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Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair
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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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