June 18, 2022

1. Pericles

Previous discussions of Pericles:
May 14
May 21
May 28
June 5
June 11

The Corcyra Crisis, which I discussed in the last issue, was one cause of the Peloponnesian War. Another cause was the Megarian Decree, which forbade merchants from Megara from going to the Athenian marketplace (agora), or entering any harbor in the Athenian Empire. Megara was a neighbor of Athens, and a member of the Spartan bloc; Megara had been quarreling with Athens for years.

Kagan says that the Megarian Decree was the first peacetime economic embargo in Greek history. The embargo is another example of Pericles’ bent for creative statesmanship. But was it wise? Kagan says that, in the modern world, embargoes have “rarely succeeded,”1 and the Megarian Decree is often blamed for starting the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans couldn’t accept an Athenian policy that cracked down on a Spartan ally; “Athens’ use of her power against Sparta’s allies made the situation unendurable.”

When war was imminent, the Spartans said, If you withdraw the Megarian Decree, we won’t declare war. But Pericles refused to withdraw it. He seemed to feel that the Athenians had a right to regulate their empire, and the Spartans were only using the Megarian Decree as an excuse to go to war. The Spartans’ real goal (Pericles seemed to believe) was to humble Athens, and the Spartans’ real fear was that if they didn’t fight now, Athenian power would continue to grow.

There seemed to be a war faction in Sparta that was eager to invade Attica (the region to which Athens belonged). This war faction was confident that they could defeat Athens in open battle. Meanwhile, Pericles was confident that Athens could stave off defeat by retreating into its walls, sacrificing its farms, relying on its naval power, and refusing battle on land. So both sides put excessive faith in their war strategies, and both sides may have thought, Since war is inevitable, let’s not delay it.

Why did Pericles enact the Megarian Decree? Not to revenge old injuries, Kagan says, but rather to punish Megara for recently helping Corinth against Corcyra. By punishing Megara, Pericles hoped to dissuade other cities from helping Corinth. Pericles wanted to limit the current conflict, and prevent general war.

The Megarian Decree didn’t violate the Thirty Years’ Peace, since the peace treaty said nothing about economic embargo. Thus, Pericles could argue that Athens was abiding by the treaty. Sparta wouldn’t want to attack and thereby violate the treaty; “the Spartans were always reluctant to break their oaths.” Pericles was a close friend of the Spartan king, Archidamus, and he knew that Archidamus wanted peace. So Pericles was confident that the Megarian Decree would deter other cities from joining an anti-Athenian coalition, but wouldn’t spark a general war. Kagan thinks that Pericles relied too much on reason, and overlooked the power of emotion.

While the Megara affair was going on, another crisis emerged over Potidaea. Potidaea was a tribute-paying member of the Athenian Empire, but also a Corinthian colony, so it had divided loyalties. Pericles seemed to think that Corinth was trying to persuade Potidaea to revolt; perhaps Corinth was colluding with the King of Macedon, who was an enemy of Athens. A revolt by Potidaea could ignite a wider revolt. To forestall a revolt, Athens “ordered the Potidaeans to pull down the city walls that protected them on the seaward side, to give hostages, and to send away their Corinthian magistrates.”2

Here’s a map of the Greek world:

Here’s the same map with a red circle around Megara, a blue circle around Potidaea, and a green circle around Macedonia:

Was the Athenian policy toward Potidaea forestalling problems, or creating problems? “The Potidaeans must have been shocked and angered by the Athenian instructions.” But they didn’t want to defy Athens until they had allies, so they sent an embassy to Athens, and consumed several months in discussions, while secretly talking to Sparta about military support.

Finally the Athenians became suspicious of the long-winded Potidaean ambassadors, and sent a force to check the king of Macedon, and keep Potidaea in line. But Potidaea had already revolted, and inspired neighboring cities to revolt. The Athenian force was too small to storm the walls of Potidaea, so it returned to Athens.

When Corinth heard about the Potidaean revolt, they were eager to help Potidaea, but reluctant to break the Thirty Years’ Peace, so they sent a force of “volunteers” from Corinth and other cities. Kagan calls this “a very thin deception.”3

Meanwhile, a new, larger Athenian force was sent to besiege Potidaea. “The siege lasted more than two years and cost a vast sum of money.” Kagan says that Pericles’ Potidaean policy was a failure; it had “produced an outcome that could hardly be worse.” It enabled Corinth and other critics of Athens to say that the Athenians were “a people who had become arrogant, aggressive, and a threat to the liberty of all Greeks.”4 It enabled the war faction in Sparta to argue, Enough is enough, it’s time to teach Athens a lesson.

But there was still a strong peace faction in Sparta. So the war faction invited everyone with a complaint about Athens to address the Spartan people. The Corinthians tried to persuade the Spartans that the time had come for action. “Spartan lethargy had allowed the Persians to reach the Peloponnesus before they were stopped; the same qualities had also allowed Athenian power to grow dangerously strong.” The Corinthians tried to strengthen the war faction in Sparta, and weaken the peace faction. “The Corinthians described the Athenian character so as to show that peaceful coexistence with such a people was impossible even if the current crisis could be resolved.”

The Corinthians concluded by saying that the Spartans had promised help to Potidaea and shouldn’t renege on that promise; if the Spartans betray their friends, their friends will be forced to seek a different alliance. “To the Spartans... the very suggestion of defections from their league was a frightening prospect.”

The Athenians caught wind of the conference in Sparta, and sent representatives. The Athenians said that they became an imperial power through the force of circumstances, not through ambition or a lust to dominate. They offered to submit their quarrel with Corinth to arbitration, in accordance with the terms of the Thirty Years’ Peace.

Then the Spartans discussed the matter among themselves. The wise old king, Archidamus, argued for peace. He said that the young hotheads expected a quick victory, but he expected a long war; “we shall pass this war on to our children.” Archidamus played for time. Let’s send an embassy to Athens, he said; meanwhile, we’ll seek ships and money from barbarians (Persians) as well as Greeks, so if a war breaks out, we’ll be ready. Let’s not rush into war.

But the war faction would have none of it. Potidaea was under siege, Potidaea needed help now. The Corinthians didn’t want arbitration, “they wanted nothing less than the destruction of the Athenian Empire.”5 The war faction in Sparta was concerned about “the arrogant and dangerous power of Athens.... Athens must be humbled.”

Finally the Spartans voted. Usually they voted by shouting and banging on their shields. On this occasion, however, it seemed that the two positions were supported by equally loud roars, so they used a different method, they divided into two groups. The war faction carried the day.6

Why did the Spartans want war? Thucydides says, “they were afraid that the Athenians might become more powerful, seeing that the greater part of Greece was already in their hands.” This is the so-called Thucydides Trap, an established power’s fear of a rising power.

But Kagan doesn’t entirely accept the idea that Sparta and Athens were trapped, and war was inevitable. He points out that the Spartans were anti-war for months, while Corinth was trying to stir up war fever. Only after the Megarian Decree and the Potidaea Crisis did Sparta favor war.

So perhaps war wasn’t inevitable, perhaps the two blocs weren’t “trapped,” perhaps the policies of Pericles (with respect to Megara and Potidaea) triggered the war. It’s nearly impossible to determine the cause of a war, or the cause of any historical event. Should we just say “the war started,” and not try to determine the cause? Or does the human mind naturally seek a cause, especially for an event of such moment — an event that seems so destructive, so pointless? The human mind seeks causes but can’t find them, it seeks what it’s incapable of finding.

The Spartans voted for war (technically, they voted that Athens had violated the Thirty Years’ Peace), but the Spartans didn’t send a force to Potidaea, and didn’t invade Attica. They weren’t eager to commence hostilities, they delayed for a year, and sent three missions to Athens, “ostensibly to preserve the peace.”

Kagan says that the first Spartan mission tried to weaken Pericles by reminding the Athenians that his family — an old, aristocratic family — was said to be accursed (the curse of the Alcmaeonids). The Spartans told the Athenians to purge the curse, i.e., expel Pericles. Kagan says that this first mission “was more an act of psychological warfare than an attempt to keep the peace.”

In response to this first mission, the Athenians said, Sparta should purge the curse of Taenarus (“the Spartans had once put to death some helots who had taken sanctuary in the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus, and it was the common belief that this sacrilege had caused the great earthquake of 464 BC”). The Athenians were saying to the Spartans, If you’re going to discuss old curses, then we’ll play the same game.

The next Spartan embassy said, If you withdraw the Megarian Decree, there will be no war. Sparta was willing to ignore the arguments of Corinth, ignore the plight of Potidaea. In retrospect, perhaps Athens should have withdrawn the Decree, but Pericles was stubborn, he insisted that Athens shouldn’t make concessions under duress, Athens shouldn’t follow Spartan orders, Athens should insist that Sparta treat it as an equal. “If you yield to them you will immediately be required to make another concession which will be greater, since you will have made the first concession out of fear.”7

The third and final Spartan embassy delivered a “curt, laconic message: ‘The Spartans want peace, and there will be peace if you give the Greeks their autonomy.’” Perhaps this was a way for the Spartans to say to all Greeks, “We defend autonomy and freedom, the Athenians are tyrants who force other cities to remain in their empire, force other cities to pay whatever tribute Athens decides.” Perhaps the fundamental cause of the war is that Athens had converted a voluntary league (the Delian League) into an empire based on coercion (the Athenian Empire), and this aroused considerable animosity toward Athens.8

Was Athens really going to enter into a great war over something as trivial as the Megarian Decree? Kagan compares Athenian policy to Britain’s willingness to join World War I for “‘the scrap of paper’ that guaranteed Belgian neutrality.” Or one might compare Athenian policy to Britain’s willingness to join World War II for the sake of Poland, a country that was probably beyond saving.

Kagan says, “The apparently trivial source of contention masked the important political and strategic considerations. Pericles’ statement is a classic rejection of appeasement (remarkably similar to the arguments made by Churchill against the appeasers of the 1930s), and it is admirable in its courage and resolution.” Nonetheless, Kagan isn’t convinced that war was inevitable. “If the Athenians had withdrawn the Megarian Decree, the crisis would probably have blown over.... The risks of withdrawing the decree were real, but they seem smaller than the risk of going to war.”9

Perhaps Pericles was too fond of his strategy of letting the Spartans ravage the Attic countryside, while the Athenians withdrew behind their walls. This strategy required patience and discipline; only Pericles could carry out such a strategy. But Pericles was already in his mid-60s. What would happen if he died before the war ended? In fact, he died two years after the war started, and twenty-five years before the war ended.

Kagan thinks that Pericles’ stubbornness with respect to the Megarian Decree may have been prompted by the thought, We’re ready for war now, so let’s not delay it. “[Athenian] chances of victory would be better sooner rather than later.”

So the three embassies sent to Athens from Sparta failed to resolve the issues. But even so, the Spartans didn’t invade, they held back. The war started when Thebes attacked Plataea. Even after the Spartan army began marching toward Attica, Archidamus sent a final envoy to Athens. “But the envoy was not allowed to enter the city, much less speak to the assembly, for Pericles himself had introduced a law forbidding the reception of Spartan embassies while an army was in the field.” Thucydides wrote,

[The Athenians] sent [the Spartan envoy] away without listening to him and ordered him to be outside their boundaries on the same day.... And they sent an escort with [him] so that he might approach no one. And when he arrived at the frontier and was about to depart, he went off speaking these words, “This day will be the beginning of great evils for the Greeks.”

Next Pericles

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. Ch. 11, p. 207 back
2. p. 209. The Corinthian magistrates were a ceremonial link between the colony (Potidaea) and the mother-city (Corinth). back
3. p. 210. One thinks of the “little green men” who enabled Russia to seize Crimea. back
4. p. 211 back
5. p. 216 back
6. In a lecture, Kagan says, “they came to the meeting dressed in their military uniform, apparently including their shields, because when a question was put to the Spartans, the way they responded was by shouting and banging on their shields.” Officials in a separate room would evaluate which roar was the loudest. back
7. Kagan, p. 223, quoting Thucydides back
8. On the other hand, can small city-states expect to keep their independence, with empires like the Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman in the neighborhood? And if small states must be subject to someone, why not Athens? back
9. p. 224 back