The Slave of Fear

(died 413 B.C.)


by Plutarch

The turning point of the war with Sparta was the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, eagerly undertaken by the greedy Athenians. Superstitious old Nicias was their reluctant leader in this debacle.

After the death of Pericles, the democracy of Athens came under the influence of Cleon, an entertaining buffoon with a propensity for graft. To check the growing power of this dangerous demagogue, the better men of Athens looked to Nicias for leadership.

Nicias was an experienced general who had won the affection of the people by always seeming to be afraid of them. His modest and serious nature, plus his good luck in war, made him a man to be respected -- and he was wise enough to pay back that respect. The common people dislike those who seem to despise them, and they promote those who seem to fear them.

Pericles had ruled Athens by his solid virtue and overpowering eloquence. Nicias, however, had to resort to spending large amounts of his own money on public amusements such as plays and athletic contests. Nicias also contributed heavily to religious institutions. In such ostentatious charity we may suspect selfish motives, but Nicias was a sincerely religious man who trembled with fear of the gods. He sacrificed to the gods every day, and always had a fortune teller by his side. His fear of the gods and of the people, and not any desire to be worshipped himself, explains the liberality of Nicias. A large income of silver from his mines enabled Nicias to buy peace with those who might do him damage, as well to support those who were deserving or merely persistent in their solicitations.

Public criticism terrified Nicias so much that he would never dine out with any citizen or spend time at public amusements. Whenever Nicias held a public office, he was always the last one to leave and the first one to come to work. In his free time, he would shut himself up in his house and tell any visitors that he was too busy with public business to talk to them. His household let it be known that Nicias was hardly able to get enough food and sleep because his mind was always on his duties. They complained that he was losing his health, his friends, and his wealth in public service -- in contrast to others who were getting rich and making friends while in office, using the public trust for private profit.

Nicias observed that the public will make use of talented men, but they always view them with an envious eye and are ready to pull them down. Pericles was a good example of this. So Nicias tried to avoid public office whenever he could, and if he could not get out of a job, he was careful to avoid taking any risks at all. With such a policy, Nicias acquired a reputation for success, but he took no credit for himself at all. He attributed any success he achieved to good luck. By giving all glory to the gods, and staying humble, he avoided envy.

* * *

The struggle with Sparta had gone on for many years, and the Athenians had suffered several disasters. But Nicias had no part in any of them, and his own missions had been successful. Among his other triumphs, he had succeeded in trapping 400 Spartan soldiers on an island by Pylos, and he was cautiously besieging them, trying to get them to surrender by cutting off their supplies of food and water.

Cleon, the demagogue, boasted that if he had had the command instead of the timid Nicias, the Spartans would have surrendered a long time ago. Nicias immediately offered his command and challenged Cleon to live up to his big talk. Cleon tried to back out, but the Athenians and Nicias would not let him. So Cleon boldly announced that within twenty days he would either kill the Spartans or bring them back to Athens as prisoners. The Athenians got a good laugh out of this, thinking it was just another one of Cleon's jokes. However, he managed by luck to live up to this boast [425 B.C.],1 and Nicias was blamed for allowing this fool to acquire a military reputation.

Cleon now abandoned all restraint and dignity in public speaking, and whenever he could find an audience he resorted to screaming and gesticulation. Such manners set a bad example for the public speakers that came later. They imitated as good style Cleon's contempt of modesty and honesty, and in the end this led to the ruin of Athens.

Cleon went to Amphipolis in command of the Athenian army. The Athenian defeat at Amphipolis [422 B.C.] removed the two principal opponents of peace: Brasidas and Cleon, who both died there. Brasidas was the Spartan general, and for him war was an opportunity to win glory. For Cleon, it was a way to hide his villainy. Both of these leading figures, therefore, had a vested interest in opposing peace.

Amphipolis was a major defeat for the Athenians, and they sent Nicias to Sparta to try to arrange terms to end the war. The Spartans respected Nicias and they were willing to make peace. Through his diplomacy, a fifty-year peace treaty was arranged, ending ten years of bitter war throughout the whole Greek world. This was generally known as the Peace of Nicias [421 - 415 B.C.]. After so much misery and grief, praise for Nicias was in everyone's mouth. It was said that he was rewarded for his devotion to the gods by having the greatest blessing that could come into the world named after him.

* * *

Even though Cleon was gone, Alcibiades 2 remained to lead the democrat faction in Athens. Because of this ambitious and talented young man, Athens once again rushed off recklessly into war. Alcibiades had done everything he could to oppose the peace treaty with Sparta, and now that peace was in effect, Alcibiades proceeded to subvert it. The lies of Alcibiades, and his persuasive powers with the common people, convinced them that the Spartans were dishonest and would not perform their part of the bargain. Alcibiades also incited Sparta's neighbors to enter into an alliance with Athens against Sparta -- something expressly prohibited by the peace treaty.

Nicias went to Sparta to restore good relations, and he succeeded. But when he got back to Athens he discovered that Alcibiades had so enraged the people against the Spartans that they were also mad at Nicias. The Athenians elected Alcibiades as their general instead of Nicias, and war with Sparta started again.

Each political party in Athens sought to ostracize the other's leader. Hyperbolus, a worthless and spiteful fellow, was the principal instigator of ostracism, which was called because the people hated both factional leaders. They feared the reckless ambition of Alcibiades and detested his lazy and profligate life; and Nicias seemed too aloof and too rich. Moreover, on several occasions, Nicias had spoken against majority opinion. Nicias and Alcibiades each realized the risk they were running, so they agreed to join forces against Hyperbolus. When the ballots were counted, Hyperbolus was the one with the most votes against him, and he was the one who was banished for ten years. After this, the Athenians abandoned the custom of the ostracism, which was intended to be a means of getting rid of people judged to be too powerful and therefore too likely to become tyrants. Ostracism was never intended for minor rascals like Hyperbolus.

* * *

Athens now had split between the old men, led by Nicias, who wanted peace, and the young men, led by Alcibiades, who wanted war. Alcibiades filled their heads with prospects of plunder in Sicily, whereby they (and he) could pay off their debts and go on to become masters of the world. The Athenians already had a war with Sparta going on, and revolt was breaking out all over the Athenian empire, but Alcibiades assured them that with the loot from Sicily they could not only finish their war with Sparta but then go on to conquer Carthage and all of Africa.

The rich did not dare to speak out against the Sicilian Expedition because they were afraid their opposition would be attributed to reluctance to pay the taxes necessary to finance it. But Nicias vehemently objected, and condemned the greed and recklessness of Alcibiades. Nothing Nicias could say, however, could dissuade the Athenians. They voted to undertake this venture, but, in order to restrain the rashness of Alcibiades, they put the cautious Nicias in charge of it -- much against his will.

Alcibiades had bribed some fortune-tellers to predict success, and fear made the honest stay silent. The Athenians were also encouraged by some strangers who arrived with a prophecy from the oracle of Zeus that "the Athenians will take all the Syracusans." 3

The philosopher Socrates, although a close friend of Alcibiades, confided to his friends that the Sicilian Expedition would be a mistake. The astrologer Meton was so afraid of the signs he saw in the stars that he burned down his own house one night and begged the Athenians to release his son from military service in consideration of his recent loss.

Bad omens appeared. And on top of everything else, the Athenians picked an inauspicious day for sailing away to Sicily: the anniversary of the death of Adonis,4 when all over the city there were women carrying images of a dead man and wailing in lamentation. Nicias, who was more than ever confirmed in his opinion by these dreadful portents, reluctantly did the duty imposed on him by his government. He should have left all doubts and objections behind once he had his orders, and faced his job with enthusiasm, but Nicias discouraged his soldiers still more by his own foot-dragging. He was often heard to say that this expedition was a big mistake, and he was even more cautious than usual.

Instead of immediately attacking Sicily, Nicias cruised around at sea, thus giving the Sicilians time to get their defensive resources together. Nicias thought that this show of force might win some allies, but all it did was dishearten the Athenians still more, and delay changed the attitude of the enemy from dread to contempt.

However, the Athenians did capture one ship, in which were found lists of all inhabitants of Syracuse. This list was being taken to Syracuse to help with the draft of the citizens for military service. When the Athenians saw how long this list was, their hearts sank. Then someone recalled the prophecy that they should "take all of the Syracusans." The prophecy evidently had already been fulfilled, so one source of hope disappeared.

* * *

The whole summer had been wasted. With winter coming on, Nicias set up a camp in Catana, about 40 miles up the coast from Syracuse. The Syracusans wrote mockingly to Nicias, asking whether the Athenians had come to settle with the Catanians or to do battle.

Seeing that the Syracusans had become so bold, Nicias thought of a stratagem to take advantage of their overconfidence. He sent one of the Catanians to Syracuse as a spy, and this spy told the Syracusans that the Athenians were mostly within the city and that a lot of Catanians were eagerly standing by ready to hold open the gates and burn the ships once the Syracusans attacked. The Syracusans believed this spy and confidently marched off to Catana with their whole army.

Meanwhile, Nicias embarked his soldiers and sailed to Syracuse. Before the Syracusan army could return, the Athenians had sailed into the harbor and set up camp. The Syracusans got the news and hurried back from Catana. Arriving exhausted and in disarray, they were defeated in a battle and forced to retreat inside their walls.

Now Nicias received offers of friendship from all over Sicily, along with abundant supplies for his army. He began the task of surrounding Syracuse with a long wall. The Syracusans watched in dismay as a wall nearly two miles in length snaked around them. They sallied out to interfere with the construction many times, but were always defeated. Just as the Syracusans were about to surrender, the Spartan general Gylippus arrived to take command of the situation.

At once the mood of the besieged city changed from fear to hope, and soon the Syracusans marched out with fresh courage. Both sides lined up for another battle. Just before they engaged, Gylippus threw down his weapons and sent a herald to offer the Athenians the chance to depart in safety with all of their arms and baggage. To this, Nicias made no reply, so the battle began. As usual, the Athenians pushed the Syracusans back and killed a number of them.

The next morning, Gylippus showed the Syracusans how much an experienced commander counts in war. Using the same soldiers and weapons that had been defeated so many times before, he changed their order of battle and this time the Syracusans pushed the Athenians back behind the wall they had built. Then the Syracusans built a counter-wall at right angles to the Athenian wall so the Athenians could not complete the enclosure of Syracuse. Thus the Athenians lost all chances of cutting off Syracuse, and all of their labor on their wall came to nothing.

After this victory, the Syracusans recovered their confidence. Their horsemen picked off any Athenians that wandered far from camp, and the Athenians could do nothing because they had brought no horses with them. Gylippus travelled all over Sicily and collected allies against Athens. Now it looked like the tide had turned, and everyone wanted to be on the winning side. The Syracusans even began to build a large fleet of warships to challenge the supremacy of Athens on the sea.

* * *

Now Nicias resumed his accustomed caution, and he wrote to the Athenians that they needed to decide whether to bring the army home or send another army to help. He also told them that they needed to send a new commander, since kidney stones had disabled him. So Demosthenes 5 was sent from Athens with reinforcements.

While Nicias waited for an answer, the Syracusans attacked the Athenian navy, even though they had fewer ships. As everyone was watching the sea fight (which turned out to be a minor victory for the Athenians), Gylippus and a picked force sneaked up and captured the fort of the Plemmyrium [which commanded the entrance to the harbor], where the Athenians had stored all of their money and the equipment for their ships. This put the Athenians in an awkward strategic position because Syracusan ships could anchor near the fort and from there intercept any supply ships entering the harbor.

At last, the news came that Athens had replaced Nicias with other commanders and that reinforcements were on the way. Nicias no longer had the command, but he strongly advised not to risk another battle until those reinforcements arrived. His advice was disregarded because the new commanders wanted to prove how much better they were than Nicias, and they didn't want any reinforcements to share in the glory. The new Athenian commanders ordered an attack, and this time the Athenian navy took a severe beating.

Demosthenes and the reinforcements arrived soon afterwards. This was an even bigger army than the one Nicias had brought with him. There were 73 warships, with 5,000 hoplites and 3,000 archers aboard, banners flying and bands playing. The Syracusans despaired as they beheld from their walls this powerful new force arriving against them. Nicias was glad to see the reinforcements, but his joy did not last long because Demosthenes was eager to make an all-out attack immediately.

Nicias advised patience. He had many spies inside the city, and they told him that the Syracusans were tired of the war and tired especially of Gylippus and his Spartan discipline. Nicias argued that Syracuse would soon give in because the Syracusans would be deserted by their allies and the food and water in the city would run out. This counsel was rejected because it seemed to be more of Nicias' excessive caution.

That same night, Demosthenes led the Athenians in an attack on some steep hills outside the city. At first, the surprise of the attack dislodged the defenders. The Athenians were so encouraged by this initial success that they ran recklessly forward in pursuit.

Then an unexpected counterattack by the Syracusans, formed in a phalanx, sent the disorganized Athenians fleeing back in confusion. In the moonlight, the other Athenians thought that their retreating comrades were enemies, so Athenians started killing each other. The watchword was shouted so often in the confusion that the Syracusans soon learned it and were able to pass through to get behind the Athenian lines.

The Syracusans then raised a mighty shout and charged. Even more than ever, the fear of the enemy made the Athenians mistrust their friends who approached in the dark. The moon was behind the Athenians, so it seemed to magnify the number and the armor of the Syracusans. The moonlight shining on their shields and helmets made them seem more numerous and terrible. Soon, the Athenians panicked and fled, but they were unfamiliar with the terrain, and many of them ran over the cliffs or got lost. When daylight came, the Syracusan horsemen rounded up and killed the stragglers.

Over 2,000 Athenians died in this catastrophic defeat, and few of those that escaped brought their armor back with them. Demosthenes now reconsidered his position and proposed that the whole force of Athenians return to Athens immediately. No more reinforcements, he said, could be expected, and the enemy could not be defeated with the forces that were left. Nicias, however, feared what might happen to him if he returned to Athens without a victory. He advised not go back right away but to move camp to a safer place and give the matter further thought. Demosthenes was too discouraged by his defeat to oppose Nicias, and the others believed that the spies inside Syracuse might still open the gates, so they followed the plan of Nicias.

* * *

Disease began to spread through the Athenian camp. As they waited in misery, the Athenian soldiers heard the news that the Syracusans had just received more men and supplies from the fickle Sicilians, who now were backing Syracuse again. Nicias realized that the situation was hopeless, and he gave orders to pack up and sail back to Athens. But just as the Athenians were about to hoist anchor, there was an eclipse of the moon. Nicias called off the departure until the omens were more favorable.

Even ordinary people understood how an eclipse of the sun is caused by the moon, but only a few philosophers knew why the moon would suddenly turn dark. They kept this knowledge secret out of fear that the ignorant would kill them for being sacrilegious. Natural science was considered by many to be an affront to the majesty of the gods, and only when Plato showed the relation of science to religion did such studies become respectable. 6 In fact, an eclipse of the moon is a good omen for men who are running away, since things done in fear need to be hidden from the light. Unfortunately for Nicias, he had no competent astrologer to give him the right advice, having just lost the man he had relied on for years. Nicias decided that it was necessary to delay departure until the moon's light was clear again -- another whole month.

* * *

As the Athenians waited in their camp, Nicias spent all of his time absorbed in superstition. The Syracusans, even little boys, sailed up to the Athenian fleet with impunity. Stung by these taunts, one day the Athenians chased a Syracusan ship that had come a little too close. Some others came to the rescue, then more Athenian ships joined in, and before long there was a major sea battle, which the Syracusans won.

After this defeat, the Athenian soldiers refused to wait any longer. They demanded to be led away from the squalid mosquito-infested swamp where they were camped. The only possible escape route was now by land, because the Syracusans had managed to block up the passage from the harbor, trapping all of the Athenian ships.

Nicias would not consent to leave almost 200 ships behind, so he tried to break out with one last naval engagement. The Athenians were only able to man 110 ships because there was a shortage of oars. The camp was abandoned as the Athenians got ready for battle. That left the temple of Hercules open to the Syracusans, and for the first time since the invasion they were able to sacrifice there. Word came from Hercules, according to the fortune-tellers, that the Syracusans would be victorious so long as they were not the aggressors, just as Hercules had beaten his opponents by waiting for them to make the first move.

The confidence of the Syracusans as they rowed out to fight was matched by the desperation of the Athenians. With over 200 warships fighting in the harbor of Syracuse, there was not much room for maneuvering and ramming. The spectators agonized over the outcome for a long time while the fight continued even, but eventually the light and quick Syracusan ships were able to get an advantage because they could swarm on any of the heavy Athenian ships that got out of formation. Also, the Syracusans did not use arrows and javelins as weapons, but instead used sharp stones thrown from slings. The Athenians retreated back to shore and beached their ships.

Now the way out by sea was definitely closed off, and the Athenians would have to fight their way out by land. They were so discouraged that they did not even resist when the Syracusans came and towed away the Athenian ships.

After the naval victory, Gylippus could not collect enough men to block the retreat of the Athenians, because everyone in Syracuse was busy celebrating. But he sent some double-agents to the Athenian camp with false news that the Syracusans had set up an ambush to catch them if they tried to get away that night. These were men that Nicias thought were his own spies, and Nicias believed them. That gave the Syracusans time the next day to set up roadblocks. After yet another day's delay, the Athenians finally moved out.

The sick and wounded had to be left behind, and there was no chance to give the dead a decent burial. Men called out to their brothers and friends not to leave them behind for the enemy, and some of the wounded tried to follow as far as they could. But the saddest sight of all was old Nicias himself: tormented by kidney stones, worn out with worrying, and ashamed of failure. Nicias did his share of the labor and tried in all ways he could think of to raise the spirits of his men by showing them a good example of a man undaunted by misfortune.

They now remembered how he had tried to talk them out of going to Sicily. Out of all of them, they said, he least deserved what he now suffered so bravely. Seeing Nicias, the most devout of all men in his religious practices, now treated no better than the most wicked among them, they abandoned all that remained of their hope that the gods might help them to escape.

For eight days the Athenians marched, fighting all the way. Demosthenes and his men fell behind and were taken prisoner. By now, hunger and especially thirst were torturing the exhausted Athenians. Nicias asked for terms of surrender from Gylippus, and offered total indemnity for all of the damage caused by the war. But now the Syracusans were not willing to negotiate.

The thirsty Athenians marched on for another day under a rain of arrows. At last they came to water -- a river that they had to cross. At the sight of water the Athenian soldiers broke ranks and fell down into the mud to drink. There they were slaughtered. Those who were spared were led away as prisoners.7

The Syracusans put the Athenians to work in their rock quarries, where most of them died. As for Nicias, they stoned him to death in Syracuse upon their triumphal return.


1. Luck was with Cleon. Just as he arrived at Pylos a fire broke out on the island and burned the Spartans out of their fortifications in the forest there. The Athenian army was able to land and to surround the survivors. The Spartans had to surrender, and Cleon returned home as a conquering hero, much to the shame of Nicias. But this lucky success only set Cleon up for disaster. Cleon got the command of an army at Amphipolis, where he met a large force of Spartans in an important battle. His inept strategy tangled up his own army, and as soon as he saw the Spartans coming at him Cleon forgot that he was the general and ran away as fast as he could. But not fast enough -- he was caught by a Myrcinian peltast and killed. The Athenian army was crushed at Amphipolis, and this defeat led to peace.

2. Plutarch's life of Alcibiades has not been included in this collection. In his life of Lycurgus, Plutarch informs us that Pericles was the guardian of Alcibiades, so presumably Alcibiades inherited the leadership of the democrats. Alcibiades was a pupil of the famous philosopher, Socrates.

3. Syracuse was the principal city of Sicily. This prophecy greatly encouraged the Athenians to go ahead with the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.

4. Adonis, the son of Myrrha and her father, was such a handsome lad that Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love herself, fell in love with this mortal. Despite her warnings, Adonis died in a hunting accident. Aphrodite turned his blood into flowers, and the girls of Greece mourned for Adonis every year.

5. This was not the famous orator Demosthenes, who came much later.

6. Plato (428 - 347 B.C.) reconciled religion to science by making reason paramount. According to the Platonic view, as man discovers the laws of nature, he gropes toward the gods, who are superior in their ability to reason. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, all honest intellectual effort is therefore an act of piety. The real world, said Plato, is constructed from the blueprints of the world of ideals, so the physical and metaphysical spheres are integrated, not separate. Through deductions in the world of phenomena, mortals may face the world of forms, or archetypes of experience. As a priest of Apollo, the god of reason, Plutarch shared Plato's confidence in the ultimate goodness of the universe. Plato was the pupil of Socrates (469 - 399 B.C.). Socrates' dialogue with Nicias on the subject of courage is recorded by Plato in the Laches. For Socrates, reason was a solvent for dissolving smugness. It seems that Socrates had too little faith and too many questions, although he was the most moral of men. The Athenians condemned him to death for doubting the democratic political/religious orthodoxy. Surrounded by his students, he cheerfully drank his poison and died. Plato, his most famous pupil, recorded this scene in his dialogue the Phaedo, and Plato's account of Socrates' trial is found in another work, The Apology.

7. Thucydides describes the events of the Sicilian Expedition in great detail. This defeat occurred in 413 B.C., two years after Nicias left Athens. Thucydides also describes the other events in the Peloponnesian War up until 411 B.C., at which point Xenophon continues the history.

You Might Also Like