Be The Rider, Not The Horse Poem by gershon hepner

Be The Rider, Not The Horse

Be the rider, not the horse,
said Bismarck, but in ancient Greece
the horses clearly set the course
that led to war, destroying peace,
when Athens’ allies dragged the city
into war, invading Sic-
ily, which was a dreadful pity
They should have given it a miss,
and not responded to entreaties
of distant allies who were riders
of Athens’ horses, trailed by treaties,
insiders married to outsiders.
Once Athens lost its naval fleet
in a defeat that would dishearten
Thucydides, it faced the heat
of Persian power aiding Spartan,
since it had bitten off far more
than it could chew, a horse
not rider, having lost the war
by never suing for divorce.
Inspired by Peter Stothard’s review of Donald Kagan’s “Thucydides: The Reinvention of History” which quotes Bismarck, who said that in a world of competing alliances it is essential “to be the rider, not the horse” (“School of Athens, ” WSJ, October 29,2009) :
[W]ith 'Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, ' Mr. Kagan has produced what reads like the last word on the man, a nuanced and subtle account of a subject that has so often been treated in a spirit of high partisanship. Mr. Kagan stresses that Thucydides, an Athenian naval commander who was exiled in 424 B.C. for losing an important battle in Thrace, was more than just a participant in the conflict that he described. He was also a player in the domestic politics of the war, the 'spin' as well as the strategy. Thus 'Thucydides: The Reinvention of History' is a book about a long-ago historian's argument with his contemporaries—the tension between facts and what one would like to be facts. 'In the important cases examined here, ' Mr. Kagan writes, 'the contemporary view was closer to the truth than [Thucydides'] own.' Of what can we be certain? Athens lost the war; Sparta won it. A turning point was Athens's ill-advised invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C. during a lull in the conflict with Sparta. The result was a catastrophic destruction of the vaunted Athenian navy and ultimately a fatal weakening of Athenian power. This, too, we know: When the Spartans finally won victory in 404 B.C., they were aided by a late alliance with Persia, the traditional enemy of all Greece. Beyond that outline, the certainties are scarce.

The origin of the war? Without doubt, tensions were rising in the mid-fifth century B.C. between the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian League, with Sparta as its leader. But was Pericles, the aristocratic leader of the Athenian democracy, a key cause of hostilities? Many of his contemporaries thought so, Mr. Kagan says. They blamed Pericles for his influential support of two actions against Spartan allies—restricting the trade of one, aiding the enemy of another—that helped to provoke war. Thucydides strongly disagreed with Pericles' critics, insisting in his 'History of the Peloponnesian War' that the conflict was caused by later demagogues and deeper underlying forces. Thucydides' interpretation would color most later scholarship. Yet Mr. Kagan notes that Thucydides' views were hardly the result of dispassionate analysis and were more likely a reaction to his family's anti-democratic past—he was simply supporting Pericles with a convert's zeal.

If anything could be said to have caused the war, Thucydides maintained, it was fear of the Athenian empire. Mr. Kagan cites for the contrary view a 'brilliant modern historian of the ancient world whose advice influenced me at the very beginning of my studies.' This is the Marxist historian G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, the Oxford man who both accepted the sincerity of Thucydides' belief and argued that the evidence of the Peloponnesian War, in particular the evidence of Spartan society, showed that it was simply wrong to regard fear as the root cause of the war. 'The news columns in Thucydides, so to speak, contradict the editorial Thucydides, ' de Ste. Croix wrote, 'and the editor himself does not always speak with the same voice.'..

Mr. Kagan finishes up with an observation that foreign-policy debaters would do well to keep in mind: 'A hegemonic state may gain power by having allies useful in war, but reliance on those states may compel the hegemonic power to go to war against its own interests.' The disastrous misadventure of the Athenians in Sicily began, Mr. Kagan writes, with 'the entreaties of their small, far-off allies.' As he notes, it was Bismarck who once said that in a world of competing alliances it is essential 'to be the rider, not the horse.' Thucydides' 'History, ' says Mr. Kagan, shows 'how difficult an assignment' the rider faces. His own book is a valuable guide to the ways in which the Peloponnesian War can—and cannot—be used to guide modern thinking.


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