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Archidamos and Sthenelaidas
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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.

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Archidamos and Sthenelaidas
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