1995-05-22: History of the Peloponnesian War

History of the Peloponnesian War (~400 BCE)

by Thucydides (c 460 BCE – 395 BCE)

Thucydides history is of course one of the great achievements of ancient historians, however ill-regarded it may have been in later times. It serves as an example of the sophistication of one ancient mind, and evidently not the only one. Thucydides, and some of those he writes of, had a keen grasp of human nature, something that seems uncommon in our times.

Consider the following fragment from the introduction by M. I. Finley, regarding Thucydides use of speeches (really summaries of speeches) to indicate the policies of the protagonists:

The first man, so far as we know, to suggest that speeches were a problem in historical writing was, surprisingly enough, Thucydides himself. … He went out of his way to distinguish the reporting of speeches from the reporting of actions (I, 22):

I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

There is no way to get around the incompatibility of the two parts of that statement. If all speakers said what, in Thucydides’ opinion, the situation called for, the remark becomes meaningless. But if they did not always say what was called for, then, insofar as Thucydides attributed such sentiments to them, he could not have been ‘keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words used’. It is also worth remembering that he never claimed to make generals, for example, conduct themselves in a manner called for by each situation, as distinct from what they actually did.

I find Finley unaccountably obtuse. He sounds as if he doesn’t recognize the possibility that Thucydides (or anyone else) can recognize that each speaker in a debate experiences a different situation, in the sense that each has different objectives and perceptions. This is a serious failure in a person who presumes to write about history, where the interpretation of people’s situations is the most important factor in understanding their behavior, including their speech and writing. It is certainly not a failure of Thucydides. Certainly each of the speeches in his work is ‘written in the language and style of Thucydides.’ The point is not to show the language and style of each speaker (many of whom are never identified anyway), but the beliefs and desires of the parties they represent. Speech is the clearest way of showing these, less ambiguous than actions, but by no means perfect.

Finley also repeats a criticism of Thucydides selection of speeches, such as the funeral oration by Pericles. (‘Why this particular Funeral Oration?’) Yet I found this particualr oration interesting, at least for its opening words:

‘Many of those who have spoken here in the past have praised the institution of this speech at the close of our ceremony. It seemed to them a mark of honour to our soldiers who have fallen in war that a speech should be made over them. I do not agree. These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action, as you have just seen done at this funeral organized by the state. Our belief in the courage and manliness of so many should not be hazarded on goodness or badness of one man’s speech.’

It seems clear to me that this sentiment echoed into Lincoln’s mind as he prepared his so-similar remarks at Gettysburg.

Another interesting aspect of Thucydides work is the description of the plague of Athens shortly after the war began. Thucydides himself contracted the disease, and describes the symptoms in detail. Furthermore he describes the effect of the plague on the behavior of the Athenians, particularly the breakdown in moral behavior, and the pursuit of personal pleasure at the expense of the public good. The description is similar to descriptions of the effect of the Black Death on medieval Europe (though the actual diseases may have been different).

Following the Athenian success at Pylos in 425BCE, Sparta attempted to negotiate peace, but Athens, influenced by Cleon, rebuffed them. Thucydides says that the Athenians wanted to win even more than they had won already, and paints an unflattering picture of Cleon’s ambitions. Later, Cleon was forced to back up his words with action, and succeeded against all odds. In this section, as in some others, Thucydides shows that the Athenians of the time were so proud of their achievements that they went too far, violating norms of behavior and alienating many other Hellenic peoples. Certainly the Hellenes were a divided people, with each polis competing with others more than cooperating. But it was the Athenians’ ambition that brought on their own defeat.

In the description of the fighting at Megara in 424BCE, as at some other places, Thucydides mentions the main parties in the city, typically a democratic party that wished to ally with Athens, and an oligarchic party that favored Sparta. Seldom are the relative sizes or influence of the parties given, but the the division of a polis’ society into communities with different memes for proper form of government seems to me the right way to address the issues of such a conflict.

In the description of the Civil War in Corcyra 427BCE (p. 242) he spells out a type of behavior that is a perfect illustration of memetics:

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praise-worthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime….

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the time a victory won by treachery  gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the first.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils….

Thucydides description of his own role in the action (commanding a small relief force) is objectively treated, indistinguishable from the mention of many other such forces, except for his identification of himself. (According to the index, two others named Thucydides are mentioned in the work.)

In putting a speech in the mouth of Alcibiades (a banished Athenian in Sparta), Thucydides expresses the following opinion of democracy:

…. If anyone thought the worse of me because I was rather on the side of the people, here again he should see that this was no good reason for being against me. My family has always been opposed to dictators; democracy is the name given to any force that opposes absolute power; and so we have continued to act as the leaders of the common people. Besides, since democracy was the form of government in Athens, it was necessary in most respects to conform to the conditions that prevailed. However in the face of the prevailing political indiscipline, we tried to be more reasonable. There have been people in the past, just as there are now, who used to try to lead the masses in evil ways. It is people of this sort who have banished me. But we were leaders of the State as a whole, and our principles were that we should all join together in preserving the form of government which had been handed down to us under which the city was most great and most free. As for democracy, those of us with any sense at all knew what that meant, and I just as much as any. Indeed, I am well equipped to make an attack on it; but nothing new can be said of a system which is generally recognized as absurd.

For Thucydides, the critical point of the war came when Athens attempted to conquer the Hellenic cities, and other peoples, in Sicily. This practically doubled the cost of the war and the risk to Athens, and defeat there was catastrophic. Indeed, the fact that his work is apparently unfinished, though regrettable, nonetheless leaves no doubt about the eventual outcome. He takes pains (p. 513-515) to catalog the peoples, Ionic and Doric, who fought on both sides in Sicily; this was apparently a kind of tribute to the way this crisis brought many Hellenic peoples together. It is sad that the Hellenic character did not allow similar commonality of purpose in peacetime.

In describing the oligarchic coup that brought Alcibiades back to Athens, Thucydides mentions among the opposition “the priestly families of the Eumolpidae and the Ceryces” protesting on behalf of the mysteries (cults). This was the first I had heard of the family “ownership” of rites in Athens. The oligarchic coup replaced the assembly with rule by a Four Hundred, and nominally a Five Thousand, which never took office:

[Those who wanted a return to democracy] did not go so far as to suggest getting rid of the oligarchy altogether, but they maintained that the Five Thousand should be appointed so that this body could exist in real fact rather than as a mere name, and that the government should be set up on a wider basis. This, in fact, was mere political propaganda: it was for motives of personal ambition that most of them were following the line that is most disastrous to oligarchies when they take over from democracies. For no sooner is the change made than every single man, not content with being the equal of others, regards himself as greatly superior to everyone else. In a democracy, on the other hand, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.

A little later, when the Four Hundred feels the end nearing:

Their [those against the oligarchy] appeal to the crowd was, that everyone should come and help who wanted the Five Thousand to govern instead of the Four Hundred. For they still used the name of the Five Thousand as a cover, and avoided saying straight out ‘whoever wants the people to govern’, since they feared that the Five Thousand might actually exist and that a man might say something to one of them in ignorance, and so get into trouble. This, in fact, was why the Four Hundred did not want the Five Thousand either to exist or to be known to exist: to have so many people sharing power would amount, they thought, to just the same thing as democracy; but to keep up a state of uncertainty on the whole question would have the effect of making people afraid of each other.

I find this analysis very interesting, reflecting considerable sophistication about human nature, and the political realities of democracies, oligarchies, and the realities of revolutionary coup.

By my reading, Thucydides has treated the two sides in the war fairly objectively, no mean feat for one who was native to and fought on the side of one of the combatants. Perhaps his allegiance to Athens was balanced by the punishment he suffered from the city, or other misfortunes he may have suffered as a result of the war. (But it seems unlikely he would have blamed the plague from which he suffered on the policies of Athens.) He takes pains to point out the ill effects of Athens too-ambitious policy in establishing hegemony over her allies, and the motives behind many cities’ revolts against her dominion.

Some critics are unhappy with the fact that Thucydides gives a biased and distorted view of the Peloponnesian War(s), and blame our resulting incomplete knowledge on him! Surely it is not Thucydides fault that no other writer’s words have come down to us to balance his view. I am not even sure that any other writer’s words were known in antiquity. I found great pleasure in reading Thucydides, even while recognizing the distortions and biases.

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