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Behind the glamorous stories of heroism and great manuscripts of philosophy, the creation and prosperity of the ancient Greek city-states did not happen suddenly nor easily Unlike other contemporary civilizations such as Egypt or Mesopotamia, the ancient Greeks did not have the luxury of depending on fertile soil from a river valley for agriculture. Neither did the various mountain ranges provide the opportunity for unity among the different peoples that lived there. However, the Aegean Sea would prove to be to lifeline for many of potential city-states, which acted as their source of food, water, and trade. Moving to the fertile plains from 1100 B.C. to 800 B.C. during the Dark Age , the ancient Greeks would prosper initially in isolated poleis , where they would cultivate their own separate civilizations. One of these polis that would eventually rise to power above the rest of ancient Greece would be the settlement first established by the Ionians in Attica, Athens. Similar to other civilizations of its time, Athens began as a theocracy .
However, the Athenians eventually respected human intelligence more than divine beings, although religion did not disappear completely, “As Greek rationalism gained influence, traditional religious beliefs and restrictions either were made to comply more with the demands of reason or grew weaker through neglect and disuse.” Great thinkers for their time, the ancient Athenians would be among the first to cast aside the ideals of human helplessness against divine interventions or the desires of gods and demons. Rather, the Athenians poses their society on the foundation of rationalism, in which logic and reason dictate human behavior and decisions. With a society established on the fundamental of rationalism, the Athenians would conceive a radical form of government that would act as one of their sources of achievement and pride, democracy. The road that ultimately leads to that ideal government for Athens yet has many obstacles.
Athens went through many transitions in government, from “rule by a king (monarchy), rule by landowning aristocracy (oligarchy), rule by one man who seized power (tyranny) and rule by the people (democracy).” Cleisthenes, “an aristocrat sympathetic for democracy” established democracy as a permanent form of government in Athens with the introduction of ostracism and the creation of the Assembly, “the supreme authority in the state open to all male citizens” . After the Persian Wars , Athenian democracy grew stronger, forming the concept of isonomy and the Council of Five Hundred . Civilians thrived in the political atmosphere, although really the aristocrats would dominate political life. Although Athens poses a powerful position among the other Greek city-states, it was not alone. Other poleis would prosper during the Hellenistic Age, a time of great progress as well as violence and tragedy, especially Sparta.
Rivaling both terms of military strength and political influence, Sparta was Athens’s chief adversary. Hailing from the ancient Dorians who settled in the Peloponnesian peninsula, the Spartans were in almost everything opposite to Athenian ideals. The Spartans were a highly-militarized race; the main focus of a Spartan’s life centered around the state . Whether a person was a heavily trained soldier on the battlefield or a slave creating pottery, every effort was made to benefit the state. Sparta was closed in; their sense of freedom meant independence from foreigners and relied more on internal power. Citizenship was granted to those born in Sparta with a lineage that traces back to the original Dorian settlers. Sparta nevertheless, eventually elevated in status, By 500 B.C. Sparta would as the leader of the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of southern Greek city-states whose land forces were superior to those of any combination of Greek cities. Sparta, though, was concerned with protecting its position, not with expansion. Cautious…and always fearful. Sparta viewed the Peloponnesian League as an instrument for defense rather than aggression. Witnessing Athens’s Delian League begin to expand around the Mediterranean only made Sparta more cautious. The conflicting views of freedom, citizenship, and protection versus expansion would ultimately plummet both mighty Athens’s Delian League and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League into war.
Finally, in 431 B.C., Peloponnesian land forces invaded and burned down Attica. In response to the first to have died in this new war, to be called later the Peloponnesian War, Pericles is chosen to speak on behalf of the fallen soldiers. Reconstructed and recorded in Thucydides’s book on the Peloponnesian War written thirty-one years after the occurrence, Pericles’s speech for the Athenian dead poses as a humble gesture of honor and praise for the soldiers who have fallen in battle. A formal ceremony held solemnly by the Athenians during every war, the act of such a burial ceremony demonstrates that such rituals are established by institution and tradition, rather than a religious obligation. Instead of further orating on topics of death and honor, Pericles turns his attention to the current state of Athens, in which he proclaims the state of Athens to be above all else, “‘Let me say that our system of government [democracy] does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model of others.”’
The words of Pericles clearly show the praise for Athenian democracy and its superiority to others as a model. He goes on to talk about Athenian lifestyle and recreation, as to further position Athens as the height of civilization. In the next section of his speech, Pericles goes on to talk about Sparta, in many different topics, from military stratagem, to education of the youth, and even on the basis of courage. He undermines the sanctity of Spartan courage, calling it “state-induced” compared to the “natural” courage of the Athenians. Pericles stresses that, unlike other Greek city-states, Athens takes seriously the role of citizens in its government, “‘…we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”’ Pericles makes several claims as to say that politics is what makes Athens and what makes a man worth living in it. To return to his point on Athenian greatness, Pericles mentions Athens’s good intentions with their neighbors “by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.” From a biased Athenian viewpoint this may be the case, as Athens created the Delian League to protect the weaker city-states from foreign invasion. However, in reality, the smaller poleis did not favor Athenian imperialism, as they felt Athens was just using them for profit (which they were).
Pericles mentions his words of advice to the parents, in which they should be proud to have lamented such honorable kin, to brothers that their achievements while alive will never compare to the fallen’s sacrifice, and women’s glory is great, but never above a man’s. Overall, Pericles’s speech acted as an instigator of pride and morale for fellow Athenians at the time, but now emphasize the level of patriotism that fueled Athenian democracy. What would later be called the “Age of Pericles”, Athenian democracy worked as efficiently as it did only because, as Pericles mentioned, the citizens were so involved in political activity. The deliberate undermining of other city-states and praise of “being a model” for others shows the flaws of Athenian arrogance, as it shows the beginning signs of hubris, and biased notions toward Athenian hegemony among the Delian League. The utmost praise for Athens by Pericles demonstrated the power of loyalty to one’s state, and also how too much devotion can cause the society to crumble when the citizens no longer to put in the effort needed to maintain such an ideal society.
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