The Sicilian Expedition: a second Brexit footnote

February 3, 2019 0 Comments
Doric temple at Segesta

After the 2016 Brexit referendum I suggested that the historian Thucydides, in the fifth century BC, can help us to understand how democracies have the capacity to change their decisions on major policies – and both the capacity and the duty to do so when those decisions are clearly, in retrospect, unwise or disastrous. 

A later episode in his History of the Peloponnesian War gives an equally brilliant insight into another, slower process we watch unravel daily on our televisions: how a democracy can make a bad decision far worse by the way it tries to determine how that decision should be reviewed and put into practice.


In 415 BC, after an uneasy seven-year truce between Athens and Sparta, usually called the Peace of Nicias, the Athenian assembly made the unwise decision to intervene in a conflict between Greek states in the faraway island of Sicily.  It was a provocative move, because the enemy of the state supported by Athens, Segesta, was the powerful city of Syracuse.  The decision was to send a fleet of sixty triremes, without land troops, under the command of three generals, Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus.

The Assembly was swayed in its decision by a deception.  In their appeal for support, the Segestans, deliberately exaggerating their wealth, had offered to pay the full cost of the Athenian expedition.  (No prizes for spotting a Brexit connection there.)

Five days later the Assembly held a second debate, to discuss how the first decision was to be implemented.  Nicias, though he’d been assigned to the expedition, was not in favour of it and thought that it was a pretext for a conquest of the whole of Sicily, a perilous undertaking.  He argued in the Assembly that the original decision should be overturned.  He said that the Athenians would be taking on an impossible task in try to overcome powerful new enemies far away, and would make themselves vulnerable to attack by other, older enemies closer to home.  He warned against listening to Alcibiades, a political hothead who aimed to make money and a name for himself by promoting the expedition.


Alcibiades, a young man, Thucydides tells us, with a dubious private life and a fun-loving enthusiasm for ‘horse-racing and other extravagances’, spoke in favour of the expedition. A promise had already been made to the Segestans, he said.  The other Sicilian states were weak and poorly armed.  Extending the Athenian empire was the best way of preserving it, whereas complacency and the ‘quiet life’ would lead to ruin.

Nicias could see that had had failed to persuade the majority of citizens in the Assembly.  Next he tried a more devious tactic.  He thought, says Thucydides, ‘that there was a possibility of making them change their minds if he were to make an exaggerated estimate of the forces required’.  So he told the people that the Sicilian cities could be expected to be formidable enemies, with powerful armies and big budgets.  If Athens was to be sure of success, it would need to send not just a large navy but also large numbers of infantry troops, as well as massive supplies of food.  ‘In making this speech Nicias thought that either the Athenians would be put off by the scale of the armament required, or, if he was forced to make the expedition, he would in this way sail as safely as possible.’

The ploy misfired catastrophically:

The Athenians, however, far from losing their appetite for the voyage because of the difficulties in preparing for it, became more enthusiastic about it than ever, and just the opposite of what Nicias had imagined took place.  His advice was regarded as excellent, and it was now thought that the expedition was an absolutely safe thing …  The result of this excessive enthusiasm of the majority was that the few who actually were opposed to the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it, and therefore kept quiet.

Coins of Syracuse

Nicias was obliged to be more specific about what he thought would be an adequate force to take to Sicily – far larger than the force authorised in the original decision – and the Assembly went further, granting the generals even wider powers over resources.  Thucydides comments that it was all the easier to vote for large forces because the Peace of Nicias had allowed Athens to replenish its treasury and a new generation had grown up, unused the sufferings of war and plague.

Thucydides emphasises with disguised irony the magnitude of the city’s decision:

What made this expedition so famous was not only its astonishing daring and the brilliant show that it made, but its great preponderance of strength over those against whom it set out, and the fact that this voyage, the longest ever made from Athens, was being undertaken with hopes for the future which, when compared with the present position, were of the most far-reaching kind.’

Stone quarries of Syracuse

The Sicilian Expedition proved to be a disaster, from which Athens never recovered.  The war against Syracuse went badly, in part because of Spartan intervention.  Most of the Athenian troops and sailors were killed; survivors were locked in a stone quarry and died of disease and starvation; only a few stragglers returned home. 

Nicias, the old Remainer, was executed by the Syracusans.  ‘Of all the Greeks in my time, says Thucydides, he least deserved to come to so miserable an end’.  But not only was he an incompetent commander, his miscalculation and duplicity in the Assembly debate, however well-intentioned, had a calamitous effect.  Donald Kagan, the most recent authority on the Peloponnesian War, judged that ‘without Nicias’s intervention there would have been an Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415, but there could not have been a disaster’.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrates tears Alcibiades from the embrace of sensual pleasure, 1791

Alcibiades, the Boris Johnson of his day, survived.  He was recalled from the expedition to Athens to face charges relating to scandals he was associated with.  Then he turned traitor, working for the Spartans and later the Persians, before returning to Athens after the suspension of democracy and finally being exiled and murdered by the Persians.

Thucydides ends his long narrative of the Sicilian Expedition with these words:

This was the greatest Greek action that took place during this war, and, in my opinion, the greatest action that we know of in Greek history – to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats; for they were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only a few returned.  So ended the events in Sicily.

Translations from the Greek by Rex Warner.

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