Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.32

Norbert Geske, Nikias und das Volk von Athen im Archidamischen Krieg. Historia Einzelschriften, 186.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2005.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 3-515-08566-1.  €36.00.  

Reviewed by Edith Foster, The College of Wooster (
Word count: 2145 words

G's aim is to rescue the Athenian general Nicias (born before 469, died 413 BC) from his present reputation for passivity and cowardice. This reputation, he argues, has resulted from modern interpretations of Thucydides' account of Nicias' role in the disastrous Athenian Expedition to Sicily in 415-413 BC. G. argues convincingly that it is not useful to draw conclusions about the whole of Nicias' long career from this single ultimate disaster. Instead, Nicias' earlier military campaigns, diplomatic initiatives, and self-presentation must be examined without retroactive prejudice.

To achieve this aim G. undertakes a careful historical study of Nicias' military activities and relationship to the Athenian people during the Archidamian War (431-421 BC). Thucydides remains his main source, although G. is occasionally able to deploy epigraphical evidence or remarks from later historians, especially Plutarch. As G. well knows, most of the later evidence is untrustworthy. The paucity of hard evidence often compels G. to rely on arguments from plausibility, but he usually handles this problem with great skill. His main point, in fact, is that the plausibilities of Athenian history during this period are quite different if we allow that Nicias exercised initiative, foresight, and energy in his campaigns. On the whole he comes up with a re-imagining of Nicias' career and his relationship to the people of Athens. A brief synopsis of G's argument runs as follows:

G. begins with Nicias' first generalship, in 427. He reviews Nicias' modest, but important, military successes in the years 427-426, comparing them to the record of the less reliable Demosthenes. G. argues that both Nicias' prudence and his victories made him popular with the Athenian people, and concludes in respect to the Boiotian campaigns of this period that the Athenian people "must have preferred a campaign with more modest goals, like Nicias', to a campaign with the goal of controlling or even conquering Boiotia, like Demosthenes' [campaign]" (57).1 G. argues that there is every reason to believe that Nicias' well executed campaigns "fulfilled the [Athenian people's] expectations... they contributed decisively to [Nicias'] reputation as a good general" (60).

G. argues, on good evidence, that Nicias was not the passive, even pacifistic (9) failure the secondary literature mostly displays: All of Nicias' campaigns of this period ended in victories and all of these victories, argues G., were important to the Athenian people. "Nicias was clearly the most successful general of the period before the Pylos debate" (71). Nicias led the Athenians out of the "depressive passive situation" caused by the plague, the death of Pericles, and the various military disasters of the first part of the war. "His campaigns were offensive, but also solid [and] well thought out, with good chances for success, and were therefore a healthy foundation for a new Athenian self-confidence" (71).

Nicias' self-presentation in Athenian society partly relied, G. argues, on the reputation won from these early campaigns. G's argument that even in these earlier days Nicias must have advertised himself as a careful leader, whose thorough preparations left the least possible room for luck in military affairs (72-75), is somewhat problematic. It relies heavily on evidence from Thucydides' Sicilian narrative, exactly the evidence G. is asking us not to rely on when we consider Nicias' previous career.

The argument about Nicias' religious self-representation is on a stronger footing, since there is evidence independent of Thucydides to support G's claims. He argues that the goal of Nicias' religious self-representation was to convince the Athenians that he had a particularly close relationship to the gods, and in particular that the gods would have no reason not to bless him with good luck, should good planning ever be insufficient to provide results (80-81). Nicias' religious self-representation thus complemented his military image. Taken as a whole this is a very tempting reconstruction of Nicias' self-representation. Furthermore, G. argues that this package would have been very attractive to an Athenian people battered by the plague and leaderless after the death of Pericles. "Nicias could fulfill a fundamental need of the people [namely]... to find again its inner religious harmony..."(90).

I was very interested in G's argument about Nicias' self-representation at Athens, and found much of it convincing. Nevertheless, I was slightly suspicious of its overly coherent appearance, especially since this appearance conforms so well to well-known paradigms. Military success and a powerful gift for self-representation caused the Athenians to elect Nicias general repeatedly (84), G. argues. He does not use the words pater patriae (although the words "father figure" do appear, e.g. 177), but they occur to the reader anyway, since in G's account Nicias emerges as a kind of proto-Augustan figure who knew how to convert victories and a carefully crafted personal reputation into popularity (91).

This same popularity, G. argues, caused the politician Cleon to attack Nicias during the "Pylos debate" (Thucydides 4.27-28). G. analyzes the Pylos debate differently from most historians. Cleon had not been a general, and neither could he appeal to religion. Furthermore, he was continuously trying to bring down successful generals who competed with his popularity, and Nicias was next in line. However, Cleon's attack was unsuccessful and Cleon's strategy rebounded on himself. The people were more attached to Nicias than Cleon had predicted, so that rather than getting rid of Nicias, Cleon was forced to become a general, and to act instead of merely criticizing others (89).

Thus the Pylos debate, correctly interpreted, reveals Nicias' power, not his helplessness. Furthermore, Cleon's unexpected victory at Pylos (Thucydides 4.31-38) was not necessarily the catastrophe for Nicias that some secondary literature claims. G. rightly points out that, if Cleon had failed, Nicias might well have been blamed for the resulting losses (98). Furthermore, just because Cleon's reputation was high, this doesn't necessarily mean that Nicias' reputation was low. It is a fact that the Athenian People continued to make Nicias a general and to send him on expeditions during and after this period (94).

Of these several expeditions, perhaps the most important was the investiture of Cythera. Here G. once again argues that the scholarship unfairly persecutes Nicias with his "Sicilian" reputation. While not even G. argues that Nicias was a great military innovator, he argues that Nicias was a quick learner, and that his ability to make the strategies used at Pylos his own should be reckoned to his credit (117-121). Although the hard evidence was sometimes scant, I was able up to this point to profit from G's re-imagining of Athenian society in its relationship to Nicias. G. is a gifted writer and organizer of arguments. His reappraisal of Nicias' early military campaigns, the Pylos debate, and Nicias' pious self-representation, especially the sections on Nicias' sponsorship of the Delia (on which, see also the extensive scholarly appendix) takes an original approach to stale problems, and much of what he argues isconvincing. He has indeed fulfilled his aim, which was to provide a strong motivation for overcoming entrenched prejudices against Nicias. No one who studies the Archidamian War should ignore G's detailed arguments about Nicias' early career.

However, I did have some trouble during the early sections of the book, and somewhat more toward the end.

G. has a penchant for interpreting the psychology of the Athenians in a recognizably modern way. I have tried to raise this issue with my citations from the text: as we saw, G. argues that after the plague the Athenians were "depressive-passive" (his word order) and needed to restore "inner religious harmony." Furthermore, he assumes too often that the assembly was a rational political body (see the citation from page 57 in the third paragraph above). This had occasionally raised red flags in my mind, but I was willing to allow G. a lot of leeway: it seemed to me that his main argument was interesting and carefully laid out.

Toward the end of the book, however, G. goes too far. The last section of the book covers the period immediately preceding the peace of Nicias. G. argues that Nicias' whole aim during this period was to establish a strong foundation upon which the Athenians, who were exhausted, could sue for an advantageous peace (135).

The idea that the Athenians, Nicias included, wanted fundamental permanent peace in 421 because they were exhausted by the war seems wrong. That is, it seems like a further imposition of contemporary psychology on ancient Athens. Athenian behavior throughout this period speaks rather for the continuation of the imperialistic drive. Against this evidence G. argues that the achievement of a stable peace was felt by the Athenians as some kind of ethical imperative: "The attempt to achieve peace was a must, and the failure to undertake this attempt would have been an unforgivable omission" (178). Nicias, he argues, was totally devoted to the good of Athens, and conceived that good in term of a stable peace: Nicias acted to use the chance for peace offered by both sides' exhaustion (160) and was subsequently betrayed when the Athenians did not maintain the peace he had negotiated (179). If only it were true! But how likely can it be that Nicias was this altruistic? In this argument, both the Demos and Nicias seems implausibly modern.

G's criticism of Thucydides 5.16.1 exposes a similar problem. I cite the passage in the somewhat awkward Crawley translation, so that I can't be accused of having translated the passage according to my own preferences:

"Nicias, while still happy and honoured, wished to secure his good fortune, to obtain a present release from trouble for himself and his countrymen, and hand down to posterity a name as an ever-successful statesman, and thought the way to do this was to keep out of danger and commit himself as little as possible to fortune, and that peace alone made this keeping out of danger possible." (The Landmark Thucydides 310).

G. is unhappy that Thucydides imputes personal motives to Nicias. He believes that Thucydides' account of Nicias' personal motivations is part of a negative presentation, that it cannot have been based on information, but is Thucydides' "opinion" (154-155). Thucydides is in fact "tricking" the reader here (154). Close analysis shows how "skillfully, through an inversion of Nicias' usual manner of argumention, he [i.e. Thucydides] suggests to the reader that Nicias' personal motivations were his real motivations" (154). In fact, all is invention: "Thucydides' statements about Nicias' personal motivations are based only on a personal and willful interpretation, not on knowledge" (155).

That G. cannot prove these points goes without saying. We don't know Thucydides' sources for most of the History. Furthermore, Thucydides imputes personal motives to all actors. It is useless for G. to attack Thucydides in this way: Thucydides' very way of analyzing the war, as having two causes, one stated and discussed, but the other, the truest cause, unstated, leads him to constantly analyze every event for its actual psychological background. Evidence for this point is overwhelmingly copious.

Instead G. should ask whether there is any evidence that Thucydides thought Nicias' personal motivations irrational or base, that is, whether they are indeed properly construed as part of a negative presentation. The deep irony here is that G. becomes angry at Thucydides for a negativity that is not present. Why is any of 5.16 part of a plot against Nicias? If one thinks that Nicias was selfless and idealistic 5.16 does seem negative. But Nicias was not Gandhi, nor does Thucydides expect this, nor is it clear that Thucydides would have entirely approved of Gandhi.

But there are also other reasons why G. might be upset with Thucydides 5.16. Certainly, in this passage Nicias is not being praised as a second Pericles (although Nicias' putative concern for future glory is certainly Periclean enough). Therefore Thucydides seems to some readers to be confirming that Nicias was a comparative failure. And unfortunately G. shares with many of his colleagues the idea that Thucydides worshipped Pericles (11): ironically so, since this view represents the flip side of the historical attitudes that produced the weak and cowardly image of Nicias G's book so effectively combats. I argue that it is not Thucydides, but we, who need Nicias to resemble Pericles in order to think well of him. Readers who think that Thucydides sanctioned only a narrow range of "Periclean" motivations may construe 5.16 as criticism of Nicias. But where is the evidence that Thucydides was stuck in this attitude? G. has missed a chance to strike at the heart of the modern views that cause Nicias' bad reputation.

Like Nicias himself, G's book must not be judged by the problems that bedevil its conclusion. I learned a tremendous amount from this book, which is, incidentally, carefully produced and offers a complete scholarly apparatus to accompany its text. G's arguments clearly demonstrate that we cannot deny Nicias the capacity for initiative and energy without reasonable cause, and that to do so is to distort our view of Athens.


1.   All translations from the German in this review are my own.

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