An ancient war and a modern question: Why?

Peter Green is the author of "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age," and is the Dougherty centennial professor of classics emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and adjunct professor of classics, University of Iowa.

About 2 1/2 millenniums ago, a couple of small Greek states (neither much bigger than Rhode Island) lurched into war with each other. Fifty years before that, they had been uneasy allies against Xerxes’ Persian invasions (480-479 BC). Sparta, located in the Peloponnese (the not-quite-island that forms southern Greece, attached to the northern mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth), was a nation of ferocious and privileged militarist landowners. Athens, northeast of the isthmus on the Saronic Gulf, had, in the years before the Persian Wars, developed a limited popular democracy. During the war it was the mass members of this Athenian demos -- shipbuilders, dockyard workers, chandlers, captains, rowers -- who crewed the new fast warships (triremes) that broke the back of Xerxes’ fleet at Salamis.

Two less likely chalk-and-cheese allies, forced together by harsh necessity, could hardly be imagined. Not surprisingly, almost the moment the Persian threat receded, cracks appeared in the wartime alliance. Themistocles, the Athenian architect of naval victory, wanted to burn the Spartan fleet. Aristocratic pro-Spartans in Athens nixed the proposal in horror; but they nevertheless went along with a scheme to form Athens’ own separate league, mostly of islanders and East Aegean cities, that would contribute ships or cash to defend against any Persian aggression. Themistocles also, against strong Spartan objections, encircled Athens with a strong city wall.

This new Delian League (so called because its treasury was originally on the island of Delos) contained the seeds of Athens’ speedy transformation into a naval empire. Human nature being what it is, most members, except for large and powerful islands like Lesbos, preferred to pay cash (in effect protection money) rather than contribute ships: a notorious recipe for vulnerability. This infusion of capital, combined with its highly productive silver mines, gave Athens a taste for imperial expansion. Till shortly before 460 BC, its pro-Spartan conservatives had been in power. But now their leader Cimon was exiled, the power of the old-fashioned Areopagus Council was gutted and the naval group, led by Pericles and with strong populist support, took over. It was, almost certainly, now (462-461 on the evidence, and not, as conventional wisdom has argued, in 454) that the Delian treasury was shifted to Athens for its imperial enhancement.

What followed was an explosion of military and naval activity, not only at home but also far afield in the eastern Mediterranean, where up to 200 triremes were deployed against Cyprus, Phoenicia and Persian-held Egypt. In the early 450s, Athenian generals moved north of Attica into Boeotia. Strong efforts were made to establish control over the Gulf of Corinth and find an overland route across the isthmus as an alternative to the one controlled by Corinth itself. At some point (the date is much debated) a standoff peace was concluded with Achaemenid Persia. None of this, it should be noted, directly threatened Sparta. On the other hand, it was all enormously expensive and involved huge losses of manpower. A population explosion and imperial tribute underwrote these ventures, but why were they undertaken at all?

In any case, they soon unraveled, one after another. The territory gained in Boeotia was lost. Megara abandoned its alliance with Athens. The Egyptian expedition collapsed ignominiously under Persian pressure, though its losses were not as disastrous as is often alleged. Athens signed a peace treaty with Sparta and its allies as well as with Persia. Each side was left free to coerce its own subordinates as it saw fit: Sparta to hold down its slave population and Messenian serfs, Athens to take military action against its rebellious “subject-allies.” All this activity was exactly conterminous with the high noon of the Periclean Age: the drama, the philosophizing, the moral debates and, above all, the flowering of great imperial architecture. The Parthenon was begun in 447 BC and completed in 433-32, with, as Mary Beard puts it, “Pheidias playing Michelangelo to Pericles’ Pope Julius II (or, let’s face it, Speer to Pericles’ Hitler).”


During the same period Athens, having given up on Egypt, had begun investigating the rich territories of Sicily and South Italy. (Again, why?) It was also so desperate to force Megara back into alliance that it banned Megarian trade from every port in its empire, an embargo which (if we can believe Aristophanes) reduced the Megarians to near-starvation. This was among the main causes cited for the war fought against Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies: a war that began in 431 BC and dragged on for no less than 27 years, destabilizing the Greek states, breaking the bubble of Athens’ imperial pride, ushering in an age of mercenaries and witnessing, in Donald Kagan’s words, “a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life.” That alone would make it worth studying.

Yet a huge question mark still hangs over the motives of the war’s protagonists. Sparta believed, and the war’s chronicler Thucydides agrees, that it was the growth of Athenian sea power, and the fear this engendered, that led to war. But what was Athens after in that crucial half century (the so-called Pentekontaetia, or 50-year period) between the Persian invasion and the showdown with the Spartan alliance? There is a seemingly lunatic inconsequentiality about much of its campaigning. How far can it all be accounted for by imperial hubris and the cultural kick derived from setting up as an “education to Hellas” (Pericles’ words as reported by Thucydides) on the solid basis of populist support, a strong navy and productive silver mines?

When we look at our sources, the crushingly dominant role of Thucydides in shaping the record is at once apparent. Down to 411 BC, at which point his history breaks off unfinished, this contemporary witness provides a detailed year-by-year narrative. He also briefly surveys the Pentekontaetia and lays out his principles of operation. These can be summed up under the heads of thoroughness, objectivity, impartiality: the careful debriefing and comparison of witnesses, the reporting of speeches, the eschewal of effects aimed at mere entertainment. Reading him, we also note that his masculine world ignores women, his religious attitude is skeptical, and his thorny style betrays the influence of fashionable rhetoricians.

The influence he has exerted on all modern historiography is enormous. As Kagan says, his text is “hailed for its wisdom about the nature of war, international relations, and mass psychology. It has also come to be regarded as a foundation stone of historical method and political philosophy.” Think tanks still use him today. His mordant comments on the collapse of moral terminology under the pressure of civil anarchy are widely compared with George Orwell’s concepts of newspeak and doublethink. Perhaps through the cumulative effect of such historical canonization, Thucydides has acquired, and retains, a status among classicists accorded to no other historian in the ancient world, to the point where his evidence often outweighs the dictates of common sense.

In many ways this is surprising, as a close look at the man himself suggests. Thucydides’ family was connected with Cimon’s, and it would thus have been natural for him to have conservative, aristocratic, pro-Spartan sympathies. Elected a general during the early years of the war, he was too slow to stop the Spartan general Brasidas from capturing Amphipolis, a key city controlling the timber trade from Macedonia and the rich gold mines of Pangaeus. As a result he was cashiered and forced into exile. He draws a venomous portrait of Cleon, instrumental in his removal from office, and cannot find praise high enough for Brasidas, whom he portrays as an invincible force. The suspicion arises that he is penning a self-exculpatory apologia with a view to his own rehabilitation. We are also reminded that our evidence for his objectivity is based on his repeated assertion to that effect, enhanced by his referring to himself in the third person.

Nor is this all. Scholars have long found difficulty in explaining what he doesn’t: the list of significant omissions is substantial. It looks very much as though he thought, to begin with, that the first stage of the conflict, the so-called Archidamian War (named after the Spartan king who featured prominently in it), ended it all with the peace treaty of 421 BC. Then he found it hadn’t and needed to write a second introduction in Book V to take this into account. At first he also seems to have treated the disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415-413) as a separate event, only realizing a year or two into the third phase, the Ionian-Decelean War of 412-404, that it too was part of the overall picture. We don’t know how long he survived after Athens’ final defeat (two accounts have him murdered when returning home under a general amnesty), but he certainly never finished his magnum opus, which is not only incomplete but in various stages of revision.

To complicate matters still further, Thucydides shares the social prejudices of his class and age, chief among them an ingrained contempt for any association with trade and thus a disinclination to take adequate account of economic motivation, regarded as demeaning. To read Thucydides’ account of the war, one gets the impression that, his thesis of Athens’ imperial and maritime ambitions once granted, no further explanation is necessary, that fighting came as naturally to these people as crabs scrapping in a bucket, that historian Jacqueline de Romilly’s famous question -- when the fleets sailed from Piraeus, why did they go in one direction rather than another? -- needed only to be answered, if at all, in terms of military strategy and power politics.

No one writing the history of the Peloponnesian War today can afford to ignore the various historical enigmas sketched here, above all those with an economic basis. Yet at the same time it remains an inescapable truth that, like it or not, our efforts will always be, to a great extent, predetermined by Thucydides’ version of events. This was certainly true of the four masterly monographs, combining sharp analysis with dramatic narrative, that Kagan devoted to the war between 1969 and 1987, and from which his present account has been skillfully streamlined into one volume. He shows rather less uncritical approval for Thucydides than he once did, and a generation of scholarship has at many points modified his views; but what he gives us is still, in essence, a Thucydidean narrative, which provides the best account now available of the course of hostilities.

What is largely missing from his book is a satisfying in-depth explanation of underlying causes, the great Why of improbable events like the expeditions to Egypt and Sicily. We get the drama of debate, the clash of battle, the final ironic infusion of Persian gold that enabled Sparta to triumph; but at the end that great question mark still remains. A good case can in fact be made for Athens’ actions having been driven by a frantic quest for secure sources of the grain and timber essential to its survival, but which it couldn’t produce itself (modern parallels with the control of oil markets suggest themselves). On the other hand -- as Beard correctly emphasizes in her sparkling, provocative and compulsively readable firecracker of a monograph -- the Parthenon, also paid for by the profits of empire, was enormously expensive, brought no immediate returns and was regarded as a hideous extravagance by the conservative opposition.

This grandiose project, part temple, part treasury, was from the start primarily a symbol: of Athens’ wealth and imperial authority, of its autochthonous identification with, and embodiment of, the great goddess Pallas Athena. Beard also traces its subsequent fascinating metamorphoses: Christian cathedral, Turkish mosque, icon of the new Greek state and romantic Western philhellenes, its sculptures a target for high-minded looters. Unlike Kagan, Beard (perhaps because she’s primarily a Roman historian) never forgets the economic bottom line and displays a nice gritty realism that advocates of Hellenic sweetness and light sometimes lack. There are bits of the great Why we may never solve, and she says so; but for the rest, her witty and acerbic book conjures up a picture of ancient Athenians, their successors and the Westerners who spend their time (though they don’t put it quite like that) fantasizing about both, that is a welcome change from all the overdone romantic idealism.