Lives of the Eminent Commanders/Thrasybulus

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Lives of the Eminent Commanders by Cornelius Nepos
I. Character of Thrasybulus; he proceeds to deliver his country from the Thirty Tyrants, — II. His success and conduct in the enterprise, — III. His act of oblivion, III.— IV. He is honoured with an olive crown; is killed on the coast of Sicily.

I. Thrasybulus, the son of Lycus, was a native of Athens. If merit is to be valued by itself, without regard to fortune, I doubt whether I ought not to place him first of all the Greek commanders. This I can say without hesitation, that I set no man above him in integrity, firmness, greatness of mind, and love for his country; for while many have wished, and few have been able, to deliver their country from one tyrant, it was his lot to restore his country, oppressed by thirty tyrants, from slavery to freedom. But though no man excelled him in these virtues, many, I know not how, surpassed him in fame.

First of all, in the Peloponnesian war, he accomplished many undertakings without Alcibiades, while Alcibiades did nothing without him; of all which successes Alcibiades, from certain natural advantages, got the credit. All such actions, however, are common to commanders with their soldiers and with fortune; for, in the shock of battle, the issue is transferred from generalship to the strength and fury of the combatants. The soldier, therefore, of his own right, takes something from the general, and fortune a great deal, and may truly say that she has had more influence on the event than the skill of the commander. This most noble action, then, is entirely Thrasybulus's; for when the Thirty Tyrants, appointed by the Lacedaemonians, kept Athens oppressed in a state of slavery, and had partly banished from their country, and partly put to death, a great number of the citizens whom fortune had spared in the war, and had divided their confiscated property among themselves, he was not only the first, but the only man at the commencement, to declare war against them.

II. When he fled to Phyle, which is a very strong fortress in Attica, he had not more than thirty of his countrymen with him; such was the origin of the deliverance of the Athenians, such the dependence of the liberty of that most famous city. He was at first, indeed, despised by the tyrants, as well as the small number of his followers; which circumstance proved both the ruin of those that despised him, and the security of him that was despised, for it rendered the one party slow to attack, and the other stronger by giving them time for preparation. The maxim, therefore, that "nothing should be despised in war," ought the more deeply to be fixed in the minds of all; and we should remember that it is not said without reason, that "the mother of a cautious person[1] is not accustomed to weep." The force of Thrasybulus, however, was not increased in proportion to his expectations; for even in those times good men spoke for liberty with more spirit than they fought for it.

Hence he went to the Piraeeus, and fortified the Munychia,[2] which the tyrants twice attempted to storm, but being disgracefully repulsed, and having lost their arms and baggage, they immediately fled back to the city. Thrasybulus, on this occasion, exercised not less prudence than valour; for he forbade those that fled to be injured, thinking it just that "countrymen should spare countrymen;" nor was any one wounded except such as would attack him first. He spoiled no one, as he lay, of his clothes; he laid hands on nothing but arms, of which he was in want, and provisions.[3] In the second battle Critias, the leader of the tyrants, was killed, after having, indeed, fought with great bravery against Thrasybulus.

III. Critias being overthrown, Pausanias, king of the Lacedaemonians, came to the support of the Athenians. He made peace between Thrasybulus and those who held the town, on these conditions: "That none should be banished except the Thirty Tyrants, and the Ten, who, having been afterwards made governors, had followed the example of their predecessors in cruelty;[4] that no property should be confiscated; and that the government of the republic should be restored to the hands of the people." It was an honourable act of Thrasybulus, that, when peace was settled, and he had become the most powerful person in the state, he made a law, "that no one should be brought to trial, or punished, for things done previously;" and this they called "the act of oblivion." Nor did he only cause this law to be passed, but also took care that it should be of effect; for when some of them who had been with him in exile, wished to put to death those with whom they had returned to a good understanding, he openly prevented it, and adhered to what he had promised.

IV. For such merits a crown of honour was presented him by the people, made of two sprigs of olive, which, as the love of his countrymen and not force, had procured it him, excited no envy, but was a great glory to him. The celebrated Pittacus, therefore, who was reckoned in the number of the seven wise men, said well, when the Mitylenaeans offered to give him several thousand acres[5] of land, "Do not, I beseech you, give me what many may envy and more may covet; for which reason I had rather take, out of that number, not more than a hundred acres, which will prove both the moderation of my desires and your good will." For small gifts are lasting; but valuable presents are not wont to be permanent.[6] Thrasybulus, accordingly, being content with that crown, neither sought for anything more, nor considered that any one had surpassed him in honour.

Some time after, when, being in command, he had brought up his fleet on the coast of Cilicia, and the watch in his camp was not kept with sufficient care, he was killed in his tent by the barbarians, in a sally made from the town[7] during the night.


  1. Matrem timidi flere non solere.] I have translated this according to the notion of Bremi, who says that timidus here means a cautious person, one who takes care of himself, and is on his guard against contingencies. Most translators have rendered it "the mother of a coward," &c., in which sense it would seem that the proverb was generally used.
  2. One of the minor harbours of Athens.
  3. Quae ad victum pertinebant.] "Things which pertained to sustenance," i.e. provisions.
  4. Superioris more crudelitatis erant usi.] "Had used the manner of the former cruelty."
  5. Jugerum.] Though the juger or jugerum is generally rendered an acre, it in reality contained little more than half an acre. The juger was 240 feet long and 120 broad, containing therefore 28,800 square feet; the content of an English acre is 43,566 square feet.
  6. Non propria esse consueverunt.] By propria, is meant "peculiarly one's own, and likely to continue so; appropriated to one's self." I have rendered it by "permanent;" most other translators have given something similar. Bos gives this remark about gifts to Nepos; other editors give it to Pittacus.
  7. Ex oppido.] The town was Aspendus, as appears from Xen. Hell. iv. 8, 30; Diod. Sic. xiv. 99.