Implied Versus Overt Threat of Force:

Structure of Brasidas' Speech before the Acanthians


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Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between the empires of Athens and Sparta consists of several dozen speeches given by generals, monarchs, and envoys connected by narrative. Thucydides – an Athenian general during the war – is considered along with Herodotus as central in the development of modern, historical narrative. The speech examined here is one delivered by Brasidas, an officer of the Spartan army, to the people of Acanthus in 424 BCE. The purpose of his speech was to move them to join forces with Sparta in its war against Athens. It is worth noting that he brought his army with him, thus adding particular imperative and immediacy to his words. Quotes from the speech reflect the Richard Crawley translation from the Greek and are derived from Robert B. Strassler’s annotated book The Landmark Thucydides.




Method of Analysis


In examining Brasidas’ speech, I will rely largely on the classical or Neo-Aristotelian Critical Approach as outlined in Sonja K. Foss’ Rhetorical Criticism along with supplementary materials. In particular, I will apply the canons of invention, organization and style of the rhetor to examine his method of persuasion. Invention consists of consists of “external proofs [including] testimony of witnesses and documents” while internal or artistic proofs rely on an examination of logos, ethos, and pathos (Foss 26). These methods of persuasion will be revealed by studying Brasilas’ lexicon, or “preferred words” in stating his argument (Hart and Daughton 152). Meanwhile, organization refers to analyzing the “the general pattern of arrangement” adopted by the rhetor that in this case follows “a problem-solution order, where a discussion of a problem is followed by suggested solutions to it” (Foss 27). Analysis of style, on the other hand, “deals with the language used by the rhetor” including symbols, or word choice to determine the intended purpose of the speech and whether those choices proved effective (Foss 27).


Brasidas’ speech seems ripe for this method of analysis for three reasons. First, the method was designed to analyze speeches in particular (Foss 24) and the speech itself was delivered during classical Greek times and should fit the Aristotelian framework. Second, Strassler notes that “Spartans were notorious for speaking ‘laconically,’ that is, bluntly, ungraciously, and with few words” (269). That is not to say that Brasidas was a poor speaker – in fact Thucydides refers to him as “not a bad speaker for a Spartan” (Strassler 269) – but may make organizational elements such as Foss’ “problem-solution order” (27) clearer and easier to reveal. Finally, and most critical to the purpose of this essay, is Brasidas’ overt threat of force and how that threat changes the invention, organization, and style used by the rhetor. Most modern political speeches do not have this overt threat, and yet it is implied – politicians have law behind them, including such facilities as the Internal Revenue Service or armed groups such as the police or FBI. When push comes to shove, a politician can – in essence – ensure you go to jail under the threat of violence if you fail to obey his or her tax or regulation. Wesley Snipes and others can attest to this fact. While the “army” then is invisible in most of today’s domestic speeches, the overt rather than implied nature of Brasidas’ threat can reveal to us the strategies used by those of power to violence, even if only implied, when attempting to sway an audience.




Analysis of Key Elements within Brasidas’ Speech


The style changes dramatically from the start of Brasidas’ speech to the end, and thus is inherently tied to structure. Consisting of three paragraphs of near equal length (953 words total in this translation) the essential structure begins with a brief introduction to establish ethos, “the rhetor’s credibility or authority” (Hart and Daughton 152). Brasidas states, “Acanthians, the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] have sent out me and my army to make good the reason that we gave for the war when we began it, viz that we were going to war with the Athenians in order to free Hellas” (Strassler 269). There is no reason for him to dwell on his authority. The very context of him having an army behind him establishes ethos, just as a politician today establishes it by means of a podium, cameras pointed, or in the case of a State of the Union Address, by having the Vice President and Speaker of the House behind him or her and the Congress in front. Brasidas has already moved onto another appeal by the second half of his sentence, using a recurring word in his lexicon.


The word “free” (or its variant, “freedom”) appear seven times throughout the speech, and four times in the first paragraph. “I have come here not to hurt but to free the Hellenes,” he states, using the word “allies” twice. Clearly he suggests that his cause is a noble one, and by associating (or allying) with him, his audience of Acanthians can have a noble cause too. These appeals to pathos – referred to succinctly by Hart and Daughton as “emotional appeals” (152) – are important because by the third paragraph, he transitions rapidly to threat. Using in this third paragraph the word “freedom” only once, Brasidas says, “[I]f you say that freedom is not without its dangers … [and refused to join us,] then I…shall do my best to compel you by laying your land to waste” (Strassler 271). Given the stature of the Spartan army, and the relative military weakness of the Acanthians, this is not only a blunt threat but one that Brasidas is fully capable of calling into action. Why then make appeals to the Acanthians’ better natures at all? In the first paragraph, Brasidas even resorts to flattery, referring to Acanthus as “an important town” with “prudent men” (Strassler 270). No doubt, it is a large task for a renowned warlord to supplicate himself thusly before a small and largely unarmed colony. We may infer that Brasidas realizes that a willing soldier – one who believes in the call to “freedom” – makes a better soldier than an unwilling one.


Thus style, invention and organization are intrinsically tied in a simple format moving from paragraph one to paragraph three: a brief introduction of ethos followed by a lexicon flattery and appeal to higher motives or causes, and ending with a clear threat of violence or harm. The style, to use Foss’ words, is “forceful and robust” (27) leaving little doubt as to the problem and its solution. That is, the problem is Athenian imperialism. The solution is to willingly join the Spartans or die.


Yet we have not addressed the middle paragraph which ties this organizational framework of “carrot and stick” – together. Here, Brasidas shifts his style, re-establishing his ethos in the context of concerns the Acanthians may have even if they are somewhat convinced by his higher appeals of freedom and just causes. Here his appeal to ethos states not who or what he is, but what he will not do, using the word “I” five times within his first six, brief clauses. For instance, “I am not come here to help this party or that” he states and continues with the logical appeal that neither he nor Sparta would benefit from enslaving his audience of Acanthians. In this way, Brasidas cleverly moves from emotional appeals to then addressing potential doubts, fears, or uncertainties in his audience – that is, a transition from pathos to logos while re-establishing his own ethos. He says, in essence, “Don’t mind this army at my back – our purpose is not to harm you.”



Assessment and Contribution


Brasidas’ speech was effective – the Acanthians joined his cause, and the speech itself was admired both by Thucydides and scholars of today. Yet I did not choose this text for its subtlety, which it almost utterly lacks. Rather, its blunt and unadorned nature, taken together with its effectiveness, makes it a strong example in understanding the nature of more complex speeches offered by those in power. The simple format of brief introduction (establishing ethos) followed by emotional appeals (pathos) to join in some cause are alive in the political speeches today. As with Brasidas’ speech, these political speeches frequently transition into addressing common concerns, making promises to do no harm (re-contextualizing ethos) while appealing to logic: harming you would not benefit me anyway. What seems strange to us today is the third paragraph – the overt threat of violence should the audience not abide by the offer made in the previous two. Neither President Barack Obama nor Speaker John Boehner threatens their audiences with “laying them to waste” – and certainly not their domestic audiences. This heavy-handedness strikes our kinder, modern sensibilities as outdated and even amateurish. The fact that Brasidas had his army standing behind him, in plain view, would seem to get the point across without having to state it. Similarly, the threat of violence today does not need stated for a politician to get his or her point across. If you do not pay a new tax, an army of tens of thousands of IRS agents wait with the threat of incarceration; if you choose not follow regulations passed by the House banning certain substances or behaviors, state officials with guns will enforce that code or deprive you of your liberty. There is no need for a “third paragraph” in modern political rhetoric.



Works Cited


Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, Fourth Edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2009. Print.


Hart, Roderick P. and Suzanne Daughton. Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Third Edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. Print


Strassler, Robert B. The Landmark Thucydides. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.




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