Athens and Sparta -- Was War Inevitable  Essay

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Athens and Sparta -- Was War Inevitable?

Between 500 and 350 BC the area now known as Greece was but a collection of separate and unallied city-states. Today, we often view cultures and political conflict in terms of nations, and take the view that since city-states were geographically close, culture was the same. This, however, was untrue, particularly in the case of the two most powerful and well-known city states of Athens and Sparta.

That is not to say that these two entities were completely divergent. Both had some cultural similarities in context with their history, and they cooperated -- if distantly, in the years leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae and subsequent defeat of the Persian invaders at Salamis and Plataea, ending Persian aggression for a time.

However, understanding Ancient Cultures is often difficult. We have limited resources from which to build a portrait of the culture, and must make a number of assumptions based on interpretation of relics, translation of documents, and the historical record. It does appear that the differences in political culture, supported by different economic and social systems, along with the age-old fear of power dominance once Persia was defeated made war almost inevitable between the two. Athenian historian Thucydides' noted, "The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon (Sparta), made war inevitable" (Thucydides, 1.23).

In fact, the conflict between the two powers completely reshaped the Ancient Hellenic World. Athens, the strongest city-state of the time, was reduced to almost complete subjugation, its economic and cultural influence dramatically reduced. Sparta rose to become the predominant power in the Greek world. However, the economic costs of the war were disseminated across the entire penninsual, resulting in poverty, disease, and privation, with Athens never really regaining it pre-war dominance. Even more so, the end of the Athenian-Spartan conflict created a different psychological and foreign relations thrust in the Ancient World. The conflict between democracy (Athens) and oligarchy (Sparta) was supported by other factions in other countries and city states; once Sparta triumphed civil war became more of a common occurance in the Greek world, and changed warfare from a more limited and formalized conflict to war that was complete, waged against populations, creating vast devastation and ending the Golden Age of Greece forever (Kagan).

General History of Athens

Athens is one of the oldest cities in the Ancient World, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. It was one of the centers of the Mycenaean civilization in 1400 BC. By the 6th century, social unrest led to societal reforms (the Reforms of Solon) which were important building blocks in the eventual introduction of democracy around 508 BC. By this time in its history, Athens had become a significant naval power, helping the Ionian colonial cities rebel against Persian rule, thus instituting the Greco-Persian Conflict. After the defeat of the Persians Athens became the leading city-state of Ancient Greece, both in economic and political power. This including the Deilian League, ostensibly to band together other city-states in a defensive organization against Persia, but really more of an Athenian-based power brokerage designed to help Athens gain more power and influence over all of Greece (Pomeroy).

After the defeat by the Spartans in 404 BC, Athens never fully recovered, but became relatively prosperous as a seaport, trading center, and embarkation point during the Crusades, conquered again by the Ottoman Empire in 1458.

General History of Sparta

Sparta was a prominent city-state in Ancient Greece, loaded far to the south of Athens in the south-easterner Peloponnese. Emerging as a succinct political entity around the 10th century BC, from 650 BC on it was the dominant military land-power in Ancient Greece. Militarily, Sparta was recognized as the leader of the combined Greek forces against the Persians, and while it emerged victorious over Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars, the conflict ruined much of Sparta's economy and power. In fact, Sparta was defeated by the city-state Thebes in 371, ending its role as the predominant power in Greece. Despite this, the unique socio-cultural and political philosophy it engendered changed the course of Greek history. Sparta did, however, manage to remain independent until Rome conquered Greece in 146 BC (Cartledge).

Sociology of Athens

According to legend, Athens was ruled by kings and then a group of land owners. Prior to the concept of political hegemony, four tribes dominated the area and brought together a series of viewpoints that would define Athens: common religious rights, mutual rights of property and succession, common areas of property, and the right to elect members of the ruling councils. It was this early process that defined the manner in which Athens viewed the world, and despite civil strife, let to Athenian democracy (free man of landed wealth could vote). The combination of this rather unique view, for the Ancient World, geographic location, and a rich seafaring tradition established a form of government that permeated the sociology of the culture (Rhodes).

For Athens, the realities of the world, be it peace or war, required a certain mindset in order to be successful. The primary purpose, then, of an Athenian education was to engender well-rounded thinkers. This mean that individuals had to be trained in the arts and sciences just as in the art of warfare and physical education, otherwise, the individual could not serve society in peace and war. Reading was a crucial activity from early age and education was compulsory for merchant and wealthy classes, and suggested for poorer families. By age 14, though, poorer boys began to seek apprenticeships in trades. Those whose families could pay tuition remained in school until age 18. At 18, regardless of social or economic status, Athenian boys were required to attend military school until they reached 20. After about 390 BC there were academies that taught wealthier individuals after military school. Athenian girls did not receive state sanctioned school, but were allowed to learn at home with domestic educators, typically based upon family tradition (Kovacs).

Political Culture of Athens

Political culture in Ancient Athens revolved around a philosophical idea of logic and human progress and actualization. Both of these concepts were relatively unique in the Ancient World, yet this uniqueness is what drove the political and cultural psychology of Athens. Within this paradigm, though, was built a distrust and intellectual animosity for other viewpoints -- an intolerance of autocracy, if you will. Thucydides notes, "The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage"

Naval dominance was the trademark of the Athenian military, again due to historical trends and proximity. Their intellectual focus, for instance, aided in the development of naval weaponry and architecture vastly superior to others -- the Athenian trireme. This ship was a galley that allowed for ramming, a maximum speed of 10 knots, and a superior strategic advantage at sea that also contributed to Athenian arrogance (Kovacs).

Athens was dependent upon agriculture, both land and sea based, was cosmopolitan, descendent from Ionian culture, and highly dependent upon trade and sea-commerce. They tended to look forward, imagining the human condition as what could be, rather than what was. Because of this, and the philosophical basis for societal thought, Athenian arrogance manifested itself in the view that it alone knew what was best for Greece. The idea of allowing more free-will for educated individuals, and a continual outward search for allies and acquisitions created a belief that the manifest destiny of Athens was to rule Greece based on ideals and power (Pomeroy).

Political Culture of Sparta

Sparta had no long tradition of seafaring or port contacts with other cultures. From early on, their culture was based on adherence to a military code, to the ruling council, and a philosophical trend towards conservatisms (focusing on the past or present, less concerned about the future). Spartans were descendants of the Dorian invaders, and never really developed the idea of a democratic or open form of power or opportunity. Spartan climate was harsher than that of Athens, and the city was depended upon agriculture, having no easy access to the ocean. Military service was mandated, and almost no lasting works of art or literature came out of Spartan culture. Ironically, though, women in Spartan culture had much more power and authority than that in "democratic" Athens (Pomeroy).

Sparta, although militaristic, was primarily defensive based. They considered themselves to be the iconic "protector" of the peninsula. Their push for military power was to gain hegemony for themselves and control over other kingdoms, but not at the expense of northern city-states, in general. Sparta was ruled by a combination of monarchy and oligarchy; usually rulers who ruled for their lifetime. The basic focus was rule by the few for the benefit of the many, as opposed to Athenian views of rule by the many so that inclusion would benefit more (Cartledge).

Sociology of Sparta

The overall goal of Spartan society was to produce the best warrior possible. Of course, there were other needs for…

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