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The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship
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7. The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship

Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Wise Men of the archaic period, is reported to have said that one should treat friends as if they were potential enemies and enemies as if they were potential friends. The Ajax of Sophokles’ play gives this saying a place in the modern academic curriculum when he attacks it in one of the most famous speeches of Greek tragedy. Ajax refuses to accept the idea that friendship—or enmity—should be limited in this fashion. For him, emotional commitments must be absolute. Concluding that the affections of the world are impermanent, he chooses a suicide that will put him and his crumbling will beyond the reach of change. His death has many causes and has evoked complex emotions, but, in killing himself, Ajax asserts, in the grandest possible terms, the importance that he attaches to reciprocal relations, whether friendly or hostile, that never fade. However ambiguous Ajax may be, this aspect of his death strikes a solid chord.

Thucydides presents a world similar to that which Ajax rejects, for, in Thucydides, as in the Ajax, friendship has strict limits. But where time in the Ajax converts friendship into enmity and enmity into friendship, the constraints in Thucydides are different. Sophokles views change as a diachronic process that transforms friendship and enmity over time. Thucydides’ perspective is more synchronic: friendship is possible or impossible at any given time depending upon the relative power of two parties. If a certain level of equilibrium is lost, friendship becomes impossible.

The limits of friendship are, in Thucydides, a key corollary to the rule of the strong: the relative balance of power sets limits within which two parties can define their relationship—friendship is not possible between masters and subordinates.[1] The consequences of this corollary are even more profound than the maxim of Bias that Ajax finds so distasteful. Bias’s warning leaves room for generosity and for friendship that—although impermanent—at least temporarily links the weak and the strong. Many hierarchical relationships in classical Greek culture (and even between many citizens in democratic Athens) were tolerable only if they could be represented as friendships based on reciprocity. Thus, in epinician poems, Pindar asserts his own importance at least in part because he thus validates the praise that he offers. Pindar is not simply the “hired gun,” paid to deliver a commissioned poem, but a friend of the patron who thus freely confers earned praise. By contrast, Thucydides’ speakers—even when they contemplate reciprocal friendship—constantly advert to the inequalities of power, which are normally suppressed. In Isthmian 2, Pindar daringly mentions the cold cash that paid for his poem, but what is daring in Pindar becomes standard in Thucydides.

When we first encounter the rule of the strong, it is more than a reductive heuristic that simplifies our view of a problem, allowing us to jettison fictions about friendship and reciprocity and to uncover the underlying hierarchical relationship. Rather, having distilled a general law from the present, Thucydides projects it backward into time and initially uses it to breathe life into dim tradition. Early Greeks turned to piracy (Thuc. 1.5.1), and in these actions “the strong exercise leadership for their own profit (kerdos) and for the subsistence of the weak.” Material force—in men or in money, which can hire men—brings power, and people accept domination to pursue that kerdos that distinguishes their masters:

In pursuit of profits (kerdê, pl.) the weak endured the slavery (douleia) of the strong, while those with more dunamis (dunatôteroi), having surpluses of wealth (periousiai) attached to themselves as subordinates (hupêkooi) to weaker city-states.

Thus, in one sentence, Thucydides states the fundamentally hierarchical dynamic that governs interpersonal and interstate relations alike.

The impact of this principle, when applied, is significant. The world of “things,” erga, is more real than that of “language,” logos. Our human judgments and feelings—whatever we may choose to think—are ultimately subordinate to erga, the “objective realities” of the situation. All human beings, whether they admit it or not, understand this principle. Charis in its narrow sense of gratitude and earned loyalty is ultimately less powerful than fear. Thus Thucydides reinterprets the Trojan War as a kind of martial corvée, extracted from the Greeks by the domination of Agamemnon rather than elicited by moral hegemony. Agamemnon had strength (Thuc. 1.9.3: ischus), and he naturally “assembled the army less by means of charis than through terror (phobos).” Broadly speaking, Thucydides comes very close to the belief, once common in Marxist thought, that the “economic base” directly determines the intellectual superstructure.[2] For Thucydides, material relations—who is more powerful and controls resources—shape social relations.

The superiority of interest and the subordinate status of moral considerations pose an intellectual problem with which Thucydides’ small and midsize states wrestle in their speeches. The Melians, of course, provide the classic example of a small state that refuses to acknowledge the Thucydidean rule that the weak must submit to the strong. The Athenians base their argument to the Melians on the consequences of this rule:

We hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lakedaimonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is within your power (dunata), in accordance with those things that we each truly think. You know as well as we do that justice (dikaia) in human analysis (anthrôpeios logos) only gets considered in a relationship based on equality (apo tou isou), while the strong do what is within their power (dunata) and the weak acquiesce.

Human beings are limited to what is possible, dunata—that is, those things that they possess the dunamis, power, to achieve. Those who have sufficient force impose their will, and those who cannot stop them must accept the situation as naturally as they must accept the cold winds of winter or the heat of the summer. Justice is not a universal, transcendent quality but a thing contingent for its existence upon the proper circumstances. If the gap in power between two agents is too large, then according to the anthrôpeios logos, “the analysis of human beings,” there is not even any point in determining whether an action is just or unjust—the issue is irrelevant, because the weaker party is powerless to respond.

Thus Melian anxiety that surrender should convict them of “ignoble behavior” (kakotês) and “cowardice” (deilia) wins nothing but scorn from the Athenians (Thuc. 5.100). If the Melians use sôphrosunê, “self-control”—a classic virtue in fifth-century society—then they will recognize that this is not a “game (agôn) between equals (apo tou isou) about manly worth (andragathia) and that the penalty is not shame (aischunê)” (5.101). The issue is raw survival, and in this situation, moral labels cease to have meaning.

In Thucydides’ text, language—and with it all those qualities that exist only in language—is hard put to compete with physical reality. This is a point with which the Athenians open and close their debate with the Melians. The Athenians disdain to employ any “noble terms” (onomata kala) on their own behalf (Thuc. 5.89), and they implore the stubborn Melians not to draw fate upon themselves “through the power (dunamis) of a seductive name (onoma)” or “overcome by spoken language (rhêma) in real deed (ergon) and of their own volition to suffer catastrophes that cannot be repaired.” The debate turns on this moral interpretation of objective power. The Melians refuse to accept the Athenian deduction, and they suffer a very physical, biological death because they place the realities of language above those of “objective reality.”

It is important to emphasize that neither Thucydides nor his Athenians argue that all human beings treat one another according to some generalized, objective set of principles. Thus the Athenians argue that their treatment of Melos has no effect upon the risk that they run if they subsequently fall to Sparta:

The end of our rule (archê), if end it should, does not frighten us. For those who exercise rule (archontes) over others, as do even the Spartans (and, in any event, our struggle is not really with the Spartans), are not as terrible to the vanquished as if the subjects (hupêkooi) should themselves attack and overpower their rulers (hoi arxantes).

Humans are grouped in two basic classes, those who exercise rule (archê) and those who are subjects (hupêkooi). The true struggle goes on between the rulers and the ruled. Thus the Athenians will show no mercy toward the inferior Melians, but they can expect that the shared status of power will prevent the Spartans from being equally brutal to them. There are many historical parallels for this attitude. Students of American history might compare the fear of slave revolt that haunted antebellum Southerners and the summary execution that they often dealt during the war to the African-American Union soldiers they captured.


The debate between Kleon and Diodotos about the fate of the Mytileneans is one of the most closely studied portions of the History.[3] Like the Melian debate, it finds its way outside of classics into many courses, on topics such as political science and international relations. Before they revolt, the Mytileneans themselves deliver one of the most important—and overlooked—speeches in Thucydides.[4] In a few brief pages (Thuc. 3.9–14), they raise crucial questions about considerations of friendship and justice in a world dominated by power politics. In justifying their actions according to traditional values, they indicate that those values have taken on an almost entirely new and grim meaning.

Like the Corcyraeans, these would-be allies must demonstrate both that they have something to offer and that their character is trustworthy. As C. Macleod pointed out, this defence of character became a topos for all speeches soliciting an alliance.[5] The Mytileneans, however, face an even more daunting task of defending their character than did the Corcyraeans. By rebelling against their ally Athens, they have called into serious question their own moral worth, and hence their value as allies. They specifically confront this problem and declare that they will make their case on the grounds of to dikaion, “justice,” and aretê (Thuc. 3.10.1)—both of which they, by some standards, abandoned when they abandoned Athens in wartime. They agree with the traditional assumption that friendship must rely on “an aretê that is obvious to each other and on similar habits in other regards.”

But, contrary to traditional thought, the Mytileneans argue that such friendships depend upon a stable balance of power.[6] Affection and loyalty are secondary factors in their view (Thuc. 3.11.1). “Balanced fear (to antipalon deos) is the only sure basis of an alliance (summachia): he who would like to transgress in some respect is then deterred by the fact of not being superior (prouchein).” Athens had, however, grown progressively more powerful and had reached the point where it could strip Mytilene of its independence:

Had we all been still independent (autonomoi), we could have had more faith in their not attempting any change; but the greater number being in their power (hupocheirioi), while they associated with us on the basis of equality (apo tou isou:), they would naturally (eikotôs) chafe with us alone still confronting them as equals (ant-isoumenou) in contrast to the majority that gave way (eikon); particularly as they daily grew more powerful (dunatôteroi), and we more alone.

The Mytileneans appeal to “common sense”: the Athenians would naturally (eikotôs) press their advantage. Once they had acquired more dunamis (i.e., were dunatôteroi), then they were no longer equal, isos, to the Mytileneans, and no one could expect that they would long tolerate a relationship predicated on equality. The material realities of the situation would ultimately assert themselves as naturally as geological pressures lead to an earthquake, and the coming realignment would inevitably push Mytilene into an inferior position. The Mytileneans never even consider the possibility that the Athenians might find the current arrangement useful in itself even if it no longer reflected their true relative status. The will to power inexorably exerts pressure until external dealings reflect the true balance of force.

The Mytileneans then move from this imbalance to its grotesque consequences, which invert the proper relationship between friends. The respect that they paid each other ceased to reinforce their mutual affection and to keep alive the social bonds that connected them, and became instead a cynical practice whereby each maneuvered for advantage and for the ultimate chance to strike. Thus the Mytileneans explain away the honors that Athens conferred upon them:

Again, if we were left independent (autonomoi), it was only because they thought they saw their way to rule (archê) more clearly by speciousness (euprepeia) of language and by the paths of policy (gnômê) than by those of strength (ischus). Not only were we useful as evidence that powers who had votes, like themselves, would not, surely, join them in their expeditions, against their will, without the party attacked being in the wrong; but the same system also enabled them to lead the stronger states against the weaker first, and so to leave the former to the last, stripped of their natural allies, and less capable of resistance.

As Simon Hornblower points out in his note on Thucydides 3.11.3, the Mytileneans are on shaky ground here, for, according to Thucydides, they had sent reinforcements to help Athens put down Samos—formerly one of the “free” allies (Thuc. 1.116.2, 117.2). They thus imply that they helped the Athenians under duress, and direct toward the Athenians the charge of hypocrisy to which they themselves are open. The Athenians, they claim, exploit language when they feel that it can help them expand their rule (archê) better than the application of strength (ischus). The alliance with Mytilene was useful for propaganda and helped Athens prepare for absorbing Mytilene as well in the end.

Once the Mytileneans have lost their faith in Athens and the spirit of the relationship has, in their minds, been corrupted, they reply in kind:

The court that we paid (therapeia) to their general populace (to koinon autôn) and those who were also becoming its protectors (tôn aiei proestotôn) also helped us to maintain our independence.

The Mytileneans cynically pay court to the common people of Athens and to whatever leaders emerged as their prostatai, champions. Their favors, however, did not set out to reinforce a firm and lasting friendship but were a mere expedient of the moment:

However, we did not expect to have the power to do so much longer, if this war had not broken out, following the examples that we had had of their conduct to the rest. Was this friendship (philia) or freedom (eleutheria) here worthy of trust? In this, we accepted each other against our judgment (para gnômên). They, on the one hand, paid court (etherapeuon) to us during the war because they were afraid (deidiotes; cf. deos), and we did the same thing to them during the quiet times. Goodwill (eunoia) most of all establishes trust (pistis) of others. For us, it was terror (phobos) that made them reliable (echuros), while we were retained as allies (summachoi) more by fear (deos) than by friendship (philia). To whichever of us security (asphaleia) should provide the boldness (tharsos), these would be the first to attempt some transgression.

Even as they allude to goodwill (eunoia), the Mytileneans imply that eunoia has no inherent value but exists only within narrow tolerances.[7] Theirs is a world in which even closest allies cannot be trusted and in which friendship has become a thin disguise for deadly competition. The values of the archaic world—with its countless alliances, limited competition, and relatively flat hierarchies—no longer function for them. Symbolic capital depends for its existence upon trust and upon the certainty that good services to an individual will be repaid in kind. The good services that the Athenians and Mytileneans confer upon each other have no future. They establish nothing.

The Mytileneans conclude this portion of their argument by inverting the language of reciprocal gift exchange in spectacular fashion:

So that if we seem to anyone to act unjustly (adikein) by revolting ahead of time (proapostantes) because of their delay of dreadful things against us, ourselves not waiting in turn (antanameinantes) to know clearly if any of these things would have taken place, he does not consider (skopei) properly. For if we had the power (dunatoi) on the basis of equality (apo tou isou) to plot in turn (antepibouleusai) and delay in turn (antimellêsai), why should it have been necessary for us—in a state of parity (apo tou homoiou)—to be at their mercy (ep’ ekeinois). Since the initiative was always on their side, preemptive defence (proamunasthai) must belong to us.

In a relationship of ritualized friendship, gift matches countergift, as the partners compete with one another in terms of generosity. In this case, however, the two parties compete with one another for advantage, and even the idealized relationship is twisted. The Mytileneans no longer dream of matching gift with gift or of competing with the Athenians in public demonstrations of generosity to one another, but they still express themselves in the language of reciprocity. The verbal prefix anti- indicates that an action mirrors something that has previously taken place, and commonly appears when speakers wish to stress the reciprocity of what they are doing. The Mytileneans use the prefix three times in this paragraph. They lament that they cannot match the Athenians in staying power (ant-anameinantes), match plot with plot (ant-epibouleusai), or match their ability to delay action (anti-mellesai), as they could if they were acting “on the basis of equality” (apo tou isou) or “in a state of parity” (apo tou homoiou). Even as they express a viable model of friendship with the linguistic tags of reciprocal action, they have turned the spirit of friendship upside down.

At this point, we might briefly recall the ethnographic literature discussed in chapter 4. The spirit of the gift was crucial in archaic Greece, as in so many other societies. The exchange of gifts or ritualized tokens of respect could not simply be empty but served as signs and substance at once of a larger social relationship. The Greek term charis, in part, represents such concepts as “the “money of fame,” ” [8] the “spirit of the gift,” [9] and Bourdieu’s “symbolic capital.” In chapter 4, we saw not only that both the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians based their pleas to Athens on this system of gift and countergift, but that the Athenians had no interest in such arguments. They ultimately choose a course that was meant to harm both Corcyra and Corinth as much as possible. Thus, on one level, Athens’s decision to aid Corcyra reinforces the Mytilenean argument: the Athenians cannot, in fact, be trusted to support their relationship with Mytilene, because they have no interest in the general scheme of embedded social relations. The Athenians do not believe in the “spirit of the gift.”

The Mytilenean plea for help, however, is also problematic. Reconciling justice with expediency is tricky,[10] but the main difficulty in this speech is more tightly linked to traditional social practices of the archaic period. If “balanced fear” is the only basis for a relationship, then there is little room in any relationship for “goodwill” (eunoia) and “friendship” (philia), since these are strong words for affection. Goodwill and friendship only come to the test when one party falls upon hard times and seeks help from its friends. According to the Mytileneans, trouble for one party would involve an automatic change in the relationship, with the powerful seeking to exploit the weakness of its fallen (and therefore former) friend. Similarly, the statement at Thucydides 3.12.7 that Mytilene had cultivated the Athenians does indeed, as Gomme suggests, “amount to a damaging admission,” but not just or primarily because this behavior had implicated Mytilene in Athenian policy. The subsequent defence does much more harm. The Mytileneans had begun this part of their argument by suggesting that they needed to demonstrate their aretê (Thuc. 3.10.1), which here denotes their “honesty” or basic moral worth. Yet, in denying their former friendship with Athens, they demonstrate that they really cannot be trusted. Their actions do not reflect their feelings. Even as they struggle to frame their needs in terms of philia, eunoia, and aretê, they have sketched a system of forces that leaves no room for these qualities, since friendship, goodwill, and aretê are meaningful only if they endure despite external conditions. Furthermore, if Mytilene wholly subordinates its actions to circumstances, then its alliance is good only so long as Sparta remains useful to it, and friendship with Mytilene is not nearly as valuable—that is, expedient—as it might otherwise be. The Mytilenean speech demolishes its own premises, for it shows that the speakers have little moral worth and consequently offer a good deal less practical advantage.

The Mytilenean speech is in many ways a pivotal passage and connects with a number of other sections. In chapter 3, I analyzed the relationship between Sparta and Tegea as it appears in Herodotus. This relationship seems to have stood as the central paradigm for all bilateral relationships with Sparta: those who acknowledged Sparta’s superiority would not be degraded but would, despite their inequality in military power, enter into a partnership based on mutual respect. Thus even small states could define their alliance in similar terms and at least pretend that they, like the Tegeans, received honor and respect from Sparta. Sparta depended for its position, as we saw earlier, on the shared assumption that the powerful would not overwhelm the weak. The Mytilenean speech baldly drags the general principle involved out into the open and denies an assumption by which the Peloponnesian allies listening to them at Olympia maintained their allegiance to Sparta. I will conclude by comparing the Mytilenean sentiments with the defence of Athenian imperialism at Sparta, but first I must sketch the implications of the Mytilenean speech for the evolution of language in the description of stasis at Corcyra, for Kleon’s later demand that the Mytileneans be exterminated, and for Sparta’s offer of peace in book 4.

First, the Mytilenean affair (like the other great episode in book 3, the fall of Plataia) sets the stage for the dismal analysis of civil strife and its effect upon human behavior at Corcyra. Thucydides begins this excursus by stating two conditions for such savage internal conflict: the presence of war and the opportunity to bring in a great power as ally. The Mytileneans tried to argue that those with common habits (see homoiotropoi at Thuc. 3.10.1) could establish a firm friendship, but their own argument makes it clear that material considerations, such as relative power, are more important than personal habits. Ulimately, the Athenians come to make democrats their allies, and oligarchs consistently turn to Sparta (3.82.1).[11]

When the Mytileneans offered their inverted model of friendship, in which the parties hold each other at bay with the threat of reciprocal violence, they anticipate a general linguistic phenomenon that Thucydides deplores in his analysis of stasis at Corcyra:

In their own judgment (dikaiôsis), people exchanged (antêllaxan) the accustomed evaluation (axiôsis) of words (onomata) with regard to deeds (erga) Reckless audacity (alogistos tolma) came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally (andreia philetairos), and prudent hesitation (mellêsis promêthês) was thought specious cowardice (deilia euprepes). Self-restraint (to sôphrôn) became a cloak for unmanliness (to anandron); ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence (to emplêktos oxu) became the attribute of a true man; plotting (to epibouleusasthai) from a position of safety (asphaleia), a creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) for self-defence.

In the following sections, Thucydides develops this idea at even greater length. As the grim details pile up, the general principle remains consistent: trust and good nature withered in the savagery of civil war, and as human behavior became more brutal, language changed to reflect the new reality. Those noble concepts that remained uncorrupted were “laughed out of existence” (Thuc. 3.83.1), and those terms that previously had denoted generous virtues shifted to describe grotesque inversions of their former selves. The dismal, Hobbesian view of friendship that the Mytileneans put forward neatly illustrates how, on the other side of the Greek world from Corcyra, the meaning of one fundamental quality had already begun to change. Furthermore, the Mytileneans conclude the defence of their own action by anticipating exactly the final statement in the paragraph quoted above. Both they and the Athenians, they claim, were maintaining their charade of friendship and goodwill only until a position of safety (3.12.1: asphaleia) would provide one or the other with the courage so that they could be first to transgress against their supposed friendship. Once they had the opportunity, they not only “plotted against” the Athenians (cf. antepibouleusai at 3.12.3 and to epibouleusasthai at 3.82.4) but took preemptive action as well. The creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) for self-defence mentioned at 3.82.4 perfectly describes the Mytilenean defence at 3.10–12 and especially 3.12.1–3.

Second, so many readers of Thucydides have focused on the dramatic confrontation between Kleon and Diodotos that little attention has been paid to the relationship between the Mytilenean speech at Thucydides 3.9–14 and Kleon’s denunciation of Mytilene at 3.37–40. The Mytileneans, for example, admit that they had been friendly toward the champions of the common people at Athens. Their tokens of respect constituted nothing but a tactic by which they could buy time (Thuc. 3.11.7). When the Mytileneans revolted, those champions of the people who had also championed the Mytileneans must have been placed in a difficult position. Kleon was the most famous prostatês of the Athenian people of the time, and, for all we know, the Mytilenean revolt may have personally embarrassed him. Whatever his relations with Mytilene, his speech demands the execution of all Mytileneans and bases its argument in large measure upon the peculiar relationship between Athens and Mytilene. He thus develops a major theme presented in the Mytilenean speech.

Kleon’s speech picks up two of the themes that the Mytileneans introduce and that become part of the general case study of civil strife at Corcyra. The Mytileneans are acutely conscious that their status with respect to Athens is almost unique—only the Chians remain as free allies (Thuc. 3.10.5). They offer their uncertain position as a pretext (prophasis) to justify their revolt (3.9.1, 13.1). Thucydides describes later how desperate men justified such plots by using self-defence as a creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) (3.82.1). Kleon analyzes the Mytilenean revolt in the same way. He demands severe retaliation against Mytilene so that no one in the future will “revolt on some small pretext” (bracheia prophasis apostêsesthai). Furthermore, according to the Mytileneans, each side constantly plotted against the other (antepibouleusai; see 3.12.3 and to epibouleusasthai at 3.82.4). Kleon shares with the Mytileneans the idea that they have engaged in plotting, but fastens upon this term and gives it considerable prominence. He uses epibouleuô and various derivatives five times in his speech (3.37.2 twice, 39.2, 40.1, 40.5).

Kleon does more, however, than echo the term epibouleuô. He combines plotting with the assumption that different power relationships justify different kinds of behavior. But where the Mytileneans had used this principle to bolster their own moral position—they were so much more powerful than we that we had to take action—Kleon makes it a linchpin for his attack:

I proceed to show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mytilene. I can have forgiveness (sungnômê) for those who revolt because they cannot bear our rule (archê), or who have been forced to do so by the enemy. But these possessed an island with fortifications, could fear our enemies only by sea, and they had their own force of triremes to protect them. They were independent (autonomoi) and shown honor (timê) to the highest degree by you. These people have not revolted—revolt is the act of those who have suffered violence (biaion ti). Rather, they have hatched plots (epebouleusan) and stabbed us in the back.[12] They sought to stand at the side of our bitterest enemies and to destroy us. Indeed, this is more serious than if they had acquired power (dunamis) by themselves and confronted us in war (antepolemêsan).

The Mytileneans had feared degradation to the status of subject ally, but this change had not taken place. Where the Mytileneans stress the difference in real power, Kleon—with at least as much and probably more validity—points to the actual state of affairs. The Mytileneans were in fact still independent (autonomoi), and they did receive unusual honor (timê) from Athens. Those who had “suffered some act of violence” (tôn biaion ti paschontôn) might revolt, and for them there could be forgiveness (sungnômê), because they returned no more than they had received. (The logic of reciprocity that Kleon applies is, it should be noted, opportunistic—at Thucydides 5.91.1, the Athenians imply that savage retribution is more suitable when chastising subjects than when vanquishing equals.) The Mytileneans were not, however, under Athenian rule (archê), and the Athenians had never brought any act of violence (biaion ti) to bear against them. The high status that the Mytileneans had enjoyed meant that their act was simple treachery rather than the desperate rebellion of an oppressed subject.

Kleon, however, argues on both sides of the question. He states that the Mytileneans deserve to die because they acted as if they were friends but betrayed the Athenians. At the same time, however, he shares the Mytileneans’ grim view of human relationships. Acts of kindness have at best no value in themselves and, for an imperial power, are self-defeating:

The Mytileneans should long ago have received from us no honor (timê) distinguished from the rest, and they never would have given in to hubris to this extent, for human beings (anthrôpos) tend by nature to despise that which pays court (therapeuô) and to feel awe (thaumazein) before that which does not yield (to mê eikon).

Kleon does not believe that it is possible to accumulate any positive symbolic capital with subordinates. Kind actions appear as a sign of weakness. There is no room in his view for patrons and clients, only masters who squeeze as much as they possibly can from resentful slaves.

The honor that Athens had conferred upon Mytilene therefore did not win corresponding respect but instead inflamed the Mytileneans with hubris. Kleon brackets the speech with attacks against any notion that the Athenians can accumulate a store of charis with their allies. “You do not realize,” he says at Thucydides 3.37.2, “that your softness (to malakizesthai) will contribute to your danger and not to the charis felt by your allies.…The allies will not obey you because you—harming your own selves—stored up charis (charizesthe).” Toward the end (Thuc. 3.40.4), he says: “To sum up in brief, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just (ta dikaia) toward the Mytileneans, and at the same time expedient (ta sumphora); while by a different decision you will not store up charis with them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves.”

But, like the Mytileneans, Kleon does still understand the world in terms of balanced reciprocity even as he dismisses the possibilities of effective friendship between Athens and its allies:

It is just that compassion (eleos) be given in return (antididosthai) to one’s peers (hoi homoioi), and not to those who will never pity us in return (antoiktountes) but are constituted of necessity our eternal enemies: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence (epieikeia) should be shown toward those who will be our friends (epitêdeioi) in future, instead of toward those who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies (polemioi) as before.

This passage, in the conclusion of Kleon’s argument, pulls together several themes that we have discussed. First, it asserts again the priority of an objective reality whose influence inexorably determines the overall character of human relations. The Mytileneans are constituted as enemies of the Athenians. A product of necessity (anankê), this condition is permanent. No compassion (eleos) or pity (oiktos) conferred upon the Mytileneans will ever convert them from enemies to friends. No relationship with the Mytileneans can base itself on exchanges of kindness and good feelings. Mytilene is far weaker than Athens, but it comes as close to being a peer as any of Athens’s allies. If Mytilene is so inferior that it cannot maintain true friendship with Athens, then Athens is truly alone. It has no friends, only allies. Those who concern themselves with fine language can develop brilliant verbal arguments to the contrary, but they cannot change these objective realities, and they only endanger the city by obscuring the real situation. Language, properly used, mirrors the true situation. Gifts, honors, and words alike are vapid epiphenomena. The relative balance of power alone matters.

Kleon develops his argument from the premise that Athenian archê is a turannis (Thuc. 3.37.2). The opening of Kleon’s argument is a dense network of ideas that relates now familiar terms for friendship and treachery to the condition of tyranny:

Because your daily life is free from fear (adees, lacking in deos) and not filled with plotting (anepibouleuton) against each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion (oiktos), are full of risk (kindunos) for yourselves and bring you no thanks (charis) from your allies for your weakness; entirely forgetting that your empire is a turannis and your subjects are plotting against you (epibouleuontas) and subject to your rule (archê) against their will. These men will not obey you because of those things that you—although doing injury to yourselves—store up as charis, but by the superiority given you by your own strength (ischus) and not their goodwill (eunoia).

Athens is a democracy, and its citizens live a daily life that is free from fear (adees, lacking in deos) and not filled with plotting (anepibouleuton). But Athenian rule (archê) is a turannis—a domination based on force, pure and simple. Thus compassion (oiktos), charis, and goodwill (eunoia) are meaningless concepts, and any trust put in their influence brings with it risk (kindunos). The allies eternally plot against their masters. In the world of friendship and trust, symbolic capital maintains stability and lends to human relationships an on-going momentum through time. In Kleon’s world, the turannis maintains its position by the constant possession of ischus. Once the Athenians lose their material superiority, they will plummet downward like a bird that has ceased beating its wings.

Kleon’s speech thus reinforces an idea expressed by the Mytileneans. Differences in power prevent Greek states from being peers. A powerful state such as Athens inevitably bends its subordinates to its will and exercises the greatest possible control. In such a world, affection is possible only between peers. The Athenians do not exercise hegemony but domination pure and simple. Kleon has no use for a conciliating ideology that seeks to justify Athenian prominence and to evoke any emotions other than fear from the allies. The Athenians had treated the Mytileneans with honor, but the Mytileneans had not reciprocated this respect and had acted as hostile subordinates, eager to strike those above them.

Spartan Traditionalism

Appeals to generosity and to “the spirit of the gift,” as it were, never succeed in Thucydides, but they can be quite eloquent. Book 4 contains perhaps our best statement from the fifth century on the “war with warre,” which redirects competition from warfare to peaceful spheres. After Sphakteria, the Spartans do not offer terms for peace or even for alliance (surprising as that itself may have been).[13] They insist on embedding the peace within a broader social bond:

The Lakedaimonians accordingly invite you to make a treaty and to end the war, giving (didontes), on the one hand, peace and alliance and, besides, substantial friendship (philia) and intimacy (oikeiotês) between us; and, on the other hand, asking in return (antaitountes) for the men on the island, thinking it better for both parties not to hold out until the end, on the chance of some favorable accident enabling the men to force their way out, or of their being compelled to succumb under the pressure of blockade.

The Spartans strike a posture that is almost statuesque. They propose to establish this new relationship with the classic technique of a gift exchange: in the Greek the mende (“on the one hand…on the other”) reinforces the interlocking “we give” (didontes) and “we ask in return” (antaitountes) by which the Spartans define the suggested transaction. They propose not only peace and an alliance, but friendship (philia) and oikeiotês, the latter a difficult term that literally describes the intimacy of those who share a common oikos, “household.” Friendship and especially oikeiotês imply trust and affection. The agreement is not to be a cold and businesslike diplomatic contract, but the beginning of a broader, more complex relationship warmed by social and emotional ties. Finally, this passage captures one of the cornerstones of Spartan diplomacy as represented in Herodotus: the limitation of goals. As we saw in chapter 3, the Spartans become preeminent in Greece when they give up hopes for domination and seek instead hegemony.

The Spartans do not belittle the enmity that has separated them from the Athenians, nor do they conceal that their own interests will be served:

Indeed we believe that great enmities (echthrai) find the most secure resolution—not when someone defending himself in turn (antamunomenos), gaining the upper hand for the most part of the war, and imposing oaths by necessity (ananke), does not conclude an agreement on the basis of equality (apo tou isou), but when, although it is possible to do this very thing, with an eye to generosity (to epieikes) and having conquered him by means of aretê, someone accords a peace on moderate terms (metrios) contrary to what was expected.

Although the Greek is tortured and convoluted, as is characteristic of Thucydides, the ideas expressed elegantly sketch the etiquette of gift exchange. The Spartans freely concede that the Athenians currently have the upper hand, and they ask them to come to terms without pressing home their advantage. In acting with moderation (metrios) and generosity (to epieikes), the Athenians will defeat their Spartan adversaries with aretê. Thus if they do not force the Spartans to accept terms, but show generosity now, they will transform the competition between themselves and the Spartans from an exchange of slaughter to a contest of generosity and high-mindedness:

For the opponent then owes a debt not to defend himself in his turn (antamunesthai), because he had submitted to violence (biastheis), but to give back in return (antapodounai) aretê. He is more inclined by a sense of shame (aischunê) to adhere to the terms to which he agreed.

The Athenians would place the Spartans in a debt that is public—aischunê, “shame,” describes the inhibitions felt before others. Self-respect, rather than driving the Spartans to even the score for a humiliating defeat, would force them to match Athenian aretê with similarly generous behavior. In typically Thucydidean fashion, these Spartans do not simply assert that such behavior will take place, but relate it to the behavior natural for any human:

Human beings tend more to do this with respect to their greater enemies than with respect to those with whom their differences are moderate (metria). For men are naturally inclined (pephukasi) to yield in return (anthhêssasthai) to those who give way of their own free will, but to endure every risk even contrary to their own best judgment (gnômê) when confronting those who are arrogant.

This statement is the precise opposite of the statement Kleon makes at Thucydides 3.39.5. Given the problems of Kleon’s argument, such a contradiction only strengthens the credit owed this noble offer.

After all the savagery and social decay that Thucydides has included in his narrative—plague and moral collapse at Athens, the Mytilenean debate, the siege of Plataia and juridical massacre of the survivors, civil strife and even worse moral collapse at Corcyra—this is an extraordinary speech. Scholarly reaction has, predictably, been mixed, although many analyze the Spartan offer of peace without reference to this elaborate speech. De Romilly accuses the Athenians of “bad faith” and of being “devoid of any justification” when they reject this offer,[14] and, more recently, T. E. J. Wiedemann has argued that Thucydides himself believed that the Athenians had made a great mistake in rejecting the Spartan offer of a compromise peace.[15] For Marc Cogan, “this is an extremely intelligent and decent speech,” [16] which fails, in his view, because, after six years of war, it is too reasonable. Gomme, on the other hand, had only scorn for the moral arguments of the Spartans,[17] and Lowell Edmunds characterized this speech as “more a sermon on tyche than a suit for peace.” [18]

In their offer of peace, the Spartans declare their faith in symbolic capital and the traditional rhetoric of gift exchange that the Athenian delegates at Athens, the Mytileneans at Olympia, and Kleon, demanding vengeance, have abandoned. The Spartans appeal to aretê and to that spirit of friendship that exchange engenders. Their argument is almost a textbook-perfect appeal to the “war against warre,” for they explicitly challenge the Athenians to shift the locus of competition from war to aretê.[19] The Athenians hold the advantage and can compel Sparta to compete with them in generosity rather than in arms. The Spartans, therefore, recall the traditional arguments that we encountered in the programmatic debate between Corcyra and Corinth. If anything, the Spartans are more high-minded, engaging in less scolding and implied threats and placing greater relative emphasis upon the positive acquisition of friendship, the value of aretê, and generosity (including that generosity implied by their own willingness to settle). With their rational explanations for the psychology of gift exchange, they are almost too explicit. They are not just oddly “rhetorical.” [20] They sound like an idealized ethnographic informant, ready to explain local practices in terms familiar to the inquiring anthropologist.

But the Spartan offer, even when it directly contradicts Kleon’s analysis (Thuc. 4.19.4 vs. 3.39.5), is at least partially consistent with the views of human relations expressed by the Mytileneans, Kleon, and the Athenians at Melos. The Spartans conclude their offer by linking the promise of charis with the material basis for cooperation:

While the issue is still in doubt, and you have reputation (doxa) and our friendship (philia) in prospect, and for us the disaster may be moderately (metriôs) settled before any disgrace (aischron ti), let us be reconciled. For ourselves let us choose peace instead of war, and let us fashion a pause from troubles for the rest of the Hellenes. In this matter, they will think that you are more responsible (aitiôteros). The war that they labor under they know not which began, but once the peace, over which you have authority (kurioi), has come into being, they will contribute their charis to your account.

Inscribed within this Spartan offer is an inflammatory assumption. Sparta and Athens are two states set apart. The rest of Greece must wait for the decision these two parties make between themselves. If Athens comes to terms with Sparta, then Athens and Sparta will generously grant peace to the rest of the Greek world—whether Sparta’s allies are ready for peace or not. The Spartans generously offer to accept a settlement in which they will not only themselves incur a debt of aretê and commit their friendship, but in which the watching Hellenes will confer far more of their charis upon the Athenians. But if Sparta accepts a relative decline in its prestige, the decline is not so quantitatively great that it leads to a qualitative change. Sparta remains in the same class as Athens, as one of the two “superpowers” of the Greek world. This assumption, which begins to materialize in the previous section, becomes explicit as the concluding argument of their speech:

[3] By such a decision you can become firm friends with the Spartans at their own invitation, impelled by charis far more than by violence. [4] And from this friendship consider the good things that are likely to follow: know that when we and you have the same wishes, the rest of Hellas, being inferior (hupodeesteron), will confer honor (timê) upon those who are greatest.

The idea that Athens and Sparta should make up their differences and collaborate as leaders of Greece seems to have been topical. Trugaios in Aristophanes’ Peace suggests that Athens and Sparta should jointly exercise rule (archê) over Hellas (Pax 1080–1082). According to Thucydides, Sparta’s more powerful allies feared such an accommodation (Thuc. 5.29.3–4), and Sparta’s assumption that it could make peace on behalf of all caused it considerable trouble in the years after the Peace of Nikias.

Thucydides’ Spartans portray their own traditional position in Greece with typical Thucydidean reasoning. Where Trugaios speaks bluntly of shared rule (archê), Sparta refers only to the honor (timê) that the two will receive. But the Spartans leave no doubts about what guarantees this honor. The rest of Greece is “inferior” (hupodeesteron) to Athens and Sparta combined (Thuc. 4.20.4). Athens and Sparta will receive honor from the rest of Hellas because they are “the greatest” (ta megista). Sparta explicitly bases its offer to Athens on the preponderant coercive power that an Athenian-Spartan alliance could exert.

The conclusion of Sparta’s argument contains several assumptions. First, unlike the Mytileneans or Kleon, it bases international relations on the exchange of charis and on self-conscious restraint in the application of power. This first assumption comes at the end and serves to reinforce a second assumption, which provides the dominant logic that makes peace reasonable: Athens and Sparta can come to an understanding because they are, as the Athenian delegates at Melos observe (Thuc. 5.91.1), comparable. The Mytileneans’ critique of their own friendship with Athens did not apply, because no gross disparity in power made Sparta fear Athenian friendship. The opening sections of the Spartan speech focus upon the uncertainty of fortune (4.17–18): Athens holds the upper hand at present, but the situation may change, and Athens should convert its material advantage into a more permanent increase in prestige and symbolic capital. Sparta is willing to make a settlement, however, because even a temporary setback with Athens does not permanently affect its position. Third, Thucydides informs us after the speech (4.21.1) that the Athenians had previously “longed for a treaty” and would—so the Spartans thought—eagerly snatch up the offer. Thus although the Spartans called attention to the fact that they were in a weaker position and would have to seek peace at a loss, they still felt themselves to be in control of the situation. They were able to make the generous offer they did because they remained confident in their fundamentally strong position.

Thus even the Spartan speech, which brilliantly commands the rhetoric of generosity, leaves open some questions as to the nature of the offer. First, Spartan friendship may be firm, but only as long as the material conditions keep the two powers within the same relative status. Given the ultimate reference to power, the contest of aretê between Athens and Sparta is contingent on the continued parity between the two sides.[21] Second, the years of warfare have resolved nothing. The Athenians remain what they were. The Spartans do not address the grievances, past or present, of the Corinthians or any other allies. Sparta had begun its war in large measure because a failure to act would have gutted the trust and symbolic capital that the Spartans enjoyed with allies whom they could not afford to lose.[22] This offer of peace, which dismisses allied concerns and deals with none of the underlying issues, is anachronistic. It appeals to Athens as if Athens really were a comparable power, although the narrative up to this point has elaborately portrayed Athens as different and incompatible with a traditionalist state such as Sparta. However noble or, for the moment, heartfelt the Spartan sentiments may be, no lasting peace can come of this.

The limits of Spartan loyalty appear most dramatically in the Melian affair (Thuc. 5.104–111). The Melians are colonists, apoikoi, of Sparta and thus have an unusually strong claim to Spartan support. They argue that Sparta will have to come to their defence if only to preserve its credibility, but the cynical Athenians prove correct in asserting that the Spartans have an extremely narrow view of their interests and are loath to undertake actions in support of anyone other than themselves. Corinth could, by throwing a diplomatic tantrum at 1.68–71, rouse Sparta. Melos, apoikia or not, was not a great power or vital material interest. The Spartans, according to Thucydides, do not lift a finger to help them.

The narrative has, however, already given a less dramatic but equally revealing example of Sparta’s limited commitments, when Sparta and its allies finally capture Plataia.[23] The Spartans framed their response in a fashion that conflicts with the traditionalist posture they present to the Athenians. Plataia had been the site of a critical Greek victory under Spartan leadership, and Plataia had subsequently become a kind of Panhellenic sanctuary, with a special relationship to Sparta (whose dead lay buried on Plataian ground). The Plataian speech to the Spartans takes as its main point the special obligations that this bond places upon Sparta. The Spartans, by contrast, frame the situation in a brutally simple fashion (Thuc. 3.52.4). They refuse to acknowledge any prior obligations, nor do they level any accusation of wrongdoing (katêgoria). “They called upon the Plataians and asked them this much only: whether they had done the Spartans and their allies any good in the current war.” The Plataians (3.53–59) and Thebans (3.61–67) in the end might as well have said nothing, for the Spartans simply continue to press the same question upon the Plataians (3.68.1). They methodically posed this question to each Plataian and then executed them all.

The criterion that the Spartans choose is revealing because it rejects a fundamental principle of exchange. By insisting on good services rendered in the present war, the Spartans turn their back on the permanent and timeless nature of charis. Euripides composed suppliant plays that linked Athenian services in mythological times to present politics. In their speech at Athens, the Corinthians demanded a return on aid rendered before the Persian Wars (Thuc. 1.41.2). The Spartans, however, coldly exclude from consideration any obligations based on the battle at Plataia. Furthermore, although the Plataian case is not without problems (they had killed Theban prisoners and had rejected a handsome offer from the the Spartan king Archidamos), they can claim the high moral ground on at least one issue: they, unlike the Mytileneans, had refused to abandon their friends the Athenians: “We now fear to perish by having again acted on the same principles [as in the defence against Xerxes], and chosen to act justly (dikaiôs) with Athens rather than with an eye to our profit (kerdaleôs) with Sparta” (3.56.6). Although the Plataians could claim that they had stood by their friends the Athenians to the bitter end, the Spartans give this no weight at all. The Spartans had demanded the Plataians be neutral and, once that demand had been refused, felt that they could do with the Plataians as they saw fit (3.68.1). Thucydides offers his own interpretation of Spartan motives:

The Spartans had adopted such a recalcitrant position with respect to almost the entire business about the Plataians for the sake of the Thebans, for they thought that the Thebans would be useful (ôphelimoi) for the war that had just then broken out.

Thucydides’ reasoning picks up the language of the Spartan query. The Spartans demand to know what the Plataians have done for them in the present war, because their real concern is the potential service of Thebes in the same period. Whatever moral claims the Spartans might make, or whatever generous postures they might strike, the advantage of the present ultimately outweighed the debts of the past. They pursue traditional values, but only to a degree.

The Plataian debate obviously cries out for comparison with the Mytilenan debate that so closely precedes it. The Athenians at the last minute chose not to execute all of their prisoners. Sparta went forward and killed all the Plataians.[24] But this is not the only point of comparison. The Plataian debate also reveals that when their interests are at stake, the Spartans are as indifferent to charis and symbolic capital as the Athenians showed themselves after the debate between Corcyra and Corinth. In both cases, Athens and Sparta act as if the speeches had never been delivered. In both cases, Athens and Sparta pursue that course that serves their immediate interest. The Spartans, however, make a mockery of traditional gift exchange, truncating the time frame within which they will consider good services. Both of the preeminent powers in Greece, in the final analysis, placed their immediate interest above the obligations of charis or loyalty. Sparta made a greater attempt to maintain appearances—the old Spartan king Archidamos, for example, made a decorous offer to Plataia at Thucydides 2.72 and gave the Plataians a way out (provided that they would abandon the Athenians). But the Spartans still leave themselves open to cynical interpretations, and their actions at Plataia have drawn almost universal disdain from historians. Such questionable behavior is especially damning because the Spartans owe so much of their position to moral authority. The Spartans, however, occupy a precarious position in any event (at least in Thucydides’ scheme of the Greek world), and it is to the dilemmas that confront them that we will now turn.


1. For a somewhat different view of this “pathology of power,” see Immerwahr 1973. [BACK]

2. For a recent discussion of this general topic by a classicist, see Rose 1992, 6–12. [BACK]

3. E.g., Andrewes 1962; Lang 1972; Kagan 1975; Cogan 1981a, 50–65; Cogan 1981b; Connor 1984, 79–81; for further bibliography (with useful comments), see Hornblower 1991, 421–422. [BACK]

4. Connor (1984), for example, leaves this speech out of his discussion as a whole; see, however, Cogan 1981a, 44–49, and now Orwin 1994, 64–70; see also Macleod 1978, 64–68; Macleod argues that “Thucydides deliberately presents his speakers getting entangled in their own arguments,” primarily because they, “like Cleon later on, try to maintain that their action is both just and expedient” (p. 66). [BACK]

5. Macleod 1978, 64; he cites Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 1424b37: δεικνύναι τοὺς τὴν συμμαχίαν ποιουμένος μάλιστα μὲν διακαίους ὄντας. [BACK]

6. Cf. Thucydides speaking in propria persona about the origins of the war at 1.23.6. [BACK]

7. Compare the similar fashion in which the Athenians treat the eunoia enjoyed by Sparta at 1.77.6. [BACK]

8. Mauss 1990, 44. [BACK]

9. See the essay by that title at Sahlins 1972, 149–183. [BACK]

10. So Macleod 1974, but note Hornblower 1991, 391–392, which qualifies Macleod’s analysis. [BACK]

11. On this, see Cogan 1981b. [BACK]

12. This attempts to capture the pungency implied by the Greek ἐπανέστησαν μᾶλλον ἢ ἀπέστησαν on which, see Hornblower 1991, ad loc. [BACK]

13. So Connor 1984, 112 n. 10. [BACK]

14. De Romilly 1963, 172. [BACK]

15. Wiedemann 1982, xxix. [BACK]

16. Cogan 1981a, 75. [BACK]

17. Gomme on 4.20.4: “Their offer on this occasion, militarily speaking worth nothing, except in the moral effect of its having been made at all, demanded not only a generosity of feeling and a far-sightedness on the part of Athens which they had no reason and no right to expect (and no country can throw a stone at Athens for that), but an even greater generosity, μεγαλοψυχία on their own, to accept the Athenians’ gesture and forget their own disgrace”; Kagan (1969) concludes that the Spartans had not yet reached the frame of mind where they could truly give up the idea of defeating Athens; Cartledge (1979, 242) follows Gomme and terms this “an empty and, almost certainly, a vain offer.” [BACK]

18. Edmunds 1975a, 100. [BACK]

19. Not all have read the Spartan speech this way: Strauss (1964, 173) suggests that the Spartan emphasis on Athens’s good fortune makes their offer “underhanded and grudging,” and observes that “their lack of frankness and of pride is not redeemed by graciousness.” [BACK]

20. Hunter 1973, 74. [BACK]

21. On this, see Strauss 1964, 239, near the conclusion of his analysis of Thucydides: “The order of cities which is presupposed in the most noble Spartan proclamations is altogether impossible, given the unequal power of the different cities which inevitably leads to the consequence that the most powerful cities cannot help being hegemonial or even imperial.” [BACK]

22. On the dilemma facing the Spartans, see chapter 8 below. [BACK]

23. For an even harsher analysis of Spartan dealings with Plataia, see Badian 1989. [BACK]

24. For a discussion of the limits of this comparison, see Cogan 1981b, 7. [BACK]

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