The Sicilian Debate ... Thucydides 6. 9ff.
... And the winter ended, and with it ended the sixteenth year of this war of which Thucydides is the historian.
Early in the spring of the following summer [415 BC] the Athenian envoys arrived from Sicily, and the Egesteans with them bringing sixty talents of uncoined silver, as a month's pay for sixty ships, which they were to ask to have sent them. The Athenians held an assembly, and after hearing from the Egesteans and their own envoys a report, as attractive as it was untrue, upon the state of affairs generally, and in particular as to the money, of which, it was said, there was abundance in the temples and the treasury, voted to send sixty ships to Sicily, under the command of Alcibiades, son of Clinias, Nicias, son of Niceratus, and Lamachus, son of Xenophanes, who were appointed with full powers; they were to help the Egestaeans against the Selinuntines, to restore Leontini upon gaining any advantage in the war, and to order all other matters in Sicily as they should deem best for the interests of Athens. Five days after this a second assembly was held, to consider the speediest means of equipping the ships, and to vote whatever else might be required by the generals for the expedition; and Nicias, who had been chosen to the command against his will, and who thought that the state was not well advised, but upon a slight and specious pretext was aspiring to the conquest of the whole of Sicily ... came forward in the hope of diverting the Athenians from the enterprise, and gave them the following counsel:
[Speech of Nicias, against the expedition]
'Although this assembly was convened to consider the preparations to be made for sailing to Sicily, I think, notwithstanding, that we have still this question to examine-- whether it is better to send out the ships at all. We ought not to give so little consideration to a matter of such moment, or let ourselves be persuaded by foreigners into undertaking a war with which we have nothing to do. And yet, individually, I gain in honor by such a course, and fear little as other men for my person--not that I think a man need be any the worse a citizen for taking some thought for person and estate; on the contrary, such a man would for his own sake desire the prosperity of his country more than others. Nevertheless, as I have never spoken against my convictions to gain honor, I shall not begin to do so now, but will say what I think best. Against your character any words of mine would be weak enough; if I were to advise you to keep what you have got and not risk what is actually yours for advantages which are dubious in themselves and which you may or may not attain. I will, therefore, content myself with showing that your eagerness is untimely and your aims not easy to achieve.
'I insist, then, that you are leaving many enemies behind you to go yonder and bring more back with you. You imagine, perhaps, that the treaty which you have made can be trusted; a treaty that will continue to exist nominally, as long as you keep quiet--for nominal it has become, owing to the practices of certain men here and at Sparta--but which in the event of a serious reverse in any quarter would not delay our enemies a moment in attacking us; first, because the convention was forced upon them by disaster and was less honorable to them than to us; and secondly, because in this verv convention there are many points that are still disputed [Nicias is referring here to the Peace that bears his name]. Again, some of the most powerful states have never yet accepted the arrangement at all. Some of these are at open war with us; others (as the Lacedaemonians are not yet active) restrained by truces renewed every ten days, and it is only too probable that if they found our power divided, as we are hurrying to divide it, they would attack us vigorously on the side of the Siceliots, whose alliance they would have in the past valued as they would that of few others. A man ought, therefore, to consider these points, and not to think of running risks with a country placed so critically, or of grasping another empire before we have secured the one we have already; for in fact the Thracian Chalcidians have been these years in revolt from us without being yet subdued, others on the continents yield us but a doubtful obedience. Meanwhile the Egestaeans, our allies, have been wronged, and we run to help them, while the rebels who have so Iong wronged us still wait for punishment.
'And yet the latter [our rebellious subjects], if brought under, might be kept under control, while the Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be controlled even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position than that which we occupied before the enterprise. The Sicilians again, to take them as they are at present, in the event of a Syracusan conquest (the favorite bugbear of the Egesteans) would be (to my thinking) even less dangerous to us than before. At present they might possibly come here as separate states out of loyalty to Lacedaemon; in the other case, one empire would scarcely attack another [i.e., if the Syracusans conquer all of Sicily, they would have better sense than to risk what they have against Athens!]. For after joining the Peloponnesians to overthrow us, they could only expect to see the same forces at work to overthrow their own empire. The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all! And second best [would be] if, after displaying our power we departed as soon as possible [without any involvement]. We all know that that which is farthest off and the reputation of which can least be tested, is the object of greatest admiration. But [once the battle were joined] at the least setback they would at once begin to look down upon us, and would join our enemies here against us. You have yourselves experienced this with regard to the Lacedaemonians, and their allies, whom your unexpected success, as comrpared with what you feared at first, has made you suddenly despise, tempting you further to aspire to the conquest of Sicily. Instead, however, of being puffed up by the misfortunes of your adversaries, you ought to think of breaking their spirit before giving yourselves up to confidence, and to understand that the one thought awakened in the Lacedaemonians by their disgrace is how they may even now, if possible, overthrow us and repair their dishonor; inasmuch as military reputation is their oldest and chiefest study. Our struggle, therefore, if we are wise, will not be for the barbarian Egestaeans in Sicily, but how to defend ourselves most effectively against the oligarchic intrigues of Lacedaemon.
'We should also remember that we are but now enjoying some respite from a great plague and from war, to the no small benefit of our estates and persons, and that it is right to employ these at home on our own behalf, instead of using them on behalf of these exiles whose interest it is to lie as fairly as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, and who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude, and if they fail will drag down their friends with them. And if there be any man here, overjoyed by being chosen to command, who urges you to make the exedition merely for ends of his own--especially if he be still too young to command, who seeks to be admired for his stud of horses, but on account of its heavy expenses hopes some profit from his appointment--do not allow such a fellow to maintain his private splendor at his country's risk, but remember that such persons injure the public fortune while they squander their own, and that this is a matter of great importance, and not for a young man to decide or hastily to take in hand.
'When I see such persons now sitting here at the side of that same individual and summoned by him, alarm seizes me and I, in my turn, summon any of the older men that may have such a person sitting next him, not to let himself be shamed, for fear of being thought a coward if he vote against war, but, remembering how rarely success is got by wishing and how often by forecast, and to leave to them the mad dream of conquest, and as a true lover of his country now threatened by the greatest danger in its history, let him hold up his hand on the other side; to vote that the Sicilians be left in the limits now existing between us, limits of which no one can complain (the Ionian sea for the coasting voyage, and the Sicilian sea across the open main), to enjoy their possessions and to settle their own quarrels; that the Egesteans, for their part, be told to end by themselves with Selinuntines the war which they began without consulting Athenians; and that for the future we do not enter into alliance, as we have been used to do, with people whom we help in their need, and who can never help us in ours.
' And you, Prytanis [president of the assembly] if you think it your duty to care for the polis and wish to show yourself a good citizen, put the question to the vote, and take a second time the opinions of the Athenians. If you are afraid to move the question again, consider that a violation of the law cannot carry any prejudice with so many abettors, that you will be the physician of your misguided city, and that the virtue of men in office is briefly this, to do their country as much good as they can, or in any case do no harm that they can avoid.'
Such were the words of Nicias. Most of the Athenians that came forward spoke in favor of the expedition, and of not annulling what had been voted, although some spoke on the other side. By far the warmest advocate of the expedition however, was Alcibiades, son of Clinias, who wished to get the better of Nicias, both as his political opponent and also because of the attack he had made upon him in his speech, and who was exceedingly ambitious of a command by which he hoped to conquer Sicily and Carthage and personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes. For the position he held among the citizens led him to indulge his tastes beyond what he could afford, both in raising horses and in the rest of his expenditure; and this later on had not a little to do with the ruin of the Athenian state. Alarmed at the greatness of his license in his own life and habits, and of the ambition which he showed in whatever he undertook, the mass of the people suspected him of aiming at tyranny, and became his enemies. Although publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city. He now came forward and gave the following advice to the Athenians:
[Speech of Alcibiades]
'Athenians, I have a better right to command than others--I must begin with this as Nicias has attacked me--and at the same time I believe myself to be worthy of it. The things for which I am abused bring fame to my ancestors and to myself, and to the country [it brings] profit besides. The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be ever greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honorable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendor that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow-citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength.. And it is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that a man who takes pride in his accomplishments should claim some prestige over others. He who is badly off has his misfortunes all to himself, and as we do not see men courted in adversity, by the same principle a man ought to accept the arrogance of prosperity; or else, let him first give equal treatment to all and demand as much for himself. What I know is that persons of this kind and all others that have attained to any distinction, although they may be unpopular in their lifetime in their relations with their fellow-men and especially with their equals, leave to posterity the desire of claiming connexion with them (even when the claim is groundless) and are the boast of the country to which they belonged, not as strangers or wrongdoers, but as fellow-countrymen and heroes. Such are my aspirations, and however I am abused for them in private, the question is whether any one manages public affairs better than I do. Having united the most powerful states of Peloponnese without danger or expense to you, I compelled the Lacedaemonians to stake everything upon the outcome of a single day's battle at Mantinea; and although they won the battle, they have never since fully recovered from the challenge.
'Thus did my youth and so-called monstrous folly find fitting arguments to deal with the power of the Peloponnesians...And do not be afraid of my youth now, but while I am still in youth's prime, and Nicias appears fortunate, take advantage of the services of us both. Neither rescind you resolution to sail to Sicily, on the ground that you are going to attack a great power. The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, [are unstable] and easily change their governments; and consequently the inhabitants, being without any feeling of patriotism, are not provided with arms for their persons, and have not firmly establised themselves on the land; every man thinks that either by words or by party strife he can obtain something at public expense, and then in the event of a catastrophe settle in some other country, and he makes his preparations accordingly. From a mob like this you need not look for either unanimity in counsel or concert in action; but they will probably one by one come in as they get a fair offer, especially if they are torn by civil war as we are told. Moreover, the Siceliots have not so many heavy infantry as they boast, just as the Hellenes generally did not prove so numerous as each state reckoned itself, but Hellas greatly over-estimated its numbers, and has hardly had an adequate infantry throughout this war. The states in Sicily from all that I can hear, will be found as I say, and I have not pointed out all our advantages, for we shall have the help of many barbarians, who from their hatred of the Syracusans will join us in attacking them; nor will the powers at home prove any hindrance, if you judge rightly. Our fathers with these very adversaries, ... and the Persians as their enemy, were able to win the empire, depending solely on their superiority at sea. The Peloponnesians had never so little hope against us at present; and let them be ever so confident, although strong enough to invade our country even if we stay at home, they can never hurt us with their navy, as we leave one of our own behind us that is a match for them.
[6.19] 'In this state of things what reason can we give to ourselves for holding back, or what excuse can we offer to our allies in Sicily for not helping them? They are our confederates, and we are bound to assist them, without objecting that they have not assisted us. We did not take them into alliance to have them help us in Hellas, but that they might so annoy our enemies in Sicily as to prevent them from coming over here and attacking us. It is thus that empire has been won, both by us and by all others that have held it, by a constant readiness to support all, whether barbarians or Hellenes, that invite assistance; since if all were to keep quiet or to pick and choose whom they ought to assist, we should make but few new conquests, and should imperil those we have already won. Men do not rest content with fending off the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.
'Be convinced then that we shall augment our power at home by this adventure abroad, and let us make the expedition, and so humble the pride of the Peloponnesians by sailing off to Sicily, and letting them see how little we care for the peace that we are now enjoying; and at the same time we shall either become masters, as we very easily may, of the whole of Hellas through gaining hegemony of the Sicilian Hellenes, or in any case ruin the Syracusans, to the no small advantage of ourselves and our allies. The faculty of staying if successful, or of returning, will be secured to us by our navy, as we shall be superior at sea to all the Siceliots put together. And do not let the do-nothing policy which Nicias advocates or his setting of the young against the old, turn you from your purpose, but in the good old fashion by which our fathers old and young together, by their united counsels brought affairs to their present height, do you endeavour still to advance them; understanding that neither youth nor old age can do anything the one without the other, but that levity, sobriety and deliberate judgment are strongest when united, that by sinking into inaction, the city, like everything will wear itself out, and its skill in everything decay; each fresh struggle will give it fresh experience, and make it more used to defend itself not in word but in deed.
'In short my conviction is that a city not inactive by nature could not choose a quicker way to ruin itself than by suddenly adopting such a policy [of inaction], and that the safest rule of life is to take one's character and institutions for better and for worse, and live up to them as closely as one can.'
Such were the words of Alcibiades. After hearing him the Egesteans and some Leontine exiles, who came forward reminding them of their oaths and imploring their assistance the Athenians became more eager for the expedition than before. Nicias, perceiving that it would be now useless to deter them by the old line of arguument, but thinking he might perhaps alter their resolution by the extravagance of his estimates, came forward a second time and spoke as follows:
[Second speech of Nicias]
'I see, Athenians, that you are thoroughly bent upon the expedition, and therefore hope that all will turn out as we wish, and proceed to give you my advice [to this end]. From all that I hear we are going, against cities that are great and not subject to one another, or in need of change, so as to be glad to pass from enforced servitude to an easier condition, or in the least likely to accept our rule in exchange for freedom; and, to take only the Hellenic cities, they are very numerous for one island. Besides Naxos and Catana, which I expect to join us from their connexion with Leontini, there are seven others armed at all points much like our own power, particularly Selinus and Syracuse, the objects of our expedition. These are full of heavy infantry, archers, and darters, have galleys in abundance and great crowds to man them; they have also money, partly in the hands of private persons, partly in the temples at Selinus, and at Syracuse first-fruits from some of the barbarians as well. But their chief advantage over us lies in the number of their horses, and in the fact that they grow their corn at home instead of importing it.
'Against a power of this kind it will not do to have merely a weak naval armament, but we shall want also a large land army to sail with us, if we are to do anything worthy of our ambition, and are not to be shut out from the country by a numerous cavalry; especially if the cities should take alarm and join together, and we should be left without friends (except the Egesteans) to furnish us with horse to defend ourselves with. It would be disgraceful to have to retire under compulsion, or to send back for reinforcements, owing to want of reflection at first: we must therefore start from home with a competent force, seeing that we are going to sail far from our country, and upon an expedition not like any which you may have undertaken in the quality of allies, among your subject states bere in Hellas, where any additional supplies needed were easily drawn from the friendly territory; but we are cutting ourselves off, and going to a land entirely alien, from which during four months in winter it is not even easy for a messenger to get to Athens.
'I think, therefore, that we ought to take great numbers of heavy infantry, both from Athens and from our allies, and not merely from our subjects, but also any we may be able to get for love or for money in Peloponnese, and great numbers also of archers and slingers, to combat the Sicilian cavalry. Meanwhile we must have an overwhelming superiority at sea, to enable us the more easily to carry in what we want; and we must take our own corn in merchant vessels, wheat and parched barley, and bakers from the mills compelled to serve for pay, in order that in case of our being weather-bound the armament may not want provisions, as it is not every city that will be able entertain numbers like ours. We must also provide ourselves with everything else as far as we can, so as not to be dependent upon others; and above all we must take with us from home as much money as possible, as the sums talked of as ready at Egesta are readier, you may be sure, in talk than in any other way.
'Indeed, even if we leave Athens with a force not only equal to that of the enemy (except in the number of heavy infantry) but even at all points superior to him we shall still find it difficult to conquer Sicily or save ourselves. We must not disguise from ourselves that we go found a city among strangers and enemies, and that he who undertakes such an enterprise should be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing that, to find everything hostile to him. Fearing this, and knowing that we shall have need of much good counsel and more good fortune--a hard matter for mortal men to aspire to--I wish as far as may be possible to make myself independent of fortune before sailing, and when I do sail, to be as safe as a strong force can make me. This I believe to be surest course for the country and safest for us who are to go on the expedition. If any thinks differently I resign to him my command.'
With this Nicias concluded, thinking that he would discourage the Athenians by the magnitude of the task, or, if obliged to sail on the expedition, would thus do so in the safest way possible. The Athenians, however, far from having their taste for the voyage taken away by the burden of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; just the contrary took place of what Nicias had hoped. It was held that he had given good advice, and the expedition would be the safest in the world. All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiers was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.
At last one of the Athenians came forward and called on Nicias and told him that he ought not to make excuses to put them off, but say at once before them all what forces the Athenians should vote him. Upon this he said, not without reluctance, that he would advise upon that matter more at leisure with his colleagues; as far however as he could see at present, they must sail with at least one hundred warships--the Athenians providing as many transports as they could determine, and sending for others from the allies-not less than five thousand heavy infantry in all, Athenian and allied, and if possible more; and the rest of the armament in proportion; archers from home and from Crete, and slingers, and whatever else might seem desirable...
Upon hearing this the Athenians at once voted that the generals should have full powers in the matter of the numbers of the army and of the expedition generally, to do as they judged best for the interests of Athens. After this the preparations began; messages being sent to the allies and the rolls drawn up at home. And as the city had just recovered from the plague and the long war, and a number of young men bad grown up and capital had accumulated by reason of the truce, everything was the more easily provided.
[Mutilation of the Herms and Profanation of the Mysteries]
In the midst of these preparations all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens, that is to say the customary square figures, common in the doorways of private houses and temples, had in one night most of them their faces mutilated, No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find the authors; and it was further voted that any one who knew of any other act of impiety having been committed should come and give information without fear of consequences, whether citizen, alien, or slave. The matter was taken up the more seriously, as it was thought to be ominous for the expedition, and part of a conspiracy to bring about a revolution and to upset the democracy.
Information was given accordingly by some resident aliens and personal servants, not about the Herms but about some previous mutilations of other images perpetrated by young men in a drunken frolic, and of mock celebrations of the Mysteries, allegedly taking place in private houses. Alcibiades being implicated in this charge, it was taken hold of by those who could least endure him, because he stood in the way of their obtaining the undisturbed direction of the people, who thought that if he were once removed, the leadership would be theirs. These accordingly magnified the matter and loudly proclaimed that the affair of the mysteries and mutilation of the Herms were part of a scheme to overthrow the democracy, and that nothing of all this had been done without Alcibiades, the proofs being the undemocratic license of his life and habits.
Alcibiades immediately denied the charges and offered to stand trial before going on the expedition (for which the preparations were now complete), so that if he were guilty of the acts imputed to him, he would be punished, but if acquitted, he would take command (without charges hanging over him). Meanwhile he protested against their receiving slanders against him in his absence and urged them rather to put him to death at once if he were guilty, and pointed out the imprudence of sending him out in command of so large an army, with so serious a charge still undecided. But his enemies feared that he would have the army for him if he were tried immediately [before the forces departed], and that the people might lean in favour of the man whom they already caressed as the cause of the Argives and some of the Mantineans joining the expedition, and [so his enemies] did their utmost to get this proposition rejected, putting forward other orators who said that he ought at present to sail and not delay the departure of the army, and be tried on his return within a fixed number of days their plan being to have him sent for and brought home for trial upon some more serious charge, which they would the more easily get up in his absence. Accordingly it was decreed he should sail.
After this the departure for Sicily took place, it being about midsummer. Most of the allies, with the corn transports and the smaller craft and the rest of the expedition had already received orders to muster at Corcyra, to cross the Ionian sea from thence in a body to the Iapygian promontory. But the Athenians themselves, and such of their allies as happened to be with them, went down to Piraeus upon a day appointed, at daybreak, and began to man the ships for putting out to sea. With them also went down the whole population of the city, both citizens and foreigners; the inhabitants of the country each escorting those that belonged to them, their friends, their relatives, or their sons, with hope and lamentation upon their way, as they thought of the conquests which they hoped to make, or of the friends whom they might never see again, considering the long voyage which they were going to make from their country. Indeed, at this moment, when they were now upon the point of parting from one another, the danger came more home to them than when they voted for the expedition; although the strength of the armament, and the profuse provision which they remarked in every department, was a sight that could not but comfort them. As for the foreigners and the rest of the crowd, they simply went to see a sight worth looking at and passing all belief.
Indeed this armament that first sailed out was by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time. In mere number of ships and heavy infantry the force that went against Epidaurus under Pericles, and then against Potidaea under Hagnon, was not inferior; containing as it did four thousand Athenian heavy infantry, three hundred horse, and one hundred galleys accompanied by fifty Lesbian and Chian vessels and many allies besides. But these were sent upon a short voyage and with a scanty equipment. The present expedition was formed in contemplation of a long term of service by land and sea alike, and was furnished with ships and troops so as to be ready for either as required. The fleet had been elaborately equipped at great cost to the captains and the state; the treasury giving a drachma a day to each seaman, and providing empty ships, sixty men of war and forty transports, and manning these with the best crews obtainable: while the captains gave a bounty in addition to the pay from the treasury to the top-rowers and crews generally, besides spending lavishly upon figure-heads and equipments, and one and all making the utmost exertions to enable their own ships to excel in beauty and fast sailing. Meanwhile the land forces had been picked from the best muster-rolls, and vied with each other in paying great attention to their arms and personal accoutrements. From this resulted not only a rivalry among themselves in their different departments, but an idea among the rest of the Hellenes that it was more a display of power and resources than an armament against an enemy. For if any one had counted up the public expenditure of the state and the private outlay of individuals--that is to say, the sums which the state had already spent upon the expedition and was sending out in the hands of the generals, and those which individuals had expended upon their personal outfit, or as captains of galleys had laid out and were still to lay out upon their vessels; and if he had added to this the journey-money which each was likely to have provided himself with, independently of the pay from the treasury, for a voyage of such length, and what the soldiers or traders took with them for the purpose of exchange--it would have been found that many talents in all were being taken out of the city. Indeed the expedition became not less famous for its wonderful boldness and for the splendor of its appearance, than for its overwhelming strength as compared with the peoples against whom it was directed, and for the fact that this was the longest passage from home hitherto attempted, and the most ambitious in its objects considering the resources of those who undertook it.
The ships being now manned, and everything put on board with which they meant to sail, the trumpet commanded silence, and the prayers customary before putting out to sea were offered, not in each ship by itself, but by all together to the voice of a herald; and bowls of wine were mixed through all the armada and libations made by the soldiers and officers in gold and silver goblets. The crowds on shore, the citizens and all others that wished them well, joined in their prayers. The hymn sung and the libations finished, they put out to sea. First they sailed out in column, then they [broke ranks and] raced [like a regatta] as far as Aegina. So they hastened to reach Corcyra, where the rest of the allied forces were also assembling.