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Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
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The Anger of Corinth

Corcyra founded Epidamnus but, following custom, chose a “founder” (oikistês) from its own metropolis, Corinth. Civil war broke out in the 430s, and the common people drove out the “powerful” (dunatoi), but the dunatoi, together with the local non-Greek inhabitants, “raided those still in the polis by land and by sea.” Hard pressed, the people of Epidamnus appealed to Corcyra for aid, but to no avail (Thuc. 1.24.7). The Corcyraeans remained inactive until formally approached by the other faction, the dunatoi (1.26.3), who had been driven out of Epidamnus, and whose side the Corcyraeans eventually took.[14]

Meanwhile, the popular faction in Epidamnus, now desperate, sought aid from Corinth and had, after receiving approval from the Delphic oracle, handed over to them their colony. The Corinthians jumped at the offer (Thuc. 1.25.3), both because they thought it just (dikaion) to do so and because they hated the Corcyraeans (misei tôn Kerkuraiôn). Thucydides is explicit about why the Corinthians felt this way: the Corcyraeans “negelected them, even though they were [Corinthian] colonists.” They demonstrated their irreverence in two highly charged religious contexts, the great Panhellenic festivals and local sacrifice at Corcyra.[15]

First, in the common festival gatherings of the Greeks (Thuc. 1.25.4) the Corcyraeans did not confer upon Corinth the settled privileges (gera) to which custom entitled them. Sacrifice consisted in the slaughter and preparation of an animal, and the precise cut of meat that one received was a visible token of one’s prestige. In a public context such as a Panhellenic festival, the cuts of meat offered at a Corcyraean sacrifice exerted, like many outwardly minor aspects of diplomatic protocol, enormous symbolic power.

The second slight concerns religious activity at Corcyra itself. The Corcyraeans would not, like other colonists, serve as “sacrificial sponsors” (prokatarchomenoi tôn hierôn) for Corinthians (Thuc. 1.25.4). The right to sacrifice in a polis was normally restricted to citizens, and outsiders in a state such as Corcyra had no right to perform such rituals.[16] The Corcyraeans thus denied to Corinthians the privileged access to ritual activity that they customarily enjoyed in their other colonies.[17] Though local sacrifice did not occupy the public stage that the Panhellenic festival did, it was also highly charged, for the privilege to sacrifice in another polis was jealously guarded. Overall, the Corcyraeans flatly “looked down upon” (periphronountes) their founding city, not only because they had become enormously wealthy but also because they had occupied (and thus appropriated to themselves the prestige of) the land traditionally identified with the Homeric Phaeacians (1.25.4).

Most scholars analyzing the relationship between Corinth and Corcyra have either belittled or even refused to accept this feud and its intensity. R. Sealey comments that “the traditional friction between Corinth and Corcyra had been a small matter; unlike other colonies, Corcyra did not grant perquisites to Corinthians at festivals.” [18] Gomme (on Thuc. 1.25.3) thinks it curious that “Thucydides, who in his Introduction is careful to stress political and economic motives, should here mention only sentimental ones. One naturally suspects an economic motive, such as rivalry in the Adriatic trade.” De Romilly deprecatingly remarks that “in one form or another the satisfactions of vanity are equally important for anybody,” but then goes on to say: “Naturally one cannot too often repeat the fact that these motives complete the idea of material benefit but in no way exclude it.” [19] She assumes that material benefit is there somewhere, always lurking, a given, while vanity may or may not be present. Kagan observes that the Corcyraeans had become “puffed up” and “intolerable to the Corinthians. The irrationality of this motive has set off the hunt for better ones.” [20] Kagan disagrees with the suggestion of purely economic motives but evidently accepts the analysis of Corinthian hatred as something odd and deserving some better explanation. Ste. Croix does not deny the validity of this resentment over colonial prerogatives, but he sees this as pejorative: “Already we find an unpleasant motive attributed to the Corinthians; and their resentment against Corcyra and desire to humble her play a large part in what follows.” [21] Likewise, Salmon accepts the credibility of the explanation that Thucydides gives for Corinth’s feelings, but he goes on to belittle the importance of this motive: “Any sober consideration of the issues would have shown that the risk was not worth taking.” [22] The stakes in Corinth’s quarrel with Corcyra simply did not justify the risks inherent in war with Athens.

Modern scholars have good reason to express such puzzlement, for Thucydides himself, more than any author of his time, ruthlessly penetrates beyond the sentimental and the emotional to harsh and compelling forces that may seem more elementary. Recent critics have emphasized the intensely emotional aspect of the History.[23] One reason the text is so powerful is that it illustrates instances in which ambition, blind desire, and, above all, fear drive human beings and subvert established values.[24] In the following two books, Thucydides presents the plague at Athens and the ultimate stasis in Corcyra as case studies in the fragility of human social and affective bonds. He has, already in the Archaeology, sketched a cold and almost mechanistic model of human nature. Heroes such as Odysseus[25] were mere pirates who preyed on unprotected cities “for the sake of their own profit (kerdos) and for the sustenance of the weak” (Thuc. 1.5.1). With oblique and cutting force, Thucydides undermines the proud ideology of such predatory heroes, who do not even know enough to be ashamed when asked if they are pirates and who resemble the most backward members of the modern (i.e., fifth-century) Greek world. The desire for profit laid the material foundations for hierarchical social structures, “for, in striving after profits (kerdê) the weak endured slavery to the strong, and the more powerful, having surpluses of wealth (periousiai), attached the lesser cities to themselves as subjects” (1.8.3). Thucydides mentions “honorable” motives only to dismiss them (1.9.3): Agamemnon, for example, assembled the expedition against Troy “because with his navy he had far more strength (ischusas) than the others,” and brought his forces together “less by the use of gratitude (charis) than the application of fear (phobos).” The History begins immediately to exhibit the increased harshness of society that Thucydides exhibits most bluntly in his analysis of stasis at Corcyra: “That good nature, of which nobility has the greatest share, was laughed down and annihilated” (3.83.1). Thucydides’ History is a polemical document that cuts through the conventional wisdoms and beliefs of his time. Its secularism and its model of a cold, calculating, and interested humanity are deceptively familiar. The modern reader can never recover the extent to which the History must have shocked and disturbed its original audience.

Thucydides’ penetrating analysis of human motivation brings with it, of course, problems of its own. Human society may degenerate as it does in plague-ridden Athens and in the murderous gang-warfare of Corcyra, but fear, hatred, and moral exhaustion do not wholly motivate all human behavior. Thucydides, in emphasizing the hard forces that underlie “the fair appearances” (to euprepes), applies a reductive method that can obscure as much as it reveals. The History relentlessly discredits the sentimental and probes beneath the self-serving surfaces of events, but the text was polemical, and it needed to strike hard at social pretensions if it was to make its point. Spartan moral prestige, for example, exerted real influence on those inside and outside of the Peloponnesian League, and the current force of that prestige determined how many poleis sent how many men to challenge Athenian power. Thucydides constantly undercuts the persona that Sparta has constructed for itself, brutally juxtaposing rhetorical postures and his own analyses.[26]

The Corinthians embody many of those qualities and draw strength from those cultural patterns, which the Peloponnesian War devalued. The marks of prestige that its colonies conferred on Corinth were not empty symbols. When a Corinthian citizen came forward to begin a sacrifice, or when Corinthians received public tokens of respect before the rest of the Greek world in Panhellenic gatherings, these were not vacuous gestures, useful only insofar as they led to preferential treatment in trade or help in times of war (though both of these objectives were doubtless important). The symbolic performance of rank was an end in itself, and the accumulation of wealth and allies can properly be seen as a means to attain such public signs of prestige. Material and symbolic power are symbiotic and reinforce each other.

The relationship between the great tyrants of Sicily and mainland Greece reveals clearly enough the complex relationship between material power and intangible prestige. On the one hand, the massive temples built in Sicily and Magna Graecia were a clear attempt to convert the wealth of these states into a form that would command admiration and respect. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, visited the temples of Sicily and Magna Graecia while planning to rebuild Berlin on an enormous and unprecedented scale. He remarked later, in his memoirs, that he knew precisely what the western Greek architects had wanted to accomplish. Herodotus describes how the mainland Greeks, faced with Xerxes’ invasion, sought assistance from Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse and probably the single most powerful man in the entire Greek world (Hdt. 7.153–163). In Herodotus’s account, Gelon offers a staggering level of support (7.158), but only on condition that he be granted the overall command of the Greek forces. Rebuffed by the Spartan delegate, he declares that he will accept command of either the land or the sea forces. At this point, however, the Athenian delegate, fearing that the Spartans would hand over command of the sea, intervenes and expresses his indignation at the idea.

The assumptions that underlie this exchange are important and deserve emphasis. Both the Spartans and the Athenians, in Herodotus’s account at any rate, feel that their lineage and history entitle them to precedence over Syracuse or any such “derivative” Greek state. Even defeat at the hands of the Persians and subjugation to a foreign empire are preferable to such an immediate loss of prestige within the Greek world. The identity of the general was of great practical importance and could, of course, decide the war (even at Athens, the generalships were among the few offices not chosen by lot), but the argument as presented in Herodotus turns wholly on issues of prestige. Whatever our feelings as to the historicity of this episode, the story makes sense only if it at most exaggerates the kinds of values according to which Greeks guided their behavior.

Both the architectural program and Gelon’s request for the generalship reflect a phenomenon that anthropologists term “spheres of exchange.” [27] In most societies, value alone does not determine whether or not an exchange is appropriate. A bouquet of flowers would be an appropriate gift for someone recovering in a hospital, but an envelope containing an amount of cash equivalent to the cost of a bouquet would be, at best, out of place. Such spheres of exchange are often organized in a hierarchical manner: in one society analyzed in these terms, subsistence items, prestige objects, and personal loyalties each occupy separate “spheres.” Foodstuffs and subsistence items may be exchanged, but no amount of food may equal the value of a prestige object such as a weapon or family heirloom. At the same time, no combination of prestige objects may, in theory, purchase the loyalties that bind established clients to their patron. In offering to exchange massive help against the Persians for leadership of all or part of the enterprise, Gelon seeks to violate established spheres of exchange, using his material wealth to acquire a prestige that is, technically at least, not for sale. Hence the Spartans and Athenians do not merely reject his offer; they do so with a great show of indignation and without regard to the consequences. Had they accepted Gelon’s offer, they would have subverted the relative hierarchy of the Greek world and thus, in their own eyes, have lost more status than if they were subjugated to an external power.

At the same time, however, even those on the “margins” of the Greek world whose prestige may be lower than their material power would suggest manipulate the existing value system to legitimate and establish themselves. Pindar’s Olympian 6 celebrates the victory of Hagesias from Syracuse in the mule chariot race at Olympia and emphasizes the victor’s illustrious family connections in the Peloponnese. The text explores in detail the birth of Iamos, an ancestor of Hagesias and the founder of the Iamid clan, and documents the fact that Hagesias is also associated by birth with Stymphalus in Arkadia. Pythian 1 praises Hieron, successor to Gelon as tyrant at Syracuse, and it pushes to the fore the ancient connection between the city of Aetna, which Hieron has just founded, with Lakonia. The Greeks at Aetna are still the successors to the Heraclidae, and Pindar proudly links them to their emphatically Dorian ancestors (Pyth. 1.62–66). Even in praising the Rhodian Diagoras, one of the greatest athletes of his time, the poet formally establishes that Tlepolemus, founder of Rhodes, was originally from Tiryns (Ol. 7.20ff.). When the powerful men of Syracuse, Acragas, or any Greek state competed in the Panhellenic games and, in particular, commissioned a victory ode from a famous poet such as Simonides, Pindar, or Bacchylides, they expended enormous amounts of wealth and energy to increase their prestige in the Greek world as a whole, and they expected to use their pedigrees in the Greek mainland to the best possible advantage.

Returning now to Thucydides, the bitterness of Corinth should be seen not against the hard and brutal events that follow in the History, but against the rough-and-tumble world in which hundreds of city-states competed for respect and honor, and in which no one state could predominate too much—no one state, in any event, until Athens began to perfect its archê as a self-perpetuating engine. Corcyra’s contempt for Corinth may or may not have affected the volume of trade with western markets or similar interests—Thucydides simply does not see fit to inform us on this point. Corcyra’s contempt for Corinth does, however, strike at the heart of Corinth’s standing and self-image as an ancient and consequently central Greek state. Corcyra threatens the basic ideology by which Corinthians defined themselves, and the Corinthians, doubtless terrified at the long-term consequences, naturally lavished hatred on their wayward colony.

Thucydides clearly, if succinctly, explains the twofold strategy by which Corcyra challenges the moral hegemony of Corinth. First, Corcyra is rich, and its wealth translates into a powerful fleet:

Since they were at that time with respect to the power (dunamis) of wealth (chrêmata) on an equal footing with the richest of the Greeks and as far as military resources (paraskeuê) are concerned still more powerful (dunatôteroi), and when their navy was considered, they were even more outstanding.

As with Gelon of Syracuse, the material power of Corcyra was out of proportion to its position in the social hierarchy (at least, in the hierarchy as the Corinthians saw it).

The second reason adduced for Corcyraean pride is perhaps even more intriguing:

At times, they were puffed up (epairomenoi) because the Phaeacians had previously inhabited Corcyra and had enjoyed fame (kleos) for their naval position—and for this reason they lavished even more attention on their navy and were by no means lacking in power (adunatoi). Indeed, they possessed 120 triremes when they began this war.

The Corcyraeans are “carried away” (epairomenoi: a negative word that suggests lack of emotional balance or control)[28] because the Phaeacians—characters from the Homeric Odyssey—had supposedly inhabited Corcyra before them. The mythical tale of Phaeacia exerted, according to Thucydides, a tangible influence on the self-image that the Corcyraeans had of themselves, and this self-image intensified their interest in building a navy. The modern scholar may skip this portion of Thucydides in search of more important phenomena, but Thucydides, by and large a reductive and materialistic analyst of power, presents the Corcyraean ideology as a patent force.

For the Corinthians, the association with Phaeacia was a clear and doubtless polemical threat, since, in appropriating the mythical Phaeacians, the Corcyraeans had created for themselves a new pedigree, as venerable as that offered by Corinth. The appropriation of Phaeacia gave the Corcyraeans the symbolic weaponry with which to deflect the kinds of attacks leveled against Gelon by the Spartans (Hdt. 7.159) and the Athenians (7.161.3).

Thucydides’ fairly brief account provides a revealing picture of how an established power such as Corinth operated within the Greek world. When the Corinthians assemble a convoy to Epidamnus, Thucydides names ten states that come to its aid, offering everything from money (the Thebans and Phliasians) to matériel (hulls from the Eleans) to fully manned ships (ten from Leucas, eight each from Megara and Ambracia, five from Epidaurus, four from Pale in Cephallonia, two from Troezen, and one from Hermione). We know of no formal treaty that commanded this assistance. While we may look for some economic or mercantile motive for the participating states,[29] there is no reason, when interpreting Thucydides’ view, to look beyond the system of “good services” (euergesia) and “pleasure/gratitude” (charis), which dominates Thucydides’ account of the Corcyraean and Corinthian debate at Athens. The Corinthians are masters of traditional Greek diplomacy, and they present the network of colonial ties as the centerpiece of their standing.

The Corinthians make no bones about their relationship with their apoikiai:[30] they supported these colonies precisely because they expected to be their hêgemones (Thuc. 1.38.2) and to receive the respect that they deserved (ta eikota thaumazesthai). At the same time, however, it would be incorrect to reduce Corinth’s idealized relationship between colony and metropolis to one of simple power and subjugation. The Corinthians go on to claim that the proof of their worth is not mere obedience but the affection that their colonies pay them: “The rest of our colonies (apoikiai), anyway, confer honor (timê) upon us, and we are loved (stergometha) most of all by our colonists (apoikoi)” (1.38.3). This is the only place in Thucydides where the emphatic verb stergô appears, and it is one of the very few passages in which Thucydides adduces affection as a real and potent force in the world. Such a “distinctive moral quality of reciprocal obligation and affections characterizes…relationships of inequality” in other societies as well.[31] The relationship between metropolis and apoikia is, to use a contemporary phrase, a “total social fact”: it is not legal, religious, or emotional but unites all these aspects. Or, to use another term, economic or political exchanges are, for the Corinthians, not separate and self-contained, but embedded in a larger social context. The debate between Corcyra and Corinth and the subsequent actions of the Athenians allow us to document this attitude.

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