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Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
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The Speeches of the Corcyraeans and Corinthians

The scholiast on Thucydides 1.32 summarizes the debate between the Corcyraeans and Corinthians succinctly: “The speech of the Corcyraeans places greater emphasis upon expediency (to sumpheron) than on what is just (to dikaion), that of the Corinthians justice more than expediency.” Eduard Schwartz opens his own discussion of these speeches with a virtual paraphrase of the scholiast but goes on to say that while one quality or the other dominates the two speeches, each side makes its own claims to to sumpheron and to dikaion.[32] Certainly, just a survey of the terms that each side employs supports this view. The Corcyraeans open their speech by stating generally that those seeking a new alliance must, above all, demonstrate that they are seeking things that will be of advantage (32.1: hôs kai sumphora deontai), and they consciously refer to this theme again three times (35.5, 36.1, 36.2). Indeed, to sumpheron seems for them to be not merely a rhetorical device to persuade the Athenians, but a basic category by which they measure their own actions, for they regret their neutrality as “inexpedient (32.3: asumphoron) at the present.” Their presentation begins and ends with the material advantages an alliance with Corcyra would confer upon Athens.

On the other hand, the idea of dikê, “justice,” both as moral category and as juridical process, permeates the harsh Corinthian speech. The Corinthians snidely remark on the negative way in which the Corcyraeans portrayed them (Thuc. 1.37.1) and thus justify their counterattack. Although eighteen words containing the stem dik-, indicating “just,” appear in the Corinthian speech, only two are in any sense positive. The Corinthians warn the Athenians that they would be “just” (dikaioi) if they remained neutral in the quarrel with Corcyra (40.4), and they urge the Athenians not to accept their arguments as “just” (dikaia) while following instead what is “expedient” (sumphora) (42.1). Otherwise, they focus on injustice: the Corcyraeans, the Corinthians allege, have no allies because they want no witnesses to their “injustices,” adikêmata (37.2), and twice they warn the Athenians not to become accomplices to Corcyraean injustice (sunadikein, 37.4, 39.3). The simplex verb adikeô, “to act unjustly,” appears seven times (37.1, 37.4, 38.4, 39.3, 42.2, 42.4, 43.4). Although the Corinthians once cite the “things that were owed them according to justice” (41.1: dikaiômata), they refer to the Corcyraean offer for mediation (39.1: dikê, “justice” as a legal proceeding) only to scorn the Corcyraeans for cynically pursuing “the fair appearance of justice” (39.2: to euprepes tês dikês). In vilifying Corcyraean behavior at home, they sarcastically refer to the way in which the Corcyraeans prefer to be “judges over those whom they harm” rather than to decide matters according to “settled agreements” (37.3). The Corinthians thus constantly appeal to justice but use this concept in all its aspects as a stick with which to pummel their adversaries.

Both sides situate their arguments in the framework chosen by their adversaries. Anticipating what the Corinthians will say,[33] the Corcyraeans open their speech with the word dikaion, “it is just,” and introduce one of the debate’s few references to what people should do (rather than what they should not do). The Athenians should support them because they “suffer injustice (adikomenous) and do not harm others” (Thuc. 1.33.1). Corcyra is a colony “alienated” (34.1: allotrioutai) from its metropolis because it has suffered injustice (adikoumenê). “Thus it is clear that the Corinthians were acting unjustly” (34.2: edikoun), and it is outrageous that they should regard it as “an injustice” (35.3: adikêma) for the Athenians to side with Corcyra. It is certainly “just” (34.1: dikaion) for Athens to accept a Corinthian colony as an ally, and it is not “just” (35.4: dikaion) for Athens to stand by while Corcyra is attacked. For their part, the Corinthians, as they begin to wind down their own speech, urge the Athenians not to accept those “expedient things” (42.1: sumphora) offered by Corcyra, but to adhere to the “just things” (dikaia) offered by the Corinthians, since in the long run “what is expedient” (42.2: to sumpheron) and just behavior are identical.

Scholars are divided as to whether the Corinthians, like the Athenians (Thuc. 1.44.2), accept the premise of the Corcyraean argument (36.1), that war with Sparta is inevitable and that Athens must keep Corcyra out of the Peloponnesian camp,[34] but most discussions of this debate and of Thucydidean debates in general assume that “in both cases, the argument turns on personal advantage clothed in the terms of justice” and that beneath all three cases are “entirely material ends.” [35] One historian, speaking generally, concludes that “Thucydides has a claim to both originality of thought and permanency of value in his unswerving insistence, for purposes of historical interpretation, on the amorality of interstate relations.” [36] By contrast, the “postmodernist” outlook on Thucydides stresses his emotional connection to the events that he relates. But in this view of Thucydides, the amoral events in the History often provide the dark background against which Thucydides’ emotional and principled attitudes stand out.

Expediency and advantage do, of course, play a decisive role in both speeches, but the two sides portray advantage in very different terms, and we lose much that is substantial if we immediately reduce them both to their material foundations. The Corcyraeans and Corinthians are engaged in a public, theatrical contest with deep roots in Greek thought and complex rules that all the players are expected to understand. To the speakers in the debate, expediency and justice frame their arguments, but the drama of this historical event turns, as we will see, on another term, which runs throughout both speeches: these brief speeches contain a full 17 of the 110 instances of the verb dechomai, “to receive,” in Thucydides, with 8 occurrences in the Corcyraean speech and 9 in the somewhat longer Corinthian response.

Reciprocity and Status

The rhetoric that the Corcyraeans and Corinthians employ in their speeches is that of xenia, “ritualized friendship.” It should not surprise us that Greeks depict an alliance between poleis, a summachia, in much the same way as an alliance between individual citizens or families of different poleis. Gabriel Herman, for example, has recently shown that the term proxenos is modeled on xenos, and that proxenoi are, in a sense, xenoi of a polis.[37] An inscription describing the alliance between Athens and Egesta, tentatively dated to 458/7, mentions that official representatives from that state are to be offered xenia, presumably at the prutaneion;[38] the representatives of Egesta thus became, in effect, xenoi of the Athenian demos as a whole. As Virginia Hunter has noted, Thucydides in particular tends to treat aggregate groups of people as if they were individuals, and thus projects individual psychology onto what we would now call sociology.[39] As poleis became more developed and their relations more complex, Greeks naturally turned to the ideas and structures governing institutions such as xenia when they explored the rights and responsibilities inherent in summachia.

The Corcyraeans seek to establish a new relationship with the Athenians while the Corinthians seek to capitalize on their existing relationship with Athens. The offer of a summachia is a classic example of a gift exchange as described by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and particularly Marcel Mauss in his influential book The Gift.[40] Briefly put, Mauss argues that there is no such thing as a free gift, and that any gift from one individual to another establishes an expectation of something sometime in return. Mary Douglas, in her discussion of The Gift, observes that “though we laud charity as a Christian virtue, we know that it wounds,” and states that by working for a charitable foundation she learned “that the recipient does not like the giver, no matter how cheerful he may be.” [41] A gift offered without expectation of return in any form or at any time is an assertion of power and in many societies degrades the recipient. The “free gift” as assertion of power appears quite clearly in the Funeral Oration, where Perikles proclaims: “As far as virtue (aretê) is concerned, we are distinct from the multitude: for we acquire friends not by having good things done for us, but by doing good things” (Thuc. 2.40.4). The greatness of Athens allows it to indulge its generosity freely and to win friends by its actions. Perikles immediately proceeds, however, to undercut his own statement, as if to support the thesis of Mauss (and Douglas): “The one who performed charis [an act that demands gratitude] is more reliable so that he can preserve this charis that is owed him (opheilomenê) through the goodwill (eunoia) of the one to whom he gave it; the person who owes this debt in return (antopheilôn) is slower to repay this virtue (aretê), since he knows that he is contributing not to charis [an act that demands gratitude] but to the payment of a debt.” Athenian aid, generously given, is an assertion of power and superiority, and the recipient accepts a subordinate position in prestige.[42]

Both the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians are as concerned about status as they are about material power. The Corcyraeans open their offer by attempting to define their position as that of an equal partner. They represent themselves as something more than the helpless suppliants of Attic tragedy, who beg and flatter the Athenian demos. They come as a state proudly offering as much as it requests. Few, they declare, come in search of an alliance offering to give no less than they seek in return (Thuc. 1.33.2). The fact that they are not in absolute terms equal to the Athenians is not important: they argue, in effect, that they hold a balance of power on the seas, and their strength will determine whether the Athenians can maintain the maritime power on which they depend (36.3).

If the Corcyraeans attempt to define their relationship with Athens as one of equality, they may be overstating their case, but their attitude is consistent. Status is at the root of the Corcyraean quarrel with Corinth. The duties they refuse to fulfill with regard to their metropolis are materially small—these obligations surely cannot compare with the tribute that Athens levied from its allies or even with the inconvenience, danger, and expense of serving with Athens as allies—but as symbols of subordination they were intolerable. The Corcyraeans draw their proposed position in harsh terms: colonists “are sent out on the condition that they be not slaves (douloi) but equals (homoioi) to those left behind” (Thuc. 1.34.1). In their eyes, such subordination is morally unacceptable: “Every colony (apoikia) that is treated well confers honor (timê) upon its metropolis but becomes alienated if it suffers injustice (adikoumenê).” The Corcyraeans emphasize reciprocity: the respect that a colony confers on its metropolis balances the respect that the colony itself receives. The Corinthians, for their part, defend their status vis-à-vis their colonies. They sponsored the colony at Corcyra precisely because they expected to receive tokens of their superior position: “We ourselves would not say that we founded it so that we could be abused by these men, but so that we could be the leaders (hêgemones) and receive such admiration (thaumazesthai) as is appropriate” (38.2). In founding (kaitoikisai) the colony, they earned for themselves, as we saw above, a permanent and inalienable right to be hêgemones and to receive the kind of respect that was their due.

The ethics and expectations of hierarchical status, particularly when such status is interlinked with an ideology that stresses freedom and self-sufficiency, are complex; their function in Thucydides deserves a separate study. Nevertheless, we can note in passing that one argument presented by the Corinthians is typical of other strongly hierarchical societies. The Corinthians assert that even if they had wronged the Corcyraeans, the Corcyraeans should have accepted this treatment: “If we were in error (hêmartanomen), it would be honorable (kalon) of them to give way to our wishes and shameful (aischron) for us to trample on their moderation (metriotês)” (Thuc. 1.38.5). The proper course (kalon) for subordinates is to yield (eikô), thereby employing their restraint (metriotês) as a weapon to heap shame upon the dominant. Other passages in Thucydides similarly describe the moral virtue of the strong not exploiting their advantage to the full. Later in book 1 the Athenians claim credit because they exercise restraint in their dealings with their subjects;[43] during the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians outline the basic system: “It is certain that those who do not yield (eikô) to their equals, who deal nobly (kalôs) with their superiors and are moderate (metrioi) toward their inferiors, on the whole, succeed best” (5.111.4). Although our fifth-century sources largely reflect the attitudes of Athens or other great states, most of the 700 odd, for the most part small poleis known from this period surely identified themselves by who was above, equal to, and below them in the complex bonds that linked states together.

The Corinthian appeal at Thucydides 1.38.5 is perfectly reasonable, and Pierre Bourdieu, in fact, documents precisely this phenomenon in his analysis of Kabyle society: “The man who finds himself in a strong position must refrain from pushing his advantage too far, and should temper his accusation with a certain moderation, so as to let his adversary put himself to shame.…His opponent, for his part, can always try to turn the tables by leading him on to overstep public limits.” Where the offender is clearly stronger, “the offended party is not required to triumph over the offender in order to be rehabilitated in the eyes of public opinion: the defeated man who has done his duty incurs no blame. The offended party is even able to throw back ‘extreme humiliation publicly inflicted’ on his offender without resorting to a riposte. He only has to adopt an attitude of humility which, by emphasizing his weakness, highlights the arbitrary and immoderate character of the offense.” [44] Such a course is precisely what the Corcyraeans seek to avoid, since in their eyes the underlying issue is their status relative to the Corinthians. To adopt the moral position of the weaker party would be to lose the whole game.

The language of reciprocal exchange runs throughout both speeches. The Corcyraeans try to portray their offer as a rare windfall within this system: Corcyra is “giving itself without risks (Thuc. 1.33.2: kindunoi) and expenditure (dapanê).” They offer, as we saw above, as much as they seek (33.2). Corcyra and Athens should act “with us, the Corcyraeans, giving and you, the Athenians, receiving” (33.3). The Corcyreans should prove their good character in reciprocal dealings with others, “giving and receiving things that are just (ta dikaia)” (37.5). They draw on a rich vocabulary for evaluating such relationships at 39.3 (as indicated by italics):

But it was when they stood firmest that they should have made overtures to you, and not at a time when we have been wronged, and they are in peril, nor yet at a time when you, who never took a portion of (metalabontes) their power then, will now give a portion of (metadôsete) present advantage, but, having had no part of (apogenomenoi) of their misdeeds, you will have an equal share (to ison hexete) of the blame. They should have shared (koinôsantas) their power with you before they asked you to share (koina… echein) their fortunes.

The Corinthians sketch an elaborate program of costs and benefits that they apply to an alliance such as that offered by the Corcyraeans. The Corcyraeans have themselves made such a critique possible: had they come, like the exiles from Epidamnus who begged their own aid at Thucydides 1.26.3, as simple suppliants, the above argument would not hold. The Corcyraeans, however, disdain such abject pleas and frame their request as if they did not have to pay for Athenian help by yielding some of their own carefully hoarded status. (The Athenians, it should be noted, are not fooled: they give the Corcyraeans only an epimachia, a defensive alliance and one far less valuable than the summachia, but the Corcyraeans serve them as clients thereafter.)

Discrediting the Corcyraeans

Reciprocity, in both a positive and a negative sense, is the cornerstone of the Corinthian argument. Their attack on the Corcyraeans has struck many readers as odd. The Corcyraeans had appealed to traditional elite values in defending their lack of political alliances. They describe their previous policy as now “that which seemed before to be our self-restraint (sôphrosunê)” (Thuc. 1.32.4)—an attempt at virtue. They deserve sympathy: “It warrants forgiveness if we make bold a policy opposed to a previous political inactivity (apragmosunê) that resulted not from moral turpitude (kakia), but rather from an error (hamartia) of judgment (doxa)” (32.5). They had previously acted not through moral turpitude (kakia) but through a miscalculation. Only now do they turn their backs on their previous apragmosunê, and in choosing this loaded term they appropriate yet another conservative value to legitimate their position.[45] The Corinthians move quickly to discredit this image of the “genteel” (apragmôn) Corcyraeans. Corcyra’s position on the edge of the mainland Greek world made its inhabitants unusually self-sufficient (37.3), and outsiders had to visit Corcyra while Corcyraeans could remain at home. The Corcyraeans could thus pass judgment on others without having to undergo the same process. If the Corcyraeans had refused all offers of alliance, they did not do so “on account of their self-restraint” (37.2: dia to sôphron). Rather, they had “cultivated this habit” (37.3: epetêdeusan) so that they might perpetuate base deeds (kakourgia), and not because of any moral virtue (aretê). They preferred isolation because they were ashamed (aischunesthai) to have witnesses of their crimes.

Neither the Corcyraeans nor the Corinthians adduce any ongoing bilateral relationships between Corcyra and the rest of the Greek world. According to the argument that the Corinthians construct, this at most discredits the Corcyraeans, or, perhaps more accurately, it provides them with no credit by which they can withstand the insinuations against them. A bit later, the Corinthians present the following reason for Athens to support them. The Athenians are “bound by a treaty” (enspondoi) with the Corinthians (Thuc. 1.40.4), but they have not even arranged a “suspension of hostilities” (anokôchê) with the Corcyraeans. Gomme, commenting ad loc., remarks that this is “an illogical point,” but the argument is serious and revealing. The Corinthians imply not only that it would be better to be enspondoi than to be subject to a mere suspension of hostilities, but that a state with whom one has gone to war in the past (and with whom one has shared the ritual of butchering one another’s citizens) is more trustworthy and deserving of support than a state with whom one has had no relations. The absence of bilateral exchanges of any kind, even hostility, means that a state cannot be trusted.

This attitude underlies another theme that appears in the two speeches: actions must be open and public to have their full effect. The Corcyraeans promise that if they only accept the power that the Corcyraean alliance offers, this dunamis will, among other things, “contribute to [Athenian] aretê in the eyes of the world” (Thuc. 1.33.2). Athenian help consists of more than men and ships: the public act of support has its own value. The Corcyraeans thus urge the Athenians “to accept and aid them publicly ”(35.4) so that Corinth and its potential allies will know what they are facing. Whether the Athenians are fearful or courageous is less important than the impression that Athenian power will have upon their adversaries. The surfaces of things, whether they are deceptive or not, have real impact. Thucydides constantly wrestles with the contrast between appearance and reality. While he can dismiss the physical show of an Athens (1.10.2), his Corinthians bitterly accuse the Corcyraeans of cynically appropriating first “the fair appearance (to euprepres) of nonalignment” (37.4) and then a few lines later “the fair appearance (to euprepes) of justice (dikê)” (39.1). The self-serving moral veneer is a weapon that speakers throughout the text of Thucydides fear.[46] Moral values matter primarily when they are on display, and hidden qualities are adduced primarily to discredit the surface.

The Corinthians bring this attitude to bear during their attack on Corcyra. They declare that the power of Corcyra’s natural position places a strong moral burden on it:

And yet if they were the good (agathoi) men they pretend to be, the less hold that others had upon them, the stronger would be the light in which they might have put their honesty by giving and receiving what was just (ta dikaia).

They thus link three themes. First, poleis are to be regarded as dishonorable and untrustworthy unless proven otherwise. Second, exchanges between parties are an index of the reliability and moral worth of the participants. Third, these exchanges must be conducted in full view for the public inspection of the Greek world.

The Corinthian attitude is an important one. Individuals (and poleis when they are described in terms applicable to individuals) are not autonomous entities, with a worth inherent in themselves. They are social beings whose character is, in a sense, only the sum total of all dealings that they have ever had with others. Inner feelings, where they count at all, can be a sign of duplicity and bad faith. This conception of the self finds parallels in other societies and is at least as common as the Western view of the disembodied individual as atom and building block of society.[47] The Corcyraeans have no allies because they do not want to be ashamed (Thuc. 1.37.2: aischunesthai). Thucydides, of course, is particularly sensitive to the gap between external appearance and inner feelings (see, for example, his ruthless analyses of Spartan actions). Yet even as Greek poets fret over who is and is not a true friend, the issue primarily boils down to the question of who can and cannot be trusted to stand by their friends or do something in a time of need.

The Corinthian attack is odd. They not only deny that the Corcyraeans had anything to do with sôphrosunê, but they attribute their base behavior in part to autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, and, although they do not use the word itself, they attack the Corcyraeans for their apragmosunê. Their criticism is more than standard rhetorical opportunism, in which the speaker picks and chooses which qualities deserve praise at any given time according to the needs of the moment. Apragmosunê is not absolute, but relative. Elites do not pride themselves on having nothing to do with anything or anyone, but with anything or anyone outside of their own sphere, and an admired agathos should maintain relationships with philoi at home and many xenoi scattered throughout the Greek world. Apragmosunê is an ideological weapon to discourage members of established elites from consorting with those outside their proper sphere and from thus implicitly legitimating those who seek to join the chosen few.

Establishing Credibility

Social credibility is the foundation on which the Corcyraean offer rests, for if the Athenians do not trust them in the future, they will have no motive to advance them the help that they need now. The Corcyraeans offer the Athenians charis, a store of gratitude that can, on need, be converted to active use. As with the ties that bind xenoi, the Corcyraeans seek an euergesia (Thuc. 1.32.1), and on this basis the Athenians will obtain lasting charis (charis bebaios.) The Corcyraeans are confident that they can provide the Athenians with “securities” for this gratitude (32.2). The Athenians for their part stand to receive a rare eupraxia (33.2) for which they would themselves have exchanged “considerable wealth and charis.” In case the Athenians did not quite grasp the earlier point, the Corcyraeans quickly assert that the Athenians will, if they come to the rescue in this hour of need, “deposit for themselves a store of charis for which they can always claim witnesses” (33.1). The Corcyraeans and Athenians share the same enemies, and this is “the most obvious guarantee of good faith” (35.5). Athenian interests suggest that they should either maintain a monopoly on sea power or, if necessary, make sure “to have as their friend (philos) this one who is most trustworthy” (35.3). By contrast, the Athenians would bitterly regret showing charis (34.3: charizesthai) to their enemies.

Both the manner and the rhetoric of the debate are largely traditional.[48] The Theognidean corpus, for example, exhibits a fascination with the bona fides of hetairoi, “companions.” Do not, we are told, associate with the “ignoble” (kakoi), but cling fast to the “noble” (agathoi) (Theog. 31–32). Keep to yourself affairs of any importance (73–74), since few have a “mind that can be trusted” (pistos noos). Trust few people when you begin an enterprise if you wish to avoid irreparable harm (75–76). A “man worthy of trust” (pistos anêr) is worth his weight in gold (77–78). You will find few “companions worthy of trust” (pistoi hetairoi) who will dare (80) in “difficult matters” (chalepa pragmata) to have a “heart that shares your feelings” (81: homophrôn thumos) and “to share equally” (82: isonmetechein) the good and the bad.

The phrase “symbolic capital,” made famous by Bourdieu,[49] aptly describes the intangible but essential power that one’s personal reputation exerts, as the noun axiôsis describes this kind of dynamic and effective moral standing. Despite (or more likely because of) his tough and unflinching view of human nature, Thucydides uses the verb axioô, literally, “to calculate the worth of something,” approximately 100 times, and the noun axiôsis, “an estimate of worth,” 14 times. Often difficult to render into English, these terms do not point to some absolute measure but describe a calculation of worth that is open to public scrutiny. To use the verb axioô is to assert that, in the speaker’s opinion, a given action deserves to be done. To use the noun axiôsis is to presume a widely shared judgment. The Athenians choose as speaker of the Funeral Oration “whoever seems to be distinguished in mental abilities and is outstanding in ‘public estimation” (axiôsis)” (Thuc. 2.34.6). Likewise Perikles comments during the Funeral Oration that Athenians receive honor “in accordance with public estimation (axiosis)” rather than according to their social class (2.37.1). The public estimation in which a man is held is a source of power that can be used at will. Perikles is able to oppose the masses when they are angry ep’ axiôsei, because of the estimate that the people have formed of him. The Mytileneans nervously guard against losing part of their own axiosis (3.9.2) because they offer to revolt from their allies, the Athenians. When Thucydides ultimately describes how stasis destroys Corcyraean society, he cites a change in the customary public estimation (axiôsis) of words (3.82.4) to gauge the broader change in society as a whole.

Neither axioô nor axiôsis shows up in the Corcyraean speech. The Corinthians, on the other hand, five times ask the Athenians to form their estimate (axioô) and consider the moral assessment (axiôsis) that they offer. They open their speech by directing the Corcyraeans to learn “their own estimate (axiôsis) of the situation” (Thuc. 1.37.1). The Corcyraeans, according to the Corinthians at 39.2, have come to Athens “estimating (axiountes) that you Athenians now would not become allies (sunmachein) but would share in injustice (sunadikein).” Assuming the stance of a friendly adviser,[50] they urge upon the Athenians their advice and their estimate (axiôsis) of the charis between them (41.1). They call upon the basic mechanism by which values are maintained in a traditional, largely oral society: let the young learn from the old and then “see fit” (axioutô) to repay Corinth for what Corinth had done in the past (42.1). At the conclusion of their speech (43.1), they formally “assert their claim” (axioumen) to receive the same kind of aid that they themselves once gave. With each repetition of this term, whether in nominal or verbal form, they call upon the Athenians to measure the situation against the precedents of Greek society as a whole and of their dealings with Corinth in particular.

In establishing its own credibility, Corinth reveals much, both in those arguments that have impressed modern critics and those that have annoyed them. Twice the Corinthians had been of service to Athens. Before the Persian Wars, Corinth had sided with Athens against Aegina and provided Athens with twenty desperately needed ships. Later, when the Samians had revolted against Athenian control, the Corinthians had openly (Thuc. 1.40.5: phanerôs) supported the Athenian position and argued that “anyone should be able to punish their own allies.” Each of these acts was an euergesia (41.1), on which the Corinthians may base “their claim” (axiôsis) for charis. They demand “to be given something in return” (ant-dothênai), and enter into an elaborate accounting of the relations between the two powers. The Athenians are not so firmly “hostile that they should harm” Corinth, but they are also not “such firm friends that they can now trade upon their friendship” and put off repaying their debt to another day. The Corinthians discuss in some detail how Athens and Corinth have reached “one of those critical periods”(41.2) in which victory was all important, and which can redefine friend and foe (41.3). Athens and Corinth had had their recent differences, but proper Athenian conduct now would remove these, “for the final charis occupies the most effective position and can cancel out a greater claim (enklêma)” (42.3). The Corinthians appeal to both the positive and negative rhetoric of “self-restraint,” sôphrosunê. The Athenians must not be “carried away” (42.2: eparthentas, from epairomai); the Athenians would show sôphrosunê (42.2: sôphrôn) if they disproved Corinthian suspicions, and they must not be seduced (42.4: ephelkesthai) by the Corcyraean offer nor, again, “be carried away (eparthentas) by what was obvious at the moment.” [51]

One argument raised by the Corinthians has stirred substantial modern surprise. They assert that since Corinth supported Athens’s right to punish Samos, they have established a precedent by which they can now punish Corcyra. Since Samos was an ally and did not pay tribute to Athens, Corinth argues that the relationship between itself and Corcyra is equivalent. Since Corcyra was, however, by admission of all concerned, the ally of no Greek state, modern analysts have found the Corinthian assertion troubling at best.[52] Nevertheless, the language that the Corinthians use at 40.5 is carefully chosen: anyone (auton tina) is free to punish “those allies belonging to them.” The critical term for the Corinthians is not just “allies” (summachoi), but the participle prosechontes, “belonging,” which qualifies summachoi. Later on, the Melians contrast their position with that of people of other islands already subject to Athens:

Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who do not belong (hoi mê prosêkontes) to you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists (apoikoi), and some conquered rebels?

xThose who are in fact colonists (apoikoi) are thus those who are properly hoi prosêkontes, “the ones who belong,” and the Melians, in defending their independence, concede that Athens would have a claim of some kind if they were in fact Ionian and thus looked to Athens as their ancient metropolis. The Corinthians thus probably push their case as a whole too far, but they can properly argue that the Corcyraeans are their prosêkontes, and this fact does strengthen their argument.

To a reader in the fifth century, for whom the text of Thucydides is not the primary lens through which to view Athenian imperialism, the Corinthian position might not have seemed flawless, but it would not have appeared as weak as it does to us, for Corinth is appealing to a real side of Athenian power that played a prominent role in the fifth century and that Thucydides, “the artful reporter,” polemically chooses not to mention.[53] When Corinth equates Corcyra and Samos, it is pointing not to Athens the ruthless exponent of Realpolitik, but to the Athens that compelled its allies to send the panoply and cow[54] to the Panathenaia, and that incorporated the delivery of tribute into the Dionysia.[55] Athens did not simply exploit “religious propaganda”; it sought to subsume its power relations within traditional ties of extended kinship and apoikia. The Athenians did not base their empire solely upon force but exploited the relations and symbols that already existed to create an imperial ideology, a set of ideas that justified their authority to their subjects and, perhaps even more importantly, to themselves.

Thucydides, however, peered deep into this system and found behind the familiar trappings of hierarchy and subordination something cold and, if not new, then more important than it had been. Relations between groups tend, in the absence of developed bureaucratic states, to be ambiguous. Participants see their positions not as fixed, but as a complex set of options from which they can pick and choose. In his work on head-hunting in the Philippines, Renato Rosaldo provides a telling example of how such systems work.[56] Two fishing parties from different lineage groups that were engaged in a long-standing feud accidentally encountered one another. Technically, violence should have broken out, but neither side had any interest at the time in pursuing the matter: “The Peknars rose to the occasion, ingenious in their use of the unrestricted mode of category name transmission. Tukbaw said that he had only one category name, true Rumyad, handed down from his father—hence he denied any connection with the killers, who were identified as Peknars (his mother’s name). Kadeng, on the other hand, invoked his mother’s name, Payupay, in order to affirm his kinship with those who had confronted them.…Though nobody was fooled, the issue was aired and then dropped so that they could cooperate during the fishing trip.…When people feud it can be a matter of life itself to muddle things, claiming to be a little on this side and a little on that, somewhat attached to both parties but not necessarily and unambiguously involved.” The traditional situation in Greece had been just as fluid and fuzzy. The Poteideians were tribute-paying members of the Athenian empire, but they also received yearly magistrates (Thuc. 1.56.2: epidêmiourgoi) from Corinth and thus occupied an ambivalent position.

The Athenian empire was qualitatively different from the older alliances and ties that bound colony to mother-city. It rested on a financial system that extracted money from its subjects and converted this money into an engine that could, in turn, project brute physical force to keep the allies in their subordinate position. Athens had developed an imperial mechanism that could exert far greater and more overwhelming force than any other Hellenic power in Greek memory, and the more power it exerted, the greater its power could become. Sparta, for its part, exerted influence as much because of its weakness as because of its strength. Preoccupied with its internal security and already overextended, it could simply digest no more territory. Although they were useful as shock troops and as a rallying point, the Spartans themselves could not seriously threaten many of their allies. States such as Corinth and Boiotia yielded to Sparta its hegemony only because they were confident that the Spartans could not exploit this position too far. After the Peace of Nikias and particularly after the fall of the Athenian empire, Corinth and Boiotia grew rapidly disenchanted with a Sparta no longer balanced by Athenian power.

The Athenian empire thus disrupted the balance between material force and ideology. Athens had greater and more thorough powers of coercion at its disposal than any Greek state had ever had, and it no longer needed to rely as completely on the ideological minuet in which client and patron exchanged favors and services for their mutual benefit. The hard logic of the empire overwhelmed the old system, and Athens had the power to resolve ambiguities that challenged its interests. Thus the Athenians demand that the Poteideians refuse to accept their Corinthian magistrates (Thuc. 1.56.2). They resolve, by sheer force, the ambiguous position of that city and by this public act celebrate the impotence of the ties by which Corinth defined its position.

When the Corinthians state their case at Athens, they frame their position in the traditional language of bilateral relations. In essence, they assume that exchanges between different parties cannot be divorced from emotional and affective ties. Their colonies do not merely give them their proper respect (Thuc. 1.38.2) but feel an emotional attachment to them (38.3). Good services, even though performed generations before (as with the help against Aegina), have vitality and are handed down from old to young (42.1). The main basis of their attack on the Corcyraeans is, as discussed above, that the Corcyraeans have not had dealings with Athens and thus have forged no ties on which they can build. In traditional exchange systems, exchanges are not simple occurrences but establish a social relationship that supports future solidarity and cooperation.

As the economic historian Karl Polanyi and others have emphasized, market exchanges based on coinage or abstract schemes of value differ fundamentally from traditional transactions. In a pure market exchange, each side struggles to get the best deal possible, and the transaction, once completed, is complete. No emotional ties or commitments other than those associated with the exchange are involved, and the participants sharply separate the transaction from their social lives.

For Thucydides, coldness and emotional detachment openly characterize the Athenians in their dealings with other states. These qualities permeate the Athenian speech at Sparta later in book 1 and provide the logic behind their remonstrances to the Melians in book 5. Thucydides dramatically substantiates this general principle in the Corcyraean and Corinthian debate that begins the narrative. The Corcyraeans appeal to charis, to their trustworthiness and good character, to the mutual benefits that each side will confer on the other over time. The Corinthians point backward to their euergesiai, call upon their own charis, and appeal for a new birth of friendship that will bring Corinth and Athens together. Thucydides has enumerated the many friends that helped the Corinthians in the first battle with Corcyra (Thuc. 1.27.2), and the Corinthians themselves speak of how well they satisfy their colonies (38.4: areskontes, apareskoimen). They are honorable and trustworthy partners.

The Athenians accept neither argument, and their final decision, though it rescues Corcyra, is not intended to favor either side.[57] After two days of debate, in which they initially favored Corinth, they ultimately decide to establish a defensive alliance with Corcyra. Thucydides does not report who led the debate or argued for each option, but he does provide us with several reasons for the final decision. Corcyra, as its representatives argued, occupied a strategic position on the path to Italy and Sicily, and war with Sparta did indeed seem inevitable to Athens. The third motivation is, however, of particular importance to this discussion. The Athenians accepted neither mother-city nor colony as friend but sought to damage them equally so that if war should come, both these possible competitors would be as weak as possible (Thuc. 1.44.2). They neither value Corinth’s services in the past nor seek future charis from either Corinth or Corcyra. In the final analysis, the claims of loyalty, good character, and friendship fall upon deaf ears for Thucydides’ Athenians. The complex equation of power and material advantage alone determines their decision. The Athenians, at least in Thucydides’ eyes, refine and push to new limits the materialism embodied in such phrases as chrêmata, chrêmat’ anêr, “Money, money makes the man!” [58]

Earlier in this discussion, I mentioned that 17 of the 110 instances of dechomai, “to receive,” appear in the relatively brief Corcyraean debate.[59] The term dechomai is loaded and dramatic in this context. Bourdieu[60] has emphasized that systems of exchange, whether to accord honor or to exact retribution, may seem mechanical and deterministic if viewed schematically, but that within such systems individual actors have diverse strategies that they can employ. When will a gift be repaid? How much will be returned? Will the gift be ignored and protocol violated? Or will the return be perhaps too little, or, conversely, will its generosity challenge the recipient to exhaust himself when his turn comes to respond? To the actors engaged in such exchanges, the system affords many possible outcomes.

The Corcyraeans come to Athens offering to give it an alliance, and they urge that Athens reciprocate, accept the alliance, and complete the exchange (Thuc. 1.33.4): we are giving, and you should accept. But the action is not automatic, and both Corcyraeans and Corinthians wait anxiously to see whether the gift will be formally accepted. Forms of the verb dechomai recur like a drumbeat, mesmerizing both speakers. Corcyraeans and Corinthians both know the rules and the protocol, but the Athenians have begun to play a different game, one in which a power such as Corinth has little place. The rebuff over Corcyra and the subsequent cancellation of the Corinthian magistrates at Poteideia open the eyes of Corinth to the strange new threat that it faces. With good reason, the chastened and terrified Corinthians later in book 1 present a perceptive analysis of the relative characters of Athens and Sparta.

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Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
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