The Importance of the Peloponnesian War and Its Continuing Value
Double Herm of Thucydides and Herodotus. A herm is a stone rectangular-sectioned pillar topped with a head, usually marking crossroads and boundaries, and functioning as a wayside shrine for travellers. Herms were originally reserved for gods but were used for portrait busts in later times, as in this janiform (looking both ways) example. Thucydides was a historian of the wars between Athens and Sparta, in which he championed the Athenian general Perikles. Herodotus travelled and wrote widely and tried to be more impartial. He was sceptical of implausible events and is sometimes called ‘the Father of History’. Both were writing in the fifth century BCE. This herm is a Roman version of a Greek original. / National Museum, Naples
The coming and the fighting of the Great Peloponnesian War is a subject that had tremendous importance for the Greeks themselves and it has been one of the things that has occupied people interested in the ancient Greeks more than most thing, partly because of its own extraordinary importance, but I think perhaps even more because of the fact that it was described for us by a participant, a contemporary Thucydides, the son of Olorus an Athenian, who by common consent throughout the millennia has been agreed upon as one of the great historians ever, sort of the second one that we know of in all of history, but also one who is much esteemed. I would argue that right now he’s probably esteemed more than he has ever been throughout the history of the world, because he’s had such a great influence on thinking in the West and then in the world as well — around the world as well.
Ever since the twentieth century, he really came into his own as events like the First and the Second World War, to be followed then by the Cold War seemed to observers of the time, to be much illuminated by studying Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. And as a consequence his own way of thinking about history and about war, and about international relations and about behavior of human beings in the mass, and a whole variety of subjects in the realm of politics and diplomacy and war. So it’s for those reasons, I think, that this story has been so carefully looked at, compared to others in history.
You know that for almost three decades at the end of the fifth century the Athenian Empire fought against the Spartan alliance in this terrible war that changed the Greek world and the civilization of the Greeks forever. From the perspective of the fifth century Greeks, the Peloponnesian War deserves to be thought of I think as a world war. It doesn’t just involve the Greeks themselves, and that’s not quite right. That’s one of the points Thucydides makes. It drew into it other peoples other than the Greeks who were very important. The Persians were to play a critical role and similarly the Macedonians, and similarly peoples in Sicily and in Italy. So, it really doesn’t require much defense from the Greek point of view to think of it as a kind of a world war.
A critical turning point in Greek history causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, dividing the Greek states internally — it was the cause of civil wars throughout the Greek world, throughout its history and subsequently, de-stabilizing the relationship of classes within cities and between the relationships between cities ultimately. As we can see from hindsight, making the capacity of the Greeks to resist an outside threat much weaker and helping to bring about a situation in which they finally did lose their independence and their autonomy.
So, from so many points of view the war may be seen as a tragic event, the end of a period of confidence and hope, and I would want to stress that. If you look at the fifty year stretch between the Persian War and the Peloponnesian War, it is the great age of Greece when so many of the things that we value in the experience of the Greeks were created and carried forward, and a period in which one sees evidence of all sorts of confidence in human capacities and the hope of what will be in the future. All of that, I think, suffered a considerable reversal because of the Peloponnesian War, and began a darker time.
Map of nations involved in Peloponnesian War / Wikimedia Commons
It was a war of unprecedented brutality in Greek life, violating even the already rugged code that had previously governed Greek fighting and breaking through that thin veneer that separates civilization from savagery. It is actually to Thucydides that that way of thinking about things is old. Certainly for me; that’s when I first understood what he’s teaching us to such a degree in his history, that there is just a very thin veneer that covers over the brutal, the bestial, the worst and bestial that exists in human beings even in society, but that society is what covers that over and permits something resembling what we would call civilization. But warfare tends to put a strain on that limiting element which is what society gives you.
Anger, frustration, the desire for vengeance increases as the fighting drags on, producing a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents, throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation and exposure, that’s what happened in Sicily and hurling them into the sea to drown, which became the practice towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was a case of a band of marauders, murdering innocent school children, entire cities were destroyed, the men killed the women and children sold into slavery. I don’t say there were no atrocities before the Peloponnesian War, but nothing like the concentration of them that developed, and also I suspect a whole new range of them also came into being.
One reason being that in the past wars had been short, and one of the messages I think Thucydides wants to give us is that the longer a war persists, the more inevitable is the sinking below civilized levels of warfare, if there is such a thing as civilized level of warfare, to a much more horrible way of fighting. As I said, although the war ended over 2,400 years ago it continues to fascinate readers today. I was astonished; I wrote a one-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and it sold 50,000 copies of the damn thing. I’m truly amazed; so was my publisher. But I think shouldn’t have been amazed, because for maybe a century now people have been studying Thucydides and the war, or when they have not been studying them they’ve been hearing about it; references that have been made to it by distinguished people.
General Marshall referred to it in a famous quotation when he was Secretary of State and people keep talking about it, and so the curiosity I think rather than the familiarity — curiosity about what is this all about may account for this, but it’s also true that if you go to — Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War are taught in all the military academies. They are taught in all, or just about all, I never heard one that didn’t, in all programs of international relations anywhere. That’s one of the first books along with the Chinese Sage of Warfare, Sun-tzu both of those seem to be typically read everywhere and so on. I don’t think that this is just an affectation of look at us we read classical stuff; I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think it is based on a conviction and supported by arguments by scholars, not classicists, that there is some continuing meaning, some continuing value, something we can learn about all of these important topics by reading Thucydides.
So, I want to just comfort you for the burden I’ve laid on you in giving you that book and all of this stuff to read. You’re not wasting your time; that’s what I’m trying to tell you.
The Origins of the War
Lacedaemon / Wikimedia Commons
I’d like to turn first to the question of the origins of the war, the causes of the war, the outbreak of the war, however you want to look at that phenomenon, because Thucydides is very interested in that subject and writes about it with a sophistication that in my opinion, has not been superseded and rarely matched in the years since that point.
Thucydides’ whole first book really is about that subject, how and why did that war come about? That’s a subject I just think is immensely interesting and important, because we should face the fact that the history of civilized mankind is almost the history of warfare. There’s nothing more typical of human societies than that they are organized to fight wars and do so. And I think by the twentieth-, twenty-first century we ought to have come to the conclusion this is a bad thing. Wars, certainly now, whatever positive functions they might have had in the past, and they have been sometimes glorified for various reasons, the price of them is just far too high for us to think that’s fine, let’s keep doing that. So, the problem why do wars happen and how can they be avoided strikes me as important a question as there is, and Thucydides I think gives us some food to chew on as we think about that.
Well, he examined the situation in the first book and concluded with what he calls the truest cause, the truest explanation. I’ll quote him now, “The truest explanation, although it has been the least often advanced I believe to have been the growth of the Athenians to greatness which brought fear to the Lacedaemonians and forced them to war.” Scholars differ a bit on what that really means, but I side with what I think are the majority of the scholars on this point, which is to say he is really saying that this war became inevitable at a certain point when the Athenian Empire, that’s the greatness of Athens reached such a point as to alarm the Spartans enough to do what they did, which was to start a war to check the growth of that Athenian power. Everything I’ve said is open to criticism and disagreement, and just naturally great big arguments about these things, but I’m giving you my view which is not original or unique.
Now, I think it’s important to realize that Thucydides does not think that sort of an obvious explanation can be found by examining the circumstances that took place when the war broke out in 431 B.C., and the proof of that is not merely that he speaks about the truest explanation, which means he’s rejecting less true ones, which do focus on the events themselves, what we might call the precipitating causes of the war. He begins his account explaining how the war came back to the end of the Persian Wars and the events that are important, from his point of view, are the forming of the Delian League which emerges as the Athenian Empire. That’s one critical thing he goes back to, and the other critical thing he goes back to is the distrust that emerged swiftly between Athens and Sparta which turned into a major division in the Greek world and produced ultimately — suspicion obviously is something that makes it easier to bring about fear, and so we get to that second element that Thucydides talks about, the fear that the growth of Athenian power and gender in the Spartans.
Delian League / Wikimedia Commons
What is so splendid in my eyes about Thucydides understanding of why these things happened and why it’s superior to what is typically taught in the graduate schools that study international relations is he’s talking about human emotions. He’s talking about feelings; he’s not talking about structures that you need to be a professor in order to understand. I think that that’s one of the powerful things. Thucydides is interested in structures, the first one he ever looks at. He thinks it’s a very important thing, but when he comes down to explaining why nations go to war, he looks at the feelings that the people involved have.
Well, we’ve talked already about some of the events that he describes, taking them mainly from him. I’m talking about the beginning of the Delian League, the conversion into an Athenian Empire, the suspicion that aroused among the Spartans, but the fact that they worked things out until the Thasian rebellion, where we see the Athenians acting more aggressively with less justification than they ever have before. But what I didn’t tell you because I wanted to save it for this context is that Thucydides mentions the fact that when the Thasians launched their rebellion against Athens in 465, they went first to the Spartans and asked them, if we rebel against the Athenians will you invade Attica, and the ephors, the officials that conduct foreign policy in the first instance in Sparta, said they would.
Well, they didn’t because before they could do so the great earthquake occurred which prevented them doing any such thing. It needs to be pointed out that this message — these talks that went on between the Thasians and Spartans were secret, and we have to believe that at this time, the Athenians did not know about these conversations, because if they had, there is no way they could have been persuaded to send help, 4,000 hoplites into the Peloponnesus to help the Spartans against the helots. So, I think we need to accept Thucydides’ assessment of that situation. Well, we know it happened. The Athenians were sent away because of the suspicion that the Spartans felt for them and their way of government, and this produced a tremendous anger in the Athenians and it also led to a revolution internally in which the Cimonian regime was replaced by one led by more radical democrats like Ephialtes and Pericles, and also a diplomatic revolution in which the Athenians withdrew from the Greek League under Spartan leadership, and in which they made alliances first with Argos the great enemy of Sparta and then with the Thessalians whom they hoped would supply them with useful cavalry in case of a future war.
So, that’s a terrific takeoff point for the first quarrel of seriousness between the two sides which modern historians call the First Peloponnesian War. One other thing that happened at the conclusion of this previous period, that is to say, with the withdrawal of the Athenians from the scene, the Spartans finally took care of the helots. They never were able really to defeat them and get them down from their fort up on Mount Ithome, but they finally made a deal with the people up there saying, we will allow you to come down in safety and go away someplace so long as you leave the Peloponnesus. They undoubtedly expected that the helots would then be scattered one here, one there, one other place, where else would they go?
Naupactus / Wikimedia Commons
That’s what would have happened, had it not been that the Athenians, who had lately acquired, we know not how, control of a town on the north shore of the Corinthian Gulf called Naupactus. It has a very good harbor and it is so located as to be wonderful as a naval base for somebody who wished to be able to control access to the Corinthian Gulf. The Athenians took it and then turned it over to the helots who had fled the Peloponnesus. That was not what the Spartans had in mind, although there was nothing in the deal that prevented this from being done. But it means that the Athenians had done another bit of harm to the Spartans, putting their bitter enemies in a position to cause trouble to them and to their allies on the Corinthians Gulf.
So, all of that suggests that on the next day, so to speak, after all of these changes had taken place, the world was very different and the prospects, I would have thought, for peace between Sparta and her allies and Athens and her allies had been badly reduced. There’s no longer an association between the two. The Athenians had allied themselves with Spartan enemies; the Athenians had taken the halots and put them in this terrific place. This is not a recipe for good relations in the future — this is where the cliché seems to me to be useful; people talk about a powder keg which only needs a spark to set it off into a great explosion. People use this about the outbreak of many wars. Sometimes it is an apt thing, and sometimes it is not. This time it is, as we shall see; it didn’t take very much to produce an explosion between Athens and Sparta after these events.
The spark was provided by a quarrel that took place between two Spartan allies in the Peloponnesus, Megara and Corinth, neighbors on that isthmus that leads into northern Greece and into Athens. Since they are both members of the Spartan alliance, the Spartans had choices to make about what has happening. And the choice was soon forced upon them, because when it was clear that the Corinthians were winning the argument, winning the war I should say, that they were fighting against Megara, the Megarians came to Sparta and asked for their help in putting down this war and ending it. The Spartans said, “no we are not interested; it is your business, not ours.” Now, that is interesting. We cannot really tell, because there is nothing written about it, what obligations the Spartans had when two allies who are autonomous states, according to the theory, decide to fight each other.
It looks to me, because nobody complained about it in terms of constitutional irregularity, that the Spartans had every right to ignore what was going on. We must assume, I suppose, that in the centuries or century or so before, the Spartans must have ignored other quarrels between allies and allowed them to fight it out or settle it any way they want. The Spartans don’t give a damn, who wins between Corinth and Megara. And why should they get involved. I think that hands-off attitude must have been encouraged by the fact that they had just, probably were still recovering from the earthquake and the helot rebellion that came after it. They really didn’t need more trouble. So, they let the thing go.
Now, the reason the Spartans could take such a caviler attitude in the past was that they were the only great power in the Greek world. But in 461 that was not true. The losers, Megara, had a choice. They could, and did, go to Athens and say, “won’t you help us against Corinth? If you do, we will leave the Peloponnesian league and join the Athenian side.” Now, that is brought about, as I say, by the new circumstances. This is one of those places where those of us who remember the Cold War are immediately stuck by similarities. There were troubles all over the world so long as it was known that NATO was on one side and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact was on the other. All kinds of places that neither had any interest in would call when they were in a war or some kind of a fight in their own places, Africa for instance, they would go to one side or the other and say “help us, or we will seek help from your enemy.” That confronted each side with a hard problem. I don’t give a damn about what happens in country X, you might say, but I do not want the Russians there and vice versa. This is the kind of problem that one sees in this situation.
Athens Faces a Critical Decision
Ruins of ancient Megara / Photo by Malia Pattison, Creative Commons
So, the Athenians were confronted by an extremely tough decision. I want to try to communicate to you my sense of how difficult the calls are in this situation. Now, one natural reaction would be this, it seems to me. Why in the world should we accept this defection from the Peloponnesian league, because it is bound to anger the Spartans and very likely bring us a war with the Peloponnesians, which is a very hard thing to face? What do we care about the quarrel between Megara and Corinth? The opposite assumptions would be, no we don’t care about who wins the quarrel between Corinth and Megara, but we do care about having Megara on our side, because if we control Megara, if the Megarians are on our side — Megara is situated on the side of the isthmus right next to Athens. More than that, there is a mountain range that runs through Megara that makes it very difficult for somebody to make his way through that territory, if they are opposed by military force. In short, with the help of the Megarians, the Athenenians could cut off access to Athens and probably for the most part to central Greece to the Spartans.
Let me put it more sharply. The Athenians could feel invulnerable to a Spartan attack, if they could control Megara. Now, they would have to know that if they took this offer, it might bring a war with Sparta. But there would have been plenty of Athenians, who would have thought that is going to happen anyway. The only question before us is, “do we want to have a war with Sparta on these wonderfully positive conditions, or do we want to fight in the old way in which we have no way to stop the Spartans from marching into our territory and destroying our field” and in fact defeating us, because the Athenians as yet had not built walls, connecting Athens to the port of Piraeus. So, the Spartans could cut off the Athenians from their port, just by invading their territory. And as we know the Athenians do not produce enough food to feed themselves.
So, these would be the thoughts that were going through the minds of the Athenians. Notice, the critical element in your decision, it seems to me, is your prediction about what is likely in the future. If you think there really is not danger of a war with Sparta, why bring it on. But if you think there is a real danger of a war with Sparta, why leave yourself vulnerable to the Spartans. Whichever call you make, there are dangers and uncertainties at the other end, which I simply say, welcome to the real world. It is almost always that way. And it is a beautiful lesson in how real those hard decisions are. Well, the Athenian decision was to take Megara into the Athenian alliance and to take the dangers that went with that. And to make their task easier, they built long walls connecting the city of Megara with the port of Nicea on the Saronic Gulf, which is where Athens is located as well and also to gain control of the town of Pegai, which is on the — I guess I would say — the northern side of the isthmus and to fortify and put forces between there. In other words, to build a barrier to Spartan capacity to move into Attica. That was the great gain that they made of it.
Ruins of ancient Corinth / Wikimedia Commons
One of the great prices they paid; Thucydides says this in his own voice, this he says was the beginning of Corinthian hatred for Athens. It is a fact, if you look at Corinthian and Athenian relations in the past — we don’t know a lot about them, but what we know suggests that they were not unfriendly. They did okay, no problems really between them, but from now on you’re going to have tremendous trouble with Corinth, and this as you know from reading your Thucydides in the textbook — Corinth will play a critical role in 431 in bringing on the Peloponnesian War that is the Great War. So, that was one of the prices the Athenians paid for this decision.
Now, if you apply Thucydides’ judgment to the great Peloponnesian War and apply it to this situation, it seems to me to ring very, very true. He said, you remember, that the growing power of the Athenians caused fear among the Spartans and led them — forced them to work. Well, there’s no question that the Athenian power has grown. These alliances that they have just made and this new geo-political advantage they have gained through their alliance with Megara suddenly make Athens much more formidable, and there’s no question that the Spartans become fearful about that, and ultimately as we shall see, fearful enough to join in a war against the Athenians. So, I agree with Thucydides, if you’re talking about the First Peloponnesian War, but that’s not what he’s talking about.
One great question that I would like to confront when we get to the big war is “does it work?” Does his evaluation work for the big war? I should warn you at once that most scholars throughout the years have accepted Thucydides’ explanation and interpretation of the great Peloponnesian War, and I don’t. So be careful. He was there, he knows much more about it than I do, and he’s much smarter than I am. So, if I say he’s wrong, I better have a good case; that’s all I can say.
Achaemenid Persian empire / By Ali Zitan, Wikimedia Commons
We need not say very much about the war in detail. Essentially, the Athenians took the initiative and in a general way when they fought battles at sea they won, when they fought battles on land they didn’t. No great battles were fought for a couple of years; the fighting took place in and around the eastern Peloponnesus for the most part and nothing decisive happened. Then we get down towards the year 457 — I keep warning you that the dates here are uncertain. These are sort of consensus dates although we don’t have certainty. The Athenians received an invitation from a ruler in Egypt who wanted to launch a rebellion against the Persian Empire, and he invited the Athenians to send a force to help. The Athenians agreed to do it and according to Thucydides they sent a fleet of two hundred ships for the purpose. That’s an enormous fleet up to this point. The Athenians by now have a fleet that’s bigger than that, and they can afford to do it, but I want you to understand this is a major undertaking.
Now, why did they do it? They do it because the opportunities in Egypt are tremendous. Egypt is the greatest grain grower in the Mediterranean area and we know the Athenians are always interested in sources of grain, but Egypt is fantastically wealthy, because of its great fertility. So, the Athenians if they can gain a share of that wealth will of course profit from that. Finally, the Athenians are still officially at war with Persia. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to try to strip the Persians of possibly their richest profits. All of those things make their decision understandable.
Now, on the other hand, you might ask the question now you know you’re engaged in a war with various Peloponnesians and that although the Spartans haven’t taken any action yet, you can expect some from them, is this a great time for you to tackle yet another war against the Persians? Well, they thought so, and I think it’s evidence of the tremendous confidence that the Athenians had acquired by this time, and as we shall see, it was over confidence. Of course, this whole story fits beautifully into Greek feelings, Greek ideas, Greek religion and mythology. This will be a beautiful example, if Herodotus were writing the history instead of a very, very — I want to say atheistic Thucydides. I’m not sure he was an atheist but he was certainly very, very skeptical. Herodotus would have been talking about hubris all over the place, because that’s the kind of a situation that we have.
Well, let’s forget about that Athenian force in Egypt for the time being and let’s look at what the situation is in the year 457. We have a wonderful piece of evidence, rare piece of evidence, actually an inscription from that year which is a part of a dedication, a funeral dedication, from a single Athenian tribe in which they list the war dead from their tribe by where they fought and died and they’re proud of this. I mean, of course, they’re proud of the heroism of their men, but they’re proud I think also about the range of places that they’re fighting, unheard of, unexampled in all of Greek history — Egypt, Phoenicia, Halias, which is a town in the northeastern Peloponnesus, Aegina the great island that sits in the Saronic Gulf opposite Athens, Aegina being a great traditional enemy of Athens and Megara, of course, as you know.
Ruins of ancient Aegina on Kolona Hill / Wikimedia Commons
So, here they are fighting battles in all of these places at the same time. It’s a kind of an ape man pounding on his chest to show how great he was. A piece of arrogance, you might say, calling for vengeance by the gods, but no vengeance came right away, instead another victory. Aegina, the island of Aegina, was taken by the Athenians. Aegina had been a great naval power. So, here was a naval power taken away from the enemy and added to the Athenian side. They now have without question, although they’ve had it really before, command of the seas. Nobody can withstand them at sea and they now have complete security from their northwestern frontier because of the Megarian alliance and that’s not all that happened.
Finally, moved, I would guess, in part by seeing all of this happening and worrying desperately about the growing power of Athens, Sparta took action. I think they were moved specifically — the critical element that was an opportunity presented to them by a small region in central Greece called Doris. It’s the root of the word Dorian. This is theoretically the ancestral home of all Dorians. So, they obviously had friendly relations with the Spartans. The Dorians were having trouble with some of their neighbors, one of the standard quarrels between neighbors in the Greek city state world, and they asked the Spartans to send a force up to help them. I’m not sure, if the Spartans would have done so in the normal course of events, because it does mean that they have to get up to central Greece.
When you think about that, given what the Athenians have done in Megara, they can’t do it in the usual way by walking. The only way they can get up there is by getting on boats and sailing across the Corinthian Gulf, but if the Athenians or those helots who are occupying Naupactus are aware of that, they could very well be taken at sea and have their army destroyed as that fleet is sunk. They have to sneak across if they’re going to go that way. I want you to understand how unlikely is that undertaking in a normal situation, but what I think makes it not so normal is something that Diodorus of Sicily tells this, that Thucydides doesn’t mention, which is at that moment the Thebans, the leading city of Boeotia, which had ambitions of its own, always wanting to gain complete control of Boeotia and always having some Boeotian cities hold out against them, they saw the opportunity to get the Spartans to help them out.
So, they told the Spartans that if they would come and assist them in gaining control of Boeotia, the Boeotians would join them in an attack on Athens, and so I think it was that that made it possible for the Spartans to agree and to act. They do so; they take an army much more than they need to deal with the Dorian problem, they slap that down right away, and then what do you know, they come marching down to the Athenian frontier with Boeotia to a town or a place near a town called Tanagra. The Spartans, of course, were able to sneak across the Gulf of Corinth. You may ask, why were the Athenians and the helots so sleepy? It never occurred to them, is what I say, that the Spartans would ever do a thing like that and so there they were.
Tanagra terracotta figurines (named for the first find-spot of this type of figurine), some with polychromy remaining on the surfaces. All 3rd and 2nd Century BC. / Wikimedia Commons
A battle is then fought and we’re talking about large forces now. The Spartans send 11,000 men and that’s a very big — they don’t have 11,000 of their own. Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies go up there, and now they are put together with Boeotian forces. Boeotians are very good fighters. The Athenians send their army out to the frontier to meet them, the greater part of the Athenian army. This is a very big battle by Greek standards and the result is almost a standoff. The Spartans technically win. That means that they were able to command the field after the fighting was over, put up a trophy, and collect their own dead. The Athenians of course were required to come and ask them for permission to collect their dead, so there wasn’t any question if you follow the rules of hoplite warfare at the time who won; the Spartans won.
But if we think of it from the standpoint of warfare and you ask about what were the strategic consequences of the battle, that’s how today we would say who won that battle. It was a standoff, and I guess you could say the Athenians won because the purpose of the Spartans was to defeat the Athenians and to compel them to abandon all the things that they were doing and had done, and in this they failed, because they had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting and were not in a position to renew the battle and to force the Athenians back or to crush the Athenians in fighting. The Spartans simply marched back into the Peloponnesus; the Athenians were in no condition to stop them. So that was that.
As one sees from what happens after that, it really looks more like a strategic victory for the Athenians, because now A) they have not been destroyed, they have not been defeated in any useful way, they have not been stopped in what they were doing and to prove it the Athenians take an army northward when the Spartans have withdrawn into Boeotia, defeat the Boeotian army at a place called Oenophyta, and the next thing you know, establish democratic governments in all the Boeotian cities which are friendly to Athens. I put it that way, but again a Cold War analogy strikes me as helpful here. In the same way as wherever the Soviet army was victorious, whatever land they occupied, there was a Communist government set up whose function was to be a tool of the Soviet Union. I don’t claim that that’s exactly what it was in the fifth century; this is a much more simple and less sophisticated world, but the general idea is the same. The guys who run those towns, they are partisans of Athens.
Athens, in other words, is the dominant force in Boeotia. Now, step back a moment, stand up there on the Acropolis in Athens and look around, and you will see a situation that is so splendid, it’s the kind of a thing almost any nation would want as its ideal situation. If you look to the north you’re safe; there can be no invasion through Boeotia for the reasons I’ve just said. If you look to the northwest Megara, an ally of yours, your forces are in there in part, but you have that area blocked off. There is no way, and of course now that you know that the Spartans can take boats across the Corinthian Gulf you’ll see to it that that never happens again. The Spartans and their allies are bottled up in the Peloponnesus. The sea is controlled completely by you.
I’ve also neglected to mention that the Athenians have just now concluded the building of long walls connecting Athens with Piraeus. So, even if somehow, hard to imagine as it is, the Spartans got into Attica the Athenians need not fight them and need not give way to them, because nobody knows how to take walled cities very well anymore and the Spartans never learn how to do it. So, if you look at it from that point of view, until somebody invents an airplane, Athens is absolutely invulnerable and they still have 2,000 years before anybody invents an airplane so this is an amazing moment where you could readily think we are invulnerable, we are safe, and we can do what we like with impunity. I think this is a very important moment in Athenian and in Greek history. I think then there were Athenians who never got over remembering that’s what we achieved, that’s what we can achieve, and that’s what we must aim for in all future circumstances.
We get into the Peloponnesian War and there will come moments when it seems possible that the Athenians can make a negotiated peace with the Spartans that’s okay in the war, and they turn it down, I think Thucydides and others suggest that they’re just out of their minds. Maybe they are, but they have something they can focus on, a memory of how it once was and how it might be again. Well, the gods are not going to put up with this; you and I know that. The Athenians suffer a terrible reverse that begins to undermine their situation.
Reversal of Fortune
Reconstruction of the Parthenon showing the treasury location / By Garrett Benner, Creative Commons
In Egypt there is a terrible disaster; they lose. The Persians defeat them; there’s a great argument about how many ships they lose but whatever it is they lose a lot. They lose a strategically significant number. The disaster is so great as to cause a whole rash of rebellions in the Delian League or the Athenian Empire, or whatever you want to call it, and the Athenians will be occupied with trying to put down these rebellions for some time. By the way, the probable date of this defeat is probably around 455, because it’s in the following year, and this date is a good date, 454-453 that the Athenians decide to move the treasury of the league from Delos to Athens, up on the Acropolis in the back room of the Parthenon which they will be building very shortly.
Another important point about that is up to now all money put into the league treasury was being used for supporting the navy and ostensibly for league purposes, usually for league purposes, but as we know the Athenians could also use it for their own purposes like they did at Thasos, but still only for ships and men. Now the Athenians institute a new policy, and I think whatever you think about anything before this, when the Athenians do what I’m about to describe, they surely have made this an empire, no longer anything like a voluntary confederacy, because they take one sixtieth of what is put into the treasury every year as a donation to Athena, which is another way of saying to Athens. They are now collecting a profit, a tax from the league members which they, as we shall see — there will be an argument about how this money is to be used. They will argue it’s our money; we can use it any way we want to.
So, two things are going on in two different directions and all the trouble that they have in the league, it leads them however to change the character of the league in a very significant way. Well, things are so difficult, the problem of fighting the Spartans now is so serious that the Athenians recall Cimon because they would like to make peace with the Spartans and they know Cimon is just the man to do it as no one else can. So, he comes back — well, I should back up a second. There was some talk about Cimon coming back earlier but he certainly comes back in 451, because his ten years of ostracism are over, and it’s now that he negotiates a five-years truce with the Spartans, with the understanding that the purpose of the truce is to allow negotiation to go forward to bring about a long term peace agreement between the two.
Cimon achieves that and to show you how ostracism can work he is immediately elected general. It’s as though he had never gone away, and being Cimon he immediately turns to an activity that’s a continuation of what he did before he left, namely, let’s go fight Persians. So, he takes a fleet and sails to Cyprus, part of which is in Persian hands, fights a battle against the Persians, defeats the Persians, but has the bad fortune to be killed. So, Cimon is now removed from the scene in Athens. I think this is a significant thing, because it means that the only individual politician, who had the kind of support, the kind of charisma, the kind of backing that could challenge the new important leader in Athens, Pericles, is gone. This helps explain why Pericles still at a relatively young age is able to become a person of unprecedented influence and power in the Athenian state.
Ancient Phocis / Wikimedia Commons
It’s not that he takes to himself new constitutional powers or gets military guards or anything. Nothing changes except that he can count on persuading the assembly to do what he wants almost all the time, and there’s nobody out there for the moment, who looks like he can challenge him. We shall see that shortly that he will meet an important challenge, but we’ll come back to that later on. But let’s go on with the story of the war. In 449, two years after the truce was negotiated, we find Sparta attacking the city of Phocis, the polis of Phocis, again up in central Greece. They must have — again, we don’t know how it was that they found their way up there, but they did find their way up there, and they took back control of the Delphic Oracle from the neighboring Phocians, who had — over the years they had frequently tried to gain control of the Delphic Oracle from the priest and it was on behalf of those priests that the Spartans fought. They defeated the Phocians and went home.
Two years later in 447, the Athenians send an army up there. The Athenians are allied to Phocis and they once again take back the Delphic Oracle and give it over to the Phocians. These are signals that the truce is not really working. That the two sides are not finding a way to live together peacefully for the future, and sure enough, in the year 446 a series of events occurs that upsets the peace and the balance that the Greek world had found temporarily. First of all, there is an oligarchic rebellion throughout the cities of Boeotia and, of course, they drive out the pro-Athenian democratic regimes and suddenly Boeotia is a hostile place, no longer a friendly place, one from which the Athenians can expect trouble. There’s a big argument in Athens as to what should we do. Pericles says, let’s not do anything, we really can’t afford to engage in ground campaigns against serious opponents. We tried it, but we can’t keep Boeotia, we’ll just have to let the Boeotians go.
Against him was a general, an Athenian general — sometimes I’m astonished by the names that crop up in Athenian history. You wouldn’t dare do it; you wouldn’t invest names like this if you were writing a novel, because people would laugh. This guy’s name is Tolmades; it comes from the Greek verb tolmao which means to be bold, to be daring; that’s what he is – bold and daring. He marches an army into Boeotia to get the place back for the Athenians. In other words, he defeated Pericles on this issue, because he couldn’t do that without getting the assembly’s approval. But the Athenians must have been mad too and said, let’s go beat those Boeotians up and force them back into our control. Tolmades runs into a terrific defeat, suffers extremely heavy casualties by anybody’s standards and Boeotia is lost for good. The battle, by the way, in which Tolmades is killed in the Battle of Coronea.
Athens is now driven from central Greece and that glorious picture I painted for you has been marred by a hostile force on the northern enemy. But that isn’t all that’s happened. Seeing that the Athenians were troubled, were weak, were vulnerable, and can be beaten, suddenly all of the unhappy folks that were around took advantage of the opportunity. On the island of Euboea to the east of Attica, there is a rebellion. This is really deadly even from Pericles point of view. He cannot permit rebellions in the empire on islands; it threatens the control of the sea. It’s not just that he can’t have Euboea be independent; he cannot let rebels in your empire succeed because it encourages other rebellions, and they’ve just been through that. They’ve had to fight their way through a whole rash of rebellions after the defeat in Egypt.
So, Pericles personally takes an army and sends it, takes it, I should say, to Euboea and while he is gone with his army off in Euboea, remember with Boeotia now hostile, there is a rebellion in Megara. This alliance with Megara was always a very iffy thing. We should remember two things about the past. One is that Megara and Athens have been bitter enemies for centuries; so, the alliance was an unnatural one, the product of momentary agreement. But there would certainly have always been lots of Megarians, who were against it, and so seeing an opportunity these guys would have moved. And the other thing is that the Athenians were, of course, being distracted and their forces were sent off someplace else. So, now Pericles realizes how dangerous this is, because if Megara succeeds in the rebellion which it does, now they have no protection from a Spartan invasion which they need to expect and that is indeed what happens.
The Four Months Truce and Subsequent Thirty Years Peace
Pericles, having put down the Euboean rebellion adequately, races back to Athens to meet the Peloponnesian army when it invades, and then we have this extraordinary event in the plains to the north of Attica. Spartans invade, Pericles leads the Athenian army out to meet them. This is the scenario for an Athenian defeat, because the numbers of the Peloponnesians are likely to be greater and their reputation as a superior fighting force has some merit. We’ve seen that it’s not going to be a walk over, we’ve seen that the Athenians are capable of putting up one hell of a fight, but they can expect not to win, is the way I see it. So, they are facing each other, and the battle is about to happen, when all of a sudden a delegation comes out from the Spartan army. Pericles goes out to meet them, they have a little conversation, they all go back to their armies, the Spartans led by their King Pleistoanax who was the guy who was confirmed with Pericles, and marched their army back home to Sparta.
They declare that they have agreed upon a four-months truce for the purpose of negotiating a permanent peace. What in the world is going on here? Well, the Spartans receive the news in a complicated way. The first reaction is fury against Pleistoanax. Why didn’t you clobber those Athenians when you had them finally sticking their heads out there for battle? They finally take action against him and against his advisor, a certain Clearidas and send them off to exile, so angry are they at this lost opportunity. But after all, if that’s all there was to it, there was nothing to stop them from marching into Attica again, and either fighting against the Athenians, or at least doing terrible harm to the farms and the houses of the Athenians out in the country, which at the very least, would make the Athenians unhappy and might force them to come out and fight. Why didn’t they do that? But they didn’t, and I think that’s evidence — well, it’s evidence of two things. There was a very special opportunity that Pleistoanax had lost, namely, everything was falling apart on all fronts in Athens at the moment when the battle was available.
On the other hand that’s now — they’ve been put down. Euboea is quiet and the Athenians have adjusted to everything else. Still what I said in the first place is still true, they could come in and force that fight if they want to. Why didn’t they? I think the answer is because Pericles had convinced Pleistoanax of something that was essentially true and that the Spartans when they had time to cool down could see that there was some reason for doing this, and it was this. What happens if we fight? Look we only fought each other a little while ago and what happened then? Well, you beat us, but you didn’t clobber us. You took a lot of casualties, and you weren’t able to exploit it. That is even truer today than it was then, because if you defeat us, what will we do? We’ll run back to our walls, we’ll go through our gates, and you won’t be able to lay a pinky on us, and we don’t have to fight you if we don’t want to, because we own the fleet that dominates the sea.
Euboea / Wikimedia Commons
We have the money from our allies that pays for the fleet. As long as we have control of the sea you can ravage our country all you want to. We can get all the grain we need through imports. So, what are you going to do then? You’ll have taken casualties for nothing and you still won’t be able to compel us to do what you want. I think that’s the argument that Pericles must have given to Pleistoanax. Pleistoanax’s whole career suggests he was not a man eager for war and he was glad to have that opportunity to avoid it. But remember, the Spartans could have overdone that, and they didn’t. I think it shows you that this was an argument that had some reality and had some appeal. So, that four-month truce was successful. It led to the negotiation a peace between Athens on behalf of its allies and Sparta on behalf of its allies, the thirty-years peace which is concluded over the winter of 446 – 445.
The arrangements of that peace are that Athens would give up all of its holdings on the continent that is to say outside the Aegean Sea, except Naupactus, which they would continue to leave in the hands of the helots. In tacit recognition, nobody formally did it, but the point is they let the Athenian allies be included in the Athenian decision that meant the Spartans granted, recognized, the legitimacy of the Athenian Empire. Then they had a few rules meant to prevent the outbreak of war in the future, and like most of these peace treaties, who decide to try to prevent war in the future, they basically looked back to how this war started and try to prevent this war happening again. For instance, this war came about because the ally of one side changed sides to the other; that was forbidden under the new treaty.
Somebody must have thought, yeah right, but what if there’s a neutral state that wants to go from one side to the other, and what if that state had a significant strategic importance, wouldn’t that test the peace at all or would it? They concluded it wouldn’t, because they said neutrals were free to join either side. So, in other words, if a neutral joined one side, nobody could say okay that’s a cause for war because it wasn’t. Finally, the most remarkable, and I believe original, absolutely original idea of its kind ever. I don’t believe there’s ever a time in history that we have a record of such a thing being present. I’m talking about a clause in the treaty, which provided that if in the future there were any disagreements between the two signatories, any complaints that they had against one another, these must be submitted to an arbitrator for a decision.
Remember, I’m not talking about a mediator who says, “let’s talk it over boys.” I’m talking about an arbitrator who has the right and responsibility to say, “you’re right,” “you’re wrong,” or some version of such a thing. If that clause had been adhered to, it’s only a matter of logic that says there could never be a war between these two sides. It’s an amazing idea, and I’m going to claim with no proof — I’ll be doing this again and again for a while, I think this is Pericles’ idea. Because I mean everything that I’m going to point to that’s so unusual and unheard of before Pericles is involved with it, and I think he just had that kind of mind, very inventive, ready to find new ways to meet old problems. I think this was his notion and I’m convinced it was his determination that this would be the case that in the future there would not be a settlement of differences by the threat of war, but by arbitration that helps explain the very determined position he will take in 431. This is very important.
I don’t know how much the Spartans felt that way or knew about what was going to happen, obviously they didn’t, but they bought it. That’s the treaty; the two sides swear to it and for thirty years they must adhere to these provisions. That is the thirty-years peace and I think we need to evaluate it to get at this argument I’m engaged with Thucydides that you’re listening in on. That is, there are peaces and there are peaces. They’re not all the same. I, for my own purposes, have come up with I think three categories of peace and want to suggest which one this belongs in.
There is such a thing as a — people have spoken of the First World War the — I’m sorry the Peace of Versailles was often referred to by its critics as a Punic peace. They’re talking about the peace — they think they’re talking about the peace that concluded the second Punic War with Hannibal, but no; they’re talking about the third Punic War in which the peace was the City of Carthage was destroyed. The Carthaginians were driven away, those who were not killed. The fields were plowed up and salt put in the furrows, so they thought nobody could grow anything there again. That’s a Punic peace and there’s something to be said for a Punic peace. You’ll never have a war again with that country, because it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s one extreme.
At the other extreme is where, I suppose, the winning side can impose a harsh peace, but chooses to impose a gentle peace in the hope that in the future they will have friendly relations with the other side, and so they trust the other side, even though it’s not destroyed, to be good. There are such examples of such things. They’re usually a case where the defeated side has been so weakened that it’s highly unlikely in the future that they will be a problem.
Then there’s a kind of a — let me back up a step. Then there’s the kind of a peace that people say was represented by the peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe in which arrangements are made — nobody has actually been defeated. There is no clear-cut winner; there are no just plain losers. Everybody has fought so long and the cost has been so great that they decided we can’t hold out for victory. We got to cut the best deal we can. Such a peace depends — it may work, it may not, it depends upon circumstances in the future that are very hard to predict.
Then we come to what I think is probably the worst kind of peace. One example of it is the peace that the Prussians imposed upon the French in 1870, after the Franco-Prussian War in which the big issue was they took Alsace-Lorraine from the French and annexed it to Germany, but at the same time they did not so harm France that France could never again be a menace. But they could be sure that for the foreseeable future, and who knows maybe forever, the French would be angry and dissatisfied and determined to recover Alsace-Lorraine, even if it meant war. That was true, to a degree, although we need to be aware that the best evidence we have is that by 1914 the French actually had pretty well given up on Alsace-Lorraine, although people kept talking as though that’s why the French went to war, but wasn’t true. But also there, of course, there were Frenchmen who did believe that way, but on balance it probably wasn’t so.
Mr. Lloyd George signs the Peace Treaty with Germany (Peace of Versailles), June 28th, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles / Wikimedia Commons
I suppose the best example of that unsatisfactory peace though is the peace that ended the First World War, the Peace of Versailles, where the Germans were treated very harshly, in their own opinion, although much harsher solutions were available that were rejected, but also they lost a lot of territory and had a lot of restrictions put upon them, but also there was no permanent harm that guaranteed that Germany would not be able, when it recovered from the war, to reverse that decision. That is the same kind of thing, terrible situation in which the defeated power is totally dissatisfied with the peace and is in a condition down the road to be strong enough to break it. Now, where does the thirty-years peace fit in here? The closest analogy, in my opinion, is Westphalia.
I think that the two sides had both found this a very unpleasant, uncomfortable war, producing dangers and risks that neither had ever anticipated, and that the forces who were in control at the time that the peace was made felt it just wasn’t worth having a fight to the finish for the gains that could be made. So, this is the key thing. If that is true, then peace was possible. Then the Peloponnesian War that follows is not inevitable. Scholars argue still did Thucydides say it was inevitable? I think he did; most scholars do. Some people think not, but whatever he may have said that is certainly a view many a scholar has taken. So I’m saying no, and the reason I’m saying that is — first of all because of the facts I’ve just laid out before you, but I think also this is important, so much depends not only on objective conditions but on intention.
This is one place where historians differ typically from political scientists. Political scientists like to have everything — what’s the word I want? Not having to do with human intention in any case. They had to be automatic; they like to be systemic. That’s what they like. Nations are billiard balls. You can’t look inside them; they’re not made up of people. They’re not even made up of factions or parties. The state does what it has to do because of the place on the pool table where it is located. Historians like to ask what were these guys interested in, what did they want, what were they afraid of, who were they made at? That’s the way proper historians — it’s true that proper historians are harder and harder to find.
Too many sort of political scientists hidden among the historians. But a key question to whether this peace rather would last has to do with, in my opinion, with these human questions. How do the players really feel about it? Do they see it as this is the way that it’s going to be, we want it to be peaceful or are they just accepting it because they can’t avoid it? Well, I think the evidence suggests that the people who made the treaty certainly were persuaded that peace was better than war, and they would like to bind their hands to some degree to make it harder for a war to come out. Pericles, I think, will prove that by the time we get a chance to examine his behavior in 431, but I think it was the peace party, and there are parties in Sparta as I’ve told you before, that group of people who typically was conservative and reluctant to risk what they had already for what they might gain in future warfare, and I believe that they were the normal party in Sparta, and this is all debatable, but I think that that’s the normal situation in Sparta.
To break the peace you need for that situation to be undone by something and events, opportunities, fears, chances to succeed have to fall into place in a certain way to break that. So, what I’m telling you is, from my point of view, it’s not at all clear that there needs to be another war. Well, anybody who says that has the obligation of examining why did the war break out? Why did the peace fail? And that’s what I will turn to next, to examine the years between 445 and 431 in which the peace is tested to see whether it really had any viability before it failed.
Preserving the Thirty Years Peace
The oaths establishing the thirty-years peace was sworn in the year 445. That leaves, as we know, of course they didn’t about fourteen years before the Great Peloponnesian War will break out, and although we only know a little bit about the events between the two wars, what we do know, I think, is interesting although not easy to interpret evidence about the character of that peace, which we’ve been talking about. One way to determine whether the peace was a true peace with a real chance of lasting and controlling international affairs for a good long time, or whether it was really a truce that merely interrupted a conclusion to a war that was inevitable, I think that can be tested to some degree by the events that took place in those fourteen years or so.
I think we can — one critical question of course is quite apart from the objective elements of the peace, maybe more important than those are the intentions of the two sides and I think it is possible to arrive at some sense of what those intentions were. There is little doubt that Pericles still in the position of the leading politician in Athens, clearly the man who was, I think, the negotiator for peace on the Athenian side. If I’m right about his invention of the arbitration clause that would suggest he was very much personally involved in shaping the character of that peace. It seems plain that he really was sincerely committed to a policy of preserving peace for the future, for as far as it could possibly go.
Relief of King Artaxerxes I of Persia in Persepolis who negotiated peace with Callias / Wikimedia Commons
One reason is that several years before the peace — indeed before this war had broken out, the Athenians had made a peace with the King of Persia. The negotiator on the Athenian side was a man named Callias and so it goes down in the books as the Peace of Callias. This is about as debated a subject as there is in the history of ancient Greece. Was there really a Peace of Callias or not? Was it a formal peace or not? Even in ancient times, some writers question whether this was a historical fact. I won’t trouble you with all the arguments both ways, but let me indicate — my own opinion is that there actually was a formal peace. But it doesn’t matter whether that’s true or false, because nobody doubts that there was a de facto peace between the Athenians and their allies on the one hand and the Persians for a good long time, and that it is not broken until well into the Great Peloponnesian War when in the year 412 there is a treaty made between Sparta and Persia, which brings Persia into the war against the Athenians. So, there’s this considerable stretch of time when there is peace with Persia.
Now, about the same time — the traditional date for Peace of Callias is 449, and about the same time, we are told only by Plutarch, so some scholars have questioned the historicity of this too, that Pericles called for a great Pan Hellenic Congress to discuss a variety of questions, but one of them was how shall we keep the promises we made after the Persian War to rebuild the temples to the gods that had been destroyed by the Persians in that war, and how shall we see to the freedom of the seas? Now, the question, of course, the temples of the gods that had been destroyed in the Persian War were essentially all in Attica. So, here was an occasion where the Athenians were apparently hoping to bring all the Greeks into the picture to help pay the costs of restoring those temples. It was the Athenians, who had benefited from it most, but also maintaining the freedom of the seas meant providing for a fleet that would keep the Persians out and keep pirates out and so on.
The Athenians obviously had that fleet. The result of having — If the Greeks had all in fact participated in this activity it would have been a way of legitimizing both the Athenian Empire and of course a navy that made it great, but also it would have legitimized the plan that Pericles had in mind and which we know he carried out to the best of his ability immediately to rebuild those temples, and indeed, to build some new ones as well on the Acropolis and elsewhere in Attica as evidence of the greatness and the glory of Athens. This building program was going to be at the center of his domestic concerns for the rest of the period we’re talking about.
He invited all the Greeks, but as it turned out, the Spartans and their friends chose not to show up. You can see why for the reasons that I in fact have just given you as to why this would be attractive to Athens; that’s why it would not be attractive to Sparta. There is some debate. Did Pericles ever expect that the Spartans would accept or was this just his way of making it clear that since the Spartans and the other Greeks would not participate in these activities Athens was right in going about it unilaterally? One of the things that it would do, if the Athenians were now to say well, when the Spartans didn’t show up and their allies didn’t show up — and they said if they won’t keep their promises to the gods, we will. That provides justification for building the first of the great temples he was going to put up on the Acropolis, the Parthenon, which was going to be the great marvel of the Greek world thereafter, and which was going to be very expensive, and which he was going to use league money for. This would legitimize it, he hoped, and it would be an argument for doing that.
Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens / Wikimedia Commons
As for the claim that they needed to preserve the freedom of the seas, that would give legitimacy to the existence of the great fleet of the league, which was paid for by league money. In other words, it would give legitimacy to the Athenian Empire. No doubt he thought that was necessary because having made — that’s why I like the idea that he did make a formal peace with the Persians, but in either case, with it being obvious that there would be no more attacks on the Persians and that the Persians were out and that they were not a threat anymore, why should the allies contribute their ships and money, and by the way, by this time most of them were not contributing money and the Athenians were manning all of the fleet. Why should this continue if the war with the Persians was over?
Pericles never imagined that the Athenians would give up their fleet, their empire, the tribute that supported all of that. So, he needed to have a reason for doing that. So, my view, and that of many other scholars is that the Congress decree, as it is called, certainly had that as a motive. Was he serious? What would he have done if the Spartans had said, “sure we’ll do that.” I think he expected that they wouldn’t, but he was prepared to have them do that, because if they would they would contribute the money presumably that was necessary and they would also grant legitimacy to what the Athenians were doing with their navy at sea, and, of course, it would be a wonderful situation because it would create a kind of unity between the two that would help keep war away and Pericles’ plan for using all of that money from the treasury for his building program required peace.
If the Athenians were going to be at war, that money would not be available. So for all of these reasons he did what he did. My guess is he anticipated the likely outcome, but it doesn’t mean that he was unprepared to deal with the situation if it had been otherwise. There I think we see the first bit of evidence that leads to my opinion that Pericles was very sincere about preserving the thirty-years peace, that he saw that and hoped it would be the instrument by which there would be — who can talk about perpetual peace, but at least peace for the foreseeable future.
The Pan-Hellenic Colony of Thurii
Ruins and location of Thurii on the southern coast of Italy / Wikimedia Commons
Another event, a much debated one, that cast some light on what’s going on occurs in the year 443. In that year, the Athenians agreed to help establish a colony in southern Italy at a place that they called Thurii. Now, there are several things about this colony that are interesting and perhaps as interesting as any, is that it was different from any other colony we ever heard of in the Greek world before this time. You know the picture of what a typical apoikia is like. It is the colony of a city and that city is its mother city, and you know all about those relationships. There were rare occasions where a couple of cities might get together and jointly be the mother cities of the town, but that’s all.
This colony was established from the first as a panhellenic colony. In other words, it was not an Athenian colony even though the Athenians took the lead in establishing the colony, even though the Athenians appointed the critical players in establishing the colony. The founder, the oikos was an Athenian; Pericles sent along the leading seer, the leading religious figure in all of Athens to be helpful in the founding of that city. Herodotus, a good friend of Pericles, who also of course was the father of history went out there presumably to be the historian of the new city. Hippodamus, the great city planner of the fifth century B.C. who was famous — you might not think this is such a big deal but it is; he applied simply right angled streets in founding the new city, when of course, all the old cities had been founded as I described Athens itself with streets that just developed out of old cow paths that just wound all over the place, so the modern grid structure was the work of Hippodamus.
Bust of Protagoras / British Museum
All of these guys were friends and associates, part of the brains trust you might say of Athens under Pericles and these guys went out and established the colony of Thurii; all of these elements are interesting. Why a panhellenic colony? Well, for one thing I should point out too, that Pericles had seen to it that the membership of the colony consisted of people from a variety of places, and it’s interesting to point out that although the Athenians had the greatest single number of people in this new colony, when that colony’s constitution was drawn up by the sophist philosopher Protagora. He laid out the constitution for this new city; again, he was a friend of Pericles.
It was divided up into ten tribes, just like Athens. It was a democracy. The constitution was very much influenced by the Athenian model. And as I said one of the ten tribes, and remember the ten tribes have to be equal in order for them to present the necessary regiments in the army. Only one tenth of the people were Athenians, even though there were more Athenians than anybody else, but there were several tribes made up of Peloponnesians, not from one particular city but all from the Peloponnesus. I make those points, because I want to make it clear that if you just look at the percentage of the population occupied by Athenians it will not allow them to dominate the city.
This really is a panellenic colony. Why? My view is that Pericles was attempting to make a very significant point here. After all, this colony was established in reaction to a request made by some Italian Greeks, who were having trouble in their own city, needed to found a new one, needed more people in order to make it viable, went to Sparta, the Spartans said we’re not interested, went to Athens and the Athenians said “yes,” we’ll help you do this. Now, the Athenians could have said “no,” or they could have done the normal thing if they wanted to say “yes.” Make it an Athenian colony. Why did they come up with this brand new idea that nobody had ever seen?
In my view it was because Pericles was glad to have an opportunity to demonstrate something about Athens’ intentions now and in the future. That was the best way to advertise the fact that the Athenians were not interested in expanding their power out to the west, because if they had been they would have made it an Athenian colony. Other scholars have taken the opposite view, and think it is the sign of Athenian imperial interests, which would have said practically the day after the treaty was signed; Pericles and the Athenians were already violating the spirit of that treaty, but I think that is easily demonstrated to be wrong.
Coins of Ancient Taras / Wikimedia Commons
All we have to do — well, first of all what I’ve done already is to look at the internal character of the state and you want to argue, that is not the way to start an imperial venture in the west, set up a colony that’s not your colony, and that has only got a tenth of its population being Athenian, but other evidence I think makes it all the clearer. Only a year after the foundation of the city, it went to war against a neighboring town, the town of Taras, which became the Roman town of Tarentum, modern Taranto. Taras was one of the only Spartan colonies. So, here you have a Spartan colony fighting against a Thurii, whatever that is. Imagine for a moment though it were an Athenian colony, as the people of a different view say. What does Athens do? I think that’s really critical. The answer is nothing. Taras defeats Thurii. Then to rub it in they take some of the spoils of victory and place them at Olympia where the games are held, where all the Greeks can come and see, in which they boast about their victory over Thurii.
What do the Athenians do about all this? Nothing; this is not the way to behave, if you’re planning to start an empire in Sicily and southern Italy. So, I think that’s a very serious blow to the theory of imperialism out there. Then a few years down the road, we get to the year 434 – 433, the crisis which will produce the Great Peloponnesian War has already begun. So, everybody is looking ahead to the coming war between Athens and Sparta. At that time, there is a big argument that breaks out within Thurii. Whose colony are we? Once again, a terrific indication that nobody thinks it’s an Athenian colony right off the bat, although in the argument, the Athenians claim well it’s an Athenian colony — I mean the Athenians in Thurii say, we’re an Athenian colony because there are more Athenians than anybody else.
Whereupon, the Peloponnesians say, yes there are more Athenians than anybody else but there are more Peloponnesians than there are Athenians. So, we are a Peloponnesian colony, we are a Spartan colony. Well, they couldn’t agree, and so they came to the decision that they would allow Apollo, through his oracle at Delphi, to decide. Well, that’s an interesting thing too. Who does the oracle at Delphi lean towards? We’ve had very clear evidence of it in the 440s. They are pro-Spartan. The Spartans have been the defenders of the priests as against the Phocians from the outside. There’s every reason to believe a decision made by the priest of Apollo will favor Sparta and that’s not what happens though.
What the priest says, you are not an Athenian colony, you’re not a Spartan colony, you are my colony, says Apollo. A very nice way out of the fix. But one thing they’re not is an Athenian colony. Now, what do those imperialist Athenians do about it? Nothing. To my mind that absolutely undercuts any claim that Athenian imperialism in the west explains what’s going on out there. But why — what’s going on out there altogether? Why did he establish it at all? Why did he establish it in the way that he did and why did he react, or not react in the way that he did? My suggestion for which there is no ancient direct evidence is it was meant specifically to use current modern terms, this was a diplomatic signal.
Pericles wanted the rest of the world, and most especially, the Spartans and their Peloponnesians allies to know that Athens did not have ambitions of expanding their empire onto the mainland or out west. I think what was understood by the thirty-years peace is the Athenian Empire as it exists in the Aegean and its front boundaries and to the east in the direction of Persia, that’s the Athenian sphere of influence, again to use a modern term.
Everything to the west of that the Athenians are going to say out of and leave alone. My view is, Pericles delivered that message in his behavior concerning Thurii and he would have known, I believe, that the number one state who would be concerned about what was happening out west would be Corinth, because the Corinthian chain of colonies and the Corinthian major area of commerce was in the west; Italy, Sicily and such. So, it was the Corinthians I think to whom he meant to send this message, and in a little while we’ll how that works out, whether it worked or it did not. But it seems to me that is the only way to understand these events that I have been putting together, but having said that, I remind you that other scholars don’t understand it that way.
Testing the Peace
Island of Samos and ancient ruins / Wikimedia Commons
This takes us to the year 440, when another critical event tests the peace. The Island of Samos has been an oligarchic regime. It has been one of the biggest states in the empire; it has been autonomous, that is to say it has its own fleet, its own government, which is again oligarchic not democratic, the way most of the states are when the Athenians conquer them. In that state there is as rebellion. It comes about because of a quarrel between the Samians, an island I remind you very close to the coast of Asia Minor, and the town of Miletus, that famous city of philosophers, which is just across from Samos, and in between the two on the mainland is a very small town called Priene and each town, each one of these states claims Priene. So, it’s a classic quarrel between Greek poleis about territory that’s between them.
Now, this presents a very special problem for the Athenians when you think about it. On the one hand, the Athenians hardly want to get into a fight with Samos, an island of great power and importance with whom they have been associated for a very long time. On the other hand, how can the hegemonal power of an alliance allow the big fish in the alliance to eat the little fish, which is what would be happening here? That is unacceptable if you’re going to have a proper hegemonal relationship with these folks. So, the Athenians try to sort of split the difference as best they could; they offered to serve as arbitrators in this dispute and thereby to avoid war. Samos would not hear of it. The Samians of course expected to beat Miletus and they would have done that. They were in the process of doing what they were doing, asserting true autonomy as against the Athenian version of it in the past, but the Athenians couldn’t permit that.
It’s, again, one of these confrontations in which each side, from its own perspective, has right on its side but these two concepts of right are inevitably in conflict and problems occur. Well, the Athenians win. They are told that the Samians are turning down the arbitrators and they’re fighting against the Milesians. Pericles immediately puts a fleet together and sails across the sea and puts down the rebellion by force, and then he takes the steps that the Athenians have typically taken against rebellious states over the last decades. That is, he establishes a democracy, put an end to the previous regime. He takes hostages from the rebellious aristocrats or oligarchs and settles them on a nearby island to be sure that these people will behave.
Other than that, he imposes on them an easy settlement. He does not do any great — does not do any harm to anybody, doesn’t execute anybody, doesn’t take away people’s land, doesn’t exile all kinds of folks, he doesn’t do that and so his expectation, and I guess his hope, would have been that that would be that. From now on Samos would be a democracy, and therefore reliable and friendly and there would be no further trouble. The hostages would help make that secure.
But the defeated oligarchs did not accept defeat. They went to the Persian satrap inland from Ionia, his name was Pissuthnes, and asked for his help and he gave it. He sent a force and the first they did was to go to the island where the hostages were kept, take those hostages back and return them to their friends and families, and thereby took away this restraint against further trouble and now the Samians overthrew the democratic regime that had just been placed in power and started an oligarchic revolution. Now, that’s very serious right away but more serious than that is on the news that this had happened, the city of Byzantium, which became Constantinople, which became Istanbul, located at this vital strategic place on the Bostras, also rebelled.
Location and ruins of ancient Mytilene on Lesbos / Wikimedia Commons
We are told later on in Thucydides that at some time, and he doesn’t date it, Mytilene, another one of these big independent, important states with a navy, also was thinking about rebellion, and I go along with those scholars who suggest this is the time when they were doing their thinking. So, Athens is suddenly confronted by a danger that they have really not faced before. On the one hand, their empire may be in general rebellion soon if this thing spreads. Secondly, the Persians have actually taken an aggressive step against the Athenian Empire by assisting the Samians in their rebellion.
Now, we don’t know, and the Athenians couldn’t know, whether Pissuthnes had acted in accordance with the instructions of the great king, or at least the wishes of the great king, or he was just running an independent operation. The first would be a very, very serious problem indeed. It would mean a major threat from Persia; the second would still be moderately serious. I think we can’t be sure because there was no time for Pissuthnes to consult the king and everything is happening bang, bang, bang and it takes months to get a message back to Susa where the great king lives. So, in the first instance Pissuthnes is certainly acting on his own. The question is, does he really know how the king will react or not. We can only guess about that. But here we go; there are two parts of the trinity that will mean disaster for Athens. If we look ahead to the Peloponnesian War and examine what was it that defeated Athens and put an end to their empire, it was the combination of rebellion in the empire, assistance to the rebellions by the Persians, and the third critical step of course, was that the Spartans were also in the war and ready to, and in fact they did, invade Attica and fight against the Athenians on land and it’s that third critical element that is decisive right now here in 440.
The Spartans call a meeting of the Peloponnesian League to discuss the question of should we make war on the Athenians at this time and that would consist of invading Attica, and had they done so we would have had, as I say, what was necessary to defeat Athens in the Great War. Now, we know later on, when the final crisis in 432 and 431, 433 actually is when the speech I’m referring to takes place, a critical part of the story of bringing on that war was the attitude of the Corinthians. As we shall see, the Corinthians starting in 433 at least began agitating for war, and their agitation, I will argue, played a critical role in bringing the Spartans to fight. What do they do now?
On that occasion, when they were on the brink of war, the Corinthians went to Athens and tried to argue the Athenians out of taking steps that the Corinthians thought would push the war into reality and they said this, “When the Samians revolted from you and the other Peloponnesians were divided in their votes on the question of aiding them, we on our part did not vote against you. On the contrary, we openly maintain that each one should discipline his own allies without interference.” Now, that’s critical. What they’re saying is there would have been an agreement to go and attack Athens; “we stopped it,” was their assertion.
Street and ruins of ancient Corinth / Wikimedia Commons
Now, that statement cannot be a simple outright lie, because the Athenians and everybody else in the Greek world by now would have known what happened in that meeting. Possibly, they’re exaggerating their role, but what they cannot be doing is misrepresenting the position they took against the war with Sparta. My question is, why were the Corinthians, who were so annoyed by the Athenians — remember it was their — the Athenian alliance with Megara against Corinth in about 461, 460 that started the first Peloponnesian War, and as Thucydides tells us, was the source of the hatred of the Corinthians for the Athenians and yet here we are in 440, and they are making a critical position against the war. My answer to that question is Thurii.
I believe that when Pericles and the Athenians sent that diplomatic message, the Corinthians received it, thought they understood it, and it changed their policies. So long as the Athenians stayed out of their bailiwick, they were prepared to preserve the peace, so I think that’s a very important story if you agree with that analogy. Peace was very rigorously tested in 440, and peace won out over a tremendous temptation to go to war. That leads me to believe that peace was possible, and I would argue still further that having passed this great crisis, having passed this test, chances of peace were better than ever, because the two sides had acquired reason to trust the other, to behave by the rules as they had been established.
There is one small point but — which turns out not to be so small, which I’ll come back to, which is the Corinthians’ interpretation of precisely what that peace meant, I think will turn out to be not exactly what the Athenians thought that it meant and that would be serious when we get down to the final crisis. By in 440, my assertion is, the Samian rebellion demonstrates that war is still not necessary. What has been established in the minds of both sides, this I think is perfectly clear, is what we would call in the modern world a balance of power in which the two sides recognize the other really as equals, where each has established a sphere of influence out of which the other is to stay and that this is satisfactory.
The issue about the Spartans and the argument about their behavior at this time comes down to this. One scholar wants to emphasize the fact that the Spartans even thought about going to war against the Athenians, and if that hadn’t been true there never would have been a meeting of the Peloponnesian League; that’s true. He takes their decision to call the league as evidence that they had decided to go to war, and were talked out of by the Corinthians and their allies; that’s not the way I see it. I think that the Spartans in 440 were in the same position they were in, or I will argue they were in at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, divided, uncertain.
The more aggressive Spartans were tempted by the terrific opportunity the Samian War presented. The more conservative and traditional Spartans were reluctant to start another big war against the Athenians, and the hawks had enough power to compel them to consult their allies, but how their allies reacted was going to be decisive and so I think that — my reading of it is that the conservative Spartans were normally the majority of the Spartans and it took a very special set of circumstances, a special set of conditions to move the Spartans to war and the Corinthians saw to it that that was not going to happen. Be warned, all of this is a matter of interpretation. There is no certainty about it and Thucydides himself, who I think and most people would agree, thinks that the war was going to come anyway regardless. He doesn’t express opinions about these actions that I’m talking about as to whether they did or did not influence the course of events, but we have that evidence and we have to use it and think about it.
My conclusion then, is after the Athenians are now free to put down the rebellions at Samos and at Byzantium, to restore their empire, and they will use the remaining years before the final crisis to strengthen their control of the Aegean Sea and of their empire in the east. Again, some scholars who think the war inevitable will say this strengthening of the empire was in fact itself a growth of Athenian power and that seems to me to be a great stretch of the understanding of that word.
What it is is a consolidation of what they already have, and there’s no evidence that these actions that I’m talking about frighten the Spartans or upset them, and that’s worth a lot, because we hear plenty of complaints about what the Athenians are doing in the final crisis, but nobody makes any reference to these events that some scholars think show Athenian growth. So, there we are; again, a crisis has been overcome. My argument is, no reason in the world why the two sides should fight each other in the absence of some new thing that changes circumstances. That brings us down precisely to the final crisis. So, I’ve been telling you the war is not inevitable. So, now I have to tell you why did it happen and that’s what I’ll try to do.
Civil War at Epidamnus and the Question of Honor
Location and archaeological site of Epidamnus (modern Albania) / Wikimedia Commons
It starts where Thucydides of course surely begins the story, having told you the story of how Athens came to be an empire, how Athens and Sparta came to divide Greece between them in that first portion of his history in Book I. We get to what I think is chapter 24 in the first book where he suddenly moves to where the crisis begins. Where does it begin? It begins in a town called Epidamnus, which is located on the western shore of the Greek peninsula on the Ionian Sea. In Roman times it was called Dyrrachium. It was an important road system that they had, but in Greek times it was out nowhere is what I’m trying to suggest to you. It was not even on the way to anything very important.
I always am reminded of the term that Neville Chamberlain used when suddenly war threatened about a place in the middle of Europe called Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain said about it a faraway place of which we know nothing. I would have been embarrassed to say that even in 1937, but it’s really something about Epidamnus, I mean it’s way out there in the middle of nowhere as far as the Greeks are concerned. Nothing is important about Epidamnus itself. This is one of the many occasions in which great wars start in places that are inherently insignificant but certain aspects of the situation make them significant. In this case, the most important aspect was that Epidamnus had been founded by Corcyra, the modern island of Corfu, located not too far to the south of Epidamnus.
By the way, I should have told you that the town of ancient Epidamnus today is in Albania and I can’t pronounce. I don’t know how Albanians pronounce things but my best attempt is Durrës, but I’m not sure that’s right. Anyway, the Corcyrians established the colony there centuries ago, but Corcyra was a colony itself of Corinth, but as I told you earlier in the semester it was a very unusual colony. Its relations with the mother city were most unusual. Thucydides reports that the first trireme battle in all of history was fought between Corinth and Corcyra in the seventh century and there are repeated wars between Corinth and Corcyra just about one a century sometimes more frequently, and it’s very clear that by the time we are into the 430s, these two cities hate each other and they hate each other with a traditional hatred handed on down from century to century.
This is a very critical part of comprehending what takes place here. Anyway, sometime maybe around 436, a civil war breaks out within the city of Epidamnus in what is not unusual by now in the Greek world. It’s about democrats versus oligarchs and one side has control of the city, the other side is driven into exile. The exiles get help from the barbarian tribes in the neighborhood, because we’re really talking about the frontier of the Greek world. They are not surrounded by fellow Greeks; they are surrounded by non-Greeks. So, there they are when the people, who are besieged, send a delegation to their mother city, Corcyra, asking for help from Corcyra in bringing peace to the city and in putting an end to the siege which they are experiencing in. Well, the Corcyraeans are not interested; their answer is “no.” We don’t want to help you. There’s no evidence they care about which side wins; they see no point in getting involved themselves.
Location and ruins of Corcya (modern Corfu) / Wikimedia Commons
An important part of the story of Corcyra and its significance in the coming of the war is that it was neutral towards everybody. It was not a part of the Peloponnesian confederation. It was not part of the Athenian League, and it wasn’t associated with anybody else. In fact, it had a reputation if you can believe the Corinthians of being terribly uppity and unassociating with anybody. I guess if you asked a Corcyrian he might have used Lord Salsbury’s term for Great Britain late in the nineteenth century as enjoying splendid isolation. It wasn’t too many years before Lord Salisbury and others realized that isolation wasn’t so splendid as they thought and so it was with Corcyra. But for the moment the Corcyraeans are saying who the hell cares who wins your stupid civil war, take a walk. So, they did. Well, I should say they took a boat ride. They went to Corinth.
Now, this demonstrates an incredibly important principle of human behavior. What do you do if you go to mother and you ask her, “can I have the keys to the car,” or whatever it is you need and she says, “no, you go to grandma,” you know what grandma will say, right? You know the old story about the grandmother. Somebody rushes up, tells the grandmother, “your grandson has just taken a neighbor’s child and thrown him out of a third-floor window.” Grandmother says, “bless him, such strong hands.” So, the Corinthians react as grandmother might; that is to say, they agree to send help to the besieged Epidamnians. They also agree to send an army; first they’d end a fleet, then they’ll send an army which will go there as well, and they also are willing to re-colonize the city, because, of course, the city is now divided between two sides. So, if the people inside are going to win the war ultimately they’re going to need new citizens; they’re not going to want to take back those people trying to kill them. So, the Corinthians organize a new colony to join them. In other words, they give them every kind of help that anybody can imagine.
Now, if we look for a reason why the Corinthians should have been willing to make this enormous contribution to this far away argument, scholars have had a field day for centuries trying to figure out what the tangible benefits are with absolutely no luck. There is no evidence that is persuasive at all that there are economic benefits to Corinth that are significant, if they somehow have control, no matter what style control, of Epidamnus and so I think we are driven back, as we should have been driven in the first place, to Thucydides’ explanation whom himself asks the question and answers it about the whole quarrel between Corinth and Corcyra. He refers simply to the hatred that the Corinthians felt towards the Corcyraeans. When you get to that passage take a good look at it, because Thucydides understands that we’re all going to raise our eyebrows a bit and so he tells us the tale. Why is that so?
He says, because every year the Corinthian hold a religious festival in their city to which all of their allies send delegates. This is very normal and all the other delegates treat them as you should treat a mother city, with deference, with respect, with gratitude, with kindness. What do the Corcyraeans do? They abuse them publicly, they call them names, they treat them like dirt, they insult them in front of the family so to speak. Therefore, the Corinthians hate them, and out of this furious dislike, that is what their actions are about. This has made scholars in the modern world very nervous. They understand that there are only two things that make people fight one another. That’s pretty much what they used to say now that I think of it, and many of them still do in the face of what we see in the world today.
Coin of ancient Corcya / Wikimedia Commons
One is money, that is economic gain, and we can thank Marx for that and for a whole century or more people couldn’t understand that people would ever do anything for any reason except for monetary gain. There isn’t anything in this to explain it; it just won’t do. Scholars have failed in attempting to show how that might be true. The other has to do with power. Relationships, if you this state on your side it will give the balance of power to you and so on, but the truth of the matter is Epidamnus is essentially irrelevant to the ordinary struggles of power between these two states, Corinth and Corcyra. Corcyra won’t be poorer, it won’t be weaker if the Corinthians have Epidamnus nor is there some kind of a tremendous strategic edge if you can launch your attack from Epidamnus rather than from someplace else. No, no, there’s no reason to doubt Thucydides about this. This is about honor and it’s about dishonor.
Now, does that sound very remote? Who cares about honor in the twentieth century, twenty-first century? What kind of nonsense is this? I will tell you that you and everybody around you, and everything you see in the world today is motivated more frequently — especially conflict, but other things too, the way you lead your life is influenced more by considerations of honor than of anything else. Let me put it in the way that’s most helpful in this context. It’s really the negative that’s important. More important than honor is dishonor; people hate to be dishonored. They hate — there is a wonderful slang word that now tells the story. It wasn’t available when I was a kid. The thing was available, but the word wasn’t available. If I say to you, he dissed me; do you know what I mean? Do you think there’s a danger to your teeth if you dissed the wrong guy? Do you doubt that that sort of thing motivates individual people constantly?
I can show you, and I’ve already shown the world that it motivates nations constantly today, not only twenty years ago or 500 years ago, 2000 years ago; that’s what Thucydides is showing us here. This is a very important permanent truth. This is why Thucydides is so superior to modern political scientists studying international relations. They don’t understand these things and Thucydides did. So, that I think is what is happening and when it becomes clear to Corcyra that Corinth is involved, that they are looking for a fight, and that they have dishonored Corcyra by taking over one of their colonies, the Corcyraeans are on the one hand angered, but on the other hand they’re frightened because Corinth is a great powerful state, and more important than that, Corinth is one of the most significant allies of Sparta.
If the Corinthians are giving us grief the Corcyraeans could think this is a prelude to having the Peloponnesian League come after us and that is not something you want to happen. So, the Corcyrians ask for a conference with the Corinthians, and they come and say, let us find a way to make peace over this issue, let’s see how we can negotiate a peace. Corinthians are adamant. They say you want peace; this is what you got to do. You have got to withdraw your forces from the city; here you are besieging the city, because the Corcyraeans have come with their fleet, they have defeated — I always get this so backwards, let me see if I’ve got this right. What are the Corcyrians doing? Their armies are in the field and their navy is at sea against the opposition to the folks who are inside the city, and so the Corinthians say, you were fighting these people and you’re asking us to talk peace while you’re fighting these people, you withdraw your people and then we’ll talk peace.
Coin of ancient Corinth / Wikimedia Commons
Well, of course, that would give the advantage to the other side, and the Corcyraeans said no way, and said tell you what we’ll withdraw our people, if you withdraw your people. Corinthians said no way. I think what comes out of this back and forth is important; it is that the Corcyraeans are not looking to expand this fight; they want to end it. Not because they are peaceful and loveable fellows, but because they’re afraid of where this thing will go. We are now dealing with another term that came into fruition in the twentieth century; escalation is what these guys were afraid of. We got this little fight going on here but next thing you know we may find the Peloponnesian League involved. But the Corinthians clearly aren’t worried about that and that’s going to be a point we have to cope with.
The Corcyraeans say, look if you don’t work this out with us now, we may have to seek allies, other allies besides those we already have. Well, Thucydides has told us they don’t have any other allies. But who are these allies that they’re going to seek? That’s a real question; somebody tell me. Athens, of course, I wanted you to tell me, because I want to emphasize how obvious it is. Nobody could have missed the signal. This is a threat. We know you Corinthians are playing as tough as you are because you’re counting on the Spartans to assist you. Well, if you do, we will ask the Athenians to help us and then what. And so the situation goes forward.
The Corinthians are not bluffed, if it was really a bluff and on they go. I should point out that at this meeting, the Corcyraeans said they were willing to submit this quarrel to arbitration. I remind you again, not mediation, to turn it over to a third party and have them settle the question, but the Corinthians turned that down. I think that alone indicates who wanted war and who wanted peace at this point. The other thing is that it should be remembered that the thirty-years peace provided that neutrals were free to join either side that had signed the thirty-years peace. So that, when they were implying and threatening an alliance with Athens, they understood that the Athenians were free to accept them into the alliance without breaking the thirty-years peace. That would be a considerable issue as the problem grows more difficult.
Well, there is no peace and so the two sides organized their navies. The Corinthians did not have a large standing navy in peace time and they set to work to put one together. In 435 there is the Battle of Leucimne which takes place between the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans and the Corcyraeans win. Corinth is not deterred; now they really go to work and they build for them a vast fleet, consisting of ninety ships, unprecedented outside of Athens and they do turn, not in an official way, but unofficially to their Peloponnesian allies asking them to contribute help too and their Peloponnesian allies send another sixty ships, and so the Corinthians have available a total of one hundred fifty ships. The Corcyrian fleet consisted of one hundred and twenty ships; they did have a fleet that they kept at all times and that had given them the confidence in advance to do what they had done, but here was Corinth suddenly outnumbering them in this way.
Pnyx in Athens / Wikimedia Commons
Corcyra was now thoroughly frightened. They knew that Corinthians would be coming after them again with a fleet that was bigger than theirs, so they went to Athens in September of 433. Now, I ask you again to imagine yourself sitting there on the Pynx in Athens, in September of 433 as the Corcyraean ambassadors have come to your town. They’re going to ask you to join in an alliance with them for the purpose of fighting the Corinthians and their friends. The Corinthians who have heard about this sent ambassadors of their own to Athens, they are present on that same hill, and they will make their case as to why the Athenians should say “no” to that request. Thucydides reports his version of both speeches. There is every reason to think he was sitting there in the Athenian assembly on the days in which these discussions took place.
The essence of the Corcyraean argument is that — well, here are the points they make. Corinth is wrong, it is not a breach of the thirty-years peace for Athens to accept the Corcyraeans into their alliance because neutrals are permitted. Then they go through a lot of stuff to show that the Corinthians are bad guys, making arguments on the grounds of morality and virtue and decency and obeying the law and all kinds of stuff, but it’s clear that that’s not what’s on their minds. They are talking about — basically they try to convince the Athenians on the grounds of the significance of their decision for the balance of power, and essentially the balance of naval power in the Greek world.
In passing, they make the point that Corcyra is very well situated for a naval — I should — for a sea voyage to Sicily and Italy, where the Athenians and others are always wanting to go. So, you want to be on our side. That’s not really a very potent argument, because no town, no polis shuts its ports to any other polis except in war time. So, it’s only when they mention it, they only have to be talking about why it’s valuable to be allied with Corcyra, because and this is their most powerful underlying argument, there’s going to be a war. Don’t kid yourself Athenians is what they are saying, and when that war comes you’re going to want to be us. You’re going to want to have us on your side, in part because of our convenience, our strategic location.
On the other hand, more powerful is the fact — we have a hundred twenty ships. If we lose, if you let the Corinthians beat us, our ships will fall into their hands, and then they will have a much mightier fleet than even the one they have put together, and now your unquestioned dominance of the sea will be challenged. That’s what’s at issue. Don’t imagine that this is just anybody’s imagination. This is going to happen. The war is coming; an enormous amount of what’s happening here has to do with your perception of whether the war is now inevitable or whether by restraint you can preserve the peace. That’s the problem that the Athenians face.
Ruins of ancient Corinth / Wikimedia Commons
It’s a terribly interesting one, because it happened so very often on the brinks of wars, when that’s the issue that determines what people will do and how they react. If they don’t think the war is coming anyway, they may very well decide to refrain from an action that might provoke a war. If, on the other hand, they think war is coming they feel that it’s too dangerous not to make our capacity to win the war more likely and so they may well take a step which makes the war more likely, and they’re both gambles. Nobody knows for sure one way or another; you have to make an estimate and that’s always the way it is, unless you are simply an aggressive state and all you want to do is conquer, and you don’t care about anything else. You’re always trying to figure out will it be safer to fight or not to fight, will it be safer to try to make a concession or will that make it more dangerous. Those are always the issues, always the problems.
One of the great imbecilities that I discovered all through my life is people will contemplate going to war at different times in our time, is the quiet assumption, unquestioned, unexamined that restraint, the failure to take action is safe; taking action is dangerous. Whereas, our experience, even in my lifetime, has demonstrated that’s often wrong. Nothing could be clearer to me and I think to most people who studied the subject that not acting against Hitler as he took one step after another to rip up a piece of Europe was the most dangerous thing they could possibly do, far more dangerous than confronting him as early as 1936 when he invaded the Rhineland. That’s not the only case of it. There’s no simple rule.
Sometimes it’s wiser not to act and sometimes it’s wiser to act, but it’s never clear which one is more likely to produce peace and safety, and that’s what the Athenians had to wrestle with on that day. The Corinthians responded to the argument of the Corcyraeans denying their picture of things. They said, in fact if you sign up with the Corcyraeans now, you will be in violation of the thirty-years peace. What they were saying I guess in the abstract was, don’t worry about the letter of the law of the treaty; because that clearly permits an alliance; it’s the spirit that counts. They said, surely nobody imagined that this decision would be made at a time when the neutral is asking you to join in was already at war with one of us; surely nobody had that in mind. They’re certainly right. Nobody did. The question is, on the legal point, my guess is the Athenians had the better of the argument. It says in black letter law; it says you may take a neutral if a neutral asks you for an alliance.
There’s nothing that says, except that when that neutral’s attacking us; it doesn’t say that. On the other hand, who in his right mind could imagine it would be okay to do that? So, that was one issue that the Corinthians spoke to. But they made another point that was legalistic as well and this one I think in the case of the Corinthians is much worse. They said the principle established in the thirty-years peace was that each side could punish its own allies without the interference of the other side.
Now, as a matter of fact, it didn’t say that, but the other thing that’s wrong with that statement is, it’s one thing for Athens to punish Samos, which is an ally and the Corinthians saying fine, that’s your business, we won’t intervene. But Corcyra is not the ally of Corinth. In fact, they are bitter enemies of yester year. There’s no part of that treaty that protects the Corinthian right to attack Corcyra. So, it’s a great argument if you don’t look at the validity of the facts that are alleged. Corinth has got a very bad case here. But their really important argument is this.
The ruins of the Temple at Kardaki at Corcya, constructed c.700 BCE / Wikimedia Commons
The Corcyraeans say the war is inevitable; well, it isn’t. The fact is they tell the Athenians, if you were smart the thing you would do would be to join us, and together we’ll smash the Corcyraeans and then there’s no more problem. But if you don’t do that, at the very least, refrain from joining them because then we will be friends, and then we will have peace in the future. But make no mistake about it, if you do accept the Corcyraeans into your alliance now, then there will be war. War is not inevitable, but your action can make it inevitable. So, that’s what the Athenians confront when they have to make their decision. Again, the drama of this is so striking I want to be sure you conceive of it. They are sitting there; everything I’ve told you so far has been said on the same day and now the Athenians start talking about what should we do; it’s the same day.
The people who are sitting on the Pnyx, if the day is clear as they used to be in Athens just about everyday, can look out across Attica to the north and they can see that area into which the Spartan and Peloponnesian army will march and start destroying their farms three days from now possibly, if a war starts. Who is going to be doing that fighting out there? We will; those of us who are sitting here voting whether to go to war or not. I’m always struck by the immediacy and the significance of what these guys are doing. Somebody tell me this is not a democracy, please. So, it is of course the same kind of thing they faced back in 461, when they had to decide whether to take Megara into the alliance, again. There are significant differences, but the issue is very much the same. They can’t be sure. Maybe if they back off and refuse the alliance, maybe that will be the end of the problem and they’ll live happily ever after.
On the other hand, if they’re wrong about that and the Corinthians take over this fleet, suddenly they will find themselves vulnerable in a way they have not been, since they put their empire together. I always find it illuminating to me anyway, and I hope to you as well, to make an analogy to Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Great Britain, at the beginning of the nineteenth, sort of the middle and after the nineteenth century came — had the greatest navy in the world without question. It was the greatest power in the world. It had this enormous empire that it ruled and its vulnerabilities were mainly against France and Russia, who were two imperial rivals in the areas that the British cared about most. At a certain point they decided to make their fleet to be the size of the next two fleets put together, in order to feel secure in case a war broke out, and that’s what they did.
Everything was fine until Kaiser William becomes the Emperor of Germany and towards the end of the nineteenth century decides that Germany must be a great naval power. It must be a world empire, it must challenge Britain for that opportunity and they begin to build a fleet of battleships whose only purpose can be to destroy the British fleet and to allow the Germans to invade Britain, or best of all to intimidate the British into stepping aside and allowing the Germans to do what they want to do. As soon as this becomes clear to the British, as soon as the Germans start building that fleet, it is not yet strong enough to defeat the British fleet, and the British enter into a naval race to see to it that they don’t get to be big enough to take out the British fleet. But it’s very costly, the British don’t like it, they try to find every way, and what they do is completely flip their diplomacy which has dominated their behavior for over a hundred years and they make an alliance with France and Russia to see to it that the Germans are checked and prevented from doing what they’re planning to do.
I think that does help to understand what the Athenians are doing. When you are, as in the case of Britain, an island state and as in the case of Athens you might as well be an island state, because you are dependent on imports for your food supply and the command of the sea is essential for acquiring that, in such a case it is not a light thing to permit a change in the naval balance of power, which may make you seriously vulnerable in case of war. The point I want to make is that the British didn’t wait until the Germans had equaled their force; they changed their policy and ultimately moved into war to prevent it and that’s where the Athenians I think found themselves. It was something they were not willing to do, but it was a very hard call, and we are told that they argued so long that it got dark before the decision could be made.
Athens Votes on a Defensive Alliance
Marble statue of a helmeted hoplite, 5th century BCE / Archaeological Museum of Sparta, Greece
Thucydides says, it was thought that they were inclining against the alliance when it got dark. They met again the next day and this time they voted for something a bit different from what they had been talking about the day before. What the Corcyrians had been requesting was a typical alliance, the only kind we know of between Greeks, a symmachia, an offensive and defensive alliance. It would have required the Athenians to go out and fight the Corinthians, even if the Corinthians didn’t attack Corcyra. It would have put them fully at war against the Corinthians. That’s not what the Athenians voted. On the second day they voted on the proposition that they established something called an epimachia, which means a defensive alliance only. They would only fight against an enemy, if that enemy had attacked Corcyra and was in the process of landing on their territory, and so that’s finally what the Athenians did. That was the vote they took. Once again, we have something unheard of before, a device which is in a way largely a diplomatic device meant to have consequences on thinking rather than immediate military results. So, I say it’s got to be Pericles, but I feel better this time, because Plutarch says, it was Pericles even though Thucydides doesn’t say who made that proposal.
It was clearly what Pericles wanted because he holds to it very, very firmly, in both directions, both in terms of the limits that this puts on Athenian action, but on the determination to take that action no matter what. What I suggest to you is that we are going to be dealing from here on in — we have been dealing with in a general way anyway, but now it’s very clear, this is Pericles’ policy. I assert it is a policy intended to keep the peace, and here again, we run into a problem in our own time in which sort of the normal reaction of people is, if you want to keep the peace ,what you want to do is to be a nice guy. What you want to do is to make concessions, you want not to frighten the potential enemy, you want to show that you have no ill-will towards him, and then reason will prevail and you can all have a nice chat and go off for tea.
Of course, that’s not the way it is at all. One way always that has been used by nations in the hope of keeping peace is through the opposite device, of deterrence where there isn’t any hope of coming to a happy agreement. Of course, if there had been you wouldn’t be in the spot you’re in now. All you can do is try to indicate to your opponent that he will not achieve the goals he seeks, if he launches a war against you, and so that requires that you be very strong, militarily strong and strong in the way in which you negotiate. On the other hand, if that is your goal, deterrence, then you also want to be very careful not to behave in such a way that it’s too frightening. That indicates to your opponent that you are likely to defeat him, if he allows you to be as strong as you would like to be. You want to avoid taking an action that will make him lose his rationality, that will make him so angry that he will forget about these questions of success and failure, he’ll just say I’m going to get that son of a gun and that, I argue, is the policy that Pericles pursued.
An attempt at deterrence and moderation at the same time, to frighten the opponent by his determination out of thinking they can do what they want without a danger of war, but also to avoid inflaming his anger. In the short run, what happens is that the Athenians send to assist their Corcyrian allies a fleet of only ten triremes. This is inexplicable in my view, except in terms of the strategy that I have suggested. What he’s doing is sending really not a force but a diplomatic message. He is telling the Corinthians, you have been counting on the fact that we would stay out of this, well you were wrong. We will not allow you to defeat the Corcyraean navy, because we find that unacceptable and dangerous. So, we’re sending this force to help the Corcyraeans not because we want to fight you but because we want you to see that we’re serious about this; don’t start the fight.
3D rendition of how an ancient Greek trireme ramming an enemy vessel may have looked. / Ancient History Encyclopedia
Well, the Corinthians sail their fleet against Corcyra and there follows a battle at sea called the Battle of Sybota, and Thucydides describes the battle itself, very tough battle. The Athenians are — I’m sorry I haven’t told you one thing you need to know. The Athenians will line up at one end of the Corcyraean line with their ten ships. The commanders of that fleet are determined as well. Those ten ships are commanded by three generals; that’s a lot of generals for ten ships, but one of them who is the chief figure there is Lacedaemonius, the son of Cimon. Well, of course, he is clearly seen by everybody else as not one of the Pericles’ boys, not a stooge of Pericles. He’s an independent and what’s his name mean? Mr. Spartan.
Now, if the Athenians get drawn into that battle and the command that we should do so is done by Lacedaemonius then, of course, that will not have the effect of dividing the Athenians but it will make it much harder to divide the Athenians. It would be much easier to say all Athenians, even those who have the kindest attitude towards Sparta thought that this was a necessary step, which I think was aimed not at Corinthians so much. It was aimed, of course, at Athenian politics, but I think it was aimed at the Spartans too because then if the Spartans were then asked by the Corinthians, so look what happened, come in and help us against the Athenians, they would have to face the fact that even Lacedaemonius thought this was necessary. It’s the same game. All of these are cagey moves by Pericles to pursue his extremely complicated, tricky, kind of a strategy.
Lead Up to the War: Corcyra and Potidaea
Location and coin of ancient Potidaea / Wikimedia Commons
Considering the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, last thing we were talking about was the alliance that was made between Athens and Corcyra and the significance of that difficult decision the Athenians had to make, which you will recall was neither to accept the offer of the Corcyraeans of the traditional offensive and defensive alliance, nor to reject it, but rather to make a different kind of alliance than any we know of before in Greek history, a purely defensive alliance, which I suggest to you really should be understood less as a military action than as a diplomatic gesture, as a diplomatic signal. If the Pericles I have in my mind has anything to do with the real Pericles who existed, he is a man who is very sophisticated about the idea of sending diplomatic signals by action, rather than merely by words, and that his intention here was to avoid the unacceptable change in the balance of naval power, which would have occurred if the Corcyraeans had been defeated by the Corinthians.
At the same time he was trying to avoid blowing this whole thing up into a major war against the Peloponnesians by preventing the fighting. In fact, I don’t know if I said this flat out, but let me say it now. I think he hoped that when the Corinthians approached Corcyra and saw Athenian ships lined up at the Corcyraeans, the Corinthians would back off and there would be no battle and the result would be some other way of getting out of this crisis. As it turned out his hopes were dashed. At the Battle of Sybota, which took place in September 433, to which the Athenians, you remember sent ten ships with three generals, one of whom, the leading one was Lacedaemonius the son of Cimon, who received orders that were the most difficult kinds of orders you can imagine giving a naval commander.
His orders were to stay there and if the battle commenced not to engage in that battle, unless and until that moment when it appeared that the Corinthians were not only going to win but were going to land on the island or Corcyra, then and only then, should Lacedaemonius bring the Athenian ships into combat. Now, how in the world, in a naval battle especially where things don’t stand still, they’re either moving around themselves or the sea is moving them around, how can you be sure what’s going to happen ten minutes from now, half an hour from now? It’s impossible to be certain. So, it would have been a difficult call and I do think that Pericles anticipated that there might be an engagement, which he would want to regret, but he could blame Lacedaemonius and the generals for doing it. However that may be, that’s all that the Athenians sent, and again, we ought to realize the Athenians had four hundred triremes.
They could have sent a couple of hundred which would have guaranteed that if the Corinthians had fought, the Corinthians would have been swept from the sea. Why didn’t he do that? It was obvious again that his intention was not to frighten or anger the Spartans, the head of the Peloponnesian League by such a crushing victory, but instead to employ the technique of deterrence.
Illustration depicting the Battle of Potidaea (432 BC) one of the catalysts for the Peloponnesian War / Wikimedia Commons
Now, the decision to send only ten was debatable. After those ten had been sent the question was raised again in the Athenian assembly, obviously by people who didn’t agree with Pericles’ approach, who insisted that there should be a larger fleet sent, and Pericles apparently could not prevent them sending some more ships, but the most they could get a vote for was twenty more ships. So, now there’s a second Athenian detachment that is sent some days after the first which consists of twenty ships more; keep that in mind. Well, the battle which Thucydides describes in great detail works as follows.
The Corinthians do attack against the combined forces of 120 or is it 110 Corcyraean ships and ten Athenians that are there with their 150, and the Corinthians are winning, and at a critical moment Lacedaemonius engages the Athenians in the fight and so what Pericles hoped to avoid took place. The Corinthians would have succeeded in winning the battle and would have landed on the island, and presumably ultimately taken charge of the Corcyraean fleet when something happened that if it wasn’t the very stern and factually determined Thucydides, but it was a Hollywood movie, you wouldn’t believe it. Namely, as all of this is happening, you can imagine somebody on one of the Corinthian ships suddenly looking behind and looking on the horizon and seeing ships coming, and then seeing that they were Athenian ships, at which point the Corinthians panicked, pulled back, gave up their victory and withdrew from the fight.
You can’t blame the Corinthians. Once they knew they were Athenian ships they had every reason to think, my God maybe there’s 200 Athenian ships coming at us and so it turned of course there were only twenty, but it was too late. So, the Battle of Sybota, this naval battle I’ve described to you, ends in this way and it leaves things up in the air. The Corinthians have not been deterred, they are determined more than ever to continue the fight and on the other hand, the Corcyraeans aren’t backing down either, and so here we have one of the issues that will be decisive in bringing on the war. Over that winter 433 to 432, two events of importance in this connection take place. We cannot be sure precisely when in that year they took place and we can’t even be sure which of them came first.
I’m turning first to Potidaea. I’m doing what most scholars do, but none of us have any reason to believe it happened before the next thing I’ll tell you about. City of Potidaea up in the Chalcidic Peninsula, those three fingers sticking out into the Aegean from Thrace, was, you will perhaps recall, a Corinthian colony and it was extraordinarily lose to Corinth. Remember when I was talking about colonies and the varieties of relations with the mother city that they had, I told you that Potidaea had unusually close relations with Corinth. Each year the Corinthians sent out magistrates who in fact governed Potidaea and this was voluntary on the Potidaeans’ part. So, you have a very special Corinthian-Potidaean thing. Because of what had happened and what was happening, the Athenians feared, and it turned out rightly feared, that the Potidaeans might be planning to rebel against them and to join their Corinthian friends.
Coin of Potidaea / Wikimedia Commons
In fact, the Potidaeans were planning such a thing and in order to make their chances greater they secretly sent a mission to Sparta in which they asked the Spartans just as you remember the Thasians had done back there in 465. If we rebel, will you invade Attica? I assume it was the ephors — this was a secret thing it would not have been discussed in the Spartan assembly. I believe a majority of the ephors must have said “we will” and so the Potidaeans went forward with their rebellion. The Athenians, before the rebellion broke out, but suspecting such things as being in the cards, sent a fleet. There was a fleet of Athenian ships that was going to Macedonia anyway for other reasons and they were instructed by the assembly, again, I’m sure it’s Pericles calling the shots, to stop by at Potidaea on the way, and when they were in Potidaea to take down the defensive walls that the Potidaeans had on the seaside, so that they would be vulnerable to the Athenians without question, which would presumably deter a rebellion.
But when that fleet went out they found that the Potidaeans were already in rebellion, they could not get at Potidaea, and the Athenians subsequently sent a fleet to blockade the city and sent an army to blockade it on the land side, and they were now at war with Potidaea, the colony of Corinth, to suppress the rebellion. The Corinthians responded in an interesting, complicated way. A band of — I think the number was 2,000 — I think it’s 2,000 Corinthian hoplites came to Potidaea and helped defend it against the Athenian attackers. Thucydides describes them as privately sent. That is to say, he wants to make the point that these were not sent officially as Corinthian soldiers; they were what — we’ve seen these games being played in the modern world too. They were volunteers, just like the 40,000 Cuban volunteers that went to Angola in the 1970s, volunteers paid for, supplied, and ordered there by Castro. That’s the kind of volunteers, I think, were in Potidaea at this point.
Why did the Corinthians go through this masquerade, this very easily penetrated masquerade? Because they knew that the Athenians under the treaty had every right to suppress a rebellion in their empire, but they didn’t want it to happen. If they had officially sent their own forces to help they would have been guilty of aggression, they would have been guilty of breaking the treaty by interfering in the other fellows zone, and that would have had a very bad effect on what the Corinthians were clearly deeply concerned about now — getting the Spartans to get the Peloponnesian League into the war against Athens to achieve the goals that Corinth wanted. So, that explains this tricky little business. So, now event number two.
Lead Up to the War: The Megarian Decree
The Athenians are actually having already fought the Corinthians at sea in the Battle of Sybota, were now engaged in a siege of a city which contained thousands of Corinthian soldiers as well, and yet nobody had declared war on anybody. This is all happening technically during peace time. The other important event that took place over that winter had to do with a town of Megara. We’ve been hearing about that, of course, at least ever since the first Peloponnesian War. What happened here was that at a certain point in that winter, the Athenians passed a decree of the assembly, which forbade the Megarians from trading — Let me back up; let me be very technical, from using the harbor of the Piraeus, from using the agora of Athens, or from using any of the ports of the empire. I’m being extremely technical and careful about this. If I were not I’d be simply saying that they were barring the Megarian trade from anywhere in the Athenian Empire.
I don’t do so, because one brilliant late Oxford scholar came up with a theory about this event in which he tried to say no this was not an embargo, but it was in fact, merely an attempt to shame, to disgrace the Megarians. It was when the bill says you may not use the Agora of Athens it means the Agora as the civic center. This has nothing to do with trade. I just want to mention it, so that I’ve done justice; nobody has believed that theory yet and I don’t think they should. It’s an embargo and its intention is again — well, why are we doing anything against Megara? I think the best explanation is that when the Corinthians had fought the Corcyraeans in two naval battles, you remember Leucimne in 435, Sybota in 433. In the first one a number of Peloponnesian allies and other allies too had assisted the Corinthians in the battle. Now, at the second battle the number of allies assisting the Corinthians was cut down significantly.
In my opinion, that is because the Spartans had made clear that they wished for their allies to stay clear of this conflict, that they didn’t want to be dragged into a war over it, and I think the evidence for that is that when — you remember that conference that the Corcyraeans asked for to meet with the Corinthians to see if the couldn’t work this out. The Spartans accompanied them to that conference and clearly that means they wanted such a conference to take place, and they would have liked a peaceful outcome, but the Corinthians wouldn’t have any, and so I think that it was the clear signal that the Spartans gave that we want you to cool this that explains why fewer Peloponnesian allies showed up to help at the second battle, but among those few were the Megarians. Why?
Ruins of Fountain in Ancient Megara / Wikimedia Commons
Because we know the Megarians had a terrific grudge against the Athenians, of course, throughout all of history but more to the point, at the end of the first Peloponnesian War when the Megarians had rebelled against the Athenians in their moment of greatest danger and then had slaughtered as they had an Athenian garrison at the port, there was tremendous ill will between the two cities, and the Megarians were just going to take a shot at giving the Athenians a hard time. So, it was important for the Athenians, or in any case, led by Pericles, that was the way the assembly decided not to allow what the Megarians had done to go unpunished, because they wanted to deter other Peloponnesian allies from doing the same the next time. Well, what could they do?
Well, there are really two things they could do; come to think of it before they came up with this idea there was only one. They could march into Megara and fight, but of course, that would be an attack directly on an important ally of Sparta; it would be a breach of the thirty-years peace and it would bring about the great Peloponnesian War. Pericles didn’t want to do that, but he didn’t the Megarians to get away scott free, and so he invented a new thing again, yet one more new idea, which I again regard as fundamentally a diplomatic device meant to deter the kind of behavior that was necessary to deter and that was this decree. And scholars have fought forever and a day about all aspects of it, and most importantly, about what it’s for, why it’s going on, what’s its purpose.
Unless you understand it as I’m suggesting you should, it really is hard to tell, because it could not have driven the Megarians out of the Peloponnesian League over to the Athenian side, as it did not. The Megarians are absolutely determined, remained terribly hostile. Nothing, no matter how much they suffered could make them change sides. This was an oligarchic pro-Spartan outfit that ran the place and hated the Athenians terribly. Pericles had to know that. He wasn’t trying to wipe them out, he wasn’t trying to take them out of business, he was trying to show not so much them, but other Spartan allies that the Athenians could hurt them in ways that they had not been hurt before without going to war and dragging the Spartans in.
Any commercial Greek state in the Peloponnesus, and most of them had to do some kind of commerce, and some of the most important ones were right on the seashore, would have had to understand what the significance of this was. So, there we have the Megarian Decree, and it is the third of these provocations as the Corinthians saw it, that helped to bring on the war. We would use such terms as the immediate causes, the official complaints, as Thucydides would speak of them which are seen, or were seen by contemporaries as being the causes of the war. It’s important to recognize that Thucydides whole work, or at least certainly Book One, is dedicated to correcting what he thinks is an error about these things. In his view, it’s not these particularities that matter; it’s the truest cause that is the growing power of Athens and the fear that it engendered among the Spartans and that’s what that’s all about.
The Spartan Assembly Votes and the Course of War Is Set
Ruins of Spartan assembly meeting place / Wikimedia Commons
Well, the Corinthians in reaction to these events, Corcyra, Potidaea, Megara pressed the Spartans to take action, pressed them to call a meeting, which would allow the allies to make their complaints to the Spartans, and of course, that wouldn’t have had any success, if there had not been Spartans who themselves had decided that war against Athens was desirable and were prepared; they would have had to be influential Spartans who thought that — members of thegerousia, ephors, possibly kings. We know at least one Spartan king was not in favor of it. In fact, the other Spartan king was in exile. So this could not have been led by kings, but rather by the other two groups of people.
But it’s also clear that the majority of Spartans were not convinced, because they would not have needed to do what they did if that had been true. They called a meeting of the Spartan assembly to which they invited all states that had any grievance against the Athenians, and of course, you could see that the magistrates clearly wanted to stir the people to war, but they were not capable of delivering a majority, and so the assembly takes place and I hope that you read that section very, very carefully. The Corinthians make the decisive speech, the essence of it is — some of it is just sophistry, but some of it is to make the case, let’s not worry about all these technicalities. Well, they might not worry about those technicalities; none of those technicalities amounted to a breach of the thirty-years peace. So, they were asking the Spartans to violate their oaths by launching a war that violated their previous commitments, and later in the war the Spartans themselves admitted that they were troubled by the fact that they had been guilty of such a breach.
So what the Corinthians were asking was very, very difficult, and because — whenever they talked about the particularities, they wanted to get passed them as fast as they could, because they didn’t work for that. Instead they brought in a larger issue that was much harder to defeat. It was a statement about the Athenian character, the kind of people that the Athenians were, sort of all tied up in a phrase that the Corinthians used, something like, the Athenians were born neither to live themselves in peace, nor to allow their neighbors to live in peace. They painted a horrible picture of a people who — of a state which was insatiable, so ambitious that it would always be a menace to all its neighbors. No sense worrying about the details at any particular moment. They were growing stronger and stronger, and stronger and it was only a matter of time until they fell upon their neighbors and destroyed their freedom.
The Athenians sent ambassadors to Sparta. They had not been invited. They were there, says Thucydides, mysteriously on other business. I always wonder, what other business could they have had? Were they negotiating a grain treaty? Was it an exchange for violinists and piano players? I mean, what in the world — I don’t know, because, of course, I think that was a cover story. They were there with instructions. The instructions were: go to that meeting, listen. If you think that it’s important to do so, I want you to make the following set of statements to the Spartans and so we have a speech delivered by the Athenians after all the other allies had complained about this, that, and the other thing and the essence of the Athenian speech, I think, was first of all, they did what they could to make a case for themselves, but the heart and soul of what they said was this.
Coin of Lacedaemon (Sparta) / Wikimedia Commons
It came sort of at the end of their speech, which was, don’t imagine that if you go to war against us this is going to be an easy war for you. In effect they were suggesting what was true; we are a different kind of a state. The Corinthians say, we are a different kind of state in one sense, but we’re telling you we’re a different kind of state in another sense. We don’t need to do what your defeated opponents regularly have to do, that is to try to get out and fight you in a hoplite battle. Because of our navy, our walls, our money, our empire we don’t need to fight you on the land at all and we own the sea; you cannot hurt us. So, you’ll be damn fools to take us on. Don’t think you’re going to win this war or that it’s going to be quick and easy. That part of the speech was meant to deter the Spartans. It has confused scholars, who like so many people think that if you want to avoid war what you need to do is to be very nice to the other fellow.
There’s no guarantee of that one way or the other. But the other side of the Athenian argument is very important too. They said, on the other hand, whatever grievances you or your allies have against us, and that would have included all of these things I have mentioned to you, we are prepared to submit to arbitration as the treaty requires. In effect, if you want to keep your oaths you must not attack us; you must submit all complaints to arbitration. The Athenians, and again I’m sure this was orchestrated entirely by Pericles, hoped that this combination of approaches would get these Spartans to back off and allow the situation to cool down. Thucydides records two speeches made by Spartans at that assembly, one by King Archidamus, who was a personal friend of Pericles, we learn from other sources, and who clearly from what he says here does not want to go to war now, and I would suggest doesn’t want to go to war at any time at all.
He makes a case against the Corinthian argument and arguing for delaying going to war if one goes to war at all, and he hoped to put the matter off for several years. That he had to do I think because he recognized that the speech of the Corinthians had changed the mood in Sparta, and he thought that if the Spartans simply voted on the question of war now, they would vote for it. So, he couldn’t just say, let’s not go to war. He felt all he could say was, this is not the time; let’s wait for several years. We need money, we need to calculate all that kind of stuff, and so that was the argument that he made and he backed up the Athenian argument essentially, saying this is not going to be a quick easy war of the kind we’re accustomed to.
If you go to war now, and this is another memorable phrase that he employed, you will leave this war to your sons. That means he was saying this is going to take a generation to fight. That was his argument. Then on comes the ephor who is the president of the meeting on that day; his name is Sthenelaidas and he gives a wonderfully short Spartan laconic speech. He says, I’ve heard a lot of long speeches, most of which I don’t understand. I’m just a simple Spartan is what he’s implying, unlike these con men, unlike these sophist that you’ve been listening to. What I know is these guys are now laying hands on our allies and he was talking mainly about the Megarian Decree. So, the only question is, are we going to let them do that or not, and I say let’s not. And then he called for the vote. Interesting thing happens there too.
Meme using movie scene
You know how the Spartans vote? They bang on their shields and the yell. Those in favor, those who believe the Athenians have broken the treaty. That’s the way the thing was put to them and they indicate in the usual way and they all bang, and those who think not, the same noise, and then he said, I really couldn’t tell which side was the louder. So, let’s have a division and count, which was unusual, very unusual in the Spartan assembly. At which time he found a very large majority in favor of the war. You know I’ve gone on both ways on the question of what did he hear and what didn’t he hear the first time, and so I still don’t know for sure what happened. I mean, one interpretation is really couldn’t tell; it was very close. Well, why wasn’t it close on the division? Because in a place like Sparta you don’t want to show yourself as being against war when other guys are in favor of it. That’s not what brave men and Spartans do, even though you think that would be a good idea.
The other possibility is he knew right away there was a majority, and a clear majority for war, but he wanted everybody else to see how big that majority was. I don’t know what I think. I think I wrote in one book one thing and in another book another thing. So, the Spartans voted that the Athenians had broken the peace and the implication was we should go to war; that took place at a meeting in Sparta probably in July of 432, but the war doesn’t start — let me back up. The Spartans don’t go marching into Attica to fight the Athenians until probably March of 431. Why did it take so long for the Spartans to fulfill what they had just voted for? There’s no really good reason why they couldn’t begin immediately.
Some scholars point out July is too late to cut down the grain in Athens, which would already have been harvested and put away. Fine, but that’s not all the Spartans have to do in Athens. One of the things they do is to go out into the farms, burn farmhouses, destroy as many olive trees as they can, cut down as many grapevines as they can, all of that can be done in July and August, and September just as well as it can be done at any other time. So, I don’t think that’s a good reason. I think what happened was that the heat that had been stoked up by the Corinthian argument and those of their allies — we only have the Corinthian speech, but you can bet the Megarians and the Potidaeans laid on a pretty hot set of complaints as well, so did the Island of Aegina. So, it was in the heat of anger that the Spartans voted. It must be, I think, that when they had a chance to think it over they thought that maybe Archidamus knew what he was talking about and they better think again.
So, there is time in this stretch of — what is — about nine months for the negotiations that did indeed follow. Missions were sent from Sparta to Athens to try — well, we shall see to try to do what. The first mission sent to Athens made the demand that there need be no war, if the Athenians would simply drive out the curse. Well, we know what that is, the curse of the Alcmaeonidae. What Alcmaeonidae are we talking about? Pericles mother is an Alcmaeonid and he’s the only prominent Alcmaeonid around. This is an attempt to — you could think it to get Pericles out of there; you guys don’t want war just get rid of Pericles. Well, they knew the Athenians weren’t going to do that. The idea we are engaged here in psychological warfare, to undermine Pericles, who they see rightly as the driving force behind the Athenian policies, and they want to make his political situation more uncomfortable and cause him trouble.
Funeral oration of Pericles / Wikimedia Commons
The Athenians basically say take a walk and that’s the first mission. Next, the Spartans send a mission which in my — so the first one, as I say, was not a serious effort at avoiding the war, but the second one, in my view was. This second mission said to the Athenians we want you to withdraw your troops from Potidaea; we want you to leave Aegina autonomous as you’re supposed to, and we want you to withdraw the Megarian Decree. In fact, if you will only withdraw the Megarian Decree there will be no war.
That really changed the situation, because we now in Athens the issue could be boiled down by the opponents of the war, and Thucydides lets us see that there was strong opposition to going to war on the part of some that — why in the world are we going to war about this embargo we have laid on the Megarians? Who cares about that? So, in the great final debate about this issue, what should we do, how should we answer the Spartan offer on this occasion? Many speeches were made, Thucydides tells us, but the only one he reports is that of Pericles. Pericles makes the case as to why it is necessary not to withdraw the Megarian Decree, and it is the classic argument against appeasement out of fear.
If we do withdraw this, we will do so only because we’re afraid that the Spartans will attack us and we’re afraid to fight them. Now, if we give way on this point why should the Spartans ever do anything, but threaten us again when they want something that we don’t want to do? We will be under their power; you cannot give way to that kind of a menace and still maintain a free hand or any level of equality with the potential opponent. That, I think, was the essence of what he had to say along with reminding the Athenians how wrong the Spartans were and how inappropriate was their behavior, because he said remember we have offered to submit every complaint that they have to arbitration. They refused to do that. How can we in all honor and in all sense of security refuse to resist that kind of behavior? He won the day; the Athenians refused to withdraw the Megarian Decree. The course of war was clearly set.
But you know even then it was months before the war began and it wasn’t the Spartans who began it.
The Start of the War
Battle of Plataea / Wikimedia Commons
It all began when the Thebans early or late in winter I guess of 431 made a sneak attack on the Boeotian town of Plataea which was allied to Athens. Why did they do it? Scholars suggest one of two possibilities, either because they knew that there was going to be a war and they wanted to gain the strategic advantage of having Plataea which is close to the Athenian border in their control, or the flip side could be they were afraid there would not be a war and they were eager that there should be a war. We just can’t be certain about it. But what we can be certain about was the attack on Plataea led the Plataeans to ask their Athenian allies to help them, the Athenians at the very least had to say they would although in the fact they did not and that would compel the Spartans to come in and help their Theban allies and that is indeed how the war began.
When in probably March of 431 the Spartan and Peloponnesian army — we don’t know how big but very much bigger than the Athenian army came marching into Attica and the war — I’m sorry I’ve forgotten one thing. Before the attack on Plataea, the Spartans sent one more mission to Athens in which they said, forget everything we’ve said before. If you want peace you must free the Greeks. That was understood to mean you must give up your empire. The Spartans did not for a minute expect the Athenians to do that. This was psychological warfare for what was to follow. That Spartans were to fight the war on the program, we are the liberators of the Greeks against these imperialistic, aggressive Athenians who are destroying everybody’s autonomy, and making it impossible for everybody to live comfortably; we are the liberators and that’s what we’re doing.
So, now we’ve seen that the Athenians had refused to rescind the decree and the war had begun. It’s worth asking why did the two sides make the decisions they did. The Spartans refused to arbitrate. Why? Because their whole system depended upon the allies of Sparta being able to count on the Spartans to protect them from a third party, when it was necessary. So, if the Spartans said, well we’re not going to do that, we’ll leave it to some arbitrator to take care of, then they had to worry that the fundamental reason for the league, which gave them their power and their security, would disappear and that would be the end of that. They also had to worry that if they did not do what the Corinthians and the Megarians and others wanted them to do, the Corinthians might leave the league. That is what the Corinthians threatened them with in their speech as a matter of fact, which itself might be something that would lead to the dissolution of the Peloponnesian League, which is so crucial to Sparta. So, all of that was on their minds.
Another reason that the Spartans were not prepared to give way was that they really didn’t believe, the majority did not believe what the Athenians said about how the war would be fought or about what Archidamus said, which was to back up the Athenian claim. They could say what they want, but there was no instance in a Greek history ever in which one state invaded the land of the other state, and the other state simply let them do what harm they wanted. No matter what the Athenians might say, no matter what you might think that the Athenians had the capacity to do that, they wouldn’t do that and Spartans could point — what happened the last time we invaded Attica? 445 the Athenians came out and made a treaty with us, they conceded, they backed off, why would it be otherwise this time?
Bust of Archidamus / National Archaeological Museum, Naples
I think that you must always be aware yourself when you’re thinking about outbreaks of wars anywhere that one of the powerful issues, one of the things that helped people decide one way or another is their estimate of how that war will be fought and what the price of that war will be, and what the chances of victory are; that’s always in your mind. You’re much less likely to go to war if you feel very confident you’re going to get smashed, or that the cost of the war will be intolerable and so on. So, that was another issue. There is a real link, in other words, between the strategy that the Spartans expected to be able to employ and the policy that went with it.
Now, of course, their guess about how the war would be fought turned out to be wrong and very costly to them. What else could they have done? Well in theory, at least, they could have called the Corinthian bluff and say, no we’re going to obey our oaths in the previous treaty, we’re going to submit to arbitration, too bad if you don’t like it. What could the Corinthians have done? Well, they might have tried to withdraw from the league and their own withdrawal would not have been critical, only if they had been able to bring with them other states. We can only guess as to how successful they might have been. Perhaps, it’s not out of the question that Megara, being as upset as they were would have joined them. That would have been a real strategic problem, because between the two of them they control the isthmus and it means the Spartans can’t get out of the Peloponnesus. So, I don’t know how much of a choice that really was.
On the other hand, I’m sure there must have been Spartans who said, say who’s in charge of this league anyway, the Corinthians or us? We make the policy, they do what we tell them, we don’t get dragged around by them, but then the question would be, well what if these things do happen? So it was, as always, not an easy call for either side. After all, the Spartans always had to fear the helots, and Thucydides makes the point, I think, that it is fear of the helots that is always at the core of Spartan policy decisions. Recently, scholars have decided to challenge that but I don’t think they’ve been very successful with that.
Thucydides describes the motives that drive states to war and gives a wonderful triad; fear, honor, and interest and in this case — it’s usually some combination of all of these things. In this case, all of them were engaged, but I think fear is legitimately the one that’s prominent. It’s the one that Thucydides puts at the head of the list, and you can see why it might be right. What about Athens? Why did the Athenians behave as they did? Pericles and the Athenians followed this moderate policy of deterrence. They insisted upon the terms of the treaty, they insisted upon their equality with the Spartans, and therefore on arbitration, no dictation, no appeasement out of fear. The Megarian Decree was intended as a warning, and, I think, Pericles relied on the fact, a very unusual situation, Sparta has only one king at this time and that King is Archidamus who is a friend of Pericles and who is in favor of peace.
Kings are very influential in Sparta, and so Pericles might well have thought with Archidamus on my side, the Spartans will understand that I’ve no aggressive intentions against them, I don’t want to wreck their league, I don’t want to do anything to them, but they will simply have to arbitrate these problems, and they’ll see that and he was wrong. He was confident hereto — it’s the same issue of the question of how does strategy and policy, how do these connect with one another? He believed that his strategy could not fail. The Spartans could invade, could do what harm they liked, the Athenians would be able to live through whatever they did without taking casualties, simply losing property, because they had the empire that they could live off, which would bring them the money they needed to buy everything they wanted and they had nothing to fear at sea. So, surely the Spartans, after they cooled off, would see that they couldn’t win and then why fight, because they just couldn’t harm the Athenians.
It was a strategy that was totally rational and that’s what was wrong with it. It didn’t take account of the irrationalities that governed human beings so much of the time. It didn’t take account of the fact that the Spartans were both angry and frightened, and finally that the Spartans didn’t have the imagination, and I mean I don’t want to put the Spartans down as particularly blind in this respect. It seems to me all Greeks would have had the same doubts; they didn’t have the imagination to think that anybody would do what Pericles had in mind. And even if it was explained to them, they’d say they won’t do it. Because to do so from the Spartan and Greek perspective would be cowardly, and would the Athenians be willing to be shown up to be such terrible cowards as they would have to be standing behind their walls, watching the Spartans ripping up their homes, destroying their crops, and calling them every name in the book as they shouted beneath their walls. They thought not.
So, Pericles and the Athenians, I think, went wrong as the Spartans did really in anticipating what was going to happen, and finally, I would make this point. I make it as a general point about the outbreaks of wars anywhere, anytime and that is, if you are going to use a strategy of deterrence you must have available to you a powerful offensive threat. It’s one thing to say, as Pericles was in effect saying, you can’t hurt me so don’t fight. You have to be able to show the enemy I can hurt you very badly; so don’t fight, and Pericles had no intention of employing anything like a very serious offensive threat. There were ways he might have been able to do this or that, but that was not what was on his mind. He expected that the Spartans would behave fundamentally rationally. They would calculate their chances of victory, they would see they had none, and they would negotiate, which means accept arbitration and get out of this fix.
In my view, neither side wanted war, but neither side was ready to yield for the reasons that I have suggested. It’s not that this was in my view an irrepressible conflict. I use the terminology of the American Civil War, because really that’s what Thucydides is saying about the Peloponnesian War; that it was an irrepressible conflict. I think not. I think mistakes were made, mistakes of judgment on both sides that produced the outcome. Both sides felt that they could not back down and as Lincoln would say of his great war, “and the war came.” I don’t really think it was a case of one side deciding, let’s have a war. I think it was they both stumbled into it as a consequence of the situation and their misunderstandings of what was going on.
Thucydides as Revisionist Historian
Bust of Thucydides / Wikimedia Commons
So, now to turn to the war itself. I have long ago concluded that running through the war at the pace that’s available to me in time will be too superficial to be anything but silly, so I won’t try to tell you what happened in the war but you have a pretty good informant there, his name is Thucydides and your textbook can fill the rest of it in. What I’d like to do in the time available to me to talk about the war is to pursue a couple of topics in some depth to help you understand some aspects of the war, rather than the hopeless effort to describe the war to you so briefly. So, I want to talk to you first about the main source that we have for understanding the war and the great historian who wrote it, Thucydides, in his history of the war. I guess when I give this as a separate talk to people I use the title, “Thucydides the Revisionist Historian of the Peloponnesian War,” and let me just do that for you.
Now, just that title ought to raise a number of questions. Who is this guy? Who is this Thucydides? Why should we be interested in what he wrote over 2,400 years ago? Also, what is a revisionist and how can Thucydides be a revisionist when he seems to have been the first man to write a history of the Peloponnesian War? What was there for him to revise? Well, Thucydides was an Athenian aristocrat who came of age at the height of the greatness of Periclean Athens. He appears to have been born, let us say about 460 B.C. He was not yet thirty, when the Great War broke out, with two interruptions that war lasted for twenty seven years, and left Greece shattered, impoverished and permanently weakened. Never again were the Greeks masters of their fate and that war was his subject.
But why should a war among the ancient Greeks interest us today? One answer lies in Thucydides’ definition of his task and in the skill in which he carried it out. He said, it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read and he means here, less easy to read than Herodotus with all those wonderful funny stories that he tells, because of the absence in it of a romantic element. Take that Herodotus. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful for those who want to understand clearly the events that happened in the past, and which human nature being what it is, will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the tastes of an immediate public like Herodotus is who read his history out in public readings. My work is a possession forever.
Now, that may sound immodest, but his expectation obviously was justified. For his work has lasted and been judged useful to this very day, perhaps more influential in our time than any time before. But what’s a revisionist? In a sense, of course, all historians are revisionist, for each tries to make some contribution that changes our understanding of the past. When we use the term revisionist, we refer to a writer who tries to change the readers’ mind in a major way, to provide a new general interpretation sharply and thoroughly to change our way of looking at the matter. The term seems to have been used first after the First World War. Most people who lived in the allied nations believed that the central powers were responsible for bringing it on and deserved to be punished for it.
Dr. A.J.P. Taylor, historian, Univesity College London / Wikimedia Commons
Soon after the war, some people began to argue that Germany and Austria were no more responsible than Russia, France, and England and perhaps less. Soon historians, called revisionists, argued in support of that position. Before long the new view captured the minds of educated people in England and America, even some Frenchmen were convinced and the Bolshevik government of Russia did not need convincing of the wickedness of their czarist regime; since then the phenomenon has been calming. A few writers, most notably A.J.P. Taylor tried to revise the common opinion that held Hitler responsible for the Second World War, and had great success for a while. Later, the causes of the Cold War and of the American War in Vietnam underwent similar treatment.
These attempts to reverse opinion have had great practical importance. What happened in the past and even more important, what we think happened has a powerful influence on the way we respond to our current problems. What historians say happened, and what they say it means, therefore, makes a very great difference. Let me just remind you about the controversy about the First World War to illustrate that point. The Americans and the English, in particular, came to feel that Germany was wrongly blamed and therefore unjustly treated by the Versailles Treaty. Americans used this as the main justification for rejecting that treaty and then retreating into isolation from foreign affairs. The English, of course, couldn’t go that far, but their belief that Germany was falsely accused made it easy to permit and to justify Hitler’s violations of the treaty. Feelings of guilt helped support a policy of disarmament, unpreparedness, and appeasement.
The English poet W.H. Auden, responding to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in a poem called, “September 1, 1939,” a poem that was subsequently deleted from collections of his poetry, revealed how deeply the idea had penetrated and how late, in spite of everything, it lasted. Here’s what he says, “Accurate scholarship can unearth the whole offense from Luther until now that has driven a culture mad. Find what occurred at Lynce. What huge Imago made a psychopathic god? I and the public know what all school children learn. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” So we are to understand Hitler and Nazi Germany as simply responding to the bad deal they got at the Battle of Versailles and that’s all there is to it.
More recent scholarship is shown to most people’s satisfaction that the opinions of contemporaries were more right than the revisionists, that the general blame for the First World War can be laid at Germany’s door and that guilty feelings were unjustified, but it’s too late. The revisionist historians did their work so well, and it fit so nicely into the climate of opinion of the 1920s and 30s that these people captured the minds of a generation and helped to move them in a direction that they wanted to go. So, what historians write and what teachers teach can really matter, mostly in the negative. I mean, if we teach you anything right you forget it, but if we get it wrong you remember.
Thucydides, as much as anyone who has ever written, believed in the practical importance of history, so, we should expect him to be eager to set straight any errors of fact or interpretation that he found. But his revisionist tendencies are clear on a larger scale than detail, he has the evidence of Homer, for instance to show, he uses it, that it was the poverty of the Greeks, not the bravery of the Trojans that made the siege of Troy so long. He seems to have been the first one to present the view that the Peloponnesian War was one single conflict that began in 431 and ended in 427, not a series of separate wars. But my question again is what was there to revise? The answer, I think, is the same as in the modern instances, I mentioned. The not yet, fully formed, or written opinions of contemporaries.
Bust of Homer / British Museum
In modern times these are very easy to recover. Some of us still remember them, and in any case, modern revisionists always confront and argue against them. Thucydides’ method is different. He argues with no one and he vents no alternative view even to refute it. There are a couple of exceptions, but even then he doesn’t mention anybody, who holds the view he’s going to refute. He just puts forward the view. He gives the reader only the necessary facts and conclusions that he has distilled from them after careful investigation and thought. He has been so successful that for more than 2,400 years few readers have been aware that any other opinion existed. But a careful reading of Thucydides himself and of a few other ancient sources shows that there were other opinions in Thucydides’ time and that his history is a powerful and effective polemic against them.
One interesting dispute involved the causes of and responsibility for the war, which I’ve been chatting about. To the ordinary contemporary, the war must have seemed the result of a series of incidents beginning about 436 B.C. at Epidamnus. There, a Civil War brought about the conflict with Corcyra, the quarrel threatened the general peace when Athens made an alliance — I’m sorry with Corcyra against Sparta’s Corinthian ally, during the winter Potidaea. I’m not going to go through that because you know all about it. The opposition to the war, I remind you, focused on the Megarian Decree, as its cause and held Pericles responsible for both the decree and the war. In 425 the comic poet Aristophanes presented a play called, Acharnians. The war had by that time dragged on for six long and painful years and his comic hero, Dikaiopolis, has decided to make a separate peace for himself. This so angers the patriotic and bellicose chorus that the hero is forced to explain that it was not the Spartans who began the war.
Here’s what Dikaiopolis says, “Some vice ridden wretches, men of no honor, false men, not even real citizens, they kept denouncing Megara’s little coats and if everyone, anyone ever saw a cucumber, a hair, a suckling pig, a clove of garlic, or a lump of salt all were denounced as Megarian and confiscated.” Then he goes on, “Some drunken Athenians stole a Megarian woman and in return some Megarians stole three prostitutes from the house of Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress.” Next the infuriated Pericles, I quote, again, “Enacted laws which sounded which sounded like drinking songs, that the Megarians must leave our land, our market, our sea, our continent. Then, when the Megarians were slowly starving, they begged the Spartans to get the law of the three harlots withdrawn. We refused though they asked us often, and from that came the clash of shields.”
Now, using the evidence of Athenian comedy to understand contemporary politics is a tricky business. Just imagine the trouble somebody 2,000 years from now would have making sense of a Jay Leno monologue or a skit from Saturday Night Live. Aristophanes is clearly having fun by connecting the Megarian Decree, which we know was supported by Pericles, with the rape of women, which according to Homer started the Trojan War, and according to Herodotus, was said to have caused the war between the Greeks and the Persians as well. Still he does make the Megarian Decree and the Athenian refusal to withdraw it central to the coming of the war, both in Acharnians and in another comedy he wrote called Peace, performed in 421.
In the latter play, he makes Hermes the god, explain to the war weary Athenian farmers how peace was lost in the first place, I quote, “The beginning of our trouble was the disgrace of Phidias.” He is referring to the great sculptor who had been charged with impiety in connection with the great statue of Athena that he had constructed for the Parthenon. Then Pericles, “fearing he might share in the misfortune, because Phidias was his close friend, dreading your ill nature, that is the Athenians and your stubborn ways, before he could suffer harm set the city aflame with that little spark the Megarian Decree.” Well, the full context reveals that the connection between the attacks on the great sculptor Phidias, Pericles’ friend and associate, and the Megarian Decree was Aristophanes’ own joke, but it was taken seriously by other ancient writers, and it surely reflected charges that were made by real contemporary enemies of Pericles. The hard kernel of opinion central to all this is the common belief that the cause of the war was the Megarian Degree and that Pericles was responsible for it.
Bust of Aristophanes / Vatican Museums, Rome
Well, of course, that view, at the very most, is an over simplification and any good historian would have rejected it as a sufficient explanation. Thucydides, in fact, gives it very little attention. He doesn’t mention it in its natural place in the narrative. He doesn’t give its date. He doesn’t tell us the purpose, and he doesn’t tell us how it worked in practice. He does not conceal the fact that the peace was conditional on its withdrawal, or that it became the center of the final debate in Athens. His way of refuting the common opinion was to indicate its unimportance by the small place it occupies in his account, and to include it among all the specific quarrels that he regards as insignificant. His own explicit interpretation is a sweeping revision of the usual explanation, and it’s the one I’ve told you about before.
He states that same explanation, in other words, twice more in his account of the wars’ origins and the whole first book is a carefully organized unit meant to support that interpretation. So skillfully and powerfully did he work that his interpretation has convinced all but a few readers over the centuries. I should point out that in spite of my clearing up that error, it’s been available for about forty years now. I hate to tell but most people still agree with Thucydides and not with me. The revisionist view quickly and lastingly became orthodoxy. Another controversy surrounds Pericles most unusual strategy for waging the war and I’ll talk to you about that next time. So, let me move onto the next point. Just give me a second. Here we go. Sorry about this.
The point that I want to make — the other instance that I want to bring to your attention is in the summary that Thucydides makes of Pericles’ career and of his importance to Athens in Chapter 65 of Book II, after Pericles’ death. He interrupts the narrative to give you this really lengthy evaluation. One of the things he says in that evaluation is that Athens in the time of Pericles was a democracy in name, but the rule of the first citizen in fact. That is a remarkably powerful statement. He is saying that Periclean Athens was not a democracy and that it was in effect some kind of an autocratic government with Pericles as the autocrat. I would say that all the evidence we have suggests that that is not accurate. Just a few points to illustrate why that is so — I mean, one way to do that I think is by comparison. People have suggested that what Thucydides is saying is like what Augustus, the Emperor or Rome said about himself, that he ruled not by any particular power, not by potestas, but by his auctoritas, that is to say by the influence that his persona and his achievements, and all those things had over his fellow citizens.
Well, in the case of Augustus it was a flat lie. Augustus had a monopoly of all the armed force there was in the Mediterranean. He also had a vast treasury that he could use for his own purposes. He was, as all historians in the modern world made perfectly clear, he was an emperor who ruled, no matter what instruments he used, it was a one-man rule. In a second you can see how it doesn’t apply to Pericles. Pericles had no armed forces available to him; he could not enforce anything by pulling out some soldiers to do anything that he wanted to do. Any use of any armed forces always had to be voted by the assembly, and debated, and discussed, and a majority determined whether it could be done. Moreover, every month the question was raised, as you know, is Pericles like all the other generals, okay or has he violated anything.
Ostrakon with the name of Pericles / British Museum
Charges could be brought against him, he could be brought to court and that’s what happened to him in the middle of the war in 430. His enemies did bring charges against him, he was convicted, he was removed temporarily from the generalship, and he had to pay a very, very heavy fine. This is not the business of dictators. So, very briefly, Thucydides is wrong about that. Why did he want to say that? This gets to my own explanation of how we can understand. I’ve made the argument that he’s wrong about the origins of war. Next time, I’ll make the case that he was wrong in fully supporting Pericles strategy in the Peloponnesian War as the correct one. I’ll make the claim that the opposite is true.
If I’m right, why in the world did he say the things he did? I think we need to understand his situation. In 424 he was a general commanding Athenian naval forces in the north. He was away from the place where they expected him to be when there was a suddenly surprise seizure of the important Athenian city of Amphipolis, a charge was brought against him, he was brought to trial, and he was found guilty and sent into exile. He spent the last twenty years of the war in exile. Probably, I would guess, among fellow exiles and fellow opponents of the Athenian democracy, because he is very clearly a critic of the Athenian democracy.
There he had to speak all the time to people who said, wait a minute Thucydides, let me get this right, you think Pericles was a terrific guy, don’t you? Yeah, I do, he would have had to say that. They said, besides didn’t you get elected general in 424 and wasn’t that about the most radical year in the entire history of Athenian democracy? Weren’t you a great pal? How could it be a blue blood like you, who knows what nonsense democracy is, how could you possibly hold those positions? And in my view, his history is his answer to those questions. You think that the war is about the Megarian Decree and that Pericles is responsible for it, you’re completely wrong. The war was inevitable, and became so as soon as the Athenian Empire came on board to challenge the Spartan hegemony. Your view is naïve and ignorant. So, please pay attention to my history when I get it fully written.
You think that Pericles was a democrat you bloody fool; he was a man who ruled over others; he did not take his orders from the assembly. You think that we lost the war, because we had a bad strategy? The truth is the strategy was right, and if his successors had not abandoned that, they would have held out and won the war. So, you see all of your main ideas about what’s happened to us in the past are wrong, and that is why I did what I did and I was right to do so every step of the way. That was his history and in my view was not merely an account of the past; it was an apologia pro vita sua, a defense of his own life and of the great decisions that were made in it. Of course, what I’ve just said is highly controversial. Now on to the strategy in the war.
Pericles and His Strategy
Bust of Pericles / National Archaeological Museum, Naples
My subject today is Pericles as general.
Near the end of his biography of Pericles, Plutarch describes this great Athenian leader on his death bed. The best men of Athens and his personal friends are gathered in his room and are discussing the greatness of his virtues and the power he held. Thinking he was asleep, they added up his achievements and the number of his trophies, for as general he had set up nine commemorating a victory on behalf of the city.
Now, we are inclined to think of Pericles primarily as a great political leader, a brilliant orator, a patron of the arts and sciences, the man whose work in the peaceful arts shaped what is often called the Golden Age of Athens. So, it’s useful for us to remember that the office to which the people elected him almost every year for some thirty years, from which he carried on all of these activities, was that of strategos, a general and that foremost responsibility of Athenian generals was to lead armies and navies into battle. From his own time until modern times, Pericles’ talents as a general have been criticized and defended. In the first year of the Peloponnesian War, when his strategy called for the Athenians to huddle behind the walls of their city while the invading Peloponnesian army ravaged their lands in Attica, Thucydides says the city was angry with Pericles. They abused him, because as their general he did not lead them out into battle and they held him responsible for all they were suffering.
In the next year, after another invasion and destruction of their crops and farms, and after a terrible plague had struck the city, again, Thucydides says they blamed Pericles for persuading them to go to war and they held him responsible for their misfortunes. At a lower level, the poet Hermippus, one of the comic poets whose work we don’t have but occasionally we have a quotation and here’s one. Hermippus presented one of his comedies in the spring of 430, the second year of the war, that simply charged Pericles with cowardice. He addresses Pericles as follows: “King of the satyrs, why don’t you ever lift a spear but instead only use dreadful words to wage the war, assuming the character of the cowardly Telius. But if a little knife is sharpened on a wet stone you roar as though bitten by the fierce Cleon.”
Cleon, as you know, was his major opponent in the last years of his life and Cleon was hawkish and an advocate of aggressive active fighting. Now, the title of this talk, Pericles as General, is also the name of the most vehement modern attack on Pericles as a general. I say modern, of course, I’m talking about the nineteenth century. When you’re an ancient historian things take on those proportions. The author, Dr. Julius von Pflugk-Harttung, was a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war and an appreciative student of what he took to be the lessons taught by the great military historian and theorist Clausewitz. He believed that he had acquired some useful knowledge of the science of war, as he put it, that led him vigorously and entirely to condemn Pericles’ generalship, and Pericles’ conduct of the Peloponnesian War.
Carl von Clausewitz
He says that we see expeditions without inner unity, without the possibility of greater results: “To avoid danger, Pericles regularly gave away important advantages. Overall, we find the effort to lose no battle but nowhere to win one. As much as Pericles’ personal courage operated in battle and in the assembly, so little did he have of the courage proper to a general, which boldly risks the life of thousands at the decisive moment. As such, he belongs to those when they say a philosophical group which brings everything as neatly as possible into the system and plan, instead of acting openly and vigorously. It is a fact that Pericles, the chief advocate of the anti-Spartan policy never offered a single battle against the Spartans.”
At the higher level of strategy, the critique of Pericles is no less severe. “Pericles was a good minister of war who made farsighted preparations, but as general, he did not know how to make good use of the existing situation.” Again I quote, “He was a great burgermeister,” this means mayor. It was not a very friendly thing to call the great general who led Athens. “He was a burgermeister in the true sense of the word; there is the rich many sidedness of his nature which was then by that which came into play. His superiority to corruption, everything petty and paltry, yet he lacked the prophet’s vision and the certain luck of the borne statesman. Above all, he lacked the recklessness which is often needed to lead what has begun to the goal. As the leader of foreign policy he was not comparable to a Themistocles, as a general not even approximately to a Cimon.”
So, that’s the harshest of the critics of Pericles over the years, but Pericles has been very lucky over the years in his defenders. In antiquity, his performance was justified and praised by Thucydides, who was after all a contemporary, a general himself, and the historian of the period whose interpretations have dominated opinion ever since he wrote. For all the objectivity of Thucydides’ styles, he tells the story very much from Pericles’ viewpoint. For instance, when he describes the revolt against the Athenian leader in the second year of the war, and the Athenians’ unsuccessful effort to make peace, this is how he describes the aftermath.
“Being totally at a loss as to what to do, they — the Athenian people — attack Pericles, and when he saw that they were exasperated and doing everything as he had anticipated, he called an assembly, since he was still general; he wanted to put confidence into them and leading them away from their anger to restore their calm and their courage.” He reports three of Pericles, that is to say Thucydides does, reports three of Pericles’ speeches at length without reporting any of the speeches made by his opponents on those occasions, with the result that the reader is made to see the situation through Pericles’ eyes. Finally, he makes his own judgment perfectly clear; coming down firmly and powerfully on the side of Pericles and against all of his critics.
Here’s what Thucydides says, “As long as he led the state in peace time he kept to a moderate policy and kept it safe. It was under his leadership that Athens reached her greatest heights, and when the war came and it appears that he also judged its power correctly. Pericles lived for two years and six months after the war began, and after his death his foresight about the war was acknowledged still more. For he had said that if the Athenians stayed on the defensive, maintained their navy, and did not try to expand their empire in wartime thereby endangering the state, they would win out. But they acted opposite to his advice in every way, and when their efforts failed they harmed the state’s conduct of the war.”
Plutarch’s bust at Chaeronea, his home town / Wikimedia Commons
Now, in spite of his successor’s departure from his strategy and the disasters that resulted in spite of the entry of the Persian Empire into the enemy ranks, the Athenians held out for ten years after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition and for twenty-seven years with interruption altogether. Here’s Thucydides final word on this subject, “So more than abundant was Pericles’ reasons for his own predictions that Athens would have won in a war against the Peloponnesians alone.” Thucydides makes it absolutely clear; Pericles was right in the strategy that he had adopted, and if the Athenians had stuck to it they would have won the war. Plutarch accepted Thucydides’ judgment and added further defense against the charges of cowardice and lack of enterprise that his enemies were launching against Pericles.
To Plutarch, the actions that provoked such accusations instead revealed prudence, moderation, and a desire to protect the safety of Athenian soldiers. In 454, we’re back now in the first Peloponnesian War, Pericles led a seaborne expedition into the Corinthian Gulf. Thucydides merely reports that he defeated the Sicyonians in battle and ravaged the territory and besieged the important city of Oeniada, though he failed to take it and then sailed home. Obviously, answering later criticism, Plutarch concludes his account of these events by saying that Pericles returned to Athens, and now I quote him, “Having showed himself to be formidable to the enemy but a safe and effective commander to his fellow citizens, for no misfortune struck the men on the expedition.”
In 437, he sailed into the Black Sea on a mission of imperial consolidation that amounted to little more than showing the flag to the local barbarians. An action that was too insignificant to be even noticed by Thucydides, but Plutarch does not miss the chance to meet the criticism that had been directed against his hero. On this campaign, according to Plutarch, Pericles displayed the magnitude of his forces and the fearlessness and confident courage with which they sailed wherever they liked and placed the entire sea under their power. In 446, when Boeotia was in rebellion, the bold and ambitious General Tolmides convinced the assembly to send him at the head of an army to put down the uprising.
Plutarch reports that Pericles tried to restrain and to persuade him to end the assembly, making his famous remark that if he would not listen to Pericles he would not go wrong in waiting for time, the wisest counselor, but Tolmides didn’t listen and he went, and the result was a disaster. The Athenians suffered many casualties, Tolmides was killed, and Boeotia was lost. Plutarch’s comment is that this incident brought great fame and goodwill to Pericles as a man of prudence and patriotism. Later in the same year, rebellion broke out in Euboea and Megara revolted opening the road for a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica. Pericles, on this occasion had no choice; he led an Athenian army out to meet the invading army, but instead of fighting a battle he convinced the Spartans to withdraw and then to negotiate a peace.
In retrospect, no doubt, his critics accused him of missing a chance for victory in the field. Thucydides reports the Peloponnesian withdrawal without comment or explanation. But Plutarch uses this action to respond in almost poetic language to later charges that accompany the Peloponnesian invasion in 431. Reporting that his enemies, Pericles’ enemies, threatened and denounced him and choruses sang mocking songs to his shame, and insulted his generalship for its cowardice and for abandoning everything to the enemy. The Peloponnesians, Plutarch tells us, expected the Athenians to fight out of anger and pride. But to Pericles, it appeared terrible to fight a battle against 60,000 Peloponnesian and Boeotian hoplites, for that was the number of those who made the first invasion. I’m still quoting Plutarch, and to stake the city itself on the outcome.
He reports Pericles’ calming language to the excited Athenians in 431 saying that trees, though cut and lopped, grew quickly, but if men were destroyed it was not easy to get them back again. Here he turned to the charges of cowardice and lack of enterprise and he turned them on their heads and did so more fully in a passage that sums up his view of Pericles’ generalship, and I’ll read it to you. “In his generalship he was especially famous for his caution. He never willingly undertook a battle that involved great risk or uncertainty, nor did he envy or emulate those who took great risks with brilliant success and were admired as great generals. He always said to his fellow citizens that as far as it was in his power, they would live forever and be immortals.”
Modern Scholars’ Views on Pericles
Of the many modern scholars who have been persuaded by this view, none has argued more forcefully in favor of Pericles’ generalship than Hans Delbruck, perhaps the most renowned military historian of his day, and still a respected figure in that field. He and Pflugk-Harttung were contemporaries, they lived in — well, they did their writing on this subject in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Annoyed by the critiques rather, lately leveled at Pericles and especially by Pflugk-Harttung, he wrote a thorough defense in 1890 under the title, The Generalship of Pericles Explained Through the Generalship of Frederick the Great.
His main effort and at work is to justify Pericles’ conduct of the war that began in 431, the subject of the greatest criticism leveled at the Athenian general. Pericles’ strategy did not aim at defeating the Spartans in battle, but was meant to convince them that war against Athens was futile. His strategic goals, therefore, were entirely defensive. He told the Athenians that if they would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and so putting their city in danger, they would prevail. The Athenians were to reject battle on land, abandon their fields and homes in the country to Spartan devastation, and retreat behind their walls. Meanwhile, their navy would launch a series of commando raids on the coast of the Peloponnesus.
This strategy would continue until the frustrated enemy was prepared to make peace. The naval raids and landings were not meant to do serious harm, but merely to annoy the enemy and to suggest how much damage the Athenians could do, if they chose. The strategy was not to exhaust the Peloponnesians physically or materially, but psychologically. No such strategy had ever been attempted in Greek history, for no state before the coming of the Athenian imperial democracy ever had the means for trying such a strategy. To do so was not easy. For this unprecedented strategy ran directly across the grain, as you know, of Greek tradition. Willingness to fight, bravery, and steadfastness in battle, became the essential characteristics of the free man and the citizen. Pericles’ strategy of passivity, therefore, ran counter to the teachings of the Greek tradition.
But most Athenians were farmers, whose lands and homes were outside the walls. The Periclean strategy required them to look on idly while their houses, crops, and vines, and olive trees were damaged or entirely destroyed. In the face of these facts, as well as of the power of tradition, and the cultural values of the Greeks, it is hard to understand even in retrospect how Pericles could convince the Athenians to adopt his strategy. Delbruck keenly aware of Athens’ numerical inferiority on land was convinced of the soundness of Pericles’ approach.
Here’s what Delbruck wrote, “The structure of the Peloponnesian War obliges us to give him a position not simply among the great statesmen, but also among the great military leaders of world history. It is not his war plan as such that bestows this right on him, for the fame of the commander is gained not by word but by deed, but rather the gigantic power of decision that accompanied it. Not to halt with a half measure but to plunge in whole heartedly and to give up completely what had to be sacrificed — the entire Attic countryside. In addition, the strength of personal authority that was able to make such a decision understandable to a democratic national assembly and to gain their approval. The execution of this decision is a strategic deed that can be compared favorably with any victory.”
Take that, critics. Delbruck was pulling no punches and if you said he was a bum I say he was the greatest. Delbruck tries to bolster his case by comparing Pericles with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in the eighteenth century. During the Seven Years’ War Frederick applied what Delbruck calls a strategy of exhaustion; instead of the strategy of annihilation in which one army seeks out the other to bring it to decisive battle with the goal of destroying its nation’s ability to resist. Such a strategy is sometimes adopted by or forced upon the weaker side in a conflict, because no other choice promises success. In the twentieth century, the North Vietnamese communists used it with success against the United States. Superior fire power brought the Americans victory in set battles, but was not so effective in dealing with various forms of guerilla warfare. The communists, therefore, usually avoided battles throughout the war. Continuing warfare over years without a decisive result fed division and discontent in America and ultimately exhausted the American will to fight.
Marble Statue of Roman Dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus / Wikimedia Commons
In the Second Punic War, Rome repeatedly suffered crushing defeats in battle at the hands of Hannibal. The Romans, therefore, chose the tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus, avoiding battle, harassing the enemy with guerilla warfare, until they grew stronger and he, far from home and cut off from it by sea, grew weaker and was compelled to withdraw. Pericles’ strategy, however, was unlike these strategies in many ways. Unlike the Vietnamese communists and the Romans, he never attempted a set battle on land. The Vietnamese wore down America’s resolve by inflicting casualties on their forces. The Romans avoided battle only so long as they had to. Their ultimate aim was to defeat the enemy in standard battles, which finally they did in Italy, Spain, and Africa.
Delbruck’s comparison with Frederick’s strategy seems to me no less faulty. The Prussian Monarch was driven to it by combat losses in set battles fought over two years and by the absence of any alternative. He needed to avoid battle to survive. Only good fortune, not calculated war plans could save him. Britain came to his aid with financial assistance and then the most incalculable of all things happened, the death of the Russian Empress who was a great fan, who was hostile to Frederick broke up the coalition of his enemies allowing him to escape from the war unbeaten; she was succeeded by a czar who loved Frederick the Great and thereby saved his neck.
The situation confronting Pericles was entirely different from these cases. No helpful allies stood in the wings and no fortunate accident came to divide his opponents. Since he avoided all fighting on land against the Spartans, he inflicted no casualties, as the Vietnamese and the Romans did. They and Frederick moreover, aimed finally at fighting and winning battles when the odds were in their favor. The core of Pericles’ plan, however, was to avoid all land battles to show that the Peloponnesians could do Athens no serious harm and to exhaust them psychologically, to make them see reason and understand that their efforts were futile and could not bring them victory. His plan did not work. The element of chance, the unexpected and incalculable intervened against Pericles and against Athens in the form of the terrible plague that ultimately killed a third of the Athenian population.
Criticism of Pericles as a Military Leader
Dr. Hermann Bengston, historian / Wikimedia Commons
Of course, all this encouraged the Peloponnesians who refused to be discouraged and continued to fight. When Pericles died in 429 the Athenian treasury was running dry, his plan lay in ruins, and there was no prospect for victory. Only when his successors turned to a more aggressive strategy did the Athenians level the playing field and achieve a position, which allowed them to hold out for twenty-seven years, and indeed on more than one occasion, almost brought victory. So, it’s not surprising that Pericles’ strategy in the Peloponnesian War has brought criticism that raises questions about his capacity as a military leader, even from sober and friendly scholars. Georg Busolt, a very distinguished German historian, regarded his strategy as fundamentally right, but even he thought that it was somewhat one-sided and doctrinaire, and in its execution it was lacking an energetic procedure and in the spirit of enterprise; that’s from a very good friend.
Hermann Bengston, as you can see, the Germans have dominated this entire field of discussion, defends the plan against its critics, but concedes that the carrying out of the offensive part of the plan appears to modern viewers as not very energetic and resolute; I’ll say. Their influence no doubt, these critics are, by the knowledge that Pericles’ successors took some actions that did not risk significant land battles or numerous casualties, and yet produced important successes. In the spring of 425, the brilliant and daring general Demosthenes, conceived and executed a plan to seize and fortify the promontory of Pylos at the southwestern tip of the Peloponnesus. From there, the Athenians could launch raids at will and encourage the escape or rebellion of the helots, Sparta’s enslaved population. His success panicked the Spartans who allowed several hundred of their troops to be trapped and captured on the Island of Sphacteria, just off Pylos.
He immediately proposed a peace, which the Athenians then refused. Later in the same spring, the Athenians seized and garrisoned the Island of Cythera just off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnesus, and immediately they began to launch raids against the mainland. Thucydides reports that the Spartans suffered what I think of as pretty much a nervous breakdown.
Here’s the account Thucydides gives, “The Spartans sent garrisons here and there throughout the country, deciding the number of hoplites by what seemed necessary at each place. In other respects, they were very much on guard for fear that there would be a revolution against the established order, and from every direction a war rose up around them which was swift and defied precaution. In military affairs they now became more timid than ever before since they were involved in a naval contest outside their normal conceptions of preparation for war, and in this unaccustomed area they fought against the Athenians to whom the omission of an enterprise was always a loss in respect to what they had expected to achieve.” In other words, whatever victories the Athenians won, however great, they were always disappointed, because they had expected more than that.
Battle of Sphacteria / Wikimedia Commons
At the same time the misfortunes that had struck them in such numbers, unexpectedly and in such a short time, caused great terror and they were afraid, the Spartans were, that another calamity might against strike them sometime, like the one on the island of Spachteria. For this reason they were less daring in going into battle, and they thought that whatever they undertook would turn out badly, because they had no self confidence as a result of having little previous experience with misfortune. Let me just remind you of the enormous confidence with which they entered the war thinking that it would be no problem at all, all they had to do was walk into Attica, and either the Athenians would come out to fight them as they had done the last time and be destroyed immediately, or they would surrender rather than see their lands destroyed and look to what they had been reduced, not by Pericles’ strategy of exhaustion, but by the rejection of that strategy and the effort at a more aggressive approach.
In the light of results such as these, it is natural to ask why did the enterprises that produced these successes, why did they need to wait until the fifth year of the war? Why didn’t Pericles use them at once? His failure to do so is the most weighty of the charges brought against him, and Delbruck uses much effort and ingenuity to defend him. He is forced to concede, however, that a more aggressive, offensive effort would have been helpful. He believes that the attack Pericles led against Epidaurus in the second year of the war, in 430, was meant to take and hold that city. Quote from Delbruck, “If any such conquest had succeeded, any success in Acarnania, any campaign of devastation, however intensive, any fortification of a coastal spot in Mycenae would disappear in comparison.” Taking Epidaurus, he says, would have threatened the neighboring states near the coast, it might bring peace at once, or at least cool the ardor for war amongst Sparta’s allies.
So, why did Pericles wait and then do so little? Delbruck’s answer is “we do not know.” The failure by so learned, clever, and determined a scholar and by as many other defenders to explain Pericles’ behavior in this way, I think, is a powerful sign that they have taken the wrong path. Pericles did not mean to use any serious offensive measures to wear down the enemy’s ability to fight. His goal, as I have said before, was psychological and intellectual. To convince the Spartans and their allies that victory was impossible, that the Athenians could easily sustain the only damage the enemy could inflict, the ravishing of Attica, and to show to them and the allies that the Athenians could do them considerable harm, if they chose. Athens’ carefully calculated limited offensive efforts were meant to deliver a message without inciting the enemy to fight and to fight harder.
Just as the carefully calculated limited attacks by American forces against North Vietnam, aimed at putting pressure on the enemy, without causing their Chinese supporters to intervene, that kind of strategy calls for very delicate action and very delicate judgment, and of course there’s no guarantee that it would work. The offensive part of Pericles’ plan was deliberately to do little harm. For actions that were too aggressive might anger the enemy and harden his determination. The goal was to depress the enemies’ spirit by showing that there was no way for them to win, to destroy their will to fight. Just a little footnote here, that’s always a critical issue in any strategy that anybody adopts in a war — really, the two fundamental goals and they do not always produce the same strategy. One is to make it impossible for the enemy to fight, to destroy his capacity to fight, if you do that you have certain victory. The other is to destroy his will to fight, and of course if you do that you win, but his will may not be responsive to your approach.
Epidamnus (modern Albania) / Wikimedia Commons
If they could destroy the Spartan will, they could be expected to make a negotiated peace that would return to the status quo before the war, only made more secure by the demonstration that it could not be overthrown by force. That was Pericles’ aim in the war. That strategy failed, as had Pericles’ diplomatic maneuvers in the period leading to war from 433 to 431. When civil war in Epidamnus, a remote town on the fringes of the Greek world, threatened to bring a great war between the Peloponnesian League and the Athenian Empire, Pericles, as I have argued to you, pursued a policy of restrained, limited intervention meant to deter Corinth, Sparta’s important ally without driving the Spartans and all their Peloponnesian allies into a war against Athens. That effort also failed, and resulted in a terrible war that Pericles had wanted to avoid.
Do these great strategic failures fully make the case for Pericles’ critics? Were they the result of cowardice, lack of enterprise and resolution? I think that a fair examination of his performance throughout his life as general suggests otherwise. The charge of personal cowardice is ludicrous, even Pflugk-Harttung concedes that his personal courage operated in battle and in the assembly. No Athenian who led armies and navies in many battles repeatedly setting up trophies of victory could have escaped condemnation, had he shown any sign of cowardice, nor could he have been re-elected general year after year, if that was the picture of him. Nor did he fail to demonstrate boldness and enterprise.
In 446, the very survival of Athens and her empire were threatened. The most menacing rebellions broke out close to home, in Euboea, Megara, and Boeotia. Pericles swiftly took an army to put down the Euboean rebellion, and just as swiftly withdrew on news of the second, which opened the door to a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica. He arrived, you remember, just in time to persuade the Spartans to withdraw and then he returned at once to Euboea to suppress the rebellions there. Again, when the island of Samos launched a dangerous rebellion back in 440, Pericles took personal charge, acting promptly and decisively, and catching the Samian rebels unprepared for his swift reaction, taking them by surprise, ultimately forcing them to surrender by means of a naval blockade.
These expeditions, however, show that Pericles’ frequent caution did not derive chiefly from a temperamental tendency or a character flaw, but from thought and calculation. The main reason he avoided land battles against their Spartan and Peloponnesian allies is because he was certain to lose; the numbers were decisively against him. Yet, he was more careful than were bolder generals. No polis in the Greek world was prodigal with its citizens in battle, and it behooved the general, especially in a democratic state, to keep the casualty lists as low as possible. We need to remember that Athenian generals were not only military leaders but also politicians, who needed to be re-elected to their posts every year. No doubt Pericles sincerely took pride in the prudence and economy of his leadership, but it could not have hurt his political popularity when he boasted to the Athenians what I’ve quoted before that as far as it was in his power they would live forever and be immortals.
Such considerations help explain his cautious performance, and yet there is no evidence to suggest that he was one of those rare military geniuses who belonged in the ranks of Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great, a lesser but still worthy example in our own time, George Patton, who understand the limits of rational calculation and war and the need boldly to seize opportunity when it offers. Pericles was what — a term that was used in the Second World War, a soldier’s general as the PR forces of Omar Bradley attached that title to him. He was no George Patton, or perhaps, even a Bernard Montgomery, who seeks battle only when the odds are very heavily in his favor. He lacked the flair and the boldness of a Cimon, the daring and ruthlessness that seeks victory at any cost.
Pericles’s Other Obstacles
Another element has been suggested to explain the Periclean strategy. Pericles himself, says one critic, was rather an admiral than a general. The Athenian admiralty it was which framed the strategy out the outset of the war, not Pericles the burgermeister, but Pericles the admiral invented the strategy of exhaustion, a strategy which came near to ruining Athens in a couple of years and could never have won the victory. Well, there is some merit in this analysis; the Athenians under Pericles had built a grand strategy that was based on naval power that might seem to suit a maritime empire, whose homeland was an island such as Great Britain, or a power that dominates a continent and is separated from other great powers by two great oceans, like the United States.
Athens’ geographical situation was not so fortunate, for the city was attached to the mainland, offering targets of coercion not available to the enemies of the great Anglo-Saxon countries. Pericles tried to cancel that disadvantage by building the long walls connecting the city to its fortified harbor, thereby in effect turning the city into an island. It was an extraordinary strategy, far ahead of its time, in its reliance on human reason and technology and its rejection of traditional ways of fighting that cost lives and gave the enemy an advantage. At the same time, he abandoned all ideas of further expansion and devised a policy aimed at preserving peace and the status quo that perfectly suited Athenian interests. Such a policy depended for success on an extraordinary amount of rationality on everyone’s part. The Athenians must be content with what they had and abandoned hopes for extension of their power.
There were always the Athenians who objected to that, but while he lived Pericles had the wisdom and the political strength to restrain and control them. What he could not control were the other states and especially the enemy. Unexpected changes and shifts in power are the normal condition of international history. These changes have always taken place, because international relations are guided only partially and spasmodically by rational calculations of material advantage. Always at work as well are greed, ambition, jealousy, resentment, anger, hatred, and Thucydides’ famous triad, fear, honor, and interest. In the world, as it has been, therefore, a state satisfied with its situation and wishing to preserve peace cannot rely on a reason that responds to its reasoned policies, but must anticipate challenges that seem unreasonable. The Spartans and their allies ought to have recognized that they had no realistic strategy to promise victory over Pericles’ reliance on defense and refusal to fight a major land battle.
But resentment and anger at Athenian power and the fear that it might ultimately undermine their own alliance and their security led them to fight. As I find it usual in human history, they were more influenced by the memory of the Athenians’ failure to fight a traditional battle and negotiating a peace in 446 than by the recognition that the new technology in the form of the long walls made it unnecessary for Athens to risk such a battle in the future. To deter a war in such circumstances, which is what Pericles was trying to do, requires some offensive threat to the Peloponnesians, whose menace was great and impossible to underestimate, that would make the fear of immediate consequences of war stronger than all the emotions leading to war, but Pericles had come to think of Athens as an invulnerable island since the acquisition of a fleet, a vast treasury to support it, and defensible walls.
For such a state to adopt a defensive strategy is natural. It had developed a unique and enviable way of fighting that used these advantages, and avoided much of the danger and unpleasantness of ordinary warfare. It allowed the Athenians to concentrate their forces quickly and attack islands and coastal enemies before they were prepared. It had permitted them to strike others without danger to their own city and population. Success in this style of warfare made it seem the only one necessary and defeats with great losses on land made the Athenians reluctant to take risks by fighting on land. Offensive action, in their view, should be taken as a last resort only; only when it was absolutely unavoidable. Pericles carried this approach to its logical conclusion by refusing to use a land army even in defense of the homeland, much less by using it in offensive efforts that might do the enemy serious harm.
The enemy’s passionate refusal to see reason made what might be called the Athenian way of warfare inadequate and Pericles’ strategy a form of wishful thinking that failed. For a state like Athens in 431, satisfied with the situation, capable of keeping the enemy at bay, the temptation to avoid the risks of offensive action is great, but as people often don’t notice, it contains great dangers. It tends to create a rigid way of thinking that leads men to apply a previously successful strategy, or one supported by a general theory to a situation in which it is not appropriate. But it may have other disadvantages as well; its capacity to deter potential enemies from provoking a war is severely limited. Deterrence by standing behind a strong defensive position and thereby depriving the enemy of the chance of victory, assumes a very high degree of rationality and some degree of imagination on the part of the enemy. Spartans invaded Attica in 431. They must have thought they were risking little, even if the Athenians refused to fight, even if they persisted in that refusal for a long time, both of which they thought was unlikely and unnatural.
The Spartans would still be risking little more than time and effort. In any case, their lands and city would be safe. Had the Athenians possessed the capacity to strike where the enemy was vulnerable and had that capacity been obvious to everybody, Pericles’ strategy of deterrence might have been effective. Once the war came, there was no way to win without abandoning the Athenian way of war and the Periclean strategy. As Pericles lay dying in the fall of 429, his strategy was a failure. After three campaigning seasons, the Peloponnesians showed no signs of exhaustion of any kind. On the contrary, they had just lately refused an Athenian offer of peace and fought on with the determination to destroy Athenian power forever. The Athenians, on the other hand, had seen their lands and homes ravaged repeatedly, their crops and trees burnt and destroyed. They were also suffering from the plague which was killing great numbers of them and destroying their moral fiber.
In the anecdote that I quoted at the beginning of this talk, Plutarch speaks of Pericles’ response to the praise of his military prowess, you’ll remember. He expressed astonishment — you know they thought he was sleeping, it turned out he wasn’t. He was hearing what they were saying. He expressed astonishment that they should be praising what was the result of good fortune as much as his own talents, and what many others had accomplished. Instead, he said, they should be praising the finest and the most important of his claims to greatness — that no Athenian now alive has put on mourning clothes because of me. That assertion, the last words of Pericles reported to us, must have astounded his audience, even his friends would have had to admit that his policy had contributed, at least something, to the coming of the war and that his strategy had something to do with the intensity of the destruction caused by the plague.
His final words show deeply how he felt the wounds caused by the widespread accusations hurled against him and his stubborn refusal to admit that he had been wrong in any way. He had applied his great intelligence to his city’s needs, and reason told him that he was not responsible for the results, which he must have believed to be temporary. He must have thought in time his expectations would be fulfilled. If his fellow citizens would have the wisdom and courage to hold to his strategy, they would win out. So he believed and so did his contemporary Thucydides.
More than two millennia later, Clausewitz saw war through very different eyes. I quote him, “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly shapes its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon, its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force. Of the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam and its elements of subordination as an instrument of policy which makes it subject to reason alone. These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them, or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”
Like most generals in history, and unlike its few military geniuses, Pericles saw war as essentially a linear phenomenon subject, as Clausewitz said, to reason alone and too little, in my judgment, did he understand its other aspects; for that he and his people paid a very great price.
Question and Answer
Was Pericles wise to adopt a strategy, no matter how good a strategy it might have been, which he knew the Athenians didn’t like?
No, he wasn’t wise, but that’s I think more because the strategy was faulty, not so much because the Athenians didn’t like it. He had proven over the years, and he proved now in the most delicate of times, that essentially he could get the Athenians to do what he wanted to do, whether in fact they liked it to begin with or not; he persuaded them to do it. So, I don’t think that was really a flaw. The problem was that things went wrong almost immediately and then such terrible things were happening as did shake his power for awhile, but even then he came back into power and still his strategy wasn’t working. I think the problem, therefore — I think you could say he knew what he was doing. He thought he could get away with it and he could have if the strategy had been correct. Yes?
How did ancient writers address Pericles?
They give Pericles credit for being a great general, but they say bad things about Nicias, who was involved in the great defeat in Sicily and yet, Nicias pursued something like the strategy of Pericles, which was avoiding these conflicts. I think the first thing I want to point out is that Thucydides didn’t do that. Not only does Thucydides thoroughly support the strategy of Pericles, he writes an encomium on the death of Nicias that raises him to the level of Pericles or higher in his own estimation. But in the case of Nicias it was, in a way, even worse than what Pericles did because Nicias, first of all, was against the war, against going to Sicily in the first place, then when he was chosen to be general he went, but before he did that, he tried to convince that having lost the vote shall we go.
He then decided to trick the Athenians into not going anyway by saying to them, oh well, if you’re going to go all right, but it’ll be perfectly safe if you just sort of take this — the original fleet was going to have sixty ships period. Well, they ended up having a 130 ships, 5000 hoplites, raising the risk of that thing to the level that finally made it seem like they could lose the war by losing the Sicilian campaign, and he didn’t — the Athenians, instead of saying what he expected, oh no, no if that’s what we have to do, let’s not go, Instead they said, right on, yes you can have everything you ask for Nicias, what would you like, and off they went.
Thereafter, his performance on that expedition is one of somebody, who doesn’t really want to carry out his instructions. What he would have liked to do was, having lost the argument twice now — he went out and did everything he could to avoid confronting any battle in Syracuse and was finally driven to fight at Syracuse, very much against his will and then I could go back and read it, but he screws up the detail of it over and over again, and so I think there are good grounds for condemning him as a general, whereas, the grounds on which Pericles should be criticized, I think, is as a strategist rather than as a commander. Anybody else? Yeah?
Could Athens have won or found peace with Sparta?
I think they could have had a very good chance to come out of the war in the way Pericles hoped they would. If they had pursued the limited aggressive program that was undertaken by Cleon and Demosthenes after the death of Pericles — so, taking Pylos, building a fort at Pylos, taking Cythera, building a fort there, and perhaps even a few other places on the periphery of the Peloponnesus and launching attacks from those places, but not staying to fight the Spartans at any great battle, just causing that to happen. If they had been able to do that for a stretch of time, then the hope that Cleon had that the helots might escape to these forts and ultimately bring about an internal upheaval, which the Spartans panicked might happen, would have led the Spartans to offer peace, and in fact they do.
The Spartans offer peace. You could argue that if the Athenians had simply accepted the Spartan peace offer in 425 the war would have been over and the Athenian Empire would have been intact just the way Pericles wanted it. So, not only could they have done it — and they would have done it, if they had accepted it. They wouldn’t accept victory you could argue, as many a scholar does. The only other point I want to make is after that didn’t happen, and finally a peace was drawn up and signed and in effect in 421, which is another evidence that they could achieve what they wanted by the techniques that were put forward, but after that happened that peace broke down and now the Athenians found themselves part of a new alliance of states, Athenians with three Peloponnesian democracies who produce a big land battle in the Peloponnesus and the Athenians come — I mean, the enemies of Sparta come that close to defeating the Spartan army in the Peloponnesus.
Had they done that, they would have finished Sparta off as a dominant power of the Greeks. So the answer is, they actually had it in their hands a couple of times and on another time they missed by about an inch. Yeah they could have won that way.