Military history

Chapter 3

Origins 3: The Greeks

Do not trust the Horse, Trojans/ Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.

—Laocoon in Virgil’s Aeneid

Our third source for the origins of strategy is ancient Greece. In terms of its subsequent influence, this was the most important. At first the stories told about power and war shared with the Bible the complication of divine intervention, which implied that the best strategic advice was to stay on the right side of the gods, but by the fifth century BCE a Greek enlightenment, a combination of intellectual open-mindedness and rigorous political debate, had taken place. This resulted in an extraordinarily rich philosophical and historical literature that has had an enduring influence. Homer’s heroes were masters of both words and actions, although the differences between Achilles and Odysseus showed the potential tension between the two. The man of action could either be admired for his courage or dismissed as a fool for his sole reliance on strength, while the man of words could be celebrated for his intelligence or treated warily because words could deceive.

One of the curiosities of this literature is that some of its most interesting reflections on what it might mean to think as well as act strategically— not only in a military sense—were later played down and lost their impact. We can attribute this to the intervention of Plato. He was determined that philosophy should break decisively with the tendencies he lumped together as sophistry, which he saw as a diversion from a disinterested search for truth into a mercenary means of persuasion. There is some irony in that Plato’s method for disposing of sophistry, using exaggeration and caricature, was intensely strategic. Given the care with which he was studied by later generations, the importance of Plato’s success in this enterprise should not be underestimated.

From Homer came the contrasting qualities, represented respectively by Achilles and Odysseus, of bie and metis (strength and cunning), which over time—for example, in Machiavelli—came to be represented as force and guile. This polarity continued to find expression in strategic literature. Outsmarting the opponent risked less pain than open conflict, although winning by cunning and subterfuge was often deplored for a lack of honor and nobility. There was also the more practical problem that reliance on deception was apt to suffer diminishing returns as opponents came to appreciate what they were facing. As the previous two chapters demonstrate, there was nothing unnatural or surprising in efforts to get the better of stronger opponents by catching them by surprise or tricking them in some way. Other ways of coping with superior strength, however, were combining with others or disrupting an opponent’s coalition.

A preference for force or guile might reflect a temperamental disposition, but it could not be a strategy in itself. That must depend on how best to turn a complex and developing set of affairs to advantage, which in turn must depend on an ability to persuade those who must implement the strategy that it is wise. The master of casting a strategy in its most compelling form, at least according to Thucydides, was the Athenian statesman Pericles. The ability to persuade not only one’s people but also allies and enemies was a vital attribute of the successful strategist. In this way, strategy required a combination of words and deeds, and the ability to manipulate them both.


Metis described a particular notion of a strategic intelligence for which there is no obvious English equivalent. In Greek it was related to metiao: “to consider, meditate, plan,” together with metioomai, “to contrive,” conveyed a sense of a capacity to think ahead, attend to detail, grasp how others think and behave, and possess a general resourcefulness. But it could also convey deception and trickery, capturing the moral ambivalence around a quality so essential to the strategist’s art. According to the mythology, the goddess Metis was chosen by Zeus as his first wife. Fearful that a son combining his strength with his mother’s intelligence would become too powerful, Zeus employed her own methods of deceit and surprise to avoid that risk and so ate her. He intended to control the source of all metis forever when he swallowed Metis. What he did not know was that Metis was already pregnant, with a daughter Athena, who was born—fully formed— through Zeus’s head. Athena, the goddess of both wisdom and war, came to be associated with metis more than the other divinities. She developed a close association with the mortal who most embodied metis, Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Athena described him as “far the best of all mortals in thought and word, and I’m renowned among all the gods for my wisdom and my cunning ways.”1

Odysseus exhibited an agile and expedient intelligence. He could evaluate situations quickly, think ahead, and stay sharply focused on the ultimate goal even when caught in ambiguous and uncertain situations. More concerned with success than glory, he was indirect and psychological in his methods, seeking to confuse, disorient, and outwit opponents. But Odysseus also suffered from the challenge of the known deceiver. After a time, he became a victim of the liar’s paradox: it became hard to get anyone to believe him, even when he was telling the truth. His greatest triumph was the wooden horse left outside the gates of Troy, which ended a decade of siege and opened up the city for utter destruction and mass slaughter. Virgil, the Roman who took a less generous view of Odysseus than did Homer, described how the Greeks made a show of giving up on their struggle to seize Troy. A large horselike construction, filled with up to fifty soldiers, was hauled to a position just outside the city walls. It carried the inscription: “For their return home, the Achaeans dedicate this thank-offering to Athena.”2

The Trojans, hoping that the decade-long siege had been lifted, came out to inspect this strange horse. King Priam and the elders debated what to do. The choice was simple. They could treat it as a threat and either burn it or break it up to see what was inside, or haul it inside and use it as an opportunity to honor Athena. But Athena was known to have favored the Greeks and be prone to trickery. After all that had happened, was it really wise to trust either her or the Greeks? Odysseus always knew that the Trojans would need some persuasion. This was accomplished by Sinon, an expert liar. He claimed to the Trojans that he was a defector. His story was that he had escaped the Greeks after falling out with Odysseus. He was about to be offered up as a sacrifice to persuade the gods to provide favorable winds for the Greek ships to get home. The Trojans were half persuaded. Priam asked whether the “huge monster of a horse” was for religious purposes or “some engine of war.” Sinon explained that it was indeed designed to placate Athena, whom the Greeks had offended. It was not meant for the Trojans, he added. In fact it had been built so large because the Greeks were worried that if the Trojans got the horse into the city they would never again be vulnerable to invasion.

Sinon had arrived on the scene as the priest Laocoon was warning that this apparent offering was a fraud, a “trick of war.” When Laocoon threw a spear at the horse, the frightened soldiers inside had moaned. This might have been something of a giveaway, were it not for the intervention of Athena, who sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoon and his two sons. This suggested he was being punished for sacrilege—a good reason not to follow his advice. The other warning came from Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, who told the people they were fools and faced an “evil fate.” Alas, Cassandra had been granted the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo but was then cursed for not returning his love. Unlike Sinon, who could lie and be believed, Cassandra would make accurate predictions and never be believed. And so the decision was made. The Trojans decided to take the horse through the gate. During the night, the hidden Greek soldiers got out. On a signal from Sinon, the Greek army advanced and the gates of Troy were opened for them. The city was sacked and the people massacred.

Homer mentioned the wooden horse only in passing in The Odyssey, as a special example of the sort of craftiness that distinguished Odysseus from his more pedestrian peers. He had a talent for getting out of predicaments that might have led others to succumb to fatalism or lash out with hopeless bravado. Homer’s indulgent view of Odysseus’s escapades was not shared by Virgil. He thought such behavior deplorable and unfortunately typical of untrustworthy Greeks. In later centuries, Sinon was placed with Odysseus in Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, a place for those guilty of fraudulent rhetoric and falsification. Proper heroes would be guided by virtue and truth rather than opportunism and trickery.

In his epics, Homer contrasted metis with bie, or brute force. Bie was personified by Achilles, famed for his exceptional physical strength, bravery, agility, and mastery of the spear, but also his great rages. While The Odyssey was about metis, The Iliad was largely an exploration of bie. Achilles demonstrated not only the limits to what force could achieve but also how it could become associated with a certain wildness, a bloodlust that led to terrible deaths and slaughter. Yet it was hard to do without force. When Achilles gave up on the war against the Trojans after being slighted by King Agamemnon, it was Odysseus who led the delegation sent to plead with him. Achilles’s response was to denounce Odysseus and his methods: “I hate like the gates of Hades, the man who says one thing and hides another inside

him.” Just as pointedly, Achilles drew attention to the failure of metis to stop the Greeks being pushed back to the sea by the rampaging “man-killing” Hector, the equivalent Trojan superhero.

Hector was also described as a man of metis, the only Trojan with Zeus- like qualities and therefore the man in whom the Trojans invested their greatest hopes. On crucial occasions, the strategic good sense associated with metis deserted him. This was attributed to the malign influence of Athena, who the poor Trojans believed was still protecting the city at a time she was doing anything but. At the council of the Trojans, an opportunity for a negotiated peace was missed when Hector was guided more by hatred for the Greeks and enthusiasm for battle than a shrewd understanding of what the future might hold. He advocated an offensive course. When the offensive began, he went on the rampage, driving the Greeks back. One casualty was Patroclus, a close friend of Achilles. His death led Achilles to turn his considerable rage away from Agamemnon and against Hector. Having reentered the fight, Achilles cut down many Trojans, while all the time searching for Hector. Eventually, tricked again by Athena, Hector found himself facing Achilles, something he had understandably hoped to avoid.3 He was soon killed with a single blow to the neck. Achilles then tied Hector’s body to his chariot and dragged it round the battlefield.

As this is close to the end of The Iliad, we are led to think that Achilles’s victory sealed the fate of Troy. Yet the Greeks could not press home their advantage. Achilles was soon killed by Paris, the man who had caused the war in the first place by taking Helen from King Menelaus of Sparta. Paris struck Achilles with an arrow from a distance. According to one account— though not Homer’s—the arrow had to hit him in his heel. In this legend, his mother had dipped the newly born Achilles in the river Styx. He gained invulnerability where the waters touched him but not on his heel, where his mother’s hand had gripped him. Achilles’s heel served as a reminder that even the strongest have their points of weakness which, if found, can be used to bring them down. Hector killing Patroclus and Achilles killing Hector could also be taken as salutary warnings of the dangers of overreaching, of using force without intelligent restraint. Brute force is not enough. “In the final analysis,” notes Jenny Strauss Clay, “the humane heroism of Odysseus, based as it is on intelligence and endurance, is set above the quicksilver glory of Achilles.”4

After the war had been decided by the ruse of the wooden horse, the Greeks began their journey home. It was as challenging as the original siege. Terrible storms caused their ships to sink or crash against rocks. Odysseus was blown off course and took another ten years to get home.

His adventures along the way provided ample opportunity to apply metis. A striking test came when Polyphemus, a giant one-eyed Cyclops, devoured a number of his men. Odysseus and his surviving men were trapped by a boulder that only Polyphemus could move. The first stage of Odysseus’s plan was to get Polyphemus to drink more than was good for him. Then Odysseus told the drunk Cyclops that his name in Greek was Outis, made up of ou tis, meaning “not anyone.”5 This allowed Odysseus to conceal his identity and set up Polyphemus for a later piece of deception. Next, Odysseus blinded the giant by drilling a stake into his eye. As Polyphemus cried out in agony, his fellow Cyclopei asked, “Is any man stealing your flocks and driving them off? Is any man trying to kill you through cunning or superior strength?” When he replied, “Noman (Outis) is trying to kill me through his cunning,” they took this literally and so thought no more about it.6 Polyphemus removed the boulder to let out his sheep. He tried to feel to see if Odysseus and his men were escaping on top of the animals, but they had tied themselves underneath the animals. Unwisely, Odysseus then decided to boast. No longer Outis, he identified himself as one “known for his cunning.” Polyphemus’s father, the sea god Poseidon, then determined to make Odysseus’s life miserable on his long journey home.

The Method in Metis

For Odysseus, the ends justified the means. The trickster was always prepared to be judged by results. The moral unease that this approach generated was evident in Sophocles’s play, Philoctetes. This was the name of a Greek warrior en route to the Trojan War. His advantage was a bow given to him by the god Heracles; his disadvantage, a painful and smelly wound resulting from a snake bite. Odysseus found the smell and Philoctetes’s cries of pain intolerable and left the poor man angry and in agony—but with his bow—on an island. A decade later, Odysseus realized that the bow was essential in the fight against Troy and set off with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to acquire it. Given his past treatment of Philoctetes, Odysseus knew neither brute force nor persuasion would get the bow, so Odysseus encouraged Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes. The young man, however, had his father’s “natural antipathy/ to get [his] ends by tricks and stratagems.” He would prefer to “fail with honor” than to win by cheating. Did not Odysseus find the lying “vile”? No, came the reply, putting scruples above the common good placed the whole war effort at risk.

In the play, the matter was resolved by the favored device of the deus ex machina. The god Heracles told Philoctetes to join the battle. The response was immediate: “Voice for which I have long yearned, Form, long visioned, now discerned! Thee I cannot disobey.”7 So craven obedience to a god quickly solved the dispute in a way that cunning could not. All ended happily. Odysseus succeeded in his mission, Neoptolemus maintained his honor, and Philoctetes gained glory and healing of his wound. The play underlined the difficulty of relying on deception and then expecting to be trusted. Those who knew Odysseus’s reputation rarely trusted him even when he was being straight.8 The impact of the best story was diminished when the teller lacked credibility.

Odysseus has been described as exemplifying “a particular idea of practical intelligence.” According to Barnouw, he was able to consider “intended actions in the light of anticipated consequences.” He kept his main purpose in mind and thought “back from that final goal through a complex network of means (and obstacles) to achieve it.” The contrast therefore was not just with brute force but the recklessness of those who were not so well tuned to the signs of danger and who failed to think through the potential consequences of their actions. When Odysseus decided not to succumb to some short-term impulse for revenge, it was because he remembered how much more he wanted to achieve his long-term goals of returning safely to his wife Penelope and his kingdom in Ithaca. Rather than seeing reason and passion in opposition to one another, practical intelligence was about finding the appropriate relations between competing ends, each with an associated bundle of passions and reasons. Odysseus’s understanding of how others viewed the world allowed him to manipulate their thought processes by giving out signs that he knew they would read in a particular way. He was not playing pranks on others just because he enjoyed their discomfort. Rather, his craftiness and capacity for deception were geared to his ultimate objectives. Metis was therefore forward-looking, with elements of anticipation and planning, as well as guile and trickery. Barnouw described this intelligence as being as much “visceral as intellectual,” less an “impassive weighing of alternatives,” and more a prioritizing of aims or impulses that are most desired. It reflected more “the strength and depth of passion as the work of reason.”9

Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant similarly argued that me tis as exemplified by Odysseus was a distinctive form of practical intelligence. More than being shrewd and crafty, it was also forward-looking, locating current actions as part of a longer-term plan, grasping the potential of situations so as to be able to manipulate others into error. This suggested a cast of mind as much as a plan of action, a way by which the underdog could triumph over the notionally stronger. Despite the association between metis and the “disloyal trick, the perfidious lie, treachery,” it could also be “the absolute weapon, the only one that has the power to ensure victory and domination over others, whatever the circumstances, whatever the conditions of the conflict.” Whereas strength could be defeated by superior strength, metis could defeat all strength.

Metis was of most value when matters were fluid, fast moving, unfamiliar, and uncertain, combining “contrary features and forces that are opposed to each other.” It was suited to situations when there could be no formulaic or predictable behavior, benefiting from a “greater grip” of the present, “more awareness” of the future, “richer experience accumulated from the past,” an ability to adapt constantly to changing events, and sufficient pliability to accommodate the unexpected. This practical intelligence operated in circumstances of conflict and was reflected in such qualities as forethought, perspicacity, quickness and acuteness of understanding, as well as a capacity for trickery and deceit. Such a person was elusive, slipping through an “adversary’s fingers like running water,” relying on ambiguity, inversion, and reversal.10 All this described a strategic intelligence, able to discern a way through complicated and ambiguous situations and then come out on top. But it was also largely intuitive, or at least implicit, and at moments of sudden danger and crisis, this might be all that could be relied upon. There was no reason, however, why the same qualities could not come into play when there was time to be more deliberative and calculating.


Ate, the daughter of Eris, the goddess of strife, spent her time encouraging stupidity in both mortals and immortals. She was banished from Mount Olympus to earth. Barbara Tuchman described her as the goddess of infatuation, mischief, delusion, and folly. Ate was said to blind her victims to considerations of morality or expedience and render them “incapable of rational choice.” Such gods, lamented Tuchman, provided humans with an excuse for their folly. Homer has Zeus, the king of the gods, insisting that if mortals had suffered “beyond that which is ordained” it was not because of the gods but because of the “blindness of their own hearts.” It was not fate that led to disaster, but bad strategy.11 Yet appeals to the gods continued to be made regularly in Athenian affairs. Omens were sought and oracles consulted.

Then, during the Athenian enlightenment of the fifth century BCE, an alternative approach developed that rejected explanations for events based on the immortals and instead looked to human behavior and decisions. In addition, warfare became too complicated to be left to the heroic deeds of individual warriors; more coordination and planning was needed. The Athenian War Council consisted of ten strategoi who were expected to be able to lead from the front, fight with the best, and show total commitment. In this respect the origins of strategy lie with generalship, that is, the qualities that made for effective leadership.12 Thucydides, who lived from around 460 to 395 BCE, was a strategos. After he failed to prevent a Spartan occupation of Amphipolis, he was exiled for twenty years, which provided opportunities to get to know Spartans as well as Athenians. “I had leisure,” he recalled, “to observe affairs somewhat particularly.”13 This leisure was used to write what he considered to be the definitive history of the war between Athens and Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War. This was fought from 431 to 404 BCE between the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, and the Athenian empire, known as the Delian League. Sparta was the clear victor. Before the war Athens had been the strongest of the Greek city states. By the war’s conclusion, Athens was much diminished.

As a historian, Thucydides exemplified the enlightenment spirit, describing conflict in unsentimental and calculating terms, posing hard questions of power and purpose, and observing how choices had consequences. He dismissed explanations for human affairs that depended on capricious fate and mischievous gods and concentrated instead on political leaders and their strategies. He insisted on a dogged empiricism, seeking an accurate account of events backed up where necessary and possible by diligent research. His narrative illuminated some of the central themes of all strategy: the limits imposed by the circumstances of the time, the importance of coalitions as a source of strength but also instability, the challenge of coping with internal opponents and external pressures simultaneously, the difficulties of strategies that are defensive and patient in the face of demands for quick and decisive offensives, the impact of the unexpected, and—perhaps most importantly— the role of language as a strategic instrument. The headlines from Thucydides were often taken to be the descriptions of the irresistibility of power and the imperviousness of the strong to the complaints of the weak or considerations of morality. On this basis he has been cast as one of the founders of realism, a temperament to which strategic theorists have been presumed to be susceptible because of their relentless focus on power and their presumption that self-interest best explains behavior. According to the more doctrinaire realism, the lack of a supreme authority governing all international affairs has always rendered states inherently insecure. If they dared not trust in the good intentions of others, they must make provisions for their own defense— though these provisions in turn made others insecure. 14 The significance of Thucydides from this perspective was that he demonstrated its timelessness.

In a non-doctrinaire sense, Thucydides was indeed a realist, describing human affairs as he found them rather than how he might wish them to be. But he did not suggest that men were bound to act on the basis of a narrow self-interest or that they actually served their broader interests if they did. The picture he presented was much more complex and fluid, one in which momentary strength could hide an underlying weakness, and political leaders were addressing a range of actors—some internal and others external— realizing that new combinations could create new forms of advantage and disadvantage.

He put into the mouths of key actors, however, statements which suggested that they were following the unavoidable imperatives of power, from which there could be no reprieve. The Athenians, for example, explained at one point that they were not holding on to their empire “contrary to the common practice of mankind” but “under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest.” They did not set the example: “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.”15 The same point was put most memorably in the Melian dialogue when the Athenians point out that “the strong do what they can while the weak must suffer what they must.”16 They had no choice but to suppress the Melians, not only to extend their rule but because not doing so when they had the chance would show them to be feeble and damage their reputation. Law and morality were fragile restraints, as the powerful could make laws and define morality to suit their purposes. Yet because Thucydides quoted arguments in favor of crude exercises of power did not mean that he endorsed them. He also reported alternative, even idealistic, views as well as the unfortunate consequences of always worrying about appearing weak, for this led later to disastrous gambles when caution would have been prudent.

The most important direct assertion of a realist philosophy comes in his most famous observation, considering the origins of the Peloponnesian War: “What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” He acknowledged other explanations, based on the “causes of complaint,” but seemed to be displacing them by a more systemic analysis.17 One challenge to this interpretation of Thucydides’s views lies in questions of translation. A more subtle translation suggests that while Thucydides undoubtedly saw the shifting power balance between the two powers as being of great—and previously understated— importance, the origins of the war lie in its combination with the disputes of the moment.18 That still leaves a question of whether the systemic factor deserved the prominence given it. Thucydides may have stressed it for the sake of the reputation of his hero Pericles, the ruler of Athens for some thirty years from 460 BCE.

The power and prestige of Athens had grown as a result of its leadership of the successful Greek resistance to Persia, although it was not particularly growing prior to the war. It had turned the loose collection of mutually supportive city states that worked with Athens into a more controlled alliance. This, however, created its own vulnerability as Athenian hegemony became increasingly unpopular. Pericles, who consolidated his authority as Athens’s statesmen in 461 BCE, had concluded that it was a sufficient challenge to manage the existing empire without seeking to expand the League further. Sparta had acknowledged this restraint. After a war that lasted from 460 to 445 BCE, the two had agreed to the Thirty Years’ Peace. Since that treaty, Pericles had avoided provoking Sparta, a fact noted and accepted by Sparta. It had neither taken an aggressive stance nor made exceptional preparations for war.

The reason why the question of the relationship between the two had come back into play was because of the complications of alliance. A coalition was an obvious benefit for a weaker power wishing to get stronger, but an alliance for a power that was already strong could be a mixed blessing because it could raise expectations and generate obligations while adding little in return. The members of the coalition might agree on a common enemy but little else. Furthermore, the measures taken by Athens to make sure that it did benefit from the Delian League, including contributions to the Athenian treasury and navy, generated resentment. As the Persian threat declined, the resentment increased and Athens became tougher, demanding that their allies become more Athenian, including more democratic. The Spartans, by contrast, showed little interest in the internal affairs of their allies. The position Pericles was trying to sustain was therefore precarious. The empire was of great value to Athens, but the city states were restless.

For different reasons, the Peloponnesian League was also restless. Sparta was being pressed by one of its most substantial allies, Corinth, to take a harder line with Athens. Corinth had its supporters, including Megara, which had its own grievance as a result of the “Megarian Decree” that denied its produce access to Athenian markets. The reason Megara was demanding a push against Athens was because it was in dispute with Corcyra, which had become an obstacle to its own expansion. Corcyra had sought to protect its position by seeking naval support through alliance with Athens. If Athens had resisted, war might have been avoided, but instead an awkward compromise emerged. An alliance would be formed but it would only be defensive. Donald Kagan notes the curiosity in Thucydides’s presentation of the issue to his fellow Athenians. He was probably present at these debates, yet he abandoned his normal practice of providing full reports of speeches presenting alternative points of view.19 Kagan concludes that he did so because further elaboration would have made it clear that the decisions on war were not so much inevitable but the result of Pericles’s persuasive powers.20 Those who took controversial decisions on war tended to portray their decisions as acts of necessity and play down the exercise of discretion.

It was decided to send emissaries to Sparta to explain Athenian policy, although Thucydides suggested that the presence of authoritative Athenians in Sparta at the time of the key deliberations was almost accidental. He therefore did not explain who was sent or the nature of their instructions. In a fuller account of the Spartan debate, Thucydides had Corinth, thwarted by Athens, demanding Spartan support. The demand carried a threat. If Sparta exhibited supine passivity, their allies would be put at risk and would then be driven “in despair to some other alliance.”21 This raised the stakes. Sparta would not want to acquire a reputation for weakness or be weakened in practice by the loss of substantial allies. This was what created the crisis for Sparta. To be sure, Corinth portrayed Athens as grasping with limitless hegemonic ambitions. But to the extent Sparta took note of Corinth, it was not because such fears were shared but because of concern about the defection of a key ally. Indeed the “war party” in Sparta was somewhat dismissive of Athenian power. King Archidamus was much warier, and more anxious to keep the peace, but his advice was ignored and in August 432 BCE, the Spartan assembly voted for war.

Yet even after voting for war, Sparta still sent diplomatic missions to Athens, and these almost resulted in a compromise. In the end it came down to the Megarian Decree. Notably, the emissaries did not push the cause of Corinth but identified the Decree as an unambiguous violation of the Thirty Years’ Peace. Thucydides records that many speakers came forward with different views, some favoring war and others revoking the Decree for the sake of peace.22 This time he reported Pericles’s decisive intervention in detail, which focused on Sparta’s rejection of arbitration. He accused it of relying on coercion rather than discussion. Such demands demonstrated a refusal to treat Athens as equal. He used an argument still often heard when warning of a larger ambition behind an opponent’s apparently modest and reasonable demand. This was not a “trifle,” Pericles insisted: “If you yield to them you will immediately be required to make another concession which will be greater, since you will have made the first concession out of fear.”23 Even then, there was restraint in his strategy. It put the onus on Sparta to strike the first blow and refuse arbitration.

In the most extreme version, Thucydides’s proposition about the inevitability of war does not stand up. There were a number of points where alternative views might have prevailed and made possible an alternative history. As Richard Ned Lebow has argued, far from being inevitable, war was “the result of an improbable series of remarkably bad judgments made by the leaders of the several powers involved.”24 These started with the lesser powers whose rivalries and entanglements drew in Sparta and Athens. The Athenians might have rejected Corcyra’s bid for alliance; Sparta might have rejected Corinth’s urgings to take a strong stand; Athens might have abandoned the Megarian Decree; Sparta might have agreed to arbitration.

Yet there were structural factors at play here. The relationship between the two alliances was unstable. There was sufficient residual distrust to create space for those lesser powers who wanted to pursue their own interests. Athens and Sparta had managed to make the Thirty Years’ Peace work because there were leaders on both sides who were prepared to moderate any urges to action and aggrandizement in order to keep the peace, but each side also had hawkish factions that disliked moderation and made the case for war. Just as the Corinthians told the Spartans that Athens was inherently aggressive, so the Corcyreans told Athens that they should be welcomed as allies because of the strength of their combined navies. This would be needed when war came, for Sparta and its allies were “eager for war out of fear of you, and . . . the Corinthians have great influence with them and are your enemies.”25 Thus decision-making was unsettled by the developing fluidity in allegiances. Athens saw a choice between alliance with Corcyra or seeing its navy being taken by the Peloponnesians; Sparta saw a choice between backing Corinth’s ambitions or risking its defection.

The leadership in both camps, however, was the same that had preserved the peace in the past. Now their ability to follow conciliatory, restrained strategies was circumscribed. Instead they tried to mitigate the effects of the harder line by presenting it in its most restrained version. Thus Pericles accepted an alliance with Corcyra but insisted it should be defensive, which was a novel concept intended to find the least provocative way forward short of rebuttal. When ships were dispatched to affirm this new alliance, it was only a small squadron, insufficient to embolden Corcyra to go on the offensive but also unfortunately insufficient to deter Corinth, so in the end Athens ended up with a more forward commitment than intended. When Sparta wanted to find a diplomatic alternative to the war it had already decided upon in principle, it did not push hard on behalf of Corinth but concentrated on what might have seemed to be a minor issue, the Megarian Decree. By then the room for maneuver on both sides was narrowing. Pericles saw danger in backing down in the face of any direct Spartan demand, but he promised to accept the verdict of arbitration.

The strategy Pericles then followed for the war also contained elements of restraint. It made sense if it was supposed that there was still a peace party in Sparta whose hand would be strengthened once it could be shown that the war party had embarked on a futile course. It also reflected another asymmetry between the two leagues. The Peloponnesian League was largely continental, while Athens—although itself on the mainland—presided over a largely maritime empire. Aware of the strength of the Spartan army, Pericles sought to avoid a land battle and rely instead on Athens’s superior naval strength. Pericles did not see the possibility of inflicting a decisive blow against Sparta, so instead he sought a stalemate. His calculation was that Athens had the reserves to outlast Sparta even if the war dragged on for a number of years. In the language of later centuries, he sought victory through enemy exhaustion rather than annihilation.

Politically this strategy was brave in its restraint, but it represented an enormous gamble, and probably only someone with the prestige of Pericles could have carried the day with this proposition. The gamble did not come off. There were annual Spartan attacks on Attica—a source of produce near Athens—to which no response was made other than to send raiding parties around the Peloponnesus. The regular loss of crops from Attica drained the treasury’s ability to import essential produce from elsewhere. It also left Athens looking helpless in the face of Spartan aggression. Then came a calamity. A plague in 430 BCE, aggravated by the overcrowding in Athens caused by displaced Atticans, resulted in immense distress. For once Pericles lacked good arguments. Eventually he was removed from office and peace was offered to Sparta. Sparta insisted on draconian terms, effectively asking Athens to abandon its empire, which completely undermined the peace party. Pericles returned as leader, but in 429 BCE he was struck by the plague (which almost killed Thucydides) and died. His efforts to find a course between excessive aggression and appeasement had led him to seek a combination of firmness and restraint. In the end, this increased rather than eased the risks to Athens. The strategy had a limited coercive effect on Sparta, was excessively costly to Athens, and encouraged the colonies to become rebellious. After Pericles died, Athens adopted a more aggressive strategy. This reaped some rewards, and even peace terms from Sparta, but it was then the Athenians’ turn to overextend themselves.

Language and Trickery

Thucydides admired Pericles because of his ability to manage the Athenian political system by using his authority and eloquence to appeal to reason and persuade the crowd to adopt sensible policies rather than pandering to the demagoguery and mass irrationality that was an ever-present possibility in a democracy—and to which Athens succumbed after he died.26

Athenian democracy required that all the city’s key decisions follow intense public deliberations. Strategy could not stay implicit but had to be articulated. It was essential not only to have the foresight to see how events might unfold if the right action was taken but also the ability to convince others that this was so. Assembly and courtroom debates involved opposing speeches—antilogies—that put a premium on the ability to develop strong arguments. There was an interest in the development and application of the persuasive arts.27 Gorgias, who arrived in Athens during the early stages of the Peloponnesian War (427 BCE) and lived to a great age, offered displays of rhetorical virtuosity. He showed how it was possible to make a weak argument stronger through careful construction, and taught his art to willing pupils. He saw words as equivalent to physical force. They could cause pain and joy: “Some strike fear, some stir the audience to boldness, some benumb and bewitch the soul with evil persuasion.” One of his surviving discourses demonstrated why Helen could be excused for triggering the Trojan War by running off with Paris. Protagoras, another influential figure, was notable for his explorations into the proper use of language. He somewhat uniquely described himself as a sophist (from sophistes , meaning “wise man”), a term that became significant retrospectively when Plato used it to define a whole group of thinkers. There was a market for a specialist education in public discourse. Litigants could learn how to plead effectively; candidates for office could broaden their appeal; active politicians could be more persuasive.28

Pericles enjoyed the company of the intellectuals, including Protagoras. He dismissed the idea that there was distinction to be made between men of action and those of words: “We are lovers of wisdom without sacrificing manly courage.” Persuasion required compelling words: those with knowledge but not the “power clearly to express it” might as well have had no ideas at all. He presented himself to the people of Athens as “one who has at least as much ability as anyone else to see what ought to be done and explain what he sees.” The importance of the persuasive arts explains why speeches and dialogues were so important in Thucydides’s account. This is how Pericles presented strategic arguments, probably described by Thucydides with more coherence than they had in reality.

Pericles’s success lay in his authority and ability to convince the people to follow strategies developed with care and foresight. He sought to control events through the application and expression of intellect. As Parry put it, the creativity of his speeches lay in his ability to describe a future that could be achieved if his advice was followed. This concept of the future was drawn from existing reality but moved beyond it. Its plausibility derived from its practicability but also its “discernment of the strongest and most lasting forces in the outside world.” Pericles then needed to ensure that events conformed to this vision. He therefore had to be much more than a persuasive orator. His speeches were strategic scripts, offering a satisfactory way forward that reflected his grasp of what might be possible in the light of the forces at work in the world. More than most, he could make reality correspond with his vision by setting out ways of acting that the Athenians could follow successfully. But it always also depended on how foes acted as well as factors of chance. In the end, the integrity of the script could be undermined by events. The deeper meaning of Thucydides’s account was tragic, because it revealed the limits of strategic reasoning in the face of a contrary world:

But actuality in the end proves unmanageable. It breaks in upon men’s conceptions, changes them, and finally destroys them. Even where men’s conceptions are sound and reasonable, where by their own creative power and their discernment of actuality they correspond to things, actuality in its capacity as Luck, will behave in an unreasonable way, as Pericles says, and overturn conceptions of the greatest nobility and intelligence.

For Pericles it was the plague in its terrible suddenness, symbolizing “the destructive and incalculable power of actuality,” that undermined his vision and denied the control he sought over the historical process. Once he could not convince the Athenian people, he was undone. The tragedy for Thucydides, in offering Pericles as his hero, was that he could not accept an alternative approach. Words as action, analyzing reality and showing how it could be reshaped, were the only hope of controlling actuality. When conceptions and language struggled to keep up with reality, they became almost meaningless and turned into slogans, devoid of true meaning.29

Another character, Diodotus, provided a critique. When the oligarchs of Mytilene revolted unsuccessfully against Athens, Diodotus persuaded his fellow citizens not to impose a harsh punishment as demanded by the demagogue Cleon. In doing so, Diodotus reflected on the role of speech-making in a democracy. It was essential, he argued, that decent citizens should make cases based on rational arguments honestly expressed, but the hostile environment of the assembly was putting a premium on deception.

It has become the rule also to treat good advice honestly given as being no less under suspicion than the bad, so that a person who has something good to say must tell lies in order to be believed, just as someone who gives terrible advice must win over the people by deception.30

He then illustrated his point by making his case for leniency on the basis of Athenian interests rather than justice and by drawing attention to the limited deterrent effect of harsh punishments.31

An even more striking example of Thucydides’s concern with the corruption of language was found in his description of the uprising in Corcyra, which resulted in a bloody civil war between the democrats and the oligarchs. As he described the breakdown of social order, he also described the corruption of language. Recklessness became courage, prudence became cowardice, moderation became unmanly, an ability to see all sides of a question became an incapacity to act, while violence became manly and plotting self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was to be trusted and those who opposed them suspect.32 The language followed the action. As restraint collapsed so did the possibity of sensible discourse.

Plato’s Strategic Coup

By the end of the century, Athens was diminished and entering a period of political turbulence, during which it was brutally run for a while by Spartan sympathizers. Intellectuals—once such an active, positive force—became objects of suspicion, and they withdrew from political affairs. One figure became cast in the role of a martyr for philosophy. Socrates had said positive things about Sparta and negative things about democracy, took a constantly critical attitude, and was considered to look and act strangely. He was sentenced to death in 399 BCE for corrupting the young. Although Socrates left no writings, he did have devoted students, including Plato, who was about twenty-five when Socrates died. Plato created an idealized version of his teacher, developing his own philosophy by recording many of Socrates’s supposed conversations. Plato left a rich series of dialogues on an extraordinary range of issues, but no definitive and systematic account of his views. Nonetheless, certain themes emerged strongly. The most relevant for our purposes concerned the political role of philosophy, including damning those that had gone before for the very qualities that had made their intellects strategic. It was Plato who labeled this prior philosophy as sophism, for which he developed a formidable charge sheet.

According to Plato, the sophists were not serious in their philosophical endeavors. They had given up on the search for truth in order to play rhetorical games, using their persuasive powers on behalf of any case—however unworthy the cause or perverse the logic—in return for payment. Based largely on his own testimony, Plato bequeathed an enduring and demeaning image of the sophists as the “spin-doctors” of their day, rhetorical strategists, relativist in their morality, disinterested in truth, suggesting that all that really mattered was power. They were hired hands, traveling wordsmiths who sold their skills to the highest bidder without any view of right and wrong. They displayed an appalling capacity to defeat a just argument by an unjust one and so use their cleverness to confuse ordinary people. An art put up for sale lost its worth. By serving a variety of masters, the sophists lacked a moral core and encouraged forms of competitive demagogy. The demands of conscience and sense of collective responsibility, shared values and respect for tradition, were all put at risk by their relentless skepticism, disdain for the gods, and promotion of self-interest. Tricks with language allowed the foolish and ignorant to appear wise and knowledgeable. For Plato, virtues were universal and timeless, and it was only through philosophy that they could be described and defined.

This charge sheet has now been discredited: the sophists were not a coherent group, and their views were complex and varied. It was not a collective name they chose for themselves, and it only acquired a pejorative connotation because of Plato. A number may not even have been that interested in persuasion but were instead experimenting in discourse and also providing a form of intellectually mischievous entertainment.33 The artificiality of Plato’s exercise is attested to by his deliberate attempt to rescue his teacher Socrates from this despised group of imposters, despite the fact that Socrates shared many of their characteristics, not least his skeptical, questioning approach to all forms of inquiry. In contemporary terms that Chapter 26 further explores, we might say that Plato engineered a “paradigm shift,” and he did this by lumping together those with whom he disagreed into an old paradigm that failed to meet the tests of truth-seeking, to be compared to the new paradigm, developed around a distinct, specialized discipline and profession of philosophy. To use another contemporary term, he “framed” the issue as being a choice between the ethical search for the truth on the one hand and the expedient construction of persuasive arguments as a form of trade on the other. Pericles saw intellectual cultivation as something to which all Athenians aspired; Plato saw philosophy as an exclusive vocation with pure objectives.34

Plato believed that true philosophers would be so special that they should be rulers. This would not be because they were skilled in argument and could get people to support their preferred course of action, for Plato did not believe in democracy. It was because they could acquire the highest form of knowledge, grasping with clarity and certainty the essential quality of goodness, which they could then employ to watch over and care for the citizenry. Plato was no enthusiast for intellectual pluralism or the complex interaction of ideas and action that characterized a vibrant political system. The rulers must have supreme power to decide what was wise and just. This vision has had an occasional appeal to would-be philosopher-kings and has been identified as a source of totalitarianism.35

Apparently contradicting his insistence on truth as the highest goal was his advocacy of a foundational myth, a “noble lie” that would keep the people “content in their roles.” The advocate was Socrates: “We want one single, grand lie which will be believed by everybody—including the rulers ideally, but failing that the rest of the city.”36 No issue demonstrated more the tension inherent in combining the role of philosopher and ruler, with their respective commitments to the truth and civic order. Plato seems to have reconciled the two by a notion of truth that was not merely empirical but also moral, an insight into the higher virtues. Not everyone could have this sort of insight and this created responsibilities when dealing with lesser minds, the lower classes whose grasp of the world was always bound to be limited and illusory. The noble lie was therefore one for good purpose, introduced by Socrates as charter myths for his ideal city. These must be lies that produce harmony and well-being, compared to those of Homer, for example, whose fictions were all about killing and disputes. The noble lie was a white lie on a grand scale. Just as children might be tricked into taking medicines or soldiers encouraged into battle, so communities had to be educated into a belief in social harmony and a conviction that the existing order was natural. The class structure was therefore the result of the different metals the gods had put into individual souls—gold for rulers, silver for auxiliaries, and iron and bronze for farmers and artisans.

Plato’s main legacy was not in the character of rulers but in the establishment of philosophy as a specialist profession. Later we will see how something similar happened with the post-enlightenment social sciences in modern times. What started as a set of puzzles about knowledge and its practical application, engaging directly with large and contentious social and political questions, became an assertion of a specialist expertise and claims to a higher “scientific” truth. Strategy, which had to be about conflict—not just between and within the city states but also between the claims of words and the reality of deeds, between the virtue of honesty and the expedience of deception—was always far from a Platonic ideal. Part of Plato’s legacy was the sharp distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, in place of a tradition which appreciated the constant interaction between views of the world and the experience of coping with its complexities.

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