by Alex Burns
In 2017, America may again need to be mindful of both dangerous potential futures and telling ancient precedent. The surprising election of President Donald Trump brought historical precedent flowing back to the minds of many Americans. Figures as diverse as Rachel Bloom, J.K. Rowling, John McNeill, Citizen Super PAC and your liberal uncle on twitter frequently compared the policy and ideology of Donald Trump to Fascists, National Socialists, and particularly Adolf Hitler. These comparisons generally rest upon the idea that Trump is a populist leader with a plan to exploit a populace disgruntled with modern ideas of tolerance and political correctness through blaming complex problems on specific minority groups within the larger disgruntled populace. The response to these comparisons was unsurprisingly mixed, to a large degree depending on party and ideological allegiance. Today, we are going to ask whether ancient Greek political and military history can teach us anything about the present. What if Donald Trump is not some new Adolf Hitler, but rather a new Alcibiades?
If trying to use the past to inform the present is the purpose of this website, such ideas have been with us for a long time. During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, American scholars such as Donald Kagan turned to the past in order to find some sort of precedent. The Peloponnesian War, a titanic struggle which defined the Greek speaking world from 431 B.C.E. to 404 B.C.E., seemed like a good comparison to Kagan, for a number of reasons. In this generalized analogy, the war saw a democratic power, which possessed significant strength at sea (Athens/United States) face off against a totalitarian state that possessed much more strength on land (Sparta/Soviet Union). It should be noted, I do not view ancient Sparta as a fully totalitarian state, but in the interest of a good yarn, I am willing to run with the analogy. Kagan’s four volume study of the Peloponnesian War is still required reading in some classics departments and military staff colleges, even thirty years after the publication of the final volume.
This comparison was drawn and redrawn by strategic thinkers and historians in the late Cold War era, as historians and classicists attempted to qualify and complicate the picture, and strategic thinkers mulled over its sour conclusions for American democracy (hint: Athens did not win the thirty year long conflict with Sparta.) However, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the apparent triumph of capitalism over communism, Kagan’s comparison lost its luster. The United States, it seemed, had won the Cold War and brought democracy to the Russian Federation. The lack of a looming conflict between two superpowers erased the former Soviet Union from the minds of many Americans, except as the perennial source of drug-dealing cinema villains.
I would like to suggest to the reader that if any comparison to the Peloponnesian War and modern politics is to be made, the most instructive era is the Peace of Nicias. Many in the United States are heralding a “new Cold War.” However, modern history may compare best to the attempted truce in the Peace of Nicias, rather than an entirely new conflict.
Today, however, the new political realities of the post-2016 era suggest that historical comparisons with the Peloponnesian War are once more in order. In doing so, I borrow many ideas from the work of Dr. Kagan, and other authors who have sought to continue this comparison. Careful students of the Peloponnesian War will know that the conflict broke down into three broad phases. In the first phase, the Archidamian War (431-421 B.C.E.), the Spartan military threatened Athenian power under the leadership of King Archidamus II. In the second phase, the Peace of Nicias (421-414 B.C.E.), war-weariness enveloped both sides, and the Athenians and Spartans agreed to a fifty-year truce after some minor Athenian successes. The third phase, or the Dekeleian War, saw Spartan successes in Sicily and the Aegean, and culminated in the final defeat of the Athenians after the Battle of Aegospotami in 404 B.C.E.
I would like to suggest to the reader that if any comparison to the Peloponnesian War and modern politics is to be made, the most instructive era is the Peace of Nicias. Many in the United States are heralding a “new Cold War.” However, modern history may compare best to the attempted truce in the Peace of Nicias, rather than an entirely new conflict. Although by no means a perfect analogy, examining the later phases of the Peloponnesian War in light of modern history may help give broad insights into both modern U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.
Both in the aftermath of the Peace of Nicias, and in the aftermath of the collapse of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, the democratic power (Athens/U.S.) attempted to destabilize and increase their influence in the “near-abroad” of the authoritarian state (Sparta/Russian Federation). In plain language, Athenians attempted to win over former Spartan allies and tributaries such as Argos, Mantinea and Elis, while the United States exerted influence by bringing former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Baltic States into NATO. In both cases, the authoritarian power was willing to use military force in order to retain some semblance of order in their “near-abroad.” The Spartans defeated the alliance of Peloponnesian cities at the Battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C.E.; likewise, Pro-Russian/Russian supported forces appear to be rather successful in controlling the Donbass region of Ukraine.
In the final tally, the Athenians defeated themselves via imperial overstretch in Sicily, fighting against the Spartan colony of Syracuse. The Sicilian expedition had been promoted and initially commanded by Alcibiades. It is not impossible to imagine the United States embarking on a conflict against a Russian-backed opponent, which would similarly drain America’s resources.
Of more immediate significance for our discussion here, both during the later stages of the Peace of Nicias, and in the 2016 presidential cycle, a powerful, brazen demagogue began to exert a large degree of influence, worrying more experienced and established statesmen. In the ancient world, Alcibiades, a young and wealthy celebrity, began to exert influence in the Athenian ecclesia (general assembly) that equaled that of much older, more experienced men, such as Nicias. In 2016, Donald Trump (although much older than Alcibiades) successfully defeated much more experienced political opponents based primarily on his force of personality and celebrity. Both Donald Trump and Alcibiades were comfortable arguing for bold and risky policies that more experienced statesmen had previously avoided. President Trump urged a radical change in domestic affairs and diplomatic measures, Alcibiades in military action against city-states on the island of Sicily. These men both were willing to upset the political status quo in order to gain support and political power.
Indeed, the Athenian historian Thucydides gives us a detailed description of Alcibiades at a key moment in his narrative. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades was “exceedingly ambitious,” and hoped,
personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes. For the position he held among the citizens led him to indulge his tastes beyond what his real means would bear, both in keeping horses and in the rest of his expenditure; and this later on had not a little to do with the ruin of the Athenian state.” Alarmed at the greatness of the license in his own life and habits, and at the ambition which he showed in all things whatsoever that he undertook, the mass of the people marked him as an aspirant to the tyranny and became his enemies; and although in his public life his conduct of the war was a good as could be desired, in his private life his habits gave offense to everyone, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.(Thucydides, Robert Strassler translation, 6.15)
Both Donald Trump and Alcibiades were prominent statesmen in the democratic power, who had connections to the authoritarian power. Alcibiades and his family were “Guest-Friends” or proxeni to the Spartan state, and had long standing connections to Sparta. (Thucydides, 6.89) Even if one dismisses the recent allegations of connections to Russian officials and Vladimir Putin, President Trump has expressed favorable opinions towards Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin connections on numerous occasions, even encouraging Russian hackers to target his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. In short, both men were willing to use connections with the potential to damage their state when it suited them politically.
Finally, both Alcibiades and President Donald Trump were haunted by political scandals with sexual undertones just as they rose to power. Alcibiades was recalled from command of the Sicilian military expedition to answer for charges of defiling religious statues of a sexual nature (destroying the phalluses on statues of the god Hermes throughout Athens). Alcibiades also allegedly slept with a wife of the Spartan king Agis II, ending his sanctuary in Sparta. Donald Trump has repeatedly faced allegations and made statements that cause sexual scandal. Even if the reports of “golden showers” prove false, the comments relating to grabbing women’s genitalia are clearly a scandal of a sexual nature marring Trump’s public image. Both men took a “devil-may-care” attitude toward sexual norms in their societies, and suffered political fallout.
The lessons of Alcibiades for the Unites States are clear: do not allow a demagogue to overstretch the military resources of your state in costly overseas action. Do not allow a demagogue with authoritarian connections to speak over those more experienced statecraft with first-hand political knowledge.
How then, might the United States learn from the example of Alcibiades while coping with President Trump? For Alcibaides, the destruction of the phalluses of the Hermai proved fatal to his Athenian political career, and so he sought sanctuary in Sparta. Is it possible to imagine a scandal destructive enough that the President of the United States would seek sanctuary in Russia? Alcibiades used the strategic information that he had been privy to in Athens to assist the continuing Spartan war effort. Eventually, the odious nature of Alcibiades’ sexual indiscretions forced his flight from Sparta; he then fled to the Persians, was subsequently recalled to Athens, and ultimately fled to into exile again when his policies produced defeats.
In the final tally, the Athenians defeated themselves via imperial overstretch in Sicily, fighting against the Spartan colony of Syracuse. The Sicilian expedition had been promoted and initially commanded by Alcibiades. It is not impossible to imagine the United States embarking on a conflict against a Russian-backed opponent, which would similarly drain America’s resources. Furthermore, the Spartans knew they needed help against the Athenians, and sought economic support from the Persian Empire. The Persians granted economic and military support to the Persians, and eventually the combination of Spartan military power and Persian naval and economic support defeated the Athenian forces. Perhaps China, alienated by the rhetoric of President Trump, would stand willing to aid Russia against the United States. Readers of Edward Said will cringe at my conflation of these two “eastern” empires, but I simply seek to identify states alienated by a democratic power with the economic ability to support an authoritarian power with relatively low naval and economic potential.
The lessons of Alcibiades for the Unites States are clear: do not allow a demagogue to overstretch the military resources of your state in costly overseas action. Do not allow a demagogue with authoritarian connections to speak over those more experienced statecraft with first-hand political knowledge. Do not allow former political leaders with vital strategic information to openly provide that information to authoritarian enemies of democracy. Finally, if all else fails, stand by and watch as the demagogue self destructs in total pursuit of personal gratification.
When he is not dabbling in Greek history and modern politics, or writing for one of his two blogs, Alex stays busy with his coursework at West Virginia University, where he is a second-year doctoral student researching U.S. and European military history. Specifically, Alex’s research examines the British and Prussian armies of 1740-1815, and their views on ethnic groups outside of western and central Europe. Alex recently published his third article, “A Matter of Doing it Quickly:” Essential Qualities of North Germanic Infantrymen, 1740-1783″ in the spring issue of the Journal of the Seven Years’ War Association. He can be contacted here.
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 Donald Kagan, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).
 Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (London: Pimlico, 1997).