The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 6

by Paul Mathers

Socrates saves Alcibiades from certain moral peril!

Socrates saves Alcibiades from certain moral peril!

We know of three things that happened mid-400s BCE. In 451 BCE, the Athenians tightened citizenship requirements. Previously you needed to have an Athenian father. Now you needed an Athenian father and a mother who was the daughter of a citizen. Why? We don’t really know. Possibly there was a massive influx of foreigners. Anyway, the effect is that the number of citizens stays stable and actually drops during the coming war.

In 445 BCE, Athens and Sparta sign a 30 year peace treaty.

In 442/1 BCE, Athens sides with the Ionians when the polis of Miletus gets in a fight with the island of Samos. Athens sends 60 ships and the Samians are defeated. The Samians are hit with a mild penalty (they have to contribute cash instead of ships now).

Thucydides was the historian of this period. He was born around 460 BCE. He caught and survived the plague of Athens (more on that later). He was a general in the North Aegean. His family had gold mines. He was defeated by the Spartan general Brasidas and exiled for 20 years, after which he returned to Athens and died somewhere around 400 BCE. We are going to get a lot of this week’s information from him, so we might do well to take a look at his influences. He was influenced by the Sophists, who were travelling rhetoric teachers who taught students to question received ideas. Protagoras and Gorgias were great influences on him (relativism and “man is the measure of all things”). Also Hippocratic medicine (medicine now featuring science, rationalism, and empirical evidence!) which taught that health depends on balancing forces within. Also, of course, Herodotus.The two historians are so much of a type that someone made this bizarre bust of them:ImageThucydides is writing in a tradition now although he says that his is contemporary and non-mythic, unlike Herodotus. He focused his history tightly on the war and, as a result, you do not have religion, women, culture, or any of the other richness of life that you have with Herodotus. You do, however, have a more concise history of the war. He attempts to make his speeches accurate. On the rare occasions that he appears in the narrative, he writes in the 3rd person.

The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog only has one trick. But it’s a good one. This is how the professor introduced Athens and Sparta in this period. Athens is the fox and Sparta is sort of rolled up in a little ball. Thucydides says that there are 3 causes for the war:

1) There was a conflict between Corinth and Corcyra (one of their colonies). Athens sided with Corcyra (which, oddly enough, is pronounced exactly like the website on which I am taking this class).

2) a Corinthian colony is ordered by Athens to tear down its wall. The colony appealed to Corinth for help.

3) Megara gets involved on the Corinthian side and so Athens hits Megara with “The Megarian Decree,” which is essentially a hefty embargo.

And so Corinth is the catalyst for the breakdown of the 30 years peace. At the congress at Sparta, a Corinthian made a speech of appeal in which he said, “Athens is always on the move. Sparta is tucked in upon itself, but now is the time to act.”

And the king of Sparta replied, “Hey, it’s worked for us for centuries.” Sparta is reluctantly drawn in. And so the Greek world sides off into Spartans or Athenians. In 431 BCE, the war breaks out. This is, by the way since I just noticed I haven’t named it, the Peloponnesian War. Here’s an important map:


Those thick black lines you see are walls. Who was inside those walls? The Athenians. Wasn’t it crowded? You bet! Was there a plague? There certainly was.

Pericles drew everyone into the walls and thought, “As long as we have our fleet out there, we’ll be fine.” People were not happy about having to leave their demes for the inside of the long wall. This marks a new type of war. Gone were the hoplite lines battling against one another. There were now fleets and walls and all sorts of new facets of life during wartime. At the end of the first year of the war, Pericles gave a speech for the fallen. He urges the Athenians to maintain their way of life:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts.”

The plague probably came by ship. It spread like a brush-fire. As was so often the case, people are further disturbed by the seeming randomness of the plague. As I mentioned, Thucydides caught it and was one of the few lucky enough to recover. 1/3rd of the population died. Law collapsed. People stricken with the plague threw themselves into wells. People threw the bodies of their dead onto other people’s funeral pyres (highly disrespectiful). People blamed Pericles. He was not elected general. Then he died of the plague. A rather grim end for such a pivotal figure in our narrative.

Thucydides extolls Pericles’ insight, foresight, and devotion. It’s important to note that this may have a lot to do with how much Thucydides HATES his successor. Cleon was a new kind of politician. He went to the people. He also marks the beginning of a rise of a political class. Aristophanes said that he stunk because his family owned a tannery. Thucydides called him “the most violent and persuasive citizen.” He is remembered for all of history as filthy, low, cowardly, and greedy.

Some dates: 429 BCE= the death of Pericles.

428/7 BCE= a revolt on Mytilene. The Athenians crush the revolt with the ultimate penalty, death to all adult males, all women and children sold into slavery. There is a debate between Cleon and Diodotus (the latter of whom takes the side of maintaining Mytilene). Diodotus wins and fast rowers are dispatched to try to prevent the wholesale slaughter. They arrive with the news of the winner of the debate just in time to save the adult males of Mytilene.

In 425 BCE= Cleon’s victory at Pylos/Sphacteria. Cleon was on a mission in the South in Pylos. They are trapped by a Spartan force. Cleon boasts “I will take care of the Spartans.” He goes. There is an aleatory brush-fire which diminishes Sparta’s capacity to hold the battlefield and Cleon wins the day. But while Cleon is campaigning in the South, the Spartans are campaigning in the North where:

In 424 BCE= Thucydides’ loss to Brasidas. Brasidas was also a new kind of general. He led a force of Spartans, mercenaries, and, if you can believe it, Helots. This does reveal a manpower shortage. He wins against Thucydides. Cleon exiles Thucydides. Cleon goes to meet Brasidas in battle.

In 422 BCE= Cleon dies in battle against Brasidas. Brasidas also dies in the battle.

In 421= The Peace of Nicias. The terms of peace are that it is to last for 50 years. Disputes are to be settled by arbitration. The Athenians are overjoyed with the peace. “Down with my shield! Let it be covered with cobwebs!”


We took a break at this point to discuss comedy. Much like the tragedies, we also have few surviving comedies (about 11 out of 400) and all of the surviving ones were penned by Aristophanes. Unlike tragedies, comic poets made up their own plots. The plots often centered on common people. The formula was that the comic hero gets a great idea, implements it, overcomes opposition, and then enjoys the fruits of his idea. We read The Acharnians in which Dicaeopolis, a common citizen of Athens, decides to make a private peace with Sparta.

Comedy was wildly inventive and lacked some of the constraint of solemn tragedy. There could (and would) be violence on stage as well as unfettered obscenity. They would also break the Fourth Wall. They would, in the course of the show, talk about people who would be in the audience for the performance. To be singled out for ridicule was also sort of a point of honor (you’d “made it” if you were worthy of notice for ridicule).

After the Peace of Nicias, there were factions on both sides who wanted the war to continue. It is said that there were not really two Peloponnesian Wars, but rather one war with a pause in the middle of it. Two Spartan Ephors tried to get Corinth to ally with Thebes against Athens. Alcibiades (another name we’ll hear more about) persuaded Elis and Mantinea to ally against Sparta. The Spartans won and Alcibiades was almost ostracized. Instead, the last ostracism took place. Hyperbolus (his actual name) was ostracized instead. It was said, “Hyperbolus deserved the ostracism, but Ostracism did not deserve Hyperbolus.” Meaning he wasn’t important enough to be ostracized and, as a result, the institution of ostracism crumbled.

In 416 BCE, the Athenians go to Melos and demand that they join their confederacy. Melos, an Athenian settlement, had remained neutral up to this point. Alcibiades was probably responsible for what followed, The Melian Dialogue. This was likely a fiction as the dialogue was in public. The Athenians give Melos as choice: become tribute paying members of our confederacy or be destroyed.

“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

A bleak but true assessment of the human situation I think.

Melos’ continued neutrality was a threat to Athens. As we see in the myth of Pandora, hope might be, in some ways, the worst thing unleashed on humankind. Hope is extravagant and people like Melos cannot afford her. Athens says, “If you were in our position, you would do the same thing.” The Melians resist. Athens brings her fleet and kills almost all of the adult males (a few flee successfully) and sells the women and children into slavery. They resettle Melos with 500 Athenians.


Behold, the strikingly handsome Alcibiades!

Let’s talk about the Symposium. The word means “drinking together” and there is a reason for that. The Symposium was not as we might imagine today. It was not like a modern “Symposium on Economic Development Whatnot.” Citizens (adult males) would recline on couches. There was a mixing bowl called a “krater” in the center of the room filled with a mixture of water and wine (to symbolize the mixture of business and pleasure taking place). There would be food, drinking games, music, conversation, poetry readings, and sex. Some of the images on the vases… I wonder if some museums don’t have parental guidance ratings. My favorite image shown was this vase of a master who has overindulged in the drinking portion and his slave holds his hair back as the master is about to, as we used to say in college, bark at the ants. He’s going to call Uncle Ralph up on the Greek pottery. He’s going to do the Athenian yodel:


From the National Museum of Denmark no less.

There was also the image from a vase of men at the Symposium flirting with one another. This is an aspect of Greek culture that we had not covered yet. Homosexuality was an elite practice. An older man (“the lover”) would be with a younger man (“the beloved”). There were rules of protocol in these relationships. The older would never use force. The beloved would not ask for gifts. (I couldn’t help but think of the trial of Oscar Wilde at this point, especially the part where Wilde invoked this ancient tradition. Lord Alfred Douglas did not adhere to this rule for the beloved.) It is important to note that these men also had wives and families. There was not the hetero/homosexual divide that we have in our culture.

We ended with more about Alcibiades. He was another blue-blood, a nephew of Pericles. He was beautiful, brilliant, and unscrupulous (again, Lord Alfred Douglas came to mind). In 416 BCE, he won the Olympic chariot race. The public had enormous fascination with this man. He was a bit of a superstar. He was a friend of Socrates. At one point he attempted to seduce Socrates, but Socrates declined any form of physical love (as we learn most of what we know of Socrates from Plato, this is where the term “Platonic” comes from). Alcibiades played a central role in the invasion of Sicily which we will cover in next week’s exciting conclusion to this series (the final class being on my personal favorite figure in all of antiquity. Here’s a hint: he is mentioned in this very paragraph!)