BMCR 1994.09.02

1994.09.02, Wickersham, Hegemony and the Greek Historian

, Hegemony and Greek historians. Greek studies. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994. x, 195 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780847677801. $22.50 (paper).

According to the publisher’s advertisment this book (published within the series, Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches) concentrates on the following questions:

1) What status is called hegemonia ?
2) What cases of it occupy the historian’s attention?
3) What are its requirements and rewards?
4) What are the means of acquiring or losing it?
5) Most particularly, what is its precise importance for our general and detailed understanding of this author?

Moreover, according to Nagy, the General Editor of the Series, W. also offers “insights into the interplay of Hegemony and Empire in the thinking of the Greek historians” (vii). All of the above W. attempts to answer and explore by discussing four authors: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon ( Hellenika) and Ephorus.

He explains that his book is “not a semantic study of hegemonia and words of the same field,” nor does it “describe changing Greek attitudes toward hegemony,” nor is it “an examination of how hegemony (in the modern sense) actually worked and behaved in Greek history from 481 to 362”; rather, does it consist of “a set of literary studies carried out on historical writers”—i.e., “it asks only what each writer did with hegemony in his work” (ix-x). It is therefore not an integrated study, but consists of essentially four independent essays, each with its own conclusion. Consequently, there is no general conclusion at the end, drawing together the results of the study of each writer.

In W.’s attempt to attain the above objectives, he offers not a few stimulating insights and new ideas. In many instances, however, we are not given the entire story, so that what the reader is presented with is something more akin to half a loaf. In the remarks which follow, I shall concentrate, very selectively (because of space), on this aspect.

In Herodotus, hegemonia is seen as being essentially synonymous with “international command” in the war against Xerxes (i.e., it is limited to 480 BC) and quarrelling amongst the Greeks over who should have it. W., accordingly, discusses “Four Instructive Contests” in “Getting Hegemony”: Argos, Gelon, Athens in connection with command of the sea, and Athens versus Tegea at Plataea (4-15). In these instances, W. argues that the decision among the contestants turns on, not who has the most dunamis, but on dignity: “the Greeks in Herodotus settle hegemony on the basis of honor first; only when that is taken care of do they start to think prudently, in terms of power, strategy, and tactics” (13). For instance, in connection with Gelon’s claim, “the case of the Athenian is especially clear, because he yields the hegemony to Sparta, which has fewer ships than Athens, but not to Gelon, who has the most of all” (8). That this posturing is hardly serious, however, is shown by the fact that Athens could have advanced the same argument vis à vis the Spartans—namely, a) that the Athenians alone are “the oldest of Greek nations, the only ones who are not immigrants,” and 2) that they have it on the authority of Homer that “the best tactician at Troy was an Athenian”.

As for Gelon himself, W.’s is not the only scenario. Apart from the possibility that the Greeks never sent any envoys to Gelon, 1 there is also the possibility that Gelon made unacceptable demands deliberately, because he wanted to remain in Sicily to deal with the anticipated invasion by the Carthaginians.

Otherwise, hegemony in the sense of ‘international command’ is acquired essentially as a recognition of dunamis—in the case of the Spartans, not as a gesture of honor nor of superior naval power nor of superior generalship; rather, in recognition of her reputation, based on her military exploits in the past, or because of jealousy or enmity towards Athens on the part of some states. On this last point, the Athenians readily understood the ramifications, and promptly gave way—not in recognition of honor for Sparta, but purely out of self-interest: “as long as the Athenians greatly needed the others” (Hdt. 8.3.2). In other words, time does not even enter into the equation.

In his discussion of Herodotus, W. also discusses “A Hegemon Unseated” (15-22). He begins by claiming that “the hegemony considered by Herodotus must lapse when the alliance ceases”. This, however, is not really so. According to Thucydides, it was not until 462, upon Cimon’s return from Sparta, that the Athenians “denounced the original treaty of alliance which had been made against the Persians and allied themselves with Sparta’s enemy, Argos” (1.102.4). But W. believes that Sparta lost the ‘international command’ long before this. 2 Moreover, Sparta was not so much ‘unseated,’ but lost the ‘international command’ essentially by default—thanks to Pausanias’ behaviour.

Moreover, in respect of the “Aftermath” it is questionable to claim that “arkhe, or struggle for it, was in this case the next step, but its relationship to hegemonia is not clear” (20). The struggle for arche came with the Peloponnesian War (First and Second), so that ‘the next step’ was Athens’acquisition of arche. Herodotus states this specifically: “they took the hegemony [‘international command’?] away from Sparta” (8.3.2.). This, however, is only part of the story—at least according to Thucydides, who points out that after the Pausanias episode, “Sparta sent out no other commanders … and at the same time they [the Spartans] no longer wanted to be burdened with the war against Persia; they regarded the Athenians as being perfectly capable of exercising the command and as being also at the time friendly to themselves” (1.95.7).

W. also maintains that “arkhe… is as a whole limited to non-Greek situations”. This requires one to take account of Polycrates, since Herodotus notes that he was “the first Greek we know of who made an attempt at thalassokratia” (3.1 22.2). W. notes, however, that Polycrates’ attempt was “nipped in the bud,” and also that “such things were not normal in Greek affairs”. To claim that such things were not normal in Greek affairs appears most unusual. According to Thucydides, “Minos … was the first person to organise a navy. He controlled the greater part of what is now called the Hellenic Sea. He ruled over the Cyclades, in most of which he founded the first colonies” (1.4). Moreover, “Agamemnon … must have been the most powerful of the rulers of his day…. It was to this empire [of Mycenae] that Agamemnon succeeded, and at the same time he had a stronger navy than any other ruler” (1.9.1,3). Even if Herodotus may for once have been “more really critical than Thucydides” in appearing to reject Minos and Agamemnon 3—if this passage was written after 445 BC, as seems likely, i.e., after Herodotus had spent some time in Athens, he would have been in Athens when “the idea of thalassocracy was in the air”, i.e., after “Themistocles had revealed its possibilities and Cimon had realized them”. 4 The reason there were no other attempts at thalassocracy before the Athenians is doubtless due to special historical circumstances. It is not certain that Herodotus, in noting Polycrates’ failed attempt at thalassocracy, implied criticism, as W. seems to think, or if he did, his criticism may have been associated more with his persistent censure of tyrannis than with his opposition to arche. In any event, if it was ‘nipped in the bud,’ this was not carried out by the Greeks but by the Persians, and then not because it was an attempt at thalassokratia. One may also wonder whether Herodotus would have been critical of Polycrates, whose other achievements elicited his greatest admiration and whose island, along with Athens, was one of the two cities to which he was most attached.

In turning to Thucydides, it is pertinent to recall W.’s early statement that his book does not “describe changing Greek attitudes toward hegemony, using the historians as evidence” (x). It does not, however, turn out quite like this, for now we are told that “the line of thinking begun by Herodotus comes to completion in Thucydides” (43), with considerable discussion on how this came about.

Specifically, in Thucydides “hegemonia is leadership in a symmachy” (31). W. then cites

1) The Spartan hegemony in the War against Xerxes.
2) The Athenian hegemony in its continuation.
3) The hegemony of Sparta in her own system of alliances.
4) The position of Corinth in her alliance with Epidamnus against Corcyra.
5) The position that Corinth thinks she ought to have over Corcyra.
6) The position which Argos hopes to recover in the Peloponnesus after the Peace of Nicias.
7) The field-command as assigned by the terms of the Four-Power Coalition of 420.
8) The hegemony of all Greece, which Sparta hopes to get in the second part of the War.

Of this list, five (nos. 4-8) do not, however, involve a symmachy. 5 Nor does W. discuss all of the above, claiming that those which “truly matter in Thucydides” are Nos. 1) and 3), and two additional hegemonies not included in the above—namely, 9) the one “out of which the Peloponnesian War arises,” and 10) “the one which is in conflict with arkhe” (31). Of these 10, one is “most important … in Thucydides for his study of hegemonia“—”the comparison and contrast with arkhe“. Since W., however, contends that “hegemony is treated implicitly by Thucydides,” it seems doubtful whether one should speak of his ‘study‘ of hegemony. Moreover, W. finds virtually all the relevant information in the speeches (32), and also claims that “the imperial status of Athens is “definitely excluded” from the ten hegemonies cited above, and that “arkhe … is given rather a back seat to hegemony” (31-32). As a matter of fact, however, it is precisely arche to which W. devotes a great deal of his discussion, specifically “the process of hegemony-turning-into-empire” (47). As for the claim that the most important feature in Thucydides is the comparison and contrast of hegemony with arche, Thucydides never embarks on such a comparison, not even implicitly. Here too one is not given the entire story. For one thing, in most instances Thucydides uses hegemonia and its variants in the sense of military command or military commanders—not as leadership in a symmachy; and this information is found not in the speeches but in the narrative. He also uses the term hegemones for statesmen, guides and pilots. Moreover, he uses hegemonia interchangeably with arche and with strategia. One needs to take all these into account in a study of hegemonia in Thucydides. As for the idea of hegemony-turning-into- arche or a comparison of hegemony with arche, this appears to be a false distinction, because the very first time that an ally sought to withdraw from the Alliance, Athens used force to prevent it from doing so. Had this occurred on the morning of the day after a treaty had been made with that ally, Athens would presumably have acted in the same way. There is therefore no essential distinction between hegemonia and arche in Thucydides. That is why it is incorrect to maintain that “fundamental is distinction between hegemonia and arkhe“—namely, “the difference between the Athenian position in 478 and that in 432 … and the difference between Athens and Sparta at the beginning of the War” (33). Much of W.’s discussion of Thucydides hinges on this perceived distinction.

When we reach Xenophon, a problem is posed by which of his works one should consult, for he refers to hegemonia in a number of different writings. W. surveys these very briefly (81-87), from which he chooses to concentrate solely on the Hellenika, but not with (it seems to me) wholly compelling reasons. A writer is scarcely likely to have restricted his views on such an (ostensibly) important subject to one work.

According to W., “the Hellenica is not a failure, but the story of a failure: it is about how Greece searched for an answer to the problem of hegemony, nearly found one, but lost it, tried to get it back, and lost it for good” (87). In what follows it is difficult to see just what answer is meant. Presumably, it should be indicated in “The Organization of the Hellenica,” which follows immediately. In this, W. refers to three ‘benchmarks’: total Spartan domination of Greece, Leuctra and Mantineia (87-90). It is difficult, however, to see how a) in any of these Greece as a whole was searching for an answer to the problem of hegemony, or b) these three developments represent nearly finding an answer, then losing it, trying to get it back and finally losing it for good. Otherwise, the answer to the problem of hegemony should be found in “The Hegemony Sea-saw” and in “the Hegemony Carousel”—i.e., in the more detailed discussion (90-117). In the former of these, however, the problem turns out to be, not hegemony as such, but a clash between the exercise of power ( arche) and the desire for autonomy. Key is part of a speech by Autocles:

You [Spartans] always say, ‘the cities must be autonomous,’ but you are the ones who are most in the way of autonomy. First you make alliances on terms that require your allies to follow wherever you might lead them; but what has this to do with autonomy? (6.3.7).

According to W., in contrast to Euphemus in Thucydides, “Xenophon [not Autocles] shows the Greeks treating it [hegemony] as a real problem and working towards a solution” (101). From W.’s discussion, however, here too it is difficult to see how the Greeks nearly found autonomy, lost it, tried to get it back, and then lost it for good.

Otherwise, Xenophon has “Greece return three times to the Peace of Antalcidas”. In discussing the various Peaces, however, W. adopts a most idiosyncratic view of the King’s Peace—allowing Xenophon to abandon the Greeks of Asia Minor even more happily than did the Spartans, and permitting him to concentrate exclusively on the Greek mainland. Even here, however, it is difficult to see how the King’s Peace can be construed as a Greek solution to the problem of hegemony, at least since the Spartans assumed the role of guarantor of the Peace—doubtless by arrangement with the Great King.

The real answer to the problem of hegemony, it turns out, was ostensibly “dual-hegemony“—that Sparta and Athens together should govern Greece, as proposed in the Peace of Callistratus-Callias in 371 (104). This, however, turned out to be a non-starter, as it was designed by both of them (but chiefly by Athens) against Thebes. Nor was it “immediately wrecked by the Theban victory at Leuctra”—rather, by the Spartan and Athenian refusal to regard Thebes-Boeotia as an entity similar to Laconia and Attica, which brought on the battle of Leuctra. It is interesting that W. seeks to make much of this alleged dual hegemony, that really had nothing going for it, but never so much as mentions the dual hegemony of Sparta and Athens from 479 to 462 as championed by Cimon—a dual hegemony that was actually viable. 6 The thesis that after 362 a dual hegemony of “Thebes, with her allies from Boeotia, Euboea, Thessaly and some Peloponnesians,” on the one side, and “the coalition led by Athens and Sparta,” on the other, was thought feasible by Xenophon has little to recommend it. If Xenophon thought that this had any prospect of success, he was not living in the real world. Or the Greeks were not living in the real world—if it is true that “the attempt to hold things together was real: the Greeks are openly trying to do it” (108). The object of this argument appears to be the claim that “there really is no such thing in the Hellenica as Theban Hegemony” (113).

Two further points on method in W.’s discussion of Xenophon call for comment. One has to do with the role of speeches. He, for instance, gives at some length the speech of the Thebans in which they comment on Spartan rule ( Hell. 3.5.11-15). To this, he comments as follows: “in this speech Xenophon shows an ability to express in detail a swing of events” (96). Since Xenophon is here ostensibly reporting a speech made by a Theban, it seems strange that its contents should at the same time be attributed to Xenophon. This happens frequently. The comment continues: “what the Theban speaker omits, and what Xenophon himself does not express, is the question, What is to keep this same sequence, in which the victorious hegemon of the last war becomes the target of the next, the defeated aggressor becomes the champion, and allies vibrate between Athens and Sparta, from repeating?” This comes close to reading modern ideas into the ancient text—i.e., to extrapolate the questions which the Theban speaker and Xenophon should have asked, but did not. This is not an isolated instance.

W. also maintains that “the Hellenica is understandable as a whole if it is conceived as an historical answer to the questions, Why are there no grand hegemons anymore? What happened to hegemony?” (90). Why are there no grand hegemons anymore? For one thing, Xenophon himself does not compare Spartan hegemony with Athenian hegemony. Nor does he ever state that Athens was a ‘grand hegemon’. 7 More important is that he records the fall of two instances of arche.

In his discussion of Ephorus, W., to begin with, eschews Diodorus and chooses to concentrate on the fragments of Ephorus, especially Fragments 118 and 119. 8 As he acknowledges, F 118 gives “a bizarre view of Greek history” (122)—indeed, so bizarre that it is not really worth discussing (in part, that there was a Spartan hegemony from possibly ca. 870 to 371 BC). At the end of F 118, “the Thebans took the Hegemonia away from them”.

On the other hand, F 119 provides more specific information on Theban hegemony—consisting of the two basic components of geography and national character: the former very favourable, the latter much less so, because the Boeotians neglected education, which consigned Theban hegemony to a very brief history. According to W., this is the most ‘modern’ approach to hegemony in Greek historians: concise but comprehensive. He finds this approach attractive. Indeed, “in a sense, this passage of Ephorus is what I have been working toward all along: beyond the narrative itself, the idea of hegemony as a topos for the historian” (127). 9

In W.’s detailed discussion, numerous questions arise. At the outset, for instance, he dismisses Gomme’s theory that “access to foreign lands gives educational opportunities”. Indeed, he claims, “Ephorus comes nowhere near to implying that the ‘education’ was supposed to be a result of the geography”. Evidence for this he finds in particular in the countries or places Ephorus mentions: “surely one did not expect to get education from Macedon or Libya; and Propontis is not even a ‘foreign country’ in any real sense”. On the contrary, “agoge and paideia come from Sparta and Athens, not from Sicily and Cyprus” (129). W. may, however, be somewhat too hasty in dismissing Gomme. Speaking of the Western Greeks, tradition had it that the lawgivers Zaleucus and Charondas came from Locri and Catana, respectively. Gorgias, one of the founders of rhetoric, came from Leontini. Protagoras, one of the chief architects of the Sophistic Movement, came from Abdera, which, if not directly in Macedonia, was very close to it. The people of Samos probably learned a great deal about sculpture and architecture in Egypt, which was next door to Libya. Ephorus also points out that Euboea was so close that it was “almost part of Boeotia”. After the end of the Bronze Age, Euboea seems to have been first and foremost in establishing crucial connections with both the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean. In other words, Boeotia could have tapped into almost innumerable opportunities for culture and education at the time, had she chosen to do so. What the consequences of this might have been, is tantalizing to speculate—as Ephorus seems to have done. This affects W.’s thesis, of attempting to restrict the places mentioned by Ephorus (Italy, Sicily, Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, the islands, Macedonia, the Propontis and the Hellespont) to places connected with the “import of strategic materials,” and that Ephorus has mistaken the model of Boeotia for that of Athens (129-30). Since Ephorus, however, makes the point of Boeotia’s proximity to Euboea, he is scarcely likely to have confused Boeotia with Athens.

Otherwise, W. examines the detailed statements of Isocrates (136-42), from which he concludes that “Isocrates’ views on hegemony would fit perfectly onto the general argument suggested by Ephorus F 119” (142)—easy enough, since Ephorus’ statement on the subject is so general. He also notes that “the political thought of the time stresses the ethical acceptability of any hegemon or influential state,” that “moralizing of hegemony is in the air,” and that “it is likely that Ephorus has this view of hegemon”—and if so, “it is very important because of his standpoint and the scope of his historical project”—namely, a “moralizing account of hegemony as a unifying theme” (144).

He then proceeds, however, to investigate the question of just what represents Ephorus’ views as compared with those of Diodorus, and notes that modern research on Diodorus has “seriously weakened” Ephorean identification, to which he adds some instances of his own (150-76). Despite this serious weakening, he finally concludes that “there is great likelihood that Ephorus made hegemony into an explicit and systematic theme of his Histories, and that his explanation for the rise and fall of hegemonies was in accord with ideas found in other writers of the Fourth century, particularly Isocrates,” but at the same time, that Diodorus “has probably submerged the Ephorean material under his own ideas and interests too deeply to enable us to recover Ephorus, even though other scholars have attempted to do so” (176-77). On this ambiguous note the book ends. If W. is correct, we now know somewhat more about hegemonia in ancient Greece—but at the same time, also somewhat less.

  • [1] Cf. P. Treves, “Herodotus, Gelon and Pericles,”CP 36 (1941), 321-345. [2] W. never specifies just when he thinks Athenian hegemony had completed the process of turning into arche. [3] W.W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus I (Oxford 1912), 295. [4] Loc. cit. [5] As for No. 4, there really was no ‘alliance’ with Epidamnus. The Epidamnians, upon consulting the Oracle at Delphi on whether “they should hand over their city to the Corinthians as their founders, were advised by the Priestess to do so and to accept the Corinthians as their military commanders [ hegemonas ]”. They accepted this advice, and “made over the colony to the Corinthians [ paredosan ten opoikian ]” (1.25.1-2). This does not amount to a symmachy. [6] W. does not even mention Cimon. [7] Similarly, W. writes that “the Peloponnesian War seemed to show that even a fine arkhe could be brought down by misos” (91). This, however, is also a modern interpretation. No Greeks prior to the War regarded Athens’ rule as a ‘fine’arche. [8] Following others, he rejects F 191 = POxy 1610, which seems to imply an Athenian hegemony of unspecified duration. [9] Emphasis added.