As this roundtable moves forward I may not say as much as many, but I am going to try and focus on ideas or concepts that are rarely hear discussed.
As my first item I would like everyone to think a bit about Corcyra.
As most of you know, Thucydides gives many reasons for the Peloponnesian War before boiling them all down to Spartan fear of Athens’ growing power. But, if one requires a proximate cause for the conflict it was Athens joining Corcyra in its quarrel with Corinth.
But why did Athens care about the fate of Corcyra? Thucydides answers:
For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth… At the same time the island seemed to be conveniently on the coasting path to Sicily. (1.44)
The Corcyraeans themselves had made this argument when they begged Athens for aid:
Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in Hellas, Athens, Corinth and Corcyra, and that if you allow two of these three to become one, and Corinth to secure for herself, you will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and the Peloponnesus. But if you receive us, you will have our ships to reinforce you in the struggle. (1.36)
Indeed! This is truly a tremendous strategic incentive.
By allying with Corcyra, Athens could add 120 ships to her fleet. This addition, coupled with Corcyra’s strategic position along the shipping lanes between Greece and Sicily-Italy, meant the Delian League would dominate the western seas, as it did the Aegean. Corinth, the Peloponnesus’s great trading power, could be easily blockaded, Sparta and its allies would be cut off from Sicily’s and Italy’s wheat, and Corcyra could be counted on to joint Athens in raids along the enemy coast.
But war, as Thucydides informs us, is an “affair of chances.” Chances from which neither side is exempt, and who’s events are “risked in the dark.” (1.78).
But, Athens was so sure of Corcyra’s power that they sent a mere 10 ships (later reinforced by 20 more), out of over 300 that could easily have been outfitted. It is worth noting that with the exception of the Syracuse expedition, this was a typical Athenian failure – sending a boy-sized force for a man-sized job (See the Battle of Mantinea in Book 5). In this case, they sent a fleet large enough to greatly anger the Peloponnesians, but too puny to attain any strategic effect.
In the event, Athens’ strategic rationale for joining themselves to Corcyra was swept away in the conflict’s first engagement (1.49-52). In just one day’s battle Corcyra lost almost 70 ships – better than half the fleet. (1.54). Even if they had the wealth to replace the lost ships, they could never replace the thousands of skilled sailors drowned, struck down, or captured that day. They would have found themselves in a similar situation to that of the Ottomans after the Battle of Lepanto, where the lost ships were replaced in a single year, but the crippling loss of 50,000 professional seamen was never made good.
But Corcyra never even replaced the ships. Instead the city soon fell into a period of instability, anarchy, and eventually, civil war (Book 3). In a single and mostly forgotten battle (Sybota) Athens saw its strongest ally removed from the board. An ally, that if it had maintained its power and internal stability, would have greatly eased the burden of attacking Sicily, or possibly even have made that expedition unnecessary.
Instead, Athens, at the very onset of the struggle, had bonded itself to a “broken reed” whose only later contribution to the war-effort was to have their city act as an assembly point for the Syracuse expedition (6.42). Even then, Corcyra’s only material contribution to the expedition were a few sailors who were likely “compelled” to join the Athenian fleet. (7.26).
DISCUSS: Allying with Corcyra was Athens first strategic mistake of the war… one that it never recovered from.