Orders of Magnitude from Thucydides to Poe

“Each side is coming face to face with its own conception of the devil!”

– Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

Arthur Rackham’s 1935 illustration of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

At some point while reading The Peloponnesian War (late fifth century BC) you begin to realize that Thucydides is up to something more than mere historical accuracy. The truth starts to blur, and you suspect that time, place, actor, or battle are no longer so much facts to be disclosed as symbolic points of reference for what’s going on below the surface. History’s greatest historian tips his hand when this happens. His curious selection of details and his overly insistent reporting signal concerns removed from history as we know it.

To some degree, this would happen whether Thucydides intended it or not. We don’t share our worldview with Greeks from the fifth century BC, so he’ll record patterns about which we’ll remain oblivious or which can only ever strike us as odd or superfluous. And when Thucydides says, “I shall record only the most significant of these events” (PW 3.90.1), this doesn’t mean we’ll learn every aspect of an event that makes him think it’s significant. But the same phrase, along with other patterns, does suggest where he placed his selective emphasis. Here are two examples from the beginning and end of Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War.

(1) Thucydides establishes almost immediately that Athenians and Spartans have antithetical but mutually reinforcing constitutions. Spartans are tempered, agrarian, and senatorial. Their military is land-based. They are slow to act and worry about rebellions among their large underclass of serfs. Athenians are hot-headed, mercantile, and populist. They’re daring and concerned about rebellions in regions and city-states at the margins of their sprawling empire. Their navy is their military advantage. Athenians also grant rights and citizenship to people fleeing oppression. So, the expansionist, radical democracy of Athens feeds off those who rebel against the Spartan coalition. Meanwhile, unruly Athens struggles to suppress a series of city-states which threaten to defect to the cause of regional independence led by Sparta. The Greek universe, then, is a sociopolitical yin-yang crashing in on itself, a giant dualism of opposing yet complementary forces. And since neither side can avoid the other’s orbit, The Peloponnesian War is really an inevitable and paradoxically cosmic civil war.

(2) Near the end of Book 1, Thucydides revisits the idea that Athens and Sparta both threaten and reinforce each other. He shows that each has a blind spot that gives moral support and refers allies to their enemy. He does this symbolically by reporting that each side has been cursed for violating a sacred rule. Athenians sacrifice according to their own rites but outside their city’s walls, thereby offending those who would prefer a more universal gesture. It’s ironic, given their democratic ideals. Spartans slaughter a group of helots, tragically reinforcing the oligarchy’s fear of slave revolts, which then drives the logic of their system of agrarian alliances. Each sacrificial crisis reveals the dark side of a virtue that feeds a larger enmity created by their respective advantages. In other words, they reinforce each other’s Achilles’ heels. Athenians grant refuge and freedom to people fleeing tyranny, which inclines these refugees to turn unforgiving and predatory toward their former oppressors. The latter chafe at this and, naturally, drift in the direction of regionally based pacts with Sparta. Meanwhile, their confidence in their geopolitical stability reinforces a casual willingness among Spartans to oppress their own serfs. This tyrannical spirit in turn leads many powerless and abused people to drift toward Athens.

This same reciprocal enmity between Athens and Sparta underwrites the concept of stasis throughout The Peloponnesian War. Indeed, Thucydides circles stasis, or “social strife,” in his work so often that it shuts down further explanation. Social conflict simply evinces a familiar local singularity. And that is that. The same can be said about phobos, or “fear,” which serves Thucydides as the motive for the geopolitical maneuvers of practically every actor on his stage. And we all know what fear is, so that is that too.

Thus, as the aggregate consequence of so many cases of phobos, there’s an opposite and equally elegant circularity to the logic of stasis. It gestures at a struggle as if it were its own cause. Often stasis is tension, discord, disturbance; sometimes it’s sedition or rebellion; other times it’s civil unrest; and it can even mean an analogous conflict between two larger independent states.

Now, stasis has two possible outcomes: We come together or we fall apart. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make life any simpler or easier. One faction or another might take over a city or a region. It might do so with or without foreign intervention. It might wobble or change sides several times. A city-state can go on a winning streak, attracting allies and imposing its will on its neighbors; or it can be annihilated in short order as punishment for an ill-timed rebellion against a larger power.

Of course, the overarching example of how stasis can be destructive is Greece itself. Resisting Persian invaders, Greeks had united before. But once the external threat receded, a natural enmity between Delian (Ionic) and Peloponnesian (Dorian) factions erupts. All the intricate examples Thucydides gives us of civil unrest at cities like Corcyra, Plataea, and Mytilene are but local ripples in a larger collision between opposing leagues.

In contrast to what happens at the heart of the Greek world and then globally, a region that manages to overcome stasisis Sicily. The city-states there set aside their differences in order to hold both Greek leagues at bay. Sicily mirrors the Greek world, but it spins in the opposite direction. Sicilian city-states consolidate about a common cause, an opposite singularity to what drives division among the Greeks. For the people of Sicily, all these Greek invaders look enough like Persia once did to the Greeks that phobos still convinces them to choose unity, not division (see PW 4.58–65).

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “The Blind Spot of Higher Education”]

In Book 4, just before Thucydides first turns his gaze to Sicily, a set of odd details emerges from the Greek world, adding to our sense of its disintegration. This is our first brush with what will be the ultimate undoing of Athens; it foreshadows the disastrous Sicilian Expedition of Book 6. In order to stress the counterexample of Sicily’s union in Book 4, Thucydides delves once again into the transience of any advantage for Sparta or Athens. This is how the Achilles’ heel of Greece winds up in a symbolic climax off the coast of the toe of Italy. Signaling the shift, Thucydides notes five weird events and details right before turning to Sicily.

(1) A war which normally runs one way suddenly runs another. Spartans and Athenians find themselves adopting the military methods of their enemies. It’s a powerful and symbolic pivot. In a sense, they now find themselves in each other’s shoes. Thucydides underscores the irony:

… in a chance turn-around of events, the Athenians found themselves repelling the Spartans from the land – and Laconian territory at that – which the Spartans were attacking by sea; while the Spartans were fighting from ships and invading the Athenians on their own land, which had become enemy territory. For at that time the Spartans were renowned as a mainland power excelling in their land forces, while the Athenians were a sea power with a pre-eminent navy. (PW 4.12.2–3)

When he repeats the observation, it amounts to a textual undercurrent: “the Spartans, in their excitement and consternation, were effectively fighting a sea battle from the land; while the Athenians, who had the upper hand and wanted to press their good fortune as far as they could while it lasted, were fighting a land battle from ships” (PW 4.14.3).

(2) Just as suddenly, the Spartans not only lose hope and sue for peace; they become the party of reasoned discourse and moral argument. Again, this doesn’t accord with what we’ve come to expect up to this point—a stolid military wall:

The Spartans, then, formally invite you to agree the terms of a treaty and the cessation of war; they offer you peace and an alliance … We take the view that great enmities are most securely resolved, not when one party vengefully seeks to impose compulsory and binding terms because they have gained a decisive upper hand over an enemy, but when, from a position of strength and in a reasonable spirit they make peace on terms that are moderate beyond any expectation and so get a moral advantage over their enemies too. For then the adversary is placed under an obligation to respond in kind. (PW 4.19.2–3)

(3) A symbol of all this shifting is the whirlpool in the Strait of Messina known as the Charybdis. It shows up after the Spartans come to embody reason and morality. It’s possible the whirlpool at Messina was more powerful according to the ancient coastline or the inferior crafts and sailing abilities of ancient heroes. Today, however, it’s not strong, and it’s only a threat under severe conditions. It’s far more likely that the whirlpool was always a matter of pure symbolism in both Homer and Thucydides. A greater message is in play, a metaphor for a situation, a world locked once again in epic stasis and spiraling out of anyone’s control, spiraling perilously toward something archaic, barbaric, and chaotic:

The strait is the water between Rhegium and Messina, where Sicily comes closest to the mainland, and is the location of the place called Charybdis, which Odysseus was supposed to have sailed through. Because of its narrowness and because the water rushes into it from two great seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Sicilian, and generates such strong currents, the strait was understandably regarded as dangerous. (4.24.5)

(4) After the Charybdis, Thucydides lays out his sociology of the Athenian mob in conjunction with his famous description of Cleon’s gambit. In effect, he rips readers from the polis and forces us to contemplate what is going on inside Cleon’s head. Here is the experience of a demagogue (demagogos) trying to direct a democratic frenzy. And Cleon is an oddly comical breed of petty tyrant who loses control in short order:

At first Cleon thought that Nicias was bluffing about standing aside, and he appeared willing; but when he realized that Nicias was really serious about handing over [command], he backtracked and said that it was Nicias not he who was the general. By now he was alarmed and never thought that Nicias would have the nerve to withdraw in his favor. But Nicias repeated what he had said and offered his resignation, making the Athenian people his witnesses. And in the way of all crowds, the more Cleon tried to evade the expedition and back out of what he had said, the more they urged on Nicias to hand over his command and shouted at Cleon to sail. So Cleon, with no way left of getting out of what he had said, agreed to undertake the expedition. (PW 4.28.2–4)

These unfathomable crosscurrents show Athens on the brink of political chaos. Almost worse than the demagogue is his crazy luck. All this as Thucydides’s stylistic prowess bubbles to the surface, and we sweat it out with Cleon when the Athenian mob calls his bluff. He’s forced to take a leap of faith in himself, and ends up leading a strangely successful campaign. Thucydides marks this moment as something much more than the usual phobos or stasis: “Of all the events of the war this was the one that took the Greeks most by surprise” (PW 4.40.1, my emphasis). Cleon is the sudden picaresque antihero of the war, and for an unguarded moment, the greater Athenian democracy seems almost capable of wrenching out its own greater glory from the soul of this otherwise manipulative coward. This is nothing less than the simultaneous political and psychological tipping point of The Peloponnesian War.

(5) Finally, when Athens rejects Sparta’s offer to make peace, Thucydides guides readers toward a new causal concept: hubris. At this point, The Peloponnesian War finally shoots itself past both objective chronicle and Homeric myth and turns definitively into the tragedy of Athens. In the great chain of historical causation, we now move beyond phobosand stasis. Fifth-century tragedians like Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus have this in common with Thucydides. Like the first historian, they glimpse blind spots in all the official stories used to justify and explain the ineluctable nature of human violence versus human violence.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “Jorge Luis Borges’s International Political Hydra”]

I’ve just shown you five indications that the hole in the short seascape between Messina and Rhegium is symbolically critical to Thucydides’s vision. To review:

(1) each side adopts the tactics of its opponent;

(2) Sparta inexplicably loses heart and sues for peace with logical and moral arguments;

(3) Thucydides evokes Homer’s Charybdis;

(4) Cleon’s individualism folds before a mob; only his daring luck veils Athens’s dissolution;

(5) Athens rejects Sparta’s truce, and the grinding experiences of phobos and stasis finally yield to hubris as the determining factor of The Peloponnesian War.

Between Homer’s epic poetry and Thucydides’s strangely harmonious history we can now plot a shift in magnitude and geopolitical frame that extends from archaic to ancient Greece. We have swung from myth to reality. Tribes once united in the triumphant siege of Troy have now become complex leagues of city-states locked in a decades-long war that climaxes in a failed expedition against Sicily. A wider sea of opposing military aggregates has emerged, and it’s one absolutely devoid of gods or heroes. This all makes Thucydides’s realism far darker than Homer’s glory, and now we can see why the historian’s allusion to his precursor’s epic tale at the Strait of Messina floats by like a shiny piece of wreckage from another universe. We are now contemplating a human singularity in the space-time continuum that marks the advent of the age of Cleon.


Recall that a young James Madison, in the guise of Princeton University’s first graduate student, studied Thucydides’s epic vision of the antithetical and structural nature of stasis as a kind of unavoidable human sociology. The Virginian’s subsequent allusions to the lawgivers Solon (Athens) and Lycurgus (Sparta) in Federalist 18, 38, and 63, as well as his reenactment of a sacrificial ritual in Federalist 45, offer powerful hints that Madison had Thucydides in mind, if not directly at hand, while thinking about his new nation in 1787–88.

Can another Peloponnesian War be avoided? What if both sides could be made to recognize their own vulnerabilities and to accept the unlikelihood of either gaining any advantage without incurring fatal costs? Mutually assured destruction is a powerful idea. In the New World, perhaps another impending collapse with global consequences between the Athenian North and the Spartan South can be harnessed to mutual benefit by way of some new, more moderated or formalized type of stasis? Is that not the purpose of the U.S. Constitution of 1787? Is it not a mechanism for social coordination which we have somehow always managed to mistake for some literal, even mystical source of truth?

For a time in the early years of the American Republic, it must have seemed as if Madison and the other Founders had successfully navigated the very same geopolitical straits that had so haunted other great men like Odysseus and Thucydides. But that gargantuan vortex yawning out from Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841) signals another shift in magnitude and geopolitical frame, one with no way out other than war:

… there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly—very suddenly—this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

The Peloponnesian War describes Athens and Sparta pulling each other into a bloody abyss for reasons almost nobody involved can truly understand. Thucydides symbolizes this with the whirlpool at Messina. Poe evinces hyperbolic interest in a similar vision as the American Civil War looms. Previously, around 1787, men like Madison, Hamilton, and Jay had been open to the ancient Spartan party’s advice to adopt a “reasonable” posture. Compared to roughly 40,000 dead over a quarter century during the Peloponnesian War, perhaps a chance to avoid bloodshed was now afforded by the 75,000 dead in the War of American Independence in 1776–84 (5x the slaughter rate of the PW). But the tide turned against their patriotic enthusiasm after 350,000 died in the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 (15x the slaughter rate of the PW). The Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15 represented yet another order of magnitude, killing 6,000,000 (250x the slaughter rate of the PW; see Tocqueville DA 3.3.26).

In the early nineteenth century, anyone with a brain could see increasing rates of slaughter far into the future. This explains the change of tone between writers like Madison and Poe. Such spirals of magnitude also allow readers to entertain the impression that the Charybdis transmits a secret form of knowledge. Perhaps the percentages or the total numbers of dead or the magnitudes of slaughter in the great arc of history should always matter less to the living than their awesome desire to navigate into the future. Such conflicts might even be the only things that can bring people together. We all have our blind spots, after all.

Images: Adobe Stock; Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

3 thoughts on “Orders of Magnitude from Thucydides to Poe

  1. It has to be considered that today, right at this moment the Ukraine-Russia war follows the same exact blueprint put forth by this essay. I’m sure the author must know this and perhaps is waiting for a note to this comparison.

    1. I shouldn’t have said blueprint as that is not quite right. But the similarities are there and it must be that patterns repeat throughout history.

  2. Yes, but what were the relative populations at the time?

    I’m not sure where you get the figure of 75,000 dead in the American Revolution — the US Dept of Veterans’ Affairs cites 4,435 battle deaths — see: https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf

    I compare this to their figure of 47,434 battle deaths in Vietnam for consistency, with the understanding that prior to the 20th Century, disease killed far more than bullets, *and* that prior to modern medicine, hospital mortality rates were truly horrific.

    But the Revolution’s war deaths — 4,435 or 75,000 — was out of a population of about 2.5 Million while the 47,434 combat deaths in Vietnam was out of a population of about 200 Million. And the point I often make about the US Civil War is that the 214,938 (combined) combat deaths was out of a population of about 27.5 Million (31.5 Million if you count the slaves), and that while the South only lost 74,524, that was out of a (non slave) population of only 5.5 Million.

    My point is that while every dead soldier had family & friends who mourned his loss, mortality has to be considered relative to the size of the population and while the actual number of people killed in wars has increased over the centuries, that needs to be viewed in terms of the percentage of the population at the time.

    Yes, the carnage of the Battle of Antietam, with a combined tally of 22,727 dead, wounded, or missing, would be considered horrific today — but our population is roughly ten times what it was then, which would mean 227,270 people today…

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