CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 18 - The Peloponnesian War, Part I (cont.)
Chapter 1. Preserving the Thirty Years Peace [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: 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.
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.
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.
Chapter 2. The Pan-hellenic Colony of Thurii [00:10:12]
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.
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 — I forgot what’s the name of the sophist. Protagoras 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.
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.
Chapter 3. Testing the Peace [00:22:05]
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.
We are told later on in Thucydides that at some time, and he doesn’t date it, the island of Mitilini, 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.
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.
Chapter 4. Civil War at Epidamnus and the Question of Honor [00:38:30]
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.
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. One of — yeah 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 that taking a certain action — I’m sorry, 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 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.
Chapter 5. Athens Votes on a Defensive Alliance [01:12:18]
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.
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, and I see that I have run over my time. So I’ll pick up the tale next time.
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