The Thucydides Roundtable

October 13th, 2016


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

Book I:

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

Book II:

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

Book III:

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

Book IV:

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

Book V:

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

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin

Book VII:

Starts December 5, 2016…

Book VIII:

Starts December 12, 2016

Concluding Analysis:

Starts December 19, 2016


A survival kit for all time

Other Sources:

A survival kit for some time

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: The Diva and the General: Who Wins?

December 2nd, 2016

[by Pauline Kaurin]

One of the most striking conversations or interchanges in Book 6 is between Alcibiades and Nicias. Alcibiades is arguing in favor of the expedition to invade Sicily, largely on this basis of his excellence and skills, as well as youthful energy, in addition to using his political skills to build a coalition against Sparta (6.16-7). He argues that the adversary is politically weak, will be easily divided and that the Spartan’s will be unable to harm the Athenians while they are on this expedition. Finally, he appeals to the desire to maintain and expand empire and that this expedition promises large benefits with very few risks.

Meanwhile Nicias is urging caution, pointing out the possible dangers, and refuting the idea that Sicily is weak and will put up very little resistance. He also points out that distance will make it difficult to keep Sicily subdues and also goes through the various difficulties that Athens has been through (the plague) and that they ought not be swayed by youthful eagerness that may not be based in fact and experience (6.11-12). He argues that they will need to be well provisioned, will require overwhelming force to succeed in this very dangerous mission.

One classical way to read this is as the politician who wants war, assumes it will be easy and is really in it for his own glory, as opposed to the seasoned warrior who sees the difficulties and dangers of warfare and views it as a last resort. This is certainly how my students viewed it and spent time discussing historical and contemporary parallels. One student even compared Alcibiades to Donald Trump! (An interesting discussion on that ensued…but I digress.)

But as a philosopher, I see these two characters through the lens of the Platonic dialogues in which they both appear. For Alcibiades, who appears at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a discussion on the nature of love and beauty, I see a Diva. Allow me to explain. Alcibiades enters the conversation at the very end of the dialogue and enters highly drunk, recounting his attempts to seduce Socrates. “Good evening gentlemen, I’m plastered,” (212E). As the master politician with a very high view of his abilities, we are treated to a recounting of the Machiavellian machinations he goes through in this process, along with Socrates’ rejection and disinterest in anything other than philosophical discussions. We also get a picture of both of them at war, in the retreat from Delium (221A), which reinforces this picture of Socrates as unconcerned with material privations, brave and generally obsessed with philosophy. Alcibiades professes his ire since he clearly thinks (in keeping with the practice of pederasty) that Socrates could benefit his career and ambitions and that Alcibiades represents a good catch! How could Socrates not find him attractive? Inconceivable.

Now, of course, this is all presented as a comedic end to the dialogue and Plato clearly has Alcibiades playing the fool’s part—even to the point of raising questions about whether he is really drunk or just being overly dramatic.

Nicias, on the other hand, who appears in the Laches—a discussion of courage and how to teach young men this virtue—is the very sober, sympathetic interlocutor with Socrates and Laches. Its clear from the dialogue that Nicias has tangled with Socrates before, knows the routine and professes to enjoy the intellectual conversation. In the course of the discussion he is charitable and genuinely tries to engage, while Laches gets (as most of Socrates interlocutors do) frustrated and cranky with Nicias. Of all the people who ought to be defensive about having trouble defining courage, it ought to be the good general.

What are we to make of all this? I would argue that looking at these figures through Plato only deepens my students assessments.  Nicias is the thoughtful, non-ego driven team player who is thoughtful and willing to consider a wide range of things. Alcibiades is entirely ego driven, sure he is right and cannot imagine how he can possibly be wrong or how anyone would disagree with him or resist his course of action. But who wins here? In the short term, Alcibiades gets his way; in the long term Nicias is right. So we ought to think about the reasons that we listen to the Diva Politicians, and not the Sober, Experienced Generals. Perhaps the Diva is the picture we want to believe and portray, and the General is the reality that we would rather not see or face.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Men of Honor, Men of Interest

December 1st, 2016

[By T. Greer]

The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue”, it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitik. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’ History. It was one of the opening chapters in the”standard-readings-in-IR-theory” primer assigned in my very first political science class. Its stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable, it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.

…Thus as far as the Gods are concerned, we have no fear…

A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V, Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable”. (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.

The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in Thucydides’ fifth book, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.

Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.

Read the rest of this entry »

Roundtable Addendum II: Fellow Thucydideans

December 1st, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for two thucydides

A couple of noteworthy posts.

First, commenter John Kranz of Three Sources.com has a string of posts up on The Peloponnesian War that you should investigate. A sample:

….Indeed it so happened that directly after the battle of Amphipolis and the retreat of Ramphias from Thessaly, both sides ceased to prosecute the war and turned their attention to peace. Athens had suffered severely at Delium, and again shortly afterwards at Amphipolis, and had no longer that confidence in her strength which had made her before refuse to accept the offer of peace, in the belief of ultimate victory which her success at the moment had inspired; [5.14]

The “Ten Years War” is complete. J. E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath [Review Corner] covers only this period. And Thucydides himself spends a small section defending his decision to consider the entire “three times nine years” period a single conflict, getting a dig in at the superstitious of his time:

So that the first ten years’ war, the treacherous armistice that followed it, and the subsequent war will, calculating by the seasons, be found to make up the number of years which I have mentioned, with the difference of a few days, and to provide an instance of faith in oracles being for once justified by the event. [5.26]

But if the play-by-play, battle-by-battle coverage takes a small break in Book Five, there’s some time for extended commentary (and highlights from other conflicts).

I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them. It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs more closely. [6] I will accordingly now relate the differences that arose after the ten years’ war, the breach of the treaty, and the hostilities that followed. [5.26]

Sparta and Athens indeed complete a truce, essentially establishing a “status quo ante” distribution of territory with a few small exceptions. But Hellas does not become Hundred Acre Wood, and they do not spend these years in idyllic pastoral repose. Both combatants drag their heels at completing requirements of the treaty. “Oh, we’ll give them the hostages from Pylos someday…”

Secondly, over with our friends at The Bridge, a fine post by Mark Gilchrist Why Thucydides Still Matters:

….Thucydides intended his work to be “a possession for all time,” and through reading The Peloponnesian War we come to realise the complexities of modern life have not rendered everything experienced by past generations irrelevant to the problems of today.[1] In fact, as he intended, Thucydides provides a sound basis from which to discover how best to approach the complex problems facing contemporary strategists through allowing us to better understand war’s continuities and discontinuities.

Thucydides charts the impact of war on the character of the states involved. He uses Athens’ transformation as a cautionary tale about what war will do to a state unprepared for its influence and of the cost of applying power unwisely or unjustly in the pursuit of a political objective. His writing is grounded in the understanding that war’s nature is inextricably linked to human nature, which in turn shapes the strategic and military culture that manifest in war’s character and the political objectives for which it is fought. Through a narrative approach, his work serves as a warning about the moral decline of society over the course of protracted war. In doing so he demonstrates several points relevant for all wars, including today’s: War’s nature is unchanging and is based on the contest for power. “Fear, honour, and interest” are human characteristics immutable through time and have generally been the cause of wars throughout history.[2] These characteristics shape strategic and military culture and in turn the character of a given war. And the creation of a political objective based on a state’s vital interests is imperative in the formulation of a winning strategy. 

That’s it.


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

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.


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.

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