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Lyle Thucydides

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T Man
Major Themes

• Causes of War: Fear, Honor, and Interest as primary motivators.

• The Cost of Empire:The bigger you get, the more espensive it is to keep what you have


• Strategic Assessment: How do you estimate your foes capability and will, and attack both? How do you estimate and protect yours?


• Asymmetric Warfare: How do you avoid your enemy's strengths and maximize yours


• Military Adaptation & Innovation: What happens when you're really good at land warfare, but your enemy refuses it and goes to the sea? Vice versa applies as well.

• The Effect of War on Society: Is the reward worth the cost? When do you quit, or can you?


Top 3 things you should be familar with:

Fear, honor, and interest. These are hierarchical motivators Thucydides ascribes to all human and social interactions. From Dr. Dolman:

The priorities are not simultaneous in Thucydides, but hierarchical. In the ancient world, the highest priority was accorded to the middle of a three concept set. Thus, fear is the first and primal motivator, greed or interest the second (trumped by fear), and honor the third (trumped by both fear and greed, in order).

The Melian Dialoge: the essential realist statement of "might makes right" , expressed by the Athenians to the Melians before sacking their city after Melos refused unconditional surrender. The powerful do what they can, and the weak submit to what they must. The underlying ethical questions are key to this dialogue - how can you claim moral authority to maintain a huge empire while persuing a scorched earth policy to resolve disputes?

The Sicilian Expedition - a massive preemptive Athenian invasion of Sicily to prevent Sparta from gaining influence there, but the Athenian expedition is plagued by unity of command problems (three generals in charge) and the massive costs of operating at the end of vulnerable supply lines. Eventually the expedition is defeated when the Spartans help the Sicilians, and the entire force is lost, with the survivors forced to work in the mines. Athens never really recovers from the loss.


Sugar's Summary

"I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens." George C. Marshall, General of the Army and Secretary of State


The Peloponnesian War has been referred to as “The Mother of all Case Studies for strategy and policy”, and is generally credited as the first (and some say best) example of a work of military history. For a strategist or historian, it’s got it all: Prewar planning and assumptions, internal and international politics and intrigue, democracy vs dictatorship, the “Elephant vs the Whale”, the dynamics of civil/military relations, the costs and benefits of coalition warfare, a study of the adequacy of strategy (or lack thereof), the criticality of effective war termination, and the effects of initiative, decision, leadership, luck, and human emotion at play in war. The similarity of America’s situation to Athens is not lost on many (it’s not by accident that half the buildings in D.C. look like they’d fit in on Acropolis), and the Athens/ Spartan dynamic has often been compared to that of the US and USSR during the Cold War, but could be used to describe many of our historical, current, and potential future conflicts. The big picture on the book – it’s a story of “fear, honor, and interest”, and tells how these three primary motivations of both individual and group behaviors shape the interplay between nations that decide the difference between peace and war. It is a great history by an insider (Thucydides was brought up in Pericles' household, was an Admiral in the Athenian navy, and knew many of the key players personally), which meticulously records the major events, including the key debates of his age, the key decisions, the key players, and the key events. If you look in detail, you get a great telling of the “what happened”, but Thucydides prefers to impart the “why” by leading you to conclude it yourself, or by putting it in the mouths of the speakers in the many dialogues and orations he records. In the end, he fits in very well with Clausewitz – while he doesn’t specifically state it, he clearly shows that once war begins, there is no way to tell what the second and third order effects will be. When both sides embark on the war (this is actually the story of the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the first had been 15 years prior and had resulted in strategic stalemate), they both expect it to be over relatively soon, and both feel they are fighting for noble causes. At the end, 27 years later, both their societies have been fundamentally altered, Sparta invites the Greeks traditional enemy in (the Persians) to defeat the Athenians, and Greek society as a whole falls into decline that it never recovers from. The outcome is completely counterintuitive – Athens, the power with more wealth,allies, and resources, loses. Sparta wins, but later loses to Thebes, and is overtaken by a young Macedonian upstart along with the rest of Greece, Persia, etc...In essence, Thucydides, not his comtemporary Sophocles, writes the real Greek tragedy of his time- this is how far we've fallen, AND WE DID IT TO OURSELVES.


Now, a little historical context to calibrate your reading:


The whole of Greece about the size of Alabama, the cities are days marches away, and Silicily was three weeks sail from Athens on Triremes. Forced to put into shore at night, sea travel was accomplished by hugging the coast, which explains the strategic significance of places like Corcyra.


The Hellenic (Greek) world was divided into three blocks: Delian league led by Athens (democratic but maintained league membership harshly), Peloponnesian League led by Sparta (voluntary membership), and Persian Empire (barbarians) who had just fought both. The Delian and Peloponnesian leagues had fought and defeated Persia years earlier as the combined Hellenic league (think Thermopylae, Salamis, Platea, etc), but had since fought a war against each other, resulting in the treaty that becomes an issue of import when Corcyra and Corinth go at it, and the Athenians have to decide if helping the Corcyreans puts them on the wrong side of the moral issue RE the treaty.


Trireme warfare was not “slave galley warfare” – as it has always been, maintaining a navy is extremely expensive, and Greek triremes were manned by paid professionals. The object in trireme warfare was not to sink the other vessel, but rather to board and capture it, adding it to your own fleet. This is part of the strategic calculus Athens has to make as it debates whether or not to help the Corcyreans against Corinth, the only other “neer peer competitor” on the seas at the time besides the Persians, who had arguably never recovered from their defeat in the naval battle of Salamis and subsequent encounters with the Delian league.


Athens was expansionist open democracy, and dependent almost completely on imports for food and timber, but had plenty of silver to finance trade and shipbuilding. Other maritime city states had to play along to Athen’s tune because they couldn’t resist Persians alone, nor could they resist the growing power of the Athenians (kinda like mom and pop stores going up against Walmart). Keeping the Delian League intact was the key to maintaining the trade that sustained Athens and made them wealthy – need wheat from Ukraine (Boetia) to keep Athens fed (losing this supply line at Amphipolis was why Thucydides was sacked and exiled, but he was arguably set up to fail by Athens failure to reinforce him). Culturally - Think of Athens like Los Angeles today - anything goes.


The Spartans (or Lacedemonians) were” homebodies” with good reason – they had built their society based upon a professional warrior class that used slaves, the helots, to work the farms. Long and distant campaigns would give the helots the opportunity to revolt , so the Spartans were not expansionist as a result. The Helots hated the Spartans, and if able would “gladly eat the Spartans raw” according to Herodotus (?). The Spartans full time army was unique , other city states (including Athens) only soldiered when they weren’t farming. Decision making process in Sparta was more limited than Athens (had 2 elected kings, but a majority vote of the "ephors" - 5 retired male Spartiates - was needed to decide on war). This meant less debate, based on less info. Important note: we tend to underestimate the social status of the Spartans. In that time, calling someone a Spartan was like calling them a Major General - it indicated that they were the "cream of the crop", members of the upper class who were also literally the genetic material of Sparta's future greatness (they took "good breeding" to an entirely different level). This is why the capture/surrender of the Spartiates (part of the government, usually 200 max at a time) at Sphacteria was so traumatic for them. Culturally - think of Sparta like Omaha - profoundly conservative. BTW - Alciabiades, who we'll read lots about later, went through the "agoge", or Spartan initation, schooling, and training for turning their boys into Spartan warriors.


Corinth is an ally of Sparta, but is also a seapower and wants a piece of Athen's action, specifically in the Easter Mediterranean.

Note on the author - Thucydides is not from Athens, his family is from Thrace. His family is able to get Athenian citizenship, but he is essentially an outsider, which influences his views. BTW - Two other notable "social" outsiders: Clausewitz and Jomini.


Summary of Key People and Events

1st Peloponnesian War lasts for 15 years, is inconclusive, Athens sues for a negotiated peace in which it makes serious concessions, truce lasts for 15 years until Sparta votes for war

The Spartans fears were not just about Athen’s rising naval power, but rising influence of Athenian culture, trade, government (not unlike US/USSR)


Athens commanded seas with 300 triremes, making world “safe for democracy” by keeping out Persians, ruling both allies and subjugated areas, generates large amounts of cash and food.


The Corinthians (Allies of Sparta, have 200 triremes) attack Corcyra (allies of Athens) have 100 triremes), are beaten but come back. The Corcyreans ask Athens (their ally) for help, remindthem that if Corinth takes their ships, unites with Sicilians, and control the approaches to Italy, the maritime balance of power will tip to the Peloponnesian League. The Corinthians claim Athenians are in violation of the treaty if they help Corcyra (which they eventually do by sending in only a few triremes and coming ito the rescue when the Corcyrians are about to lose during their second engagement with Corinth). Additionally, the “Megarian Decrees” forbid the Delian League from trading with Megara, and an ally of Sparta close to Athens. These combine to fuel suspicion and hysteria in Sparta – in the hawks view, every day that Athens gets richer, the Spartans get poorer. Beotia was also an issue – Potidea was a Corinthian colony,which revolts from the Delian league, and is put down by Athens.


Pericles – popularly elected leader and “First Citizen” of Athens - resists Spartan demands for satisfaction and stalls for time to finish the “Long Walls” . He refuses Spartan demands based on a “slippery slope” argument that if Athens capitulates to the Spartans now, Athens will look weak, and things will only get progressively worse as more and more members of the Delian league rebel.


The Spartans vote to go to war to “free the Greeks”, unlimited war, planning to overturn the Athenian government.


Athenians embark on war as limited conflict – endure the storm, return to status quo, “win by not losing”


Athenians enter with a passive, defensive strategy – maintain control of the seas, don’t lose, prove that Sparta was not invincible. They could afford this strategy in the short term with 9m tall, thick “Long Walls” from Athens to the Piraeus, their seaport. This created an “island fortress” with SLOCs that were immune from Spartan land power, and from which they could ravage Spartan allies with quick, pinprick raids. Pericles admonishes the Athenians not to expand the empire during the duration.


Spartan strategy –Achidamus hopes to bait Athenians to fight outside the wall by wasting Attica (Athenian farmland – not many places good for farming in mountainous Greece), and replay the first Pelop war. Why not? it worked last time…if it doesn’t Spartans need to build or “rent” a navy, which takes time and $$$ they don’t have much of. Spartans could force Athenians to spend resources by fomenting revolution among its allies, which they attempt later


Recipe for stalemate – neither side has a war winning strategy; neither can strike at the other’s COG


Both sides stick with these strategies for first 2 years, then plague hits Athens. Morale plummets, Pericles kicked out of office for a time, then he dies from plague..Athenians sue for peace in 430BC, but Spartans don’t accept (we’re freeing the Greeks, remember) , so the war continues and both sides reassess. With Pericles gone, Cleon ,“the most violent man in Athens” according to T, takes the lead and seeks to widen conflict by including Sparta’s traditional enemy, Argos, but can’t get them to break a truce with Sparta. Cleon seeks to establish fortifications in Spartan coastal areas to foment helot insurrection; he and Demonsthenes (Athenian admiral) put in at Pylos (near homeland of the helots) and build a fort. When Spartans here this, they leave Attica and attack the fort. Remarkable Spartan blunder occurs – 425 BC Spartans embark to a neighboring island to attack Pylos, but are surrounded by the Athenian fleet and the 400 Spartans (including 180 Spartiates, the elite upper class that held the “genetic destiny of Sparta”) are trapped and captured. )Spartans ask for a truce, but now the Athenians aren’t ready to settle for limited aims and realize Pericles’ goal of winning by not losing. Cleon surprises the Spartans and the Spartans surrender (the unthinkable), holds 300 hostage and Athenians use this advantage to increase taxes on allies. Attica is safe, Spartan triremes are added to their fleet, Athenians move on to crushing rebellious allies. Now Spartans rethink their Strategy, and Brasidus emerges with an active strategy, attacking Athens’ grain supply lines to the north. With an expendable force of helots and mercenaries, he succeeds without a fight by exploiting internal divisions in Amphipolous. Thucydides is the admiral in charge of defending Amphipolis, but fails and is exiled from Athens for 20 years, most likely by Cleon). A one year truce is declared, but Brasidus continues to formet trouble for the Athenians. Cleon goes north to retake Amphipolis , but is killed in the battle along with Cleon after Brasidus launches a surprise attack and wins. Best laid plans of both sides are in tatters, Pericles and Archdamus are dead, and Nicias negotiates the 50 year “Peace of Nicias” which satisfies neither Athens nor Sparta, and concludes the first ten years of war.


Conclusion: Their strategies were both sufficient for conducting a war, but not winning one. Important lesson in the dangers of a near sided strategy, unintended consequences, and assuming that the enemy will follow your expectations for them (what does this sound like? Hint – 2003). At the end of the first ten years, to some extend each side adopts the other’s strategies.


Real geniuses of this story are not Pericles and Archidamus, but the innovators like Demosthenes, Brasidus, and Cleon who are able to break out of mechanistic thought patters of their predecessors.


Nicias – in his 50s, wealthiest man in Athens, not a brilliant general but had some successes, fought for limited aims, return to antebellum status quo, strategy meant to maintain the Athenian and Spartan blocks, peace would come from the realization that neither side had the power to overthrow the other

Sparta realized that it didn’t have the didn’t have the power to overthrow Athens, and settles for a truce

421 BC Peace of Nicias

Athens gets several advantages from the Peace–

1. has a chance to replenish its treasury, and can reduce tribute on allies

2. Attica no longer ravaged

3. Athens naval mastery remains secure with over 200 Peloponnesian triremes captured

4. Athenian empire left intact with allies subdued

5. Sparta renounced “Free the Greeks” war aim in return for “free the POWs”

6. Sparta had sold out major alliance partners and shot their credibility as alliance leaders (Megara, Corinth, & Thebes, who are still technically at war with Athens but on yearly truces)

7. Sparta had threat from Argos to distract it from Athens, giving Nicias breathing space

Some in Athens disagreed with the peace

1. City of Amphipolis was not returned to Athens as it was agreed, people of Amphipolis seized control of city, and neither Athens or Sparta had power to take it back

2. Peace would give Sparta a chance to regroup



Alcibiades – Distant relative and adopted son of Pericles, Studied under and fought with Socrates, argued peace of Nicias would not last and maintained that Sparta was a competitor that needed to be defeated, and proposed an alliance with Argos (Strongest army in Peloponnesus except for Sparta, traditional enemies of Sparta). Argos could make up for Athens’ lack of ground forces, and help to form a league of anti-Spartan city states close to Sparta. He proposed Athenian raids along the coast and large ground forces to assist Argives. His plan was popular with Athenians, who were still smarting over Spartan failure to deliver Amphipolis.



Nicias thought that this was a dangerous policy – opposed to forming the alliance, tug of war between Alcibiades and Nicias results.

418 BC Alcibiades loses reelection as general, and Nicias is left to implement the alliance that Alcibiades engineered. Nicias changes the alliance to a defensive one -doesn’t want the alliance to disrupt the peace. Sparta sees an opportunity and strikes Argos before Athenians can reinforce. King Agis (son of Archidamus) wins the battle of Mantinea after a hard fought battle, preventing Argos from presenting a threat to Sparta. This action reinvigorates Sparta as the leader of the Peloponnesian League, reversing the momentum that had been going downhill since Sphacteria.


Athens leaders need a new strategy, and start looking at invading Sicily as a way to edge out the Spartans from possible future allies. The 415 BC Campaign to Sicily was actually the second one; a smaller force had been sent there in 427-424.

Why they went to Sicily: &nbsp 1. To support allies in Sicily, who were being attacked by other Sicilian states – alliance credibility

2. Within Sicily were a number of Spartan sympathizers, especially Syracuse who had supported Corinth with food in the Archidamian War. By striking at Sicily, Athens could strike at the alliance and control sea routes between Sicily, Italy, and Greece

3. Athenians feared that Syracuse, left undisturbed, would build a large fleet

4. Sicily had grain & timber the Athenians needed

5. Preventive war to keep Syracuse and its allies from moving against Athenian allies, didn’t want a third power block in the Greek world that was sympathetic to the Peloponnese league.

In retrospect, was Athens justified in the fear in 5? Twenty years later, the Syracusans do indeed emerge as one of the leading states of the region, and in 390 build the largest navy in the Greek world



Sicilian campaign was popular with Athenian people. Alcibiades suggests they take 60 triremes to Sicily, take small force and gain allies, build forces like Brasidas had done to them on the way to Amphipolis, have those forces do most of the fighting (also worked for USMC Lt Presley O’Bannon against the Barbary pirates thousands of years later) http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/6350/mameluke.htm



Nicias was against, but saw the popularity of the campaign. He tries to give the Athenians a “poison pill” by suggesting that they double the triremes and add a land army, thinking that the people would recoil and reject the campaign. His bluff becomes a blunder - instead of being repelled, the Athenians agree with his proposal, adopt the larger force, and appoint Nicias as one of three generals. This turns the campaign into a low risk/ high payoff proposition to a high risk one.



When Athenians arrive in Sicily, Syracuse is totally unprepared to fight them. The three generals come up with three different plans:.

1. Nicias proposed helping their current allies, then return home as quickly as possible

2. Alcibiadies disagrees, says help current allies and then gain new ones in a slow steady buildup until the Athenians and allies are powerful enough to take down Syracuse

3. Lamacus (experienced general) – Athenians should sail immediately to Syracuse and catch them with their pants down, then take over control of the region. Thucydides seems to think this plan is the winner.

A compromise plan emerges between Nicias’ and Alcibiades’ plans, but then Alcibiadies is recalled for blasphemy (death penalty from rigged jury practically guaranteed) during a drunken party prior to their departure from Athens. Trial sponsored by Alcibiades political opponents while he is away. On the way back, Alcibiades literally jumps ship, and Athens’ most innovative strategist and prime architect of the expedition, joins the Spartan side, the ultimate FU to his opponents.


With Alcibiades gone, campaign in Sicily become stalemated for a year, and remaining two generals move the campaign close to Sicily, scoring some victories and getting close to victory in 414. Athenian force not strong enough to enforce a close land and sea blockade, and Spartans send Gylippus on a fact finding mission in the Summer of 414. Sees Syracuse is close to falling, but convinces Syracusans to keep fighting because the blockade isn’t complete, and if Syracuse can hold out, and promises that Sparta will invade Athenian territory in the next spring (second front). Spartans felt that they had a good chance against Athens with the Sicilian Expedition diverting troops and resources.


That spring, Agis marches into Attica, but adapts its strategy. Doesn’t just ravage, but builds fort at Decelea and leaves a permanent force, which disrupts Athens silver mining efforts, making it difficult import the grain needed to feed Athens. It also encourages Athenian slave defections.


Nicias wants to withdraw back to Greece, but Athenian people decide to send an even larger force under Demosthenes (hero of Pylos and Sphacteria). Demosthenes comes to the conclusion that they should try to encircle Syracuse one more time, and if that doesn’t work, they should retreat to Greece. Nicias bungles the campaign by delaying the withdrawal, and Athenian navy is defeated by Syracusan Navy in shallow water where there is insufficient sea room for superior Athenian ramming tactics to be effective against Syracusan boarding tactics. Athenian land force is trapped and is almost completely destroyed. Athens loses Demosthenes and Nicias, 160 triremes (half its navy) 3000 heavily armed hoplites (25%), 9000 citizen rowers (40%), leaving it with only 100 triremes in its dockyard.


Final phase of war – Peloponnesian fleet and Athenian fleet roughly equal in numbers, first time Peloponnese have a competitive navy


Decelean War – 412-404BC Spartans attack Athenians within the Aegean, Athens still able to maintain local sea control, still strong in home waters with some remaining allies


Sparta, still unable to defeat Athens on land, forms an alliance with Persia and sells out the Greeks on the Eastern Aegean coast for Persian bases, money, and troops (so much for “Free the Greeks” – 1/.3 of Greeks given over to Persia was the price Sparta was willing to pay to beat the Athenians)


Even with the new fleet, the Spartans were still not able to defeat the Athenians in their home waters, land lost 50% of their new fleet. Athenians were on their way back to a position of strength until summer of 405.


Spartan general Lysander, with a new fleet, positions in the Dardenelles to disrupt grain flow. Athenian fleet shadowed and challenged him to come out to fight, which her refused (stays in fortified anchorage).

(Side note –at this point, Acliabiades has left Sparta and happens to live in a chateau overlooking the Athenian portage. He sees the Athenian’s vulnerability in camp and warns them to fortify or move further from the Spartan portage for improved early warning of an attack, but they ignore him).

After Athenian fleet pulls ashore to forage for food, Lysander strikes at their unfortified port and imprisons the Athenian sailors ashore. In a single afternoon, the Athenian fleet is defeated. From this point on, Athens defeat is certain with Athens surrounded by Spartans from land and sea. After Athens surrenders in the spring of 404, the Spartans tears down Athen’s walls, and replaces the Athenian democracy with the “30 tyrants”.


Athens, through flawed strategy, pisses away its advantages in technology, material, and resources, and loses to a weaker power


Takeaways (conclusion, not facts):

If you look beyond Thucydides the historian and look at Thucydides that “subtle philosopher of war” as express in the aggregate of the words he puts into the mouths of the orators, the events he describes in detail, and the last seven years of the war that he doesn’t document (scholars can tell from textual criticism that he survived it and was back in Athens, but they don’t know if it was never written or was lost) , you could arguably subtitle his work as “How Greece Committed Suicide in the 5th Century BC”.

Note that Thucydides never mentions or blames the gods – this is significant, because it indicates to the Greek audience he is writing for that this war consumed us in our own right - WE DID THIS TO OURSELVES.

Due to irresponsible uses of military power, Greek society has been completely transformed by war:

- There is a generation of young people that has never known anything but war

- the agricultural class that used to dominate Athenian politics have essentially become paid mercenaries

- Sparta is forced to admit people into the upper levels of their society who would never have qualified earlier, and is forced to free many helots to fill the ranks

- one third of the Greeks in the Eastern Aegean have been sold out to the Persians by the Spartans

- Destruction of farmland and civilians has become commonplace where both were formerly against Greek values

- The Athenians have essentially become pirates and terrorists in their attempts to hold together their Empire.

- After the war, Greece’s primary export is mercenaries, not culture and enlightenment (i.e. Xenophon’s “March of the Ten Thousand”) “What the F are Greeks doing working for the Persians? Who are you people after nearly 30 years of war?”


Thucydides is far ahead of his time in realizing that war may serve politics, but once war is entered there is no way to predict what the second and third order effects will be, and once you choose it, there is almost no way to control how these effects will change you, your society and its values, your economic situation, etc. War is supposed to serve politics, but at a certain point, politics can become subject to the demands of combat (you can no longer settle for limited aims after huge prices have been paid due to a flawed strategy or even from bad luck, and you may have to totally reconfigure your society to forestall disaster). One can safely conclude from reading Thucydides the he sees war as an “irrational beast” which will destroy you if you let it control you. Fear, Honor, and Interest are not only the reason that wars start, but are also “the arena” in which war is played out in the conceptual realm. For thousands of years, Thucydides is one of the few observers to emphasize the reality of danger, chance, and unpredictability of war until Clausewitz comes along – most commentators on war between them (and since Clausewitz) focus on trying to make war more and more rational and controllable.


Finally, and most importantly…


NEVER MATCH WITS WITH A SICILIAN WHEN DEATH IS ON THE LINE!!!!


Thucydides compared to Complex Systems Theory (yep, still walking the thesis!)

Among Thucydides’ most famous contributions is his proposition that the actions of individuals, groups, societies, and states can be understood in the context of an attempt to simultaneously balance the prioritized social imperatives of fear, honor, and interest.[1] In complex systems terms, these are the primary strange attractors that guide basic human interactions, with fear being the primary motivation for human actions, perceived interest guiding actions when fear is lesser, and honor driving decisions when the previous motivations are satisfied. While these cannot describe individual outcomes in the micro sense, they describe most human decision making in the aggregate and in the long term. These strange attractors indicate the internal coding that most human societies share regardless of culture as they compete with other individuals, societies, etc. Thus, in the broader patterns of human interaction, prediction is possible. Without prediction, strategy is impossible. Thus, Thucydides presents the basis of any military theory, which can also be understood in terms of complex systems as the most basic model for human adaptation in both individual and social interactions within the social system in which wars occur.



As humans are both individually and collectively complex, none of these three competing priorities is diametrically opposed to the others, meaning that just as in any complex system, we can never solve for one without influencing the others. The story of Athens and Sparta itself is a classic case of two complex adaptive systems competing against each other within the larger complex adaptive system of the Ancient Mediterranean and Persian worlds. Athens was a trading seapower, protected by maritime superiority, impregnable walls surrounding its capital, and the ability to subjugate or influence other city states to provide it with the raw materials needed for sustenance. Sparta was a landlocked regional hegemon, expert in land warfare, and supported by a slave-based agrarian economy kept in check by an elite warrior class. For years, the two sides clashed with futility, neither side being able to overcome the strengths of each other, in what students of military strategy describe as “the elephant vs. the whale” stalemate. Then, both sides began the process of adaptation, each adopting the means of the other in order to break through the defenses of the other, and ending ironically when the land power, Sparta, defeated the sea power, Athens, in a decisive naval engagement. How did they accomplish this? The Spartans, realizing their lack of variety in naval warfare, reached out to their traditional enemies the Persians to gain the maritime expertise necessary to compete at sea. Athens attempted to achieve parity on land by reaching out to Argos, but failed, never successfully adapting to the demands of land warfare against Sparta. Sparta adapted more successfully, and ultimately won, but in winning left the whole of Greece vulnerable to future foreign conquests.


The prologue of the Peloponnesian War is also a stark reminder that in complex adaptive systems, you can “never do just one thing.” In making an alliance with Persia to defeat Athens, Sparta weakened the entire alliance of Greek city states that had traditionally banded together to defend the region from foreign invasion. Only decades later, after even more Greek internecine warfare, all of the Greek city states eventually fell separately to Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.



Thucydides does not set out to describe either military strategy or complex systems theories, but his historical rendering of the war between Athens and Sparta is rich with metaphorical examples that give evidence of the validity of both. In the end, the stalemate was broken by the side that successfully sought variety and adapted successfully, just as the theories of complex systems predict. But the real admonition of Thucydides in writing is book may be his warning echoed by the most important principle of complex systems, which is this: in a complex situation like war, you can never do just one thing. If your own definition of the system is too narrow, as was both the Athenian and Spartan definition of victory, your solution set will be to narrow. While the most obvious tie between Thucydides and complex systems theory is the importance of successful adaptation, perhaps the most important one is this: if you fail to understand how competition and cooperation work at various levels of scale, you cannot hope to adapt successfully within the context of the larger system. Because both Athens and Sparta failed to realize that their competition with each other jeopardized the vital cooperation of the Greek city states against outside powers, both ultimately lost their power to control their own destinies. For this reason, the high water mark of Greek society continues to be measured on majestic but crumbling marble pillars that continue to deteriorate 23 centuries from their initial time of splendor.



[1] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 43.

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