Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 12

Masks of Comedy, Masks of Command [428-421 B.C.]

Anyone who commands a ship and keeps the sheet too taut, never slackening, is sure to capsize and go the rest of the cruise with his rowers’ benches upside down.

—Sophocles

PERICLES WAS DEAD, AND NO ONE IN ATHENS COULD TAKE his place. Had Zeus himself disappeared from Mount Olympus, he could not have left behind a greater void. For over four decades Pericles had been at the forefront of Athenian politics, naval affairs, dramatic productions, the battle between science and religion, diplomacy, city planning, and temple building. The navy had been the cornerstone of his activity as leader. It provided power and prestige for the democratic element in the Assembly, funds for the building programs, and a seemingly invincible safeguard against the city’s enemies. Pericles laid down a plan for winning the war against the Peloponnesians but died before he could bring it to a successful end. His overwhelming presence had cast a shadow over rivals and successors alike. The plague had carried off Pericles’ sons, and his brilliant but unpredictable ward Alcibiades was still too young to hold a generalship or other elected office. For the first time in a century Athens seemed lacking in leaders.

During the prosperous years of the maritime empire, ordinary working Athenians with no connections to the old landed families had acquired immense fortunes through industry. Manufacturers of everything from bronze shields to musical instruments, these men represented a new elite class in Athens. With the departure of Pericles they promptly took the stage. The first was a rich sheep dealer named Lysicles, who married Pericles’ consort Aspasia but was killed soon thereafter while leading a naval expedition to collect tribute in Asia Minor. Another was a fabulously wealthy silver-mining magnate named Nicias, who made up for his lack of noble ancestors with a great show of piety, genteel behavior, sponsorship of festivals—and naval successes at Megara and Cythera. It did not hurt Nicias’ public image that his name meant “Man of Victory.”

Nicias’ chief rival was Cleon, a rich manufacturer of leather. This energetic citizen in his early forties wielded enormous influence in the Assembly, not through feats of arms but through oratorical prowess and a genius for politicking. Like Pericles he was a demagogue or “leader of the people,” but a more un-Periclean figure would be hard to imagine. Cleon was passionate, blustering, and verbose. Casting aside statuesque reserve, he bestrode the speaker’s platform as if it were the stage at the theater, stamping and gesturing to drive his points home. As watchdog of the empire, Cleon was completely Periclean in his conviction that imperial rule required an iron fist. He was also expert at squeezing ever-larger amounts of tribute from the allies. Athens needed the money to continue the war, and Cleon’s brutal treatment led one important city, Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, to rebel. To pay for the siege of Mytilene, the citizens of Athens raised two hundred talents from a war tax on their own property—the first such tax in the history of the Athenian democracy.

Where Pericles and Nicias had been too honorable, or perhaps merely too rich, to take bribes, Cleon harked back to that first naval demagogue, Themistocles. Without shame he used his influence to feather his own nest. The common people supported him loyally, but most of the wealthy citizens who served as trierarchs and horsemen loathed him. Cleon returned their hostility with interest. When motions in the Assembly failed, the ever-litigious Cleon would drag his opponents into the courts.

Pericles’ strategy for winning the war posed a serious stumbling block for all of his successors. Despite its ineluctable logic, nobody could pretend that it was succeeding. After years of fighting the Peloponnesians, the Athenians had no prospect of outright victory, nor even of a negotiated peace. And the Spartans were proving to be surprisingly troublesome opponents. Instead of seeing reason and realizing the hopelessness of continuing the war, they doggedly continued to march against the territories of Athens or its allies every campaigning season. Pericles had predicted that the Spartans would take a long time to learn seamanship, but they certainly seemed ready to make the effort. While the Spartans, of all people, were experimenting, the Athenians stuck doggedly to Pericles’ plan and in so doing were losing momentum and control of the war.

Nevertheless they rose energetically to meet the many challenges related to the war and the pursuit of Periclean policy. Plague had depeted the ranks of citizens, so when hoplites were sent to Mytilene, they rowed themselves, as did the horsemen sent with their mounts to Corinth. In the war’s fourth year the Assembly actually manned and launched 250 ships for the war effort—as many as at any time in the city’s history. Athens seemed unsinkable still.

As the conflict between the Spartan and Athenian alliances continued, its alarms and excursions took on some of the theatricality of the dramatic festivals. A few days after their defeat at Phormio’s hands, the Peloponnesian crews crossed the Isthmus in secret, each oarsman carrying his oar and oar loop and rowing pad. Arriving at Nisaea, they waited for darkness and then manned a fleet of Megarian triremes to undertake a sneak attack on the Piraeus itself. But the ships had spent so long in dry dock that their seams had opened. The more the triremes leaked, the slower became the Peloponnesian advance. In the end they gave up their grand plan and settled for a nighttime raid on Salamis Island. The alarm beacons touched off a citywide panic in Athens, though the feckless enemy got nowhere near the port.

An even greater sensation occurred two years later, when Cleon browbeat the Assembly into passing a sentence of death on all the citizens of Mytilene on Lesbos, as punishment for the rebellion that a few of the Mytilenean oligarchs had started. A trireme was dispatched that very day with the order for the mass execution. By the next morning the Athenians had come to their senses. They ordered a second trireme to carry the reprieve, but no one knew if it would be able to overtake the first.

In a rush the second crew dragged the trireme from its shed, loaded it with provisions, and set off to catch the first ship before it reached Mytilene, 185 miles away. From the moment the second trireme was launched, its oars were in constant motion. The rowers worked all day, into the evening, and through the night, eating barley mixed with olive oil and wine as they rowed. They took breaks for sleep in rotation. As they approached Mytilene, the lookouts could see the first ship already in the harbor. The Athenian general Paches had opened the original decree and was about to start the executions. The heroic efforts and breathless arrival of the second ship saved the day, as well as several thousand lives. But the episode marched inexorably on to a tragic climax. When Paches returned to Athens, he was brought to trial for his conduct as general. Beleaguered by relentless prosecution, he pulled out his sword and killed himself in the court.

In this fourth year of the war, the stage on which the Athenians were contending began to widen dramatically. Wherever the navy ventured in those years, natural disasters seemed to follow. In Sicily the Athenians saw fiery streams of lava pouring down the slopes of Mount Etna, a volcano that had not erupted in many years. In the Black Sea, while collecting tribute, the Athenian general Lamachus beached ten triremes at a river mouth in rainy weather and lost them all when a rising torrent lifted the empty hulls and swept them out to sea. And in the Euboean Gulf a tidal wave struck the Athenian guard station on the islet of Atalante, lifting a trireme over the wall and tossing it among the buildings inside. The tsunami had been triggered by an earthquake that split Atalante itself in two, opening a channel so wide that a trireme could pass through.

The deadlock in the fighting finally broke in Athens’ favor during the war’s seventh year. The turning point was a dramatic amphibious action masterminded by a tough and battle-hardened commander named Demosthenes (a distinguished soldier, not the orator of a later generation). This general had been following up on Phormio’s victories in the west and had earned the respect of the Messenians and other western allies. The setting for his novel stratagem was to be the vast and lonely bay of Pylos in the southwestern corner of the Peloponnese. Demosthenes dared not air his plans in the open Assembly. Success would depend upon secrecy and surprise.

Early in a summer that was notable for its bad weather, Demosthenes landed at Pylos with a small expeditionary force and began to fortify a hilltop that overlooked the north end of the bay. The men collected rough fieldstones for the walls and carried clay for mortar on their own backs, stooping forward and clasping their hands behind them to form improvised hods. The Athenians also fortified a strip of beach to serve as a landing place for receiving supplies or reinforcements. Demosthenes manned his new base with the crews of five Athenian triremes and a boatload of Messenian troops from Naupactus. He intended for the Messenians to fight as insurgents, blending in with the helots in the countryside and spreading terror among the Spartans.

Word quickly reached Sparta, fifty miles away. The Spartans at home called their army back from Attica and also sent for the Peloponnesian fleet from Corcyra. Army and navy would meet at Pylos to deal with these squatters at Sparta’s back door. After establishing camp on the coasts of the bay, the Spartans ferried 420 of their best officers and fighting men across to a ridge-backed island, three miles long, that closed off the bay from the open sea. The island bore the ominous name Sphacteria (“Place of Sacrifice”). The Spartan hoplites proceeded to bivouac in its dense scrub and rocky fastnesses, determined to deny any landing place to the Athenian fleet. Just so had Xerxes landed his best troops on Psyttaleia island before the battle of Salamis. Demosthenes sent messengers to summon the main Athenian fleet. Before it could reach Pylos, however, the enemy attacked.

Demosthenes and sixty Athenian marines took up positions on their landing place at the north end of Pylos Bay, while the rest of his force prepared to defend the newly fortified citadel. A landing by all forty-three Peloponnesian ships at once would have overwhelmed the Athenians, but submerged rocks prevented a mass assault. In the face of this natural barricade the Spartans had to divide their fleet into small detachments. While the main fleet waited beyond the line of surf, cheering them on, a few triremes at a time tried to thread their way through the reefs and force a landing. No maneuver could have been more hazardous than this attempt to reverse ships through shoals toward a hostile coast.

Among the impatient Spartans in the Peloponnesian fleet was Brasidas, now serving as a trierarch and still smarting from his encounter with Phormio four years earlier. Shouting that it was shameful to think more of saving ships’ timbers than destroying Athenians, he ordered his own steersman to drive the trireme ashore with all speed. As the keel touched land, Brasidas set his foot on the boarding step beside the steersman’s seat. Before he could jump, an Athenian arrow struck him. Wounded, he collapsed backward into the rowing frame among the oars of the thranite rowers, and his big round hoplite shield fell into the sea. At once the Peloponnesian oarsmen pulled away from the beach and rejoined the rest of the fleet. Brasidas would live to fight another day, but the Spartan attack had lost its momentum.

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THE PYLOS CAMPAIGN, 425 B.C.

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All that day Demosthenes and his small force held off the enemy, a few dozen men keeping eight thousand at bay. The world had turned upside down. A Spartan fleet at sea was fighting an Athenian army on land, and even more paradoxically, the Athenians were winning. At evening the Peloponnesians gave up the attempt on Pylos. A wave washed Brasidas’ shield onto the beach, and the Athenians set it up as a victory trophy. After two more days of futile Spartan assaults, the main Athenian fleet of fifty triremes finally arrived. When the Peloponnesian fleet declined to come out and fight in open water, the Athenians charged into the bay through the channels at either end of Sphacteria island. Once inside the bay they launched an impetuous attack on the Peloponnesian ships, capturing five and driving the rest onto the mainland shore.

The Athenians were now masters of the bay. One result of their victory hit the Spartans hard: more than four hundred of their best troops were now marooned on Sphacteria with almost no fresh water or provisions. The Athenians quickly grasped the plum that fortune had dropped in their laps. To prevent any escape to the mainland, a pair of Athenian triremes kept up a constant patrol by day, rowing around the island in opposite directions. By night, when the darkness made rowing dangerous, the entire Athenian fleet anchored in a great circle around Sphacteria. True Spartans were a dwindling breed, increasingly outnumbered by helots. The loss of any single Spartan citizen was a threat to all, and the news that the Athenians had trapped more than four hundred struck Sparta like a thunderbolt. Officials were sent at once to Pylos to negotiate an armistice. From Pylos an Athenian trireme conveyed the envoys to Athens.

At Athens the Spartan representatives offered the Assembly an immediate end to the war and even a treaty of alliance in exchange for the men on the island. The warmongering demagogue Cleon, however, demanded a more tangible ransom. He proposed that the Spartans hand over four strategic towns or territories that had been stripped of their Athenian garrisons twenty-two years earlier, at the end of the First Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians gave up their newly won land empire in exchange for a group of Athenian hostages. The enemy was now caught in a similar predicament, and Cleon’s solution might be seen as no more than poetic justice.

The Spartans avoided any open discussion of exchanges or ransoms. They asked instead that the Athenians appoint a small committee to negotiate the terms one by one in a calm and orderly atmosphere. Cleon denounced them for preferring secret negotiations to plain talk in the Assembly, and the Spartans went back to Pylos without a settlement.

So the Athenian blockade resumed, while the Spartans sent away for more troops and looked for ways to provision the men on Sphacteria. In the end they recruited divers to swim across the bay with skins packed with honey, poppyseed, and linseed. On stormy days, when the Athenian triremes stayed in the bay, seafaring helots risked their lives—and hoped to win their freedom—by landing boatloads of flour, cheese, and wine on the island’s seaward side. The Spartans on the island survived in this way for over a month, till the Athenians at home began to doubt the success of the entire enterprise. Their dissatisfaction boiled over at a session of the Assembly, when the people voted to send the general Nicias to Pylos with archers and javelin throwers. These light-armed troops could fight effectively on the rough terrain of Sphacteria, where it was difficult for a hoplite phalanx to operate.

Cleon could not resist issuing a few verbal barbs, for he hated Nicias almost as much as he hated the Spartans. During his speech he blamed the current board of generals for the long delay in capturing the stranded Spartans; he also insulted the mild-mannered Nicias, questioned his manhood, and claimed that he himself could do a better job if only given the chance. Acting with uncharacteristic decision, Nicias promptly offered to surrender his generalship to Cleon. At first Cleon jokingly proclaimed himself ready. When Nicias made it clear that his offer was serious, Cleon in dismay tried to wriggle out of his rash challenge.

By this time the Assembly had taken up the idea and greeted the proposal to substitute Cleon for Nicias with acclaim. Now that Cleon was cornered, his spirits rallied. He accepted command of the mission to Pylos and boasted extravagantly that he would return inside twenty days, bearing either Spartan hostages or news of their destruction. Many Athenians watched the fleet depart with amusement, sure that Cleon would return either dead or permanently discredited. But to the stupefaction of friends and foes alike, Cleon proved as good as his word. Before the twentieth day had passed, he and his ships were back in Athens, along with 292 Spartan prisoners. The rest had been killed in fierce fighting when Cleon’s light-armed troops combined with Demosthenes’ hoplites for a dawn attack on Sphacteria.

Exultation exploded in Athens. A new set of desperate Spartan envoys came to sue for peace and the return of their men. The Athenians followed Cleon’s lead. They told the Spartans that they would immediately execute the hostages if the Peloponnesian army invaded Attica again. Having tied the hands of their enemies, the Athenians proceeded to celebrate. The most prized trophies from Pylos were the hundreds of round bronze shields taken from the dead and defeated Spartans. They offered them as dedications to the gods, to be hung up in sanctuaries and other public places, each shield displaying the proud inscription THE ATHENIANS FROM THE LACEDAEMONIANS ON PYLOS.

For the first time since the beginning of the war, the people pushed forward with new buildings on the Acropolis. Pylos was a victory that outshone any military success of Pericles. To celebrate it, the Athenians raised a new temple to Athena Nike, goddess of victory. It was set on a bastion that jutted forward pugnaciously beside the main entrance, elbowing aside Pericles’ stately Propylaea. Thus the builders managed to capture in stone the brashness of Cleon and the pride that Athens took in his astounding victory. Cleon had indeed made himself, almost overnight, the first man in Athens.

Another monument to the victory at Pylos, just as enduring as the marble temple of Athena Nike, was a comedy called Horsemen by the young playwright Aristophanes. Before writing comedies himself, Aristophanes had passed through a varied apprenticeship in the theater. He likened his own career to a series of promotions on board a trireme.

Before handling the steering oars, one should first know how to row,
Then keep watch at the prow, then master the winds,
And only then be steersman oneself.

Though still in his teens, Aristophanes was Cleon’s harshest critic. In an earlier play, Acharnians, he had ridiculed the atmosphere of paranoia that Cleon stirred up with his alarmist speeches and denunciations of harmless foreigners.

Informer: That lamp wick will set fire to the Navy Yard!

Citizen: The Navy Yard and a lamp wick? Oh my! How?

Informer: If this Boeotian sticks the wick in a beetle, then sends it, lighted, down the drain to the Navy Yard, when a stiff north wind is blowing, one trireme will catch fire, and in an instant all will be ablaze.

Citizen: You scoundrel—a blaze forsooth, with a wick and a beetle!

The same rich citizens who sponsored the dramatic productions also served as trierarchs for the navy. Most were loyal patriots who loved their city, yet many deplored the current war. In the Assembly they were outnumbered by the masses and drowned out by the demagogues. But in the theater these citizens could get their messages across without interruption. Aristophanes composed plays that popularized the views of his sponsors, the trierarchic class. Behind the raw jokes about sex and other bodily functions, his comedies routinely satirized demagogues like Cleon and urged an end to the war.

A few months after the astounding victory at Pylos, Cleon went to the theater. The occasion was the Lenaea, a late winter festival honoring Dionysus, god of wine. The festival’s chief object of veneration—an erect wooden phallus as big as a man—set the tone. At this festival comedy, not tragedy, dominated the stage. The principal actors sported clownish potbellies, while the men in the chorus waggled giant phalluses, sometimes referred to as their “oars.” Thanks to his recent appointment as general, Cleon for the first time had a seat of honor on the front row. To his left and right stretched the long curving line of priests, public benefactors, and generals, including his rivals and colleagues Nicias and Demosthenes. At his back crowded thousands of Athenians who had come to see and judge the contest.

It had been known for months that Aristophanes would be presenting a new comedy. Two years earlier, after the rebellion of Mytilene and the famous trireme race to Lesbos, Aristophanes had lampooned Cleon mercilessly in his Babylonians. Cleon counterattacked with an accusation of slander. Aristophanes was convicted and fined by the jury. Now, hedged about by the heroic aura of Pylos, Cleon could surely expect immunity from the bawdy humor of Aristophanes and his ilk. But Aristophanes had other ideas.

Backstage, officials marshaled the actors, choristers, pipers, costumers, and stagehands for three new plays: Cratinus’ Satyrs, Aristomenes’ Scabbard Bearers, and Aristophanes’ Horsemen. Out front the three wealthy sponsors took their seats in the audience. Vendors were selling nuts and raisins. Then the statue of Dionysus was carried in so that the god could watch the plays. A torchbearer entered the theater and cried, “Call on the god!” The audience shouted, “Son of Semele! Iacchos! Giver of Wealth!” And the competition began.

Once Horsemen started, it quickly became evident that Aristophanes had written the play as his revenge on Cleon. Pylos figured prominently in the dialogue, and references to the Athenian navy peppered the play throughout. In the first scene, two actors dressed as kitchen slaves ran or limped onto the stage, howling. The first tilted his masked face up to the audience—a startled moment, then laughter—to reveal a portrait of the general Demosthenes. The second slave joined in the miserable wailing. More laughter: he was masked as Nicias. Both slaves, it was plain, had just been whipped.

Demosthenes explained to the audience that he and his fellow slave served a crusty old master named Demos (that is, the Athenian people), short-tempered and hard of hearing. Demos resided on the Pnyx. At the last new moon Demos had bought another slave, a tanner. The naming of the new slave’s occupation stirred a ripple in the audience, for leather was of course the source of Cleon’s wealth. The interloper had been scheming to make Demosthenes and Nicias look bad; hence the beatings and bruises. Any doubts about the identity of this third slave were laid to rest when Demosthenes complained, “The other day when I cooked up a Spartan cake at Pylos, he slipped by me, grabbed the dish, and brought it to the master as his own!”

To supplant their rival, Demosthenes and Nicias decided to recruit a passing sausage seller whom they saw trundling his stand toward the Agora, a true Athenian “man in the street.” Finding the sausage seller reluctant to fall in with their plans, Demosthenes told him that tomorrow he would be ruler of all these rows of people (gesturing at the audience), not to mention the Agora, the harbors, the Assembly, the Council, and the generals.

Having assured himself of the sausage seller’s qualifications (disreputable career, low birth, little education), Demosthenes proclaimed him the perfect demagogue and coached him on how best to confront the terrifying tanner. If the audience hoped for the sensation of seeing a mask that caricatured Cleon’s familiar face, they were disappointed. Before the new slave made his entry onto the stage, Demosthenes explained in another aside that the mask makers had been too frightened to carve a true likeness, but that the audience would be bright enough to identify the man anyway. On this cue “Cleon” at last burst onto the scene, roaring with fury. Rumor said that Aristophanes himself was behind the mask, to spare any actor the danger of playing the hero of Pylos.

As the comedy continued the players decried Cleon as a cheat, a liar, and an embezzler. He was also a thief who had stolen the credit for Pylos from Demosthenes, the true maker of the winning strategy. In answer to their taunts, Cleon stirred up big winds with his tirades, and the other characters “reef [ed] their sails” so as not to be blown offstage. The tanner (Cleon) then threatened to punish his enemies by assigning them old hulls and rotten sails whenever they served as trierarchs.

Old man Demos, disturbed by the uproar, came out of his house. Learning of the quarrel between the sausage seller and the tanner, Demos declared that he himself would sit in judgment. His buttocks were still sore (after fifty-six years!) from his hard rowing at Salamis, and he was touchingly grateful when the sausage seller offered him a cushion to sit on. In the agon or contest that ensued, Cleon claimed that he had done more for the city than the great Themistocles himself, and even quoted the famous Wooden Wall oracle about Athens’ navy. The sausage seller countered that the appropriate wooden wall to enclose Cleon would be the public stocks. Each then tried to outdo the other in conveying tasty dishes to Demos.

Throughout the action the chorus of aristocratic horsemen joined in the verbal and physical attacks on Cleon, just as in the Assembly the real Cleon was opposed, though ineffectually, by the Athenian upper classes. Between charges, however, Aristophanes’ chorus of horsemen offered the audience a more inspiring message—an appeal for reconciliation between masses and elite, between democratic navy and aristocratic cavalry. The chorus reminded the citizens that they had recently joined the naval effort themselves in the new horse carriers (an expedition commanded by Nicias). In a flight of fantasy, they told how their own horses had manned the oars and rowed all the way to Corinth to attack the enemy. Being horses, the equine crews naturally mixed cavalry commands with nautical orders and substituted a chant of “Hippapai!” for the proper Athenian rowing chant of “Rhyppapai!”

For the lyric high point of his play, Aristophanes composed an invocation to Poseidon, god both of horses and of the sea, patron of riders and seafarers alike.

Horse-lord Poseidon, O!
You who hold dear the cymbal-clashing hoofbeats of horses,
And their neighing,
And the speeding triremes, dark-beaked and mercenary,
And the race of lads in chariots, lighthearted or unlucky,
Come down to our dance.
O gold-tridented, O guardian of dolphins, adored at Sunium,
O Geraestian son of Cronus:
Best beloved of Phormio, above all other gods,
Stand by Athenians now!

Eventually Demos showed that his heart was in the right place. He cast off Cleon, promising in future to spend more of his funds on trireme building than on lawsuit hearings. Further, he resolved that when the navy came home, the rowers should immediately receive their back pay in full. (“Many well-worn rumps will rejoice at that!”) Then Demos slipped off to his farm, arm in arm with two beautiful women identified as “Thirty-Year Peace Treaties.” Cleon himself was condemned to trade places with the lowly sausage seller. In the final moments of the play the chorus carried the tanner offstage in the direction of the city gate, there to bawl his wretched merchandise among the bathhouses and brothels.

After all three comedies had been presented, the competing choruses trooped across the orchestra in turn so that the ten judges could determine which one received the loudest applause. Rarely did Aristophanes prove a favorite with the audience. So it was a bitter moment for Cleon, sitting in the full glare of ten thousand citizens, when the herald announced that Horsemen had won first prize.

Cleon’s dramatic humiliation did not shake his hold over Athenian policy. For three more years the Athenians continued their attacks on the Peloponnesian coasts, their attempts to win back their old land empire, and their meddling in Sicily. None of these campaigns prospered, but one of them launched the literary career of yet another gifted young Athenian: the historian Thucydides. It happened after Brasidas had made a dash to the north and captured the rich Athenian colony of Amphipolis during a snowstorm. In an attempt to oust Brasidas and retake the city, Thucydides as general took a squadron of seven Athenian triremes up the Strymon River. When his mission failed, the angry Assembly sent him into exile. Their action deprived the city of a genius who might have become a statesman in the mold of Pericles. Withdrawing to his family’s gold mines in Thrace (he was a kinsman of Miltiades and Cimon), Thucydides began to compile and commit to writing every detail of the current war. If he could not make history, he would write it.

Finally the warmongering Cleon was killed while fighting at Amphipolis, and the same battle claimed the life of the Spartan hero Brasidas. With these two hawks out of the way, Nicias soon succeeded in negotiating a peace settlement, later called the Peace of Nicias. By its terms the Spartans formally recognized the rule of the Athenians over their maritime empire and even granted them Nisaea, the port of Megara. Otherwise both sides pledged to give back the places that they had captured during the war and agreed to open panhellenic sanctuaries such as Olympia and Delphi to all Greeks. They swore to keep the peace for fifty years. The terms were a triumph for Athens and would have gratified Pericles, had he been alive to hail this new accord.

The war had lasted almost exactly ten years. Important members of the Peloponnesian League—the Corinthians, Thebans, and Megarians—were bitter and blamed the Spartans for abandoning the war on such easy terms. To protect themselves against their irate allies, the Spartans went beyond the peace accords and concluded an independent fifty-year alliance with the Athenians. In fulfillment of Cimon’s dream, Athens and Sparta seemed securely yoked as joint leaders of the Greeks. But already some viewed the Peace of Nicias as little more than an uneasy cessation of hostilities rather than a true peace.

At the next dramatic festival Aristophanes presented a new comedy called Peace. The play’s hero, an Athenian grape farmer, flew up to Mount Olympus on a gigantic dung beetle to ask Zeus why he had allowed the Greeks to destroy one another. Did the gods not understand that the Persians might still conquer them all, once both sides were exhausted? Back on earth, a chorus of Greek farmers rescued the goddess Peace from a deep pit where the war god Ares had buried her. As they hauled Peace back to the light with ropes, the god Hermes rebuked those Athenians who still lusted after an empire on land. “If you want Peace to be saved, you must draw back and stick to the sea!”

Pericles began the war, Cleon prolonged it, and Nicias brought it to an end. But Aristophanes and comedy had the last word.

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