History Department
History Department

Talk: "Realpolitik from Ancient to Modern," by Dr. Arthur Eckstein, University of Maryland

Wed, March 19, 2014 | Eastwoods Room 2.102, Union Building

12:15 PM - 1:30 PM

It is clear that the foundations of Realist international systems theory, which we see in modern university Departments of Political Science (as well as in the State Department) can be found in the thinking of ancient intellectuals.  That is, ancients understood that states existed in an anarchy without international law, that this required them to engage consistently in power-maximizing behavior (that is, power-maximizing was natural);  and since all states were engaged in this power-maximizing activity, frictions and wars between them were naturally frequent.  That is, ancient thinkers sought the causes of conflict in the nature of the interstate system in which all polities had to exist, and not merely in the militarized nature of the individual cultures, or in individuals seeking glory.  They accepted that militarism was necessary in order for a state to survive in the anarchy, but it did not in itself fully explain wars.  

Thucydides is the most famous for this sort of thinking (esp. the system-level explanation of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1.23-5-6), and he will be a centerpiece of discussion.  But one can also find system-level analysis in Herodotus' discussion of Persian expansion, written somewhat earlier than Thucydides (7.8-20).  And one can find it in Polybius' discussion of Roman expansion, written 250 years later (for the ruthless aggressions of the Greek kingdoms of the period, see 15.20).  In this sense one can see that a system-level explanation for wars was evolved by intellectuals as soon as there were intellectuals to think about the causes of war. In all three cases, however, a "layered" approach allowed room for multiple causative factors, including the intervention of individual politicians for good or ill.  This was especially important in a world where aristocrats--men with power--were writing for aristocrats. And both Herodotus and Polybius explicitly allow room for fate, or the inexplicable.  The complexity of ancient analysis and its multiple levels, however, does mean that one should be cautious about seeing these thinkers as fully the ancestors of modern Realism, which tends to emphasize the impact of the system above all else.

Arthur M. Eckstein is Professor of History and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland at College Park.  He is the author of four books, co-editor of fifth, and the author of more than sixty scholarly articles.  He has mostly focused on questions of Roman imperial expansion under the Republic. His book Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius (1994) examined an ancient intellectual's response to a harsh and difficult world.  Recently, with Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (2006), and Rome Enters the Greek East (2008), he has been a pioneer in the application of modern international-systems theory to the rise of Rome to world power, and the earliest decades of Roman hegemony over the Greek East.  But his work also includes writing on American cultural and political history.

Dr. Eckstein's home page, at the University of Maryland.

For more information or queries, please contact: Dr. Steele Brand, Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft, The University of Texas-Austin. steele_brand@utexas.edu

Sponsored by: Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft; Department of History

Bookmark and Share