Skip to comments.(Vanity) A Lesson From Thucydides, or, Will We Learn From History
Posted on 04/20/2012 5:30:21 PM PDT by grey_whiskers
This is a passage from chapter XXV, from the subsection Oligarchical Coup d'Etat at Athens.
But this was a mere catchword for the multitude, as the authors of the revolution were really to govern. However, the Assembly and the Council of the Bean still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers and reviewed in advance what they were to say. Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues. An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralized the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were. For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust. Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.
At this juncture arrived Pisander and his colleagues, who lost no time in doing the rest. First they assembled the people, and moved to elect ten commissioners with full powers to frame a constitution, and that when this was done they should on an appointed day lay before the people their opinion as to the best mode of governing the city. Afterwards, when the day arrived, the conspirators enclosed the assembly in Colonus, a temple of Poseidon, a little more than a mile outside the city; when the commissioners simply brought forward this single motion, that any Athenian might propose with impunity whatever measure he pleased, heavy penalties being imposed upon any who should indict for illegality, or otherwise molest him for so doing. The way thus cleared, it was now plainly declared that all tenure of office and receipt of pay under the existing institutions were at an end, and that five men must be elected as presidents, who should in their turn elect one hundred, and each of the hundred three apiece; and that this body thus made up to four hundred should enter the council chamber with full powers and govern as they judged best, and should convene the five thousand whenever they pleased.
The man who moved this resolution was Pisander, who was throughout the chief ostensible agent in putting down the democracy. But he who concerted the whole affair, and prepared the way for the catastrophe, and who had given the greatest thought to the matter, was Antiphon, one of the best men of his day in Athens; who, with a head to contrive measures and a tongue to recommend them, did not willingly come forward in the assembly or upon any public scene, being ill looked upon by the multitude owing to his reputation for talent; and who yet was the one man best able to aid in the courts, or before the assembly, the suitors who required his opinion. Indeed, when he was afterwards himself tried for his life on the charge of having been concerned in setting up this very government, when the Four Hundred were overthrown and hardly dealt with by the commons, he made what would seem to be the best defence of any known up to my time. Phrynichus also went beyond all others in his zeal for the oligarchy. Afraid of Alcibiades, and assured that he was no stranger to his intrigues with Astyochus at Samos, he held that no oligarchy was ever likely to restore him, and once embarked in the enterprise, proved, where danger was to be faced, by far the staunchest of them all. Theramenes, son of Hagnon, was also one of the foremost of the subverters of the democracya man as able in council as in debate. Conducted by so many and by such sagacious heads, the enterprise, great as it was, not unnaturally went forward; although it was no light matter to deprive the Athenian people of its freedom, almost a hundred years after the deposition of the tyrants, when it had been not only not subject to any during the whole of that period, but accustomed during more than half of it to rule over subjects of its own.
The assembly ratified the proposed constitution, without a single opposing voice, and was then dissolved; after which the Four Hundred were brought into the council chamber in the following way. On account of the enemy at Decelea, all the Athenians were constantly on the wall or in the ranks at the various military posts. On that day the persons not in the secret were allowed to go home as usual, while orders were given to the accomplices of the conspirators to hang about, without making any demonstration, at some little distance from the posts, and in case of any opposition to what was being done, to seize the arms and put it down. There were also some Andrians and Tenians, three hundred Carystians, and some of the settlers in Aegina come with their own arms for this very purpose, who had received similar instructions. These dispositions completed, the Four Hundred went, each with a dagger concealed about his person, accompanied by one hundred and twenty Hellenic youths, whom they employed wherever violence was needed, and appeared before the Councillors of the Bean in the council chamber, and told them to take their pay and be gone; themselves bringing it for the whole of the residue of their term of office, and giving it to them as they went out.
Upon the Council withdrawing in this way without venturing any objection, and the rest of the citizens making no movement, the Four Hundred entered the council chamber, and for the present contented themselves with drawing lots for their Prytanes, and making their prayers and sacrifices to the gods upon entering office, but afterwards departed widely from the democratic system of government, and except that on account of Alcibiades they did not recall the exiles, ruled the city by force; putting to death some men, though not many, whom they thought it convenient to remove, and imprisoning and banishing others. They also sent to Agis, the Lacedaemonian king, at Decelea, to say that they desired to make peace, and that he might reasonably be more disposed to treat now that he had them to deal with instead of the inconstant commons.
The piece has interesting parallels for today, and lessons for how the plotters work by fear, stealth, and exaggeration: thus indicating how totalitarian despots may be nipped in the bud.
Pay particular attention to the Four Hundred, and to the Hundred and Twenty Hellenic, ahem, "Youths". (Red Guards, etc.?)
Note that the conspirators rely on *local* overwhelming force in order to usurp the seats and institutions legitimately *entrusted* with power, enabling them to claim (once the initial strike of the coup is completed), that all who oppose the conspirators are "enemies of the government and of the established institutions".
It is, in fact, the moment when the wolf dons the sheep's clothing.
Will we make note of the lessons in time?
By the way, this is either my 999th or 1000th thread.
Obama has the wolfish look of Alcibiades but keep in mind that the Four Hundred took power during the war and a plague, and didn’t last long at all.
After the fleet got involved they were soon replaced by a more moderate oligarchy, the Five Thousand. That group lasted about ten years and democracy was restored in 410 (?). Then Pericles, the `School of Athens’ and the Athenians were pretty much it until the new kids on the block, the Womans moved on them.
Then they were pretty much relegated to the position of England with US as:
Big Dickus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K8_jgiNqUc
So yeah, I could see some wuff sledding ahead.
Thanks to this forum I've not held my tongue since 2000 and thanks to the Internet I've not held my tongue since 1992-3.
Since August 2001, I've posted a total of 54 threads.
I've slacked off considerably from when I first came here as the dates indicate.
I don't know which edition has this as Chapter XXV. The usual numbering has this as Book VIII, chapters 66 to 68.
Correction: This is from Book VIII, chapters 66 to 70.
The Lateiner edition has some slight alterations from Crawley. In the first sentence, instead of "catchword," it reads "propaganda." The Greek word is euprepes meaning something which looks good, but often with the implication of being specious, as in this case.
The oligarchs had claimed they were going to put the control of the state in the hands of the Five Thousand, "those such as were most able to serve the state in person and in purse." That presumably meant those who served as cavalry or infantry (hoplites). In fact, they limited the government to Four Hundred, and even that group seems to have been dominated by a handful of leaders, if you follow the rest of Thucydides' account.
Rather than type it all in, I decided to go with the Gutenberg edition.
Speaking of that, it crossed my mind that the parsing into Chapters must be somewhat similar to other ancient writings and New Testament stuff, conventions are formed for divisions of the text, which choices harden over time.
Congratulations! And thank you for another great essay-post!
With Plato there are standard page numbers and sections of pages which go back to an early printed edition by H. Stephanus.
I'm asking for myself, and for a friend from a past job: do you know of any place to get the Loeb edition of various specific works (say, Abe Books or Half-Price-Books, or some universities working on digitizing their collections?) at non-exhorbitant cost?
As far as finding good used copies online, I haven't done that and can't say which of the sellers out there is the best to deal with.
The translation of Thucydides by Benjamin Jowett is also available free online.
The Penguin translation by Rex Warner is very popular. The Penguin translations tend to be more readable but sometimes a little freer in how they render the original. There is a fairly new translation by Martin Hammond in the Oxford World's Classics series. Amother recent English translation which has gotten high marks is by Steven Lattimore. He is the son of Richmond Lattimore who published a number of translations, including a very good verse translation of the Iliad. Richmond was the younger brother of Owen Lattimore.
The Loebs tend to be more literal--the main advantage to having them is if you have some knowledge of the original language (Greek in this case, Latin in others) and can look over to see what the original wording was. Otherwise to buy the four volumes is a lot more expensive than buying one of the paperback translations.
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