Monday, May 25, 2015

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.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.