Nicias was an Athenian
general and politician in the era after Pericles
' death in 429B.C.. He was the primary opposition to Cleon
and one of the few who still advocated the policies dictated by Pericles
. He was extremely wealthy, with mentions of him having one thousand slaves working in silver mine
s, he also is noted for a lavish festival procession to the Delia
He was extremely cautious as a general and in the expeditions he led in the Archidamian War he won no major victories and suffered no major defeats. He advocated making peace with Sparta as soon as it could be attained with favourable terms for the Athenians. He is credited with the armistice concluded in 423B.C. and the peace in 421B.C. rightly bears his name.
Now that Cleon was dead, Nicias found two new opponents challenging his policies, Hyperbolus a demagogue took the position assumed by Cleon, while Alcibiades emerged as an eccentric and charismatic young man eager for glory. Hyperbolus planned to end this three way power struggle by arranging an ostracism certain that one of his opponents would be the one to go, however Nicias and Alcibiades joined forces and got Hyperbolus ostracised.
During the peace Nicias wanted to follow a policy of securing areas that had fallen victim to Spartan attack during the Archidamian War especially Thrace, however Alcibiades had his sights set on Sicily and from there he may have desired a campaign against Carthage. Nicias contested Alcibiades over the expedition in the Assembly stressing the magnitude of the task, the Athenians however loved a challenge and they simply increased the size of the expedition. The generals in charge were to be Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus, the idea being that Alcibiades' enthusiasm would balance out Nicias' negativity and Lamachus would sit in the middle. Unfortunately for Athens, Lamachus came from a poor background and lacked political clout and so the other generals did not pay enough attention to him, yet he was a career soldier and the most experienced general on the expedition. In 415B.C. Nicias and his fellow generals led the ships out of the Piraeus after a lavish ceremony attended by most of Athens, little did the citizens realise they were embarking on one of the most disastrous military expeditions in history. Almost straight away, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to face trial over the mutilation of the herms, however he jumped ship and went to Sparta, encouraging them to send troops to Sicily. The Athenians now had a limited time frame before Sparta became involved and the expedition was being led by a cautious general who didn't want to be there, in addition the cavalry had been delayed meaning that the Athenians lacked the means to make battles into decisive victories. Lamachus urged Nicias to attack Syracuse immediately, using the fear inspired by the site of the large army, however Nicias was overly cautious and he spent the time building up his base. He did win one victory against the Syracusans, however he did not advance on the city choosing to wait out the winter in Catana.
In 414B.C. the campaign went down the toilet, Lamachus commanded a successful series of battles the pushed the Syracusans back and almost forcing the city's surrender, however he died in a skirmish. Now Nicias was the only general in command, unfortunately he became seriously ill, and his forces remained largely inactive. The Athenians on the other hand had been incredibly stupid. Alcibiades' efforts in Sparta had not convinced them to send troops to Sicily since technically the Peace of Nicias had not yet been broken, however the Athenians began naval raids on the coast of the Peloponnese. The Spartan's responded by sending one of their generals, Gylippus to Sicily with the Corinthian, Gongalus, and a significant force. Gylippus turned the tables on Nicias and now the Athenian forces were in trouble.
In 413B.C. Nicias tried his last trick he wrote a letter to Athens telling them to either recall him or send out another army as big as the first. He believed that Athens would never send out that many more men. He was wrong. Demosthenes was sent out with another army, he was one of the best generals left to Athens and he saw the wisdom of Lamachus' plan. Demosthenes immediately attacked Syracuse however Nicias had let things deteriorate too much. When his plan failed and they had been driven back, Demosthenes advised returning to Athens immediately, if this had come to pass then the expedition would have been a failure but not a disaster. Nicias however was afraid of what would happen to him should he return unbidden to Athens, on top of this he was a superstitious man and a lunar eclipse occured before he left, he consulted a soothsayer and he was advised to wait for a month. He did so and the Spartans blockaded the harbour preventing the escape. An attempt was made to break out, however it failed and Nicias in desperation abandoned the ships and led the vanguard inland trying to escape. Nicias was captured and despite the protests of Gylippus he and Demosthenes were executed by Gongalus and the Syracusans.
Nicias was an unremarkable general and an average statesman, his actions leading up to the retreat at Sicily were unfortunate, however he placed his own fears of mob justice above the well-being of his troops; put another way the fears and superstitions of a sick, 57 year old man well past his prime, cost the lives of thousands of young Athenians and quite possibly the war itself. Nicias succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and then he turned that defeat into disaster.