xenopon

Xenophon

The other author who tells us about Socrates is Xenophon. We owe him much. In addition to writing down what he remembered of conversations with Socrates, he wrote a short account of the Peloponnesian War after 411 (Thucydides only completed his history up to that year, although he lived until 400 B.C). His most famous work was the Anabasis (“March up Country”). This describes how (401 B.C.) he joined a Greek force which had been hired by Cyrus, brother of the Persian King, in the hope of seizing the throne. The fact that Cyrus had been the ally of Sparta and that this mercenary force contained a large body of Spartans did not worry Xenophon. Cyrus led them and a large Persian army inland from Sardis and after a time made it clear that his object was to seize the throne of his brother, Artaxerxes, King of Persia. The “Ten Thousand” (we remember the Greek contingent by their numbers) marched through Asia Minor and along the Euphrates to Babylon together with the rest of the rebel army. Outside Babylon there was a battle in which Cyrus was killed. Soon afterwards the Greek generals were murdered and Xenophon found himself in command. He could not move back along the Euphrates, the way they had come, because no supplies were available. So he went north through the highlands of Kurdistan. After months of great hardship the advance guard’s cry: “The sea! the sea!” was passed excitedly down the straggling column and gave the men new hope. They had reached Trapezus (Trebizond), a Greek colony on the Black Sea, whence many were able to return home (399). However, the story of this remarkable journey cut no ice at Athens and Xenophon was banished for having helped Cyrus, the friend of Sparta. After that …

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socrates' death

Socrates’ Death

Socrates’ death occurred in the year 399 an Athenian court condemned Socrates for opposing the official religion of the state, a practice which in fact he studiously avoided and for “corrupting the youth”, which simply meant that he tried to get young people to think things out instead of yapping slogans. When the penalty was being discussed, Socrates said that, far from being punished, he thought he ought to be given free dinners for life in return for his services to the state. This independent line did not incline the court towards leniency and they were not interested when Socrates then offered to pay a fine. They condemned him to death. Socrates’ death by execution was dignified. Socrates was handed a cup of hemlock. He put it to his lips without trembling. He was not afraid of death, though he did not know what it might have in store for him. True to his often repeated maxim that our only certain knowledge is the knowledge of our own ignorance, he kept an open mind to the end. “Whether life or death is better, is known to God and to God only”, he said. “Thus died the man, who of all with whom we were acquainted was in death the noblest, in life the wisest and most just.” Those two quotations are from Plato (the first from the Apology, the second from the Phaedo).

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oligarchy

Oligarchy and Athens in Defeat

Oligarchy — “rule by the few” was a form of government which Athens had not experienced since the 6th century, though it was common in many of the Greek states. This closing stage was surprisingly long. Alcibiades, having made himself unpopular at Sparta, was allowed once more to take command of the Athenian fleet, which he did with some success. On the home front the Spartans were not in a hurry. For a people of such high military reputation they were astonishingly cautious. Year after year they were content to operate from Decelea. They never tried to capture Athens by assault. In this they were wise. The thorn festering in the flesh would infect the whole body in time. The Sicilian disaster roused so much distrust in democracy at Athens that it was possible for an oligarch); to seize power (411). In referring to earlier times the word “aristocracy” — “rule by the best”, i.e. the old-established wealthy families, is sometimes used, but the form of government described is the same as oligarchy-rule by a small wealthy group. The change of word simply indicates that, as time went on, the old families were not the only wealthy ones. The oligarchs only stayed in power for a few months. The men of the fleet at Samos threatened to sail against Athens if democracy was not restored. So in the autumn the chief oligarchs fled to Decelea and a limited democracy, which still excluded the poor, was established. Next year (410), again under pressure from the sailors, who were poor and justifiably pleased with themselves after a victory over the Spartan fleet, the full democracy was restored. There followed five years in which Spartan peace offers were contemptuously rejected, while good conduct of the war was made impossible owing to the reckless …

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Decelea

Decelea, a Thorn in the Flesh

Decelea near the border of Attica and Boeotia was fortified by the Spartans (413). The first piece of good advice which Alcibiades gave the Spartans was to send Gylippus to Syracuse. The second was this: “Restart the war; but don’t just invade Attica for a few weeks of the year. Fortify a position on Attic soil and hold it.” (Gilbert Murray’s translation). Raids from this post made the growing of crops more difficult than ever and cut the route to Euboea, where the cattle and goats had been sent for safety. An attack on Athens itself had constantly to be guarded against. The silver mines at Laurium had to be closed and thousands of slaves slipped away to Decelea as deserters. (There may have been more slaves than citizens in Athens and though they were protected by the law and were less badly off than elsewhere in the Ancient World, plenty were ready to leave.) Decelea was a thorn in the flesh of Attica. The essentials of a thorn in the flesh are that it hurts all the time; then it festers and hurts more and more: finally the sufferer is ready to pay any price to have it taken out. The sufferings inflicted by the Decelea garrison were only beginning when, late in the year 413, a barber in the Peiraeus welcomed a customer who had just arrived in the port. This customer mentioned the Athenian disaster in Sicily, little knowing that he was first with the news. The Athenians put him in prison for spreading false rumours; but they soon knew he had told the truth and as the news spread among the subject islands and cities of the Aegean they began to make plans not so much for freedom, which was not a practical proposition, but for …

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Hecuba, Queen of Troy

Hecuba, Queen of Troy

In the year when the expedition sailed to Sicily (415) Euripides put on a play, the Trojan Women, in which the wives of the defeated heroes of Troy were shown in the first bitterness of enslavement. When he wrote, Euripides was burning with the shame of the massacre of Melos; but now to those among the parched and ragged remnant of the Athenian expedition to Sicily who remembered his words they must have seemed like prophecy. As they shuffled towards the slave market or the stone quarries these once proud citizens of Athens might well recall the despairing cry which Euripides had put into the mouth of Hecuba, Queen of Troy: God! 0 God of Mercy! . . . Nay: Why call I on the Gods? They know, they know, My prayers, and would not hear them long ago. (Gilbert Murray’s translation.) Athens had suffered the most crushing defeat in her history and Hecuba never recovered. The year 413 was the evening of the great day which had dawned at Marathon, seventy-seven years before. Make no mistake about it, despite all their cruelties and follies those years were great. No one reads with exultation about the failure of the Athenian expedition. It is tragic, in the most serious sense of the word. For the “tragedies” which Athenian dramatists gave to the world were plays which moved the audience to pity and terror over the inscrutable workings of fate. They were no melodramas in which good enjoyed a simple triumph over evil. No character in them was quite right or quite wrong and none was petty. Tragedy meant that what was great and noble somehow tumbled into the dust. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many other writers had known how to write it. In the end, as we have seen, the Athenians …

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Hermes, Sicily

Sicily

Greeks had first settled round the coasts of Sicily during the colonising period and in 480 they had united to defeat a Carthaginian attempt to oust them from Sicily. Their unity, however, like that of the mainland Greeks against the Persians, did not last long and already in 427 the town of Leontini had asked for help from Athens against the Corinthian colony of Syracuse. Already settled in Sicily, now, in 416, another enemy of Syracuse, Segesta, appealed to Athens. The Athenians sent ambassadors to Segesta. These ambassadors were impressed by the wealth of the place, which the Segestans exaggerated by sending round the same set of gold and silver plate to each house at which the ambassadors were entertained. Alcibiades looked at it this way. With the massacre of Melos the last resistance in the Aegean had been disposed of. If Athens was to go on extending her maritime Empire she must look westwards. No matter if the Segestans had to be accepted as allies on an equal footing until Syracuse was conquered. None knew better than the Athenians the steps by which an ally might be changed into a subject. There was also the point that the sympathies of Syracuse, since she was a Corinthian colony, inclined towards the Spartan alliance to which Corinth belonged. If therefore Syracuse should decide to join in the quarrel which, in spite of the Peace of Nicias, still divided mainland Greece, she would join the enemies of Athens. Far better, then, to strike at her first. Sicily, to illustrate the Athenian Expedition Nicias believed neither in the possibility of a new Athenian Empire in the west, nor in the risk of Syracuse allying herself with Sparta; but the Assembly preferred the arguments of Alcibiades, aged 35, to those of the elderly, timid, …

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Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the nephew of Pericles. As well as being rich and handsome, he was amusing, clever, insolent and unreliable. He was about twenty when Socrates saved his life at Potidaea in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (432). He fought in other battles and also found time to lead a gay life in Athens, to talk to Socrates and to race chariots in the Olympic Games. It was not till after the death of Cleon that he became a leading politician and general. It may seem surprising that the place of a tanner should have been taken by an aristocrat, but the Athenian Assembly had never been opposed to rich men. Rich men financed the plays at the great festivals and paid for the maintenance of ships. The Assembly did not dispute their right to be rich, nor did it try to divide up their estates. What the citizens wanted was that Athens should be powerful and wealthy, so that there should be plenty of markets for their goods and plenty of paid service on juries and on the Council. Alcibiades said he could show them how to keep Athens powerful and make her wealthy again after the huge expenditure of the first ten years of war. So they gave him their votes and did not grudge him his wealth. The peace made in 421 was called after Nicias, who was now the most powerful rival of Alcibiades. He too was a rich man. He was one of those who rented state-owned silver mines at Laurium and worked them by slave labour at a profit. He was not ambitious hence, his championing of the peace; but neither he nor Athens was destined to be at peace for long. In spite of the treaty, Athenian troops fought in the …

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Socrates

Socrates

Socrates was short, ugly and brave. He served as a hoplite in the Peloponnesian war and on one occasion saved the life of a rich and handsome young recruit. It was the proper thing to do of course, but one’s admiration is tinged with regret, for the recruit whom Socrates rescued was Alcibiades. The time was now approaching when many Athenians would curse that name. The strange thing is that, throughout these first ten years of the Peloponnesian War and the worse ones which were to follow, one of the wisest and most lovable men who has ever lived was a citizen of Athens and saw service in her armies. Though Aristophanes guyed him in a comedy called the Clouds, Thucydides does not mention his name. He was not then thought to exercise an important influence upon the state’s affairs. Later, as will be seen, he was thought to exercise far too much. This man was Socrates, born in 468. His mother was a midwife, his father a stonemason and Socrates probably began life as a worker in marble or stone. There was a group of sculpture on the Acropolis which was said to be his work, but he soon gave up his trade and devoted himself to philosophy. The word “philosophy”, which is made up of two Greek words meaning “love of wisdom”, covered the whole of knowledge in those days. “Philosophers” included people we would call scientists or mathematicians (e.g. Thales and Pythagoras). Socrates was not one of those, nor was he one of the sophists, people who made money by giving lessons in debating. His method was informal conversation, unpaid. He would get people talking in a gymnasium (openair athletics centre) or in a workshop or in the agora (city centre and market) and by quiet, innocent-sounding …

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peace

Peace

Not everyone approved of this policy. The country people, whose farms were being devastated every year by the invading Spartans, were ready for peace. So was Aristophanes. In 424 he won first prize with the Knights, a comedy in which he himself played the part of Cleon. So savagely satirical were the lines he had written for this character that no one dared make him a mask to wear. So he smeared his face with red juice and went on the stage without a mask. Cleon for all his power, could not retaliate. In the following year (423) Cleon went campaigning against the Spartan Brasidas in Thrace, but luck deserted him. He had served as a general, but never in a lower rank, so he was bound to blunder sooner or later. He gave a wrong order, which exposed his men to the enemy and was killed as he tried to escape from the rout. His wounds were not in front. Two years later (421) peace was made. Prisoners and certain conquests were returned. There had been ten years of war and the turbulent Cleon was dead. Aristophanes wrote a comedy called the Peace, which looked forward to happier times. In fact there were depths of viciousness and folly which the Athenians had not yet explored.

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Cleon Tanner

Cleon the Tanner

Cruelty showed itself only two years after Pericles was dead. In 428, after the usual spring invasion by the Spartans and before the Olympic games, which were being held as usual, Lesbos had revolted. The Spartans had promised to help the Lesbians and in the following year their fleet at last arrived — a week too late. Mytilene, the capital of the island had already surrendered to the Athenians. The Athenian Assembly now had the people of Mytilene at their mercy. They voted that every man should be put to death, the women and children enslaved. A trireme was sent off to carry out this order. Next day the Assembly came to their senses and sent out a second trireme to countermand the instructions for massacre. It was only just in time. The person responsible for persuading the Assembly to take their first, disgraceful decision was Cleon, a tanner. The Athenian democracy had reached the point where what is now called “the common man” could obtain supreme power. The politicians, instead of being land-owners, were people who made things, they were people who bought and sold things. The 40,000 citizens of Athens, among whom small craftsmen and traders were the majority, had so far been content to enjoy their privileges (e.g. payment for jury service, payment for sitting on the Council of 500) while allowing an aristocrat, Pericles, to lead them. Now they wanted positions of power as well as privileges; and they got them. They had to struggle among themselves first. Dozens, hundreds perhaps, would have liked to exchange the petty power over a few slaves and apprentices, which they enjoyed in their workshops, for the position of one of the generals of the Athenian people. It was useless for them to try and reach that position by being …

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