Thursday, July 16, 2015

"after which he immediately led off the army without giving any explanation" Sparta versus Argos

In the middle of the next summer the Lacedaemonians, seeing the Epidaurians, their allies, in distress, and the rest of Peloponnese either in revolt or disaffected, concluded that it was high time for them to interfere if they wished to stop the progress of the evil, and accordingly with their full force, the Helots included, took the field against Argos, under the command of Agis, son of Archidamus, king of the Lacedaemonians. The Tegeans and the other Arcadian allies of Lacedaemon joined in the expedition. The allies from the rest of Peloponnese and from outside mustered at Phlius; the Boeotians with five thousand heavy infantry and as many light troops, and five hundred horse and the same number of dismounted troopers; the Corinthians with two thousand heavy infantry; the rest more or less as might happen; and the Phliasians with all their forces, the army being in their country.

The preparations of the Lacedaemonians from the first had been known to the Argives, who did not, however, take the field until the enemy was on his road to join the rest at Phlius. Reinforced by the Mantineans with their allies, and by three thousand Elean heavy infantry, they advanced and fell in with the Lacedaemonians at Methydrium in Arcadia. Each party took up its position upon a hill, and the Argives prepared to engage the Lacedaemonians while they were alone; but Agis eluded them by breaking up his camp in the night, and proceeded to join the rest of the allies at Phlius. The Argives discovering this at daybreak, marched first to Argos and then to the Nemean road, by which they expected the Lacedaemonians and their allies would come down. However, Agis, instead of taking this road as they expected, gave the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians their orders, and went along another difficult road, and descended into the plain of Argos. The Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians marched by another steep road; while the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians had instructions to come down by the Nemean road where the Argives were posted, in order that, if the enemy advanced into the plain against the troops of Agis, they might fall upon his rear with their cavalry. These dispositions concluded, Agis invaded the plain and began to ravage Saminthus and other places.

Discovering this, the Argives came up from Nemea, day having now dawned. On their way they fell in with the troops of the Phliasians and Corinthians, and killed a few of the Phliasians and had perhaps a few more of their own men killed by the Corinthians. Meanwhile the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians, advancing upon Nemea according to their instructions, found the Argives no longer there, as they had gone down on seeing their property ravaged, and were now forming for battle, the Lacedaemonians imitating their example. The Argives were now completely surrounded; from the plain the Lacedaemonians and their allies shut them off from their city; above them were the Corinthians, Phliasians, and Pellenians; and on the side of Nemea the Boeotians, Sicyonians, and Megarians. Meanwhile their army was without cavalry, the Athenians alone among the allies not having yet arrived. Now the bulk of the Argives and their allies did not see the danger of their position, but thought that they could not have a fairer field, having intercepted the Lacedaemonians in their own country and close to the city.
The Spartans, at long last, have the Argives right where they want them: surrounded, outnumbered, and clueless. Naturally, the Spartans walk away from this battle. The Spartans were not what you might call a decisive people. Their innate cautiousness could easily be mistaken for inactivity. Or a coma.

The war has been going on for sixteen or seventeen years at this point. You can feel Thucydides' growing exhaustion and cynicism. He served as an Athenian general at Amphipolis and his poor performance there has earned our historian an exile from Athens. He spends this time wandering around the Greek territories, researching his history, getting the perspectives of the opponents of Athens. By now Athens is no longer the heroic democracy coming to aid free cities against the repression of places like Corinth. Athens is an imperialist power looking to expand and conquer. When the Athenian forces land at Melos, offering to destroy the Melians if they don't submit to Athenian rule, they excuse their aggression thusly:
They [the other free cities] think...that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.
In other words, Athens must act like a superpower in order to remain a superpower; being a superpower is of course its own reward. It's amusing (and tiresome) that the Athenian delegation once again trots out the hoary old claim that they have a right to rule all of Greece because they did, after all, defeat Xerxes once upon a time. They freed Greece from the Persians in order to rule it in the name of democracy. The Spartans, a non-democratic kingdom, are ironically cast in the role of liberators. This is all fascinating and unsettling.


  1. These, fascinating and unsettling in that reading history leads us to examining more closely the present. But I may be overstating the case. Hmmm.

    1. No, not overstating at all! To read history is to see that human nature is unchanging, which can surely be unsettling. But of course war is only one aspect of history. One could as easily read histories of art or fashion or architecture and be less unsettled. But I tell you, this book is making me twitchy.

  2. Correction. YES rather than THESE.

  3. Coincidentally, today in history marks another martial milestone that I highlight at my blog: first explosion of atom bomb in 1945.