I made the generalization that the story of Athens in the 5th century BC (more specifically, from the end of the Persian war in 479 BC until the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC) has both tragic elements and the elements of a real tragedy, elements that show forth particularly clearly in the pages of Thucydides.  The last set of lecture notes looked at the first two plays of our tragic tetralogy, first the rise of Athens immediately after the Persian War, then the transformation of the Delian League into an empire. 

Thinking or this period in dramatic terms, one might divide things up as follows:

The Rise of the Delian League (479-460):  Athens is ashes, but rises from those ashes to lead Greece to victory after victory, liberating the Ionians.  The climax: the great victory of Cimon at Eurymedon.

The Wars of Pericles (468-445): Athens begins turning the Delian League into an Athenian empire.  Democracy is complete, the Athenian economy and Athenian culture boom.  Athens suffers a setback, but is still well off after a compromise treaty with Sparta, etc.

The Archidamian War (431-421): The first part of the Peloponnesian War proper. Athens is aggressive, breaks the treaties, has considerable success, but suffers a setback.  A compromise treaty leaves the Athenians well off.

The Decelean War  (420-404):  Athens is aggressive, breaks its treaties, has considerable success, but suffers a disaster.

All wars have two kinds of causes: underlying causes and immediate causes.  Underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War include fear and jealousy of Athens and ongoing economic rivalry between Athens and city-states like Megara and Corinth.

Immediate causes include:
•    Athens interference in a dispute between Corcyra, a Corinthian colony, and Corinth itself over policy in Epidamnus.
•    Athenians interference in Potidaea, another Corinthian colony
•    The Megarian decrees, an Athenian measure banning the Megarians from trading in any port controlled by Athens.
By 432, Athenians expansion was becoming worrisome, and Sparta’s allies insist on a conference to discuss the issue at Sparta.  Sparta’s allies push for an immediate declaration of war.  Sparta is reluctant to do so.  One of the Spartan Kings, Archidamus, warns that a war with Athens would likely be a long, drawn-out affair.  He notes that all wars are chancy affairs.  Nevertheless, Sparta agrees to give Athens an ultimatum: rescind the Megarian decrees and lift the siege of Potidea, or we’re headed to war.

The Athenians are eager for war.  Pericles tells them war will come eventually anyway, and there’s no time like the present: Athens is in an advantageous position.  So the war begins.

Year one: the Spartans invade Attica, but Pericles’ has the Athenians retreat behind their walls, making up for their devastated fields by importing everything they need.  Meanwhile, the Thebans attack Plataea, an Athenian ally.  The Thebans, with the help of Plataean traitors, take the city.  But when the Plataeans realize how small the attacking army really is, they turn on the occupiers and slaughter them.  Thebes is really mad.

Year two: the Spartans attack Plataea, giving the Plataeans a chance to surrender.  The Plataeans count on promises of Athenian help, and they are determined to fight.  They don’t get the help, and they hold out for a long time.  But, finally, they have to capitulate—and the Spartans show them no mercy at all.

Meanwhile, Athens is having major troubles.  Plague breaks out in the city, killing 1/3 of the population and leading to lawlessness, immorality, and loss of religious faith.  Pericles himself dies of the plague eventually, and, without his leadership, the democratic element of the population begins to follow less moderate figures like Cleon.

One of Athens allies, Mytilene, revolts.  The angry Athenians attack the city, capture it, and then have to decide what to do.  Cleon proposes making them an example: kill all the men, sell all the women and children into slavery.  The ecclesia votes for just that.  But, after a night’s sleep, they regret the decision, and at a new meeting of the ecclesia, they rescind he harsh decree.  Fortunately, a new set of messengers gets to Mytilene in time to prevent the blood-bath.

Political tensions within Athens are high.  A real problem is that the democratic element and the aristocratic element want really different things.  In general, the democrats want an aggressive foreign policy.  The aristocrats (like Nicias) want peace and a good relationship with Sparta.  But the generals come from the aristocratic element—and that makes the aggressive policy favored by the democrats hard to maintain.  Pericles, from an old, wealthy family with plenty of military leadership experience had been what the democrats needed.  The new leaders (like Cleon) didn’t have the military experience.    

Cleon still finds it easy to criticize.  The generals are dragging their feet, he says.  Why haven’t they brought the siege of Pylos to a successful conclusion?  They aren’t trying.  Put me in charge, and I could take the place in three weeks.

Of course, the aristocrats see their chance.  The urge a vote to give Cleon command at Pylos—and Cleon can hardly refuse the assignment.  And what happens?

Well, he does it.  Within three weeks, Pylos does fall to the Athenians.  Of course, Cleon has a bit of help from Demosthenes, a more experienced general, but he’s scored both a military and a political victory.  He’ll get that aggressive foreign policy he wants—though he’ll continue to be hindered by his political opponents back home.  Sparta also isn’t as committed to supporting its commanders the way it should.

In 421, forces led by Cleon and by the Spartan general Brasidas meet head to head.  Both men are undercut, and both die.  Time to make peace!

The Peace of Nicias (421) was supposed to last for 50 years.  It lasted for one year—and really not even for that.  Even though Athens and Sparta don’t fight directly, there’s lots of other conflict going on.

Athens resumes its aggressor role with the rise of Alcibiades.  Alcibiades was a strange figure in more ways than one.  Apparently very good looking, he courted and was courted by both men and women.  He was a student and friend of Socrates (whom he wanted as a lover!)  He was a brilliant general and, though from an old aristocratic family, he favored the same aggressive policy as the democrats of Athens wanted.

But Nicias was going to oppose and aggressive policy, and, even if the war element got the policies it wanted, it was going to be hard to win the war with divided counsels.  

Athens had a way of resolving the divided counsel thing: ostracism.  Hyperbolos (the new Cleon, a pre-war democratic Athenian demagogue) wanted to get rid of Nicias.  He figured that his supporters and Alcibiades supports could team up and ostracize Nicias.  Didn’t work.  Alcibiades told his supporters to put Hyperbolos name on the ostraca, so who ends up ostracized?  Hyperbolos.  And now Alcibiades has sole leadership of the pro-war, democratic element.

Despite the opposition of Nicias, Alcibiades gets the aggressive policy he wants.  Among other targets, the Athenians now attack Melos, trying to force this neutral city-state to join their side.  In 416, Melos capitulates.  What is to be done?  The Athenians assembly votes to kill all the men and sell all the women and children into slavery.  This time, there is no reprieve.

Our hero Athenians appear to have entirely lost their morals: an their minds as well.  They now set out to attack Syracuse, a city-state on the island of Sicily.  The put Alcibiades in charge of the attack, but, not entirely trusting him, they want a more reliable man to exercise a moderating influence.  They send Nicias!

Shortly after the expedition sets out, Alcibiades faces judicial charges in abstentia. Someone had mutilated the hermae, phallic good luck symbols prominent in Athens, and Alcibiades got the blame.  This was a serious religion offense, and when Alcibiades figures out what’s going on, he abandons the fleet, takes refuge in Sparta, and gives the Spartans a potentially winning strategy, fortifying Decela (an outpost near Athens) and using that outpost to subdues the city.  But he apparently seduces the wife of the Spartan king, and he has to leave Sparta too.

Meanwhile, the Athenians, instead of calling their fleet home, continue the attack on Syracuse under the reluctant command of Nicias.  A recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what the Athenians get: a terrible defeat.

At Athens itself, the Aristocratic element takes advantage of the disaster to seize power, setting up an oligarchic government, 400 aristocrats (including Theramenes) who will now run the government.  The pro-democratic group sets up a rival government at Samos, and, for three months, it looks as if the Athenians are going to fight a civil war.  But that isn’t going to happen just yet.  Both sides agree to a compromise government, 5000 Athenians (including Theramenes) who will oversee Athenian affairs.  As part of the compromise, Alcibiades is allowed to return to Athens.  Sparta wants peace at this point, and it should have been time to bring the war to an end.

But our heroes haven’t quite learned their lesson yet.  With Alcibiades in command once again, Athens has a series of victories, but after a setback (not really his fault), he ends up exiled again—this time fleeing to the Persians.

No matter.  Athens has other generals, and in 406 BC, these generals win a great victory at Arginusae.  As the generals pursue their defeated foes, they leave behind ships to rescue Athenians who had been on Athenians ships wrecked at Arginusae.  Unfortunately, a storm comes up and many of the shipwrecked sailors died.  News gets back to Athens: but there were perhaps some unnecessary deaths.  So the Athenian assembly votes to hold the generals responsible, voting to put them to death!  Among those executed, Pericles’s son.  

Athens still has one decent general left, Conon.  But in 404, the Spartan general Lysander catches Conon off-guard and destroys the Athenian fleet.  Without supremacy on the seas, Athens is doomed.  The Spartans can now take the Piraeus (the harbor of Athens), and now a siege will work.  Athens can’t supply itself from overseas anymore. After seven months, they surrender.

The Thebans and Corinthians want Athens destroyed, or at least punished severely.  The Spartans aren’t so vengeful, though.  Athens’ wall have to go, and a government sympathetic to Sparta will rule (the 30 tyrants), but there aren’t the reprisals one might have expected.

Something of a Catharsis here?  Well, perhaps.