Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.08

Seth N. Jaffe, Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 236.  ISBN 9780198716280.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Rachel Bruzzone, Bilkent University (


A new contribution to the understanding of the outbreak of war in Thucydides is an admirable accomplishment, and this book offers an innovative reading of the concepts of justice, necessity, and advantage, alongside related issues. The cause of the Peloponnesian War is one of the most thoroughly studied and yet consistently puzzling aspects of Thucydides’ text, in particular with regard to the word prophasis, the term used by Thucydides to indicate the fundamental causes of the war, and the sense in which the participants were “forced” into it (1.23.6 ἀναγκάσαι). Especially in the context of the field of International Relations, Thucydides is often cast as a student of “impersonal” power, but Jaffe rightly aims to show how the nature or character of a city influences its citizens’ understanding of their situations and resources, and indeed of the “necessities” they face. Jaffe offers a detailed reading of Thucydides Book One, on the assumption that it can stand alone, and he likewise chooses to use very little non-Thucydidean ancient evidence (8), a choice that might seem to some to be a weakness. Nevertheless, he makes a strong case that the national character of the cities, combined with their circumstances, did much to cause the war.

In the Introduction, Jaffe argues that the traditional International Relations understanding of Thucydides’ statement that war became inevitable or “necessary” (1.23.6) is inadequate, and that this much-debated sentence must be read in the context of the entirety of Book One. A major thesis of his work is that “necessity” for Thucydides is largely dependent on state psychology. In particular, Jaffe argues that Thucydides offers us “two accounts of the origins of the Peloponnesian War, one Athenian and the other Spartan” (19, author’s italics). Thus, Athens sees itself compelled to go to war out of concern for honor, while Sparta feels the same way out of fear, with both parties swayed by different types of advantage.

In his first chapter, “The Manifest Quarrels”, Jaffe establishes that the Corcyraean conflict prefigures the larger war. Here the reader first encounters the difficulty of determining causation for war, as Corinthian animus toward Corcyra, Corcyraean rudeness to Corinth, and Epidamnian civil war all in some sense bring about the initial violence. Jaffe argues that the Corcyraean and Corinthian positions correspond roughly to the Athenian and Spartan views he sees coming into play later on. He argues that the “truest prophasis” for the Peloponnesian War (1.23.6 τὴν... ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν), the Athenian (and Corcyraean), rests on honor and advantage, while the “greatest prophasis,” the Spartan (and Corinthian), involves concerns for justice or piety. (This concept of the double prophasis is discussed below in the paragraph on chapter Four.) The issue of erring (ἁμαρτάνειν), whether culpably or not, is also introduced in this chapter and will be significant in the outbreak of the wider war, as well. The sensitive treatment of the subsequent Corcyraean and Corinthian speeches at Athens vividly illustrates the choice the Athenians face: to accept the alliance with Corcyra, making war more likely by increasing Spartan fear, or to let slip a chance to gain an advantage, the power of the Corcyraean navy, but make war less likely.

In Chapter Two, “The Spartan Congress”, Jaffe elaborates on the “truest prophasis” for the war based on his understanding of necessity. The Corinthians of the Spartan Congress, Jaffe argues, engage in an analysis of Athenian character much as they did earlier with their “national character assassination” of Corcyra (42). The Corinthians claim that both Athens and Sparta err in characteristic ways, either overreach or sluggishness. Error, as well as necessity, can thus be understood as a product of state psychology.

The Athenians famously respond that “fear, honor, and profit compel the behavior of all cities” (76, author’s italics). But Jaffe suggests that they too understand that different states put different values on these universal influences, and the speakers thus attempt to shape their speech to appeal to Sparta’s sedentary nature. The Athenian argument implies that “the category of power is far more expansive than simple material might, including, as it does, immaterial elements” (85): civic character is a key resource. Jaffe points out that the Athenian arguments defending their behavior prioritize honor and advantage, and that fear seems low on the hierarchy of Athenian motivations.

From the responding speech of Archidamus, Jaffe argues, the reader gains important insight into the contrast between Sparta and Athens. The Athenians’ individualism allows them to be self-confident, leading to their characteristic boldness. The Spartans, on the other hand, are kept sedentary through their faith in the laws, and are indecisive when the laws do not offer guidance. Like the Corinthians of the Corcyraean Debate, the Spartans believe they are insulated from misfortune by justice, enjoying the protection of the gods.

The third chapter is called “The Athenian Logic of the Truest πρόφασις” and deals largely with Athenian character, beginning from its parallel development with Athenian power in the Pentecontaetia. Themistocles is treated as pivotal in this process, in that his anticipation of Athens’ growing power through naval prowess and walls, as well as his boldness, serves as a model of the essential Athenian spirit. The growth of Athenian power and subjection of the allies, the helot rebellion, the battle of Tanagra, and the revolt of Samos are presented as smaller studies on the nature of power and compulsion, as both states behave and develop in accord with their national characters.

This chapter also offers a particularly enlightening analysis of the Archaeology. Jaffe observes that fear is the first motivation that appears in Thucydides, causing groups to live a nomadic life, perpetually uprooted at the approach of aggressors (1.2.1); profit thus comes second. The very existence of raiders, however, suggests that some particularly bold men were willing to take risks for the sake of material gain. The individuals who take the best advantage of this situation, Hellen and Minos, are the precursors of Spartan land- and Athenian sea-power, and both belong to the predatorial group. In this period, the relative peace enjoyed by resource-poor Athens creates a fearlessness that liberates the desires and capacities of strong and weak alike, and the city as a whole adopts the “psychology of the strong” that once characterized the pirates. The Spartans, meanwhile, emphasize absolute equality rather than individuality, and Sparta becomes a place of fearfulness and repressed desire. The two cities thus have profoundly different outlooks on the question of advantage; these outlooks shape their views of what constitutes necessity.

Chapter Four, “Sparta’s Greatest πρόφασις for War”, discusses how Thucydides’ famous editorializing statement on the unspoken “truest πρόφασις” of the Peloponnesian War (1.23.6 τὴν... ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν) indicates its fundamental yet hidden causes. This is an unusual use of the word πρόφασις, which normally means something like “excuse” or “pretext,” and the historian’s employment of it in this passage has been the subject of much scholarly discussion (cf. e.g. H. R. Rawlings III’s A Semantic Study of Prophasis to 400 B.C.1). But Thucydides often uses this same word in its more regular sense as well (e.g. 1.141.1, 3.9.2, 3.75.4). Jaffe argues that one of the other appearances of πρόφασις in Thucydides plays a similar role to the editorializing statement at 1.23.6. The passage he endows with this significance is Thucydides’ report that the Spartans complain about the Athenians “in order that they should have as great a prophasis as possible for making war” (1.126.1 ὅπως σφίσιν ὅτι μεγίστη πρόφασις εἴη τοῦ πολεμεῖν). Jaffe argues that 1.126.1 “intentionally echoes Thucydides’ truest πρόφασις” and “cries out for comparison with the Athenian logic of the truest one” (165). While Jaffe reads the initial ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν (1.23.6) as indicating an Athenian cause of the war, the second (1.126.1) is accordingly taken to indicate a parallel Spartan and Peloponnesian cause, based in at least the appearance of justice and piety. However, there is little to suggest that the πρόφασις of 1.126.1 is performing the same function as the editorializing statement (1.23.6), and indeed both major commentaries warn against reading it in this way (HCT 1.425, Hornblower 1.194, 2032). Instead, the πρόφασις of 1.126.1 seems to serve in the normal, unremarkable sense of the word, representing a justification deliberately manufactured by the Spartans. Jaffe’s translation of ὅτι μεγίστη πρόφασις (1.126.1) as “the greatest prophasis” also creates a false parallelism with the “truest prophasis” of 1.23.6 by suggesting that the grammatical structures of the two passages are identical. But ὅτι μεγίστη πρόφασις is better translated “as great a prophasis as possible,” a strengthened superlative (Smyth § 1086). Jaffe handles Thucydides’ Greek excellently in most cases. Reading the πρόφασις at 1.126.1 as he does, however, would require considerably more defense than he offers. The argument that the two prophaseis should be taken together is the most problematic aspect of the book, particularly since the idea of a double prophasis provides the interpretative framework for much of the rest of the argument.

In this chapter, Jaffe argues that Corinth uses the fearfulness of Sparta and its concern with the gods to convince the Spartans that they are compelled to fight. He discusses the somewhat problematic Athenian, specifically Periclean assessment of the Peloponnesians: they are fatally disunified yet represent an existential threat to Athens. He also analyzes Pericles’ argument on the necessity for war, which is taken as a repudiation of the Spartan “greatest prophasis”: in contrast with what Jaffe sees as the religiously-oriented Spartan prophasis, the Athenian general puts great faith in human judgement and enterprise.

Despite the problems with the thesis of the dueling prophaseis, Jaffe’s analysis of civic character is quite successful. His discussion of the pre-war accusations and counter-accusations regarding curses aims to show that Spartan and Athenian religious motivations – or pretexts – are in line with their previously established characters, so that the Athenians feel compelled by questions of honor for their city, the Spartans by questions of honor for the gods. The narratives of the Cylonian Conspiracy and the Curse of Tainaros show what each state fears enough to cause them to commit a violation of the divine: the Spartans fear a helot revolt, the Athenians a tyrant. Similarly, while the story of Pausanias illustrates Spartan fears of what happens when a powerful Spartan leaves home, that of Themistocles shows Athenian anxieties about the opposite, namely keeping powerful men at home. As elsewhere, Jaffe’s analysis of digressions and other short episodes is strong.

In the Conclusion Jaffe argues persuasively that Thucydides presents the characters and circumstances of the great cities in the pre-war era as setting them on the path for war, and he offers a much-needed corrective to the view of power as an impersonal force in Thucydides. His broader conclusion is that while all cities seek their own advantage, they conceive of it and pursue it differently and with varying degrees of success depending on their own unique characteristics. Despite the problem noted above in respect to the twin nature of the prophaseis for the Peloponnesian War, Jaffe’s book is a useful contribution to the understanding of Thucydides’ representation of states.

The writing throughout is clear, with engaging use of vivid imagery. Typographical errors are few and seem largely confined to a short section of text (98-103).


1.   Rawlings, H. R. R. III. 1975. A Semantic Study of Prophasis to 400 B.C. Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag.
2.   Gomme, A. W. 1956. A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Hornblower, S. 1991. A Commentary on Thucydides 1-3. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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