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An ancient war and a modern question: Why?

The Peloponnesian War: Donald Kagan, Viking: 512 pp., $29.95 The Parthenon, Mary Beard, Harvard University Press: 210 pp., $19.95

May 11, 2003|Peter Green | Peter Green is the author of "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age," and is the Dougherty centennial professor of classics emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and adjunct professor of classics, University of Iowa.

About 2 1/2 millenniums ago, a couple of small Greek states (neither much bigger than Rhode Island) lurched into war with each other. Fifty years before that, they had been uneasy allies against Xerxes' Persian invasions (480-479 BC). Sparta, located in the Peloponnese (the not-quite-island that forms southern Greece, attached to the northern mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth), was a nation of ferocious and privileged militarist landowners. Athens, northeast of the isthmus on the Saronic Gulf, had, in the years before the Persian Wars, developed a limited popular democracy. During the war it was the mass members of this Athenian demos -- shipbuilders, dockyard workers, chandlers, captains, rowers -- who crewed the new fast warships (triremes) that broke the back of Xerxes' fleet at Salamis.

Two less likely chalk-and-cheese allies, forced together by harsh necessity, could hardly be imagined. Not surprisingly, almost the moment the Persian threat receded, cracks appeared in the wartime alliance. Themistocles, the Athenian architect of naval victory, wanted to burn the Spartan fleet. Aristocratic pro-Spartans in Athens nixed the proposal in horror; but they nevertheless went along with a scheme to form Athens' own separate league, mostly of islanders and East Aegean cities, that would contribute ships or cash to defend against any Persian aggression. Themistocles also, against strong Spartan objections, encircled Athens with a strong city wall.

This new Delian League (so called because its treasury was originally on the island of Delos) contained the seeds of Athens' speedy transformation into a naval empire. Human nature being what it is, most members, except for large and powerful islands like Lesbos, preferred to pay cash (in effect protection money) rather than contribute ships: a notorious recipe for vulnerability. This infusion of capital, combined with its highly productive silver mines, gave Athens a taste for imperial expansion. Till shortly before 460 BC, its pro-Spartan conservatives had been in power. But now their leader Cimon was exiled, the power of the old-fashioned Areopagus Council was gutted and the naval group, led by Pericles and with strong populist support, took over. It was, almost certainly, now (462-461 on the evidence, and not, as conventional wisdom has argued, in 454) that the Delian treasury was shifted to Athens for its imperial enhancement.

What followed was an explosion of military and naval activity, not only at home but also far afield in the eastern Mediterranean, where up to 200 triremes were deployed against Cyprus, Phoenicia and Persian-held Egypt. In the early 450s, Athenian generals moved north of Attica into Boeotia. Strong efforts were made to establish control over the Gulf of Corinth and find an overland route across the isthmus as an alternative to the one controlled by Corinth itself. At some point (the date is much debated) a standoff peace was concluded with Achaemenid Persia. None of this, it should be noted, directly threatened Sparta. On the other hand, it was all enormously expensive and involved huge losses of manpower. A population explosion and imperial tribute underwrote these ventures, but why were they undertaken at all?

In any case, they soon unraveled, one after another. The territory gained in Boeotia was lost. Megara abandoned its alliance with Athens. The Egyptian expedition collapsed ignominiously under Persian pressure, though its losses were not as disastrous as is often alleged. Athens signed a peace treaty with Sparta and its allies as well as with Persia. Each side was left free to coerce its own subordinates as it saw fit: Sparta to hold down its slave population and Messenian serfs, Athens to take military action against its rebellious "subject-allies." All this activity was exactly conterminous with the high noon of the Periclean Age: the drama, the philosophizing, the moral debates and, above all, the flowering of great imperial architecture. The Parthenon was begun in 447 BC and completed in 433-32, with, as Mary Beard puts it, "Pheidias playing Michelangelo to Pericles' Pope Julius II (or, let's face it, Speer to Pericles' Hitler)."

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