June 25, 2022

1. Pericles

At the outset of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles’ goal was to have Athens stay quietly behind its walls, and demonstrate to Sparta that Athens wouldn’t fight on land, even if Athenian homes and farms were destroyed, and therefore Sparta couldn’t win the war, so the only sensible thing for Sparta to do was make peace, and return to the status quo ante. Pericles said to his fellow Athenians that if they would “remain quiet, take care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail.”1

It’s possible that this strange strategy would have worked; Thucydides thinks it would have worked. But Pericles died two years after the war started, and the Athenians didn’t stick to his cautious strategy after his death, they embarked on some bold schemes, such as the Sicilian expedition. Furthermore, Kagan adds up the financial costs of the war, and argues that Athens could only afford these costs for three years; ships were an expense, soldiers were an expense, and the loss of Attic farms was a significant economic blow. Sparta, on the other hand, could afford to keep fighting for many years; their farms were intact, their soldiers did not receive wages.

Kagan is much impressed that Pericles was able to persuade his fellow citizens to let their homes and farms be destroyed. Kagan says that this was Pericles’ “greatest triumph as an educator.”2 Kagan quotes the military historian Hans Delbruck, who places Pericles “among the greatest generals in world history.” Kagan is impressed that Pericles was able to “put the plan through a democratic assembly by the force of his personality and to see that it was carried out.” But perhaps the best plans are those that work; Pericles’ plan didn’t work, Athens lost the war.

The Spartans and their allies invaded Attica in 431 BC with a force of some 50,000 soldiers. Inhabitants of the Attic countryside withdrew into Athens, leaving their farm animals on the island of Euboea (see map below). “At first they were all crowded within the city walls; every vacant space was occupied, even sanctuaries of the gods.... The very towers of the city walls were used by squatters.... The discomfort was extreme.” The people were angry, and much of their anger was directed at Pericles. Thucydides says, “[Pericles] prevented the calling of an assembly or any other meeting, fearing that if the people came together they would make a mistake by acting out of anger.”

Kagan says that, even after Pericles died, Athens stuck to his strategy for two more years, but it didn’t work, Sparta wasn’t giving up. Sparta seemed quite willing to march into Attica every spring, and ravage its farms for one month. If the Athenian navy raided the Peloponnesus, Sparta seemed able to endure that.

In the second year of the war, a severe plague struck Athens, and killed perhaps one-third of its people. “With the entire population of Attica crowded into the walled area it was especially deadly.” The plague didn’t affect the Spartans. But Kagan argues that the plague wasn’t to blame for the failure of Pericles’ strategy; the strategy was fundamentally flawed, it was doomed from the outset.

If the Athenian strategy wasn’t working, neither was the Spartan strategy. The Spartans had hoped to defeat the Athenians in a land battle, or to sign a treaty with Athens — a treaty that was favorable to Sparta. But for the Spartans, there was no victory and no peace, just continued war.

The failure of the Athenian and Spartan strategies only made both sides more determined to fight on. “Instead of becoming more ready to make peace as their strategic expectations were refuted, both sides became more bitter and determined and increased their warlike efforts.”3

When the plague struck Athens, however, it had “a crushing effect on Athenian morale.” Pericles could no longer prevent the calling of an assembly, and the assembly decided to seek peace. But Spartan demands were unacceptable to the Athenians, even in their demoralized state, so the war dragged on. Pericles had won the policy argument in the assembly.

But opposition to the leadership of Pericles was growing. Hawks, who wanted a more aggressive policy, opposed Pericles. Doves, who wanted peace at any price, also opposed Pericles. Together they removed Pericles from office, and put him on trial for embezzlement. If they couldn’t defeat him in the assembly, they would try to defeat him in court.

Pericles was convicted, fined, and removed from office. Six months later, however, the voters put him back in power. But he wasn’t the old Pericles. “By mid-summer 429 BC, when he resumed office, he was mortally ill and had only a few months to live. The disease that killed him, probably the plague, did not attack him suddenly but lingered, ‘using up his body slowly and undermining the loftiness of his spirit.’ By the fall of the same year he was dead.”4

After Pericles died, Athenian finances worsened. “His successors were compelled to resort to a direct tax, perhaps the first in Athenian history, and an increase in the tribute.”5

Cleon became influential in Athenian politics, and he pursued a more aggressive policy. In 425 BC, Athens won victories on the coast of the Peloponnese, at Pylos and Sphacteria. But then Sparta seized Amphipolis, an Athenian colony on the northern coast of the Aegean. Thucydides, the historian, was sent with a force to Amphipolis, but arrived too late. “Thucydides was exiled for this, and, as a result, had conversations with both sides of the war which inspired him to record its history.”6

Below is a map of Greece, with a red circle around Pylos/Sphacteria, a green circle around Amphipolis, and a blue circle around the island of Euboea (where the Athenians put their farm animals when they evacuated Attica).7

In the Athenian assembly, Cleon often jousted with Nicias, who was a politician in the mold of Pericles. Nicias “retained great power in Athens for the sixteen years he survived Pericles.” Nicias emulated Pericles, “remaining aloof in his private life and avoiding conviviality, public events, and even conversation.... He posted his friends at the doors of his house to [tell visitors] ‘at that very moment Nicias was occupied with important public business.’”

Nicias engaged a man named Hiero to circulate flattering stories about him. Hiero told people that “Even when [Nicias] is taking his bath and while eating dinner some kind of public business is engaging him. [He] barely begins to lie down to sleep until the first watch of the night.”8

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nicias’ attempt to imitate Pericles shows that Pericles, after his death, was widely admired. Even Cleon, the demagogue whom Pericles had often clashed with, imitated Pericles, using expressions that Pericles had used, and chastising the people as Pericles had.

By 421 BC, the war had been going on for ten years, and both sides needed to rest and re-group. So a treaty, the Peace of Nicias, was signed, and lasted for six years. In 415 BC, the Athenians sent a force to Sicily, under the command of Alcibiades; this expedition proved to be a disaster.

Kagan says that, after Pericles died, Athens “stumbled aimlessly into destructive brutality and self-destructive adventurism.” The government couldn’t pursue any policy “firmly and steadily”; one setback would cause the people to lose faith in a policy or leader. The most “notorious atrocity” that the Athenians committed was killing all the men of Melos, after Melos refused to join the Athenian empire. On another occasion, the Athenians killed several of their own generals, after a naval battle didn’t end as they had wished.

After the Sicily disaster, Athens’ allies rebelled, and it seemed that Spartan victory was imminent. The Athenian people longed for more wisdom and stability than the assembly possessed, so they elected a council of forty elders. Kagan says that the Athenians “put as many old Pericleans as they could find on the new council of elders.” One of the “old Pericleans” on the new council was the writer Sophocles. So danger brought out the best in the Athenian people, they made a “stunning recovery” from the Sicily mess.

Meanwhile, the Persian king decided to back Sparta. Alcibiades, disgraced and exiled after the Sicily debacle, had become an adviser to Persia. Alcibiades wanted to return to Athens, but couldn’t return as long as Athens had its democratic government (Alcibiades was charged with various crimes by that government).

So Alcibiades promised the Athenians that he would bring Persia over to its side, if the Athenians replaced their democracy with an oligarchy. So in 411 BC, the democracy was overthrown, for the first time in a century, and replaced with an oligarchy known as the Four Hundred. “The dominant faction among the Four Hundred.... launched a reign of murder and intimidation against democrats and moderates and were on the point of betraying the city to the Spartans.”9

So there was a counter-revolution, the Four Hundred lost power, and democracy was restored. This new democracy staved off defeat for several years, despite revolts in the Athenian empire, and despite an alliance between Sparta and Persia. In 405 BC, Sparta was able to build a navy with Persian money, and defeat the Athenian navy. Athens surrendered in 404 BC; Athens lost its empire, lost its democratic government, had to pull down its walls, and had to become a member of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League. Kagan writes,

The Spartans next installed [at Athens] a puppet government of oligarchs whose brutality earned them the name “The Thirty Tyrants.” The new regime soon began another reign of terror consisting of widespread confiscations and judicial murder, turning first for political reasons against well-known leaders of the democracy, then against rich men for the sake of gain, and finally against moderates, even those among their own number, who complained of these atrocities. As hostility and resistance grew, the Thirty had to call in a Spartan garrison to protect them from their fellow-citizens.

A new Athenian leader, Thrasybulus, organized resistance against the Thirty Tyrants. Thrasybulus had made a name for himself as a naval commander. Kagan compares Thrasybulus to De Gaulle, who set up a base in England, and organized resistance against the Nazis and the Vichy regime. Thrasybulus set up a base in Thebes, and attracted “Athenian democrats and patriots” to Thebes. Eventually Thrasybulus was able to challenge the Thirty and their Spartan backers. In 403 BC, Thrasybulus ousted the Thirty and restored democracy in Athens.

The restored democracy pursued a policy of “moderation and restraint.” Aristotle later wrote that this policy was “the finest and most statesmanlike that any people has demonstrated.” Instead of seeking vengeance against the Thirty and their supporters, “Thrasybulus joined with other moderates to impose an amnesty that protected all but a few of the worst criminals.” The new regime “even raised public money to pay back to the Spartans the sum the Thirty had borrowed to fight the democrats.”

This moderation led to a “reconciliation of the classes and factions” in Athens, and enabled democracy to survive in Athens for almost a century without internal strife.10 The reputation of Pericles remained high. Isocrates, who lived a generation or two after Pericles, said that Pericles “had so adorned the city with monuments... that even today those who come to Athens believe it worthy to rule over not only the Greeks but the whole world.”

But Pericles has had some detractors, both in antiquity and in modern times. One of these detractors was Plato. “Plato attacked Pericles directly.” Plato loathed democracy, and he criticized even the most esteemed democratic leaders, like Pericles, Cimon, and Themistocles. Such leaders, Plato said, built docks and walls, but neglected moderation and justice.

The Founding Fathers took a dim view of Greek democracy. In Federalist 6, Hamilton criticized Pericles for being manipulated by a prostitute (Aspasia), and for leading Athens into the Peloponnesian War. Hamilton’s goal was not to besmirch Pericles’ reputation, but rather to warn against pure democracy.

In the 1800s, however, “the attitude toward Athenian democracy became more favorable.... The publication of George Grote’s great twelve-volume History of Greece between 1846 and 1856 transformed the understanding of Periclean Athens.” During World War I, the view of ancient Athens was so favorable that London buses had posters quoting Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

* * * * *

In a chapter called “Hero,” Kagan compares Pericles to the tragic hero; Kagan argues that Sophocles may have been thinking of Pericles when he created characters like Oedipus. In the last two years of his life, Pericles suffered a downfall like that of a tragic hero, he suffered “a series of disasters — both political and personal — so great as to bring to mind that reversal of fortune which Aristotle, a century later, connected with the tragic heroes.”

Athens was suffering from plague and war, Pericles himself had been thrown out of office, many of his family members died in the plague. “He tried to maintain his usual calm demeanor in the face of these calamities, but he gave way as he laid a wreath on the grave of his younger son and ‘broke out into wailing and shed many tears, something he had never done in all the rest of his life.’”11

In his Funeral Oration, Pericles had encouraged his fellow citizens to seek glory for their city and themselves, but the plague prompted Athenians to seek immediate pleasure. “Fear of the gods or the laws of mankind restrained nobody: on the one hand they saw that all alike were dying and judged that it was the same whether they were pious or not; on the other, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and pay the penalty for his crimes.”12 The ethics of glory gave way to the ethics of impulse.

Athens was shattered, and many people pointed a finger of blame at Pericles. Wasn’t it Pericles who pushed through the Megarian Decree, then refused to withdraw it? Wasn’t it Pericles who said Athens couldn’t be defeated if it withdrew behind its walls? And didn’t the crowding in Athens create the conditions for the plague?

But even on his deathbed, Pericles seems to have clung to his policies, and refused to admit his mistakes. His last words were “No Athenian now alive has put on mourning clothes because of me.”13 Kagan says that these words “must have astounded his hearers.”

In 425 BC, Sophocles presented Oedipus Rex. Pericles had died four years earlier; Athens was still at war with Sparta. Kagan writes,

As the play opens the city is suffering from a terrible plague.... The legend of Oedipus had never included any reference to a plague; it was a Sophoclean innovation. The cause of the plague, moreover, is not Apollo, but Ares, the war-god. The plague, therefore, appears to be the product of a war. The Athenian audience would not have missed these innovations in the story. Nor would it have taken long for them to recognize in Oedipus an image of the man who had been the leader of their own city during the first appearance of the plague.

In Oedipus Rex, the Delphic oracle says that Thebes must “drive out the thing that defiles this land.” The way to lift the curse is “banishment, or repaying blood for blood.” This reminds us that Pericles was said to have inherited from his ancestors a curse, the curse of the Alcmaeonids, which sprang from murder. When a Spartan embassy came to Athens, they said that Athens should “drive out the curse,” meaning they should exile Pericles.

Kagan says that Sophocles often describes Oedipus as tyrannos, though he’s not what we would call “tyrannical,” he’s a “good tyrant.” Oedipus is “unarmed and unguarded, law-abiding; he rejects secrecy for open discussion, and listens to the advice of others.” Kagan quotes the Sophocles scholar Bernard Knox: “Thebes under Oedipus may be a tyrannis, but what it most resembles is a democracy ruled by its first citizen.” So Oedipus resembles Pericles.

Kagan says that Pericles’ enemies often called him a tyrant. So by calling Oedipus a tyrant, Sophocles emphasizes the link with Pericles, just as the curse and the plague link Oedipus with Pericles.

Bernard Knox compares Pericles not just to Oedipus, but to other heroes depicted by Sophocles. The Sophoclean hero is “one who, unsupported by the gods and in the face of human opposition, makes a decision which springs from the deepest layer of his individual nature, his physis, and then blindly, ferociously, heroically maintains that decision even to the point of self-destruction.” One thinks of Pericles clinging to his Megarian Decree.

Knox continues: “In six of the [seven] extant plays, the hero is faced with a choice between [possible disaster] and a compromise.... the hero decides against compromise, and that decision is then assailed, by friendly advice, by threats, by actual force. But he refuses to yield; he remains true to himself.” Likewise, Pericles refused to compromise with his domestic critics or his foreign foes. Is this heroic persistence, or foolish stubbornness? Does the outcome determine whether it’s heroic or foolish? Kagan says that the same “bulldog determination” that led Churchill to victory and glory, led Pericles to disaster and humiliation.

Kagan speaks of Pericles’ “extraordinary confidence in reason and intelligence, especially his own.” Perhaps Greek civilization as a whole placed too much confidence in “reason and intelligence,” and overlooked feeling, intuition, unconscious. Withdrawing behind the walls was a rational policy that suppressed the natural urge to defend one’s home. It was also rational insofar as it assumed that the Spartans were rational, it assumed that the Spartans could be taught. And perhaps it was rational in yet another way: it assumed that the mind could calculate how events would play out, it underrated the element of the unexpected, the incalculable.

Reason led Pericles to pursue a middle course, but the middle course brought disaster: “His strategy, intended as a moderate device for persuading the enemy to make peace, was too weak to bring victory but strong enough to cause anger and intensify determination.” I’m reminded of how the rational Aristotle viewed virtue as a middle course, a mean between extremes.

According to Knox, the tragic hero “will not be ruled, no one shall have power over them or treat them as a slave, they are free.” Likewise, Pericles urges the Athenians to cling to their freedom, not to let Sparta rule them: “It means slavery just the same when equals impose either the greatest or the smallest demands upon their neighbors, instead of seeking a legal settlement.”14 One can’t help wondering if Pericles could have averted war by bowing to the “smallest demands” of the Spartans, by showing humility and flexibility, by being deferential to the Spartans, who had long enjoyed a preeminent place among Greek city-states.

That concludes my discussion of Pericles. I take my leave of the wine-dark sea, the beaked ships, the white temples.

2. Ukraine & Russian Manufacturing

Interesting Twitter thread by Kamil Galeev. He points out that Russia is firing an enormous number of missiles and shells in Ukraine — more than the U.S. manufactures in five or ten years. “U.S. annual artillery production would only last for ten days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine.” Where is Russia getting all these missiles/shells?

Russia has developed the ability to manufacture ammunition/weaponry despite not having a machine-tool industry. Their machine-tool industry collapsed with the Soviet Union, and was never revived. (Even in Soviet times, they made mostly old-style tools, not modern programmable tools.)

So Russia relies on foreign suppliers, chiefly Germany, for machine tools. Germany buys energy from Russia, and sells machine tools to Russia. Russia also buys machine tools from Switzerland, Italy, Japan, the U.S., Australia, Turkey, etc.

But not from China. Why doesn’t Russia buy machine tools from China? According to Walter Russell Mead, China has been importing machine tools from Germany, and is just beginning to make its own tools. It will probably be a while before Russia trusts the quality of Chinese tools.

According to Galeev, Russians believe that, in the long run, China could be a dangerous foe. The current friendship between Russia and China may be superficial. Galeev writes, “The discussion on Russian-Chinese alignment focuses too much on public rhetoric, and fails to consider the deep fear of China that is very typical of Russian bureaucracy.”

But Galeev thinks that the Ukraine war has changed Russian thinking. Previously Russia felt that the West wasn’t very dangerous because it couldn’t act in concert, it couldn’t act as one; so Russia had little fear of the West. Now, however, Russia realizes that the West can act as one. Russia was shocked by the severity of Western sanctions. Russia has become more receptive to trade with China; “Russia is now cured from Sinophobia.”

If Russia can’t get machine tools from the West, and can’t make them at home, where will it get them? If everyone knows now that Russia will use these tools to make weapons, to attack peaceable nations, to slaughter civilians, and to disturb the peace of the world, who will want to supply Russia with machine tools? How will Russia keep its arms industry going? How will it keep any industry going?

After I wrote this, fresh evidence emerged of strains in the China-Russia relationship.

© L. James Hammond 2022
visit Phlit home page
become a patron via Patreon
make a donation via PayPal

1. Kagan, Pericles of Athens, Ch. 12, p. 229, quoting Thucydides back
2. p. 231 back
3. p. 239 back
4. Kagan, p. 242, quoting Plutarch back
5. pp. 242, 243. “Direct tax” probably means a tax on property, wealth. back
6. Wikipedia back
7. The map shows Amphipolis to the east of Thasos. I think this is a mistake. back
8. Kagan Ch. 14, p. 261, quoting Plutarch back
9. p. 265. Thucydides’ account ends in 411 BC. Xenophon’s Hellenica picks up where Thucydides leaves off. “The Hellenica continues directly from the final sentence of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War covering the last seven years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) and the subsequent forty-two years (404 BC-362 BC) ending with the Second Battle of Mantinea.”(Wikipedia) back
10. p. 267. Athenian independence was curtailed by the domination of Macedonia, which can be dated to 338 BC. back
11. Kagan, Ch. 13, p. 247, quoting Plutarch back
12. Kagan p. 248, quoting Thucydides back
13. Kagan p. 248, quoting Plutarch back
14. Kagan p. 254, quoting Thucydides, who’s quoting Pericles back