Tag Archives: Sparta

A war like no other – a fatal regatta

In the previous post your Narrator has given a glimpse in the leading players during the Peloponnesian War. Due to a continuous cycle of honour/power – pride – wrath – revenge the two main players Athens, Sparta and its allies inflict upon each other countless horrors. Sparta and its allies had the militaristic hegemony on land and they devastated at regular time the surroundings of Athens. On its turn Athens and its allies had the maritime hegemony on the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and they plundered the coasts of the Peloponnesos with their fleets. A terrible plague had broken out within the walls of Athens. This plague caused more deaths than all acts of war. In 421 BC – after 10 years mutual humiliations – a temporary armistice was decided upon. Local fighting and cruelness continued during this peace.

In 415 BC Athens begins its adventure in Sicily. Athens has some allied cities on that island. These cities ask help of Athens in a dispute with Syracuse – the ruling city in Sicily. Syracuse is also a democracy that has many similarities with the democracy of Athens. This we shall see later.

After intercession of amongst others Alcibiades, the inhabitants of Athens decide to send a fleet to Sicily with three executors including Alcibiades. Athens hopes to get a big influence in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe it gives an opportunity to move the city state of Athens in its entirety from the hornets’ nest of Asia Minor to Sicily.

The two university boats manned by the last amateurs from Cambridge and Oxford [1], are for about 17 minutes – or a day, or a year – lord and master on the River Thames in London [2]. For 150 years the 300 trireme of Athens – partly private [3] warships of Athens; per boat powered by 170 oarsmen – are lord and master of the Aegean Sea [4]. The life of a rower was hard and very uncertain: many could not even swimming. Good rowing was the only possibility to enhance the chances of survival. The hoplites on land behind their wall of bronze shields participate directly in the battle: they try to expel the enemy in a kind of rugby scrum and they use their lances to harm the opponents. The oarsmen behind their thin wall of wood and leather float at sea in their fast light boat equipped with a battering ram: the battering ram destroys the boat of the opponent. Rowers only take indirectly part in the sea-battle. Are the rhythm of the boat and the rowing stroke – with the mighty sound of “Twwhhsh” – for the rowers the real lord and master for whom they do all efforts?


The rowers were free inhabitants Athens from the lower classes. Once Athens had a lack of oarsmen available in her city: a large part of the fleet was gone. Slaves manned the boats. The battle was won. Athens thanked these rowers by recognizing them as free inhabitants of her city.

Exercise in peace time was of great importance to keep the boat at a speed of 10 knots for a long time and to perform the manoeuvres for battering the boats of the opponents quickly and correctly. Your narrator has read in a book [6] that the religion of our ancestors is based on experience, exercise and faith. Is the religion of the Athenian oarsmen and the current oarsmen also founded on these three principles?

In the second half of June 415 BC the fleet departed. The entire population of Athens with its foreign allies was in Piraeus – the harbour city of Athens – to see the spectacle. It looked more like a show of power and wealth for the Greek world than the departure of an expedition army. A trumpet sounded and the fleet departed. The boats started in a mutual contest: they raced until Aegina. It seemed to be more a regatta than the start of a long and precarious adventure [7].

In Sicily, inability, bad luck and fate struck Athenians. The siege of Syracuse failed because the city could not be sealed off on land. Always groups experienced horsemen of the opponent made passages. On the water the fleet of Athens engaged in a battle with too little room for manoeuvres. Alcibiades went back to Athens with the request for reinforcements. When this request was refused, he fled to Sparta.

After fighting and destruction of boats near the Athenian camp, the Athenians delayed their flight too long. When they finally fled by land, there was a lack of water and food and everywhere ambushes of the enemy were in place. In a valley some muddy water was found. Soon this water became red due to the attacks of the enemy. After many losses, thousands of Athenians – including many unarmed oarsmen – surrendered to avoid a further massacre. The prisoners were led to Syracuse. Against the will of its leaders the democracy of Syracuse decided to kill the two Athenian executors and to imprison the other Athenians in a stone quarry near the theatre that was opened by Aeschylus himself with a performance of the “Persians”.


Almost all prisoners were being confined here at a very low ration for eight months. Many died in the quarry and the survivors were branded and sold as slaves. No one returned to Athens. Athens lost by this expedition about 7,000 men. This number matches the number of fallen American soldiers buried in Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer. This was the price for the folly and the pride of Athens. This was the price for the verdict of the people of Syracuse.


In 413 BC the war flared up again. Athens had a major lack of good oarsmen. Many free inhabitants decided to volunteer for oarsman with all the risks and hardships. Sparta built a fleet with the help of Persia. After the democracy of Athens had alienated several allies by committing unnecessary atrocities, she was defeated on her own speciality in several sea battles. Herewith ended the Peloponnesian war.

This regatta is part of “a war like no other, a war as everyone”. Like any fight, this fight knows only losers. Athens lost a part of its population and Syracuse lost her good name. Syracuse has committed death sins against the core of the Buddhist life according to a contemporary female Buddhist recluse in China [10]. Athens and Syracuse have sinned against “benevolence, compassion, joy and detachment” for the eyes of the world.

Is this regatta also included in Indra’s net [11]? Your Narrator thinks so. He once read that the number of Avogadro is so large, that with each breath we inhale a few molecules of Julius Caesar’s last exhalation with the words: “Et tu, Brute” [12]. Are we – with every breath – in a similar way connected to this war and to this regatta? Is here also applicable: “Mysterium magnum est, quod nos procul dubio transcendit” [13], that means: “the mystery is great, that transcends us without a doubt.”? Your Narrator does not know the answer.

This ends the report of the intermezzo that the first main character has passed in preparation before entering the five easy entities. The following post gives a report of the preparations of the second main character. He has attend a graduation ceremony of one of his granddaughters. As a consequence of this ceremony, he has read the opening line of John’s Gospel in Sanskrit.

[1] See: Rond, Mark de, The last Amateurs, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2008

[2] See former post titled “Amateurs”

[3] See: Hanson, Victor Davis, A War like no other – How the Athenians an Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. London: Methuen, 2005 p. 251. Generally the the boat, the crew and the equipment was supplied by the State, but the food etc. had to be provide by the trierarch – the commander of the boat. There were also private boat supplied by rich Greecs: these boat had the best material and the best oarsmen.

[4] See: Hale, John R., Lords of the Sea – The epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democraty. London: Penguin books, 2009

[5] Source image: http://www.utexas.edu/courses/greekhistory1/outline16.html

[6] See: Lewis-Williams, David & Pearce, David, Inside the neolitic Mind. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009 p.25

[7] Source: Kagan, Donald, The Peloponnesian War – Athens and Sparta in savage Conflict 431 -404 BC. London: Harper and Collins Publishers, 2003 p. 264 and Hale, John R., Lords of the Sea – The epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democraty. London: Penguin books, 2009 p. 189

[8] Source image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Theatre_at_Syracuse,_Sicily.jpg

[9] Source image: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/no.php

[10] See: Porter, Bill, Road to Heaven – Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1993. page 109

[11] See former post: Indra’s net.

[12] See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Et_tu,_Brute%3F

[13] See the posts “Three – Object in the middle – The Word” and “A day without yesterday – a day without tomorrow? “

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.


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.


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.


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].


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