The Internet is a wonderful thing, and one can discover all sorts of strange treasures in its wilder reaches – probably guarded by flying snakes and gold-digging ants… I can now add another item to the (admittedly very short) list of poetic engagement with Thucydides, which hitherto amounted to the poem by G.P. Grundy in the introduction to the second volume of his Thucydides and the History of his Age (1948), which I discuss in the preface to Thucydides and the Idea of History, and of course the second stanza of Auden’s September 1 1939. Gershon Hepner’s ‘Be the Rider, Not the Horse’ lacks the deep scholarly knowledge of the former and the contemporary immediacy of the latter (it was, Hepner notes, written in response not to any dramatic global events but to a review of Donald Kagan’s Thucydides: the reinvention of history), but I’m not going to turn down the chance to expand this section of my database of sources by 50%:
Be the Rider, Not the Horse
Be the rider, not the horse,
said Bismarck, but in ancient Greece
the horses clearly set the course
that led to war, destroying peace,
when Athens’ allies dragged the city
into war, invading Sic-
ily, which was a dreadful pity
They should have given it a miss,
and not responded to entreaties
of distant allies who were riders
of Athens’ horses, trailed by treaties,
insiders married to outsiders.
Once Athens lost its naval fleet
in a defeat that would dishearten
Thucydides, it faced the heat
of Persian power aiding Spartan,
since it had bitten off far more
than it could chew, a horse
not rider, having lost the war
by never suing for divorce.
Athens invaded Sicily not because of the over-confidence and imperialistic ambitions of the demos, egged on by Alcibiades, as Thucydides presents things, but because they were dragged into the conflict by their allies? So argues Kagan, of course, at length and with extensive engagement with other interpretations; Hepner is much more direct, noting that “in Greece/ the horses clearly set the course” [my italics], and by the time we’ve worked out what he means by “the horses” (lines 10-11, as far as I’m concerned), and if our thinking hasn’t been entirely derailed by the magnificent Sic- / miss rhyme that appears to be deliberately designed as a trap for the careless reader, the idea has already sunk in. But even if we accept Kagan’s argument, was it really the case that the Athenians could have shrugged off all treaty obligations simply by “suing for divorce” – or was this mere wishful thinking in a United States weary in 2009 of overseas entanglements?