Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Corcyra (Book I, Chapters 24 – 55)

Map of ancient Greek world
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This was the first cause that the Corinthians had of war against the Athenians: namely, because they had taken part with the Corcyræans in a battle by sea against the Corinthians, with whom they were comprised in the same articles of peace.

I’ll apologize about the length of this post. I’m know I'm including too much to make this of interest to others but these are essentially all of my notes on this section. I need to find a better method but at this point I’m not sure what will recur or prove important later. Hopefully I’ll find an improved method as I go.

At the end of what I called the introduction (Chapters 1 through 23), Thucydides differentiates between the immediate causes and the real reason for the war: while there were many immediate or proximate causes, the real reason according to Thucydides was “the growth of the Athenian power; which putting the Lacedæmonians into fear necessitated the war.” These chapters (24 through 55) cover the first of the immediate pretexts for the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between Corcyra and Corinth that drew Athens into the fray. Quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation unless otherwise specified. With that, we’ll see how it goes…

A (semi-)quick summary: Corinth had founded Corcyra, then the two cities jointly founded Epidamnus. Around 435BC, The elite in Epidamnus, forced from the city due to conflict with the “commoners”, joined with nearby barbarians and “robbed those that remained within.” The commoners of Epidamnus ask Corcyra for help. After their request for assistance was rejected by Corcyra, they turn to Corinth for help. Corcyra, upon hearing Corinth will assist Epidamnus, besieges Epidamnus. Corinth, receiving aid from other cities, sets out to resettle Epidamnus with their own citizens. Corcyra claims they will accept arbitration from the oracle at Delphi but Corinth demurs, saying Corcyra needs to suspend the siege of Epidamnus first. Corcyra says that until Corinth calls back the men already sent their siege will continue. The Corcyraenas were clear victors against the Corinthians at sea, while on the same day (just like Herodotus, battles occur on the same day!) Corcyra takes the city of Epidamnus. Corcyra controls the Ionian Gulf and harasses the Corinthian allies in the area. Corinth continues to build its navy while Corcyra sends embassies to Athens to request their help. Corinth, learning of Corcyra’s plan, sends ambassadors to prevent Athens assisting their enemy.

I’ll go into more detail here about the speeches from the ambassadors of Corcyra and Corinth. I found the approach of both cities interesting because of what they thought important to stress. (Books 32-36: Corcyra’s speech to the Athenians asking for assistance) Corcyra acknowledges they have avoided alliances, which was a mistake (although they thought it wise at the time). While Corcyra acknowledges they beat Corinth single-handedly, they recognize the need for assistance as Corinth returns with reinforcements. Corcyra presents these reasons as to why Athens should support them:

1) To help those who have suffered unjustly (I found it interesting this was the first reason given—appealing to a higher purpose for intervention—justice),

2) Everything Corcyra has is at stake, so Athens’ assistance would be demonstrate their goodwill,

3) Corcyra has the second greatest navy (behind Athens), so think about this opportunity:
a. This is a rare offer, take advantage of it
b. Your accumulation of power causes Spartan fear which will lead to war (Although if Athens backs Corcyra, they are starting a de facto war. I found it interesting that Corcyra, and I assume others, view war as inevitable.)
c. Sparta, through Corinth, is already attacking Corcyra to isolate Corcyra from helping Athens
This evaluation by Corcyra provides a flavor of Greek tragedy: a particular action is foreordained so an individual/city takes action to avoid the inevitable. However, their action accelerates or facilitates the “inevitable” action.

Corcyra claims they seek to be equals of the mother city, not their slaves. They mention they offered to submit themselves to arbitration, but Corinth refused and pushed for war. They warned not to be seduced by their Corinth'sarguments—if Athens submits to an enemy’s (Corinth’s) requests, you will reproach yourself later for compromising your security. Corcyra then presents legal arguments that touch on the peace agreement struck between Athens and Sparta (the thirty-years peace treaty) in an earlier conflict, settled in 446/5 BC. “For there it is said, that whosoever is confederate of neither party, may have access lawfully to either.” With this point, Corcyra addresses the potential conflict between Athens and Sparta since Corinth is an ally of Sparta. If you do not help us, Corinth (the aggressor and your enemy) will draw resources from your allies, and if Corinth defeats us they will have use of our navy. Did we mention that our navy is second only to yours? While you are comparatively weak in land forces against the Spartans and their allies, our defeat will cause you to be challenged on the seas as well. In addition, our location is to your advantage since we provide a convenient stop on the way to Italy and Sicily. If you don’t help us, you will probably have to face us in battle since we will be a subject of Corinth and thus allied with Sparta.

Corcyra’s argument begins with the high principle of justice but then frames the dispute in terms of power politics. If Athens does not help Corcyra as an ally, Corcyra will fall to their enemies. It’s amazing just how little political arguments have changed over the years.

(Corinth’s argument before the Athenians is in Books 37-43): Corcyra has not allied themselves with anyone, not out of principle but out of shame in order to hide their misbehavior. While they were our colony, they have always been in revolt against us—no other colony of ours scorns us like they do. (These arguments would probably appeal to Athens in dealing with their colonies and having to deal with other members of the Delian League.) Why have they acted this way? “[T]hrough pride and wealth” overcoming their modesty (moderation), which they are able to do because of the security we have provided them. It is true that Corcyra asked for arbitration, but only after they successfully besieged Epidamnus and feared our reprisal. They seek your help in order to sustain their criminal gains.

Then it is time for Cornith’s appeal for justice—“with arguments of equity and right”—and they go deeper into the thirty-year peace treaty. Apparently a city not a party to the treaty, such as Corcyra, may become an ally of a city in the treaty (Athens, Sparta, or one of their allies), just as Corcyra claims. However, they cannot do so “to the detriment of either” party to the treaty, which an alliance between Corcyra and Athens would do. Did we mention that we stood by you five years ago when you had problems with your ally Samos? Other allies of Sparta took Samos’ side, but we argued that you had the right to proceed against your confederate’s rebellion. In addition, we provided ships to you in your war against Aegina (before the Persian wars). (My thoughts: Is Samos and Corcyra the same thing? Samos was an outright rebellion. Corcyra reflects an internal civil war. Also, this is where detail on the peace treaty would be helpful...hopefully it will be spelled out later.)

What we ask for is just. Do not worry about war with Sparta and her allies, which “is yet obscure” (and therefore not inevitable). Don’t be suckered into expanding your navy in this manner: “For to do no injury to our equals, is a firmer power, than that addition of strength, which, puffed up with present sows, men are to acquire with danger.” Your best interest is to reject Corcyra’s request—it would allow justice to proceed in the same manner as we allowed you to pursue your just cause against Samos. Your choice will make you either a friend or an enemy.


Athens puts the question before the assembly over two days. During the first day the assembly leans in favor of Corinth, while on the second day they choose in favor of Corcyra—this won’t be the first time the assembly changes its mind on their decisions. With an eye to an “inevitable war” with Sparta (and Sparta’s allies, like Corinth), Athens chooses to strike a defensive treaty with Corcyra in order to 1) keep Corcyra and their navy out of Corinth’s/Sparta’s hands, and 2) to keep their routes to Italy and Sicily open. Athens sends ten ships to Corcyra in order to defend it from Corinth. The captains are given strict orders not to attack on the offensive in order not to break the thirty-year peace agreement. While this appears to follow the letter of the agreement it seems not to follow the spirit of it. If Corinth’s argument is truthful, Athens appears to violate the treaty by allying itself with an enemy of one of the participants. Athens seems to want take action...do something more than just diplomatic, and they must have thought that sending ten ships (and then another twenty) would just be a token gesture, especially given their instructions. What they didn't bargain on was that those ships would eventually engage in hostilities against Corinth.

The remainder of this section deals with the naval battle off Sybota. “The battle was not so artificially as cruelly fought; near unto the manner of a fight at land. For after they had once run their galleys up close aboard one of another, they could not for the number and throng be easily gotten asunder again, but relied for the victory especially upon their men of arms, who fought where they stood whilst the galleys remained altogether without motion.” The battle proves to be a muddled affair, although the Corinthians appear to have obtained a slightly better outcome. Most importantly, the Athenians had initially abstained from the fight but were pressed into service to fight the Corinthians as Corcyra's fleet was bested. Thucydides marks this battle: “For this was the greatest naval battle, for number of ships, that ever had been before of Grecians against Grecians.” The battle breaks up when the Corinthians spy twenty additional Athenian ships approaching. These ships were sent to help in case Corcyra was overrun since the initial ten ships would not be enough.

During the next day, while the ships align for battle, the Corinthians send heralds to the ships of Athens to find out the purpose of their mission. The Athenians deny beginning the war or breaking the peace agreement. They claim only to assist their confederates in Corcyra. Both sides set up trophies, each claiming victory, and the Corinthians sail for home. On the way home the Corinthians take the city of Anactorium, which was the residence of many citizens of Corcyra. Two hundred and fifty of the best men of the city were taken prisoner by Corinth. The prisoners were treated well to help change the loyalty of many in Corcyra towards Corinth.

2 comments:

Aditya Sudhakar said...

Is this the same Hobbes that wrote Leviathan

Dwight Green said...

That would indeed be the same guy.