Saturday, September 29, 2007


I’m currently about midway through Book IV.

In Book II, in the Funeral Oration, Pericles admits that the Athenian empire is a tyranny. I think that the admission is shocking, at least to a person of my generation, because we grew up being taught about Greece through the eyes of Cold Warriors. Dorothea Wender put it nicely when she told a group of undergrads, including myself, to forget the notion that U.S. = Athens, and USSR = Sparta. The Athenian empire, based on other descriptions, seems to have focused on extracting tribute, either in the form of ships, or in the form of tribute.

One problem, which is related to tribute, is that both the Spartans and the Athenian were committed to hard currency. Payment for services was made in gold or silver coinage. So rather than having an economy that largely relied on the ability of the government to print large quantities of paper money, and to inflate the money supply to the extent necessary to pay for goods and services during wartime, the money was transferred out of the treasury to the soldiers and sailors in the military. There was no system of taxation that even partially recycled money, i.e., no income tax, so the ancient economies expanded through either colonization or through tribute from allies. By attacking Athens through the periphery, i.e., its colonies and allies, the Spartans and their allies eventually wrecked the Athenian economy. However, in the process, the Spartan economy, which was not on a firm footing, partly because its own form of currency, iron nails, was not exchangeable elsewhere, was also wrecked.

It’s fashionable to sneer at patriotism, and the idea that the US has an empire is repulsive to many, but Pericles, in the funeral oration, says “Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours.” Here Pericles postulates that the position of Athens in the world is a a source of pride for all of her citizens, and that receipt of benefits from the Empire entails an obligation to support that Empire. There is, in the Periclean view, a moral obligation to patriotism because of the acts performed by the Empire on our behalf. In contemporary terms a country, which confers benefits upon its citizens, even if the benefits are at the Libertarian/Randian level of simply protecting against force and fraud, is entitled to its citizens support by virtue of those benefits. The citizen who does not wish to support his country, should reject its benefits. This would seem to follow from Pericles principle.

This might not seem to square with democracy, but the principle is compatible with arguing about policy, or the implementation of policy while still supporting the country/empire.

UPDATE: 10/3/2007—I’ve finished Book VI and will continue blogging about Thucydides through Book VI here. I only work on this about an hour or so at a stretch, and it takes a while to write this.

In Book III Cleon makes an appearance. I think this is the first time, outside of Aristophanes, that I’ve seen a portrait of Cleon. He appears as a bit of a rabble rousing demagogue.

Cleon asserts, in pleading for the destruction of Mytilene, that Athens has an empire, and that it must be maintained by force because parts of it are unwilling members. If Mytilene is allowed to go unpunished, Athens will “have to risk our money and our lives against one state after another; and if successful, shall receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue upon which our strength depends; while if unsuccessful, we shall have an enemy the more upon our hands, and shall spend the time that might be employed in combating our existing foes in warring with our own allies.” This is not quite an enthymeme, but the contrary hypothesis is that if Mytilene is punished, then other areas that might be tempted to rebel will not. In short, Cleon is arguing that the punishment will have a deterrent effect. He then argues that if the Athenians are determined to rule, they must be ruthless, “However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mitylenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger.” He concludes by invoking the ideas of retribution and deterrence, “Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you are fighting with your own confederates."

Diodotus makes an appeal to Athenians better angels. The main points that he makes are that it is in the best interests of Athens to be merciful, and that it is possible for the rebels to repent, and be allies once again.

Diodotus carries the day, and a ship is sent to countermand the original order for the destruction of Mytilene.

These passages have an almost cinematic quality to them.

Book V concludes with the destruction of Melos, an event that is supposed to have prompted Euripides to write The Trojan Women. The Athenians assert fundamentally that might makes right, and that their power entitles them to demand the Melian’s capitulation.

Book VI contains perhaps the most perplexing incident of the whole war. Athens, which is still recovering from the effects of the plague, and which could not possibly have produced enough young men to make up the population lost during the preceding campaigns and the epidemic, decides to open a second front. Nicias attempts to dissuade the citizens, but instead succeeds in inflaming them all the more. Then just before the expedition is scheduled to launch the Hermae are mutilated, and a leading general, Alcibiades, is suspected of involvement in that, and in profaning the Eleusinian mysteries.

I’m not sure that it made sense to suspect Alcibiades in the mutilation of the Hermae. The person who opposed the invasion, Nicias, would appear to have the most to gain from postponing or scrapping the effort.