Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Thoughts on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

From the Marxist Yanis Varoufakis to the doyen of American neo-conservatism, Donald Kagan – you get it all on Hellenic Antidote.

Thus, some points emerging from reading Donald Kagan's very good book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, particularly in relation to the war between the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesians as it transpired in Sicily.

1. I’m sure I’m not the first one to point out that the disastrous Sicilian expedition, which significantly contributed to the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, evokes striking similarities to the Asia Minor catastrophe: an enthusiastic and capable expeditionary force has initial success but, mostly due to poor leadership and increasing loss of morale and self-belief, fails to consolidate its advantages and finish the job, allowing for a revival of the enemy and leading to calamitous defeat. Indeed, I’m sure the similar fates suffered by the Athenians in Sicily and Greeks in Ionia was not lost on Eleftherios Venizelos, a student and translator of Thucydides.

2. We note the bitterness and savagery with which Greek fought Greek throughout the Peloponnesian War, but particularly in Sicily. Kagan writes on the treatment of Athenian and Sicilian allied prisoners by the victorious Syracusans and Corinthians:

‘The triumphant Syracusans took their prisoners and booty [from the Athenian expedition] and stripped the armor from the dead enemy, hanging it from the finest and tallest trees along the [Assinarus] river. On returning to Syracuse they held an assembly where they voted to enslave the servants of the Athenians and their imperial allies and to place Athenian citizens and their Sicilian Greek allies into the city’s stone quarries. A proposal to put Nicias and Demosthenes to death provoked more debate… [and] the assembly voted to execute both [the Athenian] generals.

‘The Syracusans held over seven thousand prisoners in their quarries, crowded together in inhuman conditions, burned by the sun during the day and chilled by the autumn cold at night. They were given about a half-pint of water and a pint of food each day… and they suffered terribly from hunger and thirst. Men died from their wounds, from illness and from exposure and the dead bodies were thrown on top of one another, creating an unbearable stench.’

Thus, what the ‘inhumanity’ of the Peloponnesian War – and not just this war, but the virtually continual state of internecine Greek wars – reminds us is that, in practice, in this period, there was as much an Athenian, Corinthian, Syracusan or Spartan ‘nation’ as a Hellenic one and that the pan-Hellenic consciousness that existed did so side by side and, more often than not, competed with ‘national’ identities derived from belonging to a particular city state.

3. Following on from this, a word on Athenian arrogance and Athenian nationalism. With the advent of the Athenian empire, the Athenians ascribed to themselves the right to decide what it was and what it was not to be a Hellene. Indeed, the Athenians came to believe their way of life was the epitome of Greekness – Pericles’ funeral oration being the clearest expression of this, with his assertion that Athens was ‘an education to Greece’.

Thus, those Athenians who initially argued against the Sicilian expedition did so on the grounds that the Segastans – who had asked the Athenians for assistance in their conflict with Selinus and Syracuse in western Sicily – were not Greeks but ‘an alien race’ and a ‘barbaric people’, even though the Segastans were, in fact, a mixture of Ionian Greek colonists and Hellenised Elymian Sicilians.

We note that Demosthenes the orator in the fourth century BC deployed the same Athenian conceit against the Macedonians, asserting that they had to be resisted and could not claim leadership of Hellas because Philip and his people were not Greeks but barbarians.

6 comments:

Hermes said...

It is somewhat unfortunate that Athens claimed cultural leadership of the Hellenic world, and many of the Hellenic city-states and kingships accepted this, right through to Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and modern times. Of course, Athens could rightfully claim cultural leadership because of the great works that originated there. This is undeniable. However, the downside is that we are forced to view the Hellenic world through Athenian eyes such as Demosthenes. But, we should remember Demosthenes was only one orator representing one party in Athens which had a narrow, Atheno-centric view of what was Hellenic. In some ways, Demosthenes was the fancy modern Athenian who lives in Marousi and considers people from Epirus or Cyprus as bumpkins, could not give a stuff if Thrace is grabbed by the Turks, and prefers the lifestyle of a Europeanised Athenian with Swiss bank accounts, apartments in Paris, British school education and so on. There were other parties which had a more expansive view of Hellenism. For example, the great Isocrates had a much broader vision and readily admitted that the southern Greek states were incapable of uniting to fight the Persians. In his incredible Panegyricos, he calls on Philip and the Macedonians to take the Hellenic leadership on a Pan-Hellenic expedition against Persia.

I noticed your reading list on the sidebar, John. I am currently reading Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon. It is a really good read with a fine introduction by Tim Whitmarsh. I have noticed that the Greek novels; particularly, Daphnis and Chloe, Aethiopica and Tatius’s one are now included in the Classical cannon. Perhaps this development will help to reduce the Athenian-centric and Classical Golden Age-centric nature of our understanding of the past. Most of these novels are not set in Athens, or in modern day Greece, but in Alexandria, Asia Minor or the Near East. Sometimes they do not even have Greek characters but Phoenician, Egyptian or Ethiopian characters. However, all the characters have Greek names, speak Greek, worship Greek gods etc. The texts are even disparaging of other ethnic groups. There is certainly a strong strain of Hellenic chauvinism, where non-Greek people are not depicted on their own terms, but in Greek terms. And all of these were written during the Roman Empire. There are definitely some lessons for us moderns here.

John Akritas said...

The Athenian 'brand' has been pretty effective; though, as you say, not without reason. I've never liked Demosthenes that much either. His polemics against Macedonia are short-sighted and narrow-minded, even if what motivates him – if you take what he says at face value – is patriotic nostalgia: the desire to revive in Athens the spirit of the fifth century and restore its hegemony. Reading him again, it's striking how impervious he is to the call for Greece to dismantle the Persian empire and open up Asia for Greek living space; and it's quite shocking when he goes so far as to suggest that Philip poses a greater threat to Greek freedom than the Achaemenids. Mind you, the Athenians never repented their hostility to the Macedonians and continued to revere Demosthenes even after his suicide and, even today, there are still no monuments to Alexander or Philip in Athens, not even a main street named after them, if I'm not mistaken.

Hermes said...

John, the project against the Persian Empire was not to wholly open up Asia for Greek living space. The project was partially to liberate the Greeks that lived under Persian rule in Asia Minor. Also, Demosthenes was only a representative of one party in Athens. There were other pro-Macedonian Pan Hellenic ones. Personally, I much prefer Philip over Demosthenes. Philip was a military genius, a visionary and could hold his drink.

The Athenians raised a statue to Philip in the Agora after he treated their prisoners well. Also, the Athenians built a cult image, alter and temple to Alexander.

Today, there is a Leoforos Megalos Alexandrou near Korydallos, Athens.

John Akritas said...

Yes, Greek living space; liberating the Greek cities in Asia Minor; and revenge for the Persian invasions and depredations the previous century were all reasons given for dismantling the Persian empire; though, Alexander's motivations had no doubt more to do with his own narcissism.


I don't think there existed a particularly strong pro-Macedonian lobby in Athens. Demosthenes seems to be directing his polemics against Athenian inertia and lethargy in confronting Macedonia rather than any concerted pro-Macedonian or pan-Hellenic grouping in the city. Even Isocrates was a (very) late convert to the idea of Macedonian hegemony in Greece. His Panegyricus puts the case for joint Athenian and Spartan leadership against Persia; it's only much later – and after having made appeals to various other Greek hegemons – that he turns his attentions to Philip. Anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens remained pervasive – and this is evidenced by the numbers of Athenian mercenaries who fought with Darius and the significant anti-Macedonian revolt that broke out in Athens after Alexander died and, famously, caused Aristotle to flee. As for the statues and cults, these were no doubt political, even ironical, rather than genuine shows of affection for Alexander. Indeed, after rumours spread that Alexander had had been poisoned to death, the Athenians voted to honour Alexander's cup-bearer and alleged assassin, Iolaus.

Hermes said...

John, I noticed you tweeted Nickos Tsafos's latest article from Greek Default Watch. What a difference his interpretation is to the clown, Varoufakis. Unfortunately, there are few voices around like him.

By the way, there was a relatively strong Macedonian party in Athens i.e. Aeschines and company. It was suggested that this party represented the old oligarchic sentiment. Even later with Antigonos Gonatas, many Athenians appeared to be fairly relaxed with Macedonian rule.

John Akritas said...

Tsafos writes well and, I agree, what he says about Greek specifics is more pertinent than V. who is trapped in the rhetoric of the Greek left. V. also seems to have a certain contempt for Greece and gives the impression that he would like nothing more than to be accepted as an intellectual of global standing and blames Greece for him not being able to achieve his egotistical goal. Still, so far his pessimistic prognosis for the eurozone project, the failure of the region's politicians to come to terms with what needs to be done, has proved correct, as has his assertion that Greece was being scapegoated for a wider eurozone and global banking crisis.