Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Plague, recriminations

The Plague of Athens by Michael Sweerts
Picture source

This post looks at Book Two Chapters 47 – 65, which covers part of the second year of the war (430BC). All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation. I realize I’m loading up on the quotes in this post, but I hope they prove helpful.


Now they died, some for want of attendance, and some again with all the care and physic that could be used. Nor was there any, to say certain medicine, that applied must have helped them ; for if it did good to one, it did harm to another. Nor any difference of body, for strength or weakness, that was able to resist it; but it carried all away, what physic soever was administered. But the greatest misery of all, was the dejection of mind in such as found themselves beginning to be sick: (for they grew presently desperate, and gave themselves over without making any resistance): as also their dying thus like sheep, infected by mutual visitation; for the greatest mortality proceeded that way. For if men forebore to visit them for fear, then they died forlorn; whereby many families became empty, for want of such as should take care of them. If they forbore not, then they died themselves, and principally the honestest men. For out of shame they would not spare themselves, but went in unto their friends; especially after it was come to this pass, that even their domestics, wearied with the lamentations of them that died, and overcome with the greatness of the calamity, were no longer moved therewith.

A plague breaks out in Athens shortly after the Spartans invaded Attica during the second summer of the war. Thucydides survives the disease and describes in great detail the physical and mental anguish that accompanies the sickness. Some social aspects of the plague are highlighted in the above quote, but there are other consequences:

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble, and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely; seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying, and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods, even for their pleasure; as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any; because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful, and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods, nor laws of men, awed any man: not the former, because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship, from seeing that alike they all perished: nor the latter, because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment.

Thucydides’ description of the plague comes immediately after Pericles’ funeral oration and the juxtaposition stands out in sharp relief. Where Pericles stressed Athens’ hard-fought rise and importance, the plague highlights a change in fate that (supposedly) no one could foresee or prepare for. The respect for laws that Athens cherished, according to Pericles, has been thrown out the window. Civilization’s veneer, thin to start with, has been erased during the plague. Did Thucydides mean to include the war itself as one of the agents robbing Athens of their place in civilized culture? At this point in the history it’s difficult to make that call, although (knowing a little of what will happen) I don’t think it is a stretch to say he thought certain actions taken during war would do so. Especially if you look at the first sentence quoted again: “[T] the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease.” Only the “first”—there will be more. Thucydides recovered from the disease…it’s not clear that Athens would. Their transgressions did not bring about the plague, but feeling unbound from restraints they freely transgress. What will cause their future actions outside of a judicious, civilized manner?


After watching the Spartans ravage their countryside uncontested for a second summer in addition to having the plague fall upon them, the Athenians accuse Pericles of bringing these calamities on the city “by his means”. Thucydides said his work would be an “everlasting possession” since human nature changes little…I think even he would be surprised how little. Pericles called an assembly “with intention to put them again into heart, and assuaging their passion, to reduce their minds to a more calm and less dismayed temper.” During his speech, Pericles stresses the importance of the state over the individual—if the state survives, the individual can be made whole. He asserts that the war still retains its choice of freedom or submission; also, nothing has changed in the facts or policy of the war, only the Athenians’ will. He also makes his clearest claim for empire, claiming that the loss of empire will bring about more dangers since in effect Athens ruled others by tyranny, “unjust for you to take up and unsafe to lay down.” He highlights the plague as exceeding the imagination of all men, an evil from heaven that must be borne valiantly. Thucydides says the Athenians, while grief-stricken, supported Pericles although they “first fined him in a sum of money” to help depose their anger.

But these aren’t the only recriminations addressed. Thucydides, in Chapter 65, provides his own defense of Pericles and his strategy. There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m not sure everything is as it appears. First the quote from Thucydides:

For as long as he was in authority in the city in time of peace , he governed the same with moderation, and was a faithful watchman of it; and in his time it was at the greatest. And after the war was on foot, it is manifest that he therein also foresaw what it could do. He lived after the war began two years and six months. And his foresight in the war was best known after his death. For he told them, that if they would be quiet, and look to their navy, and during this war seek no further dominion, nor hazard the city itself, they should then have the upper hand. But they did contrary in all: and in such other things besides as seemed not to concern the war, managed the state, according to their private ambition and covetousness, perniciously both for themselves and their confederates. What succeeded well, the honour and profit of it came most to private men; and what miscarried, was to the city’s detriment in the war. The reason whereof was this: that being a man of great power both for his dignity and wisdom, and for bribes manifestly the most incorrupt, he freely controled the multitude; and was not so much led by them, as he led them. Because, having gotten his power by no evil arts, he would not humour them in his speeches, but out of his authority durst anger them with contradiction. Therefore, whensoever he saw them out of season insolently bold, he would with his orations put them into a fear; and again, when they were afraid without reason, he would likewise erect their spirits and embolden them. It was in name, a state democratical; but in fact, a government of the principal man. But they that came after, being more equal amongst themselves, and affecting every one to be the chief, applied themselves to the people and let go the care of the commonwealth. From whence amongst many other errors, as was likely in a great and dominant city, proceeded also the voyage into Sicily; which was not so much upon mistaking those whom they went against, as for want of knowledge in the senders of what was necessary for those that went the voyage. For through private quarrels about who should bear the greatest sway with the people, they both abated the vigour of the army, and then also first troubled the state at home with division. Being overthrown in Sicily, and having lost, besides other ammunition, the greatest part of their navy, and the city being then in sedition; yet they held out three years , both against their first enemies and the Sicilians with them, and against most of their revolted confederates besides, and also afterwards against Cyrus the king’s son, who took part with, and sent money to the Peloponnesians to maintain their fleet; and never shrunk till they had overthrown themselves with private dissensions. So much was in Pericles above other men at that time, that he could foresee by what means the city might easily have outlasted the Peloponnesians in this war.

Wow, I’ll wait to address some of what Thucydides covers until I get to events like the Sicilian expedition. So where to start? First will be the Corinthians’ description (yet again) of the difference between Athenians and Spartans. I’ll link back to the quote from Book I, Chapter 70 to cut down on the inclusion of quotes (too late, I know). Read the Corinthians’ assessment and compare it to Thucydides’ description of Pericles. In most cases, Thucydides’ praise of Pericles falls under the Spartan characteristics. For example, “He governed the same with moderation”, seeking “no further dominion” during the war. Thucydides’ encomium of Pericles comes at a time when the people of Athens and their leader disagree on the best course of action and not when they were in complete agreement—is Thucydides highlighting the Spartan nature of Pericles and his strategy? Even if he is, he’s overlooking several major weaknesses of Pericles’ strategy.

One weakness looks at the overall strategy in the light of the Corinthians’ description of Athenian characteristics. If the Athenians are as described, then they will not willingly agree to stay cooped up in the city while the Spartans ravage the countryside. I’ve already mentioned that I think the description of Pericles’ tactics as strictly defensive are not entirely accurate, but his overall strategy to outlast the enemy instead of defeat it runs counter to Athenian attributes. How does he plan to offset this? By providing the leadership—guiding the Athenians by “government of the principal man”—through the tough times caused by such a strategy. So what happens when Pericles is gone from the scene, whether through death, banishment, or some other reason? Thucydides points out that Athenians, after Pericles, will reward people that tell them what they want to hear instead of guiding them in what is best. Clearly something has happened to the positive attributes of the people, not just as described by the Corinthians but also by Pericles in the funeral oration.

That “something” seems to have found fertile ground in Athens, first through the plague and then in the context of the war. Pericles claims the plague was unforeseeable but crowding that many people into the walled city during the summer months was sure to bring about increased sickness and its related despair. It’s ironic that the long walls built by Themistocles, intended to help Athens weather a short war, became an agent helping defeat it in the Peloponnesian war.

Frankly, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, first noting that Thucydides seems to point out features of Pericles that he admired but that embody Spartan virtues. Second, Thucydides provides an encomium of Pericles that purports to show how Pericles would have won the war (with those Spartan virtues) while those that followed him lost the war. I want to place a marker here because Thucydides, writing during and after the war, frames his history in this matter and I want to see if such a judgment holds.

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