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Thucydides set out to narrate the history of what he believed would be a great war, one requiring both great power and great leadership. Although he measured greatness through both economic and military prowess, Thucydides dictated the history of the Peloponnesian War through a multitude of magnificent speeches by major figures in Greece to show the impact of political leadership on the outcome of the war. Leadership was especially vital in Athens due to the democratic nature of its government: the city’s leaders were elected by the people and therefore reflected the mentality of the city-state and its citizens. The development of the Athenian empire marked a radical departure from Hellenistic tradition, and the construction of a powerful navy, as well as the timing of the Persian invasion, provided Athens the opportunity to become the major force in the Mediterranean. Thucydides distinctly discusses the roles of Athenian leaders in the expansion of the Athenian empire, from Pericles to Alcibiades, in order to emphasize the decline of morality and justice in Athens. Thucydides clearly points out the consequences of the weaker quality of leadership in Athens, but does not specify what sparked the moral deterioration of Athenian government. With this in mind, one must question what caused the qualitative decline of the city’s leaders.
At the Second Lacedaemonian Congress, Athenians argued it was inevitable that they would seize a chance to build an empire when given the opportunity, contending, “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” (I.76.2) Nevertheless, their conclusion relating the principles and actions of an empire to Athenian morale reflected a statewide belief that “praise is due to all who…respect justice more than their position compels them to.” (I.76.3) Prewar Athens did not view an empire as just merely through the use of power; instead, they clearly distinguished between the two and believed that a powerful empire provided an opportunity for justice to reign supreme in the mindsets of its citizens. Thucydides viewed Pericles as “the best man of all for the needs of the state” because of his ability to instill this distinction in the Athenian citizens. (II.65.4) Pericles saw Athens’ wealth and power as a means for political freedom and cultural growth. By stating, “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show,” he was able to dissuade Athenian citizens’ interest in personal gain, replacing it with interests in justice and cultural advancement. He pushed this notion even further by claiming that it was still in the interest of the wealthy to maintain democracy even when civil unrest (due to the plague) threatened to destroy Athens’ fragile political balance:
I am of the opinion that national greatness is more to the advantage of private citizens than any individual well-being coupled with public humiliation. A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country is ruined he must be ruined with it; whereas a flourishing commonwealth always affords chances of salvation to unfortunate individuals. Since then a state can support the misfortunes of private citizens, while they cannot support hers, it is surely the duty of everyone to be forward in her defense. (II.60.1-5)
Pericles argued that the wealthy benefit from democracy and patriotism because it provided them with a sense of security: the opportunity for public greatness always existed even if one was to lose his high economic standing. By creating a link between self-interest and national greatness in democracy, Pericles was able to confine personal gain to a realm separate from but dependent on the public interests of the city. By effectively subordinating pursuits for wealth and power and successfully tying self-interest to political justice and cultural advancement, Pericles exemplified the pinnacle of Athenian greatness in the eyes of Thucydides. His ideals emanated the Athenian notion that an empire could be just, and his rule proved this to be true.
After Pericles’ funeral oration, Thucydides comments on the succeeding Athenian rulers’ failure to effectively control the population and to convince them to serve the city. With regard to Pericles’ successors, Thucydides states, “Each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.” (II.65.10) Without a leader as sophisticated and persuasive as Pericles, citizens began to yearn for their personal luxuries rather than the greatness of the state. (II.61.4)
The Mytilenian Debate denoted the first step in the decline of Periclean Athens. Competing desires of power and personal interest were symbolic of the strains of war, and the speeches delivered at the debate conveyed a shift away from Pericles’ belief in the benefits of justice and democracy. Cleon, an Athenian statesman and former opponent of Pericles, denied the belief that justice is worthy of praise, and instead argued that praise is due onto those who fully utilize their power, regardless of morality. With regard to the Athenian government, he claims, “Your empire is a despotism, and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is assured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your strength.” (III.37.2) In Cleon’s conception, Athenian government only functioned because of its immense power and ability to strike fear into its citizens. Justice was of no concern to Cleon, and morality was equivalent to power itself. Although Cleon’s position did not win a majority vote in the Athenian council, it is worth noting, “the show of hands was almost equal,” proving that the Periclean mindset had been all but abandoned or tainted, and would come to slowly disappear altogether. (III.49.1)
Several years later, Thucydides detailed a private debate between Athenian generals and Melian statesmen in order to determine the fate of Melos, a small island colony of Sparta. The points put forward by the Athenian generals during the debate were symbolic of the shift away from Periclean Athens, from the idealistic pragmatism of Pericles to the immoral brutal abuse of power that epitomized the latter years of the Peloponnesian War. While the idea that power is irresistible to all men remained constant, the Athenian contention that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” directly contradicted the justification for expansion put forward by the Athenian citizens at the Second Lacedaemonian Congress. (V.89) Years of war had depleted Athens’ resources and had drained its citizens of their pursuit of justice and culture; Athenian motives had undergone a complete turnaround and the beliefs that symbolized Periclean Athens had been destroyed. Power had become Athens’ main interest, and what was best for the city as a whole no longer came into consideration. “Justice and honor,” the Athenians continued, “cannot be followed without danger.” (V.107) The hardships and sufferings induced by the war resulted in the ultimate perversion of Pericles’ vision.
The final crushing blow to prewar Athenian ideals can be accredited to Alcibiades, whose behavior revealed the complete dissolution of Athens’ cohesive and functional democratic community. Alcibiades’ opinions in favor of self-indulgence and personal advancement was a complete inversion of the logic presented in Pericles’ funeral oration, and the insinuations put forth by Alcibiades’ statements worked against democracy and the original vision of an empire for the advancement of justice and culture. When faced with the threat of punishment, Alcibiades fled to Sparta to become an advisor to the Spartan oligarchy. Because his campaign in Syracuse had failed, Alcibiades saw his betrayal of Athens as an opportunity to reestablish his own power and wealth. The repercussions of Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta were drastic: his avocation to send the Peloponnesian navies into battle resulted in Athens’ failure in the Sicilian Expedition. (VI.92) Alcibiades, in truth, had no loyalty to Athens at all and instead used his citizenship as a means for attaining power and wealth. It became clear that personal advancement had become the central sentiment in Athens when Alcibiades was elected general (before he fled to Sparta) by the same democratic system he had blatantly corrupted through treason earlier in his political career. Athens had become a city fixated on private interest, and Alcibiades was the epitome of this mentality.
Thucydides wrote, “In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments…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. Prewar Athens viewed its empire as an effective tool for implementing justice and expanding cultural awareness, but with its economic growth and its leaders’ abuse of power came a people obsessed with self-interest.
Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press, 1998.
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