Monday, October 20, 2014

The Aftermath of Arginusae

If we only considered the battle itself, we might well consider the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC to be a shining victory by Athens at a crucial moment in the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans had blockaded the main Athenian fleet at Mytilene. In order to rescue it, the Athenians had to throw together a fleet out of ships barely out of the shipyards, manned mostly by people with only limited naval experience. To make sure that they could man the ships, the Athenians even granted citizenship to thousands of slaves who were willing to sign on as rowers. Rather than put the relief fleet under a single general, eight generals -- Aristocrates, Aristogenes, Diomedon, Erasinides, Lysias, Pericles the Younger, Protomachus, and Thrasyllus -- were put in charge of it. They met the Spartan fleet under Callicratidas at dawn. The Spartan fleet was not quite as large as the Athenian fleet, but it was a more experienced one. However, the Athenians threw surprise after surprise against the Spartans. Each general took one-eighth of the fleet, which then functioned as an autonomous unit, responding dynamically to immediate local problems, but the fleet as a whole nonetheless worked together to achieve the major objectives. They used their slight advantage in numbers to outflank the Spartan fleet. The Spartans fought fiercely, but Callicratidas was killed in the course of the battle, and the Spartans fled, having lost almost three times as many ships as the Athenians. It was a great victory, if one only considers the battle itself.

However, as the Spartans took flight, the generals were faced with a difficult decision: Should they proceed immediately to destroy the remaining ships in the blockade of Mytilene, or should they stop and rescue the very many Athenians who were now at sea, their ships having been destroyed. They decided that the eight generals would proceed to Mytilene, leaving behind the trierarchs Thrasybulus and Theramenes to rescue the survivors. But a great storm came up, and both plans failed. When news of the failure to rescue the drowning sailors came to Athens, it touched off a political maelstrom. The Athenian Assembly began to rumble. By this point Thrasybulus and Theramenes had returned to Athens, and the generals assumed that they were the ones stirring up trouble, so they wrote the Assembly, blaming the two trierarchs and denouncing them. Thrasybulus and Theramenes were able to convince a significant number of people that this charge was unjust, however, so the anger of Athens turned toward the generals, who were deposed by the Assembly and recalled to Athens to stand trial. Two of the generals, Aristogenes and Protomachus, fled, but the rest, not understanding just how furious the citizens of Athens were, returned to the city.

At first the generals looked like they might have a chance. There was initial sympathy to the idea that the unexpected storm was entirely the problem. However, it just so happened that the festival of Apaturia, a very family-focused festival, came up, and the opponents of the generals were able to stir up the anguish of those who had lost loved ones. When next the Assembly met, Callixeinus proposed a motion in the Assembly to decide the guilt or innocence of the generals by straight vote, without trial. It was opposed by Euryptolemus, a cousin of Alcibiades, on the grounds that it was illegal. It was a brave thing to do, and led to a crisis within the Assembly itself. As Xenophon says in his Hellenica (1.7.12-15):

And some of the people applauded this act, but the greater number cried out that it was monstrous if the people were to be prevented from doing whatever they wished. Indeed, when Lyciscus thereupon moved that these men also should be judged by the very same vote as the generals, unless they withdrew the summons, the mob broke out again with shouts of approval, and they were compelled to withdraw the summonses. Furthermore, when some of the Prytanes refused to put the question to the vote in violation of the law, Callixeinus again mounted the platform and urged the same charge against them; and the crowd cried out to summon to court those who refused. Then the Prytanes, stricken with fear, agreed to put the question,—all of them except Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus; and he said that in no case would he act except in accordance with the law.

The Prytanes were the people chosen by lottery to preside over the procedures of the Assembly, and it just so happened that on that day, of all days, the philosopher Socrates was chosen by lot to be one of them. As Xenopho, says, he refused to put it to the vote, even in the face of a furious Assembly. Socrates' refusal gave Euryptolemus some room to maneuver, and he stood up and gave the best speech of his life, arguing passionately for a different resolution, in which each general would be tried separately. It was passed. Then one of Callixeinus' allies put in a formal objection as to the legality of Euryptolemus's resolution and a second vote was taken, this time defeating it. The Athenian Assembly declared the generals guilty and condemned them to death.

After some time, a number of Athenians regretted the decision of the Assembly, so they started bringing to trial those who had argued in favor of the summary judgment on the generals. Callixeinus and his allies fled.

Arginusae, unsurprisingly, plays a fairly important role in Socratic dialogues. Plato himself uses it at least twice as an example of how Socrates stood for justice regardless of popular opinion. It is found in the Apology, where Socrates gives it as an example showing his willingness to put justice over his own life:

And listen to what happened to me, that you may be convinced that I would never yield to any one, if that was wrong, through fear of death, but would die rather than yield. The tale I am going to tell you is ordinary and commonplace, but true. I, men of Athens, never held any other office in the state, but I was a senator; and it happened that my tribe held the presidency when you wished to judge collectively, not severally, the ten generals who had failed to gather up the slain after the naval battle; this was illegal, as you all agreed afterwards. At that time I was the only one of the prytanes who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws, and although the orators were ready to impeach and arrest me, and though you urged them with shouts to do so, I thought I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust, through fear of imprisonment or death. (32a-c)

We find it again mentioned in the Gorgias. While he is arguing with Polus, Polus says that Socrates will see that he is refuted if he will just ask the other people present whether they agree with what he says. Socrates replies that he's not the kind to curry public opinion:

Polus, I am not one of your statesmen: indeed, last year, when I was elected a member of the Council, and, as my tribe held the Presidency, I had to put a question to the vote, I got laughed at for not understanding the procedure. So do not call upon me again to take the votes of the company now; but if, as I said this moment, you have no better disproof than those, hand the work over to me in my turn, and try the sort of refutation that I think the case requires. For I know how to produce one witness in support of my statements, and that is the man himself with whom I find myself arguing; the many I dismiss: there is also one whose vote I know how to take, whilst to the multitude I have not a word to say.

This is an interesting passage, because it implicitly carries a theme running throughout the Gorgias, that Socrates' philosophical approach is closely tied to his pursuit of justice: Socrates arguing against the orators and their account of justice is like Socrates refusing to follow public opinion rather than law in the aftermath of Arginusae. In both ways he stands for justice and is unafraid of social pressure or threats in doing so in both cases.

Xenophon in the Memorabilia uses it as an example of Socratic piety. Socrates took his oath so seriously that he would not deviate from what it required:

[W]hen he was on the Council and had taken the counsellor's oath by which he bound himself to give counsel in accordance with the laws, it fell to his lot to preside in the Assembly when the people wanted to condemn Thrasyllus and Erasinides and their colleagues to death by a single vote. That was illegal, and he refused the motion in spite of popular rancour and the threats of many powerful persons. It was more to him that he should keep his oath than that he should humour the people in an unjust demand and shield himself from threats. For, like most men, indeed, he believed that the gods are heedful of mankind, but with an important difference; for whereas they do not believe in the omniscience of the gods, Socrates thought that they know all things, our words and deeds and secret purposes; that they are present everywhere, and grant signs to men of all that concerns man. (1.1.18-19)

As Xenophon notes, Socrates' behavior in the Assembly was common knowledge, so, he concludes, the Athenian jury that condemned him to death should have known better than to think he was impious.

We also find the Arginusae episode playing a role in the spurious dialogue Axiochus, usually thought to have been written in the late Hellenistic period. In that dialogue, Socrates is out walking when he comes across Clinias, son of Axiochus, who was Alcibiades' uncle. Axiochus, it turns out, is on his deathbed and is distraught, so Clinias asks Socrates to come and comfort him. This Socrates does. In the course of the discussion, Socrates talks about the futility of professions, and uses the Arginusae episode as an example. According to the dialogue, Axiochus was one of those who supported Euryptolemus in the Assembly (unsurprisingly, since they would have been related). When Socrates remarks on the basis of the story that politics is not a pleasant trade, Axiochus agrees, and says that he has refused to participate in politics ever since. The use of the story in this dialogue is not straightforward, but part of the idea seems to be to emphasize that true consolation in life derives from virtue and piety, not from superficial things like political success.

Thus the Aftermath of Arginusae plays a definite and important role in constructing the Image of Socrates, and in giving future generations an example of a philosopher standing for justice even in the face of popular pressure.


Quotations are from the translations at the Perseus Project.

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