The Peloponnesian War and the Decline of Leadership in Athens

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The Peloponnesian War and the Decline of Leadership in Athens

Thucydides set out to narrate the events of what he believed would be a great war—one requiring great power amassed on both sides and great states to carry out. Greatness, for Thucydides, was measured most fundamentally in capital and military strength, but his history delves into almost every aspect of the war, including, quite prominently, its leaders. In Athens especially, leadership was vital to the war effort because the city’s leaders were chosen by its people and thus, both shaped Athens and reflected its character during their lifetimes. The leaders themselves, however, are vastly different in their abilities and their effects on the city. Thucydides featured both Pericles and Alcibiades prominently in his history, and each had a distinct place in the evolution of Athenian empire and the war it sparked between Athens and Sparta. Pericles ascended to power at the empire’s height and was, according to Thucydides, the city’s most capable politician, a man who understood fully the nature of his city and its political institutions and used his understanding to further its interests in tandem with his own. After Pericles, however, Thucydides notes a drastic decline in the quality of Athenian leaders, culminating in Alcibiades, the last major general to be described in The Peloponnesian War. While he is explicit in this conclusion, he is much more reticent regarding its cause. What changed in Athens to produce the decline in the quality of its leadership?

The development of an empire is a change strongly emphasized in the Archeology as a radical departure from the Hellenic tradition, and consequently a major source of conflict among the Greeks. Prior to the adven...

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...edicted it would, and without a leader like him willing to direct them away from this mindset rather than pander to it to get votes, the political constitution of the city was doomed to dissolve. Speaking of the revolution in Corcyra, which occurred after the Athenian decision to spare Mytilene but before its destruction of Melos, Thucydides wrote, “In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (III.82.2). This was precisely the change Athens underwent, and the cause of its eventual demise.

Works Cited

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Ed. Robert Strassler. Trans. Richard Crawley.

Touchstone: New York. 1996.

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