by Laura Sellers, Rhodes College

In Book One of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the debate at Sparta in 432BCE in which "representatives of the cities in the Peloponnesian League gathered…to try to talk the Lacedaemonians into war with the Athenians" (Woodruff 16) to redress the perceived abuse by Athens of its position as an empire. After all the speakers presented their arguments for war, the Athenian ambassadors addressed the assembly not to dispute the charges presented, but rather to defend Athenian imperialism. This was the first of many speeches in which the Athenians displayed their rhetorical prowess.

The ambassadors defended Athens through a combination of strong rhetoric, passive language, and a deft portrayal of Athens as the victim of circumstances. The Athenian speaker declared that Athens maintained its strength only to protect itself, "You too would have been compelled to rule with a strong hand or else put yourselves in danger" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23). According to the speaker, self-preservation entails domination of others: "It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23). In this view, Athens had no choice: Athens did not act, but rather reacted, to the situation, "we simply accepted an empire that was offered us" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23) and in accordance with a "natural human inclination to rule over others" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23).

In a show of oratorical skill, the Athenians also cast themselves as disadvantaged by their power. "No one notices that others, who have empires in other places, and are less moderate toward their subject states than we, are never upbraided for it" (Pelop. War 1.77, p.24). Athens claimed that it had borne the "hate" and "contempt" projected by the other powers in the region; "righteous" imperial powers (i.e. Athens) "deserve to be praised if they use more justice than they have to, in view of their power" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.24), but that "our very fairness has brought contempt on us instead of the praise we deserve" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.24).

As Athens defended its actions, it simultaneously attacked its possible rival in this war, the Lacedaemonians. In this passage, in all but one instance, the Athenians employed the words "you" and "your" to address the Lacedaemonians, as if the Athenians tried to implant their views in the minds of the Lacedaemonians: "we think that if anyone else had our position, you would really see how moderate we have been" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.24). The Athenians said they merely followed the Spartan example, "You Lacedaemonians, for example, use your position of leadership in the Peloponnesus to arrange affairs in the cities there to your own advantage" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23).

The Athenians held the Lacedaemonians responsible for the current state of affairs: "If you had stayed on as leaders of the alliance against the Persians, you would have been as much hated by all as we" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23). The orator made a case that the Lacedaemonians had changed their position in order to suit their political needs, "we took this upon ourselves because we thought we were worthy of it, and you thought so too, until now that you are reckoning up your own advantage and appealing to justice" (Pelop. War 1.76, p.23). The Athenian ambassador ended his speech by suggesting that the Lacedaemonian complaints betrayed their weakness, "Those who have the power to use force, you see, have no need at all to go to law" (Pelop. War 1.77, p.24).

The omissions are quite notable and enhance the power of the Athenian speech. There is never any mention of the word "Athens;" rather, the Athenians use the pronoun "we" to define themselves. Another omission constitutes an adroit political move: the Athenians never really address the issue in the debate. This is remarkable because Athens promoted its military strength and power, but avoided engagement in an open and honest debate on the issues. As a Lacedaemonian, Sthenelaïdas, pointed out after the speech: "They praised themselves a lot, but nowhere did they deny the injustice they've shown to our allies and the Peloponnesus" (Pelop. War 1.86, p.28).

The rhetorical strengths ultimately reveal some of the judgmental weaknesses that led to the Athenians' disastrous end. This speech showed the Athenians' bias in their perception of history and current events as seen throughout the rest of the historical narrative. Thucydides also presented evidence of Athenian arrogance toward the rest of the Peloponnesian League. The conceit in this passage may be the first foreshadowing of Athens' utter and complete defeat at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Other rhetorical themes that reverberate throughout the rest of the speeches include the dedication to justice, the belief that security equals power, and love of the polis above all else-virtues that, in the extreme, may have weakened Athens.

The Athenian speech connects to Pericles' war speech because it demonstrated Athenian arrogance and biased perception of their history. Pericles reaffirmed Athenian overconfidence with, "As for us, our position is free of all the faults I found in theirs, and we have great advantages in other areas as well" (Pelop. War 1.143, p.34). Pericles boasted about Athenian military strength: "Our naval experience has actually done us more good on land than their infantry experience has done for their navy" (Pelop. War 1.143, p.34). Pericles demonstrated his biased view of history when he declared, "It is obvious that the Lacedaemonians have been plotting against us, now more than ever" (Pelop. War 1.140, p.32).

Echoing the Athenian speeches at the Spartan debate, the opposing speeches of Cleon and Diodotus proclaimed a devotion to justice yet revealed a view of justice as simply a means to achieve goals. Cleon and Diodotus had differing opinions as to what would be a "just" punishment for those responsible for the Mytilenean uprising. Cleon argued: "if you follow my advice, you will do justice to the Mytileneans and promote your own interest at the same time." (Pelop. War 3.40, p.70). Diodotus responded: "Even if I proved them guilty of terrible injustice, I still would not advise the death penalty for this, unless that was to our advantage" (Pelop. War 3.44, p.72). Both held Athens' security as their primary concern and wanted Athens to be "just" in its punishment of the rebels although they came to opposite conclusions.

The idea from the Athenian speech that security equaled power is an important factor in the speeches given by Nicias and Alcibiades in which they debated the merits of the invasion of Sicily. Nicias, with his years of military experience, argued that Athens would keep its power and security if it did not invade: "We all know, you see, that people are most impressed by a threat that is farthest away and least liable to have its reputation put to the test" (Pelop. War 4.11, p.115). On the other hand, according to Alcibiades, "sailing to Sicily will increase our power at home, and let us make the voyage, so that we may cast down the pride of the Peloponnesians" (Pelop. War 4.18, p.119).

The theme of security points to the Athenian love of the polis. Pericles made this connection in his funeral speech when he extolled Athenian history, values, and virtues. Pericles declared that the best way to defend Athens and keep the city great was to love it above all else, "Any long-winded orator could tell you how much good lies in resisting our enemies; but you already know this. Look instead at the power our city shows in action every day, and so become lovers of Athens" (Pelop. War 2.43, p.44). Furthermore, Athenians could use this love as justification for the state's actions. Since Athenians put the polis first, they did everything to maintain its power and security. This desire drove all Athenian action and led to the city's ultimate downfall.

Two and a half millennia later, this Greek history remains relevant. The debates about the role of power, justice, and war still rage today. Thucydides' History made me consider some important questions in today's society. How do humans react to power and how do they exercise it? For what will citizens risk their lives for love of country? What does a society value? What does a society see as just? How much security is enough for national defense? What makes a war justifiable? I doubt that any of these questions have a single, correct answer. I can, however, use them to form my opinions on personal and civic duty.

This account of history and the questions it brought up made me think about my values in the light of the current state of international affairs. How much should I love my country? Should other citizens and I, like the Athenians, "become devoted, willing servants of the city by beholding its power, manifested every day in deeds, and becoming lovers of it" (Forde, p.439)? In this individualistic society, should I voice a dissenting opinion out of love of country? Conversely, should I subjugate my desire to express dissent because of my love of country? Should I still express my dissenting opinions knowing that "Athens was later devastated by internal quarrels and factionalism, which were the real reason for her defeat in the war" (Forde, p.438)?

Since reading The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, I pay more attention to the language used to propose policy and justify actions. I consider it carefully. Not only do I pay attention to what world leaders say, but also how they say it. I am now better prepared to analyze the messages they want to convey through their choice of language. For me, the lasting benefit of reading this book is that I have become a more thoughtful and informed citizen, which will pay dividends for years to come.


Dr. Daniel Cullen, for guidance, research assistance, reading, proofing, and editing my paper.

Prof. Cullen's Humanities 101 class for interesting and thought provoking discussions that helped me start to write this paper.

R. Kent Sellers, for support, reading, proofing, and editing my paper.


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