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🎓 On leadership and dealing with the enemy
A review of the nonfiction book 'Tyrants of Syracuse' by Jeff Champion.
The Tyrants of Syracuse by Jeff Champion suffers, at heart, from an academic failing shared by many — the desire to include all of one's knowledge, instead of focusing on silly things like conveying a focused point or adding only enough context for a layman to understand the topic at hand. When I pick up a book called “The Tyrants of Syracuse” I expect it to devote more time to the actual Tyrants of Syracuse than to Athenian politics. Most people who spend more than fifteen minutes studying Ancient Greece — by which I mean anyone who has played a few rounds of Assassin's Creed — have at least heard of famous Athenians like Pericles and Alcibiades; they're a staple of middle school classrooms.
Our relative lack of knowledge about the impact of Carthaginian (Punic) politics on Sicily in general and Syracuse in particular is surely more because of survivorship bias than relative importance, but this book makes no real effort to account for that; it felt more like a compilation of interpreted sources than most nonfiction books I've read, which generally fall into categories like guides, narratives, proofs & overviews.
The Tyrants of Syracuse felt like it was trying to be an overview, but writing a good overview is a process involving curation. Instead of curating according to how important information was for understanding the Tyrants of Syracuse, it often felt like curation was based on the quality of the sources tangentially related to Syracuse.
Still, lots of stuff tangentially related to Syracuse is pretty interesting, and it's fun to learn about the Peloponnesian War from an angle that rarely gets much play in pop culture — or even among classicists, which is a shame, because there are some fascinating anecdotes — and lots of implications for modern life and politics.
Here's a selection of interesting stuff I got out of this book, carefully curated, so you don't have to wade thru it yourself.
On the rise and fall of tyrants
Chapter 2 touches on three main reasons for the rise of tyrants: imposition of tyrants by outside conquerors, crises (like invasions) requiring strong leadership, and the struggle between the rich and the poor. The wealthy seizing power from the hereditary nobility isn't listed as a primary driver of tyranny, although the primary example does touch on it:
The general jist of the rise and fall of the Tyrants of Syracuse is encapsulated by the story of Aristodemus, as brought to us by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Aristodemus was from Cumae and not Syracuase, but it's the clearest oldest account we have of a Tyrant taking power in Greece.
Aristodemus ‘was not ignorant of the purpose of his enemies’ and returned secretly to Cumae. He and his followers took power by storming the council building and killing many of the aristoi. He then introduced a number of measures in favour of the poor, including the two policies that were anathema to the wealthy classes of ancient Greece. ‘He established two institutions which are the worst of all human institutions and the prologues to every tyranny—a redistribution of the land and an abolition of debts.’ Aristodemus then promised that he should be ‘appointed general with absolute power till the public tranquility should be secured and they had established a democratic constitution.’ He then carried out a brutal purge of the aristocracy.
Despite his promises to the people, he then continued to rule as tyrant, supported by non-Greek mercenaries and a bodyguard of ‘the filthiest and the most unprincipled of the citizens’. Fourteen years later he was overthrown by the surviving aristocrats, who had been living in exile in Capua. They murdered Aristodemus, all his family and supporters. The nobles then ‘restored the traditional government.’
Read uncritically, Dionysius presents the story of an absolutely no-good loathsome monster who was heroically cast out by the nobility after fourteen years of depraved rule. Champion does do the best he can to explain why class conflict was so common around this time, although he mostly focuses on the rise of a non-hereditary wealthy class.
Read thru a modern lens familiar with pop culture, tho, I was mostly reminded of Fight Club. Not the part where a bunch of guys got together and bonded over punching themselves in the gut, but the part at the end where they were trying to wipe out debt and give everyone a chance to start over. Reading this excerpt about Aristodemus, I mostly felt like, if Fight Club had really happened, we would have had about a decade of chaos and then the financial elites would have come roaring back in to put things back to normal.
For all the concern about the increasing polarization of modern politics, I’m glad that our society seems a lot more stable than what the Greeks were putting up with.
On the usefulness of temples
I have said it before, and I will say it again, but I think religion is useful. In reading Tyrants of Syracuse, I found another way the ancient world got a lot of value out of their religious institutions — temples served as banks.
The Spartans now withdrew from the war, leaving the Athenians in control. Along with the Ionian Greeks the Athenians formed a new alliance, the Delian League, with its treasury in the temple of Apollo on the island of Delos. The stated purpose of the League was to liberate the Greek cities from Persian control.
They also served as forts, apparently.
Despite his call for an immediate attack, Demosthenes began by ravaging the fields of the Syracusans south of the city, an operation designed to help the Athenians regain their confidence. The Syracusans no longer came out to oppose them at sea and on land they limited themselves to raids from the temple, Demosthenes began his assault on the counter-wall by bringing up siege engines, probably rams.
I was raised in a mostly secular household associated loosely with the Protestant tradition, which I think is true for a lot of Americans. So it's with that cultural baggage in mind that I say: I was surprised by this mention of Greek temples being used as a basis for raids during the “Sicilian Expedition” portion of the Peloponnesian War.
I'm used to the opposite situation, really: sacred spaces being used as sanctuaries, places where soldiers and police officers are reluctant to enter in pursuit of criminals and refugees.
The western tradition treats churches almost as inviolate as embassies. That's one of the reasons the Viking raids were so shocking in the Carolingian era; they targeted monastaries, which most armies of the time wouldn't have dared touch. As a result, the monasteries weren't particularly well defended, which made them tempting targets for raiding bands.
I thought at first that this was just a difference between Ancient Greek religious beliefs and Medieval Catholic ones, but the more I dug into things, the more confused I got. Here's a quote from the very beginning of Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare: Temples, Sanctuaries and Conflict in Antiquity.
deeply ingrained cultural imperatives required all Greeks to respect the inviolability of shrines, sanctuaries and temples, as well as the rich dedications these often housed.
It's easy to imagine that the Syracusans during the Peloponnesian War chose to “violate” the sanctity of the temple they used as a military base because they were pushed to emergency measures by the siege, but the question I have is: what does “respecting” mean in this context? What does “inviolability” mean to the Greeks?
Were the Syracusans doing anything unexpected or “beyond the pale” by choosing the local temple as a base of military operations?
On when you’re allowed to attack the enemy
Speaking of being beyond the pale, enter Alcibiades, the famously drunken screw-up who betrayed Athens. Except…
Meanwhile, in Athens, Alcibiades' fears had been realized. Charges of impiety had been brought against him. When the fleet returned to Catane it found the official trireme of Athens, the Salaminia, waiting. They had a summons for Alcibiades, and others, to return to Athens and stand trial. The delegation had, however, been ordered to conduct the arrest quietly so as not to alarm their own troops and particularly the allies, many of whom had close ties to Alcibiades. He was allowed to return in his own ship, sailing alongside the Salaminia.
The unsecured Alcibiades used the opportunity to escape at Thurii. He was unwilling to trust in Athenian justice, claiming 'in the matter of life I wouldn't trust even my own mother not to mistake a black for a white ballot when she cast her vote.' Alcibiades, now an exile, crossed from Thurii to the Peloponnesus. The Athenian assembly condemned him and his companions to death. Hearing this he threatened to 'show them . . . that I'm alive.
Alcibiades soon deserted to the Spartans and gave them advice on how to bring 'ruin and destruction to his native city." His first act of betrayal was to denounce the Athenian sympathizers in Messene. It is little wonder that the Athenian demos never fully trusted him, nor other Greek democracies their own aristocrats. Their inflated egos and sense of self-importance tended to be more important to them than any sense of patriotism!
I am not an expert on Greek history, but to me the framing here was really confusing. Alcibiades didn't ‘betray’ Athens until they were planning to execute him on what may have been trumped-up political charges. Champion seems to be saying that it's unpatriotic to flee for people who are going to kill you and stop supporting them — the sentiment seems to be that the Socrates-esque choice of suicide is the only acceptable answer. Maybe I'm missing some sort of context about Greek history that would clarify this statement? But I was left feeling unexpectedly charitably toward Alcibiades — I’m not sure if I would have made different choices in his shoes. Certainly betraying one’s homeland is bad, but like, treating people who want you dead as the enemy seems reasonable?
Especially given the other ethical frameworks that were in use at the time, to whit:
Ancient empires were firm believers in the concept of the pre-emptive strike. If another power threatened you, it was best to attack first. If successful you might destroy them, although a more likely result would be to conquer part of their territory. This would both weaken them and strengthen you. It would also ensure that their lands would suffer the inevitable destruction that would accompany any campaign. For all these reasons Sicily would now become the obvious target for Carthaginian conquest.
While these deliberations were going on in the Athenian camp the Syracusan commanders had problems of their own, although of a less dangerous kind. Gylippus and Hermocrates both feared that the Athenians would slip away that night and continue the war from another part of Sicily.
The Athenians still numbered about 40,000 men. They wished to send out the army to block the roads and passes but could not get anyone to obey their orders. Not surprisingly, virtually the entire population of the city 'in their rapture at the victory had fallen to drinking. .. and would probably consent to anything sooner than take their arms and march out at that moment."
This was a nice reminder that it not that good mercenary companies who keep their men from pillaging have moral objections per se — it's that bad discipline in case you need to be ready to fight will get you killed. Mercenary captains are generally in the business of keeping their people alive so they can fight and make money another day, and they don't lose sight of that because they're professionals. Doing the job and not letting emotions get the better of you is the definition of professionalism after all.
On the punishment of failed but competent leaders
Speaking of elites, some fundamental aspects of how people treat leaders are definitely unchanged from the past. This anecdote about Carthaginian culture is a stark reminder of how difficult it is to separate out failure due to incompetence and failure to circumstance.
The Greek survivors of the battle collected their families and abandoned Alalia, fleeing to Rhegium. Those captured by the Etruscans were stoned to death as a punishment for their piracy, The victors divided the spoils, with the Etruscans annexing Corsica and the Carthaginians claiming Sardinia.
The Sardinians, however, put up strong resistance and defeated the Punic expedition in a battle, inflicting heavy losses on the invaders. The Carthaginians, who would show a penchant for punishing failed commanders, exiled both Malchus and his army. This force, unlike those the Carthaginians would later use once they had built their empire, appears to have consisted mostly of Carthaginian citizens. Hearing of their exile, they rebelled and sailed back to Carthage, claiming that 'they were not come to overthrow, but to recover their country; and that they would show their countrymen that it was not valour, but fortune, that had failed them in the preceding war."
Malchus succeeded in taking Carthage, supposedly after crucifying his own son for siding with the city against him. He executed ten of his leading opponents but then refused to seize power as a tyrant. As well as being vindictive towards failed commanders, the people of Carthage were also suspicious of ambitious generals. They accused Malchus of plotting a coup and executed him.
I feel like I've read a billion postmortem write-ups on HackerNews and Reddit about the Agile process and how Amazon is or isn't great at having a blameless culture for engineers who screw up and ship catastrophic code to production. The sentiment I see most commonly expressed is it's not the fault of the individual, it's the fault of the team, which is subtly different from ‘luck vs. skill” but these sorts of questions about “do we punish failure, and if so, who gets the axe?” are so universal to the human condition.
I'm a firm believer that mistakes are how we learn. It might seem intuitively obvious that the guy who ran a company into the ground should be not be given another company to run, but in modern-day America the sentiment seems to be that failing at business doesn't stop people from being allowed to try again -- and definitely seems to teach some important lessons. Here's popular economics blogger Matt Levine on the topic:
Losing a billion dollars indicates, to your next employer or investors, that someone — presumably someone smart, who had a billion dollars — trusted you with a billion dollars. It shows that you had the ability and nerve to take risks, which is (within reason) an attractive quality in high finance. And presumably you learned valuable lessons about whatever went wrong, and next time you will take better risks and make a lot of money instead of losing it.
I'm not particularly a fan of letting finance bros gamble away millions of dollars over and over again, but I feel like Carthaginian culture probably could have stood to be a little more forgiving of bad luck. Killing all their best soldiers right as they learned a very valuable lesson seems pretty wasteful, especially when you contrast it with the excellent story of Brasidas, the Spartan general who did have the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. The pop culture conception of Spartan generals tends more toward “bravery” than “brilliance,” but Brasidas figured out the value of focusing more on achieving his goals than showing off. It wasn't enough to keep him alive, but there's a lot to learn from his example.
On the ignoring of competent but non-elite leaders
Here is another tale as old as time:
Lamachus' strategy was considered by Thucydides, another Athenis general, Demosthenes, and most modern commentators to be the best option. He lacked, however, the prestige of the other two commanders, being far les wealthy, less well-born and a political nonentity. Neither of the other two would support such a risky plan. Lamachus then broke the deadlock by supporting Alcibiades' scheme rather the do-nothing strategy of Nicias. This plan was, however, clearly self-serving on Alcibiades' part. It would rely heavily on his skills as a negotiator and provide him with a network of allies throughout Sicily. Once he had built his own power base in this way he could then embark on his more ambitious plans of conquest.
How many stories have I read where the wealthy officer or well-born gentleman ignores the advice of the experienced but working-class NCO? How many articles have I read about an ignorant but brilliant kid from a good school ignoring the advice of a less-connected technician or plumber in a meeting, and having their company go up in flames because of it? So many.
That said, it’s somewhat less common that I hear of people ignoring the desires of competent leaders, equally to their detriment, as Carthage repeatedly did:
The site of the new city was about eight kilometres to the west of the destroyed Himera but well to the east of previous Phoenician settlements. The easy victories over Selinus and Himera, plus the discord in Syracuse, may have convinced the Carthaginians of their military superiority over the Greeks.
They voted to send another large expedition to the island, again placing Hannibal in command. In a manner reminiscent of Nicias, he requested to be excused because of his age but the Carthaginians insisted. They did, however, appoint another general, Himilcon, a member of the same family, to share the burden of command.
This is taking the idea that you should only give power to people who don't want it a bit too far. We often fail to examine that truism, but here's a good example of why it can be bad to do that. If you put somebody who is unmotivated and doesn't want to fight in charge of fighting force, they will wind up like Nicias I and make decisions that are less effective because they're unwilling to be bold and take risks and be aggressive enough to win a war.
Imagine putting someone in charge of a startup who is kinda burned out on leading businesses. Seems like an obvious way to lose a bunch of money, right? But the Carthaginians gambled lives on it instead.
As with “put an outsider in charge!” it is probably a really bad idea to force someone who doesn’t want to be in charge of something dangerous to go off and do the dangerous thing, if you actually expect him to succeed. Overall I was left with the impression that the Carthaginian approach to leadership was really, really dumb. There’s undoubtedly some bias in the sources, because Carthage was quite successful for a long time, but still. Oof.
On the value of embarrassing the enemy
I had another great moment of empathy with the ancients when I got to the following passage:
After taking the Carthaginians captive, Gelon undertook a stratagem that was common in the ancient world when troops faced a strange enemy for the first time. He ‘stripped all the feeblest, especially from among the auxiliaries, who were very swarthy, and exhibited them nude before the eyes order to convince his men that their foes were contemptible.’ This, along with the success of the cavalry enhanced the authority of Gelon and, supposedly, caused the Greeks to no longer fear the Carthaginians but instead to treat them with disdain.
On the one hand, you know, humiliating captured prisoners in the middle of a war is mean and probably I should feel bad for laughing. But on the other hand, there are some real “if you have to get up in front of your whole class and give a speech, imagine them naked” vibes here. I wonder if that advice dates back to the classical era, when it was apparently a lot more viable as a method to get your performance anxiety under control?
Certainly arguments about the correlation between hair length and political allegiance date back at least that long:
The Athenians were reminding both Gylippus and the Syracusans of their earlier triumph over the supposedly invincible Spartans at Pylos. They were also mocking the archaic habit of the Spartans of growing their hair long. This attitude was also shared by some of the Syracusans themselves, as the historian Timaeus claims 'that the Sicilians also made no account of Gylippus... as soon as they set eyes upon him they jeered at his cloak and his long hair'. These jibes may also have had a political basis as long hair was often associated with the aristocracy. Many of the anti-democratic rich in Athens emulated the Spartans by growing their hair and/or beards long, and wearing their short, red military cloaks.
In the modern era, it’s the liberal hippies who get mocked for having long hair. In the ancient world, apparently it was the conservative elites. But no matter what time period we look at, signalling via appearances is still critically important to the process of self-sorting into groups by socio-political allegiance.
So it was fun to have that confirmed, again.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive collection of everything we know related to Syracusian war and politics during the couple of hundred years when they were known for producing Tyrants, Tyrants of Syracuse is probably a good resource, as long as you don't mind the words (and biases) of ancient aristocratic philosophers and historians being presented to you with minimal commentary.
If you were looking for something a little closer to “the rise and fall of the Tyrants of Syracause as a phenomenon,” expect to get very bogged down in Athenian politics and military logistics.
If you’re just looking for something obscure but thought-provking? I’m not sure how much I managed to fill in the ‘Phoenicnian gap’ in my education, but Tyrants of Syracuse was overall worth my time — but mostly because I read quick, hang out with history nerds, and have a particular interest in Ancient Mediterranean cultures that aren’t Greece and Rome. If that doesn’t describe you, I’d probably skip this one.