Geostrategy of the Peloponnesian War 5: Politics and Strategy
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Geostrategy of the Peloponnesian War 5: Politics and Strategy

Hi, and welcome to Strategy Stuff. This is a video series I originally made for
CaspianReport on the geostrategic analysis of the Peloponnesian War. In the fourth video, we looked at how competing
Athenian and Spartan strategies finally culminated in a Spartan victory in the final phase of
the War. Now, we conclude the series by looking at
how politics influenced Athenian and Spartan strategymaking. * I. National Character
One of the themes in Thucydides’ History revolves around the influence of ‘national
character’ on strategymaking. According to the historian, all states share
the same two goals: the desire to be free from domination, and also the desire to dominate
others. Even so, states clearly don’t behave in
the same way: throughout the Peloponnesian War, Athens campaigned aggressively around
Greece, whereas Sparta acted only under the most pressing or favorable circumstances. The difference is explained through national
character, which determines a state’s perception and acceptance of risk. In a purely rational world, strategic risk
can be objectively calculated from observable facts, but Thucydides recognized that the
very act of observing reality is not entirely rational. Instead, observation is influenced by subjective
phenomena like historical memory, pre-existing biases, and the tendency to focus on particular
items. In this way, the Peloponnesian War pitted
two national characters against each other: Athenian optimism versus Spartan pessimism. National characters are based on geography. Athenian optimism came about through the poverty
of Athens’ home soil, which encouraged people to be proactive in order to prosper. The result was a national character that accepted
a high level of strategic risk, celebrating bold strategies with high potential payoffs,
even to the extent of overlooking, downplaying or ignoring the dangers that lurked in the
details. Athenian strategy was therefore aggressive,
unorthodox, and not entirely planned out, leaving practical execution dependent on the
hands of a hopefully-competent leader. Cleon’s strategic offensive against Sparta,
for example, delivered spectacular results with Demosthenes’ operational package, but
under alternate leadership at Delium resulted in ineffectiveness and defeat. On the upside – and the Athenians were conditioned
to see only the upside – such strategies could wrongfoot the enemy and generate significant
gains. But on the downside, the Athenian approach
also de-emphasized cost-benefit considerations, and relied on inspired leadership instead
of detailed planning, which, if the stars failed to align, would inevitably lead to
avoidable catastrophes like Sicily. By contrast, Spartan pessimism came from the
fertility of Spartan lands, which fostered a national character that was not sold on
the benefits of change. Sparta’s national character therefore accepted
only minimal levels of risk, and rather than maximizing potential payoffs, they focused
on minimizing potential losses. Inaction was technically a way of avoiding
loss, and so Sparta often fell into strategic paralysis, acting only once the potential
losses from inaction – like losing hegemony – became truly unacceptable. Even then, Spartan strategies followed tried-and-tested
formulae, like seeking quick decisive battle even before the walls of Athens. Their predictable plans made it easy for enemies
to counter or surprise them, as Athens did throughout the first half of the War. But the flip side of this was that Spartan
strategies were well-planned and carefully executed: they would, for example, always
secure the support of a local ally before campaigning abroad, and despite their militaristic
reputation, rarely staked the success of their campaigns on an equal-strength battle. As demonstrated at Mantinea and throughout
the Ionian War, the Spartans were masters of the art of strategic patience, able to
hold off on action until circumstances guaranteed a low-cost victory. In this way, national character explains why
states have different strategies; but Thucydides’ analysis goes further than that. He sees an inherent tension in the strategymaking
process: strategies that fit with national character are naturally more likely to get
adopted, but those same strategies would also inherit national weaknesses and sow the seeds
for eventual defeat. Instead, great strategies challenge national
character to balance out national weaknesses. Pericles’ decision to stay behind the walls
ran counter to Athenian optimism, but prevented the city from gambling on a risky decisive
battle. Brasidas’ Northeastern campaign could have
resulted in terrible loss, but it saved Sparta from the strategic paralysis it had sunk into. For Thucydides, both men exhibited the two
qualities of great strategists: firstly, the wisdom to correctly identify national character,
and secondly, the ability to turn unpopular plans into reality. II. Strategymaking Institutions
Moving on from Thucydides, we look at how both Athens and Sparta structured the process
of strategymaking within their governments, and how that influenced the end result. Here, we tackle a specific criticism directed
at Greek institutions, namely what one scholar dubbed the “over-responsibility of the executive”. It argues that Greek strategymaking was too
centralized, both with the home government micromanaging the planning of campaigns, and
also holding field commanders criminally responsible if the execution of said campaigns turned
out different, no matter the reason. The criticism of over-responsibility is almost
always directed at Athenian democracy and is habit of eliminating its own military talent. The prime example here was the Trial of the
Generals after the Battle of Arginusae in 406. After that hard-won naval victory, a storm
prevented the 8 victorious admirals from saving drowning sailors; and for that, the enraged
Athenians convicted and executed 6 of them. With such strict rulings and harsh punishments,
it is little wonder that Athenian generals often acted politically rather than strategically,
such as when Nicias wasted his army before Syracuse rather than trusting his instinct
to leave. In thinking about this criticism, we should
first recognize that over-responsibility was probably a built-in feature of Athenian government. When it came to strategy, the legislative
branch of the Athenian Assembly was solely in charge of planning, voting on details such
as what diplomacy to undertake and even where to campaign. Execution was the responsibility of 10 Generals,
elected by the Assembly on an annual basis. To supervise them, each General was subject
to a monthly vote of confidence and a review at the end of their term. Failing either would get one sent before the
Popular Tribunal, where trials were not so much about the law as they were about one’s
popularity with the jury. Conviction would carry sentences up to death. From this overview, we can see that Athenian
over-responsibility was part of a broader institutional choice to prioritize political
control over strategic effectiveness. The Assembly was the sole decisionmaker, and
any field commander who thought differently risked being politically and physically removed. This undoubtedly led to frustrating episodes
like at the naval Battle of Sybota in 433: the small Athenian fleet was instructed to
defend Corcyra from Corinth, but not to actually join in the battle that was already raging
between the Corcyraeans and Corinthians; instead, it was to suicidally attack the Corinthian
armada only after the Corcyraeans had already lost, and the victorious Corinthians were
about to land on the island itself! Of course, there was a good reason behind
this crazy order – Corcyra was Athens’ ally, but Corinth at this time was still neutral
towards Athens. And since angering either state would damage
Athens’ geopolitical interests, the city justifiably wanted to delay making a choice
for as long as possible. This, in turn, reflects an understanding that
Greece in the 5th Century BC was an intensely competitive geopolitical environment, where
the distance between a comfortable hegemony and fighting an overwhelming coalition was
not that large. To thrive, Athens needed to make careful choices
with the bigger picture in mind – responsibilities that could not be entrusted to a local field
commander. And it wasn’t just Athens who thought this
way – Sparta had its own version of over-responsibility. The city had 2 Kings to act as army leaders,
but responsibility for planning fell again to the legislative branch, which in Sparta
was split between 5 ephors elected annually, and an Elder Chamber of 28 elders elected
for life. The King on campaign had to execute the approved
strategy to the letter, with 1 ephor personally supervising him to make sure. Kings could be punished for exercising their
own judgment: prior to the Mantinea campaign in 418, King Agis II, wary of Athenian reinforcements,
decided not to seek battle with Argos, and for that he was threatened with a severe fine
and the destruction of his property. Spartan over-responsibility again reflected
the prioritization of political control over military effectiveness: the Spartan navy might
have avoided both its destructions, for example, were the Spartan naval commander not replaced
annually. But the Spartan government had good reason
to overrule its commanders: both King Archidamus’ father and co-ruler had been exiled for accepting
treasonous bribes, and Brasidas’ Northeastern campaign saw the general callously break the
alliance with Macedon and the truce with Athens, even as Sparta’s truce with Argos was about
to expire. For Sparta and Athens, therefore, war was
far too important to be left to the generals, and the criticism of ‘executive over-responsibility’
was, in fact, an attempt to optimize strategic decisionmaking in a competitive environment. That said, Sparta never abused its over-responsibility
in so frivolous a fashion as Athens repeatedly did, and in the next section, we try to find
the reasons why. III. Athens: Strategy in a Divided Society
When we examine Athenian democracy’s more questionable decisions, we seem to find a
common characteristic running through them: the decision made was either often quickly
reversed, or the Athenians would quickly begin to “repent” their decision. That suggests a society evenly and deeply
divided over policy – at least in practice, since the urban-dwellers in Athens had a much
easier time voting, and were therefore overrepresented compared to the farmers living far away. Athens’ policy divides were laid on top
of socioeconomic differences. Athenian society was officially structured
into 4 classes: the great landowners, the wealthy equestrian class, the small landowners,
and the poor. The higher the class, the more likely your
income came from owning land; the lower the class, the more likely your income came from
overseas trade. Class interest therefore incentivized a sharp
divide in strategic policy. Since war with Sparta would inevitably see
its soldiers pillage Athenian land, the higher classes naturally preferred conciliation with
Sparta, especially if it meant giving away a maritime empire which they had little stake
in anyway. By contrast, the lower classes recognized
that expanding Athens’ overseas empire would also expand the market for their goods and
services; and indeed, for the urban poor, war with Sparta was a safe way of earning
easy money in Athens’ invincible navy. And as the Athenian empire expanded, the city
would have to send more colonists to garrison strategic and rebellious points – and coincidentally
enough, the reward for being a state-sponsored colonist was being given land and climbing
up the social ladder. It is little wonder, then, that the aristocratic
Nicias would be a consistent advocate of peace with Sparta, while Cleon, as a champion of
the poor, would instead demand harsh measures against tributaries and Sparta alike. But since the poor inevitably outnumbered
the rich, one might expect Athenian strategy to be uniformly skewed in a maritime and anti-Spartan
direction. But this was not the case. When Athenian democracy first emerged in the
500s BC, the system, by design or compromise, had various institutional checks to prevent
unfettered rule by the poor. Formally, the poor could vote on policy, but
policy execution was reserved for the higher classes, and only the great landowners could
serve in an Elder Chamber with the power to veto anything in the democracy. Informally, because there was no remuneration
for taking time off to vote, poor turnout was suppressed and the rich were over-represented. The result was that the rich were often able
to counterbalance the maritime tendencies of Athenian strategy, restricting expansion
to what was needed to continue the fight against Persia. This aristocratic ‘Deep State’ naturally
angered the poor, and so they turned to none other than Pericles as their champion. By the 450s, Pericles had successfully stripped
the Elder Chamber of its political power, let the poor serve in policy execution, and
also started paying people to vote. This was the era of Athenian ‘radical democracy’,
and as policy tilted decisively in favor of the poor, Athenian strategy accordingly raced
down a maritime and anti-Spartan path, quickly resulting in not just the First Peloponnesian
War, but also increased friction with imperial tributaries and peer competitors alike. Now to be fair, Sparta’s envy and fear of
Athens had been increasing even before the radical democracy, and as previous videos
have shown, Athenian leaders believed that they could neutralize whatever damage Sparta
could inflict. But by catering so exclusively to the poor’s
class interest, radical democrat strategy gave the richer classes a material incentive
to take back policy control. War might be profitable for the poor, but
for the rich, it definitely meant seeing their villas destroyed, collection of rents interrupted,
and being more heavily taxed to fund military expenses. Under the radical democracy, the rich had
no institutional path back into power, so inevitably, they began working outside of
the system, destabilizing Athens’ strategymaking in the process. During the Mytilenean debate, they counter-mobilized
against Cleon’s policy of mass execution, generating a 180 degree turn in Athenian policy. Right before the Sicilian Expedition, they
carried out a political hit job on Alcibiades, using the vandalism of religious statues as
their pretext. And finally, after the Sicilian debacle, they
overthrew Athens’ democracy itself in 411, throwing the city into turmoil just as Sparta
took to the seas. Even within the system, the unbalancing of
Athens’ democracy created negative strategic consequences. With the poor now the dominant political bloc,
strategic advocacy now became a matter of staking out extreme pro-poor positions in
order to win votes. Pericles’ prestige allowed him to exercise
strategic moderation, but his successors Cleon and Hyperbolus were either unwilling or politically
unable to exercise such restraint. Instead, they advocated for more war, both
to buy the support of the poor and to demonize their opponents as unpatriotic. Under such an environment, strategic discussion
in the Assembly became little better than an echo chamber: in particular, during the
Sicilian Expedition and the Trial of the Generals, dissenting Athenians were compelled to shut
up instead of voicing opposition, for fear that the Assembly would turn against them
as well. To sum up, therefore, we can trace the strategic
failures of Athens back to Pericles’ decision to remove the aristocratic checks on Athenian
democracy, which, through internal self-radicalization and external turmoil, fatally compromised
the city’s ability to make good strategy. To think about what could have been done differently,
we consider what Thucydides saw as the best government in his lifetime, the moderate oligarchy
of ‘The 5,000’. ‘The 5,000’, more likely than an actual
number, probably referred to the class of small landowners and farmer-soldiers, who
served as hoplites in times of war and probably dominated this government. Perhaps because of this, Thucydides saw them
as representing a disciplined and patriotic ‘Golden Mean’ between the selfish treason
of Athens’ wealthiest and the irresponsible decisionmaking of Athens’ poorest. The brief record of the 5,000 seems to justify
Thucydides’ assessment. As Athens’ democracy was replaced by oligarchy
in the 411 coup, some of the richer oligarchs wanted to bolster their rule by inviting Sparta
into Athens. Seeing this, the moderate oligarchs of the
5,000 turned on their former allies and prepared to take over the city. One way of doing so would have been to summon
the Athenian fleet back to the city, but that would have resulted in what was left of the
Athenian Empire defecting wholesale to Sparta. Instead, the 5,000 took up arms themselves
against the extremist oligarchs, while the Athenian fleet under Alcibiades was allowed
to pursue the Spartan fleet until the latter’s destruction at Cyzicus in 410. Having stabilized Athens’ strategic situation
with that victory, the 5,000 seems not to have retained power for long, instead handing
power back to the radical democracy in an uneventful transition. For Thucydides, the disciplined moderation
of the 5,000 allowed them to make clear-headed strategic decisions, self-sacrifice for the
greater good, and wield power only for public benefit. Again like in the previous section on national
character, a balanced temperament, whether in person or as a collective, is key to good
strategy. IV. Sparta: the Perils of Over-Mobilization
As we think about the impact of politics on Spartan strategymaking, a good starting-point
would be to re-interpret King Archidamus’ recommended strategy – reforming Sparta’s
economy, opening up to foreigners and especially flooding Sparta with money – as, in fact,
a veiled warning, meant to demonstrate that Sparta could not defeat Athens without corrupting
the values that lay at the heart of Spartan communalism. The mobilization required to fight such a
prolonged war would inevitably introduce changes to Spartan politics, Spartan strategy and,
eventually, Spartan society. Traditional Spartan society was famous for
its exclusiveness. People living outside Sparta were either helot
serfs or subjects without rights, but to be an actual citizen even within Sparta itself,
one not only had to trace ancestry back to a founding citizen, but also had to be rich
enough to contribute to the communal granary. This exclusivity was the root cause of Sparta’s
perennial headache – the persistent decrease in the citizen population. This was not just a question of childbirths,
but also a politico-economic issue. Spartan conservatism naturally recoiled at
the prospect of using government to smooth out social inequalities, but the result was
that Sparta’s great landowners gradually squeezed out smaller farmers, causing the
latter to fail their granary obligations and thus lose their citizenship. And because citizens formed the core of Sparta’s
military and governance structure, their decline meant that Sparta’s ability to project power
shrank by the year. But from a strategic viewpoint, this was not
a wholly negative outcome. As mentioned in the earliest videos, Sparta
was not a typical hegemon that ruled by virtue of a dominant economic base. Instead, Sparta’s hegemony came from its
superior army, and its ability to deploy said army in a targeted fashion, so as to force
or convince much larger cities to accept its rule. In practice, this meant that Sparta had to
be restrained in its use of force: constant fighting would not only erode the army’s
qualitative edge, but also make other states wary of Sparta and less inclined to view its
hegemony as something benign and distant. Happily for Sparta, the leaders of the gradually-weakening
city were naturally incentivized to look beyond military force as a solution to their strategic
problems. This whole system, however, would come under
unbearable pressure as Sparta struggled to respond to Athens’ aggressive strategy under
Cleon. Unwilling to risk any more Spartan citizens
after Sphacteria, Sparta began mobilizing hitherto-unused segments of its society. Now, Sparta had always utilized non-citizens
– particularly ex-Spartans – in its army, but now, the gates were opened further to
allow helots and ex-helots to become soldiers, most famously in Brasidas’ Northeastern
campaign, but also in the relief of Syracuse, and in Sparta’s new fleet. Almost overnight, despite the long-term damage
this did to Sparta’s economy, the city’s ability to project power across Greece had
seemingly rejuvenated. The obvious result arising from this mobilization
of non-citizens was the creation of a new political force within Spartan politics. As non-citizens earned prestige through military
service, they inevitably began to demand rights comparable to that of proper citizens. In this, they were most notably assisted by
Lysander, a non-citizen himself, who established his own power base by appointing non-citizens
as military governors over the former Athenian Empire. Lysander was even willing to sacrifice Spartan
interests to get his way, persuading Persia to cut off funds to the Spartan fleet when
a traditionalist was appointed as his successor, resulting in its destruction at Arginusae. Others attempted to contribute by destabilizing
the Spartan system, most notably in the assassination and coup attempt of the Kinadon Conspiracy
of 399. That said, political intrigue was nothing
new in Sparta and if a new faction was the only result from Spartan mobilization, the
system could probably have managed it in due course. However, increasing Sparta’s ability to
use force also loosened the constraints that prevented Sparta from resorting to force. And this, combined with the aforementioned
political competition, would prove to be the downfall of the Spartan hegemony. Freed from the pressures of geopolitical competition,
Sparta’s leadership began externalizing its internal political disputes. Leadership contests that, in previous years,
might have assumed the form of corruption charges or some other non-military process,
now took the form of invading other states in order to build up political capital. To counter Lysander’s great prestige, King
Pausanias allowed Athenian democrats to overthrow Lysander’s oligarchy in 403, while King
Agis II invaded Elis in 401. To counter these counters in turn, Lysander
successfully convinced Sparta to fight Persia from 397-94, and when the political result
was not to his liking, he and King Pausanias invaded Thebes in 395, sparking off the next
round of hegemonic wars in Greece. Lost in all of this political infighting was
the fundamental geostrategic understanding that Sparta’s overtaxed economic base could
not afford all these wars, nor fend off the increasing hostility of the Greek cities who
now saw Sparta as an interventionist bully. Sparta’s mobilization of non-citizens during
the Peloponnesian War should have been temporary; instead, prolonged over-mobilization accelerated
Sparta’s economic, and by extension citizenship, decline. In 425, about half of Sparta’s soldiers
were still citizens; by 371, only 10% were. In the meantime, Sparta’s hegemony would
be propped up thanks to Persian support, but the stage was set for its sudden collapse
at the hands of Thebes. V. Conclusion
In this video, we’ve looked at various ways in which Greek politics influenced strategy
during and after the Peloponnesian War. In Thucydides’ concept of ‘national character’
and his assessment of Athenian politics, we see a characteristically Greek approval of
moderation, whether for a person, a strategy or for a political system. One thing that Greek states were certainly
not moderate about, however, was in their insistence on centralized control over strategy,
justifiable given the need to tread carefully in a competitive environment. But centralization also exposed strategymaking
to the turbulence of domestic politics – Athens’ unbalanced radical democracy was the root
cause of much of the city’s strategic mistakes and instability, while Sparta’s over-mobilization
eventually saw its leadership lose sight of the fundamental principles that made the city
a power in the first place. If Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, then
Sparta similarly lost the resulting peace; and hegemonic wars would continue to plague
Greece until the rise of Macedon. * If you liked this video, please do give a
like and subscribe. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy
to answer them in the comments section. This is the final video of a longer video
series I originally made for CaspianReport. Also check out my Facebook page, where I review
the literature and post some additional thoughts regarding the video.


  • Densetsu VII

    Ah if only the national character of the Youtube Algorithm would analyze these videos like I do and conclude that everyone's gotta see them!

    Great work Strategy Stuff, very fulfilling to see this come to its conclusion!

  • Jon Lott

    I strongly believe world history would look very different today if Alcibiades' political enemies had not smeared him with that lie about the mutilation of the herms.

  • Mircea Donciu

    Yet again a great video. Could you do France during and following the 30 years war and it's transformation into the first nation-state?

  • Synchroni

    National character and strategies on how to optimize it to state goals is perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of political discussions.

  • AGS363

    What I can see here again, is that foreign policy (be it diplomacy or war) is subordinate to internal policy.
    I am also not so sure about the two goals mentioned in the beginning,…there are quite a few exemples agianst this assumption.

  • Luis Aldamiz

    I have to strongly disagree: the real problem was that they were unwilling to expropriate the oligarchs, what allowed them to build a counter-power based on money (and the backing of Sparta). You should never allow your enemies to retain their wealth: Genghis Khan understood that, while Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela didn't, just as Pericles and Cleon in Athens…

  • Gringo Bandito

    What a brilliantly clear and concise series on a complex conflict. It takes a lot of skill to boil down so much information without losing the nuances of the period and to have well polished graphics is the cherry on top.

  • Napoleon's Soldier

    Interesting how everyone claims that the rich and old want war as they profit from it, yet in Athens it is the poor and young who want war and profit from it

  • Chris Persen

    In regards to the fertility of Spartan soil, you didn't talk about Sparta's HUGE slave population which kept the Spartan state floating. It was the Spartan chronic fear of a helot uprising and its institutions that made Sparta a profoundly conservative and risk-averse state. They were wary of sending troops abroad because of potential uprisings at home and about outside influences (or corruption im sure they'd think of it) on spartan (heh) lifestyle the state tried to foster into its population.

  • Noetic Justice

    "War was far too important to be left to the generals."

    There is so much right and wrong with that statement.

    Note: This is not a criticism of Strategy Stuff, merely an observation on the ideas bundled with that sentence. It's a great statement to unpack.

  • Giorgos Koukoubagia

    I've found your channel through this series and saw all of your videos. Your analysis on this one especially was mind-blowing! Great job! May I ask: do you have extended studies on history, or a relative sector?

  • DeBlackKnite

    Very cool series, thank you! I found your channel through Caspian Report, do you think you will do more collabs with Shirvan?

  • General Rendar

    As an avid student of history, this video series has been AMAZING! The depth of research and into the root cause of the successes and failures of one of the most significant conflicts of the Western world is on the same level as a military academy. It covers campaign movements, economy, offensives and counters, the politicking within each faction and how and why certain decisions were made. I thoroughly enjoyed this series!

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