Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Potidæa, Sparta votes that the peace has been broken (Book I, Chapters 56 - 88)

Chalcidice in northern Greece
(For those that followed Herodotus, Xerxes' canal northwest of Mount Athos is noted)
Picture source

“For they love innovation, and are swift to devise, and also to execute what they resolve on. But you on the contrary are only apt to save your own; not devise any thing new, nor scarce to attain what is necessary. They again are bold beyond their strength, adventurous above their own reason, and in danger hope still the best. Whereas your actions are ever beneath your power, and you distrust even what your judgment assures; and being in a danger, never think to be delivered. They are stirrers, you studiers; they love to be abroad, and you at home the most of any. For they make account by being abroad to add to their estate; you, if you should go forth against the state of another, would think to impair your own. They, when they overcome their enemies advance the farthest, and when they are overcome by their enemies, fall off the least; and as for their bodies, they use them in the service of the commonwealth as if they were none of their own; but their minds, when they would serve the state, are right their own. Unless they take in hand what they have once advised on, they account so much lost of their own. And when they take it in hand, if they obtain any thing, they think lightly of it in respect of what they look to win by their prosecution. If they fail in any attempt, they do what is necessary for the present, and enter presently into other hopes. For they alone both have and hope for at once whatsoever they conceive, through their celerity in execution of what they once resolve on. And in this manner they labour and toil all the days of their lives. What they have, they have no leisure to enjoy, for continual getting of more: nor holiday esteem they any, but whereon they effect some matter profitable; nor think they ease with nothing to do, a less torment than laborious business. So that, in a word, to say they are men born neither to rest themselves, nor suffer others, is to say the truth.”

(from Book I, Chapter 70, all quote use the translation by Thomas Hobbes)

At the risk of making these write-ups as long as the history itself, here is the second pretext for the Peloponnesian war. These events take place in the 433-431BC timeframe:

After the conflict at Corcyra, some Athenians “who had their hatred in jealousy” decided they needed to prepare for conflict with Corinth. To that end, they looked to the areas in Thrace and Macedonia that might cause problems. Their ally Potidæa, which was a colony of Corinth, posed such a likely problem. Potidæa was ordered to pull down part of their city wall and cut certain ties with Corinth. Also in that area was Perdiccas, the Macedonian king who had been friendly to Athens but turned hostile when the city supported an uprising against him (which included Perdiccas’ brother).

The term used for Athens' behavior against Potidæa is “precontrived”, although Thucydides paints their influence in the area as already at risk. Perdiccas rallied several cities to revolt against Athens, thinking such actions would facilitate a war. Athens sent generals to the area with demands of Potidæa (pull down the city wall and provide hostages) as well as to prevent nearby cities from revolting. The Potidæans sent ambassadors to Athens (to no effect) and Sparta. The magistrates of Sparta promised them that they would invade Attica (where Athens is located) if Athens attacked Potidæa. With that promise, Potidæa “revolted, and together with them the Chalcideans and Bottiæans, all mutually sworn in the same conspiracy.” When the Athenian generals arrive near Potidæa, they realize they do not have enough forces so they join with the treasonous brother of Perdiccas.

Both Corinth and Athens send troops to an area near Potidæa where the Athenians win a skirmish and begin a siege of the city. The Corinthian leader (Aristeus) recommends that people leave Potidæa so supplies will last longer for the soldiers but his plan is rejected. Aristeus slips out of the city and begins a guerilla war in the area. In response to numberous complaints about Athens' behavior, the council at Sparta encouraged anyone in the Peloponnesian League to present arguments at a meeting in Sparta. (While Megara is mentioned at this point as forbidden to "the Athenian markets and havens” (economic sanctions, in effect), hopefully more detail will be provided on this pretext in a later section.)

The Corinthian ambassadors point out they had warned the Spartans about Athens’ behavior but all that had been received was promises and no action. They drive home the point that the Spartans don’t comprehend how different the Athenians are from the Spartans in the opening quote of this post—framing just how deep the contrasts run. The Corinthians then call upon the Spartans to keep their word about invading Attica if Potidæa were attacked, threatening that Corinth and others may have to seek another alliance if Sparta fails to assist those in need. (I had to keep in mind this is supposedly the Corinthian view of Athens and Sparta, not Thucydides’ view. In re-reading the quote, the Spartans actually sound preferable to the Athenians…at least to me.)

There “chanced to be” some Athenian envoys at Sparta for other business and they responded in order not to present a defense but to encourage Sparta to take its time in considering their actions as well. (How does Thucydides know their reasons? One possibility is that they were sent by the Athenian government, of which Thucydides could have heard their orders. Or it may be as simple as summarizing what the envoys said). The envoys remind the Spartans about Athens’ exploits in the Persian wars, stressing the leadership, performance, and “forwardness”. They cited their moderation in their rule/dominion over others: “And therefore if another had our power, we think it would best make appear our own moderation; and yet our moderation hath undeservedly incurred contempt rather than commendation.” (Interesting that they stress moderation, one of Sparta’s characteristics as categorized by the Corinthians) They counsel the council to “Consider before you enter, how unexpected the chances of war be.” Don’t “break the peace nor violate your oaths; but according to the articles, let the controversy be decided by judgment”. (Arbitration is called upon as part of the terms of the thirty-year peace treaty. Even though arbitration is frequently mentioned, no two parties agree to use it…at least not yet.)

The Spartans decide “the Athenians had done unjustly, and ought speedily to be warred on." But their king Archidamus, a man reputed both wise and temperate, recommends sending emissaries to the Athenians to hear their defense about damages claimed by allies while in the meantime preparing for war. A few of his points and quotes:

- “And whosoever shall temperately consider the war we now deliberate of, will find it to be no small one.”

- Don’t take war lightly. While our army is strong, consider our weaknesses: low money supplies and a weak navy. “For unless we have the better of them in shipping, or take from them their revenue, whereby their navy is maintained, we shall do the most hurt to ourselves.”

- “And in this case to let fall the war again, will be no honour for us, when we are chiefly thought to have begun it. As for the hope, that if we waste their country, the war will soon be at an end; let that never lift us up: for I fear we shall transmit it rather to our children. For it is likely the Athenians have the spirit not to be slaves to their earth; nor as men without experience, to be astonished at the war.”

- We shouldn’t let our allies suffer, but it is too early to take up arms. If Athens does not respond to the compalints, we will be better prepared for war in two or three years.

- “For though accusations, as well against cities as private men, may be cleared again, a war for the pleasure of some taken up by all, the success whereof cannot be foreseen, can hardly with honour be letten fall again.”

- “War is not so much war of arms as war of money, by means whereof arms are useful.”

- “As for the slackness and procrastination wherewith we are reproached by the confederates, be never ashamed of it; for the more haste you make to the war, you will be the longer before you end it, for that you go to it unprovided.”

- “Besides, our city hath been ever free and well thought of: and this which they object, is rather to be called a modesty proceeding upon judgment. For by that it is, that we alone are neither arrogant upon good success, nor shrink so much as others in adversity.” (Taking pride in their modesty/moderation)

One of Sparta’s ephors, Sthenelaidas, replies to Archidamus that the Athenians’ talked a lot but did nothing to deny the damages done to Sparta’s allies. He pointed out that Sparta proved to be just as good as Athens during the Persian wars, but Athens has changed (turned to evil ways). Finally he urged not to give Athenians time to get even stronger…now is the time for action. Sparta should defend their confederates with more than just words.

The Spartan assembly votes that the peace has been broken by Athens. While the present confederates were told that the peace had been broken, Sparta wanted all allies called together to see if there was “common consent” to go to war. “The Lacedæmonians gave sentence that the peace was broken and that war was to be made, not so much for the words of the confederates, as for fear the Athenian greatness should still increase. For they saw that a great part of Greece was fallen already into their hands.” (Obviously speculation on Thucydides' part, or maybe what the business envoys reported?)

Based on what Thucydides has presented so far, the obvious question is how did Athens and Sparta get to this point? Thucydides provides background in the next section but based on the three “pretexts” against Athens to date—sending ships to Corcyra against the Corinthians, the Megarean decree of economic sanctions, and the siege at Potidæa—I would hazard a preliminary guess based on a pattern. In all three of these events, Athens shows more concern about what will happen if they do not take action than repercussions of the action taken. Athens doesn’t want Corcyra’s navy to be useful to a member of the Peloponnesian League. Megara sided against Athens several times—will no response from Athens encourage other cities to do the same? Potidæa proves to be a preemptive strike in an area ripe for revolt against Athens.

In each case, diplomacy simply won’t be enough—action must be taken (which fits in nicely with the Corinthians contrast of Athens and Sparta). But what action should they take in order to maintain the peace treaty? Athens goes for an action that they could argue is only one step beyond diplomacy but not aggressive (at least in their eyes). The ships sent to Corcyra received explicit instructions that they were there for defensive purposes only, even though Athens should have known that eventually they would be called into service. The sanctions against Megara haven’t been discussed yet so I’ll hold saying more about them except that Athens probably viewed this as acceptable under the peace treaty. Potidæa proves to be a little pricklier but that city could be described as defying Athens, who should have foreseen the issues with Corinth (especially given how other cities would view their increasingly aggressive nature). As Sthenelaidas points out, the Athenian envoys don’t even try to respond to the claims, which from a diplomatic standpoint they couldn’t since they weren’t formally representing the city, but they do encourage Sparta to keep the peace and offer to go to arbitration. It will be interesting to see how consistent Athens is with the peace treaty in the next section of the history.


Zoe Coombe said...

Your summaries make the events much clearer, thank you!

Dwight said...

I'm happy to hear they are of use. Good luck with the rest of your reading!

Kerry Wyllie said...

Thank you so much, your summaries are amazing and really clear!
Very useful for me as a university student studying Thucydides!

Dwight said...

Thanks for letting me know, Kerry. I hope the rest is helpful, too!