Chaos in Corcyra
On the Breakdown of Order in a Political Community
“Night fell on the scene of their suffering, and for most of it they were either taking their own lives or being struck by the men above them and so they all perished.”
The Corcyrean civil war, as described by Thucydides, marks a crucial turning point in the Greek world that had already been rocked by years of fighting. Families turn against one another, demagogues take power, political enemies are purged, and a conflagration quickly sweeps across the Aegean. The question arises: how did society become consumed by such fratricidal violence?
To understand the origins of this conflict, it is important to first consider the broader context of the war. Up until this point, the city-states had engaged in wars that followed a more restrained pattern, thanks to the cautious leadership of Spartan King Archidamus and the conservative strategies of Pericles. The battles were relatively low-stakes affairs, with neither side inflicting lasting harm with both sides more interested in positioning themselves for a favorable peace deal rather than delivering a decisive blow to the enemy. However, the fifth year of the war witnessed two significant episodes that set the stage for the civil war and changed the character of the conflict.
The first episode was the Mytilenean affair, wherein Athens narrowly avoids the wholesale destruction of the city. The massacre was averted by a stroke of luck, but the underlying logic behind it was revealed in Cleon's argument in favor of Mytilene’s annihilation. He believed that Athens should avenge itself and not appear weaker than those who conspired against Athens. Any show of restraint would only embolden those that would challenge Athenian hegemony over their alliance—and should be purged regardless of the moral implications.
The second incident of note was the Spartan slaughter of Plataean prisoners of war, following the orders of their Theban allies. The Spartans justified this act by claiming that the Plataeans—despite being Athenian allies—had done nothing to aid their cause and therefore deserved to die. The real reason behind the Spartans' action was merely their desire to please the Thebans, who were equal-power players in the war. The Spartans prioritized their own security above all else, simply using legal fiction to obscure their true motives.
This is put by Thucydides, “In practically every respect this Spartan antipathy to the Plataeans arose from their wish to please the Thebans since the Spartans thought they might be useful to them at this point in the war.” (III. 68)” The security of the Spartan position at its core was all that mattered, and with it, any logical attempt at moralizing their choices reflects what Thucydides would later say about the aftermath of the Corcyrean civil war in which men, “...pretended in their speeches to be competing for the public good, but in fact, in their struggle to dominate each other by any available means they brazenly committed all manner of atrocities…” (III. 82)
Both of these episodes represent an event of violence being dispersed throughout the Greek polities and an acceptance of an amoral form of power politics that would later come to dominate the Peloponnese. To take a term from Prerogine’s lecture Only An Illusion, a point of irreversibility in the social fabric of Hellas had been breached.
The choice becomes one between a strategically disadvantageous yet morally just path and a path that seeks out the greatest security advantage over the dictates of ethics: a bifurcation point in the system. This irreversibility is what would eventually cause the system to move from stable to unstable depending on the path taken.
While Athens avoided treading the path of escalating violence, Sparta set Greece on that course with its treatment of the Plataeans. The rationale behind the killings, driven by self-interest, would spread through the population like ink in water.
With this context in mind, we turn to Corcyra, where a series of irreversible stages unfolded, each escalating the violence between political factions. Initially, the factionalism begins rather innocuously, resembling more of a personal legal dispute than the initial stages of a civil war.
Thucydides recounts an incident where a man named Peithias sued wealthy members of Corcyra for accusing him of being a friend of Athens. After being acquitted, he retaliated by filing lawsuits against the five wealthiest men, accusing them of cutting vine-poles from the sanctuaries of Zeus and Alcinous, an offense punishable by a penalty of one stater per vine-pole.
In normal circumstances, such a trivial legal battle over vine-poles would have amounted to nothing and would not have found its way into history books. However, the oligarchic faction perceived this as a threat to their political standing, and their response set off a chain of events that plunged Corcyra into violence.
However, the oligarchs—feeling their position eroding—follow the Spartan approach taken in Plataea and immediately resort to political violence. They formed a coalition, armed themselves with daggers, and stormed the council, killing Peithias and around sixty others, including council members and private citizens. This act marked the beginning of the civil war, with both sides exhibiting a ruthless pursuit of total destruction of the opposing party.
Both sides also sought support from Athens and appealed to the slaves of Corcyra, with the oligarchs resorting to hiring mercenaries when they failed to gain enough support. Each side aimed to escalate the conflict and gain an advantage over the other.
The course of the war had now moved beyond the more controlled conduct seen during Archidamus's march into Attica and his siege of Athens.
In trying to understand how this civil war spiraled into a competition for the destruction of the opposing party, it is worth examining two concepts of war formulated by Clausewitz in his work "On War." Clausewitz defines war by the analogy of wrestling in that:
We shall keep to the element of the thing itself, to a duel. War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a War, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavours to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance. (On War Book I, Chapter 2).
War as a human activity is necessarily a “wrestling match” between two forces, in which both seek to position themselves towards an advantage of overcoming the other, and both sides of a conflict—the same as wrestlers—are always reciprocally responding to the actions of the other.
The second concept from Clausewitz is the role of emotions and passions in war, which reciprocally influence the conduct of the war itself:
...War is an act of force, it belongs necessarily also to the feelings. If it does not originate in the feelings, it reacts, more or less, upon them, and the extent of this reaction depends not on the degree of civilisation, but upon the importance and duration of the interests involved...if we find civilised nations do not put their prisoners to death, do not devastate towns and countries, this is because their intelligence exercises greater influence on their mode of carrying on War...The invention of gunpowder, the constant progress of improvements in the construction of firearms, are sufficient proofs that the tendency to destroy the adversary which lies at the bottom of the conception of War is in no way changed or modified through the progress of civilisation. We therefore repeat our proposition, that War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds; as one side dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which logically must lead to an extreme. This is the first reciprocal action, and the first extreme with which we meet. (On War, Book I, Chapter 3)
These two concepts I find important when trying to get at why a seemingly distant act of the Spartans in slaughtering the Plataeans could introduce a new political object into the heart of this already ongoing conflict. War understood as Clausewitz sees it has to be considered in light of war being a manifestation of social forces controlled not only by the intellect, but accompanied by the forces of passions as well.
Clausewitz's concept of passions in warfare offers insight into the causes of civil strife and the alarming irreversibility of brutality in conflicts. While the acts committed by the Spartans, who were urged on by their Theban allies to massacre the Plataeans, and Cleon, who attempted to exterminate the citizens of Mytilene, reveal a brutal calculation of self-interest that ultimately aims to gain or preserve an advantage in the ongoing conflict. The Corcyrean civil war, we witness how the intense emotions provoked by violence can shatter the fabric of civil society.
While there is a brief interlude in the fighting due to the arrival of the Athenian fleet—and with it an interesting implication for the imposition of order on violently escalating civil strife that this is unfortunately too complex to address now—the conclusion of the Corcyrean civil war climaxes in its most violent episode.
Notably, Thucydides emphasizes fear as the motivating factor behind the people's decision to imprison the oligarchic faction. This aligns with Clausewitz's observation that war unfolds based on escalating non-rational passions rather than a linear thought process. Upon learning of a potential Spartan arrival, the Demos imprisoned the remaining oligarchs in the temple of Hera, triggering a week-long purge: "For the seven days that Eurymedon stayed there after arriving with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans went on slaughtering those they took to be their enemies…" (III.81)
To understand how this progression occurred, we can turn to Prigogine's framework, which views the transition from order to disorder as a non-linear phenomenon. In the context of war, violence introduces irreversibility and evokes emotions that affect the system in ways that cannot be easily predicted by a proportional increase in violence.
If not for this non-linearity, how could a legal case escalate into a civil war and a week-long purge? In civil strife, violence spreads like a rapid wildfire rather than following a neat progression, as described by Thucydides as "outbreaks of violent passion." (III. 85) Prigogine also notes that this nonlinearity serves a purpose and refers back to Darwin's pursuit of a new form of order.
Clausewitz's framework, considering war as a non-linear phenomenon, adds to Prigogine's perspective. If we view irreversibility as an adaptive response in war, the escalation and non-linearity of violent forces shift the political objective of the war. The disordered system rapidly moves towards establishing a new equilibrium by pursuing the annihilation of the opposing party, supplanting the initial legal dispute with a race towards re-establishing order.
As the political objective evolves, so does the position of the participants in their efforts to gain an advantage. What initially may have been a mere skirmish transforms into a war of annihilation, aligning with the new aim of the war. In other words, as the political objective expands, the conduct of war tends to escalate irreversibly in violence as both sides seek any competitive edge they can find.
If war were solely a matter of rationality, one might expect civil society to progress linearly toward civil war. However, the emotions present, as described by Thucydides, create a stochastic interplay between the two parties. When fear dissipates across the Greek world, the sudden collapse of civil society becomes inevitable.
Unfortunately, this assessment paints a bleak picture of the driving forces behind the violence in Corcyra. Just as a system in population growth reaches a high P-value, bifurcates, and plunges into chaos, the feelings aroused by violence follow a similar pattern and lead to the downfall of a polity. Prigogine notes that an irreversible biological system can only reimpose order after a complete breakdown from equilibrium.
Thucydides' account, combined with Clausewitz's concept of imposing one's will to restore order, reveals that a social order is exceedingly fragile, susceptible to rapid violence during times of war. The emergence of civil war seems inevitable as long as humanity is partially governed by passions, and factions exist within a polity.
However, the Mytilenean debate reminds us that the conduct of war remains a choice. If a polity must engage in war, as long as reason prevails over emotions, there remains an option to avoid escalating the conflict with an amoral character. Outside of such restraint, Thucydides offers little reason to believe that once order dissipates and violence escalates, civil strife will not consume a political community.