Famous Greeks: Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War



Like World Wars I and II, the Peloponnesian War was a total war that stretched both Athens and Sparta to their limits. Although the Spartans ultimately proved more adaptable to the demands of the conflict, the Athenians waged the war with extraordinary tenacity and courage. Even after the devastating defeat in Sicily, the Athenians refused to give up. Convinced that Sparta was determined to destroy them, the Athenians undertook a propaganda campaign to give themselves the moral courage to endure. They resorted to bold military and political strategies to give themselves the resources and leadership for the war. This included the recall of Alcibiades, whose military genius and political skill restored Athens to a commanding position. However, Sparta, too, produced a leader in Lysander, a man with far more integrity and greater ability than Alcibiades.

Questions to Consider:

1. Taking Pericles’s funeral oration and Plutarch’s Lycurgus as our sources, which nation, Athens or Sparta, most proved true to its values during the Peloponnesian War?

2. Do you think that the character and career of Alcibiades justifies a general condemnation of the Athenian democracy?

Famous Greeks: Alkibiades


Alcibiades (450–404 B.C.), nephew of Pericles, was born to wealth and position. Handsome and brilliant, he received the finest education of his day, imbibing the intellectually radical ideas of the sophists and Socrates. Above all, he learned that might makes right and that success is the only criterion for right and wrong. Alcibiades was the antithesis of Pericles. Alcibiades had neither principles nor a moral compass. His vision was political power for himself, but his charisma and ability gave him a dangerous degree of influence over the Athenians. In pursuit of his goal of dictatorial power, he led the Athenians to continue the war with Sparta and to undertake the conquest of Sicily. Thwarted by his enemies, Alcibiades turned traitor and was a primary cause for the ultimate defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was the product of the Athenian democracy, and to his critics, he embodied the failing of that democracy.

Questions to Consider:

1. What twentieth-century politician might you compare to Alcibiades?

2. Athenian foreign policy rested in part on the moral assumption that strong nations should use their powers to aid the weak. Is there anything comparable to this ideal in the history of American foreign policy?

Famous Greeks: Thucydides


Historical research and writing began in the Athenian democracy of the fifth century B.C. It was born out of the conviction that the study of the past offered the best means of making decisions in the present and foreseeing the future. Herodotus was the “father of history,” but⎯in the view of antiquity and the modern age⎯Thucydides (471–400 B.C.) was the greater historian. He was the founder of scientific history, the attribution of history to human, not divine, motivation. He was deeply immersed in the intellectual currents of his day, and strong parallels have been noted between his approach to the body politic and the discoveries of scientific medicine attributed to his contemporary Hippocrates. Thucydides participated actively in the political life of Athens. He was an admirer of Pericles. He was also a failed general, who spent much of the war in exile. His History of the Peloponnesian War has been called “the eternal manual of statesmen.” This lecture focuses on specific passages in that history to explore what is most enduring in Thucydides’s view of politics and human nature.

Questions to Consider:

1. How would you compare Herodotus and Thucydides as historians?

2. The argument has been made that the Melians were guilty of hybris. After all, is it not outrageous arrogance to think that you know what the gods approve? Do you agree?

Famous Greeks: Nicias


The personal and political enemy of Alcibiades, Nicias (465–414 B.C.) led the conservative party at Athens during a significant part of the Peloponnesian War. A wealthy man of great reputation for his piety and virtue, he negotiated a peace with Sparta in 421 B.C. Despite his opposition to the Sicilian expedition in 415 B.C., Nicias was named by the Athenian Assembly as one of its three commanders, along with Alcibiades. Ultimately, supreme command of the expedition devolved on him. He proved himself to be one of the worst generals in history. Lazy, inept, and cowardly, he brought disaster on the Athenian expeditionary force. In fact, like many men of reputed virtue, he was a fraud, deceptive and manipulative. We study Nicias because examples of bad leaders are frequently more instructive than those of good ones.

Questions to Consider:

1. Was the Sicilian expedition a reasonable strategic undertaking or was it folly from the beginning?

2. Can you find a parallel in American history to Nicias? What would you say about George McClellan in the Civil War?

Famous Greeks: Sophocles


Tragedy was the characteristic cultural statement of the Athenian democracy: that democracy required the total involvement of citizens in its political life. In such a democracy, tragedy must be preeminently political. In the view of Aristotle, Sophocles (495–406 B.C.) was the supreme tragedian. He was active in the political life of Athens and served as a general. He was also a critic of Pericles and his policies. This novel view is presented through the lens of three of his most enduring plays. In Antigone, Sophocles warned the Athenians about the potential for the abuse of power in the overweening personal authority of Pericles. Oedipus the King was an indictment of the failure of Pericles and “his war.” In his intense patriotism, Sophocles continued to use his plays as a forum for the discussion of the moral dimension of Athenian policies. Oedipus at Colonus proclaimed that the salvation of Athens lay in a return to traditional religious and moral values.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do we have anything in our American democracy comparable to Athenian tragedy as a public forum for the consideration of moral and political issues?

2. Can you see Pericles in the character of Oedipus in Oedipus the King?

Famous Greeks: Croesus


The “Father of History,” Herodotus chose to begin his great work on the Persian Wars with the tale of Croesus, King of Lydia (546 B.C.). Herodotus wrote his histories to understand what was permanent and true behind the seemingly random events of human affairs. Herodotus found this in the concept of hybris, the idea that the abuse of power leads to the fall of great nations and individuals. The wealth and international power and prestige of King Croesus provided Herodotus with the ideal subject to introduce the central theme of his history. Neither the oracles of the gods nor the wisdom of Solon could save Croesus from destroying himself and his country. This lecture considers the historical kernel of this story and its significance for the rise of the Persian Empire. It also considers the enduring meaning of this story and the question, still central to our own political discussions, of whether a political leader can separate public from private morality.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that we can or should separate private from public morality?

2. Do you believe that the primary purpose of history is moral instruction?

Famous Greeks: Anaxagoras, Phidias & Aspasia



The names of Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia (fifth century B.C.) represent the leading intellectual, artistic, and cultural currents in an age of unsurpassed creativity. Anaxagoras was as one of the sophists, professors, who made Athens the intellectual center of the Greek world. He taught that reason is the motivating force of the universe. Phidias was an artist who sought to express, in his design for the Acropolis at Athens and in his sculptures, the ideal of divine and human reason. In a society that denied rights to women, Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, combined a career as a madam of a bordello with intellectual attainments that made her a political adviser to Pericles. All three were friends of Pericles; all became targets of legal attacks by his enemies.

Questions to Consider:

1. How does the Parthenon embody the concept of divine reason?

2. Compare the role of sophists in the Athenian democracy with the role of professors and other academic experts in our democracy.

Famous Greeks: Pericles


Along with Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, Pericles (490–429 B.C.) ranks as one of the three greatest democratic statesmen in history. He so embodied the leading currents of his day that his name came to stand for an entire era: the Periclean Age. His powerful mind and wide-ranging interests enabled him to guide Athens to a position of preeminence as the intellectual and artistic center of the world and to create a legacy that endures to our own day. This lecture focuses on a critical moment in the life of Pericles and in the history of Athens: his decision to lead his country into the great war with Sparta. Our lecture on Pericles is one of four devoted to leading figures in the culture and society of Athens in the Periclean Age. Together, they present a composite portrait of Pericles that is quite different from that drawn in conventional histories.

Questions to Consider:

1. What would be your list of the qualities that a great statesman must possess?

2. Epidamnus, Sarajevo, Kossovo: What similarities and differences do you see in the events of 435–431 B.C., 1914, and 1999?

Famous Greeks: Pausanias


Thucydides regarded the Spartan King Pausanias (510–476 B.C.), along with Themistocles, as one of the two preeminent Greek leaders of the age of the Persian Wars. The Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) ended the threat of a Persian conquest of Greece. In leading the Greeks to victory, Pausanias proved himself to be one of the best generals in history, a master of tactics and strategy and a superb battlefield commander. Pausanias also sponsored the Greek expedition to Mycale to liberate Greeks in Asia Minor. In concluding his history of the Persian Wars, Herodotus gives reasons for the Greek victory over the Persians and issues another warning against the disastrous consequences of hybris.

Questions to Consider:

1. How did Persian strategic mistakes contribute to the Persians’ defeat?

2. Compare Pausanias and Xerxes as battlefield commanders.

Famous Greeks: Themistocles


The most powerful historical mind of the Greek world, Thucydides, paid tribute to Themistocles (527–460 B.C.) as perhaps the greatest statesman in Greek history. From a modest background, Themistocles rose to a position of leadership in one of the most critical moments in his country’s history. He was ambitious, ruthless, and avaricious. But he possessed what Thucydides regarded as the supreme quality of a statesman: foresight. Themistocles used the great challenge of the Persian invasion to lay the foundation for his nation’s political greatness. Themistocles made Athens the supreme naval power in its world. This lecture examines in detail the Battle of Salamis (480 B.C.) and shows why it must be counted among the most decisive battles in world history.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that Salamis could be compared with the Battle of Midway as one of the most decisive naval battles in history?

2. Given the case of Themistocles, do you believe that a great leader needs to be honest?

Famous Greeks: Leonidas


The valor of King Leonidas (529–480 B.C.) and his three hundred Spartans is one of the most stirring tales in the annals of military history. It also provides an ideal introduction to the nature of warfare in classical Greece. The Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. was a seminal event in the history of Greece and in world history. This lecture analyzes the historical accounts of Xerxes’s expedition against Greece in the framework of a critical discussion of the actual resources of the Persian Empire. It considers Persian and Greek tactics and strategy and contrasts the nature of military leadership in the Persian autocracy with that of the democratic Greek city-state. The Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) is the focus of the lecture. What determined the tactics of the Spartans and the Persians? Was the Spartan stand really an act of desperate valor or a well considered strategic decision that played a major role in the ultimate victory of the Greeks?

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that Thermopylae was a desperate gamble by the Spartans or did it make sense, strategically and tactically?

2. What do we mean when we say that Leonidas was a superb battlefield commander?

Famous Greeks: Xerxes


Both Plutarch and Herodotus understood that we frequently learn most about our own history by studying that of other nations. Both would have agreed that the Persian King Xerxes (519–465 B.C.) belongs in any course on famous Greeks. Xerxes is the central figure in Herodotus’s Histories. His actions and character were responsible for the fall of his country from greatness; by studying the folly of Xerxes, Herodotus hoped that the Greeks could avoid the same mistakes and maintain their freedom and power. This lecture examines Xerxes as the model of the despotic ruler, a type still to be found in every walk of life. The lecture looks beyond the stories of history and presents the realities of Xerxes and the Persian Empire over which he ruled.

Questions to Consider:

1. Plato and Aristotle believed that the “tyrant” was a well-defined and real human character. Do you agree? How does Xerxes fit this definition?

2. Can you give other historical examples of a great expeditionary force being defeated by a seemingly much weaker opponent? Is there anything instructive about this in Herodotus’s account of the defeat of Xerxes?

Famous Greeks: Solon


The emergence of democracy at Athens owed much to Solon (638–559 B.C.). He is characteristic of the Greek ideal of the true wise man who places his intellectual skills at the service of his country. Soldier, poet, statesman, Solon’s impact on the political history of Athens was like that of Franklin Roosevelt in our own country. Solon carried out controversial economic, social, and political reforms to save his country from social revolution. He laid the foundation for the economic prosperity of Athens and its political leadership of the Greek world. Many of the figures of archaic Greek history are hardly more than names to us. This is not true of Solon. His poetry offers us unique insight into the values and motives of this statesman, so admired by our own Founding Fathers

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you see parallels in Solon’s social and economic reforms with those of Franklin Roosevelt?

2. Do you believe that sumptuary laws, curbing spending on luxury items, are consistent with the spirit of democracy?

Famous Greeks: Lycurgus



The traditional founder of the Spartan way of life, Lycurgus (776 B.C.) was already wrapped in the shade of legend by the beginning of the historical period in Greece in the sixth century B.C. He represented one of the most characteristic figures of early Greek history: the lawgiver, a single individual who saves his country from civil war and establishes its characteristic political, social, and religious institutions. No such institutions in antiquity were as famous or significant as those of Sparta. This lecture analyzes the balanced constitution of Sparta and its social and educational institutions. It explores the purpose of these institutions and the Greek ideal of civic virtue, the willingness of the individual to subordinate his own interests to the good of the nation as a whole. The lecture concludes with an examination of Sparta’s legacy and why the Founders of our country admired certain aspects of the Spartan constitution and way of life.

Questions to Consider:

1. The Founders of the United States, such as James Madison, were students of the classics and read Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus with interest. What elements in the United States Constitution recall the Spartan constitution?

2. Do you believe that the primary purpose of education in a democracy, such as Sparta or the United States, should be the inculcation of civic virtue?

Famous Greeks: Odysseas


Hector and Achilles were heroes in an age of warriors. Odysseus (1250 B.C.) is the “man of many wiles,” who would be at home and flourish in our own day. Odysseus is a survivor. Achilles and Hector died on the battlefield of Troy. Agamemnon returned home in glory only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. For ten years after the fall of Troy, Odysseus was driven by the fury of the gods to wander the Mediterranean world. In the end, his prudence and courage restored him to his kingdom, home, and loved ones. Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, is one of the most famous Greeks. His genius transformed the story of Odysseus into a metaphor for the human experience itself. At the same time, the Odyssey preserved a significant kernel of historical fact concerning the events that marked the end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that the Odyssey is a parable for life? What lessons would you draw from it?

2. Who is more admirable, Odysseus or Achilles? Whom would you rather have for a friend? Who would be more successful today?