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THE GREEKS OF THE ATTIC AGE (CONTINUED).
I NEXT take up Thucydides, the most misleading, and therefore the most misunderstood of our authorities.
His general account of the Greek character in his own times, (to which he distinctly limits himself, by contrasting the older days of simplicity and honesty) is clear, hard, and unpleasing. He describes the Periclean Greeks as differing from their fathers in possessing a greater political insight, in the habit of hearing and using argument, of understanding a far-seeing policy, and of estimating the balance of complicated and conflicting interests. But most critics have failed to observe that in these features he makes the Corinthians, and Corcyræans, and Sicilians, not a whit inferior to the Athenians; and there is here, to my mind, a great want of dramatic power in the author, or else an absence of that finer perception, which is so prominent in Herodotus. The speeches in Thucydides are so completely cast in the same mould as to be obviously rhetorical exercises of his own, and not honest attempts to dramatise the critical moments in his history. Yet there is about this dull sameness an element of truth. As the small territories of so many enterprising cities,
and their consequent proximity, made isolation well nigh impossible, so their complicated relations, and constant wars, made politics an all-absorbing pursuit. The notion of an empire of intellect and of taste, without political supremacy, had not yet dawned even upon the Athenians. Consequently politics corroded the social life, as well as the literature, of Periclean Greece. There resulted, farther, a greater simplicity of dress and life1, and probably some carelessness as to home comforts, and material luxury. There followed thirdly a harder view of life and of men, a more daring assertion of self-interest as opposed to principle, of force, as opposed to justice, and often a habit of casuistic dispute and of subtle equivocation. These painful moral features, which are patent enough through all his history, are saliently brought out not only in his speeches, but in an imaginary dialogue which he has composed between the Athenians, when they proceeded to force the island of Melos into their naval confederacy, and the unfortunate Melians, who plead that they have broken no treaty, violated no obligation, and therefore incurred no lawful hostility. The Athenians are here represented as laying aside all that speciousness which was their known characteristic. They brutally assert that justice is only invoked by the weaker side, and that superior force asks no justification for asserting itself2.
Another passage, in which Thucydides turns aside to reflect upon similar ideas, but quite generally, is
1 Cp. above p. 135.
2 Cp. the whole dialogue at the close of the Fifth Book.
the famous compendium of Greek politics appended to his account of the Corcyræan massacre.
The substance of what he says is as follows: That according as the war progressed, the general state of society became gradually worse, men became what the French call effarouchés, and sought out new schemes of overthrowing their enemies, and new cruelties to wreak their vengeance upon them. Even the very signification of ordinary terms changed. Rash boldness came to be considered loyal friendship, and wise caution specious cowardice. Men were expected to stop at nothing for their party, and if they did hesitate, they were cast aside as worthless and unfaithful. For party became the paramount bond, and overrode the ties of blood. Its object was not to abide by the law, but to evade and violate it. Oaths and promises were indeed given and taken, but had not a particle of force if interest opposed them. And the one interest which swallowed up every other feeling was the lust of power of ruling in the state, some as aristocrats, some as leaders of a democracy, but even then only so long as no more complete victory, such as a tyranny over both friends and foes, was in view. Thus every form of villainy became prevalent in the Greek world on account of their internal factions. Simple honesty was laughed out of society, and guarded mistrust took its place. There was no superior power to arbitrate, and men were so trained to forecast unexpected dangers, that they were unable to feel confidence in either oath or promise 1.
1 Thuc. iii. 82, sqq.
I am not the least disposed to question the accuracy of the facts, which suggest to him these reflections. Such cruelties as the Corcyræan massacres are unfortunately not uncommon in Greek history. The murder of the Platean prisoners in cold blood by the Spartans (iii. 68) and the vote passed at Athens against the conquered Mityleneans, (iii. 36) of whom more than 1,000 were executed, while perhaps 5,000 more escaped with much difficulty-these are, within Thucydides' own volume, sad corroborations of his statements. There are not wanting other witnesses. Heracleides Ponticus (quoted in Athenæus xii. p. 523) tells us that 'the city of the Milesians met with misfortune through their luxury and their political enmities, since they were not content with what was reasonable, but destroyed their foes utterly. For the rich and the poor (who were called Gergitha) being in conflict, the demos was at first victorious, and having expelled the rich, collected the children of the fugitives into threshing floors, and bringing in oxen had them trampled to death, destroying them with unnatural cruelty. Accordingly the rich having in turn got the upper hand, burnt in pitch all whom they got into their power, along with their children.' These horrible facts exceed any of the cruelties so commonly attributed to individual despots, such as Phalaris, or Pheretime1, and should not be forgotten in our admiration for Greek culture and for Greek
1 Heracleides, Kupηvaíwv τoλ. (Müller ii. p. 212,) and Herodotus lib. v. sub. fin.
refinement. On this subject I shall make farther remarks in the sequel.
But in his inferences Thucydides is, I think, unfair. He supplies indeed a true, but partial apology, when he says that war is a stern schoolmaster, and makes men's tempers as hard as their circumstances.' We have ample evidence in our own day, how nations as civilised as, and far more humane than, the Greeks become cruel not only through revenge, but more inevitably through fear1. This partial defence should not be forgotten. Yet Thucydides has overlooked or concealed another most important consideration. It is this, that if a nation fall into a policy of faction, if the public men begin to act in cabals, the politics of these factions or cabals will always be far worse than those of the average individuals who compose them. A glance at the leading politicians of Greece, even as Thucydides himself is obliged to portray them, will prove this fact, however we may explain it. Not to speak of Aristides, we have Cimon, and Archidamus, and Nicias, and Brasidas, not only men of honour and probity, but universally respected as such, Nicias indeed disastrously so, as Mr. Grote has amply shown in his history of the Athenian defeat in Sicily.
Our first impression, when we come to weigh these
1 There is no more striking ancient example than the treatment of the Athenian senator, who at Salamis or Trozen proposed submission to the Persians. The exiled people stoned him forthwith, and their women hearing the tumult, and learning its cause, set upon his wife of their own accord, and stoned her and her children. Such conduct was rare among Athenians at any epoch.