Nikias: Tragic Figure or Incompetent General? A Reconciliation Of The Various Traditions

Nikias was an interesting figure in the literature of ancient historians. He was criticized for many of his tactics and yet he was praised simultaneously for his piety and other personal qualities. He warned the Athenians about the almost certain fate of the expedition to Sicily which he ironically would suffer, but he is also seen as being responsible due to his hesitation tactics and his supposed informants in the Sicilian camps. This general, so prominent in the Sicilian disaster and the completion of the Peloponnesian War, has been the target of various traditions, which appear to alter in their severity. How can we reconcile the Nikias we see in Thucydides with the other traditions such as Plutarch? The best method is to compare the portrayal of Nikias in Thucydides and Plutarch and examine the differences, which may have originated from the Western historians, Philistos and Timaeus.

Nikias in Thucydides is an uncertain figure. He is at one point described as having arete, but appears to become more and more inept as time progresses.1 He vocalizes his wish to not lead, he attempts to persuade the Athenian army from such an expedition and his fears are revealed by Thucydides when he persists in asking the Athenians to send a replacement as he wished to relinquish his position as strategos. He first appears in Thucydides as a successful general, but this will change quickly. In IV.28, Nikias resigns from command and lets Cleon step into the forefront: ‘for he never imagined that Nicias would go so far as to give up his place to him’ (IV.28). The men reacted strongly to this and Thucydides stated, ‘And the more Cleon declined the proffered command and tried to retract what he had said, so much the more the multitude, as their manner is, urged Nicias to resign and shouted to Cleon that he should sail’ (IV.28). Cleon was successful at Sphakteria, which of course placed Nikias under criticism as he had passed over an ultimately successful campaign. This will be a point that Plutarch will focus upon and use in his discussion of Nikias.

Even though he had relinquished the command, he still wished to see his reputation intact. In V.16, Thucydides states, ‘Nicias desired, whilst he was still successful and held in repute, to preserve his good fortune; he would have liked to rest from toil, and to give the people rest; and he hoped to leave behind him to other ages the name of a man who in all his life had never brought disaster on the city. He thought that the way to gain his wish was to trust as little as possible to fortune, and to keep out of danger; and that danger would be best avoided by peace.’ Ironically, Nikias will be the one to bring disaster upon the city and expedition. He not only wished to maintain his reputation for his own benefit, but he wished to preserve the opinion of the demos. In the peace talks when the various parties had agreed to ratify former oaths, Nikias was, ‘afraid that he would return without having settled anything, and would incur the blame of failure, as indeed he did, because he was held to be responsible for the original treaty with the Lacedaemonians’ (V.46). This would be another aspect that Plutarch will adapt to his use in the Life of Nikias, the fear of the demos, but it becomes increasingly pejorative.

In Book VI, Thucydides briefly mentions some details concerning Nikias which help to explain why he was hesitant to lead the Sicilian expedition, which will not be as evident in Plutarch and his account. In the early chapters, Nikias, who, ‘had been appointed general against his will, thought that the people had come to a wrong conclusion, and that upon slight if specious grounds they were aspiring to the conquest of Sicily, which was no easy task’ (VI.8), warns the Athenians against the dangers of undertaking such an expedition: ‘And how foolish it is to select for attack a land which no conquest can secure, while he who fails to conquer will not be where he was before!’ It is from this speech that Nikias’ plan becomes evident, when he states, ‘The Hellenes in Sicily will dread us most if we never come; in a less degree if we display our strength and speedily depart; but if any disaster occur, they will despise us and be ready to join the enemies who are attacking us here’ (VI.11). In these lines, we see a cautious general who does not wish to begin another war in an unknown land while involved in an exhaustive war with another city-state.

Nikias himself perceives his loss after the speech of Alkibiades and makes a second exhortation in which he, ‘might possibly change their minds if he insisted on the magnitude of the force which would be required’ (VI.19). The most interesting element of this speech comes at the end when Nikias states, ‘If any one thinks otherwise, to him I resign the command’ (VI.23). Here again, Nikias attempts to relieve himself of a campaign and he has now made it known to the people and soldiers that he does not wish to embark upon this expedition: ‘He meant either to deter the Athenians by bringing home to them the vastness of the undertaking, or to provide as far as he could for the security of the expedition if he were compelled to proceed. The result disappointed him. Far from losing their enthusiasm at the disagreeable prospect, they were more determined than ever; they approved of his advice, and were confident that every chance of danger was now removed’ (VI.24). At this point in Book VI, Nikias has displayed his distaste for the entire matter. However, his oratory skills have worked against him and the people then demanded that he take the forces which were necessary. Nikias attempted to further convince the Athenians to follow his non-aggressive plan when the generals hold their council of war in VI.47: ‘They would then pass along the coast before the eyes of the other cities and display the visible power of Athens, while they proved at the same time her zeal in the cause of her friends and allies; after this they would return home...But they should not throw away their own resources and imperil the safety of Athens.’ Nikias also makes a mistake when he dismisses the approach of Gylippos the Spartan: ‘Nikias heard of his approach, but despised the small number of his ships; in this respect he was like the Thurians. He thought that he had come on a mere privateering expedition, and for some time set no watch’ (VI.104).2 This is a costly mistake, which Plutarch later exploits for his own end.

Once more in Book VII, Nikias attempts to appeal to the Athenian officials in the form of a letter: ‘Fearing lest his messengers, either from inability to speak or from want of intelligence, or because they desired to please the people, might not tell the whole truth,’ (VII.8). He relates to the Athenian people the problems faced by the army (waterlogged ships, poor supplies and desertion) and asks for reinforcements, but he claims to be familiar with the disposition of the Athenians and their wish to hear only good news. However, he also attempts to resign for the third time: ‘You should also send a general to succeed me, for I have a disease in the kidneys and cannot remain here. I claim your indulgence; while I retained my health I often did you good service when in command’ (VII.15). This is only the second mention of the illness of Nikias (VI.102), but it is his third request to be relieved of command. Thucydides, after this letter, then makes known how his army and fellow generals felt about his reluctance to pursue the Sicilians with aggressive action: ‘he [Demosthenes] at once saw how matters stood; he knew that it should not be with him as it had been with Nicias. For Nicias was dreaded at his first arrival, but when, instead of at once laying siege to Syracuse, he passed the winter at Catana, he fell into contempt, and his delay gave Gylippus time to come with an army from the Peloponnesus’ (VII.42). In this chapter is explicit criticism of Nikias and his delaying tactics which completely obliterated the element of surprise and it becomes an integral part of Plutarch’s Life of Nikias. Thucydides now shows Nikias as ultimately afraid of returning home a failure: ‘[he] would for his own part rather take his chance and fall, if he must, alone by the hands of the enemy, than die unjustly on a dishonourable charge at the hands of the Athenians.’

In VII.51, Thucydides states when there is an eclipse that, ‘Nicias himself, who was too much under the influence of divination and such like, refused even to discuss the question of their removal until they had remained thrice nine days, as the soothsayers predicted.’3 This will become a very important aspect in the Life of Nicias by Plutarch, but we must realize that Thucydides has placed the emphasis upon the ‘soothsayers,’ not Nikias himself.4 The last speech of Nikias (VII.77) finds him sympathetic with the common solider. Even though, he was once thought equal to the best in personal fortune and private life, his life is similarly endangered. He urges the soldiers to bear what they must and realize that whatever they owed the gods has now been paid. However, in the end Nikias surrenders to Gylippos and he is killed along with many Athenians. Thucydides at the end of Book VII writes this about Nikias: ‘For these and like reasons he suffered death. No one of the Hellenes in my time was less deserving of so miserable an end; for he lived in the practice of every virtue’ (VII.86).

As stated previously, Nikias in Thucydides is a shifting figure, who becomes more tragic and involved in ironic situations as the history proceeds. In the beginning, although Nikias is reluctant to march into Sicily, he is active in campaigns and is successful. However, Nikias evolves into a nervous, fidgety figure afraid of failure and his return to Athens. He attempts to relinquish his command three times and relies less on tactical measures. Thucydides foreshadows the demise of Nikias from his first appearance onward and Nikias, in fact, becomes the central focus for failure and a source for irony. Hence, the emphasis Thucydides places on the characteristics of Nikias may have been to further his own goals of writing his history as a tragedy.

Before one discusses the role of Nikias in Plutarch’s Life of Nikias, it is important to make a few notes about Plutarch. This biographer was born in Chaeronea in the first century CE and wrote many works on various subjects. The work on Nikias comes from a collection of parallel lives of famous Greek and Roman men. The ‘parallel’ portion must be emphasized as Plutarch looked to match Greek lives with Roman ones in order to show common trends in both civilizations. One may also discern from such works as Moralia that Plutarch believed in providing strong moral exempla and this most certainly affected the manner in which he wrote his lives. Plutarch himself states in the Life of Perikles: ‘Moral good, in a word, has a power to attract towards itself. It is no sooner seen than it rouses the spectator to action, and yet it does not form his character by mere imitation, but by promoting the understanding of virtuous deeds it provides him with a dominating purpose’ (Per., 2). From this one statement, readers of Plutarch must prepare themselves for this pro-morality bias of Plutarch. He will no doubt emphasize those characteristics which might serve as lessons in life for his contemporaries.

Before one discusses the role of Nikias in Plutarch’s Life of Nikias, it is important to make a few notes about Plutarch. This biographer was born in Chaeronea in the first century CE and wrote many works on various subjects. The work on Nikias comes from a collection of parallel lives of famous Greek and Roman men. The ‘parallel’ portion must be emphasized as Plutarch looked to match Greek lives with Roman ones in order to show common trends in both civilizations. One may also discern from such works as Moralia that Plutarch believed in providing strong moral exempla and this most certainly affected the manner in which he wrote his lives. Plutarch himself states in the Life of Perikles: ‘Moral good, in a word, has a power to attract towards itself. It is no sooner seen than it rouses the spectator to action, and yet it does not form his character by mere imitation, but by promoting the understanding of virtuous deeds it provides him with a dominating purpose’ (Per., 2). From this one statement, readers of Plutarch must prepare themselves for this pro-morality bias of Plutarch. He will no doubt emphasize those characteristics which might serve as lessons in life for his contemporaries.

Modern scholars have commented on the negative and foolish image Plutarch paints of Nikias. However, I do not think this to be the case. The entire work contains a sense of ambiguity as if Plutarch was troubled by the divergent traditions surrounding this Greek general. He begins the true discussion of Nikias by citing a quote by Aristotle who claimed Nikias to be one of the finest citizens of Athens (2). However, Plutarch then discusses the deilia (cowardice) of Nikias: ‘but [he] was blended with earnestness and caution, and this won him the confidence of the people by giving the impression that he was positively afraid of them. Although he was by nature timid and inclined to defeatism, his good fortune enabled him to conceal his lack of resolution’ (2). This ‘demophobia’ was somewhat seen in Thucydides, but not to this extent. Nikias himself mentions his good fortune in Thucydides, but in this case Plutarch makes him someone who hides his negative qualities, mainly due to the fortune which Nikias possesses: ‘[he] lacked these qualities but was exceptionally rich and used wealth to win their favour’ (3). While Plutarch does cite Thucydides, he combines it with other writers to strengthen his points or to turn an ambiguous passage into a criticism. For example, it is briefly mentioned in Thucydides that Nikias followed superstitious ways, but Plutarch quotes Pasiphon who stated, ‘he [Nikias] offered sacrifice to the gods every day and always kept a diviner at his house’ (4). In addition, Nikias is seen as an active figure in Plutarch, but a passive agent in Thucydides as it is the soothsayers who bear the brunt of the superstitious charges.

Plutarch also discusses the successes of Nikias amidst his personality quirks (6). However, Plutarch soon begins to discuss the leadership failings of Nikias. First, he mentions the relinquishing of command to Cleon: ‘This turn of events was very damaging to Nicias. To have thrown up his command out of sheer cowardice, and by voting himself out of office to have given his enemy the opportunity to win such a success was considered even more disgraceful than to have thrown away his own shield’ (8). Plutarch then continues to state that Nikias did Athens a disservice by allowing Cleon to be successful. Plutarch uses direct speech in this particular passage which makes the scene livelier and he omits several lines found in Thucydides in the discussion of motive. Nikias’ attempts at peace are passed over quickly by Plutarch, who focuses on his superstitious nature, his feud with Alkibiades and his fear to return home (9-14). These are elements found in Thucydides, but they seem to be more pronounced or elaborated upon in Plutarch.

Nikias in Thucydides is shown to hesitate during the Sicilian expedition and to use means of caution before attacking the enemy. He is not always criticized for this, but it becomes a grounds of attack by Plutarch: ‘For his strategy he could offer nothing better than sitting idly at his base, cruising around the island, or drawing up plans, until the bright hopes with which the expedition had originally set out had faded, and the terror and dismay which the first sight of his fleet had caused the enemy had quite melted away’ (14). This strong statement is further corroborated by, ‘and the result was nothing but overcautious and hesitant tactics. First Nicias made a cruise round the island at the farthest possible distance from the enemy, which served only to build up their confidence’ (15). Thucydides also rarely discussed outright how the army felt about Nikias’ hesitation, but Plutarch states in 16: ‘Everyone blamed Nicias for this and complained that by his continual hesitation and excessive caution he had thrown away every opportunity for action. Yet when he did nerve himself to act, his performance was beyond reproach, for he was as vigorous and effective in executing his plans as he was slow and timid in forming them’. Plutarch focuses extensively on this hesitation and does not imply it was a technique of caution as Thucydides does. This appears to be unappeased by the compliments that Plutarch mentions in passing (17, 18).

The latter part of Plutarch’s Life of Nikias focuses mainly on the slowness of Nikias in his maneuvers and orders to the Athenian army. He was not quick enough at the forts of Plemmyrium (20) and then he became severely depressed and pessimistic over the entire matter (19-20). He does not listen to the general attitude of the army, but ‘as Nicias would only hint at these considerations and refused to speak out openly, his colleagues concluded that he took this attitude out of sheer cowardice. They were convinced that there would be a repetition of the old story of hesitation and delays and endless quibbles over details, whereby he had thrown away a golden opportunity by not attacking at once, and instead had allowed his army to become stale and earned the enemy’s contempt’ (21). Not only was he hesitant, he was also afraid of the Athenian demos which was mentioned earlier in this Life: ‘he was still more afraid of the Athenian people and of the accusations and trials which would follow at home’ (22). The supposed superstitious nature of Nikias also becomes a favoured topic of Plutarch: ‘This terrified Nicias and those of his men who were sufficiently ignorant or superstitious to be disturbed by such a sight’ (23) and ‘Nicias now became more and more oblivious of his other duties and completely absorbed in sacrifice and divination’ (24). Once more, we see that Plutarch has made active what was passive in Thucydides. The death of Nikias demonstrates to us that Plutarch was cognizant of many sources as he disputes Timaeus’ notion that the two generals committed suicide, instead of being put to death. Plutarch ends this work with the line: ‘In this way Nicias’ warnings were believed at last, but only after he himself had suffered the fate which he had so often prophesied to his fellow-countrymen’ (30). It is somewhat similar to how Thucydides ends his Book VII, but it does not seem to fit well with the life Plutarch described.

Overall, the Nikias in Plutarch is a multi-faceted character. He is shown as respected by his peers for his arete and his religious piety and he achieves some success in the early parts of the war. Plutarch cites Aristotle who called Nikias one of the men who practiced an ancestral tradition of goodwill and friendship towards people’ (2). Even at the end of the Bios, Plutarch is still somewhat benevolent towards Nikias and concedes that Athens fell due to the very factors which Nikias himself had cited earlier in speeches. However, many negative aspects of the disposition of Nikias are also discussed. He is often seen in connection with deilia (fear, cowardice) of the Athenian demos and of his own army. He is reluctant to report back to Athens when the news is not favourable and attempts at any rate to capture peace between Sparta and Athens. This factor of cowardice is something which seems to be almost particular to Plutarch and mentioned rarely in Thucydides or is simply viewed differently. This may either have been due to either Plutarch’s need to set a moral guide for his contemporaries or the influence of the Western Greek historians whom Plutarch uses as a source in setting out some of his Greek lives. However, Plutarch does give more emphasis to the fact that Nikias was more superstitious than his men. We should keep in mind the work of Plutarch, De Superstitione, which may help to explain the ambiguity of his Nikias as this work is very critical towards many of the practices connected with superstition. Even at the end, Plutarch awards Nikias credit for predicting what eventually would come true. However, how can one explain the other elements of Nikias’ Bios which do not make an appearance anywhere in Thucydides? By becoming more familiar with the Western historians whom Plutarch cites in the beginning of his work, we might be able to discern whether Philistos or Timaeus was responsible for the material that differs from the work of Thucydides.

Now that we have examined the portrayal of Nikias in both Thucydides and Plutarch, we can begin to note those parts that may have been contributed by either Philistos or Timaeus. Does this increasingly negative attitude in Plutarch emanate from these two writers? First, one must mention that these two were Sicilians and probably would not have felt any direct hostility against Nikias for the expedition, since his warnings against the venture were well known.1 However, Nikias was an Athenian, therefore an enemy of the Syracusans, and the Sicilian traditions would have treated him as such. We can say with certainty that traditions other than that of Thucydides are at work in the Life of Nikias. There are more names of particular men and there is a certain emphasis on geographical details: ‘was encircled near the country estate of Polyzelus’ (27). These excess details show the work of a Sicilian historian, but the question arises which one would have provided these facts. It is most likely that it was Philistos since he was an eyewitness to the events. However, each appears to have offered individual interpretations of the matter.

Philistos was a Syracusan politician and military leader who was active under Dionysius I and II and an eyewitness of the events in Syracuse (19). Since his work exists in fragments, we must rely on various extant sources to understand his importance and significance in the west. It has been agreed that his style was Thucydidean and that he basically mimicked the work of Thucydides. In fact it has been thought that one portion of Thucydides is itself a fragment of Philistos. It has been theorized that the tone of this fragment is very close in style and content to Plutarch’s work on Nikias, which contains blame for his delay and the disheartening of his men. Moreover, it has been cited that he ‘detested’ Nikias. Was it Philistos who influenced Plutarch in his criticism of Nikias? We know from the opening chapter of Plutarch’s Nikias that he favoured this historian over Timaeus. To further examine this hatred, scholars have urged that we look at Pausanias 1.29.12: ‘The commanders except for Nikias are inscribed...Nikias was left out for this reason, and what I write is what Philistos writes: Demosthenes made a truce for everyone but himself, and when he was taken tried to kill himself, but Nikias agreed to the surrender. Because of this Nikias was not inscribed on the stone; for he was despised as a willing prisoner and a man unfit for war.’ While these words carry weight, do they really explain Philistos’ supposed hatred towards Nikias? It is doubtful, since it would have been the Athenians who would have omitted Nikias’ name from the inscription and Philistos would have simply reported the details.

Timaeus appears as an historian in the fourth century BCE, later than Thucydides and Philistos. In the opening of the Bios we are informed that he was not well-respected by Plutarch who stated in the Life of Nikias, ‘So I must appeal to the reader not to think me as vain as Timaeus, who flattered himself that he could outdo Thucydides in skill and show up Philistos as a thoroughly uninspired and amateurish writer’ (Nik., 1). This statement by Plutarch makes one wonder why he even uses this source as he discredits it, but the influence is apparent. This writer was himself the subject of much criticism and his works were seen as flawed. Polybius wrote, ‘For while he [Timaeus] shows great ingenuity and audacity in attacking others, his own statements continually draw upon dreams, prodigies and unlikely stories: in a word he is a prey to ignoble superstition and old wives’ tales’ (Polybius, XII.24). Plutarch agrees with these sentiments and discusses Timaeus’ play on Nikias’ name, the destruction of the Hermae and the roles of Hermokrates and Hermon (Nikias, 1). Anyone who has read the account of Thucydides and the Life of Nikias by Plutarch should recall the supposed superstitious nature of Nikias and how it is stressed in Plutarch. Was this influenced by Timaeus, even though Plutarch discredits his work? It is quite likely as both Plutarch and Polybius cite him as having such inclinations. If this information about Nikias’ superstitious habits came from Timaeus, who supposedly emphasized such activities and if Plutarch truly held such practices in contempt, then it is no wonder that there is a certain hostility found in the Life of Nikias. Timaeus has also been cited as having ‘zeal’ as a Sicilian Greek as identified by Polybius, which may help us to fully understand his inclinations and perhaps more emphasis on the nature of Sicily itself.

Was Nikias a tragic figure or was he truly an incompetent general? It depends on whose tale and whose sources. In Thucydides, we see a man who becomes more tragic over time due to the situations, which he ironically predicted. In Plutarch, he becomes a character fixated on superstitions and hesitations. We know that Plutarch cites three historians from whom he borrowed extensively: Thucydides, Philistos, and Timaeus. Is this how we should reconcile the various traditions surrounding Nikias? We know that Thucydides used Nikias as his tragic hero, but why did Plutarch choose to write about Nikias? In the Life of Nikias many scholars have sensed hostility and a strong dislike of Nikias and have speculated on why he would then chose to record this life. However, I think that once the external influences, other than Thucydides, are discerned, then the sections that seem out of place are more easily explained. He does praise Nikias during his Bios, but he is influenced by the other traditions, which creates a work with discrepancies. This examination of Plutarch’s sources also allows us to corroborate the other traditions with that of Thucydides and they allow for alternate versions of what is found in Thucydides. The only difficulty is separating tale from bias and since these Western Greek historians are found only in fragments, we then become dependent upon the sources that supply them.

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