The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.
The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.
To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.
Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.
The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.
Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.
One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.
Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.
Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/