The Peloponnesian War and its Impact on Greek Society and Culture

The Peloponnesian War ravaged Greece from 431-404 BCE.  It was an epic and convoluted struggle that pitted Greek against Greek in a battle to the death over differing ideals about freedom and independence/autonomy.  While the Greek city states of Sparta and Athens had demonstrated that they could, in fact, work together to defeat the Persians only decades earlier, their vastly different approaches brought then into a conflict that would last for decades, leaving thousands of Greeks dead, city-states destroyed and ultimately made the Hellenistic people critically vulnerable to other external powers.  The concept of autonomy or freedom which the Athenians believed themselves to be fighting for and which the Spartans believed themselves to be fighting to achieve points to the very nature of Greek values, and the fundamental differences that defined the Greek life of the Polis in the Classical age.  This made the Peloponnesian war critically impactful on Greek society, life and culture both in the 5th century BCE when it took place and in the centuries to come as ultimately that freedom and autonomy was lost by external powers.

Athens, in sharp contrast to Sparta, was a fiercely and arguably radical democracy, which prided itself on freedom and equality, which Pericles contrasts sharply with the Spartan rigid and militaristic oligarchy in his funeral speech after the beginning of the war.[1]  For Pericles, and even for Thucydides himself, freedom was the most important Athenian virtue which led, in turn to happiness, and duty to the state was paramount.[2]  For Athens, freedom implied a necessarily democratic society, free of the potential tyranny of oligarchic or totalitarian regimes.  Freedom insisted that class could not limit the voice of the people, and it prided itself on its philosophers and orators in the public sphere.[3]  In fact, Athens was so emphatic about their view of freedom and democracy that they often forced it upon other city-states and enforced the imposition by Triremes.[4]  The democratic ideal became more and more radical as Athens gained more power and territory after the defeat of the Persians, and their goals while potentially noble also became problematic for other city-states who had a much different concept of independence and autonomy – states like Sparta.[5]

The Spartan – and in fact the overwhelming consenting Greek opinion – of independence and autonomy was vastly different than that of imperialistic Athens, which explains why, as the long walls of Athens fell after their ultimate concession, it was done to music and song.[6]  For the majority of Greece, autonomy was synonymous with self-rule. And the independent governance of individual city-states defined not only their culture and values but also in many ways their identities.[7]  Sparta, in fact, proclaimed the downfall of Athens as the initial push toward Hellenistic freedom.[8]  Ironically, however, the Peloponnesian war began because of the Spartan perception of growing Athenian power, rather than a list of specific grievances, fearing the growth of Athenian power and potential and the lack of their own influence as a militaristic power.[9]

Regardless of right or wrong, causes or originations of the Peloponnesian conflict, two things remain clear.  First, it cost thousands of Greeks their lives, many more than in the Persian war, and in some cases wiping out entire family lines.[10]  Second, the Peloponnesian drew a line in the sand between the Golden Age of Classical Greece in the fifth century and its decline and ultimate succumbing to first the Persians and then Philip of Macedonia.[11]  Perhaps Thucydides’ dire pessimism throughout his History was correct all along when it proclaimed that war and strife were simply inevitable consequences of the human condition, and that nothing could be done to assuage the flow of Hellenistic blood in the search for glory.[12]  Or perhaps the gods deemed to punish both Athens and Sparta for the vice of hubris – Athens for creating an imperialistic ideal society and attempting to force it upon others, and Sparta for daring to topple one empire only to create another one destine to fail as well.[13]  Ultimately, however, the difference in opinion over what freedom and autonomy ultimately meant in the context of Hellenistic values cost thousands of Greek lives and ultimately the very same independence and autonomy that led to the conflict in the first place.

[1] Thucydides, “The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46” The Internet Classics Archive, 1994-2009, accessed June 20, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other (New York, New York: Random House, 2005, 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Claudia Zatta, “Conflict, People and City-Space: Some Exempla from Thucydides’ History,” Classical Antiquity 30, no. 2 (October 2011): 318-350.

[6] Hanson, pg. 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thucydides, 1.23.6; 1.88; 1.88.2

[10] Hanson, 13.

[11] Hanson, 293.

[12] Thucydides, 1.23.

[13] Hanson, 294


Hanson, Victor Davis.  A War Like No Other.  New York, New York: Random House, 2005.

Thucydides.  “The History of the Peloponnesian War.”  The Internet Classics Archive.  1994-209, accessed June 20, 2016.

Zatta, Claudia.  “Conflict, People, and City-Space: Some Exempla from Thucydides’ History.”  Classical Antiquity 30, no. 2 (October, 2011): 318-350.



Alexander the Great

One of the key things I noticed in this module about Alexander was his ability to handle himself as a military and political leader over the people and cultures that ultimately came under his control, which included other Greeks and foreign peoples.  When he conquered Thebes, for example, which was another Greek polis, he destroyed practically everything except for the house of a poet and the various temples to the gods that were built there.[1]  In doing so, although the people that inhabited Thebes were either killed or sold into slavery, Alexander showed deference to the customs and beliefs of the area while simultaneously demonstrating that insurrection would not and could not be tolerated under his regime.[2]

Alexander was similarly versed in propaganda over non-Greeks who he conquered as well.  When he fought the battle of Issus, for example, in the Persian campaign, King Darius fled the field and Alexander was able to capture Darius’ family who he treated respectfully and brought them under his protection thereby asserting himself as rightful successor of Darius’ empire.[3]

In Egypt, as Alexander was going to repeat, he made sacrifices to the Egyptian bull Apis, respecting Egyptian religious independence from Greek religious beliefs, which allowed him to be proclaimed Pharaoh by the priests.  Unlike so many later conflicts, Alexander did not conquer with the necessary intent to force the conquered to become more Hellenized or to accept and worship Greek gods.  Instead, he made sacrifices to the local gods in places he took over and by doing so put himself out there as someone who respected the customs and cultures of the peoples now under his control.[4]  He demonstrated this policy again Babylon where he not only sacrificed to the local gods but also ordered the temple of Marduk rebuilt.[5]

Alexander encountered difficulties with his own men by adopting and practicing Persian ceremonies and wearing Persian dress on occasion.  He also invited Persians into positions of power within his entourage, which led to difficulties with jealousy within his own ranks.[6]  While Alexander’s tendency to adopt various cultural traditions brought difficulties into the ranks of the army, it was clever propaganda against those who he now ruled, allowing him to be seen not only as an outside conqueror but as one of them in a sense, who allowed them to become a part of Alexander’s brilliant military machinery as it continued to campaign even farther than anyone (with the possible exception of Alexander himself) could have imagined.

[1] D. Brendan Nagle, The Ancient World 8th Edition (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 138.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, pg 140.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, pg 141.

[6] Ibid.

Ancient Greece – Pericles’ Funeral Oration

The source I chose for this week was Thucydides depiction of Pericles’ funeral oration.  I think this particular piece has a lot to say about Athenian life.  Even though the Athenians were in the midst of a long and costly war with Sparta that would ultimately mean their defeat, this beautiful oration sent a powerful message to the people of Athens that, even in the midst of tragedy, the Athenian spirit was strong, and Pericles was confident in Athenian superiority.

Thucydides begins by describing the funeral tradition that would have precipitated the oration delivery.  Then Pericles begins to deliver the oration itself.  Valor was a key theme in the address, and Pericles reminds the Athenian people of their achievements against both foreign and domestic powers.  He makes a point to mention that the Athenians do not copy their laws from neighboring city-states, but they create them and serve as an example to others instead.  He extolls the fact that Athenian law dictates justice for all and makes no distinction in social standing or class.  He compares Sparta to Athens in that Sparta maintains strict, military-like discipline, Athens enjoys a free society and that Sparta needs the help of their allegiance in order to attack Athens, while Athens is capable of standing on their own without needing assistance (this ultimately proved to be false).  Pericles sets Athens up as a tribute and an example to the entire Hellenized world, which all other Greek polis should learn from.

In his address, Pericles speaks to justice itself, mentioning that by behaving honorably in defense of your country can atone for an individual citizen’s wrongs.  He adds that the men who died in the initial stages of the Peloponnesian war did so out of a sense of duty, honor and courage and that they refused to betray their loyalty to Athens even in the face of death.  These ideas of justice, of honor and courage and duty were the cornerstones of Athenian society to which all citizens – soldiers of otherwise – should aspire.

In closing, Pericles urges those in mourning who are still capable of producing children to have more – not only so that they may move past their grief, but to provide future reinforcements for the Athenian military, and thus ensure the survival and superiority of Athens over Sparta – and indeed over the rest of Greece as their empire expanded from the end of the Persian war up through the onset of the Peloponnesian war.  This goes back to Greek values that were discussed in our first module – how the family was not an immediate focus for citizens, but rather the polis itself, and a constant sense of one’s duty and responsibility to the community over the needs and desires of the individual.



Thucydides.  “Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War Book 2.34-46” Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University. 2000, accessed June 20, 2016.

The Peloponnesian War – Strengths and Weaknesses

The Peloponnesian war had lasting, traumatic effects for Greek society, breaking any chance of a unified Greek state that could stand together against invaders, which ultimately left the door open for Macedonian control.  Although the conflict lasted for 28 years, and caused huge economic, political, and societal problems for both Athens and Sparta as well as their numerous respective allies.[1]

Throughout the war, the weaknesses displayed by both sides seem to point to the very same values that were examined in previous readings.  The Greeks were proud, and valued honor almost above all else.  This value system allowed for the Athenians to repeatedly refuse Sparta’s offers of peace after major defeats, and it also encouraged Athenians to keep fighting and for Spartans to press on long after the conflict should have ended.[2]  In this regard, the weaknesses of the various Greek city-states would be viewed as strengths in other circumstances.[3]

The military revolution referred to the fact that a new phenomenon was sweeping Greece, and while Sparta especially had focused all of their time and energy on creating a strong heavy infantry, changes were coming that would make their brute strength less imposing.[4]  After 28 years of nearly continuous warfare, the Greek countryside was filled with men who were essentially mercenaries, willing to fight for whoever was willing to pay them with little if any allegiance to a polis or city state.[5]  These men could be hired for valuable flaking maneuvers all the way through the ranks from light infantry to generals.[6]

In addition to the roaming mercenaries for hire in an environment that bred distrust and suspicion, the Peloponnesian war had demonstrated that while hoplite armies had once seemed unbreakable, they had their share of weaknesses as well.  These weaknesses encouraged military development and allowed the increased use of light infantry or peltasts, which had effectively decimated a hoplite army under Iphicrates in 390 BC.[7]  While these innovations were forward-thinking and arguably necessary for a time of such turmoil, they went against the practice of Greek culture and history as military service was no longer necessarily attached to both citizenship and land ownership.[8]

[1] Thomas R Martin, “An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander,” Tufts University, accessed June 22, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] D. Brendan Nagle, The Ancient World, a Social  and Cultural History eighth edition (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 102.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Ancient Greece – Values

When reading about ancient Greek society and values, the thing that stood out to me the most was the disparity between the modern version of the family and the idea of the family or household in early Greek society.  Households or oikoi were smaller versions of the polis (the city-state) and were run much like the larger communities were, with each member responsible for different functions.[1]  Along with a husband and wife, children were also part of the oikos, although families were held responsible for only having the number of children that they could reasonably afford.[2]  Children that were not wanted or who could not be cared for were exposed or abandoned.[3]  While such actions may seem inconceivable to us in the modern world, the precedent is not unheard of in modern times as in the case with China and their one child minimums, in practice through 2015.[4]

Greek views on morality, the family and civic responsibility are unsurprising given their view and mythology relating to the gods.  We see this reflected in Hesiod’s Theogony which I chose as my source for this week’s module.  Hesiod describes the birth of Zeus and the horrific tale of his father eating his children due to Cronos’ intent that none other should rule but him.[5]  Hesiod continues to tell the story of how Zeus escaped through the trickery of his mother, and how he came to rule the gods and had multiple children (and marital strife) himself.[6]  The Theogony exemplifies the necessity of deceit in order to accomplish a greater good, the often-contentious yet equitable relationship in the marriage partnership/contract that was mirrored within Greek society in the polis period, and the relationship between the gods and mankind – a mirroring of human traits within the divine as well as the heroic and honorable traits from the god that certain men could emulate here on earth.


[1] Nagle, D. Brendan. The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History. 8th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014. pg 79.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Shen Lu, “China’s One Child Policy Goes Out but Heartache Remains,”, December 31, 2015,

[5] Hesiod, “Theogony, excerpts,” Fordham University, 1999,

[6] Ibid.

Socrates and the Crito

Socrates and the Crito

While Socrates left behind no work of his own and all that we know of him is via Plato, he is known as one of the most famous early philosophers of all time.  Socrates’ life, however, came to a tragic end as he was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for both corrupting Athenian youth as well as impiety towards the gods of Athens. (Rachels and Rachels, 1)  While Socrates could have easily escaped his fate, he chose to remain in Athens and accept his fate.  Socrates uses 3 different arguments in his Crito to justify staying in Athens and facing his own execution, all of which I think present flaws that are explored within this module’s reading.  The flaws in these arguments are surprising, given what an astute philosopher Socrates was – at least in the way that he is portrayed by Plato, since Socrates left no work of his own.

The first argument that Socrates put forth was the argument against the destruction of the state, in which he proposed that the state of Athens could not exist if its laws were not followed by its people.  As the text points out, a single act of disobedience would not cause the collapse of the state.  What would destroy the state of Athens (or any state, practically) is a habitual and constant disregard for the law, which Socrates may have intended to imply by inserting himself and his possible act of disobedience into a broader context and subsequent meaning (Rachels and Rachels 5).   The problem I see with the proposed strengthened argument about habitual rather than rare disobedience is where the line of disobedience would then be drawn, as it seems overly subjective.  If all citizens who faced potential disobedience of an Athenian law saw themselves as the rare exception, disobedience would then become habitual making the state collapse as a result.  While an argument could be made to justify Socrates’ exception as an extreme case, the same argument could be applied to others, thereby triggering habitual disobedience and causing the state of Athens to collapse as a result.

Socrates’ second argument for facing his legal execution was to compare the state to person’s parents, implying that obedience was thereby required.  This I view as his weakest argument for accepting his fate and drinking the hemlock.  In some societies, obeying one’s parents is a sign of respect where obedience can be obligatory, but it is hardly universal and I think the analogy fails on several points.  As children, it may be appropriate to show respect and deference to our parents, but we are not bound to that ideology as we mature and reach adulthood.  Furthermore, we should not obey our parents blindly if they ask us to do something we oppose for personal, moral, legal or even religious reasons.  My parents and I see the world very differently now that I am an adult, and I do not need to obey them if doing so would go against my own conscience.  For example, I am on the opposite side of my parents politically, so I would have no obligation to vote for a political candidate just because they told me to if doing so would violate my own principles and ideals as an adult.

Socrates’ final argument was the argument from the social contract, which I found to be the strongest, although I can still find flaws in its practical application as well.  As a society living among others that we all depend upon for survival and mutual good, we do as individuals agree to certain things to ensure that society’s survival.  Although the contract is largely unspoken, we enjoy certain privileges and freedoms when we, as a social species, adhere to it.  In the modern world we have a sense of cooperation for the greater good.  We pay takes to ensure that we have resources available to help us if and when we need them.  Because of that, we are protected and granted freedom to live our lives as we choose within the confines of the law that freedom requires.  While it is true that we are, in many ways, “born” into this system and we do not choose it of our own volition, we do enjoy the benefits of being a part of it.  Choosing to act against it can have expense consequences both individually and at a societal level.  Personally it can cost us our freedom if we choose to break the law and are incarcerated.  Socrates went on to say that to break the social contract, one must also give up the benefits that would result from keeping it (Ibid).  Under the circumstances that Socrates found himself under, however, I would think that the Athenian state has already broken its side of the contract by sentencing him to death, thereby depriving him of the benefit of being held by the social contract and negating the need for him to uphold his side of it.  There is also nothing under the social contract argument that prevents someone like Socrates from moving from one society to another – by running away, the Athenian society would lose nothing, as exile was often an option in lieu of death, but another city-state would gain a valuable asset in Socrates who could then continue his work.




Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels.  Problems from Philosophy, third edition.  McGraw-Hill, 2012.