Thursday, June 20, 2013

Classical Athens: Twilight (404-323)

Sparta and Athens in Twilight (404-322)
Spartan decline (404-371)
With the Spartan victory over Athens, resentment sprang up against Sparta. Various battles between shifting alliances of municipal states continued. In 387, Spartans agreed to abandon all Hellenian cities in Anatolia in exchange for Persian help against Spartan enemies in Hellenia. In this way the Persians were able to accomplish in 387, through diplomacy, what they had failed to do at the battles of Marathon (490), Salamis (480), and Plataea (479).

Conflicts in Hellenia continued with Thebans defeating Spartans in 371 and others defeating Thebans in 362. Finally this incessant warfare between the municipal states of Hellenia ended in 335 when Alexander 3rd of Macedon subdued them all.

Athenian decline (404-323)
Athens in turmoil (404-399). When Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404, the Spartans imposed a government of thirty tyrants on their defeated enemy. The tyrants had hundreds of Athenian citizens executed and exiled thousands more. They were led by Critias: a close friend of Socrates and great-uncle of Plato. The tyrants themselves, however, were overthrown the following year by a small force led by the exiled Thrasybulus. Critias himself died in battle against it. Once in charge, Thrasybulus ended the feuding by declaring a general amnesty.

That didn’t mean tensions immediately disappeared. In 399 Socrates was charged with disrespecting the gods and corrupting Athenian youth. Socrates was a smart guy, good storyteller, and brave soldier. But he also admired Sparta, was close friends with men like the murderer Critias and traitor Alcibiades, and had complete contempt for ordinary citizens and their democratic government. In 399 he was tired of living and found the possibility of a painless martyr’s death appealing. He especially liked the idea of proving democracy’s unworthiness by goading his democratic jury into sentencing him to death. To their eternal discredit, the democratic jury did just that.

Xenophon (ca 430-354?) was born near the city of Athens at the beginning of the second Peloponnesian war. In 401, just after its dreary conclusion, Xenophon joined thousands of other Hellenians as a mercenary fighting for Cyrus the Younger against his older brother, Artaxerxes 2nd, over control of the Persian empire. Soldiers of Artaxerxes killed Cyrus in a battle at Cunaxa near Babylon. Artaxerxes then tricked leaders of the Hellenian mercenaries into attending a party and had them murdered. This left Xenophon and his 10,000 fellow Hellenians without leadership, deep in understandably hostile territory, and needing to make a quick escape. Xenophon lived to tell the tale of how they did this in his book Going Up (Anabasis).

Xenophon returned to Athens but was exiled, perhaps because of his past friendship with Socrates and his continuing Spartan sympathies, and moved to the west coast of the Peloponnese where Spartan rulers gave him some property. While living there he wrote Going Up. Alexander of Macedon later used information in that book for his early battles against the Persians. Xenophon wrote Hellenica, a history of the Peloponnese from 411 (where Thucydides broke off) to 362. In the late 360s he also wrote a series of dialogues featuring Socrates. Scholars are uncertain about the date and location of his death.

Plato (ca 428-348) was born into a wealthy family living in Athens. His mother, Perictione, was the niece of murderous Critias. As a young adult, Plato first listened to Socrates and eventually became his close associate. When Socrates was executed in 399, Plato traveled to Latinia, Carthaginia, and Egypt before returning to Athens in 388. In 385 he started the Academy: one of the first organized schools of higher learning in Olympia. His most brilliant student was Aristotle.

Plato wrote at least 25 dialogues and letters which still exist today. Two of his most famous dialogues are The Apology of Socrates and The Republic. The Socrates he features in his dialogues is based on the real person but freely modified to serve changing literary and philosophical purposes. Plato became and remains such a significant philosopher because he discussed such a wide range of topics with such insight.

Aristotle (384-322) wasn’t born in Athens. He was born in a small town about 340 miles (550 km) north of it. His father was physician to Amyntas 3rd the king of Macedon. At 18 he left home to study at Plato’s Academy. Although he was always the smartest person in Athens, a fact everyone knew, Athenians treated him as inferior because he came from away. When, following Plato’s death in 348, leadership of the Academy passed to the Plato’s much duller nephew, Aristotle decided to leave Athens for awhile.

He traveled in Anatolia, married, and did scientific research on the island of Lesbos. In 343 he accepted the invitation of Philip 2nd, son of Amyntas and king of Macedon, to tutor the king’s 13-year-old son Alexander (who later became “the Great”). Alexander loved studying Homer’s Iliad. Aristotle made notes in a copy of it and gave it to Alexander. Alexander later carried this copy with him on all his campaigns.

While Aristotle tutored Alexander, Philip warred against other Hellenian municipal states and added an increasingly number of them to his kingdom. Thebes and Athens joined forces against Philip but he also defeated them in 338. When Philip was assassinated in 336, Alexander became king.

Aristotle returned to Athens from Macedon in 335 and started his own school which he called the Lyceum. That was the same year in which Athenians acknowledged, with fear and anger, Alexander’s control of them after he had destroyed Thebes as a warning. For the next 12 years Aristotle did the teaching and writing by which we know him. He covered an even broader range of subjects than Plato and his thinking was far more systematic. These works of Aristotle combined with those of Plato became the very solid foundation for all Olympian philosophy ever since.

Alexander died in 323. Athenians expressed their resentment of Alexander’s control by charging Aristotle with the crime of disrespecting the gods. Remembering the trial and execution of Socrates, Aristotle chose to leave Athens, telling friends, “I will not allow Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” He moved to his family’s estate about 47 miles (75 km) north of Athens and died there of natural causes in 322.

Aristotle’s departure from Athens in 323 marks the end of its classical period. Such was its creativity, however, that even today Athens enjoys the glow of its glory.

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