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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Fear, honor, and Ophelia

[by Lynn C. Rees]

“Fear, honor, and interest” is common shorthand for the political realism blamed on Thucydides. It appears twice in Book I, first at 1.75.3 (in Attic and Crawley’s English)…

ex autou de tou ergou catênancasthêmen to prôton proagagin autên es t?de, malista men hypo deous, epita cae timês, hysteron cae ôphelias..

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.

…and second at 1.76.2

houtôs oud? hêmis thaumaston ouden pepoeêcamen oud? apo tou anthrôpiou tr?pou, i archên te didomenên edexametha cae tautên mê animen hypo triôn tôn megistôn nicêthentes, timês cae deous cae ôphelias, oud? au prôtoe tou toeoutou hyparxantes, all? aei cathestôtos ton hêssô hypo tou dynatôterou catirgesthae, axioe te hama nomizontes inae cae hymin docountes mechri hou ta xympheronta logiz?menoe tôi dicaeôi l?gôi nyn chrêsthe, hon oudis pô paratychon ischui ti ctêsasthae prothis tou mê pleon echin apetrapeto.

It follows that it was not a very wonderful action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Besides, we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice—a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.

There’s a trick found in the distance between 1.75.3 and 1.76.2. E. C. Marchant’s note on 1.75.3 hints at its identity:

28. déous—fear of the Persians. times—the honor enjoyed by Athens when she had once accepted the hegemonía. óphelos —interest.

In 1.75.3, “fear, honor, and interest” is not an unchanging trinity of human neuroses outside of time but an all too historically grounded sequence of:

  1. fear: (déous) of the Persian threat triggered by Athens renouncing its 508 BC submission to Persia, heightened by Athenian participation in the sack of Sardis in 498 BC, frustrated in 490 BC at Marathon, and realized in Xerxes481 BC sack of Athens.
  2. honor: (times) from abandoning Attica to Xerxes in 480 BC for the common defense, their role in winning at Salamis, re-abandoning Attica in 479 BC just before Plataea, their victory at Mycale that same year, and their later leadership (hegemoníaof resistance to Persia after Sparta went home, a role formalized in the Delian League.
  3. interest: (óphelos) won by the gradual shift of the Delian League from a voluntary league of military contingents led by Athens to a prison of disarmed and discontented assets owned by Athens.


In 1.76.2, use of the catchphrase is closer in spirit to the use proposed by some users (and even readers) of the History of the Peloponnesian Wars: a fearsome threesome, forever hiding behind every good intent of the heart.

Internet sleuthing of the most amateur kind uncovers other English variations on the catchphrase:

So that at first we were forced to advance our dominion to what it is, out of the nature of the thing itself; as chiefly for fear, next for honor, and lastly for profit.

…and 1.76.2 as…

So that, though overcome by three the greatest things, honor, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it, we have therein done nothing to be wondered at nor beside the manner of men. Nor have we been the first in this kind, but it hath been ever a thing fixed, for the weaker to be kept under by the stronger. Besides, we took the government upon us as esteeming ourselves worthy of the same; and of you also so esteemed, till having computed the commodity, you now fall to allegation of equity; a thing which no man that had the occasion to achieve anything by strength, ever so far preferred as to divert him from his profit

The Attic translated as “interest” by Crawley and “profit” by Hobbes, óphelos, can be read in ways both interesting and profitable. Perseus translates óphelos as “help, aid, succor”. Perseus’s online Greek-English Lexicon (published in 1940) lists a few possible meanings of óphelos:

A. help, aid, succor, esp[ecially]. in war
II. profit, advantage
2. source of gain or profit, service
3. esp. gain made in war, spoil, booty

Paul’s koine uses óphelos in Romans 3:1:

1 1 Tí o?n tò perissòn to? Ioudaíou, ? tís h? ophéleia t?s peritom?s?

Thirty-one years before Hobbes, the King James Version (1611) translated Paul as this:

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision

NASB translates Romans 3:1 as:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?

Jerome translated Paul into Latin as:

quid ergo amplius est Iudaeo aut quae utilitas circumcisionis

óphelos is also used in Jude 1:16:

ho?toí eisin gongustaí, mempsímoiroi, katà tàs epithumías heautõn poreu?menoi, kaì tò st?ma autõn lale? hupéronka, thaumázontes pr?s?pa ?pheleías khárin.

Jude 1:16 in the KJV:

These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage.

Jude 1:16 in the NASB:

These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.

Jude 1:16 in the Latin of the Vulgate:

hii sunt murmuratores querellosi secundum desideria sua ambulantes et os illorum loquitur superba mirantes personas quaestus causa

óphelos originates in the Attic Greek ophelos. It dates back to Proto-Indo European:

From Proto-Indo-European *ob?elos, from *h?b?el- (whence also opheíl? (opheíl?)).

In modern Greek, óphelos becomes:

óphelos (ófelos) n, plural ophél?

  1. (finance) profit
  2. benefit

óphelos Anglicizes as ópheleia. Its descendent óphelos may be the root of the name Ophelia, most famously held by a character in an unprofitable relationship with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The fear, honor, and profit of heroic cherrypicking.

[Greek characters preserved at The Committee of Public Safety]

6 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Fear, honor, and Ophelia”

  1. zen Says:

    This is good philological sleuthing:
    ” The Attic translated as “interest” by Crawley and “profit” by Hobbes, óphelos, can be read in ways both interesting and profitable. Perseus translates óphelos as “help, aid, succor”. Perseus’ online Greek-English Lexicon (published in 1940) lists these possible meanings for óphelos: ”
    It reminds me of the discussions that sometimes arise with On War from the awkward 19th C. original German. Words have meanings. Multiple meanings and meanings once common that have now been forgotten. Thank you for unearthing some for me

  2. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Hi Zen,


    Indeed. I’ve had fun in the past with the shades you can find in one prominent passage in On War. Clausewitz’s tortured phrasing has added pungency, if not meaning, in English when you keep the original German’s male pronoun:

    War is a true Chameleon, not only because his nature changes in each of his specific incarnations, but also because, relative to his dominant tendencies, his overall form is an uncanny Trinity composed of:


    • the violence of hatred and enmity (his original element), which should be considered a blind natural instinct,
    • the play of probabilities and unforeseeable circumstances, which make him a free activity of the soul, and of
    • the menial nature of a policy tool, making him fall prey to the naked intellect.
  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Many thanks, Lynn.
    One small note and associated question: Google’s “awe then and price hysteria and benefit” shows the current state of Google translator — “husteron” clearly means “after” or “later” in this context, but the translation “awe” for “déous” in both cases is intriguing. Does anyone have a reference for these two passages from Thucydides as direct verbal precursors to the more recent “shock and awe”? Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade don’t appear to mention Thucydides in introducing that concept in their 1996 brief, Shock And Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance.

  4. Grurray Says:

    ‘Gain’, ‘after’, ‘later’ all suggest to me inventiveness and progress. During the Airing of the Grievances at the Spartan Assembly, the Corinthians said this about Athenians compared to Spartans:
    “The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough…
    your ideal of fair dealing is based on the principle that if you do not injure others, you need not risk your own fortunes in preventing others from injuring you. Now you could scarcely have succeeded in such a policy even with a neighbor like yourselves; but in the present instance, as we have just shown, your habits are old-fashioned.”
    The Corinthian apparently knew how to hit the Spartans where it hurts- imperial conquest is the future, and you hayseeds need to get with the times.
    Pericles confirmed this view a little bit later when he disparaged the Spartans as farmers “more ready to serve in purpose than in purse.” The verdict was in early on in the book that the Athenians were seen by all parties as superior because of their wealth and technology, maybe even awe-inspiring.

  5. David Ronfeldt Says:

    Illuminating post, Lynn.

    I didn’t and can’t sign up as a full participant, but I’d like to offer a comment: The fear-honor-profit theorem is about more than motivations. It is also about social solidarity, organization, and evolution. Moreover, it is a defensive warfare theorem, and reflects a natural progression in reasons for fighting.

    When people sense a threat, they become fearful individually and collectively. So they look around for solidarity.

    Their natural recourse is to the tribal form of organization — as a clan, band, gang, militia, unit, whatever. And a key motive that holds a tribal formation together is indeed honor (along with principles about respect, pride, and dignity). Warriors overcome fears and rally together for collective defense by fighting for honor, their own and that of their tribe.

    The development of interest comes later, as leaders and organizations seek to determine their war aims and strategies. Interest in all its varieties — profit, position, etc. — is more the stuff of formal institutions than tribes.

    The theorem can be reversed in the case of imperial predators who wage offensive wars. Their highest motivation may be interest. But since that rarely suffices to keep everybody in line, honor gets touted as a parallel motivation. But then it turns out that imperial expansion eventually generates new threats — thus fear arises as a key motivation anew.

    That is what TIMN leads me to remark. Onward.

  6. Neville Morley Says:

    Thanks for this. I think it is really useful to stress the fact that Crawley’s Thucydides is only an interpretation of the original rather than ‘the real thing’; partly because his words get cited so often under the name of Thucydides, it’s easy to forget that this is just one possible version among many. For example, Warner’s Penguin Classics translation goes for ‘security’ rather than ‘fear’ at 1.76.2; clearly related, but different overtones. And it’s interesting how many translations change the order of the three terms in 1.76.2, which is honour, fear and self-interest/profit in the original, so that it matches 1.75.3.

    One bit of pedantry: are you really suggesting that óphelos can mean something that is ‘interesting’, as opposed to ‘interest-bearing’? I don’t think that’s sustainable.

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