Pericles on how allies work together

In these days of NATO and the United Nations, I thought it might be interesting to look at Pericles' view on how well equal alliances work.

This is from Thucydides, book 1, section 141. The Athenians have met to decide whether they should, in effect, initiate a war against the Spartans. If they do, they'll have to fight not only the Spartans but the entire alliance of the Peloponnesian League. Pericles says this about the allies of Sparta:

"...they cannot fight a war against a power unlike themselves, so long as they have no central deliberative authority to produce quick, decisive action, when they all have equal votes, though they all come from different nationalities and every one of these is mostly concerned with its own interests -- the usual result of which is that nothing gets done at all, some being particularly anxious to avenge themselves on an enemy, and others no less anxious to avoid coming to any harm themselves. Only after long intervals do they meet together at all, and then they only devote a fraction of their time to their general interests, spending most of it on arranging their own separate affairs. It never occurs to any of them that the apathy of one will damage the interests of all. Instead, each state thinks that the responsibility for its future belongs to someone else, and so, while everyone has the same idea privately, no one notices that from a general point of view things are going downhill."

There seems to be a general view amongst professional historians that the speeches in Thucydides are not to be trusted, particularly the speeches known as the Melian Dialogue, which could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two about realpolitik. (In fact, they probably did.)

Unlearned me goes against the learned opinion on this. I find it difficult to read something like the above without nodding my head and thinking, yep, that came from an experienced and cynical politician who knew what he was talking about.


12 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

I often have my students do simulations on the United Nations or rewrite the Treaty of Versailles for World War I (we do our best to avert World War II in the process). It's always interesting to see how much time is spent on individual country concerns and how long it takes to accomplish even the most trivial actions.

Lexi said...

Anyone who has shared a flat or a workshop with a bunch of people will know Pericles was right.

(Jolly unwieldy first sentence, though.)

Gary Corby said...

I'm intrigued, Stephanie, did you ever find a way to avoid WW2?

Gary Corby said...

Jolly unwieldy first sentence, though...

Yeah, tell me about it. And I started a third of the way in.

Thucydides is famous for having one the densest writing styles ever. Once you get into the rhythm it works very well, but it makes him difficult to quote.

This comes from the Penguin edition, which is by far the most readable I've ever come across.

SM Schmidt said...

Are the learned reading the same text? Pericles seems to be dead on about this.

If the Greek this was translated from is at all similar to Koine Greek then the poor translator had a rough job (Koine has no punctuation at all, lots of run ons ensue).

L. T. Host said...

It never ceases to amaze me how much the Ancients figured out that we still haven't appeared to have learned to this day.

Or how often and how much humans must re-learn things over time. For a species so interested in its past, we sure do have short memories.

I've been away for a time-- any updates on your book tour?

Gary Corby said...

Hi LT,

Yes, that's what amazed me too. If someone had stolen Pericles' words and used them in reference to NATO or the UN, no one would have noticed anything out of place at all.

We're still working on the book tour. More news as it comes to hand.

Gary Corby said...

SM, it was written in Attic Greek, which is the older direct ancestor of koine, and every bit as lacking in punctuation.

The modern theory is that Thucydides made up a lot of his reported speeches. The argument goes that no one could have recalled such detail. I think it's quite possible. This is actually worth its own post!

Jane Finnis said...

Wow, that's chillingly accurate, isn't it? I wonder if Roman dictators like Sulla or Julius Caesar (or any other Caesar!) used a text like this to justify abandoning any serious pretence of democracy in favour of one-man rule?

Elizabeth said...

I think the speeches in Thucydides are authentic. Just because it's so much cooler that way.

(I'm sure a professional historian would find my reasoning quite compelling.)

Gary Corby said...

I don't know, Jane. I guess it's possible, but I think they would have behaved the same regardless.

Gary Corby said...

That's a great reason Elizabeth!

And I confess I'm certain Sherlock Holmes was a real person for pretty much the same reason.