Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III

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Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

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 (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part I: The First Navalist

In the first 23 chapters of Book I (“The Archaeology”) Thucydides details the historical backdrop of the Hellas, against which the great Peloponnesian War occurred. Even at this early stage of the book Thucydides key themes are apparent, along with the titles they bestow upon the author.

As the “Father of History” he constructs the backdrop layer by layer, starting with the most elemental – soil quality (1.2.3) – in the same manner as a 20th century Annales work. His skepticism for traditional historical sources, such as the poets, is explicit (1.20). In a lament that remains just as valid today as it was 25 centuries ago, Thucydides bemoans the fact that so many of the narratives that inform and dominate our understanding of the world are demonstrably false:

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history which have not been obscured by times … So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand (1.20.3).

Thucydides seemed to be aware of the magnitude of his own accomplishment, and that his work had value not for his contemporaries, but for the reader of the far distant future. At various remarkable points, he seems to be addressing that reader specifically, such as when he cautions against judging the glory of Athens and Sparta by the quality of their ruins (1.10.2), and his famous passage that presciently describes his own work:

…if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work not, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (1.22.4).

Thucydides as a political realist is a theme that will be emphasized throughout the discussion; however, even within The Archaeology we find one of his most important passages, which encapsulates the central argument that is threaded throughout the work:

The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable (1.23.6).

Largely unappreciated is Thucydides’ quality as perhaps the first navalist. In the initial chapters of Book I he identifies the maritime domain and the advent of naval power as the key factor that brought the scattered and divided Hellenic peoples into regular contact with one another, enabling diplomacy, trade, the accumulation of capital, war and conquest. According to Thucydides, it was Minos who first assembled a powerful navy, expelling pirates from the Cyclades and allowing the Hellenic peoples to venture upon the sea in relative safety (1.4). This allowed each seafaring polity to gain wealth with which to secure its cities upon the land and project power abroad, escaping the confines of a fractured physical and political landscape.

The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and dominion … Wars by land there were none, none at least by which power was acquired; we have the usual border contests, but of distant expeditions with conquest the object we hear nothing among the Hellenes. There was no union of subject cities around a great state, no spontaneous combinations of equals for confederate expeditions; what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival neighbors (1.15).

Thucydides understood that it was by fleets that the sinews of war were carried; it followed that the geography of certain cities, such as Corinth, would benefit them greatly. And like any navalist, Thucydides recognized that at the level of grand strategy, there was a distinction between “continental” (1.9.4) or “military” powers like Sparta, and “naval” powers like Athens (1.18.2). The contrasting natures of continental and naval power would bedevil both Athens and Sparta through the entirety of the war, for each would struggle to project decisive power against the other.

 

 

Thoughts on Thucydides: Introduction

A few months ago I completed my first read of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war with Robert Strassler’s Landmark edition. Only a couple of weeks ago, I learned of Zenpundit’s Thucydides roundtable and its impressive list of contributors. Two weeks is not much time to compose meaningful essay material on such a timeless work, and I would not want my own dilettantish observations to intrude on such an illustrious panel.

Still, the timing seemed auspicious, and all those hours spent reading, underlining and annotating would be wasted if I did not take this opportunity to regurgitate some of it. Thus, I will make my own spiritual contribution to the Roundtable on this blog, though I will probably not be able to keep up with Zenpundit’s ambitious schedule.

Writing about Thucydides is an intimidating prospect: when the topic is the Father of History himself, whose work grasps at truths in nearly every facet of human existence, how can one hope to add anything of value or poignancy?

And when you manage to start writing, a new challenge arises: where to stop? Thucydides is almost Biblical as a source of literary commentary, with a density that approaches singularity: peel back one theme only to find infinite layers beneath. To make any progress I had to delineate a limit, select a lens and focus primarily on the narrative of strategic and military events, which is the most accessible narrative within Thucydides and the most relevant to the traditional subject of this website.

I start my observations with Book I in the following posts.

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thucydides

Thucydides, son of Olorus

China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

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