Ancient History & Civilisation


The Peloponnesian War

The [five] Spartan judges considered that their original question would be right, whether they had had anything good from them in the war… so they took each one [of the Plataeans] aside and asked them the same thing again, whether they had done the Spartans and their allies any good in the war, and when they could not say that they had, they took them off and killed them, and they made not a single exception.

Thucydides, 3.68.1, as the siege of Plataea ended in 427 BC

During the last three decades of the fifth century BC the Athenians and the Spartans, with their respective allies, were at war again with one another. This war, known as the ‘Peloponnesian War’, may seem clear evidence of the ancient Greeks’ political failure. More than twenty years of fighting, with seven years’ ‘uneasy truce’ in the middle, killed tens of thousands of Greeks (perhaps half of the Athenian male population), destroyed homes and trees and cost large sums of money and manpower. The war was only resolved by help given by the Persian king to the Spartans which required, in return, the abandonment of all the Greek cities in Asia again to the Persian sphere. War, observers themselves said, increased human cruelty. There were spectacular acts of ferocity on either side, including the killing of prisoners by Spartan commanders and the massacre, after due warning, of the island population of Melos by the Athenians because the islanders had refused to join their Empire. The theme of freedom was sadly prominent throughout. It was promised initially to the Athenians’ ‘enslaved’ allies by Spartan rhetoric, but it was grossly betrayed by the outcome. The eastern Greeks in Asia were handed over to the Persian king as tribute-paying subjects, while communities in the Aegean found themselves under the rule of hideous pro-Spartan juntas, the decarchies or the ‘rule of ten’ pro-Spartan men.

This war and all its ferocity were not driven by religion or nationalism: there were no crusades and there was no genocide. There were, however, real principles at stake, rather than killing for killing’s sake. At first sight, the conflict appears to be one only of power. The war arose from the continuing expansion of the Athenians’ power, especially as it turned in more detail to opportunities in Sicily and the Greek West. During the 430s these foreign ambitions increasingly alarmed Sparta’s important ally Corinth, the mother-city of the dominant state in Sicily, Syracuse. Corinth also had important colonies on the coast of north-west Greece, which lay on the natural route for warships to the West. Against this background of anxiety, the Corinthians were in no mood to give Athenian ambitions the benefit of any doubt. Suspicions intensified during a diplomatic clash over the Corinthian colony Corcyra (modern Corfu). Unless the Spartans would go to war against Athenian interventions, Corinthian envoys threatened to desert the Spartans’ alliance, an act which would expose the Peloponnese to a much greater risk of subversion and the consequent breaking of the Spartans’ hold on it. A chain of events unfolded, in which the Athenians did not technically break the prevailing treaty, sworn in 446, with the Spartans and their allies. But without Athenian ambitions outside this treaty’s area, the pressure for war would not have arisen at this point. The final flashpoint was Corinth’s neighbour Megara, an ally of the Spartans. The Athenians issued a decree with commercial intent against her, banning Megarians from walking in to Athens’ market-place or sailing into the harbours of her many allies. The aim, surely, was to destabilize the Megarians’ ruling oligarchy indirectly, without actually declaring war. If the Megarians could be turned into a democracy, they might become allies of the Athenians. The recent wars between 460 and 446 had shown what a vital strategic ally they could be, as they could block their mountain-passes against Spartan invaders and close the natural route for invasions of Attica.

More than five hundred years later the Emperor Hadrian still met memories of this famous feud. On visiting Megara, he found that, only recently in his reign, the Megarians had been refusing to allow Athenians and their families, ancestral enemies, into their houses. Behind these territorial conflicts lay something more fundamental, the complete difference of lifestyle, culture and mentality between Pericles’ Athenians and the Spartans to whom Megara in that era had been aligned. Hadrian would have needed reminding how in the 430s classical Spartans had continued to crush and occupy their Greek neighbour, Messenia, and to maintain the harsh way of life which had been imposed by their lawgivers since the seventh century BC. Around Sparta’s vulnerable territories, her kings and elders worked to maintain a cordon of loyal oligarchies, in which a relatively few citizens ruled firmly over all others and denied them political rights. Athens, by contrast, was the great democracy, the seat of a culture which could be said to be the ‘education of Greece’. The thinking, the theatre, the arts, the varied lifestyle which we still admire were all Athenian or based in Athens. The Spartans did not trust it, fearing it would infiltrate and overthrow the protective cordon of allies on which their own way of life depended. If only the few oligarchs who ruled her northern Peloponnesian allies, especially Corinth, could have had the nerve to desert Sparta and join the Athenian allies, their fellow seafarers. Forty years later brave democrats were indeed active among the Spartans’ Isthmian allies, even in Corinth. Together with the Athenians, they could have mounted an unstoppable expedition to Sicily, south Italy and beyond. With the Greeks of Sicily as their allies, they could then have attacked the furthest point of Athenian ambitions, Carthage. Carthage’s dependence on hired troops would probably have failed her; the Greek community in Carthage would have helped the Greek allies, and Carthage, the richest, most powerful alternative to the Greek way of life in the Mediterranean, would have submitted. Athenian values, democracy and prosperity would have blossomed all the way from north Africa to the Black Sea. Eminent Athenians would have found a new outlet abroad for their talents. The flamboyant aristocrat Alcibiades, the suspect hero of Athenian audiences, would have fitted well as the governor of Athenian Carthage, among the gold, the girls and the city’s famous carpets.

By contrast, the years of war became a dull, damaging stalemate. In 431 BC Greek opinion had expected a swift Athenian surrender, but the Athenians, on Pericles’ advice, retreated behind their city’s Long Walls which were far too strong for the Spartans’ poor grasp of siege-warfare. Like the Peninsular War between England and Napoleon’s France, the war became one of a sea-bound ‘whale’ against a land-bound ‘elephant’. The Athenians’ fleet was some three hundred warships strong and was still brilliantly manned and trained (even if a few slave-‘attendants’ sometimes rowed too). It continued to dominate the sea, to assist imports of food into the city and to maintain security among the Athenians’ allies. The Spartans’ naval skills, by contrast, were minimal and they lacked the money to build and maintain first-class ships. They had helot-serfs, but no free lower-class citizens to serve as rowers. Their supreme strength lay in traditional hoplite warfare by land, conducted by their superb infantry who marched in step to music, still chanting the repulsive verses of the poet Tyrtaeus, with their purple cloaks still fluttering in the wind. From 431 to 424 the theatre of war spread to north-west Greece, up to northern Greece, throughout the Aegean and eventually out to Sicily and south Italy. The Spartans’ successes in subverting Athenian allies remained limited, not least because the Spartans’ own system and the harshness of most of the Spartan commanders were such a grim alternative. The Spartans’ main impact lay in their yearly invasion of Attica when they cut down the local trees and burned the land. Nobody could beat them in a pitched battle, but the Athenians denied them one, merely harassing their raiders and foragers with their recently enlarged cavalry. Sparta’s allies could not stay long in Attica: they lacked a workforce of helots at home, and so they needed to return to gather in their own harvest with their own hands.

After ten years of fierce but inconclusive fighting, the Spartans agreed a truce in 421 BC which left them with no real gain and no popularity among their allies. The events of the war give a fascinating glimpse of the weaknesses in Spartan culture and society. The numbers of Spartiate soldiers were already declining and the outlying ‘Dwellers Around’ were being used to fill up infantry units which had previously been for Spartans only. The Spartan state was financially feeble (she still refused to strike coins) and at sea, her commanders were incompetent. In 425 a genuine Spartan cavalry was introduced, but it was not a success. Once outside Sparta, most of the Spartan governors were detestable men, trained to be harsh, not tactful, with a tendency to homoerotic affairs with their subjects and excessive use of the military baton. No Greek army marched without a strong sense of the gods as onlookers and guides, but the Spartans were exceptionally conscious of them. Like every Greek army, they respected the possible wrath of ‘gods and local heroes’, but they respected them in a more prominent way. They had a heightened sense of these gods’ anger and their ‘punishment’ of any Spartans who transgressed them. It was not just that ‘behind a Spartan army there trotted a mixed herd of sacrificial animals, ready for use to test the will of the gods at any time’. Before crossing Sparta’s borders, Spartans were distinctive in their practice of offering ‘crossing-sacrifices’ and would even withdraw if the omens proved unfavourable. Like other field commanders, Spartan kings and generals could sometimes treat the gods, the omens and the yearly calendar of religious festivals as flexible factors, whose rules could be bent or evaded. But they became very conscious of such manipulations if events proved their decisions wrong. More than those of their Athenian opponents, Spartans’ activities were limited by fear of the gods.

In 415 BC, six years after an initial peace, the Athenians accepted a request from some of the Sicilian Greeks and other allies on the island and dispatched a huge armada, hoping to dominate the West. The venture came close to success, but was foiled above all by the skill and horsepower of their main Sicilian enemy, Syracuse. The Athenians had failed to send horses in boats or sufficient cavalry to oppose such a horse-rich enemy. A year later the expedition ended in a total disaster for the Athenians and their navy. Even so, the Spartans were very slow to profit from this unexpected gift. In September 411 they had their best chance of victory when an Athenian fleet was defeated off nearby Euboea and the Athenians in the city were deeply split by an anti-democratic coup. Yet the Spartans went away without pressing their advantage. The next year they were offering peace, an offer which they are said to have repeated five years later.

Among the Spartans, the war’s final years, from 411 to 404, were distinguished by continuing naval incompetence and the careers of some of the harshest thugs in Greek history, the dour Clearchus and the ruthless Lysander. Among the Athenians, despite the Sicilian fiasco and the brutal coup of 411, they were years, amazingly, of extreme cultural vigour. The tense early months of 411 saw two of Aristophanes’ comic masterpieces, the Lysistrata and the Women at the Thesmophoria, both playing hilariously with gender-roles (and the latter with Euripides the tragedian). Responding to the ‘new music’ in Athenian taste, Euripides took the tragic chorus to new extremes and put on one of his masterpieces, too, a brutal reworking of the Orestes myth. He then withdrew to Macedon and composed his finest play, the Bacchae with its tale of resistance, then submission to the god Dionysus’ power. Sculptors back in the city carved a classical masterpiece too, the victory-figures and the procession of cattle for sacrifice on the parapet of the recently completed temple to Athena, goddess of victory.1 Above all, the elderly Sophocles, battered by an unwilling role in the coup of 411, staged his two finest plays, though in his eighties: the Philoctetes, with its theme of deception, and the heroicOedipus at Colonus, the tragedy which best conveys the awesomeness of the ‘heroic temper’. The citizens remained polarized, between oligarchic sympathizers and determined democrats but the tensions did not disintegrate their master-artists’ skills.

The Spartans’ eventual victory in 404 BC owed much to the Persians’ funding for their fleet and to the harsh and aggressive tactics of their newly emergent leader, Lysander. It was also assisted by the extreme behaviour of the Athenians, who had exiled and executed most of their best generals in politically motivated proceedings. In 404 the Athenians’ ‘second squad’ of commanders lost a naval battle up at the Hellespont and exposed the sea-route on which the city’s grain imports relied. The Athenians had to surrender their fleet, breach their Long Walls and accept a narrow oligarchy, backed by Spartan support. Their neighbours in Thebes and Corinth are said to have pressed for the complete destruction of the city.

More than twenty years of intermittent war had seen at most five major engagements. However, there had been more than a hundred lesser encounters all over the Greek world. Almost every region had memories of dire days and nights when their freedom had stood in the balance and parties of local men had braved all for safety and survival. All around Greece, sweaty rowers, horsemen (still without stirrups) or even divers had stretched their human endurance to its limits. A rash of local victory-monuments, or trophies, commemorated minor successes of the war’s early years, but on a long view, this scrappy stalemate would never have loomed so large in our awareness of Greek antiquity. Without one great asset, we might have struggled to reconstruct it from inscriptions (whose dating sometimes depends on fragile assumptions about the particular style in which they are cut on stone) and oblique references in Athenian comedy. It is of lasting human significance because of its surviving historian, the aristocratic Athenian Thucydides, whose work, unfinished at his death, extends down to 411 BC.

Thucydides had been nobly born in c. 460–455 BC and was linked by family to Cimon, the political antithesis of Pericles. Nonetheless, Pericles became his hero and ideal leader, the dominant voice in Athens when the young Thucydides could begin to attend assemblies for himself. In the late 440s Pericles’ pre-eminence appeared to have cowed the potential excesses of the democracy which he addressed. It was a ‘golden age’, therefore, in the young man’s eyes: by birth, sympathy and intellect Thucydides was no democrat. He wrote with contempt of Pericles’ most populist successors (men who were ‘most aggressive’, hiding their misdeeds by prolonging the war, or simply ‘wicked’). His own political preference was for a restrictive oligarchy which eliminated more than half of the Athenian male voters (‘the best constitution the Athenians had, at least in my time’).2 The ignorance, quarrelling and incompetence of the ‘people’, he argued, were root causes of the failure of the campaign in Sicily. Others, more fairly, might have blamed the feeble dithering of its main general, Nicias. But Nicias, for Thucydides, was ‘one of us’, a rich man, though not a noble, and was remembered later as someone ‘who never did anything populist in his life’.3 From Thucydides, Nicias receives a glowing last tribute, which refutes the usual pattern whereby the historian praises men of achievement, rather than those who failed but had good intentions.

Thucydides prized accuracy, ‘exactness’ in the newly fashionable Greek word for it. When compiling information he was admirably aware of the problems of false memory and the need for ‘laborious investigation’.4 He had thought carefully, too, about the problems of establishing a chronology. Above all, he removed the gods as explanations of the course of events. In his mid-twenties he could well have heard a lecture by the older ‘enquirer’, Herodotus, or even met him on his visit to Athens. His predecessor would have struck him as naive, uncritical and (no doubt) superstitious. There is no sign that he wrote with Herodotus’ ‘enquiry’ prominently in his mind. It was not so much a model as (in his view) a muddle. Admirably self-confident, Thucydides saw his own very different approach as his means of writing a ‘possession for all time’.

Dreams and omens, the simple wisdom of ‘wise advisers’, the belief that those who go too far get a just revenge and a divine retribution: Thucydides excluded all these Herodotean staples, just as he excluded explanations in terms of curses and divine causes. He had nothing to do with the ‘archaic’ belief that people may suffer for their ancestors’ misdeeds: on an occasion when Herodotus saw divine justice working itself out, Thucydides never even mentioned it and gave a political explanation only.5 He favoured a new and penetrating realism. The gap between expectation and outcome, intention and event fascinated him. So did the bitter relations between justice and self-interest, the facts of power and the values of decency. He was well aware of the difference between truth and rhetorical pleading. What men professed publicly, he knew, was not what they practised. The Spartans began by promising ‘liberation’ to the Greek world, and then betrayed the value of freedom. Thucydides was no cynic, not a person who always imputes a selfish and unworthy motive to participants. Rather, he was a realist, having learned the hard lesson that in inter-state relations, powers simply rule where they can, a fact of life which others, professing justice, obscure or ignore at their peril. ‘Ethical foreign policy’, he realized, is a vain irrelevance.

His Histories, therefore, are the most penetrating account of freedom and justice and the practical limits on both in the cut and thrust of life. Luxury concerned him less: he could accept that an individual might combine public astuteness and success with private dissolution and an excessive lifestyle. He saw this possibility exemplified by his colourful friend Alcibiades at Athens during the one truly valuable phase (411–407) of Alcibiades’ long public career. It was Thucydides’ explicit aim to teach his readers, but his lesson was not just how to cope with a military problem or a challenge in a battle. Thucydides admired practical wisdom, the clever improvisations of a political genius like Themistocles or the long sight and (arguable) steadiness of a Pericles. Such qualities, and their exemplars, were to be emulated. But he also wished to lay bare, through speech and action, the amoral reality of inter-state politics, the verbal distortions of diplomatic speakers and factional leaders, and the terrifying violence which political revolution unleashes ‘as long as human nature stays the same’. His diagnosis is still only too recognizable.

He died, probably in the early 390s BC, before finishing his history: it breaks off in 411 BC, not with the defeat of 404 to which it looks forward. The stages of composition of even the eight books we have remind us that it was not written in one single sweep: we must allow for eventual adjustments in his point of view. Nonetheless, we can see from what survives, unfinished, that his presentation of the bleak facts of life in factional politics and inter-state relations was not itself bleak or inhumane. He gives a brilliant description of the lethal plague which beset Athens from 430 onwards, and it is a masterpiece of observation. Above all, it is unmarked by reference to divine causation, although even his keenest Greek admirers later adduced such explanations for similar epidemics in their own histories. At the same time, he gives an account of the participants’ own psychology and human suffering which is written with a victim’s understanding: Thucydides merely tells us, with noble restraint, that he, too, had suffered this plague. His human analysis is so much more penetrating than the day-by-day case notes of the external symptoms of sicknesses which were compiled by the most ‘scientific’ of the Greek writers on medicine. So, too, his analysis of factional strife is written with a heartfelt pity for the plight of those caught between the extremists. He expresses real regret for the values of simple decency. Through speeches, as much as through his narrative’s angle of vision, Thucydides brings out the strength of participants’ feelings and sufferings, and encourages us to understand what it was like to be one of them at the time. We need to grasp the way the world is, he is telling us; but implicitly, that way is distressing, even regrettable. The master of realism is also well aware of its emotionally upsetting context.

The ancients themselves acknowledged Thucydides as the pinnacle of history-writing, harsh and difficult though his style seemed. Some thirty years younger than Herodotus, he belonged to a generation which had seen no technological revolution, no sudden change in its geography or material life. Yet his way of presenting his contemporaries belonged, intellectually, to a completely different mental universe. Like Herodotus and so many Greek historians, he wrote in exile from his home city, but not before he had listened, argued and learned from debates in Greece’s most powerful city-state and had himself served briefly as one of its generals. He was formed and steeled at the centre of power in Athens, in a climate where political theory was being taught for the first time, where generalizations about human psychology were the talk of his class and where power, and its exercise, were questions of passionate concern. Athens was his New York, whereas Thurii was Herodotus’ Buenos Aires. In his Histories, Thucydides claimed to have kept ‘as close as possible to the general gist of what was actually said’ when he gave the speeches of selected contemporaries. Frequently mistranslated here, Thucydides is disavowing word-for-word accuracy, but he is claiming, nonetheless, to have kept as close to the reality as he possibly could. The implication is that, often, he has kept very close indeed. The style of these speeches at times may be Thucydides’ own, but his gallery of speakers allows us to hear the voices of a new articulate realism, the style of the generation which was his own singular context. Through them, and his underlying insight, the Peloponnesian War remains the most instructive war in human history.

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