A war like no other – the leading players


In the previous post your Narrator has written a short intermezzo about the self-image of combatants in war and violence. He also has given a glimpse in the participation of the philosopher Socrates to the Peloponnesian War in Greece.

Now your narrator will give a glimpse in the leading players during the Peloponnesian War.

A book about this war begins with the poem:

Wrath, icy wrath that brought countless horrors to the Achaeans,

 and sent brave souls of many heroes to Hades

 and changed their bodies in prey for a dog

and swarms of birds, and the will of Deus/God was accomplished [1].

Who are you who brought these horrors? Who are you who wanted this war like no other? Who are you who brought the horrors of brother murder, robbery, honour robbery and slavery to your neighbours and who left the bodies of your kind as prey for dogs and swarms of birds? Who are you who wished these murders? Who are you who wanted the existence of the continuing cycle of honour/power – pride – wrath – and revenge [2]? Do the dog and the birds also accomplish your will; do they have a godlike nature [3]?

In which do you differ from Krishna [4] – the charioteer – who urged Arjuna [4] in the Bhagavad Gita [5] – a small and old part of the Mahābhārata – to enter the arena in which families, teachers and students confront each other in the tension between on the one hand the world order and duty [6] and on the other hand human action [7] [8].

Your Narrator does not know the answers; he poses the questions. Who knows the world, speak!

The most important players in the Peloponnesian War are Sparta and Athens with their respective allies. But the influence of Persia was still great. Who are they?

Between 490 BC to 479 BC, Persia – a dictatorship with “compliant” local satraps – tried to include Greece in the Persian Empire. In 449 BC, Persia has recognized the Greek city states in Asia Minor. Persia has not directly attacked Greece anymore, but Persia has successfully played off the Greek states against each other. In addition, the memory of the Persian wars still had much influence on the events during the Peloponnesian War.

The second leading player is the militaristic and oligarchic City State Sparta situated in the middle of the Peloponnesos in Greece. In this city the fighting skill of the freemen was of imminent interest. Before the birth of a child preparations were taken to merge the best genes for excellent descendants. A married woman had a certain degree of freedom to choose the best man for the begetting of her children: older spouses accepted that their wife begot their children from younger fit men [9]. At birth, health determined the destiny of the baby. Boys and girls from the age of 6 were rigorously trained: the boys as fighters and the girls for health. Men and women lived mostly separated from each other. Spartans were descendants of the original inhabitants of the city. In addition, sometimes the freemen living around Sparta – Perioikoi – fought as hoplites together with the Spartans. In and around Sparta most people were Helots who served the Spartans in all activities except warfare. The Helots were the original inhabitants of the region. They were defeated by the Spartans in the fight and as consequence served as slaves. But always the Spartans felt the threat of a revolt of the Helots; they did everything to prevent this rebellion. The Spartans were feared in battle: they had the name to never give in. Perhaps the constant threat of a revolt of the Helots caused the steadfastness. The Spartans were very faithful/superstitious; they only went to war when all religious obligations were fulfilled and the omens were favourable. Due to this, allies sometimes had to wait a long time for support of the Spartans. During the battle of Sphacteria – in the South West of the Peloponnesos – a group of 292 fighters including 120 young Spartans surrendered to the Athenians. This surrender shocked the Greek world [10], because Spartans never surrendered. In Sparta the shock was even greater, because besides a huge loss of face, these young Spartans included a large part of the future generation. These prisoners were held hostage in Athens and during this time Sparta stopped burning the harvest on the fields near Athens. After their release, Sparta regarded these prisoners never as its full citizens.

[11]

The third leading player was Athens – in extreme form democratic – and located close to the Aegean Sea in Greece. Athens has become enormous rich at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War with the exploitation of silver mines and with trade. This wealth caused on the one hand uneasiness to Sparta on the hegemony in Greece and on the other hand the wish for Athens to be recognized as an equal. This strain is one of the reasons for the war.

About 50 years earlier Athens was led by Kings and tyrants. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens was a democracy of its free inhabitants. But the majority of the population was not free and thus not actively participating in the democracy. In practice this democracy often meant imperialism for Athens allies. In Athens the important decisions were taken during meetings of the free people. They took the decision and they appointed an executor. This executor had to report back to the free people. In case of a failure, the property of the executor could be confiscated and he and his family wore the consequences including exile and/or the death penalty for the executor. During the war the free people decided on the fate of prisoners and of conquered cities. The decisions were often very cruel and out of place. At the end of the war some captured cities of neutral players or former allies or were completely destroyed and the inhabitants were deported or killed. Sometimes the war effort took too great a contribution of the allies or Athens requested an excessive contribution. These decisions went against the wishes of the generals who had conquered the cities. Outrages of the democracy estranged Athens further from its allies: today you – tomorrow I.

Athens possessed a war fleet which was sovereign. Athens and its port Piraeus were surrounded with – for its time – unconquerable walls. This allowed a continuous connection between Athens and its harbour.

[12]

The wealth of Athens was shown in the buildings on the Acropolis. At the beginning of the war the silver stock of Athens was sufficient for at least ten years warfare including food for its inhabitants. On the basis of this wealth the old statesman Pericles has worked out the tactics for the first period of this war. With the agreement of the citizens, he decided that Athens would avoid battle on land: Athens withdrew behind its walls and they relied on its fleet for warfare and for the safe supply of all necessary resources. Grain came from Egypt and the Black Sea area. The Spartans with its allies may plunder the fields around Athens during the harvest time; this would not harm Athens. But the farmers from the area around Athens had to stand by on the walls to see how their harvest was plundered and destroyed. Later a further humiliation: olive trees – with which they were closely connected and which already provided harvest to their ancestors  – were grubbed.

This systematic humiliations ensured that within its walls the city state of Athens was overcrowded. A plague – that came from Egypt? and looked like measles or typhus? – wiped away a third of the inhabitants of Athens. Relatively this is a larger number of deaths than the Spanish flu. At the end of the first world war this plague caused more casualties than all battle fields together.

[13]

There is another special player: Alcibiades. He successively held a leading role in the societies of all three leading players. Socrates may have saved Alcibiades life during the battle of Potidaea. Alcibiades was promoter and one of the three leaders of Athens during the adventure in Sicily. When that expedition failed, he fled to Sparta where he was an important advisor and in this role he caused Athens a lot of havoc. After a relationship with the wife of a Spartan king, he had to flee again. He went to Persia where he was an adviser to a satrap. Hence he had to flee again and he went back to Athens for assistance during naval battles. After an error by one of his employees he had to leave Athens. In between, he was a Olympic champion chariot racing. After his second flight from Athens, in Asia Minor his murder was ordered by satrap on advocacy of some Athenians [14].

[15]

This war includes all forms of public administration. All horrors are included. All motives are included. It is a war like no other, a war as everyone.

The following post is about the rowing regatta at Athens on its way to Sicily, its fate there and the consequences of this adventure.


[1] Free rendering of: Lendon, J.E., Song of Wrath – the Peloponnesian war begins. New York: Basic Books, 2010 p. V

[2] See: Lendon, J.E., Song of Wrath – the Peloponnesian war begins. New York: Basic Books, 2010 p. 9

[3] According to Buddhism, everything has a Buddha nature. A student asked the Zen master Chao-Chou if a dog – in China a low creature – has a Buddha nature. Chao-chou answered: “Mu”. This means “no, nothing, void”. Chao-Chou has also said “yes” to another students. This  koan demands a direct and full insight in this question. See amongst others Yamada Kôun Roshi, Gateless Gate (Mumonkan) case 1 en Wick, Gerry Shishin, The Book of Equanimity – Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005 p. 57 for an introduction to this koan.

[4] In Sanskrit Krishna means “black” or “dark”. This name consists of “kr” meaning “make, do or act” and “ish” meaning “rule, master, God” whereby the sound coincides with the German word “Ich”. In this sence Krishna means “God’s action”.

[5] Arjuna is one of five brothers who live together and are married to one wife Draupadi – the most beautiful and influential woman of her time – in polyandry. The five brothers fight for their share of the kingdom, for rehabilitation of the honour of Draupadi and for rehabilitation of the order of the world. The name  Arjuna means amongst others “white, clear”; in the name also “arh” is recognised meaning “worthy, able to”.

[6] Free rendering of Dharmakshetra consisting of Dharma – literal: place of continuous self/Self, and “kshetra” – literal: field.

[7] Free rendering of Kurukshetra consisting of Kuru – a conjugation of “kr” meaning make, do or act, and “kshetra” – literal: field.

[8] From the opening’s verses of the Bhagavad Gita. Zie ook: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita

[9] Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Ancient_Sparta under “marriage” and Hughes, Bettany, Helen of Troy – Goddess, Princess, Whore. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

[10] Kagan, Donald, The Peloponnesian War – Athens and Sparta in savage Conflict 431 -404 BC. London: Harper and Collins Publishers, 2003 p. 152

[11] Probaly a buste depicting Leonidas, a king of Sparta in de time of the Persian war. Source image: http://uk.ask.com/wiki/Spartan_Army

[12] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peloponnesian_War

[13] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Acropolis3.JPG

[14] Source: The three books on this war and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcibiades

[15] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bust_Alcibiades_Musei_Capitolini_MC1160.jpg

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