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Thucydides Roundtable, Concluding Analysis: What have we learned?

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

[by A. E. Clark]

In this parting post, my theme is learning. What have we learned from what we’ve read? What did the Greeks of the late fifth century learn from what they experienced? What did Thucydides learn from his research and writing? I’ll take these questions in reverse order.

I. Learning by Thucydides

As a book-in-progress, the History was Thucydides’ close companion for perhaps thirty years. A growing collection of papyrus scrolls — whose completion may have been the goal that sustained him through an illness typically fatal, as well as undeserved military disgrace — was somehow preserved and updated and polished through an exile’s years of wandering. Scholars have tried to identify in the text such corrections and interpolations as the author may have added in the light of subsequent events or later-obtained testimony. Some have then drawn conclusions about how the historian’s views changed over time. Eduard Schwartz (1858-1940) thought that the book was revised very late in the war to be a defense of Pericles. I think this must be considered highly speculative, but it is reasonable to ask, “What did Thucydides learn by writing his book?”

On general principles, I’d guess the answer is “A lot.” But it is hard to pick out from among the wealth of his insights any that could only have come to him as he worked; in almost every case, they could have been part of his outlook from the beginning. His cold realism, for example: when Pericles says that the wise place their trust “not in hope, which is the prop of the desperate, but in a judgment grounded upon existing resources (2.62.5),” he is sounding a theme that will echo at Melos and many other scenes in the war: but a mine-owner born to wealth and power, yet responsible for maintaining both, might have learned that lesson young.

Another theme, however, likely reflects a hard-won insight. The writer often expounds the law of unintended consequences and the almost inevitable disappointment of human hopes. No one is born with this knowledge. And nothing teaches it as surely as warfare and the study of warfare. In 1.78.1, the Athenian ambassadors note “the vast influence of accident in war.” After their setback at Pylos, the Spartans say, “Sensible men are prudent enough to treat their gains as precarious.” (4.18.4) People often bring about the opposite of what they seek, as when Nicias’ speech on the exorbitant requirements of a Sicilian expedition has the effect of heightening his audience’s enthusiasm (6.24.2) or when the efforts of the oligarchy undermine its own cause:

Things at Thasos thus turned out just the contrary to what the oligarchic conspirators at Athens expected; and the same in my opinion was the case in many of the other dependencies … (8.64.5)

The hapless invaders of Sicily “contrasted the splendor and glory of their setting out with the humiliation in which it had ended.” (7.75.6) There is a karmic quality to this arc of disappointment:

They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary. (7.75.7)

In his emphasis on how easily the plans of men go astray, especially when the planners are in the grip of hubris, Thucydides reminded this reader of the wisdom literature of the Ancient Near East, but whereas wisdom literature was typically deductive or simply apothegmatic, Thucydides is inductive, drawing lessons from his painstaking observation of events.

There is another insight which — though I can’t prove it — Thucydides likely reached only as a result of his experience and investigation. It comes near the end, when Athens is fighting for internal coherence as well as survival in a hostile world. After the Euboean disaster, the people assemble to depose the oligarchy of the Four Hundred and vote to restore the Five Thousand whose uncertain identity and role had inspired the remarkable passage:

Indeed this was why the Four Hundred neither wished the Five Thousand to exist, nor to have it known that they did not exist; being of the opinion that to give themselves so many partners in empire would be downright democracy, while the mystery in question would make the people afraid of each other. (8.92.11)

It is tempting to gloss: One morning,Thucydides awoke from troubled dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a Prague insurance clerk. In his description of the convulsions at Athens, our author is astoundingly modern, one might almost say post-modern. And of this moment of supreme danger he writes,

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 accomplished with judgment, and this was what first enabled the state to raise up her head after her manifold disasters. (8.97.2)

A world of Greek values is summed up in that phrase “with judgment” (metria, ‘with moderation or due measure’) but I think it most significant that this judgment is not the prerogative of one element of society but appears to emerge, somewhat mysteriously, from the whole community and its will to survive. This passage invites comparison with 2.65.8, where the success of Pericles was ascribed to his masterful pre-eminence over the multitude that enabled him to “lead them instead of being led by them;” and I sense here an evolution in Thucydides’ political thought.

II. Learning in Thucydides.

In the course of a long war, somebody had better learn something. The historian need not highlight the fact of learning, but when he does, we ought to take notice. The siege of Plataea, as previously noted, showed the adversaries learning from each other — though the Plataeans usually seemed in the lead. Recounting his triumph at Sphacteria, Thucydides notes that General Demosthenes took pains not to repeat a mistake he had made at Aetolia (4.30.1).

More striking are the indications of a failure to learn. And here, notwithstanding their image as a curious, observant, and reflective people, it is the Athenians who most often fall short. They launch the expedition to Sicily while having only a vague and inaccurate idea of the size and population of the island (6.1.1) and perform a slipshod ‘due diligence’ that lets them be easily gulled by Egestaean silver (6.46.3-5). We must contrast this episode with the care the Spartans take before committing to Chios:

… the Spartans first sent to Chios Phrynis, one of the perioikoi, to see whether they had as many ships as they said, and whether their city generally was as great as was reported . . . (8.6.4)

The Spartans were wise to choose one of their perioikoi, that is, a civilian businessman, for this intelligence mission.

It’s a poor student who repeats a mistake after being burned by it. The Athenian fleet’s reliance on a local “market” for their rations (even when in proximity to the enemy) seriously impaired their battle-readiness and made them vulnerable in a way that Ariston exploited in the year 413 at Syracuse (7.40). Two years later at Eretrea the Athenians lost Euboea by falling prey to an almost identical tactic (8.95.4-7). But they still didn’t learn. In 405 at the Hellespont they got into the habit of seeking their meals farther and farther from their ships. Alcibiades warned them about it. Lysander took advantage: Aegospotami was their final “lunchtime” defeat. (Xenophon, Hellenica 2.1.25-28)

But the Athenians’ worst failure to learn, coinciding with their adversaries’ greatest achievement, concerned naval prowess. Athens began the war with unquestioned naval superiority. She convinced herself that it must always be that way, that no enemy could possibly learn the same skills (1.142.6 — 1.143.2) and ultimately outclass her. This is exactly what eventually happened — mainly as a result of the widening of the war to include Syracuse, a maritime power, and the Persian Empire, which disposed of substantial naval assets. In small things as well as great, the enemy kept learning after the Athenians stopped doing so, as with the reinforced catheads and novel ramming technique of 7.34 and 7.36.

The Spartans also may be taxed with a failure to learn, though it became apparent only after the period of which Thucydides was the historian. They saw the energies of resistance which the Greek city-states put up against a hegemon that reduced them to vassalage, energies that, with Persian assistance, prevailed. And then, with Athens subdued, they tried to make themselves a hegemon reducing the other city-states to vassalage — and provoked energies of resistance that, with Persian assistance, prevailed.

All the Greeks of that time seem to have missed what Mr. Strassler, in his astute epilogue, identifies as “the increasing inability of the traditional polis (city-state) to deal effectively with new problems of war, trade, and politics in a larger, Mediterranean framework.” Of this deepest failure to learn, he adds, “their myopic vision and sterile objectives embroiled the Greek cities in continuous and increasingly expensive warfare that not only impoverished them but . . . also allowed Persia to . . . neutralize [them].” A new organization, pioneered by Macedon, would give the Greeks ascendancy: but that empire would prove fissiparous upon the death of Alexander.

III. Learning from Thucydides

Rather than expounding lessons from this book, I would like to make a confession. I read it only now, in my late fifties, as a result of the challenge posed by this Roundtable; earlier attempts had yielded to discouragement in the face of an unfamiliar geography. I am therefore indebted both to Mr. Greer for the stimulus and to Mr. Strassler for the cartographic aids of the Landmark Edition. But let me emphasize: we cannot learn from a book if we do not read it. Few have read this book, and few in our time will ever do so. No enthusiasm expressed here will change that fact.

For few read the classics, and there are reasons why. A progressive philosophy of education devalues them on principle. There has also been an adverse development in our language: intricately subordinated clauses occur naturally in translations from most Greek and Latin writers. The resulting complex sentences were natural in the eighteenth, nineteeth, and even early twentieth century, for formal prose was still largely modeled on the classics; but since then our language has evolved in a way that makes this kind of prose uncomfortable reading for most educated people (outside the legal profession, where the exact parsing of complex sentences remains an essential skill). And finally, a book like the History of the Peloponnesian War can neither be skimmed nor reduced to 140 characters: it requires a capacity for sustained attention, which has grown rare.

What we can learn from Thucydides may therefore be a purely theoretical question, if in fact no one is going to read Thucydides. It’s ironic: the classics, long the shared patrimony of Western elites, have now — not by design or the nature of their content, but simply as a result of the decline of successor civilizations — the classics, I fear, have now become an esoteric tradition accessible to few and happily stumbled upon by some who were searching for other things. To those who, like me, have found their horizons expanded by discovery of this book, I offer a discreet nod and the hope that one day we may recognize each other as graduates of the Roundtable. There ought to be a secret handshake.

But I won’t say goodbye without recalling one gleam of lightning from the work we have finished. For the most part, Thucydides writes objective narration and analysis, concerned with the schemes and mischances by which power is amassed, contested, or lost. But occasionally his tale shines an austere spotlight on a humble individual caught up in events. When the Peloponnesians were driven back from Amphilochia, after a sharp victory at Olpae the allies of Athens killed about 200 Ambraciots in a confused retreat. Meanwhile the main body of the Ambraciot army moved south, unaware of the defeat at Olpae and thinking to reinforce their friends there. The Athenians with their allies ambushed these Ambraciots at dawn and after routing them, hunted them down, trapping and killing almost all of them in territory unfamiliar to them. It was a fate — as no one could then know — much like what would befall the Athenians under the same general thirteen years later in Sicily. The next day a herald arrives from the Ambraciot contingent that fought at Olpae: he asks to recover their dead, unaware of the much larger battle that has been fought in the meanwhile and in which his entire army has been destroyed. Shown a large field filled with armor collected from the slain, he becomes confused. Thucydides recounts how the situation has to be explained to him, and how then

. . . he broke into wailing, and stunned at the magnitude of the present evils, went away at once without having performed his errand, or again asking for the dead bodies. (3.113.5)

The wail of that receding figure reverberates after 2400 years. It’s all here — everything — in this anecdote of the Ambraciot herald: war as an enterprise that consumes all the bravery, cunning, and endurance of men; that brings out both the best and the worst in them; and that leaves them in the end stunned and groping for meaning amid the wreckage.

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


A survival kit for all time

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A survival kit for some time

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