46 Plutarch.

Plutarch's Lives Volume III online

. (page 2 of 55)
Online Library46 PlutarchPlutarch's Lives Volume III → online text (page 2 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


because they paid their court to Nikias and disregarded him. For this
reason, Alkibiades from the very outset opposed the peace, but
ineffectually at first. When, however, he observed that the
Lacedæmonians were no longer regarded with favour by the Athenians,
and were thought to have wronged them by forming an alliance with the
Bœotians, and not restoring to Athens up the cities of Panaktus and
Amphipolis, he seized the opportunity of exciting the people by
exaggerated accounts of the misdeeds of the Lacedæmonians. Moreover he
prevailed upon the people of Argos to send ambassadors to Athens to
conclude an alliance. As, however, at the same time ambassadors, with
full powers to settle all matters in dispute, came from Lacedæmon, and
in a preliminary conference with the Senate were thought to have made
very reasonable and just proposals, Alkibiades, fearing that they
might create an equally favourable impression when they spoke before
the popular assembly, deceived them by solemnly declaring with an oath
that he would assist them in every way that he could, provided that
they would deny that they came with full powers to decide, saying that
by this means alone they would effect their purpose. The ambassadors
were deceived by his protestations, and, forsaking Nikias, relied
entirely upon him. Upon this Alkibiades brought them into the public
assembly, and there asked them if they came with full powers to treat.
When they said that they did not, he unexpectedly turned round upon
them, and calling both the Senate and the people to witness their
words, urged them to pay no attention to men who were such evident
liars, and who said one thing in one+ assembly and the opposite in
another. The ambassadors, as Alkibiades expected, were thunderstruck,
and Nikias could say nothing on their behalf. The people at once
called for the ambassadors from Argos to be brought before them, in
order to contract an alliance with that city, but an earthquake which
was felt at this moment greatly served Nikias's purpose by causing
the assembly to break up. With great difficulty, when the debate was
resumed on the following day, he prevailed upon the people to break
off the negotiations with Argos, and to send him as ambassador to
Sparta, promising that he would bring matters to a prosperous issue.
Accordingly he proceeded to Sparta, where he was treated with great
respect as a man of eminence and a friend of the Lacedæmonians, but
could effect nothing because of the preponderance of the party which
inclined to the Bœotian alliance. He was therefore forced to return
ingloriously, in great fear of the anger of the Athenians, who had
been persuaded by him to deliver up so many and such important
prisoners to the Lacedæmonians without receiving any equivalent. For
the prisoners taken at Pylos were men of the first families in Sparta,
and related to the most powerful statesmen there. The Athenians,
however, did not show their dissatisfaction with Nikias by any harsh
measures, but they elected Alkibiades general, and they entered into a
treaty of alliance with the Argives, and also with the states of Elis
and Mantinea, which had revolted from the Lacedæmonians, while they
sent out privateers to Pylos to plunder the Lacedæmonian coasts in the
neighbourhood of that fortress. These measures soon produced a renewal
of the war.

XI. As the quarrel between Nikias and Alkibiades had now reached such
a pitch, it was decided that the remedy of ostracism must be applied
to them. By this from time to time the people of Athens were wont to
banish for ten years any citizen whose renown or wealth rendered him
dangerous to the state. Great excitement was caused by this measure,
as one or the other must be utterly ruined by its application. The
Athenians were disgusted by the licentiousness of Alkibiades, and
feared his reckless daring, as has been explained at greater length in
his Life, while Nikias was disliked because of his great wealth and
his reserved and unpopular mode of life. Moreover he had frequently
offended the people by acting in direct opposition to their wishes,
forcing them in spite of themselves to do what was best for them. On
the one side were arrayed the young men and those who wished for war,
and on the other the older men and the party of peace, who would be
sure to vote respectively, one for the banishment of Nikias, the other
for that of Alkibiades. Now

"In revolutions bad men rise to fame,"

and it appears that the violence of these factions at Athens gave an
opportunity for the lowest and basest citizens to gain reputation.
Amongst these was one Hyperbolus, of the township of Peirithois, a man
of no ability or power, but who owed his elevation to sheer audacity,
and whose influence was felt to be a disgrace to Athens. This man, who
never dreamed that ostracism would be applied to him, as the pillory
would have been more suitable to his deserts, openly showed his
delight at the discord between Nikias and Alkibiades, and excited the
people to deal severely with them, because he hoped that if one of
them were to be banished, he might succeed to his place, and become a
match for the one who was left behind. But the parties which supported
Nikias and Alkibiades respectively made a secret compact with one
another to suppress this villain, and so arranged matters that neither
of their leaders, but Hyperbolus himself was banished by ostracism for
ten years. This transaction delighted and amused the people for the
moment, but they were afterwards grieved that they had abused this
safeguard of their constitution by applying it to an unworthy object,
as there was a kind of dignity about the punishment which they had
inflicted. Ostracism in the case of men like Thucydides and
Aristeides, was a punishment, but when applied to men like Hyperbolus,
it became an honour and mark of distinction, as though his crimes had
put him on a par with the leading spirits of the age. Plato, the comic
poet, wrote of him

"Full worthy to be punished though he be,
Yet ostracism's not for such as he."

The result was that no one was ever again ostracised at Athens, but
Hyperbolus was the last, as Hipparchus of Cholargus, who was some
relation to the despot of that name, was the first. Thus the ways of
fortune are inscrutable, and beyond our finding out. If Nikias had
undergone the trial of ostracism with Alkibiades, he would either
have driven him into banishment, and governed Athens well and wisely
during his absence, or he would himself have left the city, and
avoided the terrible disaster which ended his life, and would have
continued to enjoy the reputation of being an excellent general. I am
well aware that Theophrastus says that Hyperbolus was ostracised in
consequence of a quarrel of Alkibiades with Phæax and not with Nikias;
but my account agrees with that given by the best historians.

XII. When ambassadors came to Athens from Egesta and Leontini,
inviting the Athenians to commence a campaign in Sicily, Nikias
opposed the project, but was overruled by Alkibiades and the war
party. Before the assembly met to discuss the matter, men's heads were
completely turned with vague hopes of conquest, so that the youths in
the gymnasia, and the older men in their places of business or of
recreation, did nothing but sketch the outline of the island of Sicily
and of the adjacent seas and continents. They regarded Sicily not so
much as a prize to be won, but as a stepping-stone to greater
conquests, meaning from it to attack Carthage, and make themselves
masters of the Mediterranean sea as far as the Columns of Herakles.
Public opinion being thus biassed, Nikias could find few to help him
in opposing the scheme. The rich feared lest they should be thought to
wish to avoid the burden of fitting out ships and the other expensive
duties which they would be called upon to fulfil, and disappointed him
by remaining silent. Yet Nikias did not relax his exertions, but even
after the Athenian people had given their vote for the war, and had
elected him to the chief command, with Alkibiades and Lamachus for his
colleagues - even then, on the next meeting of the assembly, he made a
solemn appeal to them to desist, and at last accused Alkibiades of
involving the city in a terrible war in a remote country merely to
serve his own ambition and rapacity. However, he gained nothing by
this speech, for the Athenians thought that he would be the best man
to command the expedition because of his experience in war, and that
his caution would serve as a salutary check upon the rashness of
Alkibiades and the easy temper of Lamachus; so that, instead of
dissuading them his words rather confirmed them in their intention.
For Demostratus, who of all the popular orators was the most eager
promoter of the expedition, rose, and said that he would put an end to
these excuses of Nikias: and he prevailed upon the people to pass a
decree that the generals, both at home and in the field, should be
invested with absolute irresponsible power.

XIII. Yet it is said that the expedition met with great opposition
from the priests; but Alkibiades found certain soothsayers devoted to
his own interests, and quoted an ancient oracle which foretold that
the Athenians should one day win great glory in Sicily. Special
messengers also came from the shrine of Ammon,[1] bringing an oracular
response to the effect that the Athenians would take all the
Syracusans. Those oracles which made against the project, people dared
not mention, for fear of saying words of ill-omen. Yet even the most
obvious portents would not turn them from their purpose, such as the
mutilation of all the Hermæ, or statues of Hermes, in Athens, in a
single night, except only one, which is called the Hermes of
Andokides, which was erected by the tribe Ægeis, and stands before the
house in which Andokides lived at that time. A man likewise leaped
upon the altar of the Twelve Gods, sat astride upon it, and in that
posture mutilated himself with a sharp stone. At Delphi too there is a
golden statue of Pallas Athene standing upon a brazen palm tree, an
offering made by the city of Athens from the spoils taken in the
Persian war. This was for many days pecked at by crows, who at last
pecked off and cast upon the ground the golden fruit of the palm tree.
This was said to be merely a fable invented by the people of Delphi,
who were bribed by the Syracusans. Another oracle bade the Athenians
bring to Athens the priestess of Athena at Klazomenae, and accordingly
they sent for her. Her name happened to be Hesychia, signifying
Repose; and this is probably what the oracle meant that the Athenians
had better remain quiet. The astronomer, Meton, who was appointed to
some office in the army, either because of these adverse omens and
prophecies, or because he was convinced that the expedition would
miscarry, pretended to be mad and to set fire to his house. Some
historians relate that he did not feign madness, but that he burned
down his house one night, and next morning appeared in the
market-place in a miserable plight, and besought his countrymen that,
in consideration of the misfortune which had befallen him, they would
allow his son, who was about to sail for Sicily in command of a
trireme, to remain at home. We are told that Sokrates the philosopher
was warned by one of the signs from heaven which he so often received
that the expedition would be the ruin of the city. And many were
filled with consternation at the time fixed for the departure of the
armament. It was during the celebration of the Adonia, or mourning for
the death of Adonis, and in all parts of the city were to be seen
images of Adonis carried along with funeral rites, and women beating
their breasts, so that those who were superstitious enough to notice
such matters became alarmed for the fate of the armament, and foretold
that it would start forth gloriously, but would wither untimely away.

XIV. The conduct of Nikias in opposing the war when it was being
deliberated upon, and his steadfastness of mind in not being dazzled
by the hopes which were entertained of its success, or by the splendid
position which it offered himself, deserves the utmost praise; but
when, in spite of his exertions, he could not persuade the people to
desist from the war, or to remove him from the office of general, into
which he was as it were driven by main force, his excessive caution
and slowness became very much out of place. His childish regrets, his
looking back towards Athens, and his unreasonable delays disheartened
his colleagues, and spoiled the effect of the expedition, which ought
at once to have proceeded to act with vigour, and put its fortune to
the test. But although Lamachus begged him to sail at once to Syracuse
and fight a battle as near as possible to the city walls, while
Alkibiades urged him to detach the other Sicilian states from their
alliance with Syracuse, and then attack that place, he dispirited his
men by refusing to adopt either plan, and proposed to sail quietly
along the coast, displaying the fleet and army to the Sicilians, and
then, after affording some slight assistance to the people of Egesta,
to return home to Athens. Shortly after this, the Athenians sent for
Alkibiades to return home for his trial on a charge of treason, and
Nikias, who was nominally Lamachus's colleague, but really absolute,
proceeded to waste time in idle negotiations and languid manœuvres,
until his troops had quite lost the high spirits and hopes with which
they had arrived at Sicily; while the enemy, who were at first
terrified, began to recover their spirits, and despise the Athenians.
While Alkibiades was still with them they had sailed to Syracuse with
sixty ships, and while the rest remained in line of battle outside,
ten of these had entered the harbour to reconnoitre. These ships,
approaching the city, made a proclamation by a herald that they were
come to restore the people of Leontini to their city, and they also
captured a Syracusan vessel, in which they found tables on which were
written the names of all the inhabitants of Syracuse, according to
their tribes and houses. These tables were kept far away from the
city, in the temple of the Olympian Zeus, but at that time the
Syracusans had sent for them in order to discover the number of men
able to bear arms. These tables were now taken by the Athenians, and
carried to their general. When the soothsayers saw this roll of names,
they were much alarmed, fearing that this was the fulfilment of the
prophecy that the Athenians should capture all the Syracusans.
However, some declare that the prophecy was really fulfilled when the
Athenian Kallippus slew Dion, and captured Syracuse.

XV. Shortly after this, Alkibiades left Sicily, and the supreme
command devolved upon Nikias. For Lamachus, though a brave and honest
man, and one who always freely risked his life in battle, was but a
plain simple man, and was so excessively poor, that whenever he was
appointed general he was forced to ask the Athenians to advance him a
small sum of money to provide him with clothes and shoes. Now Nikias
was excessively haughty, both on account of his great wealth, and his
military renown. It is said that once when the generals were debating
some question together, Nikias bade Sophokles the poet give his
opinion first, because he was the eldest man present, to which
Sophokles answered, "I am the eldest, but you are the chief." Thus
when in Sicily he domineered over Lamachus, although the latter was a
far abler soldier, and by sailing about the coast at the point
furthest removed from the enemy, gave them confidence, which was
turned into contempt, when he was repulsed from Hybla, a little fort
in the interior. At last he returned to Katana, without having
effected anything, except the reduction of Hykkara, a town of the
aborigines, not of the Greeks, from which it is said the celebrated
courtezan Lais, then a very young girl, was carried away captive and
sent to Peloponnesus.

XVI. As the summer advanced, and Nikias remained inactive, the
Syracusans gained so much confidence that they called upon their
generals to lead them to the attack of the Athenian position at
Katana, since the Athenians did not dare approach Syracuse; while
Syracusan horsemen even went so far as to insult the Athenians in
their camp, riding up to ask if they were come to settle as peaceful
citizens in Katana, instead of restoring the Leontines. This
unexpected humiliation at length forced Nikias to proceed to Syracuse,
and he devised a stratagem by which he was able to approach that city
and pitch his camp before it unmolested.

He despatched to Syracuse a citizen of Katana, who informed the
Syracusans that if they desired to seize the camp and arms of the
Athenians, they would only have to appoint a day and to march in force
to Katana. Many of the Athenians, he said, spent all their time within
the walls of Katana, and it would be easy for the Syracusan party
there to close the gates, assail the Athenians within, and set fire to
their ships. A numerous body of Kataneans, he added, were eager to
co-operate in the plan now proposed.

This was by far the ablest piece of strategy accomplished by Nikias
during all the time that he remained in Sicily. The Syracusans were
induced to march out their entire force, leaving their city with
scarcely any defenders. Meanwhile, Nikias sailed round from Katana,
took possession of the harbour, and encamped his forces on the
mainland in a position where he could not be attacked by the enemy's
cavalry. When the Syracusan army returned from Katana, he marched out
the Athenians and defeated them, but with little loss on their side,
as their cavalry covered their retreat. Nikias now broke down the
bridges over the river Anapus, which gave occasion to Hermokrates to
say, when he was making a speech to encourage the Syracusans, that it
was a ridiculous thing for Nikias to try to avoid fighting, as though
it were not for the express purpose of fighting that he had been sent
thither. But in spite of all that Hermokrates could say, the
Syracusans were very much cast down and disheartened. Instead of the
fifteen generals who usually commanded their troops they chose three,
upon whom they conferred absolute powers, and swore a solemn oath that
they would leave them unfettered in the exercise of those powers.

The Athenians were very anxious to occupy the temple of Olympian Zeus,
which was near their camp, and full of offerings of gold and silver.
Nikias, however, purposely delayed the attack until a force was sent
from Syracuse to defend the temple. He thought that if the soldiers
did succeed in plundering it, the state would be none the better for
it, and he himself would have to bear all the blame of sacrilege.

Nikias made no use of his boasted victory, and after a short time drew
off his forces to Naxos, where he passed the winter, expending an
enormous sum of money for the maintenance of so large a force, and
effecting little or nothing except the reduction of a few disorderly
tribes in the interior. The Syracusans now took heart again, marched
into the Katanean territory and laid it waste, and attempted to burn
the camp of the Athenians. Upon this all men blamed Nikias for
deliberating and taking precautions until the time for action was gone
by. No one could find any fault with him when he was actually
fighting; but though a bold and energetic man in action, he was slow
to form plans and begin an enterprise.

XVII. Thus when he did at length return to Syracuse, he managed the
operation so swiftly and so skilfully that he disembarked his troops
at Thapsus before the enemy were aware of his approach, took Epipolæ
by surprise, took prisoners three hundred of the force of picked men
who endeavoured to recapture that fort, and routed the Syracusan
cavalry, which had hitherto been supposed to be invincible. Moreover,
what chiefly terrified the Sicilians, and seemed wonderful to all
Greeks, was the speed with which he built a wall round Syracuse, a
city quite as large as Athens itself, but one which is much more
difficult to invest completely, because of the sea being so near to
it, and the rough ground and marshes by which it is surrounded on the
land side. Yet he all but succeeded in accomplishing this feat,
although he was not in a condition of body to superintend such works
personally, for he suffered greatly from a disease of the kidneys, to
which we must attribute whatever was left undone by his army. For my
own part I feel great admiration for the diligence and skill of the
general, and for the bravery of the soldiers, which enabled them to
gain such successes. The poet Euripides, after their defeat and utter
overthrow wrote this elegy upon them:

"Eight times they beat the Syracusan host,
Before the gods themselves declared them lost."

Indeed, they beat the Syracusans far more than eight times, before the
gods turned against the Athenians and dashed them to the ground when
at the height of their pride.

XVIII. Nikias was present, in spite of his sufferings, at most of
these actions; but when his disease grew worse, he was forced to stay
in the camp with a small guard, while Lamachus took the command of the
army, and fought a battle with the Syracusans, who were endeavouring
to build a counter-wall which would obstruct the Athenians in building
their wall of circumvallation. The Athenians were victorious, but
followed up their success in such a disorderly manner that Lamachus
was left alone and exposed to the attacks of the Syracusan cavalry. He
at once challenged their leader, a brave man named Kallimachus, to
single combat, and both received and inflicted a mortal wound. His
dead body and arms fell into the hands of the Syracusans, who at once
charged up to the Athenian walls, where Nikias lay helpless. The
extremity of the danger roused him, and he ordered his attendants to
set fire to a quantity of timber which had been brought thither to
construct military engines, and to some of the engines themselves.
This desperate expedient checked the Syracusans, and saved Nikias and
the Athenians; for the rest of the Syracusan forces on perceiving so
great a body of flame returned in haste to their city.

This affair left Nikias in sole command, and he had great hopes of
taking the place; for many cities in Sicily had formed alliances with
him, ships laden with corn kept arriving to supply his camp, and all
began to be eager to be on his side, and to share in the fruits of his
success. The Syracusans themselves sent to propose terms of peace, for
they despaired of being able to defend their city any longer against
him. At this time Gylippus too, a Lacedæmonian who was sent to assist
them, heard during his voyage that they were completely enclosed and
reduced to great straits, but held on his voyage notwithstanding, in
order that even if, as he imagined, all Sicily had fallen into the
hands of the Athenians, he might at any rate defend the Greek cities
in Italy from sharing its fate. The air indeed was full of rumours
that the Athenians were carrying all before them, and that the good
fortune and skill of their general rendered him invincible. Even
Nikias himself was so elated by his apparent good fortune, that he
forgot his wonted prudence, and imagining from the secret intelligence
which he had from his friends within Syracuse that it was on the point
of surrender, neglected Gylippus altogether, and kept so bad a watch
at the straits of Messina with his fleet, that Gylippus managed to
cross there and land in Sicily. Here he at once proceeded to gather an
army together, but in a quarter of the island far away from Syracuse,
so that the people of Syracuse knew nothing of his arrival. They even
appointed a day for the public assembly to meet and discuss terms of
surrender with Nikias, and were about to attend it, as they thought
that it would be best for them to come to terms before the city was
quite surrounded by the wall of the Athenians. There was now only a
very small portion of this left to be finished, and all the materials
for building it were collected on the spot.

XIX. At this crisis there arrived at Syracuse Gongylus, a Corinthian,
in one trireme. All crowded round him, to hear what news he brought.
He informed them that Gylippus would soon come to their aid by land,
and that other triremes besides his own were on their way by sea. This
intelligence was scarcely believed, until it was confirmed by a
message from Gylippus himself, bidding them march out and meet him.



Online Library46 PlutarchPlutarch's Lives Volume III → online text (page 2 of 55)