The Revolution at Corcyra

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

by Ben Zarit
Written 4/11/95

Table of Contents

  1. Maps of Greece and Corcyra Island
  2. Overview of the Revolution
  3. Thucydides on other revolutions during the war
  4. Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning
  5. Evidence of the Senses
  6. Mechanistic Approach
  7. Conclusions about Human Nature
  8. Comments on this paper

Map of Greece

Map created by Neel Smith, courtesy of Perseus Project 2.0, Yale 1995

Map of Corcyra Island

Map created by Neel Smith, courtesy of Perseus Project 2.0, Yale 1995

Overview of the Revolution

In the fifth year of the Peloponnesian war (427 BCE), Athens' ally Corcyra fell victim to internal strife, a vicious struggle between the commons, allies of Athens, and the oligarchs, who were eager to enlist the support of the Spartans. The revolution began when Corinth, an ally of Sparta, released Corcyraean prisoners with the promise that the former prisoners would work to convince Corcyra to abandon its ally Athens and join the Peloponnesian side. These men brought Peithias, a pro-Athenian civic leader, to trial on charges of "enslaving Corcyra to Athens" (Thucydides, 3.71.1). He was acquitted and took revenge by charging five of them in turn. However, these men burst in upon the senate and killed Peithias and sixty other people.

Shortly after this, skirmishes broke out in the city, between the commons, who enlisted the aid of the slaves, and the oligarchs, who hired mercenaries, which ended with the oligarchs being routed. The Athenian general, Nicostratus, tried to bring about a peaceful settlement and ensure an offensive and defensive alliance between Corcyra and Athens. Nicostratus agreed to leave five Athenian ships to defend Corcyra while five Corcyraean ships accompanied him. The commons tried to get their enemies to serve upon these ships that were departing with Nicostratus. Their enemies, fearing for their lives, seated themselves as suppliants to the goddess Hera, and eventually were convinced to stay on the island in front of the temple.

Four or five days after these events, Peloponnesian ships approached Corcyra and engaged the smaller number of Athenian vessels, while the Corcyraean vessels were ineffective due to disorganization. The Peloponnesians drove off the Athenian and Corcyraean ships, laid waste to the surrounding country, but chose not to attack the city itself . Disorder and panic were rampant through the city, as rumors reached the population.

The Peloponnesians eventual departed under fear of the approach of a larger Athenian fleet. The commons took this opportunity to slay as many of their enemies as they could get their hands upon. The managed to slay some of the men who had appealed to Hera as suppliants. The others committed suicide or killed each other. This was the beginning of the chaos in Corcyra and "the Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of the monies owed to them." (Thucydides 3.81.4).

Thucydides on other revolutions during the war

Thucydides begins with very specific details about the revolution at Corcyra, but then goes on to use it as an example of the revolutions that occurred during the remaining portion of the war. He says, "Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed [by revolution]" (Thucydides 3.82.1). He tells the reader what occurred during the revolution at Corcyra, how and why it began, as well as the principle events and the general chaos that resulted. Instead of describing the successive revolutions, he merely describes the first, as "Corcyra gave the first example of most of the crimes" that were committed during the revolutions (Thucydides 3.84.1). From his observations of the events that occurred at Corcyra, he draws several conclusions, both about the nature of the events and human nature itself.

Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning

Thucydides approaches the process of finding the of the events by first stating his observations and then drawing conclusions, allowing. By taking an inductive approach, he differs from many of his contemporaries, who favored deductive reasoning. Philolaus, a Pythagorean and contemporary of Socrates and Thucydides, says "It is necessary for the things that exist to be all either limiters or unlimiteds or both limiters and unlimiteds." (Philolaus). Philolaus beings by describing the basic principles of the universe and then illustrates to his readers why his ideas represent the truth, taking a more deductive approach.

Evidence of the senses

Thucydides also trusts in the evidence his senses provide, as opposed to some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Zeno (c490-? BCE). Aristotle describes Zeno's first paradox of motion, known as the Stadium, "For we have many arguments contrary to accepted opinion, such as Zeno's that motion is impossible and that you cannot traverse the stadium" (Zeno's Paradox). Zeno uses logical arguments to disprove the evidence provided by human senses. On the other hand, Thucydides begins his histories by assuring his reader that "we can rest satisfied with having proceed upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected" (Thucydides 1.21.1). Some of the data we receive may be flawed, Thucydides says, but by evaluating and analyzing the data, the truth can be found.

Mechanistic Approach

Anaxagoras, (c. 500-428 BCE) postulated a mechanistic approach to understanding the cause of natural events. Anaxagoras says that "The sun, the moon and all the stars are red-hot stones which the rotation of the aither carries round with it." (Anaxagoras). Instead of proposing that the celestial bodies are affected by divine powers, he illustrates a mechanical process that causes the natural events. Thucydides, while not dealing with the celestial bodies and the origins of the universe, also strives for a universal description of his subject matter. He does not believe that the gods or other incomprehensible forces will determine events, but human nature is predictable enough. His statement "the sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same" (Thucydides 3.82.2) suggest that what he has described happening in Corcyra will occur where ever revolutions break out. The specifics may change, but human nature will not.

Conclusions about Human Nature

The conclusions Thucydides reaches about human nature from his analysis of the revolt at Corcyra are not very positive. He begins by saying "Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go" (Thucydides 3.81.5) and then goes on to describe in particular how people's actions and opinions changed. He says that "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them" (Thucydides 3. 82.4) because what had once been considered extreme and unreasonable behavior was know considered accepted. As an example, he offers the fact that "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice" (Thucydides 3.82.4). He believes that human nature suffers greatly during a revolution, that the worst side of people is revealed. Rational during peace, "but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes" (Thucydides 3.82.2). Thucydides describes the revolution at Corcyra, exams the evidence provided by careful observation, and from there draws the conclusion that "human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority" (Thucydides 3.84.2).