Preferred Citation: Crane, Gregory. Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of Political Realism. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair

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.)

Power, Prestige, and the Corcyraean Affair

Preferred Citation: Crane, Gregory. Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of Political Realism. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.