Greatness through Archidamus and Pericles

In Thucydides’ masterpiece about the Peloponnesian War, we are introduced to two of the greatest warriors: Archidamus and Pericles. Both Archidamus, “who had the reputation of being at once a wise and moderate man” (1.79), and Pericles, “ablest alike in counsel and in action” (1.139), seem to be rightfully deemed as ‘great.’ However, their greatness can be further differentiated.

First, with Archidamus, his speeches have the virtues of moderation and wisdom (see 1.80-1.85, 2.11). However, if we judge virtue not only by the intention but also by the outcome, Archidamus is not completely flawless. After the beautiful speech by which we first encounter him, an ephor only needs a few sentences to undo Archidamus’s advice of delaying going to war with Athens (see 1.86). This incapability of convincing the Spartans makes one wonder if Archidamus has a good understanding of the Spartans’ national character. Instead, his delicate speech seems almost Athenian, a conjecture consistent with other Spartans’ criticism of Archidamus for his “Athenian sympathies.” (2.18)

Furthermore, although Archidamus claims that it is Spartan to “always base [their] preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good” (1.84), he underestimates his “guest-friend” Pericles (2.13). For he believes that by “wasting and destroying [the Athenians] property” “that they will take the field.” “For,” he believes, “men are always exasperated at suffering injuries to which they are not accustomed, and on seeing them inflicted before their very eyes; and where least inclined for reflection, rush with the greatest heat to action.” (2.11) Hence, what he does here seems to contradict his claim that the enemy is as wise as them. Instead, he believes that he can fool the Athenians to face them on the land instead of the sea. And even though many of the Athenians want to defend their lands (see 2.21), he underestimates Pericles’ ability “to exercise an independent control over the multitude” (2.65), which allowed Pericles to avoid land battle (see 2.22). Hence, the greatness of Archidamus is clearly not without flaws.

Now, with Pericles, one could argue that Athens would not have lost the war if Pericles stayed alive and kept his power. For, “the correctness of his foresight concerning the war became better known after his death.” (2.65) Also, whereas Archidamus was not even able to convince a small group of people, Pericles was able to convince a multitude of The People in a democracy. Pericles was so skilled in persuading a multitude that “what was nominally a democracy was becoming in his hands government by the first citizen.” (2.65) He even “enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction” (2.65), which is especially apparent in his last speech (see 2.60-2.64). So, unlike ‘King’ Archidamus, Pericles, as long as he was in power, exhibited the ‘kinglike virtue’ of being able to enforce his advice.

Furthermore, it seems unfair to criticize him for being able to convince the Athenians “as a community” but not “as private individuals.” (2.65) His incapability should instead be blamed on human nature. Indeed, “[h]uman action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.” (Lincoln, Cooper Union Address) It is impressive to what extent Pericles could tame the whims of the multitude, but sometimes those whims are untamable, and you cannot blame the tamer of not being able to tame something untamable.

Therefore, it is understandable that Thucydides gives both leaders speeches of advice, but only Pericles a funeral oration. By doing so, Thucydides reveals wisdom that both great men possess but also what distinguishes Pericles from Archidamus: the effectiveness of his words and the correctness of his foresight. And since we know that it is an Athenian custom that “a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation, pronounces over them an appropriate eulogy,” Pericles deserves the oration. Thus, it is not strange that Thucydides applied that custom to his own book so that only Pericles deserves a funeral oration and not Archidamus.

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