Monday, January 10, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Strategy and Pericles’ funeral oration (2:1-46)

This post looks at Book Two through the first 46 chapters. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.

Spartan strategy
The Spartan king Archidamus attempted to dissuade his countrymen from declaring war against Athens in Book One (chapters 80 – 85). Archidamus raised the following concerns: Athens would be a powerful foe, a war with them would last many years, Sparta can ravage Athens but that won’t hurt Athens significantly, Sparta needs several years to prepare for war, Sparta doesn’t have the same financial resources as Athens, and Spartan character calls for acting slowly and moderately. While he doesn’t directly acknowledge the importance of Athens’ long walls, his analysis encompasses Athens ability to supply itself with unrestricted access to the sea.

An attack on Plataea by Thebans goes awry but signals the opening of hostilities as well as emphasizing the importance of internal strife in Greece in the war. Sparta proposes building a fleet of five hundred ships, which seems to be a pipe dream to match the Athenian naval superiority but acknowledges that Sparta must match Athens’ strengths. Sparta attempts to win a propaganda war by promising liberty for the Greeks (I’m sure their helots loved the irony), which did win “men’s affections for the most part” to them—some to escape Athenian rule while others sought to prevent subjection to them. While understand Athens may not “come out against us to battle” (staying in their city “every way well appointed”), the Spartan strategy of banking on the uncertainty around “the accidents of war” seems to be wishful thinking.

The Spartans invade Attica and take their time to proceed to Athens. First they siege Oenoe, a city far to the northwest of Athens that makes little strategic sense. Archidamus seems to delay actual conflict as long as possible but his heralds to Athens are not received by Pericles. As Archidamus finally approaches Athens, he hopes that wasting the surrounding lands would incite the Athenians (especially the younger ones) to leave the city and engage the Spartans or at least plant seeds of dissension in the city.

Athenian strategy
In Pericles’ speech at the end of Book One (chapters 140 – 144) there were some points he made that provides a foundation for his strategy toward the Spartans: no concessions to Sparta, the Spartans’ lack of funds, Athens’ superiority at sea, the Peloponnesian League’s divisive nature (Sparta was one among many as compared to Athens’ domination of the Delian League), and Athens’ need to avoid making mistakes. Pericles’ strategy has often been described as defensive, but that doesn’t fully capture the tactics he employed. On the defensive side, Pericles advised to bring much of the surrounding countryside into the city. But there were offensive forays as well—the navy was sent out, not just on harassing raids of the Peloponnese but also to “hold a careful hand over their confederates”. During one of these naval assaults we receive an introduction to the Spartan Brasidas, who successfully defended a city from the Athenians. While Athens’ sorties from their city may be limited, Thucydides notes that Athens invaded Megara every year until Nisaea was taken (many years away), sometimes doing so twice in a season. Money would be crucial in winning the war, although Pericles fails to put an estimate on how long he thinks Athens could hold out given their resources. That consideration may be irrelevant in his thinking. Pericles wants to outlast the Spartans, not defeat them. If he thinks the Spartans money-poor, then relative wealth would be more important than absolute amounts.

Pericles understood the difficulty of his strategy, especially around those from the country who would watch their lands ravaged and unable to oppose it. By not allowing any council meeting, Pericles prevents decisions to be made from “passion rather than judgment”, although he had to know that this strategy would turn opinion against him. Thucydides notes that the Athenian army sent out this first summer was “the greatest army that ever the Athenians had together in one place before; the city being now in her strength, and the plague not yet amongst them.”

Pericles’ funeral oration
If you haven’t read Pericles’ funeral oration, I highly recommend you do so. It covers Chapters 35 through 46 in Book Two, about 3,000 words and should take 15-20 minutes to read. Pericles was chosen by the city to deliver the eulogy for the war’s casualties from the first year, being “thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity”. His statement centers on what makes Athens great while glossing over its weaknesses, both of which would be on full display during the next few years. As Pericles presents it, the greatness of Athens has been purchased by their ancestors through work and war. He stresses the unique government that Athens forged which other cities copied. Many characteristics are used to describe Athens and what makes it superior: trust, duty, courage, action, and involvement. “Power of the city”, a phrase which is repeated several time, is designed to make itself felt through citizen action and institutions. I hear echoes of the quote the Athenian envoys’ made before the Spartan council (Book I, Chapter 76): “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”. The same envoys noted that it was the intelligence of Athens’ leaders and the zeal of its citizens that fueled the power of the city while Pericles focuses on the latter trait, seeking to maintain it during the trying times of war and funerals of those fallen.

Pericles stresses Athenian subjection to laws, not just in making Athens great but also twice explaining he gives this oration to follow what the law requires—he’s subject to the same laws as every citizen. Interestingly enough, Pericles does not seem to approve of this requirement, saying praise will not be enough or too much for different listeners. Since some who fell didn’t deserve such praise in their regular life while others were exemplary, they all died in a manner that is praiseworthy—for the city. Service to the city, and thus praise of the city, frames Pericles’ speech. Such service comes not from the feeling of compulsion but through generosity, freedom and courage.

Pericles notes that we all die but what matters is what we do while alive. He recalls how their ancestors achieved immortality through what they suffered and achieved while projecting the status the current generation would attain through their courage in maintaining Athenian freedom. There are several pointed barbs at the Spartans, but usually just in comparison to Athens’ characteristics or institutions.

The obvious comparison of Pericles’ claims would be with the Corinthian description of Athenian characteristics versus Spartan nature. Pericles would probably view the Athenian characteristics described as requisite for achieving greatness. The first year of the war concludes on this unsustainable high note. Athens inflicted little damage on Sparta while the Spartans ravaged the Athenian countryside with impunity. Both sides not only seem to be feeling each other out but working through the tactics necessary to achieve their strategy. But everything can change dramatically in a season…

Update: Rhetoric as Ritual: The Semiotics of the Attic Funeral Oration


Unknown said...

hi, i am i high school student doing an ancient history assignment on Pericles. My assignment requires me to incorporate modern perspectives on Pericles. May I use a quote from your article on Pericles and source it? If I am sourcing the quote it requires your full name (I couldn't find your full name on your profile)

Dwight said...

Absolutely. I've responded by email. Good luck!

Slizzabeth said...

So grateful for this, had a hard time getting through the readings and this helped me immensely. Thank for your insights

Dwight said...

I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks for letting me know!

Unknown said...


I've got a midterm exam tomorrow in classical political theory class and I just got to say, this post was quite helpful in my understanding and preparation.


Dwight said...

Glad to hear that Zev--hope you do well!

BInspired2day said...

I have a paper due asking me if I believed what Pericles said in his speech. Do you have an opinion on him over stating Athens?

Dwight said...

I always have an opinion! I'll point you to a few things I would keep in mind on writing such a paper.

What was the purpose of the speech? (immediate reason--funeral speech, vs. what Pericles wanted people to remember) Why is death mentioned so little in a funeral speech? (see Lecture 5 in this post for that topic)

While Pericles delivers the speech, Thucydides is recording it. What is his bias? Look at the next post and see Thucydides' defense of does his feelings come into play for the funeral speech? (Little in Thucydides can be viewed on its own...there are always comparisons and contrasts) Pericles is a politician--how much of what he says is purely political? Given his strategy (that Thucydides defends), how much of the speech is to prepare them for a drawn-out defensive war?

Hopefully that gives you some topics to frame the paper. While I don't think there is any right answer, I do think Thucydides provides some clues on what Pericles was trying to do with such a speech.

Jacob said...

I don't know why I'm commenting only on this part, but I find the series of blog posts on The Peloponnesian Wars a very well written accompaniment to reading the actual copy. I find that from a high schooler's point of view, only part of Thucydides' message reaches the immature reader's mind but this makes up for some of the understanding that is lost. Also... this helps a lot before the bookly (that a word?) tests :D

Dwight said...

Jacob, no need to apologize. I'm glad these posts help in understanding this great work! Good luck on your tests.

Anonymous said...

Dwight! You are well loved in the Reed College freshman class, you have such wonderful insights. Thank you.

Dwight said...

Wonderful! I'm glad it's helpful.
Reed in Portland? I no longer travel there for business...which is my loss. Here's hoping I get to visit there again soon.

Gorgo said...

I thought Pericles' funeral oration was cool because he emphasized that Freedom is not an end in and of itself, but it is a means to the good life, and that is why it is worth cherishing. The speech was cool because while Pericles seems to overstate the awesomeness of Athens as she was, it seems like he really believed those ideals.

Thank you for your insight!

Dwight said...

Thanks for your note. There's a lot going on in the funeral oration, and one part I love is how Pericles ends up contradicting himself in the speech (although he wouldn't have seen it as a contradiction). He starts off celebrating the cultural and democratic aspect of Athens, but then language creeps in that celebrates the empire aspect of Athens.

The overstatement of awesomeness parts were probably necessary if he wanted to stoke the city's inhabitants to continue fighting the war and having to have more funeral orations over the dead that fell in the war.