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Racing Toward Mytilene

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The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece
By Jennifer T. Roberts
Oxford University Press, 2017

Two and a half millennia ago, on the tiny Greek island of Sphacteria, something unthinkable happened. In the spring of 425 B.C., a small garrison of Athenian hoplites (heavily-armored spearmen who provided the staple of Greek fighting forces) landed on the sandy promontory of Pylos in the southern Peloponnese, and promptly began setting up camp for a long-term occupation. Their objective was to build a raiding base against the mighty Peloponnesian city of Sparta, against whom the Athenians had been waging war for six consecutive years, but the presence of an Athenian army within arm’s length of the Spartan homeland drew a swift response. Soon, a Spartan army was marching out to lay siege to Pylos. To block the entrance to the harbor, and prevent food and supplies from reaching the beleaguered fort, 420 Spartans took up position on the wooded island of Sphacteria just offshore. As Athenian stomachs grumbled, the Spartans settled in for certain victory.

But the they had made a dreadful miscalculation. The Athenians were the mightiest sea power of the ancient world, with a vastly larger and more experienced navy than the landlubbing Peloponnesians. Within days, a fleet of Athenian triremes had seized control of the harbor and encircled the tiny force of soldiers on Sphacteria. Now it was the Spartans’ turn to starve. For several weeks, intrepid smugglers supplied the stranded Sphacteria with food and water, tying waterproof sacks to the backs of helot slaves, who darted between Athenian patrol ships. But they could only buy so much time, and when a freak forest fire cleared the island of foliage and revealed clearly the position of the Spartans, it was the Athenians’ cue to launch an all-out assault on the haggard troops. True to form, the Spartans fought bravely, attempting to bring their enemy into open combat. But the Athenians were wily, sending archers and rock-throwers against the Spartans’ flanks, dodging into the hills when chased, steadily and painfully pressing the Spartans closer to the shore. At last, the jig was up: the Spartan commander sent a message to the capital, begging instruction or relief. The unhelpful answer returned: “The Spartans order you to make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonourable.” And so, the hungry soldiers of Sphacteria did something that no Spartan army had done in living memory: they surrendered themselves alive.

That story, told in the ancient account of the writer and general Thucydides, has provided a perfect set piece for historians ever since, not only for its dramatic twists, but because it seemed to embody the very spirit of two diametrically opposed antagonists. Here were the Spartans — brave, hardy, immune to complaint in their suffering, but also a bit dense and hidebound in their ways — brought to heel by the crafty, scheming men of Athens. These were no mere cities, but the yin and yang of Greek society, each representing the antithesis of the other: no wonder, Thucydides implies, they were destined to wage an epic war that would bring the Greek world crashing down around them.

That grueling conflict is the subject of Jennifer T. Roberts’ gripping, concise, and effortlessly readable account, The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece. Roberts sees the battle between Athens and Sparta as the great crux of classical Greek history, and her narrative encompasses not only the catastrophic, 27-year Peloponnesian War (the subject of Thucydides’ account), but an entire century and a half of warfare, rival alliances, and diplomatic backbiting that would eventually drag an entire political system into catastrophe.

Roberts opens with brief sketches of each of the contenders. In one corner were the Spartans, surely the most bizarre and intriguing of the more than 1500 poleis, or self-contained city-states, in the ancient Greek world. Beginning gradually around the 7th century B.C., Spartan armies began gobbling up their neighbors in the southern Peloponnese, and — shockingly, as far as later Greeks were concerned — enslaving the locals to do the Spartans’ dirty work. Spartan men, meanwhile, devoted themselves to a strict regimen of religious festivals, athletics, and lots and lots of fighting. The result, as Roberts lays out, was a kind of military-communist utopia, built on the backs of their fellow Greeks:

The Spartan ethos taught that all Spartiates were equal to one another, or at least close to equal: they were homoioi, or “similars/peers.” Although some Spartans were richer than others — in some cases a good deal richer — they were all expected to live frugally, in modest homes, wearing ordinary clothing that did not distinguish richer from poorer…

Helots [enslaved Greek locals] outnumbered the Spartiates substantially — more and more as Spartiate numbers dropped — plainly creating a precarious situation. Particularly promising Spartan youths might hope to be selected for the krypteia, a secret service of sorts whose purpose was to seek out and kill any helots who seemed especially high spirited — and to give the Spartans a taste for violence.

This sort of thing was apt to make the Spartans an object of morbid fascination for other, less monomaniacal Greeks, especially denizens of their northern neighbor Athens. Historians going back to the Greeks themselves have always been apt to see Sparta and Athens as funhouse mirror images of one another, and indeed the two cities do present a striking contrast. Where Sparta’s hoplites were the fiercest land forces in all of Greece, the Athenians were lords of the sea, boasting a navy of 300 trireme warships — a fleet as large as that of the modern United States, for city-state of only 200,000 people. Where Sparta’s rigid, slave-based society encouraged iron-fisted adherence to tradition, Athens was a magnet for the brightest members of the Hellenic avant garde, from Anaxagoras to Zeno. And where Sparta was the reactionary government par excellance, backing oligarchic regimes in all its satellite states, fifth-century Athens was pioneering a government that was quite literally revolutionary: in Greek, “people-power,” demokratia.

Despite the similarity in terms, demokratia was a system as unlike modern, 21st century democracies as the kings of Sparta were from the House of Windsor. Imagine, instead, something like a PTA meeting with the power to declare war and banish political opponents. At least once a month, every Athenian male citizen would gather in assembly on a hill called the pnyx, there to debate and decide every issue facing the state. The details of the arrangement were complex, of course, and altered over time (Roberts gives a fine overview early in her book), but the basic reality was simple: one man, one vote, and equality before the law. (“Man” being a somewhat limited term in this case: women, slaves, and resident aliens were all denied suffrage. Nevertheless, Athens’ and its democratic kin had by far the widest base of participation of any ancient governments.)

So this was the lay of the land in 431 B.C.: two dominant powers, as unmixable as oil and water, looming uncomfortably over the Aegean world. Years earlier, Sparta and Athens had been reluctant allies in the great war against the Persian Empire. Now, in that war’s aftermath each side controlled de facto empires after their own fashion: Sparta a land-based coalition of allies centered on southern Greece; Athens a seaborne empire stretching across the water to the Asian coast. When war finally arrived, sparked by a petty disputes over the island of Corcyra and the strategic city of Megara, nobody was particularly surprised.

But was the war inevitable? For Thucydides, writing shortly after the fact, the answer was a resounding yes: “the growth of Athenian power,” he wrote, “and the alarm it occasioned in the Spartans, forced Sparta into it.” In other words, with each empire rubbing up against the other in a growing number of frontiers, pure realpolitik guaranteed eventual violence. Not so, argues Roberts:

This was a war that might well not have happened. The king of Sparta had no stomach for it, and his countrymen were anxious enough that they sent to Delphi throughout for reassurance event after they had voted for it…many in Athens were averse to fighting. The assemblymen there had at first been persuaded by the arguments of the Corinthians and were loath to make the provocative alliance with Corcyra. Later on…some spoke out in favor of conceding to the Spartans before the final vote was taken — and even then they were open to arbitration.

According to Roberts, this was no faceless confrontation of opposing ideologies, or even an unavoidable entangling of rival empires. Rather, the heart of the matter was something much simpler and, alas, familiar: a loudmouth demagogue beating the drum for war. Mind you, the demagogue in question wasn’t exactly an ancient Donald Trump. Stentorian, aristocratic, and endowed with an unusually egg-shaped head, Pericles was the most prominent Athenian statesman in 431 B.C. No cut-rate populist, he personally served as the patron and salon host for Athens’ best and brightest, and spearheaded the massive construction of the acropolis complex that included the Parthenon itself. For Thucydides, he was a king in everything but title, “so, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.” For Roberts, he is considerably less glamorous: a gifted wheeler and dealer whose hold on the public was based on a precarious combination of economy-boosting public works and the promise of military glory:

The Athenians in particular had much to protect at this time in their history. They had just finished work on the glorious temple to Athena that sat atop their acropolis, the Parthenon, and other building projects in their civic space were still in progress. Ultimately, however, the sentiments of those Athenians who preferred peace were overcome by those of the war party that Pericles led so intractably, and the Spartans acceded to the pressure of their allies, on whose goodwill they depended to maintain preeminence in the Peloponnesus and their security against helots.

Pericles’ plan was deviously simple. Athens had lately constructed a series of long walls, connecting the city with its harbor, the Piraeus. Taking advantage of their mastery of the seas, the Athenians could, therefore, turn their mainland city into a de facto island. Rather than engage the mighty Spartan armies that marched into the countryside of Attica, the Athenians would collectively abandon their farms and estates, retreat within the long walls, and wait until the Spartans realized that all assaults were futile. Remarkably, the voters agreed to give it a shot.

At first, everything went according to expectations. The baffled Spartan king, finding no resistance outside the walls Athens, burned a few crops, shouted a few insults, and sulked home to Laconia. But soon enough, the law of unintended consequences kicked in. Athens, already crowded on a good day, struggled to find enough huts and shanty towns to house the thousands of new rustic refugees. The Athenian navy, meanwhile, puttered around the Peloponnese, failing to strike a strong enough blow to seriously harm the Spartans.

But the most devastating attack was launched by neither party. It came in the form of an invisible microbe, spread from trading ships sailing into the Piraeus from Egypt. Ironically, it was Pericles strategy of stuffing thousands of citizens behind the long wall that made it so easy for a disease to thrive. And thrive this disease did: by the end of the war’s second year, more than 30,000 Athenians had been struck by a new and unstoppable plague. The symptoms included swelling of the eyes and throat, irregular breathing, uncontrollable vomiting and convulsions, high fever, and finally, mercifully, death. Among the victims was Pericles himself. Roberts casts a wide view on what such a catastrophe would have meant to the Athenians:

Most Greeks were confident about where plagues came from. The Iliad had made this quite clear. Plagues came from Apollo. Slighted by Agamemnon, the priest Chryses, who was devoted to Apollo in particular, had asked the god to punish the Greeks. Down from Olympus strode Apollo, Homer says, and let fly arrows in his anger: “And the fires of the corpses burned thickly.” Had not the envoys whom the Spartans sent to Delphi before sounding out their allies about an Athenian war been told that Apollo would help them? To Thucydides, the plague seemed to have begun in Ethiopia and then moved through Egypt and Libya but most Greeks thought it came straight from the god of Delphi and carried with it a strong suggestion that Apollo was playing for Sparta.

Having lost both the war’s instigator and, apparently, the support of the Olympian gods, the Athenians did their best to battle through the next decade of inconclusive war. All the while, frustration and desperation loosened the restrictions of civilized warfare. When the city of Mytilene on Lesbos revolted from Athens in 428 B.C., the Athenian assembly immediately voted to exterminate every grown man, and enslave every woman and child. Only a next-day change of heart, and a swiftly-dispatched messenger, spared the Mytileneans from this grisly fate. The island of Melos was less lucky: when the neutral polis refused to bow to Athenian rule, a brief siege ended in blood-soaked streets. When the incident at Sphacteria provided an excuse for Sparta and Athens to sign a truce, everyone must have heaved a sigh of relief.

The seven years of troubled truce that followed are one of the great could-have-been moments of history. That the so-called Peace of Nicias (named after its foremost Athenian proponent, of whom more will be said) began to break down almost before it began has been a troubling and baffling fact for historians ever since. Roberts’s own take is something like an inverted great man theory of history. Time and again, it is the personal vanities and failings of individual leaders, and their capacity to drag whole states along with them, that move forward the progress toward war. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this reading is that no real differentiation is drawn between the bellicose propensity of Athens or Sparta: democracy or monarchy, oligarch or radical, all are merely details. No political system or historical force is strong enough to hold back a charismatic leader in the mood to raise hell.

And lord knows the next man to enter the stage had charisma to spare. Young, beautiful, irresistible to men and women alike, Alcibiades was the brightest young thing in wartime Athens. The nephew and ward of the late Pericles, he had ample money, pedigree, connections to ascend the top of democratic politics. As time would reveal, he also had enough reckless willfulness and narcissistic self-regard to doom all his own best intentions. Even the ancient biographer Plutarch found it hard to understand why Alcibiades’ fame had ever reached the heights in did: he credited the young man’s celebrated friendship with the philosopher Socrates, of whom he was both a somewhat desultory student and a would-be lover. Indeed, the modern historian Donald Kagan (whose own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian war remains the go-to English analysis of the conflict) dismisses Alcibiades as little more than a glory-hound and mountebank, whose only real gift was for talking up his own imagined accomplishments. Roberts, for her part, isn’t quite so merciless, but she has little enough regard for the boy’s capacities:

Alcibiades was barely out of toddlerhood when his father Cleinias died and family connections placed him in Pericles’ home. The raising of this hellion proved no mean task, and Pericles was either unwilling or unable to engage with the incorrigible youth. But as Alcibiades contemplated Pericles and the regard in which he was held, a question began to form in his mind: “Could I be like that some day?”

No, he couldn’t, for it would have taken a self-discipline for which charm was no substitute. Still, he was determined to try.

What he had in mind was a bold stroke against Sparta by attacking the enemy’s allies far to the west in Sicily. The specific goals of the expedition were vague: ostensibly, the Athenians were intervening in a minor squabble between allied cities, but the assembly seems to have understood that the huge and mighty city of Syracuse was the real goal. In any event, Alcibiades got his fleet, only to be taken off guard by a surprising twist. One night, shortly before the expedition was due to leave, a wave of vandalism struck at Athens’ herms — stone carvings of the god Hermes, meant to symbolize luck and fertility. Under the circumstances, tongues began to wag: hadn’t Alcibiades been known to mock the gods, and lampoon the sacred festivals of Athens? Hadn’t he been the student of that notorious god-doubter Socrates? Shortly after the ships left port, a messenger was sent racing toward Sicily to command Alcibiades to return to Athens under arrest pending trial. Alcibiades, not surprisingly, went AWOL.

That left the expedition in the hands of old Nicias, the timid, conservative general who had been responsible for the abortive peace with Sparta. Not surprisingly, Nicias had argued against a renewed war in the first place, and now seemed less than eager to press forward with his assignment. For months, nothing was heard back in Athens. Eventually a message was received from the general: things were going poorly, and reinforcements were needed.These were sent, and months passed again.

When news at last trickled in, it was nearly unbelievable. Of the more than 12,000 men and 200 triremes to set out for Sicily, hardly a single man remained alive. Roberts describes the tectonic effects of the slaughter:

The dramatic news from Sicily electrified the Greek world. The Peloponnesians were filled with hope that they might make fast work of a gravely compromised enemy, while the Athenians’ imperial subjects — especially the oligarchically inclined — smelled blood and began to plot rebellion from their weakened hegemon. In Athens itself, the mood was grim; indeed, at first the news was so awful that it was not even believed. But as soldiers who had escaped the fighting arrived at the city and confirmed the worst, the dismal truth could no longer be denied. The citizens were enraged at the politicians who had promoted the expedition — as if they had not voted for it themselves, Thucydides points out — and at the soothsayers who had encouraged them to hope for success in Sicily…

In these heady first weeks after the Syracusans’ stunning victory, Athens’ enemies thought there was nothing they could not do, and Athens feared there was nothing they would not do.

They were right to be worried. For one thing, Alcibiades had by now turned up, to no one’s surprise, in Sparta, where, dressed in a shabby cloak and doing his best to out-Spartan the Spartans, the veteran hustler had sold the enemy on a foolproof plan to beat the Athenians. First, mount a continuous occupation of the Attic countryside. Second, build a navy, and encourage revolts among the Athenian’s imperial allies. And finally, most shockingly, accept the aid of the bete noir of the whole Greek world, the Great King of Persia, eager to deal a blow against the uppity navy of Athens.

Thus, the tide of war swiftly turned in the Spartans’ favor. And the first victim was Athenian democracy itself. Always, there had been those who had doubted the wisdom of popular rule. After all, those petty shopkeepers and penniless sailors had been the men who backed Pericles and Alcibiades, and entangled the Athenians in this quagmire to begin with. Why not return the government to cooler, better-bred, more refined heads? These were the thoughts of a growing clique of well-placed generals and aristocrats, meeting in clubs called hetairiai, and calmly plotting the rollback of people-power. In this they were tacitly backed by — who else? — Alcibiades, who had swiftly made an enemy of his Spartan hosts by publicly conducting a love affair with the Spartan king’s wife. By 411 B.C., with Athens in a state of desperation, they were ready to ask the assembly to vote away its right to vote.

Although the assembly and the Council continued to meet, they deliberated only on proposals that had been approved by the inner circle, and only the oligarchs spoke: anyone who offered an opposing view “conveniently turned up dead.” Peisander [a local oligarch] and his fellow conspirators soon arranged for a meeting of the citizens not on the Pnyx but in Colonus, a deme outside the city. There, having dispensed with the graphe paranomon (indictment against illegal proposals), they abolished the existing government and replaced it with a body of Four Hundred to govern with full powers…Not long afterward, the Four Hundred, armed with daggers and backed up by a body of a hundred thugs whom they kept ready to hand for occasions when violence was called for, entered the council chamber with pay for the members of the sitting Council and told the Councilmen to take their pay and go home.

They took their pay and went home.

The rule of the Four Hundred lasted less than three months, but it turned out to be only the prelude before the main event. In 405 B.C. then entire Athenian fleet was surprised and demolished by the sleek, new Spartan navy, and the end had become inevitable. As flute girls danced in firelight to welcome the Spartan victors, Spartan soldiers pulled down the hated long walls of Athens, and the even more hated democracy. Once again, oligarchs ruled, this time a gang of thirty led by another of Socrates’ students, Critias. Swiftly, the Thirty set to work undermining the political mechanisms of Athens, in ways both blunt and subtle:

Not surprisingly, the Thirty promptly put an end to the popular courts. They also reconfigured the hill of the Pnyx, the base of political power for what it considered the “naval mob,” so that the podium no longer faced the sea. Now it faced inland — and accommodated fewer people. Realizing they were making themselves unpopular, the oligarchs soon sent for a Spartan garrison, offering to pay for it themselves…now the Thirty needed money to reimburse the exiles and pay back the Spartan garrison. At first they had used their power to get rid of blackmailers and informers, but now they moved on to executing others as well. Not all victims were citizens who could possibly have been perceived as political enemies; a large number were wealthy metics [non-citizen immigrants] whose money they coveted. Before long they had killed no fewer than 1,500 men.

And what of Alcibiades? Seeing the writing on the wall, he fled east to Asia, hoping to try his luck at the Persian court. One night, shortly after Athens fell, he awoke in his house to the smell of burning timbers, and found himself surrounded by a raging fire. Naked, dagger in hand, his bedsheets wrapped around his arm to shield him from the flames, he rushed outside, only to be brought down in a hail of arrows. Officially, the death was chalked up to family feud over a love affair. Even at the time, nobody believed it.

Still, the war didn’t end. The Thirty were eventually, bloodily overthrown in their turn, and democracy restored. The city states of Greece fought another general war, and then another, all well recounted by Roberts. But the real damage had already been done. Never again could the Greek cities truly believe in the perfection and stability of their constitutions. No matter how happy the democracy, there would always be a coup or a traitor — a haunting shadow of Critias and his Thirty — waiting in the wings. Crisis and civil strife (what the Greeks called stasis) was no longer a preventable condition, but a sad inevitability. The final casualty of the war between Athens and Sparta was the Greeks’ faith in their own civilization.

Jennifer Roberts surely did not intend to write a parable for the modern age, having begun her book some time before America unhappily made way for a Critias of its own. Nevertheless, in telling a story of men who uprooted a vibrant and dynamic society, and of norms and institutions that were ultimately powerless to stop them, that is precisely what she has done. Time and again, Roberts argues against a deterministic theory of history: the notion that wars and coups were all necessitated by the forces of history. Rather, she reminds us, it was the choices of individual actors that made the difference.

When the Athenians awoke the morning after sentencing the men of Mytilene to death, they had the presence of mind to dispatch a messenger and revoke their mistake. The messenger, alas, doesn’t always make it in time.

Zach Rabiroff is an Editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.

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