Comparison of Nicias and Crassus, 1–5

Plutarch  translated by Bernadotte Perrin

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1In comparing the men, first, the wealth of Nicias was acquired in a more blameless manner than that of Crassus. For although it is true that the working of mines cannot be highly regarded, since most of it is carried on by employing malefactors or Barbarians, some of whom are kept in chains and done to death in damp and unwholesome places, still, when compared with the public confiscations of Sulla and the making of contracts where fire is raging, it will appear in the more favourable light. 2For Crassus openly utilized these opportunities as men do agriculture and money-lending. And as for the practices which he denied when on trial, namely, taking bribes for his voice in the senate, wronging the allies, circumventing weak women with his flatteries, and aiding base men to cloak their iniquities, no such charges, even though false, were ever made against Nicias; nay, he was rather laughed at for spending his money lavishly on informers out of cowardice, a practice unbecoming, perhaps, in a Pericles and an Aristides, but necessary for him, since he was not well stocked with courage. 3And for this practice Lycurgus the orator, in later times, boldly took to himself credit before the people, when accused of buying up one of these informers; “I am glad indeed,” he said, that after such a long political career among you, I have been detected in giving rather than receiving money.”

4As for their outlays of money, Nicias was more public spirited in his noble ambition to make offerings to the gods and provide the people with gymnastic exhibitions and trained choruses; and yet his whole estate, together with his expenditures, was not a tithe of what Crassus expended when he feasted so many myriads of men at once, and then furnished them with food afterwards. I am therefore amazed that anyone should fail to perceive that vice is a sort of inequality and incongruity of character, when he sees men amassing money shamefully and squandering it uselessly.

2So much regarding their wealth. And now in their political careers, no chicanery nor injustice, no violence nor harshness attaches to Nicias, but he was deceived the rather by Alcibiades, and made his appeals to the people with too much caution. Whereas Crassus is accused of much ungenerous faithlessness in his vacillations between friends and enemies; and as for violence, he himself could not deny that when he stood for the consulship, he hired men to lay hands on Cato and Domitius. 2And in the assembly which voted on the allotment of the provinces, many were wounded and four killed; and Crassus himself (a fact which escaped us in the narrative of his life), when Lucius Annalius, a senator, was speaking in opposition, smote him in the face with his fist and drove him bleeding from the forum.

3But if Crassus was violent and tyrannical in these matters, Nicias went to the other extreme. His timidity and cowardice in the public service, and his subservience to the basest men, deserve the severest censure. Crassus, indeed, showed a certain loftiness and largeness of spirit in this regard, for he contended not with men like Cleon and Hyperbolus, far from it, but against the brilliant Caesar, and against Pompey with his three triumphs; and he did not shrink from their path, but made himself a match for each in power, and in the dignity of his censorial office actually surpassed Pompey. 4For in the supreme struggles of a political career one must not adopt a course which awakens no envy, but one which dazzles men, throwing envy into the shade by the greatness of one’s power. But if, like Nicias, you set your heart above all else on security and quiet, and fear Alcibiades on the bema, and the Lacedaemonians at Pylos, and Perdiccas in Thrace, then there is ample room in the city where you can sit at leisure, removed from all activity, and “weaving for yourself,” as sundry Sophists say, “a crown of tranquillity.” 5His love of peace, indeed, had something godlike about it, and his putting a stop to the war was a political achievement most truly Hellenic in its scope. And because Nicias did this, Crassus is not worthy of comparison with him, nor would he have been even though in his ardour he had made the Caspian Sea or the Indian Ocean a boundary of the Roman empire.

3When, however, a man wields superior power in a city which is open to the appeals of virtue, he should not give a footing to the base, nor command to those who are no commanders at all, nor confidence to those who deserve no confidence. But this is just what Nicias did when, of his own motion, he set Cleon in command of the army, a man who was nothing more to the city than a shameless brawler from the bema. 2I do not, indeed, commend Crassus, in the war with Spartacus, for pressing forward into action with greater speed than safety, although it was natural for a man of his ambition to fear that Pompey would come and rob him of his glory, just as Mummius had robbed Metellus of Corinth; but the conduct of Nicias was altogether strange and terrible. For it was not while it afforded him good hopes of success, or even of ease, that he renounced his ambition to hold the command in favour of his enemy, but when he saw that his generalship involved him in great peril, then he was content to betray the common good at the price of his own safety. 3And yet Themistocles, during the Persian wars, to prevent a worthless and senseless man from ruining the city as one of its generals, bought him off from the office; and Cato stood for the tribuneship when he saw that it would involve him in the greatest toil and danger in behalf of the city. 4Nicias, on the other hand, kept himself in the command against Minoa, and Cythera, and the wretched Melians, but when it was necessary to fight the Lacedaemonians, stripped off his general’s cloak, handed over to the inexperience and rashness of Cleon ships, men, arms, and a command requiring the utmost experience, and so betrayed not only his own reputation, but the security and safety of his own country. 5Wherefore he was afterwards forced, against his wish and inclination, to wage war on Syracuse, for it was thought to be no calculation of what was expedient, but merely his love of ease and lack of spirit which made him use all his efforts to rob the city of Sicily.

There is, however, this proof of his great reasonableness, namely, that although he was always averse to war and avoided military command, the Athenians ceased not to elect him to it, believing him to be their most experienced and best general. 6Whereas Crassus, though he was all the while eager for military command, did not succeed in getting it except in the servile war, and then of necessity, because Pompey and Metellus and both the Luculli were away. And yet by that time he had acquired the greatest honour and influence in the city. But it would seem that even his best friends thought him, in the words of the comic poet, “The bravest warrior everywhere but in the field.”[1] 7And yet this did not prevent the Romans from being overwhelmed by his ambitious love of command. For the Athenians sent Nicias out to the war against his will; but the Romans were led out by Crassus against theirs. It was owing to Crassus that his city, but to his city that Nicias, suffered misfortune.

4However, in this there is more ground for praising Nicias than for blaming Crassus. The former brought into play the experience and calculation of a wise leader, and did not share the deceitful hopes of his fellow-citizens, but insisted that it was beyond his power to take Sicily; whereas Crassus made the mistake of entering upon the Parthian war as a very easy undertaking. 2And yet his aims were high; while Caesar was subduing the West,—Gaul and Germany and Britain,—he insisted on marching against the East and India, and on completing the reduction of Asia which had been begun by Pompey and Lucullus. Now these were men of good intentions and honourably disposed towards all, and yet they elected the same course as Crassus, and adopted the same principles. 3For Pompey met with opposition from the senate when his province was allotted to him, and when Caesar routed three hundred thousand Germans, Cato moved in the senate that he should be delivered up to those whom he had vanquished, and so bring upon his own head the punishment for his breach of faith; but the people turned contemptuously from Cato, sacrificed to the gods for fifteen days in honour of Caesar’s victory, and were full of joy. 4What, then, would have been their feelings, and for how many days would they have sacrificed to the gods, if Crassus had written to them from Babylon that he was victorious, and had then overrun Media, Persia, Hyrcania, Susa, and Bactria, and declared them Roman provinces? “For if wrong must be done,” as Euripides says, when men cannot keep quiet, and know not how to enjoy contentedly the blessings which they already have, 5then let it not be in raiding Scandeia or Mende, nor in beating up fugitive Aeginetans, who have forsaken their own, and hidden themselves away like birds in another territory, but let a high price be demanded for the wrongdoing, and let not justice be thrown to the winds lightly, nor on the first best terms, as if it were some trifling or insignificant thing. Those who have praise for Alexander’s expedition, but blame for that of Crassus, unfairly judge of a beginning by its end.

5As to the actual conduct of their expeditions, Nicias has not a little to his credit, for he conquered his enemies in many battles, and barely missed taking Syracuse, and not all his failures were due to himself, but they might be ascribed to his disease and to the jealousy of his fellow-citizens at home; but Crassus made so many blunders that he gave fortune no chance to favour him. We may not therefore wonder that his imbecility succumbed to the power of the Parthians, but rather that it prevailed over the usual good fortune of the Romans.

2Since one of them was wholly given to divination, and the other wholly neglected it, and both alike perished, it is hard to draw a safe conclusion from the premises; but failure from caution, going hand in hand with ancient and prevalent opinion, is more reasonable than lawlessness and obstinacy.

In his end, however, Crassus was the less worthy of reproach. He did not surrender himself, nor was he bound, nor yet beguiled, but yielded to the entreaties of his friends, and fell a prey to the perfidy of his enemies; whereas Nicias was led by the hope of a shameful and inglorious safety to put himself into the hands of his enemies, thereby making his death a greater disgrace for him.

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  • [1] An iambic trimeter of unknown authorship (Kock, Com. Att. Frag. iii. p. 493).