Did the Persian Empire really finance both sides of the Peloponnesian war?

Did the Persian Empire really finance both sides of the Peloponnesian war?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

I thought that the Persian empire was an enemy of these states and I've read somewhere that the Spartans indeed won the Peloponnesian war with the help of the Persian empire but in an answer here it's implied that the Persians financed both sides of the war because they feared an alliance.

You have to remember that the force behind the wars was Persia. Persia feared a united Greece, and was wealthy enough to finance wars between the rival city-states. No matter how badly or frequently Sparta or Athens was defeated - there was always enough Persian gold on offer to convince them to go back to war.

I can't find anything about that though, is that true? Or am I just misinterpreting what he said?

Edit: I think I have to revise quite a bit. One thing is that the Peloponnesian Wars went through various stages which themselves got different titles (Ionian, Corinthian, etc).

As a result the poster on Yahoo Answers may be quite right. In the Ionian War, which crushed Athens, the Persians provided the gold for the Spartan Fleet.

In the Corinthian War, which pitted Sparta against former allies, Persia turned around and financed the other side.

Initially the Great King, Artaxerxes II, funded this anti-Spartan alliance, 49 because the Spartans had abandoned the treaty which they had struck with him during the Ionian War.
Instead of letting him levy phoros on Ionia's Greeks the Spartans were now fighting him for control of them. Athens used Persia's gold to rebuild its fortifications and its fleet.

Which Persia didn't like one bit, so they changed tack again:

These Athenian actions were manifestly at Persia's expense. By the early 380s Athens was even backing revolts against the Persian Empire in Cyprus and Egypt. Artaxerxes II thus realised that by helping Athens to fight Sparta he was fighting fire with fire. The Athenians were now a bigger threat to his empire than the Spartans would be. Therefore the Great King agreed to support Sparta financially as long as he got complete control of Ionia's Greeks. With Persia's financial support the Spartans assembled and manned quickly 80 warships and sailed to the Dardanelles where they stopped the grain ships sailing to Athens. This action brought the Corinthian War to a speedy end. The Athenian dēmos feared being starved into submission as they had in 405. Consequently when Persia summoned to Sardis all those who wished to hear the general peace-treaty which its king wanted, the ambassadors of Sparta and the anti-Spartan alliance arrived with flattering speed.

This paper offers an interesting insight: It wasn't just the value of the Persian gold, but also the simple fact of the existence of Persian coinage kept the wars going. It seems that only Persia had a silver coinage that was useful to be actually used as means of payment, including to be carried about!

Sparta of course did not strike coins until the third century. (Financing the Peloponnesian War: the Peloponnesian perspective, Jennifer Warren, page 317)

Otherwise the city states used a crude form of bullion, which was quite impractical for anything but hoarding wealth:

Hodkinson in his wide-ranging exploration of Spartan wealth as such refers to Spartans stockpiling foreign currencies or sending them for safekeeping to Arkadians (ibid.)

By the end of all this, with everybody lying about exhausted, this backwater named Macedonia comes about and sweeps up the lot.

Including the Persians! ;)

I'll add a few extra details which may be of use to you since the scope of the question now seems to include events outside the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC

Persian gold was said to have made its way into the hands of the prominent Athenian orator and statesmen Demosthenes, who led the opposition forces against Phillip of Macedon and other Pan-Hellenists of his time. It was said that this gold was the main motivator for his staunch opposition to the proponents of a united Hellenic faction.

Aeschines accuses Demosthenes himself of accepting 70 talents from the Persian king after the state of Athens refused 300 in financing a revolt against the Macedonians:

But you, Demosthenes, tire us out with your everlasting talk of Thebes and of that most ill-starred alliance, while you are silent as to the seventy talents of the king's gold which you have seized and embezzled. Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon 239

While Dinarchus says that Demosthenes accepted the whole 300:

Will you not execute this accursed wretch, Athenians, who, in addition to many other crucial blunders, stood by while the Thebans' city was destroyed, though he had accepted three hundred talents from the Persian King for their protection though the Arcadians,1 arriving at the Isthmus, had dismissed with a rebuff the envoys of Antipater and welcomed those from the unhappy Thebans who had reached them with difficulty by sea, bearing a suppliant's staff and heralds' wands, plaited, they said, from olive shoots? Dinarchus, Against Demosthenes 10,18

Plutarch also makes note of Demosthenes accepting the bribes:

Demosthenes, however, was not worthy of confidence when he bore arms, as Demetrius says, nor was he altogether inaccessible to bribes, but though he did not succumb to the gold which came from Philip and Macedonia, that which came down in streams from Susa and Ecbatana reached and overwhelmed him, and therefore while he was most capable of praising the virtues of earlier generations, he was not so good at imitating them. Plutarch, The Life of Demosthenes

You can see by the actions of Demosthenes how much of a hindrance one man under the influence of Persian gold could be. He had convinced the Athenian assembly to send an army with allied Thebans and Boeotians to meet the Macedonians at Chaeronea and be decisively beaten. This resulted in the destruction of the city of Thebes and the end to the conflict which brought most of Greece under Phillip's control.

Did the Persian Empire really finance both sides of the Peloponnesian war? - History

The Peloponnesian Wars ("The Great War" 431-404 BC)

The Peloponnesian Wars were a series of conflicts between Athens and Sparta. These wars also involved most of the Greek world, because both Athens and Sparta had leagues, or alliances, which brought their allies into the wars as well. The Athenian Thucydides is the primary source of the wars, as he fought on the side of Athens. Thucydides was ostracized after the Spartans' decisive victory at the Battle of Amphipolis in 422 BC, where Thucydides was one of the Athenian commanders. Thucydides wrote a book called The History of the Peloponnesian War. From 431 to 404 BC the conflict escalated into what is known as the "Great War." To the Greeks, the "Great War" was a world war, not only involving much of the Greek world, but also the Macedonians, Persians, and Sicilians.

The Peloponnesian Wars were ugly, with both sides committing atrocities. Before the Peloponnesian Wars, wars lasted only a few hours, and the losing side was treated with dignity. The losers were rarely, if ever, chased down and stabbed in the back. Prisoners were treated with respect and released. Thucydides warns us in his histories that the longer wars go, the more violent, and less civilized they become. During the Peloponnesian Wars, prisoners were hunted down, tortured, thrown into pits to die of thirst and starvation, and cast into the waters to drown at sea. Innocent school children were murdered, and whole cities were destroyed. These wars turned very personal, as both Athens and Sparta felt that their way of life was being threatened by the other power.

As you read in the last chapter, Athens, along with about 150 other city-states, formed the Delian League as a way to protect against a possible Persian invasion. If any one of the Delian league members was attacked, the other league members would come to their support. In 466 BC, an important battle took place at Eurymedon, off the coast of Asia Minor. The Delian League navy crushed the Persian navy so badly, that some of the Delian league members thought the threat by Persia was gone, and the league was no longer necessary. Some of the islands in the Aegean wanted to leave the league, they no longer wanted to pay money and provide ships. Athens stepped in and did not permit these Greeks to leave the league. Athens treated these city-states harshly by tearing down their walls, taking their fleet of ships, and insisting they continue to pay the league taxes. Apparently is was easy to join the Delian League, but impossible to back out, and the league was beginning to look more like an Athenian empire.

The Pentecontaetia &ldquothe period of fifty years&rdquo (a word created by Thucydides) was the time from the end of the Persian Wars to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides tells us that this was a time of distrust between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides tells us that Athens greatness during this period brought fear to Sparta. What is interesting about that statement is that for the first time in history, emotion is said to be the cause of a war.

Let me give you one example of the distrust between the two city-states. As you read in the last chapter, a great earthquake rocked Sparta in 465 BC. The desperate Spartans asked Athens for help, but when the Athenians sent hoplites to Sparta, the Spartans, having second thoughts, sent them back to Athens. The Spartans put down the helot rebellion on their own, but could not remove a band of helots from high on a mountain top fortress. A deal was struck where the Spartans promised the helots they could leave the citadel peacefully, if the helots promised to move outside of Spartan territory. Thinking that the helots would scatter, the Spartans were alarmed to find out that the Athenians allowed all of these helots to settle in Naupactus, an Athenian controlled harbor city on the Corinthian gulf, directly across from Peloponnese. Here, the helots were free to do great harm to Sparta and her allies by controlling the gulf.

Athens had everything going for it before the outbreak of the "Great War." Athens controlled the Aegean Sea, and bullied the Delian League, so that only two other city-states in the league had their own navies. In 454-53 BC, Athens moved the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens, creating a bank in the back of the newly-built Parthenon on the Acropolis. Athens then demanded 1/60th of the league money for a "donation to Athena," which really meant it was a tax on the league members going directly to Athens. The Athenians had allies all around them by land, including an alliance with Megara, a former Peloponnesian League friend of Sparta. Athens also and controlled the seas.

Phase One of the Great War - The Archidamian War (431-421 BC)

The Peloponnesian League met in 432 BC. Corinth, a city-state in that league, complained that Sparta was not doing enough to control Athens. Sparta decided to go to war with Athens. Pericles, whom we read about in the last chapter, was the clear leader of Athens at this point, replacing Cimon, who had been ostracized, and later, after returning to Athens, had died fighting the Persians. Pericles was confident in a quick Athenian victory. If the Spartans and their allies should invade Athenian territory, the Athenians could hide behind the Long Walls. Pericles knew that the Spartans had no knowledge of siege warfare, or destroying walls. The Spartans could destroy the farmland of Attica (Athenian territory), but grain would continue to flow from the Black Sea to the port of Piraeus, and then into Athens.

In 431 BC, King Archidamius of Sparta invaded Athenian territory. The Spartans only stayed for a few months, cut down some olive trees, and then headed back to the Peloponnese. They repeated this in 430 BC. In that same year, Pericles gave his famous "Funeral Oration," in which he praised the dead Athenian soldiers for giving their lives for Athens. Pericles went on to say that Athens would win, because Athens' way of life was clearly better than Sparta's.

Pericles felt Athens would win a quick victory over Sparta. Pericles felt that after a few years of raiding the Athenian countryside, the Spartans would eventually become frustrated by the Long Walls and agree to peace on Athens' terms. But then, something went terribly wrong for Athens. In 429 BC, a plague hit Athens. Some of the grain coming into Piraeus was tainted, and people started to die in the streets. Athens had become over-crowded as all of the people of Attica were now cramped into the city, fearful of the Spartans. Disease spread quickly, and the Long Walls became a prison, rather than a fortress. Around 30,000 Athenians died, including Pericles, the Athenian leader. Thucydides contracted the plague, but survived. The Spartans quickly left Attica, fearful that they may catch the plague as well. The war dragged on.

In 428 BC the Athenians had gained a foothold in the Peloponnese, by taking the old City of Pylos. When the Spartans tried to regain the city, 400 Spartan hoplites became trapped on the nearby Island of Sphacteria. The Athenians starved the Spartans into eventual surrender and brought 120 Spartan hoplites back to Athens. They placed these Spartan hoplites on display in a human zoo, as no Athenian had seen a Spartan hoplite up close. Sparta was desperate to have these warriors returned, and was willing to comes to terms with Athens.

Phase Two &ndash Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (421-413 BC)

In 421 BC, a 50-year peace treaty was signed by Sparta and Athens, the treaty was called the Peace of Nicias, named after the Athenian who made the treaty. One of the terms was that the captured Spartan hoplites be allowed to return home. It was a shaky peace at best, and in 420 BC, the Spartans were accused of marching hoplites into Elis during an Olympic year. Sparta was not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. At this time some of the Peloponnesian League cities decided to rebel against Sparta, and were helped by Argos, the long-time enemy of Sparta, and by Athens. In 418 BC, the largest land battle of the war took place in the Peloponnese at Mantinea. Here Sparta defeated Argos, Athens and their Peloponnesian allies, and returned them to the Peloponnesian League. During the war, Athens always won at sea, but lost on land. Some historians compare Athens to the whale, and Sparta to the elephant.

416-413 BC &ndash The Sicilian Expedition

In 416 BC, Alcibiades, a young Athenian and follower of the philosopher, Socrates, convinced the Athenians to take the war to Sicily, by attacking the city-state of Syracuse. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and friendly to the Peloponnesian League. Alcibiades was very convincing, as he was an excellent public speaker. Alcibiades made the point that if Athens should take Syracuse, all of Sicily would fall, and give Athens new riches and power. It would only be a matter of time before Sparta would surrender. Sicily was 800 miles away from Athens, and it would take several ships in the Athenian navy to attack Syracuse.

The night before the expedition set sail, the sacred statues of Hermes were vandalized. Alcibiades and his friends were accused of drinking and then smashing the statues. This was awkward, because Alcibiades was the leader of the expedition. Alcibiades was allowed to set sail with the Athenian fleet, but when the fleet arrived at Thurii, a Greek colony on the southern coast of Italy, a messenger ship from Athens caught up with the fleet. This small boat was to take Alcibiades back to Athens, as he had been tried and convicted of smashing the statues. Unwilling to return, Alcibiades, along with his pet dog, jumped ship and swam to Thurii.

Nicias was now in charge of the attack on Syracuse, even though he had argued against it back in Athens. When the Athenian fleet landed in Sicily, close to Syracuse, the unwilling Nicias dragged his feet. The Athenians were slow to make the necessary walls to close off Syracuse by land, even though the mighty Athenian Fleet had closed of Syracuse by the sea.

Meanwhile, Alcibiades fled to Sparta, where he convinced the Spartans to help the Syracusans. Sparta sent one boat to Syracuse with a commander by the name of Gylippus. Gylippus raised an army in Sicily and defeated the Athenians. Foolishly, Nicias asked Athens to send reinforcements. When the new soldiers arrived, the Athenians finally decided the war was lost and to head back home. A rare lunar eclipse prevented the Athenian fleet from leaving the harbor, and during that delay, the Syracusans placed a metal chain across the harbor, trapping the Athenian fleet. The Athenians fled by land, but were hunted down, killed or thrown into pits to starve. Oddly, the Syracusans admired the tragedies of the Athenian playwright, Euripides, and any Athenian prisoner who could give a good performance of lines of Euripides, was released. Nicias was killed, and the Athenians lost most of their fleet. This was the turning-point of the war.

Peloponnesian War Phase Three: The Ionian War (412-404 BC)

At the advice of Alcibiades, the Spartans built a permanent fort in Attica so they could destroy the Athenian countryside year-round. This also cut off the access to the silver mine, and the Athenians were running out of resources. Alcibiades was flirting with the queen of Sparta while her husband was in Athenian territory, as Alcibiades had suggested, year-round. When the Spartan king found out about this, he returned to Sparta, only to find that Alcibiades had fled again, this time to Persia.

Now living in the Persian Empire, Alcibiades convinced the satrap of Lydia to slow down payments to Sparta, which the Persians had used to help Sparta gain a fleet of warships. Alcibiades was now no friend to Sparta, and he told the Persian satrap that by keeping Athens and Sparta even in power, they would eventually wear each other out, leaving the way clear for the Persians to gain power.

Seeing the influence Alcibiades had with Persia, Athens made it clear they wished for him to return and become a general. Athens was hopeful Alcibiades could convince the Persians to give aid to Athens. The Delian League was beginning to crumble, and Athens needed new allies. Alcibiades eventually returned to Athens to a hero's welcome. The charges brought up against Alcibiades for smashing the statues were dropped.

Alcibiades had great victories at the sea battles of Abydos and Cyzicus, keeping Athens in control of the Hellespont, but in 406 BC, at the Battle of Notium, Alcibiades was defeated by Lysander, a Spartan who was comfortable at sea. This Spartan whale would go on to become famous, while Alcibiades was recalled to Athens. Rather than face a trial, Alcibiades retired.

In 406 BC, the Athenians won the Battle of Arginusea, but the commanders of the fleet did not attempt to rescue sailors from the sea. Back in Athens these commanders were put on trial and sentenced to death. Socrates, the father of philosophy, protested this outcome. Socrates was no fan of democracy, as he felt it led to mob rule, and poor decision making.

Finally, in 405 BC, at the Battle of Aegospotami , Lysander captured the Athenian fleet in the Hellespont. Lysander then sailed to Athens and closed off the Port of Piraeus. Athens was forced to surrender, and Sparta won the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.

Gray crossed swords indicate a Spartan victory, Black crossed swords indicate an Athenian victory. Explosion icon: Delian League member revolt Green: Neutral areas Yellow: Persian Empire

Spartans terms were lenient. First, the democracy was replaced by on oligarchy of thirty Athenians, friendly to Sparta. The Delian League was shut down, and Athens was reduced to a limit of ten triremes. Finally, the Long Walls were taken down. Within four years, the Athenians overthrew the "Thirty Tyrants" and restored their democracy. Looking for someone to blame for the loss to Sparta, the Athenians placed Socrates on trial. He was found guilty of corrupting the minds of young Athenians, and not believing in the gods. Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock, a slow acting poison that you drink from a cup.

The Peloponnesian War had a lasting effect on the Greek world. Both Sparta and Athens were weakend. Thebes, defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC to become the most powerful Greek polis, and then, Philip II of Macedonia defeated Thebes and the Greek allies to become master of the Greek world. We will learn more about Philip and his son Alexander in the next chapter.

How did the Persian War lead to the Peloponnesian War?

When the Greek city-states banded together to repel the Persian invasions, Athens and Sparta emerged as Persia's leading opponents. Athens' fleet destroyed the Persian Navy, while the Spartan Army led the defense on land. Once they had disposed of the Persian threat, the two former allies grew suspicious of one another. A similar thing happened after Russia and the US allied to defeat Nazi Germany, but became suspicious of one another after defeating Hitler in WWII.

After defeat of the Persian invasion, Sparta proposed evacuating the Greek cities within the Persian Empire back to mainland Greece to remove the cause of war between Persia and the Greeks (this was actually done over two thousand years later after World War 1).

Athens had a better idea - to form an anti-Persian league from these cities in Persian territory, and guarantee the cities independence and protection. The cities could either contribute warships or pay the League for the upkeep of warships. Most gave money, and most of the money went to maintain Athens' superior fleet. Sparta, always inwards looking, stayed home in its own territory.

Athens was involved in several wars between Greek cities, and imagined itself impregnable, with the alliance fleet and its city walls at home, and became a standover power, intervening as it pleased. The cities of the Peloponnese resented this and looked to Sparta to lead resistance to Athenian domination.

After flashpoints at Corcyra and Potidaia, Athens took punitive action against its neighbour Megara, which was a member of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. Sparta demanded on behalf of the League that Athens cease action against Megara and with no response, warfare was opened - a bitter and devastating 27-year struggle which extended through the Greek world from Sicily to Asia Minor.

Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Part 3

Michaël Martin (photographer). Philippe Chéry (18th century), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ruinous Logic of Empire – The Mytilenian Debates and Melian Dialogue

These two episodes in Thucydides’ account of the war seem to fit together, firstly the Mytilenian Debates in the Athenians Assembly in 427 BC and secondly the Melian Dialogue of 4016/5 BC supposedly between the commanders of the Athenian expeditionary forces that were besieging the neutral island of Melos. Fundamentally they are about the progression of the ruthless application of imperial power and the descent into despotism and blood. As they say, the first killing is the hardest and each one thereafter is progressively easier.

Background to the Mytilenian Debates

The Athenian empire (known as the Delian League”) originated in the Greek alliance of the Persian Wars and had been originally led by Sparta as the pre-eminent Greek military power. In 479 BC the Greeks decisively destroyed the Persian army at the battle of Plataea and at the same time defeated the remainder of the Persian fleet and associated army at the battle Mycale on the western shore of Asia Minor (today, hopefully temporarily Turkey). The Greek alliance then went on the offensive with the intention of liberating all the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea littoral from Persian rule, but disagreements soon emerged, and Sparta and its Peloponnesian League allies were not comfortable with overseas wars and resigned from the war in 478 BC.

Of the remaining members of the alliance, Athens was by far the strongest and in effect became the leader, with those cities newly liberated from Persian rule signing up to ensure their continued independence. In the decades of war that followed the Delian League prospered and extended its ambitions and operations as far as Egypt and Cyprus, achieving maritime and commercial dominance across the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. As the Persian threat receded, many of the League’s members tired of having to provide troops and ships every year, and agreed with Athens to provide money every year in lieu. The money in effect meant that Athens’ armed forces became every stronger and gradually states that had been allies became subjects of Athens, with the latter making sure that pro Athenian regimes were in control.

In 441 BC one of the strongest members of the League, the island of Samos, tried to leave but Athens crushed it and made it a tributary member, likewise the strategically crucial city of Byzantium. By now only two major states were still notionally ‘allies’ rather than tributary subjects – the large islands of Lesbos and Chios.

The outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, the devastation of the plague at Athens and the death of Pericles seem to have convinced the leadership of Mytilene, the largest city on Lesbos, that the time to regain real freedom from Athens was nigh and they began to prepare to revolt by strengthening their own walls and forcing the smaller cities of Lesbos into political union. However, informants betrayed their plans to Athens and the small city of Methymna resisted attempts at forcible incorporation, and an Athenian expeditionary force was sent to lay siege to Mytilene. Spartan attempts to raise the siege were ineffectual and in 429 BC Mytilene was forced to surrender and await its fate.

The Mytilenian Debates

The debates about how to treat the fallen city of Mytilene were held over two consecutive days in the Athenian Assembly. In chapter 36 of Book 3 Thucydides gives a brief account of what the Assembly agreed – to put all the Mytilenian men to death and to sell all the women and children into slavery. A warship was dispatched at once to relay the order to the Athenian forces on Lesbos.

Thucydides then says that many people had second thought overnight and so the Assembly was reconvened the following day to debate the decision once more. The second debate was clearly a fractured affair but as ever Thucydides encapsulates it in just two speeches by the men he regarded as the principal advocates of both sides of the argument – for mercy and for no mercy. The latter is articulated by Cleon son of Claenetus, of whom Thucydides says,

…he had been responsible for passing the original motion for putting the Mytilenians to death. He was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character, and at this time he exercised the greatest influence over the people.”

In describing Cleon Thucydides breaks his usual approach to tell, don’t show and he clearly detested Cleon and missed few opportunities to damn Cleon’s character and achievement. He seems to have blamed Cleon for his own exile from Athens and regarded him as a kind of anti-Pericles, one of the leaders responsible for Athens’ decline and defeat. Cleon is today still described as an unprincipled demagogue because of Thucydides, a man appealing to the Athenians baser instincts to gain the ascendancy. This is probably an exaggeration. Cleon was responsible for arguably Athens’ greatest victory of the war over Sparta – the forcing of a regiment of Spartans to surrender on home ground – a victory that sent shockwaves through Greece, but was also arguably at least partly responsible for Athens’ greatest defeat – the annihilation of his expedition to Amphipolis, another pair of these linked devices threaded in the narrative.

Cleon berates the Assembly for even discussing a change of decision regarding Mytilene and among his arguments, sets out his vision of what Athens is really about, a complete contrast with the Periclean vision of the Funeral Oration only three years earlier,

“…when you give way to your own feelings of compassion you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them(your subjects) love you any more. What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you, you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favour your leadership depends on superior strength and not on the goodwill of others. We should realise that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered…”

Cleon goes on to criticise the elitism of Athens’ previous’ government, a clear attack on the aristocratic Pericles’ government of three decades, and to say that it’s better to have the country run by working men than by intellectuals and experts. Some may agree with this! Essentially, Cleon’s vision is one of might is right and that there is no room for mercy if you are going to run an empire – it’s all about fear, not pretty words.

The opposing viewpoint is spoken by Diodotus who only appears in this context. He attacks Cleon’s whole concept of government and argues that the extermination of rebels will simply inspire others to fight to the death rather than surrender, something that will only end with Athens exhausted and a ruined empire of ashes. He argues for a self-interested leniency rather than mercy for its own sake. Much closer to the Athens of Pericles’ Oration, but still a step down.

Diodotus narrowly wins the argument, another warship is dispatched to countermand the order for massacre and arrives in the nick of time. The Mytilenian leadership is however still executed and the city effective enserfed, with land confiscations etc.

In summary Thucydides is presenting us with a picture of an idealised city already descending into a brutal demagogic tyranny, but not quite so far gone yet as to indulge in wholesale genocide. The war, the need to sustain the empire, the Plague and a new generation of leaders are already doing their worst. Where this will lead in terms of the dominant practice and idea of Athenian empire is revealed in the second part of the pair – the Melian Dialogue.

The Melian Dialogue

The small Aegean island of Melos was one of the few Aegean islands not already subject to Athens. It was Dorian Greek in population, supposedly founded by Spartan colonists, and had tried its best to stay neutral during the war. Athens had previously issued it with an ultimatum to be absorbed into its empire, something the Melians rejected, and in 416 BC an Athenian expeditionary force landed to enforce surrender. Before fighting broke out the Athenians sent delegates into the city to issue their demands and Thucydides in a unique passage within his book, describes a debate between the unnamed Athenian delegates and the Melian leadership. The debate is a complete abstraction and reads like debate between professors of political theory, rather than what was surely a blunt ultimatum to surrender or die. Just to give you a flavour of the debate,

Athenians: “We on our side will use no fine phrases saying for example that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you because of the injuries you have done us – a great mass of words that no one would believe. And we ask you not to imagine that you will influence us by saying that, though you are a Spartan colony, you have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm. Instead we recommend that you should try to get what is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”

Melians: “Then in our view (since you force us to leave justice out of account and to confine ourselves to self-interest) – in our view it is at any rate useful that you should not destroy a principle that is to the good of all men – namely in that in the case of those who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing, and that such people should be allowed to use and profit by arguments that fall short of a mathematical accuracy. And this is a principle which affects you as much as anyone since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.”

Thereafter the debate morphs from one of principles into a discussion as to whether the Melians have any chance of being saved by Sparta. The Melians reject the Athenian ultimatum, resist and after a prolonged siege the city is captured, the population killed or enslaved by the Athenians and the island colonised.

It’s a very chilling passage of Thucydides, made colder by the fact the speakers are anonymous, as if it’s just impersonal forces in conflict, might-is-right versus justice-is-in-everyone’s-ultimate-interest. In some regards it reminds me of some of the dialogue of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. I don’t believe for a minute that’s it’s a remotely accurate representation of the discussions between the Athenians and Melians, but rather Thucydides’ reflections of where the remorseless logic of empire and war was taking Athens, now a city totally unrecognisable in its political ethos from that of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, one attacking and exterminating small neutral cities just because it can.

It’s a marked deterioration from even Cleon’s position in the Mytilenian debate – a further descent into Hell, and I am sure that it was teeing up another subsequent debate, this time among the victorious Spartan alliance about what to do with a defeated Athens, one that Thucydides never got the chance to write. The Melians themselves were warning the Athenians what could happen to them if they were defeated and were treated as they have treated others. We know that the Theban allies of Sparta wanted Athens wiped out, but that the Spartans perhaps surprised everyone by offering clemency, something they had not given to Plataea. We might have a clue as to how Thucydides would have explained Sparta’s surprising decision by looking at the next dual narrative mechanic – The Spartan defeat at Sphakteria and the Athenians’ catastrophe at Syracuse, events that sparked perhaps Thucydides’ finest descriptive prose, arguably comparable with the works of his contemporaries Euripides and Sophokles, something I wish to cover in the next instalment,


Alcibiades was born in Athens. His father was Cleinias, [3] who had distinguished himself in the Persian War both as a fighter himself and by personally subsidizing the cost of a trireme. The family of Cleinias had old connections with the Spartan aristocracy through a relationship of xenia, and the name "Alcibiades" was of Spartan origin. [4] [5] Alcibiades' mother was Deinomache, the daughter of Megacles, head of the powerful Alcmaeonid family, and could trace her family back to Eurysaces and the Telamonian Ajax. [6] Alcibiades thereby, through his mother, belonged to the powerful and controversial family of the Alcmaeonidae the renowned Pericles and his brother Ariphron were Deinomache's cousins, as her father and their mother were siblings. [7] His maternal grandfather, also named Alcibiades, was a friend of Cleisthenes, the famous constitutional reformer of the late 6th century BC. [8] After the death of Cleinias at the Battle of Coronea (447 BC), Pericles and Ariphron became his guardians. [9]

According to Plutarch, Alcibiades had several famous teachers, including Socrates, and was well trained in the art of rhetoric. [b] He was noted, however, for his unruly behavior, which was mentioned by ancient Greek and Latin writers on several occasions. [c] It was believed that Socrates took Alcibiades as a student because he believed he could change Alcibiades from his vain ways. Xenophon attempted to clear Socrates's name at trial by relaying information that Alcibiades was always corrupt and that Socrates merely failed in attempting to teach him morality. [17]

Alcibiades took part in the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BC, where Socrates was said to have saved his life [18] and again at the Battle of Delium in 424 BC. [d] Alcibiades had a particularly close relationship with Socrates, whom he admired and respected. [21] [22] Plutarch and Plato [23] describe Alcibiades as Socrates's beloved, the former stating that Alcibiades "feared and reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest of his lovers". [24]

Alcibiades was married to Hipparete, the daughter of Hipponicus, a wealthy Athenian. His bride brought with her a large dowry, which significantly increased Alcibiades' already substantial family fortune. [4] According to Plutarch, Hipparete loved her husband, but she attempted to divorce him because he consorted with courtesans but prevented her from appearing at court. He seized her in court and carried her home again through the crowded Agora. [25] : 185 She lived with him until her death, which came soon after, and gave birth to two children, a son named Alcibiades the Younger and a daughter. [14] Alcibiades was famed throughout his life for his physical attractiveness, of which he was inordinately vain. [4]

Rise to prominence Edit

Alcibiades first rose to prominence when he began advocating aggressive Athenian action after the signing of the Peace of Nicias. That treaty, an uneasy truce between Sparta and Athens signed midway through the Peloponnesian War, came at the end of seven years of fighting during which neither side had gained a decisive advantage. Historians Arnold W. Gomme and Raphael Sealey believe, and Thucydides reports, [26] that Alcibiades was offended that the Spartans had negotiated that treaty through Nicias and Laches, overlooking him on account of his youth. [27] [28]

Disputes over the interpretation of the treaty led the Spartans to dispatch ambassadors to Athens with full powers to arrange all unsettled matters. The Athenians initially received these ambassadors well, but Alcibiades met with them in secret before they were to speak to the ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) and told them that the Assembly was haughty and had great ambitions. [29] He urged them to renounce their diplomatic authority to represent Sparta, and instead allow him to assist them through his influence in Athenian politics. [30] The representatives agreed and, impressed with Alcibiades, they alienated themselves from Nicias, who genuinely wanted to reach an agreement with the Spartans. [29] The next day, during the Assembly, Alcibiades asked them what powers Sparta had granted them to negotiate and they replied, as agreed, that they had not come with full and independent powers. This was in direct contradiction to what they had said the day before, and Alcibiades seized on this opportunity to denounce their character, cast suspicion on their aims, and destroy their credibility. This ploy increased Alcibiades's standing while embarrassing Nicias, and Alcibiades was subsequently appointed General. He took advantage of his increasing power to orchestrate the creation of an alliance between Argos, Mantinea, Elis, and other states in the Peloponnese, threatening Sparta's dominance in the region. According to Gomme, "it was a grandiose scheme for an Athenian general at the head of a mainly Peloponnesian army to march through the Peloponnese cocking a snook at Sparta when her reputation was at its lowest". [31] This alliance, however, would ultimately be defeated at the Battle of Mantinea. [32]

Somewhere in the years 416–415 BC, a complex struggle took place between Hyperbolos on one side and Nicias and Alcibiades on the other. Hyperbolos tried to bring about the ostracism of one of this pair, but Nicias and Alcibiades combined their influence to induce the people to expel Hyperbolos instead. [33] This incident reveals that Nicias and Alcibiades each commanded a personal following, whose votes were determined by the wishes of the leaders. [28]

Alcibiades was not one of the Generals involved in the capture of Melos in 416–415 BC, but Plutarch describes him as a supporter of the decree by which the grown men of Melos were killed and the women and children enslaved. [34] An oration urging Alcibiades' ostracism, "Against Alcibiades" (historically attributed to the orator Andocides but not in fact by him), alleges that Alcibiades had a child by one of these enslaved women. [35]

Sicilian Expedition Edit

In 415 BC, delegates from the Sicilian city of Segesta (Greek: Egesta ) arrived at Athens to plead for the support of the Athenians in their war against Selinus. During the debates on the undertaking, Nicias was vehemently opposed to Athenian intervention, explaining that the campaign would be very costly and attacking the character and motives of Alcibiades, who had emerged as a major supporter of the expedition. [37] On the other hand, Alcibiades argued that a campaign in this new theatre would bring riches to the city and expand the empire, just as the Persian Wars had. In his speech Alcibiades predicted (over-optimistically, in the opinion of most historians) that the Athenians would be able to recruit allies in the region and impose their rule on Syracuse, the most powerful city of Sicily. [38] In spite of Alcibiades's enthusiastic advocacy for the plan, it was Nicias, not he, who turned a modest undertaking into a massive campaign and made the conquest of Sicily seem possible and safe. [39] It was at his suggestion that the size of the fleet was significantly increased from 60 ships [40] to "140 galleys, 5,100 men at arms, and about 1300 archers, slingers, and light armed men". [41] Philosopher Leo Strauss underscores that the Sicilian expedition surpassed everything undertaken by Pericles. Almost certainly Nicias's intention was to shock the assembly with his high estimate of the forces required, but, instead of dissuading his fellow citizens, his analysis made them all the more eager. [42] Against his wishes Nicias was appointed General along with Alcibiades and Lamachus, all three of whom were given full powers to do whatever was in the best interests of Athens while in Sicily. [43]

One night during preparations for the expedition, the hermai, heads of the god Hermes on a plinth with a phallus, were mutilated throughout Athens. This was a religious scandal, resulted in a charge of asebeia (impiety) against Alcibiades, and was seen as a bad omen for the mission. Plutarch explains that Androcles, a political leader, used false witnesses who accused Alcibiades and his friends of mutilating the statues, and of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. Later his opponents, chief among them being Androcles and Thessalus, Cimon's son, enlisted orators to argue that Alcibiades should set sail as planned and stand trial on his return from the campaign. Alcibiades was suspicious of their intentions, and asked to be allowed to stand trial immediately, under penalty of death, in order to clear his name. [36] This request was denied, and the fleet set sail soon after, with the charges unresolved. [44]

"Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs."
Alcibiades' Oration before the Sicilian expedition, as recorded by Thucydides (VI, 18) Thucydides disclaims verbal accuracy [e]

As Alcibiades had suspected, his absence emboldened his enemies, and they began to accuse him of other sacrilegious actions and comments and even alleged that these actions were connected with a plot against the democracy. [46] According to Thucydides, the Athenians were always in fear and took everything suspiciously. [47] When the fleet arrived in Catania, it found the state trireme Salaminia waiting to bring Alcibiades and the others indicted for mutilating the hermai or profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries back to Athens to stand trial. [47] Alcibiades told the heralds that he would follow them back to Athens in his ship, but in Thurii he escaped with his crew in Athens he was convicted in absentia and condemned to death. His property was confiscated and a reward of one talent was promised to whoever succeeded in killing any who had fled. [48] Meanwhile, the Athenian force in Sicily, after a few early victories, moved against Messina, where the Generals expected their secret allies within the city to betray it to them. Alcibiades, however, foreseeing that he would be outlawed, gave information to the friends of the Syracusans in Messina, who succeeded in preventing the admission of the Athenians. [49] With the death of Lamachus in battle some time later, command of the Sicilian Expedition fell into the hands of Nicias, admired by Thucydides (however a modern scholar has judged him to be an inadequate military leader [1] ).

Defection to Sparta Edit

After his disappearance at Thurii, Alcibiades quickly contacted the Spartans, "promising to render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy" if they would offer him sanctuary. [50] The Spartans granted this request and received him among them. Because of this defection, the Athenians condemned him to death in absentia and confiscated his property. [51] [52] In the debate at Sparta over whether to send a force to relieve Syracuse, Alcibiades spoke and instilled fear of Athenian ambition into the Spartan ephors by informing them that the Athenians hoped to conquer Sicily, Italy, and even Carthage. [53] Yale historian Donald Kagan believes that Alcibiades knowingly exaggerated the plans of the Athenians to convince the Spartans of the benefit they stood to gain from his help. Kagan asserts that Alcibiades had not yet acquired his "legendary" reputation, and the Spartans saw him as "a defeated and hunted man" whose policies "produced strategic failures" and brought "no decisive result". If accurate, this assessment underscores one of Alcibiades's greatest talents, his highly persuasive oratory. [54] After making the threat seem imminent, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to send troops and most importantly, a Spartan commander to discipline and aid the Syracusans. [53]

"Our party was that of the whole people, our creed being to do our part in preserving the form of government under which the city enjoyed the utmost greatness and freedom, and which we had found existing. As for democracy, the men of sense among us knew what it was, and I perhaps as well as any, as I have the more cause to complain of it but there is nothing new to be said of a patent absurdity—meanwhile we did not think it safe to alter it under the pressure of your hostility."
Alcibiades' Speech to the Spartans, as recorded by Thucydides (VI, 89) Thucydides disclaims verbal accuracy

Alcibiades served as a military adviser to Sparta and helped the Spartans secure several crucial successes. He advised them to build a permanent fort at Decelea, just over ten miles (16 km) from Athens and within sight of the city. [55] By doing this, the Spartans cut the Athenians off entirely from their homes and crops and the silver mines of Sunium. [54] This was part of Alcibiades's plan to renew the war with Athens in Attica. The move was devastating to Athens and forced the citizens to live within the long walls of the city year round, making them entirely dependent on their seaborne trade for food. Seeing Athens thus beleaguered on a second front, members of the Delian League began to contemplate revolt. In the wake of Athens's disastrous defeat in Sicily, Alcibiades sailed to Ionia with a Spartan fleet and succeeded in persuading several critical cities to revolt. [56] [57]

In spite of these valuable contributions to the Spartan cause, Alcibiades fell out of favor with the Spartan government at around this time, ruled by Agis II. [58] Leotychides, the son born by Agis's wife Timaea, Queen of Sparta, shortly after this, was believed by many to be Alcibiades's son. [59] [60] An alternate account asserts that Alcibiades took advantage of King Agis' absence with the Spartan Army in Attica and seduced his wife, Timonassa. [25] : 207

Alcibiades's influence was further reduced after the retirement of Endius, the ephor who was on good terms with him. [61] It is alleged that Astyochus, a Spartan Admiral, was sent orders to kill him, but Alcibiades received warning of this order and defected to the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who had been supporting the Peloponnesian forces financially in 412 BC. [62]

Defection to Achaemenid Empire in Asia Minor Edit

On his arrival in the local Persian court, Alcibiades won the trust of the powerful satrap and made several policy suggestions which were well received. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades immediately began to do all he could with Tissaphernes to injure the Peloponnesian cause. At his urging, the satrap reduced the payments he was making to the Peloponnesian fleet and began delivering them irregularly. [62] Alcibiades next advised Tissaphernes to bribe the Generals of the cities to gain valuable intelligence on their activities. Lastly, and most importantly, he told the satrap to be in no hurry to bring the Persian fleet into the conflict, as the longer the war dragged out the more exhausted the combatants would become. This would allow the Persians to more easily conquer the region in the aftermath of the fighting. Alcibiades tried to convince the satrap that it was in Persia's interest to wear both Athens and Sparta out at first, "and after docking the Athenian power as much as he could, forthwith to rid the country of the Peloponnesians". [63]

Although Alcibiades's advice benefited the Persians, it was merely a means to an end Thucydides tells us that his real motive was to use his alleged influence with the Persians to effect his restoration to Athens. [64] Alcibiades was one of several Greek aristocrats who took refuge in the Achaemenid Empire following reversals at home, other famous ones being Themistocles, Demaratos or Gongylos. [65] According to Thucydides (Thuc.8.47), Alcibiades also advised the Achaemenid king (Darius II), and therefore he may also have traveled to Susa or Babylonia to encounter him. [65] [64]

Negotiations with the Athenian oligarchs Edit

Alcibiades seemed to assume that the "radical democracy" would never agree to his recall to Athens. [66] Therefore, he exchanged messages with the Athenian leaders at Samos and suggested that if they could install an oligarchy friendly to him he would return to Athens and bring with him Persian money and possibly the Persian fleet of 147 triremes. [67] Alcibiades set about winning over the most influential military officers, and achieved his goal by offering them a threefold plan: the Athenian constitution was to be changed, the recall of Alcibiades was to be voted, and Alcibiades was to win over Tissaphernes and the King of Persia to the Athenian side. Most of the officers in the Athenian fleet accepted the plan and welcomed the prospect of a narrower constitution, which would allow them a greater share in determining policy. According to Thucydides, only one of the Athenian Generals at Samos, Phrynichus, opposed the plan and argued that Alcibiades cared no more for the proposed oligarchy than for the traditional democracy. [68] The involvement in the plot of another General, Thrasybulus, remains unclear. [f]

These officers of the Athenian fleet formed a group of conspirators, but were met with opposition from the majority of the soldiers and sailors these were eventually calmed down "by the advantageous prospect of the pay from the king". [71] The members of the group assembled and prepared to send Pisander, one of their number, on an embassy to Athens to treat for the restoration of Alcibiades and the abolition of democracy in the city, and thus to make Tissaphernes the friend of the Athenians. [72]

Phrynichus, fearing that Alcibiades if restored would avenge himself upon him for his opposition, sent a secret letter to the Spartan Admiral, Astyochus, to tell him that Alcibiades was ruining their cause by making Tissaphernes the friend of the Athenians, and containing an express revelation of the rest of the intrigue. Astyochus went up to Alcibiades and Tissaphernes at Magnesia and communicated to them Phrynichus's letter. Alcibiades responded in kind, sending to the authorities at Samos a letter against Phrynichus, stating what he had done, and requiring that he should be put to death. [73] Phrynichus in desperation wrote again to Astyochus, offering him a chance to destroy the Athenian fleet at Samos. This also Astyochus revealed to Alcibiades who informed the officers at Samos that they had been betrayed by Phrynichus. Alcibiades however gained no credit, because Phrynichus had anticipated Alcibiades's letter and, before the accusations could arrive, told the army that he had received information of an enemy plan to attack the camp and that they should fortify Samos as quickly as possible. [74]

Despite these events, Pisander and the other envoys of the conspirators arrived at Athens and made a speech before the people. Pisander won the argument, putting Alcibiades and his promises at the center. The Ecclesia deposed Phrynichus and elected Pisander and ten other envoys to negotiate with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades. [75]

At this point, Alcibiades's scheme encountered a great obstacle. Tissaphernes would not make an agreement on any terms, wanting to follow his policy of neutrality. [76] As Kagan points out, Tissaphernes was a prudent leader and had recognized the advantages of wearing each side out without direct Persian involvement. [77] Alcibiades realized this and, by presenting the Athenians with stiffer and stiffer demands on Tissaphernes's behalf, attempted to convince them that he had persuaded Tissaphernes to support them, but that they had not conceded enough to him. Although the envoys were angered at the audacity of the Persian demands, they nevertheless departed with the impression that Alcibiades could have brought about an agreement among the powers if he had chosen to do so. [78] This fiasco at the court of Tissaphernes, however, put an end to the negotiations between the conspirators and Alcibiades. [76] The group was convinced that Alcibiades could not deliver his side of the bargain without demanding exorbitantly high concessions of them and they accordingly abandoned their plans to restore him to Athens. [78]

Reinstatement as an Athenian General Edit

In spite of the failure of the negotiations, the conspirators succeeded in overthrowing the democracy and imposing the oligarchic government of the Four Hundred, among the leaders of which were Phrynichus and Pisander. At Samos, however, a similar coup instigated by the conspirators did not go forward so smoothly. Samian democrats learned of the conspiracy and notified four prominent Athenians: the generals Leon and Diomedon, the trierarch Thrasybulus, and Thrasyllus, at that time a hoplite in the ranks. With the support of these men and the Athenian soldiers in general, the Samian democrats were able to defeat the 300 Samian oligarchs who attempted to seize power there. [79] Further, the Athenian troops at Samos formed themselves into a political assembly, deposed their generals, and elected new ones, including Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus. The army, stating that they had not revolted from the city but that the city had revolted from them, resolved to stand by the democracy while continuing to prosecute the war against Sparta. [80]

After a time, Thrasybulus persuaded the assembled troops to vote Alcibiades's recall, a policy that he had supported since before the coup. Then he sailed to retrieve Alcibiades and returned with him to Samos. The aim of this policy was to win away Persian support from the Spartans, as it was still believed that Alcibiades had great influence with Tissaphernes. [81] Plutarch claims that the army sent for Alcibiades so as to use his help in putting down the tyrants in Athens. [82] Kagan argues that this reinstatement was a disappointment to Alcibiades, who had hoped for a glorious return to Athens itself but found himself only restored to the rebellious fleet, where the immunity from prosecution he had been granted "protected him for the time being but not from a reckoning in the future" furthermore, the recall, which Alcibiades had hoped to bring about through his own prestige and perceived influence, was achieved through the patronage of Thrasybulus. [83]

At his first speech to the assembled troops, Alcibiades complained bitterly about the circumstances of his exile, but the largest part of the speech consisted of boasting about his influence with Tissaphernes. The primary motives of his speech were to make the oligarchs at Athens afraid of him and to increase his credit with the army at Samos. Upon hearing his speech the troops immediately elected him General alongside Thrasybulus and the others. In fact, he roused them so much that they proposed to sail at once for Piraeus and attack the oligarchs in Athens. [84] It was primarily Alcibiades, along with Thrasybulus, who calmed the people and showed them the folly of this proposal, which would have sparked civil war and led to the immediate defeat of Athens. [82] Shortly after Alcibiades's reinstatement as an Athenian general, the government of the Four Hundred was overthrown and replaced by a broader oligarchy, which would eventually give way to democracy. [85]

Presently Alcibiades sailed to Tissaphernes with a detachment of ships. According to Plutarch, the supposed purpose of this mission was to stop the Persian fleet from coming to the aid of the Peloponnesians. [82] Thucydides is in agreement with Plutarch that the Persian fleet was at Aspendus and that Alcibiades told the troops he would bring the fleet to their side or prevent it from coming at all, but Thucydides further speculates that the real reason was to flaunt his new position to Tissaphernes and try to gain some real influence over him. [84] According to the historian, Alcibiades had long known that Tissaphernes never meant to bring the fleet at all. [86]

Battles of Abydos and Cyzicus Edit

Alcibiades was recalled by the "intermediate regime" of The Five Thousand, the government which succeeded the Four Hundred in 411, but it is most likely that he waited until 407 BC to actually return to the city. [87] Plutarch tells us that, although his recall had already been passed on motion of Critias, a political ally of his, Alcibiades was resolved to come back with glory. [88] While this was certainly his goal, it was again a means to an end, that end being to avoid prosecution upon his return to Athens.

The next significant part he would play in the war would occur at the Battle of Abydos. Alcibiades had remained behind at Samos with a small force while Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus led the greater part of the fleet to the Hellespont. During this period, Alcibiades succeeded in raising money from Caria and the neighboring area, with which he was able to pay the rowers and gain their favor. [89] After the Athenian victory at Cynossema, both fleets summoned all their ships from around the Aegean to join them for what might be a decisive next engagement. While Alcibiades was still en route, the two fleets clashed at Abydos, where the Peloponnesians had set up their main naval base. The battle was evenly matched, and raged for a long time, but the balance tipped towards the Athenians when Alcibiades sailed into the Hellespont with eighteen triremes. [88] [90] The Persian satrap Pharnabazus, who had replaced Tissaphernes as the sponsor of the Peloponnesian fleet, moved his land army to the shore to defend the ships and sailors who had beached their ships. Only the support of the Persian land army and the coming of night saved the Peloponnesian fleet from complete destruction. [91]

Shortly after the battle, Tissaphernes had arrived in the Hellespont and Alcibiades left the fleet at Sestos to meet him, bringing gifts and hoping once again to try to win over the Persian governor. Evidently Alcibiades had gravely misjudged his standing with the satrap, and he was arrested on arrival. [88] Within a month he would escape and resume command. [92] It was now obvious, however, that he had no influence with the Persians from now on his authority would depend on what he actually could accomplish rather than on what he promised to do. [93]

After an interlude of several months in which the Peloponnesians constructed new ships and the Athenians besieged cities and raised money throughout the Aegean, the next major sea battle took place the spring of 410 BC at Cyzicus. Alcibiades had been forced to flee from Sestos to Cardia to protect his small fleet from the rebuilt Peloponnesian navy, but as soon as the Athenian fleet was reunited there its commanders led it to Cyzicus, where the Athenians had intelligence indicating that Pharnabazus and Mindarus, the Peloponnesian fleet commander, were together plotting their next move. Concealed by storm and darkness, the combined Athenian force reached the vicinity without being spotted by the Peloponnesians. [92] Here the Athenians devised a plot to draw the enemy into battle. According to Diodorus Siculus, Alcibiades advanced with a small squadron in order to draw the Spartans out to battle, and, after he successfully deceived Mindarus with this ploy, the squadrons of Thrasybulus and Theramenes came to join him, cutting off the Spartans' retreat. [g] [96]

The Spartan fleet suffered losses in the flight and reached the shore with the Athenians in close pursuit. Alcibiades's troops, leading the Athenian pursuit, landed and attempted to pull the Spartan ships back out to sea. The Peloponnesians fought to prevent their ships from being towed away, and Pharnabazus's troops came up to support them. [97] Thrasybulus landed his own force to temporarily relieve pressure on Alcibiades, and meanwhile ordered Theramenes to join up with Athenian land forces nearby and bring them to reinforce the sailors and marines on the beach. The Spartans and Persians, overwhelmed by the arrival of multiple forces from several directions, were defeated and driven off, and the Athenians captured all the Spartan ships which were not destroyed. [98] [99] A letter dispatched to Sparta by Hippocrates, vice-admiral under Mindarus, was intercepted and taken to Athens it ran as follows: "The ships are lost. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We know not what to do". [97] A short time later Sparta petitioned for peace, but their appeals were ultimately rejected by the Athenians. [100]

Further military successes Edit

After their victory, Alcibiades and Thrasybulus began the siege of Chalcedon in 409 BC with about 190 ships. [101] Although unable to attain a decisive victory or induce the city to surrender, Alcibiades was able to win a small tactical land battle outside of the city gates and Theramenes concluded an agreement with the Chalcedonians. [102] Afterwards they concluded a temporary alliance with Pharnabazus which secured some much needed immediate cash for the army, but despite this Alcibiades was still forced to depart in search for more booty to pay the soldiers and oarsmen of the fleet.

In pursuit of these funds he traveled to the Thracian Chersonese and attacked Selymbria. He plotted with a pro-Athenian party within the city and offered the Selymbrians reasonable terms and imposed strict discipline to see that they were observed. He did their city no injury whatsoever, but merely took a sum of money from it, set a garrison in it and left. [103] Epigraphical evidence indicates the Selymbrians surrendered hostages until the treaty was ratified in Athens. [2] His performance is judged as skillful by historians, since it saved time, resources, and lives and still fully achieved his goal. [2] [104]

From here Alcibiades joined in the siege of Byzantium along with Theramenes and Thrasyllus. A portion of the citizens of the city, demoralized and hungry, decided to surrender the city to Alcibiades for similar terms as the Selymbrians had received. On the designated night the defenders left their posts, and the Athenians attacked the Peloponnesian garrison in the city and their boats in the harbor. The portion of the citizenry that remained loyal to the Peloponnesians fought so savagely that Alcibiades issued a statement in the midst of the fighting which guaranteed their safety and this persuaded the remaining citizens to turn against the Peloponnesian garrison, which was nearly totally destroyed. [102]

Return to Athens Edit

It was in the aftermath of these successes that Alcibiades resolved to finally return to Athens in the spring of 407 BC. Even in the wake of his recent victories, Alcibiades was exceedingly careful in his return, mindful of the changes in government, the charges still technically hanging over him, and the great injury he had done to Athens. Thus Alcibiades, instead of going straight home, first went to Samos to pick up 20 ships and proceeded with them to the Ceramic Gulf where he collected 100 talents. He finally sailed to Gytheion to make inquiries, partly about the reported preparations of the Spartans there, and partly about the feelings in Athens about his return. [106] His inquiries assured him that the city was kindly disposed towards him and that his closest friends urged him to return. [107]

Therefore, he finally sailed into Piraeus where the crowd had gathered, desiring to see the famous Alcibiades. [108] He entered the harbor full of fear until he saw his cousin and others of his friends and acquaintance, who invited him to land. Upon arriving on shore he was greeted with a hero's welcome. [109] Nevertheless, some saw an evil omen in the fact that he had returned to Athens on the very day when the ceremony of the Plynteria (the feast where the old statue of Athena would get cleansed) was being celebrated. [110] This was regarded as the unluckiest day of the year to undertake anything of importance. His enemies took note of this and kept it in mind for a future occasion. [111]

All the criminal proceedings against him were canceled and the charges of blasphemy were officially withdrawn. Alcibiades was able to assert his piety and to raise Athenian morale by leading the solemn procession to Eleusis (for the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries) by land for the first time since the Spartans had occupied Decelea. [112] The procession had been replaced by a journey by sea, but this year Alcibiades used a detachment of soldiers to escort the traditional procession. [113] His property was restored and the ecclesia elected him supreme commander of land and sea (strategos autokrator). [114]

Defeat at Notium Edit

In 406 BC Alcibiades set out from Athens with 1,500 hoplites and a hundred ships. He failed to take Andros and then he went on to Samos. Later he moved to Notium, closer to the enemy at Ephesus. [115] In the meanwhile Tissaphernes had been replaced by Cyrus the Younger (son of Darius II of Persia) who decided to financially support the Peloponnesians. This new revenue started to attract Athenian deserters to the Spartan navy. Additionally the Spartans had replaced Mindarus with Lysander, a very capable admiral. These factors caused the rapid growth of the Peloponnesian fleet at the expense of the Athenian. In search of funds and needing to force another decisive battle, Alcibiades left Notium and sailed to help Thrasybulus in the siege of Phocaea. [116] Alcibiades was aware the Spartan fleet was nearby, so he left nearly eighty ships to watch them under the command of his personal helmsman Antiochus, who was given express orders not to attack. Antiochus disobeyed this single order and endeavored to draw Lysander into a fight by imitating the tactics used at Cyzicus. The situation at Notium, however, was radically different from that at Cyzicus the Athenians possessed no element of surprise, and Lysander had been well informed about their fleet by deserters. [117] Antiochus's ship was sunk, and he was killed by a sudden Spartan attack the remaining ships of the decoy force were then chased headlong back toward Notium, where the main Athenian force was caught unprepared by the sudden arrival of the whole Spartan fleet. In the ensuing fighting, Lysander gained an entire victory. Alcibiades soon returned and desperately tried to undo the defeat at Notium by scoring another victory, but Lysander could not be compelled to attack the fleet again. [118]

Responsibility for the defeat ultimately fell on Alcibiades, and his enemies used the opportunity to attack him and have him removed from command, although some modern scholars believe that Alcibiades was unfairly blamed for Antiochus's mistake. [119] Diodorus reports that, in addition to his mistake at Notium, Alcibiades was discharged on account of false accusations brought against him by his enemies. [98] According to Anthony Andrewes, professor of ancient history, the extravagant hopes that his successes of the previous summer had created were a decisive element in his downfall. [115] Consequently, Alcibiades condemned himself to exile. [98] Never again returning to Athens, he sailed north to the castles in the Thracian Chersonese, which he had secured during his time in the Hellespont. The implications of the defeat were severe for Athens. Although the defeat had been minor, it occasioned the removal of not only Alcibiades but also his allies like Thrasybulus, Theramenes and Critias. [114] These were likely the most capable commanders Athens had at the time, and their removal would help lead to the Athenian surrender only two years later, after their complete defeat at Aegospotami. [120]

Death Edit

With one exception, Alcibiades's role in the war ended with his command. Prior to the Battle of Aegospotami, in the last attested fact of his career, [121] Alcibiades recognized that the Athenians were anchored in a tactically disadvantageous spot and advised them to move to Sestus where they could benefit from a harbor and a city. [122] Diodorus, however, does not mention this advice, arguing instead that Alcibiades offered the Generals Thracian aid in exchange for a share in the command. [h] In any case, the Generals of the Athenians, "considering that in case of defeat the blame would attach to them and that in case of success all men would attribute it to Alcibiades", asked him to leave and not come near the camp ever again. [122] [125] Days later the fleet would be annihilated by Lysander.

After the Battle of Aegospotami, Alcibiades crossed the Hellespont and took refuge in Hellespontine Phrygia, with the object of securing the aid of the Achaemenid King Artaxerxes against Sparta. [127] Alcibiades was one of several Greek aristocrats who took refuge in the Achaemenid Empire following reversals at home, other famous ones being Themistocles, Hippias, Demaratos and Gongylos. [65] In general, those were generously welcomed by the Achaemenid kings, and received land grants to support them, and ruled in various cities of Asia Minor. [65]

Much about Alcibiades's death is now uncertain, as there are conflicting accounts. According to the oldest of these, the Spartans and specifically Lysander were responsible. [128] Though many of his details cannot be independently corroborated, Plutarch's version is this: Lysander sent an envoy to Pharnabazus who then dispatched his brother to Phrygia where Alcibiades was living with his mistress, Timandra. [i]

In 404 BC, as he was about to set out for the Persian court, his residence was surrounded and set on fire. Seeing no chance of escape he rushed out on his assassins, dagger in hand, and was killed by a shower of arrows. [129] According to Aristotle, the site of Alcibiades's death was Elaphus, a mountain in Phrygia. [132]

Political career Edit

In ancient Greece, Alcibiades was a polarizing figure. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades, being "exceedingly ambitious", proposed the expedition in Sicily in order "to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes". Alcibiades is not held responsible by Thucydides for the destruction of Athens, since "his habits gave offence to every one, and caused the Athenians to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city". [133] Plutarch regards him as "the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings". [134] On the other hand, Diodorus argues that he was "in spirit brilliant and intent upon great enterprises". [135] Sharon Press of Brown University points out that Xenophon emphasizes Alcibiades's service to the state, rather than the harm he was charged with causing it. [136] [137] Demosthenes defends Alcibiades's achievements, saying that he had taken arms in the cause of democracy, displaying his patriotism, not by gifts of money or by speeches, but by personal service. [138] For Demosthenes and other orators, Alcibiades epitomized the figure of the great man during the glorious days of the Athenian democracy and became a rhetorical symbol. [139] One of Isocrates' speeches, delivered by Alcibiades the Younger, argues that the statesman deserved the Athenians' gratitude for the service he had given them. [140] Lysias, on the other hand, argued in one of his orations that the Athenians should regard Alcibiades as an enemy because of the general tenor of his life, as "he repays with injury the open assistance of any of his friends". [141] [142] In the Constitution of the Athenians, Aristotle does not include Alcibiades in the list of the best Athenian politicians, but in Posterior Analytics he argues that traits of a proud man like Alcibiades are "equanimity amid the vicissitudes of life and impatience of dishonor". [143] [144] Alcibiades excited in his contemporaries a fear for the safety of the political order. [145] Therefore, Andocides said of him that "instead of holding that he ought himself to conform with the laws of the state, he expects you to conform with his own way of life". [146] Central to the depiction of the Athenian statesman is Cornelius Nepos' famous phrase that Alcibiades "surpassed all the Athenians in grandeur and magnificence of living". [147]

Even today, Alcibiades divides scholars. For Malcolm F. McGregor, former head of the Department of Classics in the University of British Columbia, Alcibiades was rather a shrewd gambler than a mere opportunist. [148] Evangelos P. Fotiadis, a prominent Greek philologist, asserts that Alcibiades was "a first class diplomat" and had "huge skills". Nevertheless, his spiritual powers were not counterbalanced with his magnificent mind and he had the hard luck to lead a people susceptible to demagoguery. [8] K. Paparrigopoulos, a major modern Greek historian, underlines his "spiritual virtues" and compares him with Themistocles, but he then asserts that all these gifts created a "traitor, an audacious and impious man". [149] Walter Ellis believes that his actions were outrageous, but they were performed with panache. [150] For his part, David Gribble argues that Alcibiades's actions against his city were misunderstood and believes that "the tension which led to Alcibiades's split with the city was between purely personal and civic values". [151] Russell Meiggs, a British ancient historian, asserts that the Athenian statesman was absolutely unscrupulous despite his great charm and brilliant abilities. According to Meiggs his actions were dictated by selfish motives and his feud with Cleon and his successors undermined Athens. The same scholar underscores the fact that "his example of restless and undisciplined ambition strengthened the charge brought against Socrates". [58] Even more critically, Athanasios G. Platias and Constantinos Koliopoulos, professors of strategic studies and international politics, state that Alcibiades's own arguments "should be sufficient to do away with the notion that Alcibiades was a great statesman, as some people still believe". [152] Writing from a different perspective, psychologist Anna C. Salter cites Alcibiades as exhibiting "all the classic features of psychopathy." [153] A similar assessment is made by Hervey Cleckley at the end of chapter 5 in his The Mask of Sanity. [154]

Military achievements Edit

Despite his critical comments, Thucydides admits in a short digression that "publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired". [133] Diodorus and Demosthenes regard him as a great general. [135] [138] According to Fotiadis, Alcibiades was an invincible general and, wherever he went, victory followed him had he led the army in Sicily, the Athenians would have avoided disaster and, had his countrymen followed his advice at Aegospotami, Lysander would have lost and Athens would have ruled Greece. [8] On the other hand, Paparrigopoulos believes that the Sicilian Expedition, prompted by Alcibiades, was a strategic mistake. [155] In agreement with Paparrigopoulos, Platias and Koliopoulos underscore the fact that the Sicilian expedition was a strategic blunder of the first magnitude, resulting from a "frivolous attitude and an unbelievable underestimation of the enemy". [38] For his part, Angelos Vlachos, a Greek Academician, underlines the constant interest of Athens for Sicily from the beginning of the war. [j] According to Vlachos, the expedition had nothing of the extravagant or adventurous and constituted a rational strategic decision based on traditional Athenian aspirations. [158] Vlachos asserts that Alcibiades had already conceived a broader plan: the conquest of the whole West. [159] He intended to conquer Carthage and Libya, then to attack Italy and, after winning these, to seize Italy and Peloponnesus. [157] The initial decision of the ecclesia provided however for a reasonable military force, which later became unreasonably large and costly because of Nicias's demands. [159] Kagan criticizes Alcibiades for failing to recognize that the large size of the Athenian expedition undermined the diplomatic scheme on which his strategy rested. [160]

Kagan believes that while Alcibiades was a commander of considerable ability, he was no military genius, and his confidence and ambitions went far beyond his skills. He thus was capable of important errors and serious miscalculations. Kagan argues that at Notium, Alcibiades committed a serious error in leaving the fleet in the hands of an inexperienced officer, and that most of the credit for the brilliant victory at Cyzicus must be assigned to Thrasybulus. [160] In this judgement, Kagan agrees with Cornelius Nepos, who said that the Athenians' extravagant opinion of Alcibiades's abilities and valor was his chief misfortune. [161]

Press argues that "though Alcibiades can be considered a good General on the basis of his performance in the Hellespont, he would not be considered so on the basis of his performance in Sicily", but "the strengths of Alcibiades's performance as a General outweigh his faults". [136]

Skill in oratory Edit

Plutarch asserts that "Alcibiades was a most able speaker in addition to his other gifts", while Theophrastus argues that Alcibiades was the most capable of discovering and understanding what was required in a given case. Nevertheless, he would often stumble in the midst of his speech, but then he would resume and proceed with all the caution in the world. [162] Even the lisp he had, which was noticed by Aristophanes, made his talk persuasive and full of charm. [163] [164] Eupolis says that he was "prince of talkers, but in speaking most incapable" [33] which is to say, more eloquent in his private discourses than when orating before the ecclesia. For his part, Demosthenes underscores the fact that Alcibiades was regarded as "the ablest speaker of the day". [138] Paparrigopoulos does not accept Demosthenes's opinion, but acknowledges that the Athenian statesman could sufficiently support his case. [149] Kagan acknowledges his rhetorical power, whilst Thomas Habinek, professor of Classics at the University of Southern California, believes that the orator Alcibiades seemed to be whatever his audience needed on any given occasion. [165] [166] According to Habinek, in the field of oratory, the people responded to Alcibiades's affection with affection of their own. Therefore, the orator was "the institution of the city talking to—and loving—itself". [166] According to Aristophanes, Athens "yearns for him, and hates him too, but wants him back". [167]

Alcibiades has not been spared by ancient comedy and stories attest to an epic confrontation between Alcibiades and Eupolis resembling that between Aristophanes and Cleon. [139] He also appears as a character in several Socratic dialogues (Symposium, Protagoras, Alcibiades I and II, as well as the eponymous dialogues by Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes). Purportedly based on his own personal experience, Antisthenes described Alcibiades's extraordinary physical strength, courage, and beauty, saying, "If Achilles did not look like this, he was not really handsome." [168] In his trial, Socrates must rebut the attempt to hold him guilty for the crimes of his former students, including Alcibiades. [169] Hence, he declares in Apology: "I have never been anyone's teacher". [170]

Alcibiades has been depicted regularly in art, both in Medieval and Renaissance works, and in several significant works of modern literature as well. [171] He has been the main character in historical novels of authors like Anna Bowman Dodd, Gertrude Atherton, Rosemary Sutcliff, Daniel Chavarria, Steven Pressfield and Peter Green. [172]

4. Two of the most important battles of the war often get forgotten

The Persians entered Greece with the largest army the world had yet seen, right? They drank rivers dry, yet people think they were destroyed in the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. While these battles were certainly epic and morally huge for the Greeks, the fact remained that the Persians still had an army and a navy that outnumbered the Greeks and could have still conquered them.

After Salamis, the Persian navy sailed to Ionia in southwest Turkey while the Persians left an army of around 100,000 in Greece under Xerxes’ best general. At the battle of Mycale, the Greek navy sailed to the beached Persian navy and launched an amphibious battle on the slopes of Mount Mycale. The aggressive assault pushed into the Persian camp and effectively destroyed the remnants of the Persian navy.

The base of Mount Mycale, where the Persian naval strength in the west was crushed, though nobody knows about it. Image Credit

At Plataea, the Greeks mustered a huge army of about 80,000 and fought a chess-match battle with Mardonius. The Greeks were almost caught in a tactical retreat and barely won a hotly contested battle when the Persian general was killed. The Greeks also pillaged the camp and slaughtered those who didn’t flee and run out of Greece altogether.

Yes, the Greeks won these battles, but if they would have lost both of these tough battles their situation would have been quite dire. They would have been without a navy and with a scattered army, leaving Mardonius free to ravage Greece with renewed support from an unopposed Persian navy.

Artaxerxes I

Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE) was the sixth monarch of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. He was the son of Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) and his principal wife Amestris (d. 424 BCE) and grandson of Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE). He continued the Persian Wars with Greece initiated by both his predecessors, but preferred stealth and bribery to open war, finally bringing the struggle to a close with the Peace of Callias c. 449 BCE.

He had earlier welcomed the Athenian statesman and general Themistocles (l. c. 524 - c. 460 BCE) to his court after the Athenians had ostracized him in return for the offer to help the Persians crush the Greeks but Themistocles died before any military action was taken. Even without Themistocles' help, Artaxerxes I was still able to avenge his father's and grandfather's defeats by the Greeks through his exploitation of the tensions between Athens and Sparta by Sparta's military build-up, contributing to the Peloponnesian Wars (460-446 and 431-404 BCE) in Greece.


During his reign, Artaxerxes I completed the Hall of 100 Columns at Persepolis, rebuilt the palace of Darius I at Susa after a fire, and put down the revolt of Inaros II (c. 460-454 BCE) in Egypt. He also maintained the Persian policy of religious tolerance and autonomy and is probably best known through the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah where he is depicted as a great benefactor of the Jewish people, assisting them in the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem and the establishment of Mosaic Law.

Background & Rise to Power

The Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus II (the Great, r. c. 550-530 BCE) who, among his many other notable achievements, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, ending the Babylonian Captivity (c. 605-536 BCE). He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE) who conquered Egypt in 525 BCE and added it to the empire. Cambyses II died on his return trip and was briefly succeeded by a man who was either his brother Bardiya or an imposter named Gaumata who was killed and succeeded by Darius I.


In response to Athenian support of a revolt of Ionian Greeks in his empire, Darius I launched in invasion of mainland Greece in 490 BCE which was halted at the famous Battle of Marathon. Xerxes I then amassed a large army and attempted to finish what his father had started by a second invasion in 480 BCE, which was defeated by 479 BCE. Xerxes I returned home and occupied himself with building projects, women, and court intrigue until he was assassinated by his trusted official Artabanus in 465 BCE who may have also killed his son Darius.

Artaxerxes I had Artabanus and his sons executed for the murder and took the throne. Shortly before Xerxes I's death, he had been planning another action against Greece which was defeated before it could even begin at the Battle of the Eurymedon c. 466 BCE in an action commanded by the zealously anti-Persian Athenian general Cimon (l. c. 510 - c. 450 BCE). Artaxerxes I, in considering the string of defeats Greece had inflicted on Persia, recognized it would be more prudent to try some other means of destroying them besides open conflict. The answer to his question of how to do this seemed to present itself in the unlikely arrival at court of his father's enemy, the Greek general Themistocles.

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

Themistocles & Conflict with Greece

Themistocles was the mastermind who had orchestrated Xerxes I's defeat at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and was initially hailed as a great hero by the Athenians. By c. 471 BCE, however, he had fallen out of favor and was first officially exiled via ostracism and then falsely accused of treason and ordered to stand trial. Themistocles first fled to Argos, then Molossia, and finally wound up in the Ionian Greek colonies of Asia Minor where he made his way to the court of Artaxerxes I and presented himself to the king.

He told Artaxerxes I that, even though he had been his father's enemy in the war, he was now prepared, given his circumstances, to help the new king avenge the defeat and take Greece. Themistocles asked only for a year's time in which to learn the Persian language and customs and would then serve Artaxerxes I faithfully. The king granted him governorship of three cities (possibly more) and allowed his wife and children to be smuggled out of Athens and brought to him.


The precise date of Themistocles' arrival at court is unknown but it must have been shortly after Artaxerxes I came to power because that same year (465 BCE) he held the position of Governor of Magnesia as attested by coins he had minted. Artaxerxes I's activities at this time are also unclear (though, most likely, he was engaged in completing the work left unfinished by his father at Persepolis) but, whatever else he was doing, he was secretly encouraging tensions between Athens and Sparta by supplying the Spartans with enormous amounts of gold darics (coinage first minted under Darius I) featuring the image of a Persian archer. Scholar Kaveh Farrokh writes:

Ironically, these “coin archers” had far more influence than the imperial archers of the past Darius-Xerxes wars. Persian gold was now the Empire's major strength in the Aegean theater [of war]. (88)

After Xerxes I's defeat, the Athenians had created the Delian League in 478 BCE, an alliance of Greek city-states who agreed to set aside their differences to defend against the possibility of another Persian invasion and to liberate fellow Greeks from Persian rule. These city-states agreed to be led by Athens and the league's name came from the location of their treasury on the island of Delos. The Delian League was responsible for the victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon River c. 466 BCE and for eliminating piracy, which benefited everyone, but the main beneficiary was Athens who grew increasingly wealthy and powerful under the direction of Pericles (l. 495-429 BCE) who freely used the Delian League to empower his native city.


A number of city-states – in the league or not – objected to what appeared to be the creation of an Athenian Empire but none more so than Sparta. Artaxerxes I exploited this situation by funding Sparta's military build-up while making overtures of peace and gifts of gold darics to Athens. All he really needed to do now was wait until one of his enemies felt powerful enough to challenge the other.

In 460 BCE, Sparta asked Athens for assistance in putting down a rebellion of Helots but then insulted the Athenians when they arrived for reasons that are unclear. At this same time, however, the Spartans had finally grown tired of Athenian arrogance and, especially, the long defensive walls the Athenians had built around their city which, to many, seemed like preparation for war. The tensions finally erupted in 460 BCE with the First Peloponnesian War fought primarily between Athens and Corinth, an ally of Sparta.

With the outbreak of the hostilities he had been waiting for, Artaxerxes I now allegedly called upon Themistocles to fulfill his pledge and help him destroy Athens. According to Plutarch (l. c. 45 - c. 125 CE), Themistocles reconsidered his promise to the king, reflecting on how helping the Persians against his countrymen would destroy his reputation in history, and took his own life by drinking bull's blood or poison. The historian Thucydides (l. c. 460 - c. 400 BCE), however, claims Themistocles simply died of natural causes before Artaxerxes I could ask for his assistance.


The Egyptian & Megabyzus Revolt

Artaxerxes I was most likely considering another course of action when he was distracted by troubles in his Egyptian province. The Libyan prince Inaros II – who had ties to the Egyptian Saite Dynasty and allied himself with Amyrtaeus of Sais – rose in revolt against the occupying Persians in Egypt. He was supported by Athens and the rebellion was so unexpected and well-orchestrated that it took the Persians by surprise.

The Athenians had been planning to strike at Persian Cyprus in 460 BCE when Inaros II revolted and asked them for aid. Taking Egypt from Persia would be far more beneficial than the Cyprus possession and so Athens divided its forces between the war with Corinth and the rebels of Egypt.

The conflict continued for six years, during which the general Megabyzus (d. c. 440 BCE, who had served under Xerxes I in the 480 BCE invasion of Greece) commanded the Persian land forces in concert with the Persian satrap of Egypt, Arshama, leading the Persian fleet. The war did not go smoothly for the Persians at first since Inaros II proved to be a capable commander and, further, the rebel forces were being equipped and supported by Athens. Finally, in 454 BCE, Megabyzus defeated Inaros II and Arshama was victorious against the Athenian fleet just off the Delta region, restoring peace to Egypt under Persian rule.

Inaros II and 50 Greek generals were brought in chains to Susa where, according to the historian Ctesias (5th century BCE), the queen-mother Amestris called for their instant execution. Megabyzus, however, had given them his word of honor that they would not be harmed. Artaxerxes I respected Megabyzus' promise but Amestris did not and continued to hound her son until he relented. Inaros II was impaled and the generals beheaded.

This action so outraged Megabyzus that he returned to his satrapy, raised an army, and revolted. Megabyzus met the generals sent against him in single combat, refusing to allow Persians to war on each other, and spared their lives after defeating them. Artaxerxes I sent an embassy, which included Amestris, offering him an apology and the chance for peace and reconciliation. Megabyzus, feeling his honor had been restored, accepted and returned to the service of the king.

Further Greek Conflict & Peace

Around 450 BCE, while still fighting the First Peloponnesian War with Corinth, Athens renewed its earlier campaign to take Cyprus from Persia. The idea seemed to be to relaunch the revolt in Egypt by taking Cyprus as a staging area. A large fleet was launched, commanded by Cimon, which arrived at Cyprus and demanded its surrender. The island was well-fortified, however, and garrisoned with the troops of Megabyzus.

Cimon attacked, even though the defenses were formidable, and was killed at Citium. The attack was abandoned and the fleet withdrew. The Athenians did not seem to recognize that they would have done better to concentrate their full attention on the war with Sparta's Peloponnesian League (their answer to Athens' Delian League) than dividing their forces with continuous attacks on Persian territory.

Artaxerxes I, however, understood that something had to be done to keep Athens from interfering in his business and so sent an embassy to Athens, which included Megabyzus, offering peace. The Athenians responded by sending their master diplomat, the statesman Callias, to Susa where the Peace of Callias was negotiated. Farrokh describes the terms:

The treaty officially put an end to the wars of conquest initiated by Darius the Great. Both sides recognized their respective spheres of interest and pledged not to interfere in each other's affairs. The Achaemenids would refrain from interfering in the Aegean, while the Greeks would recognize Persian authority over Anatolia, especially along the Ionian coast. Persia also pledged to provide autonomy for its Ionian subjects…While Callias attempted [a lasting peace], the treaty, like many others, failed to alleviate the state of distrust between the two powers. (87)

Even so, the treaty would keep hostilities from erupting between Athens and Persia for the remainder of Artaxerxes I's reign.

Family, Buildings, & Biblical Narratives

While dealing with the Greeks, Egyptians, and other affairs of state, Artaxerxes I also, of course, had a domestic life. He was married to the queen Damaspia with whom he had one son, his heir Xerxes II (r. 424 BCE), but had many other children through his concubines including Sogdianus (r. 424 BCE) who briefly succeeded Xerxes II and the future queen Parysatis (5th century BCE) who would come to wield enormous power during and after the reign of Darius II (424-404 BCE). Artaxerxes I is described by the Greek historians as a gentle and studious man, given to reflection, but no mention is made of his home life other than the names of his various children.

He favored the city of Susa and made a number of improvements to it. When the palace of Darius I was destroyed in a huge fire that swept the city, Artaxerxes I had it rebuilt, though on a smaller scale, along with many other buildings and temples. At Persepolis, he completed the impressive Hall of 100 Columns begun by his father and also oversaw, long-distance, the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

He is the central character of the biblical Book of Ezra and also appears in the Book of Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scribe at Susa who was sent by Artaxerxes I, along with a significant number of Jewish families, to Jerusalem in order to standardize the Law of Moses. He is said to have consolidated and edited the Mosaic Law which would then regulate the lives of the Jews in the region, suggesting the high level of autonomy Artaxerxes I granted to them.

Nehemiah was a high official at Artaxerxes I's court, said to be his cupbearer – and so confidante – who was distressed that Jerusalem's walls were in ruin and the city was left with no defenses. Artaxerxes I appointed him Governor of Judea and sent him to personally oversee the rebuilding of the walls. Although scholars differ on the interpretation and chronology of these two biblical narratives, it seems that Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries who worked together to reconcile the Jewish people to Persian rule while also allowing them freedom to develop their own culture and religion.


Artaxerxes I died of natural causes in 424 BCE, having ensured a peaceful succession by naming Xerxes II his legitimate heir. Xerxes II reigned for only a little over a month, however, before he was assassinated by Sogdianus. Sogdianus had the support of a segment of the nobles and ruled for six months before he was assassinated by his half-brother Nochus (also given as Ochus) who took the throne name Darius II.

Artaxerxes I's hopes of peaceful succession, therefore, were not realized, and Darius II, further, had to put down rebellions in various satrapies following his coup. Under Darius II's reign, the grandson of Amyrtaeus of Sais (who had led the revolt with Inaros II), also known as Amyrtaeus, founded the 28th Dynasty of Egypt and drove the Persians out of the Delta region of Lower Egypt, leaving them only Upper Egypt as a source of grain and other goods.

The Peace of Callias only lasted until 412 BCE when Darius II broke the treaty by giving aid to Sparta during the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) and enabled them to defeat Athens. Darius II, in fact, undid many of the more notable accomplishments of his father's reign, but Artaxerxes I is still remembered as an effective monarch who did the best for his people and upheld the values of the empire.

From the Peloponnesian War to Alexander the Great

The tragic outcome of the Peloponnesian War did not stop the long-standing tendency of the prominent Greek city-states to battle for power over one other. In the fifty years following the war, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens struggled militarily to win a preeminent position over their rivals. In the end, however, they achieved nothing more than weakening themselves and creating a vacuum of power in Greece. That void was filled by the unexpected rise to military and political power of the kingdom of Macedonia during the reign of Philip II (ruled 359&ndash336 B.C.). Philip&rsquos reorganization of the Macedonian army saved the kingdom from invasion by northern enemies and gave him the power to extend his influence eastward and southward into Greek territory. His victory over an alliance of Greek city-states in the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. led to his forming and commanding the League of Corinth, whose forces of Greeks and Macedonians he planned to lead in a war of invasion against the Persian Empire as retribution for the Persians&rsquo attacks on mainland Greece 150 years earlier.

Philip never achieved his goal of conquering Persia, because he was murdered in 336, before he could begin that quest. It was his son, Alexander the Great (ruled 336&ndash323 B.C.), who astonished the world by making Philip&rsquos dream come true. Alexander&rsquos awe-inspiring conquests reached from Greece to the western border of India and convinced him that he had achieved the status of a god. Alexander died unexpectedly in 323, before he had a mature heir to succeed him as king of Macedonia and without having put into place a permanent restructuring of governance in Greece to suit the new political conditions of the world in the late fourth century B.C. Thus, his brilliant success as a conqueror left unresolved the problem of how to structure international power in a Greek world in which the citizen-militias of the city-states could not withstand the mercenary armies of the ambitious commanders from Alexander&rsquos army who made plans to rule the world as self-appointed kings. The long-term consequences of Alexander&rsquos expedition simultaneously brought the Greek and Near Eastern worlds into more direct contact than ever before, while also demonstrating that the city-states of mainland Greece, the Aegean, and Anatolia were no longer strong enough to set their own foreign policy. In international affairs, they were from now on going to be ultimately subordinate to monarchs.

c. 400&ndash380 (early fourth century) B.C.: Plato founds his school, the Academy, in Athens.

395&ndash386 B.C.: The Corinthian War between Sparta and other Greek states.

390s&ndash370s B.C.: Spartans campaign first in Anatolia and then in Greece.

386 B.C.: King&rsquos Peace between Sparta and Persia.

377 B.C.: Athens reestablishes a naval alliance.

371 B.C.: Spartans defeated at battle of Leuctra in Boeotia.

370 B.C.: Jason, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly, assassinated.

369 B.C.: The Theban army commanded by Epaminondas liberates Messenia from Spartan control.

362 B.C.: Spartans defeated by Thebans in the battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese the great Theban general Epaminondas is killed.

359 B.C.: Philip II becomes king of Macedonia.

357&ndash355 B.C.: Athenian-led naval alliance dissolves in internal war.

338 B.C.: Philip II defeats Greek alliance at Chaeronea in Boeotia and founds League of Corinth.

336 B.C.: Philip murdered his son Alexander (&ldquothe Great&rdquo) takes over as king.

335 B.C.: Aristotle founds the Lyceum at Athens.

334 B.C.: Alexander begins attack against the Persian Empire wins victory at the Granicus River in northwest Anatolia.

333 B.C.: Alexander wins victory at Issus in southeastern Anatolia.

332 B.C.: Walled city of Tyre (on an island off the coast of Lebanon) falls to Alexander&rsquos siege.

331 B.C.: Alexander takes Egypt and founds Alexandria victory over Persian king at Gaugamela.

329 B.C.: Alexander reaches Bactria (modern Afghanistan).

327 B.C.: Alexander marries the Bactrian princess Roxane.

326 B.C.: Alexander&rsquos army mutinies at the Hyphasis River in India.

324 B.C.: Alexander returns to Persia after difficult march through the Gedrosian Desert (in modern southern Iran).

323 B.C.: Alexander dies in Babylon (in modern Iraq).


Athens after the Peloponnesian War never regained the level of economic and military strength that it had enjoyed at the height of its prosperity in the fifth century B.C., perhaps because its silver mines were no longer producing at the same level. Xenophon wrote an essay offering a plan for increasing the production of ore by investing in more publicly purchased slaves, but it was never adopted, perhaps because the city-state no longer had the funds to invest in the up-front capital cost of the purchases. Nevertheless, following the reestablishment of democracy in 403 B.C., Athens did recover enough of its previous strength to became a force in Greek international politics once again. In particular, Athens and other city-states reacted with diplomatic and military actions meant to counteract Sparta&rsquos blatant attempts to extend its power over other Greeks in the decades following the Peloponnesian War. But even their initial hostility to Sparta could not keep these city-states unified. Therefore the first half of the fourth century saw frequently shifting alliances among the numerous city-states in Greece. In short, whichever city-states found themselves weaker at any point would temporarily join together against whichever city-state happened to be strongest at that moment, even if that meant allying with Sparta, only to lose their unity once the common enemy of the moment had been humbled.

Shortly after the war, in 401 B.C., the Persian satrap Cyrus hired a mercenary army to try to unseat the current Persian king, Artaxerxes II, who had ascended the throne in 404. Cyrus was the son of a previous Great King, and he wanted that position for himself. Xenophon, the Athenian author and, it turned out, adventurer, enlisted as an officer on the side of the rebel satrap in this civil war. Xenophon&rsquos narrative (Anabasis) detailing the story of his adventures offers an exciting account of the challenges of the long march and many battles of the Greek soldiers paid to fight in Cyrus&rsquos army. Disastrously defeated at Cunaxa, near Babylon in Iraq, and left without a commander or sponsor because Cyrus had been killed, the now unemployed and leaderless Greek mercenaries had to organize themselves as a city-state on the move to fight their way out of the enemies surrounding them in the desert, and then make the skirmish-filled trek home through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, even pushing their thinly clad bodies through chest-high snow as they crossed the mountains into Anatolia. The demonstration of the Greek hoplites&rsquo skill and courage in surviving reminded the Persian king, if a reminder was needed, that Greeks could form a fearsome threat to his army if they ever found a way to unite their forces. He took away the lesson that it was in his interest to do what he could to keep the Greeks fractured and fighting one another so that they could never focus their ambitions on his empire and riches.

That threat almost materialized in the 390s B.C. During that period, the Spartan general Lysander and the Spartan king Agesilaus tried to capitalize on Sparta&rsquos victory in the Peloponnesian War by pursuing an aggressive policy in Anatolia and northern Greece other Spartan commanders tried to extend their city-state&rsquos power in Sicily. Agesilaus, the most successful commander that Sparta ever fielded, was so successful that he was poised to continue on to conquer the Persian Empire. He had to give up this dream, however, when the political leaders at Sparta called him home to defend the homeland against its Greek enemies. As a loyal Spartan, he obeyed. If he had been allowed to keep going in Asia, we might today talk about &ldquoAgesilaus the Great&rdquo instead of Alexander as the conqueror of the Persians.

In response to the Spartan efforts to win dominance in Greece, the city-states of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos had put aside their usual hostility to one another to form an anti-Spartan military coalition they were naturally fearful that this expansionist Spartan policy threatened their own security at home and their interests abroad. In a reversal of the alliances of the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Persian king initially allied with Athens and the other Greek city-states against Sparta in the so-called Corinthian War, which lasted from 395 to 386 B.C. he was betting that the anti-Spartan city-states had less of a chance to threaten his territories in the long run than the Spartans did. His goal was to create a stalemate in Greece and thereby remove any potential danger to Persia. This alliance fell apart, however, when his Greek allies realized that he was not going to help them crush Sparta. The war ended when the Persian king imposed a settlement that acknowledged his right to control the Greek city-states of Anatolia but guaranteed autonomy for the mainland Greeks. The Spartans tried to make this treaty sound like a defense of Greek freedom, which they had promoted, but in reality they looked forward to the king&rsquos promise as a way for them to win a free hand pursuing dominance in Greece. The King&rsquos Peace of 386, as the agreement is called, effectively returned the Greeks of Anatolia to their status as Persian subjects from a century earlier, before the Greek victory in the Persian Wars of 490&ndash479 B.C. had freed them from Persian domination. Sparta, as at the end of the Peloponnesian War, had cut a deal with Persia for support against its enemies in Greece, blatantly ignoring their long-standing claim to be the liberators of the Greek city-states and the defenders of Greek political independence.

Spartan forces attacked city-states all over Greece in the years following the King&rsquos Peace of 386. Athens, meanwhile, had restored its invulnerability to invasion by rebuilding the Long Walls connecting the city and the harbor. The Athenian general Iphicrates also devised effective new tactics for light-armed troops, who were called peltasts, from the name of the smaller shield they carried. To enable these mobile soldiers to fight longer and more effectively against heavy infantry, he lengthened their weapons, replaced metal chest protectors with lightweight but tightly woven linen vests, and designed better battlefield footwear. Athens also rebuilt its navy to a substantial level, and by 377 the city had again become the leader of a naval alliance of Greek states. This time, however, the members of the league had their rights specified in writing and posted in public inscriptions for all to see they wanted to prevent the high-handed Athenian treatment of allies that had characterized the so-called Athenian Empire in the fifth-century B.C.

Spartan hopes of achieving lasting power in these decades of turmoil after the Peloponnesian War were crushed in 371 B.C., when a resurgent Theban army commanded by the great general Epaminondas defeated the Spartan army at Leuctra in Boeotia. The Spartans lost the battle when their cavalry was pushed back into their infantry ranks, disrupting the phalanx, and then their king and battlefield commander Cleombrotus was killed. So many Spartan hoplites were killed and wounded that their army finally had to retreat. The victors then invaded the Spartan homeland in the Peloponnese, a fate that Laconia had never before experienced. At this point, the rampaging Thebans seemed likely to challenge Jason, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly and an ambitious commander, for the position as the dominant military power in Greece.

The threat from Thessaly disappeared suddenly with Jason&rsquos assassination in 370 B.C., but in 369 Epaminondas led another invasion of Spartan territory. Following up on what he had started after the battle of Leuctra, he succeeded in freeing Messenia from Spartan control. This was a turning point in Spartan history: Being deprived of the economic output from the helots of that large and fertile region struck a devastating blow to the Spartan&rsquos strength, from which they would never fully recover. The Thebans now seemed likely to seize the position of the most powerful mainland city-state, so the former enemies Sparta and Athens now allied against Thebes this conflict culminated in the epochal battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese in 362 B.C. It became famous because Thebes won the battle but lost the war when Epaminondas was killed there. His death seriously compromised the quality of the Theban military leadership. Over the next two decades Thebes saw its power decline as it continued to fight neighboring Greeks and then the rising power of Macedonia under Philip II. In this same period, Athens and Sparta once again became openly hostile to one another. When the naval alliance led by Athens dissolved in the mid-350s B.C., after its member states rebelled and the Athenians proved too weak to compel them to obey, this loss of power shattered any dreams that Athenians clung to about dominating Greece as they had in their Golden Age a century earlier.

Xenophon bleakly summed up the situation in Greece as it developed in the aftermath of the battle of Mantinea: &ldquoEveryone had supposed that the winners of this battle would become Greece&rsquos rulers and its losers would become their subjects . . . but there was only more confusion and disturbance in Greece after it than before&rdquo (Hellenica 7.5.26&ndash27). He was right: All the efforts of the various major Greek city-states to extend their hegemony over mainland Greece in the first half of the fourth century B.C. ended in failure. By the 350s and 340s, no Greek city-state had the power to rule more than itself. The struggle for supremacy in Greece that had begun eighty years earlier with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War had finally ended in a stalemate of military and political exhaustion on the international level. In the midst of this violent impasse, Greece remained culturally productive, however this period saw some of the most famous and influential intellectual developments in all of ancient Greek history.


The most famed Greek in the first half of the fourth century B.C. was not a general or a politician but Socrates&rsquo most brilliant follower, the philosopher Plato of Athens (c. 428&ndash347 B.C.). His writings are without doubt the most influential intellectual legacy of this period for later times. Although his status as a member of the social elite propelled him into politics as a young man, he withdrew from Athenian public life after 399. The trial and execution of Socrates had apparently convinced Plato that citizens in a democracy were incapable of rising above narrow self-interest to cultivate knowledge of universal truth, the goal of a worthwhile life in his view. In his works theorizing about the best way to organize human society, Plato bitterly rejected democracy as a justifiable system of government, calling it the &ldquoworst form of rule under law&rdquo (Statesman 303a). He said that Pericles&rsquo establishment of pay for service in public office, the linchpin of broad citizen participation in democracy, had made the Athenians &ldquolazy, cowardly, gabby, and greedy&rdquo (Gorgias 515e). As he portrayed Socrates saying at his trial, Plato concluded that an honorable man committed to excellence could take no part in Athenian public life without incurring hatred and mortal danger (Apology 32e).

Against the background of this fierce criticism of his own city-state, Plato went on to describe an ideal for political and social organization headed by leaders nurtured and guided by philosophical wisdom. His utopian vision had virtually no effect on the actual politics of his time, however, and his attempts to advise Dionysius II (ruled 367&ndash344 B.C.), tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, on how to rule as a true philosopher ended in utter failure. But political philosophy formed only one portion of Plato&rsquos interests, which ranged widely in astronomy, mathematics, and metaphysics (theoretical explanations for phenomena that cannot be understood through direct experience or scientific experiment). After Plato&rsquos death in the middle of the fourth century B.C., his ideas continued to remain influential even as philosophers moved in new directions they later became vitally important to Christian theologians contemplating the nature of the soul and other complex ideas about the relationship between human beings and God. The sheer intellectual power of Plato&rsquos difficult thought and the controversy it has engendered ever since his lifetime have won him fame as one of the world&rsquos greatest philosophers.

Plato did not compose philosophical treatises based on abstractions of the kind familiar from more-recent academic study of philosophy instead, he composed works called dialogues from their form as conversations, or reported conversations. Almost as if they were plays or scripts, the dialogues have particular settings and casts of conversationalists, often including Socrates, who talk about philosophical issues. Divorcing the philosophical content of a Platonic dialogue from its literary form is surely a mistake a dialogue of Plato demands to be understood as a whole, and any interpretation of a dialogue has to take into account both its form and its content. The plots, so to speak, of the dialogues and their often indirect and inconclusive treatments of their philosophical subjects were intended to provoke readers into thoughtful reflection rather than to spoon-feed them a circumscribed set of doctrines.

Furthermore, Plato&rsquos views seem to have changed over time, and he nowhere sets out in one place a unified set of ideas. He does seem to have disagreed with Socrates&rsquo insistence that fundamental knowledge meant moral knowledge based on personal experience and reflection. Plato concluded that knowledge meant discovering truths that are independent of the individual or the observer of the visible world and can be taught to others. In the early fourth century he acted on this belief by establishing a school at a site called Academy, just outside the walls of Athens, a shady location named after the legendary hero Academos, whose shrine was nearby (fig. 9.1). Plato&rsquos school, referred to as the Academy, was not a college or research institute in the modern sense but rather an informal association where adults interested in studying philosophy, mathematics, and theoretical astronomy could gather, exercise, and spend time talking, with Plato as their guide. The Academy became so famous as a gathering place for intellectuals that it continued to operate for nine hundred years after Plato&rsquos death, with periods in which it was directed by distinguished philosophers and others during which it lapsed into mediocrity under lackluster leaders.

Although it is risky to try to summarize Plato rather than to read his dialogues as complete works, it is perhaps not too misleading to say that his dialogues as a whole indicate that human beings cannot define and understand absolute excellences, such as Goodness, Justice, Beauty, or Equality, by the concrete evidence of their experience of those qualities in their lives. Any earthly examples will in another context display the opposite quality. For instance, always returning whatever one has borrowed might seem to be just. But what if a person who has borrowed a weapon from a friend is confronted by that friend who wants the weapon back to commit a murder? In this case, returning the borrowed item would be unjust. Examples of equality are also only relative. The equality of a stick two feet long, for example, is evident when it is compared with another two-foot stick. Paired with a three-foot stick, however, it displays inequality. In the world that human beings experience with their senses, every example of the excellences or of every quality is relative in some aspect of its nature.

Plato refused to accept the relativity of the excellences as reality, and his spirited rejection of relativism attacked the doctrines of the sophists. Plato developed the theory that the excellences cannot be discovered through experience rather, excellences as qualities are absolutes that can be apprehended only by reasoning and that somehow exist independently of human existence. In some of his dialogues, Plato refers to the ultimate realities of the pure excellences as &ldquoForms&rdquo or &ldquoIdeas.&rdquo The Forms, he says, are nonmaterial universals that exist separately and are not perceptible by direct human experience. They are invisible, invariable, perfect, and eternal entities located in a higher realm beyond the empirical world of human beings. Among the Forms are Goodness, Justice, Beauty, and Equality. The Forms are, according to Plato, the only true reality what humans experience with their senses are the mere shadows or imitations of these archetypes. Plato&rsquos concept of nonmaterial Forms requires the further belief that knowledge of them comes not through the human body but rather the soul, which must be immortal. When a soul is incarnated in its current body, it brings with it from its former existence knowledge of the Forms. The soul then uses reason in argument and proof, not empirical observation through the senses, to recollect its preexistent knowledge. Plato was not consistent throughout his career in his views on the nature or the significance of Forms, and his later works seem even distant from the theory. Nevertheless, Forms provide a good example of both the complexity and the depth of Platonic thought.

Fig. 9.1: This later mosaic from the Roman town of Pompeii imagines a scene at the Academy of Plato in Athens, where male students gathered to discuss that philosopher&rsquos difficult ideas about the true nature of reality and knowledge and how human beings should live as a result. Plato&rsquos &ldquoschool&rdquo apparently did not charge tuition, relying instead on his private wealth and contributions from members. Wikimedia Commons.

Plato&rsquos idea that humans possess immortal souls distinct from their bodies established the concept of dualism, positing a separation between spiritual and physical being. This notion of the separateness of soul and body would play an influential role in later philosophical and religious thought. In a dialogue written late in his life, the Timaeus, Plato says the preexisting knowledge possessed by the immortal human soul is in truth the knowledge known to the supreme deity. Plato calls this god the Demiurge (&ldquocraftsman&rdquo) because the deity used knowledge of the Forms to craft the world of living beings from raw matter. According to this doctrine of Plato, a knowing, rational god created the world, and the world therefore has order. Furthermore, its beings have goals, as evidenced by animals adapting to their environments in order to flourish. The Demiurge wanted to reproduce in the material world the perfect order of the Forms, but the world as crafted turned out not to be perfect because matter is necessarily imperfect. Plato suggested that human beings should seek perfect order and purity in their own souls by making rational desires control their irrational desires. The latter cause harm in various ways. The desire to drink wine to excess, for example, is irrational because the drinker fails to consider the hangover to come the next day. Those who are governed by irrational desires thus fail to consider the future of both body and soul. Finally, since the soul is immortal and the body is not, our present, impure existence is only one passing phase in our cosmic existence.

Plato employs his theory of Forms not only in metaphysical speculation about the original creation of the everyday world in which people live, but also to explain how an ideal human society should be structured. One version of Plato&rsquos utopian vision is found in his most famous dialogue, The Republic. This work, whose Greek title (Politeia) would more accurately be rendered as System of Government, primarily concerns the nature of justice and the reasons that people should be just instead of unjust. Justice, Plato argues, is advantageous it consists of subordinating the irrational to the rational in the soul. By using the truly just and therefore imaginary city-state as a model for understanding this notion of proper subordination in the soul, Plato presents a vision of the ideal structure for human society as an analogy for understanding what the individual should do to have a just and moral soul. Like a just soul, the just society would have its parts in proper hierarchy, parts that Plato presents in The Republic as three classes of people, as distinguished by their ability to grasp the truth of Forms. The highest class constitutes the rulers, or &ldquoguardians&rdquo as Plato calls them, who are educated in mathematics, astronomy, and metaphysics. Next come the &ldquoauxiliaries,&rdquo whose function it is to defend the city-state. The lowest class is that of the &ldquoproducers,&rdquo who grow the food and make the objects required by the whole population. Each part contributes to society by fulfilling its proper function.

In Plato&rsquos utopia, women as well as men qualify to be guardians because they possess the same excellences and abilities as men, except for a disparity in physical strength between the average woman and the average man. The axiom justifying the inclusion of women&mdashthat excellence is the same in women as in men&mdashis perhaps an idea that Plato derived from Socrates. The inclusion of women in the ruling class of Plato&rsquos utopian city-state represented a startling departure from the actual practice of his times. Indeed, never before in Western history had anyone proposed&mdasheven in fantasy, which the imaginary city of The Republic certainly is&mdashthat work be allocated in human society without regard to gender. Almost equally radical were the specifications for how guardians are required to live: To minimize distraction from their duties, they can have neither private property nor nuclear families. Male and female guardians are to live in shared houses, eat in the same mess halls, and exercise in the same gymnasiums. Their children are to be raised as a group in a common environment by special caretakers. Although this scheme is meant to free women guardians from child-care responsibilities and enable them to rule equally with men, Plato fails to consider that women guardians would in reality have a much tougher life than the men because they would have to be pregnant frequently and undergo the strain and danger of giving birth. At the same time, he evidently does not believe that they should be disqualified from ruling on this account. The guardians who achieved the highest level of knowledge in Plato&rsquos ideal society would qualify to rule over this ideal state as philosopher-kings.

To become a guardian, a person must be educated from childhood for many years in mathematics, astronomy, and metaphysics to gain the knowledge that Plato in The Republic presented as necessary for the common good. Plato&rsquos specifications for the education of guardians in fact make him the first thinker to argue systematically that education should be the training of the mind and of character rather than simply the acquisition of information and practical skills. A state based on such education would necessarily be authoritarian because only the ruling class would possess the knowledge to determine its policies. They would determine even the nature of reproduction by deciding who is allowed to mate with whom, with the goal of producing the best children.

The severe regulation of life from work to eugenics that Plato proposed for his ideally just state in The Republic was a reflection of his tight focus on the question of a rational person&rsquos true interest and his identification of morality as the key to answering this question. Furthermore, he insisted that politics and ethics are fields in which objective truths can be found by the use of reason. Despite his harsh criticism of existing governments, such as Athenian democracy, and his scorn for the importance of rhetoric in its functioning, Plato also recognized the practical difficulties in implementing radical changes in the way people actually lived. Indeed, his late dialogue The Laws shows him wrestling with the question of improving the real world in a far less radical, though still authoritarian, way than in the imagined community of The Republic. Plato hoped that, instead of ordinary politicians, the people who know truth and can promote the common good would rule because their rule would be in everyone&rsquos real interest. For this reason above all, he passionately believed that the study of philosophy mattered to human life.


Greece in the later fourth century B.C. produced a second thinker whose intellectual legacy achieved monumental proportions. Aristotle (384&ndash322 B.C.), Plato&rsquos most brilliant follower, earned his enduring reputation in science and philosophy from his groundbreaking work in promoting scientific investigation of the natural world and developing rigorous systems of logical argument. The enormous influence of Aristotle&rsquos works on scholars in later periods, especially in medieval Europe, has made him a centralfigure in the history of Western science and philosophy, rivaling&mdashor, in the opinion of some, even surpassing&mdashthe achievements of Plato.

The son of a wealthy doctor from Stagira in northern Greece, who worked at the royal court of Macedonia, Aristotle came to Athens at the age of seventeen to study in Plato&rsquos Academy. In 335 B.C., Aristotle founded his own philosophical school in Athens, named the Lyceum, later called the Peripatetic School after the covered walkway (peripatos) in which its students carried on conversations while strolling out of the glare of the Mediterranean sun. Aristotle lectured on nearly every branch of learning: biology, medicine, anatomy, psychology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, music, metaphysics, rhetoric, political science, ethics, and literary criticism. He also worked out a sophisticated system of logic for precise argumentation. Creating a careful system to identify the forms of valid arguments, Aristotle established grounds for distinguishing a logically sound case from a merely persuasive one. He first gave names to contrasts, such as the universal versus the particular, and premise versus conclusion, which have been commonplaces of thought and speech ever since. He also studied the process of explanation itself, formulating the influential doctrine of four causes. According to Aristotle, four different categories of explanation exist that are not reducible to a single, unified whole: form (defining characteristics), matter (constituent elements), origin of movement (similar to what we commonly mean by &ldquocause&rdquo), and telos (aim or goal). The complexity of this analysis exemplifies Aristotle&rsquos concern to never oversimplify the nature of reality.

Apparently an inspiring teacher, Aristotle encouraged his followers to conduct research in numerous fields of specialized knowledge. For example, he had student researchers compile reports on the systems of government of 158 Greek states. Much of Aristotle&rsquos philosophical thought reflected the influence of Plato, but he also refined and even rejected ideas that his teacher had advocated. He denied the validity of Plato&rsquos theory of Forms, for example, on the grounds that their existence separate from the world that Plato postulated for them failed to make sense. This position typified Aristotle&rsquos general preference for explanations based on logical reasoning and on observation rather than derived from metaphysics. By modern standards, his scientific thought paid relatively limited attention to mathematical models of explanation and quantitative reasoning, but mathematics in his time had not yet reached the level of sophistication appropriate for such work. His method also differed from that of modern scientists because it did not include controlled experimentation. Aristotle believed that investigators had a better chance of understanding objects and beings by observing them in their natural setting than under the artificial conditions of a laboratory. His coupling of detailed investigation with perceptive reasoning served especially well in such physical sciences as biology, botany, and zoology. For example, as the first scientist to try to collect all the available information on the animal species and to classify them, Aristotle recorded information about more than five hundred different kinds of animals, including insects. Although his human gynecology was particularly inaccurate, many of his descriptions represented significant advances in learning. For example, his recognition that whales and dolphins were mammals, a biological fact that later writers on animals overlooked, was not rediscovered for another two thousand years.

In his research on animals Aristotle set forth his teleological view of nature&mdashthat is, he believed organisms developed as they did because they had a natural goal (telos), or what we might call an end or a function. To explain a phenomenon, Aristotle said that one must discover its goal&mdashto understand &ldquothat for the sake of which&rdquo the phenomenon in question existed. A simple example of this kind of explanation is the duck&rsquos webbed feet. According to Aristotle&rsquos reasoning, ducks have webbed feet for the sake of swimming, an activity that supports the goal of a duck&rsquos existence, which is to find food in the water so as to stay alive. Aristotle argued that the natural goal of human beings was to live in the society of a city-state, and that the city-state came into existence to meet the human need to live together, since individuals living in isolation cannot be self-sufficient. Furthermore, existence in a city-state made possible an orderly life of excellence for its citizens. The means to achieve this ordered life were the rule of law and the process of citizens&rsquo ruling and being ruled in turn.

Some of Aristotle&rsquos most influential discussions concentrated on understanding qualitative concepts that human beings tend to take for granted, such as time, space, motion, and change. Through careful argumentation he probed the philosophical difficulties that lie beneath the surface of these seemingly familiar concepts, and his views on the nature of things exercised an overwhelming influence on later thinkers.

Aristotle was conventional for his times in regarding slavery as natural, on the argument that some people were by nature bound to be slaves because their souls lacked the rational part that should rule in a human being. Thinkers supporting the contrary view were rare but did exist one fourth-century B.C. orator, Alcidamas, argued that &ldquogod has set all men free nature has made no one a slave&rdquo (Fragment 3 = scholium to Aristotle, Rhetorica 1373b). Also in accordance with the majority view of his times was Aristotle&rsquos conclusion that women were by nature inferior to men. His view of the inferiority of women was based on faulty notions of biology. He wrongly believed, for example, that in procreation the male with his semen actively gave the fetus its form, while the female had only the passive role of providing the baby&rsquos matter. His assertion that females were less courageous than males was justified by dubious evidence about animals, such as the report that a male squid would stand by as if to help when its mate was speared, but that a female squid would swim away when the male was impaled. Although his erroneous biology led Aristotle to evaluate females as incomplete males, he believed that human communities could be successful and happy only if they included the contributions of both women and men. Aristotle argued that marriage was meant to provide mutual help and comfort, but that the husband should rule. In his views on slavery and women, it seems necessary to say, Aristotle failed to meet the high standards of reasoning and observation that he taught his students. It seems to me a humbling warning to everyone who cares about justice that even such a brilliant scientist and philosopher as Aristotle could fall short in analyzing hot-button issues concerning which human differences can be used to justify treating people differently and which cannot.

Aristotle sharply departed from the Socratic idea that knowledge of justice and goodness was all that was necessary for a person to behave justly. He argued that people in their souls often possess knowledge of what is right but that their irrational desires overrule this knowledge and lead them to do wrong. People who know the evils of hangovers still get drunk, for instance. Recognizing a conflict of desires in the human soul, Aristotle devoted special attention to the issue of achieving self-control by training the mind through habituation to win out over the instincts and passions. Self-control did not mean denying human desires and appetites rather, it meant striking a balance between suppressing and heedlessly indulging physical yearnings, of finding &ldquothe mean.&rdquo Observing the mean was the key to a properly lived life, he taught. Aristotle claimed that the mind should rule in determining this balance in all the aspects of life because intelligence is the finest human quality and the mind is the true self, indeed the godlike part of a person. He specifically warned young people to be extraordinarily careful about how they habituated themselves to live: There will probably come a time later in life, he said, when you will want to accomplish new things or behave differently, but it will be almost impossible to change at that point if in your youth you developed habits that are now holding you back.

Aristotle regarded science and philosophy not as abstract subjects isolated from the concerns of ordinary existence but rather as the disciplined search for knowledge in every aspect of life. That search epitomized the kind of rational human activity that alone could bring the good life andgenuine happiness. Some modern critics have charged that Aristotle&rsquos work lacks a clear moral code, but he did the study of ethics a great service by insisting that standards of right and wrong have merit only if they are grounded in character and aligned with the good in human nature and do not simply consist of lists of abstract reasons for behaving in one way rather than another. An ethical system, that is, must be relevant to the actual moral situations that human beings continually experience in their lives. In ethics, as in all his scholarship, Aristotle distinguished himself by the insistence that the life of the mind and experience of the real world were inseparable components in the quest to define a worthwhile existence for human beings.

Aristotle believed that human happiness, which was not to be equated with the simpleminded pursuit of pleasure, stems from fulfilling human potentialities. These potentialities can be identified by rational choice, practical judgment, habituation to excellence, and recognition of the value of choosing the mean instead of extremes. The central moral problem is the nearly universal human tendency to want to &ldquoget more,&rdquo to act unjustly whenever one has the power to do so. The aim of education is to dissuade people from this inclination, which has its worst effects when it is directed at acquiring money or honor. In this context Aristotle was thinking of men in public life outside the home, and he says that the dangerous disorder caused by men&rsquos desire for &ldquogetting more&rdquo occurs both in democracies and oligarchies. Like Plato, he criticized democracy because he saw it as rule by the majority and the poor, not by the educated and elite. Athens served as Aristotle&rsquos home for many years, but its radically direct democracy never won his approval. The goal of democracy, he said, was living exactly as one likes, which could never be a valid principle for organizing the best government. True freedom, he stressed, consisted in ruling and being ruled in turn and not always insisting on fulfilling one&rsquos desires.


Despite his interest in subjects relevant to politics, such as the history of the constitutions of states and the theory and practice of rhetoric, Aristotle remained a theoretician in the mold of Plato. He was opposed to the kind of democracy open to all male citizens that distinguished Athens, in which persuasive public speaking was the most valued skill. These characteristics set him apart from the major educational trend of the fourth century B.C., which emphasized practical wisdom and training with direct application to the public lives of male citizens in a democratic city-state. The most important subject in this education was rhetoric, the techniques of public speaking and argumentation. Effective rhetoric required not only oratorical expertise but also knowledge of the world and of human psychology.

Influential believers in the value of practical knowledge and rhetoric were to be found even among the followers of Socrates, himself no admirer of democracy or rhetorical techniques. Xenophon, for example, knew Socrates well enough to write extensive memoirs recreating many conversations with the great philosopher. But he also wrote a wide range of works in history, biography, estate management, horsemanship, and the public revenues of Athens. The subjects of these treatises reveal the many topics that Xenophon considered essential to the proper education of young men.

The works of Isocrates (436&ndash338 B.C.) did the most to emphasize the importance of rhetoric as a practical skill. Born to a rich family, he studied both with sophists and Socrates. The Peloponnesian War destroyed his property and forced him to seek a living as a writer and teacher. Since he lacked a strong enough voice to address large gatherings and preferred quiet scholarly work to political action, Isocrates composed speeches for other men to deliver and sought to influence public opinion and political leaders by publishing treatises on education and politics. Seeing education as the preparation for a useful life doing good in matters of public importance, he strove to develop an educational middle ground between theoretical study of abstract ideas and practical training in rhetorical techniques. In this way, Isocrates as an educator staked out a position between the unattainable ideals of Plato as a theorist and the sophists&rsquo alluring promises to teach persuasive oratory as a tool for individuals to promote their own private advantage. Isocrates on occasion criticized Athenian democracy because it allowed anyone at all to participate, but his pride in his city-state never waned. In his nineties he composed a long treatise, Panathenaicus, praising Athens for its leadership in Greece and insisting on its superiority to Sparta in the cutthroat arena of international politics.

Rhetoric was the skill that Isocrates sought to develop, but that development, he insisted, could come only through natural talent honed by practical experience of worldly affairs. This experience was necessary to train orators both to understand public issues and the psychology of the people whom they had to persuade for the common good. Isocrates saw rhetoric therefore not as a device for cynical self-aggrandizement but as a powerful tool of persuasion for human betterment, if it was used by properly gifted and trained men with developed consciences. Women were excluded from participation because they could not take part in politics. The Isocratean emphasis on rhetoric and its application in the real world of politics won many more adherents among men in Greek and, later, Roman culture than did the Platonic vision of the philosophical life, and it had great influence when revived in Renaissance Europe two thousand years later.

Throughout his life Isocrates tried to recommend solutions to the most pressing problems of his era. He was particularly worried by the growing social unrest created by friction between the rich and the poor in communities throughout Greece. Athens was more fortunate than many city-states in avoiding conflict between social classes in the fourth century B.C., perhaps because its democracy required wealthier men to spend money on benefactions to the community as a whole, especially through the liturgical system. Such men from the elite had to fulfill liturgies by paying for and sometimes also personally participating in activities that supported the city-state, such as buying the equipment for warships and serving on them as commanders, or financing the costumes and training of choruses for plays produced in the public dramatic festivals. These benefactions won their sponsors public gratitude (charis, the source of the modern word charity) on the grounds that they were putting their wealth to use in an appropriately democratic fashion. Any rich man involved in a court case would try to win sympathy from the jury, which as a randomly selected group would include many men of moderate means, by citing all the liturgies that he and his family had performed. Indeed, in all their public speaking wealthy citizens had to signal their allegiance to democratic principles in order to win popular support. The politics of charis, then, helped to lessen tensions between rich and poor in Athens.

Elsewhere in Greece hostility between rich and poor was evidently worse. The tension was only heightened by the city-states&rsquo traditional tendency toward hostility and rivalry toward one another they rarely could find ways to cooperate to solve their social problems. For Isocrates, the state of affairs in Greece had become so unstable that only a radical remedy would do: Panhellenism&mdashpolitical harmony among the Greek states&mdashwhich would be put into action not by Greeks but under the leadership of Philip II, king of Macedonia. Philip would unite the Greeks in a crusade against Persia, recalling the glorious success of the wars of a century and a half earlier. This alliance, as Isocrates imagined it, would end war among the city-states and also relieve the impoverished population by establishing new Greek colonies on conquered land carved out of Persian-held territory in Anatolia. That a prominent and proud Athenian would openly appeal for a Macedonian king to save the Greeks from themselves reflected the startling new political and military reality that had emerged in the Greek world by the second half of the fourth century B.C.


The rise to international power of the kingdom of Macedonia filled the power vacuum that had been created by the fruitless wars of the Greek city-states with each other in the early fourth century B.C., the void that Xenophon had so acutely summed up at the end of his Hellenica with his bleak assessment of the consequences of the battle of Mantinea. Macedonia was a rough land of mountains and lowland valleys just to the north of Greece, and everyday life there was harder than in Greece because the climate was colder it was more dangerous because the Macedonians&rsquo western and northern neighbors periodically launched devastating raids into Macedonian territory. The Macedonian population was especially vulnerable to such raids because they generally lived in small villages and towns without protective walls. Macedonia had more natural resources than Greece did, especially in timber and precious metals, but that this formerly minor kingdom become the supreme power in Greece in the 350s and 340s B.C. and then conquered the vast Persian Empire in the 330s and 320s ranks as one of the major surprises in ancient military and political history.

The power of the king of the Macedonian state was limited by the tradition that he was supposed to listen to his people, who were accustomed to addressing their monarch with a blunt freedom of speech. Above all, the king could govern effectively only as long as he maintained the support of the most powerful families in Macedonia, whose leaders ranked as his social equals and controlled large bands of followers. Fighting, hunting, and heavy drinking were the favorite pastimes of these men. The king was expected to demonstrate his prowess in these activities to show that he was a man&rsquos man capable of heading the state. Macedonian queens and royal mothers received respect in this male-dominated society because they belonged to powerful families of the Macedonian social elite or the ruling houses of lands bordering Macedonia and they bore their husbands the male heirs needed to carry on royal dynasties. In the king&rsquos absence, these royal women could compete with the king&rsquos designated representative for power at the royal court.

Macedonians had their own language related to Greek, but the members of the elite that dominated Macedonian society routinely learned to speak Greek because they thought of themselves, and indeed all Macedonians, as Greek by descent. At the same time, Macedonians looked down on the Greeks to the south as a soft bunch unequal to the adversities of life in Macedonia. The Greeks reciprocated this scorn. The famed Athenian orator Demosthenes (384&ndash322 B.C.) lambasted the Macedonian king Philip II (382&ndash336B.C.) as &ldquonot only not a Greek nor related to the Greeks, but not even a barbarian from a land worth mentioning no, he&rsquos a pestilence from Macedonia, a region where you can&rsquot even buy a slave worth his salt&rdquo (Orations 9.31). Barbed verbal attacks like this one characterized Demosthenes&rsquo speeches on foreign and domestic policy to the Athenian assembly, where he consistently tried to convince his fellow Athenians to oppose the expansion of Macedonian power in Greece. His exceptional rhetorical skill also made him the foremost man of his time in the writing of speeches for other men to deliver in court cases.

Demosthenes spoke so forcefully against Philip II because he recognized how ambitious was this king, the person most responsible for making Macedonia into an international power and doing so against heavy odds. For one thing, strife in the royal family and disputes among the leading families had always been so common that Macedonia before Philip&rsquos reign had never been sufficiently united to mobilize its full military strength. So real was the fear of violence from their own countrymen that Macedonian kings stationed bodyguards at the door to the royal bedroom. Moreover, Macedonian princes married earlier than did most men, soon after the age of twenty, because the instability of the kingship demanded the production of male heirs as soon as possible.

Macedonian royal politics therefore reached a crisis in 359 B.C., when the Macedonian king Perdiccas and four thousand Macedonian troops were slaughtered in battle with the Illyrians, hostile neighbors to the north of Macedonia. Philip was only in his early twenties. Despite his relative youth, in this moment of national emergency he had the charisma to persuade the most important Macedonian leaders to recognize him as king in place of his infant nephew, for whom he was now serving as regent after the death of Perdiccas in battle. Philip soon restored the army&rsquos confidence by teaching the infantrymen an unstoppable new tactic. He convinced Macedonian troops to carry thrusting spears sixteen to eighteen feet long, which they had to hold with two hands. Philip drilled his men to handle these long weapons in a phalanx formation, whose front line bristled with outstretched spears like a lethal porcupine. With the cavalry deployed as a strike force to soften up the enemy and protect the infantry&rsquos flanks, Philip&rsquos reorganized army promptly routed Macedonia&rsquos northern enemies&mdashand also suppressed local rivals to the young new king.

Philip next embarked on a whirlwind of diplomacy, bribery, and military action to make the states of Greece acknowledge his political superiority. He financed his ambition by prodigious spending of the gold and silver coinage he had minted from the mines of Macedonia and those that he captured in Thrace. Not even a grave battlefield wound that cost him an eye could stop Philip (fig. 9.2). A Greek contemporary, the historian Theopompus of Chios, labeled Philip &ldquoinsatiable and extravagant he did everything in a hurry. . . . A soldier, he never spared the time to reckon up his income and expenditure&rdquo (Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters [Deipnosophistae] 4.166f&ndash167a = FGrH 115 F224). Philip achieved a great political coup in the 350s B.C. by convincing the most powerful leaders in Thessaly, the prosperous region of central Greece just over the mountains south of Macedonia, to elect him hegemonial commander of their confederacy, thereby investing him with legitimacy as a leader of Greeks chosen by consent. The Thessalian barons apparently justified the choice of a Macedonian to lead their alliance by asserting that Philip was their kin as a descendant of the legendary Heracles and therefore qualified for the post by his famous ancestry.

Fig. 9.2: Forensic anthropology has produced this reconstruction of the head of Philip II, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great. Philip had an eye destroyed by an arrow shot by a defender stationed atop the fortification wall of the city of Methone, which the Macedonian ruler was besieging in 354 B.C. The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester / Created by Richard Neave.

In the mid-340s B.C. Philip intervened militarily in a bitter dispute over alleged sacrilege at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, committed by the Phocians, the Greeks located just south of the Thessalians and their traditional bitter enemies. This so-called Sacred War pitted Philip and his Greek allies against the Phocians and their allies, among whom were the Athenians. Philip and his side gained the upper hand in this conflict, and by the late 340s Philip had cajoled or forced most of northern and central Greece to follow his lead in foreign policy. His goal then became to lead a united Macedonian and Greek army in his quest to defeat the Persian Empire. His announced reason sprang from a central theme in Greek understanding of the past: the need to exact retribution for the Persian invasion of Macedonia and Greece of 480. Philip also feared the potentially destabilizing effect on his kingdom if his reinvigorated army were left with nothing to do. To launch his ambitious invasion, however, he needed to strengthen his alliance by adding to it the forces of southern Greece.

At Athens, Demosthenes used his stirring rhetoric to scorch the Greeks for their failure to resist Philip: They stood by, he thundered, &ldquoas if Philip were a hailstorm, praying that he would not come their way, but not trying to do anything to head him off&rdquo (Orations 9.33). The Athenians were divided over whether to resist Philip or collaborate, and they were unable to form a consensus to direct all their now-limited public financial resources to military preparedness. Finally, however, Athens joined its traditional enemy Thebes in heading a coalition of southern Greek states to try to block Philip&rsquos plans by pooling their armies. It was not enough. In 338 B.C., Philip and his Greek allies trounced the coalition&rsquos forces at the battle of Chaeronea in Boeotia.

The defeated Greek states retained their internal political freedom, but they were compelled to join an alliance under Philip&rsquos undisputed leadership, called by modern scholars the League of Corinth, after the location of its headquarters. Sparta managed to stay out of the League of Corinth, but its days as an important power in its own right were over because its population had shrunk so dramatically. The battle of Chaeronea was a decisive turning point in Greek history: Never again would the states of Greece make foreign policy for themselves without considering, and usually following, the wishes of outside powers. This change marked the end of the Greek city-states as independent actors in international politics, although they unquestionably retained their significance as the basic economic and social units of the Greek world. They had to fulfill a subordinate role now, however, either as subjects or allies of the kingdom of Macedonia or, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., of the kingdoms subsequently created by Alexander&rsquos former generals. The Hellenistic kingdoms, as these new monarchies are called, like the Roman provinces that eventually replaced them as political masters of the Greeks, depended on the local leaders of the Greek city-states to collect taxes for the imperial treasuries and to insure the loyalty and order of the rest of the citizens. In this way, the city-states remained important constituent elements of the political organization of the Greek world and maintained a vital public life for their citizens, but they were never again to be fully in charge of their own fates.

Whether the Greeks could have avoided this degradation if they had acted differently is a question worth asking. Were they simply overcome by the accident of facing an enemy with better leadership and more access to natural resources to finance its power? Or could the Greek city-states have turned back Philip if they had not been weakened and divided by spending so many decades and so much treasure fighting one another? Could they have done better at compromising with other city-states when disputes arose, or would doing so have been a slippery slope leading to &ldquoslavery,&rdquo as Pericles had argued to the Athenians in persuading them not to compromise with Sparta even if it meant war? These questions, which certainly have their analogues in our history today, seem to me to mark one of the numerous places where ancient Greek history is &ldquogood to think with.&rdquo


A Macedonian holding a grudge for a violent insult assassinated Philip in 336 B.C. Unconfirmed rumors circulated that the murder had been instigated by one of his several wives, Olympias, a princess from Epirus to the west of Macedonia and mother of Philip&rsquos son, Alexander (356&ndash323 B.C.). When his father was killed, Alexander promptly liquidated potential rivals for the throne and won recognition as king while barely twenty years old. In several lightning-fast campaigns, he subdued Macedonia&rsquos traditional enemies to the west and north. Next, he compelled the city-states in southern Greece that had rebelled from the League of Corinth at the news of Philip&rsquos death to rejoin the alliance. (As in Philip&rsquos reign, Sparta remained outside the league.) To demonstrate the price of disloyalty, Alexander destroyed Thebes in 335 as punishment for its rebellion. This lesson in terror made it clear that Alexander might claim to lead the Greek city-states by their consent (the kind of leader called a hegemon in Greek) but that the reality of his power rested on his superior force and his unwavering willingness to employ it. Alexander would always reward those who acknowledged his power, even if they had previously been his enemies, but he ruthlessly punished anyone who betrayed his trust or defied his ambitions.

Map 7. Alexander&rsquos Route of Conquest, 334&ndash323 B.C.

With Greece cowed into peaceful if grudging allegiance, Alexander in 334 B.C. led a Macedonian and Greek army into Anatolia to fulfill his father&rsquos plan to obtain retribution for Greece by subduing Persia. Alexander&rsquos astounding success in the following years in conquering the entire Persian Empire while still in his twenties earned him the title &ldquothe Great&rdquo in later ages. In his own time, his greatness consisted of his ability to inspire his men to follow him into hostile, unknown regions where they were reluctant to go, beyond the borders of civilization as they knew it, and his genius for adapting his tactics to changing military and social circumstances as he marched farther and farther away from the land and people that he knew from his youthful years. Alexander inspired his troops with his reckless disregard for his own safety often he plunged into the enemy at the head of his men and shared the danger of the common soldier in the front of the battle line. No one could miss him in his plumed helmet, vividly colored cloak, and armor polished to reflect the sun. So intent on conquering distant lands was Alexander that he had rejected advice to delay his departure from Macedonia until he had married and fathered an heir, to forestall instability in case of his death. He had further alarmed his principal advisor, an experienced older man, by giving away almost all his land and property in order to strengthen the army, thereby creating new landowners who would furnish troops. &ldquoWhat,&rdquo the advisor asked, &ldquodo you have left for yourself?&rdquo &ldquoMy hopes,&rdquo Alexander replied (Plutarch, Alexander 15). Those hopes centered on constructing a heroic image of himself as a warrior as glorious as the incomparable Achilles of Homer&rsquos Iliad.Alexander always kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow, along with a dagger. Alexander&rsquos aspirations and his behavior represented the ultimate expression of the Homeric vision of the glorious conquering warrior striving &ldquoalways to be the best&rdquo and to win the immortal reputation that only such achievements could convey.

Alexander cast a spear into the earth of Anatolia when he crossed the Hellespont Strait from Europe to Asia, thereby claiming the Asian continent for himself in Homeric fashion as territory &ldquowon by the spear&rdquo (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 17.17.2). The first battle of the campaign, at the Granicus River in western Anatolia, proved the worth of Alexander&rsquos Macedonian and Greek cavalry, which charged across the river and up the bank to rout the opposing Persians. A Persian came within a split second of cutting Alexander&rsquos head in two with a sword as the king led his cavalry against the enemy, but a Macedonian commander saved the charging king by slicing off the attacker&rsquos arm. Alexander went on to visit the legendary King Midas&rsquos capital of Gordion in Phrygia, where an oracle had promised the lordship of Asia to whoever could loose a seemingly impenetrable knot of rope that was tying the yoke of an ancient chariot preserved in the city. The young Macedonian, so the story goes, cut the Gordion knot with his sword. In 333 B.C.the Persian king Darius finally faced Alexander in battle at Issus, near the southeastern corner of Anatolia. Alexander defeated his more-numerous opponents with a characteristically bold strike of cavalry through the left side of the Persian lines, followed by a flanking maneuver against the king&rsquos position in the center. Darius had to flee from the field to avoid capture, leaving behind his wives and daughters, who had accompanied his campaign in keeping with royal Persian tradition. Alexander&rsquos scrupulously chivalrous treatment of the Persian royal women after their capture at Issus reportedly boosted his reputation among the peoples of the king&rsquos empire.

When Tyre, a heavily fortified city on the coast of what is now Lebanon, refused to surrender to him in 332 B.C., Alexander employed the assault machines and catapults developed by his father to breach the walls of its formidable offshore fortress after a long siege. The capture of Tyre revealed that walled city-states were no longer impregnable to siege warfare. Although successful sieges remained difficult after Alexander because well-constructed city walls still presented formidable barriers to attackers, Alexander&rsquos success against Tyre increased the terror of a siege for a city&rsquos general population. No longer could its citizens confidently assume that their defensive system could indefinitely withstand the technology of their enemy&rsquos offensive weapons. The now-present fear that a siege might actually breach a city&rsquos walls made it much harder psychologically for city-states to remain united in the face of threats from enemies like aggressive kings.

Alexander next took over Egypt, where hieroglyphic inscriptions exist that scholars have suggested are evidence the Macedonian presented himself as the successor to the Persian king as the land&rsquos ruler, not as an Egyptian pharaoh. This conclusion is not certain, however, and in Egyptian art Alexander is depicted in the traditional guise of rulers of that ancient state. For all practical purposes, Alexander became pharaoh, an early sign that he was going to adopt whatever foreign customs and institutions he found useful for controlling his conquests and proclaiming his superior status.On the coast, to the west of the Nile river, Alexander in 331 B.C. founded a new city, named Alexandria after himself, the first of many cities he would later establish as far east as Afghanistan. During his time in Egypt, Alexander also paid a mysterious visit to the oracle of the god Ammon, whom the Greeks regarded as identical to Zeus, at the oasis of Siwah, far out in the western Egyptian desert. Alexander told no one the details of his consultation of the oracle, but the news got out that he had been informed that he was the son of the god and that he joyfully accepted the designation as true.

In 331 B.C., Alexander crushed the Persian king&rsquos main army at the battle of Gaugamela in northern Mesopotamia, near the border of modern Iraq and Iran. He subsequently proclaimed himself king of Asia in place of the Persian king never again would he be merely the king of the Macedonians and hegemon of the Greeks. For the heterogeneous populations of the Persian Empire, the succession of a Macedonian to the Persian throne meant essentially no change in their lives. They continued to send the same taxes to a remote master, whom they rarely if ever saw. As in Egypt, Alexander left the local administrative system of the Persian Empire in place, even retaining some Persian governors. His long-term aim seems to have been to forge an administrative corps composed of Macedonians, Greeks, and Persians working together to rule the territory he conquered with his army. Alexander was quick to recognize excellence when he saw it, and he began to rely more and more on &ldquobarbarians&rdquo as supporters and administrators. His policy seems to have been to create strength and stability by mixing ethnic traditions and personnel. As he had learned from Aristotle, his tutor when he was a teenager in Macedonia, mixed natures were the strongest and best.


Alexander next led his army farther east into territory hardly known to the Greeks. He pared his force to reduce the need for supplies, which were difficult to find in the arid country through which they were marching. Each hoplite in Greek armies customarily had a personal servant to carry his armor and pack. Alexander, imitating Philip, trained his men to carry their own equipment, thereby creating a leaner force by cutting the number of army servants dramatically. As with all ancient armies, however, a large number of noncombatants trailed after the fighting force: merchants who set up little markets at every stop women whom soldiers had taken as mates along the way and their children entertainers and prostitutes. Although supplying these hangers-on was not Alexander&rsquos responsibility, their foraging for themselves made it harder for Alexander&rsquos quartermasters to find what they needed to supply the army proper.

An ancient army&rsquos demand for supplies usually left a trail of destruction and famine for local inhabitants in the wake of its march. Hostile armies simply took whatever they wanted. Friendly armies expected local people to sell or donate food to its supply officers and also to the merchants trailing along. These entrepreneurs would set up markets to resell locally obtained provisions to the soldiers. Since most farmers in antiquity had practically no surplus to sell, they found this expectation&mdashwhich was in reality a requirement&mdasha terrific hardship. The money the farmers received was of little use to them because there was nothing to buy with it in the countryside, where their neighbors had also had to participate in the forced marketing of their subsistence.

From the heartland of Persia in 329 B.C., Alexander marched northeastward into the trackless steppes of Bactria (modern Afghanistan). When he proved unable to completely subdue the highly mobile locals, who avoided pitched battles in favor of the guerrilla tactics of attack and retreat, Alexander settled for an alliance sealed by his marriage to the Bactrian princess Roxane in 327. In this same period, Alexander completed the cold-blooded suppression of both real and imagined resistance to his plans among the leading men in his officer corps. As in past years, he regarded accusations of treachery or disloyalty as justification for the execution of those Macedonians he had come to distrust. These executions, like the destruction of Thebes in 335, demonstrated Alexander&rsquos appreciation of terror as a disincentive to rebellion.

From Bactria Alexander pushed on eastward to India. He probably intended to march all the way through to China in search of the edge of the farthest land on the earth, which Aristotle had taught was a sphere. Seventy days of marching through monsoon rains, however, finally shattered the nerves of Alexander&rsquos soldiers. In the spring of 326 B.C., they mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas) in northwestern India. Alexander was forced to agree to lead them in the direction of home. When his men had balked before, Alexander had always been able to shame them back into action by sulking in his tent like Achilles in The Iliad. This time the soldiers were beyond shame.

Blocked from continuing eastward, Alexander now proceeded south down the Indus River. Along the way he took out his frustration at being stopped in his push to the east by conquering the Indian tribes who resisted him and by risking his life more flamboyantly than ever before. As a climax to his frustrated rage, he flung himself over the wall of an Indian town to face the enemy alone like a Homeric hero. His horrified officers were barely able to rescue him in time even so, he received near-fatal wounds. At the mouth of the Indus on the Indian Ocean, Alexander turned a portion of his army west through the fierce desert of Gedrosia. He sent another group on an easier route inland, while a third group sailed westward along the coast to explore for possible sites for new settlements and harbors to connect Mesopotamia and India. Alexander himself led the contingent that braved the desert, planning to surpass earlier famous leaders by marching through territory that they had found nearly impassable. The environment along the way was punishing. A flash flood wiped out most of the noncombatants following the army when they camped in a dry riverbed that filled up after a sudden inundation. Many soldiers died on the burning sands of the desert, expiring from lack of water and the heat, which has been recorded at 127 degrees in the shade in that area. Alexander, as always, shared his men&rsquos hardships. In one legendary episode from this horrible ordeal, a patrol was said to have brought him a helmet containing some water that had been found on their scouting expedition. Alexander spilled the water out onto the sand rather than drink when his men could not. They loved him for this gesture more than anything else, it is reported. The remains of the army finally reached safety in the heartland of Persia in 324B.C. Alexander promptly began plans for an invasion of the Arabian Peninsula and, to follow that, North Africa west of Egypt.

By the time Alexander returned to Persia, he had dropped all pretense of ruling over the Greeks as anything other than an absolute monarch. Despite his earlier promise as hegemon to respect the internal freedom of the Greek city-states, he now impinged on their autonomy by sending a peremptory decree ordering them to restore to citizenship the large number of exiles wandering homeless in the Greek world. The previous decades of war in Greece had created many of these unfortunate wanderers, and their status as stateless persons was creating unrest. Even more striking was Alexander&rsquos communication to the city-states that he wished to receive the honors due a god. Initially dumbfounded by this request, the leaders of most Greek states soon complied by sending honorary delegations to him as if he were a god. The Spartan Damis pithily expressed the only prudent position on Alexander&rsquos deification open to the stunned Greeks: &ldquoIf Alexander wishes to be a god, we agree that he be called a god&rdquo (Plutarch, Moralia 219e).

Scholarly debate continues over Alexander&rsquos motive for desiring the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god, but few now accept a formerly popular theory that he did not really think that he was divine and only claimed that status because he believed the city-states could then save face by obeying his orders because the commands originated from a divinity, whose authority of course superseded that of all earthly regimes. Personal rather than political motives best explain Alexander&rsquos request. He certainly had come to believe that he was the son of Zeus after all, Greek mythology told many stories of Zeus producing children by mating with a human female. Most of those legendary offspring were mortal, but Alexander&rsquos conquest showed that he had surpassed them. His feats must be superhuman, it would have seemed to him, because they exceeded the bounds of human possibility. In other words, Alexander&rsquos accomplishments demonstrated that he had achieved godlike power and therefore must be a god himself, even while still a man. This new kind of divinity achieved by Alexander emerged, in his view, as a natural consequence of his power and achievements. We have to take seriously the ancient evidence that Alexander believed he was a god and a man at the same time that was an idea that, later history shows, was going to have a long future.

Alexander&rsquos political and military goals can best be explained as interlinked goals: the conquest and administration of the known world, and the exploration and possible colonization of new territory beyond. Conquest through military action was a time-honored pursuit for ambitious Macedonian leaders such as Alexander. He included non-Macedonians in his administration and army because he needed their expertise, not because he had any dream of promoting an abstract notion of what was once called &ldquothe brotherhood of man.&rdquo Alexander&rsquos explorations benefited numerous scientific fields, from geography to botany, because he took along scientifically minded writers to collect and catalogue the new knowledge that they encountered. The far-flung new cities that he founded served as loyal outposts to keep the peace in conquered territory and provide warnings to headquarters in case of local uprisings. They also created new opportunities for trade in valuable goods, such as spices, that were not produced in the Mediterranean region.

Alexander&rsquos plans to conquer Arabia and North Africa were extinguished by his premature death in Babylon on June 10, 323 B.C. He died from a fever worsened by dehydration from drinking wine, which Greeks believed had medicinal qualities for the sick. He had already been suffering for months from depression brought on by the death of his best friend, Hephaistion. Close since their boyhoods, Alexander and Hephaistion are believed by some to have been lovers, though the major surviving ancient sources do not make this claim explicitly. They do suggest, however, that Alexander, like other men of his time and place, had a more expansive view of appropriate erotic desire and sexual practice for men than is usual today for one thing, he is said to have had a beautiful eunuch who provided him with intimate services. In any case, when Hephaistion died in a bout of excessive drinking, Alexander went wild with grief. The depth of his emotion was evident when he planned to build an elaborate temple to honor Hephaistion as a god. Meanwhile, Alexander threw himself into preparing for his Arabian campaign by exploring the marshy lowlands of southern Mesopotamia. Perhaps it was on one of these trips that Alexander contracted the malarialike fever that killed him when he was only thirty-two years old. Alexander had made no plans about what should happen if he should die unexpectedly. His wife Roxane gave birth to their first child only some months after Alexander&rsquos death. When at Alexander&rsquos deathbed his commanders asked him to whom he left his kingdom, he replied, &ldquoto the most powerful&rdquo (Arrian, Anabasis 7.26.3).

Fig. 9.3: This gold medallion made in the time of the Roman Empire commemorates Alexander the Great, outfitted in decorated armor, though without a helmet so that his face could be clearly seen. His head is depicted gazing upward, with Alexander scanning the sky, a pose that the Macedonian conqueror was said to have chosen for his official portrait in sculpture. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.



View count:4,927,755
Last sync:2018-05-11 06:10

In which John compares and contrasts Greek civilization and the Persian Empire. Of course we're glad that Greek civilization spawned modern western civilization, right? Maybe not. From Socrates and Plato to Darius and Xerxes, John explains two of the great powers of the ancient world, all WITHOUT the use of footage from 300.

The Histories of Herodotus:

Follow us!

Intro (0:00)

Hi, I&rsquom John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we&rsquore going to do some legitimate comp. civ., for those of you into that kind of thing. Stan, I can&rsquot help but feel that we have perhaps too many globes. That&rsquos better.

Today we&rsquore going to learn about the horrible totalitarian Persians and the saintly, democracy-loving Greeks. But of course we already know this story &mdash there were some wars in which no one wore any shirts, and everyone was reasonably fit. The Persians were bad the Greeks were good. Socrates and Plato were awesome the Persians didn&rsquot even philosophize. The West is the Best Go Team! Yeah, well, no.

Persian Empire (0:38)

Let&rsquos start with the Persian empire, which became the model for pretty much all land-based empires throughout the world. Except for &mdash wait for it &mdash the Mongols. [Mongoltage]

Much of what we know about the Persians and their empire comes from an outsider writing about them, which is something we now call history, and one of the first true historians was Herodotus, whose famous book The Persian Wars talks about the Persians quite a bit. Now the fact that Herodotus was a Greek is important because it introduces us to the idea of historical bias. But more on that in a second.

So the Persian Achaemenid dynasty. Achaemenid? Hold on.

Computer: AkEEmenid or AkEHmenid

They&rsquore both right? I was right twice!?

Right, so the Persian AkEEmenid or AkEHmenid dynasty was founded in 539 BCE by King Cyrus the Great. Cyrus took his nomadic warriors and conquered most of Mesopotamia, including the Babylonians, which ended a sad period in Jewish history called The Babylonian Exile, thus ensuring that Cyrus got great press in the Bible.

But his son, Darius the First, was even greater, he extended Persian control east to our old friend the Indus Valley, west to our new friend Egypt, and north to Crash Course newcomer Anatolia. By the way, there were Greeks in Anatolia called Ionian Greeks who will become relevant shortly.

So even if you weren&rsquot Persian, the Persian Empire was pretty dreamy. For one thing, the Persians ruled with a light touch, like, conquered kingdoms were allowed to keep their kings and their elites as long as they pledged allegiance to the Persian King and paid taxes, which is why the Persian king was known as The King of Kings.

Plus, taxes weren&rsquot too high, and the Persians improved infrastructure with better roads and they had this pony express-like mail service of which Herodotus said: &ldquo. they are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.&rdquo

And the Persians embraced freedom of religion. Like they were Zoroastrian, which has a claim to being the world&rsquos first monotheistic religion. It was really Zoroastrianism that introduced to the good/evil dualism we all know so well. You know: god and Satan, or Harry and Voldemort. But the Persians weren&rsquot very concerned about converting people of the empire to their faith. Plus, Zoroastrianism forbid slavery, and so slavery was almost unheard of in the Persian Empire.

All in all, if you had to live in the 5th century BCE, the Persian Empire was probably the best place to do it. Unless, that is, you believe Herodotus and the Greeks. We all know about the Greeks: architecture, philosophy, literature. The very word music comes from Greek, as does so much else in contemporary culture. Greek poets and mathematicians playwrights and architects and philosophers founded a culture we still identify with. And they introduced us to many ideas, from democracy to fart jokes.

And the Greeks gave the west our first dedicated history, they gave us our vocabulary for talking about politics. Plus they gifted us our idealization of democracy, which comes from the government they had in Athens.

Past John: Mr. Green, Mr. Green, Mr. Green, Mr. Green &mdash did you say fart jokes?

Present John: Uhh. You don&rsquot ask about Doric, Ionian, or Corinthian columns. You don&rsquot ask about Plato&rsquos allegory of the cave. It&rsquos all scatological humor with you &mdash It&rsquos time for the open letter? Really? Already? Alright.

Open Letter (3:34)

An open letter [the whoopee cushion sounds]. Stan! To Aristophanes. Dear Aristophanes. Oh right, I have to check the secret compartment. Stan, what. oh. Thank you, Stan. It&rsquos fake dog poo. How thoughtful.

So, good news and bad news, Aristophanes.

2,300 years after your death &mdash this is the good news &mdash you&rsquore still a reasonably famous. Only eleven of your forty plays survived, but even so, you&rsquore called the Father of Comedy there are scholars devoted to your work.

Now, the bad news: Even though your plays are well-translated and absolutely hilarious, students don&rsquot like to read them in schools. There always like, why do we gotta read this boring crap? And this must be particularly galling to you, because so much of what you did in your career was make fun of boring crap, specifically in the form of theatrical tragedies. Plus, you frequently used actual crap to make jokes. Such as when you had the chorus in The Acharnians imagining a character in your play throwing crap at a real poet you didn&rsquot like.

You, Aristophanes, who wrote that under every stone lurks a politician, who called wealth the most excellent of all the gods. You, who are responsible for the following conversation:

"Praxagora: I want all to have a share of everything and everything to be in common there will no longer be either rich or poor [. ] I shall begin by making land, money, everything that is private property, common to all. [. ]

Blepyrus: But who will till the soil?

And yet you&rsquore seen as homework! Drudgery! That, my friend, is a true tragedy. On the upside, we did take care of slavery. It only took us two thousand years.

Trouble (5:04)

When we think about the high point of Greek culture, exemplified by the Parthenon and the plays of Aeschylus, what we&rsquore really thinking about is Athens in the fourth century BCE, right after the Persian Wars. But Greece was way more than Athens Greeks lived in city-states which consisted of a city and its surrounding area. Most of these city-states featured at least some form of slavery, and in all of them citizenship was limited to males. Sorry ladies.

Also, each of the city-states had its own form of government, ranging from very democratic &mdash unless you were a woman or a slave &mdash to completely dictatorial. And the people who lived in these cities considered themselves citizens of that city, not of anything that would ever be called Greece. At least until the Persian wars.

So between 490 and 480 BCE, the Persians made war on the Greek City states. This was the war that featured the battle of Thermopylae where three hundred brave Spartans battled &mdash if you believe Herodotus &mdash five million Persians.

And also the battle of Marathon, which is a plain about 26.2 miles away from Athens.

The whole war started because Athens supported those aforementioned Ionian Greeks when they were rebelling in Anatolia against the Persians. That made the Persian king Xerxes mad, so he led two major campaigns against the Athenians, and the Athenians enlisted the help of all the other Greek city-states. And in the wake of that shared Greek victory, the Greeks began to see themselves as Greeks, rather than as Spartans, or Athenians or whatever.

And then Athens emerged as the de facto capital of Greece and then got to experience a Golden Age, which is something that historians make up. But a lot of great things did happen during the Golden Age, including the Parthenon, a temple that became a church and then a mosque and then an armory until finally settling into its current gig as a ruin.

You also had statesmen like Pericles, whose famous funeral oration brags about the golden democracy of Athens with rhetoric that wouldn&rsquot sound out of place today. &ldquoIf we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences. if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.&rdquo

When you combine that high-minded rhetoric with the undeniable power and beauty of the art and philosophy that was created in ancient Athens, it&rsquos not hard to see it as the foundation of Western civilization. And if you buy into this, you have to be glad that the Greeks won the Persian Wars. But even if you put aside the slavery and other injustices in Greek society, there&rsquos still trouble.


Pericles&rsquos funeral oration comes from a later war, The Peloponnesian War, a thirty year conflict between the Athenians and the Spartans. The Spartans did not embrace democracy but instead embraced a kingship that functioned only because of a huge class of brutally mistreated slaves. But to be clear, the war was not about Athens trying to get Sparta to embrace democratic reform wars rarely are. It was about resources and power. And the Athenians were hardly saintly in all of this, as evidenced by the famous Melian Dialogue. Let&rsquos go to the Thought Bubble.

Thought Bubble (7:52)

So in one of the most famous passages of Thucydides&rsquo history of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sailed to the island of Melos, a Spartan colony, and demanded that the Melians submit to Athenian rule. The Melians pointed out that they&rsquod never actually fought with the Spartans and were like, &ldquoListen, if it&rsquos all the same to you, we&rsquod like to go Switzerland on this one,&rdquo except of course they didn&rsquot say that because there was no Switzerland.

To which the Athenians responded, and here I am quoting directly, &ldquoThe strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.&rdquo

Needless to say, this is not a terribly democratic or enlightened position to take. This statement, in fact, is sometimes seen as the first explicit endorsement of the so-called theory of Realism in international relations. For realists, interaction between nations, or peoples, or cultures is all about who has the power. Whoever has it can compel whoever doesn&rsquot have it to do pretty much anything.

So what did the meritocratic and democratic Athenians do when the Melians politely asked not to participate in the fight? They killed all the Melian men and enslaved all the women and children.

So, yes, Socrates gave us his interrogative Method Sophocles gave us Oedipus but the legacy of Ancient Greece is profoundly ambiguous, all the moreso because the final winner of the Peloponnesian War were the dictatorial Spartans. Thanks for the incredible bummer, Thought Bubble.

Conclusion (9:09)

So here&rsquos a non-rhetorical question: Did the right side win the Persian wars?

Most classicists and defenders of the Western Tradition will tell you that of course we should be glad the Greeks won. After all, winning the Persian war set off the cultural flourishing that gave us the Classical Age. And plus, if the Persians had won with their monarchy that might have strangled democracy in its crib and given us more one-man rule. And that&rsquos possible, but as a counter that argument, let&rsquos consider three things:

First, it&rsquos worth remembering that life under the Persians was pretty good, and if you look at the last five thousand years of human history, you&rsquoll find a lot more successful and stable empires than you will democracies.

Second, life under the Athenians wasn&rsquot so awesome, particularly if you were a woman or a slave, and their government was notoriously corrupt. And ultimately the Athenian government derived its power not from its citizens, but from the imperialist belief that Might Makes Right. It&rsquos true that Athens gave us Socrates, but let me remind you, they also killed him. Well, I mean they forced him to commit suicide. Whatever, Herodotus, you&rsquore not the only one here who can engage in historical bias.

And lastly, under Persian rule the Greeks might have avoided the Peloponnesian War, which ended up weakening the Greek city-states so much that Alexander &ldquoComing Soon&rdquo the Great&rsquos father was able to conquer all of them, and then there were a bunch of bloody wars with the Persians and all kinds of horrible things, and Greece wouldn&rsquot glimpse democracy again for two millennia. All of which might have been avoided if they&rsquod just let themselves get beaten by the Persians.

All of which forces us to return to the core question of human history: What&rsquos the point of being alive? I&rsquove got good news for you, guy. You&rsquore only going to have to worry about it for about 8 more seconds. Should we try to ensure the longest, healthiest, and most productive lives for humans? If so, it&rsquos easy to argue that Greece should have lost the Persian Wars. But perhaps lives are to be lived in pursuit of some great ideal worth sacrificing endlessly for. And if so, maybe the glory of Athens still shines, however dimly.

Those are the real questions of history: What&rsquos the point of being alive? How should we organize ourselves, what should we seek from this life? Those aren&rsquot easy questions, but we&rsquoll take another crack at them next week when we talk about the Buddha. I&rsquoll see you then.

Credits (11:09)

Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller, our script supervisor is Danica Johnson, the graphics team is Thought Bubble, and the show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer and me.

Our phrase of the week last week was "Un mot de français". If you&rsquod like to guess this week&rsquos phrase of the week you can do so in comments. You can also ask questions about today&rsquos video in comments where our team of historians will attempt to answer them.

Thanks for watching, and Don't Forget To Be Awesome.

tab to toggle keyboard shortcuts.
[ (left bracket): go back five seconds
] (right bracket): go forward five seconds
= (equals): insert a timestamp
(backslash): play or pause the video

Flagging a point in the video using (?) will make it easier for other users to help transcribe. Use it if you're unsure what's being said or if you're unsure how to spell what's being said.

The Peloponnesian War: Athens fights Sparta for dominance in ancient Greece

Jonny Wilkes explores the Peloponnesian War, the bitter 5th century BC stuggle between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues – led by the city states Athens and Sparta. Here's why the war began, who won and how, and why it prompted a reshaping of the Hellenic world

This competition is now closed

Published: February 12, 2021 at 6:18 am

What and when was the Peloponnesian War?

During the fifth century BC, battles raged on land and at sea in a protracted and bloody conflict between the two leading city-states of ancient Greece: Athens and Sparta. On one side was the supreme naval power of Athens and on the other the dominant Spartan army, with each heading an alliance that involved nearly every single Greek state. The Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC would reshape the Hellenic world.

How do we know about the Peloponnesian War?

The pre-eminent account of the war was written by Thucydides, who, despite serving as a general in the Athenian army, is remembered as a forefather of impartial historical study. He began his masterly work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, in the first year of the conflict, 431 BC, “believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it”.

Although the war, and Thucydides’ work, came to be named after the peninsula of Greece where Sparta and some of its allies were located, the fighting was not confined to the Peloponnese. Battles also devastated the Aegean coastline, the island of Sicily and the Attica region.

Were Athens and Sparta once allies?

Yes, Athens and Sparta had fought side by side against the Persian invasions of Greece by Darius and then his son Xerxes in the early fifth century BC. Allied Greeks defeated them first at Marathon and then at the battles of Salamis, Mycale and Plataea, crushing the invasions.

What was the Delian League?

In the aftermath, in 478 BC, an alliance of Greek states called the Delian League was formed as protection against any future Persian attacks. Hundreds of states joined the Delian League, but it came to be so dominated by Athens that the Athenians effectively turned the alliance into an empire. Circling the Aegean Sea, the Athenian Empire built a huge navy of triremes – galleys, more than 30 metres long and with three lines of rowers down the length of each side, capable of great speeds – making Athens the dominant maritime power in Greece.

Sparta grew alarmed at Athens’ hegemony, which continued to expand due to regular tributes pouring in from across the empire. Athens also planned to rebuild the ‘Long Walls’ – miles of fortifications connecting the city to the harbour of Piraeus – so as to offer a link to the sea even at times of siege, making it yet more powerful.

What was the Peloponnesian League?

While Athens ruled the seas, Sparta had long headed its own alliance of states from the Peloponnese and central Greece – the Peloponnesian League – which commanded a stronger army thanks to much-feared and respected Spartan warriors.

Why were the Spartans such great warriors?

The lives of Spartan men were consumed by military service and commitment to winning glory in battle. Their constant and brutal training began at the age of seven, when boys would be sent from their families to undergo the ritual of agoge, a form of boot camp. This turned them into a fiercely disciplined and highly trained fighting force, feared across all Greece. During the Persian invasions of the fifth century BC, Sparta had shown its might when 300 warriors and an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas, had fought the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae.

Why did the Peloponnesian War start?

Fighting had raged for decades before the Peloponnesian War, as Athens and Sparta got involved in the conflicts of other states or exploited circumstances to further their own advantage. This period, sometimes called the First Peloponnesian War, ended with the Thirty Years’ Peace in the winter of 446/45 BC – although the uneasy peace lasted only half that time.

Athens continued its aggression during the 430s, siding against Corinth, an ally of Sparta, by sending ships to assist its own ally, Corcyra, at the battle of Sybota. Athens then further tested the limits of the peace treaty by laying siege to the Corinthian colony of Poteidaia and issuing, in c432 BC, the Megarian Decree, which essentially imposed a trade embargo on another long-time Spartan ally, Megara. Even then, Sparta did not immediately retaliate, as it honoured the peace and was unready for a long conflict. But war was brewing.

What was Sparta’s plan?

When war finally broke out in 431 BC, Sparta had the lofty aims of liberating Greece from Athenian tyranny and dismantling its empire. Attacking over land, King Archidamus II led an army of hoplites, armed with spears and shields, into the Attica peninsula, leaving destruction and chaos in his wake and robbing Athens of vital resources. He hoped to provoke the enemy and draw them out from their fortified walls into open battle, but Athens refused to take the bait thanks to the guidance of influential statesman Pericles. Instead, Athens used its superior navy to harass Spartan ships and make its own assaults in the Peloponnese.

Were there really only 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae?

It is true there only 300 Spartan soldiers fought at Thermopylae, but they were not alone…

Were the Athenians right not to invite open battle?

Even though it may have been regarded as cowardice by the enemy, remaining behind the walls was a savvy move. But disaster struck when Athens was ravaged by plague. Outbreaks wiped out a huge proportion of the population – perhaps as many as a quarter, or around 100,000 people – and decimated the Athenian leadership. Pericles himself succumbed in 429 BC.

The plague is thought to have come from sub-Saharan Africa, reaching Athens through the port of Piraeus the added burden of people from Attica arriving to escape the Spartans only served to spread the disease faster. The fortifications that were keeping Athens safe in war were now keeping the plague inside. The Spartans did not approach the city for fear of catching it themselves, but they simultaneously refused the Athenian calls for peace.

Yet Sparta failed to take advantage of a much-weakened Athens as its campaigns on land and sea suffered setbacks. Then when the island of Lesbos looked like rising up in revolt against Athens, which resulted in a blockade being put in place, the Spartans failed to come to their assistance and the island surrendered. In 427 BC, however, Sparta did capture the strategic Athenian ally of Plataea following a lengthy siege.

Did either side gain the advantage?

With the cautious Pericles gone (he died in 429 BC) and the hawkish Cleon taking over, Athens embarked on a more aggressive strategy. One of the finest generals of the day, Demosthenes, commanded raids on the Peloponnese he was given a fleet with which he occupied and fortified the remote headland of Pylos and repelled the assault to win it back. The building of outposts on the Peloponnese created a different problem for Sparta: the Athenians used them to attract runaway helots, or slaves, meaning there were fewer people to work the fields and a higher chance of a slave revolt.

As more battles went against them Sparta began suing for peace itself, until terms became more favourable when it achieved victories of its own. The most significant came in 422 BC with the capture of the Athenian colony of Amphipolis. The man Athens had sent to protect it was Thucydides – for his failure, he was exiled and dedicated his time to his impartial history of the war. The distinguished Spartan general Brasidas died in the fight for Amphipolis, as did Athens’ Cleon, leaving the way clear for those, on both sides, who desired peace.

How long did peace last?

The resulting Peace of Nicias – named after the man from Athens sent to negotiate the treaty – was signed in 421 BC. Intended to last 50 years, it ended up lasting just six. In fact, fighting never really stopped, as both sides spent those years trying to win over smaller states, or watched on as allies formed coalitions of their own and kept the conflict going.

In 415 BC, war officially resumed when Athens launched a massive assault on Sicily with the aim of capturing Syracuse, a powerful city-state which controlled a large share of Mediterranean trade. If successful, Athens could claim its abundant resources.

The expedition started badly, however, as the Athenian commander Alcibiades, who had been accused of the serious crime of impiety and ordered back to Athens, defected to Sparta. Syracuse, with Spartan aid, broke the blockade around Sicily and time and time again defeated the invading army until it was crushed, even in a sea battle.

By 413 BC, the few who had not been killed or enslaved were forced to retreat. The invasion was a total disaster for Athens, a major blow to morale and prestige.

Did the failure of the Sicily expedition swing the tide?

Back in Greece, Sparta certainly looked to be closer to victory over the next few years as it occupied Attica once again and several revolts broke out against Athenian rule. Athens itself was in political turmoil as governments were overthrown and replaced. What’s more, the Persians had chosen to back Sparta as they saw the Athenian empire as a threat.

And yet, the Spartans and their allies were slow to act, allowing Athens to rebuild and put into service its reserve navy. Athens started winning naval battles again, so much so that by 406 BC, it had actually won back parts of the empire thought to have been lost.

What effect did the Peloponnesian War have on democracy in ancient Greece? Find out in our guide to the history of democracy

How did the war finally end?

It would be a naval victory that won the Peloponnesian War after 27 years, but not an Athenian one. Sparta managed to build an imposing fleet of hundreds of triremes, thanks to Persian money and resources, and put to sea. In 405 BC, the fleet – under the skilled command of Lysander – crushed the Athenians at the battle of Aegospotami, near the Hellespont. Lysander then advanced to Athens itself and forced the city-state to surrender the following year. The victorious Spartans ordered the Long Walls to be demolished, forbade Athens from building a fleet larger than 12 ships and demanded Athens pay them tribute. The Athenian empire was no more Sparta had emerged as the dominant power in Greece.

What happened in Greece after the war?

Sparta’s position did not last long. It became embroiled in too many conflicts for its army to handle, and its hold over Greece ended with defeat by Thebes and its Boeotian League allies at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Nearly a century of the Peloponnesian War, followed by continued fighting and divisions, had left Greece vulnerable. This instability was exploited by Philip II of Macedon, who invaded and defeated the city-states – laying the foundations of a Macedonian empire, which would grow to an unprecedented size in the reign of his son, Alexander the Great.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

Video, Sitemap-Video, Sitemap-Videos