Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.12.13
Robert J. Buck, Thrasybulus and the Athenian Democracy: the life of an Athenian statesman. Historia Einzelschriften 120. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. Pp. 141. ISBN 3-515-07221-7.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, Yale University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 2287 words
Although Thrasybulus of Steiria was a major player in some of the most important events of Athenian history, he has been largely neglected by ancient commentators and modern scholars alike. By way of giving Thrasybulus the attention his deeds warrant, Buck provides in his brief study a Thrasybulus-centered history of the period from 411 -- when his subject was elected general by the Athenian troops at Samos -- to 389, the year of Thrasybulus' death at Aspendus. There are eight chapters, the first an introductory discussion of "Sources and Scholarship," the last a brief conclusion on "Thrasybulus and Athens, 450-389 B.C." The intervening chapters are arranged chronologically, with subdivisions neatly marking separate discussions (e.g., "Phyle," "Logistics," "First Skirmishes"). The nature of the work requires that coverage of the events of the period be uneven: those in which Thrasybulus took part are described at length; others in which he did not, such as the battle of Aegospotami (p. 61), are discussed only briefly for the sake of completing the narrative. For this reason the book does not serve -- and it is not intended to serve -- as a comprehensive narrative of the period. It will probably most often attract readers looking for our author's take on individual episodes in Athenian history. They will find a concise, clearly-written, and well-argued discussion of the events of the period.
But I do have some criticisms of the book. The more important concern four passages in which the author does not provide his readers with as much information as would be desirable about the assumptions underlying his writing or the limitations of his evidence.
In discussing Thrasybulus' role in the naval battle off the Cape of Cynossema in 411, B. assigns to the general an elevated position within the strategia: "As the commander-in-chief he [Thrasybulus] commanded the right wing of the fleet" (p. 32).1 Command of the right wing, B. elsewhere explains (pp. 34 and 35), implies that the general so stationed held "supreme command." The conclusion does not lack merit, since command of the right wing of an army could imply as much: cf. the Boeotians' apparent assumption of the command of an allied army after being stationed on its right wing at the Battle of the Nemea in the early fourth century (Xen. Hell. 4.2.18). But did the positions assumed by Athenian generals in joint command of Athenian armies imply anything about their relative status? Was there in fact a position of superior authority within the strategia? I am of the opinion that there was not, and that generals in joint command of expeditions made campaign decisions by majority vote. But reasonable people may differ in their interpretations of the relevant evidence.2 The problem with B.'s statement is that he assumes the existence of a commander-in-chief in Athens and does not alert readers to the controversy surrounding that assumption. A book focusing on the activities of a prominent Athenian general in his capacity as general would do well to consider as precisely as possible the nature of the position to which its subject was repeatedly elected.
Of the years following the revolution of the Four Hundred B. writes: "There are some hints that among Alcibiades, Thrasybulus, and Thrasyllus there was at first a division of responsibilities, whereby Alcibiades was to deal with the Persians and the Ionians, and Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus were to fight the Peloponnesians. It seems that the original plan was for a triumvirate to direct affairs in the northern Aegean" (pp. 30-31). The implications of this statement trouble me. Is B. imagining that this division of authority among the three generals was a policy developed by the Athenian demos, or was the plan hatched by the generals themselves? For most readers, familiarity with Roman triumvirates would likely suggest the latter possibility. If that is what is meant, how precisely does B. imagine that the generals would operate? Would they determine policy by themselves, acting without reference to the Athenian demos? Or does B. imagine the triumvirate as somehow operating within the framework of Athens' radical democracy? The assumption underlying B.'s statement -- if I have not misunderstood it -- is that Athens' generals were capable of acting independently of the demos to a considerable extent. The effect of the comment (and of similar remarks made by other modern scholars) is to portray Athens as an arena in which individuals could control -- not just influence -- state policy. To my mind this characterization takes too little account of the mechanics of Athens' democracy. B. may disagree, but it would be a service to his readers if his assumptions were made explicit.
B. suggests that Thrasybulus was responsible both for Athens' failure to intervene in 402/1 when Oropus joined the Boeotian League and for his state's participation in 401/0 in Sparta's war against Elis: "Oropus, previously a dependency of Athens but independent for some time, joined (or rejoined) the Boeotian League in 402/1. Athens did not intervene. Perhaps Thrasybulus, by ensuring Athenian inactivity, was repaying favours to the Ismenian faction in Thebes; or perhaps Athens was simply too weak to fight the Boeotian army; or perhaps Athens was too preoccupied with Eleusis. Thrasybulus, while Athens was alone and weak, saw to it that she took no offensive action beyond her borders (except at Eleusis), but stayed submissive in her role as a loyal ally of Sparta. As such in 401/400 she sent hoplites to aid Sparta in the war against Elis, where Sparta settled old scores and tried to gain control of a troublesome neighbour" (p. 88). B. evidently assumes that Thrasybulus was responsible for Athens' behavior on these occasions because, so he argues on pp. 87-88, Thrasybulus and his "faction"3 were ascendant in Athens in the post-war years. But however likely it may be that Thrasybulus was involved in the decision-making, there is no direct evidence linking him to either state decision. It is troubling that B. does not indicate as much to his readers.
B. asserts (p. 38) that "Thrasybulus was 'in command of the whole fleet' of eighty-six ships" which fought at Cyzicus in 410. His statement is an inference from Diod. 13.49.1. The passage does report that Thrasybulus was in command of τοῦ στόλου παντός, but it refers to the period shortly before the battle at Cyzicus, when Thrasybulus was stationed in the north Aegean with some twenty ships. (Xen. Hell. 1.1.12 provides the number.) He subsequently joined forces with Theramenes and Alcibiades in Cardia -- the former, according to Diodorus, had met up with Thrasybulus already in Thrace -- at which time the combined fleet numbered eighty-six ships. This larger fleet went on to fight at Cyzicus. B. assumes that Diodorus' description of Thrasybulus' status in the north Aegean accurately describes his status also after combining forces with his colleagues in Cardia, but that assumption may not be valid. That Thrasybulus was not in fact leader of the entire fleet at Cyzicus and (by implication) the superior of his colleagues Theramenes and Alcibiades is in fact suggested elsewhere by Diodorus himself: after Thrasybulus joined the other generals in the Chersonese, command decisions were, according to Diodorus, made conjointly by the generals (13.49.5-6; 13.50.1), evidence which suggests that there was no disparity in the authority enjoyed by Athens' strategoi during this campaign. B. rejects (p. 38 n. 106) an alternative explanation of Diod. 13.49.1, that τοῦ στόλου παντός refers only to those ships with which Thrasybulus was operating prior to Cyzicus. Diodorus' passage is, admittedly, problematic. As B. notes, the author does say "the whole fleet" (p. 38 n. 106). And the passage can be taken to mean that Thrasybulus was the superior of Theramenes during the operations in the north Aegean, which requires explanation.4 Complicating its interpretation is the fact that Diodorus' information conflicts with that of Xenophon (1.1.12), who suggests that Thrasybulus and Theramenes did not meet up prior to their arrival at Cardia (and who makes no claims about Thrasybulus' command comparable to Diodorus' remark). What disturbs me about B.'s use of Diodorus' information, however, is that he offers the passage as evidence of Thrasybulus' superior authority at Cyzicus without clearly suggesting to his readers that the information it provides may not be pertinent to Thrasybulus' status at that battle. (One might glean this fact from his rejection in n. 106 of Andrewes' conclusion, but he does not address the issue directly.) Once again, the effect is to imply that there was a commander-in-chief in Athens' strategia while not signaling to readers that the evidence for that view of the office is less than solid.
My other criticisms of B.'s book are relatively minor. The comments which follow are ordered by page number.
Three statements made by B. in his first chapter are to my mind problematic: (1) "There was no deficit spending, since no one would be insane enough to lend money to a state, even to Athens" (p. 9). (2) "It [democracy] was a comparatively rare phenomenon in the Greek world of the fifth and fourth centuries, since most people, then as now, were normally quite willing to let someone else do it" (p. 11). (3) "Democracies had a perennial problem with voter apathy..." (p. 11). The statements seem to me to share the common problem of providing overly facile explanations to phenomena which were surely far more complex and are deserving of more thoughtful discussion. Would it in fact have been "insane" for one Greek state -- or for an individual -- to lend money to another? The answer is not obvious to me, and I would be interested in reading here a more considered discussion of precisely why inter-state lending was apparently out of the question in a society in which military and commercial relationships between poleis were commonplace.5 The alleged willingness of Greeks, meanwhile, to "let someone else do it" does not adequately explain the prevalence in the Greek world of non-democratic forms of government, and apathy is likewise not a sufficient explanation for poor attendance in the ekklesia.
In his overview of modern attitudes toward Thrasybulus B. writes (p. 18) that "Kagan [1987, p. 115] goes so far as to suggest that in 411 the great arch-democrat was really prepared to overthrow the democracy and replace it with an oligarchy." This misrepresents Kagan's less extreme view, that Thrasybulus was willing to accept some limitations on the authority of the demos, though not to the extent of favoring oligarchy, in return for obtaining Persian support for Athens.6
B. writes on pp. 20-21 (cf. p. 30) of the close working relationship which seems to have obtained between Thrasybulus and Alcibiades between 411 and 407. In this context he might mention Nep. Alc. 7.1 and Diod. 13.69.3 (but cf. Xen. Hell. 1.4.21), which report that Alcibiades requested of the demos in 407/6 that Thrasybulus be dispatched with him to Asia Minor.
In 412 the Athenians deposed from the strategia the generals Phrynichus and Scironides (Thuc. 8.54.3). Of their subsequent history B. writes (p. 24): "... Phrynichus and another dismissed general, Scironides, returned home in Pisander's absence and soon became deeply involved in promoting the oligarchy." This is true of Phrynichus, but nothing is in fact known of Scironides' activities after his deposition from office.7
When referring to panels of strategoi (as, for example, at pp. 28-29 n. 59 and p. 57 n. 40) B. should refer the reader to the relevant pages of Robert Develin's Athenian Officials, 684-321 B.C. (Cambridge, 1989).
In his discussion of the election of generals by the Athenian soldiers at Samos in 411 B. writes: "They elected other trierarchs and generals, of whom Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus were the chiefs" (p. 28). It is not clear why our author refers to the two as "chiefs." He earlier writes that they were "recognized as leaders of the democrats," and he may be making a similar claim here about their de facto position within the strategia. But B. seems to me to be suggesting something more on this occasion, and I suspect that he has misunderstood Thucydides' account at 8.76.2: ... ὧν Θρασύβουλός τε καὶ Θράσυλος ὑπῆρχον. In this passage Thucydides is reporting only that Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus were among those elected by the soldiers, and that they had already been in command: ὑπῆρχον does not convey the sense of "rule" (see LSJ s.v. ὑπάρχω B.I.2-4 and C.II).
On p. 72 B. mistranslates as "[they] led them to stop" the phrase καταπαύειν ἦρξαν, which appears in an epigram preserved at Aeschin. 3.190. ἦρξαν should surely rather bear the meaning "they made a beginning of."
According to Diodorus (14.32.5-6), while Thrasybulus was at Phyle he refused to join the Thirty when they offered him the opportunity. B. questions the account: "The offer to Thrasybulus of a seat in the Thirty is barely possible on Diodorus' chronology, but unless it was made well before the battle of Acharnae, impossible on Xenophon's. It sounds like a slander made later by a political rival, one that was credulously picked up by Ephorus" (p. 76). B. may be right that the incident is not historical, but his explanation for the genesis of the story fails to convince. "Slandering" Thrasybulus by spreading a story about his refusal to be bribed by the acquisition of personal power might well contribute to his popularity.
The majority of these complaints are minor. In general the book is quite good -- lucid and well-argued. I found particularly interesting B.'s discussion on p. 73 of the logistics of Thrasybulus' operations at Phyle. The volume goes some way toward compensating its subject for the comparative neglect he has suffered at the hands of historians. Thrasybulus' dedication to democracy and his heroism at Phyle deserve at least as much.
1. Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca and London, 1987), p. 218 n. 31, to whom B. very frequently refers, likewise concludes that Thrasybulus was commander-in-chief at Cynossema. But Kagan at least makes more explicit than does B. the fact that there is no direct evidence for Thrasybulus' alleged supreme position at Cynossema.
2. See Debra Hamel, Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period (Leiden, 1998), pp. 84-99, for a discussion of the question.
3. B. follows Strauss (Athens after the Peloponnesian War: Class, Faction, and Policy 403-386 B.C. [London and Sydney, 1986]), in accepting that there were numerous identifiable political factions in Athens after the War (pp. 86-87).
4. Andrewes, "Notion and Kyzikos: The Sources Compared," JHS (1982), p. 20 n. 12, writes: "Thrasyboulos is here (49.1) designated as 'the commander of the whole fleet', but at this stage they have not yet joined up with the main fleet at Kardia. The apparent subordination of Theramenes to Thrasyboulos can hardly be real, and at 50.7 παρεκελεύσατο does not mean that the latter treated Theramenes as a subordinate during the battle. Thrasyboulos owed his generalship to the sailors' assembly at Samos in the previous summer (Thuc. viii 76.2). Theramenes was presumably appointed by a meeting of the Five Thousand at Athens. Diodorus may have misunderstood some comment in his original on the relations between two sets of generals."
5. The Egestaeans allegedly borrowed gold and silver drinking-cups from neighboring Greek and Phoenician cities in 415 with a view to deceiving visiting Athenian ambassadors (Thuc. 6.46.3). But see A.W. Gomme, et al., A Historical Commentary on Thucydides vol. IV (Oxford, 1970), ad loc.: that other cities participated in the ruse may be an unhistorical exaggeration.
6. In the passage to which B. refers, Kagan writes: "In fact, if we accept Thucydides' report of Alcibiades' demands as both accurate and precise, we might believe that Thrasybulus was even prepared to overthrow the democracy and replace it with an oligarchy. In light of his later actions, it is hard to believe that of the great democratic hero, and it is possible that Thucydides' informant was wrong in this particular instance. More likely, Alcibiades did use such words, but Thrasybulus and men like him balked at it and forced him to change his language." Kagan's position is further developed on pp. 116-117: "Thrasybulus was unwilling to accept oligarchy in the form of the rule of the council of Four Hundred, but he was willing to curtail the rights and privileges of the people to receive pay and to exercise fully their political function to the extent of accepting a fully competent citizen body as small as about Five Thousand. In what political category does such a man belong? He cannot be called an oligarch ..." (p. 117).
7. See J. Kirchner, Prosopographia Attica (Berlin, 1901-3), no. 12730.