Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

And now for the (in)famous Peloponnesian War, recounted in such (dull) detail by Thucydides.  It was supposedly said of the great Athenian tragic poets that Sophocles portrayed human nature as it should be, and Euripides portrayed human nature as it is.  Something similar can be said of their contemporaries, the great historians.  Herodotus portrayed the Greeks as they should have been, and Thucydides as they were.  Herodotus tells the heroic story of sovereign and independent city states standing together for their mutual liberty against the Persian Empire.  Athens is a bright shining beacon of freedom and democracy, inspiring to all.  Sparta is a land of brave and honorable warriors who will fight to the last rather than yield.  Together they overcome the odds and turn back the vastly greater Persian forces.

Then you turn to Thucydides and learn that sovereign and independent city-states are forever at war with each other, habitually treacherous in their alliances, always undermining and subverting each other, and riddled with traitors eager to open the gates to the enemy.  The Athenians are a bunch of imperialist warmongers, trampling on the liberties of weaker city-states, and treating anyone who defies them with appalling cruelty and brutality.  The mighty Spartan war machine is vastly overrated, constantly weakened by domestic security problems, and exists mostly to hold down the helots, who it treats with appalling cruelty and brutality.

And then you turn back to Herodotus and realize that you can see all the same things there as well.

The Athenian Empire
Thucydides portrays the war as being strictly a power struggle between the two strongest city-states and downplays the ideological nature of the war, but it doesn't take too long for the ideological nature to come out.  Athens sought to install democracies in its allies; Sparta sought to install oligarchies. Thus the international war between the great powers occurred side by side with civil wars in many of the contested cities, with a pro-Athenian democratic faction and a pro-Spartan oligarchic faction.  And, of course, everyone was prepared to set aside ideological principles when self-interest was at stake.  Certainly I recall from my high school and college freshman history classes that it was a war between a land power (Sparta) and a naval power (Athens).  Not so much emphasized -- when a land power and a sea power contest an empire that essentially consists of islands and a ring around the sea, the naval power has a natural advantage because of its greater mobility.  Cities chafing under Athenian domination and calling on Sparta to liberate them had a problem on their hands.  Aside from the dubious nature of Sparta as liberator, what sort of aid could it offer with no way to reach them? Another point not much emphasized -- city walls and defenses at the time were strong enough that cities were rarely stormed by force.  When a city was conquered, it was usually blockaded and starved into submission, or else traitors within opened the gates.

It is right that I should describe the Peloponnesian War because it ultimately (at least temporarily) brought down Athenian democracy.  However, I will go into more detail than necessary because I am still struggling to understand the war myself.  By way of advice, I would recommend that anyone wanting to read Thucydides have a map handy. He makes no sense unless you can actually see those places he is talking about.  A shorter outline of the war is also useful.  These following posts are my attempt to present maps and outlines in an attempt to make the war comprehensible -- first and foremost to myself.

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