Study Guide for Plutarch's Life of Nicias

Text taken from Thomas North and/or John Dryden
Study Guide by Anne White

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Nicias (ca. 470 B.C. - 413 B.C.)

Who was Nicias?

What we know of Nicias' early life comes mostly from Plutarch. He had inherited wealth from his family; he was by nature generous and pious, although not particularly sociable; and he seemed to be the natural leader of the aristocratic party after the death of Pericles.

Plutarch describes Nicias as timorous. This word comes from the Latin timor, meaning "fear." It usually signifies someone who is timid or nervous, lacking confidence; or, more positively, it could mean "humble" or "cautious." The theme of Nicias' timorousness, and how it affects his leadership, is something to watch through the story.

The Golden Age of Athens

When Nicias was born, the Greeks were entering a "Golden Age," particularly in the city-state of Athens. The "Golden Age" is also called the "Age of Pericles," after the Athenian leader Pericles, who lived from 495-429 B.C.

The city-state of Athens had a system of democratic government (government "by the people") which was unusual at that time. The Athenians believed that everyone could and should contribute to the life of the city: because the city wasn't where they lived, they were the city. Athens was ruled by an assembly of male citizens, with the intention that all their voices should be heard equally.

The goddess Athena (also called Pallas Athena) for whom Athens was named, wore armour and was called the goddess of victory, but she was also in charge of wisdom and the arts. There is a legend that when Athena's temple was destroyed in the Persian Wars, a tiny olive shoot (the olive was her special tree) sprouted on the temple site as a sign of hope and rebirth. The Athenians put their faith in that sign, and their efforts into building something both beautiful and strong in her honour.

But Athens was, in fact, nearing the end of its power as a city-state. After the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), which was mainly a struggle between Athens and Sparta, Athenian power and culture were never the same again. Nicias took an active though reluctant part in that war, particularly in the Sicilian Expedition; and he was killed by the enemy when that mission failed, in 413 B.C.

What was a strategos?

The word that North translates "captain" is the Greek word strategos. It means a military general, but the strategoi were also governors in Athens. The Athenians elected ten strategoi each year.

Who was Alcibiades?

Alcibiades (450-404 B.C.) was raised by Pericles and was a close friend of Socrates; he was also a military commander and the political rival of Nicias. The Sicilian Expedition (the subject of the last half of the Life of Nicias) was taken on at his urging. Alcibiades is the subject of his own Life by Plutarch.

The Geography: Map Work

Attica was the name for the region of Greece which included the city-state of Athens. The word Attic or Attican is sometimes used to describe aspects of Athenian life and culture, such as the "Attic dialect." Attica was bordered by the Aegean Sea to the east, Boeotia to the north, and Megara to the west.

Greece is divided almost in two by the Isthmus of Corinth. The southern section, containing Sparta or Lacedaemonia, is called the Peloponnesus. Athens did not get along very well with the cities in the Peloponnesus, particularly Sparta and Corinth.

The Timeline: Wars and More Wars

(Those who have already done the Life of Pericles or Alcibiades will have already done the following exercise, and if they still have that timeline, it can be extended for Nicias.)

Make a timeline or chart showing the years 500-400 B.C. Mark (circle or shade) the fifty years between 480-430 B.C. This is the period considered the "Golden Age" of Athens. Mark the birth of Nicias in approximately 470, and his death in 413.

With one colour, shade in or circle the years 499-449, the span of the Greco-Persian Wars. With a second colour, mark the years 460-445, the First Peloponnesian War. The proposed "Thirty Years' Peace" between Athens and Sparta began in 446/445, when Nicias was in his twenties. With a third colour, mark 431-404, the Second Peloponnesian War (also called just the Peloponnesian War), which began when Nicias was about forty years old. Note how few years of that century there were in which Athens was not involved in conflict.

Top Vocabulary Terms in the Life of Nicias

If you become familiar with these words, you are well on the way to understanding the vocabulary of the Life of Nicias. They will not be repeated in the lessons.

1. covetous: greedy; wanting what one does not have. It is also used to describe the "old men" who "coveted peace."

2. divers, sundry: various; several

3. galley: a ship powered by banks of oars

4. importune, importunate, importunity: To importune someone is to harass or persistently beg (or nag) someone to do something. If you are importunate with someone, you are continually bothering them about something. Importunity is insistence (or persistence).

5. impudence, insolence: arrogance, lack of respect.

6. leave: permission (but sometimes it just means to leave)

7. manifest: obvious; outright

8. pomp (and ostentation): ceremony, lavish display

9. soothsayer: one who foretells the future, particularly by reading omens (signs of good or bad things to come)

10. spoil: To plunder an enemy camp or town is also to spoil it, and the treasure taken is referred to as the spoils.

11. succour: aid

12. timorousness: fearfulness; over-cautiousness. In his poem "To a Mouse," Robert Burns describes it as a "Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie."

13. victuals: (pronounced "vittles") food and other necessary supplies

Lesson One


We may not have childhood stories of Nicias, but there are many resources for learning about Athenian life during the time he was growing up. It is not hard to imagine the things that Nicias might have seen during his lifetime: the Parthenon, built between 447-438 B.C.; Phidias' statue of Zeus at Olympia, finished around 435 B.C., which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the first performances of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The philosopher Socrates was born in about the same year as Nicias, and died only a few years before him.

As a politician, Nicias felt he had only one real asset: his money. He didn't have the strong personality of either Pericles or Cleon; but he did have the financial means to sponsor public events and religious processions. He could also stage-manage a performance himself, as we read in the story of the spectacle at Delos.


clerkly: in a scholarly or learned manner

sheweth always a base envious mind: makes one seem pointlessly competitive

full of his school points: trying to get good grades

things that are past all challenge and correcting: Dryden translates this "works of inimitable excellence." Plutarch is referring here to histories written by others, not the actual people studied.

eminent: outstanding

dubious extraction: doubtful status as a true Athenian

"the Buskin": a buskin was a boot used mainly in the theater, that could be worn on either foot; so referring to someone as a buskin might mean that they are versatile; but in this case it meant more like "the turncoat," referring to Theramenes' habit of switching sides.

inferior sort, commonalty: lower classes, common people

colleague in the office of general: The meaning of this is not quite clear, as we are told that Nicias was not elected as strategos until 427 B.C., two years after Pericles's death. It may refer to another position that he held in the government, or to his military career.

withal: in addition

to advance and prefer him: to give him more power

dandle them: To dandle a small child is to bounce it up and down, often on one's knee.

feeding their humour with gain: pleasing them with gifts

gravity: serious nature

deference: humility, respect

diffident: modest, unassuming

the commonwealth: the city-state of Athens

devout: showing religious commitment; faithful, reverent

Apollo: The Greek god of the sun, and also of music and poetry

apparel: their own clothing

vestments: costumes

gilding: gold covering

drachma: a unit of money

revenue: income, profits

bequest: gift

giving out abroad: saying publicly

liberality: generosity


Thucydides (#1): Athenian general and historian, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, and, in Plutarch's view, one who is "past all challenge and correcting."

Philistus: another historian

Thucydides (#2): a politician, and the rival of Pericles

Theramenes: an Athenian statesman who, as described, often found himself caught between two political parties or positions

Pericles: Athenian statesman and general

Cleon: Cleon was the main political opponent of Nicias until his death in 422 B.C.

Euripides: Athenian poet and writer of tragedies. He is mentioned several times in this Life.

Pallas: or Athena; the patron goddess of Athens.

Historic Occasions

Please read the introductory note on timelines for this study.

478 B.C.: Beginning of the Golden Age of Athens

c. 470 B.C.: Birth of Nicias

451-449/448 B.C.: Official end of the Greco-Persian Wars

c. 450 B.C.: Birth of Alcibiades

447 B.C.: Construction begun on the Parthenon

446/445 B.C.: Thirty Years' Peace declared between Athens and Sparta

438 B.C.: Work completed on the Parthenon

On the Map

Please read the introductory notes for this study.

Delos: an island that held great religious significance to the Greeks. It was the site of celebrations called the Delea in honour of Apollo.

Mount Laurium: (or Lavrio), a town known for its silver mines



In my fancy, the ambition and contention to write or to speak more clerkly than others sheweth always a base envious mind, like a scholar full of his school points. But when it striveth with things that are past all challenge and correcting, then is it extreme folly and madness. Since therefore I may not pass over nor omit certain things which Thucydides (#1) and Philistus have already set down; and especially those wherein they lay open Nicias's nature and qualities, which the variety of his successes and fortune did cover: I must lightly touch them, and report so much as is necessary, and convenient, lest men condemn me for sloth and negligence. And in the rest I have endeavoured to gather and propound things not commonly marked and known, which I have collected as well out of sundry men's works and ancient records, as out of many old antiquities: and of them all compiled a narration, which will serve (I doubt not) to decipher the man and his nature.

Part One

First of all, I would mention what Aristotle has said of Nicias, that there had been three good citizens eminent above the rest for their hereditary affection and love to the people: Nicias the son of Niceratus, Thucydides (#2) the son of Melesias; and Theramenes, the son of Hagnon; but the last less than the others, for he had his dubious extraction cast in his teeth, as a foreigner from Ceos; and his inconstancy, which made him side sometimes with one party, sometimes with another, in public life, and which obtained him the nickname of "the Buskin." Of the other two, Thucydides (#2), being the elder, did many good acts in favour of the nobility against Pericles, who always took part with the inferior sort.

Nicias was a younger man, yet was in some reputation even whilst Pericles lived; so much so as to have been his colleague in the office of general, and to have held command by himself more than once. After Pericles' death, the nobility raised him to great authority, to be as a strong bulwark for them against Cleon's insolence and boldness: and withal, he had the love of the people, to advance and prefer him. Now this Cleon in truth could do much with the people, he did so flatter and dandle them, like an old man, still feeding their humour with gain: but yet they themselves whom he thus flattered, knowing his extreme covetousness, impudence, and boldness, preferred Nicias before him. For Nicias had not that sort of gravity which is harsh and offensive; but he tempered it with a certain caution and deference, winning upon the people by seeming afraid of them. And being naturally diffident and unhopeful in war, his good fortune supplied his want of courage, and kept it from being detected, as in all his commands he was constantly successful. And his timorousness in civil life, and his extreme dread of accusers, was thought very suitable in a citizen of a free state; and from the people's goodwill towards him, it got him no small power over them, they being fearful of all that despised them, but willing to promote one who seemed to be afraid of them. For the greatest honour nobility can do to the people, the commonalty, is to show that they do not despise them.

Pericles, who by solid virtue and the pure force of argument ruled the commonwealth, had stood in need of no disguises nor persuasions with the people. Nicias, inferior in these respects, used his riches, of which he had abundance, to gain popularity. Neither had he the nimble wit of Cleon to win the Athenians to his purposes by amusing them with bold jests; unprovided with such qualities, he courted them with dramatic exhibitions, gymnastic games, and other public shows, more sumptuous and more splendid than had been ever known in his or in former ages [omission].

Part Two

Men write also of certain sumptuous and devout acts that Nicias did in the isle of Delos, where the dancers and singers, which the cities of Greece sent thither to sing rhymes and verses in the honour of Apollo, were wont before to arrive disorderly: and the cause was, for the numbers of people that ran to see them, who made them sing straight without any order, and landing in haste out of their ships, they left their apparel, and put on such vestments as they should wear in procession, and their garlands of flowers on their heads, all at one present time.

But Nicias, being commanded to go thither to present the singers of Athens, landed first in the isle of Rhenea, hard adjoining to the isle of Delos, with his singers, his beasts for sacrifice, and with all the rest of his train, carrying a bridge with him, which he had caused to be made at Athens, upon measure taken of the channel betwixt the one and the other isle, magnificently adorned with gilding and colouring, and with garlands and tapestries: which in the night he set up upon the channel, it being not very broad. And at break of day he marched forth with all the procession to the god, and led the chorus, sumptuously ornamented, and singing their hymns, along over the bridge.

And when the sacrifice, the feast, and games that were to be played were finished, he gave a goodly palm tree of copper, which he offered up to Apollo, bought lands besides that cost him ten thousand drachmas, which he consecrated also unto the god of the isle; with the revenue of the land, the inhabitants of Delos were to sacrifice and to feast, and to pray the gods for many good things to Nicias. This he engraved on a pillar, which he left in Delos to be a record of his bequest. (Afterwards, this copper palm tree being broken by winds, it fell upon the great statue which the men of Naxos presented, and struck it to the ground.)

Surely in this ceremony and act of his, there was a marvellous pomp, and great show of popular ambition: nevertheless, he that shall consider of Nicias's life and actions may easily persuade himself that above all he did it of very pure zeal and devotion, and secondly, to give pleasure and pastime to the people. For by Thucydides' report of him, he was one that feared the gods with trembling, and was wholly given to religion. We find written in one of the dialogues of Pasiphon that Nicias did sacrifice daily to the gods, and kept a soothsayer continually in his house, giving out abroad that it was to counsel with him what should happen about the affairs of the commonwealth: but in truth it was to inquire of his own business, and specially of his mines of silver.

For he had many great mines at Mount Laurium, of great value, but somewhat hazardous to carry on. He maintained there a multitude of slaves, and his wealth consisted chiefly in silver. Hence he had many hangers-on about him, begging and obtaining. For he gave to those who could do him mischief no less than to those who deserved well. Thus was his fear a rent to the wicked, as his liberality was also a revenue to the good.

[omission for length]

Narration and Discussion

"Now this Cleon in truth could do much with the people, he did so flatter and dandle them, like an old man, still feeding their humour with gain." How did Nicias win their confidence in his own way?

For further thought: Plutarch describes the people as "willing to promote one who seemed to be afraid of them." Why was Nicias's "timorousness" seen as an advantage here? How do you think it would work out in the long run?

Creative narration: Nicias showed his gift for organization by creating space for his performers to prepare themselves before they met the crowds, and by building them an entranceway. Think of an activity that tends to be chaotic, and come up with some ways to smooth the process. (An example: making lunch together.)

Lesson Two


Nicias noticed that men who were envied usually ended up in trouble; so he made sure everyone heard him thanking the gods for every success. He also avoided taking part in anything risky, because he didn't want to be blamed if things went wrong. But even cautious Nicias could occasionally produce a surprise.


informers: those hoping to be rewarded for passing on private information

his greatest procurer and instrument: his secret weapon

diviners: soothsayers, fortune-tellers

zealous: passionate, fervent

affable: good natured, friendly

fare delicately: eat luxuriously

underling: servant

eloquence: the ability to speak well

abate: lessen

offices: duties, positions

venture: risk

conjecture: guess, speculate

imputed: gave credit to, "chalked up"

Fortune: Also called Tyche, the goddess of luck and good fortune.

reverses: bad luck, hard times

the plague: see Historic Occasions


Paches: an Athenian naval commander involved in the Mytilenean Revolt (427 B.C.)

Demosthenes: an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War (not to be confused with Demosthenes the orator, who lived from 384-322 B.C.)

Historic Occasions

432 B.C.: The Megarian Decree was a set of economic sanctions (trade restrictions) put on Megara by Athens, possibly as punishment for certain earlier actions, or also possibly to provoke the Spartans (who were allies of Megara).

431 B.C.: Beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War

430-429 B.C.: Plague of Athens, which caused the death of Pericles

429 B.C.: the Battle of Spartolos (a disaster for Athens)

427 B.C.: Nicias was strategos for the first time

427 B.C.: Nicias pillaged the coast of Megara and occupied Minoa

426 B.C.: Nicias continued to raid and occupy various strategic points, including the isle of Melos

426 B.C.: Attempted invasion of Aetolia

425 B.C.: Nicias was strategos for the second time

425 B.C.: Battle at Solygeia (near Corinth). The Athenians seemed to be winning at first but were eventually forced to retreat. Plutarch makes it sound as if this happened after the taking of Cythera (Lesson Three), but other sources say that it was an earlier event.

On the Map

Cythera (Cythereans): (or Kythera), a Greek island, and/or the town of the same name. It was considered to be a Spartan possession, within the region of Laconia.

Laconia: the region which included the city-state of Sparta or Lacedaemon (see introductory notes)

Thrace: a large region of Greece

Megara (Megarans, Megarians): a town in west Attica (the region which included Athens)

Minoa: a small island which acted as the entrance to the port of Megara

Nisaea: one of the two harbour towns associated with Megara

Corinth (Corinthians): a city-state located at the Isthmus of Corinth, which joins the northern and southern halves of Greece


Part One

So cautious was he of informers, and so reserved, that he never would dine out with any citizen, nor allow himself to indulge in talk and conversation with his friends, nor give himself any leisure for such amusements; but when he was general he used to stay at the office till night, and was the first that came to the council-house, and the last that left it. And if no public business engaged him, it was very hard to have access, or to speak with him, he being retired at home and locked up. And when any came to the door, some friend of his gave them good words, and begged them to excuse him, Nicias was very busy; as if affairs of state and public duties still kept him occupied.

One Hiero, whom Nicias had brought up in his house, and had himself taught him both learning and music, was his greatest procurer and instrument to keep him from speech with any man, and brought him to this reputation of greatness and gravity [omission]. This Hiero transacted all his secrets for Nicias with the diviners; and gave out to the people what a toilsome and miserable life he led for the sake of the commonwealth.

"He," said Hiero, "can never be either at the bath or at his meat but some public business interferes. Careless of his own and zealous for the public good, he scarcely ever goes to bed till after others have had their first sleep. So that his health is impaired and his body out of order, nor is he cheerful or affable with his friends, but loses them as well as his money in the service of the state, while other men gain friends by public speaking, enrich themselves, fare delicately and make government their amusement."

And in fact that was Nicias's manner of life, so that he well might apply to himself the words of Agamemnon in the tragedy by Euripides:

In outward show of stately pomp all others I exceed,
And yet the people's underling I am in very deed.

Part Two

He observed that the people, in the case of men of eloquence, or of eminent parts, made use of their talents upon occasion, but were always jealous of their abilities, and held a watchful eye upon them, taking all opportunities to humble their pride and abate their reputation; as was manifest in their condemnation of Pericles, their banishment of Damon, their distrust of Antiphon the Rhamnusian, but especially in the case of Paches; who, having to give an account of his conduct, in the very court of justice, unsheathed his sword and slew himself. Nicias, I say, remembering these examples, sought ever to flee from these offices which were either too great, or too small; and when he accepted any, had special regard to work surely, and to venture nothing. Whereby all his enterprises that he took in hand, as we may easily conjecture, prospered marvellous well: but yet he imputed nothing to his own wisdom, nor yet to his virtue and sufficiency, but thanked Fortune ever for all, and praying diligently to the gods, contented himself to lessen his glory, and that only to avoid envy. As the event of things falling out even in his time do sufficiently witness unto us.

Part Three

The city met at that time with several considerable reverses, but he had not a hand in any of them. The Athenians were routed at the Battle of Spartolos, where Calliades and Xenophon were in command. Demosthenes was the general when they were unfortunate in Aetolia. At Delium they lost a thousand citizens under the command of Hippocrates. Finally, the plague was principally laid to the charge of Pericles: he, to carry on the war, having shut up close together in the town the crowd of people from the country who, by the change of place, and of their usual course of living, bred the pestilence.

Nicias stood clear of all this; under his conduct was taken Cythera, an island most commodious against Laconia, and occupied by the Lacedaemonian settlers; many places, likewise, in Thrace, which had revolted, were taken or won over by him; he, shutting up the Megarians within their town, seized upon the isle of Minoa; and soon after, advancing from thence to the harbour of Nisaea, made himself master there, and then making a descent upon Solygeia in Corinthian territory, fought a successful battle, and slew a great number of the Corinthians with their captain, Lycophron.

There it happened that two of his men were left, by an oversight, when they carried off the dead; which, when he understood, he stopped the fleet, and sent a herald to the enemy for leave to carry off the dead; though by law and custom, he that by a truce craved leave to carry off the dead was hereby supposed to give up all claim to the victory. Nor was it lawful for him that did this to erect a trophy, for his is the victory who is master of the field, and he is not master who asks leave. Nicias, notwithstanding, was contented rather to forsake the honour of his victory, than to leave the bodies of two of his countrymen in the field without burial.

Narration and Discussion

How did Hiero excuse Nicias' unwillingness to see visitors? Was the excuse true? Some Scriptures to consider: Mark 10:44; Matt. 6:17.

Explain the decision that Nicias made after the Battle of Solygeia.

For further thought: Nicias was said, at this time "to venture nothing"; he seemed to have an aversion to risk-taking. How might this be an advantage or a disadvantage in the future?

Lesson Three


Some enemy soldiers were stranded on an island, and the obvious plan was to capture them as prisoners of war. However, this proved difficult, and the Athenians, led by Nicias's rival Cleon, began to wonder loudly why this simple maneuver was taking so long, or why they didn't agree to a recent peace proposal by the Lacedaemonians. "Were I general," Cleon said, "they should not hold out so long." The Athenians' response was to challenge him to do a better job.


untoward: difficult to manage

solicitous: concerned

ignominious: shameful, disgraceful

by suffering the accession. . . Cleon: by allowing Cleon to increase his influence

orations: speeches

licentiousness: unruly behaviour

fatness and lustiness: richness

noisome: poisonous

these two were in one battle both slain: see Historic Occasions

in this nick of time: just in time

confided in him: trusted him


Alcibiades: see introductory notes

Brasidas: a Spartan general

Historic Occasions

425 B.C.: Battle of Pylos (an Athenian victory over Sparta)

425 B.C.: The incident with the Spartans on Sphacteria

424 B.C.: Battle of Delium

424 B.C.: Cythera was captured by the Athenians under Nicias. Under the Peace of Nicias treaty three years later, the Athenians agreed to return Cythera to Sparta; however, the Cytherians made up part of the Athenian forces in the Sicilian Expedition, just a few years later.

424 B.C.: Amphipolis was captured by the Spartans

422 B.C.: The Battle of Amphipolis, where Cleon and Brasidas were killed

421 B.C.: "Peace of Nicias," which was opposed by Alcibiades

On the Map

Thyreatis: a territory belonging to Sparta, on the eastern coat of the Peloponnesus, which contained two towns, Thyrea and Anthene. After the inhabitants of the island of Aegina were exiled by the Athenians, Sparta allowed them to settle in Thyreatis.

Pylos: a town in Messenia, in the Peloponnesus

Sphacteria: an island at the entrance to the Bay of Pylos

Amphipolis: an Athenian colony in Thrace, in the northern part of Greece


Part One

Nicias scoured the coast of Laconia all along; and beat the Lacedaemonians that made head against him. He took Thyrea, which was occupied by the Aeginetans, and carried the prisoners to Athens.

When Demosthenes had fortified Pylos, and the Peloponnesians brought together both their sea and land forces before it, after the fight, about the number of four hundred native Spartans were left ashore on the isle of Sphacteria. The Athenians thought it a great prize, as indeed it was, to take these men prisoners. But the siege, in places that wanted water, being very difficult and untoward, and to convey necessaries about by sea in summer tedious and expensive, in winter doubtful, or plainly impossible, they began to be annoyed, and to repent their having rejected the embassy of the Lacedaemonians, that had been sent to propose a treaty of peace, which had been done at the importunity of Cleon, who opposed it chiefly out of spite to Nicias; for, being his enemy, and observing him extremely solicitous to support the offers of the Lacedaemonians, he persuaded the people to refuse them.

But when the people saw that this siege drew out in length, and that their camp suffered grievous wants and necessities: then fell they out with Cleon, and he again turned all the blame upon Nicias, saying that through his fear he would let the besieged Spartans escape. "Were I general," said he, "they should not hold out so long." The Athenians not unnaturally asked the question, "And why dost not thou go thither yet to take them?" And Nicias standing up resigned his command at Pylos to him, and bade him take what forces he pleased along with him, and not be bold in words; and not to brag with such impudent words where was no danger, but to do some notable service to the commonwealth.

Cleon at the first shrank back, being amazed withal, little thinking they would have taken him so suddenly at his word. But in the end, perceiving the people urged him to it, and that Nicias also was importunate with him: ambition so inflamed him, that he not only took the charge upon him, but in a bravery said that within twenty days after his departure he would either put all the Spartans to the sword, or bring them prisoners unto Athens. This the Athenians were readier to laugh at than to believe; for it was their manner ever to laugh at his anger and folly [omission].

This notwithstanding, Fortune favoured him at that time, and he handled himself so well in this charge with Demosthenes, that he took all the Spartans that they besieged, within the time he had appointed, except for such as were slain: and having made them yield, brought them prisoners to Athens.

This brought great disgrace on Nicias; for this was not to throw away his shield, but something yet more shameful and ignominious, to quit his charge voluntarily out of cowardice, and voting himself, as it were, out of his command of his own accord, to put into his enemy's hand the opportunity of achieving so brave an action [omission].

Besides all this, he did great mischief to the city by suffering the accession of so much reputation and power to Cleon. For after that victory, Cleon grew to so haughty a mind and pride of himself, that he was not to be dealt withal: whereupon fell out the occasion of the great miseries that happened to the city of Athens, which most grieved Nicias of all other. For Cleon, amongst other things, took away the modesty and reverence used before in public orations to the people: he of all other was the first that cried out in his orations, that clapped his hand on his thigh, threw open his gown, and flung up and down the pulpit as he spoke. Of which example afterwards followed all licentiousness, and contempt of honesty, the which all the orators and councillors fell into, that dealt in matters of state and commonwealth, and was in the end the overthrow of all together.

Part Two

In that very time began Alcibiades to grow to credit, by practice in the state, who was not altogether so corrupt, neither simply evil: but as they say of the land of Egypt, that for the fatness and lustiness of the soil,

It bringeth forth both wholesome herbs, and also noisome weeds.

Even so Alcibiades' wit, excelling either in good or ill, was the cause and beginning of great change and alteration. Thus it fell out that after Nicias had got his hands clear of Cleon, he had not opportunity to settle the city perfectly into quietness.

For having brought matters to a pretty hopeful condition, he found everything carried away and plunged again into confusion by Alcibiades, through Alcibiades' extreme fury of ambition. And thus it began. The only peace-breakers and disturbers of common quiet generally, throughout Greece, were Cleon and Brasidas. War setting off the virtue of the one and hiding the villainy of the other, gave to the one occasions of achieving brave actions, to the other opportunity of committing equal dishonesties.

Now when these two were in one battle both slain near Amphipolis, Nicias was aware that the Spartans had long been desirous of a peace, and that the Athenians had no longer the same confidence in the war. Both being alike tired, and, as it were by consent, letting fall their hands, he therefore, in this nick of time, employed his efforts to make a friendship betwixt the two cities, and to deliver the other states of Greece from the evils and calamities they laboured under, and to establish his own good name for success as a statesman for all future time. He found the men of substance, the elder men, and the landowners and farmers pretty generally all inclined to peace.

And when, in addition to these, by conversing and reasoning, he had cooled the wishes of a good many others for war, he now encouraged the hopes of the Lacedaemonians, and counselled them to seek peace. They confided in him on account of his reputation for moderation and equity; so, also, because of the kindness and care he had shown to the prisoners taken at Pylos and kept in confinement, making their misfortune the more easy to them.

Narration and Discussion

What was the worst result (according to Plutarch) of Cleon's unexpected capture of the Spartans? What might have happened if Cleon had lost the battle?

How did Nicias bring the war to a temporary halt?

The politician, orator and general Alcibiades is introduced at this point. He would have been about thirty years old, which seems to have been a typical age for entering "public life" in the ancient world. From what you know of him so far, and from the passage below, write or draw a comparison between Nicias and Alcibiades.

He had great advantages for entering public life: his noble birth, his riches, the personal courage he had shown in divers battles, and the multitude of his friends and dependents, threw open, so to say, folding-doors for his admittance. Yet the only way he desired to win the favour of the common people was by the grace of his eloquence . . . [he] had the highest capacity for inventing, for discerning what was the right thing to be said for any purpose, and on any occasion; but aiming not only at saying what was required, but also at saying it well . . . (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades)

Lesson Four


This lesson shows both the desire of (most) people to live in peace, but also their fickleness when it comes to bestowing praise or blame.


abstinence: Abstinence usually means to restrain oneself from indulging in a pleasurable activity such as eating desserts. In this case they were restraining themselves from war.

frequenting one another: building connections with each other

strangers: foreigners

amity: friendship

effusion: outpouring, flow. "Without effusion of blood" means "with no bloodshed."

articles: the peace terms

to whom it should fall by lot: they agreed to "draw straws" or use some similar means of choosing who would be the first to return captives and land

procured that the lot should fall for the Lacedaemonians: somehow arranged that they would get the "short straw"

privity: agreement

rendered up: surrendered

effect a confederacy: form an alliance

Lacedaemonian ambassadors were come with full powers: The Spartans were sent to discuss and clarify specific terms of the peace treaty, and had been given full authority by their ephors (rulers) to make any necessary decisions on behalf of their state. This story is also told in the Life of Alcibiades, Lesson Four.

they would not avow that they came with full powers: Alcibiades told them that they should say they were authorized to carry reports back to their leaders, but not to make final decisions. He was also suggesting that they should let him represent them before the Athenians.

it boots not: it is not worth anything, doesn't matter

there fell out an earthquake: an earthquake interrupted the meeting

the treaty with the Argives should be deferred: Nicias was scoring points here by postponing Alcibiades' proposal to form an alliance with the Argives (to continue the war against Sparta), and by being sent to Sparta himself. However, this event was actually a boost for Alcibiades, since it made him look clever (and Nicias's next mission to Sparta accomplished nothing). Soon afterwards, Alcibiades was able to form his alliance of Greek states aimed against Sparta.

vexed: angered

kindred: relatives

Historic Occasions

420 B.C.: Alcibiades engineered an Athenian alliance with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis (against the Spartans)

418 B.C.: First Battle of Mantinea (the largest land battle of the Peloponnesian War), which was a strong victory for the Spartan side.

On the Map

Boeotia (Boeotians): a region of Central Greece

Panactum: a city/fortress in Attica

Argos (Argives): a large city in the region of Argolis

Mantinea: a city in Arcadia, a region of the Peloponnesus

Elis (Elians): a region of southern Greece, on the Ionian Sea


Part One

So peace was concluded between the Spartans and the Athenians for a year, during which abstinence, they frequenting one another again, and beginning to taste the sweetness and pleasures of peace, and the safety of free access to see one another's friends that were strangers: began then to wish that they might still continue in peace and amity together, without effusion of blood of either party, and took great delight in their dances, to hear them sing such songs:

"And let my spear lie overgrown, with dusty spiders' webs."

They remembered with joy the saying, "In peace, they who sleep are awaked by the cock-crow, not by the trumpet."

So shutting their ears, with loud reproaches, to the forebodings of those who said that the Fates decreed this to be a war of thrice nine years, the whole question having been debated, they made a peace. And most men thought that surely all their sorrows and miseries were come to an end, and there was no talk of any man but of Nicias, saying that he was a man beloved of the gods, who for his devotion towards them, had this special gift given him, that the greatest blessing that could come unto the world, was called after his name. For to confess a truth, every man was certainly persuaded that this peace was Nicias's work, as the war was Pericles' procurement, who upon light causes persuaded the Grecians to run headlong into most grievous calamities: and Nicias on the other side had brought them all to become friends, and to forget the great hurts the one had received of the other in former wars; and so to this day it is called the Peace of Nicias.

Part Two

The articles were that the garrisons and towns taken on either side, and the prisoners, should be restored; and they to restore the first to whom it should fall by lot. Nicias, as Theophrastus tells us, by a sum of money procured that the lot should fall for the Lacedaemonians to deliver the first. And when the Corinthians and Boeotians, that disliked of this peace, sought by the complaints they made to renew the war again: Nicias then persuaded both the Athenians and Lacedaemonians that they should add, for strength unto their country, the alliance and peace, offensive and defensive, made between them, for a more sure knot of friendship, whereby they might be the better assured the one of the other, and also be the more dreadful to their enemies that should rebel against them.

These things went clean against Alcibiades' mind: who besides that he was ill-born for peace, was enemy also unto the Lacedaemonians, for that they sought to please Nicias, while they overlooked and despised himself. From first to last, indeed, he had opposed the peace, though all in vain; but now finding that the Lacedaemonians did not altogether continue to please the Athenians, but were thought to have acted unfairly in having made league with the Boeotians without their privity, and had not wholly rendered up the cities of Panactum and Amphipolis according to the conditions articled between them: he began then to enlarge and aggravate the peoples' complaints, and to make them offended with every one of them. And, at length, sending for ambassadors from the city of Argos, he exerted himself to effect a confederacy between the Athenians and them.

And now, when Lacedaemonian ambassadors were come with full powers, and at their preliminary audience by the council seemed to come in all points with just proposals, he, fearing that the general assembly, also, would be won over to the offers, overreached them with false professions and oaths of assistance, on the condition that they would not avow that they came with full powers; this, he said, being the only way for them to attain their desires. They being overpersuaded and decoyed from Nicias to follow him, he introduced them to the assembly, and asked them presently, whether or no they came in all points with full powers; which, when they denied, he, contrary to their expectation, changing his countenance, called the council to witness their words, and now bade the people beware how they trust or transact anything with such manifest liars, who say at one time one thing, and at another the very opposite upon the same subject.

It boots not to ask whether the ambassadors were much amazed to hear Alcibiades' words: for Nicias himself knew not what to say to the matter, the suddenness of the cause did so confuse and grieve him, being a thing he least looked for. Now the people they were so moved besides, that they became indifferent whether to have sent for the ambassadors of Argos presently to have made league with them or not: but there fell out an earthquake upon this matter, that greatly served Nicias' turn, and broke up the assembly.

The next day the people being again assembled, after much speaking and soliciting, with great ado Nicias brought it about that the treaty with the Argives should be deferred, and he be sent to the Lacedaemonians, in full expectation that so all would go well.

Part Three

When he arrived at Sparta, they received him there as a good man, and one well inclined towards them; yet he effected nothing, but, baffled by the party that favoured the Boeotians, he returned home, not only dishonoured and hardly spoken of, but likewise in fear of the Athenians, who were vexed and enraged that through his persuasions they had released so many and such considerable persons, their prisoners, for the men who had been brought from Pylos were of the chiefest families of Sparta; and had those who were highest there in place and power for their friends and kindred.

Yet did they not in their heat proceed against him, otherwise than that they chose Alcibiades general, and took the Mantineans and Eleans, who had thrown up their alliance with the Lacedaemonians, into their league, together with the Argives; and sent pirates to the fort of Pylos, to spoil the country of Laconia.

Upon these occasions, the Athenians fell again into wars.

Narration and Discussion

Why did Alcibiades want to stir up unrest? Was he successful?

Why was Nicias suddenly so unpopular when he returned to Athens?

Creative narration #1: You are a reporter assigned to cover the peace talks with Sparta. Talk to one of the ambassadors; try to get an interview with Nicias; and don't forget the earthquake.

Lesson Five


It was officially time for an ostracism. Who would be voted out of Athens? Would it be "abominable" Alcibiades? Or would it be Nicias, in spite of his best efforts to be an "unenviable" leader?


his valiantness: Dryden translates this "his boldness and resolution," which still doesn't explain why they didn't value in Alcibiades what is usually seen as a good quality. (A good point for discussion!)

being no more familiar nor conversant with the people than he was: Nicias was not known for his friendliness

stately: haughty

had enforced them against their wills to agree to that which was profitable for themselves: Nicias had forced them to do what was good for them, and they resented him for it.

factions: parties, groups

deserved the gallows: deserved to be put to death for his crimes

discord and variance: disagreement

joined both their factions in one: got all their people to vote the same way

varlet: scoundrel; dishonest person

lewd: offensive

false surmises: promises without any backing

munition and martial provision: weapons and military equipment

against their inclination: against their better judgment


Hyperbolus: (or Hyperbolos), an Athenian politician

Historic Occasions

416-415 B.C.: Conflict with Hyperbolus (This story is also told in the Life of Alcibiades, Lesson Four)

On the Map

Sicily, Syracuse: Sicily is the very large island at the toe of Italy's "boot." Syracuse was a Greek city-colony in Sicily.

Segesta (Segestans): (also Egesta, Aegesta, or Aigesta), a city in northwestern Sicily.

Leontini (Leontines): a city in Sicily


Part One

Now when the quarrel and controversy was greatest between Nicias and Alcibiades, the Ostracismon (to wit, the banishment for a time) came in, by the which the people banished for ten years any such of their citizens as they thought either of too great authority, or that was most envied for his wealth and substance.

Alcibiades and Nicias were then not a little perplexed, considering their present danger, being sure that the one of them two should not fail but be banished by this next banishment. For the people hated Alcibiades' life, and were afraid of his valiantness: as we have more amply declared in his Life. And for Nicias, his wealth made him to be envied; besides they misliked his strange manner of dealing, being no more familiar nor conversant with the people than he was, and counted him too stately: moreover they hated him also, because in many matters he had spoken directly against the thing the people desired, and had enforced them against their wills to agree to that which was profitable for themselves. In fine, to speak more plainly, there fell out great strife between the young men that would have wars, and the old men that coveted peace, some desirous to banish Nicias, and some others Alcibiades: but,

Where discord reigns in realm or town,
The wicked win the chief renown.

And so fell it out then. For the Athenians, being divided in two factions, gave authority to certain of the most impudent and insolent persons that were in all the city: and among them was one Hyperbolus, of the town of Perithus, one who could not, indeed, be said to be presuming upon any power, but rather by his presumption arose into power; and by the honour he found in the city, became the scandal of it. Now Hyperbolus, thinking himself free at that time from any danger of banishment (having rather deserved the gallows), and hoping that if one of them two were banished, he should match the one well enough that remained behind, showed openly that he was glad of their discord and variance, and busily stirred up the people against them both.

Nicias and Alcibiades, being acquainted with his wicked practices and having secretly talked together, joined both their factions in one: whereby they brought it so to pass, that neither of them were banished, but Hyperbolus himself for ten years. Which matter for the present time made the people very merry, though afterwards it grieved them much, seeing their ordinance of the Ostracismon blemished by the unworthiness of the person: which punishment was an honour unto him. For this banishment was thought a meet punishment for Thucydides, Aristides, and such like men of account as they, or their like; but for Hyperbolus, it was thought too great an honour, and too manifest an occasion of glory to be given to him, that for his wickedness had the selfsame punishment which was to be inflicted upon the chiefest estates for their greatness. And the comical poet Plato himself sayeth in a place:

The Ostracy devised was for men of noble fame,
And not for varlets, whose lewd life deserved open shame.

After this Hyperbolus, there was never a man banished with the Ostracismon [omission].

Part Two

Now the Segestan and Leontine ambassadors came to Athens, to persuade the Athenians to attempt the conquest of Sicily. Nicias, being against it, was overcome by Alcibiades' craft and ambition. For he (Alcibiades), before they were called to council, had already through false surmises filled the people's heads with a vain hope and persuasion of conquest. Insomuch as the young men meeting in places of exercise, and the old men also in their workshops, and sitting together on the benches, would be drawing maps of Sicily, and making charts showing the seas, the harbours, and general character of the coast of the island, looking towards Africa. For they made not their account that Sicily should be the end of their wars, but rather the storehouse and armoury for all their munition and martial provision to make war against the Carthaginians, and to conquer Africa, and the seas as far as the Pillars of Hercules.

Now all their minds being bent to wars, when Nicias spoke against it, he found very few men of quality to stand by him. For the rich, fearing lest the people would think they did it to avoid the public charges and ship-money, were quiet against their inclination; nevertheless he did not tire nor give it up.

Narration and Discussion

If you had a vote in the Ostracism, for whom would you have voted, and why?

Look at a map that shows Sicily. Why did the Athenians view it as a first step in conquering territory in Africa?

Creative narration: Write or act out a conversation between Nicias and someone that he might have expected to support his "No Expedition" campaign.

Lesson Six


Pushed into a risky military venture and forced into a leadership role he didn't want, Nicias nevertheless could choose to act heroically. Or he could scare everyone else into wanting to go home.

Note on Alcibiades: While the Athenians were still at sea, officials caught up with them and demanded that Alcibiades return to Athens to answer criminal charges. However, Alcibiades had no intention of standing trial, and he escaped into mainland Italy.


fitter for the employment: more qualified to be the chief general

Jupiter Ammon: a temple in Egypt, site of a famous oracle (a priest or priestess who delivered prophecies)

then was it out of time to be fearful: Plutarch is not saying that Nicias realized the time was past for voicing complaints; rather that he continued to speak and to act on his unhappiness about it, to the point of delaying engagement with the enemy (a fatal mistake).

armament: weapons

the Athenians called Alcibiades home . . . : see note above

joined nominally with another . . . : officially co-captain with Lamachus

consternation: dismay

reconnoiter: check things out

unpropitious: a bad omen

lest this should be the only destined fulfilment . . . : "Capturing the enemy" might turn out to mean capturing the list of their names.


Lamachus: the third general in the Sicilian Expedition; honoured in Aristophanes' play The Frogs.

Demostratus: an Athenian orator

Historic Occasions

415-413 B.C.: The Sicilian Expedition


Part One

Even after the Athenians decreed a war and chose Nicias as chief captain, together with Alcibiades and Lamachus: at the next session of the council, Nicias rose up again, to see if he could turn the people from this journey with all the protestations he could possibly make, accusing Alcibiades that, for his own ambition and private commodity, he brought the commonwealth into so far and dangerous a war. But all his words prevailed not. Nicias, because of his experience, was looked upon as the fitter for the employment, but chiefly for the fact that they knew he would handle their matters with greater safety, when his timorous foresight should be joined with Alcibiades' valiantness, and with Lamachus's easy temper, which indeed most confirmed the election. Demostratus, who, of the popular leaders, was the one who chiefly pressed the Athenians to the expedition, stood up and said he would stop the mouth of Nicias from urging any more excuses, and moved that the generals should have absolute power, both at home and abroad, to order and to act as they thought best; and this vote the people passed.

The priests, however, are said to have very earnestly opposed the enterprise. But Alcibiades had diviners of another sort, who from some old prophecies announced that "there shall be great fame of the Athenians in Sicily"; and messengers came back to him from Jupiter Ammon with oracles importing that "the Athenians shall take all the Syracusans." Those, meanwhile, who knew anything that boded ill, concealed it lest they might seem to forespeak ill luck.

[Omission: certain religious statues in the city were vandalized at this time, and prophets took that as a warning against the expedition.]

Part Two

Nicias, in opposing the voting of this expedition, and neither being puffed up with hopes, nor transported with the honour of his high command so as to modify his judgment, showed himself a man of virtue and constancy.

But when he saw plainly that he could by no persuasions remove the people from the enterprise of this war, neither yet by suit nor entreaty get himself discharged from being a captain thereof, but that they would in any case make him one of the heads of the army: then was it out of time to be fearful, and still giving back, turning his head so oft, like a child, to look upon his galley behind him, and ever to be telling that no reason could be heard in determining of this journey. For indeed this was enough to discourage his companions, and to mar all at their first setting out: where, to say truly, he ought speedily to have closed with the enemy and brought the matter to an issue, and put Fortune immediately to the test in battle. But, on the contrary, when Lamachus counselled to sail directly to Syracuse, and fight the enemy under their city walls; and Alcibiades advised to secure the friendship of the other towns, and then to march against them; Nicias dissented from them both, and insisted that they should cruise quietly around the island and display their armament; and, having landed a small supply of men for the Segestans, return to Athens, weakening at once the resolution and casting down the spirits of the men.

And when, a little while after, the Athenians called Alcibiades home in order to stand trial, he (Nicias) being, though joined nominally with another in commission, in effect the only general, made now no end of loitering, of cruising, and considering, till their hopes were grown stale, and all the disorder and consternation which the first approach and the fear the enemy had of them at their first coming to see so great an army, was now in manner clean gone.

Whilst yet Alcibiades was with the fleet, they went before Syracuse with a squadron of sixty galleys, fifty of them lying in array without the harbour, while the other ten rowed in to reconnoiter; and caused a herald to make open proclamation that they were come thither to restore the Leontines to their lands and possessions. These scouts took a galley of the enemy's, in which they found certain tablets on which was set down a list of all the Syracusans according to their tribes [omission]. These being so taken by the Athenians, and carried to the officers, and the multitude of names appearing, the diviners thought it unpropitious, and were in apprehension lest this should be the only destined fulfilment of the prophecy that "the Athenians shall take all the Syracusans."


Narration and Discussion

"He should suddenly have set upon his enemies, and have gone to it with a lusty courage. . . ." Do you agree?

For older students and further thought: "Nicias, in opposing the voting of this expedition, and neither being puffed up with hopes, nor transported with the honour of his high command so as to modify his judgment, showed himself a man of virtue and constancy." Rather than seeing Nicias in a negative light for his "unpatriotic" attitude, Plutarch praises his virtue and constancy. Do you agree?

Creative narration: Make some "Sicilian Expedition Trading Cards," showing the various assets of the three generals.

Lesson Seven


The Sicilian Expedition continued, with what seemed mixed success. Nicias as a general was frustratingly slow to act, and let many opportunities slip. "Yet when he would do a thing indeed, he did it so thoroughly as no man could take exception to his doings. . . "


subordinate: one of lower rank

faintly employing his forces: barely using the resources he had

skirmishing: starting small fights

ado: fuss and trouble

intelligence: information

fire the arsenal: set the weapons store on fire

destitute of men: empty, without any people in it who were able to fight. The Syracusans had fallen for the Athenians' trick and sent all their warriors to Catana.

impediment: interference, difficulty

sacrilege: disrespect to sacred things

which ran straight through Sicily: the news travelled quickly

determine: make decisions

a coward to enterprise: not a risk-taker

celerity: speed

environed: surrounded

sick as he was of the stone: Nicias was ill with kidney stones (some say liver disease)


Sophocles: author of Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex

Hermocrates: general of the Syracusan army

Historic Occasions

415-413 B.C.: The Sicilian Expedition continued

On the Map

Catana: a city on the eastern shore of Sicily, north of Syracuse

Naxos: another city on the east coast of Sicily

Thapsus: (or Thapsos), a colony in Sicily founded by the Megarans

Epipolae: the cliff or hill above Syracuse, and the section of the city immediately around it.


Part One

But when Alcibiades shortly after sailed away from Sicily, the command fell wholly to Nicias. Lamachus was, indeed a brave and honest man, and ready to fight fearlessly with his own hand in battle; but so poor that, whenever he was appointed general, he used always, in accounting for his outlay of public money, to bring some little reckoning or other of money for his very clothes and shoes. On the contrary, Nicias [omission], because of his wealth and station, was very much thought of. The story is told that once upon a time, the commission of generals being in consultation together in their public office, he bade Sophocles the poet give his opinion first, as the senior of the board. "I," replied Sophocles, "am the older, but you are the senior."

Part Two

And so now, also, Lamachus, who better understood military affairs, being quite his subordinate, he himself evermore delaying and avoiding risk, and faintly employing his forces, first by his sailing about Sicily at the greatest distance from the enemy, gave them confidence; then by afterwards attacking Hybla, a petty fortress, and drawing off before he could take it, made himself utterly despised. At the last he retreated to Catana without having achieved anything, save that he demolished Hyccara, a humble town of the barbarians [omission].

But when the summer was spent, after reports began to reach him that the Syracusans were grown so confident that they would come first to attack him; and troopers skirmishing to the very camp twitted his soldiers, asking whether they came to settle with the Catanians, or to put the Leontines in possession of their city. At last, with much ado, Nicias resolved to sail against Syracuse. And wishing to form his camp safely and without molestation, he procured a man to carry, from Catana, intelligence to the Syracusans that they might seize the camp of the Athenians unprotected, and all their arms, if on such a day they should march with all their forces to Catana; and that, the Athenians living mostly in the town, the friends of the Syracusans had concerted, as soon as they should perceive them coming, to possess themselves of one of the gates, and to fire the arsenal; that many now were in the conspiracy and did but look every hour for their coming.

This was the ablest thing Nicias did in the whole of his conduct of the expedition. For having drawn out all the strength of the enemy, and made the city destitute of men, he set out from Catana, entered the harbour, and chose a fit place for his camp, where the enemy could least incommode him with the means in which they were superior to him; while with the means in which he was superior to them, he might expect to carry on the war without impediment.

The Syracusans returning straight from Catana, and offering him battle hard by the walls of Syracuse, he came out into the field, and overthrew them. There were not many of the Syracusans slain at this battle, because their horsemen did hinder the chase; but Nicias, breaking up the bridges upon the river, gave Hermocrates occasion to mock him. For, comforting and encouraging the Syracusans, he told them Nicias deserved to be laughed at, because he did what he could that he might not fight, as if he had not purposely come from Athens to Syracuse to fight. This notwithstanding, he made the Syracusans quake for fear: for where they had then fifteen captains, they chose out three only, to whom the people were sworn that they would suffer them to have full power and authority, to command and take order for all things.

There stood near them the temple of Jupiter Olympius, which the Athenians (there being in it many consecrated things of gold and silver) were eager to take, but were purposely withheld from it by Nicias, who let the opportunity slip, and allowed a garrison of the Syracusans to enter it: thinking with himself, that if his soldiers came to take and spoil the temple, his country should be nothing the richer by it, and himself besides should bear all the blame of sacrilege.

Part Three

So, having obtained victory without profit (which ran straight through Sicily), within few days after he returned unto the city of Naxos, where he lay all the winter, consuming a wonderful mass of victuals with so great an army, and not doing anything except some matters of little consequence with some native Sicilians that revolted to him. Insomuch that the Syracusans took heart again, made excursions to Catana, wasted the country, and fired the camp of the Athenians. For this everybody blamed Nicias, who, with his long reflection, deliberateness, and caution, had let slip the time for action.

Yet when he would do a thing indeed, he did it so thoroughly as no man could take exception to his doings, for that he brought it to so good a pass: and once taking it in hand, he did execute it with all speed, though he was both slow to determine and a coward to enterprise.

When, therefore, he brought again the army to Syracuse, with such celerity and at the same time security, he came upon them so that nobody knew of his approach, when already he had come to shore with his galleys at Thapsus, and had landed his men; and before any could help it, he had surprised Epipolae, had defeated the body of choice men that came to its succour, took three hundred prisoners, and routed the cavalry of the enemy, which had been thought invincible.

But that which made the Syracusans most afraid, and seemed most wonderful also to the other Grecians, was this: that in a very short space he had almost environed Syracuse with a wall, which was as much in compass about as the walls of Athens, and far more difficult to build, by reason of the woody country, and for the sea also that beateth upon the walls. Besides that, there were divers marshes hard by it: and yet (sick as he was of the stone) he had almost finished it. And sure good reason it is that we attribute the fault of the not finishing of it unto his sickness.

For mine own part I wonder marvellously both of the care and diligence of the captain, and of the valiantness and dexterity of the soldiers, which appeareth by the notable feats they did. For Euripides, after their overthrow and utter ruin, made a funeral epitaph in verse, and sayeth thus:

Eight times our men did put the men of Syracuse to flight,
So long as with indifferency the gods did use their might.

And in truth one shall not find eight, but many more victories, won by these men against the Syracusans, till the gods, in real truth, or Fortune intervened to check the Athenians in this advance to the height of power and greatness.

Narration and Discussion

In a previous lesson, Nicias had built a bridge to Delos; in Sicily, he was breaking bridges down. Why?

At this point, did Nicias's successes seem to be outweighing his disasters? What would you predict might happen?

Creative narration: Imagine a conversation between someone who dislikes Nicias's leadership style and wishes he would be replaced, and someone else who wants to support his leadership.

Lesson Eight


Alcibiades had been sent home; Lamachus was killed in the fighting; and that left Nicias, who hadn't wanted to come on the expedition in the first place, and who was in ill health. However, he put aside his reluctance and his physical problems, and led what could have been a successful siege . . . until unexpected help arrived for the Syracusans.


that lay provided before the wall for the engines: that they had collected to build war-machines (like rock-throwers)

corn: grain, probably wheat or barley

capitulation: surrender

to determine the articles and capitulations of peace: to decide upon the peace terms they would negotiate when they surrendered

would not vouchsafe: would not lower himself

his extreme covetousness and misery: This may refer to the fact that Gylippus, later on, was implicated in an embezzlement scandal that resulted in his exile from Sparta (Lesson Twelve).

employing them otherwise: using them in a different manner

discharge him of his office: allow him to step down as general


Gylippus: Spartan (Lacedaemonian) captain

Historic Occasions

414 B.C.: Siege of Syracuse continued under Nicias. Alcibiades urged the Spartans to send aid to the resistance, and Gylippus was chosen.


Part One

Now Nicias in his own person was ever in the greatest and most weighty affairs, though striving with his sickly body. Howbeit one day when his disease grew sore upon him, he was compelled to be lodged in his camp with a few of his men: and Lamachus in the meantime alone having charge of the whole army, fought with the Syracusans, who then had brought a wall from the city, unto the wall with which the Athenians had purposed to have shut them in, to hinder them from carrying it round; and in the victory, the Athenians hurrying in some disorder to the pursuit, Lamachus getting separated from his men, had to resist the Syracusan horse that came upon him. Before the rest advanced Callicrates, a man of good courage and skill in war. Lamachus, upon a challenge, engaged with him in single combat, and receiving the first wound, returned it so home to Callicrates that they both fell and died together.

The Syracusans took away his body and arms, and at full speed advanced to the wall of the Athenians, where Nicias lay sick, without guard or succour at all; nevertheless, Nicias rose with speed out of his bed, and, perceiving the danger he was in, he bade those about him go and set on fire all the wood and materials that lay provided before the wall for the engines, and the engines themselves; this put a stop to the Syracusans, saved Nicias, saved the walls and all the money of the Athenians. For when the Syracusans saw such a fire blazing up between them and the wall, they turned tail straight, and made towards their city.

Nicias now remained sole general, and with great prospects; for cities began to come over to alliance with him, and ships laden with corn from every coast came to the camp, everyone favouring when matters went well. And some proposals from among the Syracusans despairing to defend the city, about a capitulation, were already conveyed to him. And in fact Gylippus, who was on his way with a squadron to their aid from Lacedaemon, hearing on his voyage of the wall surrounding them, and of their distress, only continued his enterprise thenceforth, that, giving Sicily up for lost, he might, if even that should be possible, secure the Italians their cities. For a strong report was everywhere spread about that the Athenians carried all before them, and that they had a general who was, alike for conduct and for fortune, invincible.

Nicias himself now, contrary to his customary wisdom and foresight, trusting altogether to the good success which he saw to follow him, but specially believing the reports that were told him of Syracuse, and the news that were brought him thence by some of themselves, which came secretly unto him, believing they would almost immediately surrender the town upon terms: took no care to withstand Gylippus's coming hither, neither sent any men to keep him from landing in Sicily. By which negligence, Gylippus landed in a long-boat without Nicias's knowledge: so small reckoning they made of him, and so much did they fondly despise him.

Gylippus, being thus landed far from Syracuse, began to gather men of war together, before the Syracusans themselves knew of his landing, or looked for his coming: insomuch as they had already appointed the assembly of a council to determine the articles and capitulations of peace which they should conclude upon with Nicias. Moreover, there were some that persuaded they should do well to make haste to conclude the peace, before the enclosure of Nicias' wall was altogether finished, for now there remained very little to be done, and the materials for the building lay all ready along the line.

Part Two

In this very nick of time and danger arrived Gongylus of Corinth, in one galley; and everyone, as may be imagined, flocking about him, he told them that Gylippus would be with them speedily, and that other ships were coming to relieve them. The Syracusans would hardly believe him, until there came another messenger also sent from Gylippus himself of purpose, that willed them to arm, and come to him into the field. So now taking good heart, they armed themselves; and Gylippus at once led on his men from their march in battle array against the Athenians, as Nicias also embattled these. And Gylippus, piling his arms in view of the Athenians, sent a herald to tell them he would give them leave to depart from Sicily without molestation. To this Nicias would not vouchsafe any answer; but some of his soldiers, laughing, asked if, with the sight of one coarse coat and Laconian staff, the Syracusan prospects had become so brilliant that they could despise the Athenians who had released to the Lacedaemonians three hundred whom they held in chains, who were bigger men than Gylippus, and longer-haired?

And Timaeus writeth also that the Sicilians themselves made no reckoning of Gylippus, neither then, nor at any time after. After, because they saw his extreme covetousness and misery: and then, for that he came so meanly appareled, with a threadbare cape, and a long bush of hair, which made them scorn him. Yet in another place he sayeth that, so soon as Gylippus arrived in Sicily, many came to him out of every quarter with very good will, like birds wondering at an owl. This second report seemeth truer then the first: for they swarmed about him, because in this "coat and staff" they saw the badge and authority of Sparta. And not only Thucydides (#1) affirms that the whole thing was done by him alone, but so, also, does Philistus, who was a Syracusan and an actual witness of what happened.

However, the Athenians had the better in the first encounter, and slew some few of the Syracusans, and amongst them Gongylus. But on the next day Gylippus showed what it is to be a man of experience; for with the same arms, the same horses, and on the same spot of ground, only employing them otherwise, he overcame the Athenians; and they fleeing to their camp, he set the Syracusans to work, and with the stone and materials that had been brought together for finishing the wall of the Athenians, he built a cross-wall to intercept theirs and break it off, so that even if they were successful in the field, they would not be able to do anything. Things standing in these terms, the Syracusans, being courageous again, began to arm galleys, and running up and down the fields with their horsemen and slaves, took many prisoners. Gylippus, on the other side, going himself to the cities, called upon them to join with him, and was listened to and supported vigorously by them. So that Nicias fell back again to his old views, and, seeing the face of affairs change, wrote straight to the Athenians to send another army into Sicily, or rather to call that home which he had there, but in any case to give him leave to return, and to discharge him of his office, for cause of his sickness.

Narration and Discussion

Narrate the events around the arrival of Gylippus. Why was so little attention paid when his troops first landed?

Plutarch describes Gylippus as someone who could take "the selfsame weapons, the same men, the same horses," and fight successfully where another commander had failed. Have you seen a skilled person perform "miracles" with less-than-ideal equipment or circumstances?

Creative narration: Write Nicias's letter to Athens, asking to be relieved of the command.

Lesson Nine


Nicias pleaded for help to win the siege against the Syracusans. The Athenians agreed to send reinforcements, with the promise that even more help would arrive soon. But the new commanders seized their own chances for personal glory, and disaster ensued.


the store and tackle for many galleys: their naval supply

by their disorder in the pursuit: because they had gone about it in a disorganized way

stratagem: plan, scheme

hazard all: risk everything

aforetime: before

if their necessities should the least sharpen upon them: if they were put in a worse position by lack of food and supplies

protracted time: delayed


Eurymedon: Athenian general

Euthydemus: Athenian fleet commander

Menander: joint commander with Euthydemus

Historic Occasions

414 B.C.: Athenian ships sent to Sicily under the command of Demosthenes and Eurymedon

On the Map

Plemmyrium: located south of the Great Harbour of Syracuse


Part One

Before this the Athenians had been intending to send another army to Sicily; but envy of Nicias's early achievements and high fortune had occasioned, up to this time, many delays; but now they were all eager to send assistance. Eurymedon went before, in midwinter, with money, and to announce that Euthydemus and Menander were chosen out of those that served there under Nicias to be joint commanders with him. Demosthenes was to go after in the spring with a great armament.

Now Nicias in the meantime being suddenly assailed by his enemies, both by sea and land: though at the first he had fewer galleys in number than they, yet he budged divers of theirs and sank them. But by land again, he could not aid his men in time, because Gylippus at the first onset had taken a fort of his called Plemmyrium, within which lay the store and tackle for many galleys, and a great mass of ready money which was wholly lost. Besides, in the same conflict also were many men slain, and many taken prisoners. And, what was of greatest importance, he now cut off Nicias's supplies, which had been safely and readily conveyed to him under Plemmyrium, while the Athenians still held it; but now that they were beaten out, he could only procure them with great difficulty, and with opposition from the enemy, who lay in wait with their ships under that fort. Moreover, it seemed manifest to the Syracusans that their navy had not been beaten by strength, but by their disorder in the pursuit. Now, therefore, all hands went to work to prepare for a new attempt that should succeed better than the former.

Nicias had no wish for a sea-fight, but said it was mere folly for them, when Demosthenes was coming in all haste with so great a fleet and fresh forces to their succour, to engage the enemy with a less number of ships, and ill provided.

But contrarily, Menander and Euthydemus, newly promoted to the state of captains with Nicias, being pricked forwards with ambition [omission], were eager to gain some great success before Demosthenes came, and to prove themselves superior to Nicias. They urged the honour of the city, which, said they, would be blemished and utterly lost if they should decline a challenge from the Syracusans. Thus they forced Nicias to a sea-fight; and by the stratagem of Ariston, the Corinthian pilot, they were worsted, and lost many of their men, causing the greatest dejection to Nicias, who had suffered so much from having the sole command, and now again miscarried through his colleagues.

Part Two

But now by this time Demosthenes, with his splendid fleet, came in sight outside the harbour, a terror to the enemy. He brought along, in seventy-three galleys, five thousand men-at-arms; of darters, archers, and slingers, not less than three thousand; with the glittering of their armour, the flags saving from the galleys, the multitude of coxswains and flute-players giving time to the rowers, setting off the whole all possible warlike pomp and ostentation to dismay the enemy. Now one may believe the Syracusans were again in extreme alarm, seeing no end or prospect of release before them, toiling, as it seemed, in vain, and perishing to no purpose.

Nicias, however, was not long overjoyed with the reinforcement. For so soon as he began to talk with Demosthenes of the state of things, he found him bent forthwith to set upon the Syracusans, and to hazard all with speed, that they might quickly take Syracuse, and so dispatch away home again. Nicias thought this more haste than good speed, and feared much this foolhardiness. Whereupon he prayed him to attempt nothing rashly, nor desperately: and persuaded him that it was their best way to prolong the war against the enemies, who were without money, and therefore would soon be forsaken of their confederates. And besides, if they came once to be pinched for lack of victuals: that they would then quickly seek to him for peace, as they had done aforetime. For there were many within Syracuse that were Nicias's friends, who wished him to abide time: for they were quite worn out with the war and weary of Gylippus. And if their necessities should the least sharpen upon them, they would give up all.

Nicias, delivering these persuasions somewhat darkly, and keeping somewhat also from utterance, because he would not speak them openly, made his colleagues think he spoke it for cowardliness, and that he returned again to his former delays to keep all in security, by which manner of proceeding he had from the beginning killed the hearts of his army, for that he had not at his first coming set upon the enemies, but had protracted time so long, till the courage of his soldiers was cold and done, and himself also brought into contempt with his enemies. The other captains, Euthydemus and Menander, stuck to Demosthenes' opinion: whereunto Nicias was also forced against his will to yield.

Narration and Discussion

According to Thucydides (in his History of the Peloponnesian War), the Corinthian officer Ariston convinced the locals to set up an on-shore meat market, and sent his men off (as it appeared) to buy themselves a nice dinner. However, as soon as the Athenians similarly disembarked, the enemy (well fed and with clear orders) got back into their ships and prepared to fight the Athenians, who then jumped back into their own ships (unfed and confused). This battle, obviously, did not end well for the Athenians. What might have happened at this point if Demosthenes had not arrived?

Why didn't Nicias think it was a good idea to attack the Syracusans outright? How did he attempt to persuade the others that he was right?

Creative narration: Write or dramatize one of the scenes from this passage (or from Thucydides's story).

Lesson Ten


"The courage of the soldiers was cold and done," and the Athenians were ready to give up the siege and return home. Under cover of night, they loaded their ships, but they became frightened by an eclipse of the moon. "They concluded it to be ominous," Plutarch says, and it probably was; but what sabotaged their escape was fear, not fate.


they took to rout: they fled

remove and quit a situation: leave a location

a new supply: fresh soldiers

natural philosophy: an early term for science

the party which he was wont to use . . . : his favourite soothsayer


Anaxagoras: a natural philosopher who explained eclipses

Historic Occasions

414/413 B.C.: The Athenians decided to return home


Part One

So Demosthenes, taking the land-forces, by night made an assault upon Epipolae; part of the enemy he slew ere they took the alarm; the rest, defending themselves, he put to flight. Nor was he content with this victory there, but pushed on further, till he met the Boeotians. For these were the first that made head against the Athenians, and charged them with a shout, spear against spear, and killed many on the place. And now at once there ensued a panic and confusion throughout the whole army; the victorious portion got infected with the fears of the fleeing part, and those who were still disembarking and coming forward, falling foul of the retreaters, came into conflict with their own party, taking the fugitives for pursuers; and the hurt they meant unto their enemies did unfortunately light upon their own fellows.

For this multitude meeting thus confusedly together, what through their great fear, and because they could not discern one another in the night, the which was neither so dark that they could not see at all, nor yet so clear, as they might certainly judge by sight what they were that met them. For, moreover, they had the moon at their backs, and consequently their own shadows fell upon them, and both hid the number and the glittering of their arms; while the reflection of the moon from the shields of the enemy made them show more numerous and better appointed than, indeed, they were. At last, being pressed on every side, when once they had given way, they took to rout, and in their flight were destroyed, some by the enemy, some by the hand of their friends, and some tumbling down the rocks; while those that were dispersed and straggled about were picked off in the morning by the horsemen and put to the sword. The slain were two thousand, and of the rest, few came off safe with their arms.

Upon this disaster, which to him was not wholly an unexpected one, Nicias accused the rashness of Demosthenes; but he, making his excuses for the past, now advised to be gone in all haste, for neither were other forces to come, nor could the enemy be beaten with the present. And, indeed, even supposing they were yet too hard for the enemy in any case, they ought to remove and quit a situation which they understood to be always accounted a sickly one, and dangerous for an army, and was more particularly unwholesome now, as they could see themselves, because of the time of year. It was the beginning of autumn, and many now lay sick, and all were out of heart.

Nicias in no case liked the suggestion of departing thence, because he feared not the Syracusans, but rather the Athenians, for their accusations and condemnation. And therefore in open council he told them, that as yet he saw no such danger to remain: and though there were, yet that he had rather die by his enemies' hands, than to be put to death by his own countrymen. And furthermore, as for removing their camp to some other place, they should have leisure enough to determine of that matter as they thought good.

Now when Nicias had delivered this opinion in council, Demosthenes having had ill luck at his first coming, dared not contrary it. And the residue also supposing that Nicias stuck not so hard against their departure, but that he relied upon the trust and confidence he had of some within the city: they all agreed to Nicias. But when news came that there was a new supply come unto the Syracusans, and that they saw the plague increased more and more in their camp: then Nicias himself thought it best to depart thence, and gave notice to the soldiers to prepare themselves to ship away.

Notwithstanding, when they had put all things in readiness for their departure, without any knowledge of the enemy, or suspicion thereof: the moon began to eclipse in the night, and suddenly to lose her light, to the great fear of Nicias and divers others, who through ignorance and superstition quaked at such sights.

A Natural History Sidebar

For, touching the eclipse and darkening of the sun, which is ever at any conjunction of the moon, every common person then knew the cause to be the darkness of the body of the moon betwixt the sun and our sight. But the eclipse of the moon itself, to know what doth darken it in that sort, and how being at the full it doth suddenly lose her light, and change into so many kind of colours: that was above their knowledge, and therefore they thought it very strange, persuading themselves that it was a sign of some great mischiefs the gods did threaten unto men. For Anaxagoras, the first that ever determined and delivered anything, for certain and assured, concerning the light and darkness of the moon: his doctrine was not then of any long continuance, neither had it the credit of antiquity, nor was generally known, but only to a few, who dared not talk of it but with fear even to them they trusted best. And the reason was, for that the people could not at that time abide them that professed the knowledge of natural philosophy, and inquired of the causes of things: for them they called "theorists," or curious inquirers, and tattlers of things above the reach of reason, done in heaven and in the air. Because the people thought they ascribed that which was done by the gods only, unto natural and necessary causes, that work their effects not by providence nor will, but by force, and necessary consequences [omission].

Part Two

But then it fell out unfortunately for Nicias, who had no expert nor skillful soothsayer: for the party which he was wont to use for that purpose, and which took away much of his superstition, called Stilbides, was dead not long before. For this sign of the eclipse of the moon (as Philochorus observes) was not hurtful for men that would flee, but contrarily very good: for said he, things that men do in fear, would be hidden, and therefore light is an enemy unto them. Nor was it usual to observe signs in the sun or moon more than three days, as Autoclides states in his Commentaries. But Nicias persuaded them to wait another full course of the moon, as if he had not seen it clear again as soon as ever it had passed the region of shadow where the light was obstructed by the earth.

Narration and Discussion

Why was Nicias more afraid of the Athenians than the Syracusans?

Plutarch says that an eclipse of the moon would actually be a very good "omen" for the Athenians, because the darkness would help them escape. How did Nicias fail to make the most of this opportunity?

For further thought: Why did people feel it would lessen the power of the gods if they looked for scientific reasons for events? Should the same idea limit the interest of Christians in science?

Lesson Eleven


Could the Athenians could somehow get away from Syracuse without being killed or taken captive? Nicias believed it was possible.


infantry, foot: foot soldiers

sharp engagement: fierce battle

mortal: fatal

alteration: turn(s) of fortune

judging the present evils . . . : they expected, if they were not killed in battle, to be taken as prisoners and be treated cruelly or put to death

reduced to the scantiest supply: badly lacking basic needs

to break this journey . . . : they remembered how he had tried to dissuade them from the expedition in the first place


Hercules: hero of Greek mythology

Historic Occasions

413 B.C.: The Second Battle of Syracuse


Part One

But all other things laid aside and forgotten, Nicias disposed himself to sacrifice unto the gods, until such time as the enemies came again with their infantry, besieging the forts and camp, and placing their ships in a circle about the harbour. Nor did the men in the galleys only, but the young boys everywhere got into the fishing-boats and rowed up and taunted the Athenians. Amongst these a youth of noble parentage, Heraclides by name, having ventured out beyond the rest, an Athenian ship pursued and well-nigh took him. His uncle, Pollichus, in fear for him, put out with ten galleys which he commanded; and the rest, to relive Pollichus, in like manner drew forth; the result of it being a very sharp engagement, in which the Syracusans had the victory, and slew Eurymedon, with many others.

After this the Athenian soldiers had no patience to stay longer, but raised an outcry against their officers, requiring them to depart by land; for the Syracusans, upon their victory, immediately shut and blocked up the entrance of the harbour; but Nicias would not consent to this, as it was a shameful thing to leave behind so many ships of burden, and galleys little less than two hundred. Putting, therefore, on board the best of the foot, and the most serviceable darters, they filled one hundred and ten galleys; the rest wanted oars. The remainder of his army Nicias posted along by the seaside, abandoning the great camp and the fortifications adjoining the temple of Hercules; so the Syracusans, not having for a long time performed their usual sacrifice to Hercules, went up now, both priests and captains, to sacrifice.

This made the soldiers of the Athenians so afraid, that they began to cry out that it was no longer any use tarrying there, and that there was none other way but to depart thence by land. For after the Syracusans had won that battle, they had straight shut up the harbour mouth.

The soldiers being embarked into the galleys, the priests and soothsayers came and told the Syracusans that undoubtedly the signs of the sacrifices did promise them a noble victory, so that they gave no charge, but only stood upon their defense: for so did Hercules ever overcome, defending, when he was assailed.

Part Two

With this good hope the Syracusans rowed forward, and there was such a hot and cruel battle by sea, as had not been in all this war before: the which was as dreadful to them that stood on the shore to behold it, as it was mortal unto them that fought it, seeing the whole conflict, and what alteration fell out beyond all expectation. For the Athenians did as much hurt themselves by the order they kept in their fight, and by the ranks of their ships, as they were hurt by their enemies. For they fought against light and nimble ships, that could attack from any quarter, with theirs laden and heavy. And they were thrown at with stones that fly indifferently any way, for which they could only return darts and arrows, the direct aim of which the motion of the water disturbed [omission]. That manner of fight, Ariston the Corinthian (an excellent shipmaster) had taught the Syracusans; who, fighting stoutly, fell himself in this very engagement, when the victory had already been declared for the Syracusans.

Part Three

The Athenians, their loss and slaughter being very great, their flight by sea cut off, their safety by land so difficult, did not attempt to hinder the enemy towing away their ships, under their eyes; nor demanded their dead, as, indeed, their want of burial seemed a lesser calamity than the leaving behind of the sick and wounded which they now had before them. Yet more miserable still than those did they reckon themselves, who were to work on yet, through more such sufferings, and after all to reach the same end.

They prepared to dislodge that night. And Gylippus and his friends, seeing the Syracusans engaged in their sacrifices, and at their cups for their victories, and it being also a holiday, did not expect, either by persuasion or by force, to be able to rouse them up and carry them against the Athenians as they decamped. But Hermocrates, of his own head, played a trick upon Nicias, and sent some of his companions to him, and advised him not to stir that night, the Syracusans having laid ambushes and beset the ways.

Nicias, caught with this stratagem, remained; but he encountered presently in reality what he had feared when there was no occasion. For the Syracusans the next morning at daybreak, hoisted sail, got the straits of Nicias' passage, stopped the rivers' mouths, and broke up the bridges: and then cast their horsemen in a squadron in the next plain fields adjoining, so that the Athenians had no way left to escape, and pass by them, without fighting. They stayed both that day and another night, and then went along as if they were leaving their own, not an enemy's country, lamenting and bewailing for want of necessaries, and for their parting from friends and companions that were not able to help themselves; and, nevertheless, judging the present evils lighter than those they expected to come.

But among the many miserable spectacles that appeared up and down in the camp, the saddest sight was Nicias himself, labouring under his malady, and unworthily reduced to the scantiest supply of all the accommodations necessary for human wants, of which he in his condition required more than ordinary, because of his sickness. Yet notwithstanding his weakness and infirmity, he took great pains, and suffered many things, which the soundest bodies do labour much to overcome and suffer: making it appear evidently to every man, that he did not abide all that pains for any respect of himself, or desire that he had to save his own life, so much as for their sakes in that he yielded not unto present despair.

For where the soldiers for very fear and sorrow burst out into tears and bitter wailing: Nicias himself showed that if, by chance, he were forced at any time to do the like, it was rather upon remembrance of the shame and dishonour that came into his mind to see the unfortunate success of this voyage, instead of the honour and victory they hoped to have brought home, than for any other respect.

But if to see Nicias in this misery did move the lookers-on to pity, yet did this much more increase their compassion, when they remembered Nicias' words in his orations continually to the people, to break this journey, and to dissuade them from the enterprise of this war. For then they plainly judged him not to have deserved these troubles. Yet furthermore, this caused the soldiers utterly to despair of help from the gods, when they considered with themselves, that so devout and godly a man as Nicias (who left nothing undone that might tend to the honour and service of the gods) had no better success than the most vile and wicked persons in all the whole army.

Narration and Discussion

Describe the Second Battle of Syracuse. What advantages did the Syracusans have?

How did Hermocrates deceive Nicias?

For older students: In Dryden's words, the soldiers had no "heart to put their trust in the gods, considering that a man so religious, who had performed to the divine powers so many and so great acts of devotion, should have no more favourable treatment than the wickedest and meanest of the army." Would you agree with them about the futility of continuing to sacrifice to the gods? Consider how you would respond if they asked if your God would also allow his faithful ones to suffer.

Lesson Twelve


In this, the last passage on the life of Nicias, we hear little more of him other than the manner of his death. "The fortunes of war are common," he pleaded with Gylippus, with a thought that echoes the end of Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus.

Plutarch's attention at the end shifts to the fates of the other Athenians and their slaves. But in the midst of this chaos, some of them found themselves saved by. . . poetry.


ply their missiles: shoot things

sordid: disgusting

avarice: greed

extortion: obtaining something through force or threats

quarries: deep pits from which rocks are dug

the haven of Piraea: the harbour used by Athens

prognosticated: foretold, prophesied

Historic Occasions

413 B.C.: Deaths of Nicias and Demosthenes


Part One

Nicias, however, endeavoured all the while by his voice, his countenance, and his carriage, to show himself undefeated by these misfortunes. And all along the way shot at, and receiving wounds eight days continually from the enemy, he yet preserved the forces with him in a body entire, till Demosthenes, with all his bands of soldiers, was taken prisoner, in a certain village called Polyzelius: where, remaining behind, he was environed by his enemies in fight, and seeing himself so compassed in, drew out his sword, and with his own hands thrust himself through, but died not of it, because his enemies came straight about him, and took hold of him. The Syracusans thereupon went with speed to Nicias, and told him of Demosthenes' case. He, giving no credit to them, sent presently certain of his horsemen thither to understand the truth; they brought him word that Demosthenes and all his men were taken prisoners. Then he besought Gylippus for a truce for the Athenians to depart out of Sicily, leaving hostages for payment of money that the Syracusans had expended in the war.

But now they would not hear of these proposals, but threatening and reviling them, angrily and insultingly continued to ply their missiles at them. Nicias being then utterly without any kind of victuals, did notwithstanding hold out that night, and marched all the next day following (though the enemies' darts still flew about their ears) until he came to the river of Asinarus, into the which the Syracusans did forcibly drive them. Some others of them also dying for thirst, entered the river of themselves, thinking to drink. But there of all others was the most cruel slaughter of the poor wretches, even as they were drinking: until such time as Nicias falling down flat at Gylippus' feet, said thus unto him:

"Let pity, O Gylippus, move you in your victory; not for me, who was destined, it seems to bring the glory I once had to this end; but for the other Athenians; as you well know that the fortunes of war are common, and how that the Athenians have used you Lacedaemonians courteously, as often as fortune favoured them against you."

At these words, and at the sight of Nicias, Gylippus was somewhat troubled, for he was sensible that the Lacedaemonians had received good offices from Nicias in the recent treaty, and he thought it would be a great and glorious thing for him to carry off the chief commanders of the Athenians alive. He therefore raised Nicias with respect, and bade him be of good cheer, and commanded his men to spare the lives of the rest. But his commandment was not known in time to all: insomuch as there were many more slain than taken, although some private soldiers saved some of them by stealth. Those taken openly were hurried together in a mass; their weapons and spoils hung upon the finest and largest trees along the river. The conquerors, with garlands on their heads, with their own horses splendidly adorned, and cropping short the manes and tails of those of their enemies, entered the city, having, in the most signal conflict ever waged by Greeks against Greeks, and with the greatest strength and the utmost effort of valour and manhood, won a most entire victory.

Part Two

And a general assembly of the people of Syracuse and their confederates sitting, Eurycles, the popular leader, moved first that the day on which they took Nicias should from thenceforward be kept as a holiday, by sacrificing and forbearing all manner of work [omission]. And that the servants of the Athenians, with the other confederates, be sold for slaves; and they themselves and the Sicilian auxiliaries be kept and employed in the quarries; except the generals, who should be put to death.

The Syracusans favoured the proposals, and when the captain Hermocrates went about to persuade them that to be merciful in victory would be more honour unto them than the victory itself, they thrust him back with great tumult. When Gylippus, also, demanded the Athenian generals to be delivered to him, that he might carry them to the Lacedaemonians, the Syracusans, now insolent with their good fortune, gave him ill words. Indeed, before this, even in the war, they had been impatient at his rough behaviour and Lacedaemonian haughtiness, and had, as Timaeus tells us, discovered sordidness and avarice in his character, which vice he inherited from his father. For Cleandrides his father was convicted for extortion, and banished from Athens. And the very man himself, of the one thousand talents which Lysander sent to Sparta, embezzled thirty, and hid them under the tiles of his house, and was detected and shamefully fled his country.

Part Three

So Timaeus writeth that Nicias and Demosthenes were not stoned to death by the Syracusans, as Thucydides and Philistus report, but that they killed themselves, upon word sent them by Hermocrates (before the assembly of the people was broken up) by one of his men whom the keepers of the prison let in unto them; howbeit, their bodies were cast out at the jail door for every man to behold. And I have heard that to this day in a temple in Syracuse is shown a shield, said to have been Nicias's, curiously wrought and embroidered with gold and purple intermixed.

Most of the Athenians perished in the quarries by disease and ill diet, being allowed but two dishfuls of barley for their bread, and one of water for each man a day. Indeed many of them were conveyed away, and sold for slaves; and many also that escaped unknown as slaves, were also sold for bondmen, whom they branded in the forehead with the print of a horse, who notwithstanding besides their bondage, endured also this pain. But such, their humble patience and modesty did greatly profit them. For either shortly after they were made free men, or if they still continued in bondage, they were gently treated, and beloved of their masters.

Some of them were saved also for Euripides' sake. For the Sicilians liked the verses of this poet better than they did any other Grecian's verses. For if they heard any rhymes or songs like unto his, they would have them by heart, and one would present them to another with great joy. And therefore it is reported, that divers escaping this bondage, and returning again to Athens, went very lovingly to salute Euripides, and to thank him for their lives: and told him how they were delivered from slavery, only by teaching them those verses which they remembered of his works. Others told him also, how that after the battle, they escaping by flight, and wandering up and down the fields, met with some that gave them meat and drink to sing his verses. And this is not to be marvelled at, weighing the report made of a ship of the city of Caunus, that on a time being chased in thither by pirates, thinking to save themselves within their ports, could not at the first be received, but had repulse: howbeit being demanded whether they could sing any of Euripides' songs, and answering that they could, were straight suffered to enter, and come in.

Part Four

The news of this lamentable overthrow was not believed, at the first, when they heard of it at Athens. For a stranger that landed in the haven of Piraea, went and sat him down (as the manner is) in a barber's shop, and thinking it had been commonly known there, began to talk of it. The barber, hearing the stranger tell of such matter before any other had heard of it, ran into the city as fast as he could, and going to the governors told the news openly before them all.

The magistrates thereupon did presently call an assembly, and brought the barber before them: who being demanded of whom he heard these news, could make no certain report. At last there arrived certain men in the city, who brought certain news thereof, and told how the overthrow came. So as in fine they found Nicias's words true, which now they believed, when they saw all those miseries light fully upon them, which he long before had prognosticated unto them.

Narration and Discussion

Explain Nicias's words to Gylippus: "Let pity, O Gylippus, move you in your victory . . . " Why did Gylippus respond as he did?

Plutarch says that the Syracusans "gloriously ended the most notable war that ever was amongst the Greeks one against another." Why was this battle so important in history?

Examination Questions

For Younger Students

1. Tell about (a) how Nicias organized the religious pageant at Delos or, (b), the Peace of Nicias.

2. Same as (1) below.

For Older Students

1. Give two stories to show that Nicias favoured the people of Athens "with a natural fatherly love," or, (b), Show what part Nicias took in the campaign against Syracuse.

2. Gather up your impressions of Nicias, giving in detail two instances to show his character.

AmblesideOnline Plutarch Readings:

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