Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: No, this is how democracy ends

Map of ancient Greece
Picture source

This post looks at Chapters 63 through 88 of Book Eight, covering the war during part of the summer of 411 BC. This section covers the fall of the democracy in Athens to the Four Hundred and Alcibiades' recall to Athens. All quotes (and spellings) come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

One aspect I didn’t mention in the last post as Athens turns toward oligarchy was the class aspect to it. As Hobbes translates in chapter 48, “they that were of most power in the city, who also were the most toiled out, entered into great hope both to have the ordering of the state at home themselves, and victory also over the enemy.” Richard Crawley’s translation makes the distinction more explicit: “The most powerful citizens, who also suffered most severely from the war, now had great hopes of getting the government into their own hands and of triumphing over the enemy.” On Samos, when Pisander and the other envoys return from meeting with Tissaphernes (which went badly due to the satrap’s exorbitant demands), they strengthened their control in the army and attempted to incite the upper class in Samos to establish an oligarchy.

Another aspect to keep in mind about the turn to oligarchy is the initial sparks came from the Athenian troops on Samos, placing their hope in Alcibiades and his perceived ability to win the support of Tissaphernes. Alcibiades begins to lay the groundwork for his return, which can only happen with a favorable government to him in Athens. The Athenians on Samos come to the conclusion that Alcibiades wasn’t fit to be part of an oligarchy. With that decided, they send Pisander and envoys to Athens to take care of business there and establish oligarchies on cities along the way.

A hint of how things could turn out for the oligarchic faction occurs on Thasos. The Athenians set up an oligarchy in Thasos but the people, having tasted moderation and liberty, turn to Sparta for their freedom. When Pisander and the envoys arrive in Athens, they find that “certain young men combining themselves, had not only murdered Androcles privily, a principal patron of the popular government” in order to silence his moderate voice and because he had been responsible for Alcibiades’ banishment. Terror was the chosen method, with other assassinations carried out to help the overthrow of the democracy. The assembly continues to meet but the conspirators openly control it. Those not agreeing with the conspiracy stay silent out of fear and cowardice. The people believe that the numbers of the conspirators are greater than they really are since everyone react threats their friends and neighbors with fear and suspicion. Ten commissioners are elected to frame a new constitution and a ruling structure of the Four Hundred is proposed with “absolute authority to govern the state as they thought best”. To appear more inclusive and representative, the Four Hundred were to convene a meeting of Five Thousand when they thought necessary, but no progress was made to set up such a group. Democracy in Athens, after one hundred years of rule, had been overturned.

Thucydides goes into detail on some of the leaders of the oligarchs: Pisander, Antiphon, Phrynicus, and Theramenes. The democratic assembly unanimously ratifies the new constitution and then resigns. The Four Hundred rule using force instead of law, meeting no significant resistance. The oligarchs send a peace overture to the Spartan king Agis, who eventually tells them to send envoys to Sparta for negotiations. Compare the peace overture to the oligarchs’ underlying reason for seeking power—they said they were the only ones that could win the war. The Four Hundred also takes steps to secure the backing of the army on Samos: “They likewise sent ten men to Samos, to satisfy the army: and to tell them, ‘that the oligarchy was not set up to any prejudice of the city or citizens, but for the safety of the whole state: and that they which had their hands in it were five thousand, and not four hundred only”. Samos had already experienced turmoil as an oligarchic group had planned an attack on the democratic leaders and overthrow the government. Getting wind of the plot, democratic leaders enlist various leaders and the army. When the oligarchic group began its attacks, they are defeated and several of their leaders killed or banished.

The state ship Paralus, used on official business, sails to Athens to inform them of the failed coup at Samos. Arriving after the Four Hundred have taken power, the crewmen of the official ship are imprisoned. One of the crew, Chaereas, escapes and returns to Samos. Chaereas paints such an exaggerated picture of “the horrors being enacted at Athens” that the army vows to remain loyal only to democracy on Samos and in Athens. The forces on Samos also cut off communication with the Four Hundred. As complicated as the twists and turns have been, even I caught the humor in the fact that the original impetus for the oligarchy started with the Athenians on Samos and now the push for restoration of the democracy begins there as well. “So there was a contention at this time: one side compelling the city [Samos] to a democracy; the other, the army to an oligarchy.” The Athenian army elects a complete new roster of generals to insure continued alliance with democracy. The envoys from Athens to Samos find out how matters stand when they land at Delos and decide to stay there instead of push forward to Samos on their mission.

Meanwhile the Spartan fleet, complaining that their admiral Astyochus refuses to engage in battle and the Persian satrap Tissaphernes does not pay sufficiently, demand to engage in a battle. Astyochus and the Spartan allies had already decided to do that so the Spartan/allied fleet sails to Samos to fight the Athenians. The Spartans find out that Athenian ships have returned from the Hellespont, leveling the number of ships on each side, and they refuse to engage in battle. The Spartans decide to send some of their fleet to Phrnabazus, the Persian satrap of the Hellespont area, for money and to see if Byzantium will revolt from Athens. Most of their ships are scattered in a storm but ten ships make it and cause Byzantium to revolt. Hearing of this the Athenians send ships to the Hellespont and a small skirmish with the Spartans occurs.

The Athenian leaders on Samos, especially Thrasybulus, push for a recall of Alcibiades in the hope that Tissaphernes could bring Persian support to the war. (I find this incredible that people could still trust Alcibiades given the unsuccessful mission already to Tissaphernes. Also, while Thucydides makes it clear that the violent gangs in Athens were trying to appeal to Alcibiades in their murders, he wasn’t directly implicated. Even so, this is the guy you want helping out? Especially when you made it clear that you supported democracy and not the oligarchy? The Athenians have gone beyond hope as a plan and are now firmly in delusional territory.) Alcibiades speaks to an assembly at Samos and does what he does best—talking a good game and promising the moon. In doing this Thucydides says his purpose was to achieve support with the army and cause the oligarchs and political clubs in Athens to fear him. The troops lap it up and elect Alcibiades general and ask him to sail with them to Athens. Alcibiades begs off this request, saying instead he needs to meet with Tissaphernes.

The Spartans hears of Alcibiades’ recall and, already mistrusting Tissaphernes, become completely disgruntled with him (because of his close association with Alcibiades). The blame begins to fall on Astyochus again for not engaging in decisive battles and for humoring Tissaphernes. A fort built by Tissaphernes in Miletus is taken by Milesians, much to the approval of many Spartan allies. There was even potential conflict between the Spartan troops and Astyochus when the soldiers demand their back pay—Astyochus had to flee to an altar for refuge. Fortunately for his sake, the new admiral Mindarus arrives to relieve Astyochus.

On Samos, the envoys of the Four Hundred arrived and tried to speak in an assembly but are shouted down. Eventually the envoys are allowed to speak and tell the assembly “that the change had been made for the preservation of the city, not to destroy it, nor to deliver it to the enemy”. The reiterate the concept of the five thousand (which is still only a theory or a claim at this point). The envoys also try to put to rest the exaggerated charges of Chaereas, too, but the soldiers aren’t buying any of it. Things turn surreal when Thucydides praises Alcibiades for being the only person able to stop the assembly from sailing to Athens and overthrowing the government (even, or rather especially, if his point is correct). Alcibiades tells the envoys that he doesn’t mind the government of the five thousand and holds out hope for reconciliation between the different factions *after* the city is safe.

Things only proceed to get stranger. Tissaphernes goes to Aspendus (well east of Ceramus in the above map) to meet a Phoenician fleet of 147 ships, but the ships do not join the Peloponnesian fleet. Thucydides conjectures that Tissaphernes wanted to continue his plan of extending the war and playing the Greeks against each other since such a fleet would have made an immediate impact on either side. Alcibiades, finding out that Tissaphernes has gone to Aspendus, goes there himself and promises the Athenians he will either bring the Phoenician back with him or at least prevent it from joining the Peloponnesians. Thucydides speculates that Alcibiades knew Tissaphernes had no plans to bring the Phoenician fleet into the war, plus Alcibiades could compromise the Persian satrap in the eyes of the Spartans by being in Aspendus when the deal appears to fall through.

The next (and final) section picks up with the envoys of the Four Hundred returning to Athens from their meeting with the troops and Alcibiades on Samos…

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