Thucydides on the Spartan Ethic for War – Commentary by Steven Willett


In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides lays out the events that precipitated a long, enormously destructive war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. The war ran from 431BCE to 404BCE with only a few years of intervening peace. Like many wars this one began in minor incidents far from the two states: Sparta was a land power with a league of allied cities in the Peloponnesus, while Athens was a sea power with a far-flung empire extending over the shores of the Aegean all the way to the Hellespont. The Athenian Empire embraced hundreds of cities and the Aegean islands, and before the start of the war was so wealthy it had begun a magnificent building program on the Acropolis. Sparta became quite concerned about the growing power of a rival and that led to deliberations on possible war with Athens.

Here is a summary of the historical events leading up to Sparta's deliberations on war. These events are essential if one is to understand Spartan concerns.

The first incident that ultimately triggered war was a political dispute between the island of Corcyra, on the western shore of the Adriatic, and the colony of Epidamnus that it had founded some distance north on the mainland. This dispute drew Corinth into the fray when Epidamnus asked her for help against Corcyra, which was besieging the colony. War then broke out between Corcyra and Corinth, with the island winning a naval engagement (435) and Corinth using the rest of 435 and 434 to prepare a large naval armada assisted by ground support for a decisive onslaught.

Both disputants then sent delegations to Athens in 433 and spoke before the Assembly appealing for help. Corcyra asked for an alliance with Athens against Corinth, emphasizing the fact that of the three major Greek navies at the time, Athens, Corcyra and Corinth, an alliance would give two fleets to Athens. Corinth in turn argued that as repayment for past support in an earlier incident involving the Peloponnesian League, Athens should remain neutral. The Assembly decided on a strictly defensive alliance with Corcyra, meaning that neither side adopted all the friends and enemies of the other.

In the second naval battle between Corcyra and Corinth, Athens sent a small contingent of 10 ships to help Corcyra, hoping to avoid a direct conflict so it wouldn’t violate the Thirty Years’ Peace that ended the First Peloponnesian War (446/5). Thucydides describes that battle in a vivid narrative, stating that it was the largest naval engagement ever fought up to that time. It ended with a clear victory for Corinth. Unfortunately, the Athenian ships had engaged Corinthian forces, thus giving Corinth grounds to charge her with violation of the peace treaty. This was the first incident that contributed to war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

The second incident involved the city of Potidaea on the isthmus of Pallene, the western arm of Chalcidice in the northwest Aegean. It was a colony of Corinth, but a tribute-paying member of the Athenian Empire. The city revolted from Athens, incited by Corinth as it believed, and led to ground battles in which Athens defeated the Corinthian force, besieged Potidaea and trapped many Corinthian soldiers inside the city.

I have emphasized this chain of incidents, starting in small far-off Epidamnus and Potidaea, to illustrate a fact we should always remember: many wars begin with a precipitating event that arises far from the centers of power but whose real origin is obscure. The “truest reason” of the war, Thucydides says, though most concealed in discussion, was the Spartan fear of the growing power of Athens. He touches on the true cause earlier in Book I (I.23.6) and elaborates it later.


When Corinth called its allies to Sparta for a conference to condemn Athens, each harbored local grievances: the Corinthians complained that Athens was besieging a colony of theirs with men of Corinth and the Peloponnesus trapped inside; the Athenians complained that the Corinthians had caused the defection of Potidaea, which was a tribute-paying ally, and were fighting together with the Potidaeans (I.66). This conference marks the beginning of a direct confrontation between its two greatest military forces in Greece. The Spartans additionally invited anybody else who claimed to have been unjustly treated by Athens. Several other cities spoke against her, but Corinth came last to let them provoke the Spartans first.

The Corinthian defense emphasized the tyranny of the Athenian Empire, Athens’ seduction of Corcyra and its radical difference from Sparta: one instinct with a spirit of innovative, daring, mercurial, impulsive action and one inclined to slow, sluggish commitment to action only when necessary. The Corinthians attribute this hesitancy to a preference for fair dealing that does not distress other states and for a defense that scrupulously avoids any harm to itself. They cap this line of argument with a superb aphorism against Athens: “If someone were to summarize them as born neither to enjoy any rest themselves nor to let other men enjoy it, he would speak the truth” (I.70.9). The whole description of Athens’ relentless thirst for innovation and its resilience in setbacks (I.70.2-9) is to my mind a far better account of the city’s creative effervescence than Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is essentially a rhetorical defense of and a call to war.

Athens had some ambassadors in Sparta at the time, but on different business. They asked to speak and mounted a Realpolitik defense of their empire, which they claimed to have acquired voluntarily and not by force, and their sometimes harsh maintenance of it as normal practice for those who wield power. The tribute-paying members should in fact be happy they’ve not experience far worse treatment. The ambassadors were rather direct, however, in warning Sparta against going to war with such a powerful, wealthy state supported by a vast empire.

Sparta then closed the conference to outsiders so they could debate candidly among themselves.

The majority opinion in Sparta was that the Athenians were guilty of injustice and that war was justified. At this point Archidamus, one of Sparta’s two kings, “a man considered to be both intelligent and sensible” (Thucydides I.79.2), spoke before the Spartan war council. In the following speech (I.84-85.1), Archidamus reviews the ethical principles that underlie Spartan reluctance to act precipitously. It provides an object lesson in the rational approach to making decisions about war, an approach that the United States would do well to emulate (but hasn’t).

[Side-note: Thucydides' accounts of speeches are extremely complex and often difficult to interpret. His narration of events, however, is clear, distinct and precise. See the Appendix for a fuller discussion of this.]

Archidamus’ Speech About the Perils of Precipitous War

"(1) And the slowness and hesitation, for which we [the Spartans] are especially blamed, should not shame you (αἰσχύνεσθε): rushing headlong [into war] may end it more slowly because the attempt lacked preparation. (2) Besides, we have always lived in a city that is free (ἐλευθέραν) and held in the highest repute (εὐδοξοτάτην). This very slowness amounts to truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη): for because of it we do not become insolent (ἐξυβρίζομεν) in success and yield less than others in misfortune. Nor are we, when those incite us with praise to dangerous actions (τὰ δεινὰ) contrary to our own best judgment, excited by pleasure, and if anyone provokes us with accusations we are not the least persuaded by our vexation. (3) We are both warlike (πολεμικοί) and well advised (εὔβουλοι) due to our good order (εὔκοσμον): warlike because shame (αἰδὼς) is the greatest part of moderation (σωφροσύνης), and courage (εὐψυχία) the greatest part of a sense of shame (αἰσχύνης), while we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them, and we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument. (4) We always prepare in practice against enemies who [we assume also] plan well, and should not place our hopes on their possible mistakes but in the security of our own forethought. We do not need to believe that one man differs very much from another man, but the best is one who has trained in the most rigorous discipline. (85.1) These practices, then, which our fathers bequeathed us and we always maintain for their continuing benefits, should never be abandoned, nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure."

Archidamus begins the first phase of his speech by refuting the well-known Spartan tendency to dilatoriness the claiming it is nothing that should shame them. He uses the verb (occurring again as a noun below), αἰσχύνω, which means to be ashamed in the moral sense of having done something dishonorable, to feel shame for a dishonorable act. It can also be translated to dishonor, tarnish, or mar. Ancient Greece was in many ways a shame culture like that of my own home of Japan. To be charged with something shameful was one of the worst moral accusations.

In the second phase he then justifies that valuation of shame by stating that it has made Sparta a city that is free and most highly famed. The adjective he uses, ἐλεύθερος, means free in the sense of being unobstructed by any outside sources capable of restricting action. The noun form of the adjective is ἐλευθερία, freedom or liberty, and the word had very strong emotional connotations to the Greeks in their united opposition to Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. For the Greeks, Persia was the epitome of tyranny, and to maintain their freedom they were willing to risk everything in the period of greatest threat, 490-479, when the Greek mainland faced invasion twice by Persia, the greatest empire in the world.

Having restored honor to Spartan dilatoriness in a negative sense, Archidamus next gives their habitual slowness a positive moral content: it’s a “truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη).” The adjective ἔμφρων means literally in one’s mind or senses, but here rational or intelligent. The noun σωφροσύνη is an almost untranslatable word with a variety of meanings clustered around moderation, prudence, temperance, self-control (against pleasure or pain) and many others. I have chosen to use a single word, moderation, in translating it, but the phrase soundness of mind perhaps comes closest. Heraclitus Fr. 112 gives a powerful definition of its meaning: σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαΐοντας (“Soundness of mind is the greatest virtue and practical wisdom is speaking the truth and acting in accordance with the natural constitution of things”). I’ve highlighted the two words whose roots lie in sophrosune: sophronein and sophie, “soundness of mind” and “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom includes the skill of a craftsman or the diagnostic analysis of a physician. Because of moderation, he continues, the Spartans don’t become insolent in success. The verb ἐξυβρίζομεν is another word very difficult to render in English. It means to break out into insolence, to run riot, to commit violence. It referred to behavior that shamed or humiliated the victim for the gratification of the abuser and included both verbal and physical assaults. The English word hubris is derived from it, but has a much thinner emotional sense than violence: foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence. To commit hubris in Greece was a crime subject to severe punishments if convicted.

Lesson for America: A good example of hubris in the Greek sense is the behavior of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: we declared ourselves the ‘winners’ in the Cold War, the USSR the ‘losers,’ and rubbed the defeat constantly in their faces. Under President Clinton we began to push NATO into the old Warsaw Pact countries in violation of promises to Gorbachev, to impoverish the Russian people through economic advisors who mounted a massive deregulation of state enterprises and finally to exploit and ultimately partition Russia during the Yeltsin regime. In short, we ran riot. I was a student in St. Petersburg during the 1990s and saw the misery we unleashed up front and close: the homeless sleeping in bundles beneath famous statues, impoverished Afghan veterans selling war relics and even their own clothing on Nevsky Prospect and proud, old naval captains quietly and politely asking for some rubles in their soft, broken English.

When Archidamus follows this with the statement that Sparta cannot be incited to dangerous actions, τὰ δεινὰ, he means really serious dangers. The plural noun is very strong: fearful, dread, terrible, dire, the outcome of actions and of powerful natural events. He is directing his comments to the Corinthians and the other Peloponnesians who clamored for immediate war.

Lesson for America: Now that the (expired) Obama administration has initiated Cold War II, we have Members of Congress calling for wars with Iran, continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and even advocating policies that could lead to war with Russia. There doesn’t seem to be the slightest sense of the terrible consequences of such clamorous policies.

The third phase of I.84 consists of one long sentence, which I’ve translated without a full stop, but will break into clauses for discussion. It is the most important section in the speech since it articulates the Spartan sense of their own ethical standards as a warrior society.

The first clause emphasizes two key Spartan qualities: they are “warlike (πολεμικοί)” and “well advised (εὔβουλοι)” because of their “good order.” The plural adjective πολεμικοί is derived from the Greek word for war and means warlike, valiant or courageous in war. They are “well advised” in the sense of exercising prudent, effective planning. The prefix εὔ~ in εὔβουλοι means good or well. The source of these two qualities is their “good order (εὔκοσμον).” The meanings of εὔκοσμος are variously behaving well, orderly, decorous, in good order. The word has a wide usage from Homer to the Roman period in many different semantic domains, but here Archidamus means that Spartans maintain the decorous, well-organized and graceful bearing of habitual discipline. From this disciplined, orderly bearing comes their qualities of being warlike and well advised. One thinks, for example, of a Spartan army marching in good order to the rhythm of auloi (pipes), their indifference to weather wrapped only in their scarlet cloak, their strict formation in the phalanx. Effective planning and valor, Archidamus means, are impossible without rigorous good order.

Then in the second clause he surprisingly deepens the meaning of “good order” by saying, in effect, “We are warlike because shame is the major part of moderation just as courage is the major part of shame.” He uses two words for shame: the nouns αἰδώς and αἰσχύνη. They mean very much the same thing, but the use of the second word αἰσχύνη in context means something more like honor: “courage is the major part of a sense of honor” because in battle the most shameful thing is a failure of courage or a failure to stand by your comrades. He follows that with an expansion of what it means to be well advised: “we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.” He uses two comparative adjectives here, where the first means “not so highly learned” as to despise the laws, and the second is a form of that crucial word σωφροσύνη, but here it carries the sense of “more prudent” than to hold the laws in contempt. The Spartans were severe in their respect for the laws, and I’m sure everyone knows Simonides’ great epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae:

Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that
we lie here, obedient to their commands.

The third clause picks up the idea that Spartans are not so intelligent as to believe they can individually make public policy on their own and submit it to the assembly (a real failing of the Athenians): “we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument.” The Greek adjective διαιρέτης means divided, separated, distinguishable. The idea here is that chance events cannot be determined by rational argument: just as we denigrate our enemy’s intelligence, so we don’t pretend to know the future.

The fourth and last phase of the speech empathizes the importance of preparing in practice and planning against an enemy who also plans well. We should not place hope on their mistakes but on our forethought. The last sentence of the speech (85.1) should be engraved on the architrave of every department of war in the world: “nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.” That is to say, hasten slowly, very slowly to make war.

Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence.

In the course of the speech prior to my direct quotation, Archidamus offers other invaluable points about the dangers of war with Athens.  He begins by emphasizing the sheer difficulty of making war against a city like Athens that possesses a distant empire, is the most experienced at sea and has the best resources in public and private wealth, ships, horses, hoplites and “a population such as does not exist in any other single place in Greece” (I.80.3). On top of that, they have tribute-paying allies, which enhances Athenian endurance. Then in turn he emphasizes Sparta’s weaknesses (I.80.4-81.5): we are inferior in ships, which take time to prepare and train, and in money because we do not have a common treasury or sufficient private sources. We surpass them in hoplites, so we could overrun and ravage their land, but they have extensive lands under their control and can import what they need by sea. If we try to make their allies defect, we will need a fleet since for the most part they are islanders. If we can’t defeat them with our ships or deny them the revenues they need to maintain their fleet, we shall be harmed even more. He ends this line of argument with a counsel that the Spartans not break the treaty or transgress their oaths, but resolve the disputes with arbitration. (Athens had in fact offered arbitration in I.78.4).

His warning about the uncertainly of war proved in the end to be all too true: “We should certainly not be borne up by the hope that the war will end quickly if we ravage their land. I fear that we shall bequeath it rather to our children, so likely it is that the Athenians in their spirited resolution will neither be enslaved by their land nor like novices terrified by war” (I.81.6). It was in fact the grandchildren who received the bequeath of war.

Lesson for America: Your enemies are not novices who are terrified by war.  With the Afghan war in its 20th year and the Iraq war in its 17th year, America’s interventions in the Greater Middle East are becoming generational wars, soon to be fought by the children and grandchildren of soldiers who fought in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.  You wage war long, you wage war wrong; the Greeks discovered this as they weakened themselves in generational internecine warfare.

The final stage of Archidamus’ speech (I.82.1-6) is a call to take matters slowly, warn Athens it will not permit what they are doing and begin equipping themselves with Greek and barbarian allies (meaning primarily Persian). If Athens sees us preparing, they may give way. He recommends that they think of Athens’ land as a hostage and spare it if possible in order not to drive them into despair and thus make them that much harder to handle. We shall get ourselves into a more difficult situation if we allow our allies to incite us to war when we are unprepared. Let no one think we are cowards if our confederacy does not immediately attack a single city, “For they have as many allies as we do, who pay tribute too, and war is not so much a matter of arms but of finance, which provides the efficacy of arms, especially between continental and maritime powers” (I.83 2). So we should, he concludes, first provide for expenditures and not be stirred to premature action by our allies.
Ultimately, the Spartans rejected Athens’ offer of arbitration, blaming them for breach of the treaty, as Archidamus feared they might (I.81.5), and the terrible war commenced in 431. By the late 420s both sides had suffered major defeats and they agreed to the 50-year Peace of Nicias in 421. Athens blatantly violated the peace in 414 acting arrogantly (with hubris aforethought) in the belief they could finally win the war. Thucydides follows the last phase of the war in Books VI and VII to the catastrophe of the Syracuse Expedition.

Thus ended the 27-year conflict that constituted the slow suicide of Greece.  In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?

Appendix: The speeches in Thucydides

Thucydides includes many speeches that are long and very difficult to interpret from their contorted, often opaque syntax and their complex semantic usage. Unlike his narrative passages, the ancient world found his speeches very tough going indeed. Some speeches he certainly heard in Athens before his exile in 424/3, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and could well have made aides-moire of them. Others he might have heard outside Athens in exile, but there is not one certain case, though the possibility cannot be discounted. Others finally are imaginative reconstructions based, as he says in I.22, on his judgement of what would have been the most important or appropriate for the speakers to say regarding the current circumstances while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of the content. My opinion is that Archidamus’ speech accurately reflects his views: Athens had engaged in close relations with Sparta since well before the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449), giving her more than enough time to accurately assess the Spartan decision-making process and its civic ethics. Thucydides very likely had his own sources of information. He certainly would not have written the speech as he did if it contained obvious distortions. Here is what he writes about his exile in V.26.5: “I lived through the whole of it [the war], being of an age to understand events and apply my judgement to learn the exact truth. It happened that I was banished from my own country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis, and by my association with both parties, as much with the Peloponnesian as the Athenians due to my exile, I could at leisure better learn the course of events.”

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20 Responses to Thucydides on the Spartan Ethic for War – Commentary by Steven Willett

  1. EEngineer says:

    Posts like these are why SST is on my daily reading list.

  2. Rhonda says:

    I found this utterly fascinating. Especially the careful and deeply kenned unpacking of the Greek concepts and words. It made me understand the fast-talking chalk-dusted passion of my Western Civ professor! Wasted on me at 17 ;-(.
    Would you be so kind as to recommend a good translation of Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War? Or a book about it that brings context and wisdom as you have done here? Thank you for your consideration.

  3. lux says:

    “Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence.”
    Well said, I wondered about this yesterday:
    It doesn’t matter if the foreigners were representatives of sovereign states. Neither was Al Qaeda. It matters that they attacked us.” …
    Posted by: Horace | 14 December 2020 at 06:35 PM

  4. EEngineer says:

    On the wisdom and knowledge of the ancients theme, here’s a link to a project to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism. It was a mechanical celestial clock from ~70BC.

  5. Just some guy says:

    The section which struck me the most in Thucydides’ history was about 1000 words of text surrounding this passage in chapter 9 (book 3):
    “.. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. ..”
    It is difficult to write a clearer statement to explain why human affairs go wrong.
    Translator: Richard Crawley, found at Project Gutenberg’s website.

  6. Barbara Ann says:

    A fascinating post. I find it interesting that Professor Willett draws comparisons between the cultures of Ancient Greece and Japan. He refers to the similarity as “shame culture”, though I expect this is synonymous with “honor culture”.
    Archidamus’ observation that the Spartans’ martial courage is derived from their sense or honor was, I think, echoed well by FDR: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear”. How many people today allow their actions to be governed by the Spartan’s (or Samurai’s) externalized code of honor – seeing the greater fear as that of shaming one’s self in front of one’s comrades, or one’s ancestors? A correct sense of priorities.
    We may not be the men and women our ancestors were, but I still remain hopeful. Martial courage is but one form and in peacetime the courageous are less easily distinguished. I see courageous and highly resilient people battling steep odds in their daily civilian lives. Many would make/have made fine soldiers, I expect.
    Also, the Trump era resurgence of conservatism, especially among the young, leads me to conclude that a large part of the populous retains a correct sense of priorities. Young conservatives, like Jenna Ellis on Trump’s legal team, exemplify another form of courage for me. Jenna may well be risking her career in this fight, as she would surely be blacklisted by a vindictive incoming swamp-infested Biden regime. She doubtless knows this and yet she voluntarily remains at the front.
    I expect the truly courageous will reveal themselves when this generation is tested. Right now fear of a corrupt leftist government in league with Big Brother Tech and the Resetists of the Davos crowd is real, justified and a great motivator.

  7. Steven Willett says:

    For a good balance between literalness, accuracy and readability I’d recommend OUP’s edition with translation by Martin Hammond and notes by P. J. Rhodes. The Landmark version is popular for its maps and illustration with a revised translation of the old Richard Crawley. Not all the attached essays are worth reading. The Steven Lattimore version is a modern Hobbesian translation that is sentence-for-sentence. That can make it difficult reading, and the annotations are insufficient. It is still a magnificent version for the effort.

  8. Serge says:

    What’s the deal with the helots? What did the other Greeks think of the Spartan relationship with helotry?

  9. FWH says:

    Speaking from a pedestrian level; there may be more hubris in some wars than in others.
    Look, for example, at the Gulf War in 1990, where the coalition went in, dished out the punishment, got back out and reestablished the border. Look also at the Chinese invasion of Viet Nam in 1979. The Chinese went in, dished out the punishment, and then got out and reestablished the border.
    Now compare the above two examples with the later invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These later two wars and occupations were done with plans to help remake the countries in our image.

  10. Ishmael Zechariah says:

    Thanks for this post. Quite timely since members and supporters of the incoming regime might soon ban reading/writing about or discussing Thucydides as he might have owned slaves (
    Another important part of the “History of the Peloponnesian War” is the “Melian Dialogue” (Book 5, Chapters 84–116). It is a must-read for all members of the honorable tribe of knuckle draggers. There is a decent treatment at Here is a section very germane to the current gambits in the M.E.:
    “The commissioners of Melos agreed to meet the envoys in private. They were afraid the Athenians, known for their rhetorical skills, might sway the people if allowed a public forum. The envoys came with an offer that, if the Melians submitted and became part of the Athenian empire, their people and their possessions would not be harmed. The Melians argued that by the law of nations they had the right to remain neutral, and no nation had the right to attack without provocation. Having been a free state for seven hundred years, they were not ready to give up that freedom. Thucydides, an Athenian historian, captures the exchange between the Melian commissioners and the Athenian envoys:
    Melians: “…all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.”
    Athenians: “…we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of the wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech that would not be believed; and in return, we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although they are colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, …since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”2
    The Melians pointed out that it was to the interest of all states to respect the laws of nations: “you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….”3 They reminded the Athenians that a day might come when the Athenians themselves would need such protection.
    But the Athenians were not persuaded. To them, Melos’ submission was in the interest of their empire, and Melos.
    Melians: “And how pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?”
    Athenians: “Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.”
    Melians: “So [that] you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?”
    Athenians: “No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness and your enmity of our power.”

    Those who think Russia (or Iran) are akin to Melos might be in for a surprise.

  11. blue peacock says:

    Steven Willet
    Thanks for posting this. So important for contemporary leaders to read and ruminate on Thucydides words.
    I’ve read this work many times. It is an excellent treatise on human nature. While we have tamed nature, our nature has not changed.

  12. james says:

    a fascinating and timely read… thank you… hopefully someone in a position of power is reading and taking it in… it can’t be any of us helots who continue to slave away in this financial pyramid scheme the world is beholden to… these wars continue on indefinitely based on the money they generate for wall st and this financial hydra that continues to squeeze the planet in countless ways…

  13. Deap says:

    Ecclesiastes 1:2
    The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
    What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
    The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

  14. English Outsider says:

    “In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?”
    And by extension are we not witnessing the slow suicide of the West? I do not believe we are.
    We are listening to the deliberations of the elites in Thucydides and those deliberations do hold meaning for our times. They hold meaning in particular for this present moment. We see the President elect assembling his neocon picks and, with the defeat of Trump, the ancien regime more comfortable in the saddle all over Europe and the West. For them, the apparatchiks of the ancien regime, this fascinating and ominous study of yours should hold meaning. Do not over-reach! Step off this treadmill of predestined self-destruction!
    But though it should hold meaning for them there is no meaning they will take from it. The Bidens and the Pelosis, the Merkels and Johnsons and the like, are merely ward heelers on the grand scale, incapable of looking beyond their current narrow imperatives. Cogs in a machine of graft, a machine that must turn because that machine is the product of the multiplicity of interests that drive it, it seems, so inexorably.
    As it drove those ancient warring states to their destruction. It need not drive ours. We ourselves are rooted in what is in truth the greatest achievement of that world. Out of the ferment of dispute and enquiry that characterised the later times of that disintegration you explore above, and in the insignificant corner of that world that some still call the Holy Land, emerged a body of doctrine and precept, that, subjected to two millennia of examination and adaptation and for most now stripped of obsolete terminology, yet shapes all our thinking.
    So I believe that what we are now living through is not primarily a battle of states, squalid and murderous though that battle is. It is a battle of values. It is an internal battle. We know so little of the internal battles of those ancient states. We know something of ours. That battle is now joined as it was not in the past decades of our decline. I do not believe it will result in that slow suicide you examine above.

  15. Fred says:

    ““we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.””
    That should be adequate warning to the well credential elites on the left, but they all seem to have taken Karl Rove (as wel as that other Karl) to heart:
    “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
    The left’s war against America’s middle class seems to be going swimmingly, yet I think all they are doing is enraging a sleeping giant.
    ” Look also at the Chinese invasion of Viet Nam in 1979. The Chinese went in, dished out the punishment, and then got out and reestablished the border.”
    They went in all of 20 km, engaged local militia units and left before the battle hardened regulars of the NVA were deployed. The poorly written Wiki doesn’t do justice to the failure of the PLA, which hadn’t egaged in combat with regulars since the Korean war.

  16. Barbara Ann says:

    Steven Willett
    As author of this excellent and instructive piece (and translator of the Tibullus poem a few posts back) I hope we can look forward to reading more of your work here in the future.
    Your treatment of σωφροσύνη and your reference to the distinct lack of “moderation” and gross insolence in victory exhibited by the US in the aftermath of the Cold War are spot on. I’d venture “Fukuyamist” may be an appropriate word for that particular hubristic context. I can’t help feeling that if the English language contained a single word to convey the proper meaning of σωφροσύνη and that if that word were in common usage, a great many of the problems of our current civilization may not have arisen.
    Yes, I’d rather liken Russia (particularly her war ethic) to Sparta than Melos. The Melian Dialogue is a timeless classic also, though we must not forget the actual outcome and the Melians’ fate in 416 – one so appalling it moved Euripides to shame the Athenians the very next year with The Trojan Women. The fact that this play was written and performed, I would guess to some of the very people who perpetrated the massacre, speaks volumes for the Athenian polity’s tolerance of criticism during that halcyon age. Among other things this very tolerance was a casualty of the war, as Socrates was of course to find out in 399. This I think is a most valuable lesson in itself; that domestic freedoms are frequently casualties of far away wars, particularly if you choose to “wage war long”. The War on Terror exemplifies this IMO. How much more time are we willing to spend trying to defeat that abstract noun?
    “with the defeat of Trump” – last I checked he still hasn’t conceded and the widespread total absence of σωφροσύνη among his supposedly victorious opponents should be a warning sign.

  17. Diana L Croissant says:

    I must add my expression of gratitude for this post. Reading it started a chain of thoughts about many of my past studies in high school, college, and graduate school—and in my entire life as a voracious reader and studier.
    Those of us who have had the privilege to study over the span of our lives before having to spend our daily lives in mundane and often mind numbing employment, or in my case, a long period of raising children also, could count ourselves as lucky that we had all that reading and study to keep ourselves from going mad from the need to do much of the mundane labor of keeping a house and a yard and children under control.
    After reading this post last night I spent some time first remembering the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when George H. S. Bush, coming off the Iran-Contra mess, then sent our young people into Iraq. I still haven’t been able to understand that war in such a way as to make me feel good about it.
    Before that I had to constantly feel guilty about being able to attend college while my male high school classmates, mostly farm boys, were fighting in Vietnam.
    I also spent time last night thinking of The Odyssey and the Iliad and of Sophocles’ explanation of “hubris” in regard to the Oedipus cycle of plays.
    there is a theme that runs through some literature, mostly poetry, called the “ubi sunt” theme. (Where are?) Where are those young men who went off to war and did not return?
    “when will they ever learn?”
    My younger son had a Navajo young man as a roommate for a while. He was the son of a shaman on a reservation in Arizona, though he had been raised on the reservation of his maternal grandmother in New Mexiso. He told a joke once at our Thanksgiving meal:
    NASA asked a Native American to write the greeting message our astronaut would give to the first alien to greet him on Mars. The Native American wrote it in the Navajo language. Later, when he was asked to give the translation, he said the massage was this: “Don’t trust these people. They will steal your land.”
    It often does seem that all the turmoil in the world is a fight over what Hitler wanted: “Lebensraum.”

  18. Mark K Logan says:

    Shame he didn’t mention Sparta’s attempt at regime change in Athens. The “30 Tyrants” fiasco did not end well. Yet another example worth pondering.
    I wonder if contemplating Athens and Sparta being sucked into war over a couple bickering small-fry cities factored into George Washington’s farewell address admonition against making permanent alliances. He was very well read so I like to think it did.

  19. English Outsider says:

    Barbara Ann – “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Attempts to obtain remedy continue but I had assumed, when talking of your President’s “defeat”, that the same would apply to election fraud.
    I wrote in because though this shabby affair may prosper I believe the current status quo is reaching the end of its run. Too many no longer buy into it.

  20. fanto says:

    Steven Willett,
    I join in chorus of appreciation for this article. The idea of honor and truth are so alien in todays “rational” world. Too bad. On almost every step in my personal life, here and in Europe, I was faced with lack of these qualities, not to mention the politicians ( as EO alludes to!)
    I was wondering, if USA would be loose equivalent to Sparta? What would be Athens today?

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