Term Paper: Persian Wars and Peloponnesian

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Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War:

Impact on the Greek World

Within seven centuries, [the ancient Greeks] invented for itself, epic, elegy, lyric, tragedy, novel, democratic government, political and economic science, history, geography, philosophy, physics and biology; and made revolutionary advances in architecture, sculpture, painting, music, oratory, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, anatomy, engineering, law and war... A stupendous feat for whose most brilliant state Attica was the size of Hertfordshire, with a free population (including children) of perhaps 160,000.

F.J. Lucas

There is little question that the ancient Greek civilization impacted the political, social, and plysophical landscape of the planet in a way that rivals any other in history. Indeed, the history, as well as the legacy of ancient Greek life and thinking, are perhaps some of the greatest "wonders" of the world yet to endure. However, it is worth noting that even for the great civilization that was Greece, the impact of war can be irrevocably damaging. In the case of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, it was disastrous. This is even more striking when one considers the strident asceticism and immense strength of the "war culture" of Sparta (Spielvogel, 60) and its failure to carry supposedly "superior" principles of democracy into its future.

Indeed, despite all of the strength of the Greek empire and society, she was unable to recover from their aftermath of a war of hubris combined with principle.

When most people think of the wonders of Ancient Greece, they think of the period around 500 BC, wherein "Classical Greece" reigned high on the cusp of recognized civilization. By all accounts, few periods rivaled this time, when, under the great Pericles, the glories of contemporary democracy were first to emerge (62). However, few people imagine that the beginnings of the fall of the empire also began during this time, and that war, ironically in the very same region that is currently the "hot bed" of the world stage, would ring a death knell that would echo throughout history.

During the same time that Greek philosophy and notions of early democracy flourished, so too did the rumblings of war begin between the Greek and Persian empires. At the same time that Greek empire expanded and grew in the Mediterranean region, another great civilization, the immense Persian Empire also grew. Ironically, then, as well as now, there brew a kind of "clash" between the ideological "buzz word" of "freedom" verses tyranny.

Whereas the Greeks considered themselves to be unrivaled in their conception of free life, the Persian Empire was ruled in the more traditional model of absolute monarchy. Although it is doubtful that this fact alone could account for the beginning of tensions between the two empires (a more "traditional" war of power, influence, and resources is more probable), at least rhetorically it was of issue. This is apparent when one notes the words of the famous Greek playwright, Aeschylus, who composed a play in which a Persian queen asks, "Who commands them? Who is Shepard of their host?" And the chorus responds, "They are slaves to none, nor are they subject (63)." Of course, as Spielvogel writes in the chapter, "The Civilization of the Greeks," this indicates that, "at least some Greeks saw the struggle with the Persians as a contest between freedom and slavery (63).

Occupation is hard to bear for any civilization, and the Greeks, who in some areas languished under Persian control, were no different. Further, given their very different cultures, as well as philosophical and ideological perspectives, Greeks were ripe for a war of "liberation" against the Persians. However, in deciding to revolt, beginning with the Ionian cities in 499 BC, they were to start a chain of events that would lead to all out invasion from the Persians, and an overall Persian war.

Beginning with the historic Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., the Greeks began to feel a swelling of pride in their ability to prevail over so great an empire (by some accounts, numbering over 150,000 troops (65)). To be sure the Persians had been a thorn in their side for some time, and their ability to resist, and prevail over such an immense empire gave them strength and belief in their own might and superiority.

After the final Greek triumph over the Persians, Greek civilization entered the so called, "imperial period," in which the Athenian Empire would hold sway. It was during this time, that one can clearly see the tremendous influence that the Persian wars had upon the structure of the Empire -- which was characterized not only by a push for overall Greek unity under the umbrella of the Delian League, but a growing emphasis on principles of an overriding democratic unity apart from Sparta (66).

Again, at this point, the ideology of Athens began to have an impact upon foreign policy as well, for although great strides were made in the development of democracy within -- including the Council of Five Hundred, the establishment of a system of magistrates, and the introduction of public votes (67), Athens began a policy of imperialism abroad (67).

One of the common problems that imperialistic forces encounter is both overestimating their ability to control and expand over large areas, as well as in underestimating the resistance of the people they wish to control. Such was the case when Athens sought to bring the people of Sparta under their umbrella of power on the Greek mainland. Indeed, the Athenians soon found themselves in a kind of a "quagmire" of skirmishes with the Spartans and the allies of the Spartans (who also resisted Athenian rule) (68). Although the Athenians were puffed up by their success with the Persians, they had failed to estimate the resistance of the mainland Greeks, and were forced after the first Peloponnesian War (the sum of these "skirmishes") to develop a kind of "each to its own" truce between their maritime empire and the Spartan mainland empire (68).

Although the truce held for a time, Athens began to grow in power in a way that certainly threatened the security of Sparta (69). Indeed, one of the most oft-cited accounts of this belief is that of Thucydides, an Athenian historian, whom, for all of his obvious prejudices, nonetheless sheds significant light on the events, causes, and consequences of the Peloponnesian War (foremost among these is the eventual destruction of Ancient Greece).

In his writings, Thucydides refers to the Great Peloponnesian War as the "greatest ever known (Sherman, 38)." Further, he distinguishes it from the Persian War in its nature as a "protracted struggle (39)," coupled with a series of natural disasters of a type and frequency not previously seen. What is most interesting, however, is how he distinguishes between what he views as the "actual cause of the war," as previously stated, Spartan fear of the increasing power of Athens, and what contemporary leaders claimed as reasons for the war in a kind of ancient Greek propaganda.

In this vein, Thucydides recounts a speech delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles, who both called upon the pride of the people resulting from previous wars (most notably against the Persians), and rallied them with a sense of ideological superiority due to their form of government. He writes, "Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others... (39)." Further, "...we are called a democracy for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few (40)."

Be that as it may, the Athenians failed to adequately estimate the cost of a long, drawn out war -- especially against the Spartan forces (who would team up with the defeated Persians). They falsely considered themselves, in their superiority, to be the natural and eventual victors of a just war to bring the entirety of the Greek empires under the yoke of both Athens, and the democratic system that they held so dear. However, this was to be the downfall of Athens, as well as the downfall of the democratic ideals as a whole.

Another important factor in the eventual demise of the classical Greek empire (as represented by Athenian democracy) was their unwillingness to "cut their losses," especially after the series of natural calamites that took such a toll on Athens (Pericles, himself died of a plague in the second year of the war). Indeed, it seems that they were soon to fall to classical Greek hubris.

A full ten years of fighting would pass until both sides finally called a truce that would last for a full fifty years, known as the "Peace of Nicias," after the then Athenian general. However, it would soon seem that the very democratic system that gave Athens such pride would prove to be her undoing. Under Nicias the truce held, yet Athenian democracy allowed for a rival, Alcibiades, to convince the assembly (with his own brand of "oratorical ability) that they could successfully attack and take control of the city states of Sicily. However, instead of prevailing (which Alcibiades… [END OF PREVIEW]

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