Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classical Athens: Stunning Creativity Despite Suicidal War (431-404)

Sparta and Athens against each other (478-404)
Second Peloponnesian War (431-404)
The second Peloponnesian war started in 431. Tradition divides it into three periods: 431-421, with Spartan attacks on Attica and Athenian attacks on coastal Peloponnesian cities; 415-413, with a large Athenian force attacking Syracuse in Sicily and getting completing destroyed; and 411-404, beginning with Spartans and Persians bribing unhappy Athenian allies to rebel and ending with the surrender of Athens.

First Stage (431-421)
Initially the Spartans invaded the land in Attica controlled by Athens but only for two or three weeks at a time. While farmers abandoned the land and flooded into Athens, the Athenian maritime economy continued to do well. Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration.

Middle-aged Socrates (c. 469-399) wandered the streets of Athens at this time. His father cut stone for the Parthenon. He too worked as a stonecutter until he abandoned that job in favor of philosophical discussions with his fellow citizens. He fought in three battles between 432 and 423 and, in the first, saved the life of a capable leader and quick traitor named Alcibiades (450-404).

Athenians continued to enjoy a century of the finest drama through the works of Euripides (480-406). According to tradition, the 45-year-old Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Salamis, the 16-year-old Sophocles sang in the youth choir celebrating the victory, and Euripides was born on the day of the battle. He wrote over 90 plays of which 19 survive. He first competed in the Dionysia in 455 and first won in 441. His play, Children of Hercules, first performed in 430, glorified war.

In 430 a plague struck overcrowded Athens and killed perhaps half of its inhabitants including Pericles. The Spartans abandoned Attica in fear of the plague but Athenian allies also wanted nothing to do with the city.

Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370), fondly known as the father of medicine, lived in Athens at this time and helped care for those suffering from the plague. He was the first to attribute disease to natural causes. He was imprisoned for 20 years for denying the role of the gods in causing diseases as well as the ability of their well-paid servants the priests to cure them. While in prison, he wrote what became our oldest surviving medical texts. In them he discusses symptoms of diseases, methods of treatment including surgery, preparation of medicines from herbs, and the importance of diet and exercise in the cure of disease and maintenance of health. He stressed the importance of careful observation, accurate documentation, and care for the whole person. The Hippocratic Oath, attributed to him and still used today, includes the rule, “Do no harm.”

Strangely enough, Athenians, during this particularly painful period of their history, got to enjoy outstanding comedies. Aristophanes (ca 446-ca 386), the father of comedy, wrote 40 plays. The 11 which survive include The Acharnians (425), a criticism of the war with Sparta; The Knights (424), a criticism of local politicians; The Clouds (423), a satire on Socrates and his philosophical rivals the Sophists; and Peace (421), an affirmation of the Peace of Nisias.

During this first period of the war, Sparta won its greatest victory by seizing the city of Amphipolis (424). With the conquest of that city came control of nearby silver mines. Spartan control of them deprived Athens of one primary source of money for its military.

The greatest victory of Athens was its conquest of the Spartan island of Sphacteria. During the battle the Athenian army captured 120 Spartan oligarchic soldiers. When Athenians threatened to execute them, Spartan rulers agreed to stop their attacks on Attica to prevent this. The new Athenian outpost on Sphacteria attracted runaway helots, the backbone of the Spartan economy, and raised additional fears in the hearts of Spartan rulers of a general helot uprising.

Second Stage (415-413)
In 415, word reached Athens that an ally in Sicily was being attacked by the ruler of Syracuse. Alcibiades, friend and follower of Socrates, encouraged the Assembly to send military support. He sailed from Athens in charge of the force but was recalled by his enemies, before he even reached his destination, to stand trial for impiety. Rather than risk a guilty verdict, he joined the Spartans. In his absence he was sentenced to death.

In 430 Euripides had glorified war in his tragedy The Children of Hercules. Now, in 415, he highlighted its horrors in his play The Trojan Women.          

In response to the arrival of the Athenian force in Sicily, rulers there sent messengers to Sparta asking for help. In Sparta, Alcibiades persuaded the Spartans to provide it. The Spartans sent their general Gylippus and almost 2,000 soldiers in response. Their arrival in 414 rallied the Syracusans. Gylippus, a more brilliant and confident leader than his Athenian opponent Nicias, led his army to victory. They destroyed the Athenian fleet and killed or imprisoned all the Athenian soldiers sent to Sicily.

Thucydides (ca 460-411?) survived the plague that killed thousands of other Athenians in 430. An Athenian general, the Assembly exiled him when he failed to arrive in time to keep the city of Amphipolis from surrendering to the Spartans (424). Still, exile allowed him to travel throughout Hellenia visiting cities both for and against Athens. His family’s wealth gave him the leisure to write his History of the Peloponnesian War. In it he traces the story of Hellenia from where Herodotus left off through the year 411 when he died unexpectedly. His book’s importance rests on his careful analysis of evidence, realistic examination of cause and effect, and understanding of international relations in terms of power.

Third Stage (411-404)
The enemies of Athens—Syracusans, Spartans, unhappy allies of the Delian League, even Persians—all rejoiced to see Athens crippled after its disaster in Sicily but moved too slowly to end its power.

Aristophanes continued to treat his fellow Athenians to comedies both biting and insightful. Again he mocked those supporting war with Sparta in Lysistrata (411) and poked fun at Aeschylus and Euripides in The Frogs (405).

In 411 Athenian men sympathetic with Sparta attacked their city’s democratically-elected rulers and took charge themselves. Unfortunately for them, the remaining 100 ships in the Athenian navy were docked in Samos. Their attempt to take control there failed and Athenian military leaders remained committed to democratic leadership in Athens and war against Sparta.

Alcibiades, while helping the Spartans to defeat Athenians in Sicily, had made powerful enemies in Sparta and had fled to Anatolia. From there he had negotiated with the oligarchs in Athens, now in control, to return to the city. Eventually he actually became a leader of the Athenian fleet in Samos. Following his role in a series of Athenian victories, he was able to safely return to Athens in 407. The Assembly even elected him supreme military commander.

In 406, however, the brilliant and bold Lysander, leader of the Spartan navy, achieved a stunning victory over the Athenian fleet under the overall command of Alcibiades. Enemies in Athens used this disgrace to have Alcibiades removed from command. He exiled himself from Athens. In 404 his enemies (either Spartan or Persian) murdered him in Anatolia.

Later in 406, however, the Athenians were able to defeat a Spartan fleet under less capable leadership. At first Athenians rejoiced at this good news. Later they raged against the Athenian commanders when they learned that they had failed to rescue hundreds of Athenian sailors from the sea before a storm drowned them. On trial for criminal stupidity, the Assembly wanted to vote on having them judged and sentenced collectively. Socrates, by chance the presiding officer that day, refused to allow the vote because collective judgment violated the Athenian constitution. The next day a different presiding officer allowed the vote and the Assembly had the commanders executed. In reality, those leaders had been capable ones and their loss proved fatal to the city that put them to death.

Strangely enough, at just this moment the Spartans asked Athenians for peace. The Assembly made another tragic mistake by refusing their request.

In 405 Lysander, back in charge of the Spartan navy, used his fleet to stop the shipment of grain to Athens from the Black Sea coast. The one remaining Athenian fleet pursued his, but his Spartans destroyed it, captured up to 4,000 Athenian sailors, and then executed them.

Without its fleet, Athenians couldn’t feed themselves. Starving Athenians surrendered to the Spartans in March 404. The Spartans installed thirty men known as tyrants to govern Athens. They were led by the murderous Critias who was both a friend of Socrates and great-uncle of Plato. The Thirty condemned hundreds of political opponents to death by drinking hemlock, sent thousands more into exile, and severely restricted the right to hold office, have a trial by jury, and vote.

Thrasybulus, an Athenian general exiled to Thebes, marched back to Athens in 403 as leader of a small force committed to restoring democracy. Critias led the attack against him but died during the battle. The Spartans responded with a force of their own but, after short but heavy fighting, negotiated a peace with Thrasybulus. Thrasybulus ended the bloodshed in Athens by sponsoring a general amnesty.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.