Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible" Thucydides' lessons on writing about warfare

I continue to read Crawley's eminently readable translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. It is a primer on geopolitics, or just plain old politics. Does an army travel, as Napoleon claimed, on its stomach? No, it travels on wheels made of money, money from mines worked by slaves and tribute gathered from "allies" whose allegiance is maintained at the point of a spear. Ah, politics. Thucydides gives all the important political speeches on both sides of the conflict (and there's a very funny disclaimer early in the book where our author admits that in some instances he paraphrases the speeches and in other instances he merely makes up the speeches based on "what must've been said by the speakers"). The speakers' characters come shining through, and we see that politicians have been politicians for thousands of years; our historian does not refrain from mocking even his own countrymen. Thucydides mocks everyone.

But this is not about the mockery, not directly. This is about what a great writer Thucydides was, one of the finest chroniclers of warfare in history. I quote at great length one of my favorite episodes, which had little influence on the outcome of the war but is brilliantly written:
The same winter the Plataeans, who were still being besieged by the Peloponnesians and Boeotians, distressed by the failure of their provisions, and seeing no hope of relief from Athens, nor any other means of safety, formed a scheme with the Athenians besieged with them for escaping, if possible, by forcing their way over the enemy’s walls; the attempt having been suggested by Theaenetus, son of Tolmides, a soothsayer, and Eupompides, son of Daimachus, one of their generals. At first all were to join: afterwards, half hung back, thinking the risk great; about two hundred and twenty, however, voluntarily persevered in the attempt, which was carried out in the following way. Ladders were made to match the height of the enemy’s wall, which they measured by the layers of bricks, the side turned towards them not being thoroughly whitewashed. These were counted by many persons at once; and though some might miss the right calculation, most would hit upon it, particularly as they counted over and over again, and were no great way from the wall, but could see it easily enough for their purpose. The length required for the ladders was thus obtained, being calculated from the breadth of the brick.

Now the wall of the Peloponnesians was constructed as follows. It consisted of two lines drawn round the place, one against the Plataeans, the other against any attack on the outside from Athens, about sixteen feet apart. The intermediate space of sixteen feet was occupied by huts portioned out among the soldiers on guard, and built in one block, so as to give the appearance of a single thick wall with battlements on either side. At intervals of every ten battlements were towers of considerable size, and the same breadth as the wall, reaching right across from its inner to its outer face, with no means of passing except through the middle. Accordingly on stormy and wet nights the battlements were deserted, and guard kept from the towers, which were not far apart and roofed in above.

Such being the structure of the wall by which the Plataeans were blockaded, when their preparations were completed, they waited for a stormy night of wind and rain and without any moon, and then set out, guided by the authors of the enterprise. Crossing first the ditch that ran round the town, they next gained the wall of the enemy unperceived by the sentinels, who did not see them in the darkness, or hear them, as the wind drowned with its roar the noise of their approach; besides which they kept a good way off from each other, that they might not be betrayed by the clash of their weapons. They were also lightly equipped, and had only the left foot shod to preserve them from slipping in the mire. They came up to the battlements at one of the intermediate spaces where they knew them to be unguarded: those who carried the ladders went first and planted them; next twelve light-armed soldiers with only a dagger and a breastplate mounted, led by Ammias, son of Coroebus, who was the first on the wall; his followers getting up after him and going six to each of the towers. After these came another party of light troops armed with spears, whose shields, that they might advance the easier, were carried by men behind, who were to hand them to them when they found themselves in presence of the enemy. After a good many had mounted they were discovered by the sentinels in the towers, by the noise made by a tile which was knocked down by one of the Plataeans as he was laying hold of the battlements. The alarm was instantly given, and the troops rushed to the wall, not knowing the nature of the danger, owing to the dark night and stormy weather; the Plataeans in the town having also chosen that moment to make a sortie against the wall of the Peloponnesians upon the side opposite to that on which their men were getting over, in order to divert the attention of the besiegers. Accordingly they remained distracted at their several posts, without any venturing to stir to give help from his own station, and at a loss to guess what was going on. Meanwhile the three hundred set aside for service on emergencies went outside the wall in the direction of the alarm. Fire-signals of an attack were also raised towards Thebes; but the Plataeans in the town at once displayed a number of others, prepared beforehand for this very purpose, in order to render the enemy’s signals unintelligible, and to prevent his friends getting a true idea of what was passing and coming to his aid before their comrades who had gone out should have made good their escape and be in safety.

Meanwhile the first of the scaling party that had got up, after carrying both the towers and putting the sentinels to the sword, posted themselves inside to prevent any one coming through against them; and rearing ladders from the wall, sent several men up on the towers, and from their summit and base kept in check all of the enemy that came up, with their missiles, while their main body planted a number of ladders against the wall, and knocking down the battlements, passed over between the towers; each as soon as he had got over taking up his station at the edge of the ditch, and plying from thence with arrows and darts any who came along the wall to stop the passage of his comrades. When all were over, the party on the towers came down, the last of them not without difficulty, and proceeded to the ditch, just as the three hundred came up carrying torches. The Plataeans, standing on the edge of the ditch in the dark, had a good view of their opponents, and discharged their arrows and darts upon the unarmed parts of their bodies, while they themselves could not be so well seen in the obscurity for the torches; and thus even the last of them got over the ditch, though not without effort and difficulty; as ice had formed in it, not strong enough to walk upon, but of that watery kind which generally comes with a wind more east than north, and the snow which this wind had caused to fall during the night had made the water in the ditch rise, so that they could scarcely breast it as they crossed. However, it was mainly the violence of the storm that enabled them to effect their escape at all.

Starting from the ditch, the Plataeans went all together along the road leading to Thebes, keeping the chapel of the hero Androcrates upon their right; considering that the last road which the Peloponnesians would suspect them of having taken would be that towards their enemies’ country. Indeed they could see them pursuing with torches upon the Athens road towards Cithaeron and Druoskephalai or Oakheads. After going for rather more than half a mile upon the road to Thebes, the Plataeans turned off and took that leading to the mountain, to Erythrae and Hysiae, and reaching the hills, made good their escape to Athens, two hundred and twelve men in all; some of their number having turned back into the town before getting over the wall, and one archer having been taken prisoner at the outer ditch. Meanwhile the Peloponnesians gave up the pursuit and returned to their posts; and the Plataeans in the town, knowing nothing of what had passed, and informed by those who had turned back that not a man had escaped, sent out a herald as soon as it was day to make a truce for the recovery of the dead bodies, and then, learning the truth, desisted. In this way the Plataean party got over and were saved.
I love this stuff. I love that Thucydides thought it important to write down the method the Plataeans used to estimate the height of the Spartans' walls. I love the detail about only wearing the left shoe, for traction in the storm. Fabulous writing, every word of it. The book is full of this stuff, exciting and vivid. Stirring, even. There are a lot of terrifying events as well, because even in a war where the principals do not engage face to face, there are still large armies marauding across the frontiers, killing and raping and burning things to the ground.


  1. You write: "Does an army travel, as Napoleon claimed, on its stomach? No, it travels on wheels made of money, money from mines worked by slaves and tribute gathered from "allies" whose allegiance is maintained at the point of a spear. Ah, politics."
    And so you underscore one of the reasons to read history: Nothing is new under the sun (i.e., we haven't changed very much since the time of the ancients).
    You also bait the hook, and I am being reeled in to the boat. I want to read Thucydides and Herodotus and more. So thank you for the generous and well-written posting.
    Finally, there is this: I sometimes shudder when I think about my long time involvement in the military machine (i.e., 25+ years); I do not regret my contributions, but I shudder when I think about the political shenanigans and the money involved. If only our politicians would read and understand history. The military would be improved. Well, so would civilization, but that is too big of a topic for this meager comment.

    1. I think I'd strike "very much" from your second paragraph! Hairstyles and technology, but not humans. You see the same sort of warfare between big states conducted via proxies, the smaller proxy states swearing allegiance to the first big state to come along and threaten destruction. "Yes! Harbor your armada here, barrack your troops in our homes, we are so relieved it's you and not your enemy that we can barely restrain ourselves." A year later the big state abandons the little state because supporting them is no longer expedient, etc. Right now in Thucydides, its the fifth year of the war. The politician who were in charge at the start of the festivities--I mean the fighting, sorry--were moderates, as these things go, and cautious. They are no longer in power of Sparta and Athens, and instead we see "hawks" in Sparta, and in Athens it is Cleon--"the most violent man in Athens"--who is waxing powerful. Cities taken by siege are no longer incorporated into the respective empires; they are razed and the citizens put to the sword, as "punishment" for having resisted--sorry, I mean for having given aid to the enemy. No, nothing new under the sun. It's a lot like reading The Economist.