Saturday, 6 February 2021

Thoughts on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

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

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.

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.

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.