Wondering if democracies of the past ever fared any better during wartime than ours is doing today, I started thumbing through my old college copy of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War that occurred in the latter part of the fifth century B.C. While the war between Athens and Sparta lasted 27 years, Thucydides’ account is only of a 20-year period.
The takeover of Athens’ democratic assembly by a repressive elite called The Four Hundred that followed the disastrous failure of Athens’ invasion of Sicily comes as the climax of Thucydides’ book. While this suspension of democracy did not last even a single year, it signaled that representative government in war-wracked Athens was on thin ice, which proved to be the case seven years later when Athens’ conquest by Sparta resulted in installation of a ruthless dictatorship known as The Thirty, in 404 B.C.
Thucydides shows that the world’s first democracy, the Greek city-state of Athens, simply unraveled, both as a world power and internally, during an extended period of warfare against a succession of Mediterranean neighbors, all the while becoming a society in which citizens feared to raise a dissenting call for peace. During the 160-year heyday of ancient Greece from 498 to 338 B.C. the city of Athens was at war for two out of every three years. War was considered the natural order of things.
According to historian Thucydides, what seemed like sanity and patriotism back then was to give blind, unthinking support to battles in which navies with 100 or more ships apiece would simply ram each other, then their crewmen board each other’s vessels to engage in hand-to-hand battles with knives, spears, and battle axes in the same way as land armies.
The purpose of all this warmaking was simple: to seize neighboring cities, plunder their citizens’ stores of food, resources, treasuries, and personal possessions, and put surviving citizens to work for the conquering country.
In vain, one of the Athenian generals, named Nicias, pleaded with his countrymen to hold back from what he thought was the idiotic course they seemed determined to pursue in waging war on two fronts, Syracuse and the rest of Sicily, at the same time. He warned that the Athenians would find themselves outnumbered and trapped in a land far away from home and that Sicily posed absolutely no military danger to Athens. He pleaded for the planned war against Sicily to be put to a vote of the citizens, “to allow the Athenians to debate the matter once again.”
But then as now, the momentum for war was impossible to stop, and ultimately Nicias himself lost his life, killed after being taken prisoner in what turned out to be a hideous and total defeat for the Athenians. One of the Athenian generals, Alcibiades, defects to the Sicilian side and reveals to them that the Athenians had a master plan to conquer literally the whole of the Mediterranean world. An enormous alliance against the attacking Athenians is formed, and the Athenians, overextended just as Nicias predicted, are totally humiliated.
It’s hard to read the words of Thucydides, himself a former Athenian general who had been exiled from the city as punishment for a battle lost, without suspecting that his motive in writing his history was to hold the defeat of his countrymen up to their face and say “I told you so!” He makes sure you see the irony that the defeated Athenians had once embarked on their mission in “splendour and pride” and that “they had set out to enslave others, but now they were going away frightened of being enslaved themselves.”
This is how Thucydides described the war’s chilling effect on the democratic freedoms of Athenians who suffered ridicule and intimidation if they tried to use the language of common sense against their fellow-Athenians’ delusion of invincibility as they marched to a war that was to bring them doom:
“To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, ... Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. ... As a result ... there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The plain way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.”
In America today, as in Athens then, the only camp to have any visibility (that is, access to the media) has been a pro-war camp in which both political parties have joined hands, leaving the camp that wants withdrawal from Iraq and opposes America’s course of war and global expansion without a political party to speak for them, and hence without existence in the public eye.
For anyone who finds security in having such a conflict-free political situation, and feels pride in the Senate’s 99-0 vote, I hope the excerpts I’ve provided from historian Thucydides will lead you to read his work in its entirety. There in his story of ancient Athens’ fall you’ll discover that even the greatest of world powers can suffer crushing defeat, and the greatest democracies degenerate into tyrannies, when absolute consensus is made the rule.