The territory of Athens was being ravaged before the very eyes of the Athenians, a sight which the young men had never seen before and the old only in the Median wars; and it was naturally thought a grievous insult, and the determination was universal, especially among the young men, to sally forth and stop it. Knots were formed in the streets and engaged in hot discussion; for if the proposed sally was warmly recommended, it was also in some cases opposed. Oracles of the most various import were recited by the collectors, and found eager listeners in one or other of the disputants. Foremost in pressing for the sally were the Acharnians, as constituting no small part of the army of the state, and as it was their land that was being ravaged. In short, the whole city was in a most excited state; Pericles was the object of general indignation; his previous counsels were totally forgotten; he was abused for not leading out the army which he commanded, and was made responsible for the whole of the public suffering. He, meanwhile, seeing anger and infatuation just now in the ascendant, and of his wisdom in refusing a sally, would not call either assembly or meeting of the people, fearing the fatal results of a debate inspired by passion and not by prudence.Let's imagine the range of policies that the Athenians could have adopted. Trivially, they range from "arm everyone and sally immediately" to "surrender now;" Thucydides implies that the relevant policy range is from the Archarnians' ideal point ("send as many men as necessary to secure the immediate neighborhood") to Pericles' ("wait until the situation has resolved itself"). Under the Athenian constitution, presumably, Pericles has the right to call the assembly to adopt a new policy, but he knows that in the heat of the moment they will adopt a policy much closer to the Acharnians' ideal point than to his. Pericles suspects that over time Athens' allies will reinforce him, and at the same time that the Spartans will tire of offering battle without a response. The greater strategic flexibility of the Athenian navy also (he believes) offers him the ability to choose when and where to strike at the Peloponnesians and their allies, whereas giving battle to the Spartans outside of Athens risks everything. The ability to control the agenda of policy is crucial but it must be nerve-wracking to exercise. Thucydides captures the dilemma here well. Over time, Pericles's policy (in this instance) will be proven to be the correct one, but implementing it both requires bearing immediate costs and a reliance on the formal institutions of Athens. Had the policy failed, it would have failed catastrophically, with Pericles removed by irregular means and Athens itself in jeopardy.
26 December 2012
The History of the Peloponnesian War: