Ancient historians followed two paths that still operate today: one of
them, to impose a moral pattern to what happens in the world. Herodotus,
the "father of history," found in the Persian's failure to conquer Greece
an example of God's displeasure at the arrogance of men. Thucydides invented
the scientific history, the recording and analysis of events with the purpose
of finding no pattern but their own.
The events of two thousand five hundred years ago seem remote and dead. Yet the saw goes, those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Someone replied that what we learn from history is what we are going to repeat again and again.
This last judgement is Thucydides'. He felt that human nature did not change, and he discovered in the tumult of war and politics no progress, except that as time went on the scale of things increased.
Greek medicine, though it could do some things, could not do very much. If someone caught a disease, he went to a doctor to know what he was suffering and whether he would live or die. Thucydides compares himself to this kind of a Greek doctor. He offers no cures for the disease called politics, but tries to show its causes and describe its course.
All history is a study of particular events, and Thucydides' subject is the Peloponnesian War, the long and savage struggle between Athens and Sparta that began in 431 B.C.
Thucydides son of Oloros was in the perfect position to write the history of this war, and took it up with enthusiasm. He was a wealthy Athenian with family connections and investments in Thrace, in Greece's far north. He served as an officer in the Athenian army, and was elected general. After he failed to prevent the fall of a Thracian city to the enemy (due to bad luck, not incompetence), the Athenians sacked him and he went upcountry, where presumably he spent most of his time talking to informants and writing.
The events are complex and need some background. In the first part of the 5th century B.C. Greece twice suffered invasion from the emperors of Persia, who resented the men of the mainland meddling in the affairs of their possessions in the islands and coastline of Asia Minor. There had been traditional suspicion between the Greeks and the Persians since, said the Greeks, the Trojan War. From this time we can date the conflict of West and East.
The Persians were defeated, and Athens was left with the greatest navy in the Mediterranean. Pericles, the chief man of Athens, used this power to form an alliance with the Greek island states of the Aegean sea. This started out as a rather NATO-like affair, but with Athens holding the ships and the money, the alliance soon degenerated into an Athenian hegemony, then empire. The organization's treasury was moved to Athens, and its funds used for Athens' own benefit.
Greece then was hardly a single nation-state, but a collection of cities,
each of them independent and controlling a certain amount of territory.
Imagine if there were no such thing as Malaysia, but something more like
what existed before the arrival of the British. Each centre, Malacca, Kuala
Lumpur, Penang, and the rest, would be a small state like Singapore is now,
with its own special character and interests.
The growing wealth and power of Athens disturbed the balance of power among the cities. The military state of Sparta was particularly alarmed at Athens' imperialism. Just as recently the West/East conflict revolved around the opposing ideologies of capitalism and communism, so in ancient times the Spartans and the Athenians hated each other for their exactly opposite ways of life. Athens was democratic and pluralist. In Sparta, all male citizens were organized into an army, whose main purpose was to keep the original native population in subjection as slaves. Athens and Sparta collected their allies, and eventually war broke out between them. If the Persian wars were Greece's World War 2, then the Peloponesian War was its World War 1. It accomplished nothing, and Greece was a wreck at its end.
The story is a long one. Anyone interested in history must read Thucydides in full. The rest of us may be interested in what he has to say on the disease of politics.
Power and its abuse is the main issue. In the fifth year of the war, Mytilene on the island of Lesbos attempted to revolt from Athenian control. The Athenians re-took the city, and the Assembly in the heat of anger decreed that all the men there should be killed. On the next day, touched by guilt, they recovened. The question of the debate was how an imperialist state should behave. Some in the Assembly who still had illusions about the humanity of their city's democracy must have been shocked.
The demogogue Cleon urged ruthlessness---he had made the motion for death---beginning:
"Personally I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy
is incapable of governing others..." Terror, he said, guards power. "To
feel pity...to listen to the claims of deceny are things that are entirely
against the interests of an imperial power. Do not be guilty of them..."
But by a narrow vote, the sentence of universal death was reversed.
Eleven years later, rule was not so tempered by compassion. The Athenians led a force against the island of Melos, and before laying siege to the city, the Athenian generals negotiationed with the Melians. They argue about interests, but the debate boils down to this:
ATHENIANS: ...you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.
MELIANS:...in our view...in the case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing...
The Athenians insisted that "might makes right," and the Melians had nothing to oppose to that but justice. This time, conscience lost. The Athenians took the city, sold the women and children into slavery, and killed all the men.
Thucydides' analysis of the way langauge itself became distorted by party violence in Corcyra has held true for every revolution since.
"...To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of agression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action... Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect..."
The war hastened to a tragic finish when Athens sent a huge expedition, nearly all her resources, against Syracuse in Sicily. It was totally destroyed. Thousands of men died in captivity. What sort of igorance and folly, asks Thucydides, brought this about?
Sombre reading, but what else is history? It is easy to take the War as an example of the excesses of unchecked democracy, but wrong. Thucydides says that he was not out to entertain, to confirm our bias towards one system or another. Human nature being as it is, he says, power is and will always be a source of arrogance and disaster. Thucydides' illustration of this is what makes his history, as he intended, "a possession for ever."
[The translation of The Peloponnesian War by Rex Warner, from
which I have quoted, is published by Penguin.]