Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 3.

Polly Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece: Morality and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. x + 313. ISBN 978-0-521-87206-5. US$90.00.

Craige Champion
Department of History, Syracuse University, New York

Ancient historians have paid scant attention to political scientists in general, and what has come to be called International Relations (IR) Theory in particular. In terms of classical antiquity and international relations, F. E. Adcock and D. J. Mosley’s 1975 study deserves mention, but the first part of the book (written by Adcock) was historical narrative, the second (written by Mosley) was an analytical account of the forms and institutions of ancient diplomacy. Neither paid any attention to general theories in political science.[[1]] More recently, three exceptions to ancient historians’ tendency to ignore IR Theory are noteworthy. A fine collection of essays by ancient historians and political scientists, focusing on Thucydides, appeared in 1991, but it received little attention at the time of its publication and is now out of print.[[2]] IR Theory informed G. Crane’s monograph study of Thucydides.[[3]] A. M. Eckstein has recently made good use of Realist political theory (discussed below) to explain the rise of Rome in the Mediterranean world.[[4]] But overall classicists and ancient historians have not taken advantage of the insights provided by IR Theory. They have not studied classical antiquity as a system of states, but rather have focused on individual states, most commonly Athens and Rome (what political scientists would call a restrictive 'unit-attribute' approach). Polly Low’s theoretically-informed study of interstate relations in ancient Greece is therefore a welcome addition to an emerging dialogue between ancient historians and political scientists.

Low’s principal argument is that even though ancient Greek writers did not produce a sustained theoretical account of interstate behavior, there was a developed (and embedded) normative framework shaping the conduct and representation of interstate society. As she states, 'an overarching aim of this book is to demonstrate that the absence of an explicit theory of interstate politics does not entail an absence of complex thinking about the subject, and, moreover, that the search for that complex thinking does not have to begin and end with Thucydides' (pp. 2f.). Insofar as Low believes that normative representations of interstate relations can and do impact the actual conduct of states in their foreign affairs, she has affinities with the 'Constructivist' school of IR Theory, and is opposed to the so-called 'Realists' (cf. her statement on pp. 28f., maintaining 'that the representation(s) of international relations can be just as, if not more, significant than the facts underlying . . . behaviour'). At this point it is necessary to outline the Realist position, since Low engages with it in some sense throughout her study, and, in my opinion, the degree to which our evidence for interstate behavior in ancient Greece supports it places her conclusions in proper perspective.

Realist theories posit as a universal condition of international relations brutal, zero-sum struggles for primacy and security, in which warfare and violence are ever-present threats and all-too-frequent realities. Thucydides has been the Realists’ favorite ancient historian, since his grim narrative of the Peloponnesian War seems to corroborate their view of the nature of the international arena. Indeed, Thucydides’ history has been foundational for this theory, since it presents human nature as immutable and anarchy as the default condition of interstate systems. According to the Realist view, all states must maximize their relative power in order to ensure survival.[[5]] Low is well-versed in IR Theory, and in her first chapter ('International Relations and Ancient History' (pp. 7-32), she provides a fine summary account of the discipline’s history, its relationship with ancient history, and the various strands of Realist theory and its 'Idealist' opponents. The latter were early liberal theorists, who 'believed, broadly, that moral judgment could be applied to the practice of international relations and that moral considerations could and did influence that practice' (p. 9). The 'Idealists' were the founders of International Relations as an academic discipline, and their liberal agenda for it were based on the idea of progress and the development of a stable world order, to be secured by moral considerations and international law. These notions are a far cry from what most IR theorists, and especially the Realists, have represented in more recent times. As Low notes, 'It is the reactions to, and against, this approach to international relations (and International Relations) which has set the agenda of the discipline for much of the rest of its existence' (p. 10). But a unified group of utopian 'Idealists' is a historical chimera, largely created by the triumphant Realists in the 1950s to assure their dominance of the field. Low opposes the dominant Realist paradigm insofar as she concentrates on questions of interstate norms and international ethics.

Chapter Two, 'Structuring Interstate Relations' (pp. 33-76), has as its main theme the idea of reciprocity in interstate relations. In this chapter and throughout the rest of the book Low marshals a wide array of evidence, literary and epigraphic, going well beyond Thucydides. Yet a theoretical problem immediately arises; without a supreme hegemon and international arbiter, how can an international society exist, governed by a common set of reciprocal rules and obligations? Low suggests informal codes of civilization or culture, taking her cue from a famous passage in Herodotus (8.144). Moreover, the Greek ethical maxim of benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies could evolve into a productive system of reciprocal relationships, a theme which is prominent in Xenophon’s work (for example, Hell. 6.5.41). Reciprocity in its positive sense (benefiting friends) could have obvious beneficial effects on the entire interstate system, in its negative sense (harming enemies) it could act as a deterrent against rogue aggression. Finally, the ideology of reciprocity could act generally as a moral constraint in the field of international diplomacy. Literary and epigraphic texts illustrate the centrality of reciprocity in diplomatic language -- commonplace appeals to philia and eunoia, isopoliteia, grants of honorary citizenship, kinship claims, Panhellenic sentiments -- but frequently diplomatic reciprocity (usually expressed in bilateral terms) concealed exclusive blocs or the superordinate power of the dominant party.[[6]] In their applications, these diplomatic instruments add up to a sociology of interstate relations, not a comprehensive system; they exhibit a great deal of 'slippage' (to use Low’s term), often creating contradictory tensions rather than coherent patterns.

Chapter Three, 'An Anarchic Society? International Law and International Custom' (pp. 77-128), continues the quest for an international society in classical Greece. Here we come up against questions going back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: What is international society? Is it defined by a common culture or by natural law?[[7]] What is the relationship between law and society?[[8]] The study of ancient Greek international law, such as it is, has been plagued by the attempt to analyze it according to modern conceptions. Low eschews this approach and attempts to look at Greek international law in its own context, focusing on its sources and scope and its application and enforcement. She examines instruments of Athenian domestic law to tease out conceptions of international law. In Athens, interstate agreements were drawn up as resolutions, proposed, and passed in the ekklesia; they can be described as nomoi or psephismata. In these ways they were identical to the mechanisms of domestic law. Moreover, domestic laws could and did affect the behavior of the polis towards outsiders, as in grants of enktesis or trade monopolies or regulations concerning Athenians and their allies. Finally, the Greek words nomos and nomimos, widely attested in interstate agreements, covered a wide semantic range in the domestic sphere, from formal legal processes to tradition and custom.[[9]] And so we do not have explicit evidence for international law proper, but rather another case of 'slippage', this time between the domestic and international spheres. The broad semantic range of nomos applied in international affairs as well. Rather vague notions of an unwritten, universal law predominated, and in applying and enforcing it (by sanctions, arbitration, hostage-taking, allegations of oath-breaking and religious imprecations, or military coercion), leading states (our evidence is of course mainly from Athens) strove to forge interstate consensus on the moral legitimacy of their actions.[[10]]

Chapters Four, 'Domestic Morality, Interstate Morality' (pp. 129-174), and Five, 'Norms and Politics: The Problem of Intervention' (pp. 175-211), examine further problems arising from the interaction between domestic and foreign: Can there be a clear demarcation between polis interests and outside interests? What constitutes the discrete polis? Are patterns of domestic behavior always appropriate in external relations? In these chapters Low seeks to elicit moral and ethical normative imperatives in the interstices between the domestic and external spheres. In domestic politics, we again come up against 'slippage'; moral language blurs what we should call interpersonal and political activity. In the domestic/external interface, either realm can produce morally evaluative language (agathos, aretê, eunoia, dikaiosynê, and so on) and transfer it to the other. Honorific decrees well illustrate this domestic/external transfer or overlap in moral vocabulary. In inscriptions, such moral language can be applied to entire political communities (for example, Inscriptiones Graecae II2 28; Inscriptiones Graecae II2 233). Literary texts employ moral language in an even more expanded sense of interstate relations (for example, positively, Agesilaus’s philhellenism in Isocrates’ encomium, negatively, Demosthenes’ castigations of his compatriots’ supine policies regarding Philip II). They also repeatedly frame problematic relationships in deliberative oratory between justice (to dikaion) and self-interest (to sumpheron), which Low examines primarily through the works of Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Aristotle. She argues that rather than as mutually-exclusive alternatives, the just and the advantageous in Greek rhetorical texts should be seen as complementary, providing 'a crucial insight into the shaping and reshaping of the boundaries of the many, often intersecting ‘communities’ which participate in the Greek interstate system' (p. 174).

Interstate interventions sharply underline problems between conceptions of international society and their conceits (reciprocity, justice, kinship fictions) and actual practices. They produce three issues in interstate diplomacy: the question of norms in intervention, the question of state autonomy, and the question of intervention as a path to imperialism. Unlike modern conceptions (for example, U.N. Resolution 2625), classical texts, such as Lysias’s Epitaphios, frequently represent intervention in a positive light, as a duty and moral obligation to correct injustices. Ancient Greek has no word for intervention, but rather used the language of 'helping, saving, and protecting'. Morally justified interventions in Greek conceptions were restricted to helping allies or friends having been wronged (adikoumenoi), whether it be the result of internal stasis or external aggression by a third party; in other words, the action must be what we would call counter-intervention. 'Helping' and 'protecting' could sit uncomfortably beside the cherished ideals of autonomy and autarkeia. These ideals, however, were always relative and negotiable between weaker and stronger states, since autonomia frequently meant nothing more than norms and customs, always open to subjective interpretation (perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the terms of the King’s Peace of 386 BC). Intervention on behalf of one faction in internal stasis could be couched in terms of justice and autonomy, since the opponent could be cast as unjust and usurping the freedom of fellow-citizens. By extension this sort of reasoning could be used as an apology for imperialism itself (as in, for example, Isocrates Panegyricus 104f.); and intervention seems to have been acknowledged as an indication of a state’s greatness (for example, Aeschines 3.134) and as an avenue to morally-legitimate archê (for example, Xenophon Hellenica 3.5.10, 14). As Low concludes on the ambiguities of Greek ideas on intervention, '[I]t is its indistinctness, its openness to perpetual redefinition and recharacterisation, which gives it much of its usefulness as a tool of practical interstate politics' (p. 211).

In her final chapter, 'Stability and Change' (pp. 212-51), Low seeks to redress the static, synchronic approach of the previous chapters, taking into account diachronic progression (or regression), and assessing the degree to which historical developments influenced the framework of interstate interaction (with a focus on Thucydides and the Athenian empire). Overall she argues for stability of the interstate system (and the synchronic method of the earlier part of the study), warning against overestimating the impact of Athens’ convulsive historical experience (defeat in the Peloponnesian War and loss of empire) on the rest of the Greek world. Athenocentric distortions of our extant source material encourage this potential error. Thucydides is of course the most important of these Athenocentric sources, and Low argues that his history can be misleading as a guide to questions of morality and interstate behavior in fifth-century Greece; we must approach his marginalization of normative, moral language and stress on motivations of power and self-interest with a certain degree of caution. The means by which the Athenian empire was maintained -- its structure, institutions, and ethics -- were not a sharp break with the past, even taking into account the key Athenian imperial institution, tribute assessment and collection on an unprecedented scale. During the second half of the fifth-century, Low concedes, Athens monopolized not only the sources of physical strength, but also the awarding of interstate honors, even to the point of exporting Athenian stonemasons to make sure honorific inscriptions got it right.

This is a fine book. In masterly fashion Low has employed a wide range of texts, both literary and epigraphic, in order to demonstrate that the language of ancient Greek international diplomacy was grounded in moral and ethical norms. Her argument that significant overlap among interpersonal, domestic, and international spheres in Greek moral conceptions and the ancient Greeks’ reliance on custom and tradition in foreign diplomacy can account for the fact that the ancient Greeks never produced an explicit theory of interstate relations is persuasive. This, in my view, is a major contribution to our understanding of ancient Greek diplomacy, but it must be placed in its sobering historical contexts. In fact ancient Greek treaty-making was often dysfunctional: treaties guaranteeing inviolability (asylia) were frequently ineffective;[[11]] peace agreements could not be expected to endure their stated time periods (for example, the Peace of Nicias); and attempts at third-party mediation (syllusis) or arbitration (krisis) regularly broke down. Duplicity was commonplace in international behavior, as is attested by the frequent anti-deceit clauses in Greek treaties and underscored by the story of the Locrian Oath (Polybius 12.6.1-5). More important is the grim record of unrelenting human violence and warfare throughout ancient Greek history.[[12]] Thucydides alone records more than thirty states destroyed in the fifth century. Examples are ready at hand of breaches of customary international law: murder of foreign envoys (Plutarch Themistocles 6.2; Herodotus 7.133); murder of Greek ambassadors without trial (Plutarch Pericles 30.2-3; Thucydides 2.67; cf. Hellenica Oxyrincha 2.1); and murder of an Athenian proxenos at Ceos (Inscriptiones Graecae II2 111; cf. Inscriptiones Graecae II2 33; it is noteworthy that none of these references are to be found in Low’s Index Locorum). In my view, the historical record demands that we consider ancient Greek ideological formations appearing in diplomatic contexts, couched as they are in moral and ethical terms, with the greatest skepticism; in the final analysis, it seems to me, the history of classical Greek interstate relations conforms to the most pessimistic of Realist paradigms.

That said, Low’s book emphasizes historical nuance and subtlety in ancient Greek interstate relations, averting the sort of flat, generalizing historical reconstruction to which simplistic Realist approaches might easily lead. And this is in itself a great service at a time when ancient historians are beginning to pay more attention to contemporary theories of international relations.


[[1]] F. E. Adcock and D. J. Mosley, Diplomacy in Ancient Greece (New York 1975). This book was as little informed by political scientists’ theories as Coleman Phillipson’s two-volume work, The International Law and Custom of Ancient Greece and Rome (London 1911), published shortly before International Relations was first recognized as a formal academic discipline.

[[2]] R. Ned Lebow and B. S. Strauss (edd.), Hegemonic Rivalry: From Thucydides to the Nuclear Age (Boulder, San Francisco, and Oxford 1991).

[[3]] G. Crane, Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of Political Realism (Berkeley 1998).

[[4]] A. M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley 2006).

[[5]] The foundational document for the Realists is K. N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York 1979).

[[6]] For kinship diplomacy (sungeneia), see C. P. Jones, Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass. and London 1999).

[[7]] On this question, see R. Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge 1979).

[[8]] See D. J. Bederman, International Law in Antiquity (Cambridge 2001).

[[9]] As Low notes, 'Formally created nomoi in fact form a minority of laws attested in interstate contexts in this period, and it is in the less formal, customary, sense that the majority of the references to international law or custom (usually under the description of nomoi or nomimos), and (more frequently) to breaches of law or custom (paranomia), have to be understood' (p. 96).

[[10]] Most epigraphic evidence for formal interstate arbitration is post-classical; see S. L. Ager, Interstate Arbitrations in the Greek World, 337-90 BC (Berkeley 1996); A. Magnetto, Gli arbitrati interstatali greci, 2 vols. (Pisa 1997).

[[11]] Cf. K. J. Rigsby, Asylia: Territorial Inviolability in the Hellenistic World (Berkeley 1996).

[[12]] We return, then, to the problem of incessant bellicosity among the ancient Greeks, which Herodotus (7.9) puts into the mouth of the Persian general Mardonius as a complaint and with which Low opens her study (p. 1). See J. Rich and G. Shipley (eds.), War and Society in the Greek World (London 1993); H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London 2000).