Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Thucydides' Clusterfuck of History

A while back, I posted about finally finishing Herodotus. It seemed natural to follow up with Thucydides and his histories of the Peloponnesian Wars. Here's what I learned: if I thought the ancient Greeks were capable of pettiness, spite, jealousy, greed, and short-sightedness after reading Herodotus, I think it all the more so after reading Thucydides.

This is a historian, however, who set a standard for accuracy and (for the most part) objective reporting that later writers would think of as the proper way to write "history." Thucydides is a great source for the Peloponnesian War (a 30-year conflict between Athens and Sparta and their many allies). Why? He was actually there. Several times he refers to himself in the third person, and doesn't even try to defend his actions (well, not much, anyway) when he describes losing a battle and being ostracized (10-year banishment) for it. He knew most of the major players personally. Despite what seems today like his dry style - and I'm told it's dry compared to the flowery Herodotus, even in Greek - I felt as if I was there in the action throughout the book.

The problem for me was the bewildering array of ancient place names. The byzantine (pun intended) relationships between this and that city-state were very difficult to keep track of, and I was obliged to look at the helpful footnotes to keep me on track.

I also lost a lot of respect for the ancient Greeks. Obviously, we owe much of our western culture to them, as transmitted to us through Rome and its institutions. Even today, our capitol buildings, museums and other important public structures harken, design-wise, to those ancient days. But the Peloponnesian Wars wasted the civilization. By the end of it, the bright light of Athenian-style democracy (that is, voting rights for land-owning adult males) was snuffed out, largely through the fickleness, jealousy, and myopic foreign policy of the people themselves. Sparta won that war because Athens lost it - that, and the treachery of Alcibiades, which you can read about here.

Essentially, the war goes like this: the Greeks fight off an attack by the Persian Empire (which is told in Herodotus). The city-state of Athens is more-or-less in the right place at the right time to claim (with some justice) the lion's share of the credit in this endeavor. Afterward, they throw their weight around and establish an empire, primarily based among the islands of Ionia between Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey). Sparta is alarmed by this. Sparta prefers government by the few (oligarchy) and abhors what they view as the mob-rule that runs Athens. They figure that if they don't put Athens down now, they might never get to. But this talk of "freedom" was just a pretext. Corinth, Argos, and other cities were jealous of Athens, fearful of them, and sought Sparta's help. For the next 10 years there's a lot of back-and-forth, meaningless deaths, wasted cities and countryside. Both sides are relieved when the Athenian general Nicias brokers a peace treaty. But Alcibiades the Athenian is irritated by this. He rocks the boat, ensures that the Spartan ambassadors look bad, and derails the peace treaty. Then he convinces Athens to launch an invasion of Sicily that turns out to be utterly catastrophic. The Athenians lose their cool and it all goes downhill from there. Eventually, with the help of the Persian fleet, Sparta puts down Athens, and that city never again attains the glory it once had. Sparta more-or-less unifies Greece, in fact if not in name, under its leadership. This makes it all too easy for Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander (the Great, that is) from conquering Greece a generation later.

The most important fact I took away from the book is just that - that the Peloponnesian Wars effectively destroyed the glory of ancient Greece. Hellenistic culture would still thrive, and Alexander would spread it far into Asia, setting the stage for later conquests by Rome. But political power in the Mediterranean never again went to Greece. It's the end of the "ancient Greece" chapter of human civilization, I guess.

Thucydides seems to realize this in a prophetic way. One of the major themes in the book is how "folks used to do stuff right, but now they don't." He points out when long-standing rules of war are broken, the effects of political corruption, and so on, insinuating that these are all relatively recent developments. He's also skeptical about the gods, if not an outright athiest (though I think he was) and isn't afraid to poo-poo the idea of divine oracles (a huge thing in ancient Greece). He even points out that the Spartans managed to successfully bribe the priestess at Delphi multiple times to deliver to the Athenians oracles of Spartan, not divine, inspiration. All of this, he seems to argue, point to that fact that the world he thinks he knows is going to pot.

My only gripe is that Thucydides seems to have died before he finished the book. His narrative cuts off toward the latter part of the war, as chaos reigns in the Aegean. Later, the exiled Athenian warrior Xenophon would continue the narrative in his Hellenica, which I have not read. Xenophon himself is a fascinating individual, and we'll get into him more later (because I've finished reading his "Anabasis" as well). 

At any rate, I don't know if this is everyone's idea of relaxing reading. But it certainly kept my attention, the way any good piece of writing should. If I lost some respect for the ancient Greeks along the way, well, so be it.

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