August 22, 2007


It's sad to realize that ancient Greek civilization self destructed at the height of its creativity, but that's pretty much what happened.

Fifty years after diverse city states united to fend of the massive Persian invasion, a war began between Athens and Sparta and their allies which would rage off an on for 27 years between 431 and 404 BC.

That was a long time ago but there's something modern about the war. It also had the first "modern" historian, the Athenian general Thucydides, who attempted to write a neutral and objective account of the debacle, although he died before he completed it. He was aiming for posterity, writing in it that

My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.

I don't know about the "forever" part but it has done pretty well for the last 2,400 years.

The story of this extended goat rope is long and complicated. Interested people not inclined to wade through Thucydides 600+ pages may want to check out some novels about it, such as Mary Renault's Last of the Wine and Steven Pressfield's Tides of War.

People often imagine it as a conflict between democratic Athens (the good guys) and authoritarian and militaristic Sparta (the bad guys), but that doesn't work very well. Both societies owned slaves. To the extent that Athens was democratic, it was very democratic, but Sparta itself had a mixed government that combined two kings with republican features such as a council of elders and a citizen's assembly. Spartan women were probably the freest in all Greece.

Athens was democratic but imperialist. Its empire began as a league against the Persians, with allied states contributing ships and men. It became an extractor of tribute. And while the Athenians often supported popular governments, they were not averse to massacring and enslaving those who resisted them.

Spartans were authoritarian and warlike but they disliked long wars and had no far flung imperial ambitions. They had long ago conquered neighboring Messinians who became an oppressed class of helots which might revolt at any time. Given the choice, Spartans didn't like to be away for too long.

The Athenian position was basically this: we got an empire by fair or foul means and we'd be stupid to give it up--deal with it. As Thucydides narrates it, an Athenian leader put it this way to Spartan envoys seeking a resolution of a dispute involving cities that attempted to revolt from Athens:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so--security, honor, and self-interest. And we are not the first to act this way. It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power.

Attitudes like that are not conducive to conflict resolution. The die was cast when the Athenians rejected arbitration. Sparta made the first military moves, but Athens seems to El Cabrero to be the moral aggressor.

And they would pay a terrible price.


More than half of top U.S. foreign policy experts oppose President George W. Bush’s troop increase as a strategy for stabilizing Baghdad, saying the plan has harmed U.S. national security, according to a new survey.As Congress and the White House await the September release of a key progress report on Iraq, 53 percent of the experts polled by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress said they now oppose Bush’s troop build-up.

Ninety-one percent believe the world has grown more dangerous for Americans and the United States, up 10 percent from February. More than 80 percent of the experts said they expected another major terrorist attack over the next decade. Fifty eight percent of those polled expected that the Middle East would still be reeling from the negative effects of the war a decade from now. Only 3 percent believed Iraq would be "beacon of democracy" in the next 10 years.

WE'LL CROSS THAT BRIDGE. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute focuses on declining investments in infrastructure, which can be lethal.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH DEPARTMENT. A Texas couple arrested for protesting at an appearance by President Bush in West Virginia in 2004 won $80,000 from the White House. What makes the whole thing really interesting is the administration's "sensitive" manual that provides instructions on how to stifle free speech.



brecht said...

Thanks for the interesting Greek history. That Athenian motto could have come from the U.S.A. in any recent decade.

I also like the distinction between healthy and unhealthy strife. Our present political and economic sytems seem to have lost track of it, aiming as they do for victory at any price.

El Cabrero said...

Thanks for the note! There is something eerily modern about that 2400 year old story.

And, yes, the good strife don't seem to pass this way much anymore.