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Once when talking with the son of the great Pericles, he said: “For my part, Pericles, I feel hopeful that, now you have become general, our city will be more efficient and more famous in the art of war, and will defeat our enemies.”

“I could wish,” answered Pericles, “that it might be as you say, Socrates; but how these changes are to come about I cannot see.”

“Should you like to discuss them with me, then,” said Socrates, “and consider how they can be brought about?”

“I should.” [2]

“Do you know then, that in point of numbers the Athenians are not inferior to the Boeotians?”

“Yes, I know.”

“Do you think that the larger number of fine, well-developed men could be selected from among the Boeotians or the Athenians?”

“In that matter too they seem to be at no disadvantage.”

“Which do you think are the more united?”

“The Athenians, I should say, for many of the Boeotians resent the selfish behaviour of the Thebans. At Athens I see nothing of that sort.” [3]

“And again, the Athenians are more ambitious and more high-minded than other peoples; and these qualities are among the strongest incentives to heroism and patriotic self-sacrifice.”

“Yes, in these respects too the Athenians need not fear criticism.”

“And besides, none have inherited a past more crowded with great deeds; and many are heartened by such a heritage and encouraged to care for virtue and prove their gallantry.”

“All you have said is true, Socrates. [4] But, you see, since the disasters sustained by Tolmides and the Thousand at Lebadea1 and by Hippocrates at Delium,2 the relations of the Athenians and Boeotians are changed: the glory of the Athenians is brought low, the pride of the Thebans is exalted; and now the Boeotians, who formerly would not venture, even in their own country, to face the Athenians without help from Sparta and the rest of the Peloponnese, threaten to invade Attica by themselves, and the Athenians, who formerly overran Boeotia, fear that the Boeotians may plunder Attica.” [5]

“Ah, I am aware of that,” answered Socrates; “but the disposition of our city is now more to a good ruler's liking. For confidence breeds carelessness, slackness, disobedience: fear makes men more attentive, more obedient, more amenable to discipline. The behaviour of sailors is a case in point. [6] So long as they have nothing to fear, they are, I believe, an unruly lot, but when they expect a storm or an attack, they not only carry out all orders, but watch in silence for the word of command like choristers.” [7]

“Well,” exclaimed Pericles, “if they are now in the mood for obedience, it seems time to say how we can revive in them a longing for the old virtue and fame and happiness.” [8]

“If then,” said Socrates, “we wanted them to claim money that others held, the best way of egging them on to seize it would be to show them that it was their fathers' money and belongs to them. As we want them to strive for pre-eminence in virtue, we must show that this belonged to them in old days, and that by striving for it they will surpass all other men.” [9]

“How then can we teach this?”

“I think by reminding them that their earliest ancestors of whom we have any account were, as they themselves have been told, the most valiant.” [10]

“Do you refer to the judgment of the gods,3 which Cecrops delivered in his court because of his virtue?”

“Yes, and the care and birth of Erectheus,4 and the war waged in his day with all the adjacent country, and the war between the sons of Heracles5 and the Peloponnesians, and all the wars waged in the days of Theseus,6 in all of which it is manifest that they were champions among the men of their time. [11] You may add the victories of their descendants,7 who lived not long before our own day: some they gained unaided in their struggle with the lords of all Asia and of Europe as far as Macedonia, the owners of more power and wealth than the world had ever seen, who had wrought deeds that none had equalled; in others they were fellow-champions with the Peloponnesians both on land and sea. These men, like their fathers, are reported to have been far superior to all other men of their time.”

“Yes, that is the report of them.” [12]

“Therefore, though there have been many migrations in Greece, these continued to dwell in their own land: many referred to them their rival claims, many found a refuge with them from the brutality of the oppressor.” [13]

“Yes, Socrates,” cried Pericles, “and I wonder how our city can have become so degenerate.”

“My own view,” replied Socrates, “is that the Athenians, as a consequence of their great superiority, grew careless of themselves, and have thus become degenerate, much as athletes who are in a class by themselves and win the championship easily are apt to grow slack and drop below their rivals. [14]

“How, then, can they now recover their old virtue?”

“There is no mystery about it, as I think. If they find out the customs of their ancestors and practise them as well as they did, they will come to be as good as they were; or failing that, they need but to imitate those who now have the pre-eminence and to practise their customs, and if they are equally careful in observing them, they will be as good as they, and, if more careful, even better.” [15]

“That means that it is a long march for our city to perfection. For when will Athenians show the Lacedaemonian reverence for age, seeing that they despise all their elders, beginning with their own fathers? When will they adopt the Lacedaemonian system of training, seeing that they not only neglect to make themselves fit, but mock at those who take the trouble to do so? [16] When will they reach that standard of obedience to their rulers, seeing that they make contempt of rulers a point of honour? Or when will they attain that harmony, seeing that, instead of working together for the general good,8 they are more envious and bitter against one another than against the rest of the world, are the most quarrelsome of men in public and private assemblies, most often go to law with one another, and would rather make profit of one another so than by mutual service, and while regarding public affairs as alien to themselves, yet fight over them too, and find their chief enjoyment in having the means to carry on such strife? [17] So it comes about that mischief and evil grow apace in the city, enmity and mutual hatred spring up among the people, so that I am always dreading that some evil past bearing may befall the city.” [18]

“No, no, Pericles, don't think the wickedness of the Athenians so utterly past remedy. Don't you see what good discipline they maintain in their fleets, how well they obey the umpires in athletic contests, how they take orders from the choir-trainers as readily as any?” [19]

“Ah yes, and strange indeed it is that such men submit themselves to their masters, and yet the infantry and cavalry, who are supposed to be the pick of the citizens for good character, are the most insubordinate.” [20]

Then Socrates asked, “But what of the Court of the Areopagus, Pericles? Are not its members persons who have won approval?”


“Then do you know of any who decide the cases that come before them and perform all their other functions more honourably, more in accordance with law, with more dignity and justice?”

“I am not finding fault with the Areopagus.”

“Then you must not despair of Athenian discipline.” [21]

“But, you see, in the army, where good conduct, discipline, submission are most necessary, our people pay no attention to these things.”

“This may be due to the incompetence of the officers. You must have noticed that no one attempts to exercise authority over our harpists, choristers and dancers, if he is incompetent, nor over wrestlers or wrestlers who also box? All who have authority over them can tell where they learned their business; but most of our generals are improvisors. [22] However, I don't suppose you are one of this sort. I suppose you can say when you began to learn strategy as well as when you began wrestling. Many of the principles, I think, you have inherited from your father, and many others you have gathered from every source from which you could learn anything useful to a general. [23] I think, too, that you take much trouble that you may not unconsciously lack any knowledge useful to a general; and if you find that you don't know anything, you seek out those who have the knowledge, grudging neither gifts nor thanks, that you may learn what you don't know from them and may have the help of good coaching.” [24]

“I can see, Socrates, that in saying this you don't really think I study these things, but you are trying to show me that one who is going to command an army must study all of them; and of course I admit that you are right.” [25]

“Have you observed, Pericles, that our frontier is protected by great mountains extending to Boeotia, through which there are steep and narrow passes leading into our land, and that the interior is cut across by rugged mountains?”

“Certainly.” [26]

“Further, have you heard that the Mysians and Pisidians, occupying very rugged country in the Great King's territory and lightly armed, contrive to overrun and damage the King's territory and to preserve their own freedom?”9

“Yes, I have heard so.” [27]

“And don't you think that active young Athenians, more lightly armed and occupying the mountains that protect our country, would prove a thorn in the side of the enemy and a strong bulwark of defence to our people?”

Socrates,” replied Pericles, “I think all these suggestions too have a practical value.” [28]

“Then, since you like them, adopt them, my good fellow. Any part of them that you carry out will bring honour to you and good to the state; and should you fail in part, you will neither harm the state nor disgrace yourself.”

1 At the battle of Coronea (or Lebadea) in 446 B.C., the Boeotians defeated and destroyed the Athenian army and gained independence (Thucydides, I. 113).

2 The Athenians were heavily defeated by the Boeotians at Delium in 424 B.C. (ibid. IV. 96 f.).

3 i.e., between Poseidon and Athena for the possession of Attica.

4 Iliad, II. 547. Ε᾿ρεχθῇος μεγαλήτορος οὕ ποτ᾽ Ἀθήνη θρέψε Διὸς θυγάτηρ, τέκε δὲ ζείδωρος Ἄρουρα.

5 The Athenians claimed that it was through their assistance that the sons of Heracles gained the victory (Herodotus, ix. 27).

6 Against the Amazons and Thracians.

7 In the great Persian wars.

8 Cyropaedia VIII. i. 2.

9 Anabasis II. v. 13.

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    • T. G. Tucker, Commentary on Thucydides: Book 8, 8.1
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    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), EPI´BOLE
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), EXE´RCITUS
    • William Watson Goodwin, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb, Chapter IV
    • William Watson Goodwin, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb, Chapter VI
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