Nicias of Athens: the peace-loving general

Nicias of Athens sought compromise when those around him were begging for blood – carving his own tomb in the process.

Nicias of Athens
Nicias of Athens

The reputation of Nicias of Athens cannot rival that of Pericles, whose rhetorical genius enticed the Athenian people into their long war with Sparta, known today as the Peloponnesian War. Nor can it rival that of Pericles’ golden-haired nephew, Alcibiades, who set the demos on fire to attack Sicily in hopes of making Athens supreme among all Greeks. Yet neither of those names appears on Aristotle’s list of the city’s best citizens, as written in his Constitution of Athens.

Chroniclers including Plato and Plutarch recall only how Pericles and Alcibiades led the Athenian people into dangerous waters, instead of serving their best interests. My subject’s name, on the other hand, is immortalised in the Peace of Nicias (421 BC), which put a pause to the war between Athens and Sparta. Though the peace was short-lived, it gave Greeks a welcome respite from endless sea battles, sieges, and fratricidal deaths.

Though Nicias opposed the war from its beginnings in 431 BC he was as energetic when obliged to lead his country in battle as he was in seeking peace. Yet what most impressed later writers was not his diplomacy or his military skills, but how hard he tried to stop his empire-hungry compatriots from plunging back into war. Two thousand years later an Italian now infamous for his wisdom, Niccolò Machiavelli, praised Nicias with these words in the Discourses:

In Greece, in the city of Athens, Nicias – a very grave and prudent man – was never able to persuade that people that it might not be good to go to assault Sicily; so when that decision was taken against the wishes of the wise, the entire ruin of Athens followed from it.

Nicias’ father was Niceratus, an Athenian patrician who left his son a vast fortune in the silver mines around Mount Laurium in Attica. Nicias sent his agents to the slave markets in Greece, Italy, and Asia to purchase strong bodies to work his mines. Reports say he owned over a thousand slaves. Yet he was known to treat them with humanity when this seemed likely to please the gods and the demos. In one of the enchanting choral performances he produced – for rich men were expected to fund public festivities out of their own pockets – one of Nicias’ house-servants appeared dressed as the god Dionysus, beauteous and very tall, with the down of youth still on his cheek. The delighted Athenians applauded him for so long that Nicias rose, declared that it was an unholy thing that a man acclaimed as a god should be a slave, and gave the young man his freedom.

In his dealings with the Athenian people, Nicias had none of Pericles’ overconfidence, the demagogue Cleon’s colourful buffoonery, or Alcibiades’ bad-boy glamour. Rather he tended towards the other extreme: coming across in the popular Assembly (ekklesia)as over-cautious and nervous of criticism, being easily thrown into confusion whenever some rival suggested that his proposals were merely self-interested.

Yet his awkwardness won him great favour among the demos. For in those times the Athenians had grown used to leaders who said and did whatever the multitude wanted. And though Nicias often questioned popular desires, his timid appearance made the populace believe that he feared and respected them. Unlike Pericles, whose sublime eloquence got him into trouble when events failed to live up to his high-flying words, Nicias grasped that the people sometimes enjoy making use of polished speakers but ‘always look with suspicious and cautious eyes on their powers,’ as his biographer Plutarch remarks. So they exalted him as their somewhat bumbling leader, trusting him for his ineptitudes.

Whether he realised it or not, Nicias’ reputation shielded him from public blame in several ways: not just by making him look more ordinary than the kingly Pericles or superhumanly competitive Alcibiades, but by helping him avoid responsibility for political outcomes. He seldom took credit for his achievements, instead thanking fortune and the divine ordering of events. The people at large saw him as a pious man – not one of those politicians who feigns fear of the gods to flatter the masses, but the genuine article. Though he had the best education money could buy, he was as superstitious as those peasant women who sacrifice their last chickens to the goddess Hera, begging her not to let their children starve. His dedicatory offerings to the gods outdid those of all his contemporaries in elegance and extravagance. He kept a seer in his house to advise him on public and private decisions, and a personal manager, Hiero, who went about spreading tales of Nicias’ religious devotions, personal modesty, and sacrifices for the Demos. Though he craved publicity as much as other politicians in democracies, he shrank from socialising with his fellow patricians, preferring to work late into the night on state business than getting drunk to the tunes of flute-girls. All this won the poorer people’s faith and the richer citizens’ contempt.

The story of Nicias’ tragic fall is entangled with the tragedy of Athens’ democracy, whose rise and fall were as speedy and stupendous. The city’s power mushroomed after the Persian Wars ended in 449 BC, peaking in the so-called Age of Pericles (c. 445-429 BC). After the Sicilian catastrophe in 413 BC, Athenian democracy never fully recovered. When Nicias first took a prominent role in politics, Pericles held sway over Athens’ Assembly. Then in 429 BC, two years into the war with Sparta, Pericles died of the plague that had spread throughout Attica and killed many thousands of Athenians. Nicias’ chief supporters were moderates who wanted to end the war and to counter the outrageous antics of the demagogue Cleon who, as Plutarch reports, started a new ‘fashion for haranguing the people’ by ‘throwing back his robe, slapping his thigh, and running about while speaking.’ This behaviour spread among the citizens a ‘levity and contempt for propriety that soon afterwards confounded the whole state.’

Even Nicias’ sympathisers complained that he let Cleon get away with far too much. They also claimed that he was excessively cautious whenever he served Athens as a strategos (general), steering clear of high-risk military campaigns.

His moderate temperament served his city well, however, when the exhausted Athenians needed a leader to bring them some respite from war. After the hawkish Cleon and Sparta’s equally war-addicted Brasidas were killed at the battle of Amphipolis in 422 BC, Nicias sprang into action. He laboured night and day to hammer out a peace treaty, prevailing over attempts to sabotage it. War-weary people throughout Greece rejoiced – for far too short a time. It took only a few years for the war faction, with Alcibiades at its head, to rip up the peace. Soon citizens were back on their triremes, rowing hard for Athens.

In the spring of 415 Alcibiades made a forceful speech in the Assembly. He urged the Athenians to send a large-scale expedition to Sicily. For some time before, this maverick leader had been setting young and old men on fire for ever-greater conquests. They sat about in their workshops drawing maps of Sicily, saying that it would make a fine base for launching a war with the great African power of Carthage – a war that would make Athenians lords not just over the Hellenes, but also over northern Africa. The people eagerly backed Alcibiades’ motion and appointed Nicias general for the Sicilian expedition. He could not refuse.

But at a follow-up session called to discuss logistics, Nicias stood up and urged his fellow citizens to reconsider the whole enterprise. He warned of the great dangers in trying to expand Athens’ empire when it had already been weakened in war, accusing Alcibiades of cooking up a reckless adventure to feed his own ambitions. But knowing that his enemies would decry him as a coward, Nicias tried to deflect them by pointing out that he had no selfish interest in avoiding war with Sicily. On the contrary, he said, in the war he would be general, with no man ahead of him in rank and repute. If they called off the war, he would have infinite contenders for leadership. His concern was for Athens’ safety and soul, not his own glory.

These arguments failed to move his fellow citizens. So Nicias tried a different rhetorical tack. The cities of Sicily, he warned, are exceedingly rich and powerful, capable of raising fleets as great as ours – and they will find zealous allies in our Spartan enemies. We have no hope of winning unless we vote funds for a massively bigger expedition than the one planned so far, which would weigh heavily on all Athenians. Nicias was sure citizens would recoil from spending so much money and risking more lives. To his horror, they loved the idea of a gigantic, extravagant enterprise, worthy of the great power Pericles and Alcibiades had declared Athens to be, and voted to arrange a force of more than a hundred ships and five thousand hoplites. Some later blamed Nicias for turning Alcibiades’ plan for a small expedition into a huge campaign. But this was the opposite of his intentions.

Chroniclers are divided about whether Nicias was too cautious in the first forays into Sicily. But when the Athenians put Syracuse under siege then found themselves pressed hard by Syracusan and Spartan troops, on the verge of defeat, he was less eager than his fellow generals to cut losses and go home. In the end he agreed. Then, just as the Athenians were preparing to sail home, a lunar eclipse appeared in the skies. Always fearful of such portents, Nicias asked his priests what to do. They advised a delay of twenty-seven days before returning to Athens.

The Syracusans made good use of the extra time Nicias gave them. Using only 76 ships to attack the Athenians’ 86 in the harbour, they defeated the Athenians, massacring many sailors on shore. A few days later the Athenian land army was routed and slaughtered as they tried to flee home. Only a fraction of the soldiers survived and returned to Athens. Nicias was captured and executed. It is a sad irony that Nicias, whose name means ‘victory,’ had the misfortune to lead the Athenians to their most crushing defeat.

‘Of all the Grecians of my time,’ writes Thucydides, Nicias ‘least deserved to be brought to such misery.’ And when the news reached Athens after a long delay, Athenians could scarcely believe that the man who had predicted this very catastrophe was now its most famous victim.


Erica Benner