Feb. 10, 2023

What We Are Learning This Week with Dr. Barry Cooper

Looking at the reasons why the Athenians & Spartans behaved so differently when dealing with rebellions.
Cooper Banner

February 13, 2023, in POLI 407 Classical Political Thought 

Dr. Barry Cooper is considering a couple of episodes from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War: the Athenians’ treatment of Mytilene and the Spartans’ treatment of the Plataeans. 


Can you tell us a little more about this topic? 

The Athenians first decide to execute the citizens of Mytilene, then have second thoughts next day and re-debate the issue, change their decision, and send a fast trireme to stop the slaughter. The Spartans have a single and brutal question to put to the Plataeans: What have you done for Sparta lately? The answer, nothing; the result, execution. We look at the reasons why the Athenians and Spartans behaved so differently when dealing with rebellious “allies.” Then, later in the book, with the Athenian treatment of the Melians, namely execution and enslavement, we consider why and how things had changed as well as what the Melians said in reply to the promise of Athenian brutality.

Cooper Headshot

What else do you cover in your course? 

We just examine this one booksome 600+ pages in translation. Students nowadays seldom have the chance to read a single book carefully and thoughtfully. Thucydides certainly provides ample opportunity to think about what he means in one of the greatest texts to have survived from antiquity. It is an exciting story as well, as war histories tend to be, but it is also shot through with theoretical, even philosophical reflections, though Thucydides is not usually counted among the Greek philosophers, which to my mind is a mistake. He is unquestionably a great political philosopher.

What do you love about teaching this course? 

It is always Interesting to observe students, most of whom are quite bright, come to terms with a genuinely great piece of writing. Earlier this year, for example, when I asked the class how they were getting along with the book, one student said she sometimes had to read the text a couple of times to see what Thucydides was really talking about. Now, that’s what I call progress in education!

Finally, what other courses would you recommend for students interested this topic? 

I think that lower-level political theory courses are helpful, but not really necessarythough many of the students have taken the introductory theory course from me. Having some grasp of later military history is also useful since Thucydides says his book is a possession for all time and so, at least in principle, it could be applied to the understanding of later conflictsthis is one reason why the book is still taught in most Western military academies. And, of course, if students have had some experience in close reading of textsof Shakespeare in the English department or Spinoza in the Philosophy department, for example—that would be helpful. Whether other departments actually look closely at text (apart from Classics) I don’t know. 


Our Thanks to Dr. Barry Cooper for sharing your course with us!