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Thucydides, Book I: Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint

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[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

“…for me alone my strong-greaved companions excepted the ram when the sheep were sheared, and I sacrificed him on the sands to Zeus, dark-clouded son of Kronos, lord over all, and burned him the thighs; but he was not moved by my offerings, but still was pondering on a way how all my strong-benched ships should be destroyed and all my eager companions.”

                                                        – Odysseus

As to what happened next, it is possible to maintain that the hand of heaven was involved, and also possible to say that when men are desperate no one can stand up to them.”


“The degree of force that must be used against the enemy depends on the scale of political demands on either side”

                                                         – Carl von Clausewitz

The Peloponnesian War was the first, great “civil war of Western civilization”—fought long before that embryonic civilization would fully cohere to endure; but it would not be the last. Far from it.

Like most conflicts of this kind, the nominal pretext for the Spartans and Athenians and their respective allies to go to war was a small thing, but the costs for the belligerents would prove to be very great. Nor was this unforeseen, another truism of such terrible wars. Sir Edward Grey, for example, was no outlier among the well informed classes, if not the people, on the eve of the First World War when he declared “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time“. Europe’s elites, like Jean de Bloch had been saying such things to each other with every crisis since Fashoda and the gruesome slaughter of the Russo-Japanese War confirmed the consequences of modern battle between even third rate industrial powers. Yet in August 1914, the Entente and the Triple Alliance enthusiastically took the plunge into the abyss anyway just as the Spartans and the Athenians had done 2300 years earlier.

Why? When a polity dances on the edge of ruin why does it not come to its senses back away? Or at least wager lesser stakes upon a throw of the iron dice? Cheryl Rofer has discussed the effects of Pericles’ “motivated reasoning” in smoothing the path of Athens to war; Joe Byerly identified the increased power of “groupthink” in the Spartan Assembly under the direction of Sthenelaidas the Ephor while Dr. Kaurin established the importance of rhetoric in the cadence of classical Greek thought. Finally, Dr. Lacey illuminated the Athenian strategic miscalculation of Corcyra’s true strength. These points all have resonance, but I think another element is in play; one which Thucydides was at great pains in his history to draw as a lesson about the political deficiencies of the radical democracy that flourished in Athens after the death of Pericles: the failure to pursue a war policy of strategic restraint.

The truth is that the strategic value of restraint is often perceived by statesmen as Thucydides recorded, but the will to stay that course is seldom unwavering and this folly applied just as much to oligarchic Sparta as democratic Athens. Among the Greek leaders, both Pericles of Athens and his guest-friend Archidamus, king of Sparta, foresaw the dangers were war to break out and counseled after their own fashion, caution and restraint to their impetuous countrymen. Neither were successful.

Addressing the Assembly and the Gerousia, Archidamus gave not only a realistic political assessment but good strategic advice to be slow to take up arms against Athens and prepare carefully to fight the war on future terms more favorable to Sparta’s strengths and resources:

This, the war on which you are now debating, would be one of the greatest magnitude, on a sober consideration of the matter. In a struggle with Peloponnesians and neighbours our strength is of the same character, and it is possible to move swiftly on the different points. But a struggle with a people who live in a distant land, who have also an extraordinary familiarity with the sea, and who are in the highest state of preparation in every other department; with wealth private and public, with ships, and horses, and heavy infantry, and a population such as no one other Hellenic place can equal, and lastly a number of tributary allies—what can justify us in rashly beginning such a struggle? wherein is our trust that we should rush on it unprepared? Is it in our ships? There we are inferior; while if we are to practise and become a match for them, time must intervene. Is it in our money? There we have a far greater deficiency. We neither have it in our treasury, nor are we ready to contribute it from our private funds. Confidence might possibly be felt in our superiority in heavy infantry and population, which will enable us to invade and devastate their lands. But the Athenians have plenty of other land in their empire, and can import what they want by sea. Again, if we are to attempt an insurrection of their allies, these will have to be supported with a fleet, most of them being islanders. What then is to be our war? For unless we can either beat them at sea, or deprive them of the revenues which feed their navy, we shall meet with little but disaster. Meanwhile our honour will be pledged to keeping on, particularly if it be the opinion that we began the quarrel. For let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war.

This was eminently practical advice for a land power whose strengths were optimized by short conflicts of a few day’s march away and that were based on traditional Greek hoplite phalanx warfare where battles were swiftly won or lost by the breaking of the enemy formation. The ability of Sparta to sustain a war of any duration depended heavily on the uncertain loyalty and continued agricultural productivity of a resentful and rebellious Helot population; a fact that made distant operations by the Spartan army either risky or required them to leave ample military forces at home. Fighting against walled and fortified cities in an era when the arts of siege warfare were extremely primitive eroded most of Sparta’s qualitative edge in heavy infantry and fighting a war primarily upon the seas could not even be executed at the time of the Assembly vote. Sparta’s triremes were few and in poor condition and no Spartan Themistocles was on hand to fill the office of Navarch or supervise the construction of a seaworthy battle-fleet, even if such a thing could be afforded. Facing Athens, the greatest maritime empire of the day and secured by its Long Walls, Sparta’s strategic position could only have improved with time diligently spent on diplomatic, fiscal and naval preparations.

As other participants have already discussed, the Spartan Assembly failed to heed Archidamus and proceeded on the assurances of Sthenelaidas the Ephor, that while empty, fit the “laconic” rhetorical style much favored by the Lacedaemonians. While Sthenelaidas may have carried the day, it was Archidamus who was proved correct when the Spartan invasion and devastation of Attica failed to yield any strategic benefits. The Athenians remained behind their walls, their fleet ruled the wine-dark seas and harried the Peloponnesians at will. More to the point, by a stratagem of Cleon, the naval power of Athens later compelled the Spartans to come to terms (at least for a time) or see an irreplaceable part of their army trapped on an islet perish of starvation. The plague struck Athens a far greater blow than any Spartan phalanx marching uselessly back and forth to Attica. Without the decimation of Athens by the plague and the extreme folly of the Athenians in undertaking the Sicilian Expedition, it is difficult to see how cash-poor Sparta could have prevailed.

As other panelists have correctly noted, Pericles approached the prospect of war with greater elan vital than did Archidamus. This is true. Pericles oratory typically radiated confidence in all things Athenian. But to stop there would be to shortchange the difficulty of Pericles’ real accomplishment. Stopping motions for unwise or humiliating concessions to Sparta was not difficult. It was highly unlikely the Athenians would have voted to re-accept ancient Spartan hegemony or abandon their new empire simply to avoid war. In Athenian eyes, the Spartans were oathbreakers for refusing arbitration as their treaty demanded and arrogant and insulting blusterers whose power in Hellas no longer matched their words.

No, what Pericles managed to persuade the Athenians to abandon their instinctive rush to a decisive battle of traditional phalanx warfare for a novel strategy of limited warfare in a long war that played to the very Athenian strengths that Archidamus most feared. As Pericles concluded:

…This, I think, is a tolerably fair account of the position of the Peloponnesians; that of Athens is free from the defects that I have criticized in them, and has other advantages of its own, which they can show nothing to equal. If they march against our country we will sail against theirs, and it will then be found that the desolation of the whole of Attica is not the same as that of even a fraction of Peloponnese; for they will not be able to supply the deficiency except by a battle, while we have plenty of land both on the islands and the continent. The rule of the sea is indeed a great matter. Consider for a moment. Suppose that we were islanders; can you conceive a more impregnable position? Well, this in future should, as far as possible, be our conception of our position. Dismissing all thought of our land and houses, we must vigilantly guard the sea and the city. No irritation that we may feel for the former must provoke us to a battle with the numerical superiority of the Peloponnesians. A victory would only be succeeded by another battle against the same superiority: a reverse involves the loss of our allies, the source of our strength, who will not remain quiet a day after we become unable to march against them. We must cry not over the loss of houses and land but of men’s lives; since houses and land do not gain men, but men them. And if I had thought that I could persuade you, I would have bid you go out and lay them waste with your own hands, and show the Peloponnesians that this at any rate will not make you submit.

I have many other reasons to hope for a favourable issue, if you can consent not to combine schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war, and will abstain from wilfully involving yourselves in other dangers; indeed, I am more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.

Pericles, it must be said, offered at best an incomplete strategy of exhaustion—to stretch the economic resources of poorer Sparta and its political will to the breaking point from attrition and frustration. There was no method for Athens to “compel Sparta to do its will” in the vision of Pericles and bring the war to a favorable political conclusion; instead, it relied on Spartan leaders realizing the futility of the efforts and giving up the war. Pericles might have suggested investing Athenian resources in aiding another helot revolt to further increase pressure on Sparta but he did not. Overall, Pericles imposed an extremely conservative strategy of pursuing war with great restraint and calculated force; a plan designed to wisely husband Athenian resources and fighting capacity—but a politically unsatisfying one as it flouted Greek conceptions of heroism and honor. For this reason, among others including the untimely death of its author, the Athenian strategy failed.

It was however more of a strategy than what the Spartans could bring to bear.

7 Responses to “Thucydides, Book I: Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint”

  1. nati Says:

    War not always can be avoid. There are cases that you have no choise but to go to war.
    I think the expanding Athenian empire was a real threat to Sphartan territory of influence, to the Peleponnece league existence and at the end, even the Sphartan polis security.
    Am I wrong?
    Else, if I am right, could Spartha avoid war? Was there other solution for her concerns? Was it a good idea for her to continue her policies of isulation and no involment?
    Not even king Archidamus suggest to avoid war, only to postpone in order to preaper better.

  2. zen Says:

    An excellent question, nati.
    The Athenians were expansionists but in a curious way. After the Persian wars, the Spartans retired from active hostilities against Persia but the Athenians picked up the Pan-Hellenic banner of continuing the fight to liberate Hellas – i.e. their fellow Ionian Greeks in Asia minor and Aegean islands still under Persian rule. This was the origin of the Delian League – the Ionian Greeks initially really did want to join with Ionian Athens for self-protection against the Persians. The Spartans, being Dorian Greeks, were not much interested in the fate of their very distant cousins and even less interested in fighting far from home.
    The Delian league of equals morphed into the Athenian empire as member states began to opt to pay tribute to Athens rather than provide ships and men for military service as an ally and equal. Athens did not covet Peloponnesian territory nor did they seek to challenge Sparta’s dominance there but they were otherwise aggressively expanding across the Mediterranean world from the coast of the Black sea to Egypt to Italy and Spain.

    With each colony and conquest, the power of Athens grew and it was this that Sparta could not tolerate, at least as Thucydides tells it. War could have been avoided with arbitration: even if the arbitrator had ruled against Athens on every point from the Megaran decree to Corcyra it would have been a face saving way for Athens to climb down. The Spartans did not want arbitration because that would have implied the two polities were equals. Spartan leaders wanted nothing less that a public knuckling under to Spartan demands or war, so they asked for impossible terms from Athens ( give up their empire)

  3. nati Says:

    That demands came when they already decided for war.
    Maybe they could have gone for arbitration at erlier stages.
    The problem is that they were very bad in diplomatic relations with Athens, even at their best point, in the persian wars, they were problematic.
    The real diplomatic force in the Peleponnesian league were the Corinthians, and it happend to be that they were very eager for war.
    Anyway, I think if something could be than it was earlier. At this point it was to late. History has it’s ways.

  4. A. E. Clark Says:

    Thank you for this excellent essay.

    That both Pericles’ and Archidamus’ counsels of strategic restraint were unavailing did indeed prove all-important for what followed.

    It intrigues me that the two counsels failed in different ways. Archidamus’ proposal was at once voted down. Pericles’ was accepted, but his people could not stay the course.

    Does this not illustrate that in order to succeed, the counselor must satisfy two constraints? His advice must be sufficiently persuasive to be accepted, but it must also be sufficiently in harmony with the “conceptions” (as you say) and culture and virtu’ of those who will carry it out that they will not screw it up in the implementation. . . . This second constraint, I suspect, is less obvious and more challenging. It calls to mind the effort of a playwright to make his lines “actor-proof.”

  5. zen Says:

    Much thanks A.E.
    I think that “harmony” as aspect is important for acceptance and continuity, except during revolutionary moments. Then it is a sharp clash to discredit and overthrow the old sense of “virtu” and replace it with another, revolutionary one.
    Some of this would happen in the Peloponnesian War when Critias and the Thirty overthrew the radical democracy….for a time.

  6. T. Greer Says:

    We will get to this in time, of course, but I’m not sure the Periclean strategy failed. The Athenians won the war–or at least, the won the first one. Sparta sued for peace. Her alliance with Corinth, Megara, etc. was broken. Thucydides stitches the two wars together into one narrative, which is fine, but there is nothing that connects the two that doesn’t also connect, say, the First World War and the Second. The Athenians won the first round following a largely Periclean strategy. The second round only started because the victors were unwilling to stick to Pericles’ famed sense of restraint.

  7. zen Says:

    ” Thucydides stitches the two wars together into one narrative, which is fine, but there is nothing that connects the two that doesn’t also connect, say, the First World War and the Second.”
    whether the two ought to be connected in this way as Thucydides connected them is an excellent question. Of course, there’s much to argue that both world wars were, Nazi ideology aside, a continuation of the strategic question of whether there would be German hegemony over the Europe continent or not. Arguably, the clashes between Athens and Sparta separated by the truce were even more closely related than were the world wars

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