Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.57

Peter Hunt, War, Peace, and Alliance in Demosthenes' Athens.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, Pp. xiii, 317.  ISBN 9780521835510.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew R. Christ, Indiana University (

Table of Contents

In this intelligent and well written book, Peter Hunt seeks to illuminate the complexity and sophistication of Athenian thinking about interstate relations through close study of the fifteen preserved assembly speeches of the mid-fourth century B.C. "To understand this body of oratory, its emotional appeals, its moral and legalistic arguments, and its invocation of state interests, is to understand how the Athenians of that period made decisions about war and peace" (1). Although there is some overlap between this study and Polly Low's Interstate Relations in Classical Greece: Morality and Power (Cambridge 2007), the two works mostly complement one another, with Low especially engaged with the problem of applying an "international relations" rubric to ancient Greece and assessing Greek views of what justifies intervention abroad, and Hunt more focused on probing the topics of his title through close analysis of the surviving assembly speeches.

In his Introduction, Hunt contrasts his approach with that of scholars who analyze Athenian thinking about interstate relations with methodologies that "seek to unmask, to debunk, the stated grounds for war – and hence evidence such as the assembly speeches – and locate the real causes of war elsewhere: for example, in amoral calculations of interest, in economic advantage, or in a militaristic culture" (3). In Hunt's view, assembly speeches give us an excellent opportunity to probe the diverse considerations that come into play in Athenian deliberations concerning action abroad. Hunt makes a good case for taking the evidence of these speeches seriously (I would not go so far as to say, however, that they "were typically delivered by experts to a well-informed and interested audience" [13]), and offers reasonable guidelines for drawing on materials from other sources, including assembly speeches in the historians – these must be treated with caution, but "most historical speeches present arguments well within the mainstream of Athenian thinking" (23). Athenian thinking concerning interstate relations, Hunt proposes, "is structured and generally coherent, but not rigorously developed or logically consistent" (13) and "many apparent contradictions between speakers – or among the speeches of a single speaker – are merely a matter of speakers placing more or less weight on different types of arguments in different circumstances" (14). Although I find Athenian thinking in this sphere to be less systematic than Hunt suggests, his general point seems valid.

Chapter 2 argues persuasively that in the mid-fourth century, the pursuit of profit does not appear to have been the primary force driving Athenians to undertake war, to judge from deliberative speeches, in which "we hear little about material gain and a great deal about the high cost of war" (30). Hunt acknowledges that the city's dependence on imported grain created pressure for it to use its navy to protect grain routes; this shaped the city's foreign policy, and could lead to strategic military action or negotiation of peace, but did not constitute "naval imperialism" pure and simple. Hunt reasonably posits that rich and poor may have viewed the prospect of war differently, with rich men more concerned about the cost this might pose to them, and poorer men at least at times drawn to the potential financial gains to be had from it.

Chapter 3 considers another possible "internal reason" for Athenians to be drawn to war, namely the high value Athenians placed on military prowess and service. Hunt observes that while "Athens was not particularly militaristic by the standards of its time (59)," Athenians clearly valued military service (Appendix 3 collects the frequent claims of military service made by forensic litigants), and militarism may well have "made the recourse to war appear more attractive to the Athenians" (62). Hunt notes that, while orators addressing the Assembly usually emphasize external reasons for war rather than arguing that war will allow citizens to display virtues and earn praise, they invoke "a brand of history distorted by patriotism" (62-3) that includes praise of the military virtues of their ancestors and this may have encouraged Athenians to embrace the prospect of war too readily and optimistically.

Chapter 4 advances the thesis that "the Athenians tended to place more weight on actions than on status" of states in their deliberations (73). Hunt considers several "different categories of status-based arguments found in assembly speeches" (77), starting with ethnicity. Hunt argues that negative representations of "barbarians" could sway audiences, but Athenians gave priority to calculations of interest and the actions of others in their deliberations. Greek polytheism and readiness to assimilate foreign gods meant that Greeks did not fight "religious wars, in the sense of a war whose purpose is to fight people and states who follow another religion" (84); religion and politics were, however, intertwined, as is conspicuous in the Sacred Wars over control of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Athens' foreign policy in Demosthenes' time also "took little account of other states' political systems" (90); whereas fifth-century imperial Athens tended to support democracies abroad, this became less common as a matter of policy in the fourth century, though a speaker could still advocate the support of a state on this basis as Demosthenes does in On the Liberty of the Rhodians. Finally, Hunt argues provocatively that Athenians in Demosthenes' time were inclined to view other Greek states not in hierarchical terms based on relative power but as equals, and this shaped the city's deliberations concerning relations with them. "Overall, standards of what constituted a proper bond between states in the fourth century tended more and more to resemble the equal friendship valorized within a city" (106).

Chapter 5 argues that "The most direct, simple, and emotional appeals of Athenian war rhetoric ... were based on the intimate and emotionally laden relationships within the house" (108). Thus, orators goaded their audiences to embrace war so as to set themselves apart from their slaves (e.g., they must shun slavery to foreign powers) and wives (they must act courageously and not effeminately), and to live up to the example of their valorous ancestors. While there is nothing surprising in these observations, Hunt does well to consider these as important features of deliberative oratory. "Reasons to go to war existed before they were described and stimulated by these metaphors, but they were strengthened by the way they could be expressed and the persuasive power of that expression derived ultimately from the structure of Athenian society" (133).

Chapter 6 considers how Athenians, who viewed starting a war without provocation as unjust, are ready to justify recourse to war on the grounds of self-defense. Hunt finds evidence of direct appeals to the right of self-defense most conspicuous in the pre-battle speeches that historians attribute to generals rousing their troops to fight hard; the orators, Hunt suggests, tap the same emotions in warning audiences that they will be attacked at some future time and must therefore preemptively attack an enemy, as Demosthenes does in his Philippics. Chapter 7 focuses on the controversial question of how dominant calculations of interest are in Athenian thinking concerning interstate relations. Die-hard Realists, invoking Thucydides, see these as absolutely central; their opponents emphasize that moral concerns are prominent. Hunt takes a middle ground in this debate, arguing that "both considerations of interest and morality played independent and important roles in Athenian decision-making" (154), and "The Athenian assembly granted some sway to both interest and morality without the implausible, if intellectually appealing, subordination of one to the other" (159). Hunt is right to insist that we cannot dismiss the moral arguments advanced in Athenian deliberative oratory, but it seems to me that his own survey of the evidence points to the primacy of calculations of interest in the deliberative sphere, for example, when he observes: "every one of our assembly speeches invokes the interests of Athens. These references to expediency are often stressed by their placement in either the opening or the closing sections of speeches. They are thus marked as pivotal arguments for the policy proposed" (157-8). In my view, these critically placed appeals to what is expedient frame and contextualize any appeals to justice that appear within a speech, and thus suggest a sort of subordination of justice to expedience. When we add to this picture the sometimes blunt statements of orators on the importance of interest (esp. Dem. 15.29), we may wonder if they are giving us a glimpse of a bottom line that is always on the mind of Athenian audiences, and not just adopting a "hard-headed persona" to suit their current persuasive ends (154). Although it may be true, as Hunt argues, that Athenians in seeking a balance of power in their fourth century alliances were able simultaneously to act in their own interest and "help the weak" (155, 179-80), as deliberative rhetoric sometimes terms it, one may doubt that Athenians would have intervened to support other states in these circumstances if this had not been in their interest.

Chapter 8 observes that "A central part of the moral code that the Athenians applied to the actions of states was the ideal of reciprocity" (185), and considers how reciprocity figured in Athens' relations with friendly states and allies. Hunt argues that "The bonds of alliance could be portrayed as a pseudo-legal obligation confirmed by oaths to the gods or as a part of reciprocal friendship" (189), and "The code of reciprocity was enforced mainly by concerns about reputation, but these were evidently strong. Indeed, the expectation of reciprocity comprised a system of sufficient solidity so that states could make strategic moves within it" (192). Hunt posits that, while favors granted by one state to another could lead to subordination of the debtor state as under the Athenian empire and the ensuing Spartan hegemony, the code of reciprocity had an "egalitarian feel" and might benefit even weaker, dependent states (197). Hunt makes a good case that "reciprocity and self-interest are not necessarily in opposition" in interstate relations "but more typically harmonize" because "over the long run, reciprocity is an expedient strategy for a state" (206-7); consistent with this is the way orators sometimes invoke the long-term strategic advantages of the city abiding by the rules of reciprocity.

Chapter 9 argues that, "Like interstate reciprocity, legalism was one of the important systems of thinking according to which Athenians judged other states and which influenced, but did not determine, their actions" (217), and that "... our deliberative speeches often make legalistic arguments" (235). (Hunt uses "legalism" and "legalistic" in neutral rather than pejorative senses.) Hunt, following Low and others, maintains that "the Greek world possessed a system of international law" with "something like a code of laws, the generally accepted 'laws of the Greeks' [i.e., concerning the conduct of war and diplomacy] and the web of treaties" (228). While enforcement was problematic, even without "a sovereign authority to enforce legalistic solutions" (227) public opinion "exerted some influence" (229) and rule-breakers could face significant costs. Although there is much of value here, I would hesitate to speak of "international law" in a Greek interstate context in the absence of written laws and independent enforcement structures; perhaps what we have in the Greek situation is a precursor of sorts of what moderns speak of as "international law."

Chapter 10 argues that, although pacifism in a strict modern sense does not exist among the ancient Greeks, we should be attuned to "the spectrum of ancient opinion" on war (239). Hunt posits that fourth-century Athenians were drawn to peace, and observes that "A host of oratorical passages mention sundry bad effects of war or good effects of peace. These evils of war seem to be largely bad effects on Athens. Thus these general criticism of war strike us as largely self-interested" (245). Later, Hunt observes: "I find a decline in enthusiasm for war in the fourth century plausible: reducing to subjection an island in the fifth-century empire with a navy paid for by tribute was not the same as paying out of your own pocket and then fighting a defensive war against the formidable Macedonian army. But this seems more a matter of practical circumstances rather than a shift in basic values" (255-6). Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Isocrates "expressed the most explicit and searching criticisms of war and of militarism" (256); one searches in vain, however, for anti-war politicians, as Hunt notes. "Eubulus, Aeschines, and Phocion sometimes opposed going to war or supported peace initiatives at junctures when this was the minority opinion" (258), but this does not make them categorically anti-war.

A concluding chapter provides a good summary of Hunt's analysis, and provocatively suggests that the gap between Athenians and ourselves in thinking about interstate relations is more narrow than we may think – there is an element of "modernity" to much of Athenian thinking, and we can find plenty of "atavistic" features of modern thinking about war, peace, and alliance (266). Three appendices, a full bibliography, and general index (but no index locorum) follow. In brief, Hunt offers an engaging and largely persuasive analysis of an important subject.

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