Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.17

Paula Debnar, Speaking the Same Language: Speech and Audience in Thucydides' Spartan Debates.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2001.  Pp. x + 254.  ISBN 0-472-11236-8.  $54.50.  

Reviewed by Matthew Hartnett, St. Mark's School (
Word count: 2534 words

Debnar's book is a study of the internal audiences in Thucydides' "Spartan debates," i.e., speeches and debates in the History in which Spartans are either speakers or auditors. The book attempts to make three points: (i) that Thucydides' assessment of historical audiences played an important part in his determination of what was most appropriate for his speakers to say; (ii) that speakers in the History generally accommodate their audiences; and (iii) that when they do not, that failure is significant (p. 2). In addition, Debnar advances a second, more ambitious thesis, that the Spartans' use and reception of deliberative oratory increasingly resembles that of the Athenians as the History proceeds (hence the title, "speaking the same language," from 4.20.4), and that this shift reflects "the gradual collapse of the antithesis between Spartans and Athenians that provides the overarching structure for the History" (p. 3). While Debnar's study convincingly demonstrates the importance of internal audiences for our interpretation of the speeches and debates in Thucydides, her argument for a progressive transformation of Spartan speech and attitudes toward speech over the course of Thucydides' History is less compelling.

In her introduction, Debnar notes the paucity of studies of the role of the audience in Thucydides1 and explains her concentration on Spartan debates as due to the relatively scant scholarly attention they have received and to the fact that "speech played a vital role in the construction of Spartan identity" (p. 2). After sketching the antithesis between Spartan and Athenian character in Thucydides, as well as the opposition between Dorians and Ionians, Debnar defines "audience" for the purposes of her study, and offers her assessment of what Thucydides claims for his speeches (1.22.1).2

The nine chapters that follow are arranged in three parts, corresponding to the stages of the progressive shift Debnar finds in Spartan discourse, with chapters 1-3 comprising Part 1 ("Spartans at Home"), chapters 4-7 comprising Part 2 ("Spartans Abroad"), and chapters 8 and 9 comprising Part 3 ("Enemies Within"). Chapter 1 ("The Spartans as Audience") examines the speeches of the Corinthians and Athenians delivered in 432 before a Spartan assembly open to allies and others, and shows how the speakers "respond to the image that the Spartans projected to outsiders" (p. 28), with the Corinthians appealing to Sparta's image as hegemon of the Peloponnesian League, and the Athenians appealing to Sparta as a partner in their shared hegemony over the Greeks.

Chapter 2 ("The Spartans among Themselves") examines the speeches of Archidamus and Sthenelaidas that were delivered to a closed Spartan assembly following the speeches previously reported. These speeches, though they recommend different courses of action, confirm the images targeted by the previous speeches and establish for the reader the types of arguments he should expect to see being made by and to Spartans in the History: arguments that assume deeds should match words, that show due respect to the vagaries of chance, and that are not excessively clever. In addition, he should expect to find numerous appeals to sobriety, bravery, steadfastness, and piety (p. 29).

Chapter 3 ("The League as Audience") examines the speech of the Corinthians at the official synod of the Peloponnesian League convened about a month after the preceding debates. Debnar persuasively explicates how the speech is accommodated to its audience and context, drawing attention to the speakers' appeals to typically Dorian attitudes and their calls for united action against the Athenians and their Ionian allies.

Chapter 4 ("The siege of Plataea") examines the exchanges between Archidamus and the Plataeans in 429 as the Spartan king's army waits encamped outside the city's gates. Debnar finds the remarks of both Archidamus and the Plataean representatives to be "models of rhetoric that is responsive to audience" (p.94). In addition, Archidamus' response is said to be "typically Spartan" in its impatience with longwindedness, its insistence that deeds match words, and its scrupulous observance of religious rectitude (pp. 97-100).

Chapter 5 ("The Politics of Olympia"), an examination of the speech of the Mytileneans to the Spartans and their allies at Olympia in 428, shows convincingly how the Mytilenean speakers target the likely attitudes and presuppositions of their audience. For example, references to established custom, arete (admittedly not with the sense "athletic excellence"), fellowship among Greeks, and panhellenic liberation are tailored to an audience convened at the conclusion of the Olympic festival, and appeals to the typically Dorian virtues of courage and shame reflect that fact that the site had a "distinctly Dorian character" at this time (pp. 102-5).

Chapter 6 ("The Trial of the Plataeans") examines the speeches of the Plataeans and Thebans delivered in 427 to the Spartan "judges" who will determine Plataea's fate. Like the preceding chapter, this one clearly displays the benefits of Debnar's approach. The Plataean speech is shown to squarely target the Spartans' reputed concern for piety, order, constancy, and moderation, while the Thebans are "of all the speakers in the History, the least respectful of their Spartan audience and its values" (p. 136). Despite the insensitivity of their speech, the Spartans side with the Thebans and move mercilessly against Plataea. Debnar rightly explains the significance of the Thebans' failure to accommodate their Spartan auditors as highlighting the degree to which the Spartans' decision represents a repudiation of their traditional values.

Chapter 7 ("Pylos and the Offer of Peace") examines the speech of the Spartans at Athens in 425, in which they offer peace in exchange for the safe return of the Spartan soldiers captured on Sphakteria. Drawing in part on well-known parallels between this speech and the speech of the Athenians at Sparta in book 1, Debnar emphasizes the ways in which the speakers speak like Athenians: they speak at length and with unusual rhetorical sophistication and syntactical complexity, and often manifestly echo Athenian vocabulary. In addition, they propose a dual hegemony of the sort that the Athenians had earlier recommended at Sparta (pp. 152-161).

Chapter 8 ("Brasidas' Spartans") examines a number of exchanges (including some in indirect speech) involving Brasidas in books 4 and 5, including his addresses at Acanthus, Torone, and Scione, his conversation with some Thessalians, and several exhortations to his troops. Debnar's analysis shows that Brasidas is as adept at tailoring his words to his audiences as he is tailoring his audiences to his words,3 and that Brasidas' sophisticated rhetoric confirms Thucydides' statement (4.84.2) that "he was not a bad speaker, for a Spartan."

Chapter 9 ("Alcibiades' Spartans") examines the speech delivered by the exiled Athenian Alcibiades to the Spartan assembly in 415/4, the last speech delivered to a Spartan audience in the History. Debnar shows how Alcibiades delivers a sophistic tour de force characterized by abstruse logic and a high degree of abstraction but few appeals to typical Spartan ideals. Though he nods in the direction of their respect for custom and law and their martial skill, he makes no appeals to Spartan honor or piety, nor does he attempt to rally them around the ideas of allegiance to oaths or Dorian solidarity.

The concluding chapter of Debnar's book is a loosely gathered assortment of material that is only partly "conclusive." Parts seem better suited to an appendix (catalogue of Spartan debates by speaker and audience, pp. 221-2), while other parts seem more properly introductory (quotation of Cogan4 as justification for the validity of Debnar's approach, pp.226-7). However, it does provide a useful account of "the enduring characteristics of the Spartans' image that can be reconstructed from an analysis of the Spartan debates," which includes a survey of the catchwords and ethical norms that typically figure in speeches to and by Spartans in Thucydides (pp. 227-231). What remains of the concluding chapter outlines Debnar's case for her "second thesis," an argument to which I now turn.

Debnar contends that "as the History progresses the Spartans begin to sound more like the Athenians, and to respond more like them; that is, they become more apt to use and to be persuaded by arguments that are rhetorically better suited to Athenian speakers and audiences" (p. 10). She argues that this shift reflects the more general collapse of the antithesis between Sparta and Athens that other commentators have discerned in the History, the most obvious manifestation of which is the reversal in the military strategies of the major powers as the war proceeds. The debates at Sparta treated in Part 1, "Spartans at Home" (chapters 1-3) are said by Debnar to "provide Thucydides' readers with a baseline against which to judge discourse involving Spartans as the war progresses" (p. 28), a baseline from which this discourse is supposed to diverge in Part 2, "Spartans Abroad" (chapters 4-7). Debnar asserts "as the Spartans shift their activities away from Sparta, they tend to confirm the Athenians' observation that they act less like Spartans when they are away from home" (1.77.6) (p. 2). But, turning to chapter 4, Archidamus, on Debnar's own analysis, speaks and acts typically Spartan outside the gates of Plataea, and therefore shows no signs of being affected by his distance from home. Archidamus is indeed a "Spartan abroad" but he acts more like a "Spartan at home."

In chapter 5, the speech of the Mytileneans at Olympia, no conclusions can be drawn about the Spartans' reception of the speech since it is aimed at and voted on not by the Spartans but the members of the Peloponnesian League. But Debnar finds it significant that the Spartans directed the Mytileneans, who had come first to Sparta to make their plea, to deliver their speech instead to the members of the League already gathered at Olympia (3.8.1), a good place, presumably, to stir up anti-Athenian sentiment. Also, Debnar, following Roisman,5 suggests that the Spartans themselves are "the real authors of the Mytileneans' rhetorical performance" (p. 94). This evidence for "the Spartans' manipulation of speech and audience at the gathering at Olympia" is said by Debnar to represent "the diminished role of genuine political discourse in the formation of Sparta's foreign policy" (p. 95). Perhaps so, but it is not made clear why we should regard this "manipulation of speech and audience" as particularly Athenian. In any case, if this episode marks the beginning of a shift in Spartan attitudes toward discourse, the shift is abruptly reversed when the Spartan Alcidas, who has been capturing and killing captives along the Ionian coast, is bent by an appeal by the Samians to behave in a manner more consonant with Spartan honor (3.32.2). As Debnar herself observes, Alcidas is persuaded by a very traditional Spartan appeal (p. 124).

In the trial of the Plataeans (chapter 6), however, the Spartans are represented as deaf to appeals to traditional Spartan ethical ideals. While this has typically been interpreted as an instance of the general distortion of human conduct under the stress of war, Debnar argues that it manifests the Spartans' shift toward Athenian modes of discourse. But if Thucydides saw parallels with the Athenians here, we might expect to find correspondences between his report of this episode and his report of the Athenians' conduct in the Mytilenean debate, an episode with which it is juxtaposed. But aside from the idea that present exigencies outweigh speeches about the past, "there is nothing in the Plataean debate which corresponds to the discussion of Athenian assembly habits in the Mytilene debate."6 Moving to the peace proposal of the Spartans at Athens (chapter 7), there we do indeed find the Spartans speaking like Athenians. As they themselves announce, when the occasion demands, they too can make long speeches (4.17.2); but they sound Athenian in other ways, too, including vocabulary, use of abstract nouns, and mode of argument. They deliver a rhetorically sophisticated lecture on chance, advising the Athenians that if they act intelligently, they can insulate themselves from bad fortune (pp. 157-158): a very Athenian notion, put in a very Athenian way. Debnar wonders why the Spartans did not instead cite a warning about chance from "traditional poetry and stories" which offered a wealth of material to choose from (p. 157), a suggestion that takes us to the heart of the matter: would we not expect a speaker seeking desperately to persuade an assembly of Athenians to appeal to Athenian ways of thinking and present his case in largely Athenian terms? The speech has a decidedly Athenian air, but there is ample evidence that the Spartans who deliver it have not forgotten who they are: they want fervently to get out of the debacle with honor not shame (4.17.1, 20.2); they cannot entirely disguise their feelings of Spartan superiority; they betray a traditionally Spartan distrust of chance. Strange as this speech may have sounded coming from the mouths of Spartans, it does not reflect a crisis in "the Spartans' very sense of identity" (p. 167), but rather, an attempt to say "what was most appropriate" for them to say under the circumstances (1.22.1).

I turn finally to Part 3 ("Enemies Within"), and the episodes involving Brasidas and Alcibiades treated in chapters 8 and 9. With respect to Brasidas, for all his manipulation of rhetoric and audience and his overturning of the relationship between words and deeds, he does not constitute reliable evidence for what the Spartans were like or had become. As Westlake notes, he is "the antithesis of the conventional Spartan leader," and among his many qualities, "only those distinguishing him from other Spartans ... receive much attention."7 With respect to Alcibiades' speech at Sparta, Debnar implies that Alcibiades' failure to accommodate his rhetoric to his Spartan auditors tells us something significant about the Spartans. In fact, it says more about Alcibiades. An individual with "an abiding belief in his great power of persuasion among men"8 who, furthermore, viewed himself in a sense as more Athenian than Athens itself, we should scarcely expect to have cast off his rhetorical training and to have couched his speech in Spartan terms. Thucydides notes that Alcibiades succeeded in rousing the Spartans to back his proposals, but his explanation, that they judged that these proposals were made by "one who knew the most clearly" (6.93.1), suggests that they were moved not by his rhetoric, but by their estimation that his knowledge of Athenian policies and aims was too valuable to ignore. That the Spartans are willing to adopt the aggressive strategy proposed by Alcibiades says something about their feelings about the war but does not imply that they approve of his manner of speaking.

Thus, if Debnar's thesis about a progressive transformation of Spartan attitudes toward discourse fails to persuade, it is largely because her interpretation of the significance of certain debates is skewed by an emphasis on the audience at the expense of other elements of the "deliberative nexus," namely, speaker and circumstances.9 Nevertheless, Debnar has contributed a valuable study that (i) demonstrates that internal audiences played a significant part in Thucydides' determination of what was most appropriate for speakers to say; (ii) offers a wealth of observations of how various speakers use rhetoric that targets their particular audiences; and (iii) brings into high relief the Spartan image recoverable from the Spartan debates in the History, an image of the men that the Spartans claimed to be and that the rest of the Greeks thought or hoped they were.


1.   Oddly absent is any mention of H.D. Westlake, "The Settings of Thucydidean Speeches," in P.A. Stadter (ed.), The Speeches in Thucydides (Chapel Hill: 1973), 90-108, which provides a useful preliminary survey of the "preambles and postscripts" to the speeches in the History, in which Thucydides relates (or doesn't relate) relevant information about the composition and disposition of audiences, the aims of speakers, the resulting votes, and (sometimes) the reaction of an audience to a speech.
2.   On the historicity of the speeches, Debnar agrees with those commentators (e.g., Hornblower, Cogan, Kagan) who see no compelling reason why we should doubt that the speeches reported by Thucydides largely conform to what was actually said. As for Thucydides' statement that he had men say "what was most appropriate," Debnar argues that for Thucydides this includes "such factors as speakers' characters (or national characters), their rhetorical skill (or lack of it), their purpose, and their understanding of both the circumstances and the disposition of their audiences" (p. 17).
3.   At Acanthus, for example, he requests to speak alone (i.e., not in the presence of his troops), which permits him to misrepresent a non-engagement at Nisaea as a Spartan success -- a prevarication that might have undermined the army's confidence in him, had they been present to hear it (p. 181).
4.   M. Cogan, The Human Thing: The Speeches and Principles of Thucydides' History (Chicago: 1981), 202, 205.
5.   J. Roisman, "Alkidas in Thucydides," Historia 36, 385-421.
6.   S. Hornblower, Comm., post 3.67.6, with references to C.W. Macleod.
7.   H.D. Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (Cambridge: 1968), 148.
8.   S. Forde, The Ambition to Rule: Alcibiades and the Politics of Imperialism in Thucydides (Ithaca: 1989), 97.
9.   From Cogan, op. cit., 199.

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