PURPLE PATCH: Thucydides and the Epochal War —Philip Bobbitt
Thucydides wrote the classical masterpiece The Peloponnesian War during his exile from Athens. That exile began in 424 BC as a consequence of the loss of Amphipolis where he had been commander of the Athenian forces, ending the period in which he had served as an Athenian general in Thrace. He is believed to have begun his history of the war between Athens and Sparta in the years after 421 BC, that is, after the signing of the Peace of Nicias that ended the Ten Years’ War, as it was known to him and to his contemporaries. Yet he is not generally known to us as the author of a “History of the Ten Years’ War.”
It is clear from the way in which he concludes his account of this war in the perfect tense before beginning his famous “second preface” that he regarded this war, and its history, as complete. It was only after 413 BC that Thucydides conceived the idea of the series of conflicts between Athens and Sparta as a single continuing war. At this point he decided to incorporate this first book — the history of the Ten Years’ War — into the larger work.
Why was this? Thucydides did not make this decision after the final defeat of Athens; the main body of Books VI and VII was written when he was still in exile, well before the end of the war. Rather it seems to have been an Athenian raid in 414 BC that made clear that the issues of the Ten Years’ War had not been fully resolved. So it is with all epochal wars — the Hundred Years’ War,’ the Thirty Years’ War, the Punic Wars — and so it will be seen of the war of the twentieth century. Historians classify such epochal wars as constituting a single historical event because, despite often lengthy periods in which there is no armed conflict, the various engagements of the war never decisively settle the issues that manage to reassert themselves through conflict. Whereas we commonly think that the aspirations at the outset of war will determine its closure, it is in fact the dynamic interplay between strategy and the legitimating goals of the state that must be satisfied before we can say that a particular war is really over. The goals of the warring states must be compromised or otherwise the means of pursuing those goals by violence will be taken up again. When constitutional issues come into play there is little room for compromise; the loss of the issue can mean the loss of the state itself.
It may take some time, and some disagreement, before a consensus among historians is reached on the war of the twentieth century. The term “Thirty Years’ War” appeared in 1649 in the English weekly newspaper The Moderate Intelligencer, shortly after the end of that war in 1648. A journalist from that paper linked the various religious wars fought in Europe after the rebellion in 1618 of Protestant Bohemia against its Catholic ruler, Ferdinand of Habsburg, later the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Other historians since have also tied these various wars together, though some begin somewhat earlier (1566) with the Dutch/Calvinist revolt against the Spanish,’ which undoubtedly had a religious dimension. For these historians, the epochal war is the Ninety Years’ War. Still others break up the struggle into two epochal wars: one beginning with the 1618 Bohemian revolt, and another commencing with the Swedish invasion of Bavaria in 1630, which was a more typical war among great powers. For historians of this perspective, such as Bishop Gepeckh of Freising, there were two separate wars: a Twelve Years’ War and an Eighteen Years’ War. All of these wars have in common that they end with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Yet other historians, who emphasise the political and secular dimensions of the conflict, see it as continuing until the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659 or the Peace of Copenhagen in 166o. And one is not necessarily more correct than another: if the historian views the war as having arisen from sectarian differences, it is nevertheless true that by the end of the war Europe had been politicised, secularised, and rationalised to a degree inconceivable at the beginning of the struggle, when theological convictions so preoccupied Europeans that national, social, and patriotic considerations were subordinated.
Similarly, although the actual phrase “Hundred Years’ War” apparently was not used until the nineteenth century, historians two centuries earlier saw the conflict as a single epochal war, even if they disagreed as to its precise dates. As with the Thirty Years’ War, the disagreement turns on what the ultimate issues are taken to be. Francois de Mezeray in his Histoire de France in 1643 considered the Anglo-French struggles to constitute a single war beginning in 1337 and lasting one hundred sixty years. Most historians today start the war in 1328 (the date that Philip VI of France confiscated the French property of the English king Edward III and the year that Edward obtained a claim to the French throne) or 1340 (the year that Edward declared himself to be king of France), but some see the war between England and France as an Anglo-French civil war — because the kings of England were feudal lords of France — lasting from 1294 until 1558 (the date England lost her last holding in France and ninety-five years after the usual date for the end of the war when the English were removed from all of France except Calais).” The reasons given by the contending scholarly parties to this historical controversy assume the same fundamental premise: a single epochal war encompasses shorter wars, interposed with periods of little or no fighting, when a central issue links the constituent conflicts and remains unresolved until the ultimate settlement. Therefore, whether an epochal war can be said to encompass other particular wars depends on what issue the historian believes was central to all the linked conflicts, even if this issue only becomes clear in the course of the conflict itself. This is the lesson of Thucydides.
Thucydides did not live to see his epochal war carried to its conclusion, when Macedon put an end to the constitutional order of Greek city-states and proved that only a larger empire could maintain itself and defend Greece.
Bobbitt has served as senior advisor at the White House and held various other important positions at the Senate and the US State Department. He has been on the faculty of University of Texas, Nuffield College at Oxford and King’s College London. He has written on nuclear strategy, social choice and constitutional law. This passage is taken from his 2002 book The Shield of Achilles