Robert J. Buck. Thrasybulus and the Athenian Democracy: The Life of an Athenian Statesman. Historia Einzelschriften, Heft 120. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. Pp. 139. ISBN 3-15-07221- 7. DM52.00.
Richard J. Evans
Department of Classics, University of South Africa, Pretoria.
Thrasybulus was obviously one of the dominant Athenian public figures of the late fifth and early fourth centuries BC, though it would also be fair to add that at Athens at this time there was a dearth of really outstanding politicians or generals, which is perhaps why the subject of this volume is so well remembered. Well recollected not so much for any great triumphs either at home or abroad, but rather because he was a staunch upholder of the Athenian democracy in its traditional mode, and to borrow a phrase, 'was a reliable sort of guy'. But Thrasybulus was no genius like Themistocles or Pericles as Buck's findings prove only too well.
In the course of seven chapters Buck traces the life and career of Thrasybulus from his first brief appearance as a strategos in the Aegean campaigns of 411/10 down to his death at Aspendus in 389: 'a little longer than two decades . . . . It was very different from the time before the Peloponnesian War in which he grew up. The first decade or so saw revolutions at Athens, the collapse of the Athenian Empire, and the city go down to defeat before Sparta and her allies. It saw the Thirty Tyrants, civil discord, and the ultimate restoration of democracy under the leadership of Thrasybulus. It saw Sparta victorious and increasingly arrogant, and her allies increasingly disaffected, with Persia poised to recover control over the Greek cities in Asia Minor. The second decade saw the partial recovery of Athens from its near death. It saw Athens and many of Sparta's erstwhile allies joined together with Persia in a bloody war against Sparta. It saw Athens make a determined effort to recover the Empire and fail.' (p. 8). It was against this backdrop that Thrasybulus operated at the highest level of Athenian public life, and against this high drama that his achievements must be measured.
First, Buck discusses the ancient and modern source material (Chapter 1, 'Introduction: Sources and Scholarship', pp. 1-18), and the problem of interpretation of the evidence or 'how to put any leader into his proper relationship to his community in the light of the limitations imposed by economics, by the Zeitgeist, by cultural and social constraints' (p. 7). Thence to Thrasybulus' possible background -- 'probably aristocratic' (p. 19) and early career (Chapter 2, 'Thrasybulus: His Early Career, ca. 450-407 BC', pp. 19-47), his appearance as trierarch in Thucydides' account of events in and around Samos in 412/11 (Thuc. 8.73.75f., 81, 100, 104-106) culminating in the victory at Cynossema, after which his history breaks off. Significant, however, is the fact that Thrasybulus, with one exception, is always mentioned with Thrasyllus: and this attachment to another public figure is a marked feature of Thrasybulus' career, and could well have been better exploited in the discussion, which must now rely on the lesser sources, namely Xenophon and Diodorus. Even then Thrasybulus recedes into the background, even as strategos from 411/10, since all interest focuses on Alcibiades, as events hurtled on to Cyzicus and Notium. Buck sums up Thrasybulus' personality as: 'a man trusted and respected by most Athenians . . . a man of great integrity and ability . . . a man of consistent principles . . . a rather attractive figure . . , a nice man who was apt to finish last.' (p. 47). That he disappears too readily or too appropriately from view should be some cause for concern.
In Chapter 3, 'Arginusae and the Thirty, 407-403 BC' (pp. 49-70), the traumatic last years of the war are covered together with the emergence of the harsh oligarchic regime following the defeat of Athenian democracy in 404. Again Buck has to postulate the involvement of Thrasybulus after he had been deprived of his position among the board of generals in 407 and that he: 'was only a private citizen, presumably in Athens' (p. 47), but that he served at Arginusae alongside Thrasyllus (again!), according to Diodorus (13.97.6, 98.3). However, the device of assuming a prominence not specifically noted in the evidence is at best a weak course to follow, at worst closely akin to an invention of material simply not present in the original sources. So, after Arginusae: 'We can be sure that Thrasybulus handled his ship bravely and skilfully because of the responsibilities given him after the battle' (p. 53; cf. pp. 55f.). That the subject of this study 'seems to drop out of sight' (p. 57) in the notorious aftermath of this battle rather suggests that Thrasybulus had not covered himself with honours as Buck would like to believe. And, again, after Arginusae 'Thrasybulus drops out of sight for a few years' (p. 60), a recurrent feature both of the subject's career and of his modern biographer's text. He reappears as an exile in Thebes late in 404 as the 'Thirty' tightened their oppressive role (pp. 64f.) and Thrasybulus evidently became one of the senior figures around whom the democratic opposition regrouped.
Chapter 4, 'The Overthrow of the Thirty and the Restoration of the Democracy, 403-396 BC' (pp. 71- 93), pursues the sad story of civil strife in Athens. Thrasybulus really comes to the fore in these events and he seems to have been acknowledged as the prime mover of a return to the democracy so violently suppressed by the 'Thirty', who were defeated and allowed to withdraw to Eleusis by September 403 (p. 83): 'Thrasybulus had won his war and utterly defeated the oligarchy.' Yet at a time when Thrasybulus should have taken a supreme position akin to Pericles, it was in fact Archinus who obtained a pre-eminence, albeit short-lived, in Athenian domestic affairs down to 402 (pp. 84-86). And it was only after the death of Archinus and the reunion of Eleusis into the polis that Thrasybulus again took centre-stage. But Thrasybulus was obviously not a politician comfortable in a principal role and he 'was not as glib or persuasive a speaker as some of the other party leaders' (p. 92). His 'constituency' may have been 'the common people' and his own origin among the 'well-to-do', but he lacked either the ambition or the imagination to truly emulate Pericles.
The return of Conon to Athens immediately resulted in the political dccline of Thrasybulus (Chapter 5, 'The First two Years of the Corinthian War: Thrasybulus and Conon, 395-394 BC', pp. 95-106), as he 'was pushed out of the limelight, much as he was after Cyzicus' (p. 99). At this point, if not earlier, Buck should have addressed the perplexing problem of why Thrasybulus so constantly, it appears, deferred to the leadership of others. Was he disinclined to leadership, or was it simply a lack of charisma or ability? Any biographer may want to treat his subject sympathetically, but to avoid awkward questions results in a feeling that the truest picture obtainable has been lost. Buck describes the battles at Nemea and Coronea in 394, in both of which Athens went down to defeat, and in both of which the Athenians were commanded by Thrasybulus, who, predictably by now, disappears from view (p. 105). Buck argues that the Athenians were 'unfair' in dispensing with the services of their loyal democrat, but the suspicion of mediocrity certainly intruded into the thoughts of this reader, especially when the word 'eclipse' is used to describe Thrasybulus' political position on more than occasion (p. 105. cf. 107)!
But Conon's days of triumph were also numbered (Chapter 6, 'The Corinthian War: Thrasybulus and the New Athenian Empire, 393-389 BC', pp. 107-19). Arrested in Asia Minor in 392, he escaped but died soon after (p. 110): 'Thrasybulus' arch-rival was eliminated, and Thrasybulus . . . was available to be of service and more than willing'. However, Thrasybulus' new prominence was just as brief, in command of a fleet charged with restoring the Empire, for a time relatively successful in the Aegean, he was murdered in Pamphylia. Xenophon's brief euology (Hell. 4.8.31) denotes his decency. Lysias (28.8), who knew him better, suggests rapacity and fraud (p. 118).
Buck concludes (Chapter 7, 'Thrasybulus and Athens, 450-389 BC', pp. 121-23), that Thrasybulus 'was a capable and decisive figure, a great leader', an 'active democratic leader' (p. 121), that he deserves 'full credit for the overthrow of the Thirty' (p. 122) and that he was 'a capable man, a good organizer, a superb admiral, a mediocre general, personally brave, a competent administrator, a plain orator' (p. 123). The truth may, nevertheless, have been far less rosy.
It is clearly evident that Buck's work has a tendency to become a general history of the Greek city-states for the years between 412 and 389, although the account is always clear and concise and, as such, will be useful as a guide both for students and teachers. Some errors are discernible and require attention. Theramenes appears to have crept in for Thrasyllus at Abydos (p. 34), a stray 'a' has intruded into the sense (p. 46), and 'your' occurs twice in a quotation from Lysias (p. 117), while references to the Oxyrhynchus Historian (pp. 67, 69, 89, 90) are rather inconsistent. Still, a very handy chronology of events of this confusing time is provided (pp. 125-127), with a good bibliography (pp. 129-133), followed by a handsomely detailed index.
It is a debatable point whether Thucydides would have praised Thrasybulus as a true heir of Pericles (p. 92), whose political attitudes he seems to have embraced so wholeheartedly, if possibly passionlessly. Thucydides is not remembered for his praise of many Athenian statesmen, and he certainly has nothing to say about Thrasybulus in Book 8. It is conceivable that he would in time have come to identify an aristocratic Thrasybulus as the closest any Athenian of that period came to emulating the greatest man of Greek democracy, but ex silentio the argument must remain a conjecture. Furthermore, had Thucydides felt any deep or fervent admiration for Thrasybulus he could have inserted a comment when in the process of rewriting the history at precisely the moment that that politician was supposedly the 'darling' of the demos. In sum, while we may admire his apparently adroit handling of many endeavours in Athenian public life and various military adventures, Thrasybulus was essentially colourless when compared, as he was all too often, with famous or infamous contemporaries such as Thrasyllus, Archinus, Conon, Anytus and, of course, Alcibiades. For all the worthy attempt, Buck has done little in this study to alter that image.