Deceptive Tactics in the Sicilian Expedition (Mellyssa Miller, 2016)

Abstract: In a quest for timē and a desire to acquire more wealth, Athens enters the Sicilian Expedition, dividing up her resources and starting a war on two fronts. Athens, desiring financial gain, enters the Sicilian Expedition under the guise of helping an ally, Egesta. However, the Athenians quickly learn that Egesta lacks the financial resources required to expand their empire. Through the deception of Alcibiades, Athens dissolves her democratic government in favor on a oligarchy and further propels herself into disintegration. My essay explores the role of deception and misinformation in Thucydides’ account of the Sicilian Expedition, specifically what insights deception as well as the culpability of allowing oneself to be deceived.


The Sicilian Expedition illustrates the ways in which the Athenians sought to expand their empire during the years of 415 and 413 B.C. Although they entered the expedition under the guise of helping an ally, Egesta, they also sought to subjugate Sicilian cities and to gain financial resources that they believed Egesta had in abundance (Thuc. 6.46.3-5). Since they thought that they were capable of fighting a war on two fronts, the Sicilian expedition shows that the Greeks believed themselves to have the military prowess and tactical strength capable of beginning a second war far from Attica. However, deception and misinformation plays a vital role in the expedition and results in Athens losing the war. Thucydides views deception as a vital component of the Sicilian Expedition.

The Athenians enter the Sicilian Expedition after being incited by the prospect of      Egesta’s wealth. Although Athens and Egesta were allies, it is unlikely that the Athenians would have assisted Egesta with their marriage and territory disputes without the prospect of financial gain (Thuc. 6.6.2). Thucydides writes,

The Athenians held an assembly, and, after hearing from the Egestaeans and their own envoys a report, as attractive as it was untrue, upon the state of affairs generally, and in particular the money, of which, it was said, there was abundance in the temples and the treasury, voted to send sixty ships to Sicily, under the command of Alcibiades son of Clinias, Nicias son of Nicertatus, and Lamachus son of Xenophanes. (Thuc. 6.8.2).


The significance of misinformation is vital because it is what enters Athens into the Sicilian wars.  The Egestaeans are aware that without the prospect of an abundance of wealth, Athens is not going to come to their aid. Although it is the envoys who have been misinformed and the Egestaeans who have done the deceiving, Thucydides places a greater blame on Athens for entering the expedition. There is a culpability attached to allowing oneself to be deceived. Thucydides accounts for this flaw through the speeches he gives from Nicias and Alcibiades. Nicias tells the Athenians that is unwise to go on the expedition, saying that many powerful states are at the present warring with Athens, and that the truces with Sparta are constantly shifting, being renewed every ten days (Thuc. 6.10.3). Nicias further says that “a man ought, therefore, to consider these points and not to think of running risks with a country placed so critically, or of grasping at another empire before we have secured the one we already have” (Thuc. 6.10. 5). Although the prospect of wealth and gaining a larger empire is appealing to the Athenians, Nicias appeals to reason in his speech by stressing the dangers of fighting a war on two fronts and therefore dividing up their power and resources. Since the Athenians choose not to heed his wise advice, they allow themselves to be deceived by the prospect of fortunes.

Deception functions as a means to harm the Athenians and to assist Syracuse and her allies in the Sicilian wars. In the year 413 B.C.E, after the Athenians were defeated by the Syracusans, they decided to try and retreat by land during nightfall (Thuc. 7.72.1, 7.73.1). The Syracusan Hermocrates, who feared that his enemy would escape, devised a trick to ensure that the Athenians would leave during the day. Thucydides writes,

What he feared was that the Athenians might quietly get ahead of them by passing the most difficult places during the night; and he therefore sent, as soon as it was dusk, some friends of his own to the camp with some horsemen who rode up within earshot and called out to some of the men, as though they were well-wishers of the Athenians, and told them to tell Nicias not to lead the army by night as the Syracusans were guarding the roads, but to make his preparations at his leisure and to retreat by day (Thuc. 7.73.3).


In this instance, Hermocrates uses deception as a military tactic to stop the enemy from getting ahead of his forces during the night. This allows him and his men to occupy strategic escape routes before the Athenians have the opportunity to leave. Thucydides says that the Athenians did not doubt the sincerity of the message they had received (Thuc. 7.74.1). This provides insight into the state of Athenian affairs after the loss of the battle. Since many lives were lost and the the Athenians wanted to retreat during the night, the fact that they chose to not question the sincerity of the message illustrates how they are partially to blame for the oncoming onslaught that takes place against them. Since the Athenians waited to leave, it allowed the Syracusans to march ahead and prepare for the attack that would take place at the Assinarus river (7.84.1-2). Thucydides writes, “The Syracusans and their allies now mustered and took up the spoils and as many prisoners as they could, and went back to the city. The rest of the their Athenians and allied captives were deposited in quarries… but Nicais and Dosthenes were butchered” (7.86.1-2). The deception of the Athenians allowed the Syracusans the greatest victory of the war. Thucydides says that around seven thousands Athenian and allied prisoners were taken as a result of the defeat, further illustrating how deception can change the course of a war (7.87.3).

Throughout the war, Alcibiades uses deception and misinformation to protect himself from his enemies as he is constantly switching sides during the war. Although he was originally sent to command the Sicilian expedition, the desecration of the hermae and mock celebrations of the Mysteries frightened the Athenians, who believed that such actions were a sign of oligarchic plots (6.28.1-2). Since he was to be retrieved from Sicily to stand trial, Alcibiades switched sides and left for Sparta. Following the horrific defeat of the Athenians in the year of 413 B.C., Alcibiades encouraged the ephors and Endius to sail to Chios to encourage a revolt of the Athenian allies (8.12.1). During this time, the Athenians had disabled most of their enemy’s fleet, killed Alcamenes, and blockaded the Peloponnesian fleet around the Spiraeum (8.10.4, 8.11.1-3). Thucydides writes, “…after  speeches from Chalcideus and Alcibiades stating that many more ships were sailing up, but saying nothing of the fleet being blockaded in the Spiraeum, the Chians revolted from the Athenians, and the Erythraeans immediately afterwards” (8.15.2). Since Alcibiades did not mention that the Peloponnesian fleet had been blockaded, this encourages the various states to begin revolting against Athens. Upon the revolt of Miletus, which follows from the revolts previously stated, an alliance between Persian and the Peloponnesians is made. In this instance, Alcibiades deceiving the cities by omitting news of the blockades works in Sparta’s favor. It allows an alliance to form between Persia and Sparta which enables Sparta to receive more resources to fight the war. However, further into the war, Alcibiades switches sides again, and tells the Athenians that he can get Tissaphernes and the King of Persia on their sides if they change their government from a democracy to an oligarchy. Thucydides writes, “…[Alcibiades] was seeking means to bring about his restoration to this country, well knowing that if he did not destroy it he might one day hope to persuade the Athenians to recall him, and thinking that his best chance of persuading them lay in letting them see he possessed the favor of Tissapherenes” (8.47.1). Alcibiades is deceptive because his true motive is restoration to Athens, rather than creating a lasting alliance between the Persians and the Athenians. However, the Athenians dissolve their democratic government in hopes that they will receive assistance from the Persians (8.54.1-2). Since the Athenians and Tissaphernes cannot reach terms of agreement, Alcibiades’ deception is flawed because it further angers the Athenians, with whom he hoped to be reconciled with. Although Alcibiades uses deception to achieve his own personal goals, his deception alters the course of the war by introducing new alliances and dismantling governmental systems.

Deception and misinformation play an important role in the Sicilian Expedition by manipulating both cities and individuals to alter the course of the war. Despite the horrific defeat of Athens following the deceptive information of Hermocrates, it is arguable that the greatest deception throughout the expedition was between Athens and herself. Attempting to fight a war on two fronts and dividing up troops and resources weakened the Athenians and gave Athen’s enemies an advantage. By allowing themselves to be deceived by the prospect of wealth and a larger empire, Athens allowed greed rather than reason to enter them into their Sicilian expedition, which ultimately brought them harm and the opposite of what they had originally hoped to gain.