Corinth Speech

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Corcyra Is Nobody’s Friend But Their Own

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I.37-43

Athenians, as you just heard, the Corcyrans did not confine themselves to the merits of an alliance with their city. Instead they labeled Corinth as an aggressor and made themselves out to be innocent victims. We need to set the record straight before talking about the proposed alliance. You need to have a clear idea of who these Corcyrans are and why you should reject their request.

The way they tell it, Corcyra thought it was wise to avoid alliances so they would not be drawn into wrongful wars. Corinth-sp-1 (1)The real reason is they wanted a free hand to commit as many wrongs as they could get away with. They certainly did not want an honest ally looking over their shoulder, holding them back. With no alliances, they were free to take sole jurisdiction whenever there was a dispute with a foreign merchant. They didn’t have to call in a neutral judge, the normal procedure under a treaty. The fact is, because of their far-west location, Corcyra receives many more ships from central Greece than we see from Corcyra. Wearing the mask of neutrality, the Corcyrans commit wrong after wrong against visiting ships — seizing property when the victim is powerless to resist, using fraud when they can avoid getting caught, and taking unfair advantage when they can plausibly deny any fault on their part. If they were the honest people they claim to be, you would see a very different kind of behavior. They would try all the harder — because of how easy it is for them to do wrong — to be fair, and they would embrace every opportunity to show they believe in justice.

[38] But Corcyra has demonstrated the opposite of honesty and justice — in dealings with others and with us. They act as if they were totally independent, operating by their own rules, despite the fact Corcyra is a colony of Corinth. They say they didn’t build a new city just to be mistreated by Corinth. Our answer is: we, as the mother country, didn’t send out colonists to be insulted by them. We expect colonies to accept our leadership and show a due respect. All our other colonies show the highest regard for Corinth. From that fact alone, it is clear: if Corcyra is the only one complaining, it cannot be for any honorable reason.

Corinth is not persecuting Corcyra. We are preparing for war against them because they have subjected us to the most serious provocations. Even if we were in the wrong about this, acting in the heat of anger, the right thing for Corcyra to do would be to submit and acknowledge our authority. Then the burden would be on Corinth, in the eyes of the world, to treat Corcyra with fairness and consideration. Instead, Corcyra has flouted us in many ways, out of willfulness and pride in their wealth — especially in the matter of Epidamnus. When that city was torn with civil strife, Corcyra did not lift a finger. But as soon as we came in to restore order, then Corcyra sent its navy. They continue to hold Epidamnus today.

[39] The Corcyrans say they offered to settle the dispute over Epidamnus by arbitration, but that offer has no credibility, coming from one who has already made his move to get what he wants and now holds the upper hand. Corcyra took Epidamnus by force, and they only asked for arbitration when they saw we were about to take it back. Corcyra is not asking you to join in a just cause but to share responsibility for a crime. If their purpose in seeking an alliance was friendship with Athens, they should have approached you before getting themselves into trouble. As matters stand now, they are inviting you to face the consequences of a crime that you had no part in committing. Be clear about this much: if Athens takes sides with Corcyra, we will hold you responsible with them for the wrong we have suffered.

[40] Up to this point, we have focused on showing you that Corcyra is greedy and violent. Now we turn to the question of your treaty with Sparta and its allies, including Corinth. Corinth-sp-2That treaty — even though it allows a neutral city to join either side — cannot allow an alliance with Corcyra. The reason is: a peace treaty, by its very nature, cannot permit a change that would inevitably lead to war — which would be the result if Athens were to ally itself with Corcyra. An alliance with a truly neutral city would be lawful, but Corcyra is a colony in revolt, and it has already done harm to one of your allies, Corinth. If you join with Corcyra and protect them after they have injured us, you leave us no choice but to defend ourselves against you, and you will share in their defeat when we strike them down.

The best course for Athens is to stay out of the dispute between Corinth and Corcyra. If you get involved, then side with Corinth, because you have a binding treaty with us, and you have never had so much as a truce with Corcyra. Above all, do not harm your own interests by protecting a city in revolt, for that would set a precedent for others to follow. You remember, Athenians, when your satellite Samos was in revolt against you five years ago? Other cities of the Peloponnesian Peninsula wanted to support Samos, but Corinth did not take sides against you. We said it was the right of a great city to keep its allies in line. If Athens now sets the precedent of helping a city in revolt, you may find many of your current allies deciding to rebel and seek an alliance with Corinth.

[41] In addition to the legal and moral considerations we have talked about so far, showing the right course for Athens to choose under the traditions and customs of Greek treaties, we would like to remind you of a favor that Corinth did for Athens. Corinth-sp-3The favor ought to be repaid as favors are repaid between neighbors, since we are neither enemies nor yet are we such good friends that we can impose on one another’s generosity. We did this favor for Athens when you were at war with Aegina, before the Persian invasion. Corinth loaned Athens 20 ships, which helped you defeat Aegina. Keep in mind that this help from Corinth — just as when we supported your right to punish Samos — came at a time of crisis, when people tend to forget everything except their desire for victory. In the heat of crisis, people accept former enemies as friends and turn a cold shoulder to true friends — all for the sake of winning right now. It was in just such moments, at Aegina and Samos, that Corinth stood firm and true for Athens.

[42] Consider well the favors Corinth has done for Athens. Let younger citizens hear about them from their elders. And then let Athens respond accordingly. Do not make the mistake of thinking these are all fine things to say in speeches, but in the real world you have to look out for your interests. A straight path is the wise path, which will serve your best interests in the long run by taking fewer wrong turns. Do not be misled by Corcyra’s fear-mongering, for war between Athens and Corinth is by no means a certainty. The only certainty is that Athens will stir anger and hostility in Corinth by making an alliance with Corcyra. A better course would be to remove rather than add to the causes for mistrust between our cities. You will find that a small act of fairness and respect can do much more for good relations than one might expect from mere calculation. Do not be tempted by the false promise of a great naval alliance. The security you maintain by behaving honorably toward other great powers is greater than the advantage you might gain in the short term but at the cost of higher risk.

[43] We are now in the same position with Corcyra that you were in with Samos, and all we ask is that you stand by the same principle for us that we defended for you — the right of a great power to discipline its own allies. In repaying this favor, you will have the double advantage of doing what is right and doing what is best for Athens.

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