Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Peloponnesian War: Pentecontaetia (Book I, Chapters 89 - 118)

The Athenian empire (and surrounding areas) around 450 BC
Picture source

Pentecontaetia (Greek, "the period of fifty years") is the term used to refer to the period in Ancient Greek history between the defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece at Plataea in 479 BC and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. (from Wikipedia)

So much for my word of the day…I’m not sure I can pronounce it correctly. Thucydides begins his "flashback" at the end of Herodotus’ history and the siege of Sestus (Sestos). After the Greeks return home (or in Athens case, where their home used to be), the Spartans recommend that the Athenians not build walls around their city and to help pull down any remaining city walls outside the Peloponnese. Sparta did this at the request of their confederates who feared Athens (not to mention that Sparta liked the request, too) but said the reason was “if the barbarian returned, he might find no fortified city to make the seat of war, as he did of Thebes” (all quotes are from the Thomas Hobbes translation). Leading an Athenian delegation to Sparta, Themistocles delays speaking to their council until “the city of Athens was already walled, and that sufficiently for the defence of those within”. In addition he admonishes Sparta, saying Athenians will look after their own interests and are able to tell the difference between “the common good of all Greece” and what is best only for the Spartans. The Spartans make no show of anger, “yet they were inwardly offended”.

Themistocles realized that Athens’ strength lay with the sea so he had walls built around their port city of Piræus. Meanwhile, Pausanias was recalled to Sparta while Ionians and other Greek cities reject Spartan leadership of the Greek fleet (due to their hatred of the arrogant Pausanias) and turn to Athens for leadership. The Athenians take command and begin the Delian League, ordering cities to send money or ships to defend Greece from additional barbarian invasion. Athens and the new league expand by taking several cities and islands. Naxos revolts from the league but falls to Athens in a siege, becoming “the first confederate city, which contrary to the ordinance they deprived of their free estate”. Naxos would not be the last to revolt from Athens' strict demands of money or ships. Athens won several far-flung battles, including the siege of a rebelling Thasos, before losing a battle to the Thracians in Drabescus (near Amphipolos, a name that will pop up again).

During their revolt Thasos turned to Sparta for help, asking them to invade Attica. Sparta agrees (“unknown to the Athenians”) a revolt of Sparta’s helots and neighboring towns after an earthquake. Sparta asks several allies for help including Athens, under Cimon, for their experience with sieges. Anxious about having Athenian troops who might “cause some alteration” in their midst, Sparta dismisses the Athenian troops. Angry about the slight, Athens leaves the anti-Persian league and becomes allies with Argos (an enemy of Sparta) and Thessaly. Thucydides calls this falling out “the first manifest dissension between the Lacedæmonians and the Athenians.”

The Spartan helot revolt ends after ten years of siege. Sparta agrees that the helots may safely leave as long as they never return to the Peloponnesus. Athens, out of spite, receives the helots and locates them in Naupactus (a city across a narrow neck of the Crisaean Gulf from the Peloponnesus). Megara also revolts from Sparta and joins the league with Athens because of their boundary dispute with Corinth. Conflicts increase exponentially at this point: Athens assists a revolt in Egypt against Persia, Athens loses a battle to the Corinthians and Epidaurians at Halias (in the Peloponnesus), Athens defeats the Peloponnesian fleet off the island of Cecryphaleia (just south of Athens—this is considered the first battle of the “First Peloponnesian War” between Sparta and Athens), Athens defeats the fleet of Aegina and begins a siege (Peloponnesians send soldiers to help Aegina), and Corinth unsuccessfully attacks Megara (defeated by a reserve force from Athens).

Athens begins building “their long walls, from the city down to the sea, the one reaching to the haven called Phaleron, the other to Peiræus” when a further pretext for war occurs. A Spartan army saves the city of Doris from attack but then has no safe way home, all routes closed by Athens. The Spartan army retires to Boeotia, causing concern among the Athenians that they “came thither to depose democracty.” Athens and their allies lose to the Spartan army at Tanagra although “the slaughter was great on both sides.” Soon after this loss Athens takes revenge on cities in Boetia and Phocis, plus they successfully end the siege of Aegina. Also, Athens conducts a raid on the Peloponnesus, burning a Spartan arsenal and capturing a city belonging to Corinth.

While the Athenians were still in Egypt, the king of Persia tried to induce the Spartans to invade Attica (so the Athenians would leave Egypt) but to no avail. Later the Persians are finally able to defeat the Egyptians and Athenian allies with Athens losing many ships in the process. After a few more skirmishes, Athens and Sparta sign a five-year truce. During this truce, Athens defeats the Persians on Cyprus but after the death of Cimon in Egypt the troops return home. Sparta and Athens then take turns capturing the temple at Delphi, Sparta turning it over to the Delphians while Athens turns it over to the Phocians. After some initial victories in Boeotia, Athens is defeated and signs a truce giving the area its independence. Euboea and Megara attempt to revolt from Athenian rule, Euboea failing but Megara succeeding. The Spartans, led by King Pleistoanax, invade Attica, making it as far as Eleusis before returning home. Athens enters into a thrity-year peace treaty with Sparta (mentioned in earlier posts), giving up the places in the Peloponnesus they had captured (Nisaea, Pegai, Troezen, and Achaea). Six years into the truce, Samos and Miletus go to war over Priene—after Milesia comes to Athens with complaints, the Athenians take Samos and set up a democracy. Samians who earlier fled the island returned and began a revolt. (This is the revolt of Samos that Corinth claimed they championed Athens' right during meetings with the Peloponnesian League.) Pericles leads the Athenians to Samos and defeats them after a nine-month siege.

Chapter 118:

Now not many years after this happened the matters before related, of the Corcyræans and the Potidæans, and whatsoever other intervenient pretext of this war. These things done by the Grecians one against another or against the barbarians, came to pass all within the compass of fifty years at most, from the time of the departure of Xerxes to the beginning of this present war. In which time, the Athenians both assured their government over the confederates, and also much enlarged their own particular wealth. This the Lacedæmonians saw, and opposed not, save now and then a little; but, as men that had ever before been slow to war without necessity, and also for that they were hindered sometimes with domestic war, for the most part of the time stirred not against them: till now at last, when the power of the Athenians was advanced manifestly indeed, and that they had done injury to their confederates, they could forbear no longer; but thought it necessary to go in hand with the war with all diligence, and to pull down, if they could, the Athenian greatness. For which purpose it was by the Lacedæmonians themselves decreed, that the peace was broken and that the Athenians had done unjustly: and also having sent to Delphi, and enquired of Apollo, whether they should have the better in the war or not; they received, as it is reported, this answer: “That if they warred with their whole power, they should have victory, and that himself would be on their side, both called and uncalled”. (emphasis mine)

Confused? You should be. But now we have some context for the pretexts to war and the speeches by the Corinthians and Athenians to the Spartan assembly. The embassy from Corinth ignores the enmity already existing between Corinth and Athens as well as their role in goading the Athenians into aggressive actions. The envoys from Athens lightly argue that circumstances are to blame for Athens’ restless and aggressive nature, not that the circumstances are the result of Athens' nature. And there is a lot of aggressive nature on display in this section. The growth of the de facto Athenian empire under the guise of the Delian League seems to fuel more aggressive behavior.

All of which leads me back to the question regarding the inevitable nature of the war. Many characters say it was inevitable. However the Spartan king Archidamus answered ‘not necessarily’. He was willing to investigate the Corinthian complaints while preparing for war in case it was called for. I found it interesting in Chapter 79 that Thucydides worded his introduction of the king as “a man reputed both wise and temperate”. Not that he was…that he was reputed to be.

Thucydides mentions twice that the real reason the Spartans went to war was because of “fear the Athenian greatness should still increase” (chapter 88 and similar in chapter 23). So Sparta’s fear started the war. But their fear was based on Athens’ growth in power. So…tell me again whose fault it is—Sparta for reacting to Athens’ growing power or Athens for aggressively growing their power? It’s this sort of tension I’m constantly getting from Thucydides regarding the start of the war. Chapter 118 muddies the water just as much, making two claims: 1) Sparta declared war to pull down Athenian greatness, and 2) the Spartans claim that Athens unjustly broke the peace. One does not necessarily have to lead to the other, although Thucydides may be restating Sthenelaidas’ winning argument to the Spartan council.

The differences between Sparta and Athens will play out over the course of this history. The next post will finish Book I, covering the winter of 432/431BC after Sparta declares peace has been broken but before the war actually begins.

The long walls of Athens
Picture source

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