Saturday, 19 March 2016

Song of Wrath

I have been reading (in truth, I have just started) ‘Song of Wrath’ by J. E. Lendon (2010: basic Books, NY). It is subtitled ‘The Peloponnesian Wars Begin’ so you have a fair warning of the content. As you would except, there is a fair bit about Thucydides, what he wrote and how he wrote it. Lendon is also somewhat sceptical about the reason that Thucydides put forwards about why the wars began.

Thucydides’ argument is that Sparta and Athens went to war because the Spartans feared the increasing power of Athens. Athens accepted war because she wanted to become the hegemon of Greece, as Sparta was accepted to be. Lendon, however, wants to, at least, nuance this, and examine the reasons why Greek states went to war.

Lest this be considered uninteresting, particularly to wargames, let me make a few further points. Firstly, Lendon observes that the idea of hegemon also applied to personal relationships, at least among the aristocracy, in Greece. You knew your place in a hierarchy. Thus, Lendon quotes an amusing story about Pericles going about his daily business, being constant abused by a poor man. As the poor man was so much lower in the social order than Pericles, the abuse had no impact and, at the end of the day, Pericles directed one of his servants to escort the poor man to his home. If the poor man had been nearer Pericles in status, then war, or at least court cases, would have ensued.

The idea of status in personal relations, then, is an important one in motivating the Greeks for fight. You fought, you fought with courage, and you fought to do, hopefully, just a bit better than your slightly higher status neighbours, to inch your way up the social status just a little. Of course, desperate acts of daring could achieve the same effect, only more so, but they were rare (and tended to be a bit fragile in their effects). Your true motivation was to do a bit of social climbing.

As with individuals, so with states. A state far below you in status was ignorable, no matter what it tried to do. Thus, for many years, Sparta ignored the provocations of Athens because Sparta was the hegemon and Athens should pick on some other state of similar size and weight. It was only as Athens organised the Delian league 9and creamed off the profits) that the Spartans started to take notice.

What happened next is a matter of historical record. After much warfare with occasional peace, the Athenians were defeated and the Spartans confirmed in their role as arbiter of the Greeks. However, the constant warfare, among other factors, had weakened the Spartans and they fell to the Thebans, and so on, along the line of whoever was receiving Persian money. There is a good argument for suggesting that the Persians were the winners of the Peloponnesian wars.

An interesting aspect of this account is how Thucydides is read. Lendon notes in his introduction that US strategists, in the Cold War, read Thucydides as an account of a maritime democracy in conflict with a continental tyranny. There are no prizes for guessing which side in the Cold War was identified with which. The mistake that the Cold War scholars identified in Athenian policy was that, while the city itself might have been a democracy, its allies were, in fact, more or less subjects. The Delian league, under the leadership of Athens, moved from being an alliance against the Persians to being a prop to Athenian pretensions to hegemony.  Athens was a democratic tyrant.

As a consequence of this, the members of the Delian league were, under some circumstances, happy to change sides. One by one they were detached from the league, or defeated in detail while the Athenians were otherwise occupied. This is an example, I think, of Paul Kennedy’s idea of ‘imperial overstretch’ (in his ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’, a book well worth reading if you have not already). If Thucydides bothered US Cold War strategists – the continental tyranny in fact won the Peloponnesian war – the Kennedy’s book really upset them, for it proposes that no empire can, seriously, maintain and advance its interests indefinitely, and that in a major war of alliances, the side with the last dollar wins.

The most important thing that Lendon proposes is that in the status of states, some battles did not need fighting. The Spartans, as at Megara in 424 BC, could simply turn up and offer battle. The Athenians, who were never as comfortable on land as the Spartans, could accept or refuse. If they accepted, and, quite likely lost, their status would not rise. If they refused, then their status would drop, or at least the Spartans would be confirmed as hegemon. As the Athenians were rather sensitive about losing men in battle, often the battle was refused. For the Athenians, naval power was the source of their strength, and losing men in land combat only weakened the fleet.

Throughout history there are examples of battles that did not happen. At the start of the Hundred Years War, for example, Edward III tried quite hard to get the French to fight a battle, and they refused. In a similar way to the Greeks, I think, the French idea was simply to get Edward off their territory. There was no need to assert their superiority by fighting, they could just sit there until the English went away. I dare say that similar sorts of episodes litter the pages of our history textbooks.

As Lendon notes, the idea of honour tied up with this one of hegemon is possibly more pertinent to current events than we like to think, and the emotion which is also present is a bigger factor in international affairs than is usually credited. And, of course, the problem for western powers is how to exercise their hegemony when challenged by much smaller, ideologically driven rivals. But now I am digressing from wargaming, so I shall stop.


  1. Was it a mistake for Cold War US strategists to identify with the Athenian maritime democracy? If you look at the lack of democratic credentials of many US allies and the US'* role in replacing popular governments with tyrannies, they may not have been so far off the mark.

    * aided and abetted at times by that other modern maritime democracy

  2. Well, ironically, the Athenians did support tyrannies, so perhaps they were just following Thucydides fairly closely! On the other hand if *we* are right, *they* are wrong, then *they* must be defeated by any means possible, so regretfully *we* have to support our allies, even if our allies are not particularly nice people. The point is for our right to win...

    1. I think I followed that! ;-)

      If I remember it correctly (the book, not the actual war) the Athenians even overthrew a few democracies (probably not quite the right term) that were not in favour of the "alliance".
      But you're right. If it comes down to a choice of hegemons....

    2. Athens was a democracy at home and a tyranny to the rest of the Delian league, I suppose. the problem with democracy is that the people often come up with the wrong answer!

      Mind you, in Ancient Greece the labels 'tyranny', 'democracy' and so so on didn't have the modern interpretation. Democracy was often equated with anarchy, for example. Of course, Greek history was written by the educated upper classes and they often were snobs, and made sure that history was kind to them by writing it.