Ancient History & Civilisation


Fighting for Freedom and Justice

Proclamations such as these are to be made from time to time so as to scare and deter conspirators. The free population and the harvest-crops are to be brought into the city, and anyone who wishes may lead away or carry off from the countryside without penalty the goods of anyone who disobeys… There are to be no private gatherings anywhere whatsoever, neither by day or night, but those which are really necessary may be held in the town-hall or the council or any other public place. No soothsayer is to sacrifice in private without a magistrate. Men shall not dine together in a common mess, but each must dine in their own houses, except for a wedding or a funeral-feast and even these they must notify in advance to the magistrates.

Aeneas, on measures during attack by invaders, 10.3–5
(late 350s BC)

The forty years or so which followed the Spartans’ unlikely victory over the Athenians are a kaleidoscope of wars, ever-changing alliances and brief bouts of supremacy for one or other major power in Greece. But behind the apparent confusion, the ideals of justice and freedom were still passionately defended and variously interpreted. There were local gains, too, in the loss of supremacy by any one great power. Outside Sparta and Athens, citizens of other Greek communities once again became prominent.

Culturally, the concentration of thought, theatre and the arts in one great city, Athens, was weakened when her power and finances ceased to be exceptional after 404 BC. Perhaps half of her male citizenry was dead (down to around 25,000 by 403 BC, not the 50,000 or more of the 440s), but her cultural legacy did not die too. Beyond Athens, it continued to spread because it was still the ‘education of Greece’, as Pericles had called it. Sculptors who had worked on the great building-programme of the Athenian Acropolis migrated to dynastic patrons elsewhere and took their tricks of the trade with them. Upper-class houses in Attica had been decorated with fine wall paintings but, as their patrons went into eclipse, a new school of painters emerged in their wake in Sicyon, a Peloponnesian town which had been out of the limelight for nearly two centuries. Theatres, an Athenian invention, were to be found all over the Greek world and would stage the recent Athenian masterpieces as part of their repertoire. Admiration for the top actors would be shared by the new dynasts of the age, the rulers in Sicily and the kings up in Macedon.

There were also new centres of success and prosperity. In the north of Greece, on the Chalcidic peninsula (near modern Mount Athos), a powerful League began to prosper around its leader, Olynthus, the city whose town plan and levels of comfort and luxury are the best known to us in Greek history: King Philip, father of Alexander the Great, flattened the city in 348 BC, thereby preserving it for archaeologists as a Greek precursor of Pompeii. Like many other towns in the Greek world, it was laid out on a formally planned pattern. This regular sort of grid-plan with regular blocks of houses was not an Athenian invention (it was known in western Greek cities, including Metapontum), nor was it necessarily the creation or reflection of a democracy. At Olynthus, it originated in the 430s, but it may have owed something to a recent innovator from whom Athens, too, had recently benefited. In the 440s and 430s areas behind the Athenians’ port, the Piraeus, had been redesigned: the agora there, especially, had been devised by the flamboyant Hippodamus, a visitor from Miletus. Hippodamus was a theorist, a social utopian and a planner who believed in ‘zones’ and divisions in a city’s layout; he was invited to work on the town plan of the Athens-led settlement out at Thurii in 443 BC. He could be particularly influential because he wrote a text on his theories. Certainly, archaeologists have uncovered a regular grid-plan on Rhodes where Hippodamus is said to have worked. Such plans did go on to characterize many fourth-century cities: one is most evident at little Priene in western Asia which was refounded in the 340s and 330s. Hippodamus’ work for Athens was probably important for their adoption, especially if his ‘book’ discussed the principles: Athens was not, however, responsible for their wider adoption.

The ending of the Athenians’ empire also diluted Athens’ attraction for visiting intellectuals. Here too she was important, but no longer central. While Plato, mostly in Athens, idealized the recent advances in maths, the greatest mathematician and astronomer arose in a town which had been a backwater, Eudoxus from Cnidus in Asia Minor. In Athens itself, the most popular options were rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing, or philosophy. For many years, pupils from all over the Greek world came to Athens to study with the literary teacher Isocrates. However, his prose style suffered from his detachment from active political life; even now his works have a tediously predictable rhythm when analysed by computers. Isocrates attacked his intellectual superiors, the philosophers who studied with Plato. There was a real ‘war’ of higher education, but Plato, then Aristotle, were the winners, as we shall see.

Politically, the major event of the first decades of the fourth century was the renewal of brutal dominance by the Spartans, to be followed by the welcome collapse of their main power-base. At the end of the fifth century, Lysander the Spartan had already posed severe questions about the scope for an individual’s pre-eminence in the Spartans’ so-called peer group. He had challenged the system’s opposition to luxury and the import of foreign riches: it was in connection with Spartan ideals that the enfeebling effects of ‘luxury’ were most widely discussed in this period. ‘Softness’ and personal extravagance were seen as social vices in the eyes of contemporary moralists. They characterized despots (the princes of the kingdoms on Cyprus were particularly ‘bad’ examples) and undermined hardy warrior societies (the weaknesses of the fourth-century Persian Empire were therefore traced rather superficially to ‘luxury’).

Through the spoils and victories of the late fifth century, hundreds of silver talents arrived into a Sparta whose ideals were still strongly opposed to incorporating them. Other hoards of silver were detained, or directed, by Lysander himself. Lysander did not succumb to luxury personally; rather, he was a masterly briber and corrupter of others. From 406 BC he devised his own shocking versions of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ for Greek communities. They involved the subjection of whole cities to decarchies, or cliques of ten men who were fiercely pro-Spartan and anti-democratic. The result was an ‘uncountable slaughter of populist democrats in the cities’: what would Lysander do to a defeated Athens? It was said that he proposed the enslavement of the entire population, while a Theban, the hateful Erianthus, even demanded that Athens should be dug up and Attica turned into a sheep-farm. Both Thebes and Corinth pressed for Athens’ destruction.

In the last years of the great war, Sparta had been assisted from 407 BC onwards by a Persian prince, the young Cyrus. No sooner was the war ended than she had to help this Cyrus in an outright attempt at fratricide, his campaign to murder his brother Artaxerxes, the legitimate new king of the Persians. Cyrus failed and was killed in Mesopotamia in autumn 401, while charging into battle on his hard-mouthed horse Pasakas. As a result, Sparta was regarded as the prime Greek enemy by the surviving Persian king. She soon had problems, too, in Greece. In 403 Sparta had finally agreed terms with the surviving Athenian democrats, but her continued dominance quickly alienated the Corinthians and the Thebans. So they began a war against her in alliance with the very Athenians whom the two of them had recently tried to annihilate; the allies were helped with ships and money by the anti-Spartan Persian king. At least this war killed off Lysander, who died in battle in late summer 395 in central Greece. His ambitions had scared even his fellow Spartans. After his death his supposed plans for reforming Sparta’s kingship were said to have been found in his house. They were too persuasive, it was said, for their finder, King Agesilaus, to dare to read them out, so they were destroyed. This riveting story had implications for all parties who were involved in it.1

In this renewed war, the Athenians depended on the crucial support of the Persian king, but as their fortunes revived they began to trouble his territories in Asia too. In the late 390s the Athenians began to play for very high stakes: they assisted rebels on Cyprus and in Egypt as if to repeat the ambitions in Asia which they had held in their heyday in the 450s. To regain Persian favour, the Spartans agreed to turn Cyprus and the Greek cities in Asia back to the Persian king: the result was a Spartan–Persian agreement, the motive for the more general ‘King’s Peace’ of 386 BC. After this grave betrayal of Greek freedom, the Spartans set about a brutal abuse of the principle of ‘autonomy’ which had been offered in the King’s peace-terms in Greece. ‘Autonomy’ was a sort of freedom, but as always, a freedom within limits: it still presupposed an external power strong enough to infringe it. The Spartans promptly lived up to this definition. They broke up the city of their unreliable Arcadian neighbours, the Mantineans, while claiming that ‘autonomy’ required it to be split into villages.

During the next fifteen years the wisdom of the great historians was proved right. Herodotus’ old belief in ‘pride before a fall’ was promptly confirmed by Sparta’s eclipse, as was Thucydides’ shrewd perception that in inter-state relations, ‘justice’ is the plea of the weak when they lack the power to enforce their own interest. Despite the King’s Peace of 386, the Spartans condoned gratuitous raids on Thebes and Athens. They also went northwards, by request, on an expedition to restore the endangered king of the Macedonians. Each move would return to haunt them. In 379 the Thebans threw out the garrison which the Spartans had imposed on them and turned democratic and fiercely anti-Spartan instead. By spring 377 the weakened Athenians were pleading justice and inviting Greek allies to join a new anti-Spartan ‘Confederacy’ which would avoid the perceived grievances of the Athenians’ years of ‘Empire’. The ‘Confederacy’ was a great success, and within two years more than seventy allies had joined it. As for the Macedonian king, his rule was restored, thanks to Sparta, but forty years later, first King Philip of Macedon, then Alexander the Great would be explicitly anti-Spartan; their diplomacy and campaigning would isolate Sparta even more in Greece. With hindsight, the Spartans ought to have ignored the Macedonians’ pleas.

No city-state in Greece wanted war for war’s sake, and the Spartans’ dominance caused their own downfall. A raid on the Piraeus had outraged Athens in the 370s and Spartan troops continued, too, to challenge a hostile Thebes, who was expanding meanwhile within her own confederacy of neighbours. In 371 the turning point came. After trying to stop the Thebans’ local expansion yet again, the Spartans lost a cardinal land battle at Leuctra against a deeply packed Theban line. Their king was caught with his cavalry in front of his infantry, condemning the Spartans to their worst ever defeat. People said later that the gods and omens had been against Sparta and that the battle had been fought near a site where Spartan soldiers had raped young virgin sisters in the legendary past.2 If so, the rape victims took a fine revenge.

The consequences were pursued immediately by citizens in the southern Greek communities which Sparta had terrorized for centuries. In winter 370 the able Theban general Epaminondas was invited across the Isthmus and was able to realize the long-held dream of Sparta’s enemies by invading the Spartan homeland itself. Two great goods came out of Sparta’s defeat. The Messenians, their Greek neighbours, could at last regroup themselves as a free Greek community, a status which they had been denied for some three hundred and fifty years. Their days of serfdom, or helotage, were over and to emphasize it they built stupendous defensive walls, assets which Spartans had always detested. The Arcadians, meanwhile, resolved on the building of a new ‘Great City’ (Megalopolis) into which the surrounding villages were forcibly merged. There were local protesters, but the ‘Great City’ became the centre of another long-held dream, an ‘Arcadian League’. The Arcadians had been seeking one for at least a hundred and fifty years. The separate towns of Arcadia were all to join it, although local rivalries and factions beset its foundation. The League was to have a big Assembly (the ‘Myriad’, probably including all male Arcadian citizens); Arcadian oligarchs, so long supported by Sparta, were most unhappy with it. For six years the League was a democratic force, maintaining a big army (the ‘Select’) from its member-cities’ funds. After 370 Spartan power was severely damaged by it, to the greater freedom and justice of most of her long-suffering Greek neighbours.

Fittingly, Epaminondas was commemorated in the Arcadia which he had helped to free. It was there that his tomb was admired by the Emperor Hadrian on his tour through southern Greece. Near Mantinea, Hadrian saw a pillar engraved with a serpent and learned that it honoured Epaminondas’ noble family: he was descended from the legendary sons of the dragon’s teeth with which Thebes’ mythical founder, Cadmus, was supposed to have sown the city’s fields. No doubt the boy-loving Hadrian also appreciated the nearby tomb: it commemorated Epaminondas’ boy-lover. Perhaps he also discovered that Epaminondas’ victories had been helped by a famous homoerotic unit, the Thebans’ ‘Sacred Band’ of 300 infantrymen who were bound together by homoerotic pairing. The merits of ‘gays in the army’ had been discussed by Greeks at least since the time of Socrates.3 They had also been exemplified individually in the Spartans’ own ranks. But the Sacred Band made sex between males a necessity.

What Hadrian did not understand was that the Thebans and Epaminondas were not the ideal champions whom Greek freedom and justice might have hoped for. The Thebans were not allowed by other Greeks to forget that their ancestors had cravenly taken the Persian side in the invasion of 480 BC. On their own doorstep, they had recently destroyed one Greek city (Plataea, in 373) and then damaged three more, all within her Confederacy. They were hardly more palatable to the Athenians than the old enemy, the Spartans, and they had the disadvantage of being much nearer to the Athenian frontier. After much hesitation, the Athenians set aside old prejudice, allied themselves with Sparta in 369 BC and used this alliance as a counter-weight to the Thebans throughout the 360s. Their rivalry was played out in the north (including Macedon, a source of ship-timber), the Aegean (where a Theban fleet tried to support oligarchic opposition to Athens) and in southern Greece. In 362 a big battle at Mantinea saw Epaminondas’ death and no clear-cut winner, leaving ‘confusion and indecision’ in Greek affairs.4

These decades may seem a melancholy failure, in which Greeks could not unite despite their awareness of their shared gods, their shared language and a common ethnicity. Yet there were valid obstacles to unity, and the urge for peace was not gone. Repeatedly, settlements of Greek affairs were attempted, at first with the backing of the Persian king. The king, Artaxerxes II, had his own reasons for wanting peace: he needed Greeks to be free to serve him as mercenaries in his attempts to reconquer rebellious Egypt. When the king’s proposals became too partisan, there were attempts at forming a ‘Common Peace’ among Greeks without him. There was also a continuing faith in arbitration as a solution to Greek communities’ long-standing disputes. However, valuable territory was often at issue in these conflicts, as was the greater freedom (for male citizens) of a democratic life. For democracy shared financial burdens more equitably between citizens: it meant that all male citizens were consulted before being committed to a war. Under an oligarchy the laws might be said to be ‘equal’ for all citizens, but under a democracy, they were more likely to be equitably applied. When the Spartans’ oligarchic stranglehold broke up in southern Greece, democracy was realized in Arcadia, offered in Achaea and feared once again in Corinth. There was no question of it being discredited or in retreat in the fourth century. Political theorists did discuss the merits of a ‘mixed’ constitution, as if elements of an aristocracy, an oligarchy and a democracy could somehow be blended into the best of all three. These theories were quite impractical (a state is either completely democratic, or not at all) and made no mark on real life. True democracy still aroused the strongest political passions among actual citizen-bodies. In Argos in the 370s, existing democrats indulged in a fearful act of ‘Clubbing’ during which they attacked the rich in the city and left 1,200 citizens dead in civil conflict. Nearly a hundred and fifty years after Cleisthenes had proposed democracy in order to avoid renewed faction-fighting, democracy was being propelled by open conflict between classes. For in this period there was a real class-struggle within the citizen-bodies. It was not a struggle between citizens and slaves. It was one between poor citizens and the rich. Poorer citizens used democracy against the rich, but a real desire for justice impelled these fights, not just greed or simple revenge.

Among such mayhem, respect for the gods might seem to be on the wane. In the fourth century Greek sculptors took the bold step of representing goddesses as topless or naked females; oaths were broken bewilderingly on the inter-state stage. After so much theatre about the mythical past, were the myths really so believable? But in fact, the traditional gods were still assumed to be as active in the fray as ever. They received vows and sacrifices before battle, and afterwards they still took a share of the spoils. Far and wide they still gave oracles, even though the Delphic shrine of Apollo had been ruined by fire and earthquake in 373 BC. There was not a growing disbelief; there was flexibility, as ever, in manoeuvring human actions and decisions within their divine framework. As ever, omens from the gods were variously interpreted and although the festival-seasons were often a time of truce, it was nothing new when they were exploited by Greek generals. A temple’s treasures were supposed to be sacrosanct, but nonetheless they could be ‘borrowed’ on loan to finance a war, just as Periclean Athens had ‘borrowed’ from the goddess Athena to finance the great war. None of this casuistry was a new godlessness: rather, it presupposed that the old divine framework was still valid. So far from becoming pretty legends, the myths and the distant heroes continued to be advanced as compelling diplomatic claims and as sound reasons for alliances between Greek states.

To an outside eye, what changed most from the 370s on was the apparent eclipsing of a single polis, or community, as the focus of political life. For, on the surface, these decades appear to be an era of Leagues and Confederacies, something which Hadrian would have understood, as he later promoted Leagues again in Greece. Before and after Leuctra the Spartans relied on the support of their ‘Peloponnesian alliance’ whose members were mostly ruled by convenient oligarchies. From 377 onwards the Athenians led their large new Confederacy of allies against Sparta. In the 370s the Thebans managed to dominate the votes on the inner council of the long-proven Boeotian Confederacy; in the 360s they perhaps imitated the Athenians and began a new ‘League’ for their allies outside Boeotia. The Spartans’ decline in the 360s led to the new League in Arcadia and also to other confederacies in Achaea and Aetolia; the longer-standing Leagues in Thessaly and even in Epirus in north-west Greece become visible or more prominent in our evidence. Together, these Leagues refute the temptation to see this era as a proof of the menace of little warring Greek city-states. As genuine confederacies, most of these alliances were made up of a central decision-making body and separate decision-making communities. In Arcadia, the Assembly of the ‘Myriad’ met in its special building (the ‘Thersilion’) and chose magistrates from the member-communities who, initially, paid the costs of the League’s ‘Select’ military force. Athenians, by contrast, discussed or voted on proposals which were passed to their existing city-assembly by a separate ‘parliament’, made up of delegates from their allies. The representative councils of these confederacies were all rather different from the democratic practice of one vote, one adult male in a single city-assembly.

Nonetheless, they were not superstates which marked the end of the polis as a political unit. Like the Athenian assembly, the assemblies of the Arcadian or Boeotian member-cities continued to meet and take decisions too. They continued to fear internal faction or the attack of a fellow confederate member, not least one by the ever-aggressive Thebans. The same mainstays of Greek political life continued vigorously: civic oaths and civic magistracies, debates about new citizens and debates about financial contributions to be paid by individuals. In 363, after only six years of existence, the unity of the Arcadian League fractured on the decision of some of its magistrates to pay the League army by ‘borrowing’ funds from Olympia, rather than by exacting payments from the member-states.

Through the ancients’ own narrative histories, we continue to know this era for the names of famous individuals, Epaminondas the Theban or Jason the Thessalian (active there until 370 BC) or Agesilaus the Spartan king. But it is quite wrong to see these men as signs of a new age of individualism. Each of them held office in their home communities and remained locally accountable to them. ‘Community’ was not breaking down before a drift into superstates or a new era of great men. The struggle, at bottom, was still about freedom and justice and their interpretation, without an Athens rich enough to support the majority view or a Sparta strong enough to suppress it in her own interest.

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