Our common European civilization—of which the old American Republic is an integral part, or else it is nothing —is rooted in “the glory that was Greece.” Our spiritual and intellectual mentors are to be found among Greek thinkers, scientists, and artists.
This inheritance is reflected even in the way we repeat the political follies of the Greeks: Our present leaders do not seem to know that, after leading an alliance of independent commonwealths against a mighty aggressor from the East, Athens grew rich and arrogant in the aftermath of her victory. Her leadership degenerated into hegemony, which the Athenians justified as “exporting democracy.” Imperial Athens was obeyed for several decades —initially out of self-interest, then out of fear rather than respect—but in the end, it was hated. Power generated countervailing power: Other Greek city-states united against Athens, and she fell at the end of the fifth century B.C., never to recover her political or military hegemony.
Historical parallels between epochs and events can be valid only because human nature remains constant. Our jet engines and internet search engines do not make us significantly different from our European ancestors. To claim that the material progress of the past century or two makes us wiser or better than the Greeks of 25 centuries ago would be preposterous. The story of the rise and fall of Athens should remind our rulers that certain modes of political thinking and behavior will produce the same results today that they did in 404 B.C., in A.D. 1815, or in 1945.
The Persian invasion of mainland Greece in 480 B.C. played a crucial role in defining the Hellenic identity. Of the hundreds of Greek city-states, only a few dozen opposed Xerxes, the king of Persia, and only a small minority of all Greeks participated in the war, but the victory of Athens made freedom from foreign control a key element of the Greek consciousness.
In the years that followed the Persian defeat, Athenian power grew unabated. Its rise was due largely to the geopolitical genius of Themistocles, whose insistence on the need for a strong permanent navy was eminently modern in its strategic assumptions. The withdrawal of the Spartans from the continuing war against the Persians also bolstered Athens’ claim—still limited and modest at that time—to be recognized as the first among equals. In order to forge closer ties with the Ionians and the islands and to prevent any further threat from the east, the Athenians established an alliance based on the island of Delos—the so-called Delian League. Formed as a defensive alliance against Persia, the league quickly evolved into a tool for furthering Athenian ambitions in Hellas proper.
What did “Hellas” mean? The notion of Hellenic unity was originally based on freely evolved institutions, such as common shrines and beliefs, alphabet, and Homeric tradition. But this spontaneous unity of culture and tradition by no means implied the necessity, let alone any widely spread desire, for a centralized state. The prevailing view of “Hellas” implied political diversity in cultural unity, an extreme version of the American view of the Old Republic.
By 468 B.C., after the Ionian cities had been liberated and the Persian fleet destroyed, many members thought it unnecessary to continue the confederacy. They acted as reasonably—and naively—as those of us who felt that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had outlived its purpose after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. In suppressing all attempts of league members to secede, the Athenians claimed, first, that the Persian danger still existed; second, that the alliance was needed to maintain and protect the large freetrade area so necessary for allied (read: Athenian) commerce; and, finally, that the alliance was needed to promote democracy. The similarity with our own times is remarkable.
It has been said that the Athenians created an empire because they dared not destroy a confederation. This is giving them too much credit; Empires are not created by default, against the wishes of allegedly reluctant hegemonists. In order to keep her budding empire together, Athens started meddling in her clients’ internal affairs and ordering their lives in the name of “spreading democracy.” She aided and abetted the suppression of their local aristocratic structures and hailed herself as the leader of a union of “democratic” states. Athens’ self-appointed role signaled the birth of a vision of international affairs that has created endless problems for its victims and proponents ever since.
Despite the self-serving rhetoric of the Athenians, to many Greeks—including Sparta, her allies, and the aristocrats exiled from cities allied with Athens—Athens was a “tyrant city” and an “enslaver of Greek liberties.” Pericles sought to justify Athenian imperialism by claiming that it brought “freedom” from fear and want to the Greek world. “We did not gain this empire by force,” he asserted. “Our allies came to us of their own accord and begged us to lead them.” That may have been true, up to a point; but having been led, they were no longer free to drank their leaders and continue on their way.
Thucydides outlines how Athens embarked on her imperial experiment almost without pause or deliberation. As leader of the league, she fully controlled it. The Athenian citizens alone selected its treasurers. In 454 B.C., the Athenians moved the treasury of the league to their city and started collecting one sixteenth of the allies’ tribute to Athena Polias, patron of Athens and now patron of the league. This money paid for the temples on the Acropolis, supported the Athenian fleet, provided work for the citizens of Athens, and fortified a reserve fund.
By 450 B.C., the Delian League had essentially become an organization of Athenian colonies whose center and treasury were now in Athens. Many of the allied leaders went along with this arrangement because they preferred political stability and commercial predictability to independence, while others no longer felt accountable to their own people. (Think of Canada’s Jean Chrétien, or Britain’s Tony Blair.)
The league’s activities soon expanded into “anti-terrorist” operations: Scyros, Carystus, and Naxos—Greek pirate nests—were turned into Athenian settlements. An “out-of-area” operation into the non-Greek eastern Mediterranean followed. While the Athenian task force to Egypt in 459 B.C. was a major disaster, others were successful and lucrative.
After 460 B.C., the Athenians gave up the pretense of consensual leadership and initiated hostilities with Sparta’s allies—and soon with Sparta itself. The fighting from 459 until 445 is sometimes called the First Peloponnesian War, but it was a mere skirmish compared to the war initiated in 431 B.C. At that time, the Athenians became the sovereign power of much of Hellas, realizing for themselves the dream of the king of Persia.
Those proud men who had only recently won over the Spartans by assuring them that nothing could enslave the Hellenes were now trying to justify their attitude by “three of the strongest motives: fear, honor and interest.” “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger,” they said. Their arrogance is revealed by Thucydides:
[W]e know that men, by a natural law, always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist forever, after we are gone; and we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do.
Under Pericles’ inept successors, Athenian imperialism showed its ugly face. In 416 B.C., the Athenians assaulted Melos, a neutral Aegean island that had been reluctant to join the Athenian empire. They ordered the death of all Melian men of military age and the enslavement of their women. The following year, the Athenians launched their fatal expedition against Syracuse (the major Greek state in Sicily), hoping to add Sicily to their empire and thus become powerful enough “to rule the whole of the Greek world.” But the Syracusans, supported by Sparta, routed two Athenian fleets and a large army. The war dragged on until 404 B.C., when Athens capitulated after its last fleet was destroyed—by a Spartan fleet built with Persian money. The once great city-state was stripped of its empire.
Thucydides recognized that war is part of the human condition. Human nature, which he depicts as grasping and insatiable, is reflected in international affairs. Morality is not a guide: Even an outraged sense of justice generates strife and injustice. Furthermore, if the urge for domination is irresistible—as the Athenians claimed—it is value-neutral, rather than “unjust.” Therefore, equal respect for equal power, “just” or not, is the prescription for stability and peace. It can be achieved through a balance of power.
Europeans understood this well, at least in the three centuries between the Peace of Westphalia and World War I. America’s present overseas interlocutors have been forced to relearn the lesson: The logic of Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” leaves them no choice. The message of Thucydides is that states threatened by an American “imperium” should take on a balancing role to discourage or contain the expanding power of the United States.
The European Union, Russia, and China are beginning to understand this. “As cruel as it may seem, a timely check from the outside may be the best we can hope for America; an imbalance neglected for too long can only be resolved through the disaster of war. Thucydides sees such restraint on expansion as the only viable route to peace. Those who have the power to block expansionism but fail to do so, he believed, are the true culprits. Thucydidean prudence, if properly applied, can prolong periods of peace and shorten periods of war.
The entire history of Athens, Edmund Burke maintained, was that of “Rashness, Folly, Ingratitude, Injustice, Tumult, Violence, and Tyranny, and indeed of every Species of Wickedness that can well be imagined.” Concerning the Delian League in particular, he argued that the Athenians “began to tyrannize over their Equals . . . With their Prudence they renounced all Appearance of Justice.” Under Pericles, whom Barthélémy described (in the 18th century) as “the most dangerous of those leaders who paid court to the multitude,” the Athenians “had the insolence to avow that the only law of nations they were acquainted with was force.”
There was far more to Athens than rashness and folly, as the remains of Attic drama and the ruins of the public buildings built by Pericles and the Athenians during the heyday of die empire attest. The legacy of our latter-day global hegemonists is limited to Blair’s Millennium Dome, the bomb craters in the Balkans, and the library of books that have been published to exonerate a criminal president who is as similar to Pericles as Madeleine Albright is to Athena.