Stuff from Way Back #22: Power Corrupts

(This piece must serve for two weeks since I will be out of town. All dates are BC and translations of Thucydides are by Rex Warner. My thanks to Donald Kagan, who taught me this long, long ago.)



Defending the ludicrous attempts to establish democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of US politicians have stated that apart from being the right thing to do (regardless of what the locals think), this policy enhances the prospects for peace because “democracies do not attack their neighbors.” One need not look further than our own recent history to see what nonsense this is: Grenada, Panama, Iraq and drone strikes, which are in fact acts of war. Israel has begun numerous conflicts not entirely justified by a credible threat. And democratic states in classical Greece, including the granddaddy of all democracies, Athens, continually attacked their neighbors.

Indeed, Athens (along with the US) provides a shining example of democracy acting badly. That power is corrupting is a commonplace, and the presidency of Barack Obama appears to be a demonstration of this notion. Prior to being elected President Obama was a progressive, espousing more open government, dismantling the war and terror apparatus of the Bush administration and promising peace. Instead, he is pursuing a concentrated assault on journalists, defending the Constitutionally dubious powers of the Patriot act, aggressively spying on the American people and our allies and killing innocents by the hundreds with his drones. He underlines the idea that no government, whatever its nature, will voluntarily surrender any power. And if subordinating everything to the quest for reelection and trading favors for campaign funds is corruption, the Congress is a cesspool.

In antiquity the ruling elite of the Roman Republic provide a classic example of corruption. Having served the best interests of the state and the Roman people for almost four hundred years, the Senatorial class was corrupted by the powers accumulated in Rome’s wars and especially by the flood of wealth that came in the wake of the conquest of the Greek east. The result was an utterly self-interested Senate and the ultimate collapse of the Republic into military autocracy.

But it is Athens that provides a compelling study in the corrupting influence of power, especially in the pressure cooker of war. The moral collapse of the Athenian people, the real rulers in the radical democracy of the later fifth century, is beautifully detailed by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), the showdown between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League. Thucydides is the first modern historian, not only because of his attempt to provide an entirely factual narrative, but also because of his analysis of the broad currents flowing through that narrative. He was himself an Athenian and was present in Athens during the events examined below, giving credibility to the substance of the statements he records.

Athens emerged from the Persian Wars (490, 480-479) immensely powerful, particularly at sea, where her fleet was larger than all the other Greek navies combined. Liberating the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast and preventing a resurgence of Persian power required a permanent Aegean alliance, and in 478 Athens organized the Delian League, a voluntary association of most of the island and coastal cities. Recognizing Athens’ huge military contribution, the member states granted her a dominant role in the League, almost guaranteeing the emergence of Athenian supremacy. The evolution from league to empire began with Athens taking military action to prevent members from leaving the alliance, an understandable measure, and gradually the ship-contributing allies were transformed into tribute paying allies. Within a generation of the creation of the League there were besides Athens only three ship contributing allies left – the wealthy islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. The remaining allies all paid tribute and supplied troops, and of these a large number were subject and so more directly controlled. By the fifties Athens had suspended meetings of the League assembly, and in 454 the League treasury was moved from Delos to the Athenian acropolis, where Athena henceforth received a rake of one sixtieth.

The Athenian organization was a light touch compared to the average empire, at least until the pressures of the great war with Sparta. The tribute was reassessed every four years, and the allied state could appeal if it thought the amount was too high. In return for their money the allies got the Athenian fleet, which not only protected them from the Persians and from their own neighbors, but also suppressed the normally endemic piracy, probably the most appreciated benefit of the empire. The obligation to supply troops was a burden, but perhaps better the allied hoplites should be defending and expanding the empire than fighting one another, which is what they would otherwise be doing. Because of the strong feelings the Greeks had about the autonomy of the polis, however, the empire was probably generally resented and Athenian meddling in the internal affairs of the subject allies certainly was, but it could have been worse. After all, Athenian interference was primarily concerned with maintaining democratic governments, which by definition involved the majority of the locals ruling themselves. (At least by the Greek definition, which required direct participation; representative government readily allows the creation of sham democracies.) And in fact, it would be worse: when Sparta took over the empire after Athens’ defeat in 404, she ruled it through oppressive little ten man oligarchies.

Athens had her ups and downs with her allies, but it was the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 that really turned the empire sour. Initially there was little problem, since Pericles pursued a purely defensive strategy, which made very small demands upon the allies, especially in terms of troops. But old Squill Head died in 429, and Athenian policy became increasingly aggressive and expansionist, putting heavier and heavier demands on the allies. For example, in 425, the seventh year of the war, Athens more than doubled the tribute demanded of the allies. The empire became an increasing burden on the allies, wasting their resources and lives in dubious operations and providing no discernible benefits in return. In 412, prompted by Athenian losses in Sicily and Spartan promises of aid, almost all the allies revolted and went over to the enemy camp. In the next few years the energetic Athenians would reconquer most of their former dependents, but a few years after that they would lose the war and with it the empire. Then the allies would get a taste of empire Spartan style.

War brutalizes a society, and Athens’ decaying relationship with her allies in the course of the war fully demonstrates this moral decline, which is neatly reflected in her own changing view of the empire and foreign relations in general. In the famous Funeral Oration given at the end of the first year of the war Pericles alludes to the relatively benign imperialism practiced by Athens: “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them…When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on free liberality.” (Thucydides 2.40.4-5) Well, the reality of the empire was of course far from this ideal, but Athenian imperialism was almost a gentle presence compared to the heavy-handed Spartan brand, which had virtually enslaved the southern part of the Peloponnesus. In any case, it is the ideal we are interested in, how Athens viewed herself and her relations with other states.

Only one year later the tone has already changed. In a speech given by Pericles at the end of the second year of the war the will to power is now clearly apparent:
“The whole world before our eyes can be divided into two parts, the land and the sea, each of which is valuable and useful to man. Of the whole of one of these parts you are in control – not only of the area at present in your power, but elsewhere too, if you want to go further. With your navy as it is today there is no power on earth –not the King of Persia nor any people under the sun – which can stop you from sailing where you wish…And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery; there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred we have incurred while administering it…In fact you now hold your empire down by force: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” (Thucydides 2.62.2, 63.1-2)
After only two years of war the friendly, mutual aid concept of empire expressed in the Funeral Oration has given way to a more realistic appraisal of the empire as a kind of tyranny. But the empire cannot be given up now, and justification of it can be found in the mere fact that it exists. Further, in his description of Athenian naval strength Pericles defines a power that has no limit and suggests that Athenian ambitions might not be contained within the confines of the present empire.

In 428 Mytilene, the chief city on the island of Lesbos, revolted from Athens and was crushed the following year. In a fit of emotion the Athenian assembly voted to put to death the entire male population and enslave the women and children, a rare and extreme form of punishment that was unfortunately becoming less rare as the war progressed. The harshness of the reaction is a vivid sign of the brutalizing effects of the war, but what happened next is also revealing of the changing Athenian attitude towards the empire. The day after the decision was made cooler heads prevailed, and an extraordinary second meeting of the assembly was called to debate the issue again. The demagogue and radical imperialist Cleon (d. 422) argued that the heavy punishment was necessary to set an example and that policy could not take a back seat to irrelevant humanitarian concerns. The opposition, led by the moderate Diodotus, countered with the argument that the slaughter would not serve as a deterrent, but rather would cause those who did revolt to fight to the death, since that would be all they could expect anyway. Moreover, Mytilene was an oligarchy and the people had been compelled to go along with the revolt, so punishing them would only disaffect the democratic factions in other states.

The penalty was repealed and the Mytilenians were saved at the last minute, but look at the arguments delivered in their defense. Nowhere does Diodotus say anything about justice or what is right or what Mytilene deserves. His arguments are based entirely on expediency, on what course of action would be best for imperial Athens, and he comes right out and says so: “But this is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” (Thucydides 3.44.4) Whatever Diodotus may have felt about the inhumanity of the punishment and the plight of the Mytilenians, he understood that the Athenian people would only be moved by a cold appeal to their imperial self-interest. As the war dragged on, Athens’ concept of empire was clearly growing harsher. And Athens was not alone in the growing brutality. In 427 Plataea surrendered to the Spartans after a two year siege, and despite the city’s role in the Hellenic victory of 479, it was razed to the ground. Prompted by the Thebans, the Spartans acted in a particularly nasty fashion. Each defender was asked if had done anything of service to the Spartans and their allies in the war, and when each answered no (what else?), he was executed.

The moral rock bottom came in 416, when the Athenians attacked the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean. The Melians had not joined the original Delian League and had managed to escape the attention of the Athenians in the following years. At the outbreak of the war the island was neutral, although her sympathies were with Sparta, since she had been colonized from there. She resisted an Athenian invitation to join the empire and because of this uncooperative stance was in 426 the object of an unsuccessful Athenian attack. Now, ten years later the Athenians extended their invitation again, and once again the Melians refused. This time, however, the Athenians captured the city and killed all the males and enslaved the women and children. Actually, this was the second occasion that such drastic measures were taken; Athens had already inflicted this same terrible fate upon her ally Scione after an unsuccessful revolt in 421. But in the case of Scione the Athenians could at least claim, rightly or wrongly, just desserts for an ingrate ally, whereas Melos quite obviously involved nothing more than naked and brutal aggression.

And indeed the Athenians made no claim that there was anything more. In their dialogue with the Melians before investing the city they boldly state their reasons for pressuring the island: “If we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power…So that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire. We rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.” (Thucydides 5.95, 97) When the Melians protest that what is happening to them is hardly just, the Athenians reply with one of the most cynical statements of foreign policy principles in history:
“You know as well as we do that, when matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept…Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it a general and necessary law of nature (physis) to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.” (Thucydides 5.89, 105.2)
Such honesty in foreign affairs is certainly refreshing, but it cannot obscure the total moral bankruptcy of Athenian policy. It has come to this for the Athenians – might makes right. They have abandoned the normal standards of civilized behavior and justified their violation of accepted standards of international law (nomos or man made law) by appealing to a brutally defined “natural law” (or god’s law, law of the gods, conscience, higher law), as many a great power would do in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, precisely as Thucydides predicted.

America of course officially justifies her increasingly abominable behavior on the world stage with an appeal to national security rather than some law of nature, but so pervasive has the security argument become that it takes on the character of a natural law. And there are many conservative Christians who in fact do believe our actions are supported by natural law, in this case the Christian god, who had earlier justified our conquest of the North America. The “war” on terror touches ordinary Americans in only the most peripheral way, yet we are still being brutalized, accepting lower standards of international conduct as acceptable and even normal. Besides, as our leaders say regarding America’s pervasive snooping, everyone does it. No, only the powerful do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must – at least until they become the powerful.


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