zenpundit.com » 2016 » November

Archive for November, 2016

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hour

Monday, November 28th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

This byword for stone-cold amorality was Athens’ finest hour? A provocative thesis . . . but I’ll give it a try.

First, in this episode the Athenians are entirely honest. They do not mask their intentions or weave ambiguity into their promises; they misrepresent no facts.

By contrast, much of the diplomacy in Book 5 (and almost all its talk of justice) involves fraud. As readers, we pick our way through a forest of the crooked timber of humanity. Sparta forges an “alliance” with Athens in order to have breathing space to crush Argos. Athens, at least, fulfills some of her promises; Sparta, hardly any. Corinth lies and obfuscates (5.30.2) when questioned by Sparta about its maneuvers. After the Lepraeans welsh on their debts, the Eleans back out of arbitration crying “Unfair!”, and switch alliances (5.31).

Then, while assuring the Athenians that they are trying to bring the Boeotians and Corinthians into the alliance with Athens, the Spartans secretly urge envoys from those two cities to ally with Argos and then bring Argos over to Sparta. The Spartans’ aim is to “be in a better position to resume hostilities with Athens.” (5.36) This scheme misfires somewhat comically when other members of the Boeotian government, unaware of the ephors’ double game, veto the Argos alliance out of loyalty to Sparta (5.38.3).

Athens, Sparta, and Argos thus find themselves in a triangle held together by deceptions — mostly Spartan — until the duplicitous Alcibiades tricks the Spartan ambassadors into concealing their mission and their authority . . . which leads, notwithstanding the honest efforts of the hapless Nicias, to a hasty alliance between Athens and Argos, after which a resumption of the war is inevitable.

The diplomacy of Book 5 is not merely practiced in a deceptive and insincere manner: when based on appeals to justice, it is shown to be futile:

While the Argives were in Epidaurus embassies from the cities assembled at Mantinea, upon the invitation of the Athenians. The conference having begun, the Corinthian Euphamidas said that their actions did not agree with their words; while they were sitting deliberating about peace, the Epidaurians and their allies and the Argives were arrayed against each other in arms; deputies from each party should first go and separate the armies, and then the talk about peace might be resumed. In compliance with this suggestion they went and made the Argives withdraw from Epidaurus, and afterwards reassembled, but without succeeding any better in coming to a conclusion; and the Argives a second time invaded Epidaurus and plundered the country. (5.55.1-2)

Even worse was the justice-based diplomacy of the Spartans at Plataea, where they promised a fair hearing and just treatment to trick the besieged into surrendering (3.52.2). . . and then killed them all.

Against this background, the behavior of the Athenian envoys at Melos seems a model of candor and sincerity. They define the agenda and offer the Melians two choices with different consequences. When the Melians choose to resist, the Athenians do exactly what they said they would do. There is no reason to doubt that, had the Melians chosen to comply, the Athenians would have kept their word then, too. They employ no sophistry; their rebuttal to each of the Melians’ points is cogent: in my opinion, they win the debate, and that appears to be Thucydides’ opinion, too, as Mr. Strassler suggests by citing here his later praise of Phrynicus as “a man of sense” (8.27.5). Certainly their warning that the Spartans are not to be relied on is confirmed by events.

In commending the honest dealing of the Athenian envoys, I am aware that what scandalizes most readers is the principle underlying the Athenian policy that was implemented at Melos. This is indeed problematic, but not necessarily as odious as it might first appear. I’d like to evaluate it from three angles.

1. It is tempting to discern in the Melian Dialogue fundamental issues of moral philosophy. One might say the Melians take a stand on principle (or would if the Athenians allowed them to), while the Athenians disclaim any moral principle. But this may not be quite right, if principle denotes the goal or value motivating one’s choices. A “pure principle” approach would hold that one should do the right thing irrespective of the likely outcome. The hopes of the Melians—that the gods or the Spartans will come to their aid—are a key factor in their decision. They never say, “We’ll choose certain death, in freedom, over a life of servitude.” They differ from the Athenians less in their ends than in their opinion of the efficacy of various means.

It is also not the case that the Athenian envoys have no principle. They affirm the tendency of the life-force to assert itself and to seek mastery as a ‘given’ of human nature and therefore not subject to moral choice. This is the conatus of Spinoza turbocharged with Hellenic arete. Given the pervasiveness of the evolutionary framework in much modern social science, we cannot dismiss this approach as barbaric.

What intrigues me is that the pure-principle approach–to the point of self-sacrifice–was eloquently articulated by Athenians both before and after the Peloponnesian War (Sophocles’ Antigone was produced a decade before the war and Plato’s Gorgias about two decades after its end). The best dialogue between these two approaches to morality, then, was conducted not at Melos but in Athens itself. But there is no evidence that proponents of pure principle ever had much influence on public policy. The execution of Socrates, in fact, seems a decisive rejection of their position.

2. The “submit or be destroyed” message politely conveyed by the Athenian consiglieri resembles the demand for earth and water brought by the envoys of Darius in 491. On that earlier occasion, most of the poleis had chosen to submit. But the defiance of Athens and Sparta, which became the stuff of legend, created a powerful myth of Greek liberty. By placing themselves in the position of the Persians, the Athenians ensured that an ideology which they had helped create would now work against their empire—as we see happening in the rhetoric of Brasidas (e.g., 5.9.9: “this day will make you either free men and allies of Sparta, or slaves of Athens”). It is remarkable that Pericles could call Athens the school of Hellas (2.41.1) and later confide to his fellow-citizens, “For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny.” (2.63.2) This was the worm at the heart of the golden apple of the Age of Pericles, for tyranny had gone out of style.

3. J. A. O. Larsen, in his 1962 paper “Freedom and its Obstacles in Ancient Greece,” noted the difficulties in “the common Greek view of freedom which tended to include in freedom for oneself the right to dominate others.” As I commented before, the Periclean stance invites comparison with Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” It seems a gross inconsistency, but every inspiring ideal is fraught with conceptual and practical difficulties — perhaps especially freedom, which by its nature resists limitation and constraint.

All three themes find expression in Leonidas’ rejoinder to Xerxes at Thermopylae,

“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life [ta kala tou biou], you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”

Plutarch is our only source for this saying. Did Leonidas actually say it, or could such thoughts occur only to one steeped in the transcendental ideals of Middle Platonism? If Leonidas did say it, what a pity the Greeks did not pay closer heed. Perhaps the life-force wouldn’t let them.


Friday, November 25th, 2016

[by Steven Metz]

I was introduced to Thucydides in Professor George Liska’s classes on international politics at the Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to the United States Dr. Liska has served in the Czech foreign ministry but fled after the communist coup of 1948 and ended up studying political science at Harvard about the same time as other European emigres like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski who later shaped the way Americans thought about statecraft. Like them (and other scholars with a European background like Hans Morgenthau), Liska approached statecraft from a power based, realist perspective solidly grounded in history. It made perfect sense, then, that he found Thucydides a useful heuristic device for guiding students through the complexities of statecraft. Liska also recognizes that there was no more perfect encapsulation of the asymmetric relationship between a great power and a smaller one than Thucydides’ depiction of the Melian Dialogue in which Athens, ancient Greek’s dominant power at the time, attempted to convince the small island state of Melos to abandon its neutrality and become a tribute-paying, secondary ally.

While the Melian Dialogue is only a few pages of Thucydides’ magisterial history of the Peloponnesian War, it is rife with meaning. This is because statecraft—as Clausewitz said about war—has a changing character but an enduring nature. Then as during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” as the Athenian delegation to Melos put it.

The central dynamic of the relationship between a great and smaller power—and the focus of much of the Melian Dialogue–is what now is called “messaging.” The representatives of Melos contended that as a small island nation, they were no threat to Athens. The Athenians argued that while that might be true the way they dealt with them would send a message to other small states. If Athens allowed Melos so resist its demand for an alliance, other small states would see this as weakness and might themselves be tempted to resist or abandon Athens. The Athenian delegation was depicting what many years later became known as the “domino effect.’ In addition, the Athenians said, their true enemy—Sparta—would be watching how they dealt with Melos and might become more aggressive if Athens seemed weak. Whether the Athenian delegation was right or wrong about the way that other small Greek states and Sparta would respond if they failed to impose their will on Melos, they were certainly correct in seeing statecraft as a form of extraordinarily high stakes theater, where actors interacted directly with each other by by doing so, sent messages to a wider audience which was not directly involved in the interaction.

So what does this tell today’s students and practitioners of statecraft? The Athenian assertion that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” remains part of of statecraft’s enduring nature. What has changed in today’s time of deep connectivity, though, is the method why which states signal or message, the methods by which strong states impose their will on weaker ones, and the wider costs of imposing power (or failing to do so).

Today’s international system is characterized by deep connectivity between states. This means that any exercise of power has cascading, difficult-to-predict effects. Many states have a stake in any conflict and may impose costs on a powerful nation imposing its will on a weaker one. This, in turn, raises the costs of the raw imposition of power by the strong against the weak. Great powers do still impose their will when they consider the strategic benefits greater than the costs, but as a general rule even great powers attempt to exercise power in a way that limits the cost to them. Often this means acting indirectly by empowering partners. It can also mean the use of what is called gray zone aggression; reliance on long range, standoff military strikes using drones, missiles, or manned aircraft; “light footprint” operations; sanctions; or cyberattacks.

For great powers, though, this need for more subtle methods of imposing their will increases the probability that their message will be misunderstood, or that small nations will conclude that they can withstand it. When Athens or, later, great powers like Rome decided to send a message, they did so openly and unambiguously. There is no doubt that other small Greek states took note of what happened to Melos and, for a while at least, were less inclined to challenge or resist Athens. But today the colonization of the weak by the strong is off the table so when the application of power is something like a cyberattack, smaller states may not reach the conclusion that the great power intended. In its face off with Athens, Melos may have believed that the price of submitting to Athens would be greater than the costs of submitting. Since Athens eventually colonized Melos, killed the adult males, and sold the women and children into slavery, it is hard to believe that its leaders thought that was a an acceptable cost to preserve their honor. More likely, they did not consider the Athenian threat credible only to find out that it was.

In a time of deep connectivity, then, the core challenge for a great power is to find methods for imposing their will that are politically acceptable and strategically affordable yet which send the desired message. It is not easy to find the sweet spot which sends the desired message particularly when the smaller state has some means of striking back at the more powerful one as North Korea does with nuclear weapons and Iran does through support for terrorism. Thus the nature of great power messaging endures but its character has changed.

Today’s Melians—whether North Korea, Iran, Taiwan, or the small nations on Russia’s periphery—must clearly understand what the threshold for great power intervention is and stay below it. To miscalculate can be catastrophic as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi learned. Why relations between great power and small powers remains as asymmetric as it was during Peloponnesian War, the extent of the asymmetry has changed as a result of constraints on the great powers arising from deep connectivity, and the development of strategic power projection capabilities by small states. The essential truths of the Melian Dialogue endure but their application continues to change.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: Devastation

Monday, November 21st, 2016

[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.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: Hoplite Perspective

Monday, November 21st, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
Image result for hoplite armor

Reading Book IV with it’s numerous battles and sieges, particularly the plight of the Spartans trapped upon Sphacteria, made me reflect on how the Peloponnesian War must have looked from the perspective of “the grunt”, the Greek hoplite.

First, the average ancient Greek was not a particularly large fellow; from archaeological remains it seems that most Greek men were 5′ 5″ or less and a man was reckoned as tall if he were 5’7″ and very tall if 6′. As the Spartiates composed the top 10% of Sparta’s population and only Athenians wealthy enough to afford bronze armor – this seems to mark the start of the middle-class, at about 20 minae in wealth from land, chattel property or earned income – could serve as hoplites, we can assume they were better fed and slightly taller than average. On this relatively small frame (by modern standards) was loaded bronze armor, helm and a kit in total weighing approximately 60 pounds. This does not count the weight of the shield (hoplon) or the 7′ spear so in phalanx formation we have an infantry bearing into battle a load likely to be more than 50% than their body weight and for shorter men, upwards of 70%.  While the greatest glory was reserved for the hoplite in the front ranks of the phalanx, it was a lot less arduous physical labor to fight as a peltast and much safer to be one of the aristocrats in the cavalry.

Consequently, the weight of all this gear and armor necessitated Greek armies marching lightly armored and armed unless battle was imminent, leaving most of the gear and weapons in the baggage train. In The Anabasis, for example, Xenophon shamed mercenaries complaining of the pace by hopping off of his horse and marching fully armored alongside them until his men cried out to demand Xenophon return to his steed. When the Athenians gave the Spartans on Sphacteria no rest from their arrows, darts, stones and javelins, it was no joke. To be forced to keep shields constantly at the ready while trying to repel skirmishers by dashing at them in bronze armor is absolutely exhausting and these tactics broke the will of the Spartans to fight for the first time in Greek memory. It was third rate missile troops that allowed Cleon to make good on his seemingly impossible boasting and (with Demosthenes) win one of Athens’ greatest victories.

Logistics of course, were extremely primitive. The best way for an army up until modern times to stay well fed and healthy was to live off the land and keep marching. The “ravaging” mentioned by Thucydides is exactly that – looting and pillaging all that was useful from the enemy population and burning and destroying the rest. Which makes the confrontation at Pylos-Sphacteria all the more interesting because the ability to “ravage” was denied to both sides:

Meanwhile the Athenians at Pylos were still besieging the Lacedaemonians in the island, the Peloponnesian forces on the continent remaining where they were. The blockade was very laborious for the Athenians from want of food and water; there was no spring except one in the citadel of Pylos itself, and that not a large one, and most of them were obliged to grub up the shingle on the sea beach and drink such water as they could find. They also suffered from want of room, being encamped in a narrow space; and as there was no anchorage for the ships, some took their meals on shore in their turn, while the others were anchored out at sea. But their greatest discouragement arose from the unexpectedly long time which it took to reduce a body of men shut up in a desert island, with only brackish water to drink, a matter which they had imagined would take them only a few days. The fact was that the Lacedaemonians had made advertisement for volunteers to carry into the island ground corn, wine, cheese, and any other food useful in a siege; high prices being offered, and freedom promised to any of the Helots who should succeed in doing so. The Helots accordingly were most forward to engage in this risky traffic, putting off from this or that part of Peloponnese, and running in by night on the seaward side of the island. They were best pleased, however, when they could catch a wind to carry them in. It was more easy to elude the look-out of the galleys, when it blew from the seaward, as it became impossible for them to anchor round the island; while the Helots had their boats rated at their value in money, and ran them ashore, without caring how they landed, being sure to find the soldiers waiting for them at the landing-places. But all who risked it in fair weather were taken. Divers also swam in under water from the harbour, dragging by a cord in skins poppyseed mixed with honey, and bruised linseed; these at first escaped notice, but afterwards a look-out was kept for them. In short, both sides tried every possible contrivance, the one to throw in provisions, and the other to prevent their introduction.

Hunger and thirst will sap the will of an army to fight faster than the most fearsome enemy.

Being on the losing side or suffering injury in battle was an unenviable position in hoplite warfare. If there had not been a negotiated surrender with honorable terms, captives and wounded alike could easily find themselves being put to the sword, perhaps first seeing their wives and children raped and being taken away to be sold into slavery. The fallen on the battlefield (often the leading citizens) would be stripped, creating an urgency for a truce so that the important religious rituals for the dead could commence without further delay or disgrace. If one staggered home wounded and escaped septicemia, there was a fair chance Greek physicians could stitch your wounds and set broken bones, but if you lost your shield (in your haste to flee) you disgraced your family in the eyes of all. If you were a Spartan, depending on how you had conducted yourself, you might be branded a “trembler”, with a patch of cowardice sewn onto your red cloak.

War is hard; it’s a lot harder if you were a Greek hoplite.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: History is Written by the Losers

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

By T. Greer

Meet Sima Qian. I regard him highly. One could say that he was a historian with balls.


Siam Qian is sometimes called the “Herodotus of the East.” It’s a fair title. Herodotus is one of two men who can claim to have invented history. Sima Qian is the other.

This is a rare feat. It was accomplished in exactly two places. Herodotus did it in Greece; Sima Qian did it in China. Of the other great civilizations—the Mesoamericans, the Egyptians, Sumerians, and their descendants, the Andean kingdoms, the early rulers of the Eurasian steppe, the great empires that sprouted up along the Indus and Ganges rivers, along with their cultural satellites across South and Southeast Asia—history is nowhere to be found. I remember my shock when I discovered our knowledge of ancient India relies more on ancient Greek historians than ancient Indian historians. Traditional Indic civilization simply did not have any. In ancient India, playwrights, poets, lyricists, grammarians, philosophers, story-tellers, mathematicians, military strategists, religious authorities, and religious upstarts all put pen to palm frond, leaving a treasury of Sanskrit literature for the future. This literature is sophisticated. It is meaningful. Even in translation, much of it is beautiful. But search as you may, nowhere in this vast treasury will you ever find a work of history. That a great thinker could profitably spend his time sorting through evidence, trying to tie together cause and effect, distinguishing truth from legend, then present what is found in a written historical narrative—it is an idea that seems to have never occurred to anyone on the entire subcontinent. Only in Greece and in China did this notion catch hold. The work of every historian who ever lived finds its genesis in one of these two places—and with one of these two people.

Sima Qian is not just celebrated for the idea of history. He was also a wonderfully gifted historian. His skill exceeds Herodotus, that dispenser of legends and collector of hoary wives’ tales, and is matched by only a few greats in the West. Polybius. Tacitus. And of course, Thucydides.

Sima Qian had a character to equal his talents. He was the court astronomer and calendar keeper in the reign of the egotistical emperor Han Wudi. In this role he was often present at court deliberations. One court debate scarred him for the rest of his life. He told the story in a letter to a friend named Ren An:

“Events did not unfold as I had planned. I committed an egregious error.

Li Ling [a general who had just been defeated in battle and surrendered to the enemy Xiongnu] and I were both officials in the palace, but we had had no opportunity to become friends. Our duties kept us busy in different offices and we had never so much as sipped a cup of wine together or enjoyed the slightest pleasure of friendship. But I observed that he conducted himself with extraordinary self-possession. He was filial towards his parents, trustworthy with his colleagues, scrupulously honest in matters of finance, upright in exchanges with others, deferential in matters of precedence, respectful, modest, and humble. His thoughts were always animated by selfless devotion to the needs of his country—this was his way, and I saw in him the very image of a statesman. A subject who dashes to the public’s aid, risking ten thousand deaths without thought of his life as he rushes to his country’s defense, such a man rises far above the ordinary. And so when, because of a single indiscretion, courtiers whose sole concern had been preserving themselves whole and protecting their wives and children seized on his mistake to brew disfavor against him, I felt pain for him in my innermost heart…..

it happened that I was summoned to give an opinion, and in just this way I spoke of Li Ling’s merits. My hope was to broaden my ruler’s perspective and block the words of jealous-eyed courtiers. But I was myself insufficiently clear and the emperor could not perceive my sense… and believing that I was speaking as a partisan of Li Ling he had me sent down for prosecution. Not all my earnest loyalty could justify myself to my inquisitors. I was convicted of attempting to delude my ruler and the sentence received imperial approval.

….In surrendering alive Li Ling destroyed the reputation of his family. When I followed by submitting to the “silkworm chamber ” I became a second laughingstock. Oh, such shame! This is not something I could ever bring myself to recount to an ordinary person.… A man dies only once. His death may be a matter weighty as Mount Tai or light as a feather. It all depends on the reason for which he dies. The best of men die to avoid disgrace to their forbears; the next best to avoid disgrace to their persons; the next to avoid disgrace to their dignity; the next to avoid disgrace to their word. And then there are those who suffer the disgrace of being put in fetters; worse yet those disgraced by the prisoner’s suit; worse yet those in shackles; worse yet those who are flogged; worse yet those who with shaven heads and iron chains around their necks; worse yet those who suffer amputations and mutilations. But the very worst disgrace of all is castration.

…How could I have plunged myself into the ignominy of bring tied and bound? Even a captive slave-girl is capable of putting an end to herself, and surely I could have done so as well, had it been the inescapably correct path. The reason why I bore the intolerable and clung to my life, refusing to release myself from the filth into which I had been cast, was the remorse I felt at the prospect of leaving the achievement dearest my heart incomplete, quitting the world like a vulgar nonentity with the written emblem of my lifework unrevealed to posterity.”

(From Sima Qian’s Letter to Ren An, trans. by Burton Watson).

To restate Sima Qian’s experience in less emotional terms: because he was principled enough to contradict the emperor in the presence of his court, Sima Qian was sentenced to castration. This was a death sentence—any self-respecting man of his day would commit suicide before submitting to the procedure. Everyone expected Sima Qian to do so. But in the end Sima Qian decided to accept the punishment and live the rest of his life in shame, because if he did not he would never finish the history he had started.

Not every historian has the balls to a challenge despot face-to-face. For despotic Wudi was—the castration of Sima Qian was hardly the most despotic thing Wudi would do before his reign ended. It is but one episode in a string of terrors, one paint-stroke in a portrait of tyranny.

But who painted the portrait? None other than the grand historian Sima Qian. We remember Wudi as Sima Qian chose to depict him. Had Wudi realized the influence his court astronomer would have on future generations, he might have treated him differently. But Wudi realized none of this. Sima Qian was punished brutally and embarrassed publicly. He was a loser.

But in the end, the loser got his revenge.

We say that history is written by the winners. That is sometimes true. We have no Carthaginian accounts of their war with Rome; few historians today have much sympathy for Hitler. But the thread that seems to connect many of the great histories of the pre-modern world is that they were written by the losers.

In his roundtable post, “Treason Makes the Historian,” Lynn Rees lists a few of the type. Herodotus wrote his history only after his exile from Halicarnassus; Xenophon wrote his memoirs only after his faction was forced out of Athens. Polybius was once a general for the Archean League, but wrote his history as a hostage at Rome. The destruction of Judea was chronicled by a Josephus, a Jew.

These men abandoned their countries and people for the victors of the future. But Quislingdom was not the only losing path to historical fame. Tacitus’s loyalty to Rome never wavered—but neither did his identification with Rome’s Senatorial class, a group whose power was slowly stripped away as Tacitus wrote his chronicles. Sima Guang, the second most significant historian of Chinese history, only finished his massive Zizhi Tongjian after court rivalries had forced him to retire. The history of the Mongols was written almost entirely by their vanquished enemies. Ibn Khaldun was associated with so many failed regimes that it is a wonder he found time to write his history at all.

I am sure more examples can be found. The example most relevant to this roundtable is one Thucydides, son of Olorus. It is here in Book IV we finally learn a tad about the man behind the curtain:

The passage of Brasidas was a complete surprise to the people in the town; and the capture of many of those outside, and the flight of the rest within the wall, combined to produce great confusion among the citizens; especially as they did not trust one another…. Meanwhile the party opposed to the traitors proved numerous enough to prevent the gates being immediately thrown open, and in concert with Eucles, the general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides, son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis, to tell him to come to their relief. On receipt of this message he at once set sail with seven ships which he had with him, in order, if possible, to reach Amphipolis in time to prevent its capitulation, or in any case to save Eion (4.103).

Now pieces of Thucydides work start to click together. Few Spartans are mentioned by name; fewer still are Spartans mentioned by names on multiple occasions. The exception is Brasidas. Brasidas, brave defender of Methone, and thus “the first man in this war to receive the official honors of Sparta” (2.25). Brasidas, whose stratagems almost defeated the Athenians at sea (2.86-87). Brasidas, the daring leading who almost stormed the fort at Pylos (4.12). Brasidas, the savior of Megara (4.70-73). Brasidas, the only Spartan eloquent and wise enough to raise all of Thessaly into revolt (4.84). Brasidas, the general who defeated Thucydides.

Thucydides’ obsession with Brasidas is easy to understand once his personal relation to Thucydides is made clear. His portrayal of Brasidas as daring, brilliant, charismatic, and clever beyond measure also begins to make sense—the greater Brasidas’ past feats appear, the less damning Thucydides defeat at his hands becomes.

Thucydides treatment of Brasidas is hardly unique. You can play this game with many other aspects of Thucydides’ History, from his attitude towards Athenian democracy (which voted for his exile) to his unflattering portrayal of Cleon (who replaced him). Thucydides lost battles with them all. The History of the Peloponnesian War was written by a loser.

Why have so many great histories been written by the losers?

I like Mr. Rees’ suggestion:

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.

This works for the Quisling historians well enough, but it does not explain the plain sore losers like Sima Qian. I’ll suggest something simpler. Defeat gives brilliant minds like Thucydides the two things they need to become great historians: time and motive.

Those who rule do not have the time to write about it. Occasionally history produces a Caesar or a Mao, men who can lead the masses to war on the one hand, while serving as prolific propagandists for their cause on the other. The greater part mankind is not so talented. Sima Guang would never have finished his history had he not been shunted out of Song court politics. Had Thucydides defeated Brasidas, he would be known today not as a historian, but as a military strategist, a strategist who never had the time to travel the world and collect the material needed to write his history. Even winning historians need time in defeat to write their histories—had Churchill’s party not been kicked out of power by British voters after the Second World War was over, Churchill’s famous account of that war would never have been written.

When high position is stolen from you, and access to the heights of wealth and power denied, there is little one can do about it—except write. History is thus rarely a “weapon of the weak.” The judgments of the historian do not serve the margins. They do not even serve the masses. They are a weapon in the hand of defeated elites, the voices of men and women who could be in power, but are not. What was true in Thucydides day is true in our own. The simplest explanation for modern academics’ hostility to 21st century capitalism’s  “structures of power” is their complete exclusion from them.

This is the motive of defeat. Intelligent enough to rule, but missing the wealth and position needed to lead, the historian continues the fight in the only domain that he or she can: the page. Here the historian wields absolute power. Given enough time, that power might bleed off the page and into reality. Those who know Cleon’s name remember him as terrible; those who recognize the name Brasidas think immediately of daring brilliance. I am sure nothing would have made Thucydides happier. As he wished they would be, this loser’s scathing judgments have lasted as a “possession for all time”.

Switch to our mobile site