CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Lecture 19

 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II


In this lecture, Professor Kagan focuses on the causes of the Peloponnesian War and the possible motivations for Thucydides’ book, The History of the Peloponnesian War. Concerning the first point, Professor Kagan parts ways with Thucydides and argues that the war was not inevitable and that the Athenians under Pericles followed a policy of deterrence, which was aimed at peace. Similarly, he points out that there were a number of Spartans who did not want war as well. Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, war broke out due to a number of factors that were avoidable. Concerning the second point, Professor Kagan argues that Thucydides was a revisionist historian. In other words, Thucydides was writing not as a disinterested historian, but as a historian with a point to make, namely, that the war was inevitable and that Athens was only a democracy in name under Pericles. Finally, Professor Kagan acknowledges that his two points are debatable.

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Introduction to Ancient Greek History

CLCV 205 - Lecture 19 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II

Chapter 1. Lead Up to the War: Corcyra and Potidaea [00:00:00]

Professor Donald Kagan: 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.

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.

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.

Chapter 2. Lead Up to the War: The Megarian Decree [00:12:17]

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?

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.

Chapter 3. The Spartan Assembly Votes and the Course of War Is Set [00:20:08]

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 thegerousiaephors, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Chapter 4. The Start of the War [00:36:33]

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?

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.

Chapter 5. Thucydides as Revisionist Historian [00:50:02]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Next time we’ll talk about the strategy in the war.

[end of transcript]

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