Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Part 5

1642again, Going Postal
Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, The Selection of Children in Sparta, 1785
Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Corcyran Stasis as a Template for Civil Strife and War

While one might characterise the main theme of Thucydides’ work to be the gradual breakdown of Athens, its constitution, character, morality and eventually its entire empire under the pressures of war, imperial overstretch and arrogance, Thucydides was also interested in similar processes underway more generally in the Greek world which the war often initiated or at least magnified.  He devotes particular attention to events at Corcyra (Corfu), a powerful Greek city state on the fringes of the Greek world which derived much of its prosperity from being the jumping off point for ships travelling between Greece and Italy.

Corcyra’s collapse into a vicious and protracted civil war between Athenian supporting democrats and the Spartan inclined oligarchic party serves as a template for what happened in many Greek city states later as they were forced to choose between the two sides in the Peloponnesian War.  Ultimately, Thucydides may have seen it as a precursor to the civil strife that broke out in Athens in the last decade of the war, initially in the oligarchic coup of 411 BC and what followed.  We cannot be sure as Thucydides did not live to continue beyond the events of 411 BC, but his practice of setting up pairs of linked events suggests he saw the Corcyran stasis (civil strife including civil war) as a case study of what later became widespread, even infecting Athens


Corcyra was rich and powerful, possessing a large navy and some small colonies on the opposite mainland. It was a colony of Corinth and, unlike most mother-daughter city colonies which maintained close relations after the foundation, Corcyra and Corinth became enemies, probably because of commercial rivalries over trade with Sicily and Italy, some of whose cities were also Corinthian colonies.  It was also a democracy and this fact, and its enmity for Corinth, Sparta’s most important ally and the leading naval power in the Peloponnesian League, made it a natural ally of Athens.

In fact, it was the rivalry between Corinth and Corcyra that triggered the Peloponnesian War.  A Corcyran colony, the city of Epidamnus (modern Durrēs on the coast of western Albania), had been having the worse of a long war with an Illyrian tribe of the interior.  Stasis broke out between the democratic and aristocratic parties within the city and the latter were expelled, where they joined with the Illyrians in attacking the city.  Hard pressed, the Epidamnians appealed to Corcyra for help, which turned them down, so they then approached the Corinthians who prepared an expeditionary force and also new civilian settlers to bring relief to the besieged city, which they did.

The Corcyrans reacted with fury to the news that Corinth now controlled Epidamnus and sent a large fleet and army to besiege the city for the second time in alliance with the Epidamnian exiles and Illyrians.  The Corinthians responded by raising a huge relief expedition drawn not just from their other colony cities but also from some of their allies from the Peloponnesian League (not Sparta), but this was defeated by the large Corcyran navy, and then the besieged Epidamnus surrendered to its attackers, the Corinthians within being imprisoned and other foreigners sold into slavery.  The Corinthians responded by preparing an even larger force and calling in even more allies, alarming Corcyra which approached Athens to join the Athenian alliance, which it did despite Corinth warning Athens of the potential consequences. Thucydides says the Athenians did it to prevent the Corcyran navy, Greece’s third largest, falling into the hands of Corinth.

By the time the Corinthians’ third expedition struck, a small Athenians squadron was serving with the Corcyrans and a larger one was on the way.  Battle was joined and the Corinthian led force inflicted heavy losses on the Corcyrans, taking over 1,000 prisoners, but was unable to achieve a decisive victory because of the arrival of the second Athenian fleet. The Corinthians withdrew, taking their captives with them, nursing a large grievance against Athens.  Traditionally a dove in regards to the Peloponnesian League’s attitude towards Athens, Corinth now became a hawk and a wider war became inevitable.

The Corcyran Civil War

The failure of the Spartan attempt to relieve the siege of Mytilene led to the Peloponnesians to despatch those forces to Corcyra to try to take control of this key Athenian ally.  Civil strife had broken out between the democratic and oligarchic parties in 427 BC.  The Corinthians had earlier freed the 1,000 Corcyran prisoners captured before the war’s outbreak, who they had treated well, in exchange for the latter’s promise to bring the island over to the Peloponnesian side.

The returned prisoners tried to bring the leader of the pro Athenian party to trial, but he was acquitted and took legal action against the richest of his opponents and was successful.  Desperate, the pro Corinthian party launched a coup, killing much of the government and fighting broke out in the capital between the two factions.  Outnumbered the oligarchs slowly had the worst of it and set fire to parts of the city, until an Athenian flotilla arrived and imposed a truce which soon broke down, hundreds of the oligarchs taking refuge in temples where they were massacred by their enemies in defiance of religious law.  A Peloponnesian squadron tried to intervene and won an initial naval battle in which the Corcyran ships started fighting each other, even crewmates on the same ships killing one another, but achieved little due to the Athenian presence.  The ruthless massacre of the oligarchs continued, hundreds, thousands, whole families, perishing with the remainder escaping to the Corfu hills from where they launched a guerrilla war lasting several years until finally overwhelmed and wiped out.

To give you a taste, “… the Corcyrans continued to massacre those of their own citizens whom they considered to be enemies.  Their victims were accused of conspiring to overthrow the democracy, but in fact were often killed on grounds of personal hatred or else by their debtors because of the money they owed.  There was death in every shape and form.  And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it.  There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysius and died there.”

The Corcyran people descended into fratricidal Hell, destroying their own city and society in a frenzy of terror and political extremism.  Thereafter, it subsided into minor power status, for Thucydides a warning of what was to come.  Thucydides for once speaks to the ‘camera’ directly, eschewing his normal show, don’t tell approach, for three long intense chapters (Book 3, 82:84) to explain how this madness infected many Greek cities, and how similar scenes were repeated over the next few decades.  To give you just a taste,

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge.  To fit in with the change of events, words too had to change their meanings.  What used to be described as thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and merely wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward, any moderation was an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against any enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was cleverer still to see that a plot was hatching…”

“As the result of these revolutions there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world.  The simple way of looking at things, which is often the mark of a noble character, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist… As for ending this state of affairs no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break… As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival…”

Sound familiar?  As Thucydides said in his introduction – human nature does not change.  The whole description of the Corcyran stasis is an image of a dystopia familiar to anyone with the horrors of 20th century ideological totalitarianism, the inversion of the values that build strong societies.  As an extended piece of writing defending moderation, pragmatic commonsense, and decency it’s over 1000 words of passionate polemic from a man exiled from his own city who saw the sane world in which he grew up descending into destructive madness.  Most sadly for Thucydides, he saw the same forces begin their work in his home city of Athens in the first oligarchic coup of 411 BC, another event in which Alcibiades, now returned from exile helping Sparta, was involved.

Athens 411 BC and After

The defeat and destruction of the Athenian expedition to Sicily was a major turning point in the war.  The Spartans had in 413 BC decided to station part of their army in Attika at a fort at Decelea, effectively shutting up the entire Athenian population within the city permanently and forcing the walls to be constantly garrisoned.  This put a tremendous strain on the population and economy, making them more dependent on imported corn from the Black Sea region, and the slaves important to the Athenian economy had a focal point to which to escape.

The Athenians with a huge effort managed to rebuild much of their navy, but their reserves of men and money were now dangerously depleted, and both restive subject cities and a Persian Empire hoping to recapture the Greek cities in Asia lost to Athens half a century before, took note and made plans accordingly.  The Peloponnesian League needed to wrest control of the sea and its maritime empire from Athens to win the war but lacked a large enough navy or the money to build or man one.  Money Persia had in abundance and so a sort-of-deal was done between the Persians and Peloponnesians in which the Persians would supply the requisite funds and resources for the Peloponnesians to build a navy capable of defeating Athens, in return for the latter turning a blind eye to the reincorporation of the Greek cities of Asia into its empire, a commitment the Spartans never seem to have had any intention of honouring in full.

Alcibiades, living in exile in Sparta, meanwhile was urging Sparta to send the navy it and its allies were now building, reinforced by contingents from Sparta’s allies in Italy and Sicily, into the Eastern Aegean to support the many former Athenian allies and subject cities who took their chance to break away.  The Athenians based much of their fleet and army on the island of Samos, just off the coast of Asia Minor, from where they could blockade and besiege the city of Chios, the most powerful of the rebels.

While this was dragging on, Alcibiades fled Sparta to avoid arrest (he was detested and distrusted by the leading Spartan king) and took refuge with one of the Persian governors of the region (Tissaphernes) whom he advised to reduce his links with the Spartans.  Alcibiades was now scheming to engineer a return to Athens in honour, but he knew he needed to overturn the democracy in order to achieve that and to that end he got in touch with some leading Athenians serving with their forces on Samos to persuade them to plan the overthrow of Athenian democracy as it would make it easier to win Persian support for Athens and to make peace with Sparta.  By this point many of the wealthier Athenians were disillusioned with the war and blamed it on the democratic system.

A bewildering and complex set of conspiracies, plots and negotiations commenced between two rival Persian governors, Alcibiades, rival factions among the Athenian forces on Samos, would-be oligarchs in Athens itself, the Spartans and various other players, with many playing both sides against the middle, routinely double-crossing the others.  The outcome was that in 411 BC, the Athenian forces on Samos declared for the abolition of the democracy and institution of an oligarchy, and helped instigate their goals in Athens, largely peacefully but with some attendant murders, primarily on the promise that they could deliver peace with Sparta.  They could not of course, the Spartans didn’t trust them, and the forces at Samos reverted back to supporting the democracy, brought Alcibiades out of exile as he promised he could win them Persian support, and sent units back to Athens to support the restoration of democracy which the oligarchs prepared to resist, but the regime collapsed and its leading members took refuge with the Spartans.  Confused?  That’s the simple version and accords with much of what Thucydides said about the malaise now becoming prevalent across the Greek world.


How Thucydides would have presented the later bout of the democrat-oligarch stasis that followed Athens’ defeat in 404 BC we can but speculate, but it was far nastier than the 411 BC version.  It never reached the Hellish depths of the Corcyran stasis, which Thucydides clearly regarded as the case exemplar of the madness that descended on the Greek world, combining vicious warfare between the city states and civil war within them.

Thucydides’ account of Corcyra is chilling and rivals his passages on the Melian Dialogue and the end of the Sicilian Expedition for dramatic story telling and for the open intrusion of Thucydides’ own views into the narrative.  One is left with the impression that it was driven primarily by fear, both sides stopped talking, dehumanised the other and their perspective, regarded their opinions as illegitimate, ideological loyalty became more important than that to one’s country or countrymen or sheer decency, and then entered an escalating cycle of aggression, retaliation and fear until it became a matter of extermination.  When the centre cannot hold, the roof falls in.  The parallels echo down the ages.

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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