wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Bernard Knox

Essays Ancient and Modern

Armed with this power of surgical analysis and with a fierce devotion to the truth, Thucydides wrote the history of the war which began with Athens at the height of her economic and naval power and ended twenty-seven years later in her total defeat. In the opening books, especially in the speeches of Pericles, he prepares the stage for what seems to be the inevitable victory of Athens. She is invulnerable at home because of the long walls which connected city and harbor—'if only we were an island,' says Pericles, and the walls in effect made her so. Her resources in money, ships, and trained naval personnel were infinitely superior to those of her enemies. In order to win she had only to stand pat; the war was an attempt to destroy the Athenian Empire, but it could never succeed as long as Athens retained control of the sea. All she had to do was to avoid large-scale battles on land and refrain from any attempts to extend the empire. If these two restrictions were observed, the war was bound to end in a stalemate, and since the enemy had begun the war as a challenge to the status quo, a stalemate would be an Athenian victory. Such a policy would require great discipline (the Athenians would have to watch the enemy burn their farms), but in Pericles they had a leader who could hold them to it. Yet Athens lost the war. Something was wrong with Pericles' calculations. Why did Athens lose?

Thucydides never poses the question in quite those terms, but his answer to it emerges from his narrative. In Pericles' first speech the strategy is outlined, a calculation of resources made; a supreme confidence is expressed—Athens cannot lose if it follows the Periclean guidelines. A warning note, however, is sounded in the speech of the Spartan King Archidamus as his troops invade Attica. 'There is much,' he says, 'that is unpredictable in war.' Pericles was soon to learn that lesson himself. No amount of calculation and preparation can foresee the accidents and combinations of circumstances that war is liable to produce. Pericles had foreseen the Spartan invasion and the destruction of the Athenian crops but not the plague which caused such havoc in the overcrowded city. He admits this in his last speech. 'When things happen suddenly, unexpectedly, and against all calculations, it takes the heart out of a man; and this has certainly happened to you,' he tells the Athenians, 'with the plague coming on top of everything else.' The plague dealt a terrible blow to Athenian manpower and morale, but it did something even more damaging: it killed Pericles. And his death opened the way for new leaders who made the mistakes he had feared—involvement in land battles (at Delium and later at Mantinea) and expeditions to enlarge the empire (the disastrous expedition to Sicily). This last mistake came at a time when, strictly speaking, Athens had won the war. When peace was made in 421, she had, it is true, sustained heavy losses in the plague and in the unnecessary land engagement at Delium; she had also lost her subject cities in the north to a Spartan captain of genius, Brasidas, but she had captured, at Pylos, enough Spartan soldiers and officers to induce Sparta to sue for terms. And after all, this was, as Pericles foresaw, the way the war would end. The war was a challenge to Athens's rule over the empire; if the enemy settled for less, he admitted failure. With the return to something like the status quo, a dynamic Athens was now free to rebuild her resources to the level, or above it, of her position in 431.

But the Athenians not only proceeded to engage Sparta in an infantry battle at Mantinea (which they lost); they also gambled their whole fleet and the bulk of their fighting manpower on an attempt to take over Sicily, a place they could hardly expect to hold even if they conquered it.

The fault then lay in the leadership, and this raises the question of Athenian democracy and Thucydides' attitude toward it. Pericles' funeral speech, of course, is one of the great documents of Western democratic ideals. But when Thucydides pays his tribute to Pericles after describing his death, he says something rather disturbing. 'In what was nominally a democracy power was really in the hands of the first citizen.' True, Pericles had to be reelected to the board of generals each year, but he managed to do so for a period of some fifteen years before his death in 429, and he did it without flattering the people or playing on their prejudices. 'He was so highly respected,' says Thucydides, 'that he was able to speak angrily to them and to contradict them.' His successors, however, had no such personal authority. They had to adopt 'methods of demagoguery which resulted in their losing control over the actual conduct of affairs.' This loss of control by the successors of Pericles resulted in the disastrous abandonment of his strategy; they were unable, unlike him, 'to respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check.'

The trouble with Athenian democracy was, of course, that it was a direct democracy. The modern slogan we hear so often from our radical left, 'All power to the people,' exactly describes it. Policy was decided in an assembly which any citizen could attend; clever orators could play on passions and fears to promote their own interests, as Alcibiades did in his advocacy of the expedition to Sicily. In the last years of the war (Thucydides did not live long enough to describe this incident, though he must have known about it) the admirals at the battle of Arginusae, who in the turmoil of a successful naval engagement failed to rescue the crews of their wrecked ships before a gale made it impossible, were recalled, tried before an assembly whipped up to a rage by their political opponents, and condemned to death. When Thucydides puts into the mouth of Alcibiades at Sparta the statement that democracy is a system which is 'generally recognized as absurd,' one cannot help feeling, with all due allowance made for the slipperiness of Alcibiades and for the fact that he was addressing a Spartan audience, that Thucydides may have been to some extent in agreement. Periclean democracy was one thing; it was almost like our own democracy in that it had a powerful executive capable of a consistent policy; but the democracy which was to be dominated by Cleon and led to catastrophe by Alcibiades was quite another. In fact, in Book VIII, where Thucydides describes the antidemocratic revolution in Athens which followed the disaster in Sicily, he says of its final phase (an assembly restricted to five thousand property-owning citizens) that 'during the first period of the new regime, the Athenians appeared to have had a better government than ever before, at least in my time.' For once Thucydides seems to have been in agreement with that Cleon he so despised; Cleon in the debate over Mitylene had said, 'A democracy is incapable of governing an empire.'

What did Thucydides think of the empire? I, for one, have no doubt that he thought the empire, ruled with tact and wisdom as it was under Pericles, was the justified reward of Athens's crusade against Persia and of her creative energy and administrative skill. He gives a great deal of emphasis to the claim that Athens under Pericles governed her subjects with moderation and benevolence. There is a ring of truth in the words he puts into the mouth of the Athenian representative to the Congress in Sparta before the war. 'Those who really deserve praise,' he says, 'are the people who, while human enough to enjoy power, nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do by their situation. Certainly we think that if anyone else was in our position it would soon be evident whether we act with moderation or not.' He goes on to explain that the subject allies complain that lawsuits involving Athenians and allied citizens are tried in Athens, but as he points out, the fact that the cases are tried at all is unusual.