May 28, 2022

1. Pericles

Previous discussions of Pericles:
May 14
May 21

At the end of the last issue, I said that the Athenian empire was at its peak in 457 BC. Here’s a map of that empire:

Would the Athenian empire be drawn to continually expand? Or could it achieve stability, stasis? When I discussed Roman history, I said that the Romans could never be satisfied with their borders:

Wherever the Roman border was, there were always people beyond the border who were tempted to raid Roman territory. The best way to prevent these raids was to conquer, colonize, and control the raiders’ lands. So the Romans were tempted to continually expand.... The Romans could never establish entirely secure borders, and they could never be entirely content with their borders.

The Athenians relied on wheat from Ukraine, so they needed a safe corridor all the way from Athens to Ukraine — a safe corridor through the Aegean, through the Dardanelles Strait, through the Sea of Marmara, through the Bosporus Strait, and through the Black Sea (see map below). One might compare the Athenian need for Ukrainian wheat to the American need for MiddleEastern oil; we need a secure shipping lane through the Persian Gulf as the Athenians needed a secure shipping lane through the Black Sea.

The Athenians were frequently at war with the Persian Empire, or with some city/state/tribe, or with a rebellious member of their own league, or with non-state actors, such as pirates. Could they ever rest? Did they rule the empire, or did the empire rule them? It seemed that Athens had become an imperial power by force of circumstances, by destiny, and once it had an empire, it couldn’t let it go, and it couldn’t stop expanding.1

Kagan says that previous empires had been land empires, the Athenian empire was the first naval empire. One might compare this naval empire to the British Empire. Anyone who was dissatisfied with the status quo blamed Athens for their troubles, so Athens was widely hated, as Britain was widely hated at the height of British power, and America was widely hated at the height of American power. The larger your empire, the more people blame you for the status quo, and the more wars you’re drawn into.

But if people hated Athens, they couldn’t ignore it, and the average Athenian took pride in his city’s power. “As even the poorest cockneys took great personal pride in the thought that the sun never set on the British Empire and that Britannia ruled the waves, so each Athenian took pride in the greatness of his state.”2

Athens was hated all the more since it ruled cities that were accustomed to independence. Athens struggled to justify its empire to people who weren’t accustomed to empire. The cities in the eastern Aegean (around the coast of Turkey) had turned to Athens for help against Persia, but once the Persian danger was laid to rest, some of them wanted independence. Why should a temporary threat lead to permanent subjection?

In the middle of the Aegean Sea is the island of Delos, famed in mythology as the birthplace of Apollo and Diana. The Delian League, led by Athens, met at Delos and had its treasury at Delos. The Delian League was originally a league with 140 members and each member, including Athens, had one vote. Athenian leadership was natural, voluntary, unforced; “Athens was in the happy position of controlling the Delian League without the appearance of illegality or tyranny.”3

But as the Persian threat subsided, members of the Delian League began to resent Athenian domination. Resentment increased when Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens, and began spending League money on projects to beautify Athens, such as the Parthenon. Kagan says that Pericles aimed to make Athens “a place for the development of the aesthetic and intellectual greatness inherent in humanity and especially in Greek culture.”4

Members of the Delian League were reluctant to contribute ships, so they sent money instead.5 Since they didn’t contribute ships, they acquired no military experience, while Athens was acquiring lots of military experience. So if they rebelled against Athens, it was a fight between the experienced and the inexperienced, and Athens usually won easily. After suppressing a rebellion, the Athenians sometimes

installed democratic governments friendly to and dependent upon themselves. Sometimes they posted military garrisons, sometimes they assigned Athenian officials to oversee the conduct of the formerly rebellious state, and sometimes they used a combination.... Sometimes the Athenians confiscated territory from the offending state and gave it as a colony to loyal allies or Athenian citizens.... All were violations of the autonomy of the subject state.6

As the Athenians became more bossy, the other members of the League became more resentful. Sometimes members were reluctant to pay their financial contributions in full and on time, annoying Athens (likewise, NATO members are often unwilling to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, annoying the U.S.). The Athenians forbade other League members from minting their own coins, “depriving the allies of a visible symbol of their sovereignty and autonomy.” The Athenians set standards for weights, measures, and coins.

Pericles knew that the Delian League shouldn’t be based on pure power, Athenian power. He wanted to give it a moral basis, a philosophical justification. Around 449 BC, Pericles sent messengers all over the Greek world, inviting all the Greeks to a congress at Athens, to discuss the temples that had been destroyed by the Persians, how to fulfill the vows made to the gods when they were fighting the Persians, and how to maintain safe navigation throughout the Greek world.

The proposed congress put Athens in the role of unifier rather than bully, peace-maker rather than trouble-maker. Athens could say that it was extending a hand of friendship to Sparta and its allies, rather than preparing for war. Athens could say it was acting in the interests of all, not just in its own interest. And finally, the proposed congress would allow Pericles to justify the building of the Parthenon by saying, “The temples must be re-built, our vows must be fulfilled, the gods must be honored.” So Pericles could justify his building projects as acts of piety, rather than thefts of DelianLeague funds.

Kagan compares the proposed congress to the American proposal, after World War II, for a Marshall Plan that would cover all of Europe — eastern Europe as well as western Europe. The Spartans declined Pericles’ congress, as the Soviets declined the enlarged Marshall Plan.

Pericles’ congress never took place. Kagan says it may have been a sincere effort at peace and unity, or it may have been a shrewd piece of public relations, or it may have been both.

When Pericles’ building projects were challenged by his political opponents, he defended them by telling the assembly that the projects would bring Athens eternal glory. The ethics of glory, which inspired the Greek warrior, the Greek athlete, and the Greek poet, applied to society as well as the individual; a city should seek eternal fame, just like an individual. Perhaps even Pericles would be surprised if he could know that, 2500 years later, his Parthenon really did enjoy eternal fame, and the phrase “Periclean Age” meant the ultimate renaissance.

Pericles also justified his projects in another way: like Roosevelt’s New Deal, Pericles’ projects were a jobs program, they employed large numbers of Athenians — artists, craftsmen, laborers.

The assembly supported Pericles and his projects. To make his political triumph total, Pericles proposed ostracizing his chief political opponent. The ostracism, Kagan says, “served both as a vote of confidence in his leadership and as a referendum on his policies.” The ostracism passed, “Pericles reached new heights of political influence.”7

But Pericles still had a problem with Sparta. When Pericles was beginning his political career, Cimon was a leading figure in Athens, and the Spartans liked and trusted Cimon. But Cimon had died, and the Spartans felt that Athens was becoming too powerful. There were always factions in Sparta, as in other cities; Sparta had a faction that wanted peace with Athens, and a faction that wanted war. “Sparta’s flat rejection of the invitation to a Panhellenic Congress suggests that the friends of peace had already lost out to those who wanted to challenge the Athenians.”8

Sparta wasn’t alone in wanting to challenge the Athenians. Argos and Megara, which lay between Sparta and Athens, came back to the Spartan camp, after briefly being on the Athenian side; Megara destroyed the garrisons that Athens had left in Megara. Boeotia, too, rose up against Athens, and destroyed a small army that Athens sent to put down the uprising. Since Athens looked weak, the island of Euboea revolted (Euboea is a large island just east of Athens). Sparta chose this moment (c. 447 BC) to march an army toward Athens, and begin ravaging the Athenian countryside.

The situation looked dire indeed. Athens’ new land empire had melted away in the twinkling of an eye, and there was trouble in the sea empire, too. Pericles managed to communicate with the leader of the invading Spartan army, and he may have bribed him, too. The Spartans knew that, even if they won a showdown on land, the Athenians could inflict significant losses on them, and then retreat behind their walls. Kagan thinks that Pericles must have “proposed peace terms too good to reject.”9

The Spartans halted their invasion, and marched home. The war party in Sparta was furious, and pushed the leaders of the invasion into exile. Pericles suppressed the revolt in Euboea.

In 446 BC, Athens and Sparta struck a comprehensive peace deal that’s known as the Thirty Years’ Peace. Such deals were ratified by the swearing of oaths. Perhaps the Greeks hesitated to violate such agreements because they had sworn, because they believed that the gods would punish them if they violated their oaths.

The Thirty Years’ Peace accepted the division of Greece into two blocs. A member of one bloc was forbidden to switch to the other bloc. A neutral city was allowed to join either bloc. Like the Versailles treaty ending World War I, the Thirty Years’ Peace attempted to prevent future wars by submitting disputes to arbitration. Kagan writes,

The most novel and interesting clause required both sides to submit any future grievances to binding arbitration. This seems to be the first appearance in history of an attempt to maintain perpetual peace through such a device. We are not told who proposed the idea, but it is tempting to attribute it to Pericles, the originator of many other political and diplomatic innovations.10

Kagan says that the arbitration clause in the Thirty Years’ treaty showed a sincere desire for peace on both sides.

Kagan says that the Thirty Years’ Peace was a compromise that “contained the basic elements for success.” It didn’t try to punish either party. One might call it a treaty between equals: both sides had suffered setbacks, neither side had scored a decisive victory. The treaty was realistic insofar as it acknowledged Spartan supremacy on land, and Athenian supremacy on the sea; “a peace that recognized this dualism in the Greek world promised future stability.” Kagan compares the treaty to the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War, and to the treaty that ended the Napoleonic Wars.

But a European peace among 5 or 10 nations might be easier to achieve than a peace among 200 Greek city-states. There were bound to be disputes among so many city-states, and each dispute was unique; a treaty couldn’t anticipate, and resolve, future disputes, and there was still some lingering distrust between the two sides. The weaker party in a dispute might be willing to go to arbitration, but would the side that was militarily stronger be receptive to arbitration? And if they didn’t arbitrate, if they took up arms, would that draw in their allies, would that bring the big blocs into the fray? The two sides both wanted peace, the treaty was balanced and realistic, but war seemed at least as likely as peace.

* * * * *

In southern Italy was a Greek colony called Sybaris. It was known for luxurious living; the Sybarites “were said to honor cooks with golden crowns.... They went to parties at night and slept all day, imposing the first anti-noise legislation; even roosters were barred from the town.” “Sybarite” has become a byword for hedonism.

Sybaris had been repeatedly destroyed during wars with neighboring cities, perhaps because the Sybarites partied too hard, and neglected the arts of war. Shortly after the Thirty Years’ Peace, the Sybarites decided to rebuild their city once more, and they asked for new colonists.

There were two reasons for Greek cities to send out colonists: to establish a trading post, and to create space for excess population. Sparta didn’t send colonists to Sybaris because Sparta wasn’t interested in trade, and had no excess population. Athens sent colonists to Sybaris, but they quarreled with the Sybarites, and civil war broke out. The Sybarites were defeated, the town was abandoned, and the remaining citizens started a new town nearby called Thurii. Again the call went out for new colonists.

Pericles responded to this call with another innovation, another attempt at Panhellenism. Instead of sending Athenians to the town of Thurii, he invited people from all over Greece to go to Thurii; Thurii would be a Greek colony, not the colony of one particular city. Thurii was divided into ten tribes, and only one of the tribes was made up of Athenians. Among those who went out to Thurii were two friends of Pericles: the historian Herodotus and the orator Lysias.

The new city soon clashed with a more well-established neighbor, the Spartan colony of Taras. Thurii was defeated, but Pericles didn’t intervene, demonstrating that this was really a Panhellenic colony, not an Athenian colony. Thurii was “visible evidence,” Kagan writes, “that Athens... had no imperial ambitions in the west and wished to pursue a policy of peaceful Panhellenism.”11

One reason Pericles helped to create Thurii, Kagan thinks, is that Pericles wanted to make a new city from scratch, he wanted the challenge and opportunity of city-building. “The new city was laid out in the most up-to-date manner by the pioneer of Greek town planning, Hippodamus of Miletus, who not long before had laid out Athens’ bustling and expanding port city of Piraeus.” To draft a constitution for the new city, Pericles tapped Protagoras, “the leading political theorist of his day.” (Protagoras is best known for his remark, “Man is the measure of all things,” and for being the subject of Plato’s dialogue Protagoras.)

Despite its lofty beginnings, Thurii had an undistinguished history. It quarreled with a neighbor (Taras), it had internal quarrels, and it sided with the Spartan bloc in the latter years of the Peloponnesian War. Thus ends the story of the colony that had no “mother city,” the colony that was the offspring of all Greece (the Greek word for “mother city” was “metropolis”).

* * * * *

Samos is a large island in the eastern Aegean, directly east of Athens, near what is now mainland Turkey. Samos was a member of the Delian League, but it didn’t pay tribute; Samos had its own navy, which was almost as large as the Athenian navy. (There were three large islands that didn’t pay tribute — Samos, Lesbos, and Chios. These three islands were considered autonomous allies of Athens, not subject allies.)

In 440 BC, six years after the start of the Thirty Years’ Peace, Samos quarreled with its neighbor, Miletus, “over control of a town that lay between them.” Being a subject ally, Miletus had no navy, it relied on Athens for protection, and paid tribute for that protection. So when Miletus appealed to Athens for help against Samos, Athens felt it had no choice but to help little Miletus against mighty Samos. Kagan writes,

The Athenians asked the Samians to submit the dispute to arbitration, but their request was rejected.... With forty ships [Pericles] sailed to Samos and put down the rebellion. He replaced the ruling oligarchy with a democratic government, imposed a sizable indemnity, took fifty men and fifty boys as hostages to the island of Lemnos [in the northern Aegean], and withdrew as swiftly as he had come, leaving a garrison behind.

Being a democracy itself, Athens was friendly to democracy, and often installed democracies in cities that it controlled. Sparta, on the other hand, often installed oligarchies.

The defeated Samians were enraged at Athens, and they resolved to fight. They went to the Persian king (Persia controlled the inland territory of Asia Minor), and asked for help. The Persian king welcomed the chance to strike a blow at Athens, Persia’s old enemy.

The king stole the hostages on Lemnos, and invited the Samians to hire a mercenary army in his territory. The Samians returned to Samos at night with their mercenaries, catching the puppet government and the Athenian garrison by surprise. “As a final act of defiance, the victorious Samian oligarchs sent the captured Athenian garrison and imperial officials off to the Persian satrap in Asia Minor. News of the Samian rebellion raced through the empire, sparking emulation in many places, most dangerously at Byzantium, astride the vital Athenian grain route through the Bosporus.”12 (Byzantium was later called Constantinople, and is now called Istanbul.)

Now all eyes were on Sparta. Would Sparta support Samos and the other rebels?

In this crisis, we see the two factors that ultimately led to the downfall of Athens: revolt in the empire, and Persian help for cities fighting Athens. But in 440 BC, Athens wasn’t done yet. The downfall of Athens was still 35 years in the future, and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War was 9 years in the future.

Sparta and its allies opted to stay on the sidelines rather than to help Samos. Kagan thinks they were swayed by Pericles’ magnanimous gesture of founding a Panhellenic colony (Thurii).

The Samians had to face Athens alone. Pericles sailed for Samos with his navy. The Samian navy put up stiff resistance, but eventually succumbed. Still the Samians didn’t surrender; instead, they took refuge behind their walls. Pericles laid siege to Samos.

Meanwhile, Pericles sent the writer Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex and other plays) on a diplomatic mission. Sophocles went to Chios and Lesbos, autonomous allies with their own fleets. He persuaded them to remain loyal to Athens, and to send ships to help Athens against Samos.

After a siege of nine months, Samos surrendered. “The Samians were required to pull down their walls, give up their fleet, accept a democratic constitution, and pay a war indemnity of 1,300 talents in twenty-six annual installments.” This may seem like a harsh settlement, but Kagan says it was mild compared to other such settlements. Kagan says that Pericles pursued a moderate course, and persuaded the Athenians “to restrain their anger.” After Pericles died (shortly after the start of the Peloponnesian War), the Athenians imposed harsher settlements on rebel cities, such as killing all male citizens, and selling females into slavery.

In the midst of such events, how did the Athenians find leisure for literature and art? They seemed to go from crisis to crisis. And the Samian revolt occurred in peacetime. The real war, the Peloponnesian War, hadn’t started yet.

Next Pericles

2. Movies

A. The Day of the Jackal (1973) is a fun movie, popular with both critics and the public. It’s about a contract killer who attempts to kill De Gaulle, President of France. Roger Ebert said “It’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch.”

The best movies, however, have something that a fine watch doesn’t have; the best movies touch us or stimulate us, but The Day of the Jackal merely entertains us. On his list of the best movies of 1973, Ebert put Jackal at #7. It’s not quite a great movie, we can’t really connect with these characters. How can you relate to someone who carries out assassinations for money?

B. Roger Ebert was more impressed with Z, which is also about a political assassination. Z was made in 1969, and deals with the killing of a politician by right-wing thugs. It’s based on events in Greece, and expresses the filmmaker’s anger at the military junta that took over Greece. It’s called Z because that was a rallying-cry of the Greek opposition.

Z is popular with both critics and the public, but I don’t recommend it. It’s obvious where the plot is going, so there’s no suspense. Reading the subtitles (it’s a French-language movie) becomes tiresome.

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. Alcibiades, whom Kagan calls Pericles’ ward, later asserted “that the Athenian Empire had acquired a character that did not permit it to stop expanding — an inner, dynamic force that did not allow for limits or stability: ‘A state that is naturally active will quickly be destroyed by changing to inactivity.’”(p. 114. I’m quoting Kagan, who’s quoting Thucydides, who’s quoting Alcibiades.)

“Pericles emphatically disputed such analyses. He did not believe that the Athenian naval empire needed to expand without limit.... Pericles considered the Athenian Empire large enough and its expansion both unnecessary and dangerous.”(pp. 115, 116) back

2. p. 99 back
3. Ch. 5, p. 93 back
4. p. 111 back
5. Pericles said of the allies, “They furnish no horse, no ship, no hoplite, but only money.”(p. 107, Kagan quoting Plutarch) In the early days of the Delian League, however, the allies probably contributed ships. back
6. p. 94. Kagan speaks of, “the empire’s fundamental unpopularity with all classes except the small groups of democratic politicians who benefited directly from Athenian support.”(p. 101) back
7. pp. 107, 108. Pericles’ political opponent was Thucydides, probably no relation to the historian.

Kagan notes that the terms “empire” and “imperialism” have become pejorative terms in modern society. He says there’s “something uncanny in this attitude, for it rejects not only empire but the use of power itself as inherently evil.”(p. 108) Nietzsche spoke of, “The democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing).”(Genealogy of Morals, II, 12)

What’s the cause of this modern hatred of power? Here’s one explanation: as long as the aristocracy had power, they thought power was a good thing, and their view was the prevalent view. As democracy took hold during the 1800s, the masses acquired the power that the aristocracy once had.

The masses disliked power, for two reasons:

  • for centuries, they had been the victims of power, not its possessors
  • once the masses gained power, they only possessed a tiny fraction of power, since there were so many of them
The masses felt, “power is a bad thing,” and their view became widespread as they gained control of newspapers, books, universities, etc. The masses not only acquired political power, they acquired power over public opinion, so if they believed “power is evil,” this view would become widespread.

Let’s try to illustrate this theory with an example. Pretend we’re in an aristocratic society — England in 1600. An aristocrat rapes a working-class girl. His father knows the local authorities, so the perpetrator is released without punishment, or with a light punishment. This contributes to the working-class view that power is evil (“if one of us had done that, he’d be drawn and quartered, but the fancy people can get away with anything, there’s no justice”). And the release of the perpetrator contributes to the aristocratic view that power is good (“he’s young, give him another chance, don’t let one mistake ruin his future...”).

Now let’s move to a democratic society — England in 1950. Now when an aristocrat rapes a working-class girl, he’s more likely to be punished, his father has less influence, the media has become an expression of democratic feelings. Now the masses have power, but only a tiny fraction, so if a working-class man rapes a working-class girl, his father can’t get him off. So the masses still have their ancient hatred of power, their feeling that power is something used against them.

Consider the case of two brothers. The elder has power over the younger, and he feels that power is a good thing; this feeling lasts his whole life, it lasts long after he’s left home. Meanwhile, the younger brother hates power, he feels that power is used against him, and this feeling also lasts his whole life. Could this help us to understand why the masses would hate power even after they begin to possess some power? Their ancient hatred of power, like the younger brother’s hatred of power, lasts even when the cause has ceased to exist; their ancient hatred of power has become deeply rooted, instinctive, not easily abandoned.

In general, I think that the aristocracy’s loss of power, the growth of equality, explains a great deal about modern politics and modern culture. Nietzsche lived during the transition from aristocracy to democracy, and he deplored this change, he championed aristocracy. In our time, philosophers are more likely to accept equality as a fact of life, like the weather or the tides, and not spend time deploring it.

The modern view is, “Aristocracy is a bad thing, power should be distributed widely; there should be greater equality, not less.” But with power comes responsibility; this is what the French call noblesse oblige, the obligations of the nobleman. If no one has power, no one feels responsible, and society becomes “every man for himself.”

Perhaps an aristocrat like Pericles or Plato or Washington is more likely to pursue a high goal — moral, political, military, or cultural. Perhaps he feels that much is given him, and much is required of him. But a person who isn’t an aristocrat is more likely to feel that his task is to survive, to make a living. back

8. p. 118 back
9. Ch. 6, p. 121 back
10. p. 123 back
11. p. 128 back
12. p. 131 back