January 1, 2017
Many friends have come to my side, some by reading, some by listening to me read, the work-in-progress, and responding with criticism or encouragement or a healthy blend of both. Most encouraging of all, none has asked me, "Why another Odyssey?" Each has understood, it seems, that if Homer was a performer, his translator might aim to be one as well; and no two performances of the same work--surely not of musical composition, so probably not of a work of language either--will ever be the same. The timbre and tempo of each will be distinct, let alone its deeper resonance, build and thrust. -- Robert FaglesI end the year with a curious -- for me -- celebration: hooray for pointy head academics!
I had read both the Odyssey and Thucydides' Peloponnesian War before. As part bravado and part personal habit, I did not seek annotated editions or load up on commentary and criticism. I wanted to experience it cold. And, while there is some value to that, I must admit to my guided journeys' being far more fulfilling.
Russ Roberts mentioned the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey in an EconTalk Podcast, and complimented its richness. I purchased a hardcopy on Amazon over inexpensive Kindle versions. (If Russ Roberts told you to jump off a cliff, jk...) And I am quite glad I did.
The translation is superb. Fagles has a poetic and dramatic gift for the material, but also an advantage over earlier translators in that he can include the many earthier bits without reliance on euphemism. It's not that he uses Penn & Teller language, but he tells many sections as they are.
But lustrous Calypso shuddered at those words
I do not suspect that Pope would have had to clean that section too much, but seeking the maids who have and have not been whoring with Penelope's suitors gets a little more graphic.
In addition to the translation, the introduction by
I had always assumed the pull of the sirens was the quality of their voices or just general lasciviousness. Men have not been that difficult to bewitch in the last 3100 years. But Knox points out what they thruly promise:
We know all the pains that Greeks and Trojans once endured
He sailed from "seagirt Ithaca" twenty years ago, and the people will be used to peace. The siren song is understanding war and warriors. The Achaeans can stay on the island and tell war stories forever to people who will get it.
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air,
Homer, if he existed, and if he wrote, can rest easy knowing he has scored the coveted five star Review Corner. If you have managed to escape reading it, or plowed through it in high school, I highly recommend that you get the Fagles translation and rip through it again
Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his story:
December 12, 2016
Thucydides, Book Eight: Pencils Down!
When the news was brought to Athens for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers who had themselves escaped from the scene of action and clearly reported the matter, a destruction so complete not being thought credible. When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omenmongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily.[8.1]The first surprise is that there is a Book Eight. Then Athenian military is thoroughly destroyed by the Syracuse campaign in Book Seven. Yet, she has allies, territory and money. Far fewer and less of each than at Pericles's funeral oration, but enough to rebuild some ships and throw a Hail Mary at the Hellespont, in the backyard of the Persian empire.
Nevertheless, with such means as they had, it was determined to resist to the last, and to provide timber and money, and to equip a fleet as they best could, to take steps to secure their confederates and above all Euboea, to reform things in the city upon a more economical footing, and to elect a board of elders to advise upon the state of affairs occasion should arise.  In short, as is the way of a democracy, in the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible. [8.1]With hopes for all out victory off the table, the next card to play is an alliance with "The King." Persia has been content to watch Sparta and Athens diminish each other and postpone any significant challenge from a united Hellenic power. Scholars have been rough on Thucydides for underplaying The King's influence. Like getting Dad involved to quiet an obstreperous brother, there is always a consideration that Persia could be brought into the conflict on one side or another. In the end, Persia does settle the conflict.
Yet The King's role is underplayed. Sparta and Athens allied to repel "The Mede" including the decisive battle at Thermopylae, then in Book Eight, a satrap named Tissaphernes negotiates with both sides rather duplicitously, biding his time to see the outcome of the naval battle at the Hellespont. The Athenian Polis is informed that no deal will be done with a messy and mercurial democracy. The survival plan is to install an oligarchy, instate Alcibiades as leader and form an alliance with Persia. The alternative is Spartan hegemony, which will not be cake and ice cream time for Athenians.
The People were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way.  They accordingly voted that Pisander should sail with ten others and make the best arrangement that they could with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades. [8.53]
After the Ten Years War, the interrupted seven years peace, nd the ill-advised adventure in Sicily, the war rages on in Asia. Athenian colonies are emboldened to revolt or seek a better deal on the Lacedaemonian side. Sparta has the chance to deliver the killing blow in the Hellespont in a huge naval battle with substantive allied support on both sides. During the intrigue, Athens and Allies are victorious, defeating though not routing a massive Peloponnesian fleet.
Athens presses on, but Thucydides's history stops abruptly. It is not a knock at the door which stopped Coleridge, for it is obvious from previous passages that the good General knows the outcome. But the narrative ends in Book Eight, with six years of conflict remaining. Robert Strassler provides a brief Epilog
Victorious Sparta, after initially contemplating the total destruction of her defeated adversary, finally decided that Athens would be allowed to continue to exist as a city, but demanded the surrender of what remained of her fleet, the demolition of the walls of Piraeus and the Long Walls, and the granting of complete freedom to the former subject cities of what had been the Athenian Empire. Now supreme in Greece, Sparta thus reduced Athens to a state of isolation, weakness, and dependency which must have been dreadful indeed to the writer of Pericles' Funeral Oration.
It is good, sometimes, to not be a scholar. Thucydides tells us much about human nature. What is true for 2400 years, what was true before the Roman Empire, and what was true before the Industrial Revolution -- if it remains today, is true. The perils of democracy and the perils of anarchy are spelled out as well.
The polis, a uniquely Greek phenomenon, had developed and flowered in the particular circumstances of the eighth, seventh, and early sixth centuries when, as Thucydides noted (1.12-19), there were no great wars, powerful states, or large-scale enterprises in the Greek world. The key institutions of the polis-- an agrarian economy, many owners of small plots of land, rule by a restricted list of citizen voters, and hoplite warfare-- to which most Greeks remained deeply attached throughout the period-- were not seriously challenged by the outside world until the encroachments and invasions of Persia in the late sixth and early fifth centuries. Although the Greeks threw back the Persians in the first half of the fifth century, they did so through leagues and alliances that proved inimical to the total autonomy, and incompatible with the local focus, that were so central to the classical polis.
December 4, 2016
Thucydides, Book Seven: Annihilation
For this was by far the greatest reverse that ever befell an Hellenic army. They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves: they had sailed out with prayer and paeans, and now started to go back with omens directly contrary; traveling by land instead of by sea, and trusting not in their fleet but in their hoplites. Nevertheless the greatness of the danger still impending made all this appear tolerable. [7.74]Sicilian-American Louis Prima performed a novelty song called "There'll Be No Next Time" as a duet with his long-time Saxophonist Sam Butera. Sam tells the story of his escaping unpaid rent and "failure to support." When he mentions going to the airport, Louis says "Uh-oh," and admonishes him later: "You shouldn't have gone to the airport, Sam." Well, "You shouldn't have gone to Sicily, Alcibiades."
As mentioned in Book Six [Review Corner], the decision for the Sicilian/Syracusan was hard fought, but decided without full knowledge. Blog-friend (and my ticket to the esteemed roundtable) tg reminds that "History is written by the losers." While the style of Thucydides' history is contemporaneous, he frequently tips his hand that he knows the ending. His account terminates abruptly with several years left. But there are several clues in the extant text were clearly written after the war ended. He clearly puts his thumb on the scale in Book Six, in full knowledge of the events of Book Seven.
Had Alcibiades's optimistic estimations come to pass, the Syracuse campaign would be remembered for its courage and audacity. Instead, it parallels Sam Butera's fateful decision to "go to the airport."
Book Six closes with swift early victories by Athens's large and well-trained forces. Scared Syracusans are negotiating surrender terms when word comes of reinforcements from Sparta and Corinth. Athens's prowess prevails at the first sea battle, but a disastrous reverse loses hard won land territory, and important stores and base capacity at the fort of Plemmyrium.
Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium; even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; [7.24]
Nicias sends word to Athens. Knowing that the herald will have incentive to sanitize the message for his own safety and comfort, he takes the unusual step of writing the exact text to be delivered.
For I understand that they contemplate a combined attack upon our lines with their land forces and with their fleet by sea.  You must none of you be surprised that I say by sea also. They have discovered that the length of time we have now been in commission has rotted our ships and wasted our crews, and that with the completeness of our crews and the soundness of our ships the pristine efficiency of our navy has departed. [7.12]
Triremes are not battleships. They must be dried on shore and they offer little room or comfort for personnel. A large army at sea in triremes is even more besieged that a city under circumvallation. They get a chance to escape, but discard it for omens. The secular Thucydides relates:
All was at last ready, and they were on the point of sailing away when an eclipse of the moon, which was then at the full, took place. Most of the Athenians, deeply impressed by this occurrence, now urged the generals to wait; and Nicias, who was somewhat overaddicted to divination and practices of that kind, refused from that moment even to take the question of departure into consideration, until they had waited the thrice nine days prescribed by the soothsayers. [7.49]
Instead of escape, reinforcements arrive, and the Syracusan navy both learns from its mistakes and implements technological changes to her ships making them better suited to combat in the narrower spaces of the city's smaller harbors.
Nicias prepares his troops.
"Soldiers of the Athenians and of the allies, we have all an equal interest in the coming struggle, in which life and country are at stake for us quite as much as they can be for the enemy; since if our fleet wins the day, each can see his native city again, wherever that city may be.  You must not lose heart, or be like men without any experience, who fail in a first attempt, and ever afterwards fearfully expect a future as disastrous.  But let the Athenians among you who have already had experience of many wars, and the allies who have joined us in so many expeditions, remember the surprises of war, and with the hope that fortune will not be always against us [7.60]
Fortune remains rather unfriendly. If not the eclipse, being outnumbered and stranded far from home in a hostile environment. Nicias and Demosthenes are routed at sea and cornered in land against overwhelming force.
After this, Nicias and Demosthenes now thinking that enough had been done in the way of preparation, the departure of the army took place upon the second day after the sea fight.  It was a lamentable scene, not merely from the single circumstance that they were retreating after having lost all their ships, their great hopes gone, and themselves and their state in peril; but also in leaving the camp there were things most grievous for every eye and heart to contemplate.  The dead lay unburied, and each man as he recognized a friend among them shuddered with grief and horror; while the living whom they were leaving behind, wounded or sick, were to the living far more shocking than the dead, and more to be pitied than those who had perished. [7.74]
The Athenians know little mercy will be afforded on surrender and most elect to die in place. Nicias makes pains to surrender directly to the Spartan General Gyliippus to negotiate merciful treatment of his men, but this does not come to pass. Nicias and Demosthenes are executed (to Thucydides' distaste) and some seven thousand are thrown in a pit with the wounded, sick, and dead with no shelter, minimal water and food, no sanitation. Any that survived in eight months were sold as slaves.
This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered.  They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army-- everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily. [7.87]
"Shouldn't have gone to the airport, Sam."
November 27, 2016
Thucydides, Book Six: Projecting Power
The same winter the Athenians resolved to sail again to Sicily, with a greater armament than that under Laches and Eurymedon, and, if possible, to conquer the island; most of them being ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians. [6.1]"Do not think of elephants," goes an old saw. I see from a search it has spawned a couple of self-help, career guidance books. I thought it was just some form of toddler torture, but it seems the franchise has expanded. Likewise, the modern American reader is challenged to read the final few books of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War without thinking of Iraq.
Book Six presents the democratic arguments for and against War in Sicily. Those who have read ahead know it is a military disaster that ends the Athenian Empire.
I do not want to digress too much on my personal, unfinished journey of American involvement in the Middle East, but the short version for new readers is that I supported the actions fulsomely, through good times and bad. Yet William Easterly's "Tyranny of Experts" [Review Corner] provided a Hayekian objection which I cannot refute, and subsequent developments have not proven Easterly wrong.
This not a Freshman paper suggesting the end of America -- I'd have to proofread it better if it were -- but the parallels are difficult to ignore. It is difficult to project power. Our technological advancement has reduced half the world to the difficulty Nicias and Alcibiades faced waging war across the Ionian Sea. Yet the same difficulties of supply and logistics remain. More importantly, the Easterly-esque difficulties of understanding the region's scope, politics and culture are nearly insuperable.
Per the introductory quote, most of the Demos who would be voting for or against war did not know the location of Syracuse, the area of Sicily, or the disposition of cities on the island and southern coast of the Tyrrhenian mainland. Nicias, whom Thucydides admires, speaks first -- advising caution:
And yet the latter, if brought under might be kept under; while the Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise. [6.11]
You're thinking of elephants, aren't you?
The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible. [6.11]
Nicias closes with a swipe at the youthful who seek riches and glory without fully comprehending the potential downside.
The youthful, vainglorious Alcibiades takes umbrage at this attack on youth and vainglory. He addresses the crowd, warning of Syracuse's growing power (c.f. The Thucydides Trap) and dangers of a potential alliance with the Peloponnese. But his closing argument is "We will be greeted as liberators!"
The states in Sicily, therefore, from all that I can hear, will be found as I say, and I have not pointed out all our advantages, for we shall have the help of many barbarians, who from their hatred of the Syracusans will join us in attacking them; nor will the powers at home prove any hindrance, if you judge rightly.
Sensing that things are not going his way, Nicias elects to agree, but attempts to subliminally frighten the populace by enumerating the requirements. We'll need to bring grain and our own bakers and more ships that have ever been arrayed, and carpenters and machinists because we will be too far for repairs. But, rather than being subdued, Nicias's ruse backfires. Clearly, think the Athenians, this is going to be the greatest enterprise ever -- less a war and more of a moonshot. Carthage will fall next and we will rule the world.
The Athenians, however, far from having their enthusiasm for the voyage destroyed by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world.  Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future.
Was that an elephant?
The great fleet sails. Cities along the route come out just to see the historic array. "Alcibiades sailed to Syracuse -- and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt!" The Syracusans are brave and numerous but fall initially to Athens' superior technical skill and modern naval techniques. In a short time Athens holds commanding heights; Syracuse is defeated and demoralized and discussing terms of surrender. This Athenian adventure will be quick and successful.
Stop me if you've heard this, but things deteriorate from there.
November 20, 2016
Thucydides, Book Five: Halftime
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.  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..."
The peace is uneasy to begin with, and not all the allies are on board with the idea of armistice or with its terms. This gives Argos an opportunity to restore her empire by picking up affected city-states for a side alliance. The Argives can rival wounded Athens and Sparta with a few key allies.
The persons with whom they had communicated reported the proposal to their government and people, and the Argives passed the decree and chose twelve men to negotiate an alliance for any Hellenic state that wished it, except Athens and Sparta, neither of which should be able to join without referring the issue to the Argive people. [5.28]
Though this "peace" lasts seven years, it's more of a repositioning. One expects they're analyzing film, taping up ankles and listening to coaches' speechmaking. Commentator Thucydides gets to elaborate on "Fear, Honor and Interest," which is shorthand for his strategic realism.
In a dialog with Melians, the Athenians eschew the eloquent speeches and peans to liberty common in the other books, and a small delegation sits down to hear the stronger power dictate alliance terms to the weaker.
Athenians: "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses-- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us-- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." [5.94]
The Melians trust in "the gods" and possible Spartan protection and turn the Athenians away. Spoiler Alert: they "suffer what they must."
November 13, 2016
Thucydides, Book Four: Declare Victory and Move On
The Spartans accordingly invite you to make a treaty and to end the war, and offer peace and alliance and the most friendly and intimate relations in every way and on every occasion between us; and in return ask for the men on the island, thinking it better for both parties not to hold out to the end, hoping that some favorable accident will enable the men to force their way out, or of their being compelled to succumb under the pressure of blockade.
Okay Athens, you win!
It is the ninth year (out of 27) of the war of which Thucydides was the historian. We could tie this baby up at the top of Book Four. jk could devote more time to studying Nick Lucas's Guitar Method. Ain't gonna study war no more -- it is not healthy for children and other living things and...
The Athenians dramatic victory at Pylos stuns the Spartans. A bit of pluck and a bit of luck gives Cleon command of an island right in Sparta's backyard and many of her most prominent citizens are captured. All the things Lacedaemonians truly fear are held against them; this defeat could be the domino that starts a helot (slave) uprising.
and now took the unusual step of raising four hundred horse and a force of archers, and became more timid than ever in military matters, finding themselves involved in a maritime struggle, which their organization had never contemplated, and that against Athenians, with whom an enterprise unattempted was always looked upon as a success sacrificed.
Sparta sends Herold -- excuse me a herald1 -- with generous terms for peace, essentially Sparta offers Athens equality in rank. In J.E. Lendon's "Song of Wrath" [Review Corner], this is held to be the reason for war.
The existence of books five through eight is a spoiler alert. There is much speechmaking, but, having the upper hand, Athens decides to press for more generous terms. Hence books five, six, seven and eight. Just as Pylos breaks Spartan ambitions, Athens goes on to be routed at Delium2 and exposed weakness of her less-than-solid alliances in the Chalcidice.
The modern line is "Take 'Yes' for an answer" and I frequently complain about political groups' failures in this area. Most recently, I see the gay rights movement in America enact a national right to marry after Obergefell. Eight years ago, neither Senators Clinton nor Obama would dare suggest it in a Democratic primary. The groups that existed to lobby, however, were staffed by their own Cleons and kept the movement alive to found the National Cake Police. They should have put up a trophy and let the Christian Right recover their dead under truce.
Indeed, there seemed to be no danger in so doing; their mistake in their estimate of the Athenian power was as great as that power afterwards turned out to be, and their judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon any sound prediction; for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.
1 -- jokes like these and I still wonder why they won't approve any of my comments at the Roundtable.
2 -- I already was able to use this in a stunning piece of pedantry. Somebody asked if such-and-such was "the worst idea ever?" I replied "oh, I don't know. The Athenian attack on Delium was rather ill advised..."
November 6, 2016
Thucydidies Book Three: The Price of Human Life
"People who read Thucydides and Caesar on war, and Seneca and Ovid on love, are less inclined to construe passing fads as durable outlooks, to fall into the maelstrom of celebrity culture, to presume that the circumstances of their own life are worth a Web page." -- Mark Bauerlein quoted by Walter WilliamsWhy read Thucydides? The search results looking for the above quote are instructive. There is much on military strategy and "The Thucydides Trap" which is the subject of blog friend tg's superb Book II essay. I am riveted by what is timeless and what is modern. Pace Bauerlein, the good Athenian General/Historian will frequently lay down a riff that speaks clearly to today's events.
Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.Then in the next section, he will describe an impoverished and pre-Hobbesian world which I cannot recognize. Form 3.67:
The number of Plataeans thus massacred was not less than two hundred, with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves.  The city the Thebans gave for about a year to some political emigrants from Megara, and to the surviving Plataeans of their own party to inhabit, and afterwards razed it to the ground from the very foundations, and built on to the precinct of Hera an inn two hundred feet square, with rooms all round above and below, making use for this purpose of the roofs and doors of the Plataeans : of the rest of the materials in the wall, the brass and the iron, they made couches which they dedicated to Hera, for whom they also built a stone chapel of a hundred feet square. The land they confiscated and let out on a ten-years' lease to Theban occupiers.  The adverse attitude of the Spartans in the whole Plataean affair was mainly adopted to please the Thebans, who were thought to be useful in the war at that moment raging. Such was the end of Plataea in the ninety-third year after she became the ally of Athens."Bloody Spartans!" This massacre is not attributable to the heat of battle or fog of war; it is preceded by speeches both for mercy and for retribution (well chronicled in Pauline Kaurin's Book III essay. In the end, the Spartans decide to ask each resident what they have done to help Sparta. Without a good answer, it is death. The Plateans' speech points out that this is not actually a fair question for residents of an Athenian controlled and long blockaded city. But justice is swift, harsh, and generally not very just in the Peloponnesian War.
The politics and military strategy are still of interest today. One must search for recognizable economic ideas, such as Pericles (2.37) some 2100 years before Adam Smith:
while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.
The lack of enlightenment economics and values differentiate the tale from modern times. Hemmingway reminds that "Que puta es la Guerra" and there is no paucity of butchery today. But in a Steven Pinker, Better Angels world it is an aberration. "And the women were sold as slaves." closes many a section. The victors set up a trophy, the losers recover their dead under truce, and, oh yeah, the women were sold as slaves.
Much is timeless. The lack of value for life is not. This value does not come from our being so much nobler or better than those of Fifth Century BCE Hellas, but without productivity gains, people are truly interchangeable. And interchangeable is expendable. A great leader like Pericles has leverage and cannot be easily replaced. The same for a great General like the Spartan Brasidas. But the rower, the hoplite, the olive farmer were each just another warm body.
The nobility of the Enlightenment proceeds from the economic value of productive people under specialization and comparative advantage. Seeing its absence underscores the connection.
SIDE NOTE: Some interesting 2450-tear-old crowdsourcing: Plateans, planning escape, average multiple counts to assess the height of the wall to scale (3.19).
Ladders were made to match the height of the enemy's wall, which they measured by the layers of bricks, the side turned toward them not being thoroughly whitewashed. These were counted by many persons at once; and though some might miss the right calculation, most would hit upon it, particularly as they counted over and over again, and were no great way from the wall, but could see it easily enough for their purpose.  The length required for the ladders was thus obtained, being calculated from the breadth of the brick.
October 30, 2016
Thucydidies Book Two: Time vs. Metis
For these reasons the Peloponnesians fear our irrational audacity more than they would ever have done a more commensurate preparation.Book Two of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War begins with high hopes -- hubris if I may borrow from Greek hybris. The Athenian coffers are full and her Navy staffed and equipped in fine form. Sparta is comfortable and confident in the role of Hellenic hedgemon and unparalleled in hoplite warfare on land.
And if both sides nourished the boldest hopes and put forth their utmost strength for the war, this was only natural. Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking; and on this particular occasion the Peloponnesus and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms, while the rest of Hellas stood straining with excitement at the conflict of its leading cities.Spoiler alert: things don't go quite as well as either side predicts.
A herald is sent from Sparta with a final offer of settlement, but Pericles "having already carried a motion against admitting either herald or embassy from the Spartans after they had once marched out. The herald was accordingly sent away without an audience."
When he reached the frontier and was just going to be dismissed, he departed with these words: "This day will be the beginning of great misfortunes to the Hellenes."
Spoiler alert II: the herald was correct.
The first two books introduce three styles of battle which dominate the conflict. Sparta dominated hoplite, infantry warfare. Male children were raised by the state to be brave warriors. Plutarch (Mor. 241) says that mothers would tell sons leaving for battle to "return with your shield or on it." Athens, by comparison, ruled the seas in
The third was the siege of the city or "Circumvallation." Surround the city walls, keep food and supplies out and the people in, while laying to waste the agriculture outside the city. Though naval and infantry combat changed mightily in 2000 years, the siege would look pretty similar to the residents of Richmond toward the end of the American Civil War.
The siege of Plataea begins in Book Two (2.2, 2.71) and includes one of my favorite stories. I recommend a guest post in the Roundtable by A. E. Clark for a more detailed strategic look at the Plataean siege; I write for a general audience of cowards and non-combatants like myself.
J. E. Lendon's Song of Wrath [Review Corner] discusses the Greek Virtues of timé and metis. (I leave the accent mark on the é as an exercise to the reader, Lendon uses a solid line atop, I see many variations of the Internet.) Time is honor, worth, valor. I attribute it to the brave Lacedaemonian hoplite general who dies in his place without uttering a single sound.
In carnage conflict. time is indeed a prized virtue. But I am a fan of metis. or cunning. And we see metis in the actions of the Plataeans. The Spartans grow weary of waiting them out and begin constructing ramps up to the wall so they can get into the city and end the conflict. In a plot worthy of a Gilligan's Island episode, the Plataeans tunnel under the wall at night and remove earth from the bottom of the mound as fast as the Spartans are adding it on top.
Time versus metis recurs frequently through Thucydides. I defer to my strategic superiors on the Roundtable, but I suspect it continues through today.
October 17, 2016
Thucydides, Book One: Pentecontaetia
For instance, it is evident that the country now called Hellas had in ancient times no settled population; on the contrary, migrations were of frequent occurrence, the several tribes readily abandoning their homes under the pressure of superior numbers.  Without commerce, without freedom of communication either by land or sea, cultivating no more of their territory than the necessities of life required, destitute of capital, never planting their land (for they could not tell when an invader might not come and take it all away, and when he did come they had no walls to stop him), thinking that the necessities of daily sustenance could be supplied at one place as well as another, they cared little about shifting their habitation, and consequently neither built large cities nor attained to any other form of greatness.The Thucydides Roundtable begins tomorrow. I see from the ground rules that I am foresworn to not post before the official opening, so publishing will be deferred. There are some very serious and esteemed participants. Being just a humble commenter, I will be free to be me, and likely the only one making fart jokes.
The Roundtable participants are united in appreciation for military strategy. Certainly my weakest link but I hope to pick up some things over the next eight weeks. I'm, of course, more attuned to political philosophy. The American Founders and the European Thinkers I admire were all well versed in Thucydides and I enjoy sharing a bit of foundation. Lincoln cribbed the Gettysburg Address substantively from Pericles's Funeral Oration (2.35 2.46).
But my takeaway from Book One is its influence on Thomas Hobbes. Twenty two years before he wrote Leviathan and proclaimed the life of man in natural state to be "nasty, brutish, and short," Hobbes completed the first English translation of "Eight Books of the Peloponnesian Warre." There is a surfeit of nasty, brutish, and short in the life of your average Ancient Grecian and the introductory quote supports Hobbes's contention that there is no "Mine or Thine" in a natural state.
Book One, or the Pentecontaetia, describes the almost 50 years between the defeat of the Persians by a United Hellas with Sparta and Athens on the same team and the start of the Peloponnesian War.
All these actions of the Hellenes against each other and the barbarian occurred in the fifty years' interval between the retreat of Xerxes and the beginning of the present war. During this interval the Athenians succeeded in placing their empire on a firmer basis, and themselves advanced their own power to a very great height.
This quote -- and indeed the entirety of Book One -- supports the observations of J. E. Lendon's "Song of Wrath" [Review Corner] that Athens felt it had achieved equity with Sparta and no longer wanted to be treated as an inferior.
Looking forward to a great eight weeks! In addition to strategy, and history, and politics. Thucydides reminds us of timeless wisdom and the author is an engaging character:
So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. -- Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides
Something we have not learned in 2400 years.
September 18, 2016
Thucydides understood that a realist theory of international relations, a theory narrowly grounded in power, did not describe the world in which he lived. Thucydides had seen that states' histories were often more powerful drivers of their actions than was their power. He had seen prickly pride make states strive beyond their strength and exhaust themselves with little regard for its limits. He had seen that not only the power of a foe but the spirit, too, had to be conquered. He had seen that states and men often acted on the basis of wrath and revenge rather than sober calculation.-- J. E. Lendon Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War BeginsThe most pertinent and germane question I have yet heard on the study of the Peloponnesian War comes from my sister. I described my enthusiasm for my upcoming study group and reread of Thucydides' classic Peloponnesian War. She replied "Why would anyone read that?" (This from the person who taught me to read, as baby brother was chosen to play "pupil" in the school of her friends.)
I was drawn to it knowing that many of my heroes would have read it. There were likely few men ratifying the Constitution who would fail to recognize an allusion to Pericles' Funeral Oration. More modern readers are likely drawn by War games and Strategy (this encompasses the rest of the readers in my upcoming group). It's perhaps the earliest extant history of statecraft and tactics.
Part of Thucydides' purpose in writing was, after all, to arm his reader with useful know-how, in case some later student of great affairs found himself in a similar situation. Here, then, is what to do if surrounded by barbarians at the extremity of the world:
Form a square, give a good speech... Did I mention that strategy was really not my thing?
The non-strategic reader can become a bit nonplussed. There's a paucity of political philosophy. The Athenian Democracy is compared to the grim totalitarianism of Sparta and her grim allies. The Lacedaemonian contributions to modern language include spartan and laconic.
The Spartan authorities had expected their men to behave like Achilles, to choose a noble death. But Spartans had not brought up their sons to act like Achilles; they had brought them up to obey orders. Never does the strange contradiction at the heart of Spartan society show so clearly as here: Spartans were expected to live the Iliad, but an Iliad set in totalitarian Sparta.Yet choosing whose cause to champion is more difficult than picking between the Fascists and Communists in the Spanish Civil War -- or even Trump and Clinton in 2016.
The kindly terms [Brasidas] had given at Amphipolis urged along this movement, as did the earnestness of his proclamations that he had come to free the Greeks from empire rather than simply to replace Athenian rule with Spartan. For he pledged to leave the constitutional arrangements of the rebels unchanged and to impose no garrisons or governors. After a seven-year pregnancy, Sparta seemed finally to have brought to birth a son who was in earnest about freeing the Greeks from Athens, the slogan under which Sparta had gone to war in 431 BC and that had brought Sparta such goodwill at war's beginning.
As I read it, it pretty well sucks to be under either system. This could be more economic than libertarian. These were modern humans with language, tools, art, and trade. But millennia separate them from the Industrial Revolution and Deirdre McCloskey's 'Great Fact.' Human life has little value. There is little opportunity cost to joining the Athenian Navy as a rower. Your farm will just be burned down by Peloponnesians anyway.
Lendon's book explains a lot. Covering only the first ten of the 37-year conflict, he fleshes out Thucydides' descriptions and chronologies, but he also provides modern context, describing the conflict as one of establishing rank. The epilogue even concludes Thucydides' "evolving" as described in the opening quote.
And, although the attractive characters in Thucydides (men like Pericles of Athens and Archidamus of Sparta) are usually not made to speak in the language of power but are, rather, allowed to speak in the language of conventional Greek ethics, Thucydides briefly has Pericles himself profess a mild, fatalistic realism. "Your empire," Pericles says to the Athenians, in the phrase that Thucydides deftly turns to poison in Cleon's mouth, "is, to speak somewhat plainly, like a tyranny. To take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe."
Lendon's theory is that the struggle was to establish rank -- first that of parity with Sparta after their alliance defeated Persia, but then after success in battle and statecraft, seeking Athenian superiority.
In an ideal Greek war, the total amount of honor in the system was conserved, and the winner of a hoplite battle gained the same amount of honor as the loser lost. But the Ten Years' War had not worked like that; much honor had been lost and little gained. In the eyes of the other Greeks, the same defeats that had reduced both Athens and Sparta to a mutual willingness to accept equality had also driven down the rank of both in comparison to that great, proud, well-rested power that had sat out the war: Argos.
I'm looking forward to a denser trip through Thucydides. "Song of Wrath" was an accessible and beautifully written super-commentary which could be enjoyed on its own.
September 6, 2016
I can even pronounce Lacedaemonian
I am back to Thucydides [Review Corner]. This time, extracting much more from it. Two years ago, I eschewed the sagacious counsel of blog friend tgreer and plowed through the text on Kindle just to experience it like my intellectual heroes would have.
It was a good time. But reading Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins by J. E. Lendon exposes lacunae (see what I did there, using a Greek-root word?) in my understanding wide enough to drive a trireme through.
Lendon contextualizes the 2500 year old events and decisions to render them more explicable to modern ears. And he walks the reader through the first ten years of the Peloponnesian War adding detail to make it more contiguous than the General's narrative-through-speeches. I enjoyed the lyricism of Thucydides, but find myself reading Lendon and saying "oh, that's what happened."
This October, I will be joining tg in a Thucydides Roundtable hosted by a Strategy Blog. (I will have to set all my seriousness knobs to 11). But I look forward to a reread (one chapter a week) with some gifted companions and having purchased the descriptive Landmark Edition which was originally recommended.
I'll do a full Review Corner soon on "Song of Wrath," but encourage ThreeSourcers to catch some of the excepts Tweeted in the meantime. This one might ruffle some feathers:
"In fact the Trojans, and the Greeks who fought them, may be as much to blame for the Peloponnesian War as Athenians, Spartans, or Corinthians. For with the story of the war against Troy, Homer also passed down to the classical Greeks the ferocious competitiveness of their forefathers. The transcendent cause of the Peloponnesian War was the culture of Greek foreign relations, which was deeply embedded in Greek competitiveness and the ethics of a heroic past. The principle that created the Olympic Games, the principle that inspired potter to outdo potter and poet to surpass poet, the competitive principle that drove so much of what is memorable about Greek civilization--that same principle drove Athens and Sparta to war."
April 20, 2014
Things at Thasos thus turned out just the contrary to what the oligarchical conspirators at Athens expected; and the same in my opinion was the case in many of the other dependencies; as the cities no sooner got a moderate government and liberty of action, than they went on to absolute freedom without being at all seduced by the show of reform offered by the Athenians.Thus spake Thucydides in the nineteenth year of the war in which Thucydides was the historian. The first person acknowledgment is unusual from the Athenian General and author of The Peloponnesian War.
Much scholarship has been devoted to Thucydides; while I rarely lack self-esteem, it is not my intention to add to it. I will tell instead of what happens when a regular Joe--er John lands in its pages and how it speaks to politics today, for it is a deeply political book.
"This we cannot have unless we have a more moderate form of government, and put the offices into fewer hands, and so gain the King's confidence, and forthwith restore Alcibiades, who is the only man living that can bring this about. The safety of the state, not the form of its government, is for the moment the most pressing question, as we can always change afterwards whatever we do not like."
It seems Democracies struggled long before ObamaCare, but the primary takeaway for me is the brutality of life. As Hemmingway would offer two thousand years later "Que Puta es la Guerra" but to your basic Fifth Century BC hoplite, Thomas Hobbes's subjects' life would seen neither nasty, brutish nor short.
This underscores to your humble reviewer the impracticality of anarcho-capitalism. Pass around the Deepak Lal books, lads; your plunder-free libertarian utopia will be invaded by a neighboring power or undermined by your grandchildren's love of bread and circuses. The Founders were well versed in the Classics, and that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men" must have been obvious. Scores of independent city states are less than pawns in the struggle between Sparta and Athens.
But enough of that -- let's talk about me. I applaud blog friend tg for his suggestion of The Landmark Edition. True to Professor Adler, I eschewed its explanations, maps, and the perspicuity of its commentary for a naked run through the Richard Crawley translation completed in 1874. Then, less true to Adler, I turned immediately to the Landmark Edition to fill the substantial lacunae in my comprehension.
I was not cut out for a scholar. I think we can say it aloud. But a few weeks were very enjoyable. The text is eminently readable. Even if you lose track of where you are, when it is, and who is whom, it is full of keen insights. And the plot moves along by way of 141 orations. (Real) scholars question his sources of these exact quoted orations in pre-Google Greece, but they are a masterful literary device to relate the beliefs and goals of different factions.
The great blunder of Athens was the invasion of Sicily. They pulled defeat from the jaws of victory by overextending into a different theatre. Young commanders desiring glory speak to an easy campaign where they will be greeted as liberators. Nicias thinks this foolhardy. But to avoid sounding cowardly or unpatriotic delivers a speech instead reciting the great requirements for success. Instead of dissuading the assembled, they become enraptured in glory. Yes, you're right Nicias -- we should raise a huge army and navy and fill ships with food and supplies. This is going to be awesome!
[Spoiler Alert] The entrenched Syracusians dismantle the navy which has outdistanced supply lines and no Sicilian towns are keen on joining an outside alliance and providing harbor. When news reaches home that this massive force has been crushed, culpability is assessed, democracy-style:
When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily.
For 20+ years of strategy, bravado, tactics, skullduggery and politics. It is finally settled (post Thucydides) more by Persian capital -- after they enjoyed their two largest rivals beating the crap out of each other. There might be a lesson in there as well, if you're looking.
No sir, I am no scholar, but both Virgil's Works and The Peloponnesian War were enjoyable and add to inner pedantry (the word "laconic" comes from the inhabitants of Laconia who were spartan in speech and Spartan in politics. The names of the musical modes "Ionian," "Dorian," "Phrygian," &c. all come from areas in the book. "Eponymous" refers to the one archon after whom the assembly was named (think "The Roberts Court.")
It seems untoward to award stars. It is a treasure.