Tireless History

“I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” ~ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.22

QUITE AN AMBITIOUS task he set for himself. But then, an inherent duty of all historians may be to give to all time. Thus, I will humbly attempt to suss out some contemporary parallels for Thucydides’ fine work on the first recorded “World War” between Athens and Sparta. I’ll leave the final answers to you. But first, we must add some enriching background detail to Thucydides’ subject.


After repelling the Persian attack on the Greek mainland, the Greeks formed the Delian League in 478 BC to contribute to a common standing naval defense against further Persian incursion. Athens, by far the strongest member city of the Delian League, lusted to transform the league into an Athenian Empire.

(Here an implicit question springs up: When and why do Democracies become Empires?)

The Athenian Empire: Creating the Athenian Empire

Over the next few decades, Athens succeeded in creating its own Empire from the ashes of a willing coalition. Athens took many of the member cities’ ships as tribute and so amassed an enormous standing navy.

And eventually, under Pericles, Athens moved the common treasury of the league from the island of Delos over to Athens and proceeded to use the vast majority of forced tribute from the member states to build such luminary monuments as the Parthenon. This imperial swagger angered many of the Greek cities, including Sparta, which had the strongest land-army in Greece.

On top of worrying Sparta herself, Athens deeply offended the two key Spartan allies of Corinth and Megara. First, Athens prevented the Corinthian invasion of Corcyra. Then, she placed economic sanctions on the key city of Megara, which sat on the only landbridge between Athens and Sparta.

Wary of encroaching Empire and insulted by offenses to its allies, what could Sparta do?

Attack the Attican lands surrounding Athens. So started the war – but let’s take a look at its eventual end.

Fast forward through many deadly battles and a failed peace. Neither of these powers can concede to a mutually compromising truce. After a grueling 27 years, Athens finally lost, nearly starving and without a navy.

And the main factor in their eventual defeat is widely seen as the failed Sicilian expedition. 17 years into the war, Athens made the decision to attack the Sicilian city of Syracuse, a Spartan ally over 1,000 miles away. Ironically, Syracuse was the second largest democratic city in the world.

A young, brash general named Alcibiades was the main catalyst for this expedition. He may have wanted to harness and surpass the Imperial notions of the great Pericles, who died from the plague early on in the war. Alcibiades headed up the enormous expedition along with Nicias, a pious and more responsible general who might buffer the young and impetuous Alcibiades. A third general, Lamachus, rounded out the trio of command.

If Athens could take Syracuse, and then the entire island of Sicily, she could subsume an enormous navy and pilfer enough riches to allow for a virtually eternal war with Sparta.

And, of course, the second largest democracy in the world makes a fine addition to any grasping Empire.

But the Sicilian expedition turned into an enormous failure.

Here’s a quick rundown of why…Athens called Alcibiades back to face impiety charges early in the expedition. Fearing execution or ostracism, he turned traitor and sailed over to Sparta to inform them of the details of the expedition he engineered. Naturally, Sparta headed over to protect Syracuse and thwart Athenian imperialism. Nicias and Lamachus hesitated in key points of battle, due to indecision and superstition, and key points of advantage slipped through their fingers. And finally, right before the Athenians could finish a wall that would choke off Syracuse, the Spartan force arrived. Nicias and Lamachus both died in the ensuing battles. The Spartans blockaded the Athenian navy in the port and crushed the entire fleet. Half of the Athenian navy was lost, and almost 5,000 of their troops.

This crushing defeat was the catalyst for another ten grueling years of war. And finally, after losing all but twelve of their ships at the battle of Aegospotami, the Athenians starved under a Spartan blockade. So they surrendered to the Spartans in 404 BC.

The Athenian Empire: The Nature of the War at Hand

Why did the Athenians lose the war? Trying to answer that question might be valuable to those living or ruling in a democracy. Could we learn something about our present war?

First we must try to understand the nature of the war at hand – what are the strengths and weaknesses of our enemies? Those questions are difficult and complex, but we have three angles to attack them from:

1) We can try to understand the political structures of the belligerents
2) We can try to understand the structure of the international environment
3) We can try to understand the goals of the belligerents, and how they will try to achieve those goals

Was the restless and overreaching spirit of Athens unique? Or is it a symptom of mature democracies that turn toward Empire? Why expand the Empire through belligerence rather than looking to perfect the state inwardly? Expand for the sake of expansion itself? Can an Empire’s appetite ever have satiety, or does every morsel gulped induce a newer, more monstrous and uncontrollable hunger?

With Democracy and equality of opportunity sprouts a fertile hope. Hope to achieve more than you have, to achieve more than your forebears achieved for you, to achieve more and more so you can pass it on to your children. Add that to the Greek desire to have a Zeus-like dominion over everything, including the fellow gods, to the point of devouring them, eternally crippling them and maybe even raping their human wives. Quite savage to modern folk, but those “ugly ideals” formed a part of the Greek ethos.

Could it be that a voracious Democratic Empire might exhibit some Zeus-like thunderbolts?

I won’t answer the above questions in regard to present-day America. I leave that to you, if you’re interested. I merely peer backstage and rustle the curtains – you’re free to write or act in the play. As are G.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Ahmadinejad, Syria, Pakistan, Israel, etc.

“I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” ~ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.22

Greg Grillot

January 15, 2006

P.S. I thank Dr. Walling and Byron for asking me to analyze this ancient war and think these thoughts. But the above essay is my own interpretation, and those fellows hold no responsibility for it.
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