CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Lecture 20

 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II (cont.)


In this lecture, Professor Kagan examines Pericles as a general. First, he describes Pericles’ strategy of war and then he evaluates this strategy. According to Professor Kagan, Pericles’ strategy was characterized by being both defensive and rational. It was defensive, because the Athenians did not engage the Spartans in a traditional hoplite battle, and it was rational, because Pericles assumed that the Spartans would cease fighting when they realized that the Athenians did not have to fight a land battle, since they had a walled city and a navy. On its surface, this strategy seems reasonable, but Professor Kagan points out that there were two flaws. First, the Athenians did not have an offensive plan: that is, a plan to deter the Spartans from quitting the war. Second, Pericles failed to realize that war is not always rational.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

CLCV 205 - Lecture 20 - The Peloponnesian War, Part II (cont.)

Chapter 1. Pericles and His Strategy [00:00:00]

Professor Donald Kagan: Why aren’t you all home like the rest of the class? My subject today is Pericles as general. I don’t expect that it will take up all our time. So, if you like when I’m through I’d be glad to respond to any questions or comments that you want to make about the Peloponnesian War. So, if you think of any as I’m talking, I hope you’ll have a shot at it.

Near the end of his biography of Pericles, Plutarch describes this great Athenian leader on his death bed. The best men of Athens and his personal friends are gathered in his room and are discussing the greatness of his virtues and the power he held. Thinking he was asleep, they added up his achievements and the number of his trophies, for as general he had set up nine commemorating a victory on behalf of the city.

Now, we are inclined to think of Pericles primarily as a great political leader, a brilliant orator, a patron of the arts and sciences, the man whose work in the peaceful arts shaped what is often called the Golden Age of Athens. So, it’s useful for us to remember that the office to which the people elected him almost every year for some thirty years, from which he carried on all of these activities, was that of strategos, a general and that foremost responsibility of Athenian generals was to lead armies and navies into battle. From his own time until modern times, Pericles’ talents as a general have been criticized and defended. In the first year of the Peloponnesian War, when his strategy called for the Athenians to huddle behind the walls of their city while the invading Peloponnesian army ravaged their lands in Attica, Thucydides says the city was angry with Pericles. They abused him, because as their general he did not lead them out into battle and they held him responsible for all they were suffering.

In the next year, after another invasion and destruction of their crops and farms, and after a terrible plague had struck the city, again, Thucydides says they blamed Pericles for persuading them to go to war and they held him responsible for their misfortunes. At a lower level, the poet Hermippus, one of the comic poets whose work we don’t have but occasionally we have a quotation and here’s one. Hermippus presented one of his comedies in the spring of 430, the second year of the war, that simply charged Pericles with cowardice. He addresses Pericles as follows: “King of the satyrs, why don’t you ever lift a spear but instead only use dreadful words to wage the war, assuming the character of the cowardly Telius. But if a little knife is sharpened on a wet stone you roar as though bitten by the fierce Cleon.”

Cleon, as you know, was his major opponent in the last years of his life and Cleon was hawkish and an advocate of aggressive active fighting. Now, the title of this talk, Pericles as General, is also the name of the most vehement modern attack on Pericles as a general. I say modern, of course, I’m talking about the nineteenth century. When you’re an ancient historian things take on those proportions. The author, Dr. Julius von Pflugk-Harttung, was a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war and an appreciative student of what he took to be the lessons taught by the great military historian and theorist Clausewitz. He believed that he had acquired some useful knowledge of the science of war, as he put it, that led him vigorously and entirely to condemn Pericles’ generalship, and Pericles’ conduct of the Peloponnesian War.

He says that we see expeditions without inner unity, without the possibility of greater results, and I’m quoting Pflugk-Harttung now. “To avoid danger, Pericles regularly gave away important advantages. Overall, we find the effort to lose no battle but nowhere to win one. As much as Pericles’ personal courage operated in battle and in the assembly, so little did he have of the courage proper to a general, which boldly risks the life of thousands at the decisive moment. As such, he belongs to those when they say a philosophical group which brings everything as neatly as possible into the system and plan, instead of acting openly and vigorously. It is a fact that Pericles, the chief advocate of the anti-Spartan policy never offered a single battle against the Spartans.”

At the higher level of strategy, the critique of Pericles is no less severe. “Pericles was a good minister of war who made farsighted preparations, but as general, he did not know how to make good use of the existing situation.” Again I quote, “He was a great burgermeister,” this means mayor. It was not a very friendly thing to call the great general who led Athens. “He was a burgermeister in the true sense of the word; there is the rich many sidedness of his nature which was then by that which came into play. His superiority to corruption, everything petty and paltry, yet he lacked the prophet’s vision and the certain luck of the borne statesman. Above all, he lacked the recklessness which is often needed to lead what has begun to the goal. As the leader of foreign policy he was not comparable to a Themistocles, as a general not even approximately to a Cimon.”

So, that’s the harshest of the critics of Pericles over the years, but Pericles has been very lucky over the years in his defenders. In antiquity, his performance was justified and praised by Thucydides, who was after all a contemporary, a general himself, and the historian of the period whose interpretations have dominated opinion ever since he wrote. For all the objectivity of Thucydides’ styles, he tells the story very much from Pericles’ viewpoint. For instance, when he describes the revolt against the Athenian leader in the second year of the war, and the Athenians’ unsuccessful effort to make peace, this is how he describes the aftermath.

“Being totally at a loss as to what to do, they — the Athenian people — attack Pericles, and when he saw that they were exasperated and doing everything as he had anticipated, he called an assembly, since he was still general; he wanted to put confidence into them and leading them away from their anger to restore their calm and their courage.” He reports three of Pericles, that is to say Thucydides does, reports three of Pericles’ speeches at length without reporting any of the speeches made by his opponents on those occasions, with the result that the reader is made to see the situation through Pericles’ eyes. Finally, he makes his own judgment perfectly clear; coming down firmly and powerfully on the side of Pericles and against all of his critics.

Here’s what Thucydides says, “As long as he led the state in peace time he kept to a moderate policy and kept it safe. It was under his leadership that Athens reached her greatest heights, and when the war came and it appears that he also judged its power correctly. Pericles lived for two years and six months after the war began, and after his death his foresight about the war was acknowledged still more. For he had said that if the Athenians stayed on the defensive, maintained their navy, and did not try to expand their empire in wartime thereby endangering the state, they would win out. But they acted opposite to his advice in every way, and when their efforts failed they harmed the state’s conduct of the war.”

Now, in spite of his successor’s departure from his strategy and the disasters that resulted in spite of the entry of the Persian Empire into the enemy ranks, the Athenians held out for ten years after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition and for twenty-seven years with interruption altogether. Here’s Thucydides final word on this subject, “So more than abundant was Pericles’ reasons for his own predictions that Athens would have won in a war against the Peloponnesians alone.” Thucydides makes it absolutely clear; Pericles was right in the strategy that he had adopted, and if the Athenians had stuck to it they would have won the war. Plutarch accepted Thucydides’ judgment and added further defense against the charges of cowardice and lack of enterprise that his enemies were launching against Pericles.

To Plutarch, the actions that provoked such accusations instead revealed prudence, moderation, and a desire to protect the safety of Athenian soldiers. In 454, we’re back now in the first Peloponnesian War, Pericles led a seaborne expedition into the Corinthian Gulf. Thucydides merely reports that he defeated the Sicyonians in battle and ravaged the territory and besieged the important city of Oeniada, though he failed to take it and then sailed home. Obviously, answering later criticism, Plutarch concludes his account of these events by saying that Pericles returned to Athens, and now I quote him, “Having showed himself to be formidable to the enemy but a safe and effective commander to his fellow citizens, for no misfortune struck the men on the expedition.”

In 437, he sailed into the Black Sea on a mission of imperial consolidation that amounted to little more than showing the flag to the local barbarians. An action that was too insignificant to be even noticed by Thucydides, but Plutarch does not miss the chance to meet the criticism that had been directed against his hero. On this campaign, according to Plutarch, Pericles displayed the magnitude of his forces and the fearlessness and confident courage with which they sailed wherever they liked and placed the entire sea under their power. In 446, when Boeotia was in rebellion, the bold and ambitious General Tolmides convinced the assembly to send him at the head of an army to put down the uprising.

Plutarch reports that Pericles tried to restrain and to persuade him to end the assembly, making his famous remark that if he would not listen to Pericles he would not go wrong in waiting for time, the wisest counselor, but Tolmides didn’t listen and he went, and the result was a disaster. The Athenians suffered many casualties, Tolmides was killed, and Boeotia was lost. Plutarch’s comment is that this incident brought great fame and goodwill to Pericles as a man of prudence and patriotism. Later in the same year, rebellion broke out in Euboea and Megara revolted opening the road for a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica. Pericles, on this occasion had no choice; he led an Athenian army out to meet the invading army, but instead of fighting a battle he convinced the Spartans to withdraw and then to negotiate a peace.

In retrospect, no doubt, his critics accused him of missing a chance for victory in the field. Thucydides reports the Peloponnesian withdrawal without comment or explanation. But Plutarch uses this action to respond in almost poetic language to later charges that accompany the Peloponnesian invasion in 431. Reporting that his enemies, Pericles’ enemies, threatened and denounced him and choruses sang mocking songs to his shame, and insulted his generalship for its cowardice and for abandoning everything to the enemy. The Peloponnesians, Plutarch tells us, expected the Athenians to fight out of anger and pride. But to Pericles, it appeared terrible to fight a battle against 60,000 Peloponnesian and Boeotian hoplites, for that was the number of those who made the first invasion. I’m still quoting Plutarch, and to stake the city itself on the outcome.

He reports Pericles’ calming language to the excited Athenians in 431 saying that trees, though cut and lopped, grew quickly, but if men were destroyed it was not easy to get them back again. Here he turned to the charges of cowardice and lack of enterprise and he turned them on their heads and did so more fully in a passage that sums up his view of Pericles’ generalship, and I’ll read it to you. “In his generalship he was especially famous for his caution. He never willingly undertook a battle that involved great risk or uncertainty, nor did he envy or emulate those who took great risks with brilliant success and were admired as great generals. He always said to his fellow citizens that as far as it was in his power, they would live forever and be immortals.”

Chapter 2. Modern Scholars’ Views on Pericles [00:16:27]

Of the many modern scholars who have been persuaded by this view, none has argued more forcefully in favor of Pericles’ generalship than Hans Delbruck, perhaps the most renowned military historian of his day, and still a respected figure in that field. He and Pflugk-Harttung were contemporaries, they lived in — well, they did their writing on this subject in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Annoyed by the critiques rather, lately leveled at Pericles and especially by Pflugk-Harttung, he wrote a thorough defense in 1890 under the title, The Generalship of Pericles Explained Through the Generalship of Frederick the Great.

His main effort and at work is to justify Pericles’ conduct of the war that began in 431, the subject of the greatest criticism leveled at the Athenian general. Pericles’ strategy did not aim at defeating the Spartans in battle, but was meant to convince them that war against Athens was futile. His strategic goals, therefore, were entirely defensive. He told the Athenians that if they would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and so putting their city in danger, they would prevail. The Athenians were to reject battle on land, abandon their fields and homes in the country to Spartan devastation, and retreat behind their walls. Meanwhile, their navy would launch a series of commando raids on the coast of the Peloponnesus.

This strategy would continue until the frustrated enemy was prepared to make peace. The naval raids and landings were not meant to do serious harm, but merely to annoy the enemy and to suggest how much damage the Athenians could do, if they chose. The strategy was not to exhaust the Peloponnesians physically or materially, but psychologically. No such strategy had ever been attempted in Greek history, for no state before the coming of the Athenian imperial democracy ever had the means for trying such a strategy. To do so was not easy. For this unprecedented strategy ran directly across the grain, as you know, of Greek tradition. Willingness to fight, bravery, and steadfastness in battle, became the essential characteristics of the free man and the citizen. Pericles’ strategy of passivity, therefore, ran counter to the teachings of the Greek tradition.

But most Athenians were farmers, whose lands and homes were outside the walls. The Periclean strategy required them to look on idly while their houses, crops, and vines, and olive trees were damaged or entirely destroyed. In the face of these facts, as well as of the power of tradition, and the cultural values of the Greeks, it is hard to understand even in retrospect how Pericles could convince the Athenians to adopt his strategy. Delbruck keenly aware of Athens’ numerical inferiority on land was convinced of the soundness of Pericles’ approach.

Here’s what Delbruck wrote, “The structure of the Peloponnesian War obliges us to give him a position not simply among the great statesmen, but also among the great military leaders of world history. It is not his war plan as such that bestows this right on him, for the fame of the commander is gained not by word but by deed, but rather the gigantic power of decision that accompanied it. Not to halt with a half measure but to plunge in whole heartedly and to give up completely what had to be sacrificed — the entire Attic countryside. In addition, the strength of personal authority that was able to make such a decision understandable to a democratic national assembly and to gain their approval. The execution of this decision is a strategic deed that can be compared favorably with any victory.”

Take that, critics. Delbruck was pulling no punches and if you said he was a bum I say he was the greatest. Delbruck tries to bolster his case by comparing Pericles with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in the eighteenth century. During the Seven Years’ War Frederick applied what Delbruck calls a strategy of exhaustion; instead of the strategy of annihilation in which one army seeks out the other to bring it to decisive battle with the goal of destroying its nation’s ability to resist. Such a strategy is sometimes adopted by or forced upon the weaker side in a conflict, because no other choice promises success. In the twentieth century, the North Vietnamese communists used it with success against the United States. Superior fire power brought the Americans victory in set battles, but was not so effective in dealing with various forms of guerilla warfare. The communists, therefore, usually avoided battles throughout the war. Continuing warfare over years without a decisive result fed division and discontent in America and ultimately exhausted the American will to fight.

In the Second Punic War, Rome repeatedly suffered crushing defeats in battle at the hands of Hannibal. The Romans, therefore, chose the tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus, avoiding battle, harassing the enemy with guerilla warfare, until they grew stronger and he, far from home and cut off from it by sea, grew weaker and was compelled to withdraw. Pericles’ strategy, however, was unlike these strategies in many ways. Unlike the Vietnamese communists and the Romans, he never attempted a set battle on land. The Vietnamese wore down America’s resolve by inflicting casualties on their forces. The Romans avoided battle only so long as they had to. Their ultimate aim was to defeat the enemy in standard battles, which finally they did in Italy, Spain, and Africa.

Delbruck’s comparison with Frederick’s strategy seems to me no less faulty. The Prussian Monarch was driven to it by combat losses in set battles fought over two years and by the absence of any alternative. He needed to avoid battle to survive. Only good fortune, not calculated war plans could save him. Britain came to his aid with financial assistance and then the most incalculable of all things happened, the death of the Russian Empress who was a great fan, who was hostile to Frederick broke up the coalition of his enemies allowing him to escape from the war unbeaten; she was succeeded by a czar who loved Frederick the Great and thereby saved his neck.

The situation confronting Pericles was entirely different from these cases. No helpful allies stood in the wings and no fortunate accident came to divide his opponents. Since he avoided all fighting on land against the Spartans, he inflicted no casualties, as the Vietnamese and the Romans did. They and Frederick moreover, aimed finally at fighting and winning battles when the odds were in their favor. The core of Pericles’ plan, however, was to avoid all land battles to show that the Peloponnesians could do Athens no serious harm and to exhaust them psychologically, to make them see reason and understand that their efforts were futile and could not bring them victory. His plan did not work. The element of chance, the unexpected and incalculable intervened against Pericles and against Athens in the form of the terrible plague that ultimately killed a third of the Athenian population.

Chapter 3. Criticism of Pericles as a Military Leader [00:26:04]

Of course, all this encouraged the Peloponnesians who refused to be discouraged and continued to fight. When Pericles died in 429 the Athenian treasury was running dry, his plan lay in ruins, and there was no prospect for victory. Only when his successors turned to a more aggressive strategy did the Athenians level the playing field and achieve a position, which allowed them to hold out for twenty-seven years, and indeed on more than one occasion, almost brought victory. So, it’s not surprising that Pericles’ strategy in the Peloponnesian War has brought criticism that raises questions about his capacity as a military leader, even from sober and friendly scholars. Georg Busolt, a very distinguished German historian, regarded his strategy as fundamentally right, but even he thought that it was somewhat one-sided and doctrinaire, and in its execution it was lacking an energetic procedure and in the spirit of enterprise; that’s from a very good friend.

Hermann Bengston, as you can see, the Germans have dominated this entire field of discussion, defends the plan against its critics, but concedes that the carrying out of the offensive part of the plan appears to modern viewers as not very energetic and resolute; I’ll say. Their influence no doubt, these critics are, by the knowledge that Pericles’ successors took some actions that did not risk significant land battles or numerous casualties, and yet produced important successes. In the spring of 425, the brilliant and daring general Demosthenes, conceived and executed a plan to seize and fortify the promontory of Pylos at the southwestern tip of the Peloponnesus. From there, the Athenians could launch raids at will and encourage the escape or rebellion of the helots, Sparta’s enslaved population. His success panicked the Spartans who allowed several hundred of their troops to be trapped and captured on the Island of Sphacteria, just off Pylos.

He immediately proposed a peace, which the Athenians then refused. Later in the same spring, the Athenians seized and garrisoned the Island of Cythera just off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnesus, and immediately they began to launch raids against the mainland. Thucydides reports that the Spartans suffered what I think of as pretty much a nervous breakdown.

Here’s the account Thucydides gives, “The Spartans sent garrisons here and there throughout the country, deciding the number of hoplites by what seemed necessary at each place. In other respects, they were very much on guard for fear that there would be a revolution against the established order, and from every direction a war rose up around them which was swift and defied precaution. In military affairs they now became more timid than ever before since they were involved in a naval contest outside their normal conceptions of preparation for war, and in this unaccustomed area they fought against the Athenians to whom the omission of an enterprise was always a loss in respect to what they had expected to achieve.” In other words, whatever victories the Athenians won, however great, they were always disappointed, because they had expected more than that.

At the same time the misfortunes that had struck them in such numbers, unexpectedly and in such a short time, caused great terror and they were afraid, the Spartans were, that another calamity might against strike them sometime, like the one on the island of Spachteria. For this reason they were less daring in going into battle, and they thought that whatever they undertook would turn out badly, because they had no self confidence as a result of having little previous experience with misfortune. Let me just remind you of the enormous confidence with which they entered the war thinking that it would be no problem at all, all they had to do was walk into Attica, and either the Athenians would come out to fight them as they had done the last time and be destroyed immediately, or they would surrender rather than see their lands destroyed and look to what they had been reduced, not by Pericles’ strategy of exhaustion, but by the rejection of that strategy and the effort at a more aggressive approach.

In the light of results such as these, it is natural to ask why did the enterprises that produced these successes, why did they need to wait until the fifth year of the war? Why didn’t Pericles use them at once? His failure to do so is the most weighty of the charges brought against him, and Delbruck uses much effort and ingenuity to defend him. He is forced to concede, however, that a more aggressive, offensive effort would have been helpful. He believes that the attack Pericles led against Epidaurus in the second year of the war, in 430, was meant to take and hold that city. Quote from Delbruck, “If any such conquest had succeeded, any success in Acarnania, any campaign of devastation, however intensive, any fortification of a coastal spot in Mycenae would disappear in comparison.” Taking Epidaurus, he says, would have threatened the neighboring states near the coast, it might bring peace at once, or at least cool the ardor for war amongst Sparta’s allies.

So, why did Pericles wait and then do so little? Delbruck’s answer is “we do not know.” The failure by so learned, clever, and determined a scholar and by as many other defenders to explain Pericles’ behavior in this way, I think, is a powerful sign that they have taken the wrong path. Pericles did not mean to use any serious offensive measures to wear down the enemy’s ability to fight. His goal, as I have said before, was psychological and intellectual. To convince the Spartans and their allies that victory was impossible, that the Athenians could easily sustain the only damage the enemy could inflict, the ravishing of Attica, and to show to them and the allies that the Athenians could do them considerable harm, if they chose. Athens’ carefully calculated limited offensive efforts were meant to deliver a message without inciting the enemy to fight and to fight harder.

Just as the carefully calculated limited attacks by American forces against North Vietnam, aimed at putting pressure on the enemy, without causing their Chinese supporters to intervene, that kind of strategy calls for very delicate action and very delicate judgment, and of course there’s no guarantee that it would work. The offensive part of Pericles’ plan was deliberately to do little harm. For actions that were too aggressive might anger the enemy and harden his determination. The goal was to depress the enemies’ spirit by showing that there was no way for them to win, to destroy their will to fight. Just a little footnote here, that’s always a critical issue in any strategy that anybody adopts in a war — really, the two fundamental goals and they do not always produce the same strategy. One is to make it impossible for the enemy to fight, to destroy his capacity to fight, if you do that you have certain victory. The other is to destroy his will to fight, and of course if you do that you win, but his will may not be responsive to your approach.

If they could destroy the Spartan will, they could be expected to make a negotiated peace that would return to the status quo before the war, only made more secure by the demonstration that it could not be overthrown by force. That was Pericles’ aim in the war. That strategy failed, as had Pericles’ diplomatic maneuvers in the period leading to war from 433 to 431. When civil war in Epidamnus, a remote town on the fringes of the Greek world, threatened to bring a great war between the Peloponnesian League and the Athenian Empire, Pericles, as I have argued to you, pursued a policy of restrained, limited intervention meant to deter Corinth, Sparta’s important ally without driving the Spartans and all their Peloponnesian allies into a war against Athens. That effort also failed, and resulted in a terrible war that Pericles had wanted to avoid.

Do these great strategic failures fully make the case for Pericles’ critics? Were they the result of cowardice, lack of enterprise and resolution? I think that a fair examination of his performance throughout his life as general suggests otherwise. The charge of personal cowardice is ludicrous, even Pflugk-Harttung concedes that his personal courage operated in battle and in the assembly. No Athenian who led armies and navies in many battles repeatedly setting up trophies of victory could have escaped condemnation, had he shown any sign of cowardice, nor could he have been re-elected general year after year, if that was the picture of him. Nor did he fail to demonstrate boldness and enterprise.

In 446, the very survival of Athens and her empire were threatened. The most menacing rebellions broke out close to home, in Euboea, Megara, and Boeotia. Pericles swiftly took an army to put down the Euboean rebellion, and just as swiftly withdrew on news of the second, which opened the door to a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica. He arrived, you remember, just in time to persuade the Spartans to withdraw and then he returned at once to Euboea to suppress the rebellions there. Again, when the island of Samos launched a dangerous rebellion back in 440, Pericles took personal charge, acting promptly and decisively, and catching the Samian rebels unprepared for his swift reaction, taking them by surprise, ultimately forcing them to surrender by means of a naval blockade.

These expeditions, however, show that Pericles’ frequent caution did not derive chiefly from a temperamental tendency or a character flaw, but from thought and calculation. The main reason he avoided land battles against their Spartan and Peloponnesian allies is because he was certain to lose; the numbers were decisively against him. Yet, he was more careful than were bolder generals. No polis in the Greek world was prodigal with its citizens in battle, and it behooved the general, especially in a democratic state, to keep the casualty lists as low as possible. We need to remember that Athenian generals were not only military leaders but also politicians, who needed to be re-elected to their posts every year. No doubt Pericles sincerely took pride in the prudence and economy of his leadership, but it could not have hurt his political popularity when he boasted to the Athenians what I’ve quoted before that as far as it was in his power they would live forever and be immortals.

Such considerations help explain his cautious performance, and yet there is no evidence to suggest that he was one of those rare military geniuses who belonged in the ranks of Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great, a lesser but still worthy example in our own time, George Patton, who understand the limits of rational calculation and war and the need boldly to seize opportunity when it offers. Pericles was what — a term that was used in the Second World War, a soldier’s general as the PR forces of Omar Bradley attached that title to him. He was no George Patton, or perhaps, even a Bernard Montgomery, who seeks battle only when the odds are very heavily in his favor. He lacked the flair and the boldness of a Cimon, the daring and ruthlessness that seeks victory at any cost.

Chapter 4. Pericles’s Other Obstacles [00:40:54]

Another element has been suggested to explain the Periclean strategy. Pericles himself, says one critic, was rather an admiral than a general. The Athenian admiralty it was which framed the strategy out the outset of the war, not Pericles the burgermeister, but Pericles the admiral invented the strategy of exhaustion, a strategy which came near to ruining Athens in a couple of years and could never have won the victory. Well, there is some merit in this analysis; the Athenians under Pericles had built a grand strategy that was based on naval power that might seem to suit a maritime empire, whose homeland was an island such as Great Britain, or a power that dominates a continent and is separated from other great powers by two great oceans, like the United States.

Athens’ geographical situation was not so fortunate, for the city was attached to the mainland, offering targets of coercion not available to the enemies of the great Anglo-Saxon countries. Pericles tried to cancel that disadvantage by building the long walls connecting the city to its fortified harbor, thereby in effect turning the city into an island. It was an extraordinary strategy, far ahead of its time, in its reliance on human reason and technology and its rejection of traditional ways of fighting that cost lives and gave the enemy an advantage. At the same time, he abandoned all ideas of further expansion and devised a policy aimed at preserving peace and the status quo that perfectly suited Athenian interests. Such a policy depended for success on an extraordinary amount of rationality on everyone’s part. The Athenians must be content with what they had and abandoned hopes for extension of their power.

There were always the Athenians who objected to that, but while he lived Pericles had the wisdom and the political strength to restrain and control them. What he could not control were the other states and especially the enemy. Unexpected changes and shifts in power are the normal condition of international history. These changes have always taken place, because international relations are guided only partially and spasmodically by rational calculations of material advantage. Always at work as well are greed, ambition, jealousy, resentment, anger, hatred, and Thucydides’ famous triad, fear, honor, and interest. In the world, as it has been, therefore, a state satisfied with its situation and wishing to preserve peace cannot rely on a reason that responds to its reasoned policies, but must anticipate challenges that seem unreasonable. The Spartans and their allies ought to have recognized that they had no realistic strategy to promise victory over Pericles’ reliance on defense and refusal to fight a major land battle.

But resentment and anger at Athenian power and the fear that it might ultimately undermine their own alliance and their security led them to fight. As I find it usual in human history, they were more influenced by the memory of the Athenians’ failure to fight a traditional battle and negotiating a peace in 446 than by the recognition that the new technology in the form of the long walls made it unnecessary for Athens to risk such a battle in the future. To deter a war in such circumstances, which is what Pericles was trying to do, requires some offensive threat to the Peloponnesians, whose menace was great and impossible to underestimate, that would make the fear of immediate consequences of war stronger than all the emotions leading to war, but Pericles had come to think of Athens as an invulnerable island since the acquisition of a fleet, a vast treasury to support it, and defensible walls.

For such a state to adopt a defensive strategy is natural. It had developed a unique and enviable way of fighting that used these advantages, and avoided much of the danger and unpleasantness of ordinary warfare. It allowed the Athenians to concentrate their forces quickly and attack islands and coastal enemies before they were prepared. It had permitted them to strike others without danger to their own city and population. Success in this style of warfare made it seem the only one necessary and defeats with great losses on land made the Athenians reluctant to take risks by fighting on land. Offensive action, in their view, should be taken as a last resort only; only when it was absolutely unavoidable. Pericles carried this approach to its logical conclusion by refusing to use a land army even in defense of the homeland, much less by using it in offensive efforts that might do the enemy serious harm.

The enemy’s passionate refusal to see reason made what might be called the Athenian way of warfare inadequate and Pericles’ strategy a form of wishful thinking that failed. For a state like Athens in 431, satisfied with the situation, capable of keeping the enemy at bay, the temptation to avoid the risks of offensive action is great, but as people often don’t notice, it contains great dangers. It tends to create a rigid way of thinking that leads men to apply a previously successful strategy, or one supported by a general theory to a situation in which it is not appropriate. But it may have other disadvantages as well; its capacity to deter potential enemies from provoking a war is severely limited. Deterrence by standing behind a strong defensive position and thereby depriving the enemy of the chance of victory, assumes a very high degree of rationality and some degree of imagination on the part of the enemy. Spartans invaded Attica in 431. They must have thought they were risking little, even if the Athenians refused to fight, even if they persisted in that refusal for a long time, both of which they thought was unlikely and unnatural.

The Spartans would still be risking little more than time and effort. In any case, their lands and city would be safe. Had the Athenians possessed the capacity to strike where the enemy was vulnerable and had that capacity been obvious to everybody, Pericles’ strategy of deterrence might have been effective. Once the war came, there was no way to win without abandoning the Athenian way of war and the Periclean strategy. As Pericles lay dying in the fall of 429, his strategy was a failure. After three campaigning seasons, the Peloponnesians showed no signs of exhaustion of any kind. On the contrary, they had just lately refused an Athenian offer of peace and fought on with the determination to destroy Athenian power forever. The Athenians, on the other hand, had seen their lands and homes ravaged repeatedly, their crops and trees burnt and destroyed. They were also suffering from the plague which was killing great numbers of them and destroying their moral fiber.

In the anecdote that I quoted at the beginning of this talk, Plutarch speaks of Pericles’ response to the praise of his military prowess, you’ll remember. He expressed astonishment — you know they thought he was sleeping, it turned out he wasn’t. He was hearing what they were saying. He expressed astonishment that they should be praising what was the result of good fortune as much as his own talents, and what many others had accomplished. Instead, he said, they should be praising the finest and the most important of his claims to greatness — that no Athenian now alive has put on mourning clothes because of me. That assertion, the last words of Pericles reported to us, must have astounded his audience, even his friends would have had to admit that his policy had contributed, at least something, to the coming of the war and that his strategy had something to do with the intensity of the destruction caused by the plague.

His final words show deeply how he felt the wounds caused by the widespread accusations hurled against him and his stubborn refusal to admit that he had been wrong in any way. He had applied his great intelligence to his city’s needs, and reason told him that he was not responsible for the results, which he must have believed to be temporary. He must have thought in time his expectations would be fulfilled. If his fellow citizens would have the wisdom and courage to hold to his strategy, they would win out. So he believed and so did his contemporary Thucydides.

More than two millennia later, Clausewitz saw war through very different eyes. I quote him, “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly shapes its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon, its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force. Of the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam and its elements of subordination as an instrument of policy which makes it subject to reason alone. These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them, or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”

Like most generals in history, and unlike its few military geniuses, Pericles saw war as essentially a linear phenomenon subject, as Clausewitz said, to reason alone and too little, in my judgment, did he understand its other aspects; for that he and his people paid a very great price.

Chapter 5. Question and Answer [00:53:47]

Okay, well, we do have some time and I’d be very glad to hear any questions or comments that any of you’d like to make. After all we only have a twenty-seven year war and we’ve got twenty minutes to talk about it, no problem. Anybody have anything to say? Yes?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: That’s a fairly long story but I think the best answer I can give is the one I gave last time when I spoke about Thucydides’ reasons for writing the story that he did. He had been a supporter of Pericles and things hadn’t worked out well. The state had gone a direction very different from the one that he favored, including a strategy that was the opposite of Pericles. The average guy in the street, who was a guy that he didn’t approve of very much, thought wrongly, he believed, that Pericles had been dead wrong. It was Pericles’ fault they went to war, it was Pericles’ fault they lost the war, and Thucydides associated himself, I think, with Pericles and his approach to things, and so he had to make the case, that he believed the case that he made.

I mean, it’s very important to realize that. And Plutarch, coming many centuries later, like everybody, who has ever spoken about the Peloponnesian War, once Thucydides had written, was powerfully influenced by Thucydides. I think just about everybody who has ever considered the war has come away pretty much with Thucydides’ judgment of these things. So, I think that’s the answer to that.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: The question is, “can I think of any modern generals who did use Pericles’ approach as a model.” I think the answer is not anybody — well yeah, General McClellan in the Civil War and it was a very analogous situation. McClellan did not want to fight Lee’s army. He wasn’t all that crazy about the anti-slavery stuff anyway, but apart from that, he didn’t want to pay the price, which was a tremendous price fighting the Civil War and so he wanted to avoid battle and pretty much Lincoln couldn’t get him to fight. So, that’s one example. Now, the next thing I would offer you as something to chew on at least — it is not identical, it’s only similar.

I think the strategy undertaken by the Secretary of Defense in the current administration in launching the attacks on Afghanistan and on Persia — I mean Iraq. I got Greeks on my mind; I have to fight Persians. Iraq reflected an aspect of it. They were both, for reasons I don’t have to explain to you, desperately eager to reduce casualties to a minimum and they were desperately eager to choose an approach that would limit the time that the war lasted, because of the political situation in the last decades in American history and they had an advantage technologically that seemed to make that possible — America’s fantastic advantage in fire power, the capacity to deliver the fire power at a distance with very little risk to the deliverers, with the notion of doing tremendous harm when it got there, but I don’t know if any of you remember any of this, some of you were too young to even think about it I guess. Originally, remember — what was that phrase that they had, what was that great strategy we were going to use by bombing the hell out of the Iraqi’s? Shock and awe; it was the same thing. Shock and awe was meant to say oh my God this is going to happen to us and we quit, was what they had in mind.

They deliberately chose not to have ground forces that would have been capable of doing the kinds of things that it turns out you need to do to be successful in these wars just like other wars. So, when it happened that it was clear things were not working out, according to their plan, they stubbornly clung to that plan, even as the evidence was that it wasn’t going to work. So, that would be a candidate I suggest. Yes?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: Yeah, the question is, “do I think that recent Athenian history or the structure — you mean the democratic society — the democracy had anything to do with the adoption of this plan?” Perhaps. You’re absolutely right; there must have been a very clear and painful memory of what happened to Tolmides, when he invaded Boeotia. There were very, very heavy casualties there for the Athenians. That’s the only one in which they did have a lot, but they did have those and they were unusual. So, it may have persuaded Pericles that the Athenian people would find it hard, but on balance I really think not. I don’t think that the Athenian democracy was very different from the oligarchies of the other Greek cities in the way they thought about things. They would have much preferred to fight it out. It was only Pericles’ incredible command of the political situation that allowed him to take the strategy that people said, what in the world is this guy doing?

They turned against it very swiftly. So, no I don’t think that democracy was especially important. Now, the enemies of Pericles and the enemies of democracy — I shouldn’t say the enemies of Pericles, I mean the ancient enemies of democracy do say that it was the Athenian democracy’s way of running the war, which guaranteed disaster and they fix on something that comes later down the road, the Sicilian Expedition, which was a dangerous undertaking as it turned out, although the Athenians didn’t think so at the time, and they think only a democracy could have done anything as stupid as that.

They are, in that way, following precisely what Thucydides says, but if you read my account you will see that there’s another way of looking at it, but that’s what the ancient anti-democratic view was. Democracies are idiots; they don’t know how to conduct war or do anything else right. They will bring disaster. I think you can get disaster a lot of ways.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: It’s very clear that so long as Pericles was in charge everybody did what Pericles wanted done. Part of the reason was that we know pretty well, from the evidence that at least a good number of the ten generals in any one year were close to Pericles, so that his political influence spread. Very unusual thing in the ancient world for anybody in ancient Athens for anybody to have that kind of a carry-over effect, but we see there’s always several generals that we know are friends of Pericles, and I think the rest of the story is that you see the generals don’t get to decide what they do in ancient Athens. This is the part that blows your mind.

When you send an army out, that army gets a general or more, it gets an assigned amount of money and equipment and stuff, and it gets orders and all of those things are decided by the assembly after a debate by a majority vote. And what I would suggest to you is that Pericles did not lose any of those arguments, except in the one case when they came after him and nailed him, and then they put him back in office again. So, does that take care of your question?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: The heart of the question is, “was Pericles wise to adopt a strategy no matter how good a strategy it might have been, which he knew the Athenians didn’t like,” and I think the answer — well, the outcome is obvious. No, he wasn’t wise, but that’s I think more because the strategy was faulty, not so much because the Athenians didn’t like it. He had proven over the years, and he proved now in the most delicate of times, that essentially he could get the Athenians to do what he wanted to do, whether in fact they liked it to begin with or not; he persuaded them to do it. So, I don’t think that was really a flaw. The problem was that things went wrong almost immediately and then such terrible things were happening as did shake his power for awhile, but even then he came back into power and still his strategy wasn’t working. I think the problem, therefore — I think you could say he knew what he was doing. He thought he could get away with it and he could have if the strategy had been correct. Yes?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: Oh yes, yes, the question is ancient writers — Plutarch is whom you’re really talking about. They give Pericles credit for being a great general, but they say bad things about Nicias, who was involved in the great defeat in Sicily and yet, Nicias pursued something like the strategy of Pericles, which was avoiding these conflicts. I think the first thing I want to point out is that Thucydides didn’t do that. Not only does Thucydides thoroughly support the strategy of Pericles, he writes an encomium on the death of Nicias that raises him to the level of Pericles or higher in his own estimation. But in the case of Nicias it was, in a way, even worse than what Pericles did because Nicias, first of all, was against the war, against going to Sicily in the first place, then when he was chosen to be general he went, but before he did that, he tried to convince that having lost the vote shall we go.

He then decided to trick the Athenians into not going anyway by saying to them, oh well, if you’re going to go all right, but it’ll be perfectly safe if you just sort of take this — the original fleet was going to have sixty ships period. Well, they ended up having a 130 ships, 5000 hoplites, raising the risk of that thing to the level that finally made it seem like they could lose the war by losing the Sicilian campaign, and he didn’t — the Athenians, instead of saying what he expected, oh no, no if that’s what we have to do, let’s not go, Instead they said, right on, yes you can have everything you ask for Nicias, what would you like, and off they went.

Thereafter, his performance on that expedition is one of somebody, who doesn’t really want to carry out his instructions. What he would have liked to do was, having lost the argument twice now — he went out and did everything he could to avoid confronting any battle in Syracuse and was finally driven to fight at Syracuse, very much against his will and then I could go back and read it, but he screws up the detail of it over and over again, and so I think there are good grounds for condemning him as a general, whereas, the grounds on which Pericles should be criticized, I think, is as a strategist rather than as a commander. Anybody else? Yeah?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Donald Kagan: No, but I think they — well, I’ll make one little exception to that, but I think they could have had a very good chance to come out of the war in the way Pericles hoped they would. If they had pursued the limited aggressive program that was undertaken by Cleon and Demosthenes after the death of Pericles — so, taking Pylos, building a fort at Pylos, taking Cythera, building a fort there, and perhaps even a few other places on the periphery of the Peloponnesus and launching attacks from those places, but not staying to fight the Spartans at any great battle, just causing that to happen. If they had been able to do that for a stretch of time, then the hope that Cleon had that the helots might escape to these forts and ultimately bring about an internal upheaval, which the Spartans panicked might happen, would have led the Spartans to offer peace, and in fact they do.

The Spartans offer peace. You could argue that if the Athenians had simply accepted the Spartan peace offer in 425 the war would have been over and the Athenian Empire would have been intact just the way Pericles wanted it. So, not only could they have done it — and they would have done it, if they had accepted it. They wouldn’t accept victory you could argue, as many a scholar does. The only other point I want to make is after that didn’t happen, and finally a peace was drawn up and signed and in effect in 421, which is another evidence that they could achieve what they wanted by the techniques that were put forward, but after that happened that peace broke down and now the Athenians found themselves part of a new alliance of states, Athenians with three Peloponnesian democracies who produce a big land battle in the Peloponnesus and the Athenians come — I mean, the enemies of Sparta come that close to defeating the Spartan army in the Peloponnesus.

Had they done that, they would have finished Sparta off as a dominant power of the Greeks. So the answer is, they actually had it in their hands a couple of times and on another time they missed by about an inch. Yeah they could have won that way. I think we’re out of time. Let me wish you all a very happy holiday. Bye-bye.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]