Apologies yet again for the lack of posts, not least the lack of a continuation of the User’s Guide to Thucydides (just start at the beginning, folks, and at some point I’ll get round to telling you when you can begin skipping tedious accounts of maritime manoeuvres to get onto one of the famous set-piece episodes), but I remain horribly busy – and am now wary of writing much here because of the number of people who could legitimate send me annoyed emails, demanding to know why I’m doing this instead of getting on with the chapters I was supposed to have submitted months ago. However, the latest twist in the use of classical analogies in characterising the Eurozone crisis seemed too good to miss: Larry Elliott in this morning’s Grauniad, describing the German attitude in current negotiations as offering Greece a Carthaginian peace. That is: surrender absolutely and without conditions, or we’ll wipe you off the face of the earth anyway.
To Elliott’s credit, he avoids the common error in using this analogy of suggesting that the victorious Romans then sowed the fields of Carthage with salt (as has often been pointed out, why would they do that with prime agricultural land from which they could then exact a hefty profit?). It successfully puts across the apparent all-or-nothing position that the Germans (or at any rate Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble) have adopted – and suggests that other references to Roman imperialism could also be brought into service (e.g. Tacitus: “They made a desolation and called it financial discipline”…).
I do have a couple of hesitations about the analogy’s wider connotations, however – without suggesting that Elliott had this in mind. One relates to implied motivation: the major reason why the Romans were prepared to take up such an extreme position was the legacy of several centuries of conflict with Carthage, even of existential threat during the Second Punic War, so that the repeated insistence of Cato that “Carthage must be destroyed” could acquire traction even after that threat had to all intents and purposes passed. For all the complaints of Alternative fuer Deutschland about the impact of bailing out the profligate Greeks on ordinary hard-working German taxpayers, it’s hard to see that such a cultural dynamic is really playing much of a part. I suppose one might tentatively suggest that the enemy to be stomped on here is not Greece but any attempt at questioning austerity and neoliberal dogma – Keynes delenda est – but I’m not sure the analogy helps much with that.
Secondly, the Roman analogy doesn’t quite capture the potentially self-destructive nature of the German approach. In deciding to destroy Carthage if necessary rather than being willing to accept a negotiated peace, the Romans risked having to expend a bit more effort, resources and men than they might otherwise have done – but that wasn’t something their leaders were ever too bothered about, and the potential rewards from being able to loot a defeated enemy without limit significantly outweighed what they would get from a compromise solution. The probable adverse consequences for Germany of a Greek default and exit from the Euro, however, are considerable, while it’s not certain that an absolute Greek surrender would wholly benefit them either. The Roman destruction of Carthage was about deep-seated fear and hatred, and the likely gains for soldiers and general; that doesn’t entirely fit the current situation.
This does look more like the confrontation of the Athenians and the Melians in Thucydides, where the former are willing to accept the negative consequences of their absolute demands (no neutrals will trust them ever again) because of the perceived benefits (maintaining their reputation for strength and ruthlessness so their allies won’t get any ideas). The sooner a copy of Varoufakis’ analysis of the Melian Dialogue as game theory turns up through Inter-Library Loan the better – leaving aside the fact that I don’t currently have time to do it justice…