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Hard Power

Sean Sheehan


The Oxford Handbook of Thucydides, Ryan K Balot, Sarah Forsdyke and Edith Foster (eds), Oxford University Press, 773 pp, £33, ISBN: 978-0190053178

There is a connection between Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and a former US secretary of state and national security advisor: the ancient Greek historian records a number of events that the world would now regard as war crimes; and Henry Kissinger is considered by many to be a war criminal, having notably been indicted as such in Christopher Hitchens’s book The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

In the sixteenth year of the war between Athens and Sparta (416/15 BC), the Athenians attacked the island of Melos, a Spartan colony that wished to remain neutral and avoid becoming part of the Athenian empire. The so-called Melian dialogue which took place came down to an ultimatum: become subject to Athenian power or resist and face annihilation. The island was laid siege to and, after surrendering, all the men were put to death and the women and children sold into slavery. Sparta had behaved in a similar way with the small town of Plataea, following a travesty of a trial, and the Mytileneans on Lesbos would have met the same fate were it not for a change of mind, or heart, in the Athenian assembly the day after it had voted for the death penalty (the Mytilenaean Debate). A trireme carrying the rescission set off on a dramatic race to reach the town before the first order was carried out.

Right-wing strategists and statesmen weaponise Thucydides to rationalise their world views and foreign policies, but they tend not to dwell on the collateral damage in the shape of mass slaughters. Their perspective understands international relations in terms of power – obtaining, keeping, defending, fearing it – and they look to Thucydides to endorse what they see as a realistic take on the world. Kissinger, the supreme realpolitiker until Bush and Blair arrived on the scene, pursued his deadly geopolitics under the aegis of what he thought had been indisputably established in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Validation for the Cold War could be found in the Athenian-Spartan dichotomy, a parsing of the world into a binary opposition conducted on each side by all-male wielders of power. The end of the Cold War has found new iterations, as with Graham Allison’s Destined for War (2017) that builds on the term “the Thucydides trap” to warn of the danger of war when emergent and reigning powers face each other off. The History becomes a manual for statecraft. Heuristic, politically loaded readings of Thucydides often refer to his account of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. In three places, he singles out the growth of Athenian power and the fear this instils in the Spartans as the underlying causal factor in the outbreak of hostilities. While his aetiology does not apportion blame, neutrally balancing Athenian imperialism with Spartan bellicosity in reacting to it, the Megarian Decree points to Athens as the war’s provoker. By imposing a trade embargo – the first recorded case of such an action – Athens was punishing a Spartan ally while cleverly staying within the terms of the Thirty Years Peace, which guaranteed protection for allies on both sides. The USA did something similar with its embargo on oil and gasoline exports to Japan in 1941, effectively starving the country of vital imports, an existential threat that precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbor that came four months later.

The Megarian Decree has proved intriguing because Thucydides makes so little of it, but he mentions how, before the final negotiations between Athens and Sparta collapse, the Spartans offer to back down if this single decree is revoked. Following the advice of Pericles, the Athenians refuse and in the summer of 431 a Spartan army invades Attica. As Eric Robinson’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of Thucydides points out, it may be that Thucydides downplayed the decree’s importance because the possibility of Athenian culpability does not dovetail with his equivalence thesis about the long-standing causes of the war. Robinson looks at different blame-game accounts of the war’s origins – Sparta’s zealous militarism has also been blamed – and most of them find support in different parts of Thucydides’ richly detailed narrative. His History looks to be shaped by a view of human nature whereby “justice enters only when there is a corresponding power to enforce it; but the powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply”; as Sarah Forsdyke shows in her essay, such judgements shape the content of his history.

Part of the intellectual context for the Handbook arises from the loss of faith in the kind of writing associated with Leopold von Ranke, the great German historian. An excessive regard for facts, though no longer the hallmark for a supposed objectivity, allowed for a contrast between a scientifically exact Thucydides and a fiction-prone Herodotus. The distinction between historiography and literary texts has now been blurred, making ontological cousins of their respective discourses. Hayden White does not need to be referenced in the Handbook; his argument, that facts are selected and arranged in ways that allow a developmental story to emerge from the historian’s framing of events, has been taken on board. The historical narrative is structured by Thucydides to create aesthetic and cognitive meanings of an intended kind and he employs various techniques – parallel speeches; ring composition; juxtaposition and focalisation – for this purpose. This highlights more than ever the use that Thucydides makes of speeches. There were no written records to consult and he acknowledges the issue when stating how he provides what “each speaker would say was necessary for the occasion while holding as closely as possible to the whole argument of what was actually said”.

Thucydides uses speeches because he regards them as useful for understanding the war and the same can be said for the accounts of the military action that makes up around half of his History. In speeches and battles, the war is translated into human decisions and expectations, not ones deliberated upon by divine forces, which as a result involve delusions, unforeseen circumstances and often heart-breaking consequences. Ryan Balot, one of the Handbook’s contributors and editors, offers a sad summation of this: “The world of Thucydides, the world of war, is a tragic world; if Sophocles had been a historian, then he would have written Thucydides’ History.” Contingency is as much a corollary of reality for Pericles as it is for Oedipus.

Tragedy hangs in the air with the idea that Athens was in the grip of a necessitated choice that compelled the city to go to war. Pericles says as much at the end of his first speech to the Athenian assembly, speaking of a psychological necessity. His sense that only one course of action is open to them is not causal determinism but a predicated awareness of the way human societies allow the rule of the strong over the weak. Athens as an imperialist state could find refuge in such ineluctability and the speeches of Pericles can be read as rhetorical constructions employed to manipulate his audience. In their essay, Mark Fisher and Kinch Hoekstra see their invocation of necessity as a form of speech act: “if they [the Athenian assembly] believe themselves to be compelled, they will be compelled.”

Arthur Eckstein, in his contribution to the Handbook, argues that the kind of necessity that so often drove Greek states precipitately to war arose from an absence of international law. The two hundred states did negotiate with one another, establish treaties, practice diplomacy and sometimes bring in third parties for arbitration but, as Eckstein sees it, it was a state of “highly militarized international anarchy” and attempts at conflict resolution easily slipped into armed combat. Thucydides, he goes on, “points above all to the lack of international law” – as though the historian had travelled back in time and noticed something vital was missing. It would be more credible to imagine Thucydides travelling forward to our time and pointing to Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank to show how the presence of international law does not prevent the rule of the strong over the weak.

It is true to say that the ancient Greek world did not have an understanding of what is now understood by international law, but there were unwritten norms regarding warfare. Heralds and diplomats had immunity – witness the story in Herodotus of some Spartans killing Persian ambassadors and the subsequent dispatch of two volunteers offering their lives in reparation to Xerxes, the barbarian king of Persia. When they reach the Persian capital, Xerxes refuses to have them killed, saying that “he would not be guilty himself of the same crime they had committed”. There were also commonly accepted laws of war when it came to religious customs and the protection of sacred places. Greek religion, however, has the distinction of being divorced from ethics and the kind of humanitarian standards we like to think are now taken for granted were singularly absent in ancient Greek culture. Helping friends and hurting your enemies was a sine qua non; killing of prisoners of war was well accepted; and non-combatants were not accorded the rights we might expect.

Although Thucydides is not relaying anything controversial when reporting the stoning to death of surviving enemy soldiers, it does not follow that he or his society lacked an ethical dimension. In the course of a programme in the BBC’s In Our Time series, on the Mytilenaean Debate (available on YouTube), it is clear that some scholars perceive in the History a humanitarian concern and consequent sympathy for the victims of power. It is an area that, unfortunately, that does not get much of an airing in the Handbook.

Thucydides has long been read as primarily a political theorist and it accounts for one of the four themes structuring the contents of the Handbook but it is a dimension that overlaps – competes, some would say – with the recognition of the History as a work of social anthropology. Thucydides is remarkably insightful about how individuals, crowds and states conduct themselves in times of stress and it is difficult to forget his horrifying account of how a state of war can corrode relationships and weaken social norms to the point of collapse. Kissinger’s liking for Thucydides did not extend to him considering war’s consequences ‑ in the light of how Pol Pot emerged from the ashes left by the US bombing of Cambodia.

Thucydides is interesting to read because, like Greek mythology, he is good to think with. The Oxford Handbook of Thucydides demonstrates this with its superb array of different approaches to a multi-layered work of history that has been used and abused by politicians and statesmen who are not always very different from some of the warmongers and war criminals that Thucydides writes about. It is as if he knew that, à la Groundhog Day, we are condemned to relive history: “It will be adequate if my work is judged helpful by all those who wish to look clearly at what has happened and what is likely to happen in the future, or something close to that, given what human beings are like. It is laid up as a possession for all time.” It seems that the wish of the unillusioned author is being fulfilled.


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).



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