of the Spartans. The fact that Athens under Pericles became the most powerful does not mean Athens became the “best”. Thucydides is concerned primarily with cities and their character. The great men in each are subordinate to the cities and their laws, which are ultimately subordinate to divine laws.

Thucydides’s work points to the universals from the particulars. He shines a light on the character of the city at war. It is not merely a polemic, in favor of Athens or Sparta, but rather it is a book which brings to light the nature of political things.

As with many ancient writers, we know very little about the life of Thucydides other than what he subtly reveals to us in his sole surviving work.

Thucydides notes that he was an Athenian, old enough at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War to understand its significance and document its unfolding. He was elected by Athens to be a strategos, or a military leader. He was likely a generation younger than his predecessor-historian, Herodotus.

Thucydides was related in some way to Miltiades, the great Athenian general of the Persian Wars. His father was Olorus, a Thracian. As a result, Thucydides was a businessman of influence in Thrace, including the ownership of mining rights on the islands of Thasos. He lived in Athens during the plague of 430-429BC, as he notes in the text, and he even caught the disease himself. He later commanded an Athenian fleet in Thrace, where he was called upon by Athens to defend the city of Amphipolis, but he arrived too late and the city fell to Sparta. Thucydides was recalled to be tried and exiled. His exile to foreign lands allowed him to focus on his text, and gain exposure to the Spartan perspective on the war.

He lived through the war, but some have suggested he met a violent demise because his notable text abruptly ends before the end of the war. He was later celebrated by the Athenians, as a monument and Athenian tomb to Thucydides were still seen in Athens in the 2nd century AD.

Three other writers picked up on Thucydides’s history where his text ends: Crattipus, a younger contemporary; Xenophon, the noted writer who lived a generation after Thucydides; and Theopompus, a late 4th century BC Greek writer.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

The Peloponnesian War, Book V: Battle Recommences and Melos Enslaved

Book V of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens at the conclusion of the truce between Athens and the Spartans. Cleon leads the Athenians in an attack on Thrace. A double surprise attack is launched against Cleon and the Athenians by Brasidas of Sparta. The attack catches Cleon off guard and kills him en route, as well as Brasidas.

After this cataclysmic juncture, both sides desire peace. Athens fears further revolt from its allies. Spartan men and their land/economy begin to suffer. New leadership (King Pleistoanax in Sparta, and Nicias in Athens) desperately desires peace. Thucydides called Nicias the “most fortunate general of his time” (5.16). Many of their allies did not agree with the yearning for peace, nevertheless they make a treaty, allying Sparta and Athens for fifty years. Thus ends the “first war” spanning ten years.

Thucydides digresses from this juncture to discuss the nature of the peace being a mere interval in the ongoing hostilities, rather than a true peace. He mentions his own age being old enough to reflect on the activities and his exile for twenty years after his command of Amphipolous as mentioned earlier. As a result of his exile to the Peloponnesus he was able to see things with far more clarity. The city in motion lacks clarity absent the benefits of hindsight.

Hostilities resume in the war following the fifty year truce. Alcibiades leads a faction of Athenian allies in diplomacy against Sparta. The Spartans are barred from the Olympic games. Sparta battle the Argives, allies of the Athenians. The Melians choose to remain allied with the Spartans, despite Athenian warnings of ruin. Eventually the Melians are defeated: the men all killed, and the women and children enslaved. Athens settles the Melian country.

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.

The Peloponnesian War, Book IV: Armistice and Mounting Losses

Book IV of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens with yet another revolt from allies of the Athenians, this time in the city of Messana. Syracuse encourages the revolt to prevent Athens from a clear path to Sicily. Additionally, Athens is again invaded by the Spartans under King Agis, son of Archidamus.

Meanwhile an Athenian fleet builds a fort as an outpost in the Peloponnesus (Pylos), under Demosthenes. This sends Athenian forces back to Spartan territory. Demosthenes rallies his troops in defense of their outpost, ironically Athenians defend their occupied Spartan land while the Spartans attack from the sea. It is a reversal of expertise: Athens as infantrymen and Sparta as naval power. Thucydides makes note of this irony.

The Spartans initiate an armistice, initially framed as a “treaty…to end the war, and offer peace and alliance” (4.19). However, the Athenians are swayed by the demagogue Cleon a powerful speaker who is popular among the multitude. However, the lapse of peace is later lamented. As the war drags on, Cleon is blamed for not accepting the Spartan treaty, but he blames the general Nicias who promptly resigns. Thus Cleon leads an Athenian force with Demosthenes to attack the Spartans. After much fighting, the Spartans take heavy losses and surrender, with Cleon returning to Athens emboldened by his victory.

Brasidas successfully encourages revolt in several Athenian provinces, and Pagondus encourages attacks on Athens. Gains and losses are made by both the Spartans and Athenians. The Athenians retreat from battle with the Boetians who commit a great sacrilege by not returning their dead to their native land. Thucydides notes his personal part in the story at (4.104) in the battle for Amphipolis, an Athenian colony, which eventually falls to the Spartans and causes great dismay for the Athenians due to its strategic importance as a critical timber resource.

In the Spring of 423 BC the Athenians secure a truce, a one year armistice, in order to prevent the loss of any more cities to revolts. Thus concludes Book IV.

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.