Corrupted and Corrupting: Thucydides' Critique of Democracy in the Sicilian Expedition
Haverford College. Department of Classics
Place of Publication
The Daniel Gillis and Joseph Russo Prize
Table of Contents
In Books VI and VII of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides writes his account of the Sicilian Expedition, a massive Athenian campaign in Sicily against Syracuse, its allies, and, eventually, Peloponnesian reinforcements. While it is a military campaign, Thucydides' portrayal is political as well. Athenian commanders make decisions on the battlefield that will have political implications for them in the future. Thucydides uses this military and political environment to level a specific criticism against the democracy at Athens. Throughout his account, Thucydides argues that democracy pressures and corrupts military leaders because, if they are to retain their prominent positions, they must prioritize the political considerations over military ones. In this environment, the individual leaders matter less than the democratic system because they will all have the same political considerations. One of the prominent political considerations is how to please the people. To please the people, military leaders make decisions based on what the people believe or would believe to be true rather than what is actually true, and as a result, they often underestimate their enemies and over estimate their own military capacities. This pattern is most easily discernible by examining four moments in the Sicilian campaign: the debate on whether to send an army, the attack on Epipolae, the debate on whether to retreat after Epipolae, and the army's final retreat and collapse. In each of these examples, the Athenian leaders Alcibiades, Nicias, and Demosthenes make errors because they try to please the people rather than make sound military decisions.