The Psychology of Athenian Imperialism in Thucydides' Peloponnesian War
In his depiction of Athens in his Peloponnesian War, Thucydides shows a city of extraordinary daring, energy, resourcefulness and hope. However, it is difficult adequately to articulate the character of that which is most central to Athens, namely, her imperial ambition. Although Athens is clearly distinguished from the fearful, ever-hesitating Sparta by her apparently boundless activity and hopefulness, it is nonetheless unclear what, precisely, Athens is hoping for. What is the attraction of the ceaseless toil and danger of great empire? In risking what they have because they are “always seeking more,” what exactly do the Athenians think they are getting? My study approaches these questions through a focus on one of the great puzzles of Athenian imperialism, namely, that the Athenians claim both that their empire is pursued under the compulsion of fear, honor, and/or interest, and that it is freely undertaken -- a contradiction that creates a difficulty especially for the Athenians’ repeated suggestion that their empire is a noble, praiseworthy enterprise. Through consideration of the Athenians’ experience of their imperial ambition and the ways in which the contradictory elements of that ambition fit together in their minds, as made clear especially through the rhetoric of their outstanding statesmen, we gain greater clarity about the character of the longings underpinning the extraordinary Athenian energy for empire. We also come better to understand the conditions in which the Athenians’ hopes are made more or less tractable and reasonable, as well as the influence of the rhetoric of leading Athenians on these hopes. This dissertation argues that the Athenians are less attached to one particular object as the deepest root of their imperialism, and more to the notion of a freedom from all limits, which can be both inflamed by, as well as helpfully anchored to, their opinions of their virtue; thus, the study suggests that the desire for empire is deeply rooted in human nature, and that empire will therefore appeal to us for as long as human nature remains unchanged.