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Empire and Democracy Conflict by Thucydides Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2020

The lessons of Ancient Greek history remain relevant to the modern world. Some of the most profound and insightful works on political science were written then, around 2,500 years ago, and scholars today still recognize their importance for understanding how states and societies work. One of the most common themes explored by Ancient Greek politicians, historians, and philosophers is a democracy, and their insightful reflections are widely acknowledged today. Thucydides, a Greek politician, and historian wrote several works about the conflict between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE, and the ideas expressed in those works have become very influential. Particularly, Thucydides speculates on the natures of empire and democracy and declares a fundamental incompatibility between the two. His arguments for this incompatibility can be grouped into four categories: the need for strength, the ability to have pity, the development of culture, and self-expression.

First of all, Thucydides emphasizes the very core of the conflict between empire and democracy, which is the fact that an empire must be strong and tyrannical. He states that an empire is by necessity a despotic system, where obedience is ensured “by the superiority given [to the empire] by [its] own strength and not [people’s] loyalty” (Thucydides, Mytilenian Debate). The idea is that empires must impose strong regulations on their territories and maintain a high level of centralized control. Thucydides goes on to argue that in an empire, poor laws that are strongly enforced are better than good ones that are enforced poorly. Loyalty is another major consideration because people who are blindly and ignorantly loyal to authority are better for an empire than smart and active people who are not necessarily loyal to those in power. In democracies, the situation is very different. The ignorance of the public and a strong, controlling government are not factors that contribute to democratic development. While the primary interests of an empire are extending its territories and providing security by subjection (Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue), a democracy seeks security through satisfying its citizens rather than intimidating them into submission.

The second reason for the incompatibility between empire and democracy is that a democratic system allows for compassion, which poses a threat to imperial order. Thucydides identifies “three failings most fatal to the empire—pity, sentiment, and indulgence” (Thucydides, Mytilenian Debate). He explains that one should never express pity towards those who do not return it, and the conclusion is that an empire should be merciless; otherwise, it is inevitably self-destructive. A way to justify this imperial worldview is to analyze how a state that conquers other territories perceives its role. There is an argument that the intention of Athens in expanding the empire was seen by its citizens and rulers as part of its mission to bring order to barbaric regions. One example from Greek mythology particularly illustrates this worldview: Homer describes Cyclopes as “lawless and inhuman” creatures that “neither plant nor plow, but trust in providence, and live on such wheat, barley, and grapes as grow wild without any kind of tillage” (Homer, Odyssey). Athens could have seen its neighbors as Cyclopes lacking proper statehood (Thucydides, The Funeral Oration of Pericles). Therefore, the Athenians regarded the empire’s conquests as bringing good to other cities and considered their possible resistance to be unreasonable.

Third, Thucydides reflects on such aspects of democracy as self-organization and the culture of people in a democratic state, both of which are contradictory to the operation of empires. In a democracy, “administration favors the many instead of the few” (Thucydides, The Funeral Oration of Pericles). When governance is spread among citizens instead of being concentrated in the hands of a ruling group, the system is inherently one set against imperial order because empires need to control their territories. By having the ability to interact with each other and participate in decision-making, citizens of a democratic state develop their own culture that is different from that of the center of an empire, and at some point, they may opt for their own culture and get rid of the imperial burden altogether.

This idea corresponds to the modern understanding of pre-industrial and ancient societies. Scholars associate the emergence of statehood with the emergence of governments, i.e. rulers who took power that had until then been dispersed (Crone, 6). In a sense, democratization is the opposite process, as it provides access to power to a larger number of people. The willingness and ability of people to organize their labor and interactions pose a serious threat to an empire because empires can only work when social processes are initiated and controlled from the center. Local self-organization makes territories realize that they can do without the empire.

Finally, there is the idea that democracy is not merely a form of governance or a set of procedures—it comes with values that are fundamentally incompatible with imperial systems. One of these values is the freedom of self-expression, which inevitably becomes highly appreciated in a society in which equality is recognized. It is a known fact that Ancient Greece was a slave state, and slaves were excluded from society and not regarded as equals to free citizens, but free citizens were declared equal among themselves according to Athenian law. Thucydides wrote that democratic laws “afford equal justice to all in their private differences” (Thucydides, The Funeral Oration of Pericles).

Moreover, the author states that in a democracy, such characteristics of a person as being part of a certain class or economic status do not stand in the way of his or her social advancement and service to the state. Even a poor person can gain respect and recognition by being an active citizen. According to Thucydides, this is a consequence of a democratic government because, as he wrote, “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life” (Thucydides, The Funeral Oration of Pericles). To support this idea, there is the concept of government as a facilitator of interactions. In early societies, it was impossible to organize massive cooperation because it required consent from every person, which was hard to achieve (Crone, 9); thus, the government became the tool for managing interactions by imposing order and control.

From Thucydides’ arguments, it becomes evident that empires and democracies are incompatible. Although Athens was a democratic empire, its inner contradiction is what determined its short existence. Empires require a high level of control—even to the extent of tyranny—over their territories and a low level of compassion, while democracies foster self-organization and various freedoms that come into conflict with an imperial order. This valuable understanding has become very influential in modern political science, and the lessons of Ancient Greek history as told by Thucydides should be learned today to ensure the proper development of democratic states.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Empire and Democracy Conflict by Thucydides." November 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/empire-and-democracy-conflict-by-thucydides/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Empire and Democracy Conflict by Thucydides'. 12 November.

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