Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The End of Greek Power

Bust of Alexander the Great

Shifting alliances

The historian Robin Lane Fox states:
‘The forty years or so which followed the Spartans’ unlikely victory over the Athenians are a kaleidoscope of wars, ever-changing alliances and brief bouts of supremacy for one or other major power in Greece.’  
The great days of Athens were over. By 403 perhaps half of her male citizenry was dead, down to around 25,000.  The city was no longer a magnet for visiting intellectuals. However the ideals of Athens did not die. The Athenian achievements in sculpture and the theatre spread to other parts of Greece and other states attempted to copy the democratic model. 

Victory in the Peloponnesian War had restored Sparta to the leadership of Greece. However, in the next thirty years it threw away its gains by repeating the mistakes Athens had made: its arrogant behaviour aroused the hostility of the other Greek states. The victorious king, Lysander, imposed puppet oligarchies in many of the cities, slaughtering many democrats in the process, and the Spartans took for themselves all the war booty that their allies had gained.

Above all Sparta was drawn into conflict with Persia. Darius II died in 405/6 and a civil war broke out between his sons, Ataxerxes and Cyrus. Sparta unofficially supported Cyrus by sending a force to join the Greek mercenaries already fighting for him. These mercenaries included Socrates’ pupil, Xenophon. In 401 Cyrus was killed and his army defeated near Babylon and Xenophon’s Anabasis describes the homeward march of the 10,000 Greeks from the heart of the Persian Empire. The most famous part of this account is his description of their arrival at the Black Sea and their joy at the sight of open water.

From 396 to 390 the Spartans were at war with a league that included Corinth and Athens, with the Persians aiding the anti-Spartan forces in revenge for the Spartans’ support of Cyrus. With the ending of the war in 386 the Spartans allowed the Persians to recover the Greek cities of Asia Minor that they had lost in the fifth century. 

After Socrates

Bust of Plato: Roman copy

This is an unavoidably sketchy and superficial discussion of two huge topics! If you want to investigate further, you could go to the magnificent Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Go here for Plato and here for Aristotle.


Socrates’ most famous pupil was Plato (427-348), probably the most influential European thinker.  Certainly he was the most copied-out philosopher of the ancient world. Unlike his mentor, Socrates, he clearly had great faith in the written word. He was born into an aristocratic family and some of his relatives became prominent politicians, notably the oligarchs Critias and Charmides. He was a philosopher and a mathematician, who introduced the dialogue method of argument. This allows a variety of points of view to be expressed and the reader does not have to agree with the author’s line. Dialogues were not exclusive to Plato. They were written by a number of followers of Socrates, probably because they were imitating his method.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Greece or Rome: which is best?

I would love to have been at this debate! Who would you put your money on - Mary Beard or Boris Johnson?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Socrates (c. 470-399) is the intellectual figure of the ancient world. He has profoundly influenced western thought and was also a central influence in early Islam. In the ninth century AD the Arab philosopher, Al-Kindi (c. 801-73), wrote an extensive treatise on Socrates that has long since been lost.

We know about him through
  1. Aristophanes’ hostile play, The Clouds (423 BC), written in Socrates’ lifetime, in which he was depicted as a figure of fun and accused or being a sophist. ‘Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!’ The choice of Socrates as a figurehead shows how famous the philosopher already was in the 420s. 
  2. The memoirs of his pupil, the historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 428-c. 354), in which he is portrayed as a good man full of common sense, who wholeheartedly worshipped the gods and was opposed to sex with boys. 
  3. Above all in the writings of his greatest pupil and devoted admirer, Plato in a massive series of 'dialogues’ crafted between twenty and forty years after Socrates died. It is Plato’s account with its 'halo effect' that has been accepted by posterity, though its reliability has been disputed for centuries. Thanks to Plato. Socrates is also seen as a great moral teacher, and he has frequently been compared to Christ. Like him, he was executed.

Through these writings Socrates shaped the entire future of western philosophy.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Sophists

Protagoras of Abdera, the greatest of the sophists
This post is particularly indebted to J. V. Muir, ‘Religion and the New Education’, in P. E. Easterling and J. V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, (Cambridge University Press, 1985) and to Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010).

What is the meaning of the mutilation of the herms and Alcibiades’ alleged parody of the Eleusinian mysteries on the eve of the Sicilian expedition? Is it the sign of a fundamental crisis in late 5th century Athens or of a moral panic?

A generation gap?

Did all the Athenians believe in the gods? The mutilation of the herms provides evidence that respect for religion in its traditional forms was not universal - but this on its own was not really startling. But the apparent impiety was interpreted as a threat to the nomoi, the written and unwritten laws of the constitution. lt seemed as if something had gone badly wrong and that the standards which had fortified the troops at Marathon were no longer upheld. Well-to-do young men appeared to be embracing dangerous ideas that set them apart from their parents and led them to disregard the beliefs and practices of traditional religion.  There was a notorious club of the kakodaimonistai - aristocratic young men who met together on the unlucky days of the month to cock a snook at popular superstition. By definition this was interpreted as a fundamental undermining of the state.

Melvyn on Sparta

If you click here you will be taken to the Radio 4 'In Our Time' archive and be able to listen to the discussion on Sparta hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), II

Map of the Sicilian expedition, 415 BC

The rise of the demagogues

After the death of Pericles, things could never be the same. According to Thucydides, the leaders who emerged from his shadow were petty, self-seeking rabble-rousers, such as the demagogue, Cleon, acquired an influential voice in the Assembly. The socially conservative playwright Aristophanes satirised him as a tanner (he owned a tannery) but in reality he was a skilful general who inflicted a humiliating reverse on the Spartans.

The constant Athenian strategy in this phase of the war was to avoid a direct confrontation on land with Sparta, to maintain the fleet, and to keep the empire together.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), I

A helmeted Spartan hoplite

The historian Bettany Hughes has described the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta as one of the most pitiless wars human history has ever known. The Greeks used the term stasis to describe it. The war was not fought between Athens and Sparta alone. Each was involved in a web of alliances with the other Greek states. The war extended from Asia Minor across the Aegean to Greece and thence to Sicily and southern Italy. Even the Persian Empire intervened and in the end its subsidies decided the struggle in favour of Sparta. The resources brought to the war by both sides were enormous. Athens fought on until it had completely exhausted its material resources. Tens of thousands, including Pericles, died of the great plague of 430-29. The war lasted an entire generation, in the course of which huge changes took place. At the end of the war there were signs of great destruction and also of intellectual crisis.

Athens: From League to Empire

The cities of the Delian League
The historian, Herodotus, defined to hellenikon,  'Greekness' as 'shared blood, shared language, shared religion, and shared customs'. This common feeling was strengthened by the menace of the common enemy (Persia) in the wars of 499-479.  Yet the Greeks of the classical period never managed to translate their awareness of 'Greekness' into political unity. Unity came later, imposed by the conquering empires of Macedon and Rome. However in 478-477 the Delian League was founded. lt was this confederacy that carried the burden of the Greeks' war against the Persians, and it was the first instance of an organised offensive union of Greek states.


The League was necessary because the Persian threat did not go away after the victories of 480-79. In the aftermath of Salamis, Plataia and Mykale, Greece needed a leader - a role Sparta was unwilling to assume. She had many domestic difficulties that distracted her from a wider role - size of her helot population, fear of helot uprising. She also lacked the experience of naval warfare. For the next fifty years, the period of relative peace (known as the pentekontaetia of 479-431) she seemed content to let the power of Athens grow. Corinth too stood back from leadership. Like Athens she had a naval tradition, but she lacked Athens' ideological magnetism. It was natural therefore that the leadership role should be assumed by Athens. She had many positive attributes.  

Saturday, 7 November 2015


It looks as if Tom Holland's book on the Julio-Claudians is a seriously good read - up to the standard of his triumphant Rubicon.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Household, family, women

Children at play


The Greeks did not have the concept of the modern nuclear family, and did not even have the word ‘family’.  The basic unit was the household, the oikos, which included a complex kinship structure, slaves, land, dwellings and storehouses. In theory, it was economically self-sufficient. At the head of this unit was the master (kurios), who in theory had sovereign power over all its constituent elements.  These included all the women, unmarried brothers, any son who had not attained the age of majority, and slaves. The role of the oikos was the production of heirs and the preservation of family property (the kl─ôros).

The house
Archaeology has not yet discovered an aristocratic district of Athens. In contrast with the splendid public buildings, Athenian houses from the sixth to the fourth centuries were modest even for wealthy citizens. Most would be flat-roofed (some two-storey) with a wooden framework, built of sun-dried mud-brick reinforced with timbers, supported on stone foundations. Because mud is not a durable material and rapidly decomposes, little has survived of these houses.  However we know that in the larger houses, rooms were arranged round a central courtyard. 

Furnishings were sparse. The most elaborate feature was probably the banquet couch, which also served as a bed and a funeral bier. Simple stools were common. Clothes were folded and kept in wooden chests. Although looms have not survived depictions of them on vases document an activity that was probably practised in every household.

The Athenian house was divided into men’s and women’s quarters. In the andron, the men of the house entertained their guests. This was the one room likely to be decorated. As this room was often near the entrance, guests attending a symposium could do so without entering the inner parts.  The women’s quarters, the gynaikon, was at the back of the house, where the activities would have been child-rearing, cooking and weaving. According to the Roman writer, Cornelius Nepos, the gynaikon was ‘never entered by the man unless he is a very close relative’.