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8. Archidamos and Sthenelaidas

The Dilemma of Spartan Authority

Before shifting the focus away from Thucydides’ engagement with the traditional discourses of the archaic world, I wish first to trace some of the complexities in his account of Sparta, the leading state of the old world. In chapter 1, I began by contrasting the different models of Spartan prestige that informed Herodotus and Xenophon. For Herodotus, Sparta’s position was provisional. Its unique way of life and military prowess were necessary but not sufficient conditions for Spartan leadership. Herodotus carefully stresses the limits of Sparta’s ambitions and the legitimacy that Sparta received from Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. In effect, Sparta could command leadership by force. A combination of force and moral posturing allowed other Greeks to concede to Sparta a preeminent position. Xenophon, by contrast, lays much greater stress upon Sparta’s ability to project physical violence. The Spartan way of life is impressive because it was responsible for Sparta’s position. Xenophon’s Spartans fashioned not only themselves but their own status in the world at large. For Herodotus, Spartan status is the product of a complex negotiation between the Spartans and the larger Greek world. Xenophon’s Spartans could—even in the fourth century—always, it is felt, reassert their ancient glory if they could strictly adhere to their way of life and thus return to the battlefield with their former strength. Herodotus, on the other hand, makes it clear from the start that excellence at home and military power abroad never by themselves constituted a sufficient basis for hegemony.

The same dichotomy between Sparta as autonomous and Sparta as the product of a wider consensus informs the debate in book 1 between the two Spartans Archidamos and Sthenelaidas. The two argue about how to confront Athens. Like much else that takes place in the opening book, their speeches are programmatic, for they illustrate the insoluble problem that Athens poses for the Spartans and thus dramatize the confrontation between old and new that underlies so much of the History.

Both speakers trace part of a dilemma. Sparta could not confront Athens without developing naval power and the regular financial resources that ships required, but to do so would require Sparta to change, to become more like Athens, and in so doing to give up the position upon which its prestige depended.[1] In the end, Sparta succumbed to this dilemma, conquering Athens, but becoming as hated as the Athenians had been and never again quite regaining the status that it had enjoyed in the late 430s. Thucydides’ Archidamos and Sthenelaidas allow us to see the new world through the eyes of the old. I do not propose to offer a comprehensive analysis of Thucydides’ Spartans—such an examination would comprise a study in itself. Rather, I will concentrate on the two very different Spartans who step forward to give complementary views of their city and its position, and measure the claims of these men against subsequent Spartan behavior described in the History.

Archidamos and Sthenelaidas develop the picture of Spartan character presented by the Corinthians, rejecting some characteristics and appropriating and reinterpreting others. Archidamos and Sthenelaidas allow us to see from the start that although there may be a Spartan national character, characteristic Spartans can be very different in outlook and manner. These two speakers do not so much contradict as give depth to the two-dimensional picture sketched by the Corinthians. For all of their differences, Archidamos and Sthenelaidas are variations on a single theme, and each offers a different and only partial analysis of Sparta’s position. These speeches do not explain why Sparta ultimately was victorious but rather, by their complementary limitations, frame the problem of Sparta’s victory with greater clarity.

The style of the two speeches could hardly be more distinct: the thoughtful analysis by the old king Archidamos gives way to a fiery harangue by the ephor Sthenelaidas. With only a few exceptions,[2] readers have expressed broad admiration for Archidamos and his speech. “Archidamus’ quiet dignity and old-fashioned poise, his balance of mind and unconcern with any emotional appeal, his blend of valor and sound judgment, make him the paragon of the age-old tradition of the Spartan warrior king.” [3] He is a “wise and experienced statesman,” [4] “the voice of reason,” [5] “credited with statesmanship of almost Periclean quality,” [6] and his speech is “masterful.” [7] One leading expert on Sparta states that if Archidamos really “counselled caution,” as he does in Thucydides, “he was prudent,” for

the Archidamian War cruelly exposed Spartan deficiencies in many areas: manpower shortage, inability to respond swiftly or fully enough to changes in tactics by land and sea, rudimentary “system” of public finances, incompatibility between a Spartan upbringing and the requirements of a prolonged foreign command, internecine behind-the-scenes struggles for power and influence at Sparta, failure to retain the loyalty of some of her prominent Peloponnesian League allies, and, not least, the constant threat posed by the enemy within, the Helots, lying in wait for and (as in 425) seizing upon their collective master’s misfortune. In the end it was not so much that Sparta had won the war as that Athens had lost it.[8]

Thucydides certainly does nothing to undercut this favorable impression of Archidamos’s character, introducing him with the specific comment that the king was a man “who appeared to be intelligent (sunetos) and possessed of self-control (sôphrôn)” (Thuc. 1.79.2).

By contrast, the short and biting speech of Sthenelaidas at Thucydides1.86 has encountered more than its share of criticism: its “shallowness is evident in the jingles and equivocations of the language.” [9] Sthenelaidas’s appeal has struck many as irrational and emotional;[10] at best it is considered a rhetorical tour de force that cozens its audience into action.[11] “On the heels of Archidamos’ speech, Sthenelaidas’ words sound naive and misguided; indeed he seems to miss the point.” [12] In the end, Sthenelaidas, irrational or not, carries the day, and the Spartans vote decisively that the Athenians had broken the treaty (Thuc. 1.87). Most modern critics, however, have rejected the content, much as they have despised the manner, of his speech.

Sthenelaidas’s rhetorical task was not as formidable as might at first appear. Effective as Archidamos’s speech may have been, the majority of Spartans began the meeting convinced that “the Athenians were in the wrong and that they needed to go to war as quickly as possible” (Thuc. 1.79.2). Sthenelaidas had only to “recover the emotional state of the assembly which existed before Archidamus spoke.” [13] Nor was Archidamos’s speech, thoughtful and attractive as it may have been, necessarily the best policy at the time—“The proposals of Archidamus were altogether in accord with the views expressed by the Athenian ambassadors in the Spartan assembly.” [14] Nevertheless, the question remains: Why was Sthenelaidas more persuasive than Archidamos? Or, to put it another way, why has Archidamos’s speech been so much more persuasive to readers of Thucydides’ History than to its original audience?

Most critics have traditionally sided with Archidamos or Sthenelaidas, and in this they have accepted the dialectic premise, with its tendency to endorse one side and reduce the other to rubble. Both speeches, I believe, are insightful and capture much of the Spartan dilemma. Each is—and can only be—a partial analysis, for, in Thucydides’ analysis at any rate, there is no real solution to Sparta’s problems. The world is changing. Sparta may defeat Athens, but its victory is problematic at best. Furthermore, most examinations of these speeches have concentrated on the speeches themselves and taken relatively little account of the larger context.


Archidamos’s speech consists of two basic sections. The first (Thuc. 1.80–82) is a cool estimation of Sparta’s relative weaknesses in a war against Athens. Athens is a qualitatively different kind of power, against which Sparta cannot bring to bear its usual overwhelming force (80.3). Sparta is inferior to Athens in ships and especially in financial resources (80.4). Athens can survive land invasions by importing what it needs by sea (81.2), and Sparta will have to have its own navy if it is to break up the Athenian empire (81.3). For these reasons, Archidamos urges caution. The Lakedaimonians should temporize, neither threatening war too clearly nor implying that they will accept arbitration (82.1). Two or three years would put them in a much better position for war, and they should in the meantime play for time. If Athens should choose to resolve matters diplomatically in the meantime, so much the better (82.2).

In at least one regard, Archidamos’s speech views the world from a typically Thucydidean perspective. The Spartan king is obsessed with paraskeuê, a concept to which Thucydides gave great emphasis. An entire monograph has been devoted to this term, which describes both the process of accumulating power and the accumulated power itself.[15] Thucydides uses the verbal form paraskeuazo substantially more frequently (163 examples) than Xenophon (149 examples), Plato (121), or Demosthenes (121), each of whose surviving opus is larger than Thucydides’ History. Most striking, though, is Thucydides’ interest in the noun paraskeuê. The verb tends to be very concrete: one “prepares” a march (e.g., Hdt. 1.71.2), a feast (Hdt. 1.126.2), or 200 triremes (Hdt. 5.32.1). The noun, however, can stand by itself without a concrete object to supplement its meaning, not “preparation for ” but simply “the accumulated power that allows one to take action.” The noun paraskeuê appears in Thucydides 104 times as opposed to 12 times in Xenophon, 23 times in Plato, and 44 times in Demosthenes.[16]

Thucydides found the term paraskeuê useful because Athenian power increased over time. Where the Peloponnesians could conduct a rapid levy en masse and descend with crushing force upon an opponent, they were less well prepared to maintain such a force—their troops needed to return and maintain their homes. As long as their financial resources lasted, the Athenians, by contrast, could maintain their forces in the field. And, unlike the resources of their Peloponnesian adversaries, Athenian financial resources could grow with each year’s tribute. Archidamos establishes a clear hierarchical relationship between military force and financial power: “War is not so much an issue of arms as it is of the expense (dapanê) on account of which arms are of help” (Thuc. 1.83.2). The Athenians “have outfitted themselves excellently in all things: they have…ships, horses, arms, and a swarm of men greater than any single polis contains.” Badly outclassed at sea, the Peloponnesians are even more inferior to Athens in monetary resources, chrêmata (1.80.4). Above all, the Athenians have “wealth (ploutos), both private and public” (80.3), and from this flows all of Athens’s material advantages. The Athenians have just as many allies as do the Spartans, but their allies contribute money (80.3, 83.2), whereas the Peloponnesian allies neither have a common store of wealth nor readily contribute money from their own individual resources (80.4). If the Peloponnesians cannot cut off the flow of money to Athens from its empire, then in the coming war, Archidamos argues, “we will only do ourselves greater harm.”

Later in book 1, the Corinthians and Perikles would, in their curious, oblique “debate,” each point out that the Peloponnesians could, if pressed, commandeer the financial resources stored at Olympia and Delphi (Thuc. 1.121.3, 1.143.1). Archidamos’s speech, however, focuses on the general difference between the accumulated power of Athens and that of Sparta and its allies. The Spartans should avoid the fate of the clever fool who “in his analysis neatly scorns the paraskeuai [plural] of his enemies and then falls short when it comes time for action (ergon)” (1.84.3). Twice Archidamos implores his fellow citizens not to rush into this war a-paraskeuoi, “without sufficient paraskeuê ”(80.3, 84.1). The Peloponnesians must take time to develop their own counter-paraskeuê by building a navy (80.4: antiparaskeuasometha). Once they begin serious preparations for war, the Peloponnesians will be able to back their words with their paraskeuê, and the Athenians may choose to yield (81.3). The king exhorts his fellow Spartans to follow their natural tendencies: “We always make our preparations (84.4: paraskeuazometha) on the assumption that their adversaries are also making careful plans.” Archidamos concludes his speech by arguing that the Spartans should give diplomacy an opportunity to work, but “at the same time, prepare for the war” (85.2: paraskeuazesthe).

Thus Archidamos, at least in part, analyzes the war in Thucydidean terms, and his argument accepts the fundamental categories that Thucydides introduces in the Archaeology. War with Athens will turn on monetary and material advantages. The Spartans can control the Peloponnesians and their neighbors because “our strength is similar.” The Athenians are a naval power, and their true strength—subject lands across the sea—is inaccessible to Peloponnesian attack (Thuc. 1.80.3). “This war” that confronts the Spartans is the subject for calculation, which one should “reason through in a self-possessed fashion (sô phronôs)” (80.2). How many ships are available? How long can they be supported? The sums and figures of empire, by an accountant’s logic, determine whether or when the Spartans should or should not fight. War is not a good thing, and diplomacy is preferable; if diplomacy does not succeed, wait until the balance of power tilts in our favor and then attack.

We have discussed Pindar’s second Isthmian ode and its exploration of the theme “money, money, makes the man” (Pind. Isthm. 2.11: see chapter 3 above). Money determines the social position of an individual, Pindar’s speaker bleakly fears, and Archidamos applies a similar principle to the affairs of city-states. In war, “money, money, makes the state.” When Archidamos argues that any allies, Greek or barbarian, will suffice if they bring with them “the power of money” (Thuc. 1.82.1: chrêmatôn dunamis), he embraces that aspect of monetary exchange most antithetical to social continuity: money overcomes any social obstacle and gives power to anyone, whatever their background.[17] Archidamos largely subordinates his foreign policy to the calculus of power. In so doing, he accepts a materialistic perspective that terrified the old elites of the archaic period. The Spartans had defined themselves, at least in part, by rejecting the symbols and practices by which money sought to transmute itself into prestige. To fight Athens, Archidamos argues from a paradigm that was ultimately corrosive to the Spartan mirage. Archidamos’s arguments could win the war but destroy the delicate environment in which the Herodotean Sparta could prosper. Some observers (such as Xenophon; cf. Lak. Pol. 14) might argue that this is precisely what did happen.

But Archidamos himself is acutely sensitive to the true source of Spartan authority, and he develops his argument further in the second section of his speech (Thuc. 1.83–85). Archidamos’s speech is remarkable in that it attempts to synthesize the calculus of power with the traditional, antimonetary, socially embedded values upon which Sparta’s preeminent position within the Greek world rested. The shrewd gambits to win time and the inexorable accumulation of paraskeuê are tactics that, in Archidamos’s hopeful analysis, touch only the surface of things, like the feigned panics at Thermopylai with which they tricked their opponents (Hdt. 7.211). Archidamos uses his speech to present, with great eloquence, a vision of the Spartan character that proudly rejects the criticisms of the Corinthians and anticipates the proud exposition of Athenian character in the Funeral Oration. The Spartans may dissemble, temporize, collect money from any source—even from non-Greeks (the Persians at Thuc. 1.82.1)—but the core of the Spartan soul remains untouched and in fact demands the stratagems that Archidamos outlines.

Archidamos opens his speech by recalling his own extensive experience in past wars. Neither he nor any of his contemporaries have any illusions about warfare or, he implies, any need to prove their valor with a new conflict (Thuc. 1.80.1). The Corinthians in their speech scourged their Spartan allies, harshly goading them into action. They castigated them for being sluggish. Archidamos confronts this charge directly: “If you undertake the war without proper paraskeuê, you may by rushing only delay its conclusion” (84.1). Twice elsewhere he implores his audience not to “rush off without the proper paraskeuê,” with no clear basis for confidence (80.3), or goaded by the accusations of their allies (82.5). “Let us not,” he insists at 1.85.1, “make our plans about many men, monies, and cities, rushed in the brief space of a day.”

Archidamos does not restrict himself to defending his position. Those who wish for war, he counters, have let their feelings cloud their judgment. Three times he implores his fellow Spartans not to let their emotions “get the better of them” (epairesthai, a very negative term). “Let us not be carried away (epairômetha) by that hope, at any rate, that the war will end quickly” (Thuc. 1.81.6). The seductive power of elpis, hope, and its ability to draw mortals on to destruction is a familiar theme in archaic literature. A few sentences later, Archidamos enjoins his fellows: “Let us not be carried away (epairômetha) too soon by the arguments of our allies” (83.3). In the following chapter, he reminds them of traditional Spartan behavior: “We are not carried away (epairometha) with pleasure” (84.2).

Although Archidamos’s arguments may not convince the Spartans, the Corinthians in their next speech address the fear that Sparta might be “carried away.” They seek not only to deflect this criticism, but to appropriate it for their own purposes and to use it to help justify war. They concede that no one should be “carried away (epairesthai) by good fortune in war” (Thuc. 1.120.3), for the one who glories in such good fortune “does not understand that he is carried away (epairomenos) by a boldness that deserves no trust” (120.4). This war, they argue, has been forced upon them and is not the product of temporary excitement.

Appeals to calculation and morality run throughout Archidamos’s speech, but about halfway through, Archidamos begins to shift the focus of his argument to a defence of Spartan character. Having opened his speech by alluding to his own solid military record, he returns at Thucydides 1.83.1 to the theme of courage: “Let no one think that the many do not immediately attack a single city because of cowardice (anandria:).” At 83.3, he undercuts the appeals of the allies: “Since we shall, for better or worse, end up with the greater share of the responsibility for whatever happens, let us be the ones to consider ahead of time any of these things in a calm fashion (kath’ hêsuchian).” The Corinthians can demand rapid action because they do not have primary responsibility for its consequences. Spartan caution and calculuation are products of Spartan authority.

The Lakedaimonians can dismiss the criticisms of their allies because “we inhabit a city that is in every way free (eleuthera) and possessing the best reputation (eudoxôtatê)” (Thuc. 1.84.1). Archidamos’s language here is forceful and slightly poetic.[18] At first, he accepts negative terms to describe Spartan caution, thus setting his initial defence in the framework set by the Corinthians: “Do not,” he argues, “be ashamed of the “slowness” (to bradu) and ‘hesitancy’ (to mellon), for which they blame us the most” (84.1). He then goes on to redefine this Spartan quality, defining it in his own terms:

The quality that they condemn is really nothing but sôphrosunê lodged within the mind (emphrôn); on account of this, we alone do not become insolent in success and give way less than others in misfortune. If people cheer us on with praise (epainos), we are not carried away by the pleasure to risks that our judgment condemns; nor, if someone goads us into action with an accusation (katêgoria), are we any the more convinced because we have been exasperated.

Archidamos lays claim to sôphrosunê, “self-possession,” that is based on good sense (emphrôn). This quality is internal and allows the Spartans to construct their view of the world and their reactions from the inside out. Neither good fortune (eupragiai) nor disasters (sumphorai) can overcome this self-possession, and the Spartans maintain their equilibrium under all circumstances. Likewise, Archidamos claims that Spartans are immune to social pressures and that their values are not, as one might now put it, socially constructed. The Spartans decide what to do based on their estimation of the situation and without regard to the praise or blame that others may lay upon them. Archidamos does not claim that the Spartans are insensitive to these emotions. Rather, he states that whether they feel pleasure, hêdonê, or are annoyed, achthesthentes, they are nevertheless able to come to the best decision.

The Spartan character, as outlined by Archidamos, refines and intensifies general qualities for which archaic Greek sources express admiration. In discussing the speech of the Corinthians, we touched upon the mistrust of haste and rushing that appears in archaic literature. “Do not,” Theognis urges Kyrnos, “rush anything too much (mêden agan speudein). Of all things, those in the middle are best, and thus, Kyrnos, you will possess aretê, which is difficult to acquire” (Theog. 335–336). And again: “Do not rush too much (mêden agan speudein). Timing is the best in all mortal affairs. Often a mortal rushes after aretê, seeking profit, but a god (daimôn) eagerly leads him astray into a great error (amplakia) and makes what is good seem bad to him and what is bad good” (Theog. 401–406). Solon mocks the insatiable rush of humankind after profit (frag. 13.43ff., 71ff. [= Theog. 227–232] West).

Likewise, the even judgment of which Archidamos boasts is a prized quality, as a fragment of Archilochus illustrates:

My heart, my heart (thumos), that are confounded with troubles that are beyond help (amêchanoi), defend yourself…standing securely near to the foe. Do not exult openly if you are victorious, and if you are not victorious, do not fall down in your home and weep. Do not rejoice overmuch in delightful things nor be vexed overmuch in troubles, knowing what sort of condition possesses human beings!

This even temperament wins praise elsewhere in archaic literature (e.g., Theog. 657–658). Its roots lie in the oppressive sense of amêchania, the “helplessness” of all mortals before the rise and fall of fortune. “What is Zeus doing?” Aisop reportedly asked Chilon of Lakedaimon, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greek tradition. “He is bringing low the lofty humble, and raising high the humble,” came the answer (Diog. Laert. 1.69). The rise and fall of humans is one of the most pervasive themes of archaic literature (e.g., Archil. frag. 130 West). Human beings have no control over their external condition: prosperity or death can arrive without warning.

Mortals can, however, define their own internal states. If they cannot control what the external world does to them, they can determine their own reactions. The individual agent contains a moral space that is autonomous. For Archidamos, the true locus of control resides within human beings. What happens to them—even death—are mere epiphenomena that cannot touch this secure core. Herodotus’s picture of Kroisos on the pyre is perhaps the most extreme example.[19] Herodotus distinguishes his account sharply from that which appears in Bacchylides. In that poem, written for the Sicilian tyrant Hieron, Apollo spirits Kroisos away to a life among the Hyperboreans that extends into eternity the luxurious existence that Kroisos had enjoyed among mortals. The wealthy despot shares his material prosperity with Apollo, who repays his mortal benefactor in kind. In Herodotus, Kroisos receives no such reward from Apollo. In Herodotus, Kroisos ascends the pyre a defeated king and descends it as a sage who has faced a terrible death and, in that instant, received a flash of insight and understood that his earlier perceived good fortune had been an illusion.

In Thucydides, of course, malicious divinities do not lurk immediately beneath the surface of human misfortunes. Archidamos’s Spartans base their character on sôphrosunê, the autonomous, internal quality of self-possession:

We are both warlike (polemikoi) and wise (eubouloi) because of our sense of order (to eukosmon). We are warlike because sôphrosunê is the greatest part of shame (aidôs), and a sense of shame (aischunê = aidôs) is the greatest part of courage (eupsuchia).

The language is, as often in Thucydides, slippery, but the argument is clear. The Spartans have sôphrosunê, or self-control, and sôphrosunê provides the main foundation for aidôs/aischunê, the shame that we feel before others.[20] This sense of shame, in turn, provides the foundation for courage, for it keeps us from running away or shirking duty in war. The distinction is subtle but important: the Spartans are not brave simply because they fear what their fellows may say of them. The sense of shame depends on sôphrosunê lodged in the Spartan heart. Sôphrosunê thus radiates outward from the central core of the Spartan character and makes possible shame, which in turn grounds courage.

Archidamos also attributes the wisdom of the Spartans (eubouloi) to sôphrosunê, but he reverses the relationship of internal and external. Spartans are not good at war because they fear what others might say or do, but they are wise because of what others have in the past said or done to them and because of the harsh experiences they have endured:

And we are wise (eubouloi), because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too much emphasis on self-control (sôphronesteron) to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters—such as the knowledge that can give a specious criticism of an enemy’s plans in theory but fails to assail them with equal success in practice—but are taught to consider that the schemes of our enemies are not dissimilar to our own, and that those accidents that occur are not determinable by calculation. [4] In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our plans. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between one person and another, but to think that the superiority lies with the one who is reared in the severest school ἐν τοῖς ἀναγκαιοτάτοῖς παιδεύεται

The Spartan upbringing does not make its products so clever that they disdain customary usages. The harshness of this education prepares them for the “freaks of chance” that defy rational planning and make them independent of their adversaries. They do not need to depend upon the mistakes their enemies will make. They can focus their attention on their own plans, and if these are good enough, then all will be well. In effect Archidamos argues that the Spartans do not depend upon misfortune striking others, but they do expect such misfortune to transpire. Their unflappable ability to function in the face of adversity means that the unexpected will affect them less than it does their adversaries and that this self-possession will allow them to prevail. Harshness in the past has thus rendered them more “self-possessed” (sôphronesteron), and this added sôphrosunê is the tough core on which they rely. Thus they are wise for the same reason that they are warlike, because their internal character renders them as autonomous of external events or stresses as possible.

Archidamos does not present a picture of universal success in the short term. Courage does not guarantee victory, and Archidamos integrates the unpredictable nature of events into Spartan ideology. The Spartans may lose a particular battle or suffer setbacks, but the Spartan character, tough and self-possessed, cannot be defeated. Archidamos’s speech thus gives a rationale for Demaratos’s warnings to Xerxes about Spartan valor a half-century before (Hdt. 7.101–104). Xerxes may overwhelm the Spartans in the end, but he will have to kill them all. He cannot subjugate them and make them bow to his will. In the Prometheus Bound and in the plays of Sophokles, conventional sôphrosunê implies accommodation and a willingness to yield to circumstances that the hero despises. Archidamos’s speech, by contrast, is important not least because it allows us to see sôphrosunê as a resilient, heroic quality and to understand why it could exercise such a fascination.

The opening chapters of Archidamos’s speech (Thuc. 1.80–82) display “simplicity and directness…both in thought and expression in marked contrast with the elaboration of the Corinthian, as well as the Athenian” speeches,[21] and Daniel Tompkins has recently pointed out that the speech as a whole seems to “portray a character who is not only cautious and prudent but who to some extent does not participiate in the major stylistic changes of the late fifth century.” [22] Archidamos’s analysis of sôphrosunê at 84.2–3 has, indeed, been criticized for “its unrealistically intellectual form,” [23] and the most recent commentator has endorsed the view that 1.84 is “undisguisedly the product of the sophistic age.” [24] Certainly, the style of Archidamos’s speech belongs to Thucydides—as does that of every speech, even the “Lakonic” harangue of Sthenelaidas. The reasoning of 84.2–3 is dense, and the language slippery.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that what Archidamos says and the role that he assumes are both deeply conservative. Archidamos is playing a well-known, traditional role in Greek literature, that of the “warner,” a wise individual whose advice will be ignored (cf. the following in Herodotus: Solon at 1.29–33, Artabanos at 7.10, Artemisia at 8.68).[25] The dense and aphoristic reasoning may reflect sophistic influence, but it belongs to a venerable tradition of authoritative moral speech. The first book of Diogenes Laertius, for example, preserves dozens of pithy aphorisms attributed to the various wise men of the early sixth century. In reply to the question “Who is fortunate (eudaimôn)?” Thales answered: “The one who is healthy in body, well equipped with respect to his psuchê and well trained with respect to his nature (phusis)” (Diog. Laert. 1.37). Pittakos, the tyrant of Lesbos more than a century and a half before the Peloponnesian War, is associated with decidedly Archidamian sentiments. “It is characteristic of wise (sunetoi) men that, before difficulties should arise, they foresee how they should not take place, and of courageous (andreioi) men that they set these difficulties right once they do occur” (Pittakos at Diog. Laert. 1.78). Likewise, Bias of Priene is reported to have said: “Be slow to take a hand in affairs, but whatever you choose, watch over it securely and stay with it through to the end” (Diog. Laert. 1.87). The denser the saying, the better. “Know yourself” (gnôthi seauton) and “Nothing in excess” (mêden agan) are only the most famous; others include “Love intelligence” (Diog. Laert. 1.88: phronêsin agapa), “Master pleasure” (Diog. Laert. 1.92: hêdonês kratein), and “Profit is shameful” (Diog. Laert. 1.97: kerdos aischron). A statement such as “ Sôphrosunê is the greatest part of shame (aidôs), and a sense of shame (aischunê = aidôs) is the greatest part of courage (eupsuchia)” may extend, but nevertheless falls squarely within, this linguistic tradition.[26]

The content of Archidamos’s analysis is even more important than the style. Gorgias’s Helen is perhaps the classic example of sophistic logic, for it uses argumentation to stand traditional values on their head. Archidamos subjects Spartan character to analysis, but, as we have already noted, the Spartan character has firm roots in traditional values. Archidamos may well agree with Demokritos and “take education to be the more important, and [be] optimistic about its capacity to provide a firm foundation for civic life,” [27] but the Spartans based their prestige to an extraordinary degree on their peculiarly demanding way of life. An admiration of Sparta assumed, explicitly or not, that society could decisively shape human character. It is more likely that Demokritos bolstered his argument by the example of Sparta than that Archidamos—even Thucydides’ Archidamos—needed to draw upon Demokritos.

The qualities of aidôs and sôphrosunê are often found associated with one another (e.g., Pl. Leg. 772a; Isoc. 1.15; Xen. Cyr. 8.1.31; Arist. Eth. Eud. 1234a32). When, however, Archidamos defines the relationship between these two qualities and states that sôphrosunê is largely responsible for aidôs, he seems to be presenting a conventional idea of the time. The dramatic date of Plato’s Charmides is the same as that of Archidamos’s speech, the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. In the dialogue, Sokrates and the handsome youth Charmides explore the meaning of sôphrosunê. When asked to define sôphrosunê, Charmides replies: “Well, I think…that sôphrosunê makes people feel a sense of shame (aischunesthai) or be bashful (aischuntelos), and that sôphrosunê is the same as aidôs ”(Chrm. 160e). Charmides’ position (which Sokrates immediately makes him abandon) is clearly presented as a piece of conventional wisdom. Archidamos is not presenting a new or unexpected interpretation of sôphrosunê but uses a well-known idea associated with sôphrosunê as part of an argument to praise the Spartan character. The authority of Archidamos’s argument flows, at least in part, from the traditionality of its individual sentiments.

Overall, the speech of Archidamos is a brilliant response to the equally brilliant attack of the Corinthians. On the one hand, the Corinthians have complained: “Your customs are old-fashioned (archaiotropa) when compared to them” (Thuc. 1.71.2). The “unchanging customs” (71.3: akinêta nomima) of Sparta are no longer adequate. The time has come for “innovation” (epitechnêsis). Archidamos does not deny but urgently affirms the fact that the Athenians are a qualitatively different kind of enemy. Archidamos pushes his analysis even farther in one direction than do the Corinthians, who, after chastising the Spartans for being old-fashioned, call for an “antediluvian” reaction, a traditional invasion of Attika:[28]

In a struggle with Peloponnesians and neighbors our strength is of the same character, and it is possible to move swiftly on the different points. But a struggle with a people who live in a distant land, who have also an extraordinary familiarity with the sea, and who are in the highest state of preparation in every other department; with wealth private and public, with ships and horses and heavy infantry, and a population such as no one other Hellenic place can equal, and lastly a number of tributary allies—what can justify us in rashly beginning such a struggle?

The Spartans and their allies are woefully behind Athens in two major categories: ships and money. Archidamos exhorts the allies to play for time and put off war for two or three years, but only so that they can make up this shortfall in named, “material” resources. The Spartans must raise money from any and all quarters, build ships, and learn how to use these ships in war, but this process will take time (1.80.4).

But if Archidamos recognizes a difference between his own people and the Athenians, he does not represent it in the same way as the Corinthians. The Corinthians had based their critique on the difference between Athenian and Spartan temperaments. The Athenians simply viewed the world in a more aggressive, risk-taking, and dynamic fashion than their opponents, and this habit of thought ultimately produced the accumulated power at Athens’s disposal. The Spartans need, according to the Corinthians, in some degree to match Athens’s peculiar strengths of character if they are going to defeat the Athenians.

Archidamos, however, locates the crucial advantage of Athenian power in externalized factors such as money, ships, and the skill to sail them. The Spartans do not need to change their character. They need a navy and the wherewithal to support it. Arms, not the man, are the problem, and once the Spartans and their allies have built the ships, piled up the silver, and learned the new tactics of war, they will be more than ready. Archidamos concedes Spartan disadvantage but then turns this concession into a calculating argument for delay and a springboard to his main point, the vindication of Spartan character and the implicit legitimacy of Sparta’s claim to a preeminent position in the Greek world. The proud analysis of sôphrosunê and Spartan power at Thucydides 1.84 rejects the notion that Spartan character is a weakness, and boldly claims that this character, once it has at its disposal the new tools of conflict, will prove a fundamental and decisive advantage.

Thus Archidamos climaxes his argument with an appeal to the ancestral values of the Spartans:

These practices, then, which our fathers have handed down to us, and by whose maintenance we have always profited, must not be given up. And we must not be hurried into deciding in a day’s brief space a question that concerns many lives and fortunes and many cities, and in which honor is deeply involved—but we must decide calmly. And this course is possible for us more than for others on account of our strength.

Archidamos thus dismisses out of hand the claim that Sparta’s customs are “old-fashioned” or obsolescent. They should above all hold fast to the practices, meletai, that their fathers have given them, for these habits have been the source of their strength. Archidamos reaffirms with all the force at his disposal the theme that we saw already in Herodotus, that Sparta owed its preeminence less to its raw ability to project force than to the peculiar character that it had developed.

Why then does Archidamos’s speech fail?


Sthenelaidas’s speech is remarkable for its brevity. This short, “laconic” performance is, as Gomme observed, “perfectly in character” for the crusty Spartan. In less than a page, Sthenelaidas demolishes, even when he does not answer, Archidamos’s case, and the Spartans enthusiastically affirm the consensus with which they had opened the meeting, that Athens had violated the treaty and that war was inevitable (Thuc. 1.79.2, 87). The brevity of Sthenelaidas’s speech has perhaps disturbed American scholars less than others, for the most famous speech in American political rhetoric, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was comparable in length to Sthenelaidas’s harangue and, like Sthenelaidas’s harangue, was delivered after a long, eloquent speech by a revered elder (the famous orator and former Eliot Professor of Greek at Harvard Edwart Everett, who spoke for more than two hours). Nevertheless, few would compare Sthenelaidas’s apoplectic energy with Lincoln at Gettysburg. Scholars have, as we have already noted, generally shaken their heads at the irrational decision that the Spartans ultimately do take.[29]

Angry as its tone may be, Sthenelaidas’s speech is deceptively subtle. Sthenelaidas, by his brevity and his words alike—by his practice as well as by what he says—not only attacks Archidamos’s arguments but, at least as important, undermines the king’s authority:

The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and the Peloponnesians. And yet if they behaved well against the Mede then, but ill toward us now, they deserve double punishment for having ceased to be good and for having become bad. [2] We meanwhile are the same then and now and shall not, if we are wise, disregard the wrongs of our allies or put off till tomorrow the duty of assisting those who must suffer today.

Sthenelaidas claims, in essence, that he, not Archidamos, is truer to the Spartan character. He distinguishes himself sharply from those who have preceded him by dismissing the “long speech of the Athenians,” striking the pose of hard Spartan taciturnity. Where Archidamos eloquently explores the nature of Spartan constancy, Sthenelaidas bluntly asserts this quality as given and transparent and claims it as an argument for action: “We meanwhile are the same then and now,” but the Athenians deserve to be punished twice over, not just because they are bad, but also because they ceased to be good.

Once Sthenelaidas has established his position, he goes directly to the heart of his argument. He completes a progression that began with the opening of the debate. The Corinthian speech had lamented the moral and material weakness of Sparta, as opposed to Athens. Archidamos then acknowledged the material but rejected the moral weakness. Sthenelaidas dismisses the material advantages of Athens altogether. Viciously parodying Archidamos’s words at Thucydides1.83, he urges immediate action:

Others have much money and ships and horses, but we have good allies whom we must not give up to the Athenians, nor by lawsuits and words decide the matter, as it is anything but in word that we are harmed, but render instant and powerful help. [4] And let us not be told that it is fitting for us to deliberate under injustice; long deliberation is rather fitting for those who have injustice in contemplation. [5] Vote, therefore, Lakedaimonians, for war, as the honor of Sparta demands, and neither allow the further aggrandizement of Athens nor betray our allies to ruin, but with the gods let us advance against the aggressors.

Sthenelaidas does not deny that the Athenians have more money and ships, but he fixes his furious glance firmly upon the true source of Spartan power, the allies that Sparta can call to its side.

Sparta is not an imperial power. Its allies emphatically do not pay monetary tribute, and even Archidamos concedes that they are not inclined to do so (Thuc. 1.80.4). Sparta owed its preeminent position both to its weakness and to its power. The Spartans could project overwhelming force, but only over a brief period of time. After absorbing Messene, they were unable to subjugate any of its neighbors. Were Sparta to “lose face,” the rest of the Greeks could withhold the honor and prestige that they, for the most part, freely bestowed upon Sparta. If we view the Peloponnesian League as a firmly defined political entity, Archidamos’s advice is extremely cogent. A delay of two or three years would not affect the Peloponnesian League and would allow the allies to accumulate the necessities of war. But if we view “the Spartans and their allies” as a much looser aggregation, Archidamos’s policy risked utter destruction, for the alliance itself could collapse. The Corinthians conclude their angry and bitter speech with an open threat:

Here, at least, let your procrastination end. For the present, assist your allies and Poteideia in particular, as you promised, by a speedy invasion of Attika, and do not sacrifice friends and kindred to their bitterest enemies, and drive the rest of us in despair to some other alliance. [5] Such a step would not be condemned either by the gods who received our oaths or by the men who witnessed them. The breach of a treaty cannot be laid to the people whom desertion compels to seek new relations, but to the power that fails to assist its confederate. [6] But if you will only act, we will stand by you; it would be unnatural for us to change, and never should we meet with such a congenial ally.

If Sparta does not do something and do it immediately, Corinth threatens to make the best deal that it can get in an alliance with some other power. The scholiast suggests that Corinth has Argos in mind, but the obvious implication is that Corinth would strike a deal of some kind with Athens.[30]

Perhaps this was an idle threat.[31] We have, however, already emphasized the importance that Corinth attached to its colonial connections. Athens had decisively eliminated Corinthian influence in Corcyra and was engaged in breaking Corinth’s relationship with Poteideia. If the Corinthians viewed their status among their colonies—and the prestige that such status assured among other Greeks—as an attractive luxury that they could, of necessity, forgo, then they could well, if pressed, stand by and watch Poteideia—and their own reputation—collapse. We cannot assume that the Corinthians interpreted their “vital interests” in the deceptively modernist terms of a Thucydides. If the Corinthians saw in the traditional status of metropolis an end rather than a means, and a goal to which their economic and military power was subordinated rather than vice versa, if customs such as dispatching yearly magistrates to Poteideia were what defined Corinth’s sense of itself as a polis, then they needed an alliance—any alliance—which could preserve this status for them. Under these circumstances, an accommodation with Athens—whatever its complications—was a desperate but logical response. Neither the Athenians nor the Spartans were, after all, going to seize the Acrocorinth. Corinth needed stability overseas, and an alliance that could not provide that stability was of little use.

We cannot, of course, be sure to what extent Corinth meant its threat to seek a new alliance. The complicated diplomatic maneuvers after the Peace of Nikias that weakened the “Peloponnesian League” suggest that this entity was indeed fragile. But it is hard to see how Corinth could have been more emphatic in its demands or put its case more forcefully. Two or three years might help the Spartans and their allies prepare for war, but it could easily lose Poteideia. Poteideia might well be a “personal grievance” of the Corinthians, as Archidamos implies at Thucydides 1.82.5–6, but if the Corinthians conclude that the Spartan alliance cannot protect their private interests, and if the rest of the allies draw the same conclusion, then Sparta’s position would be weakened.

Because the Spartans depend largely upon symbolic capital, the credit and the faith that others have in them, and because they do not have a complex bureaucracy of finance and power, they must above all else maintain the faith of their allies. We saw in the debate between Corcyra and Corinth at Athens that time was a fundamental element in this system. The good services that the Corinthians had rendered Athens years or even generations before remained as charis upon which the Corinthians felt that they could ultimately draw. A gift need not be immediately repaid, for the gift is a form of investment laid down against subsequent need. An insult or offence is, however, the inverse of a gift, and retribution, timôria, settles a negative account. In this exchange, however, there is less flexibility. A gift can luxuriate over years, firmly rooted in the minds of giver and recipient, maintaining a kind of intangible bond that ties one to the other. Retribution for an ongoing and pressing need—as with the siege of Poteideia—demands instant action if it is to have proper effect.

Sthenelaidas perfectly grasps this relationship and its fundamental bearing on Sparta’s condition. Sparta will never be able to challenge the financial power of Athens because Sparta cannot forcibly appropriate as much wealth from its allies as can Athens. Archidamos’s advice assumes a similarity between Athenian and Spartan power that is at best problematic. Were the Spartans to pursue the logic of Archidamos’s speech, they would either fulfill the prophecy that the Athenian speakers make and risk becoming as oppressive and hated as the Athenians, or they would pursue half-measures and, worst of all, fight a war according to the terms set by the Athenians.

Both Archidamos and Sthenelaidas strike stylized poses that touch upon established aspects of the Spartan persona. Sthenelaidas does, in fact, respond to the urgency with which the Corinthians press their case. He calls for immediate action. He brushes aside “the slowness and hesitancy” that the Corinthians condemn and Archidamos rationalizes. “At least in regard to Athens, the Spartan character has changed. A nation usually slow to move, on this occasion something has urgently driven them to decisiveness. Archidamos represents the past here, but the majority of Spartans have already arrived at a new state of mind.” [32] Such a judgment is, however, only partially true. Both Archidamos and Sthenelaidas offer their own distinct syntheses, in which they seek to adapt Sparta’s traditional strengths to the present situation.

Sthenelaidas’s argument is, in a sense, neither old nor new. Its closest literary analogue (and perhaps a model that Thucydides had in mind) appears in the Iliad.[33] Feeling the absence of Achilles, the Greeks send a delegation to seek his help against their enemies. Odysseus and Phoinix deliver long, reasoned speeches (Il. 9.225–306, 434–605, 625–642), as do the Athenians and Archidamos. Like Odysseus in Iliad 9, the Athenians frame their arguments in the hard terms of self-interest. Like Phoinix, Archidamos presents the prudent council of an elder statesman. Sthenelaidas then bursts upon the stately debate in a speech that, in its bluntness and its surprising brevity, is remarkably similar to the indignant reaction of Ajax. Ajax’s speech (19 lines) is one-fourth as long as that of Odysseus (82 lines) and only about one-tenth as long as that of Phoinix (172 lines). If Ajax does not bring Achilles immediately back into the war, his speech, like that of Sthenelaidas, is more effective than either of those that precede it.

Above all, Sthenelaidas and Ajax both base their arguments on the same theme: the fundamental bonds that bind human beings together. “As for Achilles,” Ajax snaps, “he has rendered his great heart savage—a hard man who does not respect the friendship (philotês) of his companions, with which we honored him beyond others—a pitiless man!” (Il. 9.628–632). “Placate your heart!” he goes on. “Show respect (aidôs) for your home, for we from among the mass of the Greeks are under your roof. We wish to be nearest (kêdistoi) and dearest (philtatoi) to you beyond all other Achaians, as many as there may be” (9.639–642). Sthenelaidas, like Ajax, breaks through the surface of the argument. Where Ajax leaves behind Odysseus’s list of material rewards and Phoinix’s incomprehensible parable of Meleager, Sthenelaidas bowls over the appeals that the Athenians and Archidamos make to expediency, quantities of ships and wealth, and the need for cautious planning. Sparta’s personalized relationships with its allies are its strength. With loyal allies, the Spartans can weather adversity. Without the allies, no amount of planning or caution will help Sparta. Sthenelaidas shoulders his way past the stately and reasoned posture of Archidamos and grasps the essential basis for Spartan power, the loyalty of allies, a type of motivation that preexisted and long outlived the particular Spartan mirage.

The speeches of Archidamos and Sthenelaidas reproduce different attitudes toward Spartan authority that are already visible in Herodotus. Archidamos most closely approaches the model of Demaratos (Hdt. 7.102, 209, 234) and the battle of Thermopylai: the Spartans define themselves from the inside out. The Persians can kill Spartans and, with their numerical superiority, can sooner or later crush any army the Spartans put in the field. In the end, the Persians can conceivably eliminate all Spartan resistance, but they cannot break the Spartan will or touch the essential character of the Spartans. Thus, according to Archidamos, the Spartans can view conflict with Athens from a position of ischus, “strength” (Thuc. 1.85.1). Neither the praise nor the blame, not even the individual troubles, of their allies should distort their judgment. The Spartans will not dismiss their allies (1.82.1) but will take action according to their own best plans and at the time that seems best to them. The Spartans have the best chance of success if they hold fast to their own understanding of the situation and to their patriarchal customs (1.85.1). Archidamos bases his analysis on the vision of imperturbable, serene, and self-contained power. The Greeks yield Sparta their admiration as much because of this fascinating pose—the essence of the Spartan mirage—as because of Sparta’s quantitative military power.

Sthenelaidas’s vision of Spartan authority, on the other hand, is much closer to that which Herodotus sketches at 1.65–68: both are far more sensitive than Archidamos to the contingent nature of Sparta’s position and the degree to which the Spartans depend upon the freely conferred sanction of their fellow Greeks. Thus, as we saw in the analysis of Herodotus’s account in chapter 3, Lykourgos’s system has legitimacy not simply because it had a positive impact on Spartan society, but because the Panhellenic Greek oracle at Delphi singled out Lykourgos for approbation and established him as the lawgiver. Even Lykourgos’s reforms—the famous Spartan system—are not alone sufficient to establish Sparta as the preeminent power in Greece. The Spartans rise to their dominant position only when they limit their aspirations, give up their attempt to subjugate other Greek states, and accept the reciprocal duties and responsibilities of patrons for the rest of the Greeks, rather than pursuing theoretically unlimited domination such as they exercise over the helots. Sthenelaidas concludes his harangue by urging the Spartans first not to allow the Athenians to grow even more powerful and second not to betray their allies.

Sthenelaidas thus develops a line of reasoning that, not surprisingly, agrees with Thucydides’ analysis at 1.23.6: the Spartans feel that they must fight to contain Athenian power. The debate at Sparta and the desperate Corinthian speech allow us to see more precisely what Sparta has to fear. At the outset of the war, the Spartans “publicly announced that they were freeing Greece” (Thuc. 2.8.4), and this official policy was a major factor in the widespread goodwill (eunoia) that they enjoyed. The Athenians had inspired rage among their subjects and fear among those not yet under Athenian domination, and these emotions aided Sparta.

Speaking as a Spartan among Spartans, however, Sthenelaidas demands “a double punishment” (Thuc. 1.86.1: zêmia diplê) for Athens and immediate military action against them (1.86.5), but he does not explicitly argue that the Peloponnesians will destroy Athenian power or “free Greece” (i.e., break up the Athenian empire). Sthenelaidas does not answer Archidamos’s reasoned analysis of Athenian power, because, strictly speaking, his goals are much more limited than those assumed by Archidamos. Sthenelaidas argues for war, but the attack on Athens is primarily a means to a further end, maintaining the loyalty of Sparta’s allies. Archidamos’s fears about war with Athens are largely irrelevant to Sthenelaidas. Invasions of Attika do not need to bring the Athenians to their knees, and Athens can draw supplies from its subjects indefinitely so long as the destruction in Attika satisfies the angry allies of Sparta and keeps them loyal.

But if Sthenelaidas, as Gomme points out, “says nothing, in the Spartan assembly, about freeing Greece,” we place the wrong emphasis on this speech if we simply conclude that “only Peloponnesian interests concern Sparta.” Sthenelaidas’s speech underlines Sparta’s weakness and dependence on other states, rather than Spartan cynicism (which Thucydides will explore more nastily elsewhere). Lacking the regular, administrative tools of force (such as the Athenians have in their navy), the Spartans cannot keep allies such as Corinth loyal to them with force alone, nor is the dignity of the Spartan character enough. They must give the Corinthians concrete help to retain their loyalty. If not, Sparta risks the loss not only of a major ally, but of that reputation and trustworthiness—that symbolic capital—that holds its allies together. Crushing the Athenian empire might well be attractive to Sthenelaidas, but the goal to which he gives voice, the protection of the allies, is fundamentally defensive. So long as Sparta can maintain its own alliances intact and restrict the growth of Athenian power, then the most urgent needs expressed in Sthenelaidas’s speech will be met.

The differing conceptions of Spartan power emerge from the appeals that Archidamos and Sthenelaidas make to justice. Archidamos treats with suspicion the charges (enklêmata) leveled by the allies, seeing in them provocations to excessive haste (Thuc. 1.82.5) that will embroil Sparta in a war from which it may not be able to extricate itself (1.82.6). At the very end of his speech, we hear that “the allies claim to have been wronged (adikeisthai)” (1.85.2). But until the Spartans know whether the Athenians will agree to some kind of terms for what they have done, it is not lawful for the Spartans to move against them “as against one who is doing wrong (adikounta).” Archidamos leaves the allied charges in indirect discourse. The allies may or may not have a case, but the Spartans should send embassies to the Athenians and demand some kind of satisfaction. The Spartans owe their allies diplomatic support, right or wrong, but they are not obliged to violate accepted norms of behavior and to attack Athens without first seeking a diplomatic solution.

Where Archidamos discusses both material power and the strength of Spartan character, Sthenelaidas frames his argument almost entirely in moral terms. The Athenians spent time “praising themselves” (Thuc. 1.86.1). They were good (agathoi) once but are now bad (kakoi). We, however, were the same then as we are now (86.2). We have “good allies” (86.3: summachoi agathoi). Above all, the Athenians are unjust, and Sthenelaidas turns five times to the verb adikeô (a term that Archidamos, in his much longer speech, uses just twice and both times in a single section, 1.85.2). Outrage at Athenian injustice permeates Sthenelaidas’s words. Nowhere in their long-winded speech, Sthenelaidas declares, do the Athenians “deny that they are wronging (adikousi) our allies and the Peloponnese” (86.1). The Spartans cannot stand by as their allies “are suffering injustice” (86.2: adikoumenous). A few lines later, we hear again: “Let us not be told that it is fitting for us to deliberate while suffering injustice (adikoumenous); long deliberation is rather fitting for those who intend to commit injustice (adikein)” (86.4). “With the help of the gods,” he concludes, “let us attack those who are committing injustice (tous adikountas)” (86.5). In the face of such injustice, delay warrants contempt.

Such injustice demands instant action from the Spartans: “If we have sôphrosunê, we will not overlook our allies, or hesitate to avenge them” (Thuc. 1.86.2). “They must not be betrayed (paradotea) to the Athenians!” (86.3). “Let us not utterly betray them (kataprodidômen)” (86.5). Action must be taken. “Double punishment!” (86.1). “Let us not hesitate to inflict retribution (timôrein)!”(86.2). “Inflict retribution (timôrêtea) immediately and with all possible force” (86.3). Attack now! (86.5).

Instant action does not seem necessary to Archidamos, because Archidamos has a very different view of Sparta’s position in the world. Archidamos places great emphasis upon the peculiar character of the Spartans and upon their ability to define themselves through their virtues. He assumes that this character provides Sparta with a certain level of autonomy and fashions a space within which the Spartans can negotiate, play for time, resist the more extreme demands of their allies, and pursue their goals. The Spartans, in Archidamos’s eyes, ultimately control their own destiny.

Sthenelaidas, on the other hand, has no such implicit faith in Sparta by itself. When the allies, led by Corinth, demand action in return for continued loyalty, there is no room for maneuver. The Spartans must “help their friends,” and it is this social necessity that makes the moral argument cogent. In the end, Sthenelaidas argues that the Spartans must fight because the allies are unhappy. There are no overriding principles of justice or morality, nor any inviolable customs or procedures (such as seeking dikai through negotiations). In the final analysis, the Spartans have no control over their destiny. Their special moral qualities mean nothing. They are creatures of circumstance. If Archidamos recalls the proud self-possession of Solon or Kroisos as sage, Sthenelaidas acts as if the Spartans as a whole bear out Solon’s gloomy maxim: πᾶν ἐστὶ ἄνθρωπος συμφορή , “Man is entirely a product of external circumstances” (Hdt. 1.32.4).

If Sthenelaidas’s dynamism and furious energy belie Corinthian accusations of slowness and hesitancy, his strategic vision (or lack thereof) nevertheless reinforces a more general criticism of Sparta. Archidamos assumed that the Spartans could have an Athenian-style military while remaining Spartan at heart. The situation, threatened by Athenian action, should be restored to the status quo ante. Other Spartans may see things differently, but Sthenelaidas is, in his own way, as conservative as Archidamos, prizing constancy of (good) character and seeking to reproduce Greek society as it stands. Archidamos and Sthenelaidas each put their finger squarely upon problems that confront Sparta—Archidamos on the lack of modern infrastructure, Sthenelaidas on Sparta’s dependence upon its allies—but each provides at best a partial vision. Neither answers the central Corinthian charge that Spartan customs are archaiotropa, “old-fashioned.” Neither Archidamos nor Sthenelaidas offers a complete synthesis of old and new or presents a model by which Sparta can transform itself into a match for Athens without changing that essential character by which the Spartans define themselves.

Archidamos’s Vision and Spartan Practice

If neither Archidamos nor Sthenelaidas articulates a satisfactory plan for Sparta, does one of the two speakers nevertheless better represent Sparta—or, at least, the Sparta that we encounter in Thucydides? More important, if each of these speakers stresses different aspects of a common Spartan self-representation, how valid does this model of Spartan character prove? A number of episodes within the History seem framed in such a way as to test the claims and assumptions of Archidamos and Sthenelaidas. Thucydides does not wholly reject Sparta’s self-representation, but the events in his History and the subsequent utterances that he chooses to include qualify and constrain the Spartan model. The most famous such critique comes during the Melian Dialogue, when the Athenians correctly predict that the Spartans will not intervene and that they subordinate virtue to their own self-interest. Nevertheless, the dialectic between the pretensions of Archidamos and of Sthenelaidas and Spartan practice begins as soon as the Spartans take the field. I will concentrate upon three episodes: Archidamos’s first invasion of Attika, the naval battles in the Corinthian Gulf early in the war, and the Spartan defeat at Sphakteria.

After his one page of celebrity at Thucydides 1.86, Sthenelaidas vanishes from the History and is never heard from again. Archidamos, however, is a major character. He leads the Peloponnesian allies on their yearly invasions of Attika in 431, 430, 429, and 428 and plays an important role in the early negotiations between Sparta and the Plataians, before he disappears from the narrative, to be replaced by his son Agis. When hostilities finally do erupt between Athens and the Peloponnesian allies in the summer of 431, Archidamos takes center stage. Thucydides introduces this section of the narrative with a “new preface,” summarizing the situation at 2.7–9. At 2.10, the Peloponnesian invasion force gathers, and at 2.11 Archidamos delivers a brief speech to the chief allied officers under his command.

Archidamos’s speech at Thucydides 2.11 has attracted far less attention than it deserves. H. D. Westlake, for example, dismissed Archidamos’s speech as “thoroughly conventional and uninspired” and suggested that it “probably reflects the real character of Archidamos more accurately than the speech assigned to him in the first book.” [34] Archidamos’s remarks in book 2, however, are more than a dramatic exclamation point for the beginning of hostilities. Archidamos subtly restates and revises many of his previous assumptions and claims. His speech is remarkable both because of its similarities and its contrasts to his advice in book 1. As in the previous speech, Archidamos opens by characterizing himself as an elder statesman with experience of wars (Thuc. 2.11.1: ἡμων αὐτῶν οἱ πρεσβύτεροι οὐκ ἄπειροι πολέμων εἰσίν; 1.80.1: (καὶ αὐτὸς πολλῶν ἤδη πολέμων ἔμπειρός εἰμι). As before, he looks even farther backward and explicitly links present actions with the standards of “our fathers” (2.11.1, 11.2), closing his speech with an appeal to ancestral tradition (2.11.9: οἱ πατέρες ἠμῶν; 1.85.1: μήτε τῶν πατέρων χείρους φαίνεσθαι As before, he praises caution (2.11.3: μεγίστην δόξαν οἰσόμενοι τοῖς τε προγόνοις καὶ ἡμῖν αὐτοῖς 1.84.1: ᾶς οἱ πατέρες τε ἡμῖν παρέδοσαν μελέτας emphasizes true (rather than illusory) security, asphaleia (2.11.3, 5, 9; 1.80.1, 84.4), and a healthy respect for the Athenians even if the Peloponnesians are more numerous (2.11.4; 1.81.1–2).

But if the Archidamos of Thucydides 2.11 has strong links to the figure that we see in 1.80–85, his attitudes are subtly but significantly different. Where Archidamos’s earlier audience consisted entirely of Spartans, he now addresses the combined Peloponnesian force. In book 2, he alludes to the public reasons for the invasion: the rest of Greece has goodwill (eunoia) and hopes that “we will accomplish what we plan” (Thuc. 2.11.2). Where before Archidamos scorned the excitement caused by hope (expressed by the verb epairomai: 1.81.6, 83.3, 84.2), he now argues that the allies must not prove inferior to their forefathers or to their own reputation, “for all Hellas has been whipped into a state of excitement (2.11.2: epêrtai, the perfect of epairomai) and is focusing its attention on us.” The emotionalism denoted by the verb epairomai—to be avoided by Spartans—should, we now hear, be exploited and made to serve Spartan ends when it appears among others. Archidamos has lower expectations for those who are not his immediate countrymen and does not to hesitate to elicit emotions that he would deplore and seek to suppress among his fellow Spartans.

As in the first speech, Archidamos speaks repeatedly of paraskeuê.[35] The Peloponnesian force has greater paraskeuê than any of the numerous other expeditions that have preceded it (Thuc. 2.11.1). They should not let themselves proceed “in a state of less careful paraskeuê ”(2.11.3: ἀμελέστερόν τι παρεσκευασμένους because of their great strength. Those who are overconfident often prove to lack paraskeuê (2.11.4: τὸ καταφρονοῦντας ἀπαρασκεύους γενέσθαι Athens itself is superbly fitted out with paraskeuê of all kinds (2.11.6: τοῖς πᾶσιν ἄριστα παρεσκευμένη and they should expect the Athenians to fight.

The Athenians of Thucydides 2.11 have the same paraskeuê to which Archidamos alludes more extensively in 1.80–81. The Peloponnesians, however, also still possess their own peculiar paraskeuê, the same inappropriate power against which Archidamos had eloquently warned. They have acquired neither the ships nor the money that would allow them to strike at Athens’s true power, its naval empire (Thuc. 1.80.4–81.4). They march into Attika with the same massive force that they would wield “against Peloponnesians and their neighbors” (1.80.3), a “force that is not comparable” to that of Athens and thus cannot strike a mortal blow. Only one year has passed since Archidamos addressed his fellow Spartans, and the Peloponnesian force lumbers across the Isthmus on a mission that, according to his own analysis, has little hope of success.

Given the weak prospects, Archidamos shifts his rhetoric to reflect his lower expectations.[36] In his first speech, Archidamos had boasted that Spartans did not depend upon the mistakes of others. They assumed that their opponents planned well and differed from them primarily in training. As a consequence, they did not base their expectations on the mistakes of others (Thuc. 1.84.3–4). In book 2, however, Archidamos sketches the following strategy:

We have every reason to expect that they will take the field against us, and that if they have not set out already before we are there, they will certainly do so when they see us in their territory wasting and destroying their property. [7] For men are always exasperated at suffering injuries to which they are not accustomed, and on seeing them inflicted before their very eyes, and where least inclined for reflection (logismos), rush with the greatest heat to action. [8] The Athenians are the very people of all others to do this, as they aspire to rule the rest of the world and are more in the habit of invading and ravaging their neighbors’ territory than of seeing their own treated in the like fashion.

The Peloponnesian invasion will enrage the Athenians. Accustomed to injuring rather than being injured, and little inclined for rational reflection, the Athenians will rush out to confront the superior Peloponnesian force. The allies, Archidamos argues, will provoke the Athenians into a terrible miscalculation.[37] In fact, Archidamos’s prediction comes very close to being fulfilled.[38] A portion of the Athenian populace reacts exactly as Archidamos foresees (Thuc. 2.21.3). Perikles, however, observes that the people “are enraged by what lies at hand and are not thinking very well” (2.22.1). He thus refuses to convene the assembly, so that “they would not go out of the city and commit an error because of anger (orgê) rather than planning (gnômê).” Perikles’ parliamentary gambit saves the Athenians. Archidamos’s plan falls short—barely perhaps, but enough. Forced to lead an expedition in which he has little confidence, he adopts a strategy that he knows is flawed. He does the best he can, and almost succeeds; his failure illustrates perfectly the problems that he pointed out in his earlier speech. Unable to attack the true source of Athenian power, the Peloponnesians can only hope that their opponents will make a mistake and give them an opening. The Peloponnesian invasions never inflict a strategic defeat upon the Athenians.[39]

At the same time, Archidamos’s Spartan character is also at least partially to blame. His troops accused him of wasting valuable time: he delayed at the Isthmus, moved slowly when the expedition began to march, and then wasted the most time of all investing the border fortress of Oinoe in Attika (Thuc. 2.18.3). Archidamos had already in his first speech justified such a restrained pace: Attika was a hostage that the Peloponnesians should spare as long as possible (1.82.4; cf. 2.18.5). The delay, however, allowed the Athenians to bring in their possessions and to evacuate the countryside (2.18.4). The invasion, when it did come, was less devastating than might have been the case. Archidamos’s hesitation directly reduced his prospects for goading Athens into an ill-considered and possibly catastrophic land battle.[40] Archidamos thus shrewdly manipulated his Spartan caution to play upon Athenian nerves, and, in this, he followed the course that he himself had recommended, but this same constancy weakened his “un-Spartan” assumption that the enemy would make a mistake.

Thucydides does not hide his disdain for Spartan caution. Near the end of the History, Thucydides describes a prime opportunity that the Peloponnesians failed to exploit:

But here, as on so many other occasions, the Lakedaimonians proved the most convenient people in the world for the Athenians to be at war with. For being most different in regard to character (tropos)—the Athenians energetic (oxeis), the Spartans slow (bradeis), the former enterprising (epicheiretai), the latter lacking in daring (atolmoi)—the Spartans proved of the greatest service, especially to a maritime empire like Athens. Indeed this was shown by the Syracusans, who were most like the Athenians in character (homoiotropoi), and also most successful in combating them.

Like Archidamos, Thucydides concludes that the Spartans were too different from the Athenians to compete effectively against them. Unlike Archidamos (and like the Corinthians at Thuc. 1.68–71), however, Thucydides locates this essential difference in the national characters, rather than the material forces, of each side. Whatever Archidamos may say, Thucydides asserts that caution weakened the Spartans.

Thucydides, however, goes farther in his critique of Spartan character. He not only denigrates the efficacy of Spartan caution, he calls into question another prized character trait. Archidamos had boasted to his fellow Spartans of the internal consistency that they shared. The Spartan general Brasidas prefaces a successful Peloponnesian action before a much greater non-Greek force with similar claims to such discipline and steadiness (Thuc. 4.126), but elsewhere Thucydides subverts this quality. The first major sea battle of the war takes place in the Gulf of Corinth, near Naupaktos. The Athenian admiral Phormio ambushes a fleet of transports attempting to ferry troops into Akarnania. Phormio’s twenty triremes caught the Peloponnesian fleet of forty-two heavily loaded troop ships and five fast vessels and inflicted a sharp defeat, capturing twelve ships (2.83–84). The Peloponnesians collected reinforcements and assembled a fleet of seventy-seven ships, all primed for action, to oppose Phormio’s fleet of twenty—a crushing advantage if the two sides were remotely equal in skill. In this dramatic situation, Thucydides includes speeches for both sides.

Concerned with the low morale of their troops, the Spartan commanders appeal to the Archidamian vision of men who, by the strength of their inherent character, impose their will upon events. For them, as for Archidamos, the Peloponnesians, with their Spartan leadership, outstrip their Athenian opponents in moral strength, and they will thus be able to win a very material victory. The Spartan commanders mention only briefly the overwhelming superiority in numbers and instead spend most of their time arguing that the superior character of the Peloponnesian force would, in the end, prevail over the superior Athenian experience in naval warfare. Mere chance (tuchê) and inexperience (apeiria) were responsible for the previous defeat (Thuc. 2.87.2):

It was not, therefore, cowardice (kakia) that produced our defeat, nor ought the determination (gnômê) which force has not quelled, but which still has a word to say with its adversary, to lose its edge from the result of an accident; but admitting the possibility that men may fail because of chance (tuchê), we should know that those who are the same in their resolutions (gnômai) are always properly courageous, and while they remain so can never put forward inexperience (apeiria) as an excuse for proving cowardly (kakoi). [4] Nor is your inexperience (apeiria) so behind the enemy as you are ahead of him in daring (tolmê); and although the science (epistêmê) of your opponents would, if valor (andreia) accompanied it, have also the presence of mind to carry out at an emergency the lesson it has learned, yet without courage (eupsuchia) art (technê) is powerless in the face of danger. For panic (phobos) takes away presence of mind, and without valor (alkê) art (technê) is useless. [5] Against their superior experience (to empeiroteron) set your superior daring (to tolmêroteron), and against the fear induced by defeat the fact of your having been then unprepared (aparaskeuoi).

Unlike Archidamos, the Spartan commanders disparage the moral character of their enemies. The Athenians, we hear, have more experience in naval warfare, but they are far less courageous than the Peloponnesians. Like Archidamos, the Spartan commanders locate their greatest and ultimate strengths in their own moral strength, but they go farther than Archidamos. Technical skills, they argue, can be learned, but courage cannot, and courage is a Peloponnesian strength. Where Archidamos had stressed that all people were fundamentally similar and that only education distinguished the Peloponnesians from their opponents, these Spartan commanders appropriate a traditional boast of the Greek elites. Like the Corinthians in an earlier speech to rally the Peloponnesians (Thuc. 1.121.4), they denigrate learning and stress courage as if it were an inborn quality peculiar to the Peloponnesian side. Without courage, they argue, technical skills are forgotten in the pressure of battle. The Peloponnesians should thus, by means of their firm resolution (gnômê) and their courage (eupsuchia, andreia, alkê), break the Athenians’ concentration and will to fight. When all is said and done, the Peloponnesians, cool and unflappable in battle, will be able to impose their superior will upon their enemies.

The battle that follows turns the Spartan argument on its head. The Spartan commanders do what Archidamos could not previously do—they force the Athenians to meet them on their own terms. The Spartan force threatens undefended Naupaktos, and the Athenian fleet must reluctantly send their twenty fast and maneuverable ships against the seventy-seven lumbering Peloponnesians in narrow waters (Thuc. 2.90). A swift movement by the Peloponnesians cuts off almost half of the Athenian squadron, and just ten ships escape to Naupaktos, where they form up for a final defence (2.91.1). The leading squadron of the Peloponnesian fleet—the vanguard of a force that now outnumbered the Athenians seven to one—advanced to crush the remaining Athenian ships, singing a hymn to Apollo in celebration of their victory. By any rational calculation, the Peloponnesian navy was about to annihilate Athenian naval power in the west.

But in the midst of this catastrophe, the true characters of the Athenians and the Peloponnesians came into play. One Athenian ship had not yet reached Naupaktos:

The single Athenian ship remaining was chased by a Leukadian far ahead of the rest. [3] But there happened to be a merchantman lying at anchor in the roadstead, which the Athenian ship found time to sail round, and struck the Leukadian in chase amidships and sank it.

Faced with destruction, the Athenians had executed an unexpected maneuver and attacked, a single ship against the outrunner of a squadron. This single, bold gesture, however, overwhelms the Peloponnesian fleet:

An exploit so sudden and contrary to plan (para logon) produced a panic (phobos) among the Peloponnesians; and having fallen out of order in the excitement of victory, some of them dropped their oars and stopped their way in order to let the main body come up—an unsafe thing to do considering how near they were to the enemy’s prows; while others ran aground in the shallows, in their ignorance of the localities.

The Peloponnesians succumb to the inconstancy that their leaders had attributed to the Athenians. Where the Peloponnesians had spoken confidently of the pressure of battle, a single reverse that was minor but “contrary to plan” (para logon) breaks their nerve and fills them with panic (phobos). The Peloponnesian leaders had encouraged their men by anticipating weakness among the Athenians and their allies. “Panic takes away presence of mind,” they had blithely proclaimed at Thucydides 2.87.4, but, in the event, this panic grips the Peloponnesians rather than the Athenians. Their tactical formation went to pieces, and their ships became ensnarled with one another. Even the Spartan commander of the Leukadian ship, once the vessel began to sink, gave in to circumstances and killed himself (Thuc. 2.92.3).

In the end, the Athenians demonstrate that they, not the Peloponnesians, have gnômê and tolmê. The Athenians exhibit presence of mind in the worst emergencies. Where Phormio had warned them that they were at a serious disadvantage in Peloponnesian waters (Thuc. 2.89.8), nevertheless, when forced, they did not hesitate to meet the Peloponnesians. With almost half their small squadron destroyed, the remaining ships sought a defensive position and formed up again in good order. Pressed with imminent destruction, the exposed Athenian ship had brilliantly seized an opportunity, skillfully rounding the Leukadian merchantman and seizing victory. And once the ten Athenian ships, lined up in defensive formation, saw the confusion of their enemies, all of them at once seized the opportunity, attacked the Peloponnesians, captured the nearest six vessels, and rescued those of their own ships that had not been destroyed (2.92.2).

The Athenian commander Phormio presents a different and apparently more telling interpretation of Spartan courage:

As to that upon which they most rely, the fact that they feel that it is their due to be courageous (andreioi), they are confident here for no other reason than because, on account of their own experience (empeiria) in infantry warfare, they are usually successful, and they fancy that they will achieve the same in naval warfare.

Phormio then goes on to give the other side of Archidamos’s moral equation its proper due:

But this advantage will in all justice belong to us now, if to them there; as they are not superior to us in courage (eupsuchia), but we are each of us more confident (thrasuteroi), insofar as we have more experience (empeiroteroi) in our particular department.

Phormio, like Archidamos in book 1, assumes that the Spartans and the Athenians are fundamentally similar and differ primarily in their training (cf. Thuc. 1.84.4.). The Spartan character is not a unique quality that radiates outward from the Spartans and ultimately subjects the world to their will. The Spartans are successful at the things in which they are accustomed to succeed, and their strong qualities in traditional warfare and diplomacy do not automatically support them in different circumstances. If gnômê is primarily for the Spartans a moral rather than an intellectual quality, resolution and firmness of purpose rather than intellectual planning and analysis,[41] this difference emerges from the assumption, seen dramatically at Thermopylai and explicated by Archidamos, that Spartans possess an emotional space within themselves that no adversity can touch. The second battle at Naupaktos exposes the limits of this self-serving pose. Confronted with unexpected and unfamiliar circumstances, the Spartans and their allies lose control of the situation. The despairing suicide of Timokrates, the Spartan captain, at Thucydides 2.92.3 is a gesture that seeks to assert this control and to place the Spartan beyond the reach of events. By the standards of Greek culture, however, such a suicide, like that of Ajax, is at best ambivalent, a gesture of weakness rather than of self-control.[42]

The History as a whole at best partially confirms Archidamos’s boast that “we give in to disasters less than others” (Thuc. 1.84.2). Events that are “contrary to calculation” (para logon) cow the Spartans. The Spartans, at one point, concluded that the Mytilenean campaign had stressed Athenian resources to the limit. The Athenians chose to disabuse the Lakedaimonians of this perception, and “they made a formal demonstration (epideixis)” of their power, sending 100 ships off on an expedition that made landings on the Peloponnese “wherever it pleased” (3.16.1). “The Spartans, viewing an unexpected event of this magnitude (polun ton paralogon), concluded also that the people of Lesbos” (3.16.2), who had claimed that Athens was weak (3.13.3–4), “were lying.” The other Peloponnesian allies failed to appear, and the Spartans gave up this attempt at sending an expedition to Lesbos. The Peloponnesian fleet that did set sail arrived too late (3.29). The Spartan admiral, Alkidas, did minor damage and butchered some prisoners that he took along the way (3.32.1), but, once Mytilene had fallen, was mainly concerned to return home safely (3.31.2).

Later in the war, Thucydides sketches the limits of Spartan character even more clearly. When the Athenians managed to seize the island of Kythera, just off the coast of Lakonia, as well as a strong point at Pylos, in Messene, the Spartans found themselves exposed to a guerrilla war “that surrounded them on all sides, a war that was swift and against which no guard could be set” (Thuc. 4.55.1). The number and strangeness of these setbacks begin to break their spirit:

They became more hesitant (oknêroteroi) than ever in military matters, finding themselves involved in a maritime struggle, which was at odds with the nature of their preparation (paraskeuê) in its current state, and that against Athenians, with whom an enterprise unattempted (to mê epicheiroumenon) was always looked upon as a success sacrificed. Besides this, their late numerous reverses of fortune (tuchê), coming close one upon another without any reason, had imposed a tremendous shock (ekplêxis) on them, and they were always afraid of a second disaster like that on the island and thus became even less daring (atolmoteroi) with regard to battle but fancied that they could not stir without a blunder, for, being new to the experience of adversity, they had lost all confidence in themselves.

Thucydides portrays the Spartans and Athenians in the terms that the Corinthians had used at 1.68–71. The Spartans really are excessively hesitant (Thuc. 1.70.4) and less daring (70.3). The Athenians really do thrive on epicheirêsis, putting their hand to new endeavors (70.7). Thucydides likewise recalls Archidamos’s admonitions at 1.80–82: the paraskeuê of the Spartans is qualitatively not suited to the kind of naval combat prosecuted by the Athenians.

But Thucydides’ analysis disproves the proud boasts of Archidamos and the Peloponnesian commanders at Naupaktos. The Spartans are not more resilient than others in the face of misfortune. Spartan character is not constant, and even the relative difference between Spartans and Athenians is a dynamic factor that changes with events. The Spartan self, painfully constructed “in the most trying conditions” (Thuc. 1.84.4: en tois anankaiotatois), nevertheless cannot determine its own internal state. Reverses of fortune (tuchê) fill Spartans with shock (ekplêxis). They lose their daring (tolmê) and become more hesitant (oknêroteroi). Archidamos boasted that Spartan calculation was immune to the emotional swings of success and failure (1.84), but, in Thucydides’ History at any rate, external events cloud their judgment. The Spartans have no internal core of sôphrosunê to which they can turn when circumstances become excessively harsh.

Two specific engagements more than any other in Thucydides circumscribe Spartan moral authority in the eyes of the Greek world. The surrender of 120 surviving Spartans on the island of Sphakteria in 425 shocked the Greeks. Thucydides describes how the Athenians wore down this force with light-armed troops who could strike at the Spartans from a distance and escape at will (Thuc. 4.31–35). Finally, the Athenians surround the Spartans.

The Lakedaimonians thus placed between two fires, and in the same dilemma, to compare small things with great, as at Thermopylai, where the defenders were cut off through the Persians getting round by the path, being now attacked in front and behind, began to give way and, overcome by the odds against them and exhausted from want of food, retreated.

Once he has made explicit the similarity to Thermopylai (where the number of Spartans engaged was roughly equivalent), readers can make their own comparison in what happens next. Where the Spartans at Thermopylai chose to die and thus to purchase with their lives immense credit for Spartan moral determination, the Spartans at Sphakteria give in and surrender to save their lives (Thuc. 4.38). “Of all the events that had taken place during the war this one was the most contrary to rational expectation (gnômê) for the Hellenes” (4.40.1). The Hellenes had formed a moral evaluation (êxioun), an axiôsis of the Lakedaimonians, which confirmed the ideologically charged posture that Thermopylai had dramatized and Archidamos had articulated. The other Greeks were sure that the Spartans would “surrender to neither famine nor necessity but would, as they were, fight on to the extent of their abilities.”

Thucydides allows us to see how the Spartans themselves could attempt to assimilate their defeat on Sphakteria to their traditional values, and, in so doing, he departs from his normal practice and relates an aphorism framed in an anecdote. Such combinations of anecdote and aphorism are common in Herodotus, and Thucydides may well have had Herodotus’s treatment of Thermopylai in mind when he chose to include such a story at this point in his narrative. After describing the battle, Herodotus reports that the Spartan Dienekes “is generally agreed to have been the best (aristos)” (Hdt. 7.226.1). Dienekes does not, however, earn this distinction by his outstanding valor during the fighting—how he saved one of his fellows or cut down an exceptional number of the enemy. Rather, Dienekes distinguished himself by his skillful ability to capture Spartan character in the form and content of his language alike. A terrified local from Trachis warned him that the foreigners were so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun. Dienekes disdained the massive numbers of the Persian army and thanked the Trachinian for his good news: “If the Medes cover up the sun, then battle against them would take place in the shade and not in the hot sun” (7.226.2). Dienekes was well known and left behind “many other similar utterances as a memorial” (7.227.1). His skill with the aphorism, the pithy distillation of moral wisdom, stylistically suits his Lakonian persona. Disdainful of numbers and mere physical power, Dienekes provided a verbal tag with which to associate the moral status to which the Spartans laid claim at Thermopylai. Dienekes’ fame, in turn, captures perfectly the extent to which Spartan authority was an “artificial” construct, which the admiring Greek world assembled from the poses, grand gestures, and telling remarks of the Spartans.

In the aftermath of Sphakteria, another Spartan used a pithy remark to embody his fellow Spartans’ attitude. In this case, however, the Spartan is unnamed. He is not a heroic martyr, but one of the survivors taunted for surrendering:

Indeed people could scarcely believe that those who had surrendered were of the same stuff as the fallen; and an Athenian ally, who some time after insultingly asked one of the prisoners from the island if those that had fallen were men of honor (kaloi k’ agathoi), received for answer that the “spindle” (atraktos)—that is, the arrow—would be worth a great deal if it could tell men of honor (hoi agathoi) from the rest; in allusion to the fact that the killed were those whom the stones and the arrow happened to hit.

The anecdote subtly deflects the question, but the Spartan’s defence has disturbing implications for Sparta as a whole. If the men who did fall in defence at Sphakteria are no better than the rest, then there are no martyrs. The Spartans who surrendered may not be worse than the other Spartans who died or who were not involved, but, by the same token, the other Spartans are not better. The surrender on Sphakteria is not an exception, but a true indication that the Spartans are not inherently the heroic, self-denying figures that the rest of the Greeks assumed.

The unnamed Spartan’s response contains within it, however, a more general defence. He scornfully terms the arrows with which they had been attacked “spindles,” parts of the loom and thus artifacts associated with women rather than men. In so doing, he draws upon a strain of upper-class disapproval for light-armed troops such as archers, who could from a distance attack those encased in the expensive gear of a hoplite.[43] The Spartan attempts to convert his surrender into a further statement of superiority. Those who cornered the Spartans were not, he implies, their equals, nor did they dare to meet the Spartans in an even, pitched battle. “Only a challenge (or an offence) coming from an equal in honor deserves to be taken up; in other words, for there to be a challenge, the man who receives it must consider the man who makes it worthy of making it.” [44] The Spartans did not push the contest to its limit and surrender their lives, because the contest was not fought between equals. The cowardly recourse to missiles such as arrows and rocks demeaned the Athenian forces, and the Spartans, it is implied, surrendered as much from disdain as from anything else. Unable to lay down their lives in the exchange of blows from one line of hoplites to another, the Spartans give up the entire contest. Thus the unnamed Spartan attempts to convert a humiliating defeat into a moral victory that asserts Spartan status.[45]

The Spartan captive’s defence was sufficiently clever to find its way into Thucydides. It did not, however, convince many Greeks. The Spartans at Thermopylai had, of course, also succumbed in the end to arrows (Hdt. 7.225) and had endured the fate that their descendants on Sphakteria pretended to disdain. Thucydides makes this general loss of prestige explicit at the point where he describes its subsequent recovery in the battle of Mantinea. Here the Spartans had entered the battle “knowing that the long training (meletê) of action was of more saving virtue than any brief verbal exhortation, though never so well delivered” (Thuc. 5.69.2). This time, however, events do not contradict Spartan confidence. They win decisively and make a strong impression on the rest of the Greek world:

The imputations cast upon them by the Hellenes at the time, whether of cowardice (malakia) on account of the disaster in the island or of mismanagement (aboulia) and slowness (bradutês) generally, were all wiped out by this single action: fortune (tuchê), it was thought, might have humbled them, but in their force of resolution (gnômê), the men themselves were the same as ever.

The other Greeks revise their interpretation of Sphakteria and Sparta’s general conduct of the war in the light of Mantinea. They had come to attribute Sparta’s setback on Sphakteria to malakia, “softness,” a moral weakness that affected the spirit and manifested itself in actions such as the surrender. Similarly, their view of Spartan caution had aligned itself with that of the Corinthians at Thucydides 1.68–71 rather than with Archidamos. The particular success at Mantinea, in a single stroke, reversed Greek perceptions and restored Spartan prestige. The Greeks quickly reverted to the traditional view of Spartan character: they concluded that Spartan gnômê, their force of resolution, had, in fact, not changed. The vagaries of fortune (tuchê) had caused a temporary dip in Spartan fortunes.

But the Greek reassessment of Spartan behavior is, within the context of Thucydides’ narrative, oversimplified. Phormio presented a better model when he observed that the Spartans were courageous (andreioi) on land because they were traditionally successful in that element (Thuc. 2.89.2). The Athenians, conversely, exhibit more courage on sea because they have greater experience with naval warfare (2.89.2). Spartans and Athenians alike have an equal share in courage (eupsuchia), but their different backgrounds make them courageous in different contexts. The Greek analysis of Mantinea is, thus, only partially correct. The Spartans had, in fact, remained “the same in their firmness of resolution,” for they remained the same formidable opponents on land as before. The Greek analysis falls short, however, in that it does not recognize Sparta’s greatest weakness, its failure to change and to adapt to the new form of warfare that a conflict with the Athenian empire demanded.

Mantinea suggests, then, that Archidamos was at least partially correct. The Spartans had constructed a peculiar self, distilled from qualities admired by elite Greeks in general, and this Spartan self could exert an unflappable autonomy that resisted swings in external fortune. The myth of Leonidas and his 300, of Spartans whose spirit cannot be crushed, has its justification, but only within certain limits. On land, confronting their peers in the tight hoplite formation, the Spartans were comfortable and knew what to expect. Where past experience mapped out the future, the Spartans were ready for either of the two possible outcomes, victory or death, and could rely upon their firmness of will to prevent them from “giving in.”

But Archidamos fails to anticipate the degree to which Spartan courage and the peculiarities of hoplite warfare are intertwined. For Archidamos, the paraskeuê that Sparta lacks can be measured in money and ships. Neither he nor any other Spartan commander—with the possible exception of Brasidas—appreciates the truth of the urgent Corinthian advice at Thucydides 1.68–71. Sparta must adapt its character to changing circumstances. Spartan character really is limited. The Corinthians are only partially correct when they set these limitations in a chronological framework: they argue that the Spartans are old-fashioned and that their strengths do not obtain in the modern world. Chronological development is, however, uneven. Sparta remains, from Archidamos’s first invasion of Attika to Mantinea, a powerful and crushing force in the traditional hoplite warfare on land. The empire that the Athenians invented and that exists side by side with the older society of the mainland is, however, alien to Sparta. Crushing material superiority at Naupaktos cannot make up for this inappropriate mentality. Alkidas’s relief squadron for Mytilene makes no bold stand but runs ignominiously before the Athenians. The Spartans trapped on Sphakteria ultimately find themselves harassed by light-armed skirmishers with whom they cannot come to grips, and worn down by an extended hunger and thirst that they would not have encountered in a furious pitched battle. Demoralized by such unexpected troubles, they surrender.

In the end, Archidamos and Sthenelaidas fasten upon complementary aspects of Sparta’s power. There was nothing magic about the Spartan self. Archidamos’s vision of absolute Spartan constancy falls far short of reality, but Archidamos’s vision was limited in scope rather than in kind. Neither Spartan power nor Spartan character was entirely an illusion, and Spartan actions did provide, however imperfectly, a base on which the ideology of Spartan hegemony could reside—as long as Sparta did not demand too much of its allies and provided enough benefits in return. Sthenelaidas, on the other hand, was correct in insisting upon the allies. Sparta did not exist as a lump of abstract but crushing force that its possessors could direct in any direction. Sparta was, to some degree, a mirage, for Sparta could fulfill its identity as the preeminent Greek state only if the other poleis of Hellas conferred that status upon it. Sparta was, to a degree, what other states thought it was. This shared reputation (doxa) or moral estimate (axiôsis) would determine who stayed loyal to Sparta and how energetic this loyalty could be. In the end, the Spartans had to fight because their allies expected it of them, and in the end, at Mantinea, they recoup their fundamental position because they remain fundamentally the same.

What we see in Thucydides is a delicate equilibrium in which Spartan character and its manifestations on the battlefield, balanced against the Greek need for some preeminent force and corresponding fear of external control, determine the final direction and extent of Sparta’s power in the Greek world. Reality and mystification are inextricably mixed in a dialectic. Archidamos and Sthenelaidas each fasten their gaze upon separate forces that, by the tension between them, circumscribe and define Sparta’s position. Neither Archidamos nor Sthenelaidas truly wins the debate. The Spartans enthusiastically support Sthenelaidas and vote that the Athenians had wrongly violated the treaty—thus the deceptively blunt Sthenelaidas shrewdly provokes the gesture that the allies demand. Sparta does not, however, take immediate action—Archidamos does not invade Attika until the following summer, when the Thebans attempt to seize Plataia and precipitate action. War on behalf of the allies and against Athens is a device that successfully balances the competing forces that constituted Spartan power for another generation, until an improbable victory rendered the Spartans masters of Greece—for a time.


1. On this, see chapter 4 above. [BACK]

2. Most recently, Pelling 1991. [BACK]

3. Wassermann 1953, 194–195. [BACK]

4. Connor 1984, 38. [BACK]

5. Stahl 1966, 54. [BACK]

6. Westlake 1968, 125. [BACK]

7. Bloedow 1981, 135; for additional references praising Archidamos, see Pelling 1991, 122. [BACK]

8. Cartledge 1987, 408. [BACK]

9. Connor 1984, 38. [BACK]

10. Finley 1942, 135–136; Stahl 1966, 57: “Sparta entscheidet sich gegen die Vernunft”; Immerwahr 1973, 24; Bloedow 1981, 142–143; Bloedow 1987, 66. [BACK]

11. Stahl 1966, 56: “ein Musterstück raffinierter Rhetorik”; Allison 1984 explores the rhetorical effectiveness of the speech. [BACK]

12. Kallet-Marx 1993a, 86. [BACK]

13. Allison 1984, 14. [BACK]

14. Kagan 1969, 304. [BACK]

15. Allison 1989, 30–38. [BACK]

16. For these and other figures, see the table on p. 29 in Allison 1989. [BACK]

17. Kurke 1991, 240–256. [BACK]

18. See Hornblower’s (1991) notes ad loc. on ἐλευθέραν and εὐδοξοτάτην [BACK]

19. On this, see Flower 1991. [BACK]

20. On the precise meaning of this passage, see Hornblower (1991, ad loc.), who agrees with the interpretation of Nussbaum 1986, 508 n. 24. [BACK]

21. Gomme on 1.85.2. [BACK]

22. So Tompkins 1993a, 110. [BACK]

23. Westlake 1968, 124. [BACK]

24. Hornblower 1991, 125, citing Hussey 1985. [BACK]

25. On this, see Lattimore 1939. [BACK]

26. On the traditional foundations for many sophistic mannerisms, see still Finley 1967, 55–117. [BACK]

27. Hussey 1985, 123. [BACK]

28. Pelling 1991, 123. [BACK]

29. Contrast, however, Kagan 1969, 304–306. [BACK]

30. Sthenelaidas may hint at such an interpretation when he argues that the Spartans have “good allies whom we must not hand over to the Athenians” (1.86.3); Ste. Croix 1972, 59–60. [BACK]

31. See, for example, Pelling 1991, 125: “It is hard to believe that the Corinthians would go over to the Athenians, whatever else they may do”; also Kagan 1969, 292; Gomme mentions only the scholiast’s suggestion of an Argive alliance; Salmon (1984, 299) simply alludes to the “threat to join a different alliance” and does not speculate about the possible new allies. [BACK]

32. Cogan 1981a, 32. [BACK]

33. A resemblance noted elsewhere: e.g., Pelling 1991, 125; Finley (1975, 170) sees a general similarity between the Spartan assembly and Homeric debate: “My guess is that the Spartan assembly was much closer to the Homeric than to the Athenian in function and psychology. Archidamus and Sthenelaidas harangued each other before the assembled people as Agamemnon and Achilles did.” [BACK]

34. Westlake 1968, 126. [BACK]

35. Allison 1989, 55–56. [BACK]

36. On this, see Pelling 1991, 126; Schwartz (1929, 135–136) felt that the inconsistency was due to differing and unreconciled stages of composition. [BACK]

37. Pelling 1991, 128. [BACK]

38. For a detailed analysis of the precision with which Archidamos anticipates Athenian reactions, see Hunter 1973, 11–21, esp. 12–13. Hunter argues that Archidamos’s insights are so precise that they must have been deduced after the fact. [BACK]

39. Hanson 1983. [BACK]

40. See Stahl 1966, 76. [BACK]

41. Edmunds 1975a. [BACK]

42. On the problematic nature of suicide, see Dover 1974, 167–168. [BACK]

43. See, for example, Lykos’s speech at Eur. HF 140–169. [BACK]

44. Bourdieu 1977, 12. [BACK]

45. On this anecdote, see Edmunds 1975a, 102–109. [BACK]

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