On Sicily the Athenians had cast longing eyes even while Pericles was living; and after his death they actually tried to lay hands upon it. The lesser expeditions which they sent thither from time to time, ostensibly for the aid and comfort of their allies on the island who were being wronged by the Syracusans, they regarded merely as stepping stones to the greater expedition of conquest.
But the man who finally fanned this desire of theirs into flame, and persuaded them not to attempt the island any more in part and little by little, but to sail thither with a great armament and subdue it utterly, was Alcibiades; he persuaded the people to have great hopes, and he himself had greater aspirations still. Such were his hopes that he regarded Sicily as a mere beginning, and not, like the rest, as an end of the expedition.
So while Nicias was trying to divert the people from the capture of Syracuse as an undertaking too difficult for them, Alcibiades was dreaming of Carthage and Libya, and, after winning these, of at once encompassing Italy and Peloponnesus. He almost regarded Sicily as the ways and means provided for his greater war. The young men were at once carried away on the wings of such hopes, and their elders kept recounting in their ears many wonderful things about the projected expedition. Many were they who sat in the palaestras and lounging-places mapping out in the sand the shape of Sicily and the position of Libya and Carthage.1
Socrates the philosopher, however, and Meton the astrologer, are said to have had no hopes that any good would come to the city from this expedition; Socrates, as it is likely, because he got an inkling of the future from the divine guide who was his familiar. Meton—whether his fear of the future arose from mere calculation or from his use of some sort of divination—feigned madness, and seizing a blazing torch, was like to have set fire to his own house.
Some say, however, that Meton made no pretence of madness, but actually did burn his house down in the night, and then, in the morning, came before the people begging and praying that, in view of his great calamity, his son might be released from the expedition. At any rate, he succeeded in cheating his fellow citizens, and obtained his desire.2