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Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: Treason makes the historian

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Curious how many top tier historians of classical antiquity were quislings:

These men probably didn’t see themselves following in Vidkun’s bloody footsteps. They remained loyal to a political community of their birth, just not the flesh and blood political community of their birth. They pledged allegiance to a nation in being that remained moored just over the horizon in the Scapa Flow of their imaginations, waiting for Der Tag of political change.

Donald Kagan has pointed out that the Athenian quisling Thucydides’ terrifying silences and omissions are as important to an informed reading of The History of the Peloponnesian War as what he directly writes about. Though much of Kagan’s most recent distillation of his argument in Thucydides: The Reinvention of History is an indirect refighting of that war in Iraq his boys and daughter-in-law got mixed up in, it makes some valid arguments.

Thucydides went out of his way to frame such subjects like how a series of separate contests were one single war (since Thucydides was in exile for most of its length), how deranged the war policy of the Athenian democracy was (since it had exiled Thucydides), how enlightened the war policy of his fellow aristocrat Pericles had been (since Thucydides admired him), and how clever the Spartan Brasidas was (since he’d been responsible for the defeat that led to Thucydides’ exile). Kagan gathers enough information from other sources about the time and Thucydides himself to plausibly argue Thucydides’ narrative was somewhat skewed to fit his personal agenda.

How human.

There may have been no single “Peloponnesian War”. You could plausibly treat each of the conflicts that Thucydides lumps together as distinct wars that should be studied individually rather than as a group. Or you veer all the way to the other extreme and portray every Athenian-Spartan war between 460 B.C. and 387 B.C. as a single “Hundred Years War”-type conflict. The “Second Peloponnesian War” is a narrative convenience invented by Thucydides for his polemical needs.

Similarly, the military strategy pursued by Cleon and other demagogues that Thucydides despises for their policies, social class, and (oh yes) his exile was far more successful than the military strategy pursued by the sainted Pericles that Thucydides so strongly support. Conceptually, the Sicilian expedition was not doomed to inevitable ultimate failure. A twist of fate here, a twist of fate there, and it might have succeeded. Its eventual defeat was a near run thing in any case. Much more risky military expeditions have been attempted and succeeded against much greater odds.

Thucydides is lauded for his realism. Indeed, his history is a cold shower of corrections to many contemporary delusions. Thucydides shows us democracies fighting each other in spite of MacDonalds in both Athens and Syracuse. He shows us Athens intervening in the affairs of other Greek poleis to overthrow oligarchies and install democracies. He shows us Sparta intervening in the affairs of other Greek poleis to overthrow democracies and install oligarchies. He shows us civilization reduced to primal savagery, the foolishness of men, and a cynical game of political musical chairs.

But, like many avowed realists, Thucydides is a closet romantic. Like the leadership of his Spartan, Corinthian, or Theban hosts or any clique of fellow Athenian nobles at home, Thucydides believed in rule by “the best” (aristoi) as the cure to all problems. This recurring theme, passed down to us by Thucydides, Socrates, and younger Athenian contemporaries like Xenophon or Plato, holds that, given enough educated, well-bred, well-intentioned, and well-groomed men, no political problem is insurmountable. Handing rule over to the mob only condemns society to insurmountable foolishness.

However, history testifies that moving from rule by demagogues to aristocrats doesn’t guarantee either a gain in wisdom or a loss of foolishness. It only rearranges the chairs on the deck, moving the source of foolishness from one group to another. The same human stupidity behind the foolishness of the crowd haunts the human stupidity of the elite. The best laid plans of the “best and brightest” will be as thwarted by the stupidity of the “best and brightest” as the passions of the mob are thwarted by the mindlessness of the crowd. Rule by the “best” is as prone, if not more prone, to epidemics of destructive foolishness as rule by anonymous peons in a mobocracy.

Pericles’ finest hour was made possible by luck, a fortuitous swing in the politics of Megara in a pro-Athenian direction. Control over the Megarid during the “First Peloponnesian War” let Pericles keep Peloponnesian armies from reaching Attica to ravage Athenian territory. His worst hours were made possible by a less fortunate swing in the politics of Megara, this time back in a pro-Spartan direction. Loss of control over the Megarid reopened Attica to Peloponnesian ravaging in Peloponnesian War I and II. Pericles defended the Athenian people against this ravaging by gathering them inside Athens’ Long Walls. This protected them from the Peloponnesians but, crowded in as they were, they were now vulnerable to the plague that eventually killed Pericles himself, along with many of his fellow citizens.

In the end, Pericles’ luck in war was no better than that of Cleon, Alciabides, or his other successors. But, through Thucydides’ “possession for all time”, Pericles’ luck in history has far transcended the usual fate of small regional conflicts 2,500 years ago.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: The Medium of Heralds

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

[by Cheryl Rofer]

I started reading Book II about the time this tweet appeared.

Book II begins…

The war between the Athenians and Peloponnesians and the allies on either side now really begins. For now all intercourse except through the medium of heralds ceased, and hostilities were commenced and prosecuted without intermission.

War is often accompanied by a break in communications. In ancient Greece, that communication involved a human carrier. Communications now never really end.

The United States and Russia are not at war now, pace those who would have a new Cold War, but relations are tense. Some official channels of communication have been cut off, but others remain. Although each side claims at times that the channels of communication over Syria have been broken, the dialog starts up again.

The tweet above, however, is more like what Athenian and Spartan soldiers would have yelled at each other across the field. I won’t unpack all the insults contained in it, but I can see at least five.

This tweet is from the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom. That account has become famous for its insulting tweets. It tweets a lovely photo of somewhere in Russia most mornings, and retweets more or less standard news. Then BAM! One like the above.

The pattern is regular enough that it is probably strategic, part of Russia’s information warfare. Did the Athenians and Spartans have anything similar? When communications depend primarily on in-person interactions, it’s much more difficult. But rumor-spreading has always been an option, as has been misinformation about war plans and governmental actions. And those insults.

Communications to and from the battlefield have changed in similar ways. Even small insurgencies are now able to communicate rapidly.

The intensity and volume of the information war is new. Hacking and counter-hacking, although most of it is psychological, with the goal of destroying trust in institutions or people. Because I suspect you all share my fatigue with the information war of the US election, I’ll leave it to you to find the examples.

When the election is over, we will still be left with, most notably but not exclusively, the information war between the United States and Russia. Social media have become “the medium of heralds.” But the heralds have many masters, many goals.

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…)

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