Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.37

Philippe Lafargue, La bataille de Pylos: 425 av. J.-C. Athènes contre Sparte. Essai / Histoire.   Paris:  Alma éditeur, 2015.  Pp. 266.  ISBN 9782362791673.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edith Foster (

Philippe Lafargue offers a thought-provoking reconsideration of Thucydides’ account of Athens’ victory over Sparta at Pylos in 425 BCE. Close to the beginning of the book, Lafargue announces his aim: “reconsidérer la chronologie de la guerre du Péloponnèse en sortant de la vision imposer par Thucydide; vision géniale, sans nul doute, mais qui ne se confond pas nécessairement avec le ressenti de la plupart de ceux qui vécurent le conflit” (14). He quickly admits (18) that Thucydides is our main source for the story upon which he will focus, and further specifies that he does not intend seriously to challenge his account of the events of the campaign (19). For Lafargue, it is Thucydides’ lack of attention to the consequences of the Athenian victory at Pylos that differentiates him from others of his time. Whereas other Athenians, Lafargue argues, saw Pylos as the victory that determined the end of the Archidamian War, Thucydides described it as an event that led to greater Athenian hubris and therefore toward Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War as a whole.

The first half of the book follows Thucydides’ story of the initial phases of the Peloponnesian War, of the Athenian general Demosthenes’ fortification at Pylos, of the Spartan assault by land and sea upon this position, and of the responding Athenian naval attack that cut off 400 Spartan hoplites on the island of Sphacteria (25-72).1 It concludes by retracing Thucydides’ tale of the events at Pylos through to the end of the battle of Sphacteria (84-109).

The second half of the book begins with a useful description of the developments in warfare during the Peloponnesian War, focusing on the consequences of the new importance of light armed troops (e.g. 113-115) and continues by showing that the victory at Pylos was followed by celebratory architecture (137-142) and by reinforcements of the Athenian democracy; in particular, jury pay was increased. Lafargue also indicts Thucydides and Aristophanes for resentment and jealousy of the popular leader Cleon, passions that in his view caused them to dismiss or attack Cleon’s achievements (e.g. 132-135); he reminds us that by contrast to these authors the Athenians honoured Cleon with unprecedented rewards.2 For Lafargue the architectural evidence, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the honours for Cleon point toward the conclusion that the Athenians thought of Pylos as a turning point in the war with Sparta (150). Thucydides, however, “recognizes the importance of the event while minimizing its consequences” (151).

Lafargue is surely right that regular Athenians would have experienced the cessation of the Spartan invasions of Attica as a turning point in the war (153-155). It’s also true that Thucydides does not himself comment on this cessation, a fact of some interest, given his sympathetic coverage of Athenian hardships during the invasions (2.14-17), which include the plague (2.49-53).3 Lafargue also notes that Thucydides focuses initially on the consequences of defeat for Sparta, rather than those of victory for Athens (165).4

On the basis of such observations, Lafargue argues that Thucydides diminished the consequences of the Pylos victory, somewhat because he detested Cleon (and also Demosthenes [157]) but mostly because he wanted to show how wrong the Athenians were to refuse the peace and alliance that the Spartans offered after the Spartiates were captured on Sphacteria. It was not that Thucydides thought that a real peace could have been achieved: as far as I understand Lafargue’s argument, in his view the Spartan ambassadors who came to negotiate (4.17-20) offered the Athenian assembly no credible reason to make peace (83, 162).5 Moreover, Thucydides’ account of the events after the peace of 421 showed how weak a peace in 425 would have been (163). Instead, Lafargue argues that Thucydides wanted to showcase the reason why the Athenians refused the peace, namely their hubris (cf. 196, “celui-ci [i.e. Thucydide] voit dans la paix refusée de Pylos l’incarnation suprême de la démesure Athénienne…”). By stressing this cause for refusing the Spartan peace offer, Thucydides made the victory at Pylos one more step on the road to Athens’ defeat in the war as a whole (163-168).

Lafargue therefore insists that Thucydides suppressed the importance of the Pylos affair. E.g. « …en insistant sur les circonstances (hasardeuses) qui ont mené à cette victoire improbable, au détriment de ses conséquences, il la relègue presque au rang de non- évènement » (169, repeated almost verbatim at 193, cf. 197). This conclusion seems somewhat over-stated. Lafargue’s own book follows Thucydides’ lengthy presentation of the Pylos campaign (4.3-42) for nearly a hundred pages. Thucydides emphasizes, as Lafargue points out, the consequences for Sparta, which tries again and again to regulate affairs at Pylos right up to the victory at Mantinea in 418 (cf. e.g. 5.35.6-7, 5.44.3, 5.56.2-57.1). However, Thucydides’ analysis of the consequences of Pylos for Athens is hardly invisible. For instance, he narrates in detail the aggression against nearby neighbors that characterized Athens’ post-Pylos glory period (4. 42-57), campaigns that culminate in the destruction of the Aeginetans at Thyrea (4.57.3-4), a crime the Athenians themselves later remember as one of their worst (Xen. Hell 2.2.3). Later, Thucydides compares Athens’ defeat at Syracuse to Sparta’s defeat at Pylos (7.71.7; cf. 7.86.3), by this means drawing together his largest campaign stories. I don’t see how we can call Pylos a “non-event” in Thucydides, even if we look only at his representation of Athens.

Lafargue’s main point, however, is that Thucydides saw the war, and in particular the victory at Pylos, differently from most Athenians, in that Thucydides saw one long conflict from 431-404. By contrast, other historians saw a variety of divisions, beginnings, and endings of the war or wars; in particular, many marked off the Archidamian War as a conflict separate from later events (174-184). But historians are of course not “most Athenians”. To support his argument that Athenians who lived through the war saw Pylos as the battle that produced Athens’ victory in the Archidamian War, Lafargue takes evidence from Plato’s Menexenus, which recounts the chronology of the war in a way that Lafargue argues “proves that the Peloponnesian War was not one [his italics] except in the mind of Thucydides” (183). Lafargue admits that the Menexenus is a problematic source, in which Plato’s Socrates satirizes the funeral orations, and “magnifies past and present victories” (197). “Despite this”, the Menexenus “expresses that which numerous Athenians will have still have believed in the fourth century: Pylos ended the war (or a war); thus the great glory of this victory” (197).

Unfortunately, it is difficult to accept the argument that the Menexenus can help us understand popular views of the 420’s. Scholars (including Lafargue himself) generally agree that the Menexenus parodies the Funeral Orations. This poses a problem for using the Menexenus as straightforward historical evidence. As far as I can tell, the Menexenus, which seems to have been written during the 380’s, proclaimed that Athens was forever undefeated by any power except her own internal dissensions (242e), and thus suggested that the Funeral Orations could represent Athens as stronger than all adversaries, even after her defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. If the Menexenus also suggests that Athens won the Archidamian War, how do we know that it was not mocking this idea as a delusion? The more elite audience of the Platonic dialogues should also be considered. How can writing that Plato addressed to an educated elite be a reflection of popular views?

Lafargue’s argument that many Athenians thought that Athens had won the Archidamian War thus faces the problem that all scholars face when trying to study the Peloponnesian War, rather than Thucydides’ views of the Peloponnesian War, namely the scarcity of evidence. His attempt is nevertheless stimulating, and would have been even more interesting if he had faced squarely the main challenge that all readers will think of, namely that the Archidamian War came to an end not after the Pylos campaign, but after Athens’ defeats at Delium and Amphipolis. To trust Thucydides, by 421 Athenian public feeling had drastically changed from over-confidence to regret and lack of self-confidence (5.14.1–2), and it was this change, among other things, that made the peace agreement possible. Lafargue mentions Delium and Amphipolis only briefly on page 198; how is it that these reverses were not as powerful for Athenian views of the war as the victory at Pylos? However, defeat is notoriously difficult to admit, and perhaps they were not. Perhaps the fact that in 421 the Athenians had the prisoners from Pylos to trade for concessions gave rise to the sense that Athens still had the upper hand. The problem is that it is so hard to find evidence for such popular feelings.

Thucydides shows that he was aware both that popular views of particular events would differ from his own analysis (1.20.1, 1.21.1-2) and also that his contemporaries would quarrel with his assessment that the war was one long war (5.26.2-5). Lafargue’s book encircles the question of Thucydides’ situation in respect to his contemporary audience, providing an argument that the historian’s synoptic overview differed from the experience on the ground. The main line of Lafargue’s argument makes sense: that the Athenians were full of hope after Pylos, or even thought that they had won the war, seems possible and even likely; whether we can say that Thucydides distorts the story of the war by representing that these hopes and this conclusion were short lived is another question.


1.   Historical errors mar this presentation: on page 63, for example, Lafargue maintains that the Spartans closed the entrances to what is now the Bay of Navarino, whereas they planned to do this, but importantly, did not (4.13.4); on page 68 he maintains that Brasidas first appears in Thucydides at 4.12, but this is not the case (cf. 2.25.2, 85.1, 86.6, 93.1; 3.69.1-2, 76 and 79.3); on page 69 he argues that Epaminondas dropped his shield at the battle of Mantinea, but he must mean another figure or another battle (Xen. Hell. 7.25.5). His argument on page 71 that the Spartans somehow relinquished control of the entrances to the Bay of Navarino responds to the error on page 63. However, on page 160 he correctly states that the Spartans did not close the entrances in the first place.
2.   The book under consideration is a “prolongement” (205) of Lafargue’s previous book, which was a defense of Cleon. See Cléon: Le Guerrier d’Athéna, Ausonius Éditions, 2013.
3.   It is not correct, however, that the cessation of the invasions is ignored in the narrative. Hippocrates disingenuously (or uselessly) exhorts his soldiers to fight to prevent the already defunct invasions in his exhortation at Delium (4.95.2); more importantly, the Spartans’ post-Pylos attacks on Thrace replace the invasions of Attica.
4.   A less persuasive argument is his indictment of Thucydides for saying nothing about the victory celebrations (129). Cf. Lisa Irene Hau (2013) “Nothing to Celebrate? The Lack or Disparagement of Victory Celebrations in the Greek historians”, in Rituals of Triumph in the Ancient World, Anthony Spalinger and Jeremy Armstrong, eds. Brill. 57-74. She shows that Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon almost never mention victory celebrations, particularly in the case of victories over other Greeks.
5.   Lafargue’s arguments on the Spartan embassy are contradictory. He argues that Thucydides uses the Spartan speech at 4.14-17 to express his own views (79), and that for Thucydides the moment was a missed opportunity to make a real peace with Sparta (82, 162, 197); however, he also argues that Thucydides gave the Spartans a speech that was (quoting Roussel) “piteous and awkward,” and which offered the Athenians nothing substantial that they didn’t already have (83, 162). I have followed what seems to be the main line of his argument.

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