Book III of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War begins as Archidamus, King of Sparta, invades Attica. This triggers a revolt, notably on the island of Lesbos, owing to Athens’s enslavement of its allies. This rebellion in turn causes a proxy war for Athens with the Mytilenians. The Plataeans are attacked by Thebes and retreat to Athens, and Athens defeats the revolt of the Mytilenians, who Cleon, the most “violent man” in Athens and a “man of the people” argues for the Athenians to execute the Mytilenians. He claims arguments are useless and that action and punishment are needed. While Diodotus argues against execution as the Mytilenians can actually be useful. Thus Athens spares Mytilene. Meanwhile, Sparta decides to execute the remaining Plataeans from the attack by Thebes.
Then Corcyra revolts and is defeated. Thucydides provides a lengthy, cautionary, and illuminating reflection on the nature and evils of revolution. Portions are quoted below:
“So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being everywhere made by the popular leaders to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Spartans. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties. The sufferings which revolution entailed upon cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity states and individuals find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now was given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected…The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with generous confidence. Revenge was also held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only offered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held so long as no other weapon was at hand…The leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: on the one side with the cry of political equality of The People, on the other of a moderate aristocracy; but they sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish and, stopping at nothing in their struggles for ascendancy, engaged in direct excesses. In their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not limiting them to what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making party caprice of the moment their only standard….Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”
“Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow” (3.82-3.84).
He concludes his thoughts on revolution as follows:
“In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority; since revenge would not have been set above religion, and gain above justice, had it not been for the fatal power of envy. Indeed men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required” (3.84).
Does Thucydides believe in virtue? If war is the natural state, and he agrees with Socrates that war is the “city in motion”, then does he believe the rule of the strong is the truest form of human political activity? At least on the surface, Thucydides laments the destructive forces of revolution, but he also acknowledges that revolution will exist so long as human nature embraces faction and passion over moderation. His description brings to mind tales of the chaos that ensued during 18th century France.
The conclusion of Book III ends with a return of the plague to Athens and several skirmishes with neighboring cities, which the Athenian General Demosthenes leads to victory. There is a minor withdrawal of the Spartans, and Mount Etna, the largest volcanic mountain on Sicily, suddenly erupts. Natural chaos mirrors political chaos. Thus concludes the sixth year of the war. Each book closes with a reminder that Thucydides was the author of his history.
For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.