Wag the Dog

Sat Apr 11 23:00:44 2009
In this discussion we have stayed pretty close to an analysis of the causes based on Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. But other primary sources present a somehwhat different explanation of why these smaller incidents lead to the larger conflict.

Thucydides has Pericles tell us that revoking the Megarian decree is not a “trifle” yet his reasons, if any, are vague and he quickly side steps the issue to discuss the reasons Athens would win the “inevitable” war. As Plutarch tells us “The real reasons which caused the decree to be passed are extremely hard to discover, but all writers agree on blaming Pericles for the fact that it was not revoked.” He explores a couple possible explanation but settles on “the most damning charge of all, and yet the one which finds the most support.” (Plutarch, Pericles)

Pheidias, the director of the building projects on the Acropolis, and Pericles, the overseer of those projects, were accused of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds for personal use. Pheidias was thrown in prison where he soon died. Pericles “came to the conclusion that it would be to his own advantage to embroil the state in a great war, in order that the city, in its need of the ability and skill in generalship of Pericles, should pay no attention to the accusations being lodged against him and would have neither leisure nor time to scrutinize carefully the accounting he would render of the funds.” (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, 12.39.3) So when the Spartan embassy came to resolve the Megarian dispute Pericles urged hostility, created pretexts to avoid compromise and refused “to allow the people to give way to the demands of Sparta.” (Plutarch, Pericles)

This story shows up in Plutarch’s Pericles, Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca historica as well as his source , Ephorus’ Historiai and even Aristophanes mentions it in Peace. “The start of our misfortunes was the exile of Phidias; Pericles feared he might share his ill-luck, he mistrusted your peevish nature and, to prevent all danger to himself, he threw out that little spark, the Megarian decree, set the city aflame, and blew up the conflagration with a hurricane of war, so that the smoke drew tears from all Greeks both here and over there.” (Aristophanes, Peace, 605-614)

Why is Thucydides the only ancient writer on this era that does not mention the story? Perhaps he thought it was spurious or had not heard it. There is always the possibility that as an admirer and supporter of Pericles he did not want to include it. On the other hand, it is not exactly uncharacteristic of Pericles as we saw with his appropriation of the funds of the Delian league.

I confess that in the end I have to side with Plutarch that “the true history of these events is hidden from us.” But the story does add another layer of complexity and intrigue that we don’t get from Thucydides and the noble patriotic speeches he attributes to Pericles. And it reminds us that no foreign policy decision can be made completely independent of internal political considerations.

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~ by severalfourmany on April 11, 2009.

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