Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book #59 - History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)

If you're like me, a cranky dude who's getting older and crankier by the minute, you often reflect on the world today and think about how it all totally the government sucks because they're reduced to fighting amongst themselves rather than solving our problems, how the people suck because they keep voting for stupid shit that's not in their own best interests, how the government does stupid shit like get into a preemptive war that's worse than the whatever it is they wanted to know, bullshit sucky stuff like that.  Then sometimes after bumming out from how much it all sucks, maybe you'll be like me and get a glimmer of hope when you think that at least things weren't always this bad, so perhaps some day they won't be so bad once again.  Well, if you want to totally burst that fucking bubble then go read Thucydides and his "History of the Peloponnesian War".  It's an amazing, fascinating, enlightening and totally depressing book because it makes you realize that humanity hasn't changed at all in the last 2400 years, and probably never will because people are still the same stupid fucks they've always been despite now having iPhones and Xboxes.  Goddamn fucking people, WTF?  Can't we all read history, learn from it, and not make the same mistakes over and over again?  Apparently not.  Seriously, this book should be required reading before anyone is allowed to vote.  But it won't be because people are too busy playing with their iPhones and Xboxes to read Thucydides.  Fuck it, I need a drink...bad.

Ahh, better...a Carta Blanca with a slice of lime.  What does that have to do with the Ancient Greeks and the suckiness of humanity?  Nothing.  I just wanted a refreshing Mexican lager and this will suit the bill nicely.

Anyway, just WTF is this Peloponnesian War that this Thucydides dude seems so interested in?  Let me explain.  Avid readers of this blog will recall that two years ago I read Herodotus's Histories.  But since there are no avid readers of this blog, and probably not even readers of any kind, then let me just tell you (the imaginary reader) that two years ago I read Herodotus, who wrote a history of the war fought by the Ancient Greeks against the invading Persian Empire which ended in 479 BC when the Athenians, Spartans, and other Greeks decisively defeated the Persians at the battles of Plataea and Mycale.  So what happened after Herodotus's narrative ends?  Did the Greeks, who had to unite and work together to defeat the mighty invading Persian forces, live happily ever after in peace and harmony because they learned they are stronger working together than fighting against each other?  Well, to get right to the point:  No.  So WTF happened?  It seems that after the Persian wars, the Athenians decided they needed go invent the ancient world equivalent of NATO, which they called the Delian League.  This was a group of Greek city-states, led by Athens, that banded together to defend themselves against the Persian threat in case they ever tried to pull that whole invasion stunt again.  Athens collected money and/or ships from the league members to make a huge navy to patrol the Aegean Sea and make sure everything stayed cool.  But pretty soon it became clear that Athens was using this navy for their own purposes, and becoming the total mob boss of the Delian League, and the soon the Delian League simply turned into an Athenian Empire with Athens collecting tribute from all the members.  This was too much for Sparta and some of her friends, so they split off into their own alliance called the Peloponnesian League.  But Athens still kept gaining more and more power, and their economy boomed, which freaked the Spartans out more and more.  So eventually the Spartans said "Fuck it, we can't take this Athenian bullshit anymore, they're becoming too powerful and freaking us out and their navy is like some kind of WMD so let's just have a war and finish them off and get rid of this threat.  Freedom for the Greeks, WOOOOO!!".  The war that broke out as a result, the Peloponnesian War, lasted a long and bloody 27 years (431-404BC).  Fortunately Thucydides was there to take notes and write a history of the war so that we could all never forget its harsh lessons and never repeat the same terrible mistakes, which of course people ended up doing anyway because who wants to take the time to sit down and read Thucydides except for some cranky old dude who's sipping on a pleasantly bland Mexican beer with a slice of lime?

This book is pretty damn amazing.  Thucydides' history is incredibly detailed.  He even gives entire speeches by some of the major politicians and generals, although it's pretty clear that some of these are just Thucydides making up what he thought they would have said, rather than actual transcripts of the speeches.  Because of the detail, the reading can sometimes be fairly dry.  This is definitely not a quick read.  But just when you're about to give up, Thucydides will recount some episode that is just so vividly and poignantly described that you'll be blown away and ready to continue to pour through more dry details just to find the next part that will draw you in.  This war was a tragedy, and resulted in the destruction of the Athenian Empire, which despite its faults gave us great masterpieces of architecture and literature and philosophy.  As the war went on and on, the violence and barbarism steadily increased, and in the end nothing was really resolved.  Greed and the lust for power and the darkest depths of humanity are on full display.  It's a sad book made even more sadder because, as I said, nothing has really changed.

On an unrelated note, before I go any farther I want to make a comment on the edition I read.  I used the Landmark Thucydides, and it's brilliant:

It's hard for me to imagine not reading this edition.  Thucydides is constantly mentioning names of towns and islands and places where battles are fought, and this edition has maps on every few pages that show where all the places are which are mentioned in the text. So unless you already know where Corcyra and Samos and Miletus are located you will struggle mightily without this edition.  Explanatory notes and summaries of each paragraph are also given, and the year of the events discussed on each page are given at the top of the page, since this gets pretty confusing very fast.  If I had tried to read an unannotated edition I never would have made it.  If you're going to make a go of Thucydides, this is the edition to go to.

Anyway, back to the war.  At the beginning of his book, Thucydides says he started writing his history of the war as soon as it broke out, "believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it...Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history".  The Spartan king Archidamus predicted at the war's beginning that the Spartans would leave the war to their sons, and he was not wrong.

When the war broke out against Sparta and her allies, Athens was a democracy lead by the statesman Pericles.  Pericles' strategy for winning the war was to not fight the Spartans on land, since they had the best, most whacked-out army ever.  Basically Spartan boys were taken from their homes at a very young age and raised in military camps, making them the most feared, most well-trained soldiers ever.  But when the war started Sparta didn't have a navy, while Athens had the most awesome navy the world had known, due to all the money and ships from the Delian League.  So Pericles pulled everyone in the countryside around Athens into the city, and built walls sheltering the port.  Athens could thus send her navy out to sail around and attack Spartan interests, and receive food through its port, while never having to send out much in the way of land forces.  Meanwhile the Spartans could ravage the countryside around Athens, burning property and crops as they saw fit, but they could never get into Athens itself or harm its citizens who were now safely behind the walls surrounding the city.  Pericles' plan was that Athens could basically ride out the war until Sparta exhausted itself.  Well, this might have worked if it weren't for one pesky thing that no one in 430 BC could have imagined, namely that by cramming the city full of refugees from the countryside Athens became dangerously overcrowded, and due to the crowded, unsanitary conditions a plague broke out.  A bad plague, in fact....real bad.  About 25% of the city residents died.  The epidemic broke in early May 430 BC, with subsequent waves in the summer of 428 BC and in the winter of 427-426 BC, and thus lasted 4.5 to 5 years. Pericles was killed by the plague, and Thucydides himself got the disease but fortunately recovered.  Thucydides describes the plague and its symptoms in great and horrific detail, with symptoms like unbearable pain, pustular rash, high fever, and diarrhea.  Not fun at all.  To this day, scientists debate what the plague actually was, as the symptoms don't quite fit with any disease extant today.  Theories range from typhus to smallpox to Ebola to Bubonic Plague to a combination of two or more diseases, but nothing seems to quite fit.  Perhaps it was a virus or bacteria that's gone extinct or mutated from what it once was so that the symptoms are now different.  Whatever it was, it was highly contagious and it laid waste to the city.  This is not good at any time, but especially when trying to fight a war.

Eventually the plague burned itself out, and the war dragged on.  With Pericles dead of plague, other leaders and demagogues took over the democratic assembly.  It's pretty clear that Thucydides really admired and respected Pericles, and did not at all like the new leaders that came up, in particular one named Cleon.  That was perhaps personal, though.  Thucydides, being a member of the aristocracy, became a general for Athens in 424 BC and was sent to lead a fleet to Amphipolis, which was under Spartan attack.  Unfortunately by the time he got there the city had already surrendered to the Spartans.  The Athenians, lead by Cleon, blamed Thucydides for the loss of Amphipolis, even though it wasn't his fault, and sent him into exile for 20 years.  Poor Thucydides.  So while this pissed him off no doubt, and made him hate Cleon, in the long run it was good for us, because being in exile allowed him to travel all around Greece (including to Sparta and her allies) and research his history of the war as it happened.  Sometimes it's good to have the benefit of 2400 year hindsight.

Meanwhile the war dragged on, year after year.  Thucydides describes the battles and the politics in great detail.  Remember, it wasn't just Athens vs. Sparta, but 1/2 the Greek world vs. the other half, so there's lots of intrigue and double-dealing and whatnot.  Sparta tried to turn Athenian allies against Athens, and Athens tried the same with Sparta's allies.  The war was fought all over Greece, since there was basically a stalemate around Athens and Sparta.  Finally Athens scored a big win in 425 BC when they took a bunch of Spartan soldiers captive and seized the island of Pylos, off the coast of the Peloponnesus.  This was one of the great stories told by Thucydides.  The Athenian general Nicias had tried to capture Pylos, but after a long seige he just couldn't do it, and he came back to the democratic assembly in Athens and tried to rationalize why he couldn't succeed.  Cleon, who was leading the assembly at the time, and who was an enemy of Nicias, berated Nicias before the assembly, and in response Nicias said that if Cleon thought he could do a better job then maybe he should just shut up and go capture Pylos himself.  Cleon replied that not only could he do it, but boasted that he could capture the island in 20 days.  Game on! So Cleon takes along another general named Demosthenes, some additional troops, and sails to Pylos, where he indeed captures the island and takes the Spartans prisoner within 20 days.  Basically they just set fire to the island and mopped up the Spartan soldiers as they fled from the flames.

Three years later, Cleon and a major Spartan general named Brasidas were killed in a battle.  The death of these two major figures afforded Nicias the opportunity to set up a peace between Athens and Sparta in 421 BC. And then the war ended, and everyone lived happily ever after, right?  Well, no.  It was a tense peace, and then the Athenians decided to do something really completely stupid.  According to Thucydides, making stupid decisions was one of the hallmarks of Athenian democracy, where all citizens voted on all issues pertaining to the war.  Thucydides would probably have preferred an oligarchy, and to some extent he may have had a point especially in allowing every citizen to vote on every issue, demagogues could arise who used emotions and rhetoric to influence the democratic assembly into making decisions that best served the interests of the demagogues but not the citizens as a whole.  In this instance, what happened was that a new face appeared on the scene in Athens:  the gorgeous, wealthy playboy Alcibiades.  Alcibiades has to be one of the most fascinating characters in ancient Greek history.  According to Thucydides, and other sources as well, he was remarkably hot.  Now think about it, if everyone who's writing the history of an era takes the time to go on and on about how spectacularly good looking one particular dude was, then he was probably pretty damn hot indeed.  And not only that but he was really, really rich too.  Young, ambitious, hot, and rich...always an interesting combo.  Also apparently a man with no real principles who had no problem eventually double-crossing Athens, Sparta, AND the Persian Empire as well, but that just made him all the more interesting.  Anyway, Alcibiades comes on the scene and wants military glory, but realizes that with a peace, there's no chance for that.  So he and others convince the assembly that Athens really needs to invade Sicily and capture the city of Syracuse, who is allied with Sparta.  Sicily is wealthy, so glory and fortune awaits!  Thucydides points out that members of the assembly really had no concept about exactly where Sicily was or how large it was (way bigger than many knew), but no matter, they voted to send an expedition to capture the island which would be led by Nicias and Alcibiades, among others.  Nicias, who really is not into this idea, says to the assembly that they should not do this, that in order to be successful Athens would need to send a far bigger fleet.  Nicias thinks this will discourage the assembly, but instead the assembly votes to send a bigger fleet.  So that's that.  Of course the fleet they're sending is so big that if the expedition is defeated, then Athens will be screwed because the fleet and manpower needed to protect their empire against Sparta would be crippled.  Nonetheless, in 415 BC the Sicilian expedition is launched.  WOOO, let's crush Sicily!!

Well, the Sicilian expedition does not go well from the start.  First, on the eve of the fleet taking off, religious icons across Athens are vandalized, and the political enemies of Alcibiades pin the rap on him, even though he apparently was not involved.  Alcibiades sails with the fleet anyway, but is soon recalled to Athens to face trial, where he would almost certainly be found guilty because his enemies are now in power.  So what does he do?  He escapes and flees to Sparta, where he then starts advising the Spartan king!  Meanwhile the Athenian fleet reaches Sicily, and they eventually get bogged down in a siege of Syracuse.  Nicias makes some really bad mistakes (he doesn't come across as a very good general in Thucydides) and finally sends word to Athens that the expedition is in trouble and maybe they should all just come home.  So what does the ever unwise democratic assembly in Athens do?  They double down once again and send a whole new fleet under the general Demosthenes.  When Demosthenes arrives, he sees that the situation for the Athenian forces is bad, and decides to risk everything on a daring nighttime battle against the Syracusian forces.  Unfortunately, there were no night vision goggles available at the time, and the Athenian forces lose the battle.  Nicias and Demosthenes then say "fuck it" and decide it's time to get the hell out of there and go home.  It's at that point that astronomy intervenes: there's a lunar eclipse!!  Oh no!!  Nicias is a very superstitious and pious man, and he decides this is a sign from the Gods that they shouldn't set sail for a few weeks.  I don't know who his soothsayers were, but that was a really bad move.  As they wait to leave, the Syracusians block the exit from the harbor, trapping the Athenian fleet.  When the Athenians finally decide to leave, they can't break through, and the Athenians are forced to ditch their ships and march overland to escape the Syracuse and Spartan forces.  The account by Thucydides describing the fleeing of the Athenian forces is truly harrowing.  40,000 Athenian soldiers flee, leaving their dead and wounded as they fall (which was an anathema to the Greeks, since all soldiers must be buried in order to reach the underworld after death).  Demosthenes is soon captured along with 6,000 Athenian soldiers, while the rest flee with Nicias to the Assinarus River.  The men rush into the river because they are dying of thirst (apparently it's hot and dry in Sicily).  As they wade into the river to flee the enemy, and to greedily drink the water, many are trampled, many drown becoming entangled in their equipment, and many are killed by Syracusian and Spartan arrows.  Thucydides writes "The Peloponnesians also came down and butchered [the Athenians], especially those in the water, which was thus immediately spoiled, but which they went on drinking just the same, mud and all, bloody as it was, most even fighting to have it".  Those that weren't killed are captured along with Nicias.  Nicias and Demosthenes are immediately executed by the Syracusians, and the rest of the prisoners are held in stone quarries, where exposed to the elements they slowly die of exposure, hunger, and least those who aren't sold into slavery.  The Sicilian expedition is over and Athens has suffered a total defeat.  As Thucydides writes, "They (the Athenians) were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army - everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.  Such were the events in Sicily."  Thucydides' account of the Sicilian expedition was for me the high point of the book - vivid, poignant, thrilling, and horrifying.

The rest of the book is somewhat of a denouement.  Following the defeat of the Sicilian expedition in 413 BC, Athens (1) freaks out and (2) somehow miraculously fights on for another 9 years.  For awhile things look really bad as Sparta besieges Athens even more, and some of Athens "allies" rebel against the empire.  The actions shifts to the shores of Ionia (what is now Turkey) where Athens tries to put down rebellions and Sparta tries to incite them.  The Spartans enlist the help of a couple of two governors within the Persian Empire, who have great wealth and could (and eventually do) turn the tide of war in favor of the Peloponnesians.  Meanwhile Athens rebuilds her fleet, or at least part of it, and Alcibiades returns to the scene.  It seems that while in Sparta he had an affair with King Agis's wife and got her knocked up.  When the king found out, Alcibiades wisely decided that his days in Sparta were over and he flees, this time to the court of Tissaphernes, one of the Persian governors.  He then tries to work himself back into the good graces of the Athenians by promising them he can get aid from Persia.  Meanwhile there's a coup in Athens and the democracy is overthrown by an oligarchy of 400 men.  Then the oligarchy is overthrown and democracy is back, although now limited to 5000 people rather than all the citizens.  Alcibiades sees this as a chance to maybe get back to Athens.  The Athenians look like they might make a comeback!  And then...nothing.  Thucydides' narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, while describing the events in the year 411.  Why?  What happened?  We know that Thucydides lived past the end of the war in 404 BC, because he refers in the text to Athens losing the war.  But apparently he died before finishing his history.  It's not simply that the rest of his history was written and then lost, because other historians in antiquity, notably the Greek historian Xenophon, wrote histories of the end of the war, taking up precisely where Thucydides' account breaks off.  This is too bad, because Thucydides was awesome, and the other historians, while narrating the subsequent events, do not analyze the events as deeply as Thucydides.  Bummer.

Anyway, just so you won't stay forever in suspense, I'll tell you what happened:  Athens makes a partial military comeback, Alcibiades regains then falls out of power, and the Spartan general Lysander totally defeats the Athenian fleet in 404 BC.  Athens is then powerless, and surrenders to Sparta, thus ending the Peloponnesian War.  Sparta becomes ruler of Greece, but they can't keep a lid on it, and after awhile Athens regains some of her empire.  Eventually Phillip II of Macedon conquers all of Greece in 338 BC, and his son, Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire and a bunch of other stuff as well.  By this time the city-state as a unit of government is gone, and eventually the Roman Empire takes over everything.  But that's a whole different story.  Several stories, actually.

As I was reading Thucydides, I also read Donald Kagan's book "The Peloponnesian War" at the same time.  Kagan is a scholar of Greek history and of Thucydides, and his account both summarizes Thucydides and, perhaps more importantly for me, gives an analysis of Thucydides; specifically an analysis of the events he describes, and what other ancient writers wrote about the war.  Kagan's book greatly enriched my understanding of just what the hell Thucydides was talking about at certain points, and made a great companion to Thucydides book.  Plus he tells what happens after Thucydides' history breaks off.

Thucydides was a tough slog at times, and it's certainly not a book a reader would blow through in two days while laying in the sun at the beach, but it also may be one of the more remarkable books I've ever read.  The events Thucydides describes from 2400 years ago, and the lessons he imparts about human behavior, both at an individual and government level, are as true and vivid today as they were back then.  Thucydides comes across as rather world weary, and it's no wonder, because he lived through such terrible and trying times, and not unlike ours in so many ways.  I wish this book were far more widely read today, because we could all learn from it.  History really does repeat itself, or at least human behavior does.  And speaking of which, it's time for me to have another drink.