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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: THE BROKEN REED

[Jim Lacey]

As this roundtable moves forward I may not say as much as many, but I am going to try and focus on ideas or concepts that are rarely hear discussed.

As my first item I would like everyone to think a bit about Corcyra.

As most of you know, Thucydides gives many reasons for the Peloponnesian War before boiling them all down to Spartan fear of Athens’ growing power.  But, if one requires a proximate cause for the conflict it was Athens joining Corcyra in its quarrel with Corinth.

But why did Athens care about the fate of Corcyra?  Thucydides answers:

For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth… At the same time the island seemed to be conveniently on the coasting path to Sicily. (1.44)

The Corcyraeans themselves had made this argument when they begged Athens for aid:

Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in Hellas, Athens, Corinth and Corcyra, and that if you allow two of these three to become one, and Corinth to secure for herself, you will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and the Peloponnesus.  But if you receive us, you will have our ships to reinforce you in the struggle.  (1.36)

Indeed!  This is truly a tremendous strategic incentive.

By allying with Corcyra, Athens could add 120 ships to her fleet.  This addition, coupled with Corcyra’s strategic position along the shipping lanes between Greece and Sicily-Italy, meant the Delian League would dominate the western seas, as it did the Aegean.  Corinth, the Peloponnesus’s great trading power, could be easily blockaded, Sparta and its allies would be cut off from Sicily’s and Italy’s wheat, and Corcyra could be counted on to joint Athens in raids along the enemy coast.

But war, as Thucydides informs us, is an “affair of chances.”  Chances from which neither side is exempt, and who’s events are “risked in the dark.” (1.78).

But, Athens was so sure of Corcyra’s power that they sent a mere 10 ships (later reinforced by 20 more), out of over 300 that could easily have been outfitted.  It is worth noting that with the exception of the Syracuse expedition, this was a typical Athenian failure – sending a boy-sized force for a man-sized job (See the Battle of Mantinea in Book 5).  In this case, they sent a fleet large enough to greatly anger the Peloponnesians, but too puny to attain any strategic effect.

In the event, Athens’ strategic rationale for joining themselves to Corcyra was swept away in the conflict’s first engagement (1.49-52).  In just one day’s battle Corcyra lost almost 70 ships – better than half the fleet. (1.54).  Even if they had the wealth to replace the lost ships, they could never replace the thousands of skilled sailors drowned, struck down, or captured that day.  They would have found themselves in a similar situation to that of the Ottomans after the Battle of Lepanto, where the lost ships were replaced in a single year, but the crippling loss of 50,000 professional seamen was never made good.

But Corcyra never even replaced the ships.  Instead the city soon fell into a period of instability, anarchy, and eventually, civil war (Book 3).  In a single and mostly forgotten battle (Sybota) Athens saw its strongest ally removed from the board.  An ally, that if it had maintained its power and internal stability, would have greatly eased the burden of attacking Sicily, or possibly even have made that expedition unnecessary.

Instead, Athens, at the very onset of the struggle, had bonded itself to a “broken reed” whose only later contribution to the war-effort was to have their city act as an assembly point for the Syracuse expedition (6.42).  Even then, Corcyra’s only material contribution to the expedition were a few sailors who were likely “compelled” to join the Athenian fleet.  (7.26).

DISCUSS: Allying with Corcyra was Athens first strategic mistake of the war… one that it never recovered from.

8 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: THE BROKEN REED”

  1. Scott Says:

    Or, perhaps with this ally, Athens would never have attacked Syracuse.

    In any case, the real mistake was not allying with Corcyra, but rather only sending 10 ships.

  2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    I agree with Scott.
    A corollary today in conventional fighting is anything worth killing is worth killing twice. In other words, use the force necessary to accomplish the mission. Such a move should not generally be considered an economy-of-force operation.

  3. zen Says:

    You have raised the excellent point of Athens having the incentive to ally with Corcyra to keep their ships out of Corinthian hands which would upset the emerging balance of power between the Delian League/Athenian empire and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League. The Corcyrans indeed proved to be poor allies, a paper tiger and the Athenians can be faulted perhaps for first (as you pointed out) not intervening with overwhelming force or leaving Corcyra to it’s fate. Effectively the latter would be two great powers Athens and Sparta by proxy, agreeing to the elimination of a lesser but significant power to Athens disadvantage.
    The Athenians badly misread the Corinthians in terms of interest, influence with Sparta and naval prowess. They stumbled here.

  4. nati Says:

    They did not want to be the one that start the war and violates the peace agreement.
    The pact with Corcyrea was a defensive one and they did not expect to fight, at least they hopped not.

  5. T. Greer Says:

    “nati” is on the mark.

    Your quotation of Thucydides’ explanation for why the Athenians sent their fleet is truncated. Here is the full thing:


    “It was to be a defensive, not an offensive alliance. It did not involve a breach of the treaty with Peloponnese: Athens could not be required to join Corcyra in any attack upon Corinth. But each of the contracting parties had a right to the other’s assistance against invasion, whether of his own territory or that of an ally. For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian war was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth; though if they could let them weaken each other by mutual conflict, it would be no bad preparation for the struggle which Athens might one day have to wage with Corinth and the other naval powers. ”

    I have bolded what I feel is the critical part–from the beginning the Athenians hoped that Corcyrea’s fleets would be mauled. The Corcyreans had already one upset, incredible victory against the Corinthians. Had the winning flank not been to quick to chase its defeated Corinithian quarry this time around they would have been victorious here as well. The Athenians did not think the Corinthians were going to win. Their fleet of ten ships was not intended to defeat the Corinthians, but to deter them. It was a diplomatic chip. If the Corinthians attacked the Athenian ships that would be a general war. Were the Corinthians willing to risk that? The Athenians bet they would not be.

    This then was the probable Athenian calculation:

    If we give token defense to Corcyrea, then the Corinthians may back down, costing them lost money and prestige, and gaining us an ally with 100 ships.

    If they don’t back down the two fleets will have at each other, wreaking the power of both, leaving Athens sole master of the sea.

    If the Corinthians win, they will not likely win decisively, and at that point our fleet can prevent them from landing and taking Corcyrea itself, for they won’t have much left to fight with after a battle of that size.

    The Athenians overestimated the Corcyreans, probably because of their earlier victory. They also underestimated how hard it would be to stay out the battle itself–Thucydides’ narrative makes it clear that they were drawn in almost accidentally. But their big miscalculation was diplomatic. Corinth did not fear a general war enough to deter them from staying the course with Corcyrea. Her allies might have–notice how few they were in comparison to the last naval clash with Corcyrea–but she did not.

  6. nati Says:

    I beleive their calculation was as follow:
    Having Corcyrea as an ally was a very good thing and it cost them nothing, since it was the Corcyrean initiative. Their options were to accept or not and they decided to accept, wich was a right decision.
    The ships they sent because that was the minimum they needed to do to secure the pact, and only for that reason.
    The war did not begin yet and the Athenians were not thinking strategially as in the middle of a war. It was just preparations and securing better possitions, if possible.
    Even losing the battle it was better for Athens to have Corcyrea as an ally than not, and of course they expected them to be a better one.
    Also, I beleive they did not want to be accuse of being the one starting the war. Diplomacy being an important thing dealing between the cities and it would be a disadvantage there.

  7. A. E. Clark Says:

    Athenian aims:

    1) Prevent the Corinthians from acquiring the Corcyrean fleet.

    2) Avoid shattering the precarious peace with the Peloponnesians.

    There is some tension (though not a full contradiction) between these two aims, and I think this tension explains the Athenian mistake of committing insufficient resources. I do not think they made this mistake from fecklessness or stinginess. The Athenians may have felt that a strong demonstration of force, practically compelling the Corinthians to back down, would look to Sparta like a high-handed action that required retaliation, and was therefore incompatible with Aim #2.

    So to achieve Aim #1 they chose a more subtle kind of deterrence, which might today be called a tripwire, but so concerned were they with Aim #2 that they made it a stand-offish tripwire, which is a contradiction in terms. When the US stationed troops on the Korean DMZ, it ensured that to invade the South the North would have to take responsibility for killing Americans. That is a proper tripwire. But by having their small squadron wait to the side, ordered to intervene only if the Corcyreans should seem to be losing, the Athenians allowed the responsibility for the Corinthian-Athenian clash to fall on themselves, thus losing a lot of deterrent value.

    I think all the commenters here have made excellent points and the original post is convincing and important. I am merely trying to call attention to what I think is a significant detail, that the attempt to reconcile two different strategic aims led the Athenians to a tactical compromise that vitiated their deterrence.

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    To underscore the importance of ships without men Thucydides records in 1.142[8]: It must be kept in mind that seamanship, just like anything else, is a matter requiring skill, and will not admit of being taken up occasionally as an occupation for times of leisure, on the contrary, it is so exacting as to leave leisure for nothing else.”
    All these many years later this remains true for navies. Casually sacrificing those ships and men cost the Athenians more than they could/did anticipate. There is a lesson here for the USN.

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