Decline of Hellenic Convention: Athenian Imperialism (Nikolas Clark, 2018)

Decline of Hellenic Convention: Athenian Imperialism

Nikolas Clark, 2018

Abstract: With self-serving imperialistic desires, the rising demagogues of the Athenian state
shift traditional notions of Hellenic conduct in warfare, enkindling the Sicilian Expedition. With
individuals such as Alcibiades at the helm, Athens plunges into a mad odyssey for conquest in a
foreign land, resulting in the ruin of the Athenian state. Thucydides depicts the actions of these
selfish bedlamites as proliferating the movement from Hellenic values of honor and respect to
that of personal prosperity by any means necessary. Over the course of Books 6,7, and 8, he
endeavors to showcase the crumbling nature of archaic Greek institutions while disillusioned
traditional politicians must merely witness the downfall of long-held Hellenic virtues, despite
their valiant efforts to preserve them.

Archaic Greek warfare was long permeated with notions of honor, Hellenic brotherhood,
and dedication to one’s polis. In an effort to gain glory, renown, and time , both hoplites and their
commanders fought in a highly traditional manner, choosing the path of moral righteousness and
respect rather than underhanded personal vindication. These mannerisms of ancient combat
proved to be a driving force in the development of incredibly advanced poleis that, regardless of
democratic or oligarchic institutions, would become some of the Hellenic world’s greatest
military powers. As the Athenian state grew in wealth and naval prowess, changes in the
Hellenic world such as the formation of the Delian League gave rise to the imperialistic nature of
Athens. When the Peloponnesian War began, the democratic state of Athens birthed a new
generation of political and military leaders: demagogues. These calculating tacticians would
come to disrupt the entire Athenian system of governance and warfare. Thucydides depicts these
self-serving individuals’ decisions as the catalyst in shifting warfare from its once traditional
notions to a new era of imperialistic thought, inevitably leading to the downfall of the Athenian
Empire and a morphing of Hellenic virtue following the Sicilian Expedition.

The onset of the Sicilian Expedition described in Book 6 was characterized less by
physical warfare and more so by the personal agenda of a young rising demagogue as he
persuaded the Athenian masses to take on a second war. In the assembly to decide the fate of an
odyssey to the far reaches of Sicily, Nicias, a prominent, conservative Athenian statesman, calls
upon the rationality of older gentlemen to condemn the enthusiastic nature of the young. Feeling
that the immense danger of the Peloponnesian War already lies upon their doorstep, he urges the
“mad dream of conquest” to be left alone (Thuc. 6.13.1). This sentiment by Nicias sets up the
dangers of an imperialistic attitude in conducting matters of war in a foreign land, while already
fighting a traditional Hellenic conflict in the Peloponnesus. His opponent, Alcibiades, was a
staunch advocate in favor of the expedition, wishing “to thwart both Nicias as his political
opponent and also because of the attack he had made upon him in his speech, and who was,
besides, exceedingly ambitious of a command by which he hoped to reduce Sicily and Carthage,
and personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes” (Thuc. 6.15.2).
Characterizing Alcibiades as not being of bitter reproach toward Nicias, but also as immensely
selfish in relation to his personal affairs, Thucydides begins to illustrate the palpable
malevolence masked behind the affirmations of beginning a new conflict. Alcibiades, in all his
arrogance, begins to employ new techniques in wartime rhetoric, utilizing the masquerade that
“they [Egesta] are our confederates, and we are bound to assist them, without objecting that they
have not assisted us” (Thuc. 6.18.1). This statement is highly antithetical with traditional notions
of conducting Greek warfare, as Hellenic poleis believed in interstate relations being of a
symbiotic nature, rather than immensely one-sided. Additionally, this shows conversational
deceit being employed by Alcibiades in an assembly where tradition would suggest candid
situational analysis to be of greater importance. This shift in morality as it pertains to governance
in warfare is proof of the shifting sands of imperialism in Athens.

Moving forward in time, Alcibiades wins over the Athenian assembly and sets sail with
the expedition, only to be recalled to stand trial for his supposed role in plotting the downfall of
the democracy through desecration of Athenian hermae. This would prove to be a costly wartime
mistake for Athens, as young Alcibiades yet again defies Hellenic tradition in conflict, betraying
his polis and committing treason under the pretense of ancestral proxeny (Thuc. 6.89.2). This
contradictory reasoning is only exponentially worsened through Alcibiades’ account of the entire
Athenian war plan, from Sicily, to conquering the Peloponnesus (Thuc. 6.90.2-4). The choices of
such demagogues were not just leading to traitorous grievances towards their own military, but
also persuaded the Spartan government to begin trusting one who would betray his fellows,
illustrating an incredible disregard for the unwritten rules of traditional warfare. Furthermore,
these choices would result in a Peloponnesian intervention in Sicily (Thuc. 6.93.1-3). The gray
morality of emerging imperial tacticians was shifting the landscape of a democracy and had all
but sealed the fate of the Athenian state in this war.

The transmutability and self-serving moral relativity of warfare was not limited to just the
Athenian state, but was certainly crafted by it. In Book 7, Thucydides recounts the Thracian Dii
sacking Mycalessus. After arriving too late to aid the Athenians at Decelea, the Dii were told to
injure the enemy on their journey back through the Euripus. This example of blatant disregard
for Hellenic respect in combat is illustrated with “…the Thracian people, like the bloodiest of the
barbarians, being ever most murderous when it has nothing to fear.” The Dii slaughtered the
populace of Mycalessus, butchering every living thing in sight and sparing no women, children,
or even beasts (Thuc. 7.29.1-5). Traditional Greek tradition in war would hold this massacre to
be of horrific proportions, condemning imperialist Athens for crafting a lens to view the Hellenic
world in a way that no objective moral facts exist in warfare. The Greek world was no longer a
power-play between the largest poleis, but a brutal free-for-all in which states tore at one
another’s throats in an effort to take advantage of the large-scale disarray brought on by
reprobate politicians.

Furthermore, Thucydides’ own views on a shift in the virtues expressed in warfare are
evident in his mildly eulogistic description of the death of Nicias at the hands of the Syracusans.
Thucydides writes, “This or the like was the cause of the death of a man who, of all the Hellenes
in my time, least deserved such a fate, seeing that the whole course of his life had been regulated
with strict attention to virtue” (Thuc. 7.86.5). In describing the relationship between Nicias and
Gyllipus as being honorable and just, he creates a juxtaposition between the Spartans’ traditional
ideals and the Syracusans rash and paranoid decision making (Thuc.7.86.4). Being allies, the
Spartans and Syracusans in this case bring to life a vivid contrast in how one should conduct
wartime affairs, furthering the notion that cracks were spreading in the foundation of Hellenic
tradition, first through the Athenians, and proliferating throughout not just the Greek world, but
even through the Italian isles.

The return of the prodigal son, Alcibiades, in Book 8, brings out the true moral failings of
such a demagogue. Becoming a man of much distaste in the eyes of King Agis, Alcibiades was
forced to flee Sparta and once again commit treason, this time going to a rather momentous
extreme, bargaining with the Persians (8.45.1). This ghastly Hellenic betrayal is only worsened
by his later oligarchic ambitions for the Athenian state as he urges those Athenians at Samos to
help subvert the democracy and align Athens with Tissaphernes (Thuc. 8.47). This imperial
earthshaker destabilizes the ground on which Athenian democracy was forged. As Phrynichus
states, Alcibiades “cared no more for an oligarchy than for a democracy, and only sought to
change the institutions of his country in order to get himself recalled by his associates” (Thuc.
8.48.4). Not caring one way or the other which government would come to fruition, or who he
must align himself with, Alcibiades further proves that loyalty to a poleis, honor as a military
tactician, and honest political discourse are ghostly remnants of a Hellenic culture on the brink of
death. His deceptive misdirection would also prove to extend Athens’ part in the Peloponnesian
War, exhausting both their economy and military, and leaving the once great state in tatters.

While some traditional Greek institutions of warfare would manage to survive the
devastating Peloponnesian War, the face of Hellenic civilization would never be the same. The
rise and development of selfish and charismatic demagogues would prove to be a critical fallacy
in relation to both the Athenian state and the entire Hellenic community. The first whispers of
imperialism may have begun in the Athenian assembly, but they would echo across the entire
Peloponnesus, the Italian peninsula, and even the far reaches of the Persian Empire as a cold gray
morality beset unspoken virtues of honor and loyalty. Thucydides’ literary depictions of the
grandeur and naval superiority of the Athenian Empire being reduced to but dust and shadow
provide a harsh condemnation of power being placed in the hands of egocentric war mongers
like Alcibiades, while mourning the archaic institutions that gave rise to such an empire in the
first place.