Essays & Reviews

Aeschylus and Strategic Culture

Fire, Aristotle observed in the Nicomachean Ethics, burns both here and in Persia, but what is seen as just seems to vary. Aristotle, of course, depended on the universality of nature (fire), including human nature (with transcendent standards of justice), to stake a claim for the possibility of political philosophy – as compared to relying on the claims of the ancestral or of convention. Of course, Aristotle goes on to say that natural right is changeable.And reflective Greeks had to take into account the real-world differences between the city states of Hellas and the empire of Persia, especially when it came to war.

One such reflective Greek was the dramatist Aeschylus, whose tragedy, The Persians (performed in 472 BCE), recounts the moment when the Persian court and queen learn of Emperor Xerxes’s defeat by the Greeks in the 480 BCE naval battle near Salamis. It ends with the arrival of the Persian emperor himself, in rags and with few men left, lamenting his enormous loss. The genius of the tragedy, according to Johns Hopkins University SAIS Professor Jakub Grygiel, resides in part from the fact that it is told from the Persian perspective, with no Greek characters present. It thus stands as a Greek assessment of the Persian enemy’s mindset and political regime.

The Greek coalition no doubt succeeded at Salamis, despite being at a serious numerical disadvantage, because of superior commanders, favorable geography, better training, and a bit of luck. But it also resulted from insights into the Persian enemy’s mindset exploited by Themistocles and other Greek leaders (but by no means all; Themistocles’ preferred strategy was hotly debated among the Greek coalition). These insights are reflected by Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon and was probably present, as a soldier on land, at Salamis.

Grygiel contrasts the perspective of Aeschylus with the modern Western penchant for trusting in the equal rationality of all. The Persians, he argues, is an exercise in playing “red team,” assessing the enemy from one’s own perspective and surmising what is impossible to know for certain even with the best intelligence – the fears and dreams, the despair and hope, of the rival. “Good strategy,” he writes, “requires a sound understanding of one’s rivals. . . . It is futile to engage in competition with a rival power without having at least an inkling about his thoughts, fears, and desires.

The modern Western penchant for trusting in the equal rationality of all suggests otherwise. According to this conceit, there is no reason to plumb the nature of an enemy’s thinking because it is no different in essence from one’s own. But this is wrong. A rival’s response to one’s strategy is not predictable as a simply rational and universal reaction that can be generalized and grasped with relative ease. Rival states or groups respond to similar actions in different ways based on their culture, worldview, history, and the proclivities of their leaders. Good strategy, as Bernard Brodie once put it, “presupposes good anthropology and good sociology.”

Grygiel details insights from The Persians about Xerxes’ mindset that may have influenced Greek strategy. From these insights, we might explore the possibility that certain traits tend to characterize imperial autocracies across the ages.

  • The autocratic assumption of the inherent superiority of top-down command arrangements, in which the dominant autocratic member, through coercion and fear, forces unity among its members. This, coupled with the belief that a voluntary alliance of semi-equals will lose cohesion and split apart in the face of pressure (an assumption that Themistocles apparently played upon in a deception operation prior to the battle).Such a mind-set also encourages autocrats to dismiss the possibility that their numerical and material superiority will be sufficient to overcome disparate peoples fighting what they take to be a war of survival on their own territories, with a geography that favors the defense. (Such a miscalculation may not be limited to autocracies, of course.)
  • Autocratic regimes often fail to learn lessons of previous failures because they have limited accountability. Autocrats and despots may take risks that leaders accountable to their populations, or even to an elite class, would not. Despots are dangerous because they are unmoored from political constraints, and their advisers are often sycophantic courtiers rather than wise counselors.
  • Of course, there is a limit to how much and how often an autocrat may fail before the regime reaches a breaking point, and autocrats tend to be extremely sensitive to this threshold. The power of any empire rests as much on the image of power in the mind of others as in its material capabilities. The weak spot of a despotic regime or an empire is that it is held together by whatever reservoir of fear it can muster. That fear is a mindset generated by an expectation of retribution rather than by the constant application of power against rebellious subjects. Such an expectation will understandably decrease when imperial forces have taken a hit in some corner of the empire, however distant. A despotic regime is always attuned to its survival and, when defeated, is likely to focus inward to assuage that fear. This suggests that, on the one hand, it may not be wise to place too much direct pressure on a despotism after it is defeated, which may cause it to reverse course to restore its tattered reputation. On the other hand, indirect pressure – e.g., stoking rebellion within the empire – may pay considerable benefits.

These hypotheses are not meant to be firm guides to statecraft.Particular empires and autocracies have their own distinct characteristics depending on their history, geographical location, and the like, which of course is Grygiel’s basic point. And it may be that Oriental despotisms (to use a now out-of-favor term) such as those of Persia differ in important respects from contemporary autocracies, especially those in which there is a collective leadership, and where public opinion in the age of social media does play a role. To say nothing of would-be Islamist despotism. Still, we can profitably explore non-traditional literary classics such as those of Aeschylus to remind us that material factors are only part of the equation of strategy.