About 425 B. C., a lonely man, in a country that was not his own, sat down to write the story of a war that had begun six years before. Thucydides, an Athenian, had fought in the war’s first battles. He had been a general, in command of thousands of his city’s troops. Then he was ordered to go to the aid of another commander whose men were outnumbered. When he arrived, the battle had already been fought and lost. It was not his fault but the people of Athens were too anxious about the war to consider that. They stripped Thucydides of his command and forced him to leave his homeland. Now, while the war raged on, he could only watch and he was troubled by the things he saw.
Athens and its rival Sparta were caught in a deadly struggle to see which would be the master of the Greek world. Men died, cities were destroyed and nothing was gained, but the war went on. Thucydides began to write about the senseless fighting, hoping that he might teach the men of another time to avoid war. He wrote about the ambassadors from the city of Corinth, who spoke to the Spartans in their assembly, warning them about Athens.
“You have no idea what kind of people these Athenians are”, the Corinthians said, “how altogether different from you. They are always thinking up new schemes and they are quick to make plans and to do something about them; but you are happy with what you have and slow to do even what is necessary. The Athenians are bold and adventurous; you Spartans are cautious and afraid to trust your own strength. They love foreign adventure, which you hate, because they think there is something to win, while you think that something might be lost… When they make a plan and it fails, they are sorry but if it succeeds, they say it is nothing compared to what they are going to do next. It is simply impossible for them to enjoy peace and quiet themselves or to allow anyone else to do so.”
The Corinthians themselves were worried about losing their rich trading routes to the western Mediterranean. Athenian traders were looking greedily in that direction. Athens had just decided to send military aid to Corcyra, a colony that was trying to break away from the Corinthians, who had founded it. Corinth had signed a pact with Sparta; when either city went to war, so must the other. Now the Corinthians demanded that the Spartans lead the attack against Athens and they agreed.
Thucydides said that Corinth’s quarrel with Athens was only the excuse for the war; it was not the reason for it. The true reason, he said, was power. Sparta’s power came from its army, which was the strongest in the world. The king of Persia still dreamed of owning Greece and he hoped to make his dreams come true by encouraging Athens and Sparta to destroy each other. He was sure that the two rival cities would not long be satisfied with sharing the Greek world. Sooner or later, one would try to make use of its power to conquer the other and that was what happened, for with power came greed.
Sparta had always been strong and selfish, but Athens was just as strong. The Athenians had begun to enjoy spending the money that came from their island allies and they wanted more. The polis that was democratic at home became a tyrant on the seas, gobbling up smaller cities, Sparta, fearing for its own empire in the Peloponnesus, started to collect cities, too. The Greek world began to seem too small for the greedy rivals to share it. They held a peace conference, agreed not to fight and went on drilling their troops. Then Corinth gave Sparta a push and in 431 B. C., the Peloponnesian War began.
Spartan troops marched into Attica. Pericles called for the people of the countryside to come into the city, the “island” inside Themistocles’ walls. When they gathered in the market place, clutching their bundles of clothes and pots and tools, Pericles spoke to them. It was useless, he said, to waste Athenian lives in a fight to save Attica; Sparta’s army was too strong but the Spartans could do nothing against Athens’ ships and Sparta was poor, while Athens was rich. Safe inside the city walls, with the fleet to bring them food, the people of Athens only had to wait until the Spartans ran out of money and went home.
The country people nodded silently. Then they picked up their bundles and went to find places to stay in the city. Some found rooms in the temples and government offices. The rest set up tents and makeshift huts between the long walls that ran from Athens to the harbour at Piraeus. There they stayed for weeks and then months. In the winter, the Spartan soldiers went home. They came back in the spring, tramping across the fields of Attica, setting fire to the groves and pulling down the houses.
Plague in Athens
Then the city was invaded by an enemy more deadly than the Spartans. A sailor, just returned from a foreign port, fell sick and died. Soon after, several people in Piraeus came down with the same sickness and they died, too. The doctors were puzzled but when the people in the huts between the Long Walls began to die in the same strange way, they became frightened. The sickness was the plague. There was no cure for it and no way of stopping it from spreading through the crowded city.
In a year, it killed more than a third of Athens’ people. Weakened by illness, weary from long months of guard duty along the walls, the Athenians turned on Pericles in anger. His plan had brought them nothing but losses and deaths, they said. Pericles called a meeting of the Assembly. When the Herald cried, “Who would speak?” he answered, as he had so many times before, “I, Pericles,” but when he climbed to the stone platform, there was no cheer. The men on the hillside were thin and hollow-eyed and they did not trust him. He began to speak. He reminded the citizens that he had brought them the riches of an empire and that they had voted with him to fight Sparta. There was a rumble of disagreement from the crowd.
“I have not changed,” Pericles said, “but you have changed. You will not stand by the plans you voted for when everything was going well. You cannot blame me for that.”
The people would not listen. They voted Pericles out of office and fined him for doing his job badly. A few weeks later they apologised and elected him again, because Athens would not get along without him. Pericles had changed. His handsome face was marked by lines of worry and he seemed tired. Then he fell ill and died, killed by the plague that had killed so many of his people.
In his book, Thucydides told how the citizens of Athens lost their good sense when they lost Pericles. While the Spartans plodded along, getting on with the job and never altering their plans or questioning their generals, the Athenians changed their minds time and again. They voted for one man as long as he won battles; when he lost a fight, they looked for someone else. Each time they were sure that they had found a new Pericles, a “man of the hour” who would lead them to victory and riches, or atleast to peace. Thucydides knew the story well; he was one of the men they had sent away. Others managed to stay.
There was Nicias, an aristocrat and a general. He was cautious man who took great care to find out the will of the gods before he did anything. It was said that he kept a fortuneteller in his house, to tell him what was best for Athens and how to invest his money for the greatest profit. When Nicias led an army, he did what was safe. If he never did anything adventurous, the people could be sure, at least, that he had never done anything wrong. Nicias was for peace.
On the other side were the new politicians, common men who were making names for themselves by speaking well, or loudly, at the Assembly: Cleon, the leather merchant: Eucrates, the rope seller; and Hyperbolus, the lamp maker. They were impatient men, anxious for Athens to fight instead of waiting.
Cleon called himself “the People’s watchdog.” The citizens said it was because at every meeting of the Assembly he barked at the heels of Nicias and the generals. One morning, the generals explained their reasons for not attacking a Spartan army which the fleet had cornered on an island. Cleon asked to speak, as usual. As he climbed heavily to the platform, the people nudged each other; Cleon was in his building mood. He began by sneering at the generals. Then he told them that, if they had the courage at all, they could easily take the trapped Spartans. “Why, if I were a general,” he said, “I’d capture them myself.”
Nicias stepped forward and quietly offered to lend him the troops to do it. Cleon thought it was a bluff. He said Nicias that he was ready to go whenever the generals gave the word. Then he saw that Nicias meant what he said and he tried to back out, but the crowd, already chuckling, had heard enough of his boasts. The more he tried to refuse the command, the more they shouted for him to take it and sail. At last, when he saw that there was no way out, Cleon accepted. He boasted that within twenty days he would bring back the Spartans – unless, of course, he killed them on the spot. The Athenians roared and even the most serious men at the Assembly smiled. So far as they could see, only two things could happen. Either they would be rid of Cleon, which was just as well, or the Spartans outpost would be defeated.
To everyone’s amusement, Cleon came home victorious and his prisoners included Spartan officers. He was elected a general and went off on new campaigns. Meanwhile, cautious Nicias was trying to end the war. Battles were all very well, if one won them, he said. If one lost – well, that was a different story.
In 423 B. C., a committee of Spartans came to Nicias to talk about a truce. Cleon persuaded the Assembly to give him an army and he marched north to chase the Spartans. At Amphipolis, a town in Thrace, he ran into an enemy army commanded by Brasidas, a Spartan who had as little use for the peacemakers as Cleon did. When Cleon saw his fierce opponent, he did not want to fight, but the Spartans charged. Brasidas proved to have more bravery than sense: he led the first wave of men and was killed. Cleon, too, died while leading his troops in a dash for safety.
The Peace of Nicias
After that, the Athenians were willing to listen when Nicias talked about a truce. In 421 B. C., the representatives of the two cities signed a treaty, the “Peace of Nicias”. It called for fifty years of peace and it left things almost exactly as they had been before the ten years of war. When the terms were announced, Sparta’s allies were furious. The Corinthians immediately went off to find other cities that might be willing to fight the Athenians for them. in Athens, the citizens, as usual, began to change their minds.
Nicias now had a new rival in the Assembly, a handsome young noblemen whose name was Alcibiades. He was a kinsman of Pericles, but he was as lighthearted and reckless as Pericles had been thoughtful. In battle, where other men wore armour decorated with the stern emblems of war, Alcibiades carried a gold-plated shield with a picture of Cupid tossing a thunderbolt. In the city, he trailed through the market place in an elegant purple robe. He was the last man to leave a party and the first to begin singing on the way home. When he spoke in the Assembly, the people listened, for he was a clever speaker. Nicias, with his talk of peace, seemed dull beside him.
Alcibiades was for action. He urged the Athenians to think again before he gave up the wealth which their power could bring them. He told them about the island of Sicily and its great city, Syracuse. He talked of a new empire of Athens that would spread from Sicily across the western sea, to Africa and Spain, as far as the Pillars of Hercules. He talked of adventure and countless ships and gold. As the Athenians listened to Alcibiades, they forgot that Athens had once stood for freedom against a foreign tyrant. They forgot, too, that Sicily was far away and so big that it took a ship eight days to sail around it. They did not think about the defenses which a great city like Syracuse was certain to have. They remembered Marathon and Salamis and forgot that then they had fought for their homeland on a battlefield and a bay which they knew as well as they knew the streets of Athens.
No one in the city thought of anything but Sicily. At the Lyceum and the Academy, groups of young men plotted out campaigns on maps of the island which they sketched on the ground. Their fathers met in the market place and considered the costs, comparing them to the treasure that would come back when the battles had been won. In the government offices, the lists of ships and rowers were drawn up.
When the assembly met, Nicias spoke once more for peace. “Is it really a good thing,” he asked, “to send the ships at all? When you go to Sicily, you leave many enemies behind you and make new ones there.” He called for the older, wiser men of Athens to vote against Alcibiades. He was too young to command such a great expedition, Nicias said and he wanted the campaign only to win himself a name. then Nicias reminded the citizens that Alcibiades was so eager for fame that he had once entered seven chariots in the Olympic Games, all drawn by his own expensive horses. How far could a man go to glorify himself?
Alcibiades did not apologise for his pride. He said: “I have a better right than others to hold the command and I think that I am worthy.” As for the seven chariots, he had raced them for the glory of Athens, and he had won first, second and fourth places. The war in Sicily would be for Athens’ glory, too. “We may rule the whole of Greece,” he shouted, “and certainly we will humble the Syracusans.”
The Assembly cheered and voted to send the expedition. Then they named three men to command it: Alcibiades, of course; Lamachus, a skillful general; and Nicias, who did not want to go. On a bright morning, early in the summer of 415 B. C., the people of Athens flocked to the docks at Piraeus to watch the expedition leave. They cheered as the soldiers 30,000 strong, climbed aboard their ships. No one went home until the last vessel had moved across the water and set its course for Syracuse.
Before the week was out, the Athenians were changing their minds again. Now that Alcibiades was gone, his enemies, the politicians who hated him for his riches and his way with the people, could speak freely. They accused him of insulting the gods and said that he was to blame for the gang of ruffians who had smashed many of Athens’ sacred statues one night before the expedition sailed. If Alcibiades commanded the expedition, the politicians warned, the gods would strike him down and all the soldiers with him.
Alcibiades’ friends replied that Corinthian spies had destroyed the statues in order to frighten the men who were leaving for Sicily. The citizens, afraid of angering the gods, refused to listen to reason. Though Alcibiades had planned the whole Syracuse campaign, they took his command away from him. A messenger was sent to tell him to come home to stand trial for insulting the gods.
Alcibiades did not come back. Instead, he fled to the Peloponnesus and then to Sparta. He was too proud to stand aside, like Thucydides, while the war went on without them. if Athens would not have him, he would fight for Athens’ enemies. He became an adviser to the Spartan kings and began to plan the defeat of the armies he had once commanded.
Meanwhile, Nicias and Lamachus had led the Athenian expedition to Sicily. They won few victories, for the Sicilians were hard fighters and the strange battlefields were full of traps. Even so, the Athenians pushed on towards Syracuse. Then Lamachus was killed, leaving only Nicias to lead the attack on the biggest city in the Greek world. He was the wrong man for the job. Cautious as ever, he was slow to attack, afraid to take risks and never sure of himself or his men. The expedition came to a halt outside the walls of Syracuse and there it sat. Reinforcements arrived from Athens, but Nicias still waited, while the Syracusans strengthened their defenses and persuaded Sparta to come to their aid.
When the Spartans landed in Sicily, Nicias decided to retreat. It would be no victory, but at least he could get his men on the ships and run for the open sea before the harbour at Syracuse was blocked. On the night that the ships were to sail, there was an eclipse of the moon. Nicias was certain that it was a bad omen. His fortune-teller agreed and advised him to wait for a full moon.
While Nicias waited, the enemy navy sailed across the harbour, attacked and defeated the great fleet from Athens. The Athenians beached their ships or left them to sink and tried to escape by land. For days the worn-out army plodded on, without food or water. The rear half fell behind and was easily captured. Then the Syracusans moved in to finish off the rest. The last troop of Athenians was caught on the bank of a river. They were so thirsty that they did not care when the enemy soldiers came at them. They ran for the water and drank it as they died.
Seven thousand Athenians were all that was left of the great expedition, were thrown into the Syracusan stone quarries. There, with no shelter from the summer’s burning sun or the bitter cold of winter, they grew weak and all but a few died. Those who lived, owed their life to poetry. When gentlemen sightseers came out from Syracuse to have a look at the quarries, they heard some of the captives chanting the lines of plays which they had seen in Athens. The Syracusans stared. Then, realizing that these bony men in rags had once been gentlemen, too, they pitied them. they arranged to buy their freedom, in return for more speeches from the plays.
When the citizens of Athens heard the stories of those few half-dead men who came from Syracuse, they at first refused to believe them. When they did, they forgot they had voted for Alcibiades themselves and remembered only the men – and the treasure – which they had lost. They claimed for new generals and new fleets – and victories. Gold and silver decorations were stripped from the Acropolis and melted down to pay for more ships. Slaves were offered their freedom if they fought for Athens but there was no talk of ending the war.
The Spartans too, were eager to fight again, for now they had a fleet as well as an army. The ships were a gift from the king of Persia, who had decided that it was time for him to lend a hand in the war that was destroying Greece. When the Spartans marched into Attica again, the new battleships sailed into the Aegean. They attacked the merchant vessels which took supplies to Athens and cruised around the island allies, encouraging them to desert the Delian League. The king of Persia did not say what he meant to do when the island had been “set free” from Athens’ protection, but he was greatly pleased with the success of the Spartan cruisers.
Panic swept Athens. Thucydides called it a kind of madness, the last symptoms of the greed which had so changed the city. Athenian justice was forgotten. The island allies were taxed until they had no money left. When one of the little cities begged to stay out of the war, Athens sent the fleet with orders to execute all the men in the city and to sell their families into slavery. This was not cruelty, the Athenians said: it was showing the world that Athens was still powerful.
The citizens began to distrust each other. Leaders elected one day were executed the next. A group of commanders who came home with news of a victory at sea were arrested for losing too many men in the battle. Hauled from the Assembly, the commanders were condemned to death by the democracy which they had defended. For a few months, democracy itself was forgotten, while a council of 400 ruled Athens but the Assembly soon took over again, shouting and wrangling.
One summer evening in 405 B. C., the ship Paralus docked at Piraeus. One of the sailors stopped at a barber shop before going into the city. A minute or two later, another man dashed out of the shop, howling, his face wet with tears. As he ran toward Athens, a chorus of wailing followed him along the Long Walls and then shouts and sobbing filled the city. The news which the sailor had brought to the gossips in the barber shop was the worst that Athens could hear. At Aegospotami on the Hellespont, a squadron of Spartan warships had utterly defeated the Athenian fleet.
Athens held out for a year. Men, allies, ships, money – all were gone. Enemy troops camped outside the city walls and enemy ships blocked the harbour at Piraeus, waiting for the Athenians to starve or surrender. Thucydides received a message from the assembly, a polite invitation to return to Athens. There was nothing he could do to help the city now, but he went, because Athens was his home. He was there when the people begged for Sparta’s terms and the Athenian leaders signed the agreement.
Peace came in the summer of 404 B. C., after twenty-seven years of war. The Spartans flutes struck up a tune. Soldiers, decked with garlands, began to throw down the stones of Themistocles’ great walls. Athens had been forced to agree to that and to give up its league of cities and all but twelve of its warships. The city was not destroyed and its people were not sold as slaves. Thucydides was grateful. They were better terms than the Athenians might have given the Spartans, if the war had gone the other way.