Thucydides, naval warfare and sandwiches

I have now finished reading Thucydides’ abbreviated account of the Peloponnesian War. Which could perhaps be more aptly named “The war the Athenians would’ve won if they’d actually kept focusing on the Spartans instead of getting distracted every other year”. The history, written in the 5th century BC, goes on for 554 modern, tightly written pages. OK, with lots of maps, but it is still a tremendously extensive history. You find yourself wondering how there were enough papyrus reeds, or sheep, or whatever they were using to write on in those days for all of it. More astonishingly, the text ends abruptly, mid-paragraph, in the 21st year of the war. Given that there are some passages that show signs of later editing, it is entirely possible that the book went on for another couple hundred pages – but the remainder got lost. (You can just imagine the banal or tragic circumstance. Used to mop up spilled milk? Dropped from the desperately clutching hand of a man hanging with his other hand to the rigging of a boat? Forgotten when a family packed up and moved?)

Reading Herodotus and Thucydides back to back has led to a pretty darn decent grounding in ancient Greek history (and an EXCELLENT understanding of ancient Greek geography). The two authors are very different. Herodotus was very interested in sociology, social custom and anecdote (especially any of those that have to do with having sex in weird ways). I don’t remember any particular speeches in his story. Thucydides only gives you sociology when it is required for the storyline, and switches between event narratives and speeches. The speeches are really excellent.

Towards the beginning of the recounting, when Pericles fires the blood of the Athenians, you find yourself SO GLAD that you’re from Athens. As time goes on, your pride turns to ashes in your mouth as the Athenian public opinion squanders opportunities and reaches for unattainable and stupid goals. It’s possible, just possible, that I might have seen some corrolaries between those Athenenians and my own people, in character, confidence and (um) lack of focus.

Anyway, the seventh book is dedicated to the events of the siege of Syracuse. The Athenians, having left the Spartans and their allies strong and regrouping on their near border, decide it’s an awesome time to go and invade Sicily – mostly at the importunings of Alcibiades. Alcibiades is the most important and intriguing historical figure you’ve never heard of. If his decisions had gone another way, the whole history of the Mediterranean would have been different. Perhaps Alexander would have been a vassal, not a King. And had that happened, the world would have been different.

Anyway, long distance naval warfare was a relatively new concept. And Athens and Sicily were separated by a not insignificant expanse of water. Triremes were not ships – they were boats. They were not intended to be slept in. There were no facilities for preparation of food. So if you were in a trireme, you needed to stop on land in order to eat or sleep. This has an obvious restraining quality on who you can attack by sea in trireme warfare.

In one of the peculiarities of this form of warfare, the Greeks expected their soldiers to feed themselves from their wages (or booty). So they would pull ashore, find a market, have everyone eat dinner, go to bed, and then do battle the next day. At one point, to the end of the Syracusan campaign, the Syracusans arrange with a market to be held right on the shore. They pull off to get dinner, and the Athenians go and do likewise. But the Syracusans arranged to buy all the prepared food in the market, so the Athenians have to go further inland to try to find dinner. Meanwhile, the Syracusans have a quick dinner from the arranged market and then go back to attack while their opponents are still haggling over mutton. This was a decisive move. The Syracusans won that naval battle against the greatest naval power the world had ever seen. It was all downhill from there for the Athenians. A scant handful of the flower of their military forces survived to return from Italy.

While I was reading this, all I could think of was sandwiches. Seriously, if they just had sandwiches on those triremes, what an advantage it would have been! What a tremendous tactical flexibility this would’ve offered!

This war was brutal and bloody. Men died horribly. Women were enslaved and raped. (Seriously, the only time women appear in this narrative is to either be enslaved or, obnoxiously, widows told by Pericles that their greatest honor will be in being completely invisible to the real people.) But especially in the beginning, it was civilized enough to have some assumed graces. In the beginning of the war, you started in the morning and fought until dinner time. Then the living stopped, had dinner and gathered their dead under truce – to begin again on the morrow. Anyone violating these rules could generate an advantage – but it made warfare that much more awful. No dinner, just sandwiches, was what I would’ve suggested if I was an Athenian general. The next battle in Syracuse ended up being fought at night – with no lights, torches, uniforms. Men were killed by their compatriots, who in daylight knew them because they _knew them_ not by some other marker. This let the Syracusans defeat a superior number of Athenians, speeding the boulder of their defeat downhill with increasing momentum.

We are not done optimizing our lives and our battles. An innovation like sandwiches can be easily copied by the enemy. It brings a decisive but fleeting advantage, after which war is permanently even more miserable for all participants.

I think we still do this. Would you have invented sandwiches on triremes, or would you have left well enough alone? What are the modern equivalents, in warfare or in life? What do you think?

Published by


Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

3 thoughts on “Thucydides, naval warfare and sandwiches”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s