Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: when all Athens has is fear

Map of ancient Greece
Picture source

This post looks at Chapters 30 through 63 of Book Eight, covering the war from the winter of 412/1 into the summer of 411 BC. The focus remains on the Aegean Sea and Ionia with the Atheniana attempting to quell revolts in the area at the beginning of this section. The narrative also includes Alcibiades laying the groundwork for a safe return to Athens after first helping the Spartans, then assisting the Persians. Book Eight proves to be the most difficult book of the history for me to follow, probably because there are so many new names—I can hear “you can’t tell the players without a program!” in the back of my mind. All quotes (and spellings) come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

As reinforcements arrive, the Athenians are able to attack Chios and blockade Miletus. Astyochus, the Spartan fleet commander, flees Chios upon hearing of the Athenian fleet’s arrival but is still able to wreak havoc against Athenian interests during his retreat. Representatives from Lesbos approach him for help in their revolt but Spartan allies refuse to help. The Spartans renegotiate their agreement with Persia, though, making the terms a little more equitable. Regarding cities or territories that had been part of the Persian empire, Sparta only agrees not to go to war against them or exact tribute from them. Language requiring Sparta to help the king in case of any revolt was dropped. Persia was probably willing to modify some of these terms because Sparta had already helped secure Iasus and capture Amorges. A key line that was retained from the first agreement focuses on the need for Sparta and Persia to jointly coordinate any discussion of peace with Athens.

Chios, under assault from Athens, devolves into fear and an oligarchy is imposed. Astyochus refuses the Chians’ call for help, causing their leader Pedaritus to send letters to Sparta complaining of the wrong that Astyochus causes them. Sparta was already sending a fleet to the Persian satrap Pharnabazus (at the Hellespont) but they divert their trip to see what is going on with Astyochus and add advisors that, if they think fit, can replace the Spartan general. As he is travelling to meet the advisors Astyochus’ fleet becomes scattered in a storm and twenty Athenian ships, stumbling across a few of the Spartan ships, attack. The tables quickly turn as the remaining Spartan ships arrive and surround the Athenians, who flee after getting the worst of the battle. It's minor, but the Spartans show they can win a naval battle.

At Cnidus, the Spartan advisors meet with Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap of the region. Lichas speaks for the Spartan counsel when he voices his displeasure at the agreements between them and the Persians, noting that under the initial terms the Greeks would return to subjugation under the Persians instead of achieving liberty. Lichas demands a new agreement but “Tissaphernes chafing at this, went his way in choler: and nothing was done.” Also during this winter, the Spartans sailed from Cnidus to Rhodes and achieved a successful revolt of the island from Athens. In the meantime, Astyochus receives orders to kill Alcibiades, the Athenian traitor, out of suspicion and enmity with the Spartan king Agis. Alcibiades flees to Tissaphernes and informs the satrap how to string the Spartans along to the benefit of both: reduce the pay to the Spartans and pay it irregularly, bribe certain officials to obtain their alliance, refuse to pay support to cities that had revolted from Athens, and adopt a plan allowing Athens and Sparta to weaken each other through an extended war. According to Alcibiades, Athens would be the safer victor in the war for Persia, since Athens sought only to rule the sea and the islands; Sparta, on the other hand, sought to free subjects everywhere and were stronger on land, which would be a direct threat to Persia. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Tissaphernes believes Alcibiades to be his best counselor and takes his advice.

Thucydides attributes Alcibiades’ actions to his desire to return to Athens by playing up his connection with Tissaphernes. Alcibiades convinces the Athenian forces at Samos about his influence and that he could deliver the Persian satrap as an ally if an oligarchy was set up in Athens. Phrynichus, an Athenian general, opposed Alcibiades’ return to Athens. Phrynichus points out that Alcibiades was only interested in himself and not Athens, since changing to an oligarchy would alienate many of their allies. The Athenian troops on Samos involved in the conspiracy ignored Phrynichus and approved sending Pisander to Athens to negotiate “the reduction of Alcibiades, the dissolution of the democracy, and the procuring unto the Athenians the friendship of Tissphernes.”

As the plot advances and Phrynichus fears for his own safety (having spoken out against Alcibiades), he sends a letter to Astyochus, the Spartan admiral. His letter lays out the situation with Alcibiades and the harm the traitor has done to the Peloponnesians. Astyochus shows the letter to Alcibiades and Tissaphernes. Alcibiades makes sure the Athenians at Samos know about the correspondence, asking that Phrynichus be put to death. Phrynichus, finding out about the chain of events and fearing for his life, writes yet another letter to Astyochus, this one telling him how to defeat the Athenians at Samos. You guessed it…Astyochus shows the second letter to Alcibiades, too. Before Alcibiades’ letters arrive at Samos, Phrynichus, alert to the danger he is in, has the Athenians in Samos fortify the city and prepare for a Spartan attack. When Alcibiades’ letters arrive accusing Phrynichus of treachery and helping the enemy, Alcibiades’ claims appear false. Alcibiades turns to Tissaphernes and tries to line up his friendship with the Athenians, which appeared to be possible because of the fallout after the demands of Lichas for a new Spartan/Persian agreement.

The scene shifts to Athens as Pisander proposes the return of Alcibiades and the assumption of an oligarchy in order to win the confederacy of Persia. There is an uproar, the claims of Alcibiades’ sacrilege of the mysteries resurface as well as complaints about changing the democracy. At this point, Pisander asks the assembly—given that the Peloponnesians had as many ships as the Athenians, cities were revolting from Athens, and Persia was furnishing Sparta with money—did they have any other plan that could win the war. When no one replied, Pisander frames the change as “more moderation” in order to preserve the city instead of losing it. The government could always be changed at a later time. The Athenians, out of fear and rationalizating that they can change the government at a later date, approve the plan. Recall the Athenian businessmen that just happened to be in Sparta when the declaration of war was being debated and their defense of the Athenian empire (Book One, Chapter 75): “So that at first we were forced to advance our dominion to what it is, out of the nature of the thing itself; as chiefly for fear, next for honour, and lastly for profit.” Honor and profit are long gone and all the Athenians have is fear. In addition, the Athenian people fall for the fraudulent claims—Alcibiades, as we shall see, has no power to line up aid from Tissaphernes or anyone else in Persia. Even if he did, what difference did the form of government in Athens make? Once again the people saw and believed what they wanted to, using the “hope strategy” the Athenian delegation made fun of in the Melian dialogue. Pisander lied about Phrynichus, saying he had betrayed Iasus to the Spartans, causing the Athenians to vote for Phrynichus’ discharge. Before Pisander left Athens, he visited many of the political clubs (social groups that banded together for political power) exhorting them to make sure the change in government happened.

Thucydides shifts his narrative back to the Aegean Sea and Ionia, describing the attack of the Chians against the Athenians when the siege walls were completed. Their breakout fails, the Chian captain is slain and the siege slowly starves the people of Chios. Pisander arrives at Tissaphernes’ court and tries to sway the satrap to the Athenians’ side. Tissaphernes follows Alcibiades’ advice (who knew he couldn’t win the satrap and wanted to shift the blame for the failure) and makes increasingly excessive demands for an alliance. The Athenian delegation leaves the talks “in a chafe” and realizes “that Alcibiades had abused them.” Wary of the Spartans and wanting to drag the war out while making sure his interests were protected, Tissaphernes pays the Spartans (and allies) their overdue pay and negotiates a new treaty with them (the third proposal). The agreement looks very similar to the previous one, mentioning financial support from the Persians and commitment to wage war or make peace in common, but since Sparta had rejected the first two proposals/negotiations this was to be a formal treaty. All mention of non-Persian land was dropped, reflecting the complaint of Lichas. The other big change focuses on “the king’s navy”, the first time their assistance has been mentioned in the Spartan/Persian alliance. This would significantly augment the Spartan (Peloponnesian) navy, at least in theory.


Sparta finally decided to take the fight to the Hellespont. The Spartan general Dercylidas marched overland, arriving on the southern side of the Hellespont and achieves the revolt of Abydos and Lampsacus from the Athenians. The Athenians quickly respond, sending Strombichides and twenty-four ships to the area. He is able to recover Lapascus but not Abydos. Strombichides sets up a garrison on the northern shore in Sestos (Sestus on the map) for the defense of the whole Hellespont.

Back on the Greek mainland, the Boeotians capture Oropus “by treason”, including a garrison of Athenians. From here, a revolt of Euboea from Athens was planned. In the Aegean, the Chians attempt to lift the Athenian siege. While unsuccessful, their mastery of the sea improves and they are able to hold their own against the Athenians. In addition, the departure of the ships under Strombichides reduces the Athenian fleet at Samos which is in further disarray because of the fall of democracy in Athens. I’ll end the discussion here since it’s an ominous note—Sparta has taken the initiative and Athens is torn by civil strife surrounding the change of government.

Wrapping up the history--I will try and cover the final 47 chapters of Thucydides’ work in my next summary post, although I many do two posts depending on how long and/or diverse this last section proves to be. Tomorrow I'll have a post specifically for The Classics Circuit on...well, I don't know what I'll write about at this point. I need to work up a summary post that pulls together the many posts I've made and I may do an additional post or two that looks at some stray thoughts or other comments on the work. It's hard to believe that I'm coming to the end of this work...

2 comments:

zmkc said...

Why has nothing in history ever captured my imagination like the Peloponnesian wars - I think it's partly because, in them, I can always seem to find parallels for all that has happened since. And the role of individuals is so important, which makes them very engaging.

Dwight said...

I have wanted to read Thucydides for years and now that I have...I love it. It does capture the imagination, and I took a stab at some of the reasons in the post today, but I know there are many more as well.