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The Athenians at Sparta: Old Victories, New Lessons

Consider the first speech that Thucydides attributes to his Athenians. The scene is a congress of the Peloponnesian League at Sparta. A furious Corinthian delegation has just demanded immediate action against Athens from Sparta and its allies. The Corinthians show themselves to be deeply enraged, and they demand war in the most stinging possible terms. Thucydides makes it clear that the Athenians do not want war with Sparta—they choose to speak, “thinking that the Spartans would as a result of their arguments be more inclined toward inaction than toward war” (Thuc. 1.72.1). The anonymous delegates are in an ideal position to make an Athenian case for peace and to capitalize on the aggressive, scornful remarks of the Corinthians. A discreetly flattering speech (such as that which the Spartans at 4.17–20 in fact make to the Athenians) might have been ideal.

But the Athenians are not flattering. They are not even discreet. Almost all of those who have commented upon the Athenian speech have remarked on its harsh tone. The Athenian speakers exhibit “aggressiveness” and are “tactless.” [15] “The effect is a devastating portrayal of the Athenians as self-confident to the point of arrogance, immune to pressure, certain that they were in control of everything.” [16] “Provocative” is a favorite term in analyses of this speech. “The difficulty of their speech (besides the lack of any reference to it by Archidamos) lies in its tenor. Taken by itself it would seem to have been purposely provocative.… One would have expected the Spartans to have been sooner stirred to anger by the provocative irony of the Athenians than to shame by the psogos [blame] of the Corinthians.” [17] “The most difficult problem of all has been to decide on the purpose of the speech, for it has seemed to many to be deliberately provocative and calculated to bring on the war, yet Thucydides clearly believed the contrary to be true.” [18] “The speech was provocative to the Spartans, but it was not meant by the Athenians to be provocative.” [19]

Complex and problematic as their speech may be, the Athenians at Sparta have also attracted their share of admiration. A. E. Raubitschek saw in this Athenian speech “a moral justification of Athenian Democracy. A comparison of the Athenian speech at Sparta with the speeches of the Athenian generals at Melos and of Euphemus at Kamarina shows clearly the difference between the cynicism of an Alkibiades and the idealism of a Pericles. This means that we possess in the speech of the Athenians at Sparta an authentic statement on the glory and virtue of the Athenian Empire in the days of Pericles.” [20] Recently, Hartmut Erbse has argued that this speech lays the moral groundwork for the Funeral Oration: “The clever linking of power and justice gave to the Athenians of the Periklean age the right in their own eyes to feel that they were the “school of Hellas” (cf. 2.41.1: tês Hellados paideusis) and to point to their own laws as exemplary (2.37.1).” [21] But although such judgments capture much of the spirit of this speech, they blunt the sharp edge of its reasoning. These Athenians appropriate to themselves certain traditional positions even as they subvert the basic assumptions out of which these positions evolved. In a few brief paragraphs, the Athenians present an analysis of human behavior that renders impossible the kind of limited, euphemized hegemony that the majority of Greek states were traditionally willing to accept.[22]

Two complementary strategies shape the Athenian argument. First, the style the Athenians adopt subtly reinforces their overt message: the Athenians are bluff, even tactless, but they thus affect an ingenuous pose. Because they obviously do not aim to please, they invite an added measure of credence. Second, the Athenians argue that their city is indeed powerful and that its strength is no self-serving illusion or fragile cloud of mystifications. Their emphasis upon strength and Athens’s ability to assert control over the external world inverts the normative analysis of Spartan power that Herodotus offered in the opening of his Histories. Herodotus pointedly structures his account to show that Lykourgos’s reforms were not, in themselves, sufficient to make Sparta the preeminent power in Greece. The sanction of Delphi, the limitations on Spartan ambitions, and the associated complicity of the rest of the Greek world were all essential to Sparta’s position, because this position rested as much upon the tacit consent of other Greek states as it did upon Spartan power. Thucydides’ Athenians, by contrast, may depend upon their allies for strength, but they have allies and empire because of their unique character—their empire is an effect rather than a cause. The Athenians thus differ from Herodotus’s Spartans even as they anticipate the Spartans of Xenophon, whose power and prestige radiate outward from their dynamic way of life. Herodotus’s Sparta required the guidance of Delphi to establish itself.[23] Athens defied the Persians, both alone at Marathon and in partnership with the other Greeks during Xerxes’ invasion. Thucydides’ Athenians thus methodically ignore the assumptions that Herodotus so carefully worked into his introduction of Sparta.[24]

The Athenians open their speech with a curt statement that the Peloponnesians have no jurisdiction over them (Thuc. 1.73.1). The Athenians assert that they are not speaking in their own defence, but seek only to prevent the Spartans from acting too hastily. This argument reappears at the conclusion of the speech (1.78) and plays to the caution that the Corinthians have just vilified (1.68–71, esp. 70) and that Archidamos would in the following speech defend (1.80–86, esp. 84). The Athenians proceed to introduce the praise of their city in particularly confrontational language:

The story shall be told less as a paraitêsis than as a testimony and demonstration about the kind of polis with which this contest of yours shall take place if you do not plan well.

This is a harsh statement, because it frames the situation in extreme terms, leaves no doubt that the Athenians resent the discussion, and brusquely suggests that Sparta should back off. The term paraitêsis means “request,” but it is quite a strong word: people seek a paraitêsis only from someone who has them at their mercy.[25] If the Athenians were offering a paraitêsis, such a role would imply a position of powerlessness—as if they had been called on the carpet by their Peloponnesian masters. More diplomatic speakers might have stressed the at least titular friendship between Athenians and Peloponnesians and sought to maintain the fiction of amicable relations. These Athenians instead shift directly from confrontational remarks about their supposed weakness to threats. The Persian Wars are proof that Athens is a formidable city. A struggle between Athens and Sparta could take place only if the Spartans do not properly analyze this evidence and thus “do not plan well.”

Even when the Athenians locate in the Persian Wars the ultimate paradigm of Athenian worth (Thuc. 1.73.2), they affect a no-nonsense tone. Conventional as references to Marathon and Salamis may have been, Thucydides’ Athenians elsewhere pass quickly over, or even mock, such boasts (5.89, 6.83.2). Even at Sparta, when they expand upon this theme at greater length than anywhere else in the History, they cannot help apologizing for what they admit to be a hackneyed claim: “As for the Persian Wars and all the things that you yourselves already know, even though we ourselves are sick of dragging it out, nevertheless it is necessary to discuss them again” (1.73). After almost fifty years, everyone in Greece must have been tired of hearing the Athenians praise their own valor at Marathon and Salamis. Bluntness is one of the features that defines Athenian rhetoric in Thucydides, and the Athenians open this section by admitting the groans, spoken or silent, that this well-worn argument would provoke.

But such bluntness is, of course, a studied pose, for in wielding it the speaker implicitly claims a certain honesty and invites trust. If we are so tactless and confrontational, the Athenians thus suggest, then surely you can take our arguments at face value. In fact, Athenian candor can, as I will argue in discussing the speech of Euphemos, be profoundly deceptive. The Athenians are most subtly manipulative when they acknowledge moral complaints against them and claim that they have nothing to hide. In book 1, the Athenians imply that they are straightforward even as they give the old argument a nontraditional slant.

The Athenians quickly move on to their second and main thesis: their city is “worthy of consideration” (axia logou). But although many scholars have expressed surprise at the tone of the speech, virtually none have remarked upon its perhaps even more unconventional argument. Athenian self-praise may have been common enough, and the Athenians clearly loved to dilate upon their successes against the Persians, but Thucydides’ Athenians trample upon conventions as heavily as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon does upon propriety when he steps out onto his purple robe. They affect to direct against themselves a mixture of “realism” and the same gruffness that they directed against Sparta. From the very start of this speech, the Athenians have as little interest in “fine words” as their counterparts who bar such arguments from the Melian Dialogue (Thuc. 5.89). These Athenians attribute their valor in the Persian Wars to advantage rather than to any more glorious ideal. “When we took action,” they continue at 1.73.2, “risks were run for advantage (ôphelia).” Since the Athenians took part with the Spartans in “the actual work” (to ergon) and since their actions “were of some advantage” (ei ti ôphelei), they deserve part of the “verbal reputation” (logos). Thucydides’ speakers subordinate language to the “real world” of erga and tangible advantage.

The Athenians continue pointing to past ôphelia with one hand while they shake their rhetorical fist with the other. They defeated the Persians at Marathon (Thuc. 1.73.4), but, more important, they played the pivotal central role at Salamis, which, they argue, was the decisive battle of the war (1.73.4–5). In elaborating on their contributions (1.74.1), they expand upon the theme of ôphelia, “concrete advantage,” and boast that they provided “the three most advantageous things” (ôphelimôtata) for the victory: the greatest number of ships, the most intelligent (sunetôtatos) leader, and the most unhesitating enthusiasm (prothumia aoknotatê). They adduce these factors to support their general argument: “We declare that you have not provided greater advantage (ôphelêsai) to us than you have yourselves encountered.” The material power, cleverness, and aggressive courage of the Athenians are important because they are profitable.

But this sleight of hand between debts of the past and threats for the immediate future distracts our attention from a fundamental omission. De Romilly, for example, found the measured self-praise of the Athenians so compelling and so close to her own taste that she did not realize that Thucydides’ Athenians fundamentally transform their self-eulogy. In Thucydides, the Persian Wars are not relevant because the Athenians showed themselves to be, like the Spartans, masters of complex aristocratic values, which combine both symbolism with martial prowess. The Persian Wars are important because they are past proof of permanent Athenian valor. Sparta should avoid war because previous experience shows that Athens would be a formidable opponent. But by insisting that the war was fought for ôphelia, material advantage, they lay an at best limited claim to “moral superiority.” They do not represent their formidable performance as a heroic or grand gesture.[26]

The Athenian rejection of fair words conforms so closely to the conventions of political realism that it is hard to appreciate how daring their approach is.[27] Thucydides’ Athenians are bold in their restraint. The conventional claims that they do not make speak loudly by their absence. I have already discussed the extreme and perhaps pointed contrast between the Athenian response to Persian overtures for peace (Hdt. 8.143–144)—with its devotion to an idealized Hellas—and the Athenian arguments in the Melian Dialogue, but the contrast with Herodotus’s Athenians is already strong in this, the first Athenian speech in Thucydides. In answering Xerxes, the Athenians speak boldly and without reserve, asserting that they will never make peace with Xerxes and that they will trust in the aid of their gods and heroes (Hdt. 8.143.2). The reply that Herodotus’s Athenians direct to the Spartans contrasts sharply with the words of their grandchildren in Thucydides:

It was most human (anthrôpeion) that the Spartans should fear our making an agreement with the barbarian. We think that it is an ignoble thing to be afraid, especially since we know the Athenian temper to be such that there is nowhere on earth such store of gold or such territory of surpassing fairness and excellence that the gift of it should prevail upon us to take the Persian part and enslave Hellas.

The appeal to what is human anticipates a major theme in the Athenian speech at Sparta, but the Athenian defence at Sparta reverses the main thrust of the Herodotean passage. In Thucydides, the Athenians declare that all actors in the Persian Wars simply pursued ôphelia. In Herodotus, they grandly reject material reward as a motivation. In Thucydides, money—the accumulated silver of the empire—is the Athenian trump card, and even the Spartan king Archidamos stresses its importance. The “Athenian temper” is restlessly acquisitive. In Herodotus, that very Athenian spirit—Athenian phronêma—makes the Athenians dismiss the value of any material reward, be it precious metals or land, when compared with the freedom of Hellas. Herodotus’s Athenians are willing to lay down their lives to the last person in order to defend the shared customs, sanctuaries, and language that define the Greeks as a people (Hdt. 8.144.2–3). Greek culture is treated as a thing—“reified” in the jargon of academia—and this invention is so real that it becomes more important than gold, land, or even human life. For Thucydides’ Athenians, the balance has shifted entirely. The concepts embedded solely in logoi mean nothing when set beside tangible erga. Culture in Thucydides is almost an epiphenomenon: interesting, attractive, but wholly secondary to harsh material considerations.

Thucydides’ Athenians do indeed boast at 1.75.1 of their “energy (prothumia) and the intelligence of [their] planning (gnômês sunesis)” during the Persian Wars, but they carefully justify this value in utilitarian terms. The term prothumia regularly designates eagerness and energy in war,[28] but the combination of prothumia and intelligence does not constitute a bold claim to “moral superiority,” and these Athenians self-consciously abstain from more presumptuous terms. They tie their boasts to tangible phenomena, as if, paradoxically, their greatest fear were ridicule.

Even in Thucydides, of course, all speakers are not indifferent to moral virtue. The Corinthians and Corcyraeans argue about aretê (Thuc. 1.33.2, 37.2, 37.5), the Mytileneans fret about their own perceived lack of aretê (3.10), and the Spartans speak loftily of aretê when they offer peace (4.19.2, 3).[29] In one crucial section of Thucydides, aretê is a dominant motif: Perikles’ Funeral Oration, in its own peculiarly Thucydidean fashion, presents an idealized Athens. The term aretê defines the excellence of those who died for their city—thus those who fell at Marathon were buried on the spot because they exhibited such transcendent aretê (2.34.5). It is quite fair to say that the aretê of the dead is the explicit theme that dominates and shapes Perikles’ remarks. Twelve times in this one speech, Perikles points to aretê[30]—of the total of forty-three instances of this word in Thucydides’ text, more than one-fourth occur in this one brief passage.

The Athenian speech at Sparta belonged to a very different genre than the Funeral Oration at Athens—the first was part of an actual political debate, while the second belonged to a more literary genre of oratory in which abstractions and high-flown rhetoric were expected. Nevertheless, the two passages are, in fact, connected, for it is the Athenians at Sparta who deliver the praise of Athenian valor against the Persians that by convention belongs to the Funeral Oration. Each year, someone was chosen to eulogize Athens’s war dead, and the few surviving examples indicate that such speeches followed a conventional outline.[31] Many scholars have observed that Thucydides’ Funeral Oration leaves out the Persian Wars (a favorite topic of this ritualized speech), because the Athenians had, as it were, already given this part of the funeral oration when they discussed the Persian Wars at Thucydides 1.73–74. Thucydides thus distributes the usual topics into two places and, in a sense, maintains the integrity of the funeral oration by including the Persian Wars at an earlier stage of his text as a whole.

Nevertheless, the Athenians at Sparta are a far cry from the idealizing Perikles of the Funeral Oration, and in putting the Persian Wars in the mouth of the one rather than the other, Thucydides has done more than change speakers. The Persian Wars should be a clarion instance of Athenian aretê, and thus a demonstration that Athens adhered closely to that shifting combination of courage, generosity, and vainglory that we find in such works as Euripides’ suppliant plays. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, the “Just Argument” declares (Nub. 986) that his values had educated the Marathonomachai, “Marathon Fighters,” and these old-fashioned virtues, associated with the earlier Athens, oppose the “Unjust Argument,” whose harsh, amoral arguments come close to the tone of the Athenians at Sparta. In the Knights, the idealized Demos is restored to the genteel condition that he enjoyed in the days of Aristides and Miltiades (Eq. 1325).

In the surviving funeral orations, the rhetoric is consistent, and it is easy to see how even the speakers could find the praise tiresome. The funeral oration of Lysias, to take one example, laboriously used history to prove that Athenians were andres agathoi, “real men, and good ones too” (Lys. 2.8). At Marathon, the Athenians had shown their aretê as they struggled against tens of thousands of Persians “on behalf of all Greece” (2.20). Because they were andres agathoi, they preferred aretê to personal safety and fought at Marathon (2.25). Salamis had demonstrated the aretê of the Athenians when they defended Greek freedom (2.41, 43). Likewise, in Plato’s Menexenus, the Persian Wars are a paradigm of Athenian aretê (Menex. 239d, 240d). The Persians had already enslaved a great part of the Greek world and wished to conquer the rest, but the Athenians valued Greek freedom more than their own lives (240e). Demosthenes passes more quickly over the Persian Wars, but he is careful to praise the Athenians’ aretê, nobility (eugeneia), and defence of freedom (Dem. 60.12). Marathon, above all, is the paradigmatic proof of Athenian heroism.[32]

By contrast, Thucydides’ Athenians not only disdain to posture about Athenian aretê but base no moral claims on the Persian Wars—insofar as they lay claim to justice, they do so in the second half of the speech. In the first speech of the debate (Thuc. 1.69.1), the Corinthians accuse the Spartans of standing by after the Persian Wars while Athens enslaved the Greeks and stripped them of freedom (eleutheria). The Athenians do not rebut this—they do not even refer to their claim to have helped liberate Greece, and no form of the word “freedom” even appears in their speech. In the final segment of the debate, Sthenelaidas builds his case around what agathoi, “good men,” should and should not do (1.86.1, 2, 3). The Athenians have nothing to say about what is or is not agathos. Thucydides’ Athenians dutifully touch upon the basic facts of the case—Marathon and Salamis, the Persian threat and Athenian contribution—but the spirit with which they portray these events could not be farther from that which we find in Herodotus, the funeral orations, or Aristophanes.

Thucydides’ Athenians thus use history first and foremost to advertise their abiding power. The Persian Wars are important only because of what they reveal about Athenian character, but Athenian character is important only because it explains Athenian strength, and this Athenian strength should deter Spartan action:[33] the Athenians still have the largest navy, and even the Corinthians, their bitterest enemies, have marveled at Athenian energy (e.g., Thuc. 1.70). If Athens had Themistokles in the past, it had Perikles at the start of the war (and, in case this similarity was not obvious, Perikles’ first speech in Thucydides is preceded by the story of Themistokles). Athenian valor remains central but becomes a means rather than an end. Even as they turn to the old, ostensibly tired example of the Persian Wars, the Athenians put their past successes in a very different light than we might expect.

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