Sunday, December 27, 2015

Political and Diplomatic Maneuvering Around Athens' Final Defeat

Athens was still a democracy at the time of its surrender (and shortly after), but confidence in its government had been weakened.  In particular, many aristocrats (the cavalry)* had become disillusioned.  The Athenian aristocracy, like aristocracies everywhere, flattered itself on its moral superiority.  They called themselves "the best citizens," "the good and the true," and so forth, and meant this both in moral terms and in terms of pedigree and wealth.  In fact, they probably conflated those things so far as not to distinguish at all.  And well we can imagine that younger men in particular were disillusioned.  After all, they were not old enough to have seen the democracy's greatest accomplishments -- its victory over the Persians, its liberation of the Asian Greeks, its formation of the Delian League as a mutual defense pact with no imperialist designs.  Even the height of Athens' prosperity before the Peloponnesian War, or its seeming invincibility at sea during the early days of the war would have been, at best, vague childhood memories.  What they would have seen was the democracy committing frightful atrocities at Melos and Scione, the democracy lured into mad imperialist schemes in Sicily, ending in disaster, the democracy descending into moral panic over the mutilated herms and arresting its leading citizens with no end in sight, the democracy turning the tide of the war, only to refuse peace offers that could put an end to it, the democracy executing generals who had won a miraculous victory without any meaningful trial, and finally the democracy utterly defeated.  Many of them must have looked at the mess the democracy had made and concluded that an oligarchy, made up of men like themselves, would do better.  If the uninspiring performance of the Four Hundred was not an encouraging example, well, they had an unfinished war on their hands, which the new oligarchy would not.  Definite oligarchic sympathies were particularly  strong in the Council.

At the same time, there were hardcore populists who could not bring themselves to admit certain cold, hard truths.  That the war was lost no one disputed, although many blamed defeat on betrayal,  for which there is no evidence.  And although the empire was clearly irretrievable, many Athenians vainly hoped to escape any further consequences of defeat and looked with grave suspicion on political maneuvers surrounding the negotiation of terms and later blamed some sort of betrayal there for their later misfortunes.  The professional historians give little attention to the political maneuvering that attended Athens' final surrender, seeing it as insignificant to the outcome, given that their navy was destroyed and the city was under blockade and starving.  In this they are no doubt right, but these maneuverings may have been signs of a nascent plot to establish an oligarchy if the city survived (a matter decidedly in doubt).  They are documented by later speeches eager to find someone to blame and therefore not altogether reliable.  But the speeches do give insight into what was happening in Athens during those desperate days.

At some point the Spartans apparently proposed a peace if Athens would demolish the Long Walls connecting the city to its port for the length of ten stadia (about a mile).  Archestratus proposed to the Council that they accept and was thrown in prison for it, and such proposals forbidden. The leading instigator in the Assembly against acceptance (and presumably for forbidding and further discussion and imprisoning anyone who suggested it) was our old friend Cleophon, who had previous made himself notable by rejecting peace after Athens first major victory (and possibly the second as well). At this point Theramenes asked to be appointed ambassador, possibly offering to secure better terms.  Theramenes remained absent up to three months while conditions in Athens deteriorated, leading many to suspect that he was doing it on purpose to build pressure against Athens, or perhaps conspiring against the democracy.  While they waited, the Council decided that Cleophon was an obstacle to peace and arranged to have him tried on dubious charges of deserting his post.  But the  Council feared a jury would not convict and so Council members Satyrus and Chremon arranged to have him tried by the Council, convicted and executed.

While Theramenes was attempting to negotiate peace with Lysander, the government in Sparta called a meeting of the Peloponnesian League.  The mood was ugly.  Thebes, Corinth, and various smaller cities opposed any peace and favored destroying Athens altogether.  Plutarch adds that the Thebans wanted to sell the entire population as slaves and turn the city into a pasture.**  The Spartans,  however, refused to destroy their faithful ally in the Persian war and instead settled for destruction of the Long Walls and all but twelve ships, return of the exiles (presumably, exiled for their part in the coup by the 400), and subordination in all matters of foreign policy.***  Lysander was besieging Samos during the negotiations.  According to Xenophon, he played no role in determining the terms of peace, other than to send a messenger to the Ephors saying that he deferred to their authority.  This seems a bit out of character for a man of such overweening ambition, one who presumably carried strong influence because of his role in delivering victory, and who was not normally given to letting a little thing like constitutional nicety stand in his way.  Two Roman era sources say that he did, indeed, use his influence in determining the outcome, though in opposite ways.  Pausanias (geographer) says Lysander, together with the King Agis, without seeking the approval of the Assembly, Council or Ephors, were responsible for putting forth the proposal to destroy Athens root and branch.  By contrast Polyaenus (military historian) says that Lysander persuaded the Spartans to spare Athens by arguing that it would be useful as a buffer against the growing power of Thebes, especially if he installed a friendly government.****

Kagan (pp. 402-408) proposes that Theramenes spent the time persuading Lysander that it was to his advantage to spare Athens, and that Lysander was ultimately persuaded and sent a message to that effect to the Spartan government and persuaded them as well.  This is, of course, pure guesswork, so make of it what you will.  Clearly, though, if the guess is true, then because Lysander specifically made the argument to spare Athens if a friendly government were installed, so regime change would appear to be part of the deal.  In that sense, Theramenes could truly be said to have spent his time with Lysander plotting against the democracy.  If Theramenes did cut such a deal, presumably he would have seen himself as a Petain, agreeing to join a collaberationist government only to save his country from a worse fate. Given the alternatives, this is a reasonable assessment.  Then again, Theramenes was clearly among the (not so young) Athenian aristocrats who had long since become disenchanted with the democracy. He had been one of the Four Hundred who had overthrown the democracy before, although he was unwilling to commit treason to uphold the oligarchy.  He had played a major role in restoring the democracy and had given it valuable service.  But democracy had not been his first choice seven years earlier, and presumably he was even less favorably disposed to it now.

When Theramenes returned, he was greeted by large crowds, desperate for any terms.  Xenophon only says that when Theramenes reported the terms to the Assembly, some spoke in opposition, but most agreed to the necessity.

Later speeches cast important light on the "some" who opposed the peace terms, and how their opposition was overcome.  These were "generals and commanders," including Strombichides, a general identified in Thucydides as having responded to the revolt at Chios and been the first to arrive in the Hellespont when the Peloponnesians began stirring up trouble there.  Off in the Hellespont, he does not appear to have had any role in the coup by the 400 or the democratic revolt against it.  The other general named is Dionysodurus.  A Dionysodorus is named in Xenophon and Plato, specifically as a teaching military skills, but both also make clear that this Dionysodorus is a foreign visitor, while the one who spoke against the peace had to have been a citizen. Whoever this Dionysodorus may have been, he and Strombichides denounced the terms as worse than what had been proposed before.

Apparently the peace party saw these men as sufficiently dangerous to peace that, like Cleophon, they would have to be removed.  They persuaded an informant named Theocritus to appear before the Council and say he had discovered a plot against the peace, though without giving names.  He apparently did identify a slave named Agoratus as privy to the plot, so a decree was issued calling for his arrest.  The theory was presumably that, as a slave, Agoratus could be compelled to give names under torture.  The councillors set out to arrest him, but several citizens offered themselves as sureties in his place.  All then fled to sanctuary.  They proposed to flee, but Agoratus, although a slave threatened with torture, refused.  When the councillors reached the sanctuary, Agoratus left with them and went to the Council chamber where he denounced his sureties, generals Strombichides and Dionysodorus, and unidentified others.  He then denounced them before the Assembly as well. (Presumably the Assembly that approved the terms of surrender, to prevent the generals for speaking out against the terms).  The Assembly apparently approved their trial before a jury.  The men were arrested just as Athens' surrender took place.

The incident is genuine.  The speech presents the decree ordering Agoratus' arrestand the decree of the Assembly referring the men to trial.  But it is understandable that Xenophon omits it.  Certainly it did not have any actual effect on the outcome; Athens was helpless and had little choice but to accede to any terms offered.  But after the misfortunes that followed the surrender, it was easy for Athenians to cherish the illusion that if only they had held out a little longer or had a tougher negotiator, they might have gotten more favorable terms.

Those misfortunes will be addressed over the coming series of posts.

*Although all eligible participants had equal rights in most matters, they were divided into four classes based on wealth for tax and military purposes.  The poorest men served in the navy (no gear required), the middle class in the infantry (they could afford a suit of armor), and the rich in the cavalry (they could afford a horse).  The role of the super-rich is a little unclear.  Probably they outfitted and commanded ships.  I stress the young as the main supporters of the Thirty partly because the regime's extreme violence sounds like a government of young men and partly because the young would have seen less of the democracy's achievements and more of its failures.  Still, the regime must have had older supporters as well.  It continued to set an age limit of 30 to serve in the Council.
**He appears to set this council after Athens had surrendered, when they failed to destroy the walls fast enough.
***Plutarch tells a charming but implausible story that the Peloponnesians relented when they heard a chorus by Euripides and could not bring themselves to destroy such a city.
****This account is inconsistent with him being at Samos when the debate took place, although he did sent a  messenger who might have delivered the message, or the debate may have taken place later, as Plutarch says.  Either way, presumably this argument was given in private to his fellow countrymen only, since it seems most unlikely that he would have said so right in the presence of the Thebans!

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