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Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: Devastation

[by A. E. Clark]

In the Peloponnesian War there is a great deal of “ravaging” and “laying waste.” The verbs most commonly used are d?io? and temn?, which both come from roots that mean “to cut.” It was grain crops that were cut, and fruit trees, and vines. While the Greek term describes the physical action, the Latin vastare refers to the result: a land that is empty because uninhabitable. While the tactic might be rationalized as reducing the food supply of the enemy army, it visited the greatest suffering upon civilians of the countryside, a suffering that might last for as many years as the trees needed to grow back. For anyone who has ever walked through an olive grove under a Mediterranean sky, the practice drily reported by Thucydides inspires a shudder.

It was an innovation. For about two centuries, hoplite warfare had known informal rules that, among other things, protected non-combatants. Like most of the rules that limited the destructiveness of war between Greeks, this one was discarded in the middle of the fifth century.  In the essay he contributed to The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World, Josiah Ober held the Athenians responsible. As a naval power with a society that did not need to be protected from its lower classes, Athens did not require the Hoplite rules and could win by breaking them. I believe Ober had in mind chiefly the efforts (shocking at the time) which Athens made to subvert Sparta by stirring up the Helots. The practice of devastation, however, does not seem to have been introduced by the Athenians, but rather by the Spartans, who began ravaging Attica when they invaded it in 431 BCE (2.18).  Moreover, Pericles expected this devastation and prepared for it, which suggests that the old laws of war must have been weakened already.  There is evidence of this in 457 BCE during what is sometimes called the First Peloponnesian War, which Thucydides summarizes in 1.102-115.

After entering the Megarid and cutting down the fruit trees, the Spartans returned home across Geraneia and the isthmus. (1.108.2)

Victor Davis Hanson is careful not to limit blame to one side when he writes, in the introduction to the Strassler edition,

…there existed between the powers neither an adherence to the past restrictions on Greek warmaking nor sufficient common political ground to negotiate a lasting peace.

At times the Spartans used the threat of devastation to extort submission or cooperation.  In his astute speech at 1.80-85, Archidamus advises that it will be less effective to devastate Attica than to hold over the Athenians’ heads the prospect of devastating it.

For the only light in which you can view their land is that of a hostage in your hands, a hostage the more valuable the better it is cultivated. This you ought to spare as long as possible, and not make them desperate and so increase the difficulty of dealing with them.

The Spartans, however, rejected the counsel of Archidamus and later would condemn his reluctance to devastate Attica (2.18).

At the war’s outset, by ravaging Attica the Spartans do not intend to extort submission but rather to goad their adversaries into combat:

. . . [W]e have every reason to expect that they will take the field against us, and that if they have not set out already before we are there, they will certainly do so when they see us in their territory wasting and destroying their property. (2.11.6)

It didn’t take long to discover that Pericles had made the Athenians proof against such provocations. Yet the Spartans continued their policy of devastation for the duration of the war.

Devastation may have been more logical, and was sometimes more effective, in Sparta’s dealings with Athens’ allies.  On Archidamus’ reaching the walls of Plataea we read that “he was about to lay waste the country” (2.71) but was willing to engage in a lengthy negotiation with the Plataeans, even allowing them time to consult with Athens, before he brought out the axes. Likewise Brasidas, arriving at Acanthus “just before the grape harvest,” employs to good effect the threat of destroying their vineyards.

Laying waste the countryside was about inflicting pain. It makes sense in the context of a straightforward strategic utilitarianism: when a course of action (at first, refusing battle; later, continued resistance) becomes sufficiently painful to an actor, the actor will desist.  A crude linear model would make compliance a positively-sloped function of extortionate injury. A more sophisticated model would allow for a negative slope at small values of pain but would expect the curve to turn upward at higher values, even if perhaps only at a step-like discontinuity where the victim’s morale cracks. While this theory has inspired a great deal of behavior throughout history, it is too simple, as I think Thucydides understands, for he shows us three ways conflict eludes such resolution.

First, wrongs inspire hatred, and hatred is motivating.  Human beings are not eudaemonistic optimizers but have a keen sense of resentment that can lead them to sacrifice everything for the sake of retribution.  Thucydides makes at least one of his characters express this insight.

. . . if peace was ever desirable for both parties, it is surely so at the present moment, before anything irremediable befall us and force us to hate you eternally, personally as well as politically . . . (4.20)

On this score a policy such as devastation, while it might peel away a marginal ally or two, would tend to stiffen the enemy’s resistance and make it far more difficult to end the war.

Second, the model treats each of the warring states as monolithic. But in fact a policy of devastation is likely to have a different impact on different groups or social classes among the enemy.  Most obviously, country-dwellers will suffer worse than those who dwell behind the city walls.  Even among the country-dwellers, those whose wealth is transportable will (if given time to escape) fare better than those truly tied to the land.  Forewarned by Pericles, the people of Attica (or at least those upon whom Thucydides focuses) are surprisingly adept at mitigating the disaster which the Spartans inflict on them — the refugees even dismantle “the woodwork” of their houses, bringing it along with all their furniture into the city (2.14).  Even so, “deep was their trouble and discontent” (2.16) and “Pericles was the object of general indignation” (2.21.3).

On balance, this sociological complication adds to the efficacy of devastation, because it creates internal dissension within the enemy’s society. On the other hand, if most of the suffering falls on a class that has little or no political influence (as is often the case in war), suffering inflicted on the population has little strategic value.  In Athens’ case, the genius of Pericles (giving up his estate, should it be spared, as public property (2.13.1), and refusing to call an assembly when the people were ill-disposed (2.22.1), and eloquently interpreting losses as shared in solidarity and pride (2.43.1)) limited the divisive effect of devastation.  When the Spartans ravage the countryside on their way home for the first winter (2.23.1,3) they seem to be acting out of frustration and pique.

Third, the premises of devastation accord best with what has been called “act-based utilitarianism.” For a philosophy that takes the longer view — “rules-based utilitarianism” — devastation is problematic.  Let us render the land unable to support human life . . . what could go wrong?  In the policies of devastation pursued by both sides, we see a downward spiral into immiseration and mutual hatred which gravely weakened Hellenic civilization.  To destroy the orchards planted with human toil and love, depriving a future generation of food, is symbolic of cultural suicide. The impact of devastation calls to mind the laconic prophecy of Melesippus: “This day will be the beginning of great misfortunes to the Hellenes.”

Writing about the cultural degradation of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden imagined an amoral urchin and his outlook on life:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Auden traces this dystopia to the loss of a Greek ideal, mirrored prophetically in the shield of Achilles which the hero’s divine mother studies with growing horror:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down . . .

Unless it can be limited to a short-term administration of shock and awe, a policy of devastation risks leaving “an artificial wilderness” in place of the civilization that sanctioned it.

One Response to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: Devastation”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    “Laying waste the countryside was about inflicting pain”


    Yes. But my I suggest another possible motivation? Laying waste was also about inflicting shame.


    Shame was the name of the Hellenic game; glory its master. Who could accept the shame of seeing their lands trod underfoot? Which power could keep its allies when so openly shamed?


    Pericles strength was his ability to convince the Athenians that they were not shamed by refusing the Spartans battle, and that they could deal out equally shameful blows to the Spartans through coastal raids. The Athenians refused to be shamed, and as long as their empire lasted, the devastation of Attica could not cause enough pain to compel surrender.


    So the war was fought for decades on end.

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