Thucydides Book 7 preliminary comments

These ARE indeed a fantastic way to prepare for tonights discussion.  I, too, side with Paul’s observations of Nicias, although this chapter was written in such a way as to make it impossible not to feel the pain that the Athenians were going through, and not merely physical pain.  Let the empathy roll!  They left Athens as Rulers of the World and now found themselves on the brink of defeat, and death.The actions of the generals and the soldiers were all incredible to read and imagine.  What went through their minds during the long silent march, after leaving friends behind?

But the one other thing that came up for me was a question of when T wrote this history.  Throughout it has appeared (at least to me) as if he were perhaps recording the many years of war as a news reporter might today…  live, as it happens.  But seeing the outcome in Sicily and thinking back to his idea that this was to be the war of wars that future generations would learn from, I wonder when he actually realized that it was indeed such a war and that the history of it were worth writing down for posterity.And if there is a chance that he did decide at the end to write this record, how old was the information for the early years some decades before?Truly a remarkable story.  His vantage point must have been incredible.  Or did he interview soldiers (both sides?) like a reporter after the fact?  As was pointed out earleir, how did he know what Nicias’ letter said?I can’t wait to hear your ideas this evening.

Dan G.

On Mon, May 4, 2009 at 5:02 PM, Janicki, Jim <> wrote:

What a warm-up for tonight calls, which I think is going to be exciting.I saw things more similar to Paul’s comments and it takes a lot of effort for me to immerse myself in Nicias’s context, which is what I think Paul is doing well for us below.  The one thing I kept coming back to is what “virtues” was T really referring to?  I suppose the obvious is that Nicias tried to keep Athens from over stretching its reach and when he didn’t succeed he still laid down his life for his men and his country.  He also stuck it out even when he was injured enough that he thought he should be removed from the battle and Athens refused.  Alcibiades gave Nicias something to really think about.  Look what happened to him?  Also, remember that the Spartans were the ones seen observing the old traditions in strict form even though it hurt their war strategies.  Remember that it’s why the “300” were left out there on their own by Sparta.  And Sparta was seen as holding a higher ideal because of things like this.  So, it would have been seen as virtuous to wait after the eclipse.  But, which “virtues” is T really referring to?  Is it all of them or are some more important than others?  Or, does T know of other things Nicias did and wants to represent him in a good light for some other reason?

Jim J.



     While it may appear to us that Nicias was more interested in his reputation, I tend to think he is more concerned about public opinion.  Knowing what we know about Athenian Democracy, specifically that poor public opinion can result in exile, and that (much  like today) the Athenians were very interested laying blame for unfortunate circumstances, he was, in actuality, concerned about his very life.

3.     A cursory glance shows instances where it is clear (to me) “his life was regulated with strict attention to virtue.”  (At least the virtue  of the time), he surrenders himself in exchange for the life of his soldiers

4.     Since when is the virtue of a man based on whether or not his one or more of his efforts were a success rather than the motivation and intention with which he acted? (his failure to motivate the troops, troops who were so stunned they walked away from their dead – something that happened at no other time so far in the history)

I  just kept tossing and turning thinking, “What a predicament he was in.  There was no way he could win, no matter what, but he had to keep the troops moving.  In truth, it would be far better for him to die in a vain battle than return in defeat.  After seeing how previous battles had ended, he was probably fairly certain he would be killed, not ransomed,  if handed over to enemies.”  So my perception was that he was an honorable man, who at the very least, made very valiant efforts to minimize the loss of life among his troops, knowing full well that if he ever returned home, it would be to dishonor and possible exile from the very country he served so well.

Paul G.


Hi Gang,

1.  Book 7 is among the most “dramatic” we’ve read.

The most “dramatic” example is the final retreat and slaughter of the Athenians in the river Assinarus near the quarries.  This was heartbreaking for me to read.  The Athenians have lost their naval fleet (and superiority), burned their own ships, left their fallen dead behind, and are retreating desperately.  As they reach the river, they are reduced to drinking the foul and bloody water as the Syracusans “butchered them” (7.84.5).  This phrase struck me so much that I looked up the Greek.  Thucydides writes “malista esphagon” which, more literally, means that they violently cut their throats like sacrificial animals; the same verb is used in sacrifice and the noun form of esphagon is the bowl used to catch the blood of sacrifice.  It’s pretty chilling in the Greek.  There are other examples, but the language suggests the complete breakdown of Athenian moral and human standing.  The great Athenians are reduced to animals driven off cliffs and impaled on their own spears.

2.  I see T. using parallelisms to his reports of Corcyra and Pylos. 

In a way, Thucydides seems to outline why Athens lost instead of why Syracuse won the Sicilian front.  In my thinking, there are echoes of the Athenian’s past actions at Corcyra and Pylos.  Some thoughts:

  • The Athenians get stranded in a port and have to get all supplies (if there are any) by sea which is also compromised at this point (7.28).   The structure and remoteness of the port even remind me of Pylos (could be wrong).

  • The total of what the Hellenic world knew as Athens’ greatness seems to be completely destroyed in this book and the language (see comment 1) is as compelling as the Corcyran revolt at the end of Book 4.  Without imposing too much post-modern lit. crit., I think this is an intentional echo.

  • 3.  Thucydides’ comment that Nicias “least deserved his fate” (7.86.5) doesn’t seem to match his own narrative of Nicias’s actions.  I have to wonder if the overall story of Nicias serves Thucydides as a canvas for commenting on the Athens from which he was an exile.  Nicias always seems to be worried more about his reputation (cf., 5.16.1) and the let
    ter (7.8.2 – 3; how did T. learn the contents?) he writes seems to prove this (to me).

    • Nicias opposed the expedition initially but the Athenians misunderstood his speech and sent a huge fleet.

  • Nicias is ineffective in battle: he does not retreat when Demosthenes suggests they should (7.47), he fails to get the men to mount another attack when they still have 60 ships (7.72), and he fatefully forces the troops to wait at least 27 days after an eclipse (7.50).

  • I’ll talk more about Alcibiades during our call.  I sense that T. is also using his story to some “interpretive” means.  There’s lots more, but this was all I could get down in email.  See you all tonight.

    Tim A.

    05. May 2009 by Arrian
    Categories: Commentary, Thucydides | Tags: , | Comments Off on Thucydides Book 7 preliminary comments