Friday, January 07, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: The vote for war (Book I, Chapters 118 - 146)

Bust of Pericles
Inscription: “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”
Picture source

The question I’m focusing on in Book One centers on Thucydides’ claim for the reason for the Peloponnesian War. Not that I’m hoping to resolve the actual reasons…it’s more like I’m trying to understand Thucydides’ outlook…knowing where to take him with a grain of salt and how to evaluate his narrative. He presents claims and conclusions early in his history, then frames his narrative to fit those claims. I enjoy trying to work through his assumptions and "herding" tendency.

All quotes are from the Thomas Hobbes translation:

After the Spartans voted that Athens broke the peace treaty (chapter 87), they followed through on their promise to call members of the Peloponnesian League together to discuss whether to “make war or not”. Many cities came forward and claimed injury and desired war and Thucydides ends with the Corinthians’ speech. I found what Corinth chose to stress (and Thucydides to report) in their speech insightful. After emphasizing the league’s common interests, the Corinthian envoys focus on what it means to go to war, the importance of money in war, and how avoidance of war does not guarantee peace. Their conclusion focuses on Athenian treaty violations, an interpretation they believe sanctioned by the oracle’s guarantee for divine support, with a parting shot on the need to frustrate Athens’ desire for expanding their empire.

After the Peloponnesian League votes for war, there is an exchange of demands between Athens and Sparta requesting expiation of religious sacrileges. Despite the bizarre nature of these requests, the cities appear to be a jockeying for moral position prior to addressing practical demands. When they finally get to those points, Sparta has three requests: stop the siege on Potidæa, give Aegina its freedom, and stop the sanctions on Megara. The Athenians respond with religious complaints against Megara (although flipping from an Athenian confederate to a Spartan ally probably lies describes the issue better). Sparta replies with what looks to be one demand—dismantle the Athenian empire: “[T]he Lacedæmonians desire that there should be peace, which may be had if you will suffer the Grecians to be governed by their own laws”. The speech of the Athenian envoys before the Spartan council (back in chapter 76) made it clear that such a demand would never be considered: “So that, though overcome by three the greatest things, honour, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it”.

When the Athenian debate regarding a possible war, Thucydides reports only Pericles’ speech. It’s tricky how much to read into such one-sided presentations—does the speaker include the other side’s points so there is no need to present them or does Thucydides do this to shape his argument? Pericles reminds Athens that the Spartans did not accept arbitration on the issues, desiring war instead. He reminds them that such things as the Megarean decree is not just a trifle, but that it requires “the trial and constancy of your resolution”. If Athens gives in on small points, Sparta will return asking them to yield to larger issues. Pericles also stresses the importance of money in war, believing Athens to be better situated in that area. Athens strengths lie in their fleet and in their confederates. But he makes a crucial point about the latter, saying “when we cannot war upon them, they will revolt.” (Some friends you’ve got there.) Pericles also believes that making a mistake will cost Athens more than any Spartan tactic.

I’ll end the summary with an extended excerpt from the last few chapters of Book I (with additional emphasis by me):

”For the present, let us send away these men with this answer: ‘that the Megareans shall have the liberty of our fairs and ports, if the Lacedæmonians will also make no banishment of us nor of our confederates as of strangers’: for neither our act concerning Megara, nor their banishment of strangers, is forbidden in the articles: ‘also, that we will let the Grecian cities be free, if they were so when the peace was made; and if the Lacedæmonians will also give leave unto their confederates to use their freedom, not as shall serve the turn of the Lacedæmonians, but as they themselves shall every one think good: also that we will stand to judgment according to the articles, and will not begin the war, but be revenged on those that shall’. For this is both just, and for the dignity of the city to answer. Nevertheless you must know, that of necessity war there will be; and the more willingly we embrace it, the less pressing we shall have our enemies; and that out of the greatest dangers, whether to cities or private men, arise the greatest honours. For our fathers, when they undertook the Medes, did from less beginnings, nay abandoning the little they had, by wisdom rather than fortune, by courage rather than strength, both repel the barbarian and advance this state to the height it now is at. Of whom we ought not now to come short, but rather to revenge us by all means upon our enemies; and do our best to deliver the state unimpaired by us to posterity.”

Thus spake Pericles. The Athenians liking best of his advice, decreed as he would have them; answering the Lacedæmonians according to his direction, both in particulars as he had spoken, and generally, “that they would do nothing on command, but were ready to answer their accusations upon equal terms by way of arbitrement”. So the ambassadors went home; and after these there came no more.

Initially I wasn’t satisfied with Thucydides’ explanation for the true cause of the war, but then I realized he posits a dual explanation: 1) Sparta feared Athens growth, and 2) the war was forced on Sparta. It was clear that the reasons and demands during the negotiations don’t represent the real areas of conflict. And frankly I find Pericles' speech baffling--this convinced Athenians to vote for war? Probably only if they were predisposed to do so.

Diodorus, Aristophanes, Plutarch and others describe the cause of the war hinging on the sanctions imposed by the Magarean decrees yet Thucydides is almost silent about them. The Spartans clearly include rescinding the decrees as part of their demands, but Pericles scoffs at that demand, saying in effect that the Spartans will be back demanding more if we give on this. He also offers to rescind them if the Spartans reverse certain of their actions, all of which were not prohibited by the thirty-year peace treaty. The Spartan final request simply states that “the Grecians to be governed by their own laws”, which could include the decrees but also involves every ally of Athens having to pay tribute or furnish ships in the Delian League. To place the reason for the war on these decrees, if Thucydides’ recounting of negotiations is correct, seems wildly overblown.

There seemed to be a lot about Athens and their behavior that people don't like. When the Corinthians spoke to the Spartan assembly and contrasted the two groups, they weren’t exactly trying to cast Athens in a good light by calling them bold and adventurous. Representatives who complain about Athens’ actions tend to include as much about Athens' nature as they do their injuries. Remember back to around 481BC and the question of Who leads the fleet against the Persians? The obvious choice of Athens was passed over for Sparta--something about Athens' behavior seems to have rubbed many the wrong way and it only got worse during their expansion after the Persian wars.

The question to ask may not be what are the reasons for the war but instead focus on why the thirty-year peace lasted as long as it did (around 14 years). Or, to avoid looking like I’m saying the war was inevitable, what kept the peace? The thirty-year peace would require stability, not just for Athens and Sparta but for the smaller cities around them, too. Stability in Sparta was always an ‘iffy’ question as the helot revolt demonstrated. Having Athenians around during that revolt proved to be too dangerous so the Spartans reversed course and told the Athenians to leave. The resentment the Athenians harbored at that dismissal causes them to lash out, not directly at Sparta but at their pro-Spartan leaders.

Even with this hostility, Pericles doesn’t frame his speech so much as anti-Sparta, instead focusing on keeping Athens’ empire. The Spartan king Archidamus evaluates going to war on its own terms, not hell-bent against the Athenians. Unfortunately Sthenelaidas pushed all the right buttons of the crowd—interestingly enough, points of his speech sound similar to those of Pericles.

As long as Athens and Sparta were stable and in agreement on treating rebellions, things were fine. The thirty-year peace treaty addressed many of the reasons triggering the “first” Peloponnesian war (settled in 446/5 BC), such as allies of the two principal cities switching sides, but the treaty couldn’t address every possibility. As feelings in Athens and Sparta harden against each other and you combine that with a mischievous Corinth, almost any step taken by one of the principals is going to seem hostile. Throw in Athens’ behavior as described by the Corinthians and you’ve got a conflagration in search of a spark. If the listed pretexts didn’t occur or trigger the war, it seems (given the circumstances) that other incidents would soon provide a casus belli (or maybe I should say proschema). The war was not inevitable until a sufficient number of participants thought it was.

I’ve beaten this beyond death…I'm ready to go to Book Two…

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