Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How War Destroyed Democracy in Athens

How War Destroyed Democracy in Athens
Zach Foster

Abstract: What does prolonged war do to a democracy of, by, and for the people? It kills the people and replaces democracy with rule by a small clique. This paper compares Pericles' vision of enlightened democracy with some of the Athenian atrocities in the Peloponnesian War and at home.

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War remains one of the most important books ever written.  It remains so not simply for being the first history book written with scientific methodology, nor just for being a thorough record of one of the most influential conflicts in world history, but also because the narrative preserves a wealth of political ideas of the day.  The History offers readers a glimpse at various competing political ideologies that, oddly, seemed to thrive and wither away simultaneously.  Thucydides' narrative forever preserves various glimpses through time that reveal the triumphs of political ideas in their societies, and also the times when ideas on democracy and justice were twisted by war-weary populations who, in the name of defending or enforcing said ideas, betrayed them.  This is especially true of Athens, and the evolution (or devolution?) of Athenian political ideas during the war will be the main focus of this paper.
One point of confusion for many novice students of Thucydides is the constant inclusion of dialogues, speeches, and elaboration of political ideas.  They may wonder, What does this have to do with the war between Greek states?  This issue is put into context by a Prussian general who wrote, "...War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means" [emphasis added]; In simpler terms, war is politics through organized violence (Clausewitz 1.24).  This point adds fresh context to the Athenians pursuing war as zealously as the Spartans.
One of the most famous political speeches of all time is the funeral oration by Pericles, delivered at the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, and a very trying year for Athens.  It is easy enough to identify the signs of a wartime speech, and the reader may find a delicate balance between the nationalist overtones of the speech and a reverence for the war dead.  The funeral oration could be compared to the speeches delivered by President George W. Bush and numerous other American politicians following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  After a difficult year saturated with death and destruction, Pericles finds it necessary to remind the downhearted Athenians just what it is for which the fallen have fought.
"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states... If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity... nor again does poverty bar the way" (Thucydides 2.37).  Pericles not only praises the pillars of Athenian democracy--constitutional law, equal rights for citizens, merit-based advancement, etc.--but does so while comparing the virtues of Athens to the un-democratic ways of her enemies.  Pericles follows by praising and uplifting the memory of the fallen.  "Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face... So died these men as became Athenians" (Thucydides 2.42-43).  Pericles skillfully praises everything that makes Athens "good" while comparing it all to the depredations that make her enemies "evil."
Pericles also glorifies the dead for their courage, and understanding their sacrifice at the moment in which it was made.  Therefore, they are no longer soldiers killed in war, hardly different from the fallen of the many other wars of antiquity, but rather they are the heroes who make possible Athenian democracy.  Pericles immediately follows this praise with an exhortation of the public.  The Athenian public now has a responsibility to not only uphold the values for which the soldiers died, thereby saving the sacrifices from vanity, but also to continue the war.  Explicit in the exhortation is the public responsibility to pursue the war for democracy, and implicit is the non-negotiable necessity for victory.  These traditions and ideas expounded by Pericles would seem to fade from the forefront as the war would drag on.
A decade of war changed attitudes among Athenian and Spartan leadership.  Thucydides describes the major defeats suffered by Athens at Thessaly, Delium, and Amphipalis, thus shaking the Athenians' confidence in their ability to win the war, all this after years of refusing treaties.  On the other side, the course of the war showed the Spartans that this was not to be the quick, easy victory for which they had hoped, and they were faced with the danger of their confederacy dissolving and revolutions in their colonies (Thucydides 5.13).  The concessions made during the peace essentially undermine everything for which the two sides had fought.  Both sides agreed to return nearly all conquered territories.  For Sparta, which was not a democracy, the peace represents more of a military defeat than a political one, as they simply lose conquered territories.  For Athens, which was a democracy but also an empire, much more is at stake.  The Athenian conquests represent new territories which would participate in democracy and the amazing ways of daily life exclusive to Athens.  Therefore, the Athenian cession represents the conquered territories being deprived of the sublime gift of becoming Athenian.  Furthermore, the terms of the peace treaty in no way resemble the victory for which Pericles implicitly exhorts his countrymen.
Prolonged war demonstrates a strange turn of events by the sixteenth year of the war.  The Melian dialogue, between Athens and the leaders of Melos, stands out just as sharply as Pericles' funeral oration.  The most noticeable difference in the context is that the latter deals with democracy whereas the former deals with the ideas of justice, but both have much to do with what is considered good and right.  The Athenians spend the majority of the dialogue trying to persuade the Melians to surrender their city to Athenian occupation, the penalty for refusal being Biblical destruction.  The Melians' arguments against Athenian subjugation center around Melos' right to remain neutral in the war, despite having paid tribute to Sparta as a colonial obligation (Thucydides 5.89-94).
The Athenian response to Melos: "As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea" (Thucydides 5.97).  To put it in plain language, might makes right, and the might of the Athenian empire gives them the right to subjugate smaller states.  Democracy technically favors the will of a majority over the will of a minority, and the Athenian Greeks hold a numerical majority over the Melian Greeks, therefore democracy could still be considered to be in practice during the impending subjugation of Melos.  However, the "democratic" spirit prevalent in the Melian dialogue  starkly contracts with the more enlightened, gentler, more liberal version of democracy expounded by Pericles.
The culmination of Athenians' betrayal of democratic ideals is displayed in Book 8 with the oligarchs' coup in Athens.  In the very first year of the war, Pericles exhorts his countrymen to pursue the war because the first year's dead fought for sublime Athenian democracy.  In the twentieth year of the war, the coup of the Four Hundred immediately culminates in a failed attempt to secure Persian support for Athens, in order to tilt the balance of power against Sparta and perhaps bring a speedier end to the war (Thucydides 8.49-54).  The coup against the democracy may be the greatest betrayal of Athenian ideals during the entire war.  Apart from the betrayal of democracy, the oligarchs quickly sue for peace with Sparta, therefore abandoning the crusade their countrymen had so long held to be noble.  Without a doubt, the oligarchs were doing what they believed was necessary to save Athens.  However, in order to save Athens, they abandoned the very system that made Athens exceptional.

Works Cited
Clausewitz, C. (author), Graham, J. (translator). (1874 [1832]). On War. Project Gutenberg. Accessed 29 January 2014 from
Thucydides (author), Crawley, R. (translator). (1903 [411 BC]).  The History of the Peloponnesian War.  Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed 29 January 2014 from

* * * 

This paper is published online under the Creative Commonsa Attribution License 3.0:
Spartans in battle sketch courtesy of Startanusm Wikispace.  Athenian trireme and marines painting courtesy of Igor Dzis. Thucydides bust photo and quote courtesy of Rugusavay dot com.  The images used on this page fall under fair use law and are not included in the CC BY 3.0 license.

No comments:

Post a Comment