Hasten Very Slowly to War: The Spartan Ethic, with Lessons for America

Spartan Helmet at the British Museum.  Like the Spartans, it has known war

Steven J. Willett

Editor’s Introduction: Today, the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta has a reputation for being mindlessly devoted to warriors and war, yet this is a caricature of history.  Sparta was neither mindless nor careless in its pursuit of war.  Rather, as the classicist Steven Willett reminds us in this insightful article, appearing here first at Bracing Views, the Spartans deliberated with great care.  They knew the perils of war, and entered on the same “very slowly,” as Willett shows by a close and sensitive analysis of the famous speech of Archidamus, a Spartan king, from Thucydides’ history.  Would that the United States, which now fancies itself the inheritor of Spartan warrior excellence, deliberate about war with the same care as Archidamus exercised more than two millennia ago.  W.J. Astore  

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides lays out the events that precipitated a long, enormously destructive war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. The war ran from 431BCE to 404BCE with only a few years of intervening peace. Like many wars this one began in minor incidents far from the two states: Sparta was a land power with a league of allied cities in the Peloponnesus, while Athens was a sea power with a far-flung empire extending over the shores of the Aegean all the way to the Hellespont. The Athenian Empire embraced hundreds of cities and the Aegean islands, and at the start of the war was so wealthy it had begun a magnificent building program on the Acropolis.

I’ve summarized the history of events leading up to Sparta’s deliberations about going to war with Athens in Appendix One.  The majority opinion of Sparta was that the Athenians were guilty of injustice and that war was justified. At this point Archidamus, one of Sparta’s two kings, “a man considered to be both intelligent and sensible” (Thucydides I.79.2), spoke before the Spartan war council. (On Thucydides’ accounts of speeches and the reliability thereof, see Appendix Two.) All translations are my own.

In the following section of the speech (I.84-85.1), Archidamus reviews the ethical principles that underlie Spartan reluctance to act precipitously. It provides an object lesson in the rational approach to making decisions about war, an approach that the United States would do well to emulate (but hasn’t).

Archidamus’ Speech About the Perils of Precipitous War

(1) And the slowness and hesitation, for which we [the Spartans] are especially blamed, should not shame you (αἰσχύνεσθε): rushing headlong [into war] may end it more slowly because the attempt lacked preparation. (2) Besides, we have always lived in a city that is free (ἐλευθέραν) and held in the highest repute (εὐδοξοτάτην). This very slowness amounts to truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη): for because of it we do not become insolent (ἐξυβρίζομεν) in success and yield less than others in misfortune. Nor are we, when those incite us with praise to dangerous actions (τὰ δεινὰ) contrary to our own best judgment, excited by pleasure, and if anyone provokes us with accusations we are not the least persuaded by our vexation. (3) We are both warlike (πολεμικοί) and well advised (εὔβουλοι) due to our good order (εὔκοσμον): warlike because shame (αἰδὼς) is the greatest part of moderation (σωφροσύνης), and courage (εὐψυχία) the greatest part of a sense of shame (αἰσχύνης), while we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them, and we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument. (4) We always prepare in practice against enemies who [we assume also] plan well, and should not place our hopes on their possible mistakes but in the security of our own forethought. We do not need to believe that one man differs very much from another man, but the best is one who has trained in the most rigorous discipline. (85.1) These practices, then, which our fathers bequeathed us and we always maintain for their continuing benefits, should never be abandoned, nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.

Archidamus begins this passage by refuting the well-known Spartan tendency to dilatoriness by claiming it is nothing that should shame them. He uses the verb (occurring again as a noun below), αἰσχύνω, which means to be ashamed in the moral sense of having done something dishonorable, to feel shame for a dishonorable act. It can also be translated to dishonor, tarnish, or mar. Ancient Greece was in many ways a shame culture like that of my own home of Japan. To be charged with something shameful was one of the worst moral accusations. He then justifies that valuation of shame by stating that it has made Sparta a city that is free and most highly famed. The adjective he uses, ἐλεύθερος, means free in the sense of being unobstructed by any outside sources capable of restricting action. The noun form of the adjective is ἐλευθερία, freedom or liberty, and the word had very strong emotional connotations to the Greeks in their united opposition to Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. For the Greeks, Persia was the epitome of tyranny, and to maintain their freedom they were willing to risk everything in the period of greatest threat, 490-479, when the Greek mainland faced invasion twice by Persia, the greatest empire in the world.

Having restored honor to Spartan dilatoriness in a negative sense, Archidamus then gives their habitual slowness a positive moral content: it’s a “truly rational (ἔμφρων) moderation (σωφροσύνη).” The adjective ἔμφρων means literally in one’s mind or senses, but here rational or intelligent. The noun σωφροσύνη (sophrosune) is an almost untranslatable word with a variety of meanings clustered around moderation, prudence, temperance, self-control (against pleasure or pain) and many others. I have chosen to use a single word, moderation, in translating it, but the phrase soundness of mind perhaps comes closest. Heraclitus Fr. 112 gives a powerful definition of its meaning: σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαΐοντας (“Soundness of mind is the greatest virtue and practical wisdom is speaking the truth and acting in accordance with the natural constitution of things”). I’ve highlighted the two words whose roots lie in sophrosune: sophronein and sophie, “soundness of mind” and “practical wisdom.” Practical wisdom includes the skill of a craftsman or the diagnostic analysis of a physician.

Because of moderation, he continues, the Spartans don’t become insolent in success. The verb ἐξυβρίζομεν is another word very difficult to render in English. It means to break out into insolence, to run riot, to commit violence. It referred to behavior that shamed or humiliated the victim for the gratification of the abuser and included both verbal and physical assaults. The English word hubris is derived from it, but has a much thinner emotional sense than violence: foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence. To commit hubris in Greece was a crime subject to severe punishments if convicted.

Lesson for America: A good example of hubris in the Greek sense is the behavior of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: we declared ourselves the ‘winners’ in the Cold War, the USSR the ‘losers,’ and rubbed the defeat constantly in their faces. Under President Clinton we began to push NATO into the old Warsaw Pact countries in violation of promises to Gorbachev, to impoverish the Russian people by sending economic advisors to mount a massive deregulation of state enterprises and finally to exploit and ultimately partition Russia during the Yeltsin regime. In short, we ran riot. I was a student in St. Petersburg during the 1990s and saw the misery we unleashed up front and close: the homeless sleeping in bundles beneath famous statues, impoverished Afghan veterans selling war relics and even their own clothing on Nevsky Prospect and proud, old naval captains quietly and politely asking for some rubles in their soft, broken English.

When Archidamus follows this with the statement that Sparta cannot be incited to dangerous actions, τὰ δεινὰ, he means really serious dangers. The plural noun is very strong: fearful, dread, terrible, dire, the outcome of actions and of powerful natural events. He is directing his comments to the Corinthians and the other Peloponnesians who clamored for immediate war.

Lesson for America: Now that the (expired) Obama administration has initiated Cold War II, we have Members of Congress calling for wars with Iran, continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and even advocating policies that could lead to war with Russia. There doesn’t seem to be the slightest sense of the terrible consequences of such clamorous policies.

Section 3 of chapter 84 consists of one long sentence, which I’ve translated without a full stop, but will break into clauses for discussion. It is the most important section in the speech since it articulates the Spartan sense of their own ethical standards as a warrior society.

The first clause emphasizes two key Spartan qualities: they are “warlike (πολεμικοί)” and “well advised (εὔβουλοι)” because of their “good order.” The plural adjective πολεμικοί is derived from the Greek word for war and means warlike, valiant or courageous in war. They are “well advised” in the sense of exercising prudent, effective planning. The prefix εὔ~ in εὔβουλοι means good or well. The source of these two qualities is their “good order (εὔκοσμον).” The meanings of εὔκοσμος are variously behaving well, orderly, decorous, in good order. The word has a wide usage from Homer to the Roman period in many different semantic domains, but here Archidamus means that Spartans maintain the decorous, well-organized and graceful bearing of habitual discipline. From this disciplined, orderly bearing comes their qualities of being warlike and well advised. One thinks, for example, of a Spartan army marching in good order to the rhythm of auloi (pipes), their indifference to weather wrapped only in their scarlet cloak, their strict formation in the phalanx. Effective planning and valor, Archidamus means, are impossible without rigorous good order.

Then in the second clause he surprisingly deepens the meaning of “good order” by saying, in effect, “We are warlike because shame is the major part of moderation just as courage is the major part of shame.” He uses two words for shame: the nouns αἰδώς and αἰσχύνη. They mean very much the same thing, but the use of the second word αἰσχύνη in context means something more like honor: “courage is the major part of a sense of honor” because in battle the most shameful thing is a failure of courage or a failure to stand by your comrades. He follows that with an expansion of what it means to be well advised: “we are well advised because we are trained with too little learning (ἀμαθέστερον) for contempt of the laws and by hardship to be more moderate (σωφρονέστερον) than to disobey them.” He uses two comparative adjectives here, where the first means “not so highly learned” as to despise the laws, and the second is a form of that crucial word σωφροσύνη, but here it carries the sense of “more prudent” than to hold the laws in contempt. The Spartans were severe in their respect for the laws, and I’m sure everyone knows Simonides’ great epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae:

Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that

we lie here, obedient to their commands.

The third clause picks up the idea that Spartans are not so intelligent as to believe they can individually make public policy on their own and submit it to the assembly (a real failing of the Athenians): “we are not so intelligent in useless matters that we finely criticize the enemy’s preparations in words only to fail matching them in deeds, but think that the intentions of our neighbors are like our own and that the occurrence of chance events cannot be determined (διαιρετάς) by argument.” The Greek adjective διαιρέτης means divided, separated, distinguishable. The idea here is that chance events cannot be determined by rational argument: just as we denigrate our enemy’s intelligence, so we don’t pretend to know the future.

The final sentence in chapter I.85.1 should be engraved on the architrave of every department of war in the world: “nor should we be incited in the short space of a day to make decisions on which hang many lives, resources and cities, but only at leisure.” That is to say, hasten slowly, very slowly to make war.

Lesson for America: Haste makes waste, especially in war, whether in ill-judged attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the disbandment of the military in Iraq, or the elimination of Qaddafi in Libya, all done overconfidently and with inadequate intelligence.

In the course of the speech prior to my direct quotation, Archidamus makes other invaluable points about the dangers of war with Athens.  He begins by emphasizing the sheer difficulty of making war against a city like Athens that possesses a distant empire, is the most experienced at sea and has the best resources in public and private wealth, ships, horses, hoplites and “a population such as does not exist in any other single place in Greece” (I.80.3). On top of that, they have tribute-paying allies, which enhances Athenian endurance. Then in turn he emphasizes Sparta’s weaknesses (I.80.4-81.5): we are inferior in ships, which take time to prepare and train, and in money because we do not have a common treasury or sufficient private sources. We surpass them in hoplites, so we could overrun and ravage their land, but they have extensive lands under their control and can import what they need by sea. If we try to make their allies defect, we will need a fleet since for the most part they are islanders. If we can’t defeat them with our ships or deny them the revenues they need to maintain their fleet, we shall be harmed even more. He ends this line of argument with a counsel that the Spartans not break the treaty or transgress their oaths, but resolve the disputes with arbitration. (Athens had in fact offered arbitration in I.78.4).

His warning about the uncertainly of war proved in the end to be all too true: “We should certainly not be borne up by the hope that the war will end quickly if we ravage their land. I fear that we shall bequeath it rather to our children, so likely it is that the Athenians in their spirited resolution will neither be enslaved by their land nor like novices terrified by war” (I.81.6). It was in fact the grandchildren who received the bequeath of war.

Lesson for America: Your enemies are not novices who are terrified by war.  With the Afghan war in its 16th year and the Iraq war in its 14th year, America’s interventions in the Greater Middle East are becoming generational wars, soon to be fought by the children and grandchildren of soldiers who fought in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.  You wage war long, you wage war wrong; the Greeks discovered this as they weakened themselves in generational internecine warfare.

The next stage of Archidamus’ speech (I.82.1-6) is a call to take matters slowly, warn Athens it will not permit what they are doing and begin equipping themselves with Greek and barbarian allies (meaning primarily Persian). If Athens sees us preparing, they may give way. He recommends that they think of Athens’ land as a hostage and spare it if possible in order not to drive them into despair and thus make them that much harder to handle. We shall get ourselves into a more difficult situation if we allow our allies to incite us to war when we are unprepared. Let no one think we are cowards if our confederacy does not immediately attack a single city, “For they have as many allies as we do, who pay tribute too, and war is not so much a matter of arms but of finance, which provides the efficacy of arms, especially between continental and maritime powers” (I.83 2). So we should, he concludes, first provide for expenditures and not be stirred to premature action by our allies.

Ultimately, the Spartans rejected Athens’ offer of arbitration, blaming them for breach of the treaty, as Archidamus feared they might (I.81.5), and the terrible war commenced in 431. By the late 420s both sides had suffered major defeats and they agreed to the 50-year Peace of Nicias in 421. Athens blatantly violated the peace in 414 acting arrogantly (with hubris aforethought) in the belief they could finally win the war. Thucydides follows the last phase of the war in Books VI and VII to the catastrophe of the Syracuse Expedition.

Thus ended the 27-year conflict that constituted the slow suicide of Greece.  In endless wars are we not witnessing today the slow suicide of the United States?

Steve Willett is a classicist living in Japan.  He welcomes reader comments at steven.willett@gmail.com.

Appendix 1

Events Leading Up to the Speech of Archidamus

The first incident that ultimately triggered war was a political dispute between the island of Corcyra, on the western shore of the Adriatic, and the colony of Epidamnus that it had founded some distance north on the mainland. This dispute drew Corinth into the fray when Epidamnus asked her for help against Corcyra, which was besieging the colony. War then broke out between Corcyra and Corinth, with the island winning a naval engagement (435) and Corinth using the rest of 435 and 434 to prepare a large naval armada assisted by ground support for a decisive onslaught.

Both disputants then sent delegations to Athens in 433 and spoke before the Assembly appealing for help. Corcyra asked for an alliance with Athens against Corinth, emphasizing the fact that of the three major Greek navies at the time, Athens, Corcyra and Corinth, an alliance would give two fleets to Athens. Corinth in turn argued that as repayment for past support in an earlier incident involving the Peloponnesian League, Athens should remain neutral. The Assembly decided on a strictly defensive alliance with Corcyra, meaning that neither side adopted all the friends and enemies of the other.

In the second naval battle between Corcyra and Corinth, Athens sent a small contingent of 10 ships to help Corcyra, hoping to avoid a direct conflict so it wouldn’t violate the Thirty Years’ Peace that ended the First Peloponnesian War (446/5). Thucydides describes that battle in a vivid narrative, stating that it was the largest naval engagement ever fought up to that time. It ended with a clear victory for Corinth. Unfortunately, the Athenian ships had engaged Corinthian forces, thus giving Corinth grounds to charge her with violation of the peace treaty. This was the first incident that contributed to war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

The second incident involved the city of Potidaea on the isthmus of Pallene, the western arm of Chalcidice in the northwest Aegean. It was a colony of Corinth, but a tribute-paying member of the Athenian Empire. The city revolted from Athens, incited by Corinth as it believed, and led to ground battles in which Athens defeated the Corinthian force, besieged Potidaea and trapped many Corinthian soldiers inside the city.

I have emphasized this chain of incidents, starting in small far-off Epidamnus and Potidaea, to illustrate a fact we should always remember: many wars begin with a precipitating event that arises far from the centers of power but whose real origin is obscure. The “truest reason” of the war, Thucydides says, though most concealed in discussion, was the Spartan fear of the growing power of Athens. He touches on the true cause earlier in Book I (I.23.6) and elaborates it later.

When Corinth called its allies to Sparta for a conference to condemn Athens, each harbored local grievances: the Corinthians complained that Athens was besieging a colony of theirs with men of Corinth and the Peloponnesus trapped inside; the Athenians complained that the Peloponnesian had caused the defection of Potidaea, which was a tribute-paying ally, and were fighting together with the Potidaeans (I.66).

This conference marks the beginning of a direct confrontation between its two greatest military forces in Greece. The Spartans additionally invited anybody else who claimed to have been unjustly treated by Athens. Several other cities spoke against her, but Corinth came last to let them provoke the Spartans first.

The Corinthian defense emphasized the tyranny of the Athenian Empire, Athens’ seduction of Corcyra and its radical difference from Sparta: one instinct with a spirit of innovative, daring, mercurial, impulsive action and one inclined to slow, sluggish commitment to action only when necessary. The Corinthians attribute this hesitancy to a preference for fair dealing that does not distress other states and for a defense that scrupulously avoids any harm to itself. They cap this line of argument with a superb aphorism against Athens: “If someone were to summarize them as born neither to enjoy any rest themselves nor to let other men enjoy it, he would speak the truth” (I.70.9). The whole description of Athens’ relentless thirst for innovation and its resilience in setbacks (I.70.2-9) is to my mind a far better account of the city’s creative effervescence than Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is essentially a rhetorical defense of and a call to war.

Athens had some ambassadors in Sparta at the time, but on different business. They asked to speak and mounted a Realpolitik defense of their empire, which they claimed to have acquired voluntarily and not by force, and their sometimes harsh maintenance of it as normal practice for those who wield power. The tribute-paying members should in fact be happy they’ve not experience far worse treatment. The ambassadors were rather direct, however, in warning Sparta against going to war with such a powerful, wealthy state supported by a vast empire.

Sparta then closed the conference to outsiders so they could debate candidly among themselves.

The first to speak was one of the city’s two kings, Archidamus, who gave his name to the first 10 years of the war from 431 to the Peace of Nicias in 421.

Appendix 2

Note on the Speeches in Thucydides

Thucydides includes many speeches that are long and very difficult to interpret from their contorted, often opaque syntax and their complex semantic usage. Unlike his narrative passages, the ancient world found his speeches very tough going indeed. Some speeches he certainly heard in Athens before his exile in 424/3, such as Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and could well have made aides-mémoire of them. Others he might have heard outside Athens in exile, but there is not one certain case, though the possibility cannot be discounted. Others finally are imaginative reconstructions based, as he says in I.22, on his judgement of what would have been the most important or appropriate for the speakers to say regarding the current circumstances while keeping as close as possible to the general sense of the content. My opinion is that Archidamus’ speech accurately reflects his views: Athens had engaged in close relations with Sparta since well before the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449), giving her more than enough time to accurately assess the Spartan decision-making process and its civic ethics. Thucydides very likely had his own sources of information. He certainly would not have written the speech as he did if it contained obvious distortions. Here is what he writes about his exile in V.26.5: “I lived through the whole of it [the war], being of an age to understand events and apply my judgement to learn the exact truth. It happened that I was banished from my own country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis, and by my association with both parties, as much with the Peloponnesian as the Athenians due to my exile, I could at leisure better learn the course of events.”

2 thoughts on “Hasten Very Slowly to War: The Spartan Ethic, with Lessons for America

  1. A very interesting analysis & interpretation of history, and so true about the lessons to be learned for the US & (some of) its allies. I am afraid there are not enough intelligent, sensible people in the US government nor in Congress who together could stop the US’s obsessive war mongering & destruction of other countries. The military industrial complex is too powerful, so the current trend will continue for a long time to come yet. Alas.


  2. Well done, and let’s hear it for Thucydides! I particularly appreciate his account of Pericles’ funeral oration, which, in my opinion, mentions the one great temperance toward America’s appetite for war – the skin in the game the Citizen Soldier brings with. When we dropped that in 1973, the price of our wars became “they want to be there” cheap. And since they are cheap, why not have a few.

    Moving centuries in this direction, I note Shakespeare’s condemnation of whispering warmongers as voiced by Henry V: “Take heed how you impawn our person, How you awake our sleeping sword of war. We charge you in the name of God, take heed. For never two such kingdoms [England and France] did contend without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops are every one a woe ‘gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords.”

    Thucydides and Shakespeare, two dead white males. Shakespeare is so dead that students at the University of Pennsylvania’s English Department recently removed his portrait from prominent display, replacing it with one of an obscure black writer. However, not to worry. Cowed administrators will find Old Bill another spot.

    Liked by 1 person

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