CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 17 - The Peloponnesian War, Part I
Chapter 1. The Importance of the Peloponnesian War and Its Continuing Value [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: For the next couple of weeks we will be examining the coming and the fighting of the Great Peloponnesian War. It’s a subject that had tremendous importance for the Greeks themselves and it has been one of the things that has occupied people interested in the ancient Greeks more than most thing, partly because of its own extraordinary importance, but I think perhaps even more because of the fact that it was described for us by a participant, a contemporary Thucydides, the son of Olorus an Athenian, who by common consent throughout the millennia has been agreed upon as one of the great historians ever, sort of the second one that we know of in all of history, but also one who is much esteemed. I would argue that right now he’s probably esteemed more than he has ever been throughout the history of the world, because he’s had such a great influence on thinking in the West and then in the world as well — around the world as well.
Ever since the twentieth century, he really came into his own as events like the First and the Second World War, to be followed then by the Cold War seemed to observers of the time, to be much illuminated by studying Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. And as a consequence his own way of thinking about history and about war, and about international relations and about behavior of human beings in the mass, and a whole variety of subjects in the realm of politics and diplomacy and war. So it’s for those reasons, I think, that this story has been so carefully looked at, compared to others in history.
You know that for almost three decades at the end of the fifth century the Athenian Empire fought against the Spartan alliance in this terrible war that changed the Greek world and the civilization of the Greeks forever. From the perspective of the fifth century Greeks, the Peloponnesian War deserves to be thought of I think as a world war. It just involves the Greeks themselves and that’s not quite right. That’s one of the points Thucydides makes. It drew into it other peoples other than the Greeks who were very important. The Persians were to play a critical role and similarly the Macedonians, and similarly peoples in Sicily and in Italy. So, it really doesn’t require much defense from the Greek point of view to think of it as a kind of a world war.
A critical turning point in Greek history causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, dividing the Greek states internally — it was the cause of civil wars throughout the Greek world, throughout its history and subsequently, de-stabilizing the relationship of classes within cities and between the relationships between cities ultimately. As we can see from hindsight, making the capacity of the Greeks to resist an outside threat much weaker and helping to bring about a situation in which they finally did lose their independence and their autonomy.
So, from so many points of view the war may be seen as a tragic event, the end of a period of confidence and hope, and I would want to stress that. If you look at the fifty year stretch between the Persian War and the Peloponnesian War, it is the great age of Greece when so many of the things that we value in the experience of the Greeks were created and carried forward, and a period in which one sees evidence of all sorts of confidence in human capacities and the hope of what will be in the future. All of that, I think, suffered a considerable reversal because of the Peloponnesian War, and began a darker time.
It was a war of unprecedented brutality in Greek life, violating even the already rugged code that had previously governed Greek fighting and breaking through that thin veneer that separates civilization from savagery. It is actually to Thucydides that that way of thinking about things is old. Certainly for me; that’s when I first understood what he’s teaching us to such a degree in his history, that there is just a very thin veneer that covers over the brutal, the bestial, the worst and bestial that exists in human beings even in society, but that society is what covers that over and permits something resembling what we would call civilization. But warfare tends to put a strain on that limiting element which is what society gives you.
Anger, frustration, the desire for vengeance increases as the fighting drags on, producing a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents, throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation and exposure, that’s what happened in Sicily and hurling them into the sea to drown, which became the practice towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was a case of a band of marauders, murdering innocent school children, entire cities were destroyed, the men killed the women and children sold into slavery. I don’t say there were no atrocities before the Peloponnesian War, but nothing like the concentration of them that developed, and also I suspect a whole new range of them also came into being.
One reason being that in the past wars had been short, and one of the messages I think Thucydides wants to give us is that the longer a war persists, the more inevitable is the sinking below civilized levels of warfare, if there is such a thing as civilized level of warfare, to a much more horrible way of fighting. As I said, although the war ended over 2,400 years ago it continues to fascinate readers today. I was astonished; I wrote a one-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and it sold 50,000 copies of the damn thing. I’m truly amazed; so was my publisher. But I think shouldn’t have been amazed, because for maybe a century now people have been studying Thucydides and the war, or when they have not been studying them they’ve been hearing about it; references that have been made to it by distinguished people.
General Marshall referred to it in a famous quotation when he was Secretary of State and people keep talking about it, and so the curiosity I think rather than the familiarity — curiosity about what is this all about may account for this, but it’s also true that if you go to — Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War are taught in all the military academies. They are taught in all, or just about all, I never heard one that didn’t, in all programs of international relations anywhere. That’s one of the first books along with the Chinese Sage of Warfare, Sun-tzu both of those seem to be typically read everywhere and so on. I don’t think that this is just an affectation of look at us we read classical stuff; I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think it is based on a conviction and supported by arguments by scholars, not classicists, that there is some continuing meaning, some continuing value, something we can learn about all of these important topics by reading Thucydides.
So, I want to just comfort you for the burden I’ve laid on you in giving you that book and all of this stuff to read. You’re not wasting your time; that’s what I’m trying to tell you.
Chapter 2. The Origins of the War [00:09:25]
I’d like to turn first to the question of the origins of the war, the causes of the war, the outbreak of the war, however you want to look at that phenomenon, because Thucydides is very interested in that subject and writes about it with a sophistication that in my opinion, has not been superseded and rarely matched in the years since that point.
Thucydides’ whole first book really is about that subject, how and why did that war come about? That’s a subject I just think is immensely interesting and important, because we should face the fact that the history of civilized mankind is almost the history of warfare. There’s nothing more typical of human societies than that they are organized to fight wars and do so. And I think by the twentieth-, twenty-first century we ought to have come to the conclusion this is a bad thing. Wars, certainly now, whatever positive functions they might have had in the past, and they have been sometimes glorified for various reasons, the price of them is just far too high for us to think that’s fine, let’s keep doing that. So, the problem why do wars happen and how can they be avoided strikes me as important a question as there is, and Thucydides I think gives us some food to chew on as we think about that.
Well, he examined the situation in the first book and concluded with what he calls the truest cause, the truest explanation. I’ll quote him now, “The truest explanation, although it has been the least often advanced I believe to have been the growth of the Athenians to greatness which brought fear to the Lacedaemonians and forced them to war.” Scholars differ a bit on what that really means, but I side with what I think are the majority of the scholars on this point, which is to say he is really saying that this war became inevitable at a certain point when the Athenian Empire, that’s the greatness of Athens reached such a point as to alarm the Spartans enough to do what they did, which was to start a war to check the growth of that Athenian power. Everything I’ve said is open to criticism and disagreement, and just naturally great big arguments about these things, but I’m giving you my view which is not original or unique.
Now, I think it’s important to realize that Thucydides does not think that sort of an obvious explanation can be found by examining the circumstances that took place when the war broke out in 431 B.C., and the proof of that is not merely that he speaks about the truest explanation, which means he’s rejecting less true ones, which do focus on the events themselves, what we might call the precipitating causes of the war. He begins his account explaining how the war came back to the end of the Persian Wars and the events that are important, from his point of view, are the forming of the Delian League which emerges as the Athenian Empire. That’s one critical thing he goes back to, and the other critical thing he goes back to is the distrust that emerged swiftly between Athens and Sparta which turned into a major division in the Greek world and produced ultimately — suspicion obviously is something that makes it easier to bring about fear, and so we get to that second element that Thucydides talks about, the fear that the growth of Athenian power and gender in the Spartans.
What is so splendid in my eyes about Thucydides understanding of why these things happened and why it’s superior to what is typically taught in the graduate schools that study international relations is he’s talking about human emotions. He’s talking about feelings; he’s not talking about structures that you need to be a professor in order to understand. I think that that’s one of the powerful things. Thucydides is interested in structures, the first one he ever looks at. He thinks it’s a very important thing, but when he comes down to explaining why nations go to war, he looks at the feelings that the people involved have.
Well, we’ve talked already about some of the events that he describes, taking them mainly from him. I’m talking about the beginning of the Delian League, the conversion into an Athenian Empire, the suspicion that aroused among the Spartans, but the fact that they worked things out until the Thasian rebellion, where we see the Athenians acting more aggressively with less justification than they ever have before. But what I didn’t tell you because I wanted to save it for this context is that Thucydides mentions the fact that when the Thasians launched their rebellion against Athens in 465, they went first to the Spartans and asked them, if we rebel against the Athenians will you invade Attica, and the ephors, the officials that conduct foreign policy in the first instance in Sparta, said they would.
Well, they didn’t because before they could do so the great earthquake occurred which prevented them doing any such thing. It needs to be pointed out that this message — these talks that went on between the Thasians and Spartans were secret, and we have to believe that at this time, the Athenians did not know about these conversations, because if they had, there is no way they could have been persuaded to send help, 4,000 hoplites into the Peloponnesus to help the Spartans against the helots. So, I think we need to accept Thucydides’ assessment of that situation. Well, we know it happened. The Athenians were sent away because of the suspicion that the Spartans felt for them and their way of government, and this produced a tremendous anger in the Athenians and it also led to a revolution internally in which the Cimonian regime was replaced by one led by more radical democrats like Ephialtes and Pericles, and also a diplomatic revolution in which the Athenians withdrew from the Greek League under Spartan leadership, and in which they made alliances first with Argos the great enemy of Sparta and then with the Thessalians whom they hoped would supply them with useful cavalry in case of a future war.
So, that’s a terrific takeoff point for the first quarrel of seriousness between the two sides which modern historians call the First Peloponnesian War. One other thing that happened at the conclusion of this previous period, that is to say, with the withdrawal of the Athenians from the scene, the Spartans finally took care of the helots. They never were able really to defeat them and get them down from their fort up on Mount Ithome, but they finally made a deal with the people up there saying, we will allow you to come down in safety and go away someplace so long as you leave the Peloponnesus. They undoubtedly expected that the helots would then be scattered one here, one there, one other place, where else would they go?
That’s what would have happened, had it not been that the Athenians, who had lately acquired, we know not how, control of a town on the north shore of the Corinthian Gulf called Naupactus. It has a very good harbor and it is so located as to be wonderful as a naval base for somebody who wished to be able to control access to the Corinthian Gulf. The Athenians took it and then turned it over to the helots who had fled the Peloponnesus. That was not what the Spartans had in mind, although there was nothing in the deal that prevented this from being done. But it means that the Athenians had done another bit of harm to the Spartans, putting their bitter enemies in a position to cause trouble to them and to their allies on the Corinthians Gulf.
So, all of that suggests that on the next day, so to speak, after all of these changes had taken place, the world was very different and the prospects, I would have thought, for peace between Sparta and her allies and Athens and her allies had been badly reduced. There’s no longer an association between the two. The Athenians had allied themselves with Spartan enemies; the Athenians had taken the halots and put them in this terrific place. This is not a recipe for good relations in the future — this is where the cliché seems to me to be useful; people talk about a powder keg which only needs a spark to set it off into a great explosion. People use this about the outbreak of many wars. Sometimes it is an apt thing, and sometimes it is not. This time it is, as we shall see; it didn’t take very much to produce an explosion between Athens and Sparta after these events.
The spark was provided by a quarrel that took place between two Spartan allies in the Peloponnesus, Megara and Corinth, neighbors on that isthmus that leads into northern Greece and into Athens. Since they are both members of the Spartan alliance, the Spartans had choices to make about what has happening. And the choice was soon forced upon them, because when it was clear that the Corinthians were winning the argument, winning the war I should say, that they were fighting against Megara, the Megarians came to Sparta and asked for their help in putting down this war and ending it. The Spartans said, “no we are not interested; it is your business, not ours.” Now, that is interesting. We cannot really tell, because there is nothing written about it, what obligations the Spartans had when two allies who are autonomous states, according to the theory, decide to fight each other.
It looks to me, because nobody complained about it in terms of constitutional irregularity, that the Spartans had every right to ignore what was going on. We must assume, I suppose, that in the centuries or century or so before, the Spartans must have ignored other quarrels between allies and allowed them to fight it out or settle it any way they want. The Spartans don’t give a damn, who wins between Corinth and Megara. And why should they get involved. I think that hands-off attitude must have been encouraged by the fact that they had just, probably were still recovering from the earthquake and the helot rebellion that came after it. They really didn’t need more trouble. So, they let the thing go.
Now, the reason the Spartans could take such a caviler attitude in the past was that they were the only great power in the Greek world. But in 461 that was not true. The losers, Megara, had a choice. They could, and did, go to Athens and say, “won’t you help us against Corinth? If you do, we will leave the Peloponnesian league and join the Athenian side.” Now, that is brought about, as I say, by the new circumstances. This is one of those places where those of us who remember the Cold War are immediately stuck by similarities. There were troubles all over the world so long as it was known that NATO was on one side and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact was on the other. All kinds of places that neither had any interest in would call when they were in a war or some kind of a fight in their own places, Africa for instance, they would go to one side or the other and say “help us, or we will seek help from your enemy.” That confronted each side with a hard problem. I don’t give a damn about what happens in country X, you might say, but I do not want the Russians there and vice versa. This is the kind of problem that one sees in this situation.
Chapter 3. Athens Faces a Critical Decision [00:23:37]
So, the Athenians were confronted by an extremely tough decision. I want to try to communicate to you my sense of how difficult the calls are in this situation. Now, one natural reaction would be this, it seems to me. Why in the world should we accept this defection from the Peloponnesian league, because it is bound to anger the Spartans and very likely bring us a war with the Peloponnesians, which is a very hard thing to face? What do we care about the quarrel between Megara and Corinth? The opposite assumptions would be, no we don’t care about who wins the quarrel between Corinth and Megara, but we do care about having Megara on our side, because if we control Megara, if the Megarians are on our side — Megara is situated on the side of the isthmus right next to Athens. More than that, there is a mountain range that runs through Megara that makes it very difficult for somebody to make his way through that territory, if they are opposed by military force. In short, with the help of the Megarians, the Athenenians could cut off access to Athens and probably for the most part to central Greece to the Spartans.
Let me put it more sharply. The Athenians could feel invulnerable to a Spartan attack, if they could control Megara. Now, they would have to know that if they took this offer, it might bring a war with Sparta. But there would have been plenty of Athenians, who would have thought that is going to happen anyway. The only question before us is, “do we want to have a war with Sparta on these wonderfully positive conditions, or do we want to fight in the old way in which we have no way to stop the Spartans from marching into our territory and destroying our field” and in fact defeating us, because the Athenians as yet had not built walls, connecting Athens to the port of Piraeus. So, the Spartans could cut off the Athenians from their port, just by invading their territory. And as we know the Athenians do not produce enough food to feed themselves.
So, these would be the thoughts that were going through the minds of the Athenians. Notice, the critical element in your decision, it seems to me, is your prediction about what is likely in the future. If you think there really is not danger of a war with Sparta, why bring it on. But if you think there is a real danger of a war with Sparta, why leave yourself vulnerable to the Spartans. Whichever call you make, there are dangers and uncertainties at the other end, which I simply say, welcome to the real world. It is almost always that way. And it is a beautiful lesson in how real those hard decisions are. Well, the Athenian decision was to take Megara into the Athenian alliance and to take the dangers that went with that. And to make their task easier, they built long walls connecting the city of Megara with the port of Nicea on the Saronic Gulf, which is where Athens is located as well and also to gain control of the town of Pegai, which is on the — I guess I would say — the northern side of the isthmus and to fortify and put forces between there. In other words, to build a barrier to Spartan capacity to move into Attica. That was the great gain that they made of it.
One of the great prices they paid; Thucydides says this in his own voice, this he says was the beginning of Corinthian hatred for Athens. It is a fact, if you look at Corinthian and Athenian relations in the past — we don’t know a lot about them, but what we know suggests that they were not unfriendly. They did okay, no problems really between them, but from now on you’re going to have tremendous trouble with Corinth, and this as you know from reading your Thucydides in the textbook — Corinth will play a critical role in 431 in bringing on the Peloponnesian War that is the Great War. So, that was one of the prices the Athenians paid for this decision.
Now, if you apply Thucydides’ judgment to the great Peloponnesian War and apply it to this situation, it seems to me to ring very, very true. He said, you remember, that the growing power of the Athenians caused fear among the Spartans and led them — forced them to work. Well, there’s no question that the Athenian power has grown. These alliances that they have just made and this new geo-political advantage they have gained through their alliance with Megara suddenly make Athens much more formidable, and there’s no question that the Spartans become fearful about that, and ultimately as we shall see, fearful enough to join in a war against the Athenians. So, I agree with Thucydides, if you’re talking about the First Peloponnesian War, but that’s not what he’s talking about.
One great question that I would like to confront when we get to the big war is “does it work?” Does his evaluation work for the big war? I should warn you at once that most scholars throughout the years have accepted Thucydides’ explanation and interpretation of the great Peloponnesian War, and I don’t. So be careful. He was there, he knows much more about it than I do, and he’s much smarter than I am. So, if I say he’s wrong, I better have a good case; that’s all I can say.
Chapter 4. Multiple Battles [00:30:31]
We need not say very much about the war in detail. Essentially, the Athenians took the initiative and in a general way when they fought battles at sea they won, when they fought battles on land they didn’t. No great battles were fought for a couple of years; the fighting took place in and around the eastern Peloponnesus for the most part and nothing decisive happened. Then we get down towards the year 457 — I keep warning you that the dates here are uncertain. These are sort of consensus dates although we don’t have certainty. The Athenians received an invitation from a ruler in Egypt who wanted to launch a rebellion against the Persian Empire, and he invited the Athenians to send a force to help. The Athenians agreed to do it and according to Thucydides they sent a fleet of two hundred ships for the purpose. That’s an enormous fleet up to this point. The Athenians by now have a fleet that’s bigger than that, and they can afford to do it, but I want you to understand this is a major undertaking.
Now, why did they do it? They do it because the opportunities in Egypt are tremendous. Egypt is the greatest grain grower in the Mediterranean area and we know the Athenians are always interested in sources of grain, but Egypt is fantastically wealthy, because of its great fertility. So, the Athenians if they can gain a share of that wealth will of course profit from that. Finally, the Athenians are still officially at war with Persia. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to try to strip the Persians of possibly their richest profits. All of those things make their decision understandable.
Now, on the other hand, you might ask the question now you know you’re engaged in a war with various Peloponnesians and that although the Spartans haven’t taken any action yet, you can expect some from them, is this a great time for you to tackle yet another war against the Persians? Well, they thought so, and I think it’s evidence of the tremendous confidence that the Athenians had acquired by this time, and as we shall see, it was over confidence. Of course, this whole story fits beautifully into Greek feelings, Greek ideas, Greek religion and mythology. This will be a beautiful example, if Herodotus were writing the history instead of a very, very — I want to say atheistic Thucydides. I’m not sure he was an atheist but he was certainly very, very skeptical. Herodotus would have been talking about hubris all over the place, because that’s the kind of a situation that we have.
Well, let’s forget about that Athenian force in Egypt for the time being and let’s look at what the situation is in the year 457. We have a wonderful piece of evidence, rare piece of evidence, actually an inscription from that year which is a part of a dedication, a funeral dedication, from a single Athenian tribe in which they list the war dead from their tribe by where they fought and died and they’re proud of this. I mean, of course, they’re proud of the heroism of their men, but they’re proud I think also about the range of places that they’re fighting, unheard of, unexampled in all of Greek history — Egypt, Phoenicia, Halias, which is a town in the northeastern Peloponnesus, Aegina the great island that sits in the Saronic Gulf opposite Athens, Aegina being a great traditional enemy of Athens and Megara, of course, as you know.
So, here they are fighting battles in all of these places at the same time. It’s a kind of an ape man pounding on his chest to show how great he was. A piece of arrogance, you might say, calling for vengeance by the gods, but no vengeance came right away, instead another victory. Aegina, the island of Aegina, was taken by the Athenians. Aegina had been a great naval power. So, here was a naval power taken away from the enemy and added to the Athenian side. They now have without question, although they’ve had it really before, command of the seas. Nobody can withstand them at sea and they now have complete security from their northwestern frontier because of the Megarian alliance and that’s not all that happened.
Finally, moved, I would guess, in part by seeing all of this happening and worrying desperately about the growing power of Athens, Sparta took action. I think they were moved specifically — the critical element that was an opportunity presented to them by a small region in central Greece called Doris. It’s the root of the word Dorian. This is theoretically the ancestral home of all Dorians. So, they obviously had friendly relations with the Spartans. The Dorians were having trouble with some of their neighbors, one of the standard quarrels between neighbors in the Greek city state world, and they asked the Spartans to send a force up to help them. I’m not sure, if the Spartans would have done so in the normal course of events, because it does mean that they have to get up to central Greece.
When you think about that, given what the Athenians have done in Megara, they can’t do it in the usual way by walking. The only way they can get up there is by getting on boats and sailing across the Corinthian Gulf, but if the Athenians or those helots who are occupying Naupactus are aware of that, they could very well be taken at sea and have their army destroyed as that fleet is sunk. They have to sneak across if they’re going to go that way. I want you to understand how unlikely is that undertaking in a normal situation, but what I think makes it not so normal is something that Diodorus of Sicily tells this, that Thucydides doesn’t mention, which is at that moment the Thebans, the leading city of Boeotia, which had ambitions of its own, always wanting to gain complete control of Boeotia and always having some Boeotian cities hold out against them, they saw the opportunity to get the Spartans to help them out.
So, they told the Spartans that if they would come and assist them in gaining control of Boeotia, the Boeotians would join them in an attack on Athens, and so I think it was that that made it possible for the Spartans to agree and to act. They do so; they take an army much more than they need to deal with the Dorian problem, they slap that down right away, and then what do you know, they come marching down to the Athenian frontier with Boeotia to a town or a place near a town called Tanagra. The Spartans, of course, were able to sneak across the Gulf of Corinth. You may ask, why were the Athenians and the helots so sleepy? It never occurred to them, is what I say, that the Spartans would ever do a thing like that and so there they were.
A battle is then fought and we’re talking about large forces now. The Spartans send 11,000 men and that’s a very big — they don’t have 11,000 of their own. Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies go up there, and now they are put together with Boeotian forces. Boeotians are very good fighters. The Athenians send their army out to the frontier to meet them, the greater part of the Athenian army. This is a very big battle by Greek standards and the result is almost a standoff. The Spartans technically win. That means that they were able to command the field after the fighting was over, put up a trophy, and collect their own dead. The Athenians of course were required to come and ask them for permission to collect their dead, so there wasn’t any question if you follow the rules of hoplite warfare at the time who won; the Spartans won.
But if we think of it from the standpoint of warfare and you ask about what were the strategic consequences of the battle, that’s how today we would say who won that battle. It was a standoff, and I guess you could say the Athenians won because the purpose of the Spartans was to defeat the Athenians and to compel them to abandon all the things that they were doing and had done, and in this they failed, because they had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting and were not in a position to renew the battle and to force the Athenians back or to crush the Athenians in fighting. The Spartans simply marched back into the Peloponnesus; the Athenians were in no condition to stop them. So that was that.
As one sees from what happens after that, it really looks more like a strategic victory for the Athenians, because now A) they have not been destroyed, they have not been defeated in any useful way, they have not been stopped in what they were doing and to prove it the Athenians take an army northward when the Spartans have withdrawn into Boeotia, defeat the Boeotian army at a place called Oenophyta, and the next thing you know, establish democratic governments in all the Boeotian cities which are friendly to Athens. I put it that way, but again a Cold War analogy strikes me as helpful here. In the same way as wherever the Soviet army was victorious, whatever land they occupied, there was a Communist government set up whose function was to be a tool of the Soviet Union. I don’t claim that that’s exactly what it was in the fifth century; this is a much more simple and less sophisticated world, but the general idea is the same. The guys who run those towns, they are partisans of Athens.
Athens, in other words, is the dominant force in Boeotia. Now, step back a moment, stand up there on the Acropolis in Athens and look around, and you will see a situation that is so splendid, it’s the kind of a thing almost any nation would want as its ideal situation. If you look to the north you’re safe; there can be no invasion through Boeotia for the reasons I’ve just said. If you look to the northwest Megara, an ally of yours, your forces are in there in part, but you have that area blocked off. There is no way, and of course now that you know that the Spartans can take boats across the Corinthian Gulf you’ll see to it that that never happens again. The Spartans and their allies are bottled up in the Peloponnesus. The sea is controlled completely by you.
I’ve also neglected to mention that the Athenians have just now concluded the building of long walls connecting Athens with Piraeus. So, even if somehow, hard to imagine as it is, the Spartans got into Attica the Athenians need not fight them and need not give way to them, because nobody knows how to take walled cities very well anymore and the Spartans never learn how to do it. So, if you look at it from that point of view, until somebody invents an airplane, Athens is absolutely invulnerable and they still have 2,000 years before anybody invents an airplane so this is an amazing moment where you could readily think we are invulnerable, we are safe, and we can do what we like with impunity. I think this is a very important moment in Athenian and in Greek history. I think then there were Athenians who never got over remembering that’s what we achieved, that’s what we can achieve, and that’s what we must aim for in all future circumstances.
We get into the Peloponnesian War and there will come moments when it seems possible that the Athenians can make a negotiated peace with the Spartans that’s okay in the war, and they turn it down, I think Thucydides and others suggest that they’re just out of their minds. Maybe they are, but they have something they can focus on, a memory of how it once was and how it might be again. Well, the gods are not going to put up with this; you and I know that. The Athenians suffer a terrible reverse that begins to undermine their situation.
Chapter 5. Reversal of Fortune [00:45:16]
In Egypt there is a terrible disaster; they lose. The Persians defeat them; there’s a great argument about how many ships they lose but whatever it is they lose a lot. They lose a strategically significant number. The disaster is so great as to cause a whole rash of rebellions in the Delian League or the Athenian Empire, or whatever you want to call it, and the Athenians will be occupied with trying to put down these rebellions for some time. By the way, the probable date of this defeat is probably around 455, because it’s in the following year, and this date is a good date, 454-453 that the Athenians decide to move the treasury of the league from Delos to Athens, up on the Acropolis in the back room of the Parthenon which they will be building very shortly.
Another important point about that is up to now all money put into the league treasury was being used for supporting the navy and ostensibly for league purposes, usually for league purposes, but as we know the Athenians could also use it for their own purposes like they did at Thasos, but still only for ships and men. Now the Athenians institute a new policy, and I think whatever you think about anything before this, when the Athenians do what I’m about to describe, they surely have made this an empire, no longer anything like a voluntary confederacy, because they take one sixtieth of what is put into the treasury every year as a donation to Athena, which is another way of saying to Athens. They are now collecting a profit, a tax from the league members which they, as we shall see — there will be an argument about how this money is to be used. They will argue it’s our money; we can use it any way we want to.
So, two things are going on in two different directions and all the trouble that they have in the league, it leads them however to change the character of the league in a very significant way. Well, things are so difficult, the problem of fighting the Spartans now is so serious that the Athenians recall Cimon because they would like to make peace with the Spartans and they know Cimon is just the man to do it as no one else can. So, he comes back — well, I should back up a second. There was some talk about Cimon coming back earlier but he certainly comes back in 451, because his ten years of ostracism are over, and it’s now that he negotiates a five-years truce with the Spartans, with the understanding that the purpose of the truce is to allow negotiation to go forward to bring about a long term peace agreement between the two.
Cimon achieves that and to show you how ostracism can work he is immediately elected general. It’s as though he had never gone away, and being Cimon he immediately turns to an activity that’s a continuation of what he did before he left, namely, let’s go fight Persians. So, he takes a fleet and sails to Cyprus, part of which is in Persian hands, fights a battle against the Persians, defeats the Persians, but has the bad fortune to be killed. So, Cimon is now removed from the scene in Athens. I think this is a significant thing, because it means that the only individual politician, who had the kind of support, the kind of charisma, the kind of backing that could challenge the new important leader in Athens, Pericles, is gone. This helps explain why Pericles still at a relatively young age is able to become a person of unprecedented influence and power in the Athenian state.
It’s not that he takes to himself new constitutional powers or gets military guards or anything. Nothing changes except that he can count on persuading the assembly to do what he wants almost all the time, and there’s nobody out there for the moment, who looks like he can challenge him. We shall see that shortly that he will meet an important challenge, but we’ll come back to that later on. But let’s go on with the story of the war. In 449, two years after the truce was negotiated, we find Sparta attacking the city of Phocis, the polis of Phocis, again up in central Greece. They must have — again, we don’t know how it was that they found their way up there, but they did find their way up there, and they took back control of the Delphic Oracle from the neighboring Phocians, who had — over the years they had frequently tried to gain control of the Delphic Oracle from the priest and it was on behalf of those priests that the Spartans fought. They defeated the Phocians and went home.
Two years later in 447, the Athenians send an army up there. The Athenians are allied to Phocis and they once again take back the Delphic Oracle and give it over to the Phocians. These are signals that the truce is not really working. That the two sides are not finding a way to live together peacefully for the future, and sure enough, in the year 446 a series of events occurs that upsets the peace and the balance that the Greek world had found temporarily. First of all, there is an oligarchic rebellion throughout the cities of Boeotia and, of course, they drive out the pro-Athenian democratic regimes and suddenly Boeotia is a hostile place, no longer a friendly place, one from which the Athenians can expect trouble. There’s a big argument in Athens as to what should we do. Pericles says, let’s not do anything, we really can’t afford to engage in ground campaigns against serious opponents. We tried it, but we can’t keep Boeotia, we’ll just have to let the Boeotians go.
Against him was a general, an Athenian general — sometimes I’m astonished by the names that crop up in Athenian history. You wouldn’t dare do it; you wouldn’t invest names like this if you were writing a novel, because people would laugh. This guy’s name is Tolmades; it comes from the Greek verb tolmao which means to be bold, to be daring; that’s what he is – bold and daring. He marches an army into Boeotia to get the place back for the Athenians. In other words, he defeated Pericles on this issue, because he couldn’t do that without getting the assembly’s approval. But the Athenians must have been mad too and said, let’s go beat those Boeotians up and force them back into our control. Tolmades runs into a terrific defeat, suffers extremely heavy casualties by anybody’s standards and Boeotia is lost for good. The battle, by the way, in which Tolmades is killed in the Battle of Coronea.
Athens is now driven from central Greece and that glorious picture I painted for you has been marred by a hostile force on the northern enemy. But that isn’t all that’s happened. Seeing that the Athenians were troubled, were weak, were vulnerable, and can be beaten, suddenly all of the unhappy folks that were around took advantage of the opportunity. On the island of Euboea to the east of Attica, there is a rebellion. This is really deadly even from Pericles point of view. He cannot permit rebellions in the empire on islands; it threatens the control of the sea. It’s not just that he can’t have Euboea be independent; he cannot let rebels in your empire succeed because it encourages other rebellions, and they’ve just been through that. They’ve had to fight their way through a whole rash of rebellions after the defeat in Egypt.
So, Pericles personally takes an army and sends it, takes it, I should say, to Euboea and while he is gone with his army off in Euboea, remember with Boeotia now hostile, there is a rebellion in Megara. This alliance with Megara was always a very iffy thing. We should remember two things about the past. One is that Megara and Athens have been bitter enemies for centuries; so, the alliance was an unnatural one, the product of momentary agreement. But there would certainly have always been lots of Megarians, who were against it, and so seeing an opportunity these guys would have moved. And the other thing is that the Athenians were, of course, being distracted and their forces were sent off someplace else. So, now Pericles realizes how dangerous this is, because if Megara succeeds in the rebellion which it does, now they have no protection from a Spartan invasion which they need to expect and that is indeed what happens.
Chapter 6. The Four Months Truce and Subsequent Thirty Years Peace [00:56:17]
Pericles, having put down the Euboean rebellion adequately, races back to Athens to meet the Peloponnesian army when it invades, and then we have this extraordinary event in the plains to the north of Attica. Spartans invade, Pericles leads the Athenian army out to meet them. This is the scenario for an Athenian defeat, because the numbers of the Peloponnesians are likely to be greater and their reputation as a superior fighting force has some merit. We’ve seen that it’s not going to be a walk over, we’ve seen that the Athenians are capable of putting up one hell of a fight, but they can expect not to win, is the way I see it. So, they are facing each other, and the battle is about to happen, when all of a sudden a delegation comes out from the Spartan army. Pericles goes out to meet them, they have a little conversation, they all go back to their armies, the Spartans led by their King Pleistoanax who was the guy who was confirmed with Pericles, and marched their army back home to Sparta.
They declare that they have agreed upon a four-months truce for the purpose of negotiating a permanent peace. What in the world is going on here? Well, the Spartans receive the news in a complicated way. The first reaction is fury against Pleistoanax. Why didn’t you clobber those Athenians when you had them finally sticking their heads out there for battle? They finally take action against him and against his advisor, a certain Clearidas and send them off to exile, so angry are they at this lost opportunity. But after all, if that’s all there was to it, there was nothing to stop them from marching into Attica again, and either fighting against the Athenians, or at least doing terrible harm to the farms and the houses of the Athenians out in the country, which at the very least, would make the Athenians unhappy and might force them to come out and fight. Why didn’t they do that? But they didn’t, and I think that’s evidence — well, it’s evidence of two things. There was a very special opportunity that Pleistoanax had lost, namely, everything was falling apart on all fronts in Athens at the moment when the battle was available.
On the other hand that’s now — they’ve been put down. Euboea is quiet and the Athenians have adjusted to everything else. Still what I said in the first place is still true, they could come in and force that fight if they want to. Why didn’t they? I think the answer is because Pericles had convinced Pleistoanax of something that was essentially true and that the Spartans when they had time to cool down could see that there was some reason for doing this, and it was this. What happens if we fight? Look we only fought each other a little while ago and what happened then? Well, you beat us, but you didn’t clobber us. You took a lot of casualties, and you weren’t able to exploit it. That is even truer today than it was then, because if you defeat us, what will we do? We’ll run back to our walls, we’ll go through our gates, and you won’t be able to lay a pinky on us, and we don’t have to fight you if we don’t want to, because we own the fleet that dominates the sea.
We have the money from our allies that pays for the fleet. As long as we have control of the sea you can ravage our country all you want to. We can get all the grain we need through imports. So, what are you going to do then? You’ll have taken casualties for nothing and you still won’t be able to compel us to do what you want. I think that’s the argument that Pericles must have given to Pleistoanax. Pleistoanax’s whole career suggests he was not a man eager for war and he was glad to have that opportunity to avoid it. But remember, the Spartans could have overdone that, and they didn’t. I think it shows you that this was an argument that had some reality and had some appeal. So, that four-month truce was successful. It led to the negotiation a peace between Athens on behalf of its allies and Sparta on behalf of its allies, the thirty-years peace which is concluded over the winter of 446 - 445.
The arrangements of that peace are that Athens would give up all of its holdings on the continent that is to say outside the Aegean Sea, except Naupactus, which they would continue to leave in the hands of the helots. In tacit recognition, nobody formally did it, but the point is they let the Athenian allies be included in the Athenian decision that meant the Spartans granted, recognized, the legitimacy of the Athenian Empire. Then they had a few rules meant to prevent the outbreak of war in the future, and like most of these peace treaties, who decide to try to prevent war in the future, they basically looked back to how this war started and try to prevent this war happening again. For instance, this war came about because the ally of one side changed sides to the other; that was forbidden under the new treaty.
Somebody must have thought, yeah right, but what if there’s a neutral state that wants to go from one side to the other, and what if that state had a significant strategic importance, wouldn’t that test the peace at all or would it? They concluded it wouldn’t, because they said neutrals were free to join either side. So, in other words, if a neutral joined one side, nobody could say okay that’s a cause for war because it wasn’t. Finally, the most remarkable, and I believe original, absolutely original idea of its kind ever. I don’t believe there’s ever a time in history that we have a record of such a thing being present. I’m talking about a clause in the treaty, which provided that if in the future there were any disagreements between the two signatories, any complaints that they had against one another, these must be submitted to an arbitrator for a decision.
Remember, I’m not talking about a mediator who says, “let’s talk it over boys.” I’m talking about an arbitrator who has the right and responsibility to say, “you’re right,” “you’re wrong,” or some version of such a thing. If that clause had been adhered to, it’s only a matter of logic that says there could never be a war between these two sides. It’s an amazing idea, and I’m going to claim with no proof — I’ll be doing this again and again for a while, I think this is Pericles’ idea. Because I mean everything that I’m going to point to that’s so unusual and unheard of before Pericles is involved with it, and I think he just had that kind of mind, very inventive, ready to find new ways to meet old problems. I think this was his notion and I’m convinced it was his determination that this would be the case that in the future there would not be a settlement of differences by the threat of war, but by arbitration that helps explain the very determined position he will take in 431. This is very important.
I don’t know how much the Spartans felt that way or knew about what was going to happen, obviously they didn’t, but they bought it. That’s the treaty; the two sides swear to it and for thirty years they must adhere to these provisions. That is the thirty-years peace and I think we need to evaluate it to get at this argument I’m engaged with Thucydides that you’re listening in on. That is, there are peaces and there are peaces. They’re not all the same. I, for my own purposes, have come up with I think three categories of peace and want to suggest which one this belongs in.
There is such a thing as a — people have spoken of the First World War the — I’m sorry the Peace of Versailles was often referred to by its critics as a Punic peace. They’re talking about the peace — they think they’re talking about the peace that concluded the second Punic War with Hannibal, but no; they’re talking about the third Punic War in which the peace was the City of Carthage was destroyed. The Carthaginians were driven away, those who were not killed. The fields were plowed up and salt put in the furrows, so they thought nobody could grow anything there again. That’s a Punic peace and there’s something to be said for a Punic peace. You’ll never have a war again with that country, because it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s one extreme.
At the other extreme is where, I suppose, the winning side can impose a harsh peace, but chooses to impose a gentle peace in the hope that in the future they will have friendly relations with the other side, and so they trust the other side, even though it’s not destroyed, to be good. There are such examples of such things. They’re usually a case where the defeated side has been so weakened that it’s highly unlikely in the future that they will be a problem.
Then there’s a kind of a — let me back up a step. Then there’s the kind of a peace that people say was represented by the peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe in which arrangements are made — nobody has actually been defeated. There is no clear-cut winner; there are no just plain losers. Everybody has fought so long and the cost has been so great that they decided we can’t hold out for victory. We got to cut the best deal we can. Such a peace depends — it may work, it may not, it depends upon circumstances in the future that are very hard to predict.
Then we come to what I think is probably the worst kind of peace. One example of it is the peace that the Prussians imposed upon the French in 1870, after the Franco-Prussian War in which the big issue was they took Alsace-Lorraine from the French and annexed it to Germany, but at the same time they did not so harm France that France could never again be a menace. But they could be sure that for the foreseeable future, and who knows maybe forever, the French would be angry and dissatisfied and determined to recover Alsace-Lorraine, even if it meant war. That was true, to a degree, although we need to be aware that the best evidence we have is that by 1914 the French actually had pretty well given up on Alsace-Lorraine, although people kept talking as though that’s why the French went to war, but wasn’t true. But also there, of course, there were Frenchmen who did believe that way, but on balance it probably wasn’t so.
I suppose the best example of that unsatisfactory peace though is the peace that ended the First World War, the Peace of Versailles, where the Germans were treated very harshly, in their own opinion, although much harsher solutions were available that were rejected, but also they lost a lot of territory and had a lot of restrictions put upon them, but also there was no permanent harm that guaranteed that Germany would not be able, when it recovered from the war, to reverse that decision. That is the same kind of thing, terrible situation in which the defeated power is totally dissatisfied with the peace and is in a condition down the road to be strong enough to break it. Now, where does the thirty-years peace fit in here? The closest analogy, in my opinion, is Westphalia.
I think that the two sides had both found this a very unpleasant, uncomfortable war, producing dangers and risks that neither had ever anticipated, and that the forces who were in control at the time that the peace was made felt it just wasn’t worth having a fight to the finish for the gains that could be made. So, this is the key thing. If that is true, then peace was possible. Then the Peloponnesian War that follows is not inevitable. Scholars argue still did Thucydides say it was inevitable? I think he did; most scholars do. Some people think not, but whatever he may have said that is certainly a view many a scholar has taken. So I’m saying no, and the reason I’m saying that is — first of all because of the facts I’ve just laid out before you, but I think also this is important, so much depends not only on objective conditions but on intention.
This is one place where historians differ typically from political scientists. Political scientists like to have everything — what’s the word I want? Not having to do with human intention in any case. They had to be automatic; they like to be systemic. That’s what they like. Nations are billiard balls. You can’t look inside them; they’re not made up of people. They’re not even made up of factions or parties. The state does what it has to do because of the place on the pool table where it is located. Historians like to ask what were these guys interested in, what did they want, what were they afraid of, who were they made at? That’s the way proper historians — it’s true that proper historians are harder and harder to find.
Too many sort of political scientists hidden among the historians. But a key question to whether this peace rather would last has to do with, in my opinion, with these human questions. How do the players really feel about it? Do they see it as this is the way that it’s going to be, we want it to be peaceful or are they just accepting it because they can’t avoid it? Well, I think the evidence suggests that the people who made the treaty certainly were persuaded that peace was better than war, and they would like to bind their hands to some degree to make it harder for a war to come out. Pericles, I think, will prove that by the time we get a chance to examine his behavior in 431, but I think it was the peace party, and there are parties in Sparta as I’ve told you before, that group of people who typically was conservative and reluctant to risk what they had already for what they might gain in future warfare, and I believe that they were the normal party in Sparta, and this is all debatable, but I think that that’s the normal situation in Sparta.
To break the peace you need for that situation to be undone by something and events, opportunities, fears, chances to succeed have to fall into place in a certain way to break that. So, what I’m telling you is, from my point of view, it’s not at all clear that there needs to be another war. Well, anybody who says that has the obligation of examining why did the war break out? Why did the peace fail? And that’s what I will turn to next. I will examine the years between 445 and 431 in which the peace is tested to see whether it really had any viability before it failed. We’ll have a look at that next time.
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