We often look for parallels between the state of our civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. More important than that, I have argued, are lessons from the fall of the Roman Republic, when a centuries-old constitutional order of law and liberty was thrown away for the ideal of a divinized state and an all-powerful ruler. Also important to contemplate is the fall of the civilization of ancient Greece.
That was essentially what happened with the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian democracy and the Spartan oligarchy were both at their heights, having each established mini-empires of their own, with virtually every other city state in thrall to or an ally of one or the other. They started a war, for no good reason, which lasted nearly 30 years (from 431-404 B.C.). By the time it was over, with Sparta’s victory, Greece had squandered its ideals, thrown out its most treasured traditions, and exhausted its power. It became easy pickings for Macedonian conquest shortly thereafter.
The tale is told by Thucydides, one of the greatest of all historians. His History of the Peloponnesian War is instructive for anyone interested in politics, war, and human nature. I’ve just finished Victor Davis Hanson’s book on the subject, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and the Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
In the course of the war, the various city states committed just about every blunder possible, making it a laboratory for how democracies and how warfare can go terribly wrong. For example, in the midst of the conflict with Sparta, Athens got involved in a far-away war in Sicily that was totally unnecessary and that bled Athens of its money, troops, and morale. (Sound familiar?) The Athenian democracy meant that every step of the war had to be approved or disapproved by the constantly-changing voters. At one point, the Athenian fleet won a massive victory over the Spartan fleet. But the Athenian commanders, pursuing the battle, sailed past their own wrecked ships, allowing sailors in the water to drown. So the Athenian assembly, instead of celebrating the victory, voted to execute the victorious officers. Thus eliminating their military leadership, setting themselves up for a Spartan victory once it reconstituted its fleet.
Then there was Alcibiades. He was Socrates’ most brilliant student. But he disproved the Platonic notion that education is the key to virtue, that bad behavior is due to ignorance and that philosophers would make the best rulers. Handsome, promiscuous, and bisexual, Alcibiades was very effective when it came to rhetoric and cunning political and military tactics. Alcibiades became one of Athen’s best generals. But it was his bright idea to invade Sicily, thinking its wealth would be easy to plunder. After he and his army arrived on the island, he learned that the assembly wanted to try him for sacrilege, due to some vandalism of sacred images that he and his friends did during their drunken fling before sailing away. Whereupon Alcibiades defected to Sparta, telling the Sicilians how they could defeat the army he organized and telling Sparta how they could defeat Athens. But after awhile, Sparta had its fill of him–he made a practice of seducing other leaders’ wives–so he betrayed Sparta too, selling out to Persia! With his help, Persia took advantage of the disarray in Greece and accomplished through intrigue what it failed to do in its own two invasions of Greece, in which all of the city states united against them, funding what Sparta had never had before, a vast navy that eventually conquered Athens. Finally, the leadership-starved Athenian assembly inexplicably welcomed Alcibiades back, whereupon he then betrayed Persia! He was eventually assassinated.
I came across this discussion, which finds parallels in Thucydides’ account and the state of American politics. From Angelo Codevilla, Our Revolution’s Logic, The American Mind:
Corcyra’s revolution in 427 BC, the fifth year of the Peloponnesian War, is a paradigm of revolutionary logic. Thucydides tells us that the citizens’ divisions had been of the garden-variety economic kind. Its Assembly had taken an ordinary vote on an ordinary measure. But the vote’s losers, refusing to accept political defeat, brought criminal charges against their opponents’ leader. By thus criminalizing differences over public policy, by using political power to hurt their opponents, they gave the revolutionary spiral its first turn. The spiral might have stopped when the accused was acquitted. But, he, instead of letting bygones be bygones, convinced the assembly to fine those who had brought the charges. After all, they had to be taught not to do such things again. The assembly approved the fine. But the second use of political power to hurt opponents gave the revolutionary spiral its second turn. Had the original wrongdoers paid up, the problem might have ended right there. Instead, outraged, they gave it the third push, bursting into the Assembly and murdering him. That ended all private haven from political strife. Civil war spiraled into mutual destruction, until the city was well-nigh depopulated.
Thus does Thucydides’ account of how revolutionary logic manifests itself in personal behavior echo through the ages—an account that strikes Americans in October, 2018 as all too familiar: “men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required.”
The more freely to harm enemies, “words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.”
“Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected … even blood became a weaker tie than party …. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence … when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one…success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence.”
How near we are to all that, and how far from once-great America!
And there is much more: How the traditions of chivalrous combat were thrown out in favor of total war against non-combatants, resulting in entire cities–men, women, and children–being put to the sword or sold into slavery, the buildings all razed to the ground. The social changes as the lower classes learned how to kill the landowning hoplites and aristocratic horsemen by shooting them with arrows from afar. The economic catastrophes and cultural decline.
At the end of the war, Athens dismantled its Democracy for the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants,” though it was later re-established in a more limited way. Greece did have some moments of glory: Socrates had fought bravely in the war, but the fickle war-time assembly made him drink the hemlock. Plato and Aristotle came in its aftermath, though the catastrophe of the war influenced their writings. But Greek civilization was never the same. I wonder how long ours will last.
Illustration: “The Greek Phalanx,” Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=667442