Politics & Policy

Why Did Athens Lose?

The misery of 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 has been excerpting Chapter 10 of the book. Below is the final installment; the first can be read here and the second here; the third here; the fourth here. Check back tomorrow for the final installment and click on Amazon to purchase A War Like No Other here.

Given the absence of resolute action or inspired Spartan leadership in the twenty years before the Ionian War, one asks that question rather than “How did Sparta pull it off ?”Thucydides himself emphasizes how rare capable men like Brasidas, Gylippus, and Lysander were at Sparta, and how Athens, despite the advantages that democratic government brings to war, made mistake after mistake.

In his narrative there emerge four reasons why Sparta triumphed; none of them can be attributable to the oligarchy’s strategic insight or imaginative tactics. The plague was nature’s bane. Sicily was Athens’ own strategic mistake and was compounded by tactical blunders. The creation of a fort at Decelea and the use of Persian capital to build a fleet are attributed by Thucydides and Xenophon to the advice and machinations of Alcibiades, an Athenian. So naturally observers look to what Athens did wrong rather than to what Sparta did right to explain how such a dynamic imperial city was not merely beaten but nearly ruined.

Yet Athens no more lost its war with Sparta than Nazi Germany did its offensive wars with France or Poland. By 425, in the seventh year of the conflict, almost all of Athens’ limited objectives had been achieved in line with Pericles’ original goal of a temporary stalemate–or perhaps more charitably seen as not losing in a war of exhaustion. Athens’ empire was still intact. It exercised continual naval supremacy over all potential enemies and, indeed, would finish the first decade of the war with its fleet still at its prewar level of 300 ships. True, the problems with Sparta were not solved, only postponed; but the city at least had shown that its own destruction might be beyond the capabilities of Sparta’s original alliance.

Athens, after all, had proved to Sparta that hoplite invasions of Attica, despite the horri?c plague, would not bring the city to its knees. With the capture and detainment of the Spartiate prisoners from Sphacteria, who were to be executed the moment a Peloponnesian army again crossed the borders of Attica, the general outline of the Peace of Nicias, which would transpire four years later, was already established. Pericles’ vision, though tattered and torn, seemed fulfilled. Contemporaries in 421 thought Sparta was checked and demoralized after Pylos and the failure to make headway in Attica. Whether a shaky peace and a return to the status before the war was worth the cost of a decade of fighting and the plague is another matter altogether.

In contrast, the reasons for Athens’ later and utter defeat after the failed peace were probably twofold. First, even before the Sicilian expedition Athens had not simply fought Sparta but for a decade of the Archidamian War was holding off Sparta, its entire Peloponnesian alliance, and Corinth and Thebes. These two latter states proved their vehemence by not even becoming signatories of the shaky peace achieved in 421 In the trireme fighting in the Corinthian Gulf, at Solygia, and at Delium both allies had frequently fought Athens mostly on their own, without help from Sparta.

The powers formally allied with Sparta for most of the conflict were not weak. Peloponnesian states like Elis, Tegea, and at times even a reconstituted Mantinea and Argos provided hoplites for a Spartan-led enterprise or later occupation at Decelea. The Boeotian army was as formidable as the Spartan. Its bitter hostility ensured a two-front war, a permanent condition after the failed Athenian effort at Delium. Corinth controlled much of the lateral sea traf?c in and out of the Gulf, and all routes to and from the Peloponnese by land. The continual Athenian failure to take over the Megarid only ensured the Peloponnesians perpetual access to Attica anytime they thought they could devise some better strategy than the earlier failed annual invasions, such as the final occupation of Decelea.

In the first few years of the war Athens conducted massive operations abroad, but quickly learned that the permanent deployment of some 100 to 200 ships was exhausting its treasury without bringing decisive results. But with the capture of Pylos and Sphacteria in 425 it achieved a stunning psychological victory, made all the more so once the Spartans were shamed by the surrender of their crack hoplites and were willing to withdraw from Attica for good.

Once more, by 421 the Athenians had not won; but they had proved that even after suffering horrendous losses to the plague they could find innovative new methods of not losing the war. Yet the city-state’s most creative thinkers, from Alcibiades to Demosthenes, gauged stalemate a disappointment rather than a windfall. Thus they began to devise further probing operations in the Peloponnese that might weaken Sparta without taking on her formidable hoplites. The result was a doubly disastrous policy, a renewed war with the Peloponnesians and misplaced faith in expanding the theater of con?ict in lieu of confronting and defeating the Spartan army outright as a way of freeing the helots and dismantling Spartan apartheid.

Second, despite taking on all at once the three largest of the city-states, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes; losing well over a quarter of its population to the plague; and not destroying the hoplite or naval resources of any of its three adversaries, in 415 Athens invaded Syracuse. Immediately it found itself at war with a larger city than its own and almost as democratic. Not only had Athens diverted its precious resources to a far distant campaign at a time when Spartans were soon to be thirteen miles from its walls, but in attacking democratic Syracuse it also weakened its propaganda that its war was in large part ideological, taken up on behalf of democratic peoples and their resistance to foreign-imposed oligarchies.

Sicily drew blood, and the hemorrhaging attracted a whole host of new enemies. Perhaps worst of all, after Sicily Athens was in a war against itself, as the revolution of 411 and the failed oligarchic putsch proved. By 412 Persia was soon to be a de facto belligerent. Without Persia’s vast capital for crews and triremes, Sparta could never have prosecuted the Ionian War, which eventually forced Athens to capitulate. In that narrow strategic regard, Athens really was like the Germany of World War II, which fought the old European allies of France and England, took on the vast industrial might of the United States, and tried to invade Soviet Russia. Hitler might have defeated or obtained a draw with any of the three powers individually or in succession, but never two, much less three, in combination.

It was the belief of Thucydides that if democracies brought multifaceted advantages to war, their raucous assemblies, constant second-guessing, grandstanding, and hypercriticism severely hampered military operations. Only a towering figure such as Pericles could rein in the raw emotions unleashed in open forums and, as first citizen, by sheer power of his moral authority run the country by near ?at and still take full advantage of democratic dynamism. Whether that pessimism of the historian was warranted or fair to democracy, it was certainly clear that Sparta had more patience with an occasionally lax Brasidas, Agis, or Lysander than Athens ever did with its own generals.

True, Sparta could execute generals like Thorax and shun the returning prisoners from Pylos, but in comparison to Athens it gave latitude to commanders in a way unknown at Athens. If Thucydides was exiled for failing to save Amphipolis from Brasidas, later in the same theater Brasidas most surely was not recalled to Sparta after failing to reach Torone in time and thus losing the entire city to Cleon. That the Athenian assembly exiled, executed, or fined almost every notable general it ordered on campaign did not make commanders more accountable as much as timid and prone to second-guessing. Thus, after any setback, whether in the Delium campaign or at Arginusae, they would most likely not come back to Athens, in fear of a trial. So the city did not often learn from its mistakes but almost always scared generals into being too cautious or reckless, their decisions based on anticipating what the voters back home might approve on any particular day.

A Possession for All Time?

Whether Thucydides entertained preexisting views about the nature of war and sought to use the events of the Peloponnesian War to confirm his pessimism, whether his philosophy emerged inductively from the mayhem that he witnessed over three decades, or both is not really known. But his history is more than a narrative of now obscure battles and massacres. Instead, as he predicted, it serves as a timeless guide to the tragic nature of war itself, inasmuch as human character is unchanging and thus its conduct in calamitous times is always predictable.

If the Peloponnesian War still teaches us something about men at war, it is the lesson that interim armistices may quiet down the fighting but cannot with any degree of consistency end the conflict unless they address why one party chose to go to war in the ?rst place. More often resolute action, for good or evil, can bring lasting peace, usually when one side accepts defeat and ceases its grievances through a change of heart or government–in either freedom or tyranny. In that sense of how to make a war end for good, the no-nonsense Lysander understood the nature of this awful conflict far better than the stately Pericles or naive Nicias.

Both states initially went to war unsure of how to defeat the other. Yet after nearly twenty years of futile killing, the war was resolved in about seven years when Sparta realized how Athens could be vanquished (keep its people inside the walls, its tribute and food outside, and sink its fleet). The disturbing message here is that discussions follow the sway of the battlefield, and diplomatic solutions work best when they accurately reflect military weakness or strength.

It is common to label this appreciation for power and its role in state affairs “realism” or “neorealism.” But Thucydides–and this is why he is truly a great historian–is too discerning a critic to reduce strife down simply to perceptions about power and its manifestations. War itself is not a mere science but a more fickle sort of thing, often subject to fate or chance, being an entirely human enterprise. The Peloponnesian War, then, is not a mere primer for international relations studies, and the historian does not believe that “might makes right.” Tragedy, not melodrama, is his message.

Yet Thucydides does recognize that humans are also subject to other inexplicable emotions that make them do things that do not quite make sense, whether that means Spartans who “fear” Athenian success, the poor Plataeans who choose to resist the siege, the supposedly stern Spartans who panic after the fall of Sphacteria and cease all their invasions into Attica on news that a mere 120 of their elite might be executed, the Melians who in vain hold out for Spartan support, or the once haughty Athenians who sail to Syracuse and persist in folly with the same reliance on “hope” that they had earlier damned the naive Melians for entertaining. If moderns wonder why entire countries of several million people can be held hostage when masked criminals threaten to behead a single one of their citizens on global television, we could do worse than to remember why panicked and shocked Spartans simply abandoned their entire strategy of invading Attica.

For a writer who is supposedly interested in power rather than tragedy, Thucydides misses no occasion to note how heartbreaking the losses of particular armies were. What seems to capture the historian’s attention is not, as is so often claimed, the role of force in interstate relations but the misery of war that is unleashed upon the thousands–the subject of this book–who must fight it.

Thucydides sometimes opines that a particular campaign was wise or foolish, but he nearly always adds enough detail and editorializing to convey to us that the soldiers who believed in the cause for which they were dying deserved commemoration in terms that matched their sacrifice. So one discovers that the Thespians who perish at Delium are not around the next year to save their city when their erstwhile allies, the Thebans, tear down the walls. The town of Mycalessus loses not merely its schoolboys but even its animals–and we, his readers, should know that and mull it over. The Athenians are not merely slaughtered at the Assinarus River but perish as they fight one another to drink the blood and mud of the river. Whereas historians search for messages about the “lessons” of Thucydides embedded within his text, the general reader has no problem in sensing immediately what his history is about precisely from those memorable passages that will never go away, reminding us of the passions and furor that are unleashed on otherwise normal men when they go to war.

The young men of Athens, on the eve of the initial Spartan invasion or during the debate about Sicily, are always eager for war, inasmuch as they have had no experience with it. In contrast, “the older men of the city,” the more experienced, who know something of plagues, assassinations, terror, and sinking triremes, always are reluctant to invade, and thus often strive to give the enemy some way out during tough negotiations that otherwise might leave war as the only alternative. Thucydidean war can have utility and solve problems, and it often follows a grim logic of sorts; but once it starts, it may well last twenty-seven years over the entire Greek world rather than an anticipated thirty days in Attica and kill thousands at its end who were not born in its beginning.

Such recognition is not necessarily cause for pacifism; rather, to Thucydides it calls for acceptance that thousands will end up rotten in little-known places like the Assinarus River and Aetolia, the logic that follows from decisions made far away in the hallowed assemblies of Sparta or Athens. A wild-eyed Sthenelaidas or sophistic Alcibiades might rouse his volatile assembly to war without good cause, while an Archidamus or Pericles might think that his own sobriety and reason will either preclude or mitigate the killing. But between emotion and logic resides the fate of thousands of the mostly unknown–Astymachus and Lacon executed at Plataea (427), the Tanagran Saugenês cut down at Delium (424), Scirphondas butchered at Mycalessus (413), and the Spartan Xenares falling at Heraclea (419)–who will surely then and now be asked to settle through violence what words alone cannot. Remember them, for the Peloponnesian War was theirs alone.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.


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