Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ancient Greece, a Road Map?

So far I have learned very little about the Messenian War, though it is still high on the list.  It is more the history of Ancient Greece that has grabbed and ensnared.  There is so much that is so amazing about Ancient Greece that it is almost impossible to focus on such a narrow topic.

Sparta itself, is a fascinating subject, with many intriguing aspects, not the least of which is the brutal repression of their neighbors, called "helots" by the Spartans, and fanatic devotion to military training.  Of course it makes the task of constant military training much more achievable if you have subjugated enough people.  Conversely, it makes the need to train constantly almost a necessity.  As Xenophon (an Athenian contemporary who knew the Spartans well) explained, "the Helots would gladly eat the Spartans raw."  When the people who produce your food and provide for your well being are so resentful and bitter it requires a certain amount of military preparation to ensure their continued "loyalty."

But, the whole history is fascinating.  From the rise of the Polis, to the advent of family owned farms the ancient Greeks were amazing.  It was a seminal, transformative, singularity.  Ingenious, industrious, and constantly evolving, they were a revolutionary force of unimaginable power with an almost infinite effect on the growth of humanity.  More than any other culture, Greece changed the story arc of history.

Plato is quoted as saying, "the Greeks never invented anything, but everything they borrowed they improved upon."  Since Plato was there, and Greek, he should know.  Even if this were the case, they improved on some things so dramatically that they became something completely new, an invention, and that is enough for me.

But, the history of Greece is a history of war.  They were not any worse than anybody else, before, or since.  In many ways, the history of Ancient Greece mirrors the history of man.  It is an abridged history of the human race, in a very small place.

Wars, alliances, treaties, shifting centers of power, allegiances formed, broken, intrigue, and rebellion.  It starts with the rise of Sparta, and pretty much ends Alexander the Great.  From one warrior to another, with a lot of warriors in between.

Just like human history the history of Greece is the tale of powerful states, deciding that the existence of the other was such a threat that war was inevitable, and once it had begun winning was the only option, no matter the cost.  Noted historian Donald Kagan, wrote "In peaceful and prosperous times both people and
nations behave reasonably because the tissue of material well-being and security that separates civilization from brutal savagery has not been torn away and people reduced to brutal necessity."*

It is the story of mankind, condensed into approximately 700 years, in an area about 51,000 square miles.  From one empire to the next, from one rapidly developing city state, to a super power in decline.  Sooner or later they all figure the results will be worth the cost, and occasionally they were.  Unless you happened to be the loser, or one of those sacrificed for victory, for them the stakes were a little different.

And, in all this time, the game really hasn't changed, nor have the motives.  They may seem more significant, but every war was justified, vital, absolutely essential, at the time.  And, they still are.  We haven't really learned much.

Next time we will look at one of the wars involving Ancient Greece.  Probably the Persian Wars, a time for Greek unity, a time for common ground, and cooperation.  But, when it was over, it was business as usual, and it could have been almost any where at almost any time.

*"The Peloponnesian War," page 117.