Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Cythera, Sicily (Part Two), Megara, Brasidas

Map of ancient Greece
Picture source

Five hundred chapters to go. Not that I’m counting. This post looks at Chapters 52 – 88 of Book Four, covering the summer of 424 BC. As you might have guessed from the subjects in the post heading it was a busy few months. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Athens attacked and won the island of Cythera, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Laconia (just south of Sparta). The island was a strategic victory on several fronts. While the capture of a key trading spot was important, the psychological damage to the Spartans was immeasurable. Thucydides points out the Spartan mindset had changed drastically:

And if ever they were fearful in matter of war, they were so now: because it was contrary to their own way to contend in a naval war, and against Athenians, who thought they lost whatsoever they not attempted. Withal, their so many misfortunes in so short a time, falling out so contrary to their own expectation, exceedingly affrighted them. And fearing lest some such calamity should again happen as they had received in the island, they durst the less to hazard battle; and thought that whatsoever they should go about would miscarry, because their minds, not used formerly to losses, could now warrant them nothing.

In a sense, this was exactly the goal of Pericles but it was obtained in an aggressive manner that he had not attempted. Pericles did not seek to defeat the Spartans but to dissuade them from continuing the war. With Athens’ more aggressive tactics after Pericles’ death they were in a position to do exactly that. However when they turned down the Spartan appeal for peace, Athens finds itself continuing the war in order to achieve victory.

Returning from their victory at Cythera, Athenians stopped at Thyrea (on the border between Argolis and Laconia on the map) and captured the city. The Athenians “burnt it, and destroyed whatsoever was in it.” From Book Two, Chapter 27, “The same summer, the Athenians put the Æginetæ, man, woman and child, out of Ægina; laying to their charge that they were the principal cause of the present war.” Sparta had allowed the Æginetæ to relocate in Thyrea. The Athenians who captured the city put to death “as many as they had taken” of these residents. The atrocities committed in the war continue to mount.

At least in one place peace was flourishing. Truces were being struck in Sicily and a conference was to be held in Gela “for making of a peace.” Hermocrates, a Syracusian, gives a passionate speech, calling for Sicilian unity. He claimed the Athenians sought to subdue the island for their own gain. Instead, the cities ought to ask Athens to leave and not ask any foreigner again for assistance or arbitration on matters concerning Sicilians. Hermocrates’ speech was a powerful call of Sicily for the Sicilians and it convinced the cities to call an end to the war. A major selling point to some would allowances that left spoils in the hands of victors. The Athenian generals approved the peace and sailed away from Sicily.

There were several ironies in Hermocrates’ speech. Syracuse’s earlier aggression against other cities on the island had prompted the call to Athens for intercession. In his speech, Hermocrates mentions that “it is no dishonour to be overcome kinsmen of kinsmen, … any one by another of us, being neighbours and cohabiters of the same region”. This sounds like he is laying the groundwork for future aggression by Syracuse and the hope that no one calls on Athens for help.

The Athenian generals (Pythodorus, Sophocles, and Eurymedon) were banished or fined upon their return to Athens. The assembly could not conceive that a reinforced Athenian navy couldn’t be successful in conquering Sicily when the initial smaller foray had been accomplished so much. The generals were charged “as men that might have subdued the estates of Sicily, but had been bribed to return.” The initial guidance “to test the possibility of taking the states of Sicily into their own hands” now sounds more like a command to take it than just test the waters. If Spartan morale was lower than it should have been, the Athenian mindset was sky-high:

So great was their fortune at that time, that they thought nothing could cross them; but that they might have achieved both easy and hard enterprises, with great and slender forces alike. The cause whereof was the unreasonable prosperity of most of their designs, subministering strength unto their hope.

Weary of the war, in particular the annual raids by Athens and no assistance from anyone, certain Megaraen leaders (“patrons of the commons”) approached Athenian leaders to take the city. The democratic faction feared Athens less than they feared the oligarchic group that had been banished from Megara. The democratic leaders, though, did not work in the open but planned a conspiracy to deliver the city to the Athenians. Athenian troops were able to take the long walls built from Megara down to its port city Nisæa. As the Athenians army was about to storm Megara, one of the conspirators revealed the plot to the Megareans, foiling the conspiracy. The Athenians capture Nisæa from the Peloponnesian garrison and destroy the long walls between the cities. Before the Athenians could turn back to Megara, the Spartan Brasidas and his confederate forces show up to protect Megara. After a small skirmish without a clear winner, the Athenian and Spartan troops begin a stand-off outside the city. Brasidas appealed to the Megareans and, after an initial refusal, they open the city to him. The Athenian troops decline to fight and leave. Most of the Megareans that had been part of the conspiracy with Athens slipped away from the city when the oligarchic faction returns. The oligarchs establish control of the city and kill about one hundred people they believed cooperated with Athens.

The Athenian general Demosthenes departed Megara in order to assist cities in Bœotia wanting “to change the form of the Bœotian government, and to turn it into a democracy according to the government of Athens”. There were three cities targeted, all to be attacked on the same day. Success in these revolts might not completely turn Bœotia to Athenian control but it would put severe pressure on all of the area. These plots will be continued in the section covered by the next post.

Thucydides has mentioned the Spartan general Brasidas several times, each reference short but admiring. Chapters 78 to 88 focus on his mission to the northeast part of Greece to provoke cities to revolt from Athens and also provides the setting of his first speech in the history. His trip to the area proves to be a success because “by showing himself at that present just and moderate towards the cities, he caused the most of them to revolt”. (Moderation continues to be stressed when discussing Spartan characteristics.) These areas hope that other Spartans will be just like Brasidas. The Macedonian king Perdiccas enlists Brasidas to help settle some personal scores but Brasidas defuses the situation without a fight (enraging Perdiccas).

In Acanthus (on the Chalcidice mainland near the Xerxes canal), Brasidas attempts to encourage them to revolt from the Athenians. Thucydides, before presenting his speech, makes a backhanded compliment that Brasidas “was not uneloquent, though a Lacedæmonian”. It is a stirring speech. Bracidas hammers home Sparta’s apparent goal, repeating a variation of the following several times: “[T]the reason why the Lacedæmonians have sent me and this army abroad, is to make good what we gave out in the beginning for the cause of our war against the Athenians: which was, that we meant to make a war for the liberties of Greece.” Brasidas also reiterates this point that Sparta will allow cities to maintain whatever government they chose. The speech wins over the Acanthians who vote to revolt from Athens. A nearby city also revolts from Athens later that summer.

There are several dark passages in Brasidas’ speech, though. After listing all the reasons that the Acanthians should revolt, he says that if they refuse Sparta will waste “your territory, to compel you to it.” For the good of everyone else, don’t you know.

”Nor shall I think I do you therein any wrong; but have reason for it for two necessities: one of the Lacedæmonians, lest whilst they have your affections and not your society, they should receive hurt from your contributions of money to the Athenians; another of the Grecians, lest they should be hindered of their liberty by your example. For otherwise indeed we could not justly do it; nor ought we Lacedæmonians to set any at liberty against their wills, if it were not for some common good. We covet not dominion [over you]; but seeing we haste to make others lay down the same, we should do injury to the greater part, if bringing liberty to the other states in general we should tolerate you to cross us. Deliberate well of these things: strive to be the beginners of liberty in Greece; to get yourselves eternal glory; to preserve every man his private estate from damage, and to invest the whole city with a most honourable title.”

Holding a gun to someone’s head and saying they have a choice isn’t really providing a choice. There is another passage in his speech that isn’t troubling but I’ve noticed this theme in several speeches and wanted to note it. The idea involves the use of the “right of power”:

”For it is more dishonourable, at least to men in dignity, to amplify their estate by specious fraud, than by open violence. For the latter assaileth with a certain right of power given us by fortune; but the other, with the treachery of a wicked conscience.”

Funny…in asking for peace, Sparta claimed that Athens shouldn’t take advantage of their right of power recently given by fortune. It’s all a matter of perspective—when you have power it is OK to use. There is another irony in Brasidas’ speech that Thucydides sets up when Sparta includes some of their Helots with Brasidas’ army in order to reduce any opportunity for revolt. For those unfamiliar with Helots, here is the definition from the glossary in The Landmark Thucydides:

Although Helot-type unfree laborers are known elsewhere, in Thucydides these are the lowest class of the Spartan state who lived in oppressive, hereditary servitude, and who were for the most part engaged in agriculture. They lived throughout Laconia and also in adjacent Messenia, where the Helot system had been extended by Spartan conquest, and they apparently far outnumbered their masters, who feared as well as exploited them.

The opportunity to send 700 Helots out of Sparta with Brasidas reminds Thucydides of a previous event in Sparta:

For they did also this further, fearing the youth and multitude of their Helotes: for the Lacedæmonians had ever many ordinances concerning how to look to themselves against the Helotes. They caused proclamation to be made, that as many of them as claimed the estimation to have done the Lacedæmonians best service in their wars, should be made free; feeling them in this manner, and conceiving that, as they should every one out of pride deem himself worthy to be first made free, so they would soonest also rebel against them. And when they had thus preferred about two thousand, which also with crowns on their heads went in procession about the temples as to receive their liberty, they not long after made them away: and no man knew how they perished.

Almost all of the atrocities committed to this point have been in relation to the war, whether carried out directly by Athens or Sparta or allowed to happen as they watched (the latter scenario happening at least twice on Corcyra). With institutionalized Spartan atrocities as a background, Thucydides presents Brasidas’ speech in which he declares they were fighting “a war for the liberties of Greece.” I doubt anyone in ancient Greece batted an eye at this juxtaposition. The tension between morality and self-interest, explored in depth with the Melian dialogue later in the history, gets an additional dimension for the modern reader.

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