War, Imperialism, and Democracy: Thucydides’ Ukrainian War

Marek Węcowski

In memory of Dan Tompkins

Livy, whose history of Rome Ab urbe condita in 142 books only partially survives, writes of his monumental work:

“I myself… will seek the reward for my toil in that I will detach myself, at least for as long as I am entirely focused on reviewing all these histories of old, from the sight of the calamities our age has been seeing for so many years” (Ab urbe condita 1 pr. 5)

Statue of Livy outside the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna, c.1890.

He wrote when an age of political conspiracies, murders and proscriptions, slave uprisings, civil wars, and the slow decline of the republic was drawing to a close. Then he watched the advent of Augustus’ imperial tyranny, which at least brought peace. Livy, like many others before and after him, found solace and escape from dreadful present realities in ancient history and ancient writers.  

Janina Niemirska-Pliszczyńska, the Polish translator of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, undertook her work during the Nazi occupation of her country, after the traumatic experience of barely escaping yet another street round-up. Today, in bombarded Kyiv, Natalia Yakovenko is working on a Ukrainian translation of Livy, in return for which, reportedly, she is simply asking the world for a constant supply of cigarettes.

Natalya Yakovenko in 2008.

The Athenian historian Thucydides (c.460–c.390 BC) found many avid readers during WWI (1914–18), especially in Britain and France. In their case, the motivation was different: for them, Thucydides was recreating their own experience of a brutal, endless war and its terrible consequences.

During the Cold War, The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) was used in academic syllabi as one of the three great classics of political thought, alongside Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). Hobbes, incidentally, was the author of the first English translation of Thucydides (1629), just as Machiavelli devoted his Reflections to the first ten books of Livy (1512–17) before The Prince was published posthumously.

Thucydides was set to teach students about international politics. And he probably influenced many of the leaders who, until recently, ran the Western world. On a practical level, the mechanisms of a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union and the United States faced each other with their respective allies were read in the light of the Peloponnesian War. The Thucydidean analogy seemed obvious at the time: on one side, the authoritarian and militaristic USSR was the Sparta of the Cold War; on the other, the democratic, human rights-defending America was Athens. In addition, exactly as in Thucydides, this was a clash between a superpower that based its strength mainly on land forces, and a military bloc that operated in various parts of the world with mobile air, naval, and amphibious expeditionary forces.

Political alliances in and around Greece at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. A larger version can be seen here.

It seemed that the careers of specialists in such Thucydidean bipolar politics would be buried forever by the fall of the Berlin Wall. In recent years, however, the rise of China’s power has given them a second life. The recently fashionable “Thucydides’ trap” has emerged, an idea that forecasts the fate of the contemporary world, and draws on the example of the mechanisms of the outbreak of the “great war between the Hellenes” as they were detected by Thucydides:

“But the real reason for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised… What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” (1.23.6; tr. Rex Warner)

Theorists of the “Thucydides’ trap” draw attention to a striking new analogy. An old and declining power such as Sparta (in their eyes) must be driven to inevitable war by fear, which is inspired by a new “rising power,” as in the case of Thucydides’ Athens. This time, the United States assumes the role of Sparta, whereas China, somewhat paradoxically, becomes Athens on a geopolitical stage.

Interestingly, while pessimistic proponents of the theory of global bipolar politics in the Cold War era remembered that the Peloponnesian War was won by the Spartans, the theorists of the “Thucydides’ trap,” who prophesize the quasi-inevitable collapse of the West, forget about this altogether, and foresee China’s eventual triumph over our old world. As we can see, Thucydides may be a poor guide to the history of our times. But still…  

A Roman mosaic of Thucydides of the 3rd cent. AD from Jerash, Jordan (now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany).

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Broadly speaking, we can see that ancient history and the works of ancient historians potentially provide practical lessons for the modern world, or else a form of escape from terrible realities. So, the question is, what use can we make of Antiquity, especially in our own times?

As it happens, Thucydides not only answered this question in his own way, but also anticipated the contemporary use of his work:

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever. (Thucydides, 1.22.4; tr. R. Warner)

As we can see, Thucydides’ work was written primarily for readers interested in learning from the Peloponnesian War for their own current political experience. Arguably, he was thinking not only of active politicians, who could make practical use of such knowledge, but also of ordinary citizens seeking to understand their own political reality.

But our relationship with Thucydides seems even more intimate. Thucydides decided to write the history of this conflict on the fly. He started at the very beginning, and there is no doubt that he was still revising and arranging his work not long after the end of the war (404 BC): the text remains unfinished. Even so, in The Peloponnesian War, we can clearly see the author’s reflections on wartime events and other contemporary disasters develop almost step by step. Thucydides was thinking and writing about the war, just as we do today, amidst unfolding chaos.

The title-page of Thomas Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides (London, 1676), of which a larger version can be seen here.

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Shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, articles appeared in the press all over the world discussing it in the light of Thucydides’ famous description of the Athenian plague (Book 2). A similar phenomenon followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Irish Times (on 12 May 2022) published an important column by John Dillon, Emeritus Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin. Drawing once again on a Thucydidean analogy, he expressed a concern that many in the West then shared. The Peloponnesian War was to last almost thirty years and bring about the destruction of the Greek world’s entire political order. It began with a series of local conflicts in which, at first, the two main military powers, Sparta and Athens, either declined to participate or did not participate directly.

One episode in The Peloponnesian War may be directly associated with the origins and the early stages of the war in Ukraine. A local dispute between Epidamnos (Durrës in modern Albania) and Corcyra (now known as Corfu) escalated dramatically when Epidamnos turned for military support to Corinth, one of Sparta’s main allies. The Athenians, seeing this as an opportunity to change the overall balance of power in Greece in their favour, agreed to the alliance requested by Corcyra. Although peace continued, the foray of an Athenian squadron in those waters led to the first clash between Athens and the Corinthian fleet. Open war between the two blocs would only be a matter of time.

John Dillon, who has written for Antigone about wise men and alcohol.

Thinking along these lines, Professor Dillon drew attention to the dangers of Western support for Ukraine:

The rest, as they say, is history; but the lesson is surely this, that what may seem to one party in a fraught situation to be a merely neutral, or even defensive, move may well appear to the other side to constitute shameless and radical aggression. And this perception can result in a general conflict with unforseeable ramifications. The Peloponnesian War lasted the best part of 30 years, and tore the guts out of Greece for a generation. The third World War is rather more likely to last about 30 minutes, and should mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

So far, Dillon’s fears have fortunately not materialised. And against his vision, it can be argued that the histories of the Peloponnesian War and other great wars teach us something quite different: tardiness in responding to imperial aggression against a weaker neighbour tends to embolden the aggressor, and give him time to prepare further infringements, ultimately leading to large-scale conflicts. In other words, a world war erupts when we do not immediately realise that a major, all-changing conflict is already underway, and allow it to escalate imperceptibly. Fortunately, this time the West recognised this global threat immediately, and even anticipated it, to some extent preparing Ukraine for war in advance.

Yet Dillon is certainly right on a more general level. Facts and their (more or less) legitimate rational interpretations are not the only things that matter in international politics. Equally important, if not more so, are perceptions of the facts, the associated emotions of international actors, and even the moral judgments that result from such perceptions. This is where we should start if we want to see the war in Ukraine through the eyes of Thucydides.

The Donetsk Regional Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, bombed in an airstrike on 16 March 2022, just before it was destroyed.

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For Thucydides and his contemporaries, as for world public opinion today, the key question concerned who was really to blame for the outbreak of war. We know the position of Kremlin propaganda and the tedious (at least partly derivative) anti-American and (to a lesser extent) anti-Ukrainian voices from the extreme wings of the world’s radical left and right. The fate of the war depends largely on the answer to this question, since Western public opinion will decide whether to support Ukraine in the long term.

In the opening sections of his work, Thucydides presents us with the views on the issue expressed by both sides of the Peloponnesian conflict. Interestingly, the detailed arguments of the Athenians are almost irrelevant to him. Indeed, he suggests to us that no one in Greece believed at the time in Athenian propaganda. What matters for the historian are the complaints of Athens’ opponents, Sparta’s allies, who felt wronged or threatened by the Athenians. We may surmise that this is why Thucydides emphasises the factual relevance of such perceptions for the outbreak of the war.

At the time, the Athenians were the masters of a sizeable maritime empire, which had been created a few decades earlier to repel Persian armies from the Aegean. Over time, it consolidated under Athens’ leadership into an involuntary supra-state organisation that we call the Delian League, with all benefits reaped by the hegemon. Members of this alliance were forced to pay Athens a hefty tribute, which in theory at least was intended to go towards maintaining security, as guaranteed by Athens’ large, state-of-the-art navy.  

The Lenormant Relief, a fragment often thought to show rowers on an Athenian trireme, 410-400 BC (Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece).

Occasionally once-firm allies revolted, then were called to order by force of arms, and punished severely, losing their ships, their city walls, and sometimes their best farmland, which would be confiscated and given to Athenian military colonists. Many of Athens’ subjects were eager to regain their freedom, and other previously free Greeks may have felt threatened by the further expansion of an increasingly powerful empire. It is not surprising, then, that Thucydides emphasises how popular “the liberation of the Hellenes” was as a slogan at the time: a number of states called on the Spartans to put an end to the Athenian threat.

In Thucydides’ interpretation, Sparta’s fears were fully justified. And so were those of Sparta’s allies and Athens’ ‘subjects’. Worse still, it was related not only to the aggressive foreign policy of the Athenians, but also to what one might refer to today as their ‘national character’. On this point the Athenians themselves would have agreed with their enemies. Both sides of the conflict before the war claimed that the fundamental characteristic of Athens was a kind of political hyperactivity (polypragmosynē). This shocking entrepreneurialism made them ignore all fears, and their own limitations, and constantly take risks in foreign policy. According to the enemies of Athens, Athenians repeatedly stuck their noses into other people’s business. It is strange to think how much satisfaction it would bring to the Russian political elite (or the Chinese or Iranian elite, for that matter) to realise that the Athenians themselves associated this trait of their ‘national character’ with their democratic constitution.

Pericles’ praise of democracy in his ‘funeral speech’ in Thucydides (Book 2) inspired generations of modern liberals. In this speech, patriotism is presented as a personal, voluntary, total commitment to the city, and to a democratic system of values that promotes individual ambition, enterprise, and activity to the highest degree, allowing citizens the greatest possible freedom in their private lives. Modern scholars claim that the combination of all these characteristics led not only to the military and political successes of Athens, but also to its complete dominance over the economic life of the era: the Athenian port of Piraeus became the commercial center of the Aegean world and all adjacent regions.

Bust of Pericles , Roman copy of a Greek original from c. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City).

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In Thucydides, Athens is a hyperactive, aggressive politico-military force destabilising the Greek world either directly or indirectly by causing fear in other Hellenes. In all this, as scholars of the Peloponnesian War have long realised, the Athenians repeated the experience of the Persian Empire two generations earlier. Thucydides repeatedly suggests such an interpretation of the war, but it is particularly clear in his dramatic description of the Sicilian Expedition (Books 6 and 7). Taking advantage of the temporary pause in hostilities enabled by the so-called Peace of Nicias (signed in March 421 BC; formally abandoned in 414), the Athenians decided to intervene in a local conflict in distant Sicily with their full military force (415 BC). Officially, they would simply be defending their threatened allies; what they were really after was the subjugation of this extremely wealthy island (the region produced an overwhelming proportion of all grain imported throughout the Mediterranean world, and had other riches besides).

As in the days of the Persian Wars (492–449 BC), the expedition unexpectedly ended in disaster. Sicilian Greeks, led by the Syracusans and unofficially supported from afar by the Spartans, defeated the Athenian fleet and eventually massacred the Athenian army. Athens would never recover from this defeat; on the other hand, it is a testament to her real strength and resolve that the Peloponnesian War continued for another decade thereafter.

The destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily, 1881 (woodcut from Ward, Lock & Co.’s The Illustrated History of the World).

For Thucydides, the Sicilian Expedition is a cautionary tale illustrating the inevitable disasters that result from excessive political ambitions. In more traditional terms – as in Attic tragedy, or in Herodotus’ history of the Persian Wars – it would appear to be an example of the inescapable punishment that awaits men for the sin of hubris, which makes them forget the divinely-appointed limits of human action. Thucydides does not include the punishing hand of any Olympian gods in his mechanisms of historical causation, as his literary predecessors would have done; but for every Greek reader the lesson was clear. The Athenians, like the Persians before them, could not stop or save themselves in time, even when they saw clear signs that the risks they were taking were too great. Such is the logic of imperial power, which is bound always to move forward.

Sometimes an imperial power’s downfall begins at precisely the moment when it appears to have attained its peak, allowing its leaders to contemplate further expansion. But before we apply this principle to the war in Ukraine, we need to examine one more element of the discussion.

Athenian stele showing Democracy crowning the Demos, inscribed with a law against tyranny, 337/6 BC (Ancient Agora Museum, Athens, Greece).

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As we recall, one of Athens’ greatest problems was its unpopularity with subordinate states in the Aegean. A revolt by one of Athens’ most important ‘subjects’, the wealthy polis of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, led to a difficult siege of the city (428-427 BC: see Thucydides Book 3). After a long defence, the exhausted and starved Mytilenians capitulated. The Athenians were to decide the consequences they would face for their rebellion. A delegation of Mytilene was sent to Athens to negotiate. There, however, the view prevailed that the treacherous Mytilenians should be shown no mercy. The Athenian People’s Assembly immediately decided on so-called andrapodismos (literally “enslavement”). This is a Greek euphemism for the gruesome wartime custom of slaughtering all the adult males of a conquered city and selling all the women and children into slavery, as in the mythical Trojan War. Fortunately, the Athenians did not follow through on this decision. On the next day, many Athenians felt pity, and the matter was publicly discussed once again. In the end, they dictated terms to Mytilene that were considerably more lenient.

For us, the key arguments in this debate (as presented by Thucydides) are those of the populist politician Cleon, who fought unsuccessfully in the Assembly to uphold the previous cruel decision. Predictably, he called on the Athenians to avenge the long-standing plotting against them – the uprising seemed to have been very well planned – in order to make Mytilene into an example to discourage further potential rebels. One of his arguments is of particular interest. He exhorted the Athenians not to be carried away by pity, and to think of their own political advantage, while coming to terms with their own true nature, and the nature of their position in the Greek world. He urged them to act accordingly

“What you do not realize is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favour; your leadership depends on superior strength and not on any goodwill of theirs.” (Thucydides, 3.37.2; tr. R. Warner)

The Aegean Sea in 431 BC, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War: the yellow territory shows allies of Athens (in red); Athens and Mytilene are circled. A larger version of the map can be consulted here.

Cleon describes Athenian rule over Greece, as that of a “tyrannical city” (polis tyrannos). This seems shockingly explicit for our tastes. But this was not a radical innovation of the brutal politician Cleon, or even of Thucydides himself. It features in other literary works of the time, particularly Athenian stage plays.[1] And we find it elsewhere in The Peloponnesian War, as employed by a politician who is the extreme opposite of Cleon. In a speech that Pericles delivers to the Athenians shortly before his death, he tries to reassure and induce further war efforts from citizens discouraged by the protracted war:

“Then it is right and proper for you to support the imperial dignity of Athens. This is something in which you all take pride, and you cannot continue to enjoy the privileges unless you also shoulder the burdens of empire. 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 which we have incurred in administering it. Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some people who in a mood of sudden panic and in a spirit of political apathy actually think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do. Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” (Thucydides 2.63.1–2; tr. R. Warner)

In our historical experience, it seems a truism to assert that authoritarian regimes are naturally prone to the conquest and oppression of those conquered. Today, we can confidently cast Putin’s Russia in the role of a ‘tyrant state’ which, given its mindset, cannot afford to give up its imperial aggression. But Thucydides additionally makes us consider a more complex issue that has been debated in the Western world for many decades (even outside the Cold War-era ideological clash between East and West): the relationship between a globally successful democracy and expansionism or even imperialism.

Vladimir Putin on 24 February 2022.

Radical voices on the left and right of Western politics are asking, and will ask ever louder, whether the United States, by supporting Ukraine, is not just aggressively expanding its global sphere of influence. Granted, American and European leaders believe in their moral obligation to do so for the sake of democracy. But, in the world of international politics, do we even have the right to promote our ideas and our ideals to cultures and societies that were once or still are (like Russia, but also China or Iran) alien to democratic ideals? To put it in the most general and most banal terms: in the world of international politics, can anyone be absolutely correct on these matters? Right enough to justify actions that put us all in danger of a global, possibly nuclear, conflict? Let us recall Professor John Dillon’s warnings from the early months of the war in Ukraine.

To the questions thus posed, Thucydides’ answer seems at first to be “No”. But only at first.

Double-herm of Herodotus (left) and Thucydides (right): cast of 4th-cent BC original, discovered in Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur (Tivoli), Italy (now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

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In launching an attack on the neutral island of Melos (today known as Milos), the Athenians tried to negotiate, and force the Melians to abandon neutrality in favour of an alliance with Athens. In a literary technique that is unusual for Thucydides, we witness, instead of speeches of known individuals, a dramatic dialogue between a pair of anonymous representatives of one side and the other. One by one, the cynical Athenians beat down the ethical but also pragmatic arguments of the Melians, who defend their right to remain independent. When the Melians propose an agreement to Athens on terms of neutrality in the Peloponnesian War, they hear, “No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that, 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” (5.95).

The Athenians simply cannot leave anyone alone without taking the risk of losing their superiority over their allies. The final call for the surrender of Melos reads as follows:

“And, when you are allowed to choose between war and safety, you will not be so insensitively arrogant as to make the wrong choice. This is the safe rule – to stand up to one’s equals, to behave with deference toward one’s superiors, and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation. Think it over again, then, when we have withdrawn from the meeting, and let this be a point that constantly recurs to your minds – that you are discussing the fate of your country, that you have only one country, and that its future for good or ill depends on this one single decision which you are going to make.” (5.111.4–5; tr. R. Warner)

The Melians chose to fight to defend their freedom. After a naval blockade and a brief siege, they suffered the andrapodismos we are already familiar with. Today’s Melians in Ukraine are still fighting, and the Russian ultimatum of February 2022 was certainly much less sophisticated than the one presented by Thucydides. But before we consider this famous ‘Melian dialogue’ to be yet another testimony to the imperialistic cynicism of Athenian democracy, let us look at another similar episode in Thucydides.

Map showing Melos (purple), Athens and its Delian League allies (orange) and the Spartan Peloponnesian League (green):

Plataea was a city in Boeotia north of Athens, the scene of a crucial Greek victory in the Persian Wars in September 479 BC. It was a traditional ally of the Athenians among the Boeotians, who were otherwise traditional allies of Sparta. This sealed the fate of Plataea during the Peloponnesian War. After a very long siege, what was left of the defenders of the city and of the Athenian garrison there had to surrender. Ultimately, the “Spartans brought the Plataeans before them again one by one and asked each of them the same question. ‘Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in the war?’ As each man replied ‘No’, he was taken away and put to death, no exceptions being made” (3.68.1).

In this case, the Plataean dialogue is reduced to a characteristically laconic and hypocritical question posed to the last heroic defenders. The dispassionate summary execution of the prisoners of war, a brutal phenomenon all too familiar from more recent conflicts, is carried out this time by the enemies of Athens, the Spartans, who were persuaded to commit this atrocity by the Boeotians, the hostile neighbours of Plataea. In Thucydides, the andrapodismos of Melos and the massacre of Plataea are clearly two episodes to be read together.

So, what does Thucydides teach us about Ukraine, in light of our reading of The Peloponnesian War? Is it simply a bloody conflict of global powers in which the Ukrainians become an unfortunate but insignificant pawn, just like Melos or the Plataeans once were? In such a political analysis, beyond one’s understandable sympathy for the victims in the conflict, can any side be deemed better than the other? Or should people think first and foremost about saving our own skins (or our profits) and ending conflicts at all costs – in this case, at the expense of Ukraine? Perhaps this is what ‘political realism’ would dictate, and Thucydides has long been considered political realism’s inventor, and most ancient representative, studied alongside modern realists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes. Does The Peloponnesian War, as we read it today, teach us just that?

 Statue of Machiavelli, Lorenzo Bartolini, 1843 (outside the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

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As we remember, Thucydides wrote his history to encourage not only future reflection but also to guide future political actions, or at least the decisions of his sensitive readers. In other words, political escapism with respect to the war in Ukraine does not seem to be a viable option for us today. Let us take yet another look at the ‘Mytilenian Debate’ and at the Athenian leader Pericles. Both are crucially important for Thucydides’ thought.

Thucydides alongside his near-contemporary Socrates is considered exemplary as an internal critic of his society’s own traditional social, political, religious and moral values. What is perhaps the most relevant for us in the present context is that Thucydides seems well aware that such criticism as seems implied throughout The Peloponnesian War would only be possible, and make sense, in the very world of values and institutions that Thucydides criticises, which is after all the world that produced him. Read alongside the Melian Dialogue, the Mytilenian Debate is important, and not only because the Athenians proved ultimately capable of changing their original, inhuman decision, whereas the Spartans showed hesitation in manifesting cruelty, either at Plataea or anywhere else.

In this public discussion, as in Pericles’ final speech, the Athenians prove capable of thinking critically about themselves and, more specifically, about the necessary or desirable relationship between their constitution, ‘national character,’ and their exercise of power. Benefit and justice may be intertwined, and even contradictory, in this debate, but the discussion must go on, and it influences crucial political decisions of the empire. Unlike the anti-Athenian ‘liberation of Greece’ slogan, the ‘tyrant state’ (a description that may well have been invented by the enemies of Athens) becomes a self-critical notion, at least as Thucydides presents Athenian use of the term. And we hear it used similarly by another contemporary intellectual critic of democratic Athens, the playwright Aristophanes.

Bust of Aristophanes, Roman copy of a Greek original, 1st cent. AD (Villa Medici, Florence, Italy).

“Human nature being what it is,” Athenian democratic politics can appear wise or foolish, charitable or cruel. But they inevitably involve self-conscious, public reflection on citizens’ own courses of action, as well as the state’s, as fostered by deliberative institutions such as the Assembly or the Council of Five Hundred. Following Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, we can see that unlike the authoritarian regimes or bloody tyrannies which it sometimes must oppose, democracy can collectively question itself and raise questions of its own: the fate of entire human communities sometimes depends on such questioning.

Critical self-reflection in politics, especially in the face of the horrors of war, is, in fact, much older than Thucydides. It can already be seen in Homer’s Iliad, the earliest document of Greek thought. There is no doubt that in the legendary clash between the Trojans and the Achaeans, Homer and his audience must have been rooting for their mythical forebears. Meanwhile, the men and women of the Trojan camp include figures exemplifying human fate, misfortune, and wartime suffering, such as the captives Chryseis and Briseis, the despairing parents Hecuba and Priam, and the profoundly unhappy wife and mother Andromache, Hector’s spouse. For generations of Homer’s readers, Hector became the very embodiment of the patriotic ideal, a hero doomed in advance but fighting to the end for his homeland nonetheless.

Andromache grieving over Hector, Jacques-Louis David, 1782 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

And what do we see in the Achaean camp, by contrast? The mindless, vindictive cruelty and hubris of the greatest Greek hero Achilles, who torments the corpse of his fallen enemy Hector, and butchers unarmed Trojan prisoners of war. In cruelty and hubris he is matched only by the leader of the community, Agamemnon (and, in other literary traditions, Ajax, Menelaus, Odysseus, Diomedes, and others), in their ever-spiralling conflicts over booty, power, and prestige. Above all, we witness how all these irresponsible disputes between chiefs lead to death and destruction in the Achaean camp. In Homer, self-critical reflection on political practices is already there.

In Thucydides, this aspect of the ideal of Athenian democracy will be summed up by Pericles in his programmatic ‘funeral speech’:

“We Athenians… take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words (logoi) and deeds (erga); the worst thing is to rush into actions before the consequences have been properly debated.” (2.40.2)

Pericles’ funeral oration, Philipp Foltz, 1852 (priv. coll.).

Those who think that in politics “words harm deeds” are, of course, the taciturn Spartans. It is against their example, in various ways, that Pericles frames the ideal of Athens in this speech. However, there is no doubt that we are also dealing with the ideal of Thucydides himself. For him, the right combination of ergon and logos, action and reflection, is the ultimate, and perhaps the only possible, value in politics.

In line with the lessons of The Peloponnesian War, we must decide for ourselves whether the ideal of a balance between firm action and self-critical reflection has been achieved. Western criticism of Western actions on Ukraine is valuable in itself. As long, of course, as it “does not harm the deeds”. This is what perhaps allows us to transcend the “political realism” attributed to Thucydides, and perhaps to avoid, in our attitudes towards the current war, any extreme selfishness or indifference to the fate of the victims of imperial hubris, even if we hold the paralyzing and patently false conviction that, after all, no one is really right in this conflict. Yet one thing seems certain to me: on the other, authoritarian, side of the global clash over the fate of Ukraine, such a reading of Thucydides would not be possible.

Marek Węcowski works at the Department of History at the University of Warsaw. He has published The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet (Oxford UP, 2014) and, more recently, Athenian Ostracism and its Original Purpose: A Prisoner’s Dilemma (Oxford UP, 2022). 

This essay, alongside an earlier one interpreting the war in Ukraine through the lens of Herodotus, will be published in a book forthcoming this autumn: This is Hellas! Antiquity Now (Iskry Editions, Warsaw, in Polish).

He has previously written for Antigone about Athenian democracy.


1 See especially Aristophanes Knights, 1111–14, cf. 1329–30, 1333; this idea must have been fundamental in Aristophanes’ Babylonians and Eupolis’ Demoi. B.M.W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 1957) 53ff., suggested this as one possible key to our interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.