Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.47

Polly Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece. Morality and Power. Cambridge Classical Studies.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. x, 313.  ISBN 978-0-521-87206-5.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Sian Lewis, University of St Andrews (
Word count: 1286 words

Table of Contents

The aim of Low's Interstate Relations in Classical Greece is ambitious: to identify the conceptual framework within which classical Greek international relations were conducted. Despite the existence of individual studies on specific areas such as diplomacy, friendship/reciprocity and arbitration, she argues, there has been no attempt to explain the system of laws and expectations governing contacts between Greek states. L. identifies a persistently negative view of Greek capacities in this sphere, with suggestions both of incompetence in handling international affairs (the rapid recourse to war) and denigration of the lack of any theoretical account of interstate relations. Her purpose is thus to reveal the moral and practical systems which governed all interactions--'a developed normative framework ... which shapes both the conduct and the representation on interstate relations in [the classical] period' -- using evidence drawn from history, epigraphy and rhetoric. Thucydides, in particular, casts a long shadow over the analysis of classical international relations, and L. seeks to understand how this dominance came about, and to question his primacy in the scholarship.

Chapter 1 describes the development of International Relations as an academic discipline, including the way it has influenced (and been influenced by) ideas about the ancient world. Outlining the still-current debates between 'Realist' and 'Idealist' approaches within International Relations, L. demonstrates how interest in Thucydides' pessimistic world-view developed not with the purpose of understanding the historian's own time, but rather of using Thucydides' writing to justify modern theory. She argues for a more historically-informed view of international relations among scholars, suggesting that an understanding of what is unique about contemporary international politics can allow us to ask different and more worthwhile questions of the ancient sources.

The subsequent chapters focus on a series of broad areas in classical Greek history. Chapter 2 considers the systems which underpinned Greek international society, demonstrating that multiple systems coexisted - reciprocity, philia, panhellenism, ethnic or ideological groupings (the 'family of democracies')--with no single system as primary: all were available in a repertoire of concepts from which politicians and orators could choose according to their interpretation of a particular situation. A series of examples illustrates this in practice: the outbreak of the Corinthian war (in which intervention was motivated by principles of reciprocity), Demosthenes' speech For the Liberty of the Rhodians (urging intervention on the grounds of ideological and ethnic loyalty as well as for practical reasons), and the appeal to Athens by Plataia in Isocrates' Plataicus (based on philia, common kinship and ideas of panhellenism). Chapter 3 tackles the tricky topic of Greek international law, again demonstrating that a preoccupation with categories of evidence which mirror modern concerns, namely interstate treaties, has hindered an understanding of the many other structures which contributed to international law: agreements across leagues and groups of allies, the rules of the Amphictyonies and unwritten or religious law. L. investigates the application of sanctions for those who transgressed international laws in a very interesting section which lays out the range of potential responses--curses, fines, military action (including war) and arbitration. She demonstrates convincingly that sanctions were not dependent on physical force, nor progressive (from curses to military action) but instead varied according to both circumstances and the status of the powers involved. Interstate relations were bound by nomoi, written and unwritten, and there are even hints that barbarians might be expected to adhere to them too.

Chapter 4 sits less easily with the mainly historical thrust of the foregoing, comprising a discussion of the moral framework of international relations, beginning with a study of the language used to describe behaviour in interstate dealings. The use of language supports the idea that in terms of moral expectations there was no distinction to be drawn between the domestic and international spheres: the standards of behaviour expected in each were the same. But this of course runs counter to the Thucydidean view, encapsulated most familiarly in the Melian Dialogue, that in international relations justice and self-interest must be antagonistic: 'might is right'. L. traces this idea through rhetoric and history, showing that a disjunction of this kind is actually rare; more often behaviour can be described as both just and advantageous: to sumpheron and to dikaion need not be seen as inevitable opposites, but can be interpreted as 'different aspects of a single type of beneficial behaviour' (p.170).

Chapter 5 examines the practice of intervention by one state in the affairs of another, with perhaps less surprising conclusions: L. argues that intervention in other states' affairs was seen as a norm ('helping the wronged'), and while the concept of autonomia dictated that external interference was unacceptable, the vagueness with which the idea was defined meant in practical terms that there was no difficulty in justifying such actions. Intervention could, and did, function as a tool of imperialism, but because autonomy was so fluid an idea such actions could easily be justified on ideological grounds.

Chapter 6 raises the question of whether these concepts and approaches changed through time, something which the book's approach makes more difficult to answer. L. says in her conclusion that she has not discussed specific alliances or treaties, or the realities of military campaigns, because it is more important to understand the norms and expectations of interstate relations in the abstract. But this carries with it an inevitable drawback: because examples are scattered throughout thematic chapters there is no opportunity for an overview of any one episode or relationship. Certain organisations (the Athenian Empire) or events (Philip of Macedon's interactions with the Greek states) recur as illustrations of different points, but there is no sustained discussion of such examples. The question about change is worth asking, but the answer becomes convoluted, involving an analysis first of Thucydides' historical perspective and then of changes within the Athenian Empire. Fundamentally, she concludes, the system of international relations remained the same throughout the classical period, but it was at times distorted by the disparities in power which arose in scenarios such as the fifth-century Athenian empire, allowing the Athenians to dictate the terms on which they interacted with less powerful states.

L.'s conclusion is clear: she demonstrates that the twin claims, that Greek diplomatic interaction was underdeveloped and that violence was the preferred solution to external problems, are wrong, and succeeds in defining the 'normative framework' within which international interactions happened. She makes plain that one cannot apply modern concepts of International Relations to the classical period because there were no autonomous states in the modern sense, as opposed to individuals or groups of individuals; nor was there in practical terms a clear division between 'internal' and 'external' concerns. Her arguments are nuanced, but she ultimately comes down on the side of reciprocity as the basis of Greek interstate relations.

Interstate Relations in Classical Greece tackles an important topic and offers a genuinely new perspective on some longstanding problems, but it is not an easy read. The origin of the book as a PhD thesis is still visible in certain aspects: the discussion is pitched at a resolutely abstract level, its readability not assisted by a sometimes fussy writing style ('The, less complete and less reliable, sources...'), and there is a sense that some points of rather tangential relevance (and indeed points whose relevance L. admits is limited) have escaped pruning. It does not have the immediate appeal of Mitchell's Greeks Bearing Gifts or van Wees' Greek Warfare,1 but it would be a shame if the reader was discouraged for that reason. L. offers a subtle analysis of Greek international law and practice, and succeeds in her aim to move the debate beyond the most visible structures of interstate interaction to elucidate the norms and beliefs by which Greek international life was conducted.


1.   L.G. Mitchell, Greeks Bearing Gifts: the public use of private relationships in the Greek world 435-323 BC (Cambridge 1997); H. van Wees, Greek Warfare: myths and realities (London 2004).

Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:45, Friday, 03 April 2009