Is ancient history useful to an understanding of international relations today? For students of grand strategy, classical texts not only provide a plethora of case studies that can be used to test hypotheses, they also offer important and unique insights that may help us understand current and future strategic challenges. What ancient history can show us is, in some ways, the flip side of the lessons of the modern scientific approach. Ancient texts remind us that human affairs cannot be simplified to logical models, and that the ideas, talents, and foibles of individuals can be crucial to the intentions, capabilities, and strategies of a state.

In this two-week seminar, students will grapple with the continued relevance of premodern geopolitical insights. They will begin with the study of statesmanship through a classic text, Plutarch’s Lives, then turn to the study of war with Thucydides’s history of the struggle between Athens and Sparta.

Image: “Quadriga dell’Unità” by Bert Kaufman | Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Hugh Liebert on Plutarch's political philosophy

Faculty

Hugh Liebert

Hugh Liebert is an Associate Professor of American Politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. His primary areas of interest are the history of political thought and American politics and foreign policy. He is the author of Plutarch’s Politics.

Jakub J. Grygiel

Jakub Grygiel is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America. From 2017–18, he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. His most recent book is Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In introducing the Life of Nicias, Plutarch speaks with apparent reverence towards Thucydides. Plutarch will merely augment Thucydides’ and other writers’ accounts with “such things as are not commonly known” insofar as these materials reveal Nicias’s “character and temperament.” How does Plutarch’s biographical approach to Nicias relate to the approach Thucydides and other historians take? To what extent do new materials and the comparison with the Roman Crassus (unknown to Thucydides) enable Plutarch to do more than imitate or epitomize the historian?
  2. In the Comparison of Nicias and Crassus, Plutarch says that Crassus does not deserve to be compared to Nicias. Why does Plutarch compare them?
  3. What is the relationship between avarice and ambition in these Lives?
  4. Plutarch says that Nicias was wholly given to divination, while Crassus wholly neglected it. Which is the more culpable attitude towards divination? Do these Lives allow us to discern how statesmen should relate to the gods?
  5. Does Plutarch allow his reader to think that the Peace of Nicias could have been sustained? If not, why? If so, what additional steps might have saved it?
  6. Why are the Athenian people so enthusiastic for the Sicilian expedition, but the Roman people (or at least their tribune) so opposed to the Parthian campaign?
  7. Crassus goes East and encounters “barbarians” who speak Greek and have memorized Euripides. Nicias goes West and encounters Greek colonists, who also honor Euripides. Does the ambivalence of these cultural differences have anything to do with the failures of Nicias and Crassus?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the Alcibiades Plutarch discusses many of the same individuals and events described in the Nicias, among them the Peace of Nicias, the Sicilian Expedition, and Nicias and  Alcibiades themselves. Are Plutarch’s portrayals consistent across the two Lives? To the extent that they differ, why do they differ?
  2. What is the relationship between Alcibiades’s unconventional private life and his political and military virtuosity?
  3. What do Socrates and Alcibiades see in one another? Does Plutarch understand Socrates’ education of Alcibiades to have succeeded or failed? To what degree does the Alcibiades allow us to discern Plutarch’s general understanding of the relationship between the philosopher and the ambitious statesman?
  4. What does the Alcibiades teach us about the regimes of Athens, Sparta, and Persia? In which of these regimes is Alcibiades most at home?
  5. At the beginning of his description of the Sicilian Expedition, Plutarch says that “Alcibiades dreamed of nothing less than the conquest of Carthage and Libya… [and] seemed to look upon Sicily as little more than a magazine for the war.” Is Alcibiades’ strategy admirably bold or ridiculously hubristic? If he had not been recalled to Athens, would Alcibiades have succeeded?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Plutarch does not tell us why he sets Alcibiades and Coriolanus in parallel. What are Plutarch’s reasons for pairing the two, and why does he not tell us?
  2. Plutarch calls his reader’s attention to the original meaning of the Latin virtus, “manly courage,” and says the Romans spoke “as if valor and all virtue had been the same thing.” What is the difference between valor and all virtue?
  3. Alcibiades is, at least for a time, the student of the greatest philosopher. Coriolanus does not seem to receive an education apart from military training. If Coriolanus had studied under Socrates would he have been more successful as a statesman? Does the Coriolanus provide evidence for or against Cato the Elder’s claim that Romans should allow philosophers “to return to their schools and lecture to the sons of Greece, while the youth of Rome give ear to their laws and magistrates”?
  4. Why does Coriolanus see “the end [goal] of his glory” in his mother’s happiness? More broadly, what role does Plutarch understand Roman women to play in the life of the city?
  5. How do these regimes of Rome and Antium compare? Does this Life allow us to understand why Rome eventually conquers Antium rather than the reverse? More broadly, what does the Coriolanus teach us about the relationship between domestic regimes and foreign policy?
  6. Alcibiades saw Sicily as a stepping stone in a much larger strategy. Does Coriolanus have a grand strategy? Does he (or Rome) need one?
  7. Plutarch’s Coriolanus inspired Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Plutarch’s Alcibiades informed Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Why did Shakespeare not write an Alcibiades?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the introduction to the Pericles and Fabius, Plutarch says that observing virtuous deeds necessarily leads men to want to imitate them. What does Plutarch mean by this? Why is this an appropriate introduction for this pair of Lives in particular?
  2. Thucydides says that under Pericles Athens was “a democracy in name, but a monarchy in fact.” Does Plutarch agree?
  3. Plutarch stresses Pericles’ association with the philosopher Anaxagoras. How does this association influence Pericles’ political career? Why does Pericles pursue politics rather than philosophy?
  4. What is Pericles’ strategy for Athenian victory in the Peloponnesian War? To what extent can Pericles be blamed for Athens’ loss of the war and subsequent decline?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Fabius’s strategy in the Punic War compare to Pericles’ in the Peloponnesian War?
  2. In the Pericles and Fabius Plutarch shows two famous cities overcoming profound crises and reaching a kind of peak in their political development. What challenges do existential threats and unprecedented success pose to republican statesmen? How well do Pericles and Fabius respond to these challenges?
  3. Fabius shares power with other Roman statesmen at key points in his career. Is he as excellent a colleague as a solitary general? How does the Roman regime take advantage of shared and unified commands?
  4. At times in the Life of Fabius Hannibal seems to outshine Fabius himself. Who is the superior strategist? What do we learn, through Hannibal, about the Carthaginian regime?
  5. What does the Pericles/Fabius reveal about the difference between Athens and Rome? About the differences in the kinds of statesman of each?
  6. Who is the superior statesman, Pericles or Fabius? Why?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Great powers fear “entrapment” (being dragged into small and peripheral wars by their allies) while their allies fear “abandonment” (being left alone by their distant security patron). How can these fears be mitigated? Do they reflect the reality of international politics?
  2. What is the importance of allies for the U.S.?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between a sea power (Athens) and a land power (Sparta). What are the features of such a conflict? What are the differences in how they conduct war?
  2. How did the strategy of Archidamus differ from that of Pericles?
  3. What strategy should the U.S. pursue against its continental rivals (China, Iran, Russia)?

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