previous chapter
Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
next chapter

4. Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair

More than one modern reader has been surprised to find at the start of the History a seemingly minor skirmish on the margins of the mainland Greek world. The issue is not the absolute importance of the Corcyraean affair (which was certainly substantial), but the role that these events play in Thucydides. While the historian formally distinguishes this period from the war itself, he lavishes a large amount of time and energy on the events in book 1. The opening book, with its shifts from one period to another, its grand thematic speeches outlining the profound differences in character between Athenians and Spartans, and its climax with the introduction of Perikles, is, in some ways, a self-conscious tour de force. The conflict between Corinth and Corcyra, and particularly the debate at Athens between these two powers, occupies a formally strategic position within the design of the History and sets the stage for what follows.

A fifth-century audience would have understood this choice of a beginning: where Thucydides himself speaks of a ten-year war, Aristophanes (Pax 987–990) refers to the war that ended in 421 as a thirteen-year war, and Andocides (3.3) and, later, Aeschines comment that the peace of 447/6 lasted thirteen years. Thucydides specifically differs from this interpretation, distinguishing the affairs of Corcyra and Poteideia as the causes (aitiai) and disputes (diaphora) that preceded and provided the major pretext (prophasis) for the war (Thuc. 1.146).

Many scholars, particularly modern students of ancient history, have analyzed the debate in moral terms, seeking to determine precisely who was right and who was wrong. Donald Kagan, for example, sees most of the Corinthian argument as “very weak and unconvincing,” though he attributes some validity to the arguments that the Corinthians make about the spirit of the Thirty Years Peace.[1] G. E. M. de Ste. Croix flatly condemns the Corinthians: “In reality, Corinth was now an unashamed aggressor.” [2] He scorns the Corinthian argument that since they supported the Athenian right to punish Samos, Athens should let them punish Corcyra: “One wonders whether the Corinthians did actually advance such a ludicrous argument, or whether Thucydides put these words into their mouth by way of demonstrating how weak their case was. If the latter, he has certainly failed to convey his meaning to most modern scholars!” He goes on to declare: “I find it incomprehensible that anyone who has read the preceding narrative in Thucydides should find the Corinthian speech plausible. Yet many have done so.” [3] J. B. Salmon, in his comprehensive history of Corinth, dismisses the entire Corinthian argument with contempt: “It is unnecessary to analyse in detail the speeches of the Corcyreans and the Corinthians as they appear in Thucydides (1.32–43); the central issues were simple. Scarcely an argument in the whole Corinthian speech carries conviction.[4] … There is but one valid argument presented by Corinth—apart from her references to past services done for Athens, which she cannot possibly have expected to cut much ice: her discussion of the terms of the Thirty Years Peace.” [5]

Not all recent scholars are so negative. Marc Cogan comments that the Corinthian speech, which failed to carry the day, “seems a strangely ineffective one. Yet it was not a weak speech.” [6] He faults the legal reasoning by which the Corinthians equate the relationship between Samos and Athens with that which obtained between themselves and Corcyra, but sees in this equation a device “to enable the Corinthians to introduce the one exemplary case of their own aid to Athens.” [7] Robert Connor takes a stronger line and sharply criticizes the Corcyraean position that they had been wronged by Corinth: “Under traditional Greek values the Corcyreans were in a very weak position. They had no claim on Athenians either by kinship or by past services. They were Dorians, much more closely tied to the Corinthians and the Spartans than to the Athenians. Their conduct, moreover, had been outrageous. They had refused to help their own colony, Epidamnus. The occasion was not minor or routine, but a desperate appeal to help stop civil strife in which one party was aided by barbarians.” [8] Connor then paints the Corcyraeans in dark colors.

Even setting aside the issues of right and wrong, the Corinthians’ position has puzzled scholars. The Corinthian attempt to settle a long-standing score with a powerful and wayward colony placed them on a collision course with Athenian interests. Although Corinth’s argument very nearly carried the day (Thuc. 1.44.1), and the Athenians refused to accept the Corcyraeans as summachoi, Kagan sees their position as a serious problem: “It may seem surprising that the Corinthians did not see the danger of their policy as we do and, apparently, as the Spartans and the Sicyonians did. If we believe the account of Thucydides, they seem to have expected that the Athenians would really desist from aiding the Corcyreans and might even be persuaded to join with Corinth against Corcyra (1.40.4). It is clear, in any case, that they did not want war with Athens and did not expect it. How are we to explain the terrible miscalculation of the Corinthians?” [9] Salmon is even more emphatic: “No rational consideration can have caused them to hope that Athens would reject the Corcyrean appeal.” [10] He goes on to excoriate the Corinthians: “Corinthian policy in the Corcyra affair was not based on a miscalculation, but on no calculation at all; doubtless it was hoped that the Athenians would not intervene, but the hope was quite irrational. The hatred and jealousy that Corinth felt for Corcyra did not only cause her to adduce arguments that took no account of reality; they caused her to hope that Athens would share her view that black was white: that aggression was the defence of legitimate interests.”

The vehemence of the observations expressed above and the evident aporia to which they point indicate how poorly, even now, we understand why primary actors in the late fifth century did what they did. Neither evaluations of the moral positions of Corcyra and Corinth nor analyses of why they became so embroiled have greatly advanced our understanding. The question for Corinthian foreign policy was not whether or not Corinth was willing to go to war with Athens over Corcyra, for it had clearly decided that it was willing to fight with Athens and to push Athens into war.[11] Rather, it was why Corinth attached so much importance to Corcyra that it could subsequently push the Greek world into a far more general and risky war. Human beings attach widely divergent values to different aspects of their existence, and what seems irrational to an outsider may, on closer inspection, reveal a pattern of the greatest sophistication. When the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski described his experiences on the Trobriand Islands in the Pacific, he found the local inhabitants “subjected to a strict code of behavior and good manners” largely foreign to European sensibilities, but “to which in comparison the life at the Court of Versailles or Escorial was free and easy.” [12] In analyzing the motivations of people in a foreign environment such as classical Greece, the key is, as another anthropologist recently commented, to “look for rational choice behavior (as opposed to assuming its existence).” [13]

In this chapter we will explore the cultural context of the quarrel between Corcyra and Corinth and attempt thus to explicate the role the episode plays in the history constructed by Thucydides. The affairs of Corcyra and Poteideia reveal basic themes that recur and help shape the account that follows. They provide concrete examples of general principles of historical change outlined in the Archaeology, and, in particular, they illustrate the qualitative changes that underlay the Peloponnesian War and were accelerated and intensified by it. For Thucydides, Corinth, though maritime and as mercantile as any fifth-century state, is in some respects as much Athens’s opposite as Sparta.

The Anger of Corinth

Corcyra founded Epidamnus but, following custom, chose a “founder” (oikistês) from its own metropolis, Corinth. Civil war broke out in the 430s, and the common people drove out the “powerful” (dunatoi), but the dunatoi, together with the local non-Greek inhabitants, “raided those still in the polis by land and by sea.” Hard pressed, the people of Epidamnus appealed to Corcyra for aid, but to no avail (Thuc. 1.24.7). The Corcyraeans remained inactive until formally approached by the other faction, the dunatoi (1.26.3), who had been driven out of Epidamnus, and whose side the Corcyraeans eventually took.[14]

Meanwhile, the popular faction in Epidamnus, now desperate, sought aid from Corinth and had, after receiving approval from the Delphic oracle, handed over to them their colony. The Corinthians jumped at the offer (Thuc. 1.25.3), both because they thought it just (dikaion) to do so and because they hated the Corcyraeans (misei tôn Kerkuraiôn). Thucydides is explicit about why the Corinthians felt this way: the Corcyraeans “negelected them, even though they were [Corinthian] colonists.” They demonstrated their irreverence in two highly charged religious contexts, the great Panhellenic festivals and local sacrifice at Corcyra.[15]

First, in the common festival gatherings of the Greeks (Thuc. 1.25.4) the Corcyraeans did not confer upon Corinth the settled privileges (gera) to which custom entitled them. Sacrifice consisted in the slaughter and preparation of an animal, and the precise cut of meat that one received was a visible token of one’s prestige. In a public context such as a Panhellenic festival, the cuts of meat offered at a Corcyraean sacrifice exerted, like many outwardly minor aspects of diplomatic protocol, enormous symbolic power.

The second slight concerns religious activity at Corcyra itself. The Corcyraeans would not, like other colonists, serve as “sacrificial sponsors” (prokatarchomenoi tôn hierôn) for Corinthians (Thuc. 1.25.4). The right to sacrifice in a polis was normally restricted to citizens, and outsiders in a state such as Corcyra had no right to perform such rituals.[16] The Corcyraeans thus denied to Corinthians the privileged access to ritual activity that they customarily enjoyed in their other colonies.[17] Though local sacrifice did not occupy the public stage that the Panhellenic festival did, it was also highly charged, for the privilege to sacrifice in another polis was jealously guarded. Overall, the Corcyraeans flatly “looked down upon” (periphronountes) their founding city, not only because they had become enormously wealthy but also because they had occupied (and thus appropriated to themselves the prestige of) the land traditionally identified with the Homeric Phaeacians (1.25.4).

Most scholars analyzing the relationship between Corinth and Corcyra have either belittled or even refused to accept this feud and its intensity. R. Sealey comments that “the traditional friction between Corinth and Corcyra had been a small matter; unlike other colonies, Corcyra did not grant perquisites to Corinthians at festivals.” [18] Gomme (on Thuc. 1.25.3) thinks it curious that “Thucydides, who in his Introduction is careful to stress political and economic motives, should here mention only sentimental ones. One naturally suspects an economic motive, such as rivalry in the Adriatic trade.” De Romilly deprecatingly remarks that “in one form or another the satisfactions of vanity are equally important for anybody,” but then goes on to say: “Naturally one cannot too often repeat the fact that these motives complete the idea of material benefit but in no way exclude it.” [19] She assumes that material benefit is there somewhere, always lurking, a given, while vanity may or may not be present. Kagan observes that the Corcyraeans had become “puffed up” and “intolerable to the Corinthians. The irrationality of this motive has set off the hunt for better ones.” [20] Kagan disagrees with the suggestion of purely economic motives but evidently accepts the analysis of Corinthian hatred as something odd and deserving some better explanation. Ste. Croix does not deny the validity of this resentment over colonial prerogatives, but he sees this as pejorative: “Already we find an unpleasant motive attributed to the Corinthians; and their resentment against Corcyra and desire to humble her play a large part in what follows.” [21] Likewise, Salmon accepts the credibility of the explanation that Thucydides gives for Corinth’s feelings, but he goes on to belittle the importance of this motive: “Any sober consideration of the issues would have shown that the risk was not worth taking.” [22] The stakes in Corinth’s quarrel with Corcyra simply did not justify the risks inherent in war with Athens.

Modern scholars have good reason to express such puzzlement, for Thucydides himself, more than any author of his time, ruthlessly penetrates beyond the sentimental and the emotional to harsh and compelling forces that may seem more elementary. Recent critics have emphasized the intensely emotional aspect of the History.[23] One reason the text is so powerful is that it illustrates instances in which ambition, blind desire, and, above all, fear drive human beings and subvert established values.[24] In the following two books, Thucydides presents the plague at Athens and the ultimate stasis in Corcyra as case studies in the fragility of human social and affective bonds. He has, already in the Archaeology, sketched a cold and almost mechanistic model of human nature. Heroes such as Odysseus[25] were mere pirates who preyed on unprotected cities “for the sake of their own profit (kerdos) and for the sustenance of the weak” (Thuc. 1.5.1). With oblique and cutting force, Thucydides undermines the proud ideology of such predatory heroes, who do not even know enough to be ashamed when asked if they are pirates and who resemble the most backward members of the modern (i.e., fifth-century) Greek world. The desire for profit laid the material foundations for hierarchical social structures, “for, in striving after profits (kerdê) the weak endured slavery to the strong, and the more powerful, having surpluses of wealth (periousiai), attached the lesser cities to themselves as subjects” (1.8.3). Thucydides mentions “honorable” motives only to dismiss them (1.9.3): Agamemnon, for example, assembled the expedition against Troy “because with his navy he had far more strength (ischusas) than the others,” and brought his forces together “less by the use of gratitude (charis) than the application of fear (phobos).” The History begins immediately to exhibit the increased harshness of society that Thucydides exhibits most bluntly in his analysis of stasis at Corcyra: “That good nature, of which nobility has the greatest share, was laughed down and annihilated” (3.83.1). Thucydides’ History is a polemical document that cuts through the conventional wisdoms and beliefs of his time. Its secularism and its model of a cold, calculating, and interested humanity are deceptively familiar. The modern reader can never recover the extent to which the History must have shocked and disturbed its original audience.

Thucydides’ penetrating analysis of human motivation brings with it, of course, problems of its own. Human society may degenerate as it does in plague-ridden Athens and in the murderous gang-warfare of Corcyra, but fear, hatred, and moral exhaustion do not wholly motivate all human behavior. Thucydides, in emphasizing the hard forces that underlie “the fair appearances” (to euprepes), applies a reductive method that can obscure as much as it reveals. The History relentlessly discredits the sentimental and probes beneath the self-serving surfaces of events, but the text was polemical, and it needed to strike hard at social pretensions if it was to make its point. Spartan moral prestige, for example, exerted real influence on those inside and outside of the Peloponnesian League, and the current force of that prestige determined how many poleis sent how many men to challenge Athenian power. Thucydides constantly undercuts the persona that Sparta has constructed for itself, brutally juxtaposing rhetorical postures and his own analyses.[26]

The Corinthians embody many of those qualities and draw strength from those cultural patterns, which the Peloponnesian War devalued. The marks of prestige that its colonies conferred on Corinth were not empty symbols. When a Corinthian citizen came forward to begin a sacrifice, or when Corinthians received public tokens of respect before the rest of the Greek world in Panhellenic gatherings, these were not vacuous gestures, useful only insofar as they led to preferential treatment in trade or help in times of war (though both of these objectives were doubtless important). The symbolic performance of rank was an end in itself, and the accumulation of wealth and allies can properly be seen as a means to attain such public signs of prestige. Material and symbolic power are symbiotic and reinforce each other.

The relationship between the great tyrants of Sicily and mainland Greece reveals clearly enough the complex relationship between material power and intangible prestige. On the one hand, the massive temples built in Sicily and Magna Graecia were a clear attempt to convert the wealth of these states into a form that would command admiration and respect. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, visited the temples of Sicily and Magna Graecia while planning to rebuild Berlin on an enormous and unprecedented scale. He remarked later, in his memoirs, that he knew precisely what the western Greek architects had wanted to accomplish. Herodotus describes how the mainland Greeks, faced with Xerxes’ invasion, sought assistance from Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse and probably the single most powerful man in the entire Greek world (Hdt. 7.153–163). In Herodotus’s account, Gelon offers a staggering level of support (7.158), but only on condition that he be granted the overall command of the Greek forces. Rebuffed by the Spartan delegate, he declares that he will accept command of either the land or the sea forces. At this point, however, the Athenian delegate, fearing that the Spartans would hand over command of the sea, intervenes and expresses his indignation at the idea.

The assumptions that underlie this exchange are important and deserve emphasis. Both the Spartans and the Athenians, in Herodotus’s account at any rate, feel that their lineage and history entitle them to precedence over Syracuse or any such “derivative” Greek state. Even defeat at the hands of the Persians and subjugation to a foreign empire are preferable to such an immediate loss of prestige within the Greek world. The identity of the general was of great practical importance and could, of course, decide the war (even at Athens, the generalships were among the few offices not chosen by lot), but the argument as presented in Herodotus turns wholly on issues of prestige. Whatever our feelings as to the historicity of this episode, the story makes sense only if it at most exaggerates the kinds of values according to which Greeks guided their behavior.

Both the architectural program and Gelon’s request for the generalship reflect a phenomenon that anthropologists term “spheres of exchange.” [27] In most societies, value alone does not determine whether or not an exchange is appropriate. A bouquet of flowers would be an appropriate gift for someone recovering in a hospital, but an envelope containing an amount of cash equivalent to the cost of a bouquet would be, at best, out of place. Such spheres of exchange are often organized in a hierarchical manner: in one society analyzed in these terms, subsistence items, prestige objects, and personal loyalties each occupy separate “spheres.” Foodstuffs and subsistence items may be exchanged, but no amount of food may equal the value of a prestige object such as a weapon or family heirloom. At the same time, no combination of prestige objects may, in theory, purchase the loyalties that bind established clients to their patron. In offering to exchange massive help against the Persians for leadership of all or part of the enterprise, Gelon seeks to violate established spheres of exchange, using his material wealth to acquire a prestige that is, technically at least, not for sale. Hence the Spartans and Athenians do not merely reject his offer; they do so with a great show of indignation and without regard to the consequences. Had they accepted Gelon’s offer, they would have subverted the relative hierarchy of the Greek world and thus, in their own eyes, have lost more status than if they were subjugated to an external power.

At the same time, however, even those on the “margins” of the Greek world whose prestige may be lower than their material power would suggest manipulate the existing value system to legitimate and establish themselves. Pindar’s Olympian 6 celebrates the victory of Hagesias from Syracuse in the mule chariot race at Olympia and emphasizes the victor’s illustrious family connections in the Peloponnese. The text explores in detail the birth of Iamos, an ancestor of Hagesias and the founder of the Iamid clan, and documents the fact that Hagesias is also associated by birth with Stymphalus in Arkadia. Pythian 1 praises Hieron, successor to Gelon as tyrant at Syracuse, and it pushes to the fore the ancient connection between the city of Aetna, which Hieron has just founded, with Lakonia. The Greeks at Aetna are still the successors to the Heraclidae, and Pindar proudly links them to their emphatically Dorian ancestors (Pyth. 1.62–66). Even in praising the Rhodian Diagoras, one of the greatest athletes of his time, the poet formally establishes that Tlepolemus, founder of Rhodes, was originally from Tiryns (Ol. 7.20ff.). When the powerful men of Syracuse, Acragas, or any Greek state competed in the Panhellenic games and, in particular, commissioned a victory ode from a famous poet such as Simonides, Pindar, or Bacchylides, they expended enormous amounts of wealth and energy to increase their prestige in the Greek world as a whole, and they expected to use their pedigrees in the Greek mainland to the best possible advantage.

Returning now to Thucydides, the bitterness of Corinth should be seen not against the hard and brutal events that follow in the History, but against the rough-and-tumble world in which hundreds of city-states competed for respect and honor, and in which no one state could predominate too much—no one state, in any event, until Athens began to perfect its archê as a self-perpetuating engine. Corcyra’s contempt for Corinth may or may not have affected the volume of trade with western markets or similar interests—Thucydides simply does not see fit to inform us on this point. Corcyra’s contempt for Corinth does, however, strike at the heart of Corinth’s standing and self-image as an ancient and consequently central Greek state. Corcyra threatens the basic ideology by which Corinthians defined themselves, and the Corinthians, doubtless terrified at the long-term consequences, naturally lavished hatred on their wayward colony.

Thucydides clearly, if succinctly, explains the twofold strategy by which Corcyra challenges the moral hegemony of Corinth. First, Corcyra is rich, and its wealth translates into a powerful fleet:

Since they were at that time with respect to the power (dunamis) of wealth (chrêmata) on an equal footing with the richest of the Greeks and as far as military resources (paraskeuê) are concerned still more powerful (dunatôteroi), and when their navy was considered, they were even more outstanding.

As with Gelon of Syracuse, the material power of Corcyra was out of proportion to its position in the social hierarchy (at least, in the hierarchy as the Corinthians saw it).

The second reason adduced for Corcyraean pride is perhaps even more intriguing:

At times, they were puffed up (epairomenoi) because the Phaeacians had previously inhabited Corcyra and had enjoyed fame (kleos) for their naval position—and for this reason they lavished even more attention on their navy and were by no means lacking in power (adunatoi). Indeed, they possessed 120 triremes when they began this war.

The Corcyraeans are “carried away” (epairomenoi: a negative word that suggests lack of emotional balance or control)[28] because the Phaeacians—characters from the Homeric Odyssey—had supposedly inhabited Corcyra before them. The mythical tale of Phaeacia exerted, according to Thucydides, a tangible influence on the self-image that the Corcyraeans had of themselves, and this self-image intensified their interest in building a navy. The modern scholar may skip this portion of Thucydides in search of more important phenomena, but Thucydides, by and large a reductive and materialistic analyst of power, presents the Corcyraean ideology as a patent force.

For the Corinthians, the association with Phaeacia was a clear and doubtless polemical threat, since, in appropriating the mythical Phaeacians, the Corcyraeans had created for themselves a new pedigree, as venerable as that offered by Corinth. The appropriation of Phaeacia gave the Corcyraeans the symbolic weaponry with which to deflect the kinds of attacks leveled against Gelon by the Spartans (Hdt. 7.159) and the Athenians (7.161.3).

Thucydides’ fairly brief account provides a revealing picture of how an established power such as Corinth operated within the Greek world. When the Corinthians assemble a convoy to Epidamnus, Thucydides names ten states that come to its aid, offering everything from money (the Thebans and Phliasians) to matériel (hulls from the Eleans) to fully manned ships (ten from Leucas, eight each from Megara and Ambracia, five from Epidaurus, four from Pale in Cephallonia, two from Troezen, and one from Hermione). We know of no formal treaty that commanded this assistance. While we may look for some economic or mercantile motive for the participating states,[29] there is no reason, when interpreting Thucydides’ view, to look beyond the system of “good services” (euergesia) and “pleasure/gratitude” (charis), which dominates Thucydides’ account of the Corcyraean and Corinthian debate at Athens. The Corinthians are masters of traditional Greek diplomacy, and they present the network of colonial ties as the centerpiece of their standing.

The Corinthians make no bones about their relationship with their apoikiai:[30] they supported these colonies precisely because they expected to be their hêgemones (Thuc. 1.38.2) and to receive the respect that they deserved (ta eikota thaumazesthai). At the same time, however, it would be incorrect to reduce Corinth’s idealized relationship between colony and metropolis to one of simple power and subjugation. The Corinthians go on to claim that the proof of their worth is not mere obedience but the affection that their colonies pay them: “The rest of our colonies (apoikiai), anyway, confer honor (timê) upon us, and we are loved (stergometha) most of all by our colonists (apoikoi)” (1.38.3). This is the only place in Thucydides where the emphatic verb stergô appears, and it is one of the very few passages in which Thucydides adduces affection as a real and potent force in the world. Such a “distinctive moral quality of reciprocal obligation and affections characterizes…relationships of inequality” in other societies as well.[31] The relationship between metropolis and apoikia is, to use a contemporary phrase, a “total social fact”: it is not legal, religious, or emotional but unites all these aspects. Or, to use another term, economic or political exchanges are, for the Corinthians, not separate and self-contained, but embedded in a larger social context. The debate between Corcyra and Corinth and the subsequent actions of the Athenians allow us to document this attitude.

The Speeches of the Corcyraeans and Corinthians

The scholiast on Thucydides 1.32 summarizes the debate between the Corcyraeans and Corinthians succinctly: “The speech of the Corcyraeans places greater emphasis upon expediency (to sumpheron) than on what is just (to dikaion), that of the Corinthians justice more than expediency.” Eduard Schwartz opens his own discussion of these speeches with a virtual paraphrase of the scholiast but goes on to say that while one quality or the other dominates the two speeches, each side makes its own claims to to sumpheron and to dikaion.[32] Certainly, just a survey of the terms that each side employs supports this view. The Corcyraeans open their speech by stating generally that those seeking a new alliance must, above all, demonstrate that they are seeking things that will be of advantage (32.1: hôs kai sumphora deontai), and they consciously refer to this theme again three times (35.5, 36.1, 36.2). Indeed, to sumpheron seems for them to be not merely a rhetorical device to persuade the Athenians, but a basic category by which they measure their own actions, for they regret their neutrality as “inexpedient (32.3: asumphoron) at the present.” Their presentation begins and ends with the material advantages an alliance with Corcyra would confer upon Athens.

On the other hand, the idea of dikê, “justice,” both as moral category and as juridical process, permeates the harsh Corinthian speech. The Corinthians snidely remark on the negative way in which the Corcyraeans portrayed them (Thuc. 1.37.1) and thus justify their counterattack. Although eighteen words containing the stem dik-, indicating “just,” appear in the Corinthian speech, only two are in any sense positive. The Corinthians warn the Athenians that they would be “just” (dikaioi) if they remained neutral in the quarrel with Corcyra (40.4), and they urge the Athenians not to accept their arguments as “just” (dikaia) while following instead what is “expedient” (sumphora) (42.1). Otherwise, they focus on injustice: the Corcyraeans, the Corinthians allege, have no allies because they want no witnesses to their “injustices,” adikêmata (37.2), and twice they warn the Athenians not to become accomplices to Corcyraean injustice (sunadikein, 37.4, 39.3). The simplex verb adikeô, “to act unjustly,” appears seven times (37.1, 37.4, 38.4, 39.3, 42.2, 42.4, 43.4). Although the Corinthians once cite the “things that were owed them according to justice” (41.1: dikaiômata), they refer to the Corcyraean offer for mediation (39.1: dikê, “justice” as a legal proceeding) only to scorn the Corcyraeans for cynically pursuing “the fair appearance of justice” (39.2: to euprepes tês dikês). In vilifying Corcyraean behavior at home, they sarcastically refer to the way in which the Corcyraeans prefer to be “judges over those whom they harm” rather than to decide matters according to “settled agreements” (37.3). The Corinthians thus constantly appeal to justice but use this concept in all its aspects as a stick with which to pummel their adversaries.

Both sides situate their arguments in the framework chosen by their adversaries. Anticipating what the Corinthians will say,[33] the Corcyraeans open their speech with the word dikaion, “it is just,” and introduce one of the debate’s few references to what people should do (rather than what they should not do). The Athenians should support them because they “suffer injustice (adikomenous) and do not harm others” (Thuc. 1.33.1). Corcyra is a colony “alienated” (34.1: allotrioutai) from its metropolis because it has suffered injustice (adikoumenê). “Thus it is clear that the Corinthians were acting unjustly” (34.2: edikoun), and it is outrageous that they should regard it as “an injustice” (35.3: adikêma) for the Athenians to side with Corcyra. It is certainly “just” (34.1: dikaion) for Athens to accept a Corinthian colony as an ally, and it is not “just” (35.4: dikaion) for Athens to stand by while Corcyra is attacked. For their part, the Corinthians, as they begin to wind down their own speech, urge the Athenians not to accept those “expedient things” (42.1: sumphora) offered by Corcyra, but to adhere to the “just things” (dikaia) offered by the Corinthians, since in the long run “what is expedient” (42.2: to sumpheron) and just behavior are identical.

Scholars are divided as to whether the Corinthians, like the Athenians (Thuc. 1.44.2), accept the premise of the Corcyraean argument (36.1), that war with Sparta is inevitable and that Athens must keep Corcyra out of the Peloponnesian camp,[34] but most discussions of this debate and of Thucydidean debates in general assume that “in both cases, the argument turns on personal advantage clothed in the terms of justice” and that beneath all three cases are “entirely material ends.” [35] One historian, speaking generally, concludes that “Thucydides has a claim to both originality of thought and permanency of value in his unswerving insistence, for purposes of historical interpretation, on the amorality of interstate relations.” [36] By contrast, the “postmodernist” outlook on Thucydides stresses his emotional connection to the events that he relates. But in this view of Thucydides, the amoral events in the History often provide the dark background against which Thucydides’ emotional and principled attitudes stand out.

Expediency and advantage do, of course, play a decisive role in both speeches, but the two sides portray advantage in very different terms, and we lose much that is substantial if we immediately reduce them both to their material foundations. The Corcyraeans and Corinthians are engaged in a public, theatrical contest with deep roots in Greek thought and complex rules that all the players are expected to understand. To the speakers in the debate, expediency and justice frame their arguments, but the drama of this historical event turns, as we will see, on another term, which runs throughout both speeches: these brief speeches contain a full 17 of the 110 instances of the verb dechomai, “to receive,” in Thucydides, with 8 occurrences in the Corcyraean speech and 9 in the somewhat longer Corinthian response.

Reciprocity and Status

The rhetoric that the Corcyraeans and Corinthians employ in their speeches is that of xenia, “ritualized friendship.” It should not surprise us that Greeks depict an alliance between poleis, a summachia, in much the same way as an alliance between individual citizens or families of different poleis. Gabriel Herman, for example, has recently shown that the term proxenos is modeled on xenos, and that proxenoi are, in a sense, xenoi of a polis.[37] An inscription describing the alliance between Athens and Egesta, tentatively dated to 458/7, mentions that official representatives from that state are to be offered xenia, presumably at the prutaneion;[38] the representatives of Egesta thus became, in effect, xenoi of the Athenian demos as a whole. As Virginia Hunter has noted, Thucydides in particular tends to treat aggregate groups of people as if they were individuals, and thus projects individual psychology onto what we would now call sociology.[39] As poleis became more developed and their relations more complex, Greeks naturally turned to the ideas and structures governing institutions such as xenia when they explored the rights and responsibilities inherent in summachia.

The Corcyraeans seek to establish a new relationship with the Athenians while the Corinthians seek to capitalize on their existing relationship with Athens. The offer of a summachia is a classic example of a gift exchange as described by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and particularly Marcel Mauss in his influential book The Gift.[40] Briefly put, Mauss argues that there is no such thing as a free gift, and that any gift from one individual to another establishes an expectation of something sometime in return. Mary Douglas, in her discussion of The Gift, observes that “though we laud charity as a Christian virtue, we know that it wounds,” and states that by working for a charitable foundation she learned “that the recipient does not like the giver, no matter how cheerful he may be.” [41] A gift offered without expectation of return in any form or at any time is an assertion of power and in many societies degrades the recipient. The “free gift” as assertion of power appears quite clearly in the Funeral Oration, where Perikles proclaims: “As far as virtue (aretê) is concerned, we are distinct from the multitude: for we acquire friends not by having good things done for us, but by doing good things” (Thuc. 2.40.4). The greatness of Athens allows it to indulge its generosity freely and to win friends by its actions. Perikles immediately proceeds, however, to undercut his own statement, as if to support the thesis of Mauss (and Douglas): “The one who performed charis [an act that demands gratitude] is more reliable so that he can preserve this charis that is owed him (opheilomenê) through the goodwill (eunoia) of the one to whom he gave it; the person who owes this debt in return (antopheilôn) is slower to repay this virtue (aretê), since he knows that he is contributing not to charis [an act that demands gratitude] but to the payment of a debt.” Athenian aid, generously given, is an assertion of power and superiority, and the recipient accepts a subordinate position in prestige.[42]

Both the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians are as concerned about status as they are about material power. The Corcyraeans open their offer by attempting to define their position as that of an equal partner. They represent themselves as something more than the helpless suppliants of Attic tragedy, who beg and flatter the Athenian demos. They come as a state proudly offering as much as it requests. Few, they declare, come in search of an alliance offering to give no less than they seek in return (Thuc. 1.33.2). The fact that they are not in absolute terms equal to the Athenians is not important: they argue, in effect, that they hold a balance of power on the seas, and their strength will determine whether the Athenians can maintain the maritime power on which they depend (36.3).

If the Corcyraeans attempt to define their relationship with Athens as one of equality, they may be overstating their case, but their attitude is consistent. Status is at the root of the Corcyraean quarrel with Corinth. The duties they refuse to fulfill with regard to their metropolis are materially small—these obligations surely cannot compare with the tribute that Athens levied from its allies or even with the inconvenience, danger, and expense of serving with Athens as allies—but as symbols of subordination they were intolerable. The Corcyraeans draw their proposed position in harsh terms: colonists “are sent out on the condition that they be not slaves (douloi) but equals (homoioi) to those left behind” (Thuc. 1.34.1). In their eyes, such subordination is morally unacceptable: “Every colony (apoikia) that is treated well confers honor (timê) upon its metropolis but becomes alienated if it suffers injustice (adikoumenê).” The Corcyraeans emphasize reciprocity: the respect that a colony confers on its metropolis balances the respect that the colony itself receives. The Corinthians, for their part, defend their status vis-à-vis their colonies. They sponsored the colony at Corcyra precisely because they expected to receive tokens of their superior position: “We ourselves would not say that we founded it so that we could be abused by these men, but so that we could be the leaders (hêgemones) and receive such admiration (thaumazesthai) as is appropriate” (38.2). In founding (kaitoikisai) the colony, they earned for themselves, as we saw above, a permanent and inalienable right to be hêgemones and to receive the kind of respect that was their due.

The ethics and expectations of hierarchical status, particularly when such status is interlinked with an ideology that stresses freedom and self-sufficiency, are complex; their function in Thucydides deserves a separate study. Nevertheless, we can note in passing that one argument presented by the Corinthians is typical of other strongly hierarchical societies. The Corinthians assert that even if they had wronged the Corcyraeans, the Corcyraeans should have accepted this treatment: “If we were in error (hêmartanomen), it would be honorable (kalon) of them to give way to our wishes and shameful (aischron) for us to trample on their moderation (metriotês)” (Thuc. 1.38.5). The proper course (kalon) for subordinates is to yield (eikô), thereby employing their restraint (metriotês) as a weapon to heap shame upon the dominant. Other passages in Thucydides similarly describe the moral virtue of the strong not exploiting their advantage to the full. Later in book 1 the Athenians claim credit because they exercise restraint in their dealings with their subjects;[43] during the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians outline the basic system: “It is certain that those who do not yield (eikô) to their equals, who deal nobly (kalôs) with their superiors and are moderate (metrioi) toward their inferiors, on the whole, succeed best” (5.111.4). Although our fifth-century sources largely reflect the attitudes of Athens or other great states, most of the 700 odd, for the most part small poleis known from this period surely identified themselves by who was above, equal to, and below them in the complex bonds that linked states together.

The Corinthian appeal at Thucydides 1.38.5 is perfectly reasonable, and Pierre Bourdieu, in fact, documents precisely this phenomenon in his analysis of Kabyle society: “The man who finds himself in a strong position must refrain from pushing his advantage too far, and should temper his accusation with a certain moderation, so as to let his adversary put himself to shame.…His opponent, for his part, can always try to turn the tables by leading him on to overstep public limits.” Where the offender is clearly stronger, “the offended party is not required to triumph over the offender in order to be rehabilitated in the eyes of public opinion: the defeated man who has done his duty incurs no blame. The offended party is even able to throw back ‘extreme humiliation publicly inflicted’ on his offender without resorting to a riposte. He only has to adopt an attitude of humility which, by emphasizing his weakness, highlights the arbitrary and immoderate character of the offense.” [44] Such a course is precisely what the Corcyraeans seek to avoid, since in their eyes the underlying issue is their status relative to the Corinthians. To adopt the moral position of the weaker party would be to lose the whole game.

The language of reciprocal exchange runs throughout both speeches. The Corcyraeans try to portray their offer as a rare windfall within this system: Corcyra is “giving itself without risks (Thuc. 1.33.2: kindunoi) and expenditure (dapanê).” They offer, as we saw above, as much as they seek (33.2). Corcyra and Athens should act “with us, the Corcyraeans, giving and you, the Athenians, receiving” (33.3). The Corcyreans should prove their good character in reciprocal dealings with others, “giving and receiving things that are just (ta dikaia)” (37.5). They draw on a rich vocabulary for evaluating such relationships at 39.3 (as indicated by italics):

But it was when they stood firmest that they should have made overtures to you, and not at a time when we have been wronged, and they are in peril, nor yet at a time when you, who never took a portion of (metalabontes) their power then, will now give a portion of (metadôsete) present advantage, but, having had no part of (apogenomenoi) of their misdeeds, you will have an equal share (to ison hexete) of the blame. They should have shared (koinôsantas) their power with you before they asked you to share (koina… echein) their fortunes.

The Corinthians sketch an elaborate program of costs and benefits that they apply to an alliance such as that offered by the Corcyraeans. The Corcyraeans have themselves made such a critique possible: had they come, like the exiles from Epidamnus who begged their own aid at Thucydides 1.26.3, as simple suppliants, the above argument would not hold. The Corcyraeans, however, disdain such abject pleas and frame their request as if they did not have to pay for Athenian help by yielding some of their own carefully hoarded status. (The Athenians, it should be noted, are not fooled: they give the Corcyraeans only an epimachia, a defensive alliance and one far less valuable than the summachia, but the Corcyraeans serve them as clients thereafter.)

Discrediting the Corcyraeans

Reciprocity, in both a positive and a negative sense, is the cornerstone of the Corinthian argument. Their attack on the Corcyraeans has struck many readers as odd. The Corcyraeans had appealed to traditional elite values in defending their lack of political alliances. They describe their previous policy as now “that which seemed before to be our self-restraint (sôphrosunê)” (Thuc. 1.32.4)—an attempt at virtue. They deserve sympathy: “It warrants forgiveness if we make bold a policy opposed to a previous political inactivity (apragmosunê) that resulted not from moral turpitude (kakia), but rather from an error (hamartia) of judgment (doxa)” (32.5). They had previously acted not through moral turpitude (kakia) but through a miscalculation. Only now do they turn their backs on their previous apragmosunê, and in choosing this loaded term they appropriate yet another conservative value to legitimate their position.[45] The Corinthians move quickly to discredit this image of the “genteel” (apragmôn) Corcyraeans. Corcyra’s position on the edge of the mainland Greek world made its inhabitants unusually self-sufficient (37.3), and outsiders had to visit Corcyra while Corcyraeans could remain at home. The Corcyraeans could thus pass judgment on others without having to undergo the same process. If the Corcyraeans had refused all offers of alliance, they did not do so “on account of their self-restraint” (37.2: dia to sôphron). Rather, they had “cultivated this habit” (37.3: epetêdeusan) so that they might perpetuate base deeds (kakourgia), and not because of any moral virtue (aretê). They preferred isolation because they were ashamed (aischunesthai) to have witnesses of their crimes.

Neither the Corcyraeans nor the Corinthians adduce any ongoing bilateral relationships between Corcyra and the rest of the Greek world. According to the argument that the Corinthians construct, this at most discredits the Corcyraeans, or, perhaps more accurately, it provides them with no credit by which they can withstand the insinuations against them. A bit later, the Corinthians present the following reason for Athens to support them. The Athenians are “bound by a treaty” (enspondoi) with the Corinthians (Thuc. 1.40.4), but they have not even arranged a “suspension of hostilities” (anokôchê) with the Corcyraeans. Gomme, commenting ad loc., remarks that this is “an illogical point,” but the argument is serious and revealing. The Corinthians imply not only that it would be better to be enspondoi than to be subject to a mere suspension of hostilities, but that a state with whom one has gone to war in the past (and with whom one has shared the ritual of butchering one another’s citizens) is more trustworthy and deserving of support than a state with whom one has had no relations. The absence of bilateral exchanges of any kind, even hostility, means that a state cannot be trusted.

This attitude underlies another theme that appears in the two speeches: actions must be open and public to have their full effect. The Corcyraeans promise that if they only accept the power that the Corcyraean alliance offers, this dunamis will, among other things, “contribute to [Athenian] aretê in the eyes of the world” (Thuc. 1.33.2). Athenian help consists of more than men and ships: the public act of support has its own value. The Corcyraeans thus urge the Athenians “to accept and aid them publicly ”(35.4) so that Corinth and its potential allies will know what they are facing. Whether the Athenians are fearful or courageous is less important than the impression that Athenian power will have upon their adversaries. The surfaces of things, whether they are deceptive or not, have real impact. Thucydides constantly wrestles with the contrast between appearance and reality. While he can dismiss the physical show of an Athens (1.10.2), his Corinthians bitterly accuse the Corcyraeans of cynically appropriating first “the fair appearance (to euprepres) of nonalignment” (37.4) and then a few lines later “the fair appearance (to euprepes) of justice (dikê)” (39.1). The self-serving moral veneer is a weapon that speakers throughout the text of Thucydides fear.[46] Moral values matter primarily when they are on display, and hidden qualities are adduced primarily to discredit the surface.

The Corinthians bring this attitude to bear during their attack on Corcyra. They declare that the power of Corcyra’s natural position places a strong moral burden on it:

And yet if they were the good (agathoi) men they pretend to be, the less hold that others had upon them, the stronger would be the light in which they might have put their honesty by giving and receiving what was just (ta dikaia).

They thus link three themes. First, poleis are to be regarded as dishonorable and untrustworthy unless proven otherwise. Second, exchanges between parties are an index of the reliability and moral worth of the participants. Third, these exchanges must be conducted in full view for the public inspection of the Greek world.

The Corinthian attitude is an important one. Individuals (and poleis when they are described in terms applicable to individuals) are not autonomous entities, with a worth inherent in themselves. They are social beings whose character is, in a sense, only the sum total of all dealings that they have ever had with others. Inner feelings, where they count at all, can be a sign of duplicity and bad faith. This conception of the self finds parallels in other societies and is at least as common as the Western view of the disembodied individual as atom and building block of society.[47] The Corcyraeans have no allies because they do not want to be ashamed (Thuc. 1.37.2: aischunesthai). Thucydides, of course, is particularly sensitive to the gap between external appearance and inner feelings (see, for example, his ruthless analyses of Spartan actions). Yet even as Greek poets fret over who is and is not a true friend, the issue primarily boils down to the question of who can and cannot be trusted to stand by their friends or do something in a time of need.

The Corinthian attack is odd. They not only deny that the Corcyraeans had anything to do with sôphrosunê, but they attribute their base behavior in part to autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, and, although they do not use the word itself, they attack the Corcyraeans for their apragmosunê. Their criticism is more than standard rhetorical opportunism, in which the speaker picks and chooses which qualities deserve praise at any given time according to the needs of the moment. Apragmosunê is not absolute, but relative. Elites do not pride themselves on having nothing to do with anything or anyone, but with anything or anyone outside of their own sphere, and an admired agathos should maintain relationships with philoi at home and many xenoi scattered throughout the Greek world. Apragmosunê is an ideological weapon to discourage members of established elites from consorting with those outside their proper sphere and from thus implicitly legitimating those who seek to join the chosen few.

Establishing Credibility

Social credibility is the foundation on which the Corcyraean offer rests, for if the Athenians do not trust them in the future, they will have no motive to advance them the help that they need now. The Corcyraeans offer the Athenians charis, a store of gratitude that can, on need, be converted to active use. As with the ties that bind xenoi, the Corcyraeans seek an euergesia (Thuc. 1.32.1), and on this basis the Athenians will obtain lasting charis (charis bebaios.) The Corcyraeans are confident that they can provide the Athenians with “securities” for this gratitude (32.2). The Athenians for their part stand to receive a rare eupraxia (33.2) for which they would themselves have exchanged “considerable wealth and charis.” In case the Athenians did not quite grasp the earlier point, the Corcyraeans quickly assert that the Athenians will, if they come to the rescue in this hour of need, “deposit for themselves a store of charis for which they can always claim witnesses” (33.1). The Corcyraeans and Athenians share the same enemies, and this is “the most obvious guarantee of good faith” (35.5). Athenian interests suggest that they should either maintain a monopoly on sea power or, if necessary, make sure “to have as their friend (philos) this one who is most trustworthy” (35.3). By contrast, the Athenians would bitterly regret showing charis (34.3: charizesthai) to their enemies.

Both the manner and the rhetoric of the debate are largely traditional.[48] The Theognidean corpus, for example, exhibits a fascination with the bona fides of hetairoi, “companions.” Do not, we are told, associate with the “ignoble” (kakoi), but cling fast to the “noble” (agathoi) (Theog. 31–32). Keep to yourself affairs of any importance (73–74), since few have a “mind that can be trusted” (pistos noos). Trust few people when you begin an enterprise if you wish to avoid irreparable harm (75–76). A “man worthy of trust” (pistos anêr) is worth his weight in gold (77–78). You will find few “companions worthy of trust” (pistoi hetairoi) who will dare (80) in “difficult matters” (chalepa pragmata) to have a “heart that shares your feelings” (81: homophrôn thumos) and “to share equally” (82: isonmetechein) the good and the bad.

The phrase “symbolic capital,” made famous by Bourdieu,[49] aptly describes the intangible but essential power that one’s personal reputation exerts, as the noun axiôsis describes this kind of dynamic and effective moral standing. Despite (or more likely because of) his tough and unflinching view of human nature, Thucydides uses the verb axioô, literally, “to calculate the worth of something,” approximately 100 times, and the noun axiôsis, “an estimate of worth,” 14 times. Often difficult to render into English, these terms do not point to some absolute measure but describe a calculation of worth that is open to public scrutiny. To use the verb axioô is to assert that, in the speaker’s opinion, a given action deserves to be done. To use the noun axiôsis is to presume a widely shared judgment. The Athenians choose as speaker of the Funeral Oration “whoever seems to be distinguished in mental abilities and is outstanding in ‘public estimation” (axiôsis)” (Thuc. 2.34.6). Likewise Perikles comments during the Funeral Oration that Athenians receive honor “in accordance with public estimation (axiosis)” rather than according to their social class (2.37.1). The public estimation in which a man is held is a source of power that can be used at will. Perikles is able to oppose the masses when they are angry ep’ axiôsei, because of the estimate that the people have formed of him. The Mytileneans nervously guard against losing part of their own axiosis (3.9.2) because they offer to revolt from their allies, the Athenians. When Thucydides ultimately describes how stasis destroys Corcyraean society, he cites a change in the customary public estimation (axiôsis) of words (3.82.4) to gauge the broader change in society as a whole.

Neither axioô nor axiôsis shows up in the Corcyraean speech. The Corinthians, on the other hand, five times ask the Athenians to form their estimate (axioô) and consider the moral assessment (axiôsis) that they offer. They open their speech by directing the Corcyraeans to learn “their own estimate (axiôsis) of the situation” (Thuc. 1.37.1). The Corcyraeans, according to the Corinthians at 39.2, have come to Athens “estimating (axiountes) that you Athenians now would not become allies (sunmachein) but would share in injustice (sunadikein).” Assuming the stance of a friendly adviser,[50] they urge upon the Athenians their advice and their estimate (axiôsis) of the charis between them (41.1). They call upon the basic mechanism by which values are maintained in a traditional, largely oral society: let the young learn from the old and then “see fit” (axioutô) to repay Corinth for what Corinth had done in the past (42.1). At the conclusion of their speech (43.1), they formally “assert their claim” (axioumen) to receive the same kind of aid that they themselves once gave. With each repetition of this term, whether in nominal or verbal form, they call upon the Athenians to measure the situation against the precedents of Greek society as a whole and of their dealings with Corinth in particular.

In establishing its own credibility, Corinth reveals much, both in those arguments that have impressed modern critics and those that have annoyed them. Twice the Corinthians had been of service to Athens. Before the Persian Wars, Corinth had sided with Athens against Aegina and provided Athens with twenty desperately needed ships. Later, when the Samians had revolted against Athenian control, the Corinthians had openly (Thuc. 1.40.5: phanerôs) supported the Athenian position and argued that “anyone should be able to punish their own allies.” Each of these acts was an euergesia (41.1), on which the Corinthians may base “their claim” (axiôsis) for charis. They demand “to be given something in return” (ant-dothênai), and enter into an elaborate accounting of the relations between the two powers. The Athenians are not so firmly “hostile that they should harm” Corinth, but they are also not “such firm friends that they can now trade upon their friendship” and put off repaying their debt to another day. The Corinthians discuss in some detail how Athens and Corinth have reached “one of those critical periods”(41.2) in which victory was all important, and which can redefine friend and foe (41.3). Athens and Corinth had had their recent differences, but proper Athenian conduct now would remove these, “for the final charis occupies the most effective position and can cancel out a greater claim (enklêma)” (42.3). The Corinthians appeal to both the positive and negative rhetoric of “self-restraint,” sôphrosunê. The Athenians must not be “carried away” (42.2: eparthentas, from epairomai); the Athenians would show sôphrosunê (42.2: sôphrôn) if they disproved Corinthian suspicions, and they must not be seduced (42.4: ephelkesthai) by the Corcyraean offer nor, again, “be carried away (eparthentas) by what was obvious at the moment.” [51]

One argument raised by the Corinthians has stirred substantial modern surprise. They assert that since Corinth supported Athens’s right to punish Samos, they have established a precedent by which they can now punish Corcyra. Since Samos was an ally and did not pay tribute to Athens, Corinth argues that the relationship between itself and Corcyra is equivalent. Since Corcyra was, however, by admission of all concerned, the ally of no Greek state, modern analysts have found the Corinthian assertion troubling at best.[52] Nevertheless, the language that the Corinthians use at 40.5 is carefully chosen: anyone (auton tina) is free to punish “those allies belonging to them.” The critical term for the Corinthians is not just “allies” (summachoi), but the participle prosechontes, “belonging,” which qualifies summachoi. Later on, the Melians contrast their position with that of people of other islands already subject to Athens:

Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who do not belong (hoi mê prosêkontes) to you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists (apoikoi), and some conquered rebels?

xThose who are in fact colonists (apoikoi) are thus those who are properly hoi prosêkontes, “the ones who belong,” and the Melians, in defending their independence, concede that Athens would have a claim of some kind if they were in fact Ionian and thus looked to Athens as their ancient metropolis. The Corinthians thus probably push their case as a whole too far, but they can properly argue that the Corcyraeans are their prosêkontes, and this fact does strengthen their argument.

To a reader in the fifth century, for whom the text of Thucydides is not the primary lens through which to view Athenian imperialism, the Corinthian position might not have seemed flawless, but it would not have appeared as weak as it does to us, for Corinth is appealing to a real side of Athenian power that played a prominent role in the fifth century and that Thucydides, “the artful reporter,” polemically chooses not to mention.[53] When Corinth equates Corcyra and Samos, it is pointing not to Athens the ruthless exponent of Realpolitik, but to the Athens that compelled its allies to send the panoply and cow[54] to the Panathenaia, and that incorporated the delivery of tribute into the Dionysia.[55] Athens did not simply exploit “religious propaganda”; it sought to subsume its power relations within traditional ties of extended kinship and apoikia. The Athenians did not base their empire solely upon force but exploited the relations and symbols that already existed to create an imperial ideology, a set of ideas that justified their authority to their subjects and, perhaps even more importantly, to themselves.

Thucydides, however, peered deep into this system and found behind the familiar trappings of hierarchy and subordination something cold and, if not new, then more important than it had been. Relations between groups tend, in the absence of developed bureaucratic states, to be ambiguous. Participants see their positions not as fixed, but as a complex set of options from which they can pick and choose. In his work on head-hunting in the Philippines, Renato Rosaldo provides a telling example of how such systems work.[56] Two fishing parties from different lineage groups that were engaged in a long-standing feud accidentally encountered one another. Technically, violence should have broken out, but neither side had any interest at the time in pursuing the matter: “The Peknars rose to the occasion, ingenious in their use of the unrestricted mode of category name transmission. Tukbaw said that he had only one category name, true Rumyad, handed down from his father—hence he denied any connection with the killers, who were identified as Peknars (his mother’s name). Kadeng, on the other hand, invoked his mother’s name, Payupay, in order to affirm his kinship with those who had confronted them.…Though nobody was fooled, the issue was aired and then dropped so that they could cooperate during the fishing trip.…When people feud it can be a matter of life itself to muddle things, claiming to be a little on this side and a little on that, somewhat attached to both parties but not necessarily and unambiguously involved.” The traditional situation in Greece had been just as fluid and fuzzy. The Poteideians were tribute-paying members of the Athenian empire, but they also received yearly magistrates (Thuc. 1.56.2: epidêmiourgoi) from Corinth and thus occupied an ambivalent position.

The Athenian empire was qualitatively different from the older alliances and ties that bound colony to mother-city. It rested on a financial system that extracted money from its subjects and converted this money into an engine that could, in turn, project brute physical force to keep the allies in their subordinate position. Athens had developed an imperial mechanism that could exert far greater and more overwhelming force than any other Hellenic power in Greek memory, and the more power it exerted, the greater its power could become. Sparta, for its part, exerted influence as much because of its weakness as because of its strength. Preoccupied with its internal security and already overextended, it could simply digest no more territory. Although they were useful as shock troops and as a rallying point, the Spartans themselves could not seriously threaten many of their allies. States such as Corinth and Boiotia yielded to Sparta its hegemony only because they were confident that the Spartans could not exploit this position too far. After the Peace of Nikias and particularly after the fall of the Athenian empire, Corinth and Boiotia grew rapidly disenchanted with a Sparta no longer balanced by Athenian power.

The Athenian empire thus disrupted the balance between material force and ideology. Athens had greater and more thorough powers of coercion at its disposal than any Greek state had ever had, and it no longer needed to rely as completely on the ideological minuet in which client and patron exchanged favors and services for their mutual benefit. The hard logic of the empire overwhelmed the old system, and Athens had the power to resolve ambiguities that challenged its interests. Thus the Athenians demand that the Poteideians refuse to accept their Corinthian magistrates (Thuc. 1.56.2). They resolve, by sheer force, the ambiguous position of that city and by this public act celebrate the impotence of the ties by which Corinth defined its position.

When the Corinthians state their case at Athens, they frame their position in the traditional language of bilateral relations. In essence, they assume that exchanges between different parties cannot be divorced from emotional and affective ties. Their colonies do not merely give them their proper respect (Thuc. 1.38.2) but feel an emotional attachment to them (38.3). Good services, even though performed generations before (as with the help against Aegina), have vitality and are handed down from old to young (42.1). The main basis of their attack on the Corcyraeans is, as discussed above, that the Corcyraeans have not had dealings with Athens and thus have forged no ties on which they can build. In traditional exchange systems, exchanges are not simple occurrences but establish a social relationship that supports future solidarity and cooperation.

As the economic historian Karl Polanyi and others have emphasized, market exchanges based on coinage or abstract schemes of value differ fundamentally from traditional transactions. In a pure market exchange, each side struggles to get the best deal possible, and the transaction, once completed, is complete. No emotional ties or commitments other than those associated with the exchange are involved, and the participants sharply separate the transaction from their social lives.

For Thucydides, coldness and emotional detachment openly characterize the Athenians in their dealings with other states. These qualities permeate the Athenian speech at Sparta later in book 1 and provide the logic behind their remonstrances to the Melians in book 5. Thucydides dramatically substantiates this general principle in the Corcyraean and Corinthian debate that begins the narrative. The Corcyraeans appeal to charis, to their trustworthiness and good character, to the mutual benefits that each side will confer on the other over time. The Corinthians point backward to their euergesiai, call upon their own charis, and appeal for a new birth of friendship that will bring Corinth and Athens together. Thucydides has enumerated the many friends that helped the Corinthians in the first battle with Corcyra (Thuc. 1.27.2), and the Corinthians themselves speak of how well they satisfy their colonies (38.4: areskontes, apareskoimen). They are honorable and trustworthy partners.

The Athenians accept neither argument, and their final decision, though it rescues Corcyra, is not intended to favor either side.[57] After two days of debate, in which they initially favored Corinth, they ultimately decide to establish a defensive alliance with Corcyra. Thucydides does not report who led the debate or argued for each option, but he does provide us with several reasons for the final decision. Corcyra, as its representatives argued, occupied a strategic position on the path to Italy and Sicily, and war with Sparta did indeed seem inevitable to Athens. The third motivation is, however, of particular importance to this discussion. The Athenians accepted neither mother-city nor colony as friend but sought to damage them equally so that if war should come, both these possible competitors would be as weak as possible (Thuc. 1.44.2). They neither value Corinth’s services in the past nor seek future charis from either Corinth or Corcyra. In the final analysis, the claims of loyalty, good character, and friendship fall upon deaf ears for Thucydides’ Athenians. The complex equation of power and material advantage alone determines their decision. The Athenians, at least in Thucydides’ eyes, refine and push to new limits the materialism embodied in such phrases as chrêmata, chrêmat’ anêr, “Money, money makes the man!” [58]

Earlier in this discussion, I mentioned that 17 of the 110 instances of dechomai, “to receive,” appear in the relatively brief Corcyraean debate.[59] The term dechomai is loaded and dramatic in this context. Bourdieu[60] has emphasized that systems of exchange, whether to accord honor or to exact retribution, may seem mechanical and deterministic if viewed schematically, but that within such systems individual actors have diverse strategies that they can employ. When will a gift be repaid? How much will be returned? Will the gift be ignored and protocol violated? Or will the return be perhaps too little, or, conversely, will its generosity challenge the recipient to exhaust himself when his turn comes to respond? To the actors engaged in such exchanges, the system affords many possible outcomes.

The Corcyraeans come to Athens offering to give it an alliance, and they urge that Athens reciprocate, accept the alliance, and complete the exchange (Thuc. 1.33.4): we are giving, and you should accept. But the action is not automatic, and both Corcyraeans and Corinthians wait anxiously to see whether the gift will be formally accepted. Forms of the verb dechomai recur like a drumbeat, mesmerizing both speakers. Corcyraeans and Corinthians both know the rules and the protocol, but the Athenians have begun to play a different game, one in which a power such as Corinth has little place. The rebuff over Corcyra and the subsequent cancellation of the Corinthian magistrates at Poteideia open the eyes of Corinth to the strange new threat that it faces. With good reason, the chastened and terrified Corinthians later in book 1 present a perceptive analysis of the relative characters of Athens and Sparta.


1. Kagan 1969, 231–232, 235–236. [BACK]

2. Ste. Croix 1972, 70. [BACK]

3. Ste. Croix 1972, 71. He cites S. Usher (The Historians of Greece and Rome [Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969] 48–49) as saying that the Corinthian argument was very strong: “Arguments based on justice were the strongest that the Corinthians had.” Ste. Croix also castigates Kagan (1969) for accepting part of the argument. [BACK]

4. Salmon 1984, 285. [BACK]

5. Salmon 1984, 286. [BACK]

6. Cogan 1981a, 10. [BACK]

7. Cogan 1981a, 13. [BACK]

8. Connor 1984, 34 n. 33. [BACK]

9. Kagan 1969, 235–236. [BACK]

10. Salmon 1984, 288. [BACK]

11. See not only their emphatic pronouncements at 1.41.3 and 42.2–3 that Athenian action at this juncture will define the relationship between the two poleis but also the theatrical gesture described at 1.53 with which a small number of men risk their lives to force the Athenians to declare themselves one way or another. [BACK]

12. Malinowski 1922, 10. [BACK]

13. Plattner 1989, 15; the context is a controversy in economic anthropology: “Formalists” applied microeconomic techniques to tribal societies without regard to their cultural contexts, and “Substantivists” argued that people from different cultural contexts would not always view the same choice in the same way. Perfectly rational Muslims would, for example, view a decision about whether to consume alcohol very differently from their Christian counterparts. [BACK]

14. The sequence of events in 1.26.3 is unclear. Thucydides informs us that the Corcyraeans became angry (ἐχαλέπαινον) when they learned Corinth had chosen to appropriate Epidamnus, but he goes on to inform us that the exiles from Epidamnus had come to Corcyra and presented themselves as formal suppliants. It is not clear whether the Corcyraeans accepted them before news of Corinthian activity arrived, or whether the Corinthian intervention only accelerated a Corcyraean action that had already been decided upon. Since Thucydides picks up the story at Corcyra at the point where news of the Corinthian moves had arrived, the story of the suppliant exiles could have naturally fit into the narrative at this point, and there would have been no need for retrospective and parenthetical explanation of why Corcyra demanded the exiles be accepted back. [BACK]

15. The following interpretation of the religious terminology at Thuc. 1.25.4 is owed to Albert Henrichs. [BACK]

16. On the connection between the right to sacrifice or to perform other ritual acts and the status of politês, see Manville 1990, 8, 25. Who could and could not sacrifice or participate in such activities often defined who was and was not a member not only of a polis, but of a genos, phyle, or other association. [BACK]

17. See Stengel 1910, chap. 7, "κατάρχεσθαι und ἐνάρχεσθαι," 40–49; the Thucydidean passage is discussed on pp. 44–46, esp. p. 45. [BACK]

18. Sealey 1976, 314. [BACK]

19. De Romilly 1963, 80 and n. 3. [BACK]

20. Kagan 1969, 219. He cites Beaumont 1936, quoting p. 183: “Is it really credible that the Corinthians disliked the Corcyreans to such an extent as to fight them for the reasons that Thucydides gives…? It is surely justifiable to look for something more concrete.” Beaumont’s whole purpose, it should be emphasized, was to explore the economic penetration of the Adriatic, and he handles Thucydides only in passing. [BACK]

21. Ste. Croix 1972, 70. [BACK]

22. Salmon 1984, 283. [BACK]

23. For a general discussion of this view, see Connor 1977a and Lateiner 1977a and b; for an illustration of how Thucydides constructs an emotionally charged narrative from seemingly dry details, see Hornblower 1987, 191–197. [BACK]

24. For a discussion of the role played by fear, see, for example, de Romilly 1956a. For ambition, see, among other passages, Thuc. 2.65.10–11, where Perikles and his successors are contrasted; for irrational desire, see, for example, the remark καὶ ἔρως ἐνέπεσε τοῖς πᾶσιν ὁμοίως ἐκπλεῦσαι at 6.24.3. [BACK]

25. Thucydides does not mention Odysseus by name, but the phrase οἱ παλαιοὶ τῶν ποητῶν (1.5.2) would have suggested Homer to any fifth-century reader. The following comment about asking travelers if they are pirates might well suggest passages such as Od. 3.69–74, 9.252–255. [BACK]

26. Contrast the rhetorical pose of Sthenelaidas at 1.86 with the analysis offered at 1.88; the Athenians themselves are reported not to have believed ὁ βελτίων λόγος that the Spartans offered when they sent back Athenians who came to their aid against the helots a generation earlier (1.102.3–4); Thucydides likewise attributes Spartan behavior after the fall of Plataia to their desire to please the Thebans (3.68.4). [BACK]

27. The society in question is that of the Tiv of Nigeria, as described by Bohannen (1955, 60–69); for a recent discussion, see Plattner 1989, 175–178. [BACK]

28. Thucydides often uses the term epairô to describe people who let foolish considerations carry them away (e.g., 1.81.6: elpis, “hope”; 1.83.2: “the arguments of the allies”; 3.38.2: kerdos, “profit”). [BACK]

29. Hammond (1967, 318) assumes that states such as Epidaurus and Hermione “were less interested in the fate of the volunteers than in the re-establishment of naval control in the Ionian Sea.” [BACK]

30. On the relationship between Corinth and its colonies, see Graham 1964, 139–142; for the religious background, see Malkin 1987, esp. 189ff. for a discussion of the cult of the founder, a primary ritual mechanism by which to maintain the link between apoikia and metropolis. [BACK]

31. Abu-Lughod 1986, 85, discussing the way in which the family model structures hierarchical relationships within and beyond the family. [BACK]

32. Schwartz 1929, 252: “Das Redenpaar der Korkyraeer und der Korinther dreht sich um die κεφάλαια des συμφέρον und δίκαιον jenes beherrscht die Reder der Korkyraeer, dieses die der Korinther. Aber nicht ausschliesslich.” Schwartz goes on to show how Thucydides lets each group seize the strong points of the other. The Corcyraeans turn to to sumpheron only after securing to dikaion for their side. For a similar analysis, see Kurt von Fritz, Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967) 1:631–635; White (1984, 64), by contrast, sees little or no difference between the two sides. [BACK]

33. Schwartz (1929, 252) specifically alludes to the formal rhetorical strategy προσδεχομένον γενήσεσθαι for which he cites Anaxim. p. 14t Hammer. [BACK]

34. De Romilly (1963, 21) focuses her brief discussion of the debate on the “true cause” of the war, Spartan fear of Athens and the inevitable conflict between the two; she points out that the Corinthians do not deny the probability of war but only emphasize that a war remains en afaneî (42.2).ἐν ἀφανεῖ Cogan (1981a, 14) believes that “the appeal was genuine, at least at the moment it was given, even though it is impossible to say that a favorable Athenian decision would have avoided the war.” [BACK]

35. Finley 1967, 12–13. [BACK]

36. So Cartledge (1979, 225), who presents this as a summary of the view put forward by Ste. Croix (1972, 5–34). [BACK]

37. Herman 1987, 130–142; Herman documents the importance of reciprocal guest friendships within the classical period as a whole. [BACK]

38. Meiggs and Lewis 1988, no. 37.14–15. [BACK]

39. Hunter 1989; Morrison 1994. [BACK]

40. Mauss 1990, first published in 1950 as Essai sur le don. The study of exchange, especially as explored by Karl Polanyi, was developed in classical studies by Moses Finley, in such works as Finley 1954. For Polanyi and classics in general, see Humphreys 1978, 31–75. Recently, interest in the ethics and pragmatics of exchange has grown considerably: see, for example, Herman 1987; Compagner 1988; Kurke 1991. For the application of these ideas in an archaeological context, see, for example, Renfrew and Cherry 1986. [BACK]

41. See Mauss 1990, vii. [BACK]

42. See Loraux (1986a, 81), who vividly depicts the Athenian allies smothered with Athenian largesse: “Forced to leave all initiative to Athens and laden with its benefits, these “friends” had no alternative but the weakness of the debtor—rather like Euripides’ Herakles, described in the last lines of the tragedy (Eur. Her. 1424) as “following Theseus like a boat being towed by another.” ”MacLachlan (1993, 151) suggests that Perikles’ usage “reflects the dramatic change in social conventions which took place during the mid fifth century BCE;” yet though the bluntness may be peculiar to Thucydides, I doubt competition was ever absent from charis. [BACK]

43. Thuc. 1.77.2: καὶ οὐδεὶς σκοπεῖ αὐτῶν τοῖς καὶ ἄλλοθί που ἀρχὴν ἔχουσι καὶ ἧσσον ἡμῶν πρὸς τοὺς ὑπηκόους μετρίοις οὖσι διότι τοῦτο οὐκ ὀνειδίζεται. [BACK]

44. Bourdieu 1977, 12–13. In this passage, Bourdieu actually uses the term elbahadla, and I have substituted for this the phrase “extreme humiliation publicly inflicted,” which Bourdieu uses to define elbahadla on p. 12. [BACK]

45. The classic discussion of apragmosunê vs. polupragmosunê in Greek society is Ehrenberg 1947; for more recent analyses, see Carter 1986; Demont 1990. [BACK]

46. Thuc. 3.38.2: Kleon vilifies the venal speaker τὸ εὐπρεπὲς τοῦ λόγου ἐκπονήσας, and Diodotos takes up this language in his response (3.44.4: καὶ οὐκ ἀξιῶ ὑμᾶς τῷ εὐπρεπεῖ τοῦ ἐκείνου λόγου τὸ χρήσιμον τοῦ ἐμοῦ ἀπώσασθαι During the stasis of Corcyra μέλλησις δὲ προμηθής is damned as δειλία εὐπεπής (3.82.4), and demagogues from all sides push themselves forward (3.82.8) μετὰ ὀνόματος…εὐπρεποῦς (3.82.8). Thucydides is particularly fond of the term εὐπρεπής which appears twenty times in his History, as opposed to six times in the somewhat longer work of Herodotus. [BACK]

47. For analyses of alternate ways in which societies organize their views of self, see, for example, Dumont 1970; Geertz 1973, 360–411. [BACK]

48. See Donlan 1985. [BACK]

49. Bourdieu 1977, 171–183. [BACK]

50. The Corinthians do this again in their first speech at Sparta (1.69.6–70.1). [BACK]

51. The overall argument is a variation of the traditional “near and the far” topos. Foolish mortals, impelled by hope and desire, throw away a present situation for a distant (and ultimately unattained) future; on this, see Young 1968, 116–120. [BACK]

52. Gomme, commenting ad loc., emphasizes the difference between Samos, the Athenian ally, and Corcyra, which was one of the ἄγραφοι πόλεις, when the Thirty Years Peace was signed. Ste. Croix (1972, 71) states that “Athens was certainly entitled to ally herself with Corcyra” and dismisses the Corinthian “specious provisos” to equate Samos and Corcyra; Cogan (1981a, 12) notes that the Corinthian argument is “so peculiar and periphrastic that it must lead us to believe that no such qualification existed in terms of the treaty,” but he goes on to remark that “the Corinthians do not raise the point as a legal point, they raise it as a political one.” Salmon (1984, 275) comments that “the argument is plainly false” and that it “flies in the face of the facts” (pp. 285–286). Kagan (1969, 234), however, does accept the Corinthian position: spheres of influence had been established for Athens and Corinth, and “the Corinthians were surely not mistaken in their understanding that the Athenians had accepted this modus vivendi.” [BACK]

53. Meiggs (1972, 305) concludes his chapter on religious sanctions as follows: “It is interesting, however, that almost all our evidence for Athens’ religious policy towards the allies derives from inscriptions. This is perhaps an indication that religion played only a superficial part in determining the attitude of the allies.” The lack of literary evidence may more properly reflect the prejudices of our literary sources and especially of Thucydides, who in many ways set the tone for accounts of the Athenian empire. [BACK]

54. For the panoply and the cow required from all colonies, see Meiggs and Lewis 1988, no. 49.11–12; schol. ad Ar. Nub. 386; for the panoply and the cow demanded from the allies as well, see Meiggs and Lewis 1988, no. 46.41–42. [BACK]

55. See, for example, Goldhill 1990. [BACK]

56. Rosaldo 1980, 252–253. [BACK]

57. For an analysis of the reasons behind Athens’s decision, see Stadter 1983. [BACK]

58. Pindar Isthm. 2.11 quotes this as (τὸ) τὠργείου ῥῆμα the saying of the Argive man, and the scholia attribute a simpler form of this saying to Alkaeus. A quick glance through the Theognidean corpus would illustrate the ambivalent and demoralizing effect that archaic and classical elites could attribute to material wealth. For the corrosive effects of money on Sparta, see already Thucydides’ younger contemporary Xenophon, Lak. Pol. 14. On Isthm. 2, see Nagy (1990, 341 and 429), who illustrates how this proverb is employed when the speaker feels betrayed; also Kurke 1991, 240–256. [BACK]

59. Seven times in the Corcyraean speech: 33.1, 33.4, 34.1, 35.1, 35.4, 36.1, 36.3; nine times in the somewhat longer Corinthian speech: 37.1, 37.2, 37.3, 37.5, 39.2, 40.1, 40.2, 40.4, 43.3. [BACK]

60. See “From the Mechanics of the Model to the Dialectic of Strategies” in Bourdieu 1977, 3–9. [BACK]

previous chapter
Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
next chapter