Politics & Policy

The End of The Great Century?

After a long, painful war.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War has recently been released by Random House. This week National Review Online will be excerpting Chapter 10 of the book. Below is the second installment; the first can be read here. Check back tomorrow for part three and click on Amazon to purchase A War Like No Other here.

Very early in his history, Thucydides justified his lengthy narrative in part by the magnitude of suffering that took place in the conflict:

But the length of the Peloponnesian War was drawn out over a long time; and in the course of the war, disasters unfolded in Greece such as never had occurred in any comparable space of time. Never had so many cities been taken and left in ruins–some by Barbarians, others by Greeks themselves as they warred against each other. Indeed several of those cities captured suffered a change of inhabitants. Never had so many human beings been forced into exile or had there been so much bloodshed–either as a result of the war itself or the resulting civil insurrections.

Clearly something had been lost in the twenty-seven years of fighting of what was, in fact, the first great civil war in Western history. But precisely what was this damage that might explain why Athens, which had once spearheaded a Pan-hellenic coalition to trounce a Persian invasion of some 250,000 combatants, could not by the mid-fourth century protect itself from another northern invasion of a mere 40,000 Macedonian combatants? Between the brilliant victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis (490 and 480) and the traumatic rout by Philip and Alexander at Chaeronea (338) looms the Peloponnesian War, whose steep costs were as much psychological as material trauma.

Much of the present-day notion of a lost brilliant classical fifth-century Hellenic culture was the creation of fourth-century Athenian orators themselves. Rhetoricians like Demosthenes and Isocrates habitually reminded their audiences how eminent their grandfathers had once been before the outbreak of the great Athenian war. That was the catastrophe, according to an understood consensus, that had reduced the Greeks to small men like themselves who now kowtowed to, rather than routed, the king of Persia and a half-Greek thug from the badlands of Macedon. A half century after the end of the war, Isocrates could still remind an Athenian audience of the carnage that awful war wrought on the city in bombastic, if often inaccurate detail.

In the Decelean War they lost 10,000 hoplites of their own and the allies, while in Sicily 40,000 and 260 ships. Finally, in the Hellespont 200 ships were lost. But who could count up those ships that were destroyed in groups of five, ten, or more–or the men who perished in armies of one or two thousand?

In Isocrates’ worldview, empire and arrogance had wrecked Athens and later Sparta as well, once the Greek city-states abandoned their Panhellenic alliances against the common enemy of Persia. A resurrected fourth-century Athens, despite the still towering presence of its intact Parthenon, the genius of Aristophanes and Plato, and the florescence of red-figure ceramic art and idealistic marble sculpture, was altogether a different place. Ostensibly the decline was from the loss of tribute, the destruction of and cost to rebuild a fleet, the consumption of thousands of talents of reserves, political turmoil, and the humiliation of an occupied homeland. The combination of suffering from the plague and the nightmare of Sicily and the awful losses of the Ionian War, coupled with the violence wrought against Mytilene, Scione, and Melos, which haunted the citizenry, had also made Athens a different city.

Such an idea of a declining Hellenic postwar culture is the general consensus, then and now: fifth century great, fourth in decline, and the Peloponnesian War the great dividing line between the two. Of course, some of this thinking is also arbitrary, an artifact of the modern calendar. Our current system of dating, which replaced the older reckoning of Greece and Rome–classical systems based, respectively, on the founding of the Olympics and the date of the establishment of Rome–was worked out only sometime in the sixth century A.D. Then an odd historical artifact emerged: the past was seen through a series of distinct “centuries” delineated by the birth and death of Christ. Thus, ancient Athens had lost to Sparta sometime near the “end of the fifth century B.C.” Was there a proper connection between defeat and a ?n de siècle transfor-mation?

For at least fourteen centuries, students of Greece thought so. Hence Westerners have loosely equated the close of the great Athenian hundred years that started roughly after the victories over Persia with the ?nale of the Peloponnesian War. Because moderns put stock in value-laden ideas about the uniqueness of centuries–eighteenth-century America, nineteenth-century values, twentieth-century modernism–they have become accustomed to seeing fourth-century B.C. Athens as somehow decadent and a pale imitation of its grand fifth-century predecessor, which was decimated by a hideous war that ended in 404.

Add that Socrates, embodiment of the ?fth-century Athenian enlightenment, was executed in 399, and the picture of a sharp departure (or, rather, downturn) from the previous majestic hundred years is nearly complete. In this way of thinking, a great man like Pericles and his sober counterpart Archidamus had started the war. But it wound down with the likes of a different sort in Alcibiades and Lysander, who were both more versatile and more reprehensible than the older generation of Athenians and Spartans.

In addition, the master playwrights Sophocles and Euripides probably both died in 406. This coincidence reinforced the common belief that the lofty triad of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were fifth-century, not fourth-century, minds. Did the excellence of tragedy pass away once the singular atmosphere of imperial Athens was brought down by Sparta? And did fifth-century Old Comedy end with Aristophanes’?nal plays in the decade after the war?

Surely modern perceptions would be different had the war begun in 470 and ended in 440. But then there is an equally disturbing afterthought: Did the chaos and suffering of the Peloponnesian War itself have something to do with the explosion of Greek accomplishment in the last third of the century? Can Thucydides’ genius be explained only by the conflict, Euripides’ greatest plays–Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, and Bacchae–as a response to the ongoing brutality at Athens, the thinking of Plato in the 380s and 370s likewise as a product of both the teacher Socrates’ wartime prowling through the city and the student’s own alienation during the prior strife, and Aristophanes’ best comedies–Acharnians, Peace, Lysistrata–as reactions to the ongoing setbacks of the war? Such ideas of war alone producing works of genius are perhaps too disturbing to be taken seriously, especially given the fact that intellectuals like Antiphon, Gorgias, and Thucydides were not merely affected by the conflicts but key players in the drama itself. Still, what precisely in human and material terms was lost during the awful twenty-seven years?

Flotsam and Jetsam

By material standards, the immediate damage to the Greek world from this three-decade-long civil war was staggering. For that reason radical material recovery within a decade was all the more astonishing. The roll call of ruin and death makes depressing reading. Almost an entire generation of Athenian leaders was consumed by the war, its members, who ventured abroad more widely than their Spartan counterparts and lost far more battles, either killed in action, exiled, or somehow destroyed by the political fallout from the conflict. In this regard, Isocrates was not really exaggerating when he claimed that the “great houses” of Athens, which had survived the earlier nightmares of revolution and occupation by the Persians, were wiped out. Few of the most prominent Athenians died a natural death, or at least met an end that was separate from the events of the war that they helped wage.

At Athens almost every statesman who assumed a role of major political or military leadership during the conflict perished. A brief review of dead generals and political leaders is appalling, as the death toll was steady year by year throughout the entire war: Alcibiades (d. 404; twice exiled, assassinated in the war’s immediate aftermath); Androcles (d. 411; assassinated at Athens); Antiphon (d. 411; executed at Athens); Asopius (d. 428; killed on Leucas); Charoeades (d. 426 in Sicily); Cleon (d. 423; death at Amphipolis); Cleophon (d. 404; killed at Athens); Demosthenes (d. 413; executed on Sicily); Euripides of Melitus (d. 429; killed while in command at Spartolos); Eurymedon (d. 413; killed in naval battle at Syracuse), Hippocrates (d. 424; killed at Delium); Hyperbolus (d. 411; murdered at Samos); Laches (d. 418; killed at Mantinea); Lamachus (d. 413; killed on Sicily); Melesander (d. 429; killed in Lycia); Nicias (d. 413; executed on Sicily); Pericles (d. 429; plague); all three of his sons (lost to the plague or executed at Athens); Philocles (d. 405; executed after Aegospotami), Phormio (d. 428; after being charged with corruption), Phrynichus

(d. 411; assassinated at Athens); Procles (d. 426; killed in Aetolia), Thrasyllus (d. 406; executed with the generals after Arginusae); and Xenophon (d. 429; killed at Spartolos).

While at least 22 Athenian elected generals were killed in combat or the immediate aftermath of battle during the war, the carnage among the leadership at Sparta was marginally lighter, due only to the fact that for the first two decades of the war the Spartans did not send their commanders all over the Greek world–and then Sparta eventually won the conflict. Nevertheless, the sharpest Spartan military minds (not always an oxymoron) were mostly gobbled up by the war, often in its last decade in the eastern Aegean: Alcamenes (d. 412; killed at Spiraeum), Brasidas (d. 423; killed at Amphipolis); Callicratidas (d. 406; drowned near Mytilene); Chalcidaeus (d. 412; killed near Miletus); Epitadas (d. 425; killed at Pylos); Eurylochus (d. 426; lost at Olpae); Euthydemus (d. 413; killed on Sicily); Hippocrates (d. 408; killed at Chalcedon); Labotas (d. 408; killed at Heraclea); Macarius (d. 426; at Olpae); Mindarus (d. 410; killed at sea in the Hellespont); Salaethus (d. 427; executed at Athens); Thorax (d. 404; executed for ?nancial impropriety); Timocrates (d. 429; killed off Naupaktos); and Xenares (d. 420; killed in northern Greece). In the text of Thucydides alone, 22 Spartan or Athenian infantry generals are explicitly noted as being killed in some sort of land battle.

How many ordinary Greeks died in the war? In ancient sources, the adjectives “a great number” (polus arithmos) or “many” (polloi) are more frequently used than exact figures. Such generalizations refer to tens of thousands of Greeks whose lives remain forever anonymous and forgotten. Nevertheless, if one were to count up all the explicit figures of the dead as reported by Thucydides, Diodorus, and Xenophon during the twenty-seven-year war, from well over 150 engagements, ambushes, sieges, executions, and various assorted types of combat, there are some 43,000 Greeks listed as killed in battle proper–again, a fraction of the true total, since in the vast majority of battle reports that wind up in ancient historians’ accounts, no figures at all are given.

For Athenian combat losses at least, Barry Strauss once made a similar effort to collate all our literary evidence, combined with commonsense conjectures, and arrived at a minimum and very conservative figure of some 5,470 hoplites killed in battle, along with at least 12,600 from the poorer thetic class. In some sense, the fact that the last decade of the war proved to be a bloodbath for the poor who rowed in the triremes that were lost across the Aegean might explain why Athenian democracy was somewhat more tranquil in the fourth century after the war. It was then another legacy of the Peloponnesian War that the critical balance between landless poor and middling hoplite citizens was altered by inordinate losses at sea, reducing the thetes by perhaps 20 percent in relationship to the better-off middle and upper citizens.7

But even the conservative figure of about 20,000 Athenian fatalities in recorded combat is just the tip of the iceberg. The adult-male-citizen population of the city, either from the effects of extended service, plague, or hunger, itself shrank from some 40,000 at war’s outbreak to around 15,000 by the surrender, or a 60 percent loss over some three decades. If, in addition to the hoplites, at least some 80,000 residents of Attica of all ages who perished from the plague are tallied (there are no ?gures on those lost to hunger or disease in other years), well over 100,000 Athenians of all classes (well apart from imperial subjects and allies) died as a direct result of the war. To imagine in contemporary terms the effect on Attica of losing an aggregate third of the population, assume that the United States suffered not a little over 400,000 combat dead in World War II out a total population of roughly 133 million (.3 percent), but rather over one hundred times that figure–or some 44 million killed in combat in the European and Japanese theaters.

Thebes, in contrast, which was never occupied and never risked its hoplite strength in any battle encounter after Delium, came off pretty well. Its light losses in comparison to those of its traditional rivals, along with Boeotia’s eventual democratization, in part explain its growing prominence in the fourth century. The Thebans also plundered at will across the border in rural Attica, a region that had become legendary in antiquity for its bounty. Only 500 Boeotian hoplites perished at Delium and an additional 1,000 light-armed troops. Perhaps another 1,000 or so Boeotians were lost either attacking or defending small towns such as Plataea, Mycalessus, and Thespiae. In any case, the war was good to Thebes and bad to Athens and Sparta, and the political events of the following thirty years would reflect that reality.

Just as Sparta and Athens had fallen out after spearheading the Panhellenic victory over Persia, so too Thebes and Sparta almost immediately were at each other’s throat as soon as Athens was vanquished. Ostensibly they fought over the ample shared spoils taken from Attica that had accrued at Decelea. But the problem that would divide Greece for the next half century was intractable: Thebes was as powerful as Sparta; its infantry was both larger and, soon, superior; and its political institutions were becoming more liberal as exclusive Sparta’s regressed into even greater insularity.8

There is little information on the number of those killed in the other city-states. For example, how many allies died when an aggregate of almost 500 Athenian and Peloponnesian triremes went down in the eight years of the Ionian War is simply unknown. Much less is there recorded any exact number of those Greeks butchered at Mytilene, Corcyra, Scione, or Melos, or the total who perished from over twenty-one sieges, hundreds of skirmishes and raids, or the Sicilian expedition that took almost 45,000 Athenian and allied seamen and hoplites, with an untold number of Sicilians as well.

Material losses were equally severe, but they are even harder to calibrate. The Athenian ?eet at war’s end was no more than 12 triremes. Perhaps well over 400 or 500 Athenian ships, even apart from those of the imperial allies, were lost during the war. For Greece as a whole, the losses may have been double that number. The entire ?nancial reserves of Athens were depleted. In the fourth century, liturgies for the building of ships were shared among several wealthy citizens, the implication being that there were no longer hundreds of Athenians of sufficient wealth who could outfit a trireme for a season.

While the agrarian infrastructure of Attica was not permanently destroyed by the annual Peloponnesian invasions–trees and vines, for example, were too numerous and too dif?cult to eradicate to ensure systematic agrarian damage–many of the wealthiest farms in the Athenian plain had been plundered for nearly a decade. Ancient sources speak of 20,000 slaves who fled to Decelea, and they comment on the growing wealth of neighboring Boeotia, once its robbers and raiders had a free hand for the last years of the war.9

Other Greek cities, like Melos, Scione, Torone, and Plataea, ceased to exist. Their physical infrastructures were either leveled or their abandoned houses resettled by foreign populations. Some major states, such as Argos, Chios, Corcyra, Lesbos, and Samos, were torn apart by civil war. Others, including Amphipolis, Corinth, Mantinea, and Megara, had been crisscrossed by armies and were the scene of constant fighting. Megara had been invaded twice a year for most of the Archidamian War. It probably suffered more rural damage than did Attica or, indeed, any other region of Greece–provisioning thousands of Peloponnesians as they passed through on their way to and from Attica and then in their absence being ravaged by furious, revengeful Athenians.

Dreams Lost?

Yet the result of the killing, looting, and disease was not that Greece was reduced to abject poverty, much less that its farms were ruined for a half century, or that the countryside was depopulated because of the war deaths. Rather, the cost was more in terms of the material surfeit and the intellectual energy of Greece that were depleted. Thus, the prosperity and af?uence accrued from the prior centuries were gone. In the years following the war there was hardly any margin of security to fund and subsidize the artistic and literary endeavors of the past. The psychological wound of the Peloponnesian War–the myriad ethnic hatreds, political factions, and private vendettas–would plague Greeks for decades, even though its consequences came to light only through bits and pieces of incidental anecdote and gossip in later extant literature.

The postbellum comedies of Aristophanes, Xenophon’s minor treatises, and Plato’s utopian literature all reflect some sort of crisis of confidence in the Athenian state. Implicit political or economic advice is offered about how to resurrect lost glory through elevation of the public over the private good. Athenian oratory of the fourth century, for example, perhaps reflects this sense of eternal wrangling over a shrinking pie–with stories of once prosperous families who were undone by the war, their petulant orphans and descendents still lamenting the lost fathers and uncles or property confiscated or destroyed. Again, the perception of lost splendor and wealth, rather than abject poverty, seems to characterize postbellum angst.10

Sparta, for a time at least, felt it had done well despite its terrible losses in the Ionian War. As the Athenians had warned the doomed Melians, Spartan rhetoric was never quite matched by action and sacrifice, at least when there were real risks in deploying Spartiates far from home. Other than raids on the Peloponnesian coast, the motherland of Laconia escaped the war virtually unscathed. When Epaminondas torched it a half century later, a variety of sources recorded the shock in the Greek world of a landscape that had previously been “aporthêtos” (“unplundered”) for nearly seven hundred years.

War, however, can alter winners as much as losers with a variety of unintended consequences. Republics, whether Rome of the third century B.C. or America of the 1940s, that are drawn into global wars can find their ensuing success, both the wealth that accrues and the resources needed to meet newfound military responsibilities, as challenging as defeat. So Sparta learned that in the 390s it was psychologically, economically, and culturally incapable of administering an empire, even one far smaller and less demanding than the one Athens had ruled for a half century. Its parochial elites were easily corrupted abroad, in direct proportion to the length of time they stayed away from the mess hall and the amount of gold they were offered by a variety of Persian grandees. As Spartan hoplites took on new responsibilities in Asia Minor, the helots back home grew stronger and the Spartan state weaker. By 398 a disenfranchised Spartiate, Cinadon, was found guilty of organizing a massive rebellion of all non-Spartiates in Laconia and Messenia against the Spartiates, whom, he claimed, his supporters wished to “eat raw.”

Within thirty years of the conclusion of the war, overseas service abroad and constant campaigning to preserve their newly won empire had created a permanent class of Spartan proconsuls and generals, the net effect of which was a rapid decline in the number of Spartiates. Forty percent of all the land in Messenia and Laconia was soon to be owned by women, not surprising given the deaths and long absences of the shrinking Spartan elite. The number of Spartiates sank to a mere 1,500 by the time of the battle of Leuctra (371), while Athens, the loser of the great war, in its aftermath recovered to a population of over 25,000 citizens.


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