The World's Famous Orations/Volume 1/Against the Sicilian Expedition

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(414 B.C.)

As a general, successful against the Spartans; the peace of 421 B.C. named after him; one of the commanders of the expedition against Sicily which he had strongly opposed; won several battles, but was defeated in 413 and put to death.

This assembly was, it is true, convened to consider the subject of our preparations, namely, in what way we ought to make the expedition to Sicily. My opinion, however, is, that we ought still to consider this very point, whether it be better to send out our ships; and not on such slight deliberation on matters of great moment, at the instigation of aliens, to take upon ourselves a war with which we have nothing to do. And yet I, for my own part, receive honor from such a policy, and have less fear than others for my own personal safety (tho I consider that man to be an equally good citizen who takes some forethought both for his person and his property; for such a man would, for his own sake, be most desirous that his country also should prosper); nevertheless, neither aforetime have I ever spokon contrary to my convictions, for the sake of being honored above others, nor will I now, but as I think best, so will I speak. And tho against your inclinations my words would be powerless, should I advise you to keep what you have, and not expose your present possessions to danger for things which are uncertain and future; yet that neither are you timely in your haste, nor the objects of your ambition easy to attain, on these points I will give you instruction.

I say then, that you wish, tho leaving many enemies behind you here, to bring hither fresh ones besides, by sailing there. And you fancy, perhaps, that the treaty that has been made by you affords some ground of confidence. But tho as long as you remain quiet, that will, indeed, be a treaty—in name (for this condition have certain persons here and among your enemies brought it by their intrigues), yet if we are ever defeated with any considerable force, those who hate us will quickly make an attack upon us; seeing, in the first place, that the arrangement was made of necessity by them, under circumstances of disaster, and of greater discredit to them than to us; and, secondly, that in this very arrangement we have many subjects open to debate. There are some, too, who have not yet acceded even to this composition, such as it is, and those not the least powerful states; but some of them are at war with us downright, and, in the case of others, because the Lacedæmonians remain quiet at present, they too are restrained by truces from one ten days to another. But probably, if they should find our power divided (which we are now so anxious to bring about), they would with all their might attack us, in conjunction with the Siceliots, whose alliance they would in time past have valued most highly.

Every one therefore ought to look to this, and not presume to run risks with a state so unsettled, and to grasp at another empire before we have secured the one we have; seeing that the Chalcidians Thraceward, tho they have revolted from us so many years, are still unsubdued; and there are some others on the different coasts of the mainland who yield us but a doubtful obedience. And so we are quick to succor the Segestans, who are our allies, forsooth, as being injured; but on those by whose revolt we have ourselves long ago been injured, we still defer to avenge ourselves.

And yet the latter, if subdued, might be kept in subjection by us; but the former, even if we conquered them, we should hardly be able to govern, so far off and so numerous as they are. But it is folly to go against men whom we could not keep under, if we conquered them; while, if we did not succeed in the attempt, we should not be in the same position as we were before making it. Again, regarding the present condition of the Siceliots, they appear to me even still less likely to be formidable to us, if the Syracusans should have dominion over them: that supposition with which the Segestans especially try to frighten us. For at present they might, perhaps, come hither as separate states, to oblige the Lacedæmonians; but in the other case, it is not likely that they should undertake the expedition, empire against empire; for in the same manner as they, in conjunction with the Lacedæmonians, had taken away ours, it is probable that they would have their own taken away by the same Peloponnesians, and by the same principle.

And the Greeks in those parts would be most in awe of us, if we did not go there at all; and next to that, if after making a demonstration of our power we retired in a short time; but if we should meet with any reverse, they would very quickly despise us, and attack us in concert with our enemies here. For we all know that what is farthest off is most admired, and what gives the least room for having its fame tested. And this has at present been your case, Athenians, with reference to the Lacedæmonians and their allies; from having, contrary to your expectation, gained the advantage over them (comparing your present position with the fears you at first entertained), you have despised them, and are now desiring the conquest of Sicily. You ought not, however, to be elated through the misfortunes of your adversaries, but then only to feel confident when you have mastered their spirits; nor should you think that the Lacedæmonians are doing aught but considering, in consequence of their disgrace, in what way they may even now, if possible, overthrow us, and bring their own discredit to a happy termination;


From a Bust in the Capitol at Rome

especially as they have studied a reputation for bravery, as a thing of the greatest importance, and for the greatest length of time. So that our great struggle will be, if we are wise, not for the Segestans in Sicily, men who are barbarians, but that we may vigorously guard against a state which is plotting against us by the spread of oligarchical principles.

I am alarmed, indeed, when I see such characters sitting here at present by the side of that same individual, in compliance with his bidding; and in return I bid the older men—whichever of them may have one of those characters sitting by him—not to be put down through shame, in order to avoid being thought a coward if he should not vote for going to war; nor, as their opponents themselves might feel, to be madly enamored of what they do not possess; being convinced that in very few things do men succeed through desire, but in very many through fore thought; but in behalf of their country, as exposing itself to the greatest danger it has ever done, to give their support to the opposite side, and vote that the Siceliots keep the same boundaries with respect to us as at present—boundaries with which no one can find fault—namely, the Ionian Sea, if one sail along shore; and the Sicilian, if one cross the open deep; and that while they enjoy their own possessions, they shall also settle their own (quarrels: and that we tell the Segestans in particular, that since they went to war with the Selinuntines in the first instance without consulting the Athenians, they may also make peace with them by themselves; and that we do not in future make alliance, as we have been accustomed, with men whom we shall assist when they are unfortunate, and when we ask assistance ourselves, shall not obtain it.

And do you, Prytanis, if you think it your duty to care for the state, and if you wish to show yourself a good citizen, put this to the vote, and take a second time the opinion of the Athenians; reflecting, if you feel afraid to move the question again, that the violation of the law would not, with so many abettors, involve any guilt; but that you would be acting as a physician to the state, when it had taken bad counsel; and that good government consists in this,—for a man to do his country as much good as possible, or, at least, to do it voluntarily no harm.

  1. Delivered before the Assembly at Athens. Reported by Thucydides. Translated by Henry Dale. One paragraph omitted.