Archidamus Speech

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Let Us Not Go to War Unprepared

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I.80-85

[80] I have lived a long time, Spartans, and seen many wars. I see a few here in this assembly who are my age and will also not be inclined to rush off to war believing it brings great rewards at low risk. A look at the facts suggests this war could turn into something much more complicated than we are imagining now.

Archi-sp-1When Spartans fight a local war against a nearby city, it is a simple match of strength against strength. The travel is short, supplies and communications are straightforward, and the enemy’s mode of fighting is the same as ours. With Athens, it’s different. Their city is some distance away, they are skilled in fighting at sea, and they have the advantage in several key resources, namely: money, ships, horses, and ready armaments. They are the most populous city in Greece, and they are able to draw upon allies who pay yearly tribute. Is this an enemy we want to go up against on impulse, unprepared? What strategy will we base our hopes on? Our navy is no match for theirs. To bring our sea-fighting up to their level will take time and training. Will we outspend them until they give up? They have us at an even worse disadvantage there, since Sparta has no government treasury, and raising funds from private donors is difficult.

[81] We have the advantage in infantry and the size of our army. Some of you believe we can achieve victory with these advantages — that is, by invading Attica (the region surrounding Athens) and ravaging the crop lands that support Athens. But Athens has a wide empire. It can import everything it needs from elsewhere. We could try to disrupt their empire, by encouraging their allies to revolt, but remember the Athenian allies are scattered throughout the islands. We would need a strong navy to make this plan work. With these facts in mind, we must ask ourselves what kind of war will be successful against Athens. The reality is: if we can’t defeat their navy, or at least cut the supply of money that supports their navy, we will not be able to overcome them. They have the resources to outlast us. Consider this possible outcome: we get into a protracted war that we can’t win, and we find ourselves in a situation where we can’t back out either, not with honor, because the world thinks we were the ones who started the fight. Archi-sp-2We must put to rest any hope that laying waste to Attica will bring a quick victory. On the contrary, I am afraid this is a war we will be passing on to the next generation. That is how sure I am the Athenians, who have become a sea-going people, won’t be defeated by dependence on crop lands. Nor will they fall apart in a panic at the prospect of war.

[82] Not that we should allow Athens to harass our allies and carry on with their schemes unchecked. Instead we should follow a strategy of slowing Athens down while building our own strength up. Let us use diplomacy to present our grievances, which will force Athens to deal with our issues one by one. Let us not seem too eager for war, so we don’t scare them into ramping up war preparations on their side. In the meantime, we should do everything possible to get ourselves ready — especially by recruiting allies with sea power and money, regardless of whether they are Greeks or barbarians. There is no shame in making common cause with barbarians when they are as much threatened by Athens as ourselves.

If Athens gives in to our diplomatic demands, so much the better. If not, we will at least be more prepared in two to three years to defeat them, should we decide at that time war is the best option. Athens may see things differently by then, as it becomes clear to them we have developed the resources to make good on our threats. And they will be all the more careful with us if they still have their crop lands intact.  Think of their crop lands as a hostage that gives us power to influence their thinking. We should leave Attica untouched for as long as possible. Otherwise, we risk forcing Athens into a corner too soon, leading them to harden their views and consider desperate measures. If we go to war ill-prepared, because of the urging of some of our allies, we risk bringing disgrace and hardship on ourselves and all our allies. Remember that individual complaints — whether they are between citizens or between states — can always be settled in a controlled way through negotiation. The outcome of a war, on the other hand, can never be predicted with certainty. It is not a light matter when a confederation of many states goes to war because of the grievances of one member, for there is a danger the affair cannot be ended with honor.

[83] Let no one think it cowardice for a great alliance of many cities to hesitate before declaring war against just one city, for Athens has as many allies as we do, and those allies pay tribute in cash. At the state level, war is more a matter of money than weapons, and this is true all the more when a land power gears up to fight a sea power. We need first of all to build up reserves of money, over time, without allowing ourselves to be goaded into premature action by the rhetoric of allies. Sparta will have to take the credit or blame for whatever happens next, whether it’s good or bad, so let us think wisely about the consequences we are able to foresee.

[84] Turn a deaf ear when our allies try to shame us for being slow and careful. Rushing into battle makes a war longer in the end and harder to win. Being slow and careful is what has kept us free and made our city famous for its strength. Archi-sp-3These qualities have saved us from becoming arrogant in prosperity, unlike some others, or giving in to despair when luck goes against us. We Spartans do not change direction from moment to moment, lured by flattery or driven by taunts to unconsidered action. The Spartan way of life, which trains us to be cautious and follow procedure, is what makes us brave in war and wise in counsel. Our self-discipline is based on personal honor, which gives us steely courage in battle. Self-restraint makes us wise and stops us from trying to be too clever for our own good.

Spartans believe in basic, practical education. We do not profess the kind of learning that makes people feel they are above the law. Spartans learn obedience and common sense, and do not care much for a so-called expert who can tear apart an enemy’s strategy in theory but can do nothing to defeat him in the field. We take the view that strategists in other cities are people much like ourselves, and the fortunes of war never will be determined by argumentation. We don’t pin our hopes of victory on the expectation that the other side will make foolish mistakes. We depend instead on our own careful thought and preparation. In terms of physical and intellectual abilities, there is not much difference between one people and another. The side that comes out on top, we believe, is the one that has undergone the toughest training.

[85] Traditions handed down to us from our forefathers have served Sparta well. Let us not forsake them or allow ourselves to be hurried into making a decision in one day that will affect so many lives and family fortunes, so many cities, and the good name of Sparta. Let us be slow and careful, a privilege we enjoy more than others because we are strong. Let us send envoys to Athens to lodge our complaints, and meanwhile we’ll prepare for war, in case war is unavoidable. Athens has agreed to arbitration, so we must not make ourselves guilty of attacking first, since it would be unlawful to take action as if Athens had already been found to be in the wrong. The advice I give is what is best for Sparta and will, more than any other policy, put fear in the hearts of the enemy.

Archidamus Questions:

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