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Thucydides: Alkibiades speech: 6.15-18

After this speech of Nicias most of the Athenians who came forward to speak were in favour of making the expedition and not going back on the decision which had already been passed, though a few spoke on the other side. The most ardent supporter of the expedition was Alcibiades, the son of Clinias. He wanted to oppose Nicias, with whom he had never seen eye to eye in politics and who had just now made a personal attack on him in his speech. Stronger motives still were his desire to hold the command and his hopes that it would be through him that Sicily and Carthage(1)would be conquered - successes which would at the same time bring him personally both wealth and honour. For he was very much in the public eye, and his enthusiasm for horse-breeding and other extravagances went beyond what his fortune could supply. This, in fact, later on had much to do with the downfall of the city of Athens. For most people became frightened at a quality in him which was beyond the normal and showed itself both in the lawlessness of his private life and habits and in the spirit in which he acted on all occasions. They thought that he was aiming at becoming a dictator, and so they turned against him. Although in a public capacity his conduct of the war was excellent, his way of life made him objectionable to everyone as a person; thus they entrusted their affairs to other hands, and before long ruined the city.(2)

On this occasion Alcibiades came forward and gave the following advice to the Athenians:
"Athenians, since Nicias has made this attack on me, I must begin by saying that I have a better right than others to hold the command and that I think I am quite worthy of the position. As for all the talk there is against me, it is about things which bring honour to my ancestors and myself, and to our country profit as well. There was a time when the Hellenes imagined that our city had been ruined by the war, but they came to consider it even greater than it really is, because of the splendid show I made as its representative in the Olympic Games, when I entered seven chariots for the chariot race (more than any private individual has entered before) and took the first, second, and fourth places, and saw that everything else was arranged in a style worthy of my victory. It is customary for such things to bring honour, and the fact that they are done at all must also give an impression of power. Again, though it is quite natural for my fellow citizens to envy me for the magnificence with which I have done things in Athens, such as providing choruses and so on, yet to the outside world this also is evidence of our strength. Indeed, this is a very useful kind of folly, when a man spends his own money not only to benefit himself but his city as well. And it is perfectly fair for a man who has a high opinion of himself not to be put on a level with everyone else; certainly when one is badly off one does not find people coming to share in one's misfortunes. And just as no one takes much notice of us if we are failures, so on the same principle one has to put up with it if one is looked down on by the successful: one cannot demand equal treatment oneself unless one is prepared to treat everyone else as an equal. What I know is that people like this - all, in fact, whose brilliance in any direction has made them prominent - are unpopular in their lifetimes, especially with their equals and also with others with whom they come into contact; but with posterity you will find people claiming relationship with them, even where none exists, and you will find their countries boasting of them, not as though they were strangers or disreputable characters, but as fellow-countrymen and doers of great deeds. This is what I aim at myself, and because of this my private life comes in for criticism; but the point is whether you have any man who deals with public-affairs better than I do. Remember that I brought about a coalition of the greatest powers of the Peloponnese, without putting you to any considerable danger or expense, and made the Spartans risk their all on the issue of one day's fighting at Manitea,(3) and though they were victorious in the battle, they have not even yet quite recovered their confidence.

"So, in my youth and with this folly of mine which is supposed to be so prodigious, I found the right arguments for dealing with the power of the Peloponnesians, and the energy which I displayed made them trust me and follow my advice. Do not therefore be afraid of me now because I am young, but while I still have the vigour of my youth and Nicias the reputation for being lucky, make the best use you can of what each of us has to offer. Do not change your minds about the expedition to Sicily on the grounds that we shall have a great power to deal with there. The Sicilian cities have swollen populations made out of all sorts of mixtures, and there are constant changes and rearrangements in the citizen bodies. The result is that they lack the feeling that they are fighting for their own fatherland; no one has adequate armour for his own person, or a proper establishment on the land. What each man spends his time on is in trying to get from the public whatever he thinks he can get either by clever speeches or by open sedition - always with the intention of going off to live in another country if things go badly with him. Such aa crowd as this is scarcely likely either to pay attention to one consistent policy or to join together in concerted action. The chances are that they will make separate agreements with us as soon as we come forward with attractive suggestions, especially if they are, as we understand is the case, in a state of violent party strife. As for their hoplites, they have not got as many as they boast of ; it is the same with them as with the rest of the Hellenes; the numbers never came up to the estimate made by each state of its own power; in fact the falsification was a very big one, and even in this present war Hellas has barely succeeded in arming herself adequately.

"The position in Sicily, then, is, so far as my information goes, as I have said; indeed, it is even easier than that, since we shall also have a number of non-Hellenic peoples who, through hatred of the Syracusans, will join us in our attack on them. And as for the position at home, if you look at it in the right way you will see that there is nothing here to hinder us. They talk about the enemies we shall leave behind us if we sail, but our fathers left behind them these same enemies when they had the Persians on their hands as well, and so founded the Empire, relying solely on their superiority in sea-power. The Peloponnesians have never had so little hope of success against us as they have now. True enough that, if they really had the confidence, they have the strength to invade us by land, but they could do this whether we sailed to Sicily or not. They can do us no harm at all with their fleet, since we shall be leaving behind us a fleet of our own quite capable of dealing with theirs.

"There seems to be, therefore, no reasonable argument to induce us to hold back ourselves or to justify any excuse to our allies in Sicily for not helping them. We have sworn to help them, and it is our duty to help them, without raising the objection that we have had no help from them ourselves. The reason why we made them our allies was not that we wanted them to send us reinforcements here, but in order that they should be a thorn in the flesh for our enemies in Sicily, and so prevent them from coming here to attack us. This is the way we won our empire, and this is the way all empires have been won - by coming vigorously to the help of all who ask for it, irrespective of whether they are Hellenes or not. Certainly if everyone were to remain inactive or go in for racial distinctions when it is a question of giving assistance, we should add very little to our empire and should be more likely to risk losing it altogether. One does not only defend oneself against a superior power when one is attacked; one takes measures in advance to prevent the attack materialising. And it is not possible for us to calculate, like housekeepers, exactly how much empire we want to have. The fact is that we have reached a stage where we are forced to plan new conquests and forced to hold on to what we have got, because there is a danger that we ourselves may fall under the power of others unless others are in our power. And you cannot look upon this idea of a quiet life in quite the same way as others do - not, that is, unless you are going to change your whole way of living and make it like theirs.

"In the assurance therefore that, in going abroad, we shall increase our power at home, let us set out on this voyage. It will have a depressing effect on the arrogance of the Peloponnesians when they see that we despise the quiet life we are living now and have taken on the expedition to Sicily. At the same time we shall either, as is quite likely, become the rulers of all Hellas by using what we gain in Sicily, or, in any case, we shall do harm to the Syracusans, and so do good to ourselves and our allies. Our security is guaranteed by our navy, so that we can either stay there, if things go well, or come back again; for we shall have naval superiority over all the Sicilians put together.

"Do not be put off by Nicias' arguments for non-intervention and his distinctions between the young and the old. Let us instead keep to the old system of our fathers who joined together in counsel, young and old alike, and raised our state to the position it now holds. So now in the same way make it your endeavour to raise this city to even greater heights, realizing that neither youth nor age can do anything one without the other, but that the greatest strength is developed when one has a combination where all sorts are represented - the inferior types (4), the ordinary types, and the profoundly calculating types, all together. Remember, too, that the city, like everything else, will wear out of its own accord if it remains at rest, and its skill in everything will grow out of date; but in conflict it will constantly be gaining new experience and growing more used to defend itself not by speeches, but in action. In general, my view is that a city which is active by nature will soon ruin itself if it changes its nature and becomes idle, and that the way men find the greatest security is in accepting the character and the institutions which they actually have, even if they are not perfect, and in living as nearly as possible in accordance with them"

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin, 1972

(1) Not just Sicily - part Greek island off the coast of Italy, but Carthage itself, on the North African mainland. Carthage was still strong then, not yet "delenda est Carthago"
(2) Sort of spoilerish, but doesn't matter in this read, does it (and it is only old Thucydides' view.}
(3) I could find the battle of Manitea, if anyone is that interested in Alcibiades' magnificent plan, which seems to consist of assembling a large coalition, attacking the Spartans and getting beaten. Well, that taught the Spartans a lesson, eh what!
(4) Yes, I did mean you in the front, picking your nose with your ostraka!


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 28th, 2005 01:44 am (UTC)
And here are the seeds of tragedy, because only him might perhaps have been able to win this disastrous expedition, and yet the hubris he shows here ensured that he would lose command....
Sep. 30th, 2005 06:16 am (UTC)
It's even worse to think that they might never have gone on the expedition, if it weren't for his encouragement. Well, that's an exaggeration. Nicias hardly convinced anyone against it.

Yowsa. Sicily AND Carthage. My God, what a dream.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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