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The Aesthetics of War: Symmetry and Civic Virtue in Thucydides’ Sicilian Expedition

Rachel Bruzzone

Bilkent University

Thucydides worked in a time in which ideas of symmetry, balance, and appropriate proportion were fundamental in fields as diverse as mathematics, architecture and sculpture. Related notions about proportional power may also have influence the development of political equality for male citizens (Vegetti 1983), and are certainly found in representations of the ideal polis (Tanner 2000, 200), including imagery of equal power-relationships on tombs for the war dead (Arrington 2011 and 2015, Muth 2008, e.g. 546). Eutaxia, good order, likewise had both aesthetic and civic value (e.g. Smith 2011, 95). Concepts of symmetry and balance thus serve as both artistic and political ideals.

The appeal of visions of order posed a challenge to any historian describing the disintegration of an army, an inherently “ugly,” disordered event. Thucydides and many of his predecessors and contemporaries clearly did not consider war ugly, however; battle is represented as an attractive sight as early as the Homeric gods’ appreciative viewing of the slaughter below them (Clay 2011, e.g. Il. 3.13-14, cf. Swift 2015). Thucydides encourages us to regard his Sicilian Expedition narrative (Books 6-7) as a particularly spectacular object by, among other visual cues, beginning and ending it with impressive visions of the army (6.30-1 and 7.69-71) and deeming it the λαμπρότατον event in his text (7.87.5), a word with visual connotations.  

I will argue that Thucydides creates a pleasing sense of balance in these Books through the two sides’ notable mirroring of each other, preserving the symmetrical harmony – and thus aesthetic appeal – of his text even as its opposite, chaos, with its attendant political implications, engulfs the Athenian characters. Some of the “symmetrical” inversions of these Books have been noted, including the reversal in the Athenian and Sicilian combatants’ reactions to thunderstorms at the beginning and end of the Expedition (Paul 1987, 311; see de Romilly 1956, 140-50 and Kallet 2001 for other inversions). Others are made explicit by the historian himself: for example, he notes the Athenians’ promising departure and contrastingly ill-omened attempts to return to Athens (7.75.6-7); that they left Athens intending to enslave, but soon feared enslavement themselves (7.75.7); and that Athenian failure would lead to their suffering the fate they planned for the Syracusans (7.64.1).

But the most marked mirroring involves the concept of disorder, a difficulty that gradually filters from the Syracusan to the Athenian troops. The Sicilians’ early efforts are marked by profound disorganization (e.g. 6.72.3 ἀταξία, 6.98.3); Hornblower comments on “the ‘Syracusan disorder’ theme” (2008, 582). But in the second half of the Expedition, the Sicilians make impressive strides in their discipline, while the Athenians lose theirs in a seemingly directly proportionate way resembling the other reversals. Thus for example the Athenians become chaotic (7.37.3 ἐθορυβοῦντο), embarking on their ships “in a great uproar” (7.40.3 διὰ πολλοῦ θορύβου), “with difficulty and in no order” (7.40.3 οὐδενὶ κόσμῳ ἐσβάντες μόλις), echoing precisely the Sicilians’ chaotic earlier technique (7.23.3 οὐδενὶ κόσμῳ ἐσέπλεον). Τhe Spartan Gylippus urges his comrades to take advantage of Athenian ἀταξία (7.68.1), while Nicias fruitlessly attempts to reimpose their former order on his troops (7.77.5 εὔτακτον, 7.78.1 μὴ ἐν τάξει χωροῦν). Despite his efforts, ταραχή, which once afflicted the Sicilians (7.29.5 τῇ σφετέρᾳ ταραχῇ), reigns (7.80.3 ἐμπίπτει ταραχή). Athenians move ἀτακτότερον (7.80.4, 7.81.2), and become disordered after they panic (7.81.2 ξυνεταράχθησαν), falling into an uproar (7.81.4 ἐν πολλῷ θορύβῳ).

As noted above, by weaving the idea of overwhelming ataxia into his text, Thucydides implies that the conclusion of the Sicilian Expedition does not represent a simple setback decreed by the gods, bad luck, or even bad planning, but a failure permanently tarnishing the Athenian polis and its civic virtue. Indeed, the disorder remains, and the Athenians are plagued by it even in future successful engagements (8.10.4 θόρυβός τε ἐγένετο πολὺς καὶ ἄτακτος). In the meantime, however, Thucydides’ emphatic balancing of this story allows his text itself to remain an object of beauty and order.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Historiography

Session/Paper Number

16.3

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