6 Thucydides’ Conception of Power and Hegemony

In the third chapter it was shown that Thucydides ascribed considerable importance to both national character and internal political structure (Second Image) and for the role of individuals (First Image) in determining foreign policy. This strenuous emphasis on the First and Second images brings Thucydides into tension with neorealist scholarship which focuses almost exclusively on the third image (systemic properties). It will now be shown that Thucydides would have a different conception of power and hegemony that would also prevent him from being considered a neorealist. As noted in the second chapter, Thucydides wrote in the style of sophists at the time. Sophists’ arguments were left implicit to encourage students to draw the intended conclusions for themselves. It will be argued in this chapter that Thucydides’ used the changing Athenian discourse to implicitly teach that Athenian imperialism was only successful when power was exercised in accord with well-defined social conventions, particularly language, regulating Greek behaviour. This chapter will show that when the Athenians exercised domestic and foreign policies outside the frame of conventional language, it had destructive consequences (Connor, 1984; White 1984; Garst, 1989). Power and hegemony then for Thucydides, is contingent on the social environment it is exercised in, and not as simple as having superior military or economic capabilities, as neorealism would suggest (Gilpin, 1981). This will now be illustrated through the same extracts use in the preceding chapter, with the addition of the Melian Dialogue, but focusing specifically on the Athenian discourse.

First it will be shown at the debate at Spartan and the declaration of war that Athens did not attain its empire though military might. Responding to the Corinthian charges of presiding over a tyranny, the Athenians justify their empire using language of justice – they attained the empire due to their performance in the Median War, and also that by choice act moderately towards their allies. Then, to continue the same social environment, Pericles’ again advocates a policy that sustains choice within the boundaries of necessity (Garst, 1989), urging the Athenians to pursue a moderate policy with regard to war with the Spartans. Pericles’ second speech furthermore shows the basis of political power in Athens at the outbreak of the war: power is not defined by material possession – but in Athens’ uniqueness resides in its qualities of habit and convention (Thucydides, 1972, p. 145). After Pericles’ speech at the funeral oration, Thucydides (1972, p. 164) ominously informs the reader that the social environment changed drastically, and it is through the last three extracts we can see the result of this change in Greek convention. The Mytilenian debate is the first to show the change in Athenian discourse. Refuting Pericles’ prior rhetoric, the assembly accept that the empire is now a tyranny and pursue a new foreign policy drawing upon the ‘good will’ that democrats feel in the cities feel toward replace the now eroded basis of Athenian hegemony. This change is furthered with the Melian Dialogue where the Athenians no longer use ‘pretences’ to rhetorically justify their empire (Thucydides, 1972, p. 42). The Melian Dialogue is ominously followed by the launching of the Sicilian expedition. The last debate shows the consequence of acting against social convention, as the Athenians have destroyed their rhetorical culture they become uncontrollable in activity and in desire. Thus by launching the Sicilian expedition they sow the seeds of their own destruction (Thucydides, 1972, p. 164).

6.1 Debate at Sparta and the Declaration of War 431BC

The Athenian discourse starts with the debate at Sparta and the Declaration of War. During this debate, the Athenians go a great length to justify their hegemony. They start by citing their performance against the Persians at Salamis -‘they ventured everything for the common good’ of all in Greece (Thucydides, 1972, p. 78). The Athenians suggest that without their brave altercation with the Persians at Salamis Sparta would have shortly fallen. Without the Athenians, no system of mutual defence, ‘could have been organised in the face of such Persian navy superiority’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 78). Therefore the Athenians feel, for Greece, they gave more than they received: ‘surely’, the courage, the resolution, and the ability which the Athenians showed then ‘ought not to be repaid by so much immoderate hostility from Greece (Thucydides, 1972, p. 80). This ‘immoderate hostility’ is worse when it is also taken into account that the Athenians received the empire by consent when their allies came to them and begged for the Athenians to take on leadership (Thucydides, 1972, p. 80).

Whilst the Athenians concede that their empire is a product of necessity (fear, honour and profit among the motivators), they maintain that by choice Athens unlike other great powers does not abandon the effort to act morally. Athens’ treatment of its subjects, for instance ‘deserves[s] praise’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 80): Allies are treated as equals in their empire and are better off under their rule than that of the Spartans. Thus for this reason it is unreasonable for allies to feel violated by the empire and the Spartans would be wrong in acting on their behalf. Thus we can see in this Athenian response to charges of tyranny that Athens differed from other imperial powers because its empire was not just the product of brute force The Athenians secured hegemony because they could persuade on the basis of past deeds and services. Thus although at the time they were militarily and economically the powerhouse of contemporary Greece, it was through their ‘soft power’ – that is their culture, political ideas, and policies, that they attracted other Greek states to gain hegemony (Nye, 2006, p. 26). Pericles gives a vivid description of Athens’ cultural and political prowess at the time of the outbreak of war in the next dialogues examined.

Pericles’ Speeches – Response to the Spartan Ultimatum and the Funeral Oration 431BC Responding to the Spartan ultimatum, Pericles sets forward a policy akin to the language used above. In what he terms ‘Athenian resolution’, Pericles advocates a plan which again, in accord with Greek social convention chooses choice within the bounds of necessity (Garst, 1989, p. 4). Sticking with a moderate policy towards its empire, Pericles gives many reasons why success could be easily achieved, primarily through its superior sea-power: The war would likely be a long drawn out one, but a war that could certainly be won as long as they refrain from ‘taking on further conquests’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 122). Rather prophetically, Pericles states that what he fears is not a cunning enemy strategy but their ‘own mistakes’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 122). The Athenians thus must make their minds up not to add to the empire while the war is in progress, and not to go out of their way to involve themselves in new ‘perils’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 123). Pericles next speech at the Funeral Oration shows the social and political basis of Athenian power at the time. The expressed purpose of the speech is to strengthen the Athenian resolve, and to garner support for the cautious and difficult strategy adopted by Pericles’ above. However, with Pericles’ emphasis on eulogizing the national character of Athens another message can be seen - that Athens’ existence is not defined by material possessions. On the contrary, Athens’ uniqueness resides in its singular qualities of habit and intellect. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, chapters 37 to 40 in this passage of the History (1972) go to a great length to exemplify the unity of deliberation and action made possible by Athens’ settled habits, democratic institutions and national character. As Garst (1989) notes, Pericles attempts to show the Athenians in these remarks that the city they defend exists in a way of life that they lead not in their material possessions. Power, in Athens, is ‘not in the hands of a few but of the whole people’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 145). The result of this is that it produces a unity among its citizens far stronger than blind obedience to the state, unlike the Spartans (Thucydides, 1972, p. 146). For Thucydides then, the basis of political power is the existence of a public realm in which individuals have the opportunity to voluntarily speak and act together. For this reason, political power in Thucydides’ History is very much potential in character; the exercise of political power is contingent upon the existence of well-defined and widely accepted social conventions and institutions.

In the Athenian speeches and events that follow the Funeral Oration, Thucydides describes how Athens is transformed from an environment where words are respected and deeds are not brutal to one in which words lose their meaning and in which sentiments of decency, moderation and justice are obliterated by base necessity. As Garst (1989, p.6) notes as if to underscore the contingent nature of the political environment in which political power and hegemony are actualized, Thucydides (1972, p. 164) follows the Funeral Oration with his description of the Plague which ‘entirely upset’ Athenian norms and conventions. Following the plague and Pericles’ death, the leadership of Athens falls into the hands of men who were too busy ‘with their own personal intrigues for securing the leadership of the people’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 164). These individuals quarrelled among themselves, because of the ‘entirely upset’ social conventions and institutions aforementioned, bringing confusion into the policy of state, eventually leading to the downfall of Athens (Thucydides, 1972, p. 164). This process of deterioration begins in the section, with the debate at Mytilene.

6.2 Mytilenian Debate 427BC

Cleon, as was mentioned in the last chapter is known for his violent character, but he can also be understood to personify the deterioration of Athenian political life (Cornford, 1907, p. 109). Cleon starts the debate completely refuting what was previously said by Pericles. ‘Democracy’, he insists is incapable of governing others (Thucydides, 1972, p. 212). Cleon states that the empire is a ‘tyranny’ exercised over its subjects that ‘do not like it’ and who are always plotting against the Athenians (Thucydides, 1972, p. 212). Therefore for Cleon, it would injure Athens’ interests if they do not act harshly on the Mytilenians: Athens’ leadership depends on ‘superior strength and not on any good will’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 212). Diodotus then adds to the change in Athenian discourse. Diodotus argues against Cleon, but only on the stance of pragmatism. The Mytilenians should not be punished by death, as death will never prevent rebellion. What differs is that Diodotus suggests that Athens must recognize the different sympathies of the oligarchs and demos in subject states; As things are now, in all the cities the democracy is friendly to you; either it does not join in with the oligarchies revolting, or it is forced to do so (Thucydides, 1972, p. 213). In the case of the revolt at Mytilene, the oligarchs had indeed led the rebellion whereas the demos remained sympathetic to the Athenians. Diodotus’ argument, adopted by the demos represents a significant turning point in Athenian foreign policy. Before, the Athenians refrained from consistently supporting democratic factions within city states. Diodotus offers, in effect a new strategy of maintaining Athenian hegemony within its empire. Drawing upon the goodwill of democratic states offers the Athenians a means of control over their empire more effective than fear to replace the earlier and now eroded basis of Athenian hegemony in Greece. However this new Athenian strategy also extended the scope of the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Democratic and oligarchic factions now bent on seizing power could now secure the intervention of great powers. As a result of Diodotus’ policy, the reader is informed that practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state – democratic leaders trying to bring in Athenians and oligarchs trying to bring in Spartans (Thucydides, 1972, p. 244). To fit in with the change of events, Thucydides notes that words had to change their usual meanings, for instance: ‘To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward and ‘any idea of moderation’ was just an attempt to ‘disguise one’s unmanly character’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 244).

6.3 Melian Dialogue 416BC

It is against this backdrop of polarization and deterioration of Greek life that the Melian takes place. The Melian dialogue represents an even more dramatic shift in Athenian foreign policy. However it is not, as is commonly misinterpreted (Finley, 1942, p. 208; Strauss, 1964, p. 211) because of the growing cruelty and depravity that constitutes a radical shift in Athenian foreign policy. Instead, it is the fact that Melos was an independent state, and Athens rejects her neutrality. In doing so, the Athenians show a new and urgent sense of anxiety about the control over their allies and their empire. The Athenians at this point reveal that it is not Sparta they fear the most but its ‘own subjects’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 402). Thus for the first time in Thucydides’ history, the Athenians indicate that their empire is a greater threat to their security than the Spartans are. This is a, de facto, realization of Cleon’s contention that their empire is now a ‘tyranny’ and that its subjects are now disaffected conspirators. Political rhetoric justifying their right to lead is now completely forgotten about. The Athenians state from the outset that no ‘fine phrases’ will be used to justify their empire, or pretending they are acting harshly against Melos because of any injuries they have dealt the Athenians (Thucydides, 1972, p. 401). By ruling out these pretences in discussion of how there empire was acquired the Athenians have destroyed the rhetorical culture through which their interests as an imperial power were intelligibly expressed in earlier speeches of the History (Thucydides, 1972). As White (1984) has summarised: Athens is left with self-interest alone, the desire for power without culture to give it bounds and meaning…. One cannot be self-interested without a language of the self; one cannot have power without community (1984, p. 79). Far from enhancing Athens’ power by adding to its territory and wealth, such activity ‘circumscribes its autonomy’ and its ‘ability to make intelligent choices’ (Garst, 1989, p. 16). This becomes ever more evident in the next and last debate.

6.4 Sicilian Debate 415BC

The debate over the invasion of Sicily shows final catastrophic effects of the Athenians’ loss of rhetorical culture. With the breakdown of its democratic institutions and rhetorical culture, the Athenians lose their ability to make rational choice, and this is exemplified by the far overzealous policies of Alcibiades. In the debate, Alcibiades perpetually demands more personally and for the city, rejecting Nicias’ conservative policy he argues that there is no ascertainable point to where the empire should stop. The fact is, according to Alcibiades, the Athenians have reached a stage where they are ‘forced to plan new conquests’ to maintain their empire (Thucydides, 1972, p. 421). This is because ‘there is a danger’ that the Athenians themselves ‘may fall under the power of others unless others are in [their] power’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 421). The acceptance of these statements by the Athenians indicates that they have finally come to resemble the portrait of them drawn by the Corinthians at Lacedaemon: They have indeed become uncontrollable in their activity and limitless in their desires; they have forgotten Pericles’ warning that their lack of moderation would lead to defeat (Thucydides, 1972, p. 73). Whilst Nicias offers an objection, he does not obtain the same persuasiveness as Pericles’, whose caution was rationally rooted in the social environment that appreciate Athenian political institutions and life. As Peter Pouncey (1980) notes that by the seventh and eighth books of the History there are no more long speeches – this in the authors view is to symbolise that Athens’ language, and convention has been completely destroyed by this point, and as a result so has their hopes of maintaining hegemony.

6.5 Summary of Chapter 4

Thus what ultimately causes Athens’ defeat in Thucydides view is the breakdown of its democratic institutional customs caused by post-Periclean individuals busy with their own personal intrigues for the leadership of power. As a result, the Athenians lose the capability of intelligent foreign policy decision making, and advocate unconventional foreign policy, framed outside the language of justice (Lebow, 2001, p. 547) which destroys their mixture of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power based hegemony held at the outbreak of the war. The passages above show that for Thucydides political power is reliant on the intersubjective social conventions and institutions regulating behaviour. This differs with the neorealist conception of power and hegemony, based solely economic and military capability. Thucydides’ decline of Athens informs the student of international relations that capabilities cannot serve as the sole basis of political power of states. If such capabilities are to enable an actor to exercise political power, they must be deployed in an environment of widely held social conventions to be effective.