The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) was actually the second war fought between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century. Why did hostilities break out into the open again? The reflections of the Greek general and historian Thucydides on this question in his History of the Peloponnesian War constitute one of the greatest books of all time. Not only does Thucydides in his inquiry investigate the causes of this second war between Athens and Sparta, which resulted in the end of the Athenian Empire, but he does so in a way that allows us to understand the potential causes of any war in human history. In short, every age has good reasons for returning to a close reading of Thucydides.
Because there is so much profound analysis of human character and political action in Thucydides, no brief treatment of his writings can do him justice. But I would like to focus briefly on a key example concerning how a crisis, if not properly managed, can spiral out of control and eventually into a full-blown war. In the case of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides takes special care to describe the Epidamnus affair.
Although Epidamnus (remotely located far in the north, up on the west coast of Greece) was a daughter colony of Corcyra (Corfu in modern times), its mother Corcyra nonetheless had a relatively isolationist foreign policy. When democrats seized power in Epidamnus, the exiled oligarchs allied with some foreign powers and struck back. But Corcyra saw no reason to get involved. Corcyra refused to help.
Only when the desperate democrats, under siege in Epidamnus, turned to the Corinthians, did the real drama begin. Corcyra was itself a Corinthian colony, and so the appeal from Epidamnus to Corinth was like a daughter going now straight to grandmother, when mother would not give her what she wanted. In the case of Corinth and Corcyra, there was bad blood between them for centuries, as they frequently went to war with one another and quarreled over colonies that they each claimed to be their own.
In the current situation, Epidamnus was seeking to gain from this rivalry, offering to declare itself a colony not of Corcyra, but of Corinth, in return for aid from Corinth. Corinth’s power and prestige had been declining, whereas Corcyra’s isolationism had resulted in the astonishing growth of her navy, such that Corcyra now had 120 ships. In other words, Corcyra’s fleet was only second to the Athenian fleet in size. The mother had surpassed the grandmother with a highly visible success embodied in this powerful navy. Therefore, the grandmother was more than pleased to accept this request that enlarged her pride and honor more than anything else. The Corinthians accepted the invitation of Epidamnus: The daughter would now say that grandmother was their real mother. Corinth would send troops and settlers, adopting Epidamnus as her own.
Thucydides describes the emotional motivation behind the Corinthians’ willingness to stir the geopolitical pot in consenting to the invitation from Epidamnus:
This the Corinthians consented to do. Believing the colony to belong as much to themselves as to the Corcyraeans, they felt it to be a kind of duty to undertake their protection. Besides, they hated the Corcyraeans for their contempt of the mother country. Instead of meeting with the usual honors accorded to the parent city by every other colony at public assemblies, such as precedence at sacrifices, Corinth found herself treated with contempt by a power, which in point of wealth could stand comparison with any even of the richest communities in Hellas, which possessed great military strength, and which sometimes could not repress a pride in the high naval position of an island whose nautical renown dated from the days of its old inhabitants, the Phaeacians. This was one reason of the care that they lavished on their fleet, which became very efficient; indeed they began the war with a force of a hundred and twenty galleys (I.25.3–4, Loeb trans.).
Thucydides helps reveal an important dimension in political dynamics and motivation apart from a merely rational calculation. Thinking not in terms of any grand strategy beyond themselves, the Corinthians took the stability of the Greek world for granted. Preservation of the peace between Athens and Sparta after their first war was not uppermost in the minds of the Corinthians. The tiny colony Epidamnus, up in the middle of nowhere, was not seen as linked to any actions of universal consequence. Instead, what was foremost in the minds of the Corinthians was an opportunity for indulging in what seemed mostly to be an emotional satisfaction.
But the impetuous decision-making was quickly reciprocated. Corcyra flexed its muscles and decided to send a fleet to Epidamnus. Sailing under clouds of emotion, there was no strategy of negotiation. The bigger navy simply sought to issue ultimatums backed by the threat of force.
Pause for a moment and consider, not only how quickly things escalated, but for what reasons. No interest of Corcyra was threatened by Corinth’s new adoption. No loss of power or prestige would be the consequence. The proof of this lies in Corcyra’s foreign policy before the Corinthians took action. Corcyra had been happy to stand aloof from the civil war within Epidamnus. But now they were committing themselves to a course of action it would be hard to back down from without losing face. All the same, Corcyra sent forty ships to Epidamnus, to aid the exiled oligarchs and their allies in taking back the city from the democrats.
But it was a miscalculation on the part of Corcyra with regard to the steely resolve of grandmother, and how much fight grandmother still had in her, despite her vastly inferior navy. Corinth, burning with passion, had resolved to do whatever it took. She would build her naval power up again, to recapture what was imagined to be her old greatness.
Moreover, Corinth had greater influence among the Greeks, even if its navy was smaller than Corcyra’s. Not backing down, Corinth set her diplomatic network to the task of getting new settlers from all corners of Greece, to move to Epidamnus as the newly declared colony of Corinth. Not only that, she also set about vigorously recruiting, into her service, ships and money from her allies in order to strike back at Corcyra.
At this point, realizing that an unforeseen crisis point had now been reached, Corcyra sought out a diplomatic solution. But precisely at this point, we must consider, along with Thucydides, what the grand strategy should have been for the great powers, Athens and Sparta, to keep the peace. How did their grand strategy fail, as it ultimately did in 431? For, after the battles of Leucimme (435) and Sybota (433) with Corcyra, the burning hatred of Corinth against Athens over the Epidamnus affair, among other causes, was a key factor pushing the great powers into war.
Corcyra responded to the determination of the Corinthians by implicitly threatening to form a naval alliance with Athens. This barely concealed threat was, in fact, a much larger threat to the stability of the Greek world for those with the strategic minds to realize it. An alliance between the navies of Corcyra and Athens would be an unacceptable existential threat to Sparta’s own military supremacy, upon which the status quo was predicated in their postwar treaty with the Athenians.
The recklessness of the Corcyraean threat, to ally with Athens, is that it gave more motivation for Corinth to go to war than not. Moreover, when Corinth lost at Leucimme, she would not go away with any less ambition and hatred or any diminishment of feelings over her honor. The opposite was true. She burned the hotter. That battle at Leucimme was no resolution of the crisis, but only an exacerbation of it, given the relentless determination of Corinth to gain her revenge. Thus, with Thucydides, we have the perennial opportunity, in retrospect, to focus our attention on the battle of Sybota. We may ask, what could have been done differently?
In attempting to manage the crisis, Athens sent only ten ships to this battle in which Corcyra and Corinth again squared off. It was a symbolic gesture of moderation, a gesture made mostly for the benefit of Sparta. Even when Athens, having second thoughts about such Periclean moderation, sent another twenty ships, they arrived too late for the battle to result in anything other than the ensuing standoff.
But a nagging question should bother us: What if Athens had crushed Corinth at Sybota, instead of engaging in what appears to be a moderate exercise of attempted deterrence? Subsequent events would show that Corinth, in fact, could not be deterred. How can a grand strategy account for such incorrigible actors and still keep the peace?
One possible outcome could have been a Corinthian victory in which Corinth took possession of Corcyra’s navy. A Corinthian victory against Corcyra would have thus been as destabilizing for the Greek world as an Athenian victory against Corinth. Therefore, the only choices available seemed to involve victory for one of the three rival navies: Corcyra, Corinth, or Athens.
Given this precise dynamic, the uncomfortable situation of a threefold rivalry, it seems that what the Athenians required was not simply a plan for deterrence that would keep the peace, but also a grand strategy for victory against the greatest threat to peace.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is an illustration of the Destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily, and is in the public domain.