Thucydides: Ur-Historian of the Ur-War
Thucydides: Ur-Historian of the Ur-War
Our West Point-educated wisemen on the matter of Iraq have been beating the drum: Read Thucydides! Col. Peter Mansoor tipped me over the edge with a post-game remark about the daily brutalities in Baghdad. “Read Thucydides on the revolt at Corcyra,” he said. “You can practically see the drill bits in the head.” So we’ve plunged.
Thucydides (c. 465 – 395 BC) wrote — “for all time,” as he prophesied — of the Peloponnesian War between the imperial city-states Athens and Sparta at the close of the 5th Century, BC. He was the first modern historian of, arguably, the first modern war. It was long and merciless civil slaughter — a “war like no other,” on land, sea and islands — that ended the glory years of Hellenic civilization. Thucydides narrates, in effect, a world war in the Mediterranean, “a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece,” in the judgment of our contemporary Victor Davis Hanson.
Thucydides, I find, is as modern as Neil Sheehan in Vietnam or Peter Arnett on CNN in the Gulf War of 1991. No thunderbolts from Zeus, no visits from Pallas Athena to Achilles in his tent, lighten or mythologize this Peloponnesian War. Thucydides gives us gritty black-and-white reporting from the meticulous and critical eye of an Athenian war officer. He is famously careful about sourcing his evidence and justifying his judgments of men, battles and human behavior in general.
And what a grim lot of judgments it is!
On the local and personal politics of war, for example. Cleon of Athens and Brasidas of Sparta
…had been the two principal opponents of peace on either side — the latter from the success and honor which war gave him, the former because he thought that, if tranquility were restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 5
On power: As the Athenian envoys explained to the independent islanders of Melos, about to be crushed like bugs:
The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
On the politics of empire: For the Athenians, enmity in external affairs was preferable to friendship, as the same sorry Melians were instructed:
… for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power… so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.
On the inversions and corruptions of language and character in wartime:
And people altered, at their pleasure, the customary significance of words to suit their deeds: irrational daring came to be considered the “manly courage of one loyal to his party”; prudent delay was thought a fair-seeming cowardice; a moderate attitude was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything. Rash enthusiasm for one’s cause was deemed the part of a true man; to attempt to employ reason in plotting a safe course of action, a specious excuse for desertion. One who displayed violent anger was “eternally faithful,” whereas any who spoke against such a person was viewed with suspicion. One who laid a scheme and was successful was “wise,” while anyone who suspected and ferreted out such a plot beforehand was considered still cleverer. Any who planned beforehand in order that no such measures should be necessary was a “subverter of the party” and was accused of being intimidated by the opposition. In general, the one who beat another at performing some act of villainy beforehand was praised, as was one who urged another on to such a deed which the latter, originally, had no intention of performing. Indeed, even kinship came to represent a less intimate bond than that of party faction, since the latter implied a greater willingness to engage in violent acts of daring without demur. For such unions were formed, not with a view to profiting from the established laws, but with a view toward political advantage contrary to such laws. And their mutual oaths they cemented, not by means of religious sanction, but by sharing in some common crime.
On the price of the tragedy:
Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles.
My first question: Is it the right use of Thucydides to say of human nature that we are an unredeemably domineering and self-destructive species of killing machines?
Take heart, for there are peace-mongers, too, in this book, like Hermocrates, the most influential among the Syracusans at Sicily, who prevail in the end against the Athenians:
And why, if peace is acknowledged by all to be the greatest of blessings, should we not make peace among ourselves? Whatever good or evil is the portion of any of us, is not peace more likely than war to preserve the one and to alleviate the other? And has not peace honours and glories of her own unattended by the dangers of war? …As I said at first, I am the representative of a great city which is more likely to act on the aggressive than on the defensive; and yet with the prospect of these dangers before me I am willing to come to terms, and not to injure my enemies in such a way that I shall doubly injure myself. …Let us remember too that we are all neighbours, inhabitants of one island home, and called by the common name of Sicilians.
Victor Davis Hanson’s powerful introduction to Robert Strassler’s admirable edition of The Landmark Thucydides concludes:
The Peloponnesian War turns out to be no dry chronicle of abstract cause and effect. No, it is above all an intense, riveting, and timeless story of strong and weak men, of heroes and scoundrels and innocents too, all caught in the fateful circumstances of rebellion, plague, and war that always strip away the veneer of culture and show us for what we really are.
Victor Davis Hanson, Introduction: The Landmark Thucydides
Is this who we really are?
Victor Davis Hansen
- Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Author, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War and The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, among many others
- Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University
Author, The Eye of Command
Director, Understanding Military Operations
- Extra Credit Reading
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Thomas Hobbes, 1628.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Richard Crowley.
Brent Ranalli, The Iraq War and the Sicilian Campaign, theGlobalist, January 22, 2006: “Does history repeat itself? If it does, it may be worthwhile to look back further than the Vietnam War and to compare the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with the Athenian campaign against Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 415 B.C.”
Brad DeLong, The Civil War in Iraq Corcyra, Vrad DeLong’s Daily Journal, December 18, 2006: “For some reason, both the New Republic and the Weekly Standard rejected this forecast of civil war in Iraq account of the civil war in Corcyra when it was submitted to them back in 2003.”
Harry Kreisler, War: Conversation with Victor Davis Hanson, Conversations with History, 2004.
James F. Trumm, Thucydides Nails It, Framed, December 12, 2006: “Talk about being condemmed to repeat the past: fast-forward to Atrios, our modern-day Thucydides, writing about our own times.”