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Thucydides on political intrigue in the divided city of Corcyra caused by the “desire to rule” (5thC BC)

In his Third Book of his History of the Peloponnesian Wars (section 82), Thucydides (Hobbes translation) describes the behavior of the different political factions during the revolt in Corcyra in 405 BC:

The cause of all this is desire of rule, out of avarice and ambition; and the zeal of contention from those two proceeding. For such as were of authority in the cities, both of the one and the other faction, preferring under decent titles, one the political equality of the multitude, the other the moderate aristocracy; though in words they seemed to be servants of the public, they made it in effect but the prize of their contention: and striving by whatsoever means to overcome, both ventured on most horrible outrages, and prosecuted their revenges still farther, without any regard of justice or the public good, but limiting them, each faction, by their own appetite: and stood ready, whether by unjust sentence, or with their own hands, when they should get power, to satisfy their present spite. So that neither side made account to have any thing the sooner done for religion [of an oath], but he was most commended, that could pass a business against the hair with a fair oration. The neutrals of the city were destroyed by both factions; partly because they would not side with them, and partly for envy that they should so escape.

The cities therefore being now in sedition, and those that fell into it later having heard what had been done in the former, they far exceeded the same in newness of conceit, both for the art of assailing and for the strangeness of their revenges. The received value of names imposed for signification of things, was changed into arbitrary. For inconsiderate boldness, was counted true–hearted5 manliness: provident deliberation, a handsome fear: modesty, the cloak of cowardice: to be wise in every thing, to be lazy in every thing. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valour. To re–advise for the better security, was held for a fair pretext of tergiversation. He that was fierce, was always trusty; and he that contraried such a one, was suspected. He that did insidiate, if it took, was a wise man; but he that could smell out a trap laid, a more dangerous man than he. But he that had been so provident as not to need to do the one or the other, was said to be a dissolver of society, and one that stood in fear of his adversary. In brief, he that could outstrip another in the doing of an evil act, or that could persuade another thereto that never meant it, was commended. To be kin to another, was not to be so near as to be of his society: because these were ready to undertake any thing, and not to dispute it. For these societies were not made upon prescribed laws of profit, but for rapine, contrary to the laws established. And as for mutual trust amongst them, it was confirmed not so much by divine law, as by the communication of guilt. And what was well advised of their adversaries, they received with an eye to their actions, to see whether they were too strong for them or not, and not ingenuously. To be revenged was in more request than never to have received injury. And for oaths (when any were) of reconcilement, being administered in the present for necessity, were of force to such as had otherwise no power; but upon opportunity, he that first durst thought his revenge sweeter by the trust, than if he had taken the open way. For they did not only put to account the safeness of that course, but having circumvented their adversary by fraud, assumed to themselves withal a mastery in point of wit. And dishonest men for the most part are sooner called able, than simple men honest: and men are ashamed of this title, but take a pride in the other.

The cause of all this is desire of rule, out of avarice and ambition; and the zeal of contention from those two proceeding. For such as were of authority in the cities, both of the one and the other faction, preferring under decent titles, one the political equality of the multitude, the other the moderate aristocracy; though in words they seemed to be servants of the public, they made it in effect but the prize of their contention: and striving by whatsoever means to overcome, both ventured on most horrible outrages, and prosecuted their revenges still farther, without any regard of justice or the public good, but limiting them, each faction, by their own appetite: and stood ready, whether by unjust sentence, or with their own hands, when they should get power, to satisfy their present spite. So that neither side made account to have any thing the sooner done for religion [of an oath], but he was most commended, that could pass a business against the hair with a fair oration. The neutrals of the city were destroyed by both factions; partly because they would not side with them, and partly for envy that they should so escape.

About this Quotation:

Thomas Hobbes lived through the English Revolution (or Civil War) during the 1640s and 1650s so it is not hard to see his translation of civil revolt in Greece in the 5th century BC in light of his own experiences. In this quotation we read of the motives of the various factions in the divided city of Corcyra, all motivated by the “desire to rule” at all costs, revenge and “rapine”.

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