The World's Famous Orations/Volume 1/In Favor of the Peloponnesian War
IN FAVOR OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
Born about 500 B.C., died in 429: entered public life about 4C9 as leader of the Democratic party; principal minister of the Athenian State after 444; commanded in the first Peloponnesian War.
I always adhere to the same opinion, Athenians, that we should make no concessions to the Lacedæmonians; altho I know that men are not persuaded to go to war, and act when engaged in it, with the same temper; but that, according to results, they also change their views. Still I see that the same advice, or nearly the same, must be given by me now as before; and I claim from those of you who are being persuaded to war, that you will support the common resolutions, should we ever meet with any reverse; or not, on the other hand, to lay any claim to intelligence, if successful. For it frequently happens that the results of measures proceed no less incomprehensibly than the counsels of man; and therefore we are accustomed to regard fortune as the author of all things that turn out contrary to our expectation.
Now the Lacedæmonians were both evidently plotting against us before, and now especially are doing so. For whereas it is expressed in the treaty, that we should give and accept judicial decisions of our differences, and each side [in the mean time] keep what we have; they have neither themselves hitherto asked for such a decision, nor do they accept it when we offer it; but wish our complaints to be settled by war rather than by words; and are now come dictating, and no longer expostulating. For they command us to raise the siege of Potidæa, and to leave Ægina independent, and to rescind the decree respecting the Megareans; while these last envoys that have come charge us also to leave the Greeks independent. But let none of you think we should be going to war for a trifle, if we did not rescind the decree respecting the Megareans, which they principally put forward, [saying,] that if it were rescinded, the war would not take place: nor leave in your minds any room for self-accusation hereafter, as tho you had gone to war for a trivial thing. For this trifle involves the whole confirmation, as well as trial, of your purpose. If you yield to these demands, you will soon also be ordered to do something greater, as having in this instance obeyed through fear: but by resolutely refusing you would prove clearly to them that they must treat with you more on an equal footing.
Henceforth then make up your minds, either to submit before you are hurt, or, if we go to war, as I think is better, on important or trivial grounds alike to make no concession, nor to keep with fear what we have now acquired; for both the greatest and the least demand from equals, imperiously urged on their neighbors previous to a judicial decision, amounts to the same degree of subjugation.
Now with regard to the war, and the means possessed by both parties, that we shall not be the weaker side, be convinced by hearing the particulars. The Peloponnesians are men who cultivate their land themselves; and they have no money either in private or public funds. Then they are inexperienced in long and transmarine wars, as they only wage them with each other for a short time, owing to their poverty. And men of this description can neither man fleets nor often send out land armaments; being at the same time absent from their private business, and spending from their own resources; and, moreover, being also shut out from the sea: but it is superabundant revenues that support wars, rather than compulsory contributions. And men who till the land themselves are more ready to wage war with their persons than with their money: feeling confident, with regard to the former, that they will escape from dangers; but not being sure, with regard to the latter, that they will not spend it before they have done; especially should the war be prolonged beyond their expectations, as [in this case] it probably may. For in one battle the Peloponnesians and their allies might cope with all the Greeks together; but they could not carry on a war against resources of a different description to their own; since they have no one board of council, so as to execute any measure with vigor; and all having equal votes, and not being of the same races, each forwards his own interest; for which reasons nothing generally is brought to completion.
Most of all will they be impeded by scarcity of money, while, through their slowness in providing it, they continue to delay their operations; whereas the opportunities of war wait for no one. Neither, again, is their raising works against us worth fearing, or their fleet. With regard to the former, it were difficult even in time of peace to set up a rival city; much more in a hostile country, and when we should have raised works no less against them: and if they build [only] a fort, they might perhaps hurt some part of our land by incursions and desertions; it will not, however, be possible for them to prevent our sailing to their country and raising forts, and retaliating with our ships, in which we are so strong. For we have more advantage for land-service from our naval skill, than they have for naval matters from their skill by land.
But to become skilful at sea will not easily be acquired by them. For not even have you, tho practising from the very time of the Median War, brought it to perfection as yet: how then shall men who are agriculturists and not mariners, and, moreover, will not even be permitted to practise, from being always observed by us with many ships, achieve any thing worth speaking of? Against a few ships observing them they might run the risk, encouraging their ignorance by their numbers; but when kept in check by many, they will remain quiet; and through not practising will be the less skilful, and therefore the more afraid. For naval service is a matter of art, like anything else; and does not admit of being practised just when it may happen, as a bywork; but rather does not even allow of anything else being a bywork to it.
Even if they should take some of the funds at Olympia or Delphi, and endeavor, by higher pay, to rob us of our foreign sailors, that would be alarming, if we were not a match for them, by going on board ourselves and our resident aliens: but now this is the case; and, what is best of all, we have native steersmen, and crews at large, more numerous and better than all the rest of Greece. And with the danger before them, none of the foreigners would consent to fly his country, and at the same time with less hope of success to join them in the struggle, for the sake of a few days' higher pay.
The circumstances of the Peloponnesians then seem, to me at least, to be of such or nearly such a character; while ours seem both to be free from the faults I have found in theirs, and to have other great advantages in more than an equal degree. Again, should they come by land against our country, we will sail against theirs; and the loss will be greater for even a part of the Peloponnese to be ravaged, than for the whole of Attica. For they will not be able to obtain any land in its stead without fighting for it; while we have abundance, both in islands and on the mainland. Moreover, consider it [in this point of view]: if we had been islanders, who would have been more impregnable? And we ought, as it is, with views as near as possible to those of islanders, to give up all thought of our land and houses, and keep watch over the sea and the city; and not, through being enraged on their account, to come to an engagement with the Peloponnesians, who are much more numerous; (for if we defeat them, we shall have to fight again with no fewer of them; and if we meet with a reverse, our allies are lost also: for they will not remain quiet if we are not able to lead our forces against them:) and we should make lamentation, not for the houses and land, but for the lives [that are lost]: for it is not these things that gain men, but men that gain these things. And if I thought that I should persuade you, I would bid you go out yourselves and ravage them, and show the Peloponnesians that you will not submit to them for these things, at any rate.
I have also many other grounds for hoping that we shall conquer, if you will avoid gaining additional dominion at the time of your being engaged in the war, and bringing on yourselves dangers of your own choosing; for I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of the enemy's plans. But those points shall be explained in another speech at the time of the events. At the present time let us send these men away with this answer: that with regard to the Megareans, we will also allow them to use our ports and market, if the Lacedæmonians also abstain from expelling foreigners, whether ourselves or our allies (for it forbids neither the one nor the other in the treaty): with regard to the states, that we will leave them independent, if we also held them as independent when we made the treaty; and when they too restore to the states a permission to be independent suitably to the interests, not of the Lacedæmonians themselves, but of the several states, as they wish: that we are willing to submit to judicial decision, according to the treaty: and that we will not commence hostilities, but will defend ourselves against those who do. For this is both a right answer and a becoming one for the state to give.
But you should know that go to war we must; and if we accept it willingly rather than not, we shall find the enemy less disposed to press us hard; and, moreover, that it is from the greatest hazards that the greatest honors also are gained, both by state and by individual. Our fathers, at any rate, by withstanding the Medes—tho they did not begin with such resources [as we have], but had even abandoned what they had—and by counsel, more than by fortune, and by daring, more than by strength, beat off the barbarian, and advanced those resources to their present height. And we must not fall short of them; but must repel our enemies in every way, and endeavor to bequeath our power to our posterity no less [than we received it].
- Delivered before the Assembly at Athens during a discussion of the Lacedæmonian demands. Reported by Thucydides. Translated by Henry Dale.
As to the authenticity of the speeches here taken from Thucydides (those of Pericles, Cleon, Nicias, and Alcibiades), the statement of Thucydides on the subject must be kept in mind: "I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words that I had heard spoken, and so it was with those who brought me report. I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say, in view of the situation: at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." R. C. Jebb, discussing this matter, says: "We may be sure that wherever Thucydides had any authentic clue to the actual tenor of the speech, he preferred to follow that clue rather than to draw on his own invention." Jebb adds, that "to these speeches is due, in no small measure, the imperishable intellectual interest of the history."