PageLines- ThucydidesLandmark.jpg

In last week’s reading, after the Corinthians and Corcyreans finish their speeches, the Athenians reach a decision to side with the Corcyreans. The Athenians commit 10 ships, but attempt to follow a policy of nonaggression out of calculated self-interest. The Corinthian preparations are complete and they send one hundred and fifty ships to Corcyra to begin taking action against them.

Corcyra, having been alerted of the development, immediately dispatches one hundred and ten ships, in addition to the Athenian group, to meet them at sea.  Thucydides notes that in terms of size, this has been the greatest naval campaign yet, implying that it is even greater than Agamemnon’s armada back in the days of the Trojan War.

Corcyra and Corinth engage in a brutal sea battle, in which heavy losses are incurred on both sides. The author observes that the battle is not notable for its science – and certain naval maneuvers had not yet been invented – but was rather one of brute force, and even rather in character more like land fighting – with hoplites attacking each from platform of the ships.

The outcome is uncertain.  Both suffer losses and both set up trophies on the shore, claiming to be victors.  The landmark event here, however, is that Athens finds herself finally committed to one side against the Corinthians, and, in the Corinthian eyes, breaking the treaty that had been forged thirty years prior to this event.

After this, a tributary city of Athens called Potidaea, also colony of Corinth, becomes the center of attention, as a local power struggles stir the city to revolt against Athens, and Athens rushes to prevent this from happening.

Both of these events are enough for Corinth to feel that Athenian aggression now warrants action. They go to the Spartans to appeal for help, and to stir them up in support of their cause.

There just so happened to be an Athenian present on other business when the Corinthians plead their case, and the Athenian stands up in to answer the charges. Archidamus follows this speech with words counseling wisdom and restraint, and the final speech is by an ephor (for the current year) who briefly recommends war. The situation is put to Spartan vote by traditional acclamation, but the shouting is too strong to tell what the outcome might be, so the ephor has them separate into different sides of the speaking area – those who agree with the charge that Athenian aggression must be stopped and action taken; and those who rather deliberate with Archidamas. A clear majority vote in favor of war, while recognizing the need to marshall support from the allies.

Tonight’s reading (1.68-1.88, page 38-49 Strassler edition) concentrated on the set of four extraordinary speeches that takes place under these circumstances. Four people in the group volunteered to read each speech, and after we finished, the conversation commenced.

One of the most important features of this set of speeches is that a tension between two fundamental motives came to sight: whether the actions of a people are guided by justice and nobility, or by calculated self-interest, and in particular, which side Athens really stands on. We’ve already seen hints of this conflict arise in previous readings, but now we can see it it emerging as thematic.

As we reflect on this conflict, trying to understand what is at the bottom of it,  we noticed how the Athenian does not even offer a defense of the Athenenian position – a point which turns the Spartans more assuredly toward war. In fact, the Athenian seem to dismiss justice altogether. What has justice got to do with it? they seem to say, in effect.

It follows that it was not a very remarkable action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. (1.76)

One is reminded of Plato’s Alcibiades - where Alcibiades frankly tells Socrates that no one really talks about justice in political assembly – it just doesn’t have weight. The Athenian makes such a bald and persuasive case for self-interest, some of us felt convinced that this strikes through to a truth about the world and the way peoples actually work. Others were deeply disturbed by what seems to be such an easy dismissal of justice.

The Athenians are not unaware of justice and nobility – these clearly have weight in their mind, as it has weight in the Corinthians and Spartans. As someone pointed out in the group: the Athenians were claiming a sort of natural right, that their position was just, seeing that they had claim to be defenders of Hellas against the Persian invasion, especially at Marathon – without the help of the Spartans.

The Corinthian’s opening speech, as they attempt to provoke the Spartans, points to the radical difference in national character between the two peoples, Athenian and Spartan, a difference they claimed the Spartans were hardly perceptive of.  This difference is something we had already seen early indications in the opening readings of Book I when Thucydides refers us to a little feature of fashion in men between Spartans and Athenians, revealing something of their characters. But here we have the strongest assertion yet in the book about the difference between the peoples. So the Corinthian declaims:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution…they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine…(1.70)

The Spartans by contrast “have a genius for keeping” what the have, “accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act never go far enough.” They “attempt less than is justified” by their power, mistrusting what is even sanctioned by their judgment. (1.70)

Archidamus, in rebuttal to the Athenian, and also to the Corinthian, fills out our picture of Spartan character:

We are both warlike and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so. We are warlike, because self-control contains honor as a chief constituent., and honor bravery. And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too sever a self-control to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters – such as the knowledge which gives specious criticism of an enemy’s plans in theory, but fails to assail them with equal success in practice- but are taught to consider that the schemes of our enemies are not dissimilar to our own, and that the freaks of chance are not determinable by calculation. In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school. (1.84)

For the next two sessions, February 6th and 13, we will be turning to Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the Melian Dialogue, as we continue to try to come to grips with what is at stake in the conflict here exhibited by Thucydides.


For the Gallery talk after the discussion, we examined two pieces, led by our intrepid docent and seminar participant, Geoff Leech. The first was an Athenian coin and the second a vessel with an image of an Amazon warrior.

The coin below, you will notice, has a crescent moon under the olive sprig just above the owl’s wing. It is widely believed that this is a reference to the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians faced the Persian army alone because Sparta was celebrating a religious festival associated with the crescent moon.  Was a dig at the Spartan absence, and a reminder of the greatness of Athenian character?

The next piece was a Red-Figure lekythos oil and unguent flask, the only piece in the Museum fabricated during the time of the Peloponnesian War.  The artist was known to special in making only this image, the female Amazon warrior. Amazons, we learned, are speculated to be from Scythia – a region we encountered in Herodotus’s account in his Histories last year.




Share →

One Response to Thucydides at the Museum: Seminar Report, Session 4

  1. Dawn S. says:

    The Archidamus speech is one we studied closely in the Naval War College. It’s not a perfect “net assessment” as defined by today’s military strategists but it was far ahead of the other speeches of the day in demonstrating a careful reflection by a leader on the pros and cons of going to war. Archidamus considered most the “big ticket items” for war readiness: economic readiness, equipment readiness (number of men and ships), commitment and readiness of their allies, the nature of the Spartan society (Clausewitz calls this the “passion” of war) and whether Sparta is on moral high ground or not.

    After he states that Athens is ahead of them in most of the “big ticket items”, except maybe the moral high-ground and how well trained are their own hoplites, he counsels diplomatic means as way of solving the complaints of the allies, or at least, buying Sparta more time to prep.

    I think he also knows that Sparta’s way of war is probably now outdated compared to the Athenian way of war. He even stops to ask about the nature of the war in 1.81.4 and wonders (in effect) how can an elephant (Sparta’s army) fight and win against a whale (Athens’ navy)? As a result he may fear the military and social changes Sparta would have to undergo to have a chance of winning. And since Sparta is not big on change, he’d just like to avoid the whole darn thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>