Monthly Archives: September, 2015

The Lesson of Nicias, Prisoner of His Virtues

Joachim_von_Sandrart_(1606-1688)_-_Nicias_of_Athens

Recently, it has been revealed that the Obama administration consistently and deliberately underestimated the strength of ISIS and its program of aiding Syrian rebels has been a colossal waste of money. Obama’s policies in the Middle East policy, far from stabilizing the region, have set in motion a massive crisis that has now spread to Europe. Obama won the presidency in large part because he promised a change from the reckless aggression of George W. Bush, yet his determination to break with Bush’s policies has not prevented conditions from getting worse. The worsening situation in the Middle East calls to mind the career of the Athenian general and statesman Nicias.

Nicias, a leader of the oligarchic faction in Athens, was known for being cautious, generous, and virtuous. He spoke out against the plan proposed by Alcibiades to send an expedition to Sicily to conquer Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful city on the island. Nicias had negotiated a peace treaty with Sparta, and argued that Athens should take advantage of the suspension of hostilities to recover from a decade of constant warfare. But Alcibiades, who painted the Syracusans as a weak and fickle people, given to making frequent changes in their form of government, insisted that they would be easy pickings for the battle-hardened Athenians.

While the Athenians were eager to plunder the wealth of Syracuse and to expand westward their sphere of influence, they took seriously the warnings of Nicias about the riskiness of the venture. So they heeded Nicias’ advice to send a larger number of troops than requested by Alcibiades (Nicias had tried to dissuade the Athenians from undertaking the invasion by exaggerating the number of troops he considered necessary for its successful completion). And they voted to make Nicias into one of the three commanders of the expedition, along with Alcibiades. Shortly before the fleet was to set sail, Alcibiades was accused of sacrilege, and instead of returning to face charges, he defected to Sparta. The Athenians defeated the Syracusans in their first battle, but the third commander, Lamachus, was killed in a skirmish. Nicias was then left in sole charge of a massive campaign: the moderate politician suddenly found himself having to execute an immoderate policy that he had opposed from the very beginning as hubristic overstretch. 

Nicias could have called off the invasion and returned to Athens, which might have spelled the end of his political career (the Athenians, unlike the Romans, were not forgiving of failure), or he could have pursued aggressively as possible the objective he had earlier defined as imprudent and reckless. Instead, he decided against doing anything risky, which gave the Syracusans time to construct a series of protective walls around their city. His dithering squandered the advantages secured by the Athenians in their early victories against the Syracusan forces. Moreover, when a small group of ships appeared on the horizon, Nicias did nothing to prevent them from entering the harbor of Syracuse, thinking that such a small fleet could make little difference to the outcome of the conflict. Unfortunately for the Athenians, on board one of the ships was the Spartan general Gylippus, whose strategy and tactics would spell doom for the Athenian expedition. 

Finally, suffering from illness and at wits’ end, Nicias wrote a letter to Athens giving a bleak picture of the army’s situation, as many of the soldiers had fallen sick. The city responded by sending a second army, similar in size to the first, but by then the advantage had swung over definitively to Syracuse and its allies. The Athenian forces mounted one final assault, a desperate attack at night, which failed to break through the lines of Boeotian infantry. The surviving Athenians then made preparations to retreat, but delayed their withdrawal because of an appearance of a lunar eclipse – the soothsayers proclaimed that they needed to wait 27 days before departing. The Syracusans thereupon surrounded the Athenians and massacred them. The survivors were taken as slaves and many died of exposure in the quarries of Syracuse. 

History may not repeat itself, but the study of human error reveals distinctive patterns. What happens when someone who is against a certain policy is then placed in charge of dealing with its consequences? Nicias did not wish to be blamed for a bad decision for which he was not responsible. But his own sense of rectitude undermined his capacity to extricate the Athenians from a dangerous predicament or to lead them to victory over the Syracusans. The only way he could have managed the consequences of the reckless endeavor of Alcibiades was to have assumed Alcibiades’ wrong decision fully as his own. Instead, the steadfastness of Nicias’ character, his prudence and moderation, ensured that the Athenians would suffer the greatest military disaster in the history of the Greeks. Perhaps the lesson of Nicias and his command of the Sicilian expedition is that it is possible to be excessively attached to our own best qualities. There is no question that Nicias was a better human being than the scheming and conniving Alcibiades, who betrayed the Spartans and returned to the Athenian side. He promised the Athenians military and financial aid from the Persian Empire if they would overthrow their democracy and install an oligarchy, exacerbating the political divisions in the city that would culminate in a series of oligarchic coups. But the attachment of Nicias to his own integrity ultimately proved more calamitous to Athens than the arrogance and duplicity of Alcibiades himself.