Victor Davis Hanson: How Did Democracy Die in Athens?

Roundup: Talking About History

Was Athens — or Greece itself — destroyed by the war? An entire industry of classical scholarship once argued for postwar Hellenic "decline," and the subsequent tide of fourth-century poverty, social unrest, and class struggle as arising after the Peloponnesian War. Victorians, in turn, felt the loss was more a "what might have been," a conflict that had ended not just the idea of Athens but "the glory that was Greece" itself and the Hellenic civilizing influence in the wider Mediterranean.

Bernard Henderson, for example, ended his military history of the Peloponnesian War with the melancholy reflection that the romance of Greek history "for a half-century illumined the Imperial Democracy of Athens and the people's leaders. Athens falls, and the gleam lights on her no more. The City, for all Demosthenes' fiery if mistaken eloquence, lies henceforward in perpetual shadow." Alfred Zimmern, a utopian who was deeply involved in the work of the League of Nations, summed up best the Victorian view that the war had been the tragic divide of ancient, and indeed world, history.

For a wonderful half-century, the richest and happiest period in the recorded history of any single community, Politics and Morality, the deepest and strongest forces of national and of individual life, had moved forward hand in hand towards a complete ideal, the perfect citizen in the perfect state. All the high things in human life seemed to lie along that road: "Freedom, Law, and Progress"; Truth and Beauty; Knowledge and Virtue; Humanity and Religion. Now the gods had put them asunder.

In the short term, perhaps such bleak assessments rang true. Soon after the fighting stopped in autumn 405, democracy, saddled as it was with the humiliation of military defeat and the loss of thousands of unfortunate supporters who had gone down in the Aegean during the nearly decade-long Ionian War, began to unwind. After the formal capitulation of spring 404, it was replaced by a narrow and mean-spirited oligarchy (the Thirty Tyrants), as Athens' old tributary subjects abroad were "liberated" and left to their own devices. Aegospotami marks the of?cial end of direct Athenian-Spartan hostilities, yet the war was not formally concluded until a besieged Athens gave up the democracy in spring 404.

In place of an enlightened democratic hegemony, an incompetent Spartan protectorate clumsily tried to impose on Athens' former subjects oligarchies that left the most vulnerable states in Asia Minor open to either direct or insidious Persian suzerainty. In peace, the conquering Lysander quickly proved to be a different sort of statesman from Pericles, an oligarchic rather than a democratic imperialist whose brutality was not mitigated by any sense of majesty.

After a brief civil war and the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, by late 403 democratic government was ?rmly once more in control at Athens, in glorious fashion. It would provide another six decades of relative tranquillity and stability, if not a dangerous laxity, before the onslaught of Philip of Macedon in the 340s....

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