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Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part I

Monday, October 31st, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen”]

Image result for pericles

Pericles, son of Xanthippus and strategos of Athens

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb”
– Pericles

“…like that star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.”
                            – Homer

Book II of the Peloponnesian War features the great Athenian leader Pericles and contains Thucydides’ remarkable apologia for his statesmanship and the Periclean regime over which he presided, which lasted only so long as he lived.  A kind of golden age within a golden age, thrown away by a senseless mob, at least as Thucydides tells the tale. What cannot be discounted however is that the man Thucydides called the “first citizen” of Athens was the dominant political figure of his day and put his stamp first upon Athens, then upon Hellas and then led his people into war to conserve and defend his vision of democratic empire against a jealous and fearful Sparta. Furthermore the novel strategy pursued by Pericles was integral the Athenian polis he had reshaped according to his vision and was designed to strengthen that regime as much as to win a military victory over Sparta.

In the text of Book II, Thucydides gives the reader three important narratives regarding the statesmanship of Pericles: his funeral oration; Pericles defense of his strategy before the Assembly; and Thucydides own analysis and eulogy of Pericles and his policies. From these we can see the continuity between Pericles political program for Athens at home and his imperial ambition for the role of Athens in the Hellenic world. Pericles, along with Ephialtes, had been pivotal in the decline the aristocratic, Aeropaegi faction that had been led by Cimon, whom Pericles had ostracized. Cimon’s regime was Athens as limited democracy, guided by the nobility, friendly to Sparta and deferential to Spartan hegemony. Pericles upended all of that root and branch. His Athens was to be at once radically democratic, investing power in the thetes of the Assembly, and gloriously heroic.

This was, to say the least, an unconventional viewpoint in classical Greece that had associated heroic qualities, or arête, with the well-born presiding over a hierarchical society. This cultural prejudice went back to at least Homeric times, if not to the older civilization of Mycenaean Greece. Pericles utterly rejected that and argued the excellence of all Athenian citizens was made possible by the political system of Athens and that Athens’ exalted status among Greek city states rested on the arête of its citizens:

….Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty….

….”Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule.

While Pericles was called “conservative and moderate” by Thucydides – and he certainly was a wise steward of shrewd strategic judgement in comparison with Cleon or Alcibiades – he was also in the context of the wider Greek world a social revolutionary. Moreover, a social revolutionary with demonstrated imperial ambitions and policies which Greek cities with tyrannical, aristocratic or oligarchic leadership found unsettling. Furthermore, Pericles drove home the point with the Parthenon, which he openly financed with the Delian League treasury, demonstrating that “ally” in Athenian eyes meant “subject”, Chiseled into marble on the Parthenon amidst a reconstructed Acropolis were ordinary Athenian citizenry made ideal and deified. This was clearly a political as well as a religious statement in what was the greatest temple of the ancient world. If one wonders why the Peloponnesian war took on so lethal an ideological dimension of factional strife  in every city touched by the Athenians or Spartans, the answer is written on the ruins of the Parthenon.

End Part I

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: When Bacteria Beats Bayonets

Sunday, October 30th, 2016


[By Joe Byerly]

Pericles had the perfect plan! The Athenians moved behind the walls of the city, letting the Spartans attack across land. They would wait them out in a Fabian Strategy. Food would not be an issue because Athens could rely on their maritime imports to keep them fed. Money wasn’t a problem, because they had plenty in the bank. Meanwhile, their fleet projected combat power into Spartan territory, raiding coastal cities and shaming the Spartans. Not only would Pericles avoid fighting the Spartans on their terms, he would also sew doubt of Spartan superiority among the Peloponnesian League by attacking the “home front.” As Athens and Sparta finished the campaigning season in the first year of the war, Athens believed their strategy was working as evidenced by Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

As the second year of the war began, disease struck in Athens. The plague caught everyone by surprise, and as Thucydides points out, “there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head…” The plague swept through Athens killing men, women, and children, and with it came devastating effects on society. Thucydides wrote that lawlessness broke out as men watched others die and private property became up for grabs. The unforeseen disease affected Athenian will, and they questioned the value of Pericles’ strategy, the war with Sparta, and ultimately sent envoys to Sparta to seek peace.

The Athenian experience with the plague should remind us of the power of the unseen. Disease can reshape society. It can influence the outcome of war. And although we have not experienced the devastating effects of contagion on a mass scale in modern times, we may only be standing in the proverbial eye of the storm. Therefore, we must take steps to defend ourselves against bacteria, just as we protect ourselves against bayonets.

One can argue that microscopic parasites could be placed on equal footing with geography, war, and migration in shaping the world that we know today. In Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill, the author traces the history of mankind, pointing out how disease proved a major factor in the trajectory of our species. First, he points out that disease served to break down communities of people, enabling them to be absorbed by larger groups. He writes that,

“Such human material could then be incorporated into the tissues of the enlarged civilization itself, either as individuals or families and small village groupings… The way in which digestion regularly breaks down the larger chemical structures of our food in order to permit molecules and atoms to enter into our own bodily structures seems closely parallel to this historical process.”

He observes that the plague led to changes in European society in the 14th and 15th centuries. In England, the Black Death of 1348-1350 led to changes in the social fabric of society, increasing wages and quality of life for serfs. McNeil even suggests that diseases in Europe created enough social upheaval that it successfully set the conditions for Martin Luther’s Reformation.

He further argues that disease set the conditions for European expansion into the New World. For example, Hernando Cortez, who had less than 600 soldiers, was able to conquer an Aztec empire of millions in the early 1500s with the help of contagion. Within fifty years of his landing, the population of central Mexico shrank to a tenth of its size. This catastrophic drop in population levels had significant impacts on religion, defense, and their society in general, paving the way for European growth in the region.

McNeill is not alone in his argument. In Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in the American Military History, David R. Petriello argues that contagion played a major factor in the successful colonization of North America and the American experience with war. Small pox and other illnesses depopulated the regions surrounding the colonies, giving the settlers the space to grow. For instance, most Americans have heard the story of how an Indian named Squanto helped save the Plymouth settlers by teaching them planting techniques and guiding them through the peace process with surrounding tribes. However, it was disease more so than goodwill that saved the Pilgrims. The author writes, “When Squanto wandered into the Pilgrim’s’ world he did so as an exile. Had it not been for the epidemic visited his tribe…Squanto himself would not have been seeking out kindred human company.”

Disease also played a substantial role in war. The U.S. military became intimate with diseases such as small pox, influenza, dysentery, and venereal disease, as it affected 30% of armies up through World War I, which more than likely had an impact on the outcome on key campaigns. Disease took important leaders out of important battles the night before engagements began in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. And it caused commanders to hold off on taking advantage of fleeting opportunities in both conflicts, as they had to wait for replacements to arrive. It has only been in recent history, that we have brought disease’s impact on war under control. It wasn’t until World War II that vaccinations became common practice. As Petriello observes, “Whereas there were 102,000 cases of measles in World War I with 2,370 deaths, there were only 60,809 cases in World War II with only 33 deaths reported.”

Thanks to technological advances in medicine, it has been almost hundred years since disease sat in the front row of a national security conversation. However, things are changing. Recently at the Future of War Conference in Washington D.C., Dr. George Poste, the Chief Scientist of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at Arizona State University, spoke on the risks of emerging infectious diseases. He argued that the future looks bleak and that disease may once again play a central role in world affairs. For instance, The H5N1 virus, which is currently only transmitted by prolonged contact with infected birds and has a 60% death rate, and could mutate to human-to-human transmission, resulting in deaths of over 150 million people worldwide. He believes that the current bio threats include pandemic flu, antibiotic resistant infections, bioterrorism, and new technologies that threaten to alter the disease landscape as we know it.

His warnings are echoed by other academics such as Professors Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, who in their book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of our New Renaissance point out that as biotechnologies continue to advance, so do the dangers and risks of weaponization by rogue governments or non-state actors. For example, the DNA equipment required to synthesize a number of deadly contagions is less expensive and easier to purchase than other weapons of mass destruction.

So how can we protect ourselves against bacteria, and avoid an Athenian-like setback in our own national defense policies? For starters, those of us in the national security business can undertake efforts to raise our own awareness of the biological threats in the current operating environment, through studying the abundant literature available on the topic. Finally, our governments can take the steps outlined in the recent blue ribbon study on biodefense. A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts recommends coordinated efforts in bio detection, hospital preparedness, intelligence gathering, and bio defense planning.

In the end, Pericles succumbed to the plague, and Athens lost an important leader. Those who came after him chose a different strategic path for the city, which ultimately proved costly for the Delian League. This incident during the Peloponnesian War  is worth making us pause and think about the role of contagions and disease in human history. It has wiped out cultures and set the conditions for the successful expansion of others. It has served as a significant factor in wars of the past. Finally, it may yet play a major role in world affairs again, and we must take measures now to ensure we are prepared.

Thucydides Roundtable, Books I & II: Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

By T. Greer

All the world trembles at the dreaded “Thucydides trap.”

Of late this phrase has been all the rage. It was first popularized by Graham Allison in 2012, and has only become more popular since. Read American debates about China’s future, and you will see it; read Chinese debates about America’s future, and you will find it there as well. On the lips of all is Thucydides’ famed assessment of the origins of his war. It might be the punchiest pronouncement of the entire book:

The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. (1.23.5)

It is not clear to me that Thucydides intended this theory to be a general theory of why all great powers go to war, though many take it this way. The other famous phrase from this book—the Athenian declaration that they were motivated to build their empire by “fear, honor, and interest” (1.76)—has a far better claim to this title, followed as it is by the note, “it has always been the law the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” Thucydides invokes no laws in his famous one liner on the “real cause” of the war. Notice too that only one leg of his trinity is invoked to explain the Spartan decision for war. Were Thucydides serious about conflating the cause of this war with the cause of all wars, it would make sense to include the other two legs in his explanation.

But whether or not Thucydides hoped his statement might be a template for all time, it is being treated as such. Here it used to explain all great power wars of the last four centuries:

Graphic created by the Harvard Belfer Center’s “Thucydides Trap Case File” page

This roundtable’s journey through Thucydides’ History gives us the chance to assess whether the   “Thucydides trap” metaphor helpfully explains the historical events it is drawn from. To approach this question is to first ask another: can we untangle the events of the war itself from the narrative of the man who chronicled it? This is the  issue at the center at this post; no one can appraise the work and words of Thucydides without carefully working through it.

Thucydides is celebrated today as a man who articulated and developed grand principles of politics and conflict. However, Thucydides was not an explicit theorist of war. His book has themes, not theses. He does not prove, but impresses. These impressions are made through narrative art. The order in which Thucydides introduces ideas and events has great meaning; the amount of space he devotes to some events (but not to others) changes how readers perceive them. These subtle decisions of placement and length develop Thucydides’ main themes far more powerfully than his occasional editorial comments. Perceptive readers of Thucydides time, aware of the narratives Thucydides hoped his work would displace and familiar with the events he passes over, would understand exactly what Thucydides was doing. With us the challenge is harder. We don’t come to Thucydides’ History with preexisting knowledge of the war. Our only guide to Thucydides is Thucydides himself. We thus must read with utmost care. If we do not, we risk mistaking Thucydides’ judgments about the war for the events of the war itself. (more…)

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataea

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The fall of Plataea—the city where the war began (2.2)—unfolds in three acts:

2.71-2.78 Arrival of Peloponnesians, negotiations, siege
3:20-3.24 Breakout and evasion
3.52-3.68 Surrender, plea for compassion, annihilation

It is a powerful drama, rich in vivid details that make you forget these things happened 2,445 years ago.

…and thus even the last of them got over the ditch, though not without effort and difficulty; as ice had formed in it, not strong enough to walk upon, but of that watery kind which generally comes with a wind more east than north, and the snow which this wind had caused to fall during the night had made the water in the ditch rise, so that they could scarcely breast it as they crossed.

This vivid storytelling is instructive. The struggle for Plataea illustrates timeless patterns of conflict.

The first phase of the siege, as described in Book 2, unfolds in a spiral of action and response, thrust and parry. Let us note a first stage that occurs long before the reported action:

1a) Plataeans protect their town with a wall.

The action begins with a Spartan countermove:

1b) Spartans begin raising a mound that threatens to reach the top of the wall

2a) Plataeans extend the wall upwards there with building materials taken from their houses

2b) Spartans continue raising mound

3a) Plataeans open base of wall where it touches mound and pull materal out of mound

3b) Spartans harden that side of the mound with clay and wattles

4a) Plataeans tunnel under wall (and hardened side of mound) and remove mound material from underneath

This went on for a long while without the enemy outside finding it out, so that for all they threw on the top their mound made no progress in proportion, being carried away from beneath and constantly settling down in the vacuum.

This step introduces a new element into the competition. Till now, every step was overt: each contestant could see what his adversary was doing. Now stealth enters the picture: for the first time, one party enjoys an advantage because the other does not know what he is doing. Perhaps for that reason, there doesn’t seem to be a Spartan response to this move.

Then the Plataeans rethink their approach by changing the problem they are trying to solve. Instead of “How do we prevent the Spartans from using the mound to get over the wall,” they ask “How can we ensure that using the mound to get over the wall will not do the Spartans any good?” Rather than a step, it’s a leap:

5a) Plataeans construct a crescent-shaped wall inside the town, so that if the Spartans eventually succeed in getting over the wall via the mound, they’ll need to start all over again, this time enfiladed.

Thucydides then summarizes an arms race of defensive vs offensive machines which may have occurred simultaneously with steps 1-5. We realize, then, that the author has been simplifying real life (in which many things happen at the same time) into a game whose players get alternating turns. The metaphor of conflict as a game of alternating turns seems natural to us, but it usually requires some rearrangement of the facts. What makes the thrust and parry part of the siege so appealing and memorable is that it conforms very well to the game model.

Here, briefly, is the arms race that was also going on:

6a) Spartans employ battering rams to good effect.

6b) Plataeans devise and employ an anti-battering ram, a heavy pendulum whose angular momentum prevails over the ram in the direction in which the ram is weakest (from the side).

Now, Thucydides says, it was the Spartans’ turn to rethink, probably in response to Step 5a.

7a) Spartans deploy incendiaries:

The consequence was a fire greater than anyone had ever yet seen produced by human agency . . . within an ace of proving fatal to the Plataeans . . .

But the weather is insufficiently favorable. Only now does this episode acknowledge the role of chance. Thus far, we have watched a game of chess; here, instead of a Plataean countermove, the dice are rolled.

8a) Spartans circumvallate the town, and the blockade begins.

At the risk of overthinking a great story, may I suggest it illustrates tactical responses of various kinds.

Steps 1-2 describe a one-dimensional competition. You have a wall that is X meters high; I’ll build a mound X meters high that will neutralize your wall; then you make your wall higher there; I’ll make my mound higher, too.

Step 3a introduces something new: the Plataeans, instead of trying to surpass the Spartans’ move, undertake to sabotage it. There is still a one-dimensional competition, but instead of adding to their own ‘score,’ the Plataeans are now subtracting from the Spartans’. There is another innovation, as well: the wall, which has served to prevent passage, is now being used by its owner to enable passage. The Plateans pass through their own wall.

With Step 3b, the Spartans, who are trying to achieve passage (over the top), build their own wall (of clay and wattles) to prevent the Plataeans from using *their* wall for passage (at the bottom). Conceptually, the Spartans are still playing catch-up. At each stage, the Plataeans have had the initiative.

Step 4a, although continuing the subtractive tactic of 3a, involves a kind of flanking maneuver (from underneath). The enemy resource being sabotaged may still be one-dimensional, but the means of attacking it no longer is.

Step 5a is a leap forward that can be described as turning a threatened defeat into a delaying action, relocating the engagement to more favorable ground, or allowing the enemy to advance so that he will become vulnerable.

In the arms race of the machines (Step 6), although the Spartans take the initiative, the Plataeans show more ingenuity. Here, too, one may discern a flanking maneuver: the defensive machines strike the offensive machines from the side. It is remarkable that a motif of envelopment appears three times in the tactics of the besieged defenders.

With 7a) and 8a), the Spartans for the first time show an ability to rethink their position. But one wonders why they didn’t try incendiaries earlier — the use of fire was a well-known tactic. And is Thucydides implying that they failed to wait for a favorable wind before lighting their fires? Settling down to the blockade certainly doesn’t represent a masterstroke: it is an expensive, time-consuming, and brute-force method that they hoped they wouldn’t need to use.

And in Book 3, we will see the Plataeans arrange the escape of half their men even when completely surrounded by hostile fortifications. On that occasion their tactics will include tricks that bear an uncanny resemblance to electronic countermeasures.

All in all, it is hard not to come away with admiration for the Plataeans. But in the end, their city was razed to the ground: tactical (and, as we will see in Book 3, rhetorical) brilliance can’t compensate for a strategically hopeless position. Perhaps that is the deepest lesson of this entrancing tale.


This is a welcome guest post by A.E. Clark. When not leaving thoughtful reflections in Thucydides Roundtable comment threads, Mr. Clark translates works of politically sensitive Chinese literature for Ragged Banner Press.

The weathervane vote

Friday, October 28th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — not a weatherman myself, though I do appreciate Bob Dylan ]

Is what I suggest here ridiculous, or important but largely overlooked, or well known and in general background awareness? What say you? I just want to air the topic..


There’s a lot of talk about swing voters, right? A Brookings Institution chapter, What Exactly Is a Swing Voter? Definition and Measurement runs to 31 pages and 27 footnotes explaining the concept, but I think there’s one swing vote they may be missing.

I came to this conclusion after pondering the whole question of margins of error in polls. It’s generally accepted that polls have margins of error, often in the mid-single digits. Margins of error call forth interesting analytics, too — see this graphic and accompanying comment from Pew, 5 key things to know about the margin of error in election polls:


For example, in the accompanying graphic, a hypothetical Poll A shows the Republican candidate with 48% support. A plus or minus 3 percentage point margin of error would mean that 48% Republican support is within the range of what we would expect if the true level of support in the full population lies somewhere 3 points in either direction – i.e., between 45% and 51%.

Even a relatively small margins of error can be enough to encourage misreading an upcoming election result, but the margin of error I’m thinking of is in the range of 35% of undecideds. Let’s call it the weathervane vote.


Consider this quote from Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1960:

The weather was clear all across Massachusetts and New England, perfect for voting as far as the crest of the Alleghenies. But from Michigan through Illinois and the Northern Plains states it was cloudy: rain in Detroit and Chicago, light snow falling in some states on the approaches of the Rockies. The South was enjoying magnificently balmy weather which ran north as far as the Ohio River; so, too, was the entire Pacific Coast. The weather and the year’s efforts were to call out the greatest free vote in the history of this or any other country.

That’s also the epigraph to another piece of learned disquisition — and yes, I love (envy, mock) academics — The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections. That’s from The Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 3, August 2007, pp. 649–663.

Parasols or umbrellas?


But my figure of 35%?

First, let me admit i’m not exactly clear on the distinctions or overlaps between swing voters and undecideds, so I may be adding my own margin of error by conflating the two — but my 35% comes from a 2012 piece titled Bad Weather on Election Day? Many Won’t Vote. I think my favorite bullet point therein was this:

  • In bad weather, Mitt Romney supporters are more likely to vote.
  • Their lead paragraph gives me my 35% figure:

    Among those who plan to vote this year, 35 percent of undecided voters say that inclement weather conditions would have a “moderate to significant” impact on whether they make it to the polls on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

    Don’t ask the the margin of error on that particular poll, though, the good folks at Weather.com failed to say.


    My favorite weathervane to date:


    Bottom line: If 35% of the swing vote hinges on which way the wind blows, I’m prone to thinking the weather may well have the deciding vote in this here election.

    Hat-tip for pointing me to the 35% piece: rockin’ andee baker.

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