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Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataea

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The fall of Plataea—the city where the war began (2.2)—unfolds in three acts:

2.71-2.78 Arrival of Peloponnesians, negotiations, siege
3:20-3.24 Breakout and evasion
3.52-3.68 Surrender, plea for compassion, annihilation

It is a powerful drama, rich in vivid details that make you forget these things happened 2,445 years ago.

…and thus even the last of them got over the ditch, though not without effort and difficulty; as ice had formed in it, not strong enough to walk upon, but of that watery kind which generally comes with a wind more east than north, and the snow which this wind had caused to fall during the night had made the water in the ditch rise, so that they could scarcely breast it as they crossed.

This vivid storytelling is instructive. The struggle for Plataea illustrates timeless patterns of conflict.

The first phase of the siege, as described in Book 2, unfolds in a spiral of action and response, thrust and parry. Let us note a first stage that occurs long before the reported action:

1a) Plataeans protect their town with a wall.

The action begins with a Spartan countermove:

1b) Spartans begin raising a mound that threatens to reach the top of the wall

2a) Plataeans extend the wall upwards there with building materials taken from their houses

2b) Spartans continue raising mound

3a) Plataeans open base of wall where it touches mound and pull materal out of mound

3b) Spartans harden that side of the mound with clay and wattles

4a) Plataeans tunnel under wall (and hardened side of mound) and remove mound material from underneath

This went on for a long while without the enemy outside finding it out, so that for all they threw on the top their mound made no progress in proportion, being carried away from beneath and constantly settling down in the vacuum.

This step introduces a new element into the competition. Till now, every step was overt: each contestant could see what his adversary was doing. Now stealth enters the picture: for the first time, one party enjoys an advantage because the other does not know what he is doing. Perhaps for that reason, there doesn’t seem to be a Spartan response to this move.

Then the Plataeans rethink their approach by changing the problem they are trying to solve. Instead of “How do we prevent the Spartans from using the mound to get over the wall,” they ask “How can we ensure that using the mound to get over the wall will not do the Spartans any good?” Rather than a step, it’s a leap:

5a) Plataeans construct a crescent-shaped wall inside the town, so that if the Spartans eventually succeed in getting over the wall via the mound, they’ll need to start all over again, this time enfiladed.

Thucydides then summarizes an arms race of defensive vs offensive machines which may have occurred simultaneously with steps 1-5. We realize, then, that the author has been simplifying real life (in which many things happen at the same time) into a game whose players get alternating turns. The metaphor of conflict as a game of alternating turns seems natural to us, but it usually requires some rearrangement of the facts. What makes the thrust and parry part of the siege so appealing and memorable is that it conforms very well to the game model.

Here, briefly, is the arms race that was also going on:

6a) Spartans employ battering rams to good effect.

6b) Plataeans devise and employ an anti-battering ram, a heavy pendulum whose angular momentum prevails over the ram in the direction in which the ram is weakest (from the side).

Now, Thucydides says, it was the Spartans’ turn to rethink, probably in response to Step 5a.

7a) Spartans deploy incendiaries:

The consequence was a fire greater than anyone had ever yet seen produced by human agency . . . within an ace of proving fatal to the Plataeans . . .

But the weather is insufficiently favorable. Only now does this episode acknowledge the role of chance. Thus far, we have watched a game of chess; here, instead of a Plataean countermove, the dice are rolled.

8a) Spartans circumvallate the town, and the blockade begins.

At the risk of overthinking a great story, may I suggest it illustrates tactical responses of various kinds.

Steps 1-2 describe a one-dimensional competition. You have a wall that is X meters high; I’ll build a mound X meters high that will neutralize your wall; then you make your wall higher there; I’ll make my mound higher, too.

Step 3a introduces something new: the Plataeans, instead of trying to surpass the Spartans’ move, undertake to sabotage it. There is still a one-dimensional competition, but instead of adding to their own ‘score,’ the Plataeans are now subtracting from the Spartans’. There is another innovation, as well: the wall, which has served to prevent passage, is now being used by its owner to enable passage. The Plateans pass through their own wall.

With Step 3b, the Spartans, who are trying to achieve passage (over the top), build their own wall (of clay and wattles) to prevent the Plataeans from using *their* wall for passage (at the bottom). Conceptually, the Spartans are still playing catch-up. At each stage, the Plataeans have had the initiative.

Step 4a, although continuing the subtractive tactic of 3a, involves a kind of flanking maneuver (from underneath). The enemy resource being sabotaged may still be one-dimensional, but the means of attacking it no longer is.

Step 5a is a leap forward that can be described as turning a threatened defeat into a delaying action, relocating the engagement to more favorable ground, or allowing the enemy to advance so that he will become vulnerable.

In the arms race of the machines (Step 6), although the Spartans take the initiative, the Plataeans show more ingenuity. Here, too, one may discern a flanking maneuver: the defensive machines strike the offensive machines from the side. It is remarkable that a motif of envelopment appears three times in the tactics of the besieged defenders.

With 7a) and 8a), the Spartans for the first time show an ability to rethink their position. But one wonders why they didn’t try incendiaries earlier — the use of fire was a well-known tactic. And is Thucydides implying that they failed to wait for a favorable wind before lighting their fires? Settling down to the blockade certainly doesn’t represent a masterstroke: it is an expensive, time-consuming, and brute-force method that they hoped they wouldn’t need to use.

And in Book 3, we will see the Plataeans arrange the escape of half their men even when completely surrounded by hostile fortifications. On that occasion their tactics will include tricks that bear an uncanny resemblance to electronic countermeasures.

All in all, it is hard not to come away with admiration for the Plataeans. But in the end, their city was razed to the ground: tactical (and, as we will see in Book 3, rhetorical) brilliance can’t compensate for a strategically hopeless position. Perhaps that is the deepest lesson of this entrancing tale.


This is a welcome guest post by A.E. Clark. When not leaving thoughtful reflections in Thucydides Roundtable comment threads, Mr. Clark translates works of politically sensitive Chinese literature for Ragged Banner Press.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptions

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016


[by Pauline Kaurin]

As a professional philosopher, I find the role of assumptions, especially faulty and unexamined ones, in Book II to be really fascinating.  I don’t think that this a problem that just plagued (ok, sorry, bad Book II joke!) the Greeks, and towards the end of this post I will explore some questions and implications for how we decide to go to war and how we wage it—as opposed to how we fight it on the ground. [For more on this distinction, see James Dubrik’s excellent new book on strategy and ethics, Just War Theory Reconsidered.]

And if both sides nourished the boldest hopes and put forth their utmost strength for war, this was only natural. (2.8)

Thucydides spends a fair amount of time at the beginning of Book II discussing the assumptions and presuppositions of both sides, later tracking how they largely come to naught.  The Spartans worked from the assumption of their own military size, strength and superiority and also from the assumption that Athens lacked this, as well as the experience and will to be effective in war.  They note that the Athenians were, ‘…more in the habit of invading and ravaging their neighbor’s territory, than of seeing their own treated in the like fashion.” (2.11) They also note the import of acting quickly and decisively and maintaining discipline and vigilance, as well as following orders.  So if the Spartans, maintain these things, they will naturally be victorious because that is all that is required in war.

For the Athenians, there is much focus on the assumptions that inherent in Perikles’ famous strategy of retreating behind the walls of the city, abandoning the farms and lands, and relying on the naval power and the strength of the walls to defeat the Spartans. (2.13) He stresses they they were NOT to go out to battle; deny the Spartans what they expect and where their strength resides. Its clear that the Athenians viewed their strength in their city, in keeping everyone together in a physical proximity that would be easier to control and defend, and that their strength resided in the navy. Finally, he also stresses the financial resources that Athens can leverage to finance and maintain such a strategy.

Interestingly, it doesn’t take long in terms of Thucydides narrative for things to go awry. The Athenians become cranky at abandoning their lands and temples and having to change their habits to live in the city. (2.16) As their land starts (quite predictably) to become ravaged and attacked, “…they lost all patience…” and the young men wanted (quite predictably) to go out and defend it. (2.21) This again is portrayed as perfectly natural by Thucydides, even though Perikles presumably warned them that this was exactly what was intended to happen, and was, in fact, THE PLAN!  This is followed later in the narrative with various and detailed discussions of the impact of the plague (which Thucydides notes was unanticipated) (2.51-2) Meanwhile, the Spartans are largely denied their decisive battles and engagement with the Athenians necessary to maintaining their conception of success and victory. The Athenians, in their view, are cowards and refuse to fight, but they also refuse to surrender.

What I have highlighted here points to the role that assumptions—both about our own side and that of the adversary—play in planning and justification for the war, as well as in how it is waged and fought. It’s hard not to think of the US Civil War and World War I, which the participants assumed would be short-lived and follow certain kinds of well known paradigms for war, honor and chivalry. Its also hard not to think about the claim in advance of the 2003 intervention in Iraq that of course there were WMD’s and that we would be ‘greeted as liberators’ which resulted in a mess, in part due to not thinking through what was to happen after the military was victorious. (As if the military being victorious was the sole end and goal?)

Which leads me back to Thucydides claim that these kinds of mistakes, blindness and miscalculations are natural. Why are they natural? Can they be avoided? Is it that we refuse or are not able to critically examine our own assumptions about ourselves and the adversary? I can see that its harder to do the second because you have less or inaccurate information about them, but surely self-examination (especially for the society that gave birth to Socrates and the Western philosophical traditions) is not beyond our reach? Or is the real issue, that we simply refuse to do so in the emotional excitement that is the rush to war? (Is there a war equivalent to the ‘beer goggles’ effect?)

A related issue seems to be the difficulty we, like the Greeks, have in thinking through the second, third and fourth order impacts of our own actions, much less those of the adversary. (Again, its hard not to think about 2003 in Iraq.) Thucydides notes that the plague was unanticipated, which is interesting. If we allow this point, it doesn’t explain how many of the other effects (immediate and further out) also need unanticipated or people believed that they would not happen. Is this a failure of strategic thinking and rationality? Or is it the emotions involved which make it difficult to think through or believe that the bad will happen? How many couples resist the idea of legal agreements prior to marriage or cohabiting, in the throes of love, lust or infatuation, only to regret it when things fall apart?

Like with romance and human relationships, surely things falling apart in war and not going according to plans and assumptions is entirely predictable. We check our equipment and personnel before going to war; we should also check and rigorously examine our assumptions.

P.S. An assumption is not simply true because we want it to be true!

Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part I.

Tuesday, October 25th, 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

The Thucydides Roundtable

Thursday, October 13th, 2016


  1. Announcement, by T. Greer
  2. Marching Orders, by Mark Safranski
  3. Panel of Contributors, by Mark Safranski

Book I:

  1. An introduction, by T. Greer
  2. Fear, honor, and Ophelia, by Lynn C. Rees
  3. The Broken Reedby Jim Lacey
  4. How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War, by Joe Byerly
  5. It Would Be A Great Warby Cheryl Rofer
  6. Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemyby Marc Opper
  7. Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?, by Pauline Kaurin
  8. Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint, by Mark Safranski
  9. Reflections in a Beginner’s Mindby Charles Cameron
  10. Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective, by Joseph Guerra
  11. Honour or reputation?by Natalie Sambhi

Book II:

  1. Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptionsby Pauline Kaurin
  2. Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataeaby A.E. Clark
  3. When Bacteria Beats Bayonets, by Joe Byerly
  4. Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap, by T. Greer
  5. On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part Iby Mark Safranski
  6. Treason makes the historian, by Lynn C. Rees

Book III:

  1. Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. The Most Violent Man at Athensby Mark Safranski
  3. The Medium of Heralds, by Cheryl Rofer
  4. A Layered Textby Joseph Guerra
  5. Understanding Stasisby A. E. Clark

Book IV:

  1. What a Man Can Do”, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. General Demosthenesby A. E. Clark
  3. History is Written by the Losers, by T. Greer
  4. Hoplite Perspectiveby Mark Safranski
  5. Devastationby A. E. Clark

Book V:

  1. What Would the Melians Do? Power and Perception in a Time of Deep Connectivity, by Steven Metz
  2. The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hourby A. E. Clark
  3. Men of Honor, Men of Interestby T. Greer
  4. Debating the Dialogueby A. E. Clark

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. Spot the Alcibiades Pointsby T. Greer
  3. The State with the Golden Armby A. E. Clark

Book VII:

  1. Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai, by A. E. Clark


  1. What Do You Mean by “We”?, by A. E. Clark

Concluding Analysis

  1. What have we learned?, by A. E. Clark


  1. Cleon Revisitedby Mark Safranski
  2. Fellow Thucydideansby Mark Safranski
  3. Hoffman on Reading Thucydidesby Mark Safranski
  4. Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanationby Mark Safranski
  5. Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War by Charles Cameron
  6. Thucydides Roundtable: Daniel Bassill’s comment by Charles Cameron


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