Why The Periphery Matters: Have you ever heard of Epidamnus or Potidea?

“Have you ever heard of Epidamnus or Potidea?” is the question posed by Dabney Park, Jr. in his article “History’s Catch-22: The Peloponnesian War” from The History Teacher journal published in May of 1972.

The question is an apt one given the current geopolitical circumstances. The debate still rages over the past and ongoing actions in the Ukraine, whether one country’s interests apply or not, and upon this point Park’s implication is that we should take a more comprehensive view of Russia’s near-abroad:

Epidamnus was a tiny and in itself relatively insignificant island on the western coast of Greece, in what must surely have seemed like the “boonies” to the Athenians. There an internal struggle broke out about 435 B.C. between the democratic party and the aristocratic party. Both sides appealed for outside help. When the city of Corinth, along with her allies, came to the aid of the aristocats, and the city of Corcyra joined the conflict on the side of the democrats, a war began over Epidamnus which was far larger in scope than the civil quarrel which started it all. Corcyra won and took over Epidamnus before Athens and Sparta became involved in the struggle. But Corcyra was without allies, and in fear of Corinth she decided to join the Athenian alliance.
After some debate, Athens accepted Corcyra into the alliance. At this point, according to Thucydides, “the general belief was that, whatever happened, war with the Pelopennese was bound to come.” From here on, the domino theory seems to apply. In 432, Potidea, a Corinthian colony in Macedonia which was by now part of the Athenian Empire, tried to throw off the Athenian yoke. Corinth appealed to Sparta for help. Sparta insisted that Athens surrender her. When Athens refused, Sparta declared war, and virtually the entire Greek world was drawn into the conflict on one side or the other.

Regardless of the settled outcome of the Crimean fait accompli, or even the ongoing actions in eastern Ukraine, Park’s history does remind us that even conflicts upon the periphery matter. Lest we learn of the Corinthians made new in Thucydides’ history when they state: “For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time….” (1.44)

…the true author of the subjugation of a people is not so much the immediate agent, as the power which permits it having the means to prevent it…

A fascinating theme of Thucydides’ timeless work is that power abhors a vacuum, and within this theme the Corinthians asserted that Spartan inaction encouraged Athens to commit further aggression:

For the true author of the subjugation of a people is not so much the immediate agent, as the power which permits it having the means to prevent it…. For aggressors with matured plans to oppose to our indecision have cast threats aside and betaken themselves to action. And we know what are the paths by which Athenian aggression travels, and how insidious is its progress. A degree of confidence she may feel from the idea that your bluntness of perception prevents your noticing her; but it is nothing to the impulse which her advance will receive from the knowledge that you see, but do not care to interfere…. (1.69)

In what follows, the Corinthians describe the relatively aggressive and pragmatic character of the Athenian people as compared to the passive and cautious nature of the Peloponnese. Thucydides concludes their speech with this compelling narrative:

Such is Athens, your antagonist. And yet, Spartans, you still delay, and fail to see that peace stays longest with those who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice. On the contrary, your ideal of fair dealing is based on the principle that if you do not injure others, you need not risk your own fortunes in preventing others from injuring you…. (1.71)

Later, the Spartans affirmed the Athenians to be the aggressors in the matter of Potidea (1.79), and eventually decided to declare war (1.88).

One does not intend here to attempt pithy conclusions as to who is playing Athens and who is playing Sparta in the modern geopolitical game in Eastern Europe. That is the concern of the Catch-22 addressed by Park, which I commend to you. But another question worth considering in this matter is, regardless of your geopolitical worldview, who is playing the parts of Corinth and Corcyra? And should we be more weary of the periphery?

So again, this author asks: Have you ever heard of Epidamnus or Potidea? (One of these days, the historian of World War III might ask: “Have you ever heard of Simferopol or Mariupol?”)

Rich Ganske is a U.S. Air Force officer and an editor for The BridgeThe opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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References are taken from The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Robert Strassler (ed.), New York, NY: Touchstone, 1998. For generality, each refers to Book and Chapter rather than page number.