In 1968, I heard a history professor say that Thucydides explained the Vietnam War. Thirty-five years later I heard other historians citing Thucydides as a guide to invading Iraq. At that time, we were told that General, turned Secretary of State, Colin Powell kept a quotation from Thucydides on display in his office and that the Naval War College had introduced The Peloponnesian War into its curriculum. This was actually done in 1972 by Admiral Stansfield Turner who thought that Thucydides had a lot to say about Vietnam and the Cold War. Turner was echoing General, turned Secretary of State, George Marshall, who said in 1947, that Thucydides provided a guide to the Cold War. Since people who shape military and political policies that have consequences for all of us use Thucydides as a guide, it makes sense to have some familiarity with this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old book.The city states of ancient Greece turned back two invasions by the mighty Persian empire. The second of these invasions ended with a great victory for Greek forces at Plataea in 479 BC. After this the Persians stayed away from Greece. Athens organized Greek colonies that had been ruled by Persia into the Delian League and this is where Thucydides begins his story.
Athens and Sparta are the strongest of the Greek states. They combined to defeat a great enemy, but now are suspicious of one another. The Cold War analogy begins here. It works, up to a point: the quick, inventive, democratic Athenians as Americans versus the slow, brutal, militarist Spartans/Soviets. But there are some differences that should be noted.
First, Athenian democracy (government of the People) has only a slight resemblance to modern forms. The Athenians made decisions via voting in their assemblies by representatives of the population who are selected by lot. Every eligible citizen is expected to be willing to serve when his name is drawn. “Eligible” does not include women or slaves; it does include male citizens aged thirty or more who have a certain amount of property. There were possibly thirty thousand of these, a tenth of the total population of Athens.
Nor does Sparta practice communism; it is a very aristocratic society (government of the Few). In times past, the Spartans were Dorians who moved south into the Peloponnese where they overcame and enslaved the population of Messenia. The Messenians work the farms that feed Sparta, while young Spartan men are separated by age into cohorts that train, incessantly, as soldiers. Annually, Sparta ceremonially declares war on its slaves and Spartan citizen soldiers murder a number of them as part of their training. The Spartan army is reputed to be invincible, but Sparta hesitates to send it very far away, fearing that the slaves will revolt and there will be no one to fight them. The Spartans have a dual monarchy, but hard decisions are made by an assembly of landed aristocrats.
Sparta and Athens come to blows and conclude a treaty in 446 BC that is supposed to last for thirty years. Meanwhile, Athens tightens its grip on the Delian League cities and begins to be seen less as a liberator and more as an imperial power. Thucydides says that the main cause of the war that breaks out in 431 BC is Spartan fear of an Athenian empire. It is possible to turn that statement on its head and say that the main cause of the Peloponnesian War was Athens’ desire for an empire.Corcyra (= Corfu), on the northwest coast of Greece, is engaged in civil war. Corcyra invites Athens to send some ships, otherwise they will have to get friendly with Corinth. Since Corinth and Corcyra each have a navy, together they might challenge Athens. Athens fears that and sends a force which winds up engaged with Corinth. On the other side of Greece, to the northeast, is the city of Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, which Athens fears may support its founder city. Athens makes impossible demands of Potidaea to provoke a war and lands an army there which also battles Corinthian forces. Corinth complains to Sparta, its ally, that Athens has violated the treaty and war officially begins in 431 BC.
Donald Kagan is currently the top expert on the Peloponnesian War and he has compared its beginning to the onset of World War I when the actions of small nations brought on a struggle between great powers. Kagan also looks to other conflicts where Thucydides is applicable as we shall see.
The Spartan strategy is to invade Athenian territory in mid-summer, when the grain is ripe, and destroy crops and farms until Athens sends out its army to fight. Athens, on the other hand, follows the strategy of Pericles: do not engage the Spartan ground troops but leave the conflict up to the navy, where the strength of Athens lies. Consider Athens an island, he says, and defend it with ships. Keep a tight rein on the cities that are part of the Delian/Athenian League, because the tribute received from these cities will finance the war. Do not engage in new conquests or risky ventures. Follow these precepts and you will prevail.
So the Spartan army invades and the Athenians, all of them, move inside the city walls. It is uncomfortable: people are huddled in camps inside the long walls that stretch to the harbor and are crowded into various locations in the city itself. These refugees find it difficult to watch as the Spartans burn their homes and destroy their harvest. After several weeks of pillage, the Spartan army goes home. The refugees leave the city and rebuild their farms. Over the next few months, into the winter, Athens carries out some daring manuvers and is somewhat successful. Events seem to support the strategy of Pericles. Now he gives a speech at the funeral rites of those Athenians who have been killed in the war. Athens, he says, is the school of Greece. It is greatness and all the rest of Hellas looks up to Athens.Next summer, the Spartans invade again and, once again, the Athenians seek shelter inside the city walls. But this time disease breaks out, a fierce plague that spreads quickly amongst the crowded mass of people. Experts have different opinions on what this disease could have been; guesses range from measles to smallpox to bubonic plague. Anyway, many Athenians die. Pericles is blamed and some want to give up the war. Pericles quiets them:
You should remember… that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible… For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. [all quotes from The Landmark Thucydides, see Notes]
It strikes me that Pericles appeals to fear, just as the two military ventures, in Corcyra and Potidaea, were undertaken out of fear of what the enemy might do. Likewise, Sparta has formed its own alliance from fear of Athens, then is dragged into war by its partners.
In Athens, the plague rages on. Thucydides contracts the disease but recovers. Pericles contracts the disease and dies. After the death of Pericles, a pro-war faction directs Athenian actions.
Fighting occurs in other places in Greece over the next few years. Athenian forces open up a front near Messenia; Sparta becomes concerned about a slave uprising and keeps its army close to home thereafter. Some slaves offer to fight for Sparta in exchange for freedom. The Spartans invite those who had most distinguished themselves in the wars to come forward, “the object being to test them, as it was thought that [these]…would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel.” Some two thousand come forward to accept their freedom and the Spartans murder them all. Even so, Sparta is later forced to enlist other slaves who then are sent to the ongoing struggle around Potidaea.
The Greek city states had warred against one another for centuries and had established certain rules of warfare. Heralds could travel unmolested through combat zones, a battle was followed by a truce in which each army recovered its dead, and temples were sacred to all and places of refuge for the dispossessed. These rules go by the wayside as the war continues. Morality and law disappear. Those who might argue for a moral path are afraid to speak, fearful that those who want war will call them traitors. One example of atrocity: Athens has hired some Thracian mercenaries but decides not to use them. These are being returned north in 413 BC when their Athenian commander decides to attack Mycalessus, a small, poorly defended city:
The Thracians bursting into Mycallessus sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden, and whatever other living creatures they saw… Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys’ school, the largest that there was in that place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all.
Thucydides says that most Greek cities wanted Sparta to prevail over Athens, which was viewed as a tyrannical power. Athens foments rebellion by the People against the Few whenever possible, but these new democratic cities tend to then seek freedom from Athens just like the oligarchies they replaced. Another front opens up for Athens as Aegean cities liberated from Persia renounce the Delian/Athenian League. Some begin negotiating with Sparta. Athens now supports forces in the south Peloponnese, on the islands west and north of Greece, in the area in the northeast around Potidaea and the approach to the Black Sea, and the Aegean islands east of Greece.
Both Sparta and Athens are exhausted and each wants to repair its own alliances and build up its forces so a treaty is signed in 421 BC that ends the war for a few years although both sides realize that it may start again at any time. This time it is Sparta’s troubles with neighboring Argos that eventually leads to a resumption of hostilities. In the meanwhile there is continual fighting as rebellious cities are brought to heel.
At the Battle for Potidaea, as the war began, Socrates saved the life of young Alcibiades. Alcibiades is a golden boy — beautiful, accomplished, arrogant. Alcibiades does not want peace with Sparta and subverts Spartan diplomacy, lying both to the Spartans and the Athenian assembly. Athens allies with Argos, the treaty breaks down, and a huge battle is fought at Mantinea in 418 BC. Sparta is the victor but at a cost of 300 men that she cannot afford to lose. There is a new truce between Athens and war-weary Sparta, but no one believes that it will last for a long time. Alcibiades is now a commander who has achieved some fame. He proposes that Athens send a force to Sicily in response to a request by one of the cities there that is engaged in a struggle with Syracuse, the major city.This is not completely off the wall, Athens had sent a couple of expeditions to Sicily earlier in the war. Sicily has strategic value — if you want to conquer the west Mediterranean — and is a producer of grain, which Athens needs. But the leading general, Nicias, argues that Athens has more pressing matters: there are forces committed in the area around Potidaea, revolt constantly a threat in the Aegean, and there are places in both Attica and the Peloponnese that require attention. But Alcibiades manages to persuade the assembly that a Sicilian expedition is a good idea even though most of those voting have no real idea of Sicily’s size nor the political situation there. Trying to dissuade the assembly, Nicias says that such an expedition would have to include huge numbers of ships and men. To his chagrin, the assembly votes to give him everything that he wants.
Although the stated purpose of the expedition is to assist Sicilian and Italian cities in a struggle against Syracuse, what the Athenians really want is to conquer the entire island, adjacent Italy, and perhaps then move against Carthage in North Africa. There is much chatter about the superiority of the Athenian miliary and there is a widespread notion that Sicily and Italy will welcome the Athenians and that there is enough wealth there to pay for the venture.
So the great expedition sets sail. In Italy, the Athenians find little support nor is there any in Sicily — everyone recognizes that this huge force is an invasion and they mean to resist. Nor can Athens find the funding that was promised them. Nicias proposes making a show and then leaving, but is overruled. Meanwhile, back in Athens, the enemies of Alcibiades have accused him of various blasphemies, including defiling holy mysteries and vandalizing the herms, phallic statues that stand outside many houses. This is no small matter as many believe it is a sign that oligarchs are planning to overthrow Athenian democracy. People are arrested and executed as traitors without evidence. Alcibiades pretends to sail back to Athens to stand trial but jumps ship and makes his way to Sparta where he offers his services. Just before leaving Sicily, though, he warns the rulers of Messana that Athens is fomenting a rebellion there and he gives names to the Messanians who have the plotters killed. Subsequently the Athenian assault fails.Alcibiades persuades Sparta to aid Syracuse. Meanwhile, the Athenians have suffered losses of ships and men and request reinforcements, which Athens sends. Things worsen for the Athenians. Nicias asks that Athens send yet more ships and men and also asks that he be replaced as general. Athens refuses to remove him but sends more reinforcements. The Corinthians bring ships to Sicily and attack Athenian supply vessels. Also, Sparta has taken Declea, just northeast of Athens, and now control the land routes around the city. All of Athens’ supplies now must come in by ship.
A large-scale assault on Syracuse fails in 413 BC and an Athenian general proposes that they withdraw and go back home. But now it is Nicias who refuses — he does not want to be tried and executed as a coward and a failure, he would rather die as a soldier. Syracuse attacks the Athenian fleet and scores a stunning victory. Syracuse traps the remaining ships in harbor and destroys them, thus ending any hope of Athenian troops leaving the island. The Athenians retreat inland, the Sicilian and Spartan forces chop them up and force their surrender. The Athenian generals are executed and thousands of troops are sent to the quarries to labor for Sicilian masters.
The failure of the Sicilian venture ultimately costs Athens the war and her empire, so this is the key part of the book, the place where political scientists and generals look for meaning. The general opinion today, I think, is that Nicias was an inadequate general. There is disagreement on whether the expedition was a good idea or not, though the fact that it failed causes most to believe that it was not. Pericles had warned Athens:
I have… reasons to hope for a favorable outcome, if you can consent not to combine schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war, and will abstain from willfully involving yourselves in other dangers; indeed, I am more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.
But the Athenians had forgotten his words. Assuming that the decision to invade Sicily was a foregone conclusion, how could disaster have been averted? Donald Kagan thinks that Athens needed to send fewer troops in the beginning (so as not to alarm the Sicilians) and more troops later (and, of course, put a better general in charge — like the bold Alcibiades). Thucydides himself says that the expedition “failed not so much through a miscalculation of the power of those against whom it was sent, as through a fault in the senders in not taking the best measures afterwards to assist those who had gone out…” — “best measures” not being defined — but he also calls the expedition a “blunder”, one of a number that were made by politicos out for self-aggrandizement — men calling for more and bolder acts of violence, men such as Cleon, who Thucydides caricatures unmercifully. Cleon is portrayed as what we now call a “chicken hawk”, someone calling for war but unwilling to fight. Eventually, Cleon is forced to lead an Athenian contingent. He has some success but is killed at Potidaea, which has become a graveyard for important leaders from both Athens and Sparta.
One person who thought the Sicilian expedition a blunder was the political scientist, Hans Morgenthau, author of the classic text on international relations, Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau is usually cited as the founder of the Realist school of diplomacy, a group which is said to include Henry Kissinger among others. Realists think that power is very important, the most critical factor in international politics.
In 1955 Morgenthau was enlisted by the Eisenhower administration to check out the situation in Southeast Asia. He reported back that things were terrible and that the place had little value to the US which should sit back and let the Chinese and the Vietnamese duke it out, as they inevitably would. That was not what the administration wanted to hear and Morgenthau was shipped back to academia. He began writing articles for various magazines criticizing US involvement in IndoChina. By 1964 he was participating in teach-ins on the Vietnam War which he compared to the Sicilian Expedition:
I have always emphasized the importance of power in all its manifestations as an instrument of foreign policy. But I have as consistently been opposed to equating national power with military power, and I have warned against the improvident and foolish use of power. I am indeed convinced that the use we have been making of our power in Vietnam for more than a decade has been improvident and foolish, and it has been so to an ever increasing degree.
Donald Kagan seems of the opinion that the Vietnam war was lost through “defeatism”:
…deep and violent dissension at home was, perhaps, the major element in compelling the United States to accept a humiliating defeat… It was the political victory of enemies of the administration and the war it has undertaken that brought defeat.
Later, he was one of the original signatories of the neo-Conservative Project for a New American Century Statement of Principles. The PNAC called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and encouraged the invasion of Iraq. Kagan’s sons. one of whom was co-founder of the PNAC, are often listed as important neo-Conservatives. I cannot say that Kagan totally equates “national power with military power”, but he has been very much in favor of American using its military power.
Kagan likes to point out the irrational and intangible factors that cause war: “power is never pursued for itself, but always for the sake of some value or values.” “Honor” is one of these values and Kagan says that when Thucydides says “honor” he means “prestige”. Kagan says that the Realists, like Morgenthau, tend to discount these irrational factors. I don’t think much of this argument. Neither Morgenthau nor Thucydides discounts the irrational factors in warfare — but that brings us to the part of Thucydides’ writings that was most often cited in the Iraqi Invasion of 2002: the Melian dialogue.
Melos is a small island city in the Aegean that has ties to Sparta. Nevertheless, the Melians promise to stay neutral in the conflict. Athens demands that Melos become a tributary member of the Delian/Athenian League or else be destroyed. The diplomatic exchange between Athens and Melos is presented by Thucydides as a dialogue:
Athenians: “…you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Melians: “…it is expedient—we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest—that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right… And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.”
Athenians: “This… is a risk that we are content to take. …we have come here in the interest of our empire, and… for the preservation of your country; as we would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.”
Melians: “And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?”
Athenians: “Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.”
The Melian stance may be irrational, but it certainly isn’t one unfamiliar to Athens. Pericles had said:
…if the only choice was between submission with loss of independence, and danger with the hope of preserving that independence — in such a case it is he who will not accept the risk that deserves blame, not he who will.
Give me liberty or give me death. So the Melians resist. Athens overruns the island, kills all the men, enslaves the women and children, and ships a bunch of Athenians over to re-colonize the place.
In the early stages of the Iraq War, neo-cons constantly referred to the Melian dialogue. “The strong do what they will” and the US was definitely the strongest military power in the world at the time. As we all know, things in Iraq didn’t go quite as planned due to certain irrational factors — religious and ethnic differences, for example — and perhaps the Melians have the last word here as they advise Athens:
Melians: “But do you consider that there is no security in the policy which we indicate? …How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at our case and conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?”
But the neo-Cons took no account of any of this and seem rather to have accepted the premise that Kagan claims is the basis of Realist thinking: that superior military power is supreme in any confrontation. Realist Morgenthau emphasized certain intangibles as part of national power — for instance, moral concepts, such as justice, as the Melians said, “…our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…”, and cultural power as opposed to military might.After the Sicilian debacle, the war drags on for nine years. The Spartans change their style and begin building a navy. One of their commanders is Alcibiades who operates in the Aegean aiding colonies rebelling against Athens. There are a lot of these since virtually every member of the Delian/Athenian League revolts once they hear of Athens failing in Sicily. But Alcibiades is not trusted by the Spartans and he finally seeks a post with the Persians.
Persia is the greatest power in this part of the world at the time. A Persian governor, Tissaphernes, tells Alcibiades that a navy is being constructed at that very moment, which might aid Sparta under the right circumstances. Sparta signs a treaty with Persia, promising that the Persians could regain control over all their former holdings now held by Athens. It is a mark of how low Athenian prestige has fallen that the prospect of Persian rule does not deter a single state from revolting against Athens, their self-proclaimed liberator who is now despised as a tyrant. So much for being the school of Greece.
Thucydides was still around when the Peloponnesian war ended — there are several references to the war’s end in his history — but the book breaks off in 411 BC, in mid-sentence. It is generally assumed that Thucydides died before he could finish his work. At one time, there was a theory that he was murdered by political opponents, but this is generally discounted now. Anyway, Athens fights back after the Sicilian expedition. Alcibiades, not getting anywhere with Tissaphernes, manages to get back with Athens. Although for a long time he is afraid to return to the city, he commands an Athenian contingent in the Aegean. Tissaphernes is replaced by a new governor, a member of the royal family who begins to aid Sparta with funds. The Spartan navy grows and is often successful at sea.
In Athens, an aristocratic faction seizes power after the Sicilian defeat and installs a government of the Few — the Four Hundred — in place of democracy. For a time this government, which pretends to be made up of five thousand, prevails, but eventually must give way to a real government of Five Thousand. It’s not quite the democracy of old, but close enough to be able to govern without too much dissent. After a major Athenian victory, with Alcibiades one of the victorious commanders, democracy is restored. The restored democracy makes Alcibiades supreme commander. He is defeated several times and a large portion of the Athenian navy is destroyed by Sparta while it is under the command of a crony of Alcibiades. Alcibiades is held responsible and is relieved of his command. He takes up residence on the Hellespont, never to return to Athens.
in 405 BC, the Athenian navy is anchored in the Hellespont. Alcibiades talks to the commander, warning him that he is in a bad position and that he should move his vessels. Or, alternatively, he may offer Thracian aid to the Athenians in exchange for being brought back into the Athenian command. Whichever version is correct, the Athenians ignore him and. a few days later, the Spartan navy destroys Athens’ fleet, most of which is wrecked while beached.
Athens now has no navy and, more important, no access to the Black Sea, the source of grain that feeds the city. Athens has no choice but to surrender. Sparta is urged to raze Athens to the ground but decides instead to let the city stand but to tear down its walls. A group called the Thirty Tyrants is appointed to run Athens and, in true Athenian form, they proceed to murder anyone they think might be a problem. The Thirty Tyrants are overthrown and the new democratic government tries and executes those it thinks are not on side, including Socrates. Alcibiades is killed in Asia Minor by Spartans while trying to negotiate with the Persians.
It strikes me that perhaps Athens, rather than Sparta, is a better Cold War analogue for the Soviet Union. After all, it was the USSR satellites who broke away at the first opportunity, much like the Athenian tributary states. But it also seems to me that if a powerful nation wants to take lessons from the Peloponnesian War, it might best look to Persia, the ultimate victor in this struggle. Persia regained all her old holdings in the Aegean that were lost to Athens and never lost a man or a ship doing so. They spent a little money building Sparta’s navy but nothing like what a war would have cost them. They encouraged the Greek states to fight one another but kept apart from the struggle until it was time to gather the spoils. Perhaps this is a good example of the effective use of international power.
All references are from The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, which I recommend to anyone wanting to read Thucydides if for no other reason than it has ample maps and an excellent index. But the Richard Crawley translation it uses, first published in 1874, does not satisfy some people. Thucydides writes, reportedly, very difficult Greek and some have asserted that each translation is but a “version” authored by the translator. I read no Greek. Crawley’s translation is clear (which Thucydides may not be). Othe versions include the Rex Warner translation, History Of The Peloponnesian War, published by Penguin. More recent translations are discussed here and here. Thomas Hobbes made the first English translation in 1629; it is still very readable.
Mary Beard has remarked that the Melian Dialogue differs from translator to translator. The differences are those of nuance; the meaning is still clear, I think.