Tuesday, 10 November 2015

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.

Sparta: the alternative polis

Sparta and its Territory
Sparta, or Lacedaemon, in the region of Laconia in the south of the Peloponnese, a three-days’ walk from Athens, represented a dramatically alternative view of how a polis should be organised. Stretching over 5,000 square miles, it was the largest city-state in Greece. It was ruled by two kings, and it was geared solely to military needs. 

New-born babies were bathed in wine. If they survived they were brought before the Gerousia (the two kings and the Council of Elders) who decided whether they should survive.  Between the ages of seven and thirty all males lived together in a harsh training camp called the syssition. Boys were raised in the agoge (herd). They were given one cloak to wear all the year round, taught to fend for themselves, bare-footed in the woods as training for their lives as warriors. It was an extremely egalitarian society, with no aristocrats or great landowners. Food was plain. Women were more equal than anywhere else in Greece – the girls too underwent strenuous physical training and were the only Greek women to receive any formal education. 

Spartan men were commemorated only if they died in battle, Spartan women if they died in childbirth. No Spartan adult worked. That was left to their subject population, the helots, who had once been free men, the former inhabitants of the city-state of Messenia, who had been enslaved c. 725 BC. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of the Spartan population were helots.

Although they had been allies against the Persians, Athenians and Spartans despised each other. The Athenians prided themselves on their openness, the Spartans on their discipline and courage. 

Thucydides: historian of the War

Roman bust of Thucydides
The war is the theme of the famous History of the Peloponnesian War written by the Athenian, Thucydides (c. 460-c. 395 BC). 
‘Never before had so many cities been captured and then devastated, whether by foreign armies of by the Hellenic powers themselves…never had there been so many exiles, never so much loss of life.’
Very little is known of his life. Thucydides of the deme of Halimus in Attica was the son of Olorus, whose name might be of Thracian origin. It is also likely that his mother’s family was of Thracian princely stock. In 424 he was one of the strategoi (generals) in Thrace, whose task was the defence of Amphipolis on the lower Strymon. Unable to hold the city against Sparta, he was recalled and put on trial, and his humiliating failure earned him and his family lifelong exile in Thrace.   

His History is unfinished, breaking off in the year 411. The work has been edited posthumously by an unknown editor.

He begins with an account of Greek pre-history. He discusses the underlying as well as the immediate causes of the war, and gives us a detailed description of its events. His discussion of causes and his distinction between long and short-term marks him out as a historian.

His History is above all a history of a war: military and political affairs are always in the foreground at the expense of diplomatic negotiations. Unlike Herodotus, he refrained from supernatural explanations. He also gives us the texts of treaties, which have been used by subsequent historians. 

One of his methods that does not seem modern is his use of extended speeches. The best-known example is Pericles' funeral oration. These were not composed by the alleged speakers, but were invented by Thucydides in order to throw dramatic light on the situation. 

The War

Thucydides stated: 
‘What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.’ 
Sparta’s allies believed that the very existence of a powerful Athenian navy ruling over a vast empire threatened the safety and independence of the other Greek states.

A second cause of the war was a lessening of the Persian threat, which gave the Greeks the luxury of quarrelling among themselves. In 449 BC the Delian League under the leadership of the Athenian politician, Callias, agreed a treaty with Persia, which gave autonomy to the Ionian states of Asia Minor. After this there was no significant fighting between the Greeks and the Persians, though the Persians continued to interfere in Greek affairs.

According to Thucydides, the most immediate cause was the hostility between Athens and Sparta’s ally Corinth. Corinth had created an extensive colonial empire including the island of Corcyra (Corfu) in the Adriatic. It watched with great concern the expansion of Athenian trade with the west and allied itself with Sparta. In 433 Pericles made an alliance with Corcyra, knowing it could lead to armed hostilities. Athens’ heavy-handed dealings led Sparta to declare war in Corinth’s defence. 

Sparta was capable of fielding an army of close to 40,000, though its navy was inferior to that of Athens. It needed the support of the maritime cities of Corinth, Megara and Sicyon (on the isthmus of Corinth) but over all it had less than a hundred triremes. Athens could raise only 15,000 hoplites, but its navy had three hundred triremes and had little difficulty in keeping open the sea route to Athens. 

Pericles’ strategy was to rely on the fleet rather than engaged in pitched land-battled with the Spartans. However in May 431 the Spartans launched an invasion into Athenian territory. They cut the grain and devastated the countryside. Demoralised Athenian farmers crowded into the city and watched their farmlands blaze. This was the context of Pericles’ funeral oration. 

The Plague
At the time of the second invasion in the summer of 430 Athens, by this time a severely overcrowded city was hit by a virulent plague. The latest evidence from tooth pulp from the graves of the period suggests typhus, a disease spread by lice or fleas. The disease killed 80,000 people, at least a third of the city, including Pericles in 429. In 1994 the body of an eleven-year-old girl was excavated by workers preparing the ground for the latest extension of the Athens metro. Her face has been reconstructed in a laboratory in Sweden and the scientists have named her ‘Myrtis’.