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, http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.html

[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

Bibliography:

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.  http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.html

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

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