Thucydides’ Athenian Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism is a topic that comes up a lot in political discussions and philosophy seminars.  What is exceptionalism, who is exceptional, why are they exceptional, is exceptionalism just a smoke-screen for imperialism?  so on and so forth.  Also, it has become somewhat common since 2003 to begin referring to America as “the New Rome,” even though most classicists and historians generally eschew such fanciful assertions.  However, if America is not the New Rome, perhaps America can better be seen as the New Athens in light of reading Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides is often considered the “father of objective history” or “scientific history.”  This is, as we shall see, a very poor reading of Thucydides.  In fact, most classicists don’t see him as that at all.  Donald Kagan, the eminent classicist at Yale, even wrote a book called Thucydides and the Reinvention of History where he cast Thucydides as the first modern historian, that is: the partisan historian.  Beneath the “presentation” of both sides throughout his work, Thucydides is really exploring deep philosophical themes, as well as crafting his apology to Athens.  Apology, here, is not “I’m sorry.”  Apologetics, in Greek, meant “defense.”  It is basically Thucydides’s defense of his actions as an Athenian general, as well as being a general apology for Athens and the war itself.

The philosophical themes that Thucydides touches upon throughout his work are generally contained in the many “speeches.”  As any sensible reader would know, Thucydides was not present at any of these speeches.  The speeches are re-written imaginations of what they would have been like, and in these rewritten speeches that play to Thucydides’s imagination, Thucydides grants himself the license to explore philosophical issues at hand.  In particular, Thucydides is interested in the ideas of just vs. necessity, and their contingently related subfields of right vs. compulsion.  Who was justified in the war?  Who acted out of necessity?  Does “being just” also equal “being in the right”?  Does necessity stem from compulsion?  Is necessity equivalent to “being the wrong?”  Why is Athens and her empire just, and what makes Athens so unique and special among the Greek city states?  These are all questions that Thucydides explores in his work.  In particular, I want to highlight some of the more memorable speeches in Book I and II of Thucydides’s great work that touch on all of these issues.  Reading between the lines is one of the arts of philosophy, and while Thucydides’s very quickly writes on these issues and moves on, he rarely ever finishes with these issues that he constantly addresses and they recur throughout the work.


The first major speech that informs us of Thucydides’s broader philosophical exploration is on the Dispute over Corcyra.  Corcyra is a subject colony of Corinth, but has grown exponentially in power and wealth.  In fact, Corcyra has become so powerful and wealthy that she possessed the second strongest navy of all the Greek city-states.  Emboldened by this fact, Corcyra seeks independence from her colonial overlords.

In the midst of this, Corcyra takes her case to Athens and petitions for assistance.  Thucydides offers intriguing commentary here.  He maintains that the Corcyreans are in the right in coming to meet Athens.  He also explores, beyond this issue of “being right and proper” with the theme of isolation and internationalism.  Likewise, he interweaves political realism in this speech too.  We shall explore each here.

First, Thucydides begins by retelling us, “Athenians, in a situation like this, it is right and proper that first of all certain points should be made clear.  We have to ask you for help.”  Corcyra begins there petition to Athens by claiming to be upfront, and in being upfront, not only are they acting rightly and properly to Athens, but that in doing so the Athenians will see their case as being in the right against Corinth.

The speeches over the dispute over Corcyra explore the themes of right and proper, colonial lordship, and isolationism.  With regard to right and proper, both the Corcyreans and Corinthians think that they are in the right.  For Corcyra, they claim that the purposes of colonies are to extend the rule of law and legal and political traditions of the Mother City, as well as to enrich both parties (rather than a one-way relationship).  The Mother City (in this case Corinth), treats her colonial daughter with the same rights and respect as the native subjects in the Mother City, not as slaves and subjected dominions to be used as prostitute entities for the Mother City.  It is a mutual relationship, one that benefits and empowers both colony and colonial mother.  Corcyra maintains that Corinth has reneged on all of these responsibilities as overseer, and has treated them harshly and unfairly.  Thus, the Corcyreans argue, it is only right and natural that they are seeking to be masters of their own destiny since Corinth keeps trying to suppress them.

Corinth, on the other hand, charges that Corcyra is behaving like an impudent child.  The Corcyreans lie in between their breaths.  Corinthian representatives tell the Athenian representatives that this matter does not concern Athens, and that Corinth is in the right to quell dissident subjects with the full power that law grants Corinth to do so.  Corinth applies the opposite logic to that of Corcyra, claiming that the Corcyreans were treated with dignity until Corcyra, through its own machinations and intents, built for itself a de-facto empire and fleet for her own gain, and then rebelled.  Corinth, legally speaking, is in the right to try to reclaim sovereignty over her colonial subject.

We see in this exchange over the disputation that Thucydides is wrestling with philosophical themes.  Who is in the right?  What is nature?  Is nature dependent upon law?  Or is nature embedded and innate to nature itself (which would also mean innate to humans).  The Corcyreans are making the latter claim, the Corinthians the former.

Apart from this discussion Thucydides is also exploring the nature of political relations: isolationism, realism, and internationalism, all factor into Thucydides’s account.  The Corcyreans first admit that their policy of isolation was wrong-headed.  They admit this and claim that in this admission they are also highlighting growing wisdom.  They had originally thought it was wise to steer clear of others and avoid alliances.  They now come to assert that they were wrong to think this, alliances are unavoidable, and therefore isolationism – however reasonable it sounds, is actually unreasonable.

Corinth charges back by claiming that the Corcyreans are only coming to Athens for help because they need help from Athens to win in the struggle that should only concern Corinth and Corcyra.  The Corinthians tell the Athenians time and time again not to be deceived by the sly tongue of the Corcyrean representatives.   Corcyra embarked on the policy of isolation to benefit herself and only herself.  Corcyra is now begging at the feet of Athens for an alliance because Corcyra is still acting in a policy directive to benefit herself and only herself.  Corinth informs Athens that they have no reason or interest to back Corcyra no matter what Corcyra says.  (The Corinthians are unaware of Athenian plans to consummate a larger empire and use this as a pretext for their dreams of empire.)  The Corinthians explain that the Corcyreans haven’t learned anything at all, instead rather they are still the same wolves they were when the Corinthians first established the colony as they are today claiming to have grown wiser in abandoning the policy of isolation.  Corcyra is deceptive and always has been.  They’ve been deceptive as colonial subjects, deceiving Corinth as to what she was really doing, and now she’s still being deceptive right in front of Athens despite masking it with claims of growing wisdom and recognition of the errors of her past policies.

The Corcyreans also beseech Athens that their coming to Athens is in the interest of Athens.  The Corcyreans have the second largest fleet, second behind the Athenian fleet.  The alliance would guarantee Athenian naval supremacy.  Secondly, the Corcyreans also claim that the Athenians aren’t violating the natural law relations and actions – Corcyra isn’t the aggressor in the conflict, so the moral high ground is on Athens’s side to help a weakened, dominated, and prostituted colonial subject who simply desires the natural freedom that all men seek when their parent abuses them.  Third, the Corcyreans also claim that an alliance between the two would boost Athens’s own Delian League alliance.  Lastly, the Corcyreans also claim that their character – highlighted in their want for freedom, understanding that a navy is the truest expression of power and prestige, and their “initiative” taken in seeking the alliance is reminiscent of the Athenian character.  Corcyra isn’t a smaller Corinth; Corcyra is, in fact, a smaller Athens.  It would benefit Athens to have another city like itself in her alliance.

Corinth makes one last plea that if Athens desires peace, then she should avoid allying with Corcyra since doing so would make war unavoidable.  Sparta will back Corinth, and if Athens backs Corcyra, the two great alliances will be dragged into war.  Corinth tells Athens that all of Greece is watching, and that Athenian actions in this small regional dispute between colony and overlord will show Athens’s true colors.  In the end, Athens sided with Corcyra, in part, because this is what Athens was working toward and always wanted.  In fact, the Athenians were prodding Corcyrean discontent against Corinth to begin with, with the hope of intervening on Corcyra’s side and winning a decisive war to consummate her dreams of universal empire stretching from across the Anatolian cost, down to Carthage and Sicily.


The second great speech in Book I is the Debate over the Declaration of War between Athens and Sparta.  In this speech the case of Athenian Exceptionalism is on full display, and it is often lost to those who are told that Thucydides’s work is one of objective history simply because the Spartan and Athenian speeches are both represented.  I am skipping over the Spartan speech, since we are focusing on how Thucydides presents the Athenian case.

For all the talk of America being the “New Rome,” this is perhaps the most illustrative of the dialogue moments to see if that claim holds – or whether America is, in fact, the New Athens (especially when continuing this dialogue into the Second Book when analyzing Pericles’s Funeral Oration).  The recurrent theme throughout all the examples provided by the Athenians is that their empire is a just empire, acquired justly, ruled justly, and because of this, Athens’s empire is a benign empire of liberty and justice.

In the beginning of their speech, the Athenians lay out a defense of their own character by saying, “This is our record…”  They immediately begin with a record of war, which should be interesting to say the least that in their defense of empire, rule, and character, that they open with a statement about war rather than peace.  “This is our record.  At Marathon we stood out against the Persians and faced them single-handed.  In the later invasion, when we were unable to meet the enemy on land ([reference to Thermopylae]), we and all our people took to our ships, and joined in the battle at Salamis.  It was this battle that prevented the Persians from sailing against the Peloponnese and destroying the cities one by one.”

The Athenians are claiming two things here.  First, their record is one of the defense of the Greeks.  Second, and more importantly, it was the Battle of Salamis, rather than Thermopylae, which was the decisive battle that saved Greece.  (On this note, unless you watched the horrendous movie 300, all historians are actually in agreement here – Salamis was one-hundred times over the more critical battle for the Greeks to have won; after all, Thermopylae was a defeat that was eulogized as something heroic.)  Thus, it was the Athenians who bore the brunt, but also rightfully bore the glory afterward, of confronting the Persian invasion.  As the Athenians continue in their speech, they make it plainly clear that it was only after the naval defeat that the Persians counted their losses and turned back.

The fate of Hellas depended on her navy,” the Athenians continue.  And by navy, that means Athens.  “Now we contributed to this result in three important ways: we produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of the generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage.  Out of 400 ships, nearly two-thirds were ours: the commander was Themistocles, who was mainly responsible for the battle being fought at the straits ([thus highlighting Themistocles’s intelligence]), and this obviously was what saved us.”  The Athenians play up the Battle of Salamis again, this time by highlighting the material effort of Athens.  Where was Sparta – indeed, where was the rest of Greece in this struggle?  Two-thirds of the ships were Athenian.  The commander was Athenian, and by fighting where he did, not only did he display Athenian genius, it was precisely because of his Athenian genius that the battle was won and Greece saved.  In all of this too, the courage of Athens was made manifest.  Athens may be romanticizing the battle, but they are ever studious to point out these “obvious” facts.  While this all may be true historically, we should ask ourselves, as philosophers, why does Thucydides go to such great lengths to highlight this?

The Athenians continue on, charging that the courage and generosity of Athens is unduly paid with Spartan hostility and animosity.  “We did not gain this empire by force,” the Athenians finally proclaim.  “It came to us at a time when you were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians.”  This is also true.  The Spartans were looking to peace after Thermopylae as the Persians continued southward and began burning and sacking Greek cities and villages.  But, again, the Athenian-led naval coalition scored the decisive victory.  Therefore, we see in this claim that the Athenians acquisition of their empire was in defense, not offence, thus it was justly acquired – and also acquired through the cunning, wit, and bravery of Athenian character.  Could there be a nobler and better suited people to have an empire?

At this time our allies came to us on their own accord and begged us to lead them.”  This is another one of the subtle digs at Sparta.  The Athenians claim that their empire also is the product of the justness of Athens coming to the defense of the rest of Greece, who turned to Athens in this moment of trial and tribulation.  Thank God Athens prevailed, in other words.  But their empire, not only was it justly acquired in defense of Greece, the Greeks quite literally begged Athens to save them.  It is only proper that Athens won the empire then.

The Athenians also give a rhetorical punch to the Corinthians and how they run their small empire.  “No one bothers to inquire why this reproach is not made against other imperial powers, who treat their subjects much more harshly than we do: the fact being, of course, that where force can be used there is no need to bring in the law.  Our subjects, on the other hand, are used to being treated as equals.”  Here the Athenians respond to the Corinth-Corcyrae Dispute, but they also boldly claim that their empire brings law, order, and justice to its territories.  And, in doing this, all are treated as equals.  Three cheers for the Athenian Empire bringing democracy, justice, and equality to all of Greece!

To end, the Athenians caution the Spartans that, even if they managed to win, Greece would turn against them.  Furthermore, they remind the Spartans that they would be the ones who break the peace treaty between them.  Thus, legally speaking, Sparta will have declared war on Athens and Athens would have every right to defend itself.

In this remarkable speech, Thucydides gives a defense of empire through a defense of political and personal character, as well as a defense of the acquisition of the empire in historical memory.  The Athenian Empire was forged through defense against an evil invader.  The empire fell to them, so to speak, because the rest of Greece begged Athens to save them.  At the same time, it was Athenian courage, wit, and material power that overcame the Persians.  In the aftermath of all of this, the Athenians also claim that the empire was not only justly acquired for the aforementioned reasons, but also because they rule fairly – maintaining (and bringing) law, order, and equality to all the lands that have since fallen under their just stewardship.

Thus, Thucydidean Athens and its empire was noble in its origin.  Athens, moreover than the other city states, had come to the defense of Greece against the conquest of an imperialistic and evil invader.  It was the Athenian contribution, moreover than that of others, which was responsible for the defeat of Persia.  It was an empire forged in benevolent intentions, and is ruled with benevolent intentions.


Continuing into Book II, Thucydides highlights the liberalism of Athens in the speech of Pericles’s Funeral Oration.  “I shall begin by speaking about our ancestors,” is the opening quote of Pericles’s speech honoring the dead.  It is interesting that in a moment of public honor and reverence, the speech begins by reaching back to Athenian history.  Much like invoking the Founding Fathers or the Puritans and Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts and are remembered as “The Puritan Fathers” or “The Pilgrim Fathers.”

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors.  It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else.”  Here the Athenians sing praises to themselves – their government is a model to the world, the first of its kind, an inspiring political order that would bring light and liberty to the rest of the world rather than them imitating the darkness of the rest of the world.  If this isn’t a case of exceptionalism, then I’m not sure what would be.  “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people,” the eulogy of self-praise continues.  While it is arguably not the case that Athens was a democracy, that doesn’t stop the Athenians from claiming that it was.

Continuing on a theme from Book I, equality before the law, the Athenians praise themselves for having achieved equality before the law in their civil politics.  “Everyone is equal before the law.”  The Athenians also extol the virtues of the public-private life distinction, something that many “liberal democracies” today like to claim is the superiority of their own system.  “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.  This is because it commands our deep respect.”  The rule of law, here, is actually something we must be subjected to.  Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were drawing from this deep Thucydidean liberalism of Athens in their own political philosophies moreover than “inventing freedom” as Daniel Hannan claims.  This is textbook liberalism, what Leo Strauss called “ancient liberalism.”

On this note, we should see what “toleration” is.  One must abide by the universalism of the public law.  One is allowed to have their “private” beliefs – but only ever in private.  That is “toleration.”  Everyone has to accept and live in accordance to the public orthodoxy of the Social Contract, but you can keep whatever “private” beliefs as long as they remain private and do not clash with the public orthodoxy of the public law.  We must ask ourselves, is this what toleration really is?  Or is true toleration the sharing of the public sphere rather than the privatization of other beliefs that conflict with the public law but as long as those beliefs “remain private” you can have them?  Nevertheless, the Athenians maintain that their wonderful system of toleration is exactly what we’re used to because Hobbes and Locke drew from ancient Athens as part of their model of political order.

The Athenians really go into the greatness of their city next, something they take great pride in indulging in.  “Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.”  Internal “free trade” anyone?  The claim here is that Athens is not only the universal and global city, it is the open city precisely because it is universal and global.  This is what makes Athens great.  They even state quite clearly, “Our city is open to the world.”  Athens is the universal city of motion, open to the world, open to all the goods of the world, in consuming the world’s goods they provide jobs for people in faraway lands whose products are openly received into Athens.

Additionally, the Athenians claim their courage to be superior than that of the Spartans, “When the Spartans invade our land, they do not come by themselves, but bring all their allies with them; whereas we, when we launch an attack abroad, do the job by ourselves, and, though fighting on foreign soil, do not often fail to defeat opponents who are fighting for their own hearths and homes.”  Athenian courage is the greatest courage in all Greece, in other words.  The rest of Greece, indeed, the world could imitate Athenian courageous character just as much as they can imitate Athens’s political model.  Athens truly is the global city with the global character calling all to enhance themselves by becoming like Athens.  “This is one point in which, I think, our city deserves to be admired!”  The gall in that statement is shocking, isn’t it?

Political liberalism.  “Toleration.”  Universalism.  Openness.  Courage.  Resolution.  All of this is tied together in “Athens” and this why Athens “deserves to be admired.”  Athens is the city that serves to inspire others and not the other way around – thus, the admiration is just.

Furthermore, “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.”  This is an interesting statement about international politics.  Athens does good to the world, but doesn’t need to receive good from the world (if that is even possible).  Thus, Athens’s internationalism is one of benign empowerment to the outside world.  “This makes our friendship all the more reliable. Since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued goodness to them.”  Athens’s goodness is what they do for others, not what others do for them.  If Athens is treated poorly, this is not because Athens did anything wrong to deserve it, but because those people would be acting ungraciously.  Continuing onward, “We are unique in this,” the Athenians claim, “when we do kindness to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loos; we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality.”  In other words, Athenian kindness and compassion motivates their actions.  Yet, we already know from Book I that this is definitely not the case.

Ending in hubris, the Athenians self-congratulate their power and accomplishments.  “Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left.  Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.  We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment…For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicting upon our enemies.”  This is so remarkable, and so presicent!  The greatness of Athens is its motion that has spread throughout all the corners of the world, living testimonies of Athenian goodness to her friends, and destruction to her enemies.  As the funeral oration comes to a close, “What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her.  When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.”  Sounds like a speech from an American politician if you ask me.  Without a single shred of doubt, Athens deserves admiration and love.


Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the greatest works of philosophy in the ancient world.  Yes, a work of philosophy.  It is riddled from start to finish with philosophical themes – of which we looked briefly at just three examples.  The question we should ask ourselves in reading Thucydides is this: what do we lose when we read it as “an objective history book” instead of an invitation to dialogue, contemplation, and questioning as all philosophical texts invite us to do?  Would we not gain more from Thucydides, and Thucydides does have much to offer, if we read the work with a philosophical lens rather than a historical one?  And what does this tell us about reading works as “history” rather than either historiographical or philosophical?

With Thucydides in mind, America is definitely the New Athens – not the New Rome.  This blindness to Athenian greatness ultimately cost Athens.  America should keep this, and Machiavelli’s warnings, in mind.


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