Hi fellow Thucydideans,
We are approaching one of the most compelling historical narratives ever told concerning events in the second phase of the Peloponnesian war. “Lord Macaulay called Thucydides’ seventh book, which includes the description of the Athenians’ withdrawal after their defeat in the harbor of Syracuse, ‘the ne plus ultra of human art'” (Zagorin, 108). The events in Books 5 & 6 that we will be discussing on Monday November 5 are just as gripping as they lead us into one of the defining moments of the 5th century B.C. I would go so far as to say that something farther beyond the scope of Herodotus’ brilliant accounts of individual heroism at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea is found here in Thucydides, something that might be what Walter Benjamin called “the Angel of History.” I hope that these questions will help inspire you to see the ‘wreckage of history’ piling upon itself. Talk with you soon,
Thucydides Book 5.26-6.105 Questions
The Melian Dialogue, the Rise of Alcibiades & the Sicilian Expedition
1. The Melian Dialogue – In one of the most enduring passages from Thudydides, Athens pressures Melos, a neutral Spartan island colony, to submit to Athenian imperial demands. A philosophical discussion ensues as emissaries on both sides negotiate the fate of Melos and, to some extent, the fate of Athens. The central topic is: what is justice? and what is justice between two Greek nations/city-states? How does each side define justice? and how is any definition of justice relevant to the present Melian situation?
Please consider the following quotes from Melian dialogue and their attendant questions. What other quotes struck you in particular?
Athenians to the Melians:
“The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Sparta, even if Sparta was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers.” (5.91)
Since the Athenians sincerely believe that their superiority entitles them to define the terms of a treaty, why do they bother to carry on this dialogue with the Melians? Why is it to their interest?
Melians to the Athenians:
“How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at our case and conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?” (5.98)
Aside from principle (as evidenced from the above quote), what do the Melians have to bargain with in their negotiation with the Athenians? How practical is the Melian assertion with respect to the Athenians’ assertion?
Athenians to the Melians:
“Well, you alone, as it seems to us, judging from these resolutions, regard what is future as more certain than what is before your eyes, and what is out of sight, in your eagerness, as already coming to pass.” (5.113)
The Athenians respond to the Melian resistance to their demands and point this out a few times in the dialogue. How is the Athenian position one which can be supported by their democracy? How are the Athenians really perceived by others? Are the Melians that far off the mark?
2. Argos challenges Spartan hegemony of the Peloponnesus. Sparta’s allies begin to waver in their loyalty to Sparta. In terms of diplomacy with the Peloponnesians, what is the difference between Argos with their democracy and Sparta with their monarchy? Do the Argives underestimate Sparta? Do the Argives underestimate Sparta’s allies? Why is Alcibiades so interested in Athens allying with Argos? How does Alcibiades influence the outcome of the battle around Mantinea? How did the outcome of the battle affect the relations between Athens and Sparta? (5.75, 5.80) How was the government of Argos affected?
Book 6 – The Sicilian Expedition pt. I
3. After describing in vivid detail the history of settlements on the island of Sicily, Thucydides tells us in 6.6.1: “Such is the list of the peoples, Hellenic and barbarian, inhabiting Sicily, and such the magnitude of the island which the Athenians were now bent upon invading; being ambitious in real truth of conquering the whole, although they had also the specious design of aiding their kindred and other allies on the island” (my emphasis). Perez Zagorin in his wonderful book Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader, comments that the phrase “in real truth” is “the identical phrase, alethestate prophasis (the truest cause or reason), which he had previously used in 1.23 to explain the true cause of the war as a whole” (107-108). These strong words openly declare Athens’ motive for invading Sicily, according to Thucydides. How do these strong words relate to Thucydides’ earlier comments in Book I about the “true cause” or “real truth” of history?
4. What are the main points of Nicias’ speech? Alcibiades’ speech? How do any of these points relate to Pericles’ strategy outlined in Book 2? Does Nicias or Alcibiades represent the will of the Athenian people? Which of these two, if anyone, is continuing Pericles’ strategy? How do any of these points compare to the Athenian point of view in the Melian dialogue? Why does Nicias’ second speech to the Athenians backfire? Are there any similar historical parallels that cross your mind?
5. Even though Thucydides comments that Athens’ imperial ambitions are more selfish than benign, do we perceive any sympathy for Athens as well? How is Athens as a city-state portrayed as tragic?
6. Given that the defacement of the Hermae right before the Sicilian Expedition would argue against its success, why would Alcibiades of all people have defaced the Hermae? Could there be another explanation for this scandal?
7. After Thucydides introduces Hermocrates to us earlier in Book 4, we have gotten to know him a little bit. Should we accept Hermocrates in Book 6 as the ‘champion of Sicily’ or as an opportunist for his own city-state of Syracuse? Does the tete-a-tete between Hermocrates and Athenagoras in their speeches concerning the threat to Sicily in any way relate to the Athenian debate about launching the Sicilian Expedition?
8. How can Alcibiades, someone raised in Pericles’ house, justify his patriotism to Athens by defecting to Sparta? Given his previous arguments for Athens to go back to war with Sparta, why would Alcibiades want to help the Spartans at all now? What is Alcibiades’ attitude toward the democracy of Athens??
9. Even though most of the Sicilian cities feared the domination of Syracuse, why did they nevertheless refrain from joining Athens in the war? In addressing the Camarinaeans, does Hermocrates add to or change what he had previously said about Sicilian unity? How does Euphemus, the Athenian advocate, try to divide the Sicilians against each other in the Athenian interest? How are his words problematic for promoting Athenian democracy?