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Saturday, June 08, 2013

THUCYDIDES: The Peloponnesian War (Mytilene Revolts)

There’s an old saying that all’s fair in love and war. It’s every man for himself and anything that helps get the girl or win the battle is fair game. There’s a scene in the Peloponnesian War which clearly drives home this point: “Paches (the Athenian leader) invited Hippias, the general of the Arcadian mercenaries inside the fortification, to meet him for a discussion, promising that if no agreement was reached he would see that he got back again safe and sound to the fortification. Hippias therefore came out to meet Paches, who put him under arrest, though not in chains. Paches then made a sudden attack and took the fortification by surprise. Paches put to death all the Arcadian and foreign troops who were inside and later, as he had promised, brought Hippias back there. As soon as Hippias was inside, Paches had him seized and shot down with arrows.”

Obviously Hippias wasn’t paying attention when they told him that all’s fair in love and war. But Paches was. In love we can lose and live to love another day. Maybe even find someone better. But in war everyone plays for keeps. There are no second chances. Make a bad decision and it’s game over. Not just for Hippias but for those under his command too. It’s this kind of reality check that causes the thoughtful reader to pause and ponder: were the Athenians being cruel or do harsh circumstances of war force them to act harshly? And it’s not just the Athenians. All Greek city-states are playing the same harsh game. This chapter, for example, deals with only one small incident in the long war between Athens and Sparta: the Mytilenian revolt. In this war nobody stays neutral. You’re either for us or against us. The Mytilenians were supposedly on Athens’ side. But they decided to break away from Athens. Thucydides tells us that Mytilene and many of the other Greek city-states weren’t voluntary allies of Athens; they were more like tributaries. Athens wanted money from them. At first it seemed like a reasonable request. The smaller city-states would pay Athens and Athens would protect them from another Persian attack. As time went on the Persian threat faded. Mytilenians started thinking: the Persians aren’t coming back. Why are we still paying Athens so much money to protect us from a non-existent threat? The way the Mytilenians figured it, “the object of the alliance (for the Persian War) was the liberation of the Greeks from Persia, not the subjugation of Greeks to Athens…” This was no longer an alliance. It was outright extortion.

The Mytilenians wanted a way out of this “alliance” with Athens. The Athenians say no way. Pay up. All over the Greek world the same thing was happening. Athens could keep the smaller cities in line easily enough. But Mytilene was one of the big fish. And if Athens let them get away then all the smaller fish would be tempted to make their get-away too. So Athens made it a point to force Mytilene to stay in the alliance. That’s how “the Mytilenians were suddenly forced into a war for which they were unprepared…” Another question for the thoughtful reader: should a country EVER find itself unprepared for war? An old Roman general once said: if you want peace, prepare for war. On the other hand, why spend money for the military now when we can wait until we really need it? Wouldn’t that be cheaper? But what if we lose? Then we lose everything. These are high stakes. Thucydides knows exactly what the stakes are. He lays out the best arguments but he never preaches. He just tells what happened. One thing Thucydides makes clear from the start is that war is serious business. History should be serious business too.


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