Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Empire and Democracy
Recently, E.C. Gach made a very interesting argument here about the closed belief systems that support empires; one that I think is basically true. Imperialism tends to give rise to, and perhaps needs, fairly rigid ways of thinking; and secondarily a good amount of self-aggrandizing invective about the brutes and barbarians under the empire. It’s nothing if it isn’t triumphalist. The speech he cited by Pericles in Thucydides makes that point: if you’re going to have an empire, you might as well act like it.
However, one of the more interesting arguments suggested within Thucydides, at least to me, is that democracies aren’t able to keep empires at all because they simply can’t act like tyrannies. At some point, one must decide for the culture of democracy or that of empire. In E.C. Gach’s terms, their culture can’t sustain an empire because it can’t maintain, or survive, those closed belief systems.
Certainly, Athens didn’t maintain their empire for very long. Thucydides puts its founding at about 470 BC, after the war with the Persians. As is usually the case with empires, that founding was more about security than greed. By 431, when the war begins, Thucydides tells us the hostility against Athens is fairly widespread, “whether from those who wished to escape from her empire or were absorbed by it.” The empire that one generation won, the next generation lost. Compare the boosterish propaganda of Aeschylus’s Persians (472 BC) with the cynicism about all social orders in Euripides’s Bacchae (405 BC).
Before the war begins, the Athenians are unsure that their empire wasn’t a losing proposition from the start. Their envoys to the Ladedaemon Congress (I,3) actually suggest that their trouble came because they ruled by laws instead of force: this because, when you compel men by force, they think of you as a superior, but when you rule them by laws, they feel cheated by an equal. It’s not hard to imagine someone eventually making this argument about Afghanistan.
Can democracies have empires? The question is raised again in Book III, after Mitylene rebels against Athens and is again conquered. Cleon’s speech, urging that the Mitylenians be dealt with harshly, makes a simple argument: (although, has there ever been a complex and nuanced argument for taking harsher measures?) If Athens has decided to rule, according to Cleon, she must be strict in her principles and deal severely with those who go against them. The penalty for rebellion must be death or every subject nation will rebel. However, Cleon once again poses the possibility that a democracy cannot maintain an empire, susceptible as it to what he calls the three dangers of an empire: pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Just try to imagine a popular democracy without them.
At some point, it seems like the logic (if we can call it that) of empire and militarism take over the Athenians. Thucydides depicts the manic exuberance in the run-up to the Sicilian Expedition, justified partly by alliances but mostly by the idea that an imperial power should keep the machinery of conquest going, even though the strategic advantages of conquering Sicily in the midst of duking it out with the Peloponnesian League were absolutely nil:
“And we cannot know the exact point at which out empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves.”
One starts to have a sinking feeling. Of course, we readers know that the invasion was a complete disaster for Athens, one that they never really recovered from. So why didn’t cooler heads prevail?
In terms of modern equivalents to the Sicilian Expedition, it’s easy to find examples of great powers getting swept up in the excitement of we-just-can’t-lose military endeavors; but for me the most striking parallel is the run-up to the first World War, in which we read about Europeans holding huge parades and parties and fireworks, and generally acting like they were rushing off to a sporting event instead of to their own deaths. Thucydides does a nice, and darkly funny, job of showing how the same Athenians cheering on the invasion later screamed for the heads of whoever called for this catastrophe, evoking the thought that there might be fewer wars if those among us who were most enthusiastic about the possibility of war were expected to man the frontlines.
In this atmosphere of all against all, factionalism tended to win out over nuance- a hard sell in the best of times.
“The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society was divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow… In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action: while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they should know in time, and that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy afforded, often fell victims to their want of precaution”.
In this sort of anti-culture, the worst men started to hold sway in Athens. One of the real low points in the war was the political opposition’s betrayal of Alcibiades, one of the real military geniuses of the time, as a supposed traitor. The result was that the greatest military leader Athens had fled to Sparta during the invasion of Syracuse; historians still debate whether the invasion would have turned out otherwise if he’d been its leader. Socrates, you’ll remember, was absolutely distraught by the way Athens treated Alcibiades, and it’s one of the reasons he railed against the turns Athenian politics were taking, until being put to death in 399 for his trouble. Finally, of course, democracy was put on hold in Athens. It is to the great credit of the Athenians that democracy soon rebounded there; Athens never did.
At some point, I think we do need to question the last 2500 years of propaganda about the greatness of Athenian democracy. But, in terms of Gach’s concept, what’s most interesting about the Peloponnesian war is how incompatible the culture and concepts of that democracy were with maintaining an empire in essentially the same way he suggests they would be. Republics seem to have great difficulty maintaining the mentalité of democracy in the metropole and that of empire in the periphery. Maybe states should choose one of the other.