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Nicias Niceratou Cydantides

(ca. 470-413 B.C.) An Athenian politician prominent during the first half of the Peloponnesian War (431-404). Nicias is best known for arranging a halt to that war in 421 (“Peace of Nicias”) and for presiding over an Athenian military disaster in Sicily in which he lost his life.


Little is known of Nicias' father, Niceratus. A wealthy man, Nicias was one of the biggest known slaveholders in late fifth century Athens. The family's money came from interests in silver mines (Plut. Nic. 4). Nicias continued the family investment and was said to have employed 1,000 men in the mines (Xen. Ways 4.14).


Since Niceratus is unknown in Athenian politics, Nicias may have had to proceed as a newcomer. Nicias probably sought the patronage of Pericles. Plutarch implies that he was Pericles' political heir (Plut. Nic. 2). Thucydides makes no mention of Nicias' early political significance. There Nicias appears for the first time in 427 leading an Athenian expedition to the island of Minoa just off Megara (Thuc. 3.51). In the years thereafter Nicias held important (but not momentous) military commands (Thuc. 3.91; Thuc. 4.42).

It was also in 425 that a confrontation occurred in the assembly which provides insight into Nicias' character (Thuc 4.26-41). As general that year Nicias was held responsible by the demagogue Cleon for the stalemate at Sphacteria. Cleon demanded in the assembly that Nicias act decisively to capture the Spartans on the island. Cleon pointed to Nicias and claimed that “if only the generals were real men” the Spartans could be easily brought back to Athens and boasted that if he himself were in command the matter would be quickly resolved (Thuc. 4.27). Nicias replied by turning his command over to Cleon. Ancient and modern observers have judged Nicias harshly for bowing to the reckless Cleon (Plut. Nic. 9).

In 424 Nicias achieved his greatest military success. A force under his command occupied Cythera, a large island off the southern Peloponnesus. Thucydides says that the occupation of Cythera brought Spartan morale to a low level (Thuc. 4.55). From 423 to 421 Nicias was closely involved in peace negotiations with Sparta. In March 423 an armistice was arranged and in 421 a fifty-year alliance was concluded (Thuc. 4.119, Thuc. 5.17-24). Nicias was present at these conferences, taking the oath of peace on each occasion. As the most important Athenian at the time, the peace came to be named after Nicias. The contemporary Thucydides does not refer to the accord as the “Peace of Nicias” but Andocides does use such terminology (Andoc. 3.8).

At this point in the Peloponnesian War, Nicias is usually considered to be the spokesman for conservative elements which constituted a “peace party” at Athens. Plutarch implies that Nicias forged an alliance with the wealthy and older citizens as well as with rural landlords and peasants. These men had the most to gain from an end to hostilities (Plut. Nic. 9_rpar;. Nicias himself also had reason to hope for peace. Thucydides states (Thuc. 5.16_rpar;: “Nicias wished to rest upon his laurels, to find an immediate release from toil and trouble both for himself and for his fellow citizens.”

By 420 the peace between Sparta and Athens had collapsed. In that year Nicias made a last attempt to repair the rupture. He traveled to Sparta to seek, among other things, Spartan help in the return of Amphipolis. In the balance lay not only war or peace but also Nicias' own strategy. The embassy failed and hostilities soon resumed. Thucydides reports that Nicias was attacked upon his return to Athens for the failure of his peace (Thuc. 5.46).

The opposition to Nicias and his supporters came from new demagogues, most notably the young and talented Alcibiades. The two men were thorough contrasts. In 418 Nicias was approximately 52 years old while Alcibiades was perhaps 32. More than the different values and temperaments of two generations divided the men. Nicias had appeared on the political scene from a relatively unknown family; Alcibiades was a descendant of the famed Cleisthenes and nephew to Pericles. Nicias was a conservative in politics and war; Alcibiades was brilliant and daring. Finally, Nicias was superstitious and pious (Thuc. 7.50; Plut. Nic. 3.4); while Alcibiades became infamous for sacrilege.

By 417 a crisis of leadership had developed. Alcibiades and Nicias were elected generals but advocated imcompatible military policies. The solution proposed by Hyperbolus was the old Athenian practice of ostracism. It was assumed the process would eliminate either Nicias or Alcibiades and leave the state with a single leader and policy. The wily Alcibiades, however, thwarted Hyperbolus and allied himself with Nicias. The result was that Hyperbolus' name appeared on a majority of the ostraka and the demagogue was promptly ostracized (Plut. Nic. 11; Plut. Alc. 13).

The alliance between Alcibiades and Nicias was only temporary. A debate in the assembly over the proposed Sicilian expedition revealed the differing policies and characters of the two men (Thuc. 6.8-26). The Athenians voted to send 60 ships to Sicily under Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus. Nicias was utterly opposed to the project. When the assembly met to consider the logistics of the expedition Nicias leveled a bitter attack on Alcibiades and Athenian adventurism and asked the Athenians to reconsider, calling on support from older men. Nicias emphasized the strength of the Sicilian cities and reminded the Athenians that they were risking a two-front war (Thuc. 6.10,20-22). (It is interesting to note that many of the concerns Nicias voiced in the debate--for example his fears over the Syracusan cavalry and Athenian supply lines--turned out to be well-founded.) In a last attempt to dissuade the Athenians Nicias recommended that only a very large force could succeed in the project (Thuc. 6.19). This strategy was indeed a blunder. Not only did the Athenians quickly approve Nicias' request, they also gave the generals powers to call on whatever forces they saw fit. Instead of giving the Athenians cause to pause in their plans, Nicias actually increased the risks of the Sicilian expedition. Perhaps most surprising of all is Nicias' decision to take part in an expedition he opposed.

The drama of the Athenian expedition to Sicily (415-413 B.C) is vividly treated by Thucydides in books six and seven. Modern historians have often assigned Nicias a large part of the blame for the Athenian defeat in Sicily. Thucydides does not explicitly do so, but does record numerous strategic blunders committed by the general. Two in particular loom large. The first allowed reinforcements to reach Syracuse when Nicias neglected to complete his northern wall around Syracuse (Thuc. 7.1,6). Later, when the Athenian position had deteriorated and speedy withdrawal was critical, the superstitious general delayed a breakout for an entire month because of a lunar eclipse (Thuc. 7.50. The eclipse can be pinpointed to August 27, 413 B.C.) In the intervening period the Syracusans sealed the harbor to trap Nicias and the Athenians. When attempts to breakout finally came it was too late. In Nicias' defence it should be noted that the general suffered from a kidney illness in Sicily and had personally written to Athens asking to be relieved (Thuc. 7.8-15; Plut. Nic. 17-18). On the eighth day of the Athenian retreat from Syracuse Nicias surrendered to Gylippus in hopes of saving his men and was soon executed (Thuc. 7.85).

ancient and Modern Views of Nicias.

Nicias stands as one of the most important personalities in Thucydides' History. Although many of his actions in the History are blameworthy, the final judgement of Thucydides on Nicias is surprising: "he was killed, a man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved to come to so miserable an end, since the whole of his life had been devoted to the study and practice of virtue ἀρετή." This statement has led to much modern debate about Thucydides' view of Nicias. Several of Aristophanes' comedies also contain contemporary references to Nicias: see, for example, Aristoph. Birds 593-595. Contemporary Athenians may not have been as charitable as Thucydides in their view of Nicias after the Sicilian debacle. The second century A.D. travel writer Pausanias records having seen a stele commemorating the Athenian generals who had died in Sicily. Nicias' name had been left off the list. Pausanias' reason for the omission was that Nicias had been "unmanly in war" (Paus. 1.29.11-12).

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Vincent Burns
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