GREECE IN THE 4th CENTURY
“Freedom” is a magical sort of a word, and idea that inspires men everywhere, an idea for which many will many will sacrifice their lives. “Give me liberty, or give me death,” said Patrick Henry, a sentiment the Greeks would certainly have understood (cf., the Spartan comments about freedom to the Persians).
Freedom is sweet, but freedom has a price. Unless one behaves well toward others, people do not deserve freedom, and things seem to be so constructed that men that don’t use their freedom properly do lose their freedom. I taught be grandson Kenneth that quite early: abuse your freedom, and you lose your freedom.
This is the story of the Greeks of the period following the Peloponnesian War. They did not behave in a manner appropriate to free people and, it’s not surprising they lost their freedom. Major failings include the ways they conducted their wars and the ways they conducted their internal politics. There was no regard to just conduct in war and no attempt to insist there had a been a just cause for war in the first place. All’s fair in love and war? Well, it’s not.
[Note that the events of this period are well described in Xenophon’s Hellenica. Plutarch’s much later work also is useful.]
The period here is a period of constant warfare among the Greeks—nothing completely new. But both the external wars and the internal civil wars are bloodier than ever, dominated by the “might make right” principle.
One example: Athens.
In 404 BC, Athens had surrendered to the Spartans. The walls had been torn down, and a new government sympathetic to Sparta took control (the “30 Tyrants”). Theramenes once again played a leading role: he seems to have been pretty adaptable, earning the nickname “the buskin” (a stage-show that could be worn on either foot. The dominant figure, though, was Critias: a philosopher/sophist/poet/playwright from an old Aristocratic family. He was certainly capable, but absolutely ruthless.
Critias’ proposed killing metics (wealthy resident aliens) to raise enough money to pay Spartan mercenaries to keep the 30 in power. Theramenes opposed Critias on this and on other issues—and, at Critias insistence, he was going to be put on trial for a kind of treason. Critias. The trial wasn’t go to go the way that Critias wanted, so he struck Theramenes name from the 3000 (the citizens that still had fundamental rights under the 30 Tyrants) and condemned Theramenes to death. Theramenes drank the Hemlock, pouring out the last drops “to that dear fellow Critias,” a clever variation on the usual custom of pouring out the last drops to a dear one.
Meanwhile, Thrasybulos raises an army to try to restore Democracy to Athens, and it looks like there will be a blood-bath similar to the civil war in Corcyra. But Spartan mediation reconciles the two sides. Democracy is restored to Athens, Athens begins to rebuild, and the economy begins to bounce back.
With problems in Greece seemingly resolved, Sparta, under king Agesilaos, no longer needs its Persian alliance, and it can now resume its role as champion of the Ionian Greeks. Agesilaos takes an army to Ionia and wins some impressive victories. Agesilaos might have conquered the Persians, but, instead he was defeated by 10,000 Persian archers.
No, not bowmen—coins. The Persians paid the Thebans to break their alliance with Sparta, and Corinth too turned on its old ally. The Athenians (ungrateful wretches) didn’t need Persian gold to turn on Sparta. Lysander was killed, and, since the Spartans needed a skilled commander, Agesilaos had to abandon Ionia and return to Greece.
The war was a miserable affair, with pro-Spartan and anti-Spartans in each city just waiting for an opportunity to get the upper hand, slaughter their opponents, and take over.
Agesilaos won on land, but the rise of peltasts (professional javelin throwers) was beginning to undermine Spartan invincibility in combat. And on the seas, Sparta had troubles.
Ultimately, the fight came to an end with the King’s Peace (387 BC)—named the king’s peace not because of Agesilaos, but because the Persian king essentially determined the terms! All Greek leagues were broken up except the Spartan league, but no further attempts to liberate Ionia would be allowed. Essentially, the Spartans gave up Ionia for military supremacy in Greece. They didn’t really have much choice. Athens had rebuilt its walls, and, with Thebes hostile, Sparta couldn’t afford overseas wars.
But perhaps the Theban problem could be dealt with. In 382, pro-Spartans in Thebes, with Spartan help, seized the Theban citadel, and from there asserted their dominance of the city. Many in Greece were please, and the orator Iscorates encouraged the Greeks to get behind Sparta and go after the real enemy, Persia.
But this was not to be. In 379 BC, Pelopidas and Epaminondas, two Theban patriots, led a coup against the pro-Spartan government. Sparta then attacked—and Thebes was in trouble. 11,000 Spartans under King Cleombrotus met up with 6000 Thebans at Leuctra. But Epaminondas turned out to be a military genius. His oblique order of attack coupled with skilled use of peltasts and cavalry enabled him to slaughter the Spartans. Pelopidas and his Sacred Band (300 elite Theban soldiers who swore never to a victory or death creed) helped turn the tables.
Epaminondas and Pelopidas were great heroes! But their reward was to be put on trial for staying in the field beyond their officially authorized time of command. They were acquitted, but still!!!
Anyway, the world had been turned upside down. The Spartans had lost, and now a confident Thebes goes on the offensive. At the battle of Mantinea (362), they again decisively beat the Spartans, this time fighting on Sparta’s home turf in the Peloponnesian peninsulas. But, unfortunately for Thebes, Epaminondas was killed in the fighting, and, without his leadership, the brief period of Theban hegemony had come to an end. Xenophon notes that this battle should have been decisive, but that Greek affairs ended up more uncertain than ever.
Sparta was devastated.
Agesilaos, at 84 years old (!) takes the field once again, this
heading to Egypt to aid a revolt against the Persians—but, really, more
to earn enough money to restore the totally depleted Spartan treasury.
Other things are breaking down as well. In 399 BC, the restored Athenian democracy decides to put Socrates on trial for corrupting the youth and atheism, teaching gods other than those approved by the government. He's condemned to drink hemlock.
In a healthy, confident society, this
kind of thing doesn't happen. But Athens in particular and Greece
as a whole isn't healthy. One sign of this: the continued break
down of family life.
Marriage becomes even less important
to men except for the purpose of fathering an heir. So… so what
happens to a primary means of ending internal and external
disputes? Marriage unifies not just individuals but families….
And it’s certainly possible that we have here both cause and symptom of
social disunity. And if people aren’t unified?
Well, a house divided against itself cannot stand: an outside invader is going to take over.