Bad Signs, Worse Decisions

Plutarch, Moralia 168f-169a

“Superstitions make many moderate sufferings deadly. That ancient Midas, as it seems, was so disturbed and troubled by some dreams that he became upset enough to kill himself by drinking the blood of a bull. And the king of the Messenian, Aristodêmos, in that war against the Spartans, when the dogs were howling like wolves, the grass began to grow up over his ancestral hearth and some of the seers were frightened by the signs, was completely disheartened and extinguished all hopes when he took his own life.

It might have been best for Nikias the general of the Athenians to free himself of his superstition following Midas and Aristodêmos. Since he was afraid of the shadow of a moon in eclipse, rather than to sit there while he was walled in by the enemy only to get captured by them with forty thousand men who were slaughtered or taken alive and then die in infamy.”

Πολλὰ τῶν μετρίων κακῶν ὀλέθρια ποιοῦσιν αἱ δεισιδαιμονίαι. Μίδας ὁ παλαιός, ὡς ἔοικεν, ἔκ τινων ἐνυπνίων ἀθυμῶν καὶ ταραττόμενος οὕτω κακῶς ἔσχε τὴν ψυχήν, ὥσθ᾿ ἑκουσίως ἀποθανεῖν αἷμα ταύρου πιών. ὁ δὲ τῶν Μεσσηνίων βασιλεὺς Ἀριστόδημος ἐν τῷ πρὸς Λακεδαιμονίους  πολέμῳ, κυνῶν λύκοις ὠρυομένων ὅμοια καὶ περὶ τὴν ἑστίαν αὐτοῦ τὴν πατρῴαν ἀγρώστεως ἀναβλαστανούσης καὶ τῶν μάντεων τὰ σημεῖα φοβουμένων, ἐξαθυμήσας καὶ κατασβεσθεὶς ταῖς ἐλπίσιν αὐτὸς ἑαυτὸν ἀπέσφαξεν. ἦν δ᾿ ἴσως καὶ Νικίᾳ τῷ Ἀθηναίων στρατηγῷ κράτιστον οὕτως ἀπαλλαγῆναι τῆς δεισιδαιμονίας ὡς Μίδας ἢ Ἀριστόδημος ἢ φοβηθέντι τὴν σκιὰν ἐκλιπούσης τῆς σελήνης καθῆσθαι περιτειχιζόμενον ὑπὸ τῶν πολεμίων, εἶθ᾿ ὁμοῦ τέτταρσι μυριάσιν ἀνθρώπων φονευθέντων τε καὶ ζώντων ἁλόντων ὑποχείριον γενέσθαι καὶ δυσκλεῶς ἀποθανεῖν.

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Nicias