Thucydides’ Hope: A Fickle Mistress (Molly Buffington, 2018)


Thucydides’ Hope: A Fickle Mistress

Molly Buffington, 2018


Abstract: Throughout his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides makes a harsh critique of those Greeks who put their faith in vain hopes rather than in military realities. Believing that hope ultimately stems from hubris, Thucydides warns that it leads to blindness, imprudence, and, ultimately, defeat. Although he offers some examples of Greeks whose hopes were backed by rational thought and military planning, Thucydides stresses that hopes – be they arrogant or superstitious – ultimately have no effect on the outcomes of the Sicilian and Ionian periods of the war. The lesson to be learned from Thucydides’ discussion of the Peloponnesian War is a simple one: hopeful heroes die; shrewd strategists, however, may live to see another day.


In the fifth century BC, the Peloponnesian War threatened to tear the Greek world apart as Athens, Sparta, and their respective allies wrought destruction on one another. The ancient historian Thucydides, himself an exiled Athenian writing his overview of the war in retrospect, offers insight into an often-overlooked facet of the war: hope. Thucydides, however, lavishes no praise on the gods or Hellenic ideals of the hero; rather, Thucydides is skeptical of hope and its tendency to distract from the Realpolitik of war. In Book 5 of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides says this of hope: “Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss, at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to stake their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined” (Thucydides 5.103.1). Thucydides elaborates on this idea in his analysis of the Sicilian and Ionian invasions of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides echoes this sentiment throughout books six through eight, as he argues that hope is the result of blind optimism in the face of fear, leading to poor judgment and rarely providing any positive force in war. In Thucydides’ understanding of war, hope is a liability, not an asset.

In the Sicilian expedition, Thucydides believes that hubris led the combatants to hope for outcomes that were not politically or militarily realistic. He first illustrates this in the Athenians’ debate over whether or not they should attack Sicily. Nicias, the Athenian elder statesman in the debate, tries to dissuade the people from launching the campaign by pointing out the practical difficulty of the endeavor. He notes that, if Athens won, Sicily would be a difficult satellite of the empire to maintain, but if they lost, they could lose the whole war (Thucydides 6.11.1). But this does not dampen the enthusiasm of the Athenian people, personified by the fiery young Alcibiades, who believes that the empire must grow to survive, therefore, he claims, “we shall augment our power at home by this adventure abroad” (Thucydides 6.18.3; 4). Thucydides also notes that both the young and old men trusted in their own abilities and had no doubt that they would be successful (Thucydides 6.24.3). But this assurance comes from their pride as Athenians, not actual military reality. From the very beginning, Thucydides depicts the Athenian hope for success in the Sicilian Expedition as being based in hubris, not military reality. Meanwhile, though warned that war was imminent, the Syracusans do not believe that the Athenians will attack Sicily. The people make light of the news or decry it as false (Thucydides 6.35.1). It was not until “reliable reports came in from all quarters” that the Syracusans “laid aside their incredulity” and began preparing for war (Thucydides 6.45). Again, the Syracusans’ hope is not coming from the reports of Hermocrates or the trends of the ever-expanding Peloponnesian War, but rather, comes from hubris. It seems unthinkable that Athens would attack them, let alone be successful in such an attempt, which is Athenagoras’ whole argument against Hermocrates’ counsel (6.36-38). Though hope is a comfort against fear, like a blanket, it covers the harsh reality that lies beneath. Both sides in the Sicilian Expedition initially hope for unrealistic outcomes because they are blinded by their own hubris.

Thucydides also believes that hope stems from desperation, especially among the Athenians during the Ionian period of the Peloponnesian War. In the final stages of the war, the Athenians put their hope in the traitor Alcibiades’ insane plan to save Athens because they are terrified of losing the war. Alcibiades claimed that if the Athenians disbanded their government, the Persians would aid them in the war. Upon hearing this, Thucydides says that the most powerful Athenian citizens “had great hopes of getting the government into their own hands and of triumphing over their enemy” (Thucydides 8.48.1). Despite the obvious flaws in this plan and their suspicions against Alcibiades, the people embrace his proposal because they are desperate. The oligarchs especially hope to regain their dwindling power, and all of Athens wants to avert their impending doom at the hands of Sparta and her allies. Pisander persuades the Athenians holding out against Alcibiades’ plan by asking if they had “any hope of saving the state unless someone could induce the King to come over to their side” (Thucydides 8.53.2). It was not the actual strength of his argument, but their lack of any other option that convinced Alcibiades’ detractors. Their desperation compels them to hope that, by dissolving their democracy, the Persians will back them and save them from certain destruction. This is simply an inverted form of hubris meant to shield against the nagging fear of failure; rather than considering the realities of their position and this plan, they blindly hope in a man and his strategy that are undeniably unsound so that they do not have to acknowledge their own weaknesses and faults. This inability to face their own fears and failures causes the Athenians to place their hope in a self-destructive scheme that goes against all logic.

Not only is the Athenians’ hope misplaced, but, according to Thucydides, this hope is also dangerous because it distracts from the material and strategic realities of war. While trying to dissuade the Athenians from launching against the Sicilians, Nicias also notes that the war would be a financial drain and require “much good counsel and more good fortune” (Thucydides 6.23.3). This is certainly not meant as a rallying cry, but rather a warning: not only is the drain on men and material resources a serious threat, but also no army can realistically hope to win a campaign on good luck and hope. But instead of the reaction he expected, the Athenians “fell in love with the enterprise” and are filled with “enthusiasm” (Thucydides 6.24.3-4). Their hopes stirred up by Alcibiades, the Athenians have become completely blind to the reality of the situation. Additionally, Thucydides is critical of the dangers of religious hope turning into violent or crippling fear. After the apotropaic Hermae statues around the city were defaced, the Athenians “grew uneasy and suspicious of hearsay on the subject” (Thucydides 6.60.1). The people placed their trust in these statues, and when they were desecrated, the people were overcome with superstitious fear and righteous indignation. This eventually leads to the people, who “grew daily more savage,” carrying out mass arrests of anyone rumored to be connected to the incident (Thucydides 6.60.2). The event was finally resolved with a mass execution of many of the accused, although Thucydides notes that “it was, after all, not clear whether the sufferers had been punished unjustly” (Thucydides 6.60.4-5). This religious hope ends up being dangerous because it incites the people to violence, blinding them to the proper course of law and order. Thucydides even condemns Nicias for being “somewhat overaddicted [sic] to divination and practices of that kind” and delaying the Athenian withdrawal from Syracuse on the advice of soothsayers (Thucydides 7.50.4). This behavior does not befit a military commander in Thucydides’ opinion because, by placing his hopes in religious practices, he endangers his army. Blind hope is what leads the Athenians to facing “disgrace” when, so completely defeated by the Syracusans, they are forced to retreat “filled with tears and in a distraught state” and without their dead, sick, and wounded (Thucydides 7.75). The danger in relying on hope, Thucydides argues, is seen in the mishandling and ultimate failure of the Sicilian Expedition.

Hope can also be dangerous because it can be so easily manipulated, as Thucydides illustrates in the Alcibiades affair during the Ionian War. Alcibiades, who had treacherously fled to Sparta and then Persia due to being suspected of involvement in the Hermae incident, seduced the same Athenian aristocrats who had sought to indict him by stirring up “great hopes” of personal power and glory in war – though his real hopes were to restore his own prestige in Athens (Thucydides 8.47.1-8.48.1). However, Alcibiades’ plan to ally Athens with the Persians fell through, and Athens realized that they had been “deceived” by Alcibiades and turn against him yet again (Thucydides 8.56.2-4). The hope that Alcibiades offers to the Athenian oligarchs plays to their hubris and their fear of destruction, and so they are easily persuaded to make rash decisions. Having lost their support, Alcibiades goes to the Athenian army at Samos, who, angry at the dissolution of the democracy, are opposing mainland Athens. At Samos, Alcibiades “highly incited their hopes for the future, and extravagantly magnified his own influence,” making wild promises of the assistance the Persians would provide if they helped him secure power (Thucydides 8.82.2-3). Thucydides notes that his true design in this was to stir up the army against Athens in order to secure his own power (Thucydides 8.82.2). Hope is used as a sophistic tool in the speeches of men like Alcibiades, and therefore it cannot be blindly trusted. In the hands of a disreputable person like Alcibiades, hope can be a dangerous tool that can manipulate people.

Thucydides believes that hope can be a positive force when it is based in reality, which it sometimes was during the Sicilian Expedition. Thucydides pits the Athenian state’s aspirations of Sicilian conquest, which were “not well advised”, against Nicias’ “hope of diverting the Athenians from the enterprise” (Thucydides 6.8.4). Here we see an instance of Thucydides’ dichotomy of hope: hope that is backed by military and practical knowledge, like Nicias’, is rightly founded, but blind optimistic hope, like the Athenians’, is not a sound basis for statecraft. Rather, hubristic hope made them lose track of reality. Thucydides also contrasted the various hopes of the combatants: whereas the Athenians “sought to make another’s country theirs,” the Syracusans sought self-preservation against a tyrannous empire (Thucydides 6.69.3). Thucydides implies that the Athenians’ hope is an unjust one, while the Syracusans’ hope is honorable. Again, he stresses that the Athenians’ hope is ultimately based in hubris, which will only lead to their eventual downfall. When news came to Athens that their forces were defeated in Syracuse, they “disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers who…reported the matter, a destruction so complete not being thought credible” (Thucydides 8.1.1). While a hope tempered by reality or born of noble motives could be a positive force, this was not the case for the Athenians’ and their irrational and ignoble hope. Just as a hope founded in reality brought about prudence, as shown by Nicias and his wise counsel, so also did hope founded in hubris produce more blindness, and here it was blindness in the face of defeat.

Thucydides illustrates the limits of all hope – wise or foolish – in his discussion of the Ionian invasion. Thucydides mentions that the Chians, who were fighting against the Athenians, possessed a “zeal” that was always “active” (Thucydides 8.22.1). Despite their eventual defeat at the hands of the Athenians, Thucydides breaks off his narration of the war to say that “after the Spartans, the Chians are the only people that I have known who knew how to be wise in prosperity, and who ordered their city the more securely the greater it grew,” and, although they mistakenly believed in the “speedy collapse” of Athens, this misplaced hope was shared by many (Thucydides 8.24.3-5). The Chians are different from the Athenians because their hope is coupled with wisdom and shrewd military action. And yet, they, like the rest of the Peloponnesian League fighting against Athens, had a misplaced hope in an easy victory over Athens. Even the wisest polis could err in judgment, which was certainly true for Athens. Their hope was certainly not a positive force, as the loss of Euboea at the end of the war plunged the city into “panic” and “the deepest despondency” (Thucydides 8.96.1-2). Athens, whose hope came neither from prudence nor military reality, was driven to near self-destruction when their enemies finally ripped their hubristic façade away. Even the wise, such as the Chians or the Athenians, erred in their hopes, and the results were often catastrophic.

Thucydides elaborates on his thoughts regarding hope in his history of the Sicilian and Ionian invasions in the Peloponnesian War, making clear that he does not believe that hope is a reliable factor in war. Often caused by false presuppositions, hope results in blindness and is only sometimes positive if it is tempered by wisdom and prudence. Even under the best of conditions, hopes can be dashed by the unforeseeable fortunes of war. A blind reliance on hope is not heroic, only shortsighted and arrogant. Athens, believing itself to be invincible today, tomorrow, and forever, plunged headlong into conflicts that they were not actually equipped to win, with faulty motivations, dwindling supplies, and growing internal unrest. They not only blundered into external failures in the battles that took place in the war, but they also nearly committed cultural suicide at the prompting of a disgraced and traitorous tyrant. Thucydides’ message is clear: Hope is the future tense of hubris. Prudent thinking wins wars, while wishful thinking often loses them.