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Thucydides Roundtable, Book VII: Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

[by A. E. Clark]

The Sicilian debacle that unfolds in Book VII arises from more than one cause and offers more than one lesson: but this reader was struck by the recurring motif of timing, which the Athenians keep getting wrong while their adversaries usually get it right. An obvious approach to this subject is through the Greek word kairos, which denotes an opportune moment that must be seized promptly when it comes along. Wikipedia has an interesting overview of how this concept, which appears to have originated in archery or perhaps the craft of weaving with a shuttle, came to be elaborated in classical rhetoric and Christian theology. Its military applications are obvious. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles notes, tou de polemou hoi kairoi ou menetoi: in war, moments of opportunity do not linger. (1.142.1)

Thucydides makes it clear that Gylippus, from his first entrance on the scene, is a man of kairos.  “[H]e had arrived at a critical moment” (7.2.4); “at last he thought that the moment had come” (7.5.2); the word in both instances is kairos. The Athenians by no means lacked such insight, but usually they failed to act on it: it is worth reading carefully the analysis Lamachus gave at Syracuse in 415, after which he allowed himself to be overruled (6.49.1-4). The Athenians repeatedly tarry precisely when decisive action is needed. Thucydides credits Demosthenes with proceeding to Sicily “without delay,” but the account suggests otherwise: the general stops at various places to build forts, ravage territory, and collect troop increments of marginal utility (7.20.2-3, 7.26, 7.33). By contrast, in this fateful summer of 413, the Spartans begin their invasion of Attica “in the first days of spring, at an earlier period than usual.” (7.19.1)

After they have been defeated but when they can still escape, again and again the Athenians prove fatally dilatory. The generals disagree after Epipolae, and so do nothing (7.47-49). The Athenians finally decide to sail away when the enemy brings in a fresh army, but a lunar eclipse persuades the superstitious Nicias to defer the departure by 27 days (7.50.4). They let themselves be cheated of their last chance to slip away by land when they uncritically accept a spoofed message of disinformation telling them to wait (7.73.3-7.74.1).

The very Greek theme of kairos, then, reverberates through this drama: the Spartans and the Syracusans know how to seize it, while the Athenians don’t, and that spells the difference between victory and defeat. But I will confess that this is not what first occurred to me as I read Book VII. Instead I heard echoes of a work of strategy by an author who certainly never read Thucydides and was steeped in a profoundly different culture. Go Rin No Sho, the “Book of Five Rings,” by a masterless samurai of the early seventeenth century, subsumes both individual dueling and large-scale warfare under the same “art of the advantage.” Miyamoto Musashi knew about kairos, but he called it Crossing at a Ford.  Of particular relevance to students of Book VII, he explores with Delphic intensity the role of hyoshi: timing (or ‘rhythm’).

The way to win in a battle according to military science is to know the rhythms of specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect, producing formless rhythms from rhythms of wisdom. (transl. Cleary)

If that key passage from near the end of the Earth Scroll sounds too much like a fortune cookie, be assured that Musashi explores the matter in greater detail. He stresses pre-emption, the seizure of the initiative by attacking suddenly, or by interrupting the enemy’s attack at its very inception, or by exploiting momentary imbalances when you are attacking each other more or less simultaneously.

Unfortunately, I do not know Japanese, and the language of Musashi presents difficulty even for those who do. Go Rin No Sho was probably a set of notes meant to supplement allusively an oral teaching that is unavailable to us. The translations by Thomas Cleary and William Scott Wilson are both respected by experts, but they differ from each other enough to indicate that the text must not be entirely clear. Here are two fine articles by Musashi enthusiasts that unpack some of the subtleties:



In practice, Musashi was a past master at screwing up his adversaries’ timing and finding ingenious ways to fluster them. He often showed up late for his duels and is reported to have despatched his most formidable antagonist by wielding not a sword but a long bludgeon that he had whittled from an oar while being ferried to the battle-ground.

…start by making a show of being slow, then suddenly attack strongly. Without allowing him space for breath to recover from the fluctuation of spirit, you must grasp the opportunity to win. Get the feel of this. (transl. Wilson)

This style is perfectly exemplified in Ariston’s “lunchtime” trick (7.39.2 – 7.40.4), which hinges on syncopated rhythm.

In the disastrous night battle at Epipolae, the turning point seems to have been a sudden change in rhythm which unbalanced the Athenians. They got used to an accelerating advance ( . . . the victors immediately pushing on” 7.43.5), and committed themselves to it by forgoing any consolidation (“the Athenians now advanced with less order, wishing to make their way as quickly as possible” 7.43.7). Being brought to a standstill and driven back by the Boeotians was a disorienting change of pace.  (“The Athenians now fell into great disorder and perplexity” 7.44.1)

Musashi noted the frequency with which deadlock arises in warfare and suggested antidotes to it.

Letting Go Four Hands is for when you and an opponent are in a deadlock and no progress is being made in the fight. It means that when you think you are going to get into a deadlock, you stop that right away and seize victory by taking advantage of a different approach. (transl. Cleary)

and, more psychologically,

When fighting with enemies, if you get to feeling snarled up and are making no progress, you toss your mood away and think in your heart that you are starting everything new. As you get the rhythm, you discern how to win. (transl. Cleary)

This is what the Athenians needed to do during the climactic naval battle of 7.70-71, in which the two sides seemed evenly matched (in unbearable suspense to the onlookers) and the Syracusan victory did not come until “after the battle had lasted a long while.”

Musashi was not a merciful man.  He wrote,

  . . . when opponents are demoralized and weakening, you concentrate your force on crushing them . . . In the context of individual martial art too, when your opponent is not as skilled as you are, or when his rhythm is fouled up, or when he starts to back off, it is essential not to let him catch his breath. Mow him right down . . . The most important thing is not to let him recover.

The Syracusans’ resolve to exploit their first naval victory to the fullest (7.56.2) and later their relentless pursuit and annihilation of the fleeing Athenian remnants exemplify this ethos.

In Musashi’s time, schools of swordsmanship had different opinions as to what the warrior’s eyes should chiefly focus on. His adversary’s sword? His adversary’s eyes, or feet? In the Wind Scroll, Musashi says the eyes should focus on “the hearts and minds of the people involved . . . on the state of the opposing troops,” but in a broad vision that takes in “the conditions for battle . . . the strength and weakness of the occasion” so as never to lose sight of the big picture. The speeches of Gylippus and Nicias offer an interesting contrast: Nicias talks about his men, their fate, their virtue. Gylippus addresses the motivations of his troops and their advantages in the battlespace at hand but, notably, he also analyzes the state of mind of the enemy and shares the intelligence he has received about it. (7.66.3 and 7.67.4)

I invite Roundtable readers who have shuddered through Book VII to pick up the Book of Five Rings, with particular attention to the Fire Scroll, and see whether they too find it a surprisingly apt commentary on the Syracusan campaign.

Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged. . . when the enemy start to collapse you must pursue him without letting the chance go. (transl. Wilson)

The Thucydides Roundtable

Thursday, October 13th, 2016


  1. Announcement, by T. Greer
  2. Marching Orders, by Mark Safranski
  3. Panel of Contributors, by Mark Safranski

Book I:

  1. An introduction, by T. Greer
  2. Fear, honor, and Ophelia, by Lynn C. Rees
  3. The Broken Reedby Jim Lacey
  4. How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War, by Joe Byerly
  5. It Would Be A Great Warby Cheryl Rofer
  6. Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemyby Marc Opper
  7. Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?, by Pauline Kaurin
  8. Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint, by Mark Safranski
  9. Reflections in a Beginner’s Mindby Charles Cameron
  10. Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective, by Joseph Guerra
  11. Honour or reputation?by Natalie Sambhi

Book II:

  1. Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptionsby Pauline Kaurin
  2. Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataeaby A.E. Clark
  3. When Bacteria Beats Bayonets, by Joe Byerly
  4. Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap, by T. Greer
  5. On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part Iby Mark Safranski
  6. Treason makes the historian, by Lynn C. Rees

Book III:

  1. Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. The Most Violent Man at Athensby Mark Safranski
  3. The Medium of Heralds, by Cheryl Rofer
  4. A Layered Textby Joseph Guerra
  5. Understanding Stasisby A. E. Clark

Book IV:

  1. What a Man Can Do”, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. General Demosthenesby A. E. Clark
  3. History is Written by the Losers, by T. Greer
  4. Hoplite Perspectiveby Mark Safranski
  5. Devastationby A. E. Clark

Book V:

  1. What Would the Melians Do? Power and Perception in a Time of Deep Connectivity, by Steven Metz
  2. The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hourby A. E. Clark
  3. Men of Honor, Men of Interestby T. Greer
  4. Debating the Dialogueby A. E. Clark

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. Spot the Alcibiades Pointsby T. Greer
  3. The State with the Golden Armby A. E. Clark

Book VII:

  1. Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai, by A. E. Clark


  1. What Do You Mean by “We”?, by A. E. Clark

Concluding Analysis

  1. What have we learned?, by A. E. Clark


  1. Cleon Revisitedby Mark Safranski
  2. Fellow Thucydideansby Mark Safranski
  3. Hoffman on Reading Thucydidesby Mark Safranski
  4. Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanationby Mark Safranski
  5. Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War by Charles Cameron
  6. Thucydides Roundtable: Daniel Bassill’s comment by Charles Cameron


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