Deceit and Espionage in Thucydides (Jordan Butler, 2016)

Abstract: Deception was an aspect of warfare the Greeks had a special relationship with. By the time of the Peloponnesian War, the two greatest wars in their history had been decided by guile, rather than might. Thucydides demonstrates that the lessons taught by the Trojan and Persian Wars were learned by the Greeks of his time. However, Thucy dides clearly depicts these tricksters in a harsh, unforgiving light, holding them directly accountable for the chaos that resulted from their deception. In Books 6, 7, and 8, of his the Peloponnesian War he showcases the deceit and subterfuge employed by the Sicilian’s and the Athenians during the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition, and the war after, and shows how this played a major, cataclysmic role in changing the outcome of the war.


Agamemnon sailed for Troy with ten thousand ships of the finest warriors in all of Greece. Amongst their ranks walked legendary warriors, men like Achilles, Ajax, and Diomedes. And yet, the combined might of all the Greeks did not bring down the Trojan walls. Instead, it was the ingenuity and deception of the Ithacan King, Odysseus, which allowed the Greeks to finally end the decade-long siege. When Xerxes and his Persians invaded Greece, it was not the mighty Spartans who turned the tide of the war, but rather the wily Themistocles who, through subterfuge, caused the Persian navy to face, and be defeated by, the Athenians at the straits of Salamis. The lesson the Greeks learned from these two Hellenic heroes would have made Sun Tzu proud. Espionage, deception, and subterfuge became regular tools of warfare across Greece. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides is filled with example after example of how the ancient Hellenes used cleverness to their own advantage. In the final three books of the work, Thucydides lays out the gargantuan blunder that was the Sicilian Expedition, and demonstrates how guile and deception changed the war, and led to the destruction of the Athenian empire. To understand how these underhanded tactics fundamentally changed the war, one must look at each of the three books and the period it covers: Book 6, the beginning of the Sicilian Expedition, Book 7, the end of the Expedition, and finally Book 8, and the aftermath of the Athenian defeat.

Despite the fantastic role model in all things wily and deceptive that Themistocles was, Book 6 opens with the Athenians being the deceived, not the deceiver. When the city of Egesta comes to Athens requesting aid for their war with their neighboring Sicilian cities of Selinus and the powerful Syracuse, the Athenians agreed on the promise that the Egestans will pay for all war expenses (Thuc. 6.8). However, the Athenians have been greatly misled. When their envoys went to Egesta to verify that the Egestans had the wealth needed, the Egestans gathered all the silver cups and treasures they could find, and used them carelessly to create the illusion of wealth. Thucydides writes that “the effect of which was most dazzling upon the Athenian sailors, and made them talk loudly of the riches they had seen when they got back to Athens.” (Thuc. 6.46) By the time the Athenians discovered the ruse, the entirety of the fleet had made it to Sicily, and though the Athenian general Nicias argues to return home, Alcibiades, the proponent of the invasion and political rival to Nicias, urges the Athenians to fight on (Thuc. 6.47-50).

If any Athenian learned the lessons of Themistocles, however, it was certainly Alcibiades. Thucydides’ dislike of the young Athenian aristocrat is far from subtle. Throughout the work, Alcibiades is depicted as egotistical, greedy, wily, traitorous, and power hungry, but Thucydides’ most stark condemnation comes from his description of the arguments before the launching of the fleet. Though he praises his capability as a general, he also writes that “in his private life his habits [he] gave offense to everyone, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.” (Thuc. 370) Thucydides is clear where he places the blame for the unmitigated disaster of the Sicilian Expedition. It lies squarely at the feet of Alcibiades, the man who was duped by the Egestans and advocated for continuing the war anyway. Alcibiades is unique amongst the array of characters Thucydides talks about because he is to blame not just for the sin of being deceived, but also for deceiving others. The unscrupulous aristocrat, for what is admittedly likely a show trial by political enemies, gets recalled to Athens to stand before the Assembly. However, refusing to do so, Alcibiades then abandons the Athenians in Sicily (Thuc. 6.61). In his absence, Nicias and the other commanders use deception to aid the Athenians, tricking the Syracusans into leaving their city to attack by allowing misinformation about the Athenian camp to spread to the enemy. The Athenians capitalize on this, and prevail in the first major battle against the Syracusans (Thuc. 6.64-70). However, it was not long before Alcibiades’ betrayal started to wreak havoc for the Athenians. Athens had a group of Pro-Athenian conspirators prepared to open the gates of Messana upon their arrival, but in an act of counter-espionage, Alcibiades turned over the names of the conspirators to Syracusan allies in Messana. Nicias was met with closed gates, not open (Thuc. 6.74). Following this, Alcibiades, a man who benefitted greatly under the democracy at Athens, defected to their enemies, the oligarchic Spartans. In a moment when the Athenians look as if they have the Syracusans defeated, Alcibiades’ ultimate betrayal is made apparent. Listing the reason for the expedition as being the eventual conquest of the Peloponnesus, a reason he did not give when trying to encourage the Athenians to war, Alcibiades ensures Spartan aid to the Syracusans, which arrives just in time to prolong the expedition, ending Book 6 (Thuc. 6.89-105).

After leaving on that dire note for the Athenians, Thucydides spends Book 7 finishing the story of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. While deception, misinformation, and subterfuge certainly played a role in the last half of the war in Sicily, Thucydides shifts focus away from deception in politics and towards tactical deception. During an Athenian blockade of Syracuse, the Syracusans brilliantly move their market closer to the port. Unknown to the Athenians, this allowed the Syracusans to shorten the time in which they broke for meals, allowing them to swiftly return to battle, catching the Athenians off guard (Thuc. 7.38-41). Later on, Thucydides briefly mentions that Nicias is unwilling to break the siege of Syracuse because informants within the city have revealed that Syracuse is running out of materials and funds to wage war (Thuc. 7.48). While easily overlooked, this small comment reveals that the Athenian command was essentially engaging in espionage with a spy network inside of the city, an aspect of warfare fundamental to fighting misinformation. Later on, after the Athenian defeat at Syracuse, the Athenian army tries to plan an overland escape. However, the Syracusan Hermocrates sends messengers to deceive the Athenians into thinking the roads were guarded, causing them to stall their retreat long enough for Hermocrates to actually reinforce the roads (Thuc. 7.73-75). This delay ultimately allows the Syracusans to follow and eventually destroy the Athenian Expedition as they retreated, not only winning the war, but devastating Athens in the process.

In perhaps one of the most startling examples of someone speaking plainly and honestly during this period, the Athenian general Nicias writes home to Athens, and accurately and frankly describes the failing war effort, requesting to be brought home. Thucydides quotes Nicias’s own reason for being honest: “I know that it is your nature to love to be told the best side of things, and then to blame the teller if the expectations which he has raised in your minds are not answered by the result; and I therefor thought it safest to declare to you the truth.” (Thuc. 7.15) Contrasting Thucydides’ treatment of the honest Nicias with that of the dishonest Alcibiades, one starts to get a picture of what Thucydides thought of deception. When writing of the unfortunate demise of the Athenian general, Thucydides writes that “of all the Hellenes in my time, [the man who] least deserved such a fate, seeing that the whole course of his life had been regulated with strict attention to virtue.” (Thuc. 7.86) Though Nicias in many ways plays a part in prolonging the failed Expedition, Thucydides’ depiction of him gives insight into who he thought deserved the blame for deception and subterfuge: the deceiver, not the deceived.

With the end of Book 7 comes the end of the Sicilian Expedition. However in Book 8, Thucydides looks at the direct aftermath of the colossal Athenian failure, and in particular, at the role of Alcibiades beyond Sicily. Here, the theme of subterfuge shifts away from a tactical and back towards a more political usage. Alcibiades, still allied with Sparta, takes on a more personal role against Athens. Using his infamous silver tongue to get a small fleet, Alcibiades goes to the Athenian allies of Chios, Erythrae, and Clazomenae, and deceives them into thinking the Peloponnesian fleet is coming, inciting the Ionian city-states to revolt against Athens, while the Peloponnesian fleet is reeling from a crushing defeat (Thuc. 8.12-8.15). Since Athens is greatly weakened from the Expedition, city-states across Ionia are provoked to revolt, with Athens struggling to put out each fire before another starts. Despite the success of this strategy, Alcibiades does as he is wont to do, and makes powerful enemies in Sparta, and so defects for the second time, this time to Persia, where he persuades the satrap Tissaphernes to allow Athens and Sparta to exhaust each other, and attempts to return to Athens by inciting a pro-oligarchic revolt, in return for “promises” of Persia’s help (Thuc. 8.45-48). It is only after the oligarchy is set up, Alcibiades returns, and the Athenians try to negotiate with Tissaphernes, that they found many more provisions to the treaty than they were comfortable with. Thucydides writes of the discovery, saying, “concluding that there was nothing to be done, but they had been deceived by Alcibiades, [the Athenians] went away in a rage and proceeded to Samos.” (Thuc. 8.56) And yet merely a year later, a desperate Athens recalls Alcibiades again to treat with Tissaphernes. Playing the two parties off of each other, Alcibiades makes the Athenians think he is in high standing with the Persian, while convincing Tissaphernes that he is in a position of immense power within Athens. Despite the half-truths he was telling each party, the Peloponnesians are convinced of a new Athenian-Persian Alliance, and so turn on the Persians (Thuc. 8.81-83). This undoubtedly kept Athens in the war a little longer. Thucydides ends Book 8, and The Peloponnesian War, with Tissaphernes running off to mend the divide caused by Alcibiades between the Spartans and Persians (Thuc. 8.109).

Though the end of the great Classical historian’s The Peloponnesian War does not actually detail how the titular war ended, numerous other sources allow us to know how the Athenian empire was brought down by the Lacedaemonians and their Peloponnesian allies. Thucydides’ account, however, does allow us to know the importance unconventional acts of warfare played in the war, particularly how the deception of the Egestans and of Alcibiades directly led to involvement in the most embarrassing military defeat the Athenians would ever face, and how deception continued to play a role in prolonging the war for the Athenians. The Sicilian Expedition was Athens’s Cannae, their Agincourt, their invasion of Russia in the winter time. It was an absolute and completely unmitigated disaster, a disaster that Thucydides makes abundantly clear rests on the shoulders not on the men like Nicias, who actually commanded the army once put into the incredibly difficult position they did not want to be in, but rather on those like Alcibiades, who through deception and subterfuge put them there in the first place.

-Jordan Butler