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Thucydides Book III: Class Conflict and Politics

The main war that Thucydides describes is between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League, but there is another, even larger conflict that rages throughout:  a class war between the aristocratic class and the new class of plutocrats.

In democratic Athens the plutocrats, wealthy commercial men like Cleon the leather merchant and Nicias the silver mine magnate, are in charge.  There is a direct relationship between wealth and political power.  The Athenians have found democracy so much to their liking that they have forced most of their colonies and client states to adopt democracy on the Athenian model.

Paulus voor de leden van de Areopagus in Athene, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The Aeropagus in Athens, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

In Sparta the situation is very different.  The old military class, the Hómoioi or “Peers”, has relaxed a bit from the iron discipline handed down from Lycurgus, but they still rule.  Sparta is an oligopoly and her leaders are born into a life devoted to the service of the state.  When they speak of their fight for “freedom” they are generally referring to the freedom to no be forced into the Athenian system.

In the rest of the Hellenic world, there is still open conflict between the forces of democracy and oligopoly.  In many cities, the two factions are perpetually on the verge of civil war–a situation which both the Athenians and Spartans happily exploit.  In the smoldering trouble-spot of Corcyra, for example, the democratic faction has recently seized control and a group exiled aristocrats have been waging a guerrilla war on their own people, becoming little better than pirates.  Now, in Book III, the Corcyran situation reaches a moment of crises and a chaotic revolution breaks out.  The democratic faction called for help and Athens sends ships.  However, a nearby Spartan force also hears of the chaos and sails to Corcyra to aid their own partisans.  A confusing battle results in which the Spartans come our somewhat ahead but decide to withdraw.  The democratic faction uses the confusion of the battle to slaughter all of the remaining aristocrats and the city briefly descended into anarchy as men grasped the opportunity to eliminate private enemies.

According to Thucydides, the Corcyran revolt is the first of many over the next few years,

So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being every where made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

Political affiliations become even more important than ties of blood, but politics are based on a desire to cease power that could not have been satisfied if the whole ecumene were not in the grips of war.  While the various revolutionary leaders might espouse the causes of either democracy or oligarchy, all are mainly motivated by personal greed and ambition.

Class warfare was hardly a new phenomenon in Greece.  The Athenian democracy itself had been born from the reforms of Solon, a compromise intended to restore order after a massive wealth imbalance had created intolerable tensions between the commoners and aristocrats,

The poor, finding their situation worse with each year–the government and the army in the hands of their masters, and the corrupt courts deciding against them–began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth.  The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them, and angry at the challenges to their savings and property, invoked ancient laws and prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established order, all religion, and all civilization.” Durant, The Life of Greece p. 112

Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Solon van Athene, Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Now, in the 4th century, there is no compromise.  The plutocrats and oligarchs fight it out.  Eventually, the oligarchs win, but only after impoverishing themselves so much in wealth and numbers that the whole country is easy prey for the Macedonian conquest a few generations later.  The first great age of democracy ends with the Peloponnesian war and the world will not see another true democracy until the Renaissance.

Class conflict never truly stopped, however, rising to the forefront of history whenever real or perceived inequalities became too extreme.  As I continue these notes on the Great Books, we will see that many of the Great Thinkers wrote about social class, class consciousness, and class warfare; these concepts seem critical to any understanding of civilization itself.

Nowadays, as has periodically been the case, Western society is again under extreme social tension because of wealth inequality between plutocrats and proletarians, to say nothing of the reactionary flailings of a bourgeoisie feeling a marked decrease in its size and influence.  Perhaps studying history in the form of the Great Books will hold the key to finding a wise compromise like the reforms of Solon, rather than plunging our society into decades of internecine warfare and revolution like the Peloponnesian Wars.

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Thucydides Book I: The Roots of War

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

After the introduction in Chapter 1, most of Thucydides first book is given over to examining the causes and events leading up to the war. While he describes several diplomatic incidents, Thucydides points out that,

The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth and power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still, it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of war.

The two Greek power blocks had essentially been fighting a cold war since shortly after the Persian conflict, and each had built up its military assets and financial reserves in anticipation of an eventual war. With both sides primed in this way, it didn’t require much to set them off. Despite this, the Spartans avoided declaring war as long as possible, even when pressed hard by their allies to do something about the Athenian situation. Thucydides blames this on the Spartan culture. As opposed to democratic Athens where risk-taking and quick decision were applauded, the Spartans are conservative and over-cautious. In 1:6 he puts this view in the mouth of a Corinthian envoy addressing the Spartan leaders,

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.

This is certainly one possible interpretation. However, it is hard criticize the Spartans for wanting to avoid war, or trying to avoid conflict with an aggressive power that had many times their own military budget. The fact is that in our Western literary tradition, particularly since the renaissance, we tend to be heavily biased towards the Athenians. Mostly, this is attributable to the number of works by Athenian authors which have made it into our official Western Cannon. As later writers have striven to make a case for democracy as the one best form of government, an implicit narrative has emerged where the democratic, freedom loving Athenian philosophers fought nobly against the ranks of faceless, fascist, uncultured Spartans. Our high school history texts dwell on the Academy of Athens, but the brutal training of young men in Sparta.

History, as a genre, is about narrative. It straddles the line between literary and non-fiction, because all historic writing tells a story, yet must still conform to known facts.

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

Ultimately, it was neither the Spartans nor the Athenians who struck the first blows in the war, but some of the second-tier powers to whom they were allied. Things began to get tense when Corinth, allied to Sparta, and Corcyra, a neutral state, went to war over Epidamnus, which each claimed as a daughter colony. Corcyra soon managed to ally herself with Athens, who sent ships to support them. Only the rather convoluted rules of engagement given to the Athenian captains, prohibiting them from engaging Corinthian units unless they tried to land at Corcyra, allowed them to preserve the letter of their treaty with the Peloponnesian League. Reading this section, I was reminded of current events in the paper. The president of Estonia recently published an editorial in the Washington Post about how thrilled he is to have gotten into NATO just before Russia began aggressive operations in nearby Ukraine, because he knows the US and EU are now treaty bound to defend his country. He seems to be right, judging by the recent maneuvers of the 2nd Cavalry a few weeks ago as they helped Estonia “celebrate Estonian Independence Day” 300 yards from the Russian border. We can safely assume that, like those long ago Athenian officers, the US commanders in Estonia have instructions to make a show of force while doing everything they can to avoid actually fighting Russians.

Soon after the Corcyran affair, the several Athenian-aligned cities along the Macedonian border declared independence. Corinth, still bitter over the war with Corcyra, reinforced them. When Athens attacked, Corinth finally had the leverage they needed to convince Sparta that the peace was completely broken. While a formal declaration of war was nearly a year off, there was no longer any possibility of stopping the Peloponnesian War.