Most of the 5th century BC was the "Golden Age" of the city state of Athens, the time when ancient Greece was at the height of her military power and political independence, and when Athens was the commercial and cultural leader among the Mediterranean city states. It was during this time that Pericles became the powerful leader of Athenian democracy, that the sculptor Phidias supervised the construction of the temples and monumental statues of the Athenian Acropolis, that Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides produced most of their tragedies in Athens's Theater of Dionysus, that Aristophanes wrote the best of his comedies, that Socrates developed his subversive philosophy, and that numerous intellectuals (the so-called Sophists) from other Greek cities were eager to visit Athens and to teach the sons of her affluent upper classes.
Athens's importance as an administrative and cultural center was reflected in its rich and famous architecture. The whole of urban Athens, the city proper and its port town Piraeus, was surrounded by a system of massive walls. The walls insured that Athens was always open to the sea, and that only a naval force superior to her own unmatched fleet could ever cut the city off from vital supplies. When manned the walls made the city unapproachable by land, and thus secured Athens's independence from any conceivable outside force.
The most visible group of buildings was that of the Acropolis--dominated by the sophisticated grace of the Parthenon. The Propylaea, a complex of stairways and halls that constituted the access to the buildings on top of the Acropolis, were famous even in antiquity for their classical beauty. The huge statue of the goddess Athena, placed beside the Parthenon, was visible from as far away as Cape Sunion. Temples and shrines, such as the Erechtaion, attracted sightseeing travelers as soon as they were completed. Inside the Parthenon was Phidias's own sculpture of Athena, one of the acknowledged masterworks of the artist.
The agora beneath the Acropolis was the commercial and administrative center of the city. It was a tree-shaded plaza around which were grouped such buildings as the Council house, the Odeum for concerts and court sessions, the temple of Hephaistus, official statues of gods and heroes, a structure for the reception of foreign delegations, and numerous shops and offices in which officials and ordinary citizens attended to their daily chores. In the narrow streets and around little plazas the men of the city did their shopping and banking. Beyond the walls and city gates were sizable gymnasia, bath houses, and exercizing fields where much of Athens's socializing went on. Scores of visitors from all parts of Greece and the Mediterranean world could always been found in the city's inns and crowded streets. Wine shops and brothels of various kinds provided relaxation and entertainment for anyone who was male and could pay.
Much of the pride and political self-confidence that Athenians felt about themselves and their city is expressed in the famous funerary oration that Pericles delivered in 431 BC:
I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour. And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions to us of the present generation. Lastly, there are few parts of our dominions that have not been augmented by those of us here, who are still more or less in the vigour of life; while the mother country has been furnished by us with everything that can enable her to depend on her own resources whether for war or for peace.
That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valour with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by. But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men; since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage.
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.
The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.
If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.
Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.
In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.
Indeed if I have dwelt at some length upon the character of our country, it has been to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessings to lose, and also that the panegyric of the men over whom I am now speaking might be by definite proofs established. That panegyric is now in a great measure complete; for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of most Hellenes, will be found to be only commensurate with their deserts. And if a test of worth be wanted, it is to be found in their closing scene, and this not only in cases in which it set the final seal upon their merit, but also in those in which it gave the first intimation of their having any. For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country's battles should be as a cloak to cover a man's other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual. But none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance, and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped, not from their fear, but from their glory.
So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives; these have nothing to hope for: it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown, and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!
Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. Still I know that this is a hard saying, especially when those are in question of whom you will constantly be reminded by seeing in the homes of others blessings of which once you also boasted: for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known, as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed. Yet you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead; not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but will be to the state at once a reinforcement and a security; for never can a fair or just policy be expected of the citizen who does not, like his fellows, bring to the decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. While those of you who have passed your prime must congratulate yourselves with the thought that the best part of your life was fortunate, and that the brief span that remains will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honour that never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.
Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown. The living have envy to contend with, while those who are no longer in our path are honoured with a goodwill into which rivalry does not enter. On the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad. (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book II, Chapter 6).
This self-confident metropolis of Greek civilization had a robust economic basis of specialized agricultural production, manufacturing, and international trade. Athens's farmers and manufacturers exported olives, wine, high-class pottery, and weapons. In exchange the city imported everything that the Mediterranean world had to offer. Her single most important import, however, was wheat. Athens was far from self-sufficient as far as food was concerned. For a long time the city had been growing too much to feed herself, and her hinterland in Attica was too small, and had too poor soil, to provide even the most basic staples. For Athens it was a question of life and death to keep open the sea lanes to those areas of the Mediterranean world from which the needed grain could be bought.
The primary wheat-growing area from which Athens bought most of her grain was the Black Sea. Since Greek merchant ships preferred to sail close to coastlines, Athens always had an interest in controlling or maintaining friendly relations with coastal cities or colonies between her home port Piraeus and the Hellespont. Control of the Hellespont, the narrows between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, was particularly vital. Losing access to such cities and islands as Samos, Lesbos, Thasos, or Byzantium was always perceived as a serious threat to the city's survival and welfare.
Partly as a safeguard, Athens imported grain also from such more distant areas as Cyprus, Southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. Thurii in Southern Italy, for example, was founded by Pericles as an Athenian colony in order to provide a foothold for further economic expansion. In a certain sense the whole economic network on which Athenian life was based was an empire of wheat. Athens and Piraeus The century of the "Golden Age" was not a peaceful one. On the contrary. At the beginning of the 5th century was the decade long war against the Persians, and at its end the protracted Peloponnesian War that pitched Greeks against Greeks in a disastrous spiral of violence and mutual destruction. In 490 BC the Persians invaded Greece to expand their already vast empire. The united Greeks, to a large extend under Athenian leadership, beat them back in the battle of Marathon. In 480 BC the Persians tried again, and they were decisively beaten in the battles of Salamis and Platea. These victories, as it turned out, established not only the political and cultural independence of Greece at the time, but of all of what was to become Europe.
During the decades after the war against Persia, Athens reached the peak of her military power. She headed the Delian League, the military organization of dozens of Greek cities that maintained a common fleet to discourage any future invaders, and to keep the sea lanes free of pirates and other obstacles that might impede the intensive international trade that developed after the Persian war. Athens administered and controlled the funds that the members of the Delian League had to contribute on an annual basis. Under the leadership of Pericles, however, these funds were increasingly used not to build war ships for a common defense, but to build up Athens's Acropolis and other public buildings that became the glory of the city. (Building up the Acropolis was a public works program that kept unemployed workers off the streets, and stimulated the Athenian economy by creating a number of important feeder industries.)
Not all members of the league were happy with that use of their money, or with Athenian political hegemony in general, and some tried to leave the organization. Whenever that happened, Athens threatened to sack such independence-minded cities, and occasionally followed through with her threats. Gradually the former defense league turned into an empire that existed primarily for the benefit of Athens. Among the rest of the Greeks, Athens's reputation slowly changed from that of an admired leader and ally to that of a feared super power. Cities that were not yet incorporated into the Athenian empire started to look around for a protector of their independence. In time they formed an alliance under the leadership of Sparta, the dominant city in the Peloponnes, and a state deservedly known for its impressive military muscle.
Pericles, although an aristocrat by birth, was the enormously popular leader of the Athenian democrats. His reforms and legislation translated into solid gains for the demos, the ordinary people. Under his leadership a popular democratic culture developed to such an extent that not even slaves went out of the way anymore when an aristocrat was about to cross the street (one of the details noted at the time by a piqued conservative critic of Athenian conditions).
Keeping the commons happy, however, cost money. The sailors of the large Athenian fleet, e.g., a major power base for Pericles and other democratic politicians, needed to be paid regularly and generously. This money came not only from the traditional upper classes by way of taxation, but also from the unwilling members of the Delian League. Thus the sailors and other democrats had a direct interest in maintaining and enlarging the empire, no matter how oppressive it might be for the allies. They went along enthusiastically with Pericles's foreign politics, which increasingly drifted toward a major war with Sparta and her allies. For Sparta was rising rapidly as a champion of the independence of Greek city states, and the Pericles Peloponnesian confederacy under her leadership increasingly challenged any further expansion of the Athenians.
Not everybody welcomed the prospect of a major war. The Spartans were more reluctant than many of her allies to engage in protracted hostilities, in spite of their dislike of Athenian expansionism. Influential members of the Athenian upper class, too, tried to come to an accommodation with the Spartans, but they were outmaneuvered by the democrats. Pericles definitely wanted war. He thought in terms of a permanently united Greece under Athenian leadership, and he thought that the city was strong enough to eventually conquer, or subdue by treaty, all major cities between Sicily and the Black sea. When a Spartan delegation came to Athens to offer peace, provided Athens was willing to relinquish its imperialist goals, and to rescind some of the hostile measures she had recently taken against other cities, Pericles bluntly rebuffed them and told his fellow-citizens in the Assembly:
"There is one principle, Athenians, which I hold to through everything, and that is the principle of no concession to the Peloponnesian confederacy. .... Now it was clear all along that Sparta entertained designs against us. That has become even clearer today. .... The Spartans ... wish complaints to be settled by war instead of by negotiations. By now we find them here dropping the tone of expostulation and adopting that of command. They order us to raise the siege of Potidaea, to let Aegina be independent, to revoke the Megara decree; and they conclude with an ultimatum, warning us to leave the Hellenes independent" (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book II, Chapter 4).
The Potidaeans were besieged at the time because they did not want to bow to Athens's demand to restructure their city administration, and to make bigger financial contributions to the Athenian treasury. The island of Aegina had recently been forced to become an Athenian colony, as it was located close to Piraeus. Megara, to break her recalcitrant attitude to Athens, had been forbidden to trade any goods in any of the harbors of the Delian league--an economic death sentence for this small city.
The Megara decree proved to be the immediate cause of the war, although the over-all cause was Sparta's general fear of Athens's continuing expansion. When Athens declined to revoke the decree, Sparta led an invasion into Attica, the Athenian agricultural hinterland, and systematically ravaged the countryside. From their city walls the Athenians could watch how the Spartans cut down olive trees, demolished farms, and burned as many crops as they could. Such ravagings were to continue for several years.
Pericles, however, had prepared the Athenians for just this sort of situation. His strategy was to avoid at all cost any engagement with Sparta's superior land forces, and to rely entirely on food imports and naval actions. All Athenian live stock had been shipped to reliable allies in advance, and the third of the Athenian population that used to live in the countryside was asked to move inside the city walls. That had the additional political advantage for Pericles of depriving his domestic political foes, the landed aristocracy, of their traditional estates and rural power base. Although Athens was generally in a strong position (her money reserves were much larger than those of her enemies, and her navy was in superb fighting condition), a number of Poseidon things started to go wrong very quickly. Right at the beginning of the war the overcrowded city was struck by the plague, and within one year Athens lost a quarter of her population to the disease, including Pericles. A spectacular breakdown of law and order was the immediate consequence. The historian Thucydides, who lived in the city at the time, gives a vivid description of the effects of the plague on morale and morality in Athens:
"An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx of people from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it. Sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.
"Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had done formerly in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of the day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object. It was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or laws of men there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing. And for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads; and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.
"Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians--death raging within the city, and devastation without" (The Peloponnesian War, Book I, Chapter 2).
The plague began to decimate the Athenian troops in the field as well. Athens failed to achieve any decisive military breakthroughs. Ever more money had to be squeezed from the Delian league, and the desire of many allies to secede from the alliance grew stronger. There were desertions among the troops, and many slaves used the general confusion to escape. The citizens were divided between those who wanted to restore peace, and those who were willing to make more sacrifices in the pursuit of victory. The majority of the Assembly continued to support the war, however. Time and again the successors of Pericles and the democratic masses scuttled every opportunity to bring the fighting to an end.
Year for year the war dragged on without any decisive victories for either side. The standard of living for most Athenians deteriorated drastically. Gradually, open disgust with the war began to surface in the works of playwrights and the discussions of some philosophers. The longer the hostilities lasted, the more radical became the anti-war sentiment. In Aristophanes's "Lysistrata," a feminist rebellion represented in the form of a comedy, Greek women are so furious about the war craze of the men that they occupy the Athenian Acropolis (where the city kept its war chest), and organize a sex strike: no more love making until the men agree to a general peace treaty. In his comedy "Peace" Aristophanes polemicizes in comical form against war-mongering priests, weapons manufacturers, and the narrow-minded patriotism that kept the Greeks from seeing their real common interests. Socrates began to question the basic assumptions that kept most Athenians mentally on the plane of self-congratulatory rhetoric and delusion.
The war continued, however--fueled by minor successes here and there, and the Athenians' desire to keep together their lucrative empire. The empire meant not only financial contributions from allies and subject states, but also overseas possessions for Athenian citizens, control of vital sea lanes, and official recognition and fame for successful generals and politicians. For soldiers and sailors it also meant plunder after an occasional victorious battle.
The gradual and inevitable weakening of Athens's position encouraged some of her allies to think more actively about leaving the league. The city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, for example, decided to secede. The decision of the Mytilenans infuriated the Athenians particularly, as that city had been a voluntary and long-time ally, and had therefore enjoyed certain privileges within the league. Athens besieged the city and forced her to surrender. The Athenian Assembly voted to butcher the entire male population, and to sell the women and children as slaves. A trireme was dispatched to deliver the appropriate instructions to the besieging army. Friends of Mytilene launched a desperate campaign in the Assembly to reverse the decision, and they succeeded the next day. They sent the state trireme, the Salamia, after the previous ship, promising extra pay for the sailors in order to make them row harder. The Salamia reached Mytilene in the nick of time, preventing this particular massacre.
Melos, a relatively small town on a little island, was not so lucky. Melos had remained neutral in the war until, in 415 BC, Athens demanded that she join the Delian league--or else. Melos decided to resist the unwarranted demand. Before the Athenians began their siege of the island city, the ambassadors of both cities had one more talk, during which the Melians tried to make it clear to the Athenians that their ultimatum was simply not just. This is what the Athenians replied:
"We on our part will not use fancy phrases stating, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we are moving against you now because of the injuries you have inflicted on us--highfalutin' talk that nobody would believe. And we ask you on your part not to imagine that you will move us by saying that you, though once a colony of Sparta, have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm. Instead we suggest that you should try to get what it is actually possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really think. For you know just as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the power to coerce, and that the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they are forced to accept" (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book III, Chapter 17).
When the Meliens still decided to resist, Athens starved them into unconditional surrender. The Athenian Assembly then voted to put all Melian men, down to the age of fourteen, to death, and to sell the women and children into slavery to offset the cost of the military operation. After the mass execution the land of the island was annexed and handed over to 500 Athenian settlers. (It was in response to the Melos incident that Euripides wrote the anti-war play The Women of Troy, a highly emotional pageant of misery that shows captured women as they are carted off, together with other war booty, as chattel or sex slaves. Euripides, although an ardent patriot at the beginning of the war, eventually became so disgusted with Athens that toward the end of his life he exiled himself from his native city.)
The war had gone on for seventeen years, and neither side had vanquished its foe. Athens had more or less recovered from the effects of the plague and early battle losses, and was still able to press substantial amounts of contributions out of her increasingly unwilling allies. A new generation of young men had come of age--men that could be drafted into the army and navy. A new generation of politicians had come of age as well. These politicians were eager to come up with new initiatives. Alcibiades, the nephew of the late Pericles, stood out in particular by arguing for bold strategies and vigorous campaigns. He was a highly effective speaker--ingenious, well connected politically, and willing to risk wealth and life in pursuit of victory and glory. Although some democrats mistrusted him deeply, he was wildly popular with the masses.
Alcibiades advocated an enhanced version of Pericles's vision of the future of Greece. Pericles's vision had been a unified Greece under Athenian leadership. During his time in office Athens in one way or another controlled the vast majority of the Greek city states between her home port Piraeus and the Black Sea, as well as some of the major islands and cities along the coast of Asia Minor. Sparta controlled most of the Peloponnes, the Isthmus, and some of the Greek mainland. A good deal of Greek commerce and culture flourished, however, in the various city states of Sicily and Southern Italy--well out of reach of Athens as well as Sparta. These Western cities owned territories that were agriculturally very rich, affording their inhabitants a notoriously affluent life style. Some of the wheat that Athens needed for her large population already came from Sicily. Thus Pericles and other Athenian politicians had begun to cast a covetous eye on the region, and in particular on Syracuse, the biggest and richest city state in this part of the Greek world. Alcibiades was not only the most enthusiastic politician to take practical steps in the direction of realizing Pericles's vision, but, true to his character, he also enlarged the vision by including in his dreams not only the annexation of Southern Italy, but also the eventual conquest of Carthage, Lybia, and Egypt. He inspired many young men in the city with such imperialistic ideas, and many of these youngsters could be found drawing maps in the sand around the gymnasia, while heatedly discussing the pros and cons of a Sicilian expedition. Main Area of Greek Colonization Democratic politicians began to look for pretexts to attack Syracuse. A favorite tack was to accuse that city of aggressive behavior toward her smaller Sicilian neighbors.
In 415 BC Alcibiades succeeded in convincing the Assembly to outfit an expeditionary force that was to conquer Syracuse and Sicily. Many conservatives, particularly among the landed aristocracy, were vehemently opposed to what they considered a foolhardy adventure. Socrates and other intellectuals seem to have raised objections to the expedition as well. Alcibiades's popularity, however, was so great at the time that he easily convinced the majority that nothing but grandeur for the state and rich booty for the participants would lie ahead.
One of the biggest armadas that Greece had ever seen was put together and readied for departure within a very short time. About the cost of the expedition Thucydides writes: "Indeed this armada was by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time. .... For if anyone had counted up the public expenditure of the state, and the private outlay of individuals--that is to say, the sums which the state had already spent upon the expedition and was sending out in the hands of the generals, and those which individuals had expended upon their personal outfit, or as captains of galleys had laid out and were still to lay out upon their vessels; and if he had added to this the journey money which each was likely to have provided himself with, independently of the pay from the treasury, for a voyage of such length, and what the soldiers or traders took with them for the purpose of exchange--it would have been found that an enormous sum was being taken out of the city" (The Peloponnesian War, Book VI, Chapter 18).
Three generals were put in charge of the force: The daring and impetuous Alcibiades, the conservative Nicias (who had argued against the enterprise), and the purely military strategist Lamachus. The armada was to conquer Syracuse and Sicily, and thereby thwart any chances that Sparta and her allies might have to win the ongoing war. The Syracusans, when hearing about Athens's unprecedented preparations, began to wonder whether it would be worth their while to even attempt a defense.
When everything was ready, something unheard-of happened. During the night before the armada's departure a group of vandals smashed or defaced almost all the herms of the city--the sacred statues of the god Hermes that stood at major street corners or in front of many private homes. The city was in an uproar and deeply disturbed, as this massive sacrilege was taken to be a very bad omen for the expedition. High rewards were offered for information that would lead to the capture of the perpetrators.
Radical democrats, using the occasion to hurt a political enemy, spread the rumor that Alcibiades was behind the deed. They produced witnesses who testified that the young general had been involved in another serious sacrilege: During one of his many drunken revelries he was said to have celebrated a mock version of the sacred Eleusian mysteries. Alcibiades vehemently denied the charge and offered to stand trial at once. That, however, his political enemies did not want, as they feared that his enormous popularity with the sailors and the army would guarantee him an easy acquittal. They had a man, who was not known to be a democrat, make a motion in the Assembly to the effect that Alcibiades should stand trial at a later date, and that for now he should depart with the fleet and fulfill his duties as a general. They reckoned that this would give them enough time to put together a convincing case against the popular aristocrat.
The motion passed, and the fleet got ready to sail. Thucydides describes the departure: "The Athenians ... went down to Piraeus at daybreak, and began to man the ships for putting out to sea. With them also went down the whole population of the city, both citizens and foreigners; country folk each escorting those that belonged to them, their friends, their relatives, or their sons, with hope and lamentation upon their way, as they thought of the conquests which they hoped to make, or of the friends whom they might never see again, considering the long voyage which they were going to make from their country. Indeed, at this moment, when they were now upon the point of parting from one another, the danger came more home to them than when they voted for the expedition. ....
"The ships now being manned, and everything put on board with which they meant to sail, the trumpet commanded silence, and the prayers customary before putting out to sea were offered--not in each ship by itself, but by all together to the voice of a herald. And bowls of wine were mixed on all ships, and libations made by soldiers and their officers in gold and silver goblets. In their prayers joined also the crowds on shore, the citizens and all others that wished them well. The hymn sung and the libations finished, they put out to sea, and first sailing out in column then raced each other as far as Aegina, and so hastened to reach Corcyra, where the rest of the allied forces were also assembling" (The Peloponnesian War, Book VI, Chapter 18).
When, after a slow voyage, the armada reached Sicily, the democrats in Athens convinced the Assembly to call back Alcibiades so that he could stand trial. The Salamia was sent after him. He was not arrested, as his foes thought that that might cause a mutiny among the armed forces, but simply asked to follow them back to Athens in his own ship. On the way back they stopped in Thurii in Italy. There Alcibiades disappeared with some of his friends, and eventually turned up in Sparta to ask for asylum. The Salamia returned to Athens empty-handed, and a court condemned Alcibiades to death in absentia. All his property was confiscated by the state.
Upon hearing of his death sentence, Alcibiades replied: "I will show them that I am very much alive." He began to give valuable strategic advice to the Spartans. Not only did he induce them to occupy Decelea, a fort near Athens that controlled the city's highway to her silver mines in Laureum, but also to send a competent military adviser to Syracuse--a measure that did much to strengthen Syracusan resistance against the Athenian attack.
The Sicilian expedition, after a lengthy and costly campaign, turned out to be an unprecedented disaster for Athens. Although after the first failing attempts to lay siege to Syracuse large reinforcements were sent to Sicily, no ships and few men ever returned home. Large numbers of soldiers and sailors were killed in action, and many were captured and sold as slaves. The vast majority of the armada, however, was taken prisoner and slowly starved to death in a large quarry. "Crowded in a narrow hole, without any roof to cover them, the heat of the sun and the stifling closeness of the air tormented the prisoners during the day, and then the nights, which came on autumnal and chilly, made them ill by the violence of change. Besides, as they had to do everything in the same place for want of room, and the bodies of those who died from their wounds or from the variation in the temperate, or from similar causes, were left heaped together one upon another, intolerable stenches arose--while hunger and thirst never ceased to afflict them, each man during eight months having only half a pint of water and a pint of corn given him daily" (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book VII, Chapter 23).
The Syracusans went to great length to humiliate the once invincible super power that had attacked them. They branded the enslaved Athenians by stamping an owl on their forehead, and they stood jeering at the rim of the quarry while the prisoners begged them for water and bits of food. Against Greek etiquette and custom, the leaders of the expedition were unceremoniously executed.
The Sicilian expedition was a massive setback for Athens. As soon as the news got around Greece, numerous allies began preparations for an open and immediate revolt against the city. Sparta, although herself weakened by the war, encouraged such preparations as best as she could. To everybody it looked as if the Athenian empire was about to fall apart.
But the war continued for another whole decade. Sparta was not able to deliver a final blow to her enemy, and Athens--with the energy of utter fear and sheer desperation--scraped together more money and rebuilt much of her fleet. To safeguard the sea lanes to the wheat fields on the Black Sea, the city kept in line as many allies along the route as she could manage. Athens launched naval attacks against the Spartans, who still were not quite a match for her at sea. The Spartans finally turned to the Persians for help--the latter having a strategic interest in seeing the powerful and dangerous Athenian empire reduced. With Persian money Sparta slowly improved her fleet.
In 411 BC Alcibiades switched sides again and rejoined the Athenian navy. To make up for the help he had given the Spartans during his exile, he worked hard to produce victories for his country of origin, and up to a point he succeeded. For a short time he enjoyed a glorious return and welcome as supreme commander to Athens. Many Athenians mistrusted him, however, and after a minor defeat caused by one of his subordinate officers he was stripped once more of all his commands. He exiled himself, and without his leadership Athens soon lost almost her entire fleet to the Spartans at Aegospotami. Thus in 404 BC Athens did not only lose access to the Hellespont and the Black Sea, but was also defenseless against the Spartans who quickly sailed to Piraeus and laid siege to the city. The Athenians, without much food or other supplies, were in no position to defy the Spartans for very long. After less than half a year of increasingly severe starvation the city agreed to an unconditional surrender.
During the twenty-seven years of the war, but also during much of the Periclean administration preceding it, Athens had basically pursued a policy of might is right. As the Melos incident illustrates with particular clarity, leading Athenian politicians did not only think that justice is the interest of the stronger, but that they were also prepared, with popular approval, to pursue their perceived interest with the utmost brutality. Thus, when Athens finally was at the mercy of her foes, many of Sparta's smaller allies demanded that they do to Athens what Athens had done to so many others. For a short time the inhabitants of Athens expected that their conquerors might butcher the male population and sell women and children into slavery. The burning of their city to the ground, too, was a distinct possibility.
The Spartans, however, resisted such demands. They still had, as they said, too much respect for Athens's glorious role in the war against Persia to destroy her so utterly. They were satisfied with dismantling her empire, forcing her into a humiliating alliance with the Peloponnesian confederacy, and demolishing the long walls that connected the city with her harbor. To secure Athenian compliance with the victor's terms, they installed a Spartan garrison on the Acropolis. Last, not least, they abolished the democracy by delegating all power to a junta of thirty Athenian oligarchs.
Socrates's student Xenophon describes the end of the war in his Hellenica as follows: After the Athenian accepted the terms "Lysander [the Spartan commander] sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the city walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of freedom for Greece" (II, 2).
From: The Unexamined Life
Copyright © 1999 by Jorn K. Bramann
Back to top of page
Map of Greece and Environment
Athens: Visual Environment
Plato and the Body: at forum/Athens3.htm
Classical Greek Sculpture
Back to Socrates.htm