Desperation, Demagoguery, and Fear: The Death of Reason (Tyler Thorne, 2019)

Throughout books 6, 7, and 8 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides gives a detailed account of the disastrous Sicilian expedition, along with the immediate aftermath following Athens’s defeat in Sicily. One common method that Thucydides uses repeatedly throughout his work to express two opposing viewpoints is to give the reader a set of two speeches which convey the thoughts and reasonings of both parties. This presents readers with a greater insight into the decision-making processes of various poleis, rather than simply presenting readers with their subsequent decisions. The methods by which various poleis came to a consensus varied greatly as their position in the war changed. Just before the Athenian expedition to Sicily, Alcibiades was able to influence the Athenian assembly by means of demagoguery, whereas later in the war as the situation in Sicily gradually became more and more grim, the Athenians began to make decisions more out of desperation rather than strategic reasoning. Conversely, the Sicilians exhibited somewhat of an inverse of this, with the Sicilians initially acting cautiously out of fear, yet later becoming more emboldened after a series of Athenian defeats at both land and sea. Along with these examples, an overarching theme of fear and occasional religious influence seemed to permeate the rationale of other parties involved, such as Camarina and Corinth.

Before the expedition began, Alcibiades made use of demagoguery in order to convince the Athenian assembly to ignore Nicias’s more logical argument against the expedition. Nicias began the dialogue by arguing, “…the Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise… Our struggle therefore, if we are wise, will not be for the barbarian Egestaeans in Sicily, but to defend ourselves most effectively against the oligarchic machinations of Sparta” (6.11.1-7). This is an incredibly strong and logical argument, as Athens was in a sort of “Cold War” with Sparta, and as Nicias stated, the Athenians had very little to gain, yet much to lose from this expedition. Sparta was still a very real threat to Athens, and by starting a war with a people whose power was, though unknown to the Athenians, comparable to that of Sparta itself, Athens was putting itself in grave danger if the expedition failed. Alcibiades responded by beginning his argument with the line, “Athenians, I have a better right to command than others” (6.16.1). This presents a stark contrast from how Nicias opened his argument, with Nicias explaining, “And yet, individually, I gain honor by such a course, and hear as little as other men for my person… nevertheless, as I have never spoken against my convictions to gain honor, I shall not begin to do so now, but shall say what I think best” (6.9.2). Here Nicias explains how commanding such a large force in Sicily would bring him great personal gains, yet he values the security of the state over himself, while Alcibiades on the other hand focuses his argument on his right to command based on his timé, citing the several victories he secured for Athens at the Olympic games, providing choruses to the city, and his involvement at Mantinea (6.16.2-6). Alcibiades’s argument is that the Athenians should listen to him because he is Alcibiades, whereas Nicias argues that he should be listened to because he only wants what is best for Athens, even if what is best for Athens is not always what is best for Nicias. In the end, Alcibiades was able to convince the assembly to proceed with the expedition based on his promises of wealth and glory for Athens. The Athenians largely supported the expedition because they were the naval superpower of the world, and their naval superiority had been up to this point unmatched in combat. The Athenians believed Alcibiades when he falsely stated, “Nor should you rescind your resolution to sail to Sicily, on the ground that you would be going to attack a great power. The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, and easily change their institutions and adopt new ones in their stead; and consequently the inhabitants, being without and feeling of patriotism, are not provided with arms for their persons, and have not regularly established themselves on land…” (6.17.2-3). This was untrue, as the Athenians would soon learn, yet they wanted to believe Alcibiades, as promises of fame and fortune sounded much better than caution and temperance.

When the Syracusans heard rumors of the Athenian expedition, they, being perceived as the lesser power, chose to err on the side of caution due to fear of the strength of Athens. Thucydides once again presents the reader with two speeches, the first belonging to Hermocrates. Hermocrates in his speech wants to make sure that Syracuse is ready to defend itself, and that it will not be alone in that fight, suggesting, “Let us, therefore, confidently begin preparations here; let us send to and confirm the support of some of the Sicels, and obtain the friendship and alliance of others, and despatch envoys to the rest of Sicily to show that the danger is common to all, and to Italy to get them to become our allies, or at all events to refuse to receive the Athenians. I also think that it would be best to send to Carthage as well; they are by no means without apprehension there, for it is their constant fear that the Athenians may one day attack their city…” (6.34.1-2). Hermocrates points out that Syracuse is not alone in their fear of an Athenian attack, and advises the assembly to take advantage of this fear in order to procure additional allies for the greater defense of Sicily. Hermocrates, understanding that there were some who would oppose him, and that if Syracuse were to be unprepared for an Athenian assault it could spell disaster for them, concluded by urging his fellow Syracusans, “…the best course is to accept the preparations which fear inspires as giving the surest promise of safety, and to act as if the danger was real. That the Athenians are coming to attack us, and are already upon the voyage, and are all but here—this is what I am sure of” (6.34.9). Hermocrates recommends that at the very least it would not hurt to be prepared as if the Athenians were surely on their way. Despite some opposition, the Syracusans agree with Hermocrates that there could be no harm in simply being prepared, as a Syracusan general states, “Even if there should be no need, there is no harm in the state being furnished with horses and arms and all other accouterments of war…” (6.41.3). The Syracusans, lacking the hubris affecting the Athenians, understood that facing the Athenians unprepared would be an incredibly dangerous move and could lead to their ruin. This is the opposite stance that the Athenians took on the issue, disregarding the danger of the expedition, instead submitting to their arrogance and partaking in a campaign that could very well ruin them.

As the war carried on, the Athenians began to grow more desperate, while the Syracusans continued with their policy of caution. During the winter of the seventeenth year of the war, the Syracusans, having already met the Athenians in the battlefield, now fully supported the advice which Hermocrates had given them. They first extended their city walls and fortified certain key locations to them, then sent an envoy to Camarina hoping to dissuade them from joining the Athenians. Hermocrates spoke for the Syracusans, and threatened Camarina by saying, “…if we are the conquerors, you will have to pay for having been the cause of our danger. Consider, therefore; and now make your choice between the security which present servitude offers and the prospect of conquering with us and thereby escaping disgraceful submission to an Athenian master and avoiding the lasting enmity of Syracuse” (6.80.4). While Camarina was sympathetic to the Athenians, they decided to stay neutral, but to secretly send some support to Syracuse out of fear of their proximity to them, as Thucydides relates, “From the very fact, however, that they were their neighbors, they feared the Syracusans most of the two, and being apprehensive that the Syracusans might win even without their help, both sent them in the first instance the few horsemen mentioned” (6.88.1). As the war continued to go poorly for Athens, Nicias was finally persuaded by the arrival of enemy reinforcements to retreat; however, an eclipse prevented him from doing so, as stated by Thucydides, “All was at last ready, and they were on the point of sailing away when an eclipse of the moon, which was then at the full, took place. Most of the Athenians, deeply impressed by this occurrence, now urged the generals to wait; and Nicias, who was somewhat overaddicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers” (7.50.4). This was a bizarre episode, as when the Athenians had finally lost all hope of succeeding in their expedition and had agreed to sail home, the appearance an eclipse caused Nicias, due to his strong religious convictions, to delay their departure by twenty-seven days. The Syracusans, emboldened by their successes had a new goal in mind, “Indeed the Syracusans no longer thought only of saving themselves, but also how to hinder the escape of the enemy; thinking, and thinking rightly, that they were now much the strongest, and that to conquer the Athenians and their allies by land and sea would win them great glory in Hellas…” (7.56.2). Here is where a shift in Syracusan policy towards the war truly started to emerge, as the Syracusans were no longer fighting for survival, but rather chose to actively pursue the Athenians in hope of gaining timé among the Hellenes. At this point the expedition to Sicily was officially a complete disaster for Athens, and the remaining Athenian forces were either captured or killed (7.85.1-4). When Nicias was captured, he was put to death because, “…some of the Syracusans who had been in correspondence with him were afraid, it was said, of his being put to the torture and troubling their success by his revelations… and living to do them further harm; and these persuaded the allies and put him to death” (7.86.4). This shows that though the Athenians had been thoroughly defeated in Sicily, fear of Nicias returning with another army still persisted, leading to his execution. Throughout the war, even in their greatest moment of victory, the Sicilians still proved to be motivated by fear more than any other driving factor.

Since the Sicilian Expedition ended in a complete disaster for Athens, the city became desperate, with their entire fleet having been destroyed and their treasury emptied. With Athens having returned from Sicily completely humiliated and without a navy, Sparta began to plot with Athenian colonies a series of revolts to further destabilize the empire (8.5.1-5). Right before one of these revolts was supposed to take place in Chios, Corinth messed everything up, as Thucydides recalls, “They were now impatient to set sail, but the Corinthians were not willing to accompany them until they had celebrated the Isthmian festival, which fell at that time… and a delay ensued, during which the Athenians began to suspect what was being prepared at Chios…” (8.9.1-2). Like it did for the Athenians, the Corinthian observance of this religious festival proved to be detrimental to the Peloponnesian war effort, as Athens was able to learn of the planned revolt and win a decisive naval victory against the Peloponnesian navy at Spiraeum (8.10.3-4). Despite certain victories, the Athenians were still in a weakened position due to their defeat in Sicily, and in their desperation decided to recall Alcibiades, who had garnered favor with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who was in command of the Phoenician fleet. The assistance of this fleet would have proved decisive to either side, therefore Alcibiades, wishing to return to Athens, advised the Athenian government to do away with the radical democratic government in order to make them more appealing allies to the Persians (8.53.1-3). The Athenians, too desperate to refuse, gave in to these demands, as Thucydides states, “The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took council of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way” (8.54.1). Even those in the city who abhorred the thought of an oligarchy had to concede that this course of action was the only way they could preserve existence of the Athenian state. Soon after Alcibiades was finally recalled due to his extravagant promises, as Thucydides writes, “Upon hearing this and much more besides, the Athenians at once elected him general…” (8.82.1). The Athenians have now betrayed their government and their people, recalled someone believed to be a traitor, and who had been helping the enemies of Athens for years, and attempted to ally themselves with the Persians. Indeed, Athens became so desperate that while trying to save the Athenian state, they had already betrayed everything they claimed to have stood for.

The Peloponnesian War wreaked havoc across the Mediterranean for twenty-seven years. While Athens started off the war as a bold naval power more than confident in its abilities, this boldness ultimately led to their defeat in 404 B.C. due to the demagoguery of Alcibiades leading them into the folly that was the Sicilian expedition. The fearful Sicilians acted quite cautiously at the start; however, after the failure of the expedition, the Syracusans became emboldened by their victory, and officially joined Sparta in their war against Athens, the very thing this expedition was meant to prevent. Athens, forced into desperation after their defeat looked for help wherever they could find it, even if that place happened to be the greatest enemy of the Hellenes. Along with the occasional religious observances that would generally harm the observing party, fear seemed to be the common factor that motivated the various poleis throughout the war. In the end, fear caused both sides of the war to betray their beliefs, forever changing the Hellenic world moving forward.
















Works Cited

Thucydides, et al. The Landmark Thucydides a Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996.