From Hellas: A Short History of Classical Greek Civilization and Its Predecessors (1999)

by  G.B. Cobbold




i.                     Causes and Occasions


During the second half of the fifth century, the differences between Sparta and Athens became so exacerbated that, for a historian looking back, the war which eventually broke out between them seems to have been inevitable.  The most remote cause of war, outweighing the common culture, religion and language that they all shared, was the basic racial tension between the two populations. The Athenians (descendants, they claimed, of the hero Ion, who dated back even before the Mycenaeans) looked down on the people of the Peloponnese because they were Dorians, only recently arrived in Greece. This rivalry was then sharpened by the ideological opposition of the two systems of government: on the one hand, an isolationist oligarchy, allergic to change of any kind; on the other, an imperialistic democracy, where swift and innovative action by popular vote was always possible. And above all there was fear and suspicion: the Spartans were anxious that the Athenians might at any moment choose to disregard the Thirty Years' Peace of 446 BC and attack Sparta or any of her allies; the Corinthians angrily resented the competition of Athenian craftsmen and potters in the western Mediterranean. And it is possible that the Athenians' aggressive and arrogant policies were caused at root by an uneasy feeling that, if they were ever to let down their guard in any way, they might easily lose what they had got and what made them what they were.


In this atmosphere of mutual recrimination and provocation, somebody was bound to lose his temper; and the Peloponnesians and the Athenians both waited for the one last intolerable move by the other, for the match which one of them would light in the cellar full of gas. As it happened, the three incidents which occasioned war all involved Corinth, the city of all the Peloponnesians who probably hated Athens the most.


It happened that Corinth had long ago founded a colony on an island off the west coast of Greece, Corcyra; later Corinth and Corcyra together had founded another colony on the mainland, Epidamnus. Now (in 435 BC) Corinth and Corcyra found themselves supporting opposite sides in a civil war in Epidamnus, and Corcyra requested Athens to send naval help. Because Pericles did not wish to run the risk of Corinth defeating Corcyra and adding the Corcyraean navy to her own, he agreed to send a token force of ten triremes, with instructions to support the Corcyraeans but not, if possible, to clash with the Corinthians. The Athenian ships, following their instructions, did not take any significant part in the battle (433 BC) between Corcyra and Corinth, but their mere presence eventually persuaded the Corinthians to withdraw-leaving Athens with an important naval base on Corcyra.


In the next year the Corinthians in retaliation engineered a rebellion in Potidaea, a town in the northeast which happened to be both a member of the Delian League and a Corinthian colony. The Corinthians used the revolt which they had incited as an excuse to send volunteers to occupy Potidaea, intending it to become a base from which they might harass Athenian shipping on its way to the Black Sea. But Pericles reacted quickly, and after brief skirmishing, Potidaea, with the Corinthian volunteers inside it, was blockaded by an Athenian force by land and sea.


In the same year the Athenians snubbed and further angered Corinth by passing a decree which banned the merchant ships of Corinth's ally Megara from entering Piraeus or the ports of any Athenian ally. This measure probably did no damage to the Megarian economy, which depended very little on trade with Athens, but it has been suggested that its real point was to put a stop to the Megarians' spying on Athenian naval dispositions throughout the Aegean, and relaying the information to members of the Peloponnesian alliance.


ii.                   The Ultimatum


Only the Megarian decree could strictly be seen as a breach of the Thirty Years' Peace by Athens. Corcyra was not listed in the terms of the treaty as an ally of either side, and Potidaea was an Athenian ally against whom Corinth, although perhaps provoked, had technically struck the first blow.

Nevertheless, war was not far off. Corinth accused the Athenians of breaking the treaty and, in order to stiffen up the Spartans' will to resist, forced a conference in Sparta. The Corinthians accused the Spartans of being excessively cautious in their reaction to Athenian imperialism, and their remarks were recorded by an Athenian historian named Thucydides, who was born about 455 BC and had grown up during the years of the empire's greatest success:


You are responsible for this state of affairs. You let the Athenians rebuild their fortifications after the Persian wars, and then put up their Long Walls... Of all the Greeks, you Spartans do the least: your idea of defending yourselves is always to intend to do something, but in fact to do nothing. You are the ones who fail to strike at your enemies while they are comparatively harmless, but rather wait until they are twice as powerful as they were to begin with ... It is well known that all the time that the Persians were making their way here from the farthest part of Asia, you just sat and waited for them. And they were an enemy who came from far away-- not like the Athenians who are right next door. Yet you take no notice of them at all. You always defend yourselves, you never attack-- and while Athens has grown stronger, you have just trusted to luck.


When we speak to you like this, you must remember that we are still on your side. It is perfectly reasonable to criticize friends when they make mistakes-- not at all the same as it is to berate enemies when they have actually done wrong. And it is particularly reasonable for us to point out your faults to you, because you are our neighbors-- and because you seem to have absolutely no understanding of the vast difference between you and the Athenians.


The Athenians are always exploring new ideas, they think quickly and they act quickly-- but you, on the other hand, are content with what you have; you show no originality whatsoever, and when you are compelled to take action, you take only half measures ...

They are decisive, you are hesitant. They are never at home, you are never abroad. If they leave Attica, it is in the hope of gaining new possessions; but if you leave the Peloponnese, it is in fear of losing what you have already got... In short, they are the kind of people whose sole aim in life is never to take a rest themselves, and to make sure that no-one else does either.  (Thucydides: History i. 69-70)


Some Athenian envoys, who were coincidentally in Sparta at this crucial moment, pointed out that if Sparta declared war at this moment, she, not Athens, would plainly be the aggressor. They also took the opportunity to remind the Spartans that they were themselves not without a military reputation, and that their empire had only come about because they alone were willing to continue the struggle against Persia; they then proposed negotiations about their differences. With some reluctance, the Spartans voted among themselves and polled their allies: the consensus was that, if the Megarian decree was cancelled and the blockade of Potidaea lifted, there could still be peace-- but if not ... 

In the Athenian assembly, Pericles let the people know that his patience had run out: he had offered negotiations, and Sparta had rejected them; and he would certainly make no unilateral concessions. From now on, he said, the Athenians' obligation would be to protect their empire, and if there was to be war, it would be Sparta's fault. The people as ever agreed with him; diplomatic contacts came to an end, and Athens waited for Sparta to make the first overt move.


iii.                   Strategy and Resources


Both Sparta and Athens were ready for a long and expensive war, and each hoped to achieve a simple end. The Spartan plan was to destroy Athens, to deprive the Delian League of its head and to break up the Athenian empire by means of a series of decisive engagements on land. They could not do this at sea because the Peloponnesian naval resources were much depleted by the Corinthian losses in the war with Corcyra, and by the defection of the Corcyraean ships to Athens. But no one could deny the superiority, both in skill and numbers, of the Peloponnesian cavalry and infantry, with the Spartans' own hoplites as the backbone of their army. Moreover, the Spartans felt that they had right on their side, and that their alliance-- consisting of most of the Peloponnesian states and most of the states of central Greece-- was genuinely an alliance, held together by its members' free will, rather than kept in subservience by force like the Athenians'.


The Athenians' intention was equally straightforward: to preserve their empire, their democracy and their wealth. Pericles knew as well as the Spartans that the Athenian army lacked both the reserves and the expertise to fight a long campaign on land, and that in any case a considerable number of Athenian troops were needed to garrison the more restless members of the Delian League. They could mount, then, no real offensive threat; but they could use their superior fleet to establish a ring of naval bases around the Peloponnese from which they might make pinprick attacks at different points on enemy territory in order first to undermine and finally to break the collective resolve of the Spartan alliance. Attica, on the other hand, could not be defended; if the Spartans invaded across the Isthmus of Corinth, the Athenians would have to abandon their country estates and their farms, and the entire population would have to congregate within the Long Walls, relying on the income from the Delian League and on the navy to keep them supplied for as long as would be necessary. At all costs they must be patient; and whatever they did, they must avoid a direct confrontation on land.


iv.                  The Outbreak of War 431 BC


Sure enough, in the summer of 431 BC the Spartans under their king Archidamus did invade Attica, and the Athenian farmers duly brought their families and their flocks inside the walls. Grumbling began at once: not only were conditions exceedingly uncomfortable, but the people were impatient for action at whatever cost. For the first time in his career Pericles found himself unpopular, especially among the young men who thought that a war ought to mean putting on armor and fighting. King Archidamus tried to rack up the tension by advancing very slowly; and he even sent forward a herald to suggest one last conference. But Pericles stood firm, and used all his powers of persuasion to rally the people behind him. The herald was turned away, and as he left he made a gloomy forecast: "This is the first day of many disasters for all the Greeks."


The Spartans were forced by the approach of autumn to retire from Attica, but well before that Pericles had begun his promised naval operations. Exactly according to plan, he sent triremes around the Peloponnese and into the Gulf of Corinth to make a series of successful raids; he maintained the blockade of Potidaea; and he ferried across a detachment of hoplites to garrison Aegina. By the end of the campaigning season he had in fact accomplished more than the Spartans had. Everywhere he had met with only the most trivial opposition, and the Athenians began to cheer up.


v.                    The Funeral Speech and the Plague


Morale remained reasonably high throughout the winter; and in the spring, at the state funeral of the soldiers and sailors who had been killed in the previous year, Pericles was chosen to give the customary eulogy. He took the opportunity to deliver his finest and best remembered speech, which has been recorded almost exactly as it was given. He praised first, in conventional terms, those who had fallen, but moved on to describe with great affection the state in which they had been brought up and whose virtues had inspired their self-sacrifice. No more famous and passionate defense of democracy has ever been delivered-- or at least of democracy as it ought to be. It is perhaps appropriate that this noble speech (recorded and perhaps improved upon by Thucydides) was almost the last gesture that Pericles would be able to make on behalf of his city.


The constitution of Athens is not a copy of anyone else's-- though other people may copy ours. Our state is administered not by a few, but by many-- which is why we call it a democracy. Our laws treat each of us exactly the same, regardless of our private differences; if any one of us is successful in public life, it is because he is judged to be competent-- birth has nothing to do with it, and merit everything. If a man is capable of holding office, he will not be held back because he is poor or of humble origin. And in our daily life it is the same: we do not look officiously over each other's shoulders, and a man can do exactly what he wants without other people becoming irritated with him, or giving him those sideways looks which always make us uneasy even though they are really quite harmless. But this private freedom does not lead to anarchy; we are particularly careful always to obey the laws ... both those which are written down and those which, though unwritten, make up a code of common decency ...


We love to have beautiful things around us, but we are not ostentatious; we keep our minds alert without neglecting our bodies. We spend our money on what is useful, not on what is simply for decoration. It is no disgrace to be poor, but it is a disgrace to do nothing about one's poverty ... When an Athenian embarks upon a project, we expect him first to think, and then to act-- let other people make decisions out of ignorance, or debate themselves into a state of paralysis. The prize for courage goes to the man who understands clearly the difference between pain and pleasure, but letís no thought of either prevent him from taking a risk ...


I must speak now to the sons and brothers of those who have died: you have a difficult task ahead of you, for you will always hear praise for these glorious dead, and you will always wonder whether you can ever live up to them, let alone outdo them. While you are alive, you must always beware of jealous rivals; but the dead are as far beyond envy as they are above reproach. And to the new widows, I have just this to say, about the ideal of womanhood: virtue lies in being nothing beyond what women ought to be, and the finest reputation will be attained by those women who are talked about least by men-- for good or ill.  (Thucydides: History ii. 37 ff.)


That same spring the Spartans invaded Attica again; and again the Athenian farmers had to leave the bright air and shady olive groves of the countryside. They fled as refugees into their own city-- where, even at the best of times, most of the population was crammed haphazardly together below the swaggering Acropolis, with no ventilation to allow for the escape of smells, smoke or germs. There was no difference now between rich and poor, between landowners and thetes, between citizens, metics and slaves; within the Long Walls, everyone began to suffer from a shortage of fresh water and serious overcrowding-- and then, suddenly, there was added a terrible outbreak of disease. The rumor, of course, was that Spartan agents had poisoned the wells, but more probably it was a form of measles, or of bubonic plague brought into Piraeus from the east by rats on board the merchant ships. The symptoms and after-effects were equally unpleasant:


A man in excellent health would suddenly feel his head grow very hot; his eyes would become red and inflamed, his throat and tongue would begin to bleed and his breath would become foul. Next would come sneezing fits and a sore throat; chest pains and a racking cough; upset stomach accompanied by great pain and by diarrhea; dry heaves and cramps which sometimes stopped and sometimes didn't. The body did not feel hot to the touch, but it was red and bruised-looking, with pustules and sores all over it. The patients nevertheless felt so hot inside that they could bear no clothes or sheets at all, but could only feel comfortable when they were naked. They wanted to cool off in cold water-- and some dived into the rainwater storage tanks, trying to quench their thirst, though however much they drank it made them feel no better...

Usually they died after about a week but if they survived, the disease moved on next into their intestines ... and many lost their extremities-- fingers, toes, private parts-- or their eyes. Some people entirely lost their memory, and did not remember their own identity or recognize their friends ...


No remedy worked consistently; it made no difference if those who caught the disease were strong or weak. But the worst symptom of all was the terrible depression which gripped all those who felt themselves falling sick-- a depression which took away their will to resist, so that they got sicker still ...


Among the survivors, all respect for convention faded; they did exactly what they wanted, bringing their secret vices out into the open, spending money recklessly, and making merry, for tomorrow they would probably die. They did not fear the gods, nor respect the law.  Piety had done no-one any good, and who expected to live long enough to stand trial for any crime he might commit? The plague was a worse sentence than anything that the law could dream up, and before that sentence was passed, they thought, they might as well enjoy themselves. (Thucydides: History ii. 49 ff.)


By the time it had run its course, the disease had killed a third of Athens' fighting men and an unrecorded number of her other inhabitants. By far the most important victim, however, was Pericles himself, who died hearing only the grumbling of his frustrated and miserable people.


With the death of Pericles, the Athenian war effort lost its impetus and its direction. Without a firm leader, the people's confidence suffered, and for the moment Athens lacked the will for any new adventures. But sporadic raids on the Peloponnese eventually began again; and Potidaea fell at last, though only after its unhappy citizens had been forced to start eating each other.


In 428 BC, a new crisis arose to test the moral fortitude of the assembly. In Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, a group of aristocrats, disaffected because the original function of the Delian League had been subverted, approached the Spartans for assistance in organizing a revolt among the other islands of the League; in return they offered the alliance of Lesbos, complete with fleet. Both sides took characteristic action: the Spartans hesitated, and the Athenians immediately sent a squadron of ships which blockaded Mytilene and forced the rebels to give themselves up.


The assembly then met to discuss what should be done to the Mytilenaeans. The most persuasive voice in the debate belonged to Cleon, a popular leader with a pugnacious, ill-tempered manner: he pushed through a proposal for andrapodismos-- the traditional punishment for a conquered city, whereby all the men should be executed, and the women and children sold into slavery. A ship was sent to give the appropriate orders to the Athenian commander on the spot; but the next day, the assembly met again, and painfully wondered if it had done the right thing. Cleon was impatient:


We do nothing but dither about what we want to do. Listen: bad laws that are never changed are better than good laws that are constantly being fiddled with. It is better not to think than to agonize all the time about the morality of an issue; when it comes to politics, the ordinary man-in-the-street is more effective than a scholar with a lot of brains. Those clever fellows always assume that they know more than the laws, and they object to every proposal because they think that is the best way to show how smart they are. And they are the ones who bring us all down in the end.  (Thucydides: History iii.37)


But the Athenians were persuaded to reverse their decision by Diodotos, an ordinary citizen whose name appears nowhere else in their history. The destruction of Mytilene, he argued, would not deter any of the other allies who had it in their minds to revolt, but would rather stiffen their resistance, particularly if the innocent were to be punished along with the guilty; neither revenge nor pity should have anything to do with the people's decision, but they should rather carry out a policy of simple common sense.


So a second ship was sent out at full speed to overtake the first, which was fortunately in no particular hurry because of the distasteful nature of its mission. By rowing night and day, with extra rations provided by Mytilenaean envoys to keep up their strength, the second crew brought their ship into the harbor at Mytilene just in time to prevent the order for a general slaughter; and in the end only the aristocratic ringleaders were executed.


vi.                  Pylos and Sphacteria 425 BC


Desultory fighting continued for the next few years. More Athenian allies showed further signs of restlessness and more rebels had to be ruthlessly put away; and a change of Athenian policy-- an overland expedition against the Spartan allies in central Greece-- ended in defeat. The demoralization begun by the plague continued. The war had now reached a stage where


... words had lost their everyday meanings, and had taken on new ones. What used to be called "unscrupulous rashness" now became the courageous support of a position. What used to be "cautious hesitation" now became cowardice. To have a good conscience was to be feeble, to examine the pros and cons of a situation was to be utterly futile. The unrestrained use of force was considered to be bravery, conspiracy was a valid act of self-defense. To propose bigotry and violence was patriotism; to oppose them was treachery.  (Thucydides: History iii. 82)


But an unexpected and welcome success was awaiting the Athenians, when a squadron of their ships was forced by a storm to take shelter near Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. While he was waiting for the weather to clear, its commander Demosthenes had his sailors pile rocks in a wall around their camp, which was almost accidentally turned into a small fortress. Alarmed by such a strongpoint on their territory, the Spartans sent soldiers to the small island of Sphacteria which commanded the entrance to the bay of Pylos, in order first to cut Demosthenes off from reinforcements and then to attack his fort; but the Spartan transports which had taken across the soldiers were chased away by more Athenian ships coming up to help, and the Spartans were marooned on their own island.


The Spartans now proposed a deal whereby they would give up some ships in exchange for the soldiers on Sphacteria. But the assembly at Athens, urged on by Cleon, said no; they wanted dead or captured Spartans.


The only difficulty was to get at them: the original plan to starve them out was foiled when they were supplied by swimmers towing food parcels behind them. They continued to lurk invisibly on their tree-covered island, where their defenses were impossible to spy out. In the assembly, Cleon ranted and raged: if he were in charge, he said, he would round up the Spartans easily in twenty days. He made himself so tiresome that Nicias, one of the current generals, offered to resign, so that Cleon could take his place and make good on his boast. Cleon was now shamed into accepting Nicias' offer, and he set off for Pylos amid much cheerful mockery. But by a lucky accident he was able to do exactly what he had promised, for a Spartan camp-fire accidentally burned down all the trees and underbrush, so that their dispositions were revealed. Thus Cleon was enabled to force a successful landing and bring back to Athens nearly three hundred prisoners.


The Athenians were much encouraged by this victory and their naval raids gathered impetus; Nicias captured Nisaea, off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, and the Athenians actually occupied the port of Megara. But for the Spartans, Sphacteria was a fearful disgrace. Spartan soldiers had never been taken captive before and they suddenly became very interested in a truce.


vii.                 The Peace of Nicias 421 BC


The Athenians would have been sensible at this point to talk terms with Sparta, but their tails were too high for sense; as it turned out, Sphacteria was the best moment of their war, and from then on their fortunes began to drift downhill.


They sent another expedition, involving their full army this time, into central Greece; and again they met with defeat, at the battle of Delium. Then they lost Cleon, killed in fierce fighting around Amphipolis, the town in the northeast that Pericles had founded in 436 BC. In these two campaigns, the Athenians suffered heavy casualties-- altogether about a quarter of their available hoplites, who had already been much weakened by the plague. Suddenly their brashness was replaced by alarm, and they were lucky to find that the Spartans, equally exhausted, were still in a mood to negotiate.

Cleon's rival Nicias had already distinguished himself in the early campaigns of the war; but more in keeping with his gentle character was this opportunity to make peace. He negotiated with the Spartans a nonaggression pact to last for fifty years; a return of all prisoners; and the restoration of most of the territories captured since the war had begun. Corinth and Megara, however, would not allow their hatred of the Athenians to die, and they refused to sign, an action which not only took away much of the point of the pact, but which also meant in effect that they had withdrawn from the Peloponnesian alliance. Sparta felt so threatened by the defection of these powerful friends that she now agreed in addition to a fifty years' alliance with Athens; but this was so obviously a marriage of convenience that nobody on either side had much real hope that the peace would hold.





i.                      Entr'acte for Intrigue 421 -416 BC


The provisions of the Peace of Nicias were carried out uncertainly and incompetently: each side was still apprehensive of the other, and did not want to throw away any perceived advantage. In Athens, the people were divided about the peace in any case. Some members of the upper and middle classes, who had lost many of their relatives in the unsuccessful infantry battles, and much of their property in the invasions of Attica, felt that peace was essential as long as no further concessions were made. But a majority still hoped for more imperial acquisitions and demanded the total defeat of Sparta under a leader who would have to be more imaginative and aggressive than Nicias.

It was not then surprising that the assembly elected as general for 420 BC Alcibiades, a young aristocrat related to both Cleisthenes and Pericles, who embodied all the virtues that the Athenians found most exciting: he was energetic and quick-witted, a flamboyant and persuasive orator who said what they wanted to hear. His fault, however, was that he was unable to see a boat without wanting to rock it, and he at once set about undermining the alliance with Sparta and cultivating Argos, a neutral state in the Peloponnese which is best known as the site of Mycenae and the palace , Agamemnon. Though opposed by Nicias, whom he despised, Alcibiades hoped Sparta might be tempted to attack Argos so that he could say that she had broken the treaty; and that would be reason enough to restart the war.


The first result of Alcibiades' conniving-- and an unfortunate one-- was that Corinth and Megara drifted back into Sparta's fold, and the second was a pitched battle at Mantinea (418 BC) between Athens and Argos on one side and the revitalized Spartan allies on the other. The Athenians were defeated ignominiously; and they had finally to face the unpleasant truth that Pericles had been right all along, when he had warned them that they were incapable of outright victory on land, and that only by a war of attrition could they hope to make any real gains in the Peloponnese. Furthermore, it became clear to them that Sparta had won the peace: her alliance was back at full strength, she had regained the military prestige that she had lost after Sphacteria, and she had stopped Athenian plans for expansion on the mainland dead in its tracks.


ii.                    The Fate of Melos 416 BC


The Athenians after the battle of Mantinea were in an ugly mood, particularly the embittered imperialists; and like a child in a tantrum, they looked around for someone to kick. There was by chance one small gap in their ring of bases on the islands round the Peloponnese: the island of Melos, which, though originally a Spartan colony, had remained neutral since the beginning of the war, and had resisted all attempts of the Athenians to make her join their side. Now the Athenians decided to annex Melos; without waiting even to invent a justification, they sent an expedition there, first to make a landing and then to threaten the island with annihilation if it did not join the Delian league.

In a one-sided conference-- the so-called Melian debate-- the Athenians listened impatiently  to the Melians' appeals for fair treatment:


Is there to be no talk about justice? If you intend to force us to do what you believe is right, should we not at least be allowed to say what we believe is right? If you would only listen to us, we might even be able to persuade you that our points of view are not in fact so very different.


What are neutral states to think when they look at the way you are threatening us? Quite reasonably they will come to the conclusion that you will sooner or later attack them, too.


And for certain those who already disapprove of you will dislike you more than ever, and others will quickly come to hate and fear you-- though before you began to behave like this it might never have crossed their minds. (Thucydides: History v.98)


Justice, the Athenians replied, was a principle that applied only among equals:


Only if they are of equal power are men fair and just to each other. If they are stronger, they do whatever they can; if they are weaker, they accept whatever they must ...


Don't become like those people who, when they have clearly lost all hope, turn to what is smudged and muddled, to sorcerers and soothsayers who destroy them by encouraging further hope where there should be none ...


What we think about our gods and what we know about ourselves leads us to believe that there is an infallible law of nature, that men should rule wherever they can. We did not make this law, we were not even the first to take advantage of it; it existed before us and it will hold good after we have gone. But in obedience to it we must exercise the power that we have, and so would you if you were as strong as we are.  (Thucydides: History v.89, 103,105)


The Athenian argument was as vigorous a justification for international bullying as Pericles' funeral speech had been for democracy; the difference of tone between the two is a measure of how far the Athenians had slipped since Pericles' death into cynicism and frustration.


The Melians, in any case, would not lie down; their city withstood a fierce siege through the winter, but was forced into surrender in the spring. The Athenian assembly this time did not hesitate as they had done in the case of Mytilene. The proposal of Alcibiades for andrapodismos was swiftly carried out. The entire male population of Melos was executed, the women and children were enslaved, and an Athenian garrison was established on the island. Only one voice spoke out against the atrocities: Euripides' play The Trojan Women, though it ostensibly describes the fate of the Trojan prisoners after the fall of Troy, is an undisguised cry of horror at what his city had done to Melos.


I wish I had never been married, never come to Hectorís house, cries Andromache to her son Astyanax as he is about to be thrown down from the city walls by Greek soldiers. I hoped to be the mother of a son who would rule over the fertile plains of Asia, not one who would be sacrificed to the Greeks. My darling, are you crying? Do you know what is going to happen to you? Why do you hug me, why do you hold on to my skirt, like a baby bird under its mother's wing? Hector cannot come back from the dead to save you with his famous spear; nor any of his brothers, nor any of the army of Troy.


You have to make a dreadful leap from these towering walls, and no-one will pity you when you are dashed to death on the rocks below. I wish I could hold you one last time-- you are your motherís greatest joy. I wish I could feel your gentle breath one last time on my cheek. Now it seems that it was nothing but a waste of the milk in my breasts, a waste of all my work, to bring you up. Kiss me now for the last time, put your arms around my neck, touch your lips to mine. You Greeks, clever as you are in devising always new ways to torture your enemies-- why must you kill this child, who never did you any harm?  (Euripides: Trojan Women 735)


iii.                   The Sicilian Expedition 415 -413 BC


Meanwhile, at the other end of the Mediterranean, there was a war going on in Sicily between Segesta, an Athenian ally, and the neighboring town of Selinus, which was at the same time a colony of Megara and an ally of the most powerful city of Sicily, Syracuse. Segesta now appealed for help to Athens.


The debate in the assembly on this request turned into another conflict between Nicias and Alcibiades. Nicias as usual argued for caution and gave the assembly exactly the same advice that Pericles would have given them fifteen years before. Any dispersal of forces, he said, would leave Athens open to attack from Sparta, and would encourage the rebellions already fomenting in Ionia; the Athenians had no idea of conditions in Sicily in general or of the strength of Syracuse in particular. And Sicily was much too far off; even if-- as was most unlikely-- the Athenians were to be able to seize any territory there, they would be quite unable to hold on to it.


Alcibiades, on the other hand, brushed aside all those sensible objections, and appealed frankly to the Athenians' greed and to their spirit of adventure: an expedition would be a glorious enterprise in itself, and from Sicily it would be but a short step to conquer the Greek cities of southern Italy or even Carthage in north Africa. When-- not if-- they succeeded, they and their children would be rich forever. The expense of such an expedition could not be used as an argument against it; the tribute from the league had continued to come in from the beginning of the war, and even Nicias admitted that the state could afford to pay for the force that the people eventually voted: sixty triremes, forty auxiliary vessels and more than 2,000 hoplites, cavalry and marines. It was not only a proud and impressive array; it was also a product of the irresponsible manner in which the people of Athens had begun to make their decisions.


But on the very morning that the ships were to sail, a terrible omen was reported: all the statues of Hermes, the god of trade and travelers, which traditionally stood in the doorways of private houses and temples throughout the city, had been vandalized overnight. The expedition could certainly not leave now, not until the perpetrators were punished. But despite all manner of rumors and reports, nobody was arrested. Some said that drunken teenagers had done it, some said Syracusan agents; Alcibiades' enemies accused him, and said it was all part of a plot to overthrow the democracy-- though they could not explain why Alcibiades of all people should have done the one thing that would prevent the departure of the expedition for which he had argued so vehemently. Alcibiades denied everything, and offered to prove his innocence in court. It was finally decided that the fleet should sail after all, with Alcibiades and Nicias in joint command, and that Alcibiades should be put on trial later.

But by the time that the expedition had reached Sicily, via Corcyra-- where it picked up reinforcements from the allies that more than tripled its numbers-- the people had changed their minds. They now voted that Alcibiades should be recalled for an immediate trial for sacrilege, and a galley was sent to fetch him home. But in southern Italy he jumped ship and made his way secretly to Sparta; he knew perfectly well that his influence in Athens was on the wane, and he never hesitated to connive his way onto the winning side in an argument. He therefore shamelessly began to advise the Spartans on the best way to deal with the new Athenian war-effort: build a line of forts along the boundary of Attica and the Isthmus of Corinth, he suggested, and send an army to join forces with the Syracusans in opposing the Athenians in Sicily.


With Alcibiades gone, Nicias was now left in charge of an army that soon found itself, exactly as he had foreseen, far from home and without friends or sufficient supplies. The first thing he did was to request yet more reinforcements from Athens; and Demosthenes, Cleon's colleague at Sphacteria, set off across the Adriatic with sixty-five more ships, 1200 more hoplites and a great many auxiliary troops. Nicias remained in camp for the winter, and ordered a siege of Syracuse for the spring. The siege, however, made little progress, and Nicias' army was hard pressed by the Spartan general Gylippus, At the same time a battle was fought with the Syracusan fleet in the harbor of Syracuse, and the Athenians might have been defeated if the Syracusans had not broken off the action, disconcerted by the arrival, in the nick of time, of Demosthenes' reinforcements. But as soon as Demosthenes, landed his troops, they were put to flight in a night engagement. The situation at Syracuse now seemed hopeless; Demosthenes advised giving up the siege, but Nicias hesitated, at first because he feared impeachment at home, and then because of an eclipse of the moon, which, his soothsayers told him, meant that he must not move from his position for three weeks.


The Syracusans and Spartans meanwhile attacked the Athenian ships in the harbor a second time, and again the Athenians suffered heavy losses. The soldiers watched from land:


Since for the Athenians the fleet meant absolutely everything, their terror was greater than they had ever known ... As the battle went on without any evident result, their contorted bodies reflected the turmoil in their minds, and the tension was appalling-- they imagined themselves at one moment saved and at the next destroyed. Though it was still too soon to tell who might be winning, the Athenians were already divided, groaning in fear or cheering in hope. Shouts of "We're winning!" alternated with "We're losing!" as well as all the other confused cries that you would expect from a great force in great danger.


What ships were not destroyed fought their way out of the harbor, but the thetes refused to go into action again.


When the battle was lost, the Athenians were now in much the same position as the Spartans had been at Sphacteria: just as then the soldiers marooned on the island could not be rescued because they had lost their ships, so now the Athenians, without some amazing stroke of luck, had no way of getting away from Sicily. (Thucydides: History vii.71)


At last it was agreed that the armies should withdraw from Syracuse, and meet up with the fleet some forty miles up the coast. Leaving their dead and wounded behind them, Demosthenes and Nicias set off overland, constantly harassed by Syracusan cavalry and guerrillas. After nearly a week of struggling on without food or water, Nicias' force was cut to pieces, while Demosthenes' surrendered; the survivors were held on short rations in an abandoned quarry. Many of them died there, but some of the more literary Athenians, it is said, managed to save themselves by reciting speeches from Euripides to their enchanted guards. Nicias and Demosthenes were handed over to the Spartans, and Thucydides writes their sad obituary:


The Spartans executed Nicias and Demosthenes, though Gylippus tried to prevent it; he thought that it would be the culmination of his career if he could bring back both the Athenian commanders alive to Sparta. Demosthenes, on the one hand, was one of Sparta s greatest enemies, because of the incident of Pylos and Sphacteria; and Nicias, on the other, one of her best friends, because he had prevailed on the Athenian assembly to make peace and return the Spartan prisoners.


Nicias knew that the Spartans thought well of him, and this was why he had surrendered to Gylippus with some confidence that he would be treated well ... But the Corinthians thought that he would use his money to bribe his way to freedom and cause them more trouble ... and held out for his execution. And so Nicias died: of all the Greeks I have known, he was the one who deserved such a fate the least, for he had lived his whole life according to the highest principles of honesty and kindness. (Thucydides: History vii.86)


The damage was catastrophic: the Athenians alone had lost over 200 ships, and nearly all their hoplites and cavalry, along with their equipment; and the allies had suffered at least as much. It had all been foreseen by poor Nicias, and the expedition's failure cannot be put down to his shortcomings as a general. He had been at crucial moments crippled by caution and superstition, but he was a good man, who even in the last grim march had continued to exhort and care for his troops. But the truth is he should never have been sent to Sicily in the first place: he was the expedition's main political opponent, and to have left him in sole command of it after Alcibiades' recall was stupid. The blame must in the end, then, be laid on the shoulders of the Athenian people. They had listened to Alcibiades and rashly voted for his scheme, and they now saw their city's reputation gone as well as her ability to hold her empire under control.


iv.                  Alcibiades and Persia


The Athenians may have been foolish, but they were also tough. To all intents and purposes, the Peloponnesian war ought to have been over, yet they managed to keep going for another nine years after the Sicilian debacle. Apart from their own dour instinct for self-preservation, the main impetus for their survival was-- believe it or not-- Alcibiades, who continued to do whatever he had to in order to maintain his influence in international affairs.


At the end of the campaigning in Sicily, Alcibiades was still living in Sparta, advising the Spartans that their next move should be to give further support and encouragement to the Athenian allies in the Aegean who wanted to revolt; but the Spartans, as so often, were slow to act, and gave the Athenians time to restart their shipbuilding program. At this point Alcibiades was involved in a scandal with the wife of one of the Spartan kings, and had to leave Sparta in a hurry. In fact he was already bored with the austerity of Spartan life, and now made his way to the more congenial luxuries of the royal court of Persia at Susa. He had made up his mind that the financial support of Persia might well be the key to victory in the war, and he sent out word that he would try to persuade the Great King to throw his weight behind Athens if the democratic government were to step down. The negotiations were long and complicated, partly because neither side was quite sure that it could trust Alcibiades. In the end they broke down, and the Persians instead made an alliance with Sparta.


Even when their hopes of Persian gold had disappeared, the Athenian interest in disbanding the democracy did not entirely fade away. In 411 BC, some members of the upper and middle classes who composed the peace party did briefly establish an oligarchy; they deposed the boule, but beyond that they never got fully organized, and were themselves ejected by a group of democrats who had rallied on the island of Samos. The next year a democratic fleet re-established Athenian control of the Hellespont and was joined by Alcibiades, who was elected on the spot to co-ordinate naval operations in the north-east. His local campaigns not only produced quantities of loot, which he sent back to Athens, but also restored order among the rebellious allies. In this way he ingratiated himself once more with the Athenians, and in 407 Be he was invited to return to the city, and was again formally elected general. But the Athenian navy was no longer the force it once had been. The Spartans had spent the money that their new Persian allies had given them to hire skilled mercenary seamen; and Alcibiades' own sailors began to complain about his treatment of them. So he was not re-elected, and retired to private life in a well-walled fort which he built for himself near the Hellespont.



v.                    The End of the War 406 -404 BC


In 406 BC, at Arginusae off the island of Lesbos, the Athenian fleet under a new admiral at last won a full scale naval battle against the Spartans. But 5,000 Athenian sailors were drowned; and the assembly were less elated at the victory than they were enraged at the loss of life. Five generals (including the son of Pericles) were accused of taking bribes from the enemy, and of failing to pick up survivors in the water. The execution of the generals at their moment of triumph showed again how in a crisis the assembly could act completely irrationally, without sense or sensibility.

In any event, the result of the battle of Arginusae gave the Athenians only a temporary advantage; the next year the Spartan admiral Lysander with his Persian-subsidized ships opposed an Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, the place where the Hellespont was at its narrowest. The Athenians were on passage into the Black Sea in order to escort home a convoy of grain-ships; they were persistently harried by the Spartans, but continued with their attempts to break through, in spite of the advice of Alcibiades, who visited their camp from his fort nearby.


After four days of cat-and-mouse games, Lysander changed his tactics, and late one afternoon he surprised the Athenians de-rigging their ships on the beach. His assault left only eight ships undamaged; a hundred and seventy were destroyed, and their crews put to death on the spot, while Alcibiades was arrested and murdered.


It was the last battle of the war: without resistance Lysander toured the Aegean islands, rounded up the Athenian garrisons posted there and sent them as prisoners to Athens, where they could do nothing but increase the overcrowding in the city. Shortly behind them came Lysander himself; his fleet blockaded Peiraeus, and a Spartan army camped right up against the fortifications. Toward the end of 405 BC Athens surrendered.


The terms that Lysander offered to the Athenians were hard but, given their record in the war, fair. In memory of the city's bravery at Marathon and Salamis, there were to be no executions or enslavement; but Athens was to become an independent ally of Sparta, the fleet and the empire were to be disbanded, and the Long Walls were to go. The Athenians had had enough; they accepted the terms at once, and the following spring they were forced to witness the humiliating spectacle of a Spartan squadron sailing into their harbor, and the Long Walls being pulled down to the accompaniment of Spartan flute music.


vi.                  The Political Lesson


After hubris, as ever, nemesis had come: in less than thirty years an arrogant empire had fallen into total ignominy. Pericles, whose policies for good or ill had formed it, had gone to war to protect it, and shown the Athenians exactly how it should be done; but whenever his advice had been ignored, it had led straight to military disaster-- at Delium in 424 BC, at Mantinea in 418, at Syracuse in 416. But even so it was not by pitched battles that Sparta had won the war, but by exercising the very patience that Pericles had urged upon the Athenians from the beginning. The Spartans had done nothing brilliant, but at the same time they had made no mistakes-- whereas the Athenians had made error of judgement after error of judgement. In particular, after Pericles' death, they seem to have perversely chosen exactly the wrong general to meet whatever circumstances arose. Cleon, for example, had made them cruel when they should have been gentle; Alcibiades had made them belligerent when they should have been restrained; and Nicias, the man of peace, had been required to lead them at the moment when military expertise and ingenuity was most imperative.


But in the long run, it was democracy itself that had failed. From the moment when the treasury of the Delian League had been moved to Athens in 454 BC, and the peace treaty between the league and Persia had been signed, the noble purposes of the democracy had become corrupt, and it had shown itself to have, like a hero of tragedy, a fatal flaw. Though the government of Athens according to its constitution was designed to be for the whole people and by the whole people, it had in fact been nothing of the sort. The assembly rarely made a decision after listening to rational argument; rather it allowed itself to become the instrument of a few ambitious individuals who promoted their own agenda by explosive oratory, and intimidated all opposition by threats of legal action or blistering personal attacks. For all Pericles' idealism expressed in the Funeral Speech of 430 BC, his people never rose of their own accord to the heights of selflessness and wisdom that he so passionately commended.


vii.                 Thucydides


Just as the Persian Wars had their historian in Herodotus, so the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians had Thucydides. As a young man he had become involved in politics, and had caught the plague in 430, but was one of the few people to recover from it. Shortly after that he was elected general, and was banished for his part in failing to relieve Amphipolis. In his exile he began to write his history, which kept him occupied until he died about 400, with his task not quite complete.

Although Thucydides was not far from being an exact contemporary of Herodotus, his approach to history was very different. Certainly Herodotus is the first Greek to ask questions about the past: "What happened?" or more often: "What do people say happened?" But Thucydides' questions are better, and more sophisticated: "Why did it happen?" and "What were its results?" and "What can we learn from it?"


Thucydides is the first historian to distinguish the cause (the underlying reason) for an event from the occasion (the spark that sets it off). He believes that history will repeat itself and that mistakes can with determination and goodwill be avoided; but he wryly admits that considerations of this kind are not much fun. He is much more careful with his sources than Herodotus; he tries to interview eyewitnesses, he checks his references meticulously whenever he can, but, like a good lawyer, he is aware that people tend to see only what they want to see:


Take Mycenae: today it is comparatively small, like many other towns of its period, but this is no reason to question the epic poets or our own tradition with regard to the splendor of the Greek expedition to Troy. Suppose that Sparta were to be levelled, so that nothing were left but foundations, would it not be easy, as time went on, to belittle her present reputation? Today nearly half of the Peloponnese is Spartan territory, and they are the leaders of the rest of it ... but because their city is rambling, without impressive edifices or splendid temples, because it is really no more than an old-fashioned collection of villages, you might think she was not particularly strong. But ifa similar disaster happened to Athens, the ruins of her magnificent buildings would make you think that she was twice as powerful as in fact she is. So you should be cautious when you look at physical remains alone, in case you draw a quite erroneous conclusion about the political strength that they represent.  (Thucydides: History i.10)


He shows little bias despite the way in which the Athenians had treated him-the loss of Amphipolis was not in fact his fault-but gives a deeply serious analysis of the motives and actions of both sides in a deeply serious event.


My history is not intended to be an entertaining tale, and some people may find it less interesting for that reason... but I have written it not as a quick sketch to give immediate pleasure, but as a work to be kept for reference, and to last forever.

The Persian wars, the greatest feat of arms in history until now, were quickly concluded by two battles at sea and two on land. The Peloponnesian war, however, has gone on for an unprecedented length of time, and brought unprecedented horror upon Greece. Never have so many cities been captured or destroyed... never have so many citizens been exiled, never so many killed either in battle against the enemy, or in civil war. Tall tales of the past, handed down through the generations but unsupported by evidence, seem perfectly credible now.


Worse and more widespread earthquakes-more frequent solar eclipses than have ever been known before droughts here and famines there-and of course that most ghastly of events, the plague of Athens: all these things have happened in the war just finished. which was begun by the Athenians and the Spartans breaking the Thirty Years' Peace.  (Thucydides: History i. 22-3)


Thucydides is at his most impressive when he is reporting a debate or a discussion leading up to a decision-and only here does he let his imagination fly a little. He admits that, if he did not hear a speech himself, he will put into the mouth of the speaker the argument that he feels should have been made, the words that should have been spoken in such a situation. As Herodotus' history echoes the themes of Homer, so when we read the words that Thucydides gives to Pericles speaking for democracy, or to Nicias for peace, or to the people of Melos for justice, we can hear as well the tragic voice of Sophocles.