previous next


3. One of the most celebrated of the Athenian generals engaged during the Peloponnesian war. He was the son of Niceratus, from whom he inherited a large fortune, derived mainly from the silver mines at Laureium, of which he was a very large lessee, employing in them as many as 1000 slaves. (Xen. Mem. 2.5.2, de Vect. 4.14; Athen. 6.272e.) His property was valued at 100 talents. (Lys. pro Arist. Bonis, p. 648.) From this cause, combined with his unambitious character, and his aversion to all dangerous innovations, he was naturally brought into connection with the aristocratical portion of his fellow-citizens. He was several times associated with Pericles, as strategus; and his great prudence and high character gained for him considerable influence. (On the death of Pericles he came forward more openly as the opponent of Cleon, and the other demagogues of Athens; but from his military reputation, the mildness of his character, and the liberal use which he made of his great wealth, he was looked upon with respect, and some measure of attachment, by all classes of the citizens. His timidity led hint to buy off the attacks of the sycophants. This feature of his character was ridiculed by more than one comic poet of the day. The splendour with which he discharged the office of choregus exceeded anything that had been seen before. On one occasion, when charged with the conduct of the Theoria to Delos, he made a remarkable display of his wealth and munificence. To prevent the confusion which usually ensued when the Chorus landed at Delos amidst the crowd of spectators, he landed first at Rheneia; and having had a bridge prepared before he left Athens, it was thrown across the channel between Rheneia and Delos, in the course of the night, and by daybreak it was ready, adorned in the most sumptuous manner with gilding and tapestry, for the orderly procession of the Chorus. After the ceremonies were over he consecrated a brasen palm tree to Apollo, together with a piece of land, which he purchased at the cost of 10,000 drachmae, directing that the proceeds of it should be laid out by the Delians in sacrifices and feasts; the only condition which he annexed being, that they should pray for the blessing of the god upon the founder. His strong religious feeling was perhaps as much concerned in this dedication, as his desire of popularity. It was told of him that he sacrificed every day, and even kept a soothsayer in his house, that he might consult the will of the gods not only about public affairs, but likewise respecting his own private fortunes. Aristophanes ridicules him rather severely in the Equites for his timidity and superstition (l. 28, &c., 80, 112, 358). The excessive dread which Nicias entertained of informers led him to keep as much as possible in retirement. He made himself difficult of access; and the few friends who were admitted to his privacy industriously spread the belief that he devoted himself with such untiring zeal to the public interests, as to sacrifice enjoyment, sleep, and even health, in the service of the state. His characteristic caution was the distinguishing feature of his military career. He does not seem to have displayed any very great ability, still less anything like genius, in the science of strategy; but he was cautious and wary, and does not appear on a single occasion to have beemi guilty of any act of remissness, unless it were in the siege of Syracuse. Hence his military operations were almost invariably successful. In B. C. 427 he led an expedition against the island of Minoa, which lies in front of Megara, and took it. (Thuc. 3.51.) In the following year he led an armament of sixty triremes, with 2000 heavy-armed soldiers, against the island of Melos. He ravaged the island, but the town held out; and the troops being needed for an attack upon Tanagra, he withdrew, and, after ravaging the coast of Locris, returned home. (Thuc. 3.91; Diod. 12.65.) He was one of the generals in B. C. 425, when the Spartans were shut up in Sphacteria. The amusing circumstances under which he commissioned his enemy, Cleon, to reduce the island, have already been described in the article CLEON [Vol. I. p. 797]. In the same year Nicias led an expedition into the territory of Corinth. He defeated the Corinthians in battle, but, apprehending the arrival of reinforcements for the enemy's troops, he re-embarked his forces. Two of the slain, however, having been left behind, whom the Athenians had not been able to find at the time, Nicias resigned the honours of victory for the purpose of recovering them, and sent a herald to ask for their restoration. He then proceeded to Crommyon, where he ravaged the land, and then directed his course to the territory of Epidaurus. Having carried a wall across the isthmus connecting Methone with the main land, and left a garrison in the place, he returned home. (Thuc. 4.42-45; Diod. 12.65.) In B. C. 424, with two colleagues, he led an expedition to the coasts of Laconia and captured the island of Cythera, a success gained with the greater facility, as he had previously had negotiations with some of the Cytherians. He stationed an Athenian garrison in the island, and ravaged the coast of Laconia for seven days. On his return he ravaged the territory of Epidaurus in Laconia, and took Thyrea, where the Spartans had settled the Aeginetans after their expulsion from their own island. These Aeginetans having been conveyed to Athens were put to death by the Athenians. (Thuc. 4.54; Diod. l.c.) In B. C. 423, Nicias and Nicostratus were sent with an army to Chalcidice to check the movements of Brasidas. They obtained possession of Mende, and blockaded Scione; while thus engaged they entered into an agreement with Perdiccas. Having finished the circumvallation of Scione, they returned home. (Thuc. 4.130-- 132.)

The death of Cleon removed out of the way of Nicias the only rival whose power was at all commensurate with his own, and he now exerted all his influence to bring about a peace. He had secured the gratitude of the Spartans by his humane treatment of the prisoners taken at Sphacteria, so that he found no difficulty in assuming the character of mediator between the belligerent powers. The negotiations ended in the peace of B. C. 421, which was called the peace of Nicias on account of the share which he had had in bringing it about. (Thuc. 5.16, 19, 24, 7.86.) In consequence of the opposition of the Boeotians, Corinthians, and others, and the hostile disposition of Argos, this peace was soon followed by a treaty of defensive alliance between Athens and Sparta. According to Theophrastus, Nicias, by bribing the Spartan commissioners, contrived that Sparta should take the oaths first. Grounds for dissatisfaction, however, speedily arose between the two states. The jealousy felt by the Athenians was industriously increased by Alcibiades, at whose suggestion an embassy came from Argos in B. C. 420, to propose an alliance. The Spartan envoys who came to oppose it were entrapped by Alcibiades into exhibiting an appearance of double dealing, and it required all the influence of Nicias to prevent the Athenians from at once concluding an alliance with Argos. He induced them to send him at the head of an embassy to Sparta to demand satisfaction with respect to the points on which the Athenians felt themselves aggrieved. The Spartan government would not comply with their demands, and Nicias could only procure a fresh ratification of the existing treaties. On his return the alliance with Argos was resolved on. (Thuc. 5.43, 46.)

The dissensions between Nicias and Alcibiades now greatly increased, and the ostracism of one or other began to be talked of. The demagogue Hyperbolus strove to secure the banishment of one of them that he might have a better chance of making head against the other. But Nicias and Alcibiades, perceiving his designs, united their influence against their common enemy, and the ostracism fell on Hyperbolus.

In B. C. 415, the Athenians resolved on sending their great expedition to Sicily, on the pretext of assisting the Segestaeans and Leontines. Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus were appointed to the command. Nicias, who, besides that he disapproved of the expedition altogether, was in feeble health, did all that he could to divert the Athenians from this course. He succeeded in getting the question put again to the vote; but even his representations of the magnitude of the preparations required did not produce the effect which he wished. On the contrary, the Athenians derived from them grounds for still greater confidence; and Nicias and the other generals were empowered to raise whatever forces they thought requisite. When the armament arrived at Rhegium, finding the hopes which the Athenians had entertained with regard to the Segestaeans futile, in a conference of the generals Nicias proposed that they should call upon the Segestaeans to provide pay, if not for the whole armament, at least for the amount of the succours which they had requested, and that, if they furnished these. the forces should stay till they had brought the Selinuntines to terms, and then return home, after coasting the island to display the power of Athens. But the intermediate plan of Alcibiades was finally adopted. After the recall of Alcibiades Nicias found no difficulty in securing the concurrence of Lamachus in his plans. From Catana, which had come over to the Athenians and been made their head-quarters, Nicias and Lamachus proceeded with all their forces towards Segesta. On their way they captured Hyccara. Nicias went himself to Segesta, but could only obtain thirty talents. On their return they seem to have remained almost inactive for some time, but in the autumn they prepared to attack Syracuse. By a skilful stratagem the Athenians without molestation took possession of a station near the Olympieum, by the harbour of Syracuse. A battle took place the next day, in which the Syracusans were defeated. But, being in want of cavalry and money, the Athenians sailed away, and for the first part of the winter took up their station at Naxos. They were unsuccessful in their endeavours to induce Camarina to join them, but secured the assistance of several of the Sicel tribes. Even some Etruscan cities promised aid, and envoys were sent to Carthage. From Naxos Nicias removed to Catana. Additional supplies were sent from Athens, and arrived at Catana in the spring (B. C. 414). Nicias now made preparations for seizing Epipolae, in which ho was successful; and the circumvallation of Syracuse was immediately commenced. The work proceeded rapidly, and all attempts of the Syracusans to stood it were defeated. In a battle which took place in the marsh Lamachus was slain. It fortunately happened at this juncture that Nicias, who was afflicted with a painful disorder of the eyes, was left upon Epipolae, and his presence prevented the Syracusans from succeeding in a bold attempt which they made to gain possession of the heights and destroy the Athenian works. The circumvallation was now nearly completed, and the doom of Syracuse seemed sealed, when Gylippus arrived in Sicily [GYLIPPUS]. Nicias, for the first time in his life probably, allowed his confidence of success to render him remiss, and he neglected to prevent Gylippus from making his way into Syracuse. He seems now to have supposed that he should be unable to stop the erection of a counter-wall on Epipolae, and therefore abandoned the heights and established his army on the headland of Plemmyrium, where he erected three forts. His forces were defeated in an attempt to hinder the completion of the counterwork of the Syracusans. Succours were now called in by the Syracusans from all quarters, and Nicias found himself obliged to send to Athens for reinforcements, as his ships were becoming unsound, and their crews were rapidly thinned by deaths and desertions. He requested at the same time that another commander might be sent to supply his place, as his disorder rendered him unequal to the discharge of his duties. The Athenians voted reinforcements, which were placed under the command of Demosthenes and Eurymedon. But they would not allow Nicias to resign his command.

Meantime, Gylippus induced the Syracusans to try their fortune in a sea-fight. During the heat of the action he gained possession of the forts on Plemmyrium. The sea-fight at first was against the Athenians; but the confusion caused by the arrival of the reinforcements to the Syracusans from Corinth enabled the Athenians to attack them at an advantage, and gain a victory. Other contests followed in the great harbour, and in a severe engagement the Athenians were defeated with considerable loss. But at this moment the Athenian reinforcements arrived.

At the suggestion of Demosthenes, a bold attempt was made in the night to recover Epipolae, in which the Athenians, after being all but successful, were finally driven back with severe loss. Demosthenes now proposed to abandon the siege and return to Athens. To this Nicias would not consent. He professed to stand in dread of the Athenians at home, but he appears to have had reasons for believing that a party amongst the Syracusans themselves were likely in no long time to facilitate the reduction of the city, and, at his urgent instance, his colleagues consented to remain for a little longer. But meantime fresh succours arrived for the Syracusans; sickness was making ravages among the Athenian troops, and at length Nicias himself saw the necessity of retreating. Secret orders were given that every thing should be in readiness for departure, supplies were countermanded, and nothing seemed likely to prevent their unmolested retreat, when an eclipse of the moon happened. The credulous superstition of Nicias now led to the total destruction of the Athenian armament. The soothsayers interpreted the event as an injunction from the gods that they should not retreat before the next full moon, and Nicias resolutely determined to abide by their decision. The Syracusans now resolved to bring the enemy to an engagement, and, after some successful skirmishing, in a decisive naval battle defeated the Athenians, though a body of their land forces received an unimportant check. They were now masters of the harbour, and the Athenians were reduced to the necessity of making a desperate effort to escape. Nicias exerted himself to the utmost to encourage the men, but the Athenians were decisively defeated, and could not even be induced to attempt to force their way at day-break through the bar at the mouth of the harbour. They set out on their retreat into the interior of Sicily. Nieias, though bowed down by bodily as well as mental sufferings, used all his arguments to cheer the men. For the details of the retreat the reader is referred to Thucydides. Nicias and Demosthenes, with the miserable remnant of the troops, were compelled to surrender. Gylippus was desirous of carrying Nicias to Sparta; but those of the Syracusans with whom Nicias had opened a secret correspondence, fearing lest its betrayal should bring them into difficulties, eagerly urged that he should be put to death. His execution draws the following just remarks from Bishop Thirlwall (Hist. of Greece, vol. iii. p. 455): " His death filled up the measure of a singular destiny, by which the reputation he had acquired by his prudence and fortune, his liberality and patriotism, his strength as well as his weakness, all the good and the bad qualities of his mind and character, his talents and judgment, as well as his credulity and superstition, his premature timidity, his tardy courage, his long protracted wavering and his unseasonable resolution, contributed in nearly equal degrees to his own ruin and to the fall of his country. The historian deplores his undeserved calamity; but the fate of the thousands whom he involved in his disasters was perhaps still more pitiable." According to Pausanias (1.29.12), his name was omitted on a monument raised at Athens to the memory of those who fell in Sicily, because he surrendered himself voluntarily. (Plut. Nicias; Diod. 12.83, &c.; Thuc. vi. and vii.; Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, vol. iii. cc. 25 and 26.)

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
427 BC (1)
425 BC (1)
424 BC (1)
423 BC (1)
421 BC (1)
420 BC (1)
415 BC (1)
414 BC (1)
hide References (16 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (16):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 12.83
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 12.65
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.29.12
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.51
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.130
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.45
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.43
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.91
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.19
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.24
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.46
    • Thucydides, Histories, 7.86
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.5.2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.16
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.42
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.54
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: