The Peloponnesian War was a defining event in the history of Greek politics, economics, and culture. Athens was devastated and the victor, Sparta, ill-equipped culturally to perform the task of ruler, took over. Less than a year later, the Spartan thirty were thrown out, and the Athenian Polis returned.
Returned to what?
The wheels which would unravel Athens had already started turning and nothing could stop them.
The first act in this tragedy was the rise of the Sophists. I’ve written previously about how Sophism took hold in Athens during the middle of the Golden Age, circa 450 B.C, and what it meant to Athenian philosophy. What began as a method to educate the sons of the wealthy grew beyond what anyone could have imagined. The Sophist’s vision was man-centric and not Polis centric – focused on the failures of the old system as proof that a change was needed. Under their influence, the educated Greek became self-confident, cosmopolitan, and a universal man, sharing nature with all other men. The laws of nature (physics) became a dominant philosophy, replacing the laws of gods and men. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”
This is relativism grown out of man’s respect for himself, similar to the Enlightenment two thousand years later. Now secularism followed relativism as the old gods seemed to grow tired and ineffective. The credibility of sophist’s view was accelerated by the failure of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. “If Athenian politics were so wonderful, why were the people now starving?” was the question on everyone’s mind.
Conservatives like Socrates, and his pupil Plato, reacted adversely to the ideas put forth by the Sophists, who they saw as too radical. Plato, late in his career, wrote Laws to describe how a state must keep control over its citizens, and in doing so exposed his fear of the changes being advocated by the Sophists.
Economically, Greece was devastated by the Peloponnesian War. She was too weak to maintain a navy – required to protect her merchant fleet and her Poleis were restless about their autonomy. They wanted to exert power to go with the pride they felt, but they also harbored distrust for alliances that might lead to war. This was the time when Greece could have held on to her power by uniting as a nation, but she was not able to do so.
Sparta felt it had to control Greece to protect itself but did not have the skill. She was engaged in a series of adventures during the thirty year period after the Peloponnesian War until Leuctra, when her military might was destroyed for good.
Thebes stepped in and tried for nine years (371-62) to control northern Greece, but following the Battle of Mantinea, her hegemony came to an end. By 355 B.C. all Greece was exhausted and in disarray.
Now was time for Philip of Macedonia to appear; a man so strong of will that a divided Greece could not stop him. The Athenians, led by Demosthenes, tried their best to maintain Greek autonomy, but the end for Athens came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. As victor, Philip convened the League of Corinth, including in it all the Greek powers except Sparta who refused to participate.
Loss of military and economic control was the larger symptom of the decay that lay beneath the surface when the cleavage between rich and poor began to have a destabilizing effect on Greek politics. The willingness of the poor to subscribe to the idealism of the Polis was now worn away and their desire for equal rights was out in the open. The people wanted a re-distribution of land and a cancellation of debts or else. The rich, for their own part, formed oligarchic clubs as a way to maintain control. Aristotle quoted one of the club’s oaths: “I will be an enemy to the people, and devise all the harm against them which I can.”
Culturally, the fourth century was very different from its predecessor as rhetoric and prose became important tools for communication. Rhetoric had a particularly powerful impact because of its detachment of form from content. There was no longer a “correct” point of view to be supported by argument, because rhetoric could be used effectively on either side. The argument’s winner was determined by style and not truth.
In the area of plastic arts, decorated pottery declined as an art form after a millennium of prominence. The wealthy began to buy iron vessels which were manufactured without decoration. Without a market for their skills, pottery artists turned their talents to wall paintings and other forms of decoration. Artistic styles transitioned from Classic to Mannerist.
I have summarized in this article a process that will take many future posts to analyze; the reasons and experience behind the withering of the Greek Polis. We’ve seen this same cycle so many times in the history of man. A civilization rises to a peak and then drops off -- an inevitable response to the changes in people, their attitudes, and changes in the balance of power within a political system.