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Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: General Demosthenes

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

I cannot be the only reader to have been fascinated by the career of Demosthenes, the Athenian commander.

In outline:

(3.94-98) His attack on Aetolia, undertaken as the beginning of an ambitious campaign (projected, apparently only by Demosthenes, to pass through Boeotia), ends in disaster. The narrative supplies enough details for us to ponder the flaws in the general’s decision-making.

(3.102) His move to save Naupactus with troops he wheedles from allies whom he previously snubbed is all the more impressive because at this point Demosthenes has few resources — his generalship may have ended, and he is in such disfavor that it would be personally dangerous for him to return to Athens.

(3.105) Allies ask him to lead them in the West when the Peloponnesian army that he stymied at Naupactus keeps marching.

(3.107) An ambush on the battlefield brings him victory at Olpae.

(3.109) He craftily separates the Peloponnesians from their local allies.

(3.112) He wins a massive victory at Idomene by positioning his troops stealthily during the night and launching a pre-dawn surprise attack in which the enemy’s sentries are confused by Demosthenes’ use of allied troops whose dialect resembles the enemy’s.

(4.2) Demosthenes finagles himself an unofficial berth on a fleet rounding the Peloponnesus to relieve Corcyra.

(4.3-5) He has a plan: make an unscheduled stop and create an outpost at Pylos, in the Messenian country where the Spartans fear revolt. The generals in charge of the fleet laugh at him. Grossly insubordinate, he appeals to the soldiers and the junior officers. No one will listen. Then a storm drives the fleet into shelter at Pylos.  They still won’t listen to him.  But as the weather keeps them trapped in harbor, the soldiers get bored and decide to build Demosthenes his outpost. (Did it really happen like that? One wonders.) But he has neglected to bring any tools, so they must pile rocks to create walls in the most primitive manner.  The weather improves; the fleet sails on, leaving a very small force with Demosthenes in his vulnerable outpost.

(4.6) The Spartans are so alarmed by this tiny threat to their rear that they recall the army that has been laying waste the country around Athens.

(4.8) Then they come in ships to wipe him out.

(4.9-12) Having figured out where they will attack, he repels them from the beach in an epic action where one Brasidas, who will go on to do more harm to Athens than perhaps any other Spartan, is almost killed.

(4.13-14) The Athenian navy arrives in the nick of time. The Athenians discover they have trapped hundreds of the Spartan elite on a desert island next to Pylos: a most valuable bargaining chip.

(4.17-20) Sparta offers peace.

(4.21-22) Overreaching as they often do in this Greek tragedy, the Athenians (instigated by the detestable Cleon) spurn the offer.

(4.26-38) The blockade of the island proves long and difficult.  The Athenians blame Cleon and, calling his bluff, send him to sort it out in the expectation that he will humiliate himself.  Thanks to Demosthenes, who is mindful (Thucydides explicitly says) not to repeat a mistake he made in Aetolia, the Spartiates are defeated by Demosthenes’ use of stand-off missiles and a surprise attack from the rear. They surrender.

(4.41) Again, the Athenians have a chance to end the war on favorable terms.  Thucydides says, “The Athenians, however, kept grasping at more, and dismissed envoy after envoy…”

These events, engagingly narrated by our historian, make a strongly favorable impression.  It seems that Demosthenes learned from an early failure and, with a penchant for surprise attacks that was unusual in the warfare of his time, achieved significant victories.  I’d say Demosthenes won the war twice — once at Pylos and once at Sphacteria — but the Athenians threw the victory away each time.  There is more to the story, however. Now for Part II:

(4.66-73) Demosthenes and Hippocrates undertake a complex scheme to seize control of Megara with the help of traitors within the city. Again he carries out one of his signature night-time ambushes. But the Athenians are only partly successful, and soon find themselves confronted by the decisive and resolute Brasidas. They give up on Megara without a battle.

(4.89-100) A Boeotian campaign is entrusted to the same two generals.  It fails disastrously, with Hippocrates getting killed and his division bearing the brunt of the losses.  Thucydides is unclear about the details, but it seems that Demosthenes may have made an error of timing, as a result of which two separate surprise attacks that needed to be synchronized . . . weren’t.  It also seems that the enemy caught wind of their plans.

(4.101)  Demosthenes undertakes a raid against a coastal city west of Corinth.  He fails to take the adversary by surprise and his troops are routed.

(5.80)  Demosthenes is sent to evacuate a fort among allies of uncertain loyalty; he employs a ruse to accomplish this safely.

But alas, there is more.  In Part III, Demosthenes loses the Peloponnesian War:

(7.42) Demosthenes arrives in Syracuse to salvage the faltering Sicilian expedition.

(7.43-44) He hastens to mount a large-scale night-time surprise attack on Epipolae. Historians judge this to be a first, indeed wholly original: a large-scale nyktomachia, a night battle.  It miscarries due to poor intelligence, poor communication, and the inherent riskiness of such an action in the absence of radios or night-vision goggles.  Athenian losses are in the thousands, and morale is shattered.

(7.47-49) Having gambled and lost, Demosthenes votes to go home or at least move camp, but Nicias, the general on the scene whom he had criticized, refuses and prevails in council.

(7.72) After a devastating naval defeat, Demosthenes recognizes that the Athenians’ best way out is still by sea, but the demoralized soldiers won’t listen to him. They choose, fatally, to make their way overland to another part of the island.

(7.81) Marching “somewhat slowly and in disorder,” his division is surrounded by the Syracusans. According to Plutarch, Demosthenes attempts suicide.  Soon the rest of the Athenian army will also be captured.

(7.86) In captivity, Demosthenes is “butchered.”

As I struggled to draw conclusions from this extraordinary tale, I realized that I needed help, and I wondered if anyone had written a book about Demosthenes.  The New York Public Library was kind enough to fetch from its offsite storage a 1993 monograph [1] by Joseph Roisman.  It is a work of marvelous scholarship, free from pedantry and full of carefully-reasoned judgments.  Roisman notes that Demosthenes seems to have been always attracted to surprise tactics without realizing how heavily such tactics depend on good intelligence.

Moreover, the surprise attack works best on a small scale.  On a large scale, the friction of big organizations is wont to spoil the surprise or to impede the necessary coordination, and operational security is also harder to maintain when large numbers of people are involved. This was especially true in the ancient world with its limited technologies of communication.

At Olpae and Idomene, Roisman argues, Demosthenes received excellent intelligence from his local allies, and his goals were realistic.  I would note also that he showed prudence in letting the Peloponnesians get away: he was limiting himself to defeating the Ambraciots.  At Sphacteria, Roisman says, “He was successful because he had adequate intelligence, time to plan, and some luck; and he used surprise tactics on a careful and limited basis.”

In the Aetolian campaign, by contrast, Demosthenes was led on by an ambitious goal (a march through hostile Boeotia) for which his resources were inadequate. He had only a superficial plan, and when some of its key conditions were violated, he kept going with it anyway, convinced that he could take the enemy by surprise and that this would ensure victory. Worst of all, he had no good local intelligence. Where other scholars see the Aetolian defeat as “his education in the art of warfare,” Roisman sees it as “a presage of future disasters.”

Roisman notes in the general “an inclination to embrace ambitious goals combined with a willingness to give up when the campaigns failed to produce their projected results immediately.”  You can see this in the backing down from Megara as well as his eagerness to stake everything on a single roll of the dice at Epipolae: a tendency, in Roisman’s words, “to approach military problems in terms of immediate and decisive success or failure.”  I will not spell out the obvious lessons; Parts II and III of Demosthenes’ career do that quite well.

The nuanced intuition in Roisman’s analysis makes me wonder whether this alumnus of Tel Aviv University may have gained a certain Fingerspitzengefühl from a stint in the IDF.  He has done other work on ancient military history, with a particular focus on Alexander the Great. I look forward to exploring that oeuvre; in the meanwhile, if you can get your hands on it, I recommend his Demosthenes monograph very highly.

[1] Roisman, Joseph. The General Demosthenes and His Use of Military Surprise. HISTORIA Einzelschriften 78, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 1993

Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: “What a Man Can Do”: The Melian Dialogue and Morality Reality in War

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

[by Pauline Kaurin]

The Dean of contemporary Just War Theory, Michael Walzer begins his classic Just and Unjust Wars with a discussion of the Melian Dialogue. (pg 5ff) He is using this discussion to set up the claim that that Realists are wrong and that we, in fact, experience and discourse war in moral terms; these moral terms track an objective reality.  This is one traditional way to read the Melian Dialogue – as a contrast between the Realist position (the Athenians) and the Just War position (the Melians).   In the dialogue the Athenians seem to be arguing from a position of power, supposedly from the class fear, interest and honor paradigm in defense of their Empire. But this seems odd! The Athenians are making a Realist argument from Empire, with the Melians being seen as appealing to ideas of justice and fairness?

Another common reading is that the Melians (with their backs against the wall) have no option to appeal to morality: the strong abandon and ignore morality because they can and the weak appeal to morality because they cannot compete. This film clip from the popular film, Pirates of the Caribbean seems to have Captain Jack Sparrow espousing such a view.

However, I don’t think either of these is quite right. If we look more closely we see that this dialogue departs the “speech-ifying”model in the rest of the text. The speeches are long monologues that are uninterrupted, followed by the other side responding with a long uninterrupted speech. Here we have something much more like a Platonic dialogue, with back and forth questioning.  After the Athenians frame the discussion in terms of the survival of the Melians (and rule out discussion of any other topic, 5.87 ), the Melians take on the role of Socratic questioner, with the Athenians cast into the role of defending their position while occasionally rebutting Melian points. The Athenians try to demonstrate the Melian view as irrational and not considering the ramifications of their position, at the same time as defending their Empire interests.

What is interesting here is that relative to the Platonic model of dialogue, the Melians are the ones that are in control, in the position of power , with the Athenians being forced to defend their actions and being challenged on the grounds of what is rational. The Athenians seem to be invoking the obligation (a moral term, oops!) of the Melians to preserve themselves asking why the Melians do not surrender? From the Athenian point of view, the Melian faith in the good favor of the Gods and help from the Spartans is irrational; from the Melian point of view, Athens unfairly have limited the discussion to questions of expediency only.  In short, the Athenians are arguing for Empire and the Melians for their survival.

Given the discussion and the attendant destruction of the Melians when they refuse to give into the Athenians, how are we to read the dialogue? As the hopeless moral appeal in the face of a imperial power using Realist logic?  Are the Melians just foolish for not taking the chance at cutting a deal and living to fight another day?  Of course, we do not know what their fate would have been had they surrendered – the Athenians might have destroyed them anyway as deterrence or to ensure that they did not rebel at some later point in time.  Are we supposed to focus on how the discussion is framed by the Athenians as a choice between war and servitude? Is this dialogue about the power dynamic in international relations, that it is framed in terms of war, since it is clearly not a dialogue between equals? And does how the discussion is framed or the process of dialogue even matter since it does not impact or change the outcome?

But if the Realist line of thinking above holds, there is a much more important question: Why are the Athenians even having to defend and justify their actions? If the classical Realist view holds, the conversation need not even take place and is completely pointless! Which naturally is my point: the rhetorical move whereby the Melian’s adopt the role of questioner and the Athenians as respondents is in fact an ethical move. It moves what is happening firmly into the domain of the war as moral discourse. Returning to the Jack Sparrow example, we can see “What a Man Can Do, and What a Man Can’t Do” in a different light: even the Powerful must, in fact, defend their actions because there are limits on what they can do. (Sparrow needs help bringing the ship into port.) The Melian Dialogue makes the Athenians look morally bad and that, in my view, is the point; they lose the moral argument, even if they destroy the Melians in war.

War is a moral discourse. You can control and narrow the terms of the discussion, you can do what you want in terms of physical action and bending the adversary to your will, but a justification is still required.  The fact that the Melians are able, even in limited terms, to exact a justification from Athens is a moral act. The Athenians won the battle, but in a certain way the Melians won the war. A contemplative point from Master Sun Tzu, “Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.” (Nine Grounds)

Recommended Reading

Monday, November 14th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Time for a really must-read pair of posts about the election and the reaction to the election.

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage examines the reasons, causes, culprits and cure for what I would characterize as the post-election epistemic collapse of the American establishment in DC and the media and among activist liberals nation-wide.

They can also be read very much with the ideas of John Boyd’s OODA Loop foremost in mind. Another thing to recall would be the shocking NYT piece based on interviews with Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser and off-the-record narrative weaver. In retrospect, it now looks much less shocking.

The Time Has Come to Give Up the Lie 

….The lies went like this. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a wonderful and visionary person. She is a representative for women across the world, an extraordinarily talented politician, and a true example of what makes America great. Clinton’s words are inspiring. Her political judgement is beyond reproach—in fact, given current national conditions, her political instincts are ideal. She is a good listener. She is in touch with the concerns of the nation and its ordinary people. She is a woman of the future. History is on her side.

This lie both enabled and was enabled by others: America’s economy is only getting better; because of her predecessor’s efforts, the country’s future is bright. Americans look forward to that future. Only those deceived by Fox News and the “Alt-right” could believe otherwise. In fact, if you didn’t realize it yet, the few thousand twitterers known as the ‘Alt-right’ are a critical part of the enemy coalition; when normal Americans hear about this new political force, they will care about it, remember it, and feel threatened by it. Demographics is destiny. Hispanic voters will be an electoral force to be reckoned with. Gender will be a deciding factor in this election. The concerns of working class whites do not deserve to be addressed; really, it’s an open question whether that demographic even needs to be respected. Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders were out of touch. The media isn’t actually filled with the lap dogs of the DNC. The DNC isn’t actually filled with the lap-dogs of the Clinton campaign. Clinton’s victory is so sure that she should be spending her time in Arizona and Georgia, not in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Democratic Party is in the best shape it has ever been in. Sharing John Oliver videos makes a difference.

It was all a lie.

Time for some truths:

And Greer’s follow up Winning the Popular Vote While Losing Grip on Reality

There has been a bit of push back to my last post. A lot of it revolves around this fact: Donald Trump did not win the popular vote. Others point out that if the vote had shifted 1-2% in favor of Clinton, Trump’s stunning electoral sweep would never have happened.

That’s all true. It is also irrelevant.

When I say that large parts of the press and the Democratic establishment have lost grip on reality, I am not saying they are less in touch with ‘the popular will’ than team Trump was. Were you to line up the entire country and rank them by their preference for Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton, the median individual (though repulsed by both candidates) would probably lean towards the latter. That is undoubtedly true for the median voter.

It is also utterly irrelevant.

The American presidency is not decided by a popular vote. It has never been decided by a popular vote. The win must come in the electoral college. Hillary Clinton knew this. Her goal was always to win the electoral college. She organized a gargantuan super-PAC network, spent a billion dollars, hired thousands of staffers, mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers, launched one of the biggest get-out-the vote campaigns in this country’s history, and cajoled or inspired thousands of newspapers and media-hands to endorse her in order to win the electoral college. The battle she chose to fight was always about winning a certain alignment of electoral votes.

The problem is not that Clinton lost this battle. The problem is that no one had any idea that the loss was coming. Or that the loss was possible. Or even where the battle would be fought. Clinton, her team, the vast media apparatus that had grown up around it—all were soaking in the same cesspool of self-deceit. The election has shown them all for what they are: an insular network of operators and opinion-makers charmed by their own cleverness and enthralled with their own moral certitude, more comfortable exchanging clever quips and flattering platitudes than confronting the world outside of their carefully constructed echo-chamber.

To put it another way: in this election, narrative building trumped strategy making. Narrative building trumped reporting. It trumped honest assessments of the facts. It trumped everything except Trump himself.

It needs to stop.

Read the rest here.

Rebooting the Thucydides Roundtable

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Like all of you, we (except Lynn Rees) were all caught off-guard by the unanticipated and dramatic results of the presidential election this week. It was obvious that most of the bandwidth on social media was consumed with the implications of the election of Mr. Trump and the inter- and intra -partisan rancor that has followed in its wake. It was unlikely that new posts at the Thucydides Roundtable were going to be able to compete for attention with that kind of event.

Now however with the realization of a very different administration coming to power in Washington next January sinking in, the appetite for lessons from Thucydides may suddenly increase 🙂  Therefore, we are rebooting the Roundtable schedule – Book Four posts will begin this Monday with the schedule consequently adjusted thereafter.

In the meantime, if you have not read any of our series or missed a few contributions, you can get started right here.

Wishing Charles Cameron Well

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for charles cameron

Some of the regular readers may have noticed an absence lately at zenpundit.com. I regret to report that our genial managing editor,  Charles Cameron, suffered a heart attack over the weekend and required open heart surgery yesterday. Fortunately, Charles has gotten through the operation and is now recovering in a cardiac ICU where he is expected to spend some time.

While you would not know it from his prolific output of thought-provoking posts, imaginative double-quotes and learned musings on the intersections of theology, culture, politics and fiction, this latest episode is one of a number of serious medical ailments Charles has been contending with for a number of years. All of this has taken a severe toll on his energy, mobility and finances while Charles now faces the prospect of an extended convalescence and significant medical bills.

If you have enjoyed and respected Charles’ work here – and he deserves much of the credit for keeping zenpundit.com going as an active blog when many other strat-mil-FP blogs have gone by the wayside; I’m serious, without Charles Cameron I probably would have shuttered the place – there is an opportunity to show some appreciation and wish Charles a speedy recovery. It would, I’m sure, raise his spirits

If you would like to send Charles Cameron a get-well card or note, you can mail it to:

Charles Cameron c/o Merino
8323 Berman Walk Way
Citrus Heights, CA. 95610

If you would like to make a donation to help Charles off-set his medical expenses in this difficult time, his gofundme account has been reactivated and is accepting donations:


Sending you all the best thoughts Charles. Get well my friend!

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