Monday, May 25, 2015

Failures of Democracy: Platea

In writing about the failures of democracy in ancient Greece, it was my intention to focus on Athens, by far the best documented of the city-states.  But Thucydides gives us accounts -- much shorter and less detailed than we have on Athens, but accounts nonetheless -- of democracy failing in three cities -- Platea, Corcyra, and Megara.  They are particularly interesting because they illustrate different ways in which democracy can fail.  Platea fell to foreign attack by Thebes and Sparta.  Democracy in Megara was overthrown by an oligarchy.  And Corcyra broke out into civil war.  Democracy eventually won, by the extermination of the oligarchic party, but I consider any democracy that falls into civil war to have failed, regardless of the outcome.  (That includes the US).

In 431 B.C., Athens and Sparta were exchanging increasingly hostile ultimatums, but there had been no formal declaration of war or commencement of hostilities.  Platea was a democracy that had made a formal alliance with Athens to protect it from its larger oligarchic neighbor, Thebes, was therefore not on alert. Platea also held special importance to the Athenians because it was the only city that had come to their aid at the Battle of Marathon, and to the Greeks in general because it was the site of their final victory over the Persians.

On a dark night, 300 Theban warrior crept up on Platea and were admitted by the local oligarchic party.  The oligarchs wanted the Thebans to kill the democratic leaders and seize the city by force.  But the Thebans, with that oligarchic denseness, believed they could win the Plateans over.  At first the Plateans wer intimidated and negotiated, but once they realized that it was only a small force in the city, they resolved to resist, not wanting to break the alliance with Athens.  The Plateans attacked.  Women climbed up on rooftops and dropped tiles on the Thebans. Some Thebans were killed, some escaped, and the greater number opened a door they thought was the city gates and stumbled into a building with no way out, so they surrendered.  The larger Theban force was delayed by rain and flooding and turned back when the Plateans threatened to kill the captured force, numbering about 180.  Once the Thebans withdraw, the Plateans executed the captured soldiers anyhow.  They then sent for help from Athens. The Athenians warned the Plateans not to harm their prisoners, but it was too late.  So the best they could do was evacuate the non-combatants and leave a small force to help dig in for a siege.  Only a garrison of 400 Platean men, reinforced by 80 Athenians, and with 110 women in support roles remained.

It was two years later, in 429, that the Spartans came to the aid of Thebes.  When the Plateans appealed to their alliance in fighting the Persians, the Spartans demanded that the Plateans either remain neutral or leave their city, which the Spartans promised to return to them after the war.  They argued that they were trying to "free" Platea, and the rest of Greece, from Athenian domination. The Plateans consulted with Athens and foolishly accepted their assurances of protection, and therefore stuck with the alliance.  The Spartan king then effectively said that they were not the aggressors, and that the Plateans had brought their fate upon themselves by taking the wrong side in the war.  A siege ensued.  It continued for two years.  No aid arrived from Athens.

About half the force managed to escape and make it back to Athens.  By 427 B.C., the Plateans' supplies had run out and no relief was arriving from Athens, so they surrendered, on the promise that they would be treated fairly.  Instead, they were accused of the "crime" of having fought against Sparta in the present war.  Of course, since Platea was an Athenian ally, it was completely proper for the Plateans to oppose Sparta in the war.  But the Thebans argued that siding with the Athenians was in itself a crime to be punished.  The Thebans also defended their invasion of Platea in peace time on the grounds that they were invited in by "the noblest and richest of your citizens."
Like yourselves they were citizens, and they had a greater stake in the country than you have; they opened their own gates and received us into their native city, not as her enemies but as her friends. They desired that the bad among you should not grow worse, and that the good should have their reward. They wanted to reform the principles of your citizens, and not to banish their persons.
The Thebans were angry that the Plateans attacked the invading party, and angrier still (and more justifiably) that they executed them after they had surrendered.  So the Spartans executed the men for the "crime" of having fought against then, sold the women as slaves, and destroyed the city.  They justified their actions by saying that they gave the Plateans the chance to be neutral or withdraw, but they refused to take it.  Thucydides attributes the Spartans' severity to their desire to stay on the good side of the Thebans.  Obviously we have no way of knowing which of these self-justifying rationalizations the Thebans and Spartans actually believed.  But the Thebans do seem remarkably dense in their refusal to recognize why the Plateans might want to preserve their democracy from the "noblest and richest" of their citizens,or why they might see Thebes as a greater threat to their sovereignty than Athens.

It may seem unfair to include tiny Platea, overwhelmed by more powerful armies among the failures of democracy.  To call Platea a failure of democracy because it was conquered by Thebes is like calling Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway failed democracies because they were overrun by Hitler.  But Platea succumbed, not just to Thebes, but to traitors within.  And it was the democracy that made the ultimately suicidal decision of defiance.  And Platea illustrates very well the point I made in my last post about how dense oligarchs could be in failing to understand the appeal of Athens to local democrats.

Ideological Dimensions of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides has been accused of an oligarchic bias.  Is there any truth to it?  Certainly he makes every attempt to be neutral.  But once in a while one sees something that might be taken as a sign of oligarchic sympathies.  He hatred of Cleon, for instance.*  Another is his later description of Athens briefly instituting a moderate oligarchy:
It was during the first period of this constitution that the Athenians appear to have enjoyed the best government that they ever did, at least in my time.For the fusion of the high and the low was effected with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold disasters.
But probably the strongest argument that Thucydides has an oligarchic bias is in his general view of Athenians as oppressors and Spartans as liberators.  His assessment at the beginning of the war is:
The feeling of mankind was strongly on the side of the Lacedaemonians; for they professed to be the liberators of Hellas. Cities and individuals were eager to assist them to the utmost, both by word and deed; and where a man could not hope to be present, there it seemed to him that all things were at a stand. For the general indignation against the Athenians was intense; some were longing to be delivered from them, others fearful of falling under their sway.
There is ample evidence from the rest of his history that this was not so.  Indeed, I have chosen which incidents of the war to highlight based on this as well as the most important incidents of the war. Democratic Platea stuck with Athens to the bitter end. Democratic Mythemna stuck with Athens when the rest of Lesbos revolted.  When Mytilene revolted against Athens, the poor men revolted against the revolt as soon as they were armed.  As Brasidas marched across the Chalcidice, in city after city it was a minority faction that let him in, and the majority became conciliated only when he promised not to impose an oligarchy.  Democrats in Mende actually revolted in favor of Athens as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  Thucydides even quotes Diodotus, leading opponent of massacring the people of Mytilene as saying:
At present the popular party are everywhere our friends; either they do not join with the oligarchs, or, if compelled to do so, they are always ready to turn against the authors of the revolt; and so in going to war with a rebellious state you have the multitude on your side.
Diodotus was no doubt oversimplifying and flattering his listeners by telling them what they wanted to hear.  Recall that Athens infringed on its allies' sovereignty and also promoted democracy.  It seems a reasonable assumption that the oligarchic faction universally resented the infringement on their sovereignty and probably saw democracy as a particularly egregious form of infringement.  Oligarchs therefore looked to the Spartans as liberators and were not greatly concerned whether they would simply be trading one hegemon for another.  It also seems a reasonable assumption that the popular party fully shared the resentment over the infringement but liked Athens' support of democracy.  So which was more important?  Most likely in places like Amphipolis where there was a large Athenian garrison or colony, the infringement was most offensive and intrusive and the Athenians behaved like a foreign oligarchy making of mockery of their claims to democracy.  In such cases the common people would fully side with the elite.  In democracies like Platea or Mythemna where the most obvious threat to sovereignty was the local oligarchic hegemon, Athenian hegemony must have seemed like a remote and purely abstract threat.  In other places, it was doubtless a question of which the people saw as a greater threat to liberty, Athenian hegemony or the local oligarchs.  No doubt there were endless individual variations.

Some modern historians have suggested that the local democratic factions were not so much loyal to Athens as averse to the hardships and dangers of rebellion and preferring to tolerate infringements on their sovereignty so long as they were modest.  I am skeptical.  Democracy tends to be associated with belligerent nationalism.  It certainly has been in modern times; it was in Athens as well. Democratic publics are not averse to hardship and danger in defense of their sovereignty; their flaw is in underestimating just how great the hardship and danger really are.  The timidity and reluctance of the people of the Chalcidice in opposing Athens stands in remarkable contrast to the rash, ultimately suicidal fidelity of Platea, or Athens' own ultimate persistence in the war long after all was well and truly lost.

But here is the thing.  I think that the oligarchs genuinely did not understand this. No doubt they sincerely believed that they would rule better than a democracy and expected the common people to agree.  Hence one reads in Thucydides of oligarchs trying to rally the common people against "enslavement" by Athens.  Some modern historians dismiss these as disingenuous rationalizations.  I am not convinced.   Oligarchs can be dense when their interests are at stake.  And what I cannot tell was whether Thucydides shared their bafflement.  Did he genuinely believe that "The feeling of mankind was strongly on the side of the Lacedaemonians," in the face of all the evidence to the contrary he has assembled, indeed, in the face of his own quotes from Diodotus explaining why it was not so?  If so, then it shows just how dense even so brilliant a man as Thucydides could be.  If not, then it tells us something about his definition of "mankind."  And Brasidas deserves special credit for understanding what was really going on.

*Then again, the Wikipedia article I cite above gives his purported oligarchic sympathies as evidence that his views on Cleon might not be just.  That sounds very much like circular reasoning.

The Man Who Gave Demagogues a Bad Name

Demagogue, like tyrant or barbarian, is a Greek word.  Like tyrant or barbarian, demagogue was originally a neutral term that only later became a pejorative.  A demagogue was simply a popular leader, or a champion of the common people.  Only later did it come to mean one who lies, appeals to base instincts, or makes unrealistic demands.  Aristotle pairs off popular and aristocratic leaders in Athens.  Solon, he says, stood along, although he was clearly a champion of the common people. Then Pisistratus as champion of the common people and Lycurgus of the aristocracy; then Cleisthenes and IsagorasXanthippus (father of Pericles) and Miltiades (hero of Marathon); Themistocles (hero of the Persian Wars) and Aristides (called the just); Ephialtes and Kimon (son of Miltiades); Pericles and Thucydides (not the historian, though possibly a relative); Cleon and Nicias; and finally Cleophon and Theramenes  (Watch this Theramenes.  We will be seeing more of him).

Certainly of the popular champions Solon, Pisistratus, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Pericles were outstanding statesmen as (we shall see) was Thrasybulus, later restorer of Athenian democracy and not included on Aristotle's list.  Yet by the original definition, they were all demagogues because they were popular leaders.  Aristotle expresses a marked preference for politicians of the earlier generation (presumably, the Persian War or earlier) and for conservative politicians like Thucydides, Nicias, and Theramenes, although he admits that Theramenes is controversial.

Cleon is a different matter.  Aristotle describes him as the first leader of the popular faction who was not "in good repute with the respectable classes."  Thucydides and Aristophanes are both strongly hostile.  Modern historians debate how justified this hostility is.  Some of it may simply be based on snobbery or an offended sense of decorum.  Cleon was not an aristocrat; Aristophanes mocks him for being a tanner.  Yet his rival, Nicias, though rich, was not aristocratic either.  Nor was it unprecedented for a leading Athenian politician to be a non-aristocrat.  Aristides and Themistocles  were both of humble and obscure origin.  His rabble-rousing style appears to have offended the aristocracy -- Aristotle called him, "[T]he first person to use bawling and abuse on the platform, and to gird up his cloak before making a public speech."  But Themistocles, too, may have had a style that was too rough for aristocratic tastes.  What was unprecedented (though it gets less attention than one might expect) was that Cleon lacked background as a military commander.  For reasons previously discussed, all Athens' leaders before Cleon (including Nicias) had distinguished themselves as military commanders.  For Cleon, lacking military experience, to take the lead in wartime must have been deeply offensive to many.  Some modern historians have suggested that Aristophanes and Thucydides are oligarchic in their outlook and may therefore be unjust to a populist politician.  It is also suggested that they may be biased by personal grudges against Cleon.  When Thucydides commanded the attempt to retake Amphipolis, Cleon prosecuted and exiled him for failure.  Cleon also prosecuted Aristophanes for one of his plays.  So both men had grudges, but neither episode reflects well on Cleon either.

In deciding how seriously to take Aristophanes' charges -- well, imagine historians 2500 years from now relying on Monty Python as a major source of information on post-WWII Britain and some of the odd and contradictory conclusions they might reach.  Nonetheless, Aristophanes accuses Cleon of needlessly prolonging the war while ignoring the suffering it is causing, embezzling public funds, prosecuting political opponents on false charges, and accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being an enemy of the democracy.  Also of scapegoating gays as a way to shut down rival oratory schools and encouraging uncontrolled farting.  So it is hard to tell just what is and is not meant to be serious.  One matter on which Aristophanes presumably is serious is his calculation that out of 2,000 talents of tribute extracted from allies, only 150 -- less than a tenth -- goes to paying jurors.  The rest, he implies, is going into the pockets of corrupt politicians like Cleon.

It seems unlikely.  Yes, it is good to know that Athens did not have to squeeze allies to meet its basic administrative expenses, and war profiteering has been around for a long time.  But every official upon leaving office had to present an accounting of his use of public funds and could be prosecuted for any funds that he could not account for.  Besides, it should go without saying that Athens' main expense at the time was the war itself.  The charge of being a malicious prosecutor may have some substance.  Athens had no public prosecutor and allowed any free man, citizen or metic, to bring charges.  This led to a plague of professional prosecutors and informants.  Public officials were made especially easy to prosecute and hard to defend.  So it may be that Cleon used this technique to put pressure on his rivals.  And as for a general tendency for Cleon to accuse opponents of being anti-democratic or pro-Spartan and ordinary people to believe it -- well, the general history of democracies in wartime, including our own, is not exactly encouraging in this regard, so the accusation may very well be true.

Thucydides, by contrast, makes some very serious, very substantive accusations.  First, Cleon was the prime instigator of the sentence of extirpation against Mytilene and the  fiercest opponent of mercy.  He also instigated the sentence of extirpation against Scione, which was not revoked.  And obviously, this deserves our absolute condemnation and is enough to condemn Cleon even if none of the other accusations against him hold.

Second, when 420 Laconian forces were trapped on the island of Sphacteria and the Spartans sought to end the war, Cleon was chiefly responsible for refusing their offer and insisting instead on completely unacceptable terms.  On this issue, some modern historians defend Cleon's decision, saying that any peace reached at the time would have failed (as the peace reached four years later did).  It is not clear what they would consider a stable and sustainable peace.

Third, as the siege of Sphacteria dragged on, with no end in sight and winter threatening to bring it to an end and the Athenians regretting not ending the war while they could, Cleon accused the generals in charge of the siege of either lying or incompetence.  Nicias retorted that if capturing the island was so easy, why didn't Cleon do it.  At this, Cleon, who lacked meaningful military experience, tried to back out, but the Assembly insisted.  Unable to get out of commanded, Cleon rashly boasted that he would capture the island in twenty days.  His opponents saw this scenario as ideal for them.  If he captured the island, great; if not, then he would be discredited.  Cleon set out, picking Demosthenes as the general in charge of the actual assault.  And, indeed, they did succeed in capturing the island in 20 days.  The Spartans, who everyone knew would never surrender, surrendered. They were taken to Athens, prisoners.  Cleon threatened to kill them if Sparta invaded Attica again.  The invasions ceased.  Athenian farmers could return to their land, the city was relieved of its overcrowding, and the plague stopped.  Thucydides concedes, "And the mad promise of Cleon was fulfilled; for he did bring back the prisoners within twenty days, as he had said."  Unsurprisingly, Cleon became the hero of the hour.  Aristophanes' play, The Knights, is best seen as a sort of temper tantrum over the hated Cleon's triumph.  And the fairest assessment of Cleon here is that nothing succeeds like success.

Success appears to have gone to Cleon's head and convinced him that he was a brilliant general, which he was not.  Thucydides gets one last dig at Cleon when he attempted to retake Amphipolis.  Cleon proved an incompetent commander leading a less disciplined force, which was routed by Brasidas and the Spartans, with 600 Athenian dead to only seven on the Spartan side.  Cleon was killed, Thucydides says, while running away.

It is not clear where Cleon's authority came from.  As we have seen, Athens' leaders up to that point were all military commanders.  After all, military commanders along with treasurers were the only elective office in Athens, and the only one not subject to a one-year term limit.  Most civil officials chosen by lot, limited to a single one-year term, and only administered a small part of city government, with no meaningful policy making power.  The Council had real policy making power -- it conducted most foreign policy and decided what business was to go the the Assembly.  But members of the Council were chosen by lot and limited to two one-year terms.  What non-military office could Cleon have used as the base for his power?  He may have been a member of the Council, although he could only have served for two years, and he appears to have been prominent for about five (Thucydides introduces him in 427 B.C. calling for the extirpation of Mytilene and announces his death in 422).  Possibly he may have been some sort of elective treasurer or auditor and used this office to prosecute opponents for real or imagined financial irregularities.  But on the whole, Cleon seems to have derived his power not from any military or civil office, but solely from being a persuasive speaker.  This, I suspect, was what was truly new and unsettling about Cleon.

But another point has to be made here, the real point of this overly long post.  Cleon's opponents accuse him of many things -- of rabble rousing, corruption, malicious prosecution, smearing his opponents, presuming to think he knew more about military matters than seasoned generals, war mongering, prolonging the war for political gain, and crimes against humanity.  But one thing they never accuse him of is aspiring to be a dictator.  And this cannot be blamed on an anti-democratic bias.  Dictators were, if anything, even more repugnant to oligarchs than to democrats.  Nothing would please an oligarch more than to see in every demagogue (in either the neutral or the pejorative sense) an aspiring dictator.

I hope before too long to be able to post about another demagogue (the notorious Alcibiades) who we cannot be so confident about.  But in the meantime, although democracy has not yet failed at this stage in Athens, Thucydides gives us a briefer account of it failing in several other cities.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Peloponnesian War: The First Ten Years: The War in Chalcidice

When we last left the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were in dire straits, an Athenian outpost established on their doorstep, beset with internal security fears, and 392 of their men captured, desperate to get them back.  Thucydides often criticizes the Spartans as having been torpid, if not outright timid, in their conduct of the war, but that was about to change.  So they sent out their best general, Brasidas in 424 B.C. with a force of 700 liberated helots and various troops hired from the allies (apparently the internal security fears were too great to allow them to spare any regular troops). Thucydides clearly admires Brasidas, who distinguished himself in both war and diplomacy.  He had been mentioned before, always fighting with great energy and courage.

Location of the Chalcidice
He then set out to counter his own country's problems with rebellious subjects by giving Athens some of its own, and to counter a naval power's advantage in mobility with an extended overland march into the the Chalcidice.  The Chalcidice was a prominence with three long peninsulas on the north side of the Aegean.  It had a longstanding history of rebellion against Athens, presumably because it could receive assistance from the kingdom of Macedonia just to the north.  (The unfortunate Potidea was in the Chalcidice).  Due to its distance and lack of naval power, Sparta had not been able to offer much assistance until then.  To reach the Chalcidice overland, it was necessary to pass through the pro-Athenian Thessaly as well as the pro-Spartan Macedonia.  However, Brasidas seems to have seen himself as a liberator and acted as such.  He was able to negotiate passage through Thessaly as well as Macedonia and arrive without resistance.

Closeup of the Chalcidice
He went first to the city of Acanthus where, Thucydides reports, his actual supporters were a minority.  But seeing his army on their land, the people thought it wisest to let him in.  There he presented himself as a liberator from Athenian oppression, promised to respect the city's autonomy and not to impose and oligarchy -- and threatened to lay waste to the countryside if they did not accede in their liberation. Swayed by this mixture of promises and threats, the people of Acanthus agreed to defect from Athens and admit his army.

He then moved on to Amphipolis.  That town was founded as an Athenian colony, but the Athenians were a minority in the city and much resented by the other residents for their arrogance.  His supporters who let him in were therefore a majority.  Brasidas won further support with his promise  to respect the property and personal rights of any opponent who wished to stay in the city and to allow anyone who wished to depart.  Brasidas' policy of restraint was winning defectors all over the Chalidice and alarming the Athenians.

Next he moved on the city of Torone, where once again a few associates in the city let him in.  Once again he calmed the city with the assurance that he was acting as a liberator and would respect the rights of the pro-Athenian party.  The people of Torone accepted his presence.  These advances sufficiently alarmed the Athenians that they agreed to a truce.  As these negotiations were going on, the city of Scione also revolted and welcomed Brasidas.

Only after Brasidas had taken possession Scione did he or the people of Scione learn that a truce had been reached two days earlier.  Cleon of Athens, furious over the revolt, passed a resolution of extirpation, ordering that Scione be destroyed, with all the men killed and the women and children sold as slaves.  Unlike the prior such decree in Mytilene, this one stood.  Thucydides makes clear that this decree was triply unjustifiable.  The inexcusable brutality of the order is obvious.  Even if revolt during a truce could justify such a decree, the people of Scione didn't know there was a truce in force at the time.  And in any event, if the Athenians had simply submitted the matter to arbitration, they would have won.

Brasidas then proceeded to take his own unjustifiable action.  Despite now knowing that a truce was in place, he proceeded to seize the city of Mende.  Making his actions doubly unjustifiable, the small number of people who delivered the city to him were opposed by a strong majority of citizens. Knowing that the Athenians were on their way, angry and vengeful, Brasidas evacuated most of the non-combatants from Scione and Mende and sent them to the city of Olynthus.

The Athenians were angry and vengeful indeed.  In Mende, even though the majority had opposed the revolt, and even though the democratic party promptly revolted on behalf of the Athenians and opened the gate to them, the Athenian army began sacking and slaughtering until the generals restrained them.  The Athenians then told the Mendians that they could govern themselves as before and withdrew, presumably after having made enemies of their former allies.  In Torone, also delivered to Brasidas by a minority faction, the Athenians sold the women and children as slaves and took the men back to Athens as prisoners.  The Toronean men were later released in a prisoner exchange after peace was (temporarily) reached, but whether they ever recovered any of their families is not recorded.  The Athenians also surrounded Scione and settled in for a long siege against people who could expect no mercy from surrender or betrayal.  The Athenian attempt to retake Amphipolis failed with 600 Athenians killed, including Cleon who make the infamous degree against Scione.  The Spartan forces took only seven dead, but the seven included Brasidas.  The two strongest war leaders removed, the two sides proceeded to make peace.*  Each had taken enough of a beating not to want to take any more.

Under the terms of the agreement, Athens and Sparta were each to go to the aid of the other if the other was attacked by a foreign power.  The Athenians were also to go to the aid of Sparta in case of domestic rebellion.  There was considerable exchange returning captured territory to each other. The neutrality of most cities in the Chalcidice was guaranteed.  But the Spartans, though they received the promise that their own forces and allies in Scione would be allowed to withdraw in safety, abandoned that unfortunate city to its fate.  The treaty was reached in 421 B.C.  But, as Thucydides makes clear, the treaty did not bring about anything like true peace.  Each side regularly violated the treaty and harmed the other in ways short of outright war.  Both Athens and Sparta fought plenty of wars while nominally at "peace," just not with each other directly.  Indeed, it was during the time of nominal peace that Athens committed its worst atrocities and most inexcusable acts of imperial aggression.  But that will be addressed at a later date.

This account, incidentally, is nothing close to comprehensive.  It is an attempt to fit into four or five blog posts some 363 pages (without maps).  I have omitted countless minor battles, rebellions, civil wars and local feuds and stuck to the highlights.  The war would resume and be the (temporary) undoing of Athens' democracy.  But that is a later subject for a later date.  In the meantime, I want to discuss a few implications of democracy and the war.

*Thucydides shows a certain ambivalence about Brasidas, admiring his courage, initiative, diplomacy, and restraint, but also recognizing that he played an important role in keeping the war going.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Peloponnesian War, the First Ten Years. War on Sparta's Doorstep

In 426 B.C., the Spartans began their usual march northward to lay waste to the countryside surrounding Athens but were thwarted by a series of earthquakes and two or three tsunamis, which Thucydides correctly attributes to the earthquakes. (He is apparently the first person on record as making the connection).*  The Athenians sent a fleet to intervene in a war between the Greek city-states in Sicily but failed to achieve anything significant.

General location of Aetolia
And the Athenian general Demosthenes** led an invasion of
Add caption
Aetolia and we hear a confusing account of Aetolians, Acarnanians, and Ambraciots.  I see no need to go into much detail (or really even make the attempt to figure it out myself).  What is important is (1) all these places were on the western side of the Greek peninsula. (2) The Athenians fought  light, mobile javelin-throwers and were defeated with significant losses.  (3) After his defeat, Demosthenes did not dare go home because the Athenians had a deplorable habit of prosecuting generals who lost battles and acquittals were very rare.  (4) That winter Demosthenes got the chance to return to his countrymen's good graces when he intervened in a war between Archnania and Amborcia (on the side of Archnania) and was victorious and attacked an Ambraciot camp at night, inflicting such devastating losses that Athens' own allies hastened to make peace with their defeated enemy out of fear of the Athenians.  Demosthenes could now safely go home as a victor.

He would get a bigger victory the next year (425 B.C.)  Ordered to take his fleet to Sicily but unable to do so because of storms, Demosthenes instead seized Pylos, a peninsula guarding a harbor on the southwest side of the Peloponnese. The immediate surroundings were uninhabited and therefore unable to resist, and the nearest neighbors were the Messenians, the people conquered by Sparta and reduced to serfdom and always rebellious.  He then proceeded to fortify the outpost.  A threat so close to home and so dangerous to domestic security was alarming in the highest degree.  The Peloponnesian forces abandoned their usual invasion of Attica and returned home.  The Lacedamonians assembled their ships and attempted to retake Pylos but found that a landing force has the disadvantage over a defending force and were driven back.

When the Athenian fleet arrived, the Lacedamonian ships were routed and 420 of their men trapped on the island of Sphacteria, cut off from all supplies.  The Spartan authorities were beside themselves and promptly sought an armistice, turning over all their ships to Athens as surety if only supplies could be taken to their men on the island.  They opened negotiations to end the war, but the Athenians insisted on unacceptable terms and then (unsurprisingly) refused to return the ships.  The siege continued. The Spartans offered great rewards, including freedom to helots, to anyone who could take food to the starving men on the island.

The Athenians, far from home and in a hostile country, were also short on supplies.  But reinforcements arrived, so the Athenian forces landed on the island. Vastly outnumbered, surrounded on all sides, cut off from food or reinforcements, and worn down by hit-and-run attacks from the light forces, the Lacedamonian forces surrendered.  Some 292 were captured including 120 elite Spartiates (i.e., full Spartan citizens).  The Athenians took them back to Athens and held them as prisoners with the threat to execute them if the Peloponnesian army again invaded.  The invasions stopped.  Athenian farmers were again able to return to the countryside and city dwellers were relieved of the crowding.  In a presumably related development, the plague ceased.

The surrender shocked everyone because it had been assumed up until then that Spartans would fight to the last and never surrender.  The Athenian outpost became a base for Messenians to conduct hit and run raids into the interior.  Sparta's internal security problems became so severe that they resorted to the desperate measure of offering freedom to any helots who could establish they had done service to the state and then massacring some 2,000 who stepped forward on the theory that they were the ones most likely to start a revolt.***

The Athenians also attempted to take advantage of strife between the democratic and oligarchic parties in Megara to seize the city with the connivance of the democrats.  They failed.

*And just as a comment on how the Greek way of thought evolved over time, Herodotus also describes a tsunami but he attributes it to desecration of Poseidon's temple.  And the later historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C. and following Thucydides, takes for granted the earthquake as the cause.  (I do not know if tsunamis were a recognized phenomenon by Diodorus' time).
**Not to be confused with the famous orator named Demosthenes who lived a century later.
***There is some doubt as to when the massacre took place.  Thucydides mentions it in conjunction with the Spartans giving freedom to another 700 helots if they would join an army and march out to stir up trouble among the Athenians.  It seems most unlikely that they were doing both at the same time!  There is also the implication in Thucydides' language that the massacre had happened some time earlier, though if so he gives no hint as to when.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

From Ancient Greece to Modern Babylon

OK, quick break from ancient Greece because the Iraq War is back in the news and I just can't resist weighing in.  The Republican candidates are being asked if it was a mistake and the consensus answer is that in the clear light of hindsight it was a mistake, but President Bush was misled into it by faulty intelligence.  Hawkish Democrats like Hilary Clinton are saying much the same.  I weigh in as one who opposed the war from the start but never doubted that Saddam had chemical weapons and was open to persuasion on biological weapons.

Let's start with some links.  Paul Krugman links to three: Josh Marshall pointing out that Bush deliberately misrepresented the intelligence to make the case for war; Greg Sargent pointing out that plenty of people, faced with the same intelligence, did not see that it make the case for war; and Duncan Black arguing that in any event, being right was less important to the in crowd than being part of the Washington Consensus.  Of these articles, Marshall's is by far the best.  That many people opposed the war should go without saying (but then again, I was one of the people who opposed it, as were most people I knew).  Black is always more snark than serious analysis.  But Marshall makes an important point.  The intelligence was, indeed, wrong, but Bush did not simply go along with it.  He did his utmost to make it sound a lot worse than it really was.  On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence of the day really did believe that Saddam had chemical and possibly biological weapons, but not nuclear weapons.  Bush and other members of his administration ran around talking about WMD and strongly implying that they meant nuclear weapons without quite coming out and saying so (most notoriously Condoleeza Rice who said that we didn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud).  They also talked about "terrorism" and "taking the fight to the enemy" in such a way as to imply without quite saying that Saddam was responsible for 9-11.  These may not have been technical lies, but they insinuated something false with the intent to be understood that way.  I am not one who believes that there is any moral distinction between lying and making a technically accurate but deliberately misleading statement meant to be understood in an inaccurate way.  Or, as one famous critic of the Iraq War said:
We also learned in accounting class that the difference between "making a definite single false claim with provable intent to deceive" and "creating a very false impression and allowing it to remain without correcting it" is not one that you should rely upon to keep you out of jail. Even if your motives are noble.
Others argue that since the whole Washington consensus believed that Saddam had WMD, there was no deception involved, only intelligence failure. The obvious problem with that argument was that in the buildup to the war, the Bush Administration clearly thought the intelligence was faulty in the opposite direction -- that it was underestimating the menace Saddam posed.  Administration officials regularly visited the CIA urging them to reconsider or pointing out sources they thought would show a greater threat.  They even created the Office of Special Plans to sift through intelligence data for anything that could justify the invasion.  I am prepared to concede that the Bush Administration did not know that Saddam really did not have a chemical or biological, let alone nuclear arsenal or ties with al-Qaeda.  No doubt they sincerely believed these things did exist and the intelligence community was just missing them.  In other words, the Administration was trying to frame a man they believed to be guilty.  But to say, how were we supposed to know, the intelligence misled us when you spent the whole buildup to the war arguing that the intelligence was missing the severity of the threat is grossly disingenuous.

Or, put differently, to say that the Bush Administration, the intelligence community, and the Democrats were all wrong so why the fuss is to assume that there are no degrees in being wrong. But, of course, there are.  Take a very simple example -- the game of guessing how many beans in this jar. Suppose the real number is 488.  A person who guesses 500 is technically wrong because the true number is 488, but for all intents and purposes the guess is right because it is as accurate as anyone has the ability to be.  Someone who says 400 beans or 600 is wrong, but reasonable.  Someone who says 200 beans or 1000 clearly is not so good at this game.  Someone who says 5,000 beans or 50 does not have a good enough sense of scale to be playing at all.  And anyone who says five beans, or 50,000 is just plain nuts.

So then, in the case of Iraq the jar is painted black so no one can actually see the beans, and Saddam is not allowing anyone to lift the jar.  The intelligence community calculates the capacity of the jar at 500 and estimates that there are 500 beans in the jar.  They know the jar might not be all the way full.  It never once occurs to the intelligence community that there might be no beans at all in the jar.  The Democrats accept the 500 bean estimate as accurate and acted accordingly.  The Bush Administration, by contrast, argues that the intelligence community has grossly underestimated the number of beans in the jar, and there must be at least 5,000.  Argument goes back and forth between the Administration and the intelligence community, with the Administration insisting that the intelligence community is grossly underestimating the number of beans and the intelligence community saying that an estimate of 5,000 is simply not credible.  After some wrangling, they agree on a compromise number of 1,000.  Then they actually open the jar and discover that it is empty. Sorry, but the Bush Administration does not get to argue that the intelligence community led it to believe that there were 1,000 beans or even 500.  Yes, there was a general, unquestioned consensus about 500 beans.  But anyone insisting on 5,000 beans or even 1,000 was a whole lot more wrong than the general Washington consensus.

Of course, to make the analogy really work, instead of beans we should be talking about pellets of poison about the shape and size of beans, in the hands of a known sociopath.  Yes, the overwhelming consensus was that he had some poison pellets, but 500 is simply not the same as 5,000 and does not necessarily call for the same response.  Or if you just can't believe anyone would think there could be 5,000 poison pellets in a jar with only a 500 pellet capacity, maybe the dispute would be about the quality of the poison.  The intelligence community recognizes that the sociopath can only make poison in a crude home lab and therefore the threat is manageable because the poison in the pellets is not all that strong.  The Bush Administration insists that they treat it as industrial grade poison of a quality that the sociopath simply lacks the capacity to make.  Then it turns out that there is no poison in the jar at all.  Once again, both parties are wrong, but the intelligence community is more realistic in its threat-level assessment than the Administration.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Peloponnesian War: The First Ten Years (Well, four, anyhow)

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C. and only ended with Athens' surrender in 404 B.C. a total of 27 years.  Like all very long wars,* it was really a series of wars. The first ten years are known as the Archidamean War (after Archidamus, King of Sparta at the time).  It is those ten years that I address now.

Pericles' initial strategy could well be called the rope-a-dope maneuver.  The Athenian army was no match for the Sparta-led forces, but those forces, in turn, were not powerful enough to assault Athens directly.  So Pericles evacuated the countryside, brought everyone within the city walls, and allowed the Spartans to lay waste to the surrounding country.  He, in turn, sailed the Athenian fleet down to the Peloponnese to lay waste to the countryside there.  Each spring the Spartans would march out and the Athenians sail out.  Each would lay waste to the other's countryside and then go home before winter set in.  Neither could conquer the other in this way.  The Athenians lacked the land power to march any distance inland, and Sparta was fertile enough not to be vulnerable to blockade.  Athens, in the meantime, imported most of its food, but had unassailable Long Walls to its port and was also invulnerable to blockade so long as it ruled the seas.

The city walls kept out invading armies, but they were powerless against the "invisible armies" that so often accompany war.  Bringing all the country people into Athens created crowded, squalid conditions and soon led to a plague and general breakdown in morale.  The Athenians sought to negotiate a peace but did not receive any satisfactory offer.  The Athenians turned against Pericles, but ultimately did not more that assess a fine against him, and reelected him shortly afterward.  Not long afterward, Pericles also came down with the plague and died, about two and a half years into the war.

The plague did not prevent the Athenians from continuing their siege of Potidea ultimately starving it into submission (430-429 BC).  The Potideans were forced to leave with no more than a single garment for men and two for women and a fixed sum of money, to take refuge with neighboring cities.  One can only assume that this increased hatred of the Athenians in the Chalcidice.  The plague may have kept the Athenians from coming to the aid of beleaguered Platea when the Peloponnesians joined the Thebans in laying siege to it (429 BC).  Nor did the plague stop the Athenians from winning naval victories.  Even when outnumbered, their superior skill triumphed over the inexperienced Peloponnesians.

In 428 BC, not long after the naval victories, the island of Lesbos on the east side of the Aegean, led by the city of Mytilene, revolted.  Lesbos had more autonomy than most Athenian allies -- it contributed ships and sailors to the alliance instead of paying tribute and was allowed to run its own government as it pleased, and it pleased an oligarchy.  The most probable reason for the revolt was that Mytilene, the largest city on the island, wanted to be local hegemon and the Athenians disagreed.  The democratic city of Mythemna (also on Lesbos) resisted Mytilene hegemony and called on Athens for help.  The Mytilenes called on Sparta to protect them from the bigger hegemon of Athens.  (This is one of many examples showing how pointless it is to try to sort out good guys from bad guys).  The Athenians blockaded Mytilene to starve it into submission (the usual tactic of a naval power conducting a siege).  The Spartans slipped a general into Mytilene and, despite their recent naval defeat, sent a fleet to Mytilene's relief.  But the fleet took its time.  In the meantime, the Spartan general, desperate provided heavy arms to the common people.  The people promptly demanded an equal share of the city's dwindling rations or they would revolt and make their own peace.  The authorities then surrendered, the only condition being that they would not be harmed until the Athenian Assembly decided their fate.  The Athenian general sent the Spartan general and the leaders of the revolt to Athens.  Meanwhile, the Spartan fleet had taken its time, but eventually crossed the Aegean, only to learn that it was too late.  The fleet commander passed up an opportunity to stir up a revolt, and alienated some potential allies by taking unwary visitors prisoner and executing them. Then, upon hearing that two elite Athenian ships were in the area looking for the Spartans, they turned and fled.

Despite the Spartan fleet's underwhelming performance, the Athenians were alarmed that their enemies had proven themselves capable of crossing the Aegean.  It did not bode well for the future. In their fear and alarm the Athenians had the Spartan general executed, despite his promises to lift the siege of Platea if he were spared.  They then voted to kill all the Mytilenian men and sell the women and children as slaves, in the theory that only the most extreme measures would deter future revolts. The next day, though, the Assembly relented, persuaded by the argument that (1) a more merciful policy would encourage hostile cities to surrender, and (2) the democratic element everywhere was a natural ally, unless the Athenians alienated them by such indiscriminate slaughter.  These arguments narrowly won the day.  But the Athenians still treated this rebellious ally with unprecedented severity.  They executed the "ring leaders" sent to Athens, 1,000 in all (probably the entire Mytilene oligarchic party) and turned all the land on Lesbos over the Athenian owners, with the local population as tenants.**  If this was "mercy," then things had fallen very far indeed.

As for the Spartan general who offered to lift the siege of Platea if he were spared, it soon became clear that the Athenians should have accepted his offer.  Shortly afterward, the Plateans surrendered on the assurance that they would be treated fairly.  Instead the Spartans, urged on by the Thebans still angry at the Plateans for having killed captured Thebans, executed all the men for the "crime" of opposing Sparta in the war.  The remaining women were sold as slaves and the city destroyed.  Thucydides attributes the Spartans' severity to their desire to stay on good terms with Thebes.  But it seems likely that the Spartans were also angry over the execution of their general and ready to take it out on whoever was closest at hand.  Presumably if he were alive and in Athenian hands, the Spartans would have restrained their Theban allies so they could trade the Plateans for their general.  Two other points should be made about the massacre as Platea.  First, bad as it was, it was simply not on the scale of what the Athenians has proposed in Mytilene.  Mytilene was the largest city in Lesbos.  Platea was tiny.  The Athenians had evacuated most of the non-combatants, and about half of the combatants had escaped, while the women sold as slaves may well have been slaves from the start.  Second, the Athenians were not blameless here either.  Before beginning the siege, the Spartans proposed that the Plateans leave their city and it would be returned to then after the war.  The Plateans refused upon Athenian assurances of protection.  The Athenians should have kept their promises if they were able, or not made them in the first place.

*How long is "very long"?  I would classify of war of six months or less as short, of six months to two years as fairly short, of three to six years as medium, of more than six years as long, and more then twelve or fifteen years (not sure where to draw the line) as very long.
**Some (presumably pro-Athenians) commentators believe that the number is in error and that the actual figure was much smaller.  They also suggest that Mytilene oligarchs owned all the land anyhow, so the people were just swapping one set of overlords for another.  But presumably given the choice, the Mytilenians would prefer local to foreign overlords.