Critics of our interpretation of history are in the habit of putting forward what they consider to be devastating examples of the absurdity of our claims. One such example is the Peloponnesian War which threw into turmoil the ancient Greek States about two thousand four hundred years ago.
To some readers it may appear futile, in these turbulent times, to discuss a conflict that raged so long ago. It may be that before we have reached the end of this article they will have reason to change their minds.
At the time the war broke out Athens, by far the best known and most venerated of the Greek communities, had reached its highest pitch of brilliance in all the arts; architecture, sculpture, literature and the rest. It was the age of Pericles. But it was the economic conditions of the times that were responsible for this brilliance, and it was the political struggle arising out of those economic conditions that brought about the Peloponnesian War and eventually reduced this brilliant civilisation to ruin.
Nearly three thousand years ago Greece was invaded by two Hellenic tribes, Dorian and Ionian, which settled in various places as small self-sufficing land communities. The places in which the communities settled had a considerable influence on the subsequent development of four of the principal states, Sparta, Athens and Corinth and Megara.
Greece consisted of numerous landlocked valleys and islands, and the climate was inclement. The soil was generally poor, especially in Attica, where Athens was situated, corn in particular did not flourish there, and in later times the bulk of the grain supply was imported from eastern lands. The ensuring of an adequate grain supply was the great problem that agitated the Greeks, just as in later days it agitated the Romans.
Before the arrival of the Hellenes, Greece, Asia-Minor, and the islands of the Argean Sea were dominated by a great maritime civilisation centred in Crete. By the time the Hellenic tribes had settled in their new homes the Cretan civilisation had fallen to decay, its colonies over-run, and its maritime trade taken over by the Phonoecians. But the colonies established by Crete on the Greek mainland exerted some influence on the rude Hellenic barbarians, particularly in the products of art such as pottery.
As time passed the nature of the Greek settlements commenced to diverge. At first they were all farming communities, but in the course of time those near the coast commenced to engage in seafaring, and commerce as a source of wealth began to take the place of farming. Athens, Corinth and Megara were states of this kind, but Sparta, owing to its position inland, remained a farming community ruled by an agricultural aristocracy.
In order to understand the position before war broke out a brief description of the leading participants is necessary.
The community established by the Spartans has become a byword for physical fitness and the value of plain living. The system of physical training is ascribed to one of the early “lawgivers,” Lycurgus, and became necessary to conserve the rule of the Spartans over their subject people. When the Spartans came down into Peloponnesus they reduced the people they conquered there to the condition of serfs, who since have gone by the name of “Helots.” The country they conquered consisted of valleys surrounded by mountains and was one of the most fertile portions of Greece. The Spartans (or Lacedaemonians) were not all of equal status. Only the free citizens of the city of Sparta itself controlled the government of the country. Throughout the rest of Sparta settlements were planted to guard the frontiers and help keep the Helots in subjection. The inhabitants of these settlements, who were called Periscii (“dwellers round about”), were free, had full control of local affairs, but no share in the government of the state.
In numbers the Spartans were only a small proportion of the state, and it was the necessity they were under to keep the Helots down that led to the stringent discipline they imposed upon themselves. One rising of Helots that threatened to overthrow the Spartan rule gave them such a fright that they decided to abandon luxurious living and keep themselves always on a warlike basis.
The means adopted by the Spartans to forestall any risk of revolt on the part of the Helots, who were about eight times as numerous, is described in the following passage from A. J. Grant’s “Greece in the Age of Pericles,” which was written towards the end of the last century : —
“And there were in the life of the Helot certain terrible possibilities that quite explain their restiveness. We need lay little stress on such grotesque details as Plutarch’s story that it was a Spartan custom to make Helots drunk in public that they may serve as warnings to the Spartan youth. It is more important to notice that the system of secret police (crypteia) was devised against them. At the beginning of every year war was declared against them, that their murder might not bring blood-guiltiness upon the state. Year by year a certain number of young men put themselves, as secret police, under the direction of the Ephors. It was their duty to go into the country districts to spy out any discontent or designs of insurrection that might lurk there; and if any Helots seemed to entertain designs contrary to the interests of the state, they were at once to be put to death without form of trial. An incident in the eighth year of the Peloponnesian war does not allow us to believe that the system of secret police was a mere threat. In that terrible struggle the Spartans were forced to give to the Helots not only the light arms with which they usually accompanied their masters to battle but the full panoply of the heavy-armed soldier. To put such weapons into the hands of so hostile a population was clearly a great danger that must be met. How it was met Thucydides shall tell. “They proclaimed that a selection would be made of those Helots who claimed to have rendered the best service to the Lacedaemonians in the war, and promised them liberty. The announcement was intended to test them; it was thought that those among them who were foremost in asserting their freedom would be most high-spirited and most likely to rise against their masters. So they selected about two thousand, who were crowned with garlands, and went in procession round the temple; they were supposed to have received their liberty, but not long afterwards the Spartans put them all out of the way, and no man knew how any of them came to their end.” (Pages 57-58).
Pretty ghastly ! It would seem that the German Gestapo and their like still have something to learn !
While the Spartans were settling in and dominating the Peloponnesian peninsula the Ionian tribes had gone down into Attica, settling in Athens, on the coastline of the Aegean Sea and the adjoining islands. A glance at the map will show that this territory, with the island of Crete at the south and Asia-Minor on the east, made a little world of its own, admirably set out for commerce with uninterrupted access by sea everywhere. It was, in fact, commerce that eventually dominated the economics and politics of this area. The history of the city states round the Aegean fundamentally diverged from that of the other states, like Sparta, that always remained under the rule of landed aristocracies. Thus the class struggles and conflicts that developed were waged between rich and poor, commercial groups and landed classes, expressed politically as wars against aristocracy, dictatorship or democracy.
The development of Athens, the leading commercial state of the time, is typical of them all. Founded as a landed aristocracy, the poverty of the soil of Attica soon drove the people of Athens to the sea to obtain by barter (principally of pottery, as they had one asset—good potters clay) the sustenance they could not obtain from the soil. The introduction of coinage eventually helped on the ruin of small landowners, who were forced to mortgage their land and implements and finally their bodies to creditors. We have not sufficient space now to give this interesting history.
The economic aspect of Athens at the opening of the war was as follows: —
There was a free citizen population of about 105,000; a free non-citizen (mainly alien) population of about 30,000; and a slave population of 100,000. The greater number of the citizens lived in the country, cultivating their own farms. All of these landowners did not live on their own estates, many of the richer ones living in the town and leasing their property or having it worked by slaves. Of the rest of the citizens the richer were interested in industry or commerce, either as principals or lenders of money, the poorer as craftsmen, sailors and so on. The bulk of the inhabitants of the town and its port—the Piraeus—were poor men reduced to the necessity of manual labour and, with the poor aliens and slaves, formed the industrial class.
Politically the rich landed proprietors supported aristocratic government, and the industrial class supported democratic. Between the two were the rich class, interested in commerce, and the moderate landowners who alternately favoured aristocracy or democracy as one or other appeared likely to serve their momentary interests. Thus during the war Athens, unlike Sparta, was constantly torn by internal conflict.
The invasion of Greece by the Persians gave Athens the opportunity to build up a great maritime empire. While Sparta, the farthest from the conflict, hesitated and fell back, Athens was compelled to fight. The island and coastal states formed a confederacy and voted Athens, who had the largest navy, to the headship, sending money to build up the navy and fortifications. Athens acquitted herself well and used the large navy, with which she was provided, to acquire a virtual monopoly of the commerce and the carrying trade of the Aegean. This monopoly drove two wealthy trading states, Corinth and Megara, into the arms of aristocratically ruled Sparta, and was the real cause of the Peloponnesian War.
Corinth and Megara were situated on either side of the isthmus that divided Peloponnesia from Ionia, and built up a profitable trade owing to the goods that were transported across the isthmus to avoid the dangerous sea journey round the Peloponnesian peninsula. Grant makes the following remarks about Corinth : —
“She had invented the war-ship, the trireme, which had now become the main instrument of the greatness of Athens. Her position upon the Isthmus had given her great advantages for trade, and she made full use of them. A vast slave population ministered to her wants at home and abroad. At Corinth probably life was more luxurious and more unhealthy in its social conditions than elsewhere in Greece. This state now found herself hemmed in by the growth of Athenian power.” (Page 242, “Greece in the age of Pericles.”)
The carrying trade monopoly established by Athens compelled the bulk of shipping to avoid the harbours of Corinth, and the result threatened Corinth with economic ruin !
Largely by the influence of Corinth a conference was held at Sparta in 432 B.C., at which the Corinthians urged Sparta to declare war upon Athens. The following extracts, with their striking modern parallels, are from the speech of the Corinthian delegate at this conference.
“. . . . Time alter rime we have warned you of the mischief which the Athenians would do to us; but instead of taking our words to heart, you chose to suspect that we only spoke from interested motives. And this is the reason why you have summoned these allies here to Sparta too late—not before but after the injury has been inflicted, and when we are smarting under the sense of it. Of all persons who has a better right to speak than ourselves, who have the heaviest accusations to make, outraged as we are by the Athenians, and neglected by you ? If the crimes which they are committing against Hellas were being done in a corner, then you might be ignorant, and we should have to inform you of them; but now, what need of many words ? Some of us, as you see, have already been enslaved; they are at this moment intriguing against others, notably against allies of ours; and long ago they had made all their preparations in expectation of war. Else why did they seduce from her allegiance Corcyra, which they still hold in defiance of us, and why are they blockading Potidoea—the latter a most advantageous post for the command of the Thracian peninsula, the former a great naval power which might have assisted the Peloponnesians ?And the blame of all this rests on you; for you originally allowed them to fortify their city after the Persian War, and afterwards to build their long walls . . . . By this time we ought to have been considering, not whether we are wronged, but how we are to be revenged. The aggressor is not now threatening, but advancing; he has made up his mind, while we are resolved about nothing. And we know too well by what road and how little by little the Athenians move upon their neighbours. While they think that you are too dull to observe them, they are most careful, but when they perceive that you with full knowledge overlook their aggressions, they will strike and not spare. Of all Hellenes, Lacedaemonians, you are the only people who keep at rest warding off (an enemy) not with your active power but with delay; and you are the only people who do not destroy the increase of your foes in the beginning but when it has grown to fulness. How came you to be considered safe? That reputation of yours was never justified by facts. We all know that the Persian made his way from the ends of the earth against Peloponnesus before you encountered him in a worthy manner; and now you are blind to the doings of the Athenians, who are not at a distance as he was, but close at hand. Instead of attacking your enemy, you wait to be attacked, and take the chance of a struggle which has been deferred until his power is doubled. . . . Some have already been ruined by the hopes which you inspired in them; for so entirely did they trust you that they took no precautions themselves. . . . There are important interests at stake to which, as far as we can see, you are insensible. You have never considered what manner of men are these Athenians with whom you will have to fight, and how utterly unlike yourselves. They are ready to resort to novel devices, equally quick in the conception and in the execution of every new plan; while you are conservative—careful only to keep what you have. . . . Again they are bold beyond their strength; they run risks which prudence would condemn. .. . .” (Thucydides I. 68-71.)
The above forceful language shows how bitterly the Corinthian ruling class felt the loss of their commercial position and the successful rivalry of Athens.
Early in the war Pericles delivered a funeral oration over the Athenians who died in action against Sparta. The following extracts from it give a typical Athenian view.—
“But before I praise the dead, I should like to point out by what principles of action we rose to power, and under what institutions and through what manner of life our empire became great. For I conceive that such thoughts are not unsuited to the occasion, and that this numerous assembly of citizens and strangers may profitably listen to them.Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. We do not copy our neighbours but are an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognised. . . . Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. . . . .And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirit many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; at home the style of our life is refined; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish sadness. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth now in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own.Then again, our military training is in many respects superior to that of our adversaries. Our city is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner, or prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret, if revealed to any enemy, might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own heart and hands. …. The Lacedaemonians come into Attica not by themselves, but with their whole confederacy following; we go alone into a neighbour’s country, and although our opponents are fighting for their homes and we are on a foreign soil, we have seldom any difficulty in overcoming them. Our enemies have never yet felt our united strength; the care of a navy divides our attention, and on land we are obliged to send our citizens elsewhere. But they, if they meet and defeat a part of our army, are as proud as if they had routed us all, and when defeated they pretend to have been vanquished by us all.”—(Thucydides ii. 35-46.)
Unfortunately for the Athenians in the prosecution of the war they came up against evils which have also afflicted modern states. One of these was the profiteer, as the following quotation from a speech made in the prosecution of certain grain dealers. Grain was almost the basis of Athenian life, hence the severity of the penalty, death, for anyone caught hindering its free disposal. Yet the fact that there were prosecutions for attempting to evade the law shows that the urge to make profit, even in those days, was strong enough to induce people to take grave risks.
“When these men (the grain dealers) are required to pay a special tax which everyone is going to hear about, they are reluctant, and plead their pretended poverty as an excuse, but when they have done something for which the punishment is death, and which it behoved them to keep secret, they make the outrageous assertion that their illegal acts were on your behalf. Yet you are all aware that they are the very last men who ought to put forward such a plea, for their advantage is diametrically opposed to that of other people. They make their greatest profit when some public calamity becomes known and the price of grain goes up. They are so delighted to learn of your misfortunes that, in some instances, they find out about them before other people, and in others, themselves concoct false news of disaster—that the grain fleet in transit has been lost, or has been captured by the Lacedaemonians, or that the truce is going to be declared at an end. . . . When you happen to be most in want of grain, they get their hands on the supply and are reluctant to sell—to the end that we may not quarrel about the price, but may be content if we can purchase and carry home the least little bit.” (The speech is quoted in full by Calhoun, “Business Life of Ancient Athens,” p. 73.)
Another interesting Athenian view is that put into the mouth of the disputants by Plato in his “Republic.”
“And as they are all Hellenes themselves they will not devastate Hellas, nor will they burn houses nor even suppose that the whole population of a city—men, women and children—are equally their enemies, for they know that the guilt of war is always confined to a few persons and that the many are then friends. And for all these reasons they will be unwilling to waste their lands, and raze their houses; their enmity to them will only last until the many innocent sufferers have compelled the guilty few to give satisfaction.” (P. 470.)
(Space prevents the conclusion of this article in this issue. It will be completed in the next issue.)