Thursday, October 23, 2008

The History of Civilization

Chapter Sixteen: Greece Commits Suicide

One of the great tragedies of ancient history is the collapse of Hellenistic civilization just a few decades after Greece united to expel the Persian invasion, developed the world's first democracy, and reached the peak of cultural development described in the last chapter. For almost thirty years at the end of the fifth century BC, the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance, destabilizing Greek city-states, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside.
Pericles desperately campaigned for peace while preparing for war. Meanwhile, the historian Thucydides explains much in a single sentence: "The Peloponnesus (Sparta) and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms.

The basic cause of the war was the growth of the Athenian Empire and its control over the commercial and political life of the Aegean.

Athens allowed free trade there in times of peace, but only with imperial permission. No vessel could sail without its consent, and Athenian agents decided the destination of every ship. Athens defended this domination as a vital necessity: it was dependent on imported food, and was determined to guard the routes by which this food came. By protecting international trade, Athens performed a real service to the peace and prosperity of all Greece, but the process became more and more irksome as the pride and wealth of the subject cities grew.

The inherent contradictions between a city claiming to be a democracy, but exercising the despotism of an empire over its neighbors ultimately led to the end of the Golden Age.

In 430, plague came to Athens, killing more than a quarter of its soldiers. During this period of weakness, the Corinthian colony of Corcyra declared itself independent of Corinth. Both Athenian and Spartan armies rushed to its aid, coming into conflict with one another.
In a moment of panic, the Athenians condemned and exiled Pericles, who died a broken man a few years later. His successors were hawks, eager to use land and sea military might to subdue their enemies.

After several costly but indecisive battles, both Sparta and Athens agreed to a fifty year treaty called the Peace of Nicias, signed in 421 BC.

Unfortunately, the treaty hadn't solved any of the issues that had led to the war in the first place. Although it allowed both sides a chance to recover and recruit new soldiers, it lasted only seven years before fighting resumed.

Persia, still longing to conquer Greece and Asia Minor, began supporting both sides hoping that they'd wear each other out in the conflict. In spite of the best efforts of a few peacemakers, the Peloponnesian War continued, and brought to the stage one of the most unusual and unscrupulous politicians in history.

To be continued...

There is an outstanding book on The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan, one of the exceptional scholars of ancient history in our time. Highly recommended both to learn about ancient warfare, and for its pure entertainment value.

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

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