The Sicilian Expedition
The Sicilian Expedition is the decisive event in the Peloponnesian war, and in his account, Thucydides makes sure the reader is aware of this fact. Thucydides conveys the importance of this event through direct statements and also literary and narrative techniques in his writing.
In the beginning of book six of his history , Thucydides makes an allusion to Troy, which stresses an air of historical importance for the narration of the Sicilian expedition. Although the Trojan war and the campaign in Sicily are very different in respect to time period and outcome, they do contain several similarities. One similarity is the size of the armies in both expeditions . Although most likely exaggerated, the multitude that left to sack Troy was definitely a sizable force involving enough men for ten years of war. The numbers that Thucydides gives in his account of the Athenian host shows that it too was a large army prepared for a long battle over seas. Another parallel is the purpose of fighting an opponent so far from home. Achilles voices this theme in the Iliad, when he questions Agamemnon in the first book: “...never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great did they / spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that lies between us, / the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea;” (Iliad. Lines 155-157) The Athenian general Nicias puts forth a similar idea when he questions the making and fighting a new enemy across the sea when they have enough enemies in the Peloponnese: “ ‘...we have not yet come safely into harbour, and this is no time for running risks or for grasping at a new empire before we have secured the one we have already.’ “ (History Of The Peloponnesian War. Book six, paragraph 10) This connection with Troy effectively puts emphasis on the Sicilian expedition because the Trojan war and the events surrounding it were a very popular theme in Greek history and literature and the events after the Trojan war were the subject of many famous tragedies by authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Characters, and their speeches are another device that Thucydides uses to help stress the importance of the Sicilian expedition. These speeches, which Thucydides admits are not word for word, help focus the reader on an important idea and also help the story flow, yet allow Thucydides room to create an atmosphere similar to a historical poem or play. In the debate at Athens over whether the Athenians should go to Sicily, Thucydides uses the speeches of Nicias and Alcibiades to represent the opposing viewpoints. He also takes time to develop their characters to add interest to the narration. Nicias is represented as a tragic figure who tries to save Athens from making the mistake of campaigning abroad, yet respects the wishes of the council enough to leave his home and lead the expedition even though he is against it. This idea of putting duty in front of personal opinion and welfare is a theme seen throughout the Iliad, and also in the Greek tragedy. There is no one character in Greek tragedy that resembles Nicias, but Nicias is definitely a tragic figure. Possibly he could be viewed as a bit like Creon or Orestes, because he upholds duty, the law and his honour even when he is torn between what he wants and what he must do. Nicias uses his best arguments to try to keep Athens from going on with their plans yet tragically, through his arguments, he inadvertently spurs them on more: “The Athenians, however, far from losing their appetite for the voyage because of the difficulties in preparing for it, became more enthusiastic about it then ever, and just the opposite of what Nicias had imagined took place. His advice was regarded as excellent,”. (The History Of The Peloponnesian War. Book six, paragraph 24) In the end, Nicias puts his duty ahead of his beliefs and goes to Sicily and ends up being killed after losing his army. Opposing Nicias in the debate is Alcibiades, who argues that is necessary for Athens to attack Sicily so they can expand there empire and become stronger. Alcibiades is similar to Agamemnon, in the sense that he holds much power in politics, is very wealthy, and very arrogant. Also his motives for attacking Sicily have more to do with personal honour than the benefit of the city. His desire for personal gain can be seen when he spends his exile in Sparta helping them defeat Athens. Thucydides mentions that it is because of Alcibiades’ tremendous ambition and extravagance that: “..in fact, later on had much to do with the downfall of the city of Athens.” (The History Of The Peloponesian War. Book six, paragraph 15)
The use of the speeches by these characters is an effective way for Thucydides to impress on the reader the consequences of the decision to invade Sicily. The reader can relate to them because they are historically real men and have parallels to the heroes and generals of the past. It is much more effective and interesting for Thucydides to use the monologues of these men to relate the events than for him to just simply narrate what happens. The reader gets a much more realistic glimpse, as if they were at the assembly in Athens or listening to Hermocrates try and convince his fellow citizens that Athens was on her way to attack Syracuse. The reader can pick up the urgency and importance of the expedition through the tone and language of the speakers.
Thucydides uses somewhat subtle devices to put emphasis on the Sicilian expedition and it’s role in the outcome of the Peloponnesian war, but the most obvious way he conveys the importance of this event is through his direct comments in the text and his narration. In the debate in Athens and the launching of the expedition, Thucydides makes a few comments about how the decisions made would evetually lead to the downfall of Athens. Also, Thucydides spends much time on the size and ramifications of the expedition. He treats it as if it is the big Athenian gamble, an all or nothing bet. At the end of book seven, Thucydides makes a very big comment that truly shows that importance of the outcome of the Sicilian expedition.
“This was the greatest Hellenic action that took place during this war, and, in my opinion, the greatest action that we know of in Hellenic history..........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 few returned.” (History Of The Peloponnesian War. Book seven, end of paragraph 87)
If Thucydides had not shown the magnitude of the Athenian loss before, this statement makes sure the reader is very aware of the importance of this particular expedition.
In his attempt to convey the importance of the Sicilian expedition in the war, and in history, Thucydides uses some interesting literary devices to create a solid, flowing, realistic account. His parallel to Troy and his strong emphasis on the expedition really carve a spot for it in military history. Finally, his use of speeches and character development keep the reader interested yet make sure that he grasps the important events and occurences that shaped the outcome of the war.