The Violent Teacher

By Eliot Brenner

NB: An almost identical version of this essay was published earlier on the web at the following location:

The US's imminent military adventure in Iraq bears a striking resemblance to events occurring almost 2500 years ago--Athens' Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian war. Thucydides' classic work provides us with a history of the expedition, a turning point in Athens' war with Sparta and the beginning of Athens' downfall leading to its eventual total defeat. After summarizing this account, I point out several ways in which the relative positions of the Western Democracies with respect to their enemies is similar to that of the Athenian Empire in 415 with respect to Sparta and its allies. Then, I expose some points of resemblance between the (forthcoming) decision of the Bush administration to conquer Iraq and that of the Athenian assembly to conquer Sicily. After this, I review the indications, contained in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War up to the time of the Sicilian expedition, that taking part in aggressive warfare changes the character of a state and its people. In particular, I find evidence there that protracted periods of such aggressive warfare degrade democratic institutions and the citizenry's ability to govern itself. I believe that these provide the most convincing arguments for opposing an attack on Iraq and for viewing with skepticism any other military adventures undertaken in the name of antiterrorism.

Many an anti-war protester has assured me that our (now looming) attack on Iraq will be--either because it is so unilateral, so preemptive, so unprovoked, or so wicked in every respect--completely unprecedented in history. There's no lack of counterexamples to this statement, even from relatively recent history of the United States. All around, though, the best parallel to the attack known to me is from a much earlier period: the Peloponnesian War in the late 5th century BC.

The conflict, occurring in two distinct stages between 431BC and 404BC, was paradoxical in that it involved the greatest democracy in Greece forcing its rule over unwilling so-called allies which were in fact part of an Athenian empire around the Aegean Sea. According to Thucydides, our principal source for the history of the period, the war was caused primarily by the fear of Athenian domination on the part of the remaining independent Greek city-states, which put themselves under Spartan leadership to resist Athens (i.23).1 Thus Sparta came to lead an alliance which is commonly referred to as the Peloponnesian League. So this city-state, which was renowned for its internal lack of freedom and for its oppression of its nearby subject peoples (helots), became in the eyes of the outside world the champion of Greek freedom and autonomy.

In fact, many of the states which allied themselves with Sparta did so not for the sake of this traditional Greek autonomy, but because these states happened to be controlled by oligarchies at the time. Such oligarchies realized that a Spartan hegemony would create favorable conditions for their survival while an Athenian one would only encourage the local popular party to revolt. The remaining free democracies preferred a balance of power to outright domination by either Athens or Sparta, and this made for frequently shifting alliances throughout the period. That was one factor which prolonged the war. Another was the complementary strengths and weaknesses of the two: Sparta was the dominant land power, but had no history of seafaring and a hapless navy; Athens for most of the war could take dominance of the sea for granted, but wouldn't dare put its (mostly mercenary) land forces to the test against Spartan hoplites, even in defense of Athens' own countryside (Attica). In other words, circumstances made it unlikely that either side would gain outright victory unless the other side had extremely poor luck or made a foolish blunder.

Athens made its blunder in 415BC with the launching of the Sicilian Expedition. The reasons for this undertaking are not entirely understood. Our only clues as to the motives come from the record in Thucydides of the speeches in the Athenian assembly on the issue.(vi, 8-24)2 Nicias, who speaks against sending forces to Sicily, seems to think that the people put too much stock in a shaky peace treaty with Sparta which he had negotiated six years before. In giving generous terms to the Athenians in this Peace of Nicias (421BC), the Spartans were motivated less by military weakness than by their desire to free one-hundred twenty Spartan hoplite-citizens who had fallen into Athenian hands by luck in a rather insignificant incident early in the war (Sphacteria). Moreover, the treaty itself was rejected by certain powerful allies of Sparta and by client-states of the Athenian Empire already in revolt at the time. Nicias recognized the illusory sense of security and strength resulting from this treaty. Without this illusion the Athenians never would have considered doing something reckless that might induce a number of heretofore neutral powers to declare war against Athens.

Nicias' antagonist Alcibiades, who hoped to lead the coming expedition, predicted before the assembly a quick victory in Sicily and control of its trade routes. Athens' victories would presumably lead Athenian opponents throughout Greece, already discouraged by the Peace, to fold entirely. As a pretext for the presumably profitable gambit, Alcibiades suggested that Athenians pretend they were only intervening in the conflict between Sicily's main Greek city, Syracuse, and a small non-Greek city Egestaea, the latter of which was formally allied with Athens but had not helped it in any previous wars. If we believe Nicias' suggestions however, Alcibiades and his cohort of ambitious, well-born young men really looked upon the venture less as a chance to enhance Athenian power than an opportunity to cover themselves in military glory; their ulterior motive was their own advancement in Athenian politics.

After the Athenian assembly had voted for the expedition, Thucydides tells us, Nicias rose for a second speech and, hoping to change their minds, stressed the gravity of the undertaking and the magnitude of the resources needed to succeed in it. Nicias' speech foreshadows the two main circumstances that would doom the expedition. Most of the help promised by Athens ally Egestaea would never materialize; in fact, when Athenian ambassadors had visited Sicily during an early reconnaissance mission, the Egestaeans had concocted a false display of wealth and power to conceal their actual inability to help.(vi.44). Initial Athenian military successes on the island, far from decisively vanquishing its foes there, would cause the ethnically diverse and previously factious city-states to unite out of fear of Athenian domination. The assembly apparently recognized the possibilities prefigured in Nicias' speech; nevertheless the speech had quite the opposite of its intended effect: it caused the assembly not to cancel the expeditionary fleet but to substantially augment its size, provisions, and armor in preparation for threats they believed it could overcome.

The further course of the Sicilian expedition, down to its total destruction two years later, occupies Book VII of Thucydides' work. The Sicilians, having been driven to unity by fear of the foreign threat, would probably have been quite capable of defeating the Athenians by themselves. Once their success seemed probable, they were joined by expeditionary forces from Sparta and a number of other fence-sitters from the Athenian mainland, who from that point entered the Peloponnesian War against the weakened Athenians. During most of the Sicilian campaign, Sparta was fortunate to enjoy the advice of an insider, none other than Alcibiades himself. This war-monger changed sides after being deprived of his command by the maneuverings of a hostile Athenian political faction. Once in Sparta (vi.89) Alcibiades revealed to the enemy the secret plans of the Athenian war party. It turned out (according to him) these went far beyond the already unrealistic goal of subjugating such a gigantic island which could only be reached from Athens by a sea voyage of several days in good weather. Envisioning Sicily as a base for launching assaults on Carthage and even the Iberian coast, the Athenian war-hawks saw the expedition as the first step towards domination of the entire Mediterranean. Alcibiades pointed out to the Spartans what an opportunity Athenian overextension offered them for re-entering the war and crushing such imperial ambitions permanently.

In the Gulf War set to begin in 2003, there is little risk of an actual military defeat of America owing to its superiority in technology and numbers. In every respect other than the distribution of battlefield resources, though, the US's situation vis--vis the Iraqis parallels that of the Athenians vis--vis their Sicilian targets. Analogous to Sparta and the other old Greek enemies of Athens, the al-Qaeda terrorists and their fundamentalist supporters (not to speak of assorted warlords in Afghanistan) remain undefeated and pose a dangerous enough threat to merit the US's full attention. Like the assorted cities on Sicily and mainland Greece, these terrorists have been far from friendly to the secular Iraqi regime in the past. Nevertheless, as America goes out to Iraq in search of new enemies to fight, the terrorists show signs of ganging up with the Iraqis because of their shared enmity towards the US and the because of the opportunities for causing mayhem afforded by US over-extension.

Elements of self-delusion appear in both the US and the Athenian strategy. The Iraqi opposition groups-with the possibly exception of the northern Kurds-whom the US is training, from whom it's taking intelligence, and whom it hopes to use as proxies during our post-Saddam rule of the country give indications of being no more reliable for the US than Egestaeans turned out to be for the Athenians. Nevertheless, all the Administration's plans pertaining to a transitional government leading to a democratic and stable Iraq rely on the promised help of friendly local elements even more heavily than the Athenians' plans for conquest relied on their duplicitous Sicilian allies.

Both expeditions were masterminded and promoted by cliques which can never be held accountable for their actions and which conceal their true motives behind more conventional ones. In a series of articles, the Washington Post has recently chronicled the campaign undertaken by several undersecretaries of the Defense Department to put an invasion of Iraq ahead of all other priorities in the war on terrorism. These planners' principal motives for taking over Iraq have scarcely been mentioned in public statements, but it is clear from accounts of internal administration policy debates that the establishment of what they call a beach-head for democracy in the Arab world is prominent among these motives. Like the empire-building Athenians, these planners countenance spreading democracy by the most undemocratic means imaginable, namely offensive military action. Both they and the Athenians neglect the extent to which such actions undercut the appeal of democracy to others and actually interfere with its natural spread. This natural spread of democracy depends mainly on the image of stability, fairness, and prosperity which the democracies project to the rest of the world. These factors are mostly outside the control of under-secretaries a nd generals. Moreover, the pro-war clique fails to appreciate the irony of trying to spread freedom and democracy to Iraq while other parts of the same Administration (notably the Justice Dept.) are doing their best to rub it out within the US.

Considering the experience of the American democracy during the first year of the War on Terror, the Athenians did pretty well at preserving the forms of democracy during the first twenty years of their war with Sparta. All the same, Thucydides documents a pronounced shift in the character of the people and the of decisions they made through their democratic assembly as time passed. The debate concerning the fate of the Mytileneans (iii.37-51), 428BC, and the dialogue with the Melians (v.84-116), 415BC, stand out as signposts on the Athenians' slide from relative mildness towards a more scorched-earth approach towards empire-building. There are enough points of similarity in the episodes of Mytilene and Melos to make a comparison: in both instances, an Aegean island had revolted from the Athenian Empire or had refused to submit to its power and had then been subdued or was about to be subdued by the Athenian military. In both cases, a debate ensued-for Mytilene in the Athenian assembly and for Melos between the representatives of Athens and Melos outside Melos-as to how harsh a policy Athens ought to pursue with regard to the rebellious island-state. (In the latter case, another topic of the debate was whether Melos itself ought to continue its resistance to the Athenians.) Prior to the debate concerning Mytilene which Thucydides records, the Athenians had issued a command to their army to put to death all the males of the defeated city. However, a citizen named Diodotus persuaded them to rescind this order (iii.42-51). His argument was that in dealing with future rebellions within the empire, a reputation for mercy would actually be more useful to the Athenians than one for ferocity.

About fifteen years later in the Melian dialogue, a noticeable change in Athenian military policy and character has evidently already taken place: from the outset of the debate, it is apparently understood by both parties that total destruction awaits Melos if it chooses to resist Athenian siege. While accepting this as a given, the Melians argue that the Athenians ought to call off the siege and offer them an alliance of equals instead of subjugation. But the Athenians reject this saying that their client states would interpret any mercy shown to the Melians as weakness on Athens' part and make it more difficult for them to deal with future rebellions in their empire. One cannot know for sure whether this is the true motivation for the Athenians' subsequent siege and later slaughter of the entire male population of Melos. But this line makes Thucydides' point, which is that between 428 and 415 there has been a complete inversion in the logic by which the Athenians operated: in 428, acts of clemency were seen as improving Athens' standing and spreading the growth of its empire; in 415 they are seen as impeding it. In 428 resort to punitive violence seemed still to require case-by-case justification; now in 415 it is in to the Athenians mind an inevitable corollary of leading an empire. Thus, the two episodes are a perfect illustration of Thucydides' dictum that "war is a violent teacher" (v.82) meaning that it teaches violence and over time makes those who practice it resort to violence more and more as second nature.

This deterioration in the character of the Athenian people was mirrored by a deterioration in their leadership. For about two decades before the war and for the war's first two years, Pericles led Athens. After his death in a famous wartime plague, leadership fell to a series of steadily more corrupt demagogues, typified by the orator and general Cleon in Thucydides' narrative.

Thucydides' judgment of Pericles is "he was not so much led by the people, as he lead them" (ii.65). What he means is that Pericles would not tailor his speeches to suit the prevalent mood or hysteria of the day. Instead, he used his oratory to shape public opinion towards the policy he thought best. This was a challenging task, because Pericles' policies often hurt powerful private interests in order to serve the public good. Pericles argued correctly that Athens' best strategy would be to allow the Spartan armies to lay waste to Attica (provincial Athens), while using the imperial navy to maintain dominance of the Aegean to bring in needed supplies to the city, and to harass the Pelopnnesians by means of sea raids. In spite of the quite natural resistance of country-dwellers and landowners of Attica to seeing their land pillaged by the Spartans, Pericles' advice (as long as he was alive) always carried the day. Pericles' Funeral Oration (ii.35-46) was for Thucydides' the quintessence of tough-minded, yet wise and balanced leadership. In the speech, Pericles finds the source of the Athenians' strength to be the example of vigor and virtue it projects to the rest of Greece. He advises the Athenians that the best way to win and keep friends allies is to continue doing more good turns to the other city- states than they receive from them (ii.40).

Cleon, in his speech in the Assembly in favor of executing all the males of Mytilene (428BC, see above), his most vivid appearance in the History, presents a contrast to Pericles on all these points (iii.37-40). Instead of leading the people through arguments towards a wiser policy, he panders to narcissism, class resentments, and other bad instincts. Through flattery such as "the more common sort of people generally govern a city better than those who are more intelligent" he insures a favorable reception among a certain class of people for his bloodthirsty projects. Ignoring the Periclean ideal of an empire built upon mutual benefits, Cleon countenances only two choices for the Athenians: maintaining the empire by ever-increasing violence and force, or losing it by cowardly acts of clemency. At the present time, the people's judgment has not yet deteriorated to the point when such rhetoric will carry the day. However, the later victory of Alcibiades' even greater duplicity and the brutality evident in the Melian debate show the corrosive effect of this sort of leadership in the long term.

This example of the deterioration of the Athenian character and leadership over the course of the conflict points out an often overlooked reason for Americans to oppose unnecessary wars, such as the one in Iraq. As has been amply documented by the Washington Post articles alluded to above, the Administration planners who favor the invasion, unlike mainstream anti-war writers or protestors, recognize clearly the possibilities for transforming public opinion in the long term through aggressive military action. Assuming that military success in Iraq is inevitable, these planners predict that the American people will be encouraged by this victory to view such invasions as a viable solution to foreign-policy problems in the future and that the people will be easier to lead towards violent solutions. In the world-view of these planners, such a change in public mood would amount to a reinvigoration of lost American virtue and courage. Those who value democracy ought to counter this evaluation with the examples such as the Athenian experience in the Peloponnesian war. They do nothing to counter it for the most part simply because they are blind to the danger, but also because they know nothing of the history of the Peloponnesian War. If they could be made aware of this history, they would recognize that among all forms of government, the one which derives its power from the people is the most susceptible to corruption through easy overseas military victory. Once the populace becomes accustomed hearing in the assembly (in Athens case) or seeing on TV (in our case) how quickly its whims can be satisfied and its thorniest diplomatic problems resolved by violence, it clamors for more force and violence in that and every other sphere. If nothing checks it, such images can transform the populace into a beast which devours the original leaders who had hoped to harness its appetite for violence and which will submit to guidance only from Alcibiades-like demagogues.


1. All references in parentheses are to Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, with the Roman numeral referring to the book number, the Arabic numerals referring to the paragraph numbers in the standard Greek text. Any direct quotations are copied verbatim from On Justice Power and Human Nature: the Essence of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, ed. by Paul Woodruff, Hackett, 1993.

2. In his own introduction, Thucydides offers the following disclaimer concerning the accuracy of the speeches he records throughout the History: "what particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker say what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." (i.22) Scholars have debated ever since just how true to life are Thucydides recorded speeches. Wishing not to wade into this controversy, I have assumed throughout my essay that although his speeches may not be verbatim transcriptions, they represent the gist of what was said by each speaker.