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Inheriting War: Father and Son in the Peloponnesian War

Rachel Bruzzone

Thucydides’ only lengthy editorializing passage on his war (3.82-3) describes it as a brutal teacher progressively warping human nature, but this process of corrosion can be difficult to trace in his long and complex work. I argue that the trajectory of the Spartan royal family is one clear example, and that Thucydides’ use of patronymics encourages the reader to observe the contrast between father and son. Variations on the statement ἡγεῖτο δὲ Ἀρχίδαμος ὁ Ζευξιδάμου, Λακεδαιμονίων βασιλεύς introduce all of Archidamus’ military expeditions (2.19.1, 2.47.2, 2.71.1, 3.1.1), and elsewhere his title appears alongside his name (2.10.3, 2.74.2). Thucydides then uses a nearly identical formula indicating paternity in nearly every narrative featuring his son Agis (3.89.1, 4.2.1, 5.54.1, 5.57.1, 5.83.1, 7.19.1) or introduces him by title (4.6.1, 5.71.1, 5.72.4, 8.3.1). The identity of no other figure merits even one such elaborate pause in the narrative, much less the repeated attention seen in these cases. Patronymics themselves are rare: Thucydides uses names only about half as often as Herodotus, and slightly over a sixth of the named characters receive patronymics (Griffith, Hornblower [2001] 105), so his treatment of the Spartan kings represents an unusual emphasis on familial identity.

These patronymics add to the dramatic power of a king’s entrance into the narrative, but, especially when they occur in mundane or ugly situations, they also function as “significant patronymics” such as appear in Homer or tragedy (e.g. Phillippo, Brown 26-7), encouraging the reader to compare father and son, a painful contrast. Archidamus is perhaps the only archetypical Spartan in Thucydides’ work (Gundert, Wassermann [1953] and [1964] 290-3, Westlake 130-5, Edmunds 89-90, Pouncey 59-64, Bloedow, Luginbill), identifying himself as old and weathered by experience (1.80.1, cf. 2.11.1). He defends traditional Spartan attributes, including cautiousness and contemplation (1.82.1, 1.82.4, 1.82.5, 1.84.1, 1.85.1, 1.83.3). More than any other figure, he struggles against the societal transformation wartime brings. He challenges the changing meanings of words that Thucydides describes (3.82.4), urging his listeners not to confuse caution with unmanliness (1.83.1). He condemns excessive learning (1.84.3), recalling Thucydides’ statement that the war fostered a kind of malignant cleverness (3.82.7). Σωφροσύνη appears twice in Archidamus’ speech (1.84.2, 3) out of six total appearances in Thucydides. Forced to go to war, he delays (2.18.2). Later, he conducts a debate with the Plataeans centering on piety and offers a highly unusual prayer directly to the spirits of this sacred city (2.74) before attacking it.

His son Agis inherits the war, and, with the passage of time, a chasm opens up between father and son. Agis initially shares his father’s mild nature, declining an opportunity to subdue Argos ruthlessly (5.59.5). But the Spartans, apparently changed by the war themselves, fly into a rage “unlike their normal character” (5.63.2), nearly confiscate Agis’ property and curtail his power (5.63.2-4). From this point on, Agis develops precisely the inverse of his father’s traditionally Spartan characteristics. He becomes so reckless in battle that an old man admonishes him (5.65.2). He presides over a massacre at the small city of Hysiae (5.83.2), an attack that HCT 2.153 deems “unfair and heartless,” and Thucydides reminds the reader of Agis’ paternity immediately before violence begins (5.83.1). Agis fortifies sacred Decelea, apparently without reservation (7.19.1), and enthusiastically carries on the war from there (7.27.4). In doing so he contrasts not only with his father’s treatment of Plataea but also with a previous generation of Spartans who spared Decelea on religious grounds (Hdt. 9.73, Salmon). He is elsewhere similarly willing to commit sacrilege (8.9.1), and Thucydides observes that, δεινός, he wields his power aggressively and without regard for his city (8.5.3). He thus becomes the mirror image of his pious, careful father bowing to the popular vote for war, and Thucydides’ persistent use of patronymics in his presentation of Spartan kings allows the memory of Agis’ traditional and virtuous father to haunt the narrative of the son’s very different life. 

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The Figure of the Tyrant

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