A House Divided: Athens, Sparta, and the Inevitable Fall of Greece

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A House Divided: Athens, Sparta, and the Inevitable Fall of Greece

The stunning Greek defeat of the Persians, the specter of which lurks behind the events of the Peloponnesian Wars, was for Herodotus proof of the superiority of Hellenic form of government and way of life, and Herodotus ends his history at this pinnacle of Greek history. Thucydides then accepts the task of chronicling Greece’s unraveling from a position as the dominant power of the Mediterranean, and a center of cultural, technological, and political development to the final result of the Peloponnesian Wars—a fractured, demoralized, and dependent Greece that lies wide open to foreign conquest. This result is, for Thucydides, apparent from the beginning of the conflict. Greece can only dominate when the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is maintained, and the destruction of either is tantamount to the destruction of the whole. An accurate understanding of the national characters of Athens and Sparta makes it clear which of the two will ultimately be the victor of a long, arduous military struggle, but the same understanding of national character makes it equally apparent that the one which can dominate militarily cannot lead Greece. The speeches made at the First Lacedaemonian Congress emphasize not only the character of the two nations in conflict, but more broadly, the inevitability of Hellenic demise as a result of this conflict.

Thucydides sets down the development of the relationship between the power of Athens and Sparta in the Archeology. Athens emerges from the Persian Wars as the undisputed commercial superpower in Greece. Where Sparta is located in the fertile Peloponnesus, and is thus able to sustain itself on agriculture alone, making trade unnecessary and allowing it to maintain its own laws and customs for “more than four hundred years” (I.18.1), Athens’ infertile land forces it to turn to olive oil for revenue, and it consequently develops a flourishing trade economy even before the Darius set his sights on Greece. The Persian invasion itself makes a sea power out of Athens, allowing it to establish a Mediterranean empire, and export its culture and government to the rest of Greece (I.18.2, I.6.3). This serves to unify the scattered Ionian and Doric cities under the umbrella of the Hellenes culturally where the Spartan campaign to remove tyrants unifies it politically by giving Greeks relative freedom and subordinating it uniformly to the law, and the joint coalition against the Persians ultimately secured it militarily (I.

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