Friday, July 17, 2015

Let's have a war: hawks and doves in ancient Athens

“Indeed, even if we leave Athens with a force not only equal to that of the enemy except in the number of heavy infantry in the field, but even at all points superior to him, we shall still find it difficult to conquer Sicily or save ourselves. We must not disguise from ourselves that we go to found a city among strangers and enemies, and that he who undertakes such an enterprise should be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him. Fearing this, and knowing that we shall have need of much good counsel and more good fortune — a hard matter for mortal man to aspire to — I wish as far as may be to make myself independent of fortune before sailing, and when I do sail, to be as safe as a strong force can make me. This I believe to be surest for the country at large, and safest for us who are to go on the expedition. If any one thinks differently I resign to him my command.”

With this Nicias concluded, thinking that he should either disgust the Athenians by the magnitude of the undertaking, or, if obliged to sail on the expedition, would thus do so in the safest way possible. The Athenians, however, far from having their taste for the voyage taken away by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world. All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.
From Book Six, Chapter XVIII of The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley. Alcibiades is exhorting Athens to mount a campaign to subdue the island of Sicily and so extend Athens' (and his) political power and increase Athens' (and his) wealth. Nicias, the other general of Athenian forces, vainly urges caution and is ignored when he points out that the island of Sicily is as big as the Peloponnesian peninsula and as heavily populated and hey, remember how we failed to subdue the Peloponnese? Alcibiades successfully appeals to Athenian pride and greed. This Sicilian campaign is the very thing that raises up stodgy old Sparta and her allies once again against Athens and leads, finally, to the complete and final defeat of Athens, the destruction of the defensive walls the Athenians have taken shelter behind for decades, the end of the Athenian "Golden Age."

2 comments:

  1. seems like the same problems tend to recur, nicht wahr?

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    1. Reading this history especially makes me realize that progress is a myth. The attitudes and actions are so very much like those seen today. It's quite unsettling.

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