If a specter haunts the chancellories of America, it isn’t communism and it isn’t Karl Marx. It’s Thucydides, the chronicler of the 30 year Peloponnesian War between ancient Sparta and Athens that led to the comprehensive defeat of the world’s first great democratic power. The assumptions most Americans bring to the study of foreign policy — that there are win-win solutions for most problems, that democracy makes for a more peaceful world, that international law can prevail and that power need not be the final arbiter in human affairs — strike Thucydides as pious, nonsensical claptrap.
Unfortunately, he was a very smart man, and much of what he wrote makes sense.
Democracies are as likely to fight as oligarchies and perhaps more so, says Thucydides. The mob loves glory as much any tyrant, and tyrants and oligarchies will sometimes refrain from foreign adventures because they want to keep the army at home. Worse, democracies are not only likely to go to war, once at war they are likely to fight more brutally and more ineffectually than their enemies. Ruled by unscrupulous and incompetent demagogues with no real understanding of the world, democracies are slaves to the passing fads of the moment. Their moods swing from arrogance to despair and they are unable to stick to a coherent long term strategy.
The American love of commerce and the faith that growth in trade will limit war cuts no ice with this hard headed Greek. Trade breeds empire and war, not prosperity and peace, Thucydides finds.
Despite or perhaps because he despises everything most Americans believe, Thucydides has been studied by every generation of thoughtful Americans from the founding fathers to the present day. That is as it should be; Americans must not be afraid to subject their most cherished ideas to the toughest intellectual case against them that can be made. During the Cold War, American strategists read Thucydides precisely because they feared that the Cold War was a rematch: liberal, freethinking and democratic America, a commercial and maritime power, was fighting the dour, oligarchical Soviet Union. Would Spartan discipline and iron control take advantage of Athenian weakness?
Statue of Thucydides at the Austrian Parliament (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sparta may have lost round two, but Americans still need Thucydides. More than 2,400 years after its end, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta still fascinates students of great power politics; the conflict between the open, democratic, maritime, commercial and imperial Athens and dour and conservative Sparta still shocks us with its inexorable descent into brutality. Thucydides, a failed Athenian general whose extraordinary history of the conflict established a gold standard for all subsequent historical scholarship in the west, was a cool headed analyst of the horrors that flow when fear meets hope, and his grim discussion of the forces that drive the interaction of states remains central to contemporary reflections on international life.
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the reader of Thucydides soon comes to feel that the fear of ones neighbor is the beginning of politics. The world of ancient Greece in Thucydides’ telling was a place of terror. Tiny cities across Greece huddle behind their walls, fearful of their jealous neighbors, their embittered slaves, the barbarian kingdoms rising to the north and the west and the Great King lurking just over the horizon.
We like to think our own time is the era of fear. Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction could wipe out life on earth.
Greek fear was more intimate, more personal. We worry about the end of the world. The Greeks worried about seeing their city burned, the men killed, the women and children forced into slavery. Their culture, their identity, their dignity, their rights: gone with the wind. Our fear seems detached from daily life; theirs was part of it. We watch our enemies hurl threats on TV; they watched besieging armies from their city walls.
Sparta and Athens were the two great city states of ancient Greece. They had combined to defeat the mighty Persian Empire by land and by sea; now they face one another, envious, jealous, afraid.
Sparta sees Athens as a rising and restless power, destabilizing, thrusting, growing more dangerous from one year to the next. The Athenians led the naval league against the Persians that liberated Greek cities on the coast of Asia, but then converted its alliance into an empire that threatened Sparta’s primacy of honor and power in the Greek world. Worse, Athenian power was based on two concepts that endangered Sparta’s fragile security: commerce and democracy.
As a sea power, Athens subsisted by trade and by building a money economy. Greece at this time was becoming more affluent and luxury-loving. Power in many places was passing from ancient aristocratic and royal families to merchants. Military power was shifting from land armies, where Sparta reigned supreme, to ships. Naval powers tend to be commercial and democratic. Athenian merchants provide ships; ordinary citizens provide the muscle power that moves them across the seas.
As to democracy, the Athenians believe that no other form of government makes sense. All citizens have a stake in the decisions the city makes. In cities like Sparta that depend on land forces, only those who can afford heavy armor and afford the expense of regular military training can serve the state most effectively in war, while ancient families with their large estates train the leaders and the strategists who can lead the nation. But in Athens, whose power depends on the sea, anyone who can row makes a vital contribution to the city’s strength. And in a city that depends on trade, those who can contribute the most in taxes and gifts to the city are not necessarily the old landed families — Athens’ soil is notoriously poor — they are the merchants and traders who grow rich by their wits.
And if Athens promotes democracy among its allies, why should Sparta complain? The network of Athenian alliances across the Aegean protects all Greece from Persia. Bringing democracy to its allies is a way of building popular support for Athenian power; aristocrats and oligarchs might dream of past glories, while democracies want to take advantages of the trading opportunities that Athens provides. What business is it of Sparta’s how Athens manages its affairs? Sparta claims to support the liberties of the Greeks; Athens is a Greek city, one of the most ancient, the most cultured and the most prestigious. Why should Sparta try to control Athenian political and imperial policy in the name of freedom? If Sparta must free somebody, why not the miserable Helots it oppresses so viciously?
This is not how the Spartans, or the Lacedaimonians as they are often called, see things. Sparta is an old fashioned power. Its laws and institutions are famously old and unchanging. Sparta longs for the old days in Greece, when tiny city states were sprinkled across the landscape, with no barbarian kings or thrusting commercial democracies threaten to upset the ancient ways. In the past, the Spartans banned money from their city in an effort to keep it pure. That didn’t work, but Sparta is feeling left behind and endangered by growing Athenian power. Athens has built something outrageous and new in the world of Greek city states: an empire.
Look back, the Spartans say, to the time of Homer. Even then, the Greeks lived in small, independent states — each ruled by a king of pure royal or even divine blood. They combined against a common foe — as the Greeks went to war against Troy — but after the war each city respected the independence of the rest. Athens has introduced something monstrous and dangerous: one city now seeks to master the others. Once it was barbarians who sought to conquer the Greeks; now Greeks themselves have become the enemy of Greek freedom.
The Spartans of course are sitting on a volcano. Centuries ago their ancestors subjugated the native tribes as the original Spartans migrated down from the north. By the time of Thucydides, the Helots vastly outnumbered the Spartans — perhaps by ten to one or more. Like West Indian and South Carolina planters whose sleep was haunted by dreams of slave risings, Spartans shaped their entire lives and their institutions around the need to prevent Helot revolts. Some authors speak of annual legal massacres to keep Helot numbers down; in a time when slavery was common, Spartan brutality against and fear of their Helots was noted by one Greek writer after another.
Any spark could set off the dreaded Helot revolt. If the Spartan army stays too far from home too long; if it suffers a devastating defeat; if an enemy should appear and offer Helots their freedom; if the Spartans should lose their discipline and their courage; then Sparta risks utter destruction in a war of revenge. The Spartans are the captives of their slaves; as Thomas Jefferson expressed the slave owner’s dilemma, the Spartans have the wolf by the ears; they cannot safely hold him or let him go.
Sparta cannot afford change. Nothing is safe; nothing can be taken for granted. Sparta must be supreme, or its external enemies can ally with the enemy at home. The growing power of Athens, the revolutionary ideas it scatters abroad, the danger that local allies like Corinth will have to come to terms with Athenian power, or that local enemies like Argos will succeed in drawing Athens into their quarrels with Sparta is too great to be endured.
But Athens also has fears. Sparta sees only its Helots; Athens sees the world. Things are changing: trade is increasing, technology is on the march. New powers are rising, much greater than the tiny city states Greece knew in the past; the individual Greek city state can no longer stand alone. It is not just that the Great King of the Persian superpower has never given up his dreams of conquest, or that his satraps continue to probe for weakness among the Greeks of Asia. Athens’ food depends on trade with barbarian kingdoms beyond the Hellespont and past the Dardanelles. And the barbarians, long formidable for their numbers and their wild courage, show signs of organizing themselves into enormous and powerful states. To the north, Macedonia is stirring; to the far west Carthage is building a vast empire. The Mediterranean world is becoming an arena for great power competition; Athens must rise to the test or it will go to the wall.
The old Greek ways don’t work anymore. If Athens respected the independence of its Aegean allies, Greece would be helpless before Persia’s might. Athens must somehow find the revenue to maintain a navy that can police the Aegean, keep the satraps of the Great King quiet, and ensure the safe arrival of the grain ships from Scythia far to the north. No Greek city can accomplish these things on its own; if the Greeks are to resist barbarian kings they must unite.
None of this makes sense in Sparta. Things don’t change quickly in that remote corner of the Peloponnese. The Helots toil, the soldiers train, the black bean soup is made in the traditional way. The best rule, the rest serve, and all are trained to seek the honor and glory of the state. Athenian ideas, Athenian commerce and Athenian power all threaten the survival of the Spartan way, and any weakening of Spartan institutions or of Spartan discipline and willpower and the seething Helots will rise and overthrow the hated city and massacre its inhabitants.
Sparta cannot allow Athens to continue on its course; Athens cannot accept Sparta’s right to veto the growth and the policies necessary for Athens’ own survival.
Many in both cities understand the need for peace between them. Pericles, the leading citizen of Athens, knows that a long and bitter war between them would only bring comfort to their enemies. He wants peace with Sparta — if Sparta will only give Athens the free hand it needs to build the power that can keep Greece free. Leading Spartans, too, know that for a city that wants to freeze time, war is a dangerous course. Defeat abroad for Sparta — or even lengthy campaigns — can lead to disaster at home; many Spartans want to keep the armies safe, policing the Helots.
Bust of Pericles (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Over and over the Athenians and Spartans look for some formula, some way to make and keep the peace. They fail, and war flames up anew.
In the end, both sides fail. The Spartans win the war, but they cannot freeze time. A war that Sparta hoped would liberate the Greeks draws the superpower deeper into Greek affairs. Ultimately, the failure of the Greeks to unite — as perhaps the Athenians would have warned — allowed Philip of Macedon to gobble them up one by one.
Thucydides’ history, incomplete, lacking in a modern understanding of either economics or the dynamics of social conflict, influenced (some say) by over-reliance on self-promoting sources like Alcibiades, and flawed by a deep anti-democratic bias has remained for almost 2500 years a peerless guide to the harsh logic, the frustration, the disappointments and the brutality of war. Famous set pieces like Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the Melian dialogue, which countless generations of schoolboys have tortuously disentangled from Thucydides’ thorny Greek, are still studied today for insights into the psychology and the dynamics of human conflict. The tactics of the battles he describes are still studied in military academies; international relations theorists generally begin with the Melian Dialogue, alas, as the starting point to describe the international system. Sadly, Thucydides’ grim tale remains an essential part of the mental furniture of anyone who wants to understand the way the world really works today.
The Bard grand strategists and I are reading selections from Thucydides along with Donald Kagan’s Peloponnesian War. This represents a strategic choice of my own. The goal of a course like this one cannot be to have students learn everything they need to know about grand strategy. It must be to give them a taste for it; the true goal of a teacher must be to give your students a lifelong interest in what you teach.
I felt that Kagan’s history, largely and inevitably dependent on Thucydides for much of its interest and detail, gives contemporary readers who lack a background in classical studies (including virtually all undergraduates in the United States, I say to the deep shame of my generation) a more coherent grasp of the events on the war as a whole than Thucydides does — if only because Kagan carries the story through to the end. Thinking back on my own undergraduate days back in Pundit U and thinking through some of the discussions I have with students today, I have come to feel strongly that students do best when they get a clear and coherent narrative frame before they start analyzing too deeply. The human mind needs story, and it needs story comprehensibly and sequentially told.
Kagan provides that kind of framework for students approaching the Peloponnesian War for the first time. By reading large selections of Thucydides, including some of the most stirring and dramatic episodes, students will, I hope, have a good chance of appreciating the greatness of Thucydides’ achievement, and of seeing something of what this book has meant to so many people for so long.
[This entry is cross posted at Stratblog, the forum of the Hudson River School of Grand Strategy, where readers can follow the course Walter Russell Mead is currently teaching at Bard College based on the Yale Grand Strategy curriculum developed by John Gaddis, Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy. To follow the discussion on Stratblog, click here.]