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 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.