previous sub-section
The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship
next section

Spartan Traditionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

previous sub-section
The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship
next section