The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 7

by Paul Mathers

ImageI am going to miss this class exceedingly. I finished the class on Tuesday and I still have it open in another tab. I have two other classes slated for the near future, but something tells me I had the great good fortune of reaping the benefits of a particularly excellent online course this first go-round.

The 5th Century ended with the “Sicilian Expedition” (or, more accurately, “invasion”). In 415 BCE, the Athenians attacked Sicily. Egesta quarreled with Silenus. Silenus petitioned Carthage for aid and Egesta petitioned Athens for aid. That settled, Athens moved on to Sicily. Thucydides was livid and caustic about this campaign. He told the Athenians that they didn’t know what they were doing.

Indeed. Niceas, a general, you might remember, whose name is on The Peace of Niceas, was against the invasion. He said in front of the assembly that Alcibiades only wants glory for himself. “Give up this mad dream for conquest.” Alcibiades spoke for the invasion and, as a result, may be the person most responsible for the downfall of Athens (sorry to give away the ending so early). He said that the Sicilians were a motley rabble and would be easily overtaken. “It is the nature of an empire to expand.” Which is the polar opposite sentiment of what Pericles exhorted the Athenians to do. Thucydides said, “all alike, young and old, fell in love with the idea.”

They appointed three generals. Niceas didn’t want to go, but they sent him anyway. Also Alcibiades and some other guy who is never mentioned again.

ImageThere were these sacred statues of Hermes which, just before the expedition, were found to be mutilated and defaced. Alcibiades was accused. He was also accused of performing a parody of the Eleusinian Mysteries. We don’t know if he did, but we do see the swaying opinion of Alcibiades even before anyone sets foot in a boat.

They send a huge armada of 134 warships, 130 support ships, and some 25,000 men. As they are crossing the Ionian Sea, Alcibiades gets word that Athens is sending along ships behind them with the orders to arrest him. He flees to Sparta. The fleet arrives in Syracuse and has some success. Meanwhile, Alcibiades gives intelligence to the Spartans on how to attack Athens at Dekelia (a place of great Athenian land traffic, perfect for harassing the Athenians).

In Sicily, the Athenians want to build a wall. The Spartans send generals to fortify Syracuse with a counter-wall. Niceas sends a letter home to Athens. “The ships are rotting, the slaves are deserting, I have a kidney disease.” Athens sends reinforcements (one imagines Niceas groans, having hoped for a withdrawal). They lose lose lose. They get stuck in a pestilential swamp. The superstitious Niceas refuses to move during a lunar eclipse. He listens to the soothsayers who tell him that they need to go through purification after the eclipse. And I had this sad and lonely image of all of these men in a swamp at night, losing their battle, placing all of their hope on magical thinking while Syracuse sets up a wall of ships around them at sea, completely boxing them in. They are decisively defeated. Niceas flees over land with his troops. They are parched and famished when they reach a river. They trample one another to get to the water. The Syracusans rain arrows down on them. Niceas is killed and the Athenians are enslaved.

We took a narrative break to look at foreigners in Athens. Between 480 BCE and 432 BCE, the population of Athenian citizens was relatively low (due to the change in rules for becoming a citizen). But the population of foreigners (or “Metics”) almost doubles and the population of slaves almost triples in that same period. Greeks did not think in terms of what we would know as Economics, but rather in terms of “oikonomos” or The Household. The Greeks were very ambivalent about work. The Greek word for work can be translated as “work” or “pain.” It was viewed as essential but regrettable. The god of labor, Hephystus, was the only god in the pantheon who was lame. He was the only disabled god.

So there is a lot of slave and foreign labor employed by the Greeks. The Metic (from “met oikos” or “one who has changed their home”) was a resident foreigner. They paid a special tax and had to have an Athenian citizen sponsor them. They had to serve in the military when called. They also could not intermarry. But the money was excellent, so the metics came to Athens. There were resident foreigners everywhere else in the Greek world except, you guessed it, in Sparta.

Lysias was a famous orator associated with the Athenian elite. He was a wealthy metic who provided great benefits to the state and was beloved, but he was never granted citizenship. Citizenship was highly guarded.

The metics were important to Athens, but not nearly so important as slaves. Chattel slaves are people who are owned by another person as a piece of property. Chattel slaves came from war (as we’ve seen) and from markets, very much in the same way as the British/American slave trade of yore (not so much like the modus operandi of our current slave trade). There were no slave revolts and no slave consciousness largely due to the wide scattering of ethnicity. Slaves worked in agriculture, workshops, the dangerous jobs of mines and quarries, and in households.

ImageThey were also tutors (known as “child leaders” which in Greek was the word “paedagogo” from which get the word pedagogue). Slaves would be subject to horrible abuse up to, but not to cross, the line of murder. In some houses they were esteemed while in others they would be brutalized. They were only permitted to give testimony in court under torture because it was thought that they would lie otherwise. A freed slave could become a metic. A famous case was that of Pasion, who was bought by bankers, found to be an honest and hard worker, was freed and given control of the bank, and finally actually granted citizenship. This was, as the professor said, a “one-off.” This was not a thing that happened, as far we can tell, in any other case.

When Niceas was fleeing he said that “surely the gods are satisfied and the Athenians should have hope.” There is that hope of Pandora again, possibly the worst thing to be unleashed on humankind. Like the Melians, they are clinging to hope and superstition. Herodotus would love the come-uppance factor of this. There was a revolt among the allies. “Why did we invade Sicily? It’s a debacle!” Despite their loss, they keep fighting for 8 years.

Alcibiades occasioned distrust in the Spartans (there is some evidence that he tried to seduce the king’s wife) and fled to Persia.

My notes have a bunch of dates spat out on them with exposition on the events afterwards, so forgive the confused chronology of the next few paragraphs. In 413 BCE, the Sicilian Expedition ends. In 411/10 BCE, there is an Oligarch Revolution in Athens in which the oligarchs call for a “return to the ancestral constitution” (reminded me of our own Right’s “founding fathers” rhetoric). In 408/7 BCE, Alcibiades returns to Athens. In 405 BCE, there is the battle of Aeogospotami. Lysander is in charge of the Spartan forces. In 404 BCE, there is a seize and surrender of Athens. In 404/3, there is the reign of the “Thirty Tyrants.” In 403 BCE, democracy is restored and general amnesty granted.

In 410 BCE, the history of Thucydides ends, suggesting that he probably died.

In 412 BCE is the treaty of Miletus. The Spartans sell out the Ionians for Persian money. The war shifts to the north-east for grain and timber. The Spartans finally build a fleet and are immediately defeated at sea. After the battle, a Spartan general wrote a letter home, “Ships gone. Command killed. Starving. At a loss.”

The Athenians decline to accept surrender. Alcibiades is formally cleared of charges and given the position of commander-in-chief. Under his command there is a reversal of fortune at sea (while he isn’t even there) and public opinion shifts back against him. He flees again and never returns.

There was a battle in 406 BCE at sea between Athens and Sparta. The wind after the battle prevented the gathering of the wounded and dead. The Athenians were tried as a group (which was illegal). 6 generals were put to death for not gathering the dead and wounded. Socrates happened to be the overseer that day and cast the only vote against the trial.

There was a battle at Aegospotami in which the Athenian fleet was highly vulnerable. Alcibiades happened to live on the villa overlooking the harbor and actually came down to warn the Athenians. They ignored his warning and 160 out of their 180 ships were destroyed.This was, essentially, the end of the war. Xenophon said, “a howl went up the port and engulfed the entire city.”

Athens surrendered in 404 BCE. Corinth and Thebes wanted Athens to be razed and the population killed, dispersed, and enslaved. Sparta resisted (and whatever Sparta wants, Sparta gets). The walls of Athens were torn down to the sound of flutes.Their fleet was reduced to 12. Sparta ruled the former allies. The “30 Tyrants” ruled in 404 BCE. It quickly became a bloodbath. Socrates was, at one point, ordered to arrest a wealthy metic. He refused to and went home. A resistance to the 30 rallied and they were overthrown. This was when the general amnesty was declared.

In 401 BCE, the final play of Sophocles is written, Oedipus at Colonus, which harkens back to the Athens of old and in which Oedipus is given sanctuary. This is, essentially, where our story ends even though we still have two more lectures to go.

We begin our sum up with a view of Greek history as a whole: a tension between rationalism and reaction. The Greeks did not have a priestly caste, holy books, or omniscient deities. Worship was available to anyone.

In the 5th century, Athens was a magnet for intellectuals. Anaxagoras was from Asia Minor and had a very early precursor to atomic theory (trees being made up of tiny, sub-microscopic trees). He taught that “nous” or “the mind” set all matter whirling. The sun, moon, and so forth were superheated stones set fire by the vortex of this whirling. He was prosecuted for impiety.

And now we arrive at Socrates. He was born around 469 BCE. He lived the complete life of an Athenian citizen. He served on the Boulē. He left no writings of his own, but is recorded by Plato and Xenophon, and, in a denigrating parody, also by Aristophanes. His father was a stone mason and his mother was a midwife. He conversed and discussed around Athens and drew in students. He is said to have had an odd appearance:


Alcibiades said he “looks like a satyr.” Yet he attracted the gilded youth of Athens as his students. The oracle at Delphi told one of them that there was none wiser than Socrates. Socrates set out to disprove this. He went and talked to people all over Athens and concluded that he probably was the wisest because everyone else thought they knew something. He thought he was the wisest because “I know that I know nothing.”

The Socratic method is a series of direct and focused questions about justice, piety, and other big ideas. He never offered a positive response. He simply left his interlocutors realizing that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

In 399 BCE, he is put on trial on charges of “corrupting youth and atheism.” There are no prosecutors, no judge, just a jury. They vote against him. The penalty is death. He suggested a different penalty of “a lifetime maintenance at the state’s expense.” In essence, he is convicted for stinging the Athenians out of complacency. This was partly political. Despite the post-war amnesty, democracy was so fragile after the war that it could not suffer a gadfly. It is suggested that some of his teaching may have been interpreted as anti-democratic. If he had not existed at that particular time… but it’s difficult for us to play “what ifs” like that.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, there are some systemic changes. There is no longer the system of citizen-soldiers. The hoplite ideal is over. Loyalties go to whoever can pay the soldiers. War can now be anywhere and at anytime.

Politically, the polis is fatigued. There are now, instead, large confederations. Neighboring polises merge. Corinth and Argos form into Corinthargos. There are economic, cultural and religious, as well as military benefits to this shift.

There was also the rise of charismatic leaders. Jason comes from Thessaly and unites the Thessalian barons in the 370s. For a time, Thessaly becomes a major power. Jason is assassinated and there was no provision for a successor, so in the early 350s, there is a power shift to Macedon. In 359, King Philip II welded the Macedonians into a first rate force. You will probably have heard of his son, Alexander. Philip hires Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Philip is assassinated. Alexander succeeds and conquers Persia and points eastward to the borders of India.

But, all of that is another story and only mentioned in conclusion here, as are some of the contemporaries of the period we have studied in other parts of the world, contemporaries like Confucius and Gautama Buddha.

We study the Greeks because they still influence us. One of the major ways is in democracy. They also allow us the thought exercise of putting together fragments in an attempt to see a harmonious whole. Shelley said that the Greeks are “a reality, not a promise.”

The professor closed the class with the encouragment to:

“Keep thinking with the Greeks.”

I anticipate that I shall for the remainder of my life, and would encourage all of you to do likewise.