Ancient History & Civilisation


The Suicide of Greece


LET us, before facing the melancholy spectacle of the Peloponnesian War, glance at the Greek world outside of Attica. Our knowledge of these other states in this period is so fragmentary that we are left to assume—what we cannot prove—that they shared to a minor degree in the cultural blossoming of the Golden Age.

In 459 Pericles, anxious to control Egyptian grain, sent a great fleet to expel the Persians from Egypt. The expedition failed, and thereafter Pericles adopted the policy of Themistocles—to win the world by commerce rather than by war. Throughout the fifth century Egypt and Cyprus continued under Persian rule. Rhodes remained free, and the merger of its three cities into one in 408 prepared it to become in the Hellenistic period one of the richest commercial centers in the Mediterranean. The Greek cities of Asia preserved their independence, won at Mycale in 479, until the destruction of the Athenian Empire left them helpless again before the tribute collectors of the Great King. The Greek colonies in Thrace and on the Hellespont, the Propontis, and the Euxine prospered under Athenian domination, but were impoverished by the Peloponnesian War. Under Archelaus Macedonia passed out of barbarism and became one of the powers of the Greek world: good roads were laid down, a disciplined army was formed out of the hardy mountaineers, a handsome new capital was built at Pella, and many Greek geniuses, like Timotheus, Zeuxis, and Euripides, found welcome at the court. Boeotia in this period produced Pindar, and gave to Greece, in the Boeotian Confederacy, an unappreciated example of how independent states might live in peace and co-operation.

In Italy the Greek cities suffered from frequent wars, and from Athenian ascendancy in maritime trade. In 443 Pericles sent out a group of Hellenes, gathered from different states, to establish near the site of Sybaris the new colony of Thurii, as an experiment in Panhellenic unity. Protagoras drew up a code of laws for the city, and Hippodamus the architect laid out the streets on a rectangular plan that was to be widely imitated in the following centuries. Within a few years the colonists divided into factions according to their origin, and most of the Athenians, probably including Herodotus, went back to Athens.

Sicily, always turbulent but always fertile, continued to grow in wealth and culture. Selinus and Acragas built massive temples; and under Theron Acragas became so rich that Empedocles remarked: “The men of Acragas devote themselves wholly to luxury as if they were to die tomorrow, but they furnish their houses as if they were to live forever.”1 Gelon I, when he died in 478, left Syracuse a system of administration almost as effective as that which Napoleon bequeathed to modern France. Under his brother and successor, Hieron I, the city became a center not only of trade and wealth, but of literature, science, and art. There, too, luxury reached dizzy heights: Syracusan banquets became a byword for extravagance, and “Corinthian girls” were so numerous in the city that any man who slept at home was considered a saint.2 The citizens were quick of mind and sharp of tongue; they enjoyed good oratory to their ruin, and crowded to hear, in their magnificent open-air theater, the comedies of Epicharmus and the tragedies of Aeschylus.* Hieron was a tyrant of bad temper and good will, cruel to his enemies and generous to his friends. He opened his court and purse to Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar, and Aeschylus, and with their help made Syracuse for a moment the intellectual capital of Greece.

But man cannot live on art alone. The Syracusans thirsted for the wine of freedom, and after the death of Hieron they deposed his brother and set up a limited democracy. The other Greek cities in the island took courage and likewise expelled their dictators; the trading classes overthrew the landowning aristocracies, and established a commercial democracy superimposed upon a system of ruthless slavery. After some sixty years, war ended this interlude of liberty as it had ended another through Gelon I. In 409 the Carthaginians, who had kept alive through three generations the memory of Hamilcar’s defeat at Himera, invaded Sicily with an armada of fifteen hundred ships and twenty thousand men under Hamilcar’s grandson, Hannibal. He laid siege to Selinus, which had become pacific under prosperity, and had neglected to keep its defenses in repair. The surprised city appealed for help to Acragas and Syracuse, whose comfortable citizens responded with Spartan leisureliness. Selinus was taken, all the survivors were massacred and mutilated, and the city became a part of the Carthaginian Empire. Hannibal proceeded to Himera, captured it with ease, and put three thousand prisoners to torture and death to appease the shade of his grandfather. A plague decimated his troops and took off Hannibal himself as they besieged Acragas, but his successor mollified the gods of Carthage by burning alive his own son as an offering. The Carthaginians took the city, took Gela and Camarina, and marched on toward Syracuse. The terrified Syracusans, interrupted in their banquets, gave absolute power to their ablest general, Dionysius. But Dionysius made peace with the Carthaginians, ceded to them all southern Sicily, and used his troops to establish a second dictatorship (405). It was not all treachery. Dionysius knew that resistance was useless; he surrendered everything but his army and his city, and resolved to strengthen both until he too, like Gelon, could expel the invaders from Sicily.

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