Nicias vs. Alcibiades

zpage216Nicias and Alcibiades – the tale is a tragi-comedy. Nicias, the cautious commander, wrought peace with Sparta, which Alcibiades, the Spartan proxenos, undid. Nicias opposed the campaign to Sicily, yet led it; Alcibiades propounded it and was recalled. Alcibiades, the rash, eager young man, proposed the more modest course for the expedition; Nicias, the judicious fogey, demanded a fleet so immense that its defeat became Athens’ destruction.

Alcibiades has what would seem to be a well-deserved reputation for brazenness, sometimes bordering on impudence. He was similarly reputed, perhaps unfairly, to be, very often and at separate points in his life, young.  Thucydides introduces him, amidst the negotiations in the summer of 420, as “a man who would have been thought young in any other city, but was influential by reason of his high descent”[2] – indeed, it is for this very reason that the Spartans overlook him as an ambassador in these talks: “For they had not consulted him, but had negotiated the peace through Nicias and Laches, despising his youth”[3]; Nicias opposes his bellicose Sicilian machinations, later on, saying that “there may be some young man here who is delighted at holding a command, and the more so because he is too young for his post”[4]; further, “an expedition to Sicily is a serious business, and not one which a mere youth can plan and carry into execution off-hand.”[5] With such weight placed so frequently upon his age, it is surprising that Alcibiades (it is alleged) negotiated with those same Spartans who had then refused him on account of his youth just one year later.[6] Together with his youth, to be sure, came inextricably his reputation for violence and impetuosity.

Nicias is almost his perfect foil – as if sprung from the pages of a novel, he contrasts with Alcibiades in almost every particular. Old, well-esteemed, cautious, experienced, reticent, conniving, “by nature timid and inclined to defeatism” with a “lack of resolution,”[7] perhaps even unlucky[8] – here we find the elder statesman par excellence. It is no surprise that Aristotle describes him and Thucydides, the son of Melesias, as “not only true gentlemen and good politicians, but also [men who] looked after the city like fathers.”[9] A man who “wore an air of gravity which was by no means harsh or vexatious,”[10] he was well-liked by the people (by whom, we are told, he was often made visibly anxious). In March of 421, sensing that Athens had tired of war and that Sparta ached for an end to the conflict, he orchestrated his eponymous Peace.

Of this Peace, Alcibiades strenuously disapproved. In the summer of the following year, when a Spartan delegation arrived in Athens to defend their alliance with the Boeotians and to dissuade the Athenians from making an alliance with the Argives, he turned his opposition into action.[11] The story is well-known: believing sincerely that the Argive alliance would be of far greater benefit to Athens, Alcibiades met with the Spartan delegates in secret, imploring them to renounce the full negotiating power they had been given in exchange for the safe return of Pylos. The Spartans agreed and appeared before the assembly the next day to deny the full negotiating powers they had previously claimed. Alcibiades seized upon this manufactured lie, denounced the apparently dumbfounded Spartan envoy for a trick he himself had concocted, and ran them out of town. Nicias responded weakly to this bold encroachment upon his negotiating powers, and an alliance was forged with the Argives the next day.

As McGregor points out, the story almost beggars belief: the behavior of the Spartans is “so naïve as to be incredible,”[12] and Alcibiades’ behavior, seeing as it “deliberately ruined the opportunity of reconciliation with Sparta,”[13] is at least a little perplexing. His belief in the superiority of an Argive alliance appears to be sincere; Thucydides gives us no reason to think otherwise. Further, having opposed the Peace of Nicias from its very inception, Alcibiades seems to have “regarded [it] as no  peace at all … a mere prelude to a resumption of hostilities.”[14] In this Alcibiades’ suspicions appear well-founded – the Spartan envoy had come with considerable demands,[15] but did not have much to offer in return.[16]

What, then, of Alcibiades’ scheme to isolate Sparta through an alliance with Argos? Even if prudent at its inception, surely it failed in its culmination: the defeat at Mantinea. Yet if this loss reflected at all upon his strategy, the Athenians did not seem to notice – they elected him a strategia immediately after.[17] Thucydides does, in the view of some scholars, appear to change his portrayal of Alcibiades for worse after the loss, but this is a question of historiography for which there are a convincing explanations (Bloedow tells us that “[a]nother explanation should, however, be considered.” He is wrong.[18]), not of history.

Even more interesting – and, many think, for Alcibiades more troubling – is the Athenian policy which led to the Sicilian disaster. It hardly needs mentioning that it, too, was a failure. Alcibiades was its eager advocate, Thucydides says, for two reasons: (1) to undermine Nicias, “on both political and personal grounds,”[19] and (2) to increase his own power and standing by gaining command of the expedition. Nicias’ opposition to the expedition is at first staunch, but later, grappling with inevitability, it appears to radicalize. Seeing in Alcibiades only youthful arrogance and greed, Nicias counsels his audience at Athens that “by prevision many successes are gained, but few or none by mere greed.”[20] His practical argument is essentially one of non-interference; if Sicily is left alone, if their boundaries are not molested, they will leave the Athenians in peace. That region, no matter who might claim Athens as an ally, can tend to itself: “Let us have no more allies such as ours have too often been, whom we are expected to assist when they are in misfortune, but to whom we ourselves when in need may look in vain.”[21]

Alcibiades, of course, sees Sicily as an apple ripe for the picking.[22] If his initial assessment is judged against its outcome, it is egregiously, offensively wrong. This judgment Plutarch makes. But to judge it as such is to fail to take account for several important developments which either Alcibiades himself did not advocate, or else could not be foreseen at the outset of the expedition; (1) at Nicias’ foolish behest, the massive growth in the size of the expedition, (2) Alcibiades’ own recall from the expedition, and (3) the defense of Syracuse being placed under the command of the Spartan Gylippos, whose importance can hardly be overestimated (upon the recommendation of the recently-defected Alcibiades).[23]

Nicias was not an interesting man. His words and actions are plain, his motives are largely obvious. Alcibiades, however, is different. Whether he was, as McGregor argues, a man with the “uncanny, as well as lucky, ability to forecast what would happen under given circumstances,”[24] who “at all stages of his career … knew exactly what he was doing,”[25] it is difficult to say. Perhaps he was not really so remarkably prognostic; maybe he was not really gifted with any special insight; maybe he only acted like it.


E.F. Bloedow, “Not the Son of Achilles, but…,” Historia 39 (1990) 1-19

E.F. Bloedow, “On ‘Nurturing Lions in the State’…,” Klio 73 (1991) 49-65

Moore, J. M., Aristotle, and Xenophon. 1975. Aristotle and Xenophon on democracy and oligarchy. London: Chatto & Windus.

M.F. McGregor, “The Genius of Alkibiades,” Phoenix 19 (1965) 27-46

Plutarch, and Ian Scott-Kilvert. 1960. The rise and fall of Athens; nine Greek lives [Harmondsworth, Middlesex]: Penguin Books.

Thucydides, and Benjamin Jowett. 1900. Thucydides. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler, and Richard Crawley. 1998. The landmark Thucydides: a comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Simon & Schuster.

All Thucydides references are given according to the Jowett translation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd ed. (1900); Plutarch, from the Scott-Kilvert translation, Penguin (1960).

[2] 5.43. [3] Ibid. [4] 6.12. [5] Ibid. [6] Bloedow (1991), p. 53. [7] Plutarch, Nicias[8] 6.17; Jowett has Alcibiades say that Nicias “enjoys the reputation of success,” while Crawley renders the same passage as “appears to be fortunate.” Whether this is meant to be read sarcastically is unclear; it stands out against Alcibiades’ strong self-appraisal, though, wherein he says he is “in the flower of my days” (Crawley: “still in [youth’s] flower”); here the virtue is stated rather than reputed. [9] Trans. Moore, 1975. [10] Plutarch, Nicias[11] 5.43-46. [12] McGregor, p. 29. [13] Ibid. [14] McGregor, p. 30. [15] Namely, the return of Pylos, the permission to preserve their new alliance with Boeotia, and the prevention of an Athenian alliance with Argos. [16] Bloedow (1991), pp. 54-56. I cite Bloedow here for his engagement with Kagan, whom he quotes as saying that “[The Spartans] had almost nothing to offer the Athenians, and much to ask.” Bloedow demurs, though, and I contest this; as the Spartans were the ones in clear violation of the treaty, one would like them to bring something more than Panactum and Amphipolis to the bargaining table. Bloedow concedes that “the prospects for achieving these [Spartan] demands were not great.” [17] McGregor, p. 31. [18] Bloedow (1991), p 61. The explanation he asks his reader to consider is this: that “Thucydides wished to contrast Alcibiades’ initial flamboyancy with his actions over the long haul of the next few years.” Of course, Alcibiades retained his “flamboyancy” unto the end; this explanation, which Bloedow asks us not only to consider, but to accept, is hard to countenance against Westlake’s less obtrusive view, which Bloedow also gives us: that Thucydides appears to take a “dim” view of Alcibiades because his style as a whole is transitioning into its “most severely annalistic manner” throughout the account. [19] Bloedow (1990), p. 2 [20] 6.13. [21] Ibid. [22] Following McGregor’s summary, p. 33, he argues that Sicily is weak and unprepared, that regional allies will come to their aid, that Athens owes it to its Sicilian allies to conquer, that it will reduce enemy morale, that the maritime nature of the fight will play to their advantage, and that a successful expedition will “strike at the Peloponnese.” This might be called a bit optimistic. [23] These latter two reasons I take from McGregor, p. 33. For the importance of Gylippos, see p. 37: “fortified Dekeleia had a stifling effect on Athens (7.27), and … Gylippos put strength and confidence into Syracusan resistance.” [24] McGregor, p. 27 [25] Ibid.

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