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Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tying our colloquium on Thucydides to current White House events ]


Well, I’ve been majorly out of it since the Thucydides roundtable started, and am only slowly getting back into the swing of things, but I’d like to bookend my initial roundtable comment with a closing observation, this one concerning Steve Bannon and his interest in the history of warfare. The quote that follows is from the Armchair General‘s column, Steve Bannon’s Long Love Affair With War, in today’s Daily Beast:

You can also find Bannon’s affection for military and strategic ruthlessness in what he reads. According to two of Bannon’s former friends from his West Coast days, two of his favorite books are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the hugely influential ancient Chinese text on military strategy, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The latter tells the story of a holy war to establish dharma.

Sun Tzu, check. Bhagavad Gita, double check. Dharma! Indeed!


The article continues:

Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime Hollywood writing partner and former close friend, recalls seeing him excitedly flipping through both books, and talking about them lovingly and often. She would frequently see various “books all over [Steve’s place] about battles and things,” among his clutter of possessions and interests. (Late last year, Jones — who identifies as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” — had a falling out with Bannon due to his work on the Trump presidential campaign, a role that she said absolutely “disgusted” her.)

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war — it’s almost poetry to him,” Jones told The Daily Beast in an interview last year, well before Trump won the election and Bannon landed his new job. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”

Almost poetry.

And back to dharma:

Jones said that Bannon “used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma… one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”

I suppose I should write a follow-up about dharma and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna instructed Arjuna in the dharma appropriate to a warrior.

And so to our roundtable topic — the Peloponnesian War:

She also noted his “obsession” with the military victories and epic battles of the Roman Empire’s Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar. But a personal favorite of Bannon’s was the subject of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta.

“He talked a lot about Sparta — how Sparta defeated Athens, he loved the story,” Jones said. “The password on his [desktop] computer at his office at American Vantage Media in Santa Monica was ‘Sparta,’ in fact.”

This is the mindset of Trump’s top White House aide who just earned himself a seat at the table on the National Security Council.


You’d like a more direct Bannon Thucydides connection? The topic is smaller than Bannon’s role at the NSC — the “war” between Breitbart and Fox — but Thucydides is front and center. In a Breitbart piece from August 2016, Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command, Steve Bannon writes:

Here at Breitbart News, we see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

See also: Titus in Space (Paris Review, November 2016)

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation

Saturday, December 17th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Ali Wyne

Ali Wyne of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Our friends at The Strategy Bridge are continuing their own explanation of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ timeless take on it. Ali Wyne from The Atlantic Council responds to Dr. Frank Hoffman’s previous post at War on the Rocks on “Thucydides: Reading Between the Lines“:

Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation of the Peloponnesian War

….Far from being incidental to the Spartan polis, slavery was among its central characteristics. Slaves—or helots, as they were known—widely outnumbered non-slaves, perhaps by as much as a factor of ten.[3] According to the director of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, a “fundamental feature of Spartan society was that the Spartiate citizens lived as rentier landowners supported by a servile population…who worked their estates.”[4] Any disturbance to this arrangement threatened not only Sparta’s agrarian economy, but also, by extension, the leadership’s authority. The English classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford observed how centrally “the constant menace of revolt” figured in its decision-making: “To meet this danger, and not for the purposes of conquest, their military system was designed and maintained.”[5] Sparta spared no measure to achieve domestic tranquility: the University of British Columbia’s Nigel Kennell observes that it “regularly sent young elite soldiers out into the countryside as armed death squads to murder any helot they found on the roads after dark or any working in the fields they thought too robust.”[6]

As Cornford’s judgment implies, however, fear of a slave revolt did more than influence Sparta’s approach to internal order; it was instrumental in shaping the city-state’s foreign policy, for an external antagonist—or even mere opportunist—could attempt to turn the helots against Sparta’s leaders. As it happens, they scarcely required encouragement. According to Jean Ducat, France’s foremost authority on Sparta, there existed “a state of open war between the helots and the Spartans throughout the period from 520 to 460.”[7] Most notably, following an earthquake in the Eurotas Valley in 464 that destroyed much of Sparta, the city-state’s slaves joined forces with their counterparts in Messenia to attempt a coup. Even though strategic tensions between Sparta and Athens had been rising following their collective defeat of the Persians in 479, the former initially welcomed the latter’s assistance in suppressing the uprising. Soon, however, Sparta asked the Athenian contingent to leave, fearing that the democratic ideology of its members might encourage further helot subversion: British historian Paul Cartledge explains that “[t]he Spartans simply did not want several thousands of democratically minded citizen-soldiers running loose among their Greek servile underclass in their tightly controlled territory.”[8]

The paradoxical nature of Spartan culture and its leadership in the Hellenic world is something worth pondering.

The Spartans were at once the most Greek of the Greeks yet also in some respects rather weird and alien. Their religious zeal for attending to religious rites and habit of relying upon divinatory guidance to military campaigns has already been remarked upon in this roundtable. Similarly, A,E. Clark and T. Greer have debated the meaning attached to Spartan “honor” and it’s impact on Spartan moral reasoning. The upper classes of other Greek polities, including Athens itself, were often admirers of ascetic Spartan martial virtues, it’s Agoge and the despotic regimentation the Spartiates imposed on the lower classes and helots (we can include Thucydides to a degree among their number). I.F. Stone wrote of young Athenian aristocrats as “Socratified youth”, swaggering through the streets with red cloaks and clubs in imitation of Spartans. Even the Athenian hedonist noble par excellence, exiled Alcibiades, joined in Spartan customs with sufficient enthusiasm to charm his grim hosts.

But the Spartans were also strange. They were the only polity to enslave on a massive scale their fellow Greeks, which was both the basis of their power as well as their Achilles heel. They scandalized other Greeks with the boldness of Spartan women, their penchant for sadistic whipping contests and their eerie practice of living and working among the remains of their dead. Finally their harsh eugenic practices which made every Spartiate life almost too valuable to lose. These things made Sparta different from it’s allies and rivals, shaped the political judgement of Spartan leaders and the strategies by which they pursued victory.

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Hoffman on Reading Thucydides

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for frank hoffman

Dr. Frank Hoffman

‘Tis the season for Thucydides. At War on the Rocks, military scholar and theorist Frank Hoffman argues that we give The Peloponnesian War a read, but do it with a critical eye.


…His insights have proven invaluable to serious students attempting to understand the past and apply it to the present and future. But much of this reputation is based on Thucydides’ purportedly dispassionate style, attention to detail, and perceived objectivity. We often take him at his word that “those who want to understand clearly” the history he recounts. For example, Princeton’s James McPherson has stated that he relies on Thucydides “because he is a more careful, precise, and trustworthy historian who does not try to go beyond the evidence.” Williamson Murray, the strategic historian, appreciates and endorses the Greek author because he was able to examine with honesty and ruthlessness the reality of war—not glory, not colorful parades, little but desolation and tragedy, yet a fundamental and everlasting part of the human tableau.

Yet, while we can admire his realism, how ruthlessly honest was Thucydides in his analysis?

As the distinguished Yale classicist Donald Kagan shows in his impressive Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, the ancient Athenian is not simply the detached historian we have come to think he was. After he was exiled for presiding over the embarrassing loss of Amphipolis in 424 BC, Thucydides had much time to ponder the war. However, he was also biased by his close association with critical key participants, including Pericles. Murray later admitted that our good Greek admiral was capable of “loading the dice” a few times in his perceptions of what occurred. Murray himself points out the Pericles’ famous speech as recalled by Thucydides “proved more flawed in its long-range analysis of the future.” It is hard to disagree with Mark Gilchrist, who argues that Athenian strategic rationality declined, but we should also recognize it was not perfect to start with.

Read the rest here.

It is a fair point that Thucydides was a critic of his country but an admirer of the Periclean regime; in fact, he was something of an apologist for Pericles personally. The Democracy, in Thucydides view, functioned well only so long as the wise hand of Pericles was there to steer the ship of state. As Hoffman explained, eminent classicist Donald Kagan has gone further, arguing that Thucydides was the first revisionist historian. It seems at least fair to me to say that Thucydides is more concerned with the crimes and folly of the Athenian politicians who exiled him than those of their Spartan enemies. It is also arguable that Thucydides knew Athenian elite society far more intimately than he knew the leadership classes of the Spartans, Corinthians, Argives or Persians and his narrative inevitably unfolded accordingly.

A critical eye is useful indeed.

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Fellow Thucydideans

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for two thucydides

A couple of noteworthy posts.

First, commenter John Kranz of Three Sources.com has a string of posts up on The Peloponnesian War that you should investigate. A sample:

….Indeed it so happened that directly after the battle of Amphipolis and the retreat of Ramphias from Thessaly, both sides ceased to prosecute the war and turned their attention to peace. Athens had suffered severely at Delium, and again shortly afterwards at Amphipolis, and had no longer that confidence in her strength which had made her before refuse to accept the offer of peace, in the belief of ultimate victory which her success at the moment had inspired; [5.14]

The “Ten Years War” is complete. J. E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath [Review Corner] covers only this period. And Thucydides himself spends a small section defending his decision to consider the entire “three times nine years” period a single conflict, getting a dig in at the superstitious of his time:

So that the first ten years’ war, the treacherous armistice that followed it, and the subsequent war will, calculating by the seasons, be found to make up the number of years which I have mentioned, with the difference of a few days, and to provide an instance of faith in oracles being for once justified by the event. [5.26]

But if the play-by-play, battle-by-battle coverage takes a small break in Book Five, there’s some time for extended commentary (and highlights from other conflicts).

I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely. [6] I will accordingly now relate the differences that arose after the ten years’ war, the breach of the treaty, and the hostilities that followed. [5.26]

Sparta and Athens indeed complete a truce, essentially establishing a “status quo ante” distribution of territory with a few small exceptions. But Hellas does not become Hundred Acre Wood, and they do not spend these years in idyllic pastoral repose. Both combatants drag their heels at completing requirements of the treaty. “Oh, we’ll give them the hostages from Pylos someday…”

Secondly, over with our friends at The Bridge, a fine post by Mark Gilchrist: Why Thucydides Still Matters

….Thucydides intended his work to be “a possession for all time,” and through reading The Peloponnesian War we come to realise the complexities of modern life have not rendered everything experienced by past generations irrelevant to the problems of today.[1] In fact, as he intended, Thucydides provides a sound basis from which to discover how best to approach the complex problems facing contemporary strategists through allowing us to better understand war’s continuities and discontinuities.

Thucydides charts the impact of war on the character of the states involved. He uses Athens’ transformation as a cautionary tale about what war will do to a state unprepared for its influence and of the cost of applying power unwisely or unjustly in the pursuit of a political objective. His writing is grounded in the understanding that war’s nature is inextricably linked to human nature, which in turn shapes the strategic and military culture that manifest in war’s character and the political objectives for which it is fought. Through a narrative approach, his work serves as a warning about the moral decline of society over the course of protracted war. In doing so he demonstrates several points relevant for all wars, including today’s: War’s nature is unchanging and is based on the contest for power. “Fear, honour, and interest” are human characteristics immutable through time and have generally been the cause of wars throughout history.[2] These characteristics shape strategic and military culture and in turn the character of a given war. And the creation of a political objective based on a state’s vital interests is imperative in the formulation of a winning strategy. 

That’s it.


Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Cleon Revisited

Friday, November 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

After posting about “The Most Violent Man at Athens“, commenter Neville Morely who is a professor of the classics, brought it to my attention that he recently offered a qualified defense of the populist Athenian politician, Cleon.  I thought that this would serve as an excellent rebuttal to my post that would interest and inform the readership. So, without further ado, Professor Morely:

Cleon and the Lying Media

Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious.

At best, what this offers us is the pantomime villain whom we can boo and hiss with a sense of smugness that we have a superior idea of how bad he really is. But this one seems riskier than normal, if it slides easily into the belief that the emergence of such a figure is also a judgement against the system that has allowed him to rise to prominence. That’s precisely how Thucydides and Aristophanes (the lying MainsSteam Media) present Cleon, as evidence of the negative tendencies of Athenian democracy that headed downhill from there; is there a sense that Trump, even as he denounces American institutions, is also fuelling a suspicion of those institutions among some of his fiercest critics? Yes, there may be a case for that – but it shouldn’t be a case based on this arguable interpretation of the relationship between Cleon and Athens.

I may return to this theme in more detail – currently supposed to be working on a paper on a completely different topic for tomorrow evening – but for the moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve already developed these ideas nearly twenty years ago in a piece for Omnibus called ‘Cleon the Misunderstood’ (can’t remember whether I put a question mark after that in the original). I’d certainly update this today with more discussion of how Cleon gets read in relation to Thucydides’ trustworthiness – George Grote’s criticism of the portrayal, and the academic row that ensued – but I think this stands up well enough as a summary to be worth reproducing here:

Cleon the Misunderstood

In the mid-fourth century B.C., an Athenian citizen called Mantitheus sued his half-brother for the return of his mother’s dowry. At one point in the speech, he tells the jury that his mother had once been married to a man called Cleomedon,

Whose father Cleon, we are told, commanded troops among whom were your ancestors, and captured alive a large number of Spartans, and won greater renown than any other man in the state; so it was not fitting that the son of that famous man should wed my mother without a dowry. (Demosthenes, 40.25)

Juries in Athens were made up of at least a hundred and one dikastai, chosen by lot from volunteers who had to be Athenian citizens over thirty years old. The speaker had to try to persuade the majority of these jurors to vote in his favour, whether because of the strength of his case or by appealing to their sentiments. Certainly he would not want to alienate too many people by expressing unpopular views; Mantitheus must therefore have assumed that his description of Cleon as a famous Athenian leader would be accepted by many among his audience. Yet such a positive assessment is likely to come as a surprise to most students of Athenian history, especially those familiar with Thucydides’ account of the part played by Cleon in the course of the PeloponnesianWar.

Read the rest here.

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