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Thucydides and The Nature of Dunamis

By: Matt Pohl

The world is subject to certain natural laws which are always true in each and every situation to which they apply.  These laws, described by Thucydides in his analysis of the Peloponnesian War, are the underlying points he uses to explain why each decision or situation came about and, subsequently, why Athens lost a war where it began with such a great advantage.  However, the main objective of his writing was to uncover the universal truths of human nature which were more obvious and easier to causally relate within the relatively small scope of the war.  One of the most important of these, and the one which both caused the war and brought Athenian demise, involves the nature of Dunamis.  Dunamis directly translates to “Dynamic Power,” but that is a poor definition of the true meaning behind the word. Thucydides incorporates the true nature of Dunamis throughout his analysis.

During his Book I Archeology, Thucydides looks at how states were able to gain power historically, and how the way one gained that power has changed over time.  Firstly, he points out the supreme importance of a navy: “…[Minos] cleared the seas of piracy as far as possible to direct revenues toward himself instead.” (I, 4) Minos was the first to have a navy, according to Thucydides, and with it he was able to change the ways of trade and profit.  Before his navy, the pirates would attack ships and cities, causing people to live in fear and never be able to make profit through trade as it was constantly being plundered.  The navy put down the piracy and allowed him to become quite wealthy and colonize many islands.  Even in Homer, Agamemnon likely was able to assemble the expedition because of “…greater naval strength than anyone else…[and] because he was feared.” (I, 9) The strength of the navy, in this case, forced alliance out of fear from the other Greek states.  Overall, “…it was those who developed [navies] who consolidated the greatest gains in both revenues and rule over others…On land, no war that resulted in any [significance] took place.” (I, 15) The important power to wield was naval, as no land battles ever yielded significant advances in power, wealth, or territory.  Dunamis is this shift.  Dunamis is the changing significance of naval and land powers; that, from Minos forth, naval strength would be the deciding factor for supreme power.

Thucydides sees Athens as the ultimate example of a state possessing Dunamis.  Athens takes the power it has and uses it to the fullest, being “…innovators and quick to form their plans and carry out whatever action they resolve.” (I, 70)  Athenians are always thinking, but do not spend a great deal of time doing so.  As a result, they come up with ideas and plans quickly and use the resources at their disposal to complete the plans.  This makes them very dangerous, because the increased speed of both thinking and activity makes them strong opponents who do not act rashly.  In fact, Athenians can be described as “…born to have no peace themselves and allow it to no one else.”  (I, 70)  Athens is always an active polis, and their actions never stop.  Thus, they are actively using their ability to think and act quickly, affecting the world around them with the power they possess.  After the Persian War, Athens had successfully built the strongest navy, a powerful asset:  they, in turn, used it to affect the world around them. 

Wars take time and time is money.  A strong polis, Thucydides would argue, requires significant funding for success in military ventures.  “It is surplus wealth rather than forced contributions that supports wars…” (I, 141)  With a surplus of wealth, major purchases for weapons and ships will not affect the stability and prosperity of the economy during the war.  On the other hand, the states of the Peloponnesian League are farmers without any significant holdings, and thus would need to force contributions to pay for the war.  In so doing, these states would not, themselves, have that wealth within their economy any longer not to mention how slowly the funds would arrive when these states have so little wealth coming from agriculture.  The Dunamis of Athens includes its excess wealth, allowing it to fund a war quickly and easily. This war, as Thucydides credits to Perikles, can be won by simply using the accumulated moneys to survive inside the city walls and “…not…add to the empire while at war…” (I, 144)  This is a different kind of power that Athenians possess, it is a power to succeed by simply maintaining the empire, as the war is over empire itself.  To win, Sparta must destroy the empire while Athens must simply keep it to be victorious.  In fact, this should be easy since the city and port are easily defensible by the walls, and the city can be completely supplied safely by sea due to its strong navy.  Dunamis includes Athenian ability to win defensively, and its ability to pay for a war of this type; both of which were not previously understood as important powers to consider when going to war.

Dunamis, by nature, is a power which is used.  Athens is stronger militarily than the islands within its empire, so its nature is to exert power over these cities.  “…mankind…are under an innate compulsion to rule wherever empowered.” (V, 105) In this case, Athens has the ability to rule the states within its league, so it does so simply because it can.  This is not simply limited to Athens, either:  if another state gained the power that Athens currently holds, it, too, would rule those it had the ability to.  Taken one step further, this can almost be seen as a domino effect, since a state with Dunamis would always be active and expanding its power, it would also be actively expanding those who it rules.  This explains the desire to expand the empire even though Perikles explained how unwise that would be. Since “...the weaker is held down by the stronger…” (I, 76) Athens became the city which dominated its neighbors.  It was not a conscious choice of the polis, but this law of Dunamis which brought Athens into its position as the head of an empire. 

More than simply a shifting power, Dunamis is an unstoppable and self-replicating entity.  As Thucydides explains through Alcibiades, power must grow, for “…there is no possibility for us to regulate the amount of empire we want but a need…to make aggressive plans…because of the danger of being ruled by someone else if we do not rule others.” (VI, 18)  The nature of Dunamis, as explained here, is that power must grow to exist.  Athens has no control over the size of its empire at that stage, for it has come into the grasp of a power which will need to grow or disappear.  The lack of growth is what Alcibiades fears, for if they try to prevent their empire from expanding it will loose its might and power for lack of use and be taken over by another group.  Therefore, Dunamis is a force which a city can possess, and yet have no control over.  Use of power and even “…the city, like anything else, will cause its own deterioration if left idle…”  (VI, 18)  Dunamis explains power like a fine skill, one which must be used and practiced continuously or it will be lost.  Even the city, and its identity, require constant movement and dynamics to continue to exist.  Athens is within the grasp of Dunamis, and it requires that what power and skills they have must be used, and then any gains they make used as well, with no end.  Dunamis is self-replicating and forces action to occur, else the power behind the action be lost for good.  By this reasoning, Thucydides argues that Athens almost had no choice but to go to Sicily or risk loosing the power to maintain their empire, which must expand to survive.

Power is ever-changing, both within states and between them.  Athens, before the Sicilian expedition, was still the most powerful state and the largest navy with virtually no significant losses in the war.  But, Dunamis includes shifts in power, and in Sicily the power shifted.  The first factor, and another truth of power, is fear of death.  Within the Athenian army, in fearful retreat,  “…disorder was rampant among them…” (VII, 80)  The fear of the large and approaching enemy made the Athenians loose the unity of the group and begin to fear individually for their lives.  An army in disarray is not a useful weapon, thus its power has been removed.  Man, when faced with death, puts his life first.  When crossing the river, the Athenian army men “…plunged in, no longer in any order but each of them wanting to be the first across.” (VII, 84)  With only their safety in mind, they were no longer in a position to defend from the onslaught of the Peloponnesian army around them.  Here, the laws of Dunamis shifted power from one side to the next, and in a large part due to fear.

Thucydides was a man who saw the causes for the war and each situation within the war as having a direct cause which can be linked to certain natural laws.  Dunamis, an ever-shifting dynamic power, has itself certain laws by which one comes to power and what one does when in power.  Athenian Dunamis was strong through its navy, and rules over its neighbors by its strength.  However, it was the active and unstoppable expansion of Athenian Dunamis which brought about its destruction, as it failed to heed the necessity to fight only a defensive war with its superior finances.