The summer was now spent when Nicias learned that the Syracusans had plucked up courage and were going to take the initiative and come out against him. Their horsemen already had the insolence to ride up to the Athenian camp and ask its occupants whether they had come to share the homes of the Catanians or to restore the Leontines to their old homes. At last, therefore, and reluctantly, Nicias set out to sail against Syracuse.
Wishing to establish his forces there deliberately and without fear of interruption from the enemy, he secretly sent on a man of Catana with a message for the Syracusans: if they wished to find the camp and equipment of the Athenians abandoned of defenders, they must come in full force to Catana on a given day, for that the friends of the Syracusans in the city, where the Athenians spent most of their time, had determined, on perceiving their approach, to seize the gates and set fire to the Athenian fleet; the conspirators were already many and awaited their coming.
This was the best generalship that Nicias displayed in Sicily. He brought his enemy out of their city in full force, thereby almost emptying it of defenders, while he himself put out to sea from Catana, got control of the enemy's harbors, and seized a spot for his camp where he was confident that he would suffer least injury from that arm of the service in which he was inferior, the cavalry, and meet no hindrance in fighting with that arm whereon he most relied.
When the Syracusans hurried back from Catana and drew up in order of battle before their own city, Nicias led his Athenians swiftly against them and carried the day. He did not slay many of the enemy, it is true, for their horsemen prevented his pursuit; he had to content himself with cutting to pieces and destroying the bridges over the river, and thus gave Hermocrates occasion to say, as he sought to encourage the Syracusans, that Nicias was ridiculous in maneuvering so as not to give battle, as though it was not for battle that he had crossed the seas.
However, he did infuse fegr and mighty consternation into the Syracusans, so that in place of their fifteen generals then in office they elected three others, to whom the people pledged themselves under oath that they would surely suffer them to command with full and independent powers.
The Olympieum was hard by, and the Athenians set out to seize it, inasmuch as it contained many offerings of gold and silver. But Nicias purposely delayed operations until it was too late, and allowed a garrison from Syracuse to enter in, because he thought that if his soldiers plundered the temple's treasures the commonwealth would get no advantage from it, and he himself would incur the blame for the sacrilege.
Of his victory, which was so noised about, he made no use whatever, but after a few days had elapsed withdrew again to Naxos, and there spent the winter, making large outlays on his vast armament, but effecting little in his negotiations with the few Sicels who thought of coming over to his side. The Syracusans therefore plucked up courage again, marched out to Catana, ravaged the fields, and burnt what had been the Athenian camp.
These things all men laid to the charge of Nicias, since, as they said, by his excessive calculation and hesitation and caution he let the proper time for action go by for ever. When he was once in action no one could find fault with the man, for after he set out to do a thing he was vigorous and effective; but in venturing out to do it he was hesitating and timid.