"Divided We Fall": A Programmatic Function of Thucydides' Acarnanian Campaign (2.80-92)

Mark Thorne

University of Iowa

            Thucydides' description of the Acarnanian campaign is the longest and most detailed narrative of a military operation in the important second book, and as such it has often been studied as a programmatic narrative which clearly displays Athens' superior naval power early in the war (e.g. Gomme 1945, Hunter 1973, Hornblower 1991).  This assessment is correct, but I argue that there is also a broader programmatic function at work in this narrative, one that displays the importance of what may be called "unified action" and the disastrous consequences that result from its opposite.  In the Acarnanian campaign, one may read defeats caused by a disruption in military unity as symbolic of the future political problems Athens will face when her own politicians pursue competing private interests.

            Thucydides holds up Pericles as the model statesman and general, the sort of leader who is able to keep Athens unified and to prevent it from losing sight of its strategy in the face of such setbacks as the initial invasion of Attica and the ensuing plague.  After his death, however, we read that his successors abandoned his sound strategy and instead pursued "what lay outside the war for their own private interests and gains" (ka\i ]alla ]exw to^u pol/emou doko^unta e>inai kat\a t\av jid/iav filotim/iav ka\i ]idia k/erdh, 2.65.7).  In other words, Thucydides clearly implies that political disunity—a lack of common purpose—yielded in ultimate defeat.  This is rightly viewed as an indictment of the disastrous Sicilian expedition, but what has been overlooked is that one need only look to the Acarnanian campaign later in the same book to see the consequences of a lack of unified action visibly at work.

            In each of the three stages of the campaign, Thucydides describes a military defeat that is caused by a breakdown in the unity (t/axiv) of the losing side's battle line.  In the first stage (2.80-82), the Spartans and their allies assault the city of Stratus.  Disaster strikes, however, when the undisciplined Chaonian allies placed at the center begin to think of the glory they might obtain if they conquered the city by themselves—essentially a private interest.  Not surprisingly, when they charge the city unsupported they are cut down, and the Spartans must quit the battlefield.  In the second stage (2.83-84), the first of two naval battles fought off Naupactus, the Athenian commander Phormio squares off against a Corinthian fleet.  Surprised that the smaller Athenian force would intercept them, the Corinthians shape their fleet into a protective circle, but the Athenians' superior foresight and experience grant Phormio the ability to disrupt the unity of that formation, resulting in a victory for the Athenians.  In the third stage (2.85-92), the second naval battle off Naupactus, although the Spartan fleet initially gains the upper hand by splitting the Athenian line in two, those ships which pursue the fleeing Athenian vessels do so without maintaining any semblance of order (jat/aktwv, 2.91.4), with the result that the Spartans are routed suddenly when the surviving Athenian ships reform and counterattack.

            Although usually read primarily as a statement of Athenian naval power and experience, the Acarnanian campaign as constructed by Thucydides points strongly to the essential importance of unified action and the consequences of a breakdown in unity.  This is highly significant because it can function programmatically as a parallel to the breakdowns in Athenian political unity that Thucydides laments after the death of Pericles, breakdowns which in turn lead to more military disasters in the coming years of the war and ultimately to Athens' final defeat.

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