Sunday, 2 September 2012

Homer against realpolitik. On JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins

JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins is an excellent account, elegantly written, of the first 10 years of the Peloponnesian war (431-421 BC), which questions Thucydides’ renowned assertion that the ‘truest cause of the war between Athens and Sparta was the growing greatness of the Athenians and the fear that this inspired, which compelled the Lacedaemonians to go to war’.

Thucydides’ ‘realpolitik’ Lendon points out, has informed analyses of conflict for centuries and has held particular sway over modern American strategists and international relations gurus.

However, Lendon believes that in order to understand the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war it is necessary to go beyond ‘realist’ doctrines and insist on the centrality of Homeric values to the motivations of fifth century Greeks – with the emphasis on rank, honour, prestige, competitiveness, vengeance and shaming.

Reasserting Homer not only presents us with a more compelling portrait of classical Greek culture, self-perception and psychology, but also provides us with a valuable paradigm for appreciating the motivations behind all wars and conflict.

Wars are often fought, if we follow Lendon (and Homer), not for pragmatic reasons, in struggles over power, resources or conflicting interests, but for the sake of reputation, national self-esteem, pride and out of wrath and revenge, the latter for perceived injustices that may have been inflicted decades or even centuries ago.

Furthermore, by rescuing the Peloponnesian war from ‘realist’American scholars, who regard the conflict as a ‘power struggle’ between democratic Athens and totalitarian Sparta – and want, in the process, to identify dynamic, open American society with Athens and depict its enemies as embodying grim and stolid Sparta – Lendon asks us to reconsider the modern tendency to extol the virtues of Athens and denigrate or caricature the Lacedaemonian way of life.

For Lendon, the Peloponnesian war was a conflict the Spartans were reluctant to fight and sought to resolve at every opportunity, while charges of war-mongering, brutality, hubris and arrogance stick more to Athens. The noblest and most sympathetic character of the period was not the paradigmatically democratic Athenian leader Pericles but the moderate king of Sparta, Archidamus.

Above is a podcast of JE Lendon in conversation with Bill Buschel ( regarding Song of Wrath. The show was first broadcast on Hellenic Public Radio in New York in 2011.

And for more discussion emanating from Song of Wrath, go here.


Anonymous said...

What a very interesting post.

The Homeric perspective casts a very different light on recent wars. In particular it explains the irrationality of the two Iraq wars in a far more plausible way than an interpretation based on Iraq's threat to the US, to world peace or to Iraq's promotion of Islamic terrorism. It also punctures the left's argument that the invasion of Iraq was an imperialist oil grab.

In the end wasn't the claim of weapons of mass destruction simply a threadbare excuse for blind and bloody Achillean revenge for 9/11?

Hermes said...

I sometimes wonder how much power the publishing industry has judging by the enormous amount of flatulence it produces every year. How many other amatuer interpretations of Thucydides do we need, or, does the commercial objective of selling books completely overide the quality of the argument?

How can Lendon question Thucydides’s own account of the war when discussing Thucydides work? Lendon seems to be saying that he knows Thucydides’s argument better than Thucydides himself – this is completely absurd!!

Homeric values were declining way before the start of the Pelopenesian War; and although, they probably played a part, Thucydides is quite clear throughout his text that trade routes, resources and brute power relations were very important causes in the war. Although, I agree that American so-called realist IR scholars have hijacked Thucydides and tend to take their argument too far, the realist argument is true to an extent. The root causes of the conflict were complex and not as Manichean as Lendon and realists like us to believe. But in the abscence of much other evidence apart from Thucydides (there were some other writers but they often referenced Thucydides) and some incriptions, we sort of have to take Thucydides for what he actually said.

Just back from Greece!

John Akritas said...

Definitely, A. Lendon/Homer are very useful if applied to America's war in Iraq. Revenge for 9/11 played a huge part in the adventure, as did the US's need to show, as global hegemon, that Al Qaeda/Muslims/Arabs/the Third World, etc, couldn't get away with such a brazen act on US soil. The irony, I guess, is that while the US attacked Iraq to look strong in global eyes (and in the eyes of its own people), the conduct of the war and its outcome considerably weakened its hegemonic position.

My feeling, H, is that wars, like the Peloponnesian war, start out being about one or two things and then develop their own logic and become about a multitude of things. Trade routes, for sure. Sparta's fear that an increasingly democratic strain among Greek states mights infect its own backyard, i.e. Messenia and the helots, definitely. But that leaves a lot unexplained – particularly in terms of the conduct of the war (and most wars eventually become characterised by their conduct, not their causes) and this is where Lendon's insistence on Homer is particularly worthwhile.

What's happening in Greece? I have to admit I've somewhat switched off from Greece and Cyprus lately. Too depressing, from afar.

Hermes said...

Who really cares about America’s wars anymore? In diplomatic and economic circles, the Americans are increasingly seen by the developed; and especially by the developing world, as very unusual in the way it tries to conduct itself internationally. The tendency to group countries into a binary allies and enemies is not the way other countries conduct their affairs. Note, the relationship between Germany and Russia or Russia and Turkey or Brazil and Iran. They have their differences but they co-operate in other areas and these areas are constantly shifting. Notably, there tends to be a noticeable lack of ideology in these relationships. This form of statecraft requires subtlety and nimbleness which the increasingly dopey Americans lack. Just listen to their idiotic FP rhetoric coming from Romney.

Obviously, these are lessons that the Greeks (more so the Cypriots) have still not heeded despite the repeated speeches, books and articles by the likes of Markezinis, Mazis, Kotzias, Evriviades etc.

The holiday was great; however, tourism is down which probably suited me better. One night we went for a drive late at night around the less salubrious areas of the centre of Athens and it was like some dystopian future world. We saw amongst other things, an old man carrying a younger man in a wheelbarrow, a 150kg woman cuddling what looked to be a alien-like small child out of a David Lynch film, lots of young kids on motorbikes with only shorts on, a man laying on top of a car as it was being driven down the street, a large amount of barred up buildings filled with graffiti and lots of sirens and police rounding up Pakistanis.

Hermes said...

And Hrysi Avgi has the tacit or outright support of a vast number of people. Even diehard former PASOKis accept they are necessary.

John Akritas said...

I've also heard sensible people say that XA is a 'necessary evil'.

Anonymous said...

I just got back a couple of weeks ago. When I was there the third world invaders were in hiding. I didn't venture to far into the center of athens but around the acropolis it was beautiful, clean, and crowd free.