Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Greeks and their Foolish Attack of Syracuse

The Athenian Empire came to an end when they were defeated by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431-404 B.C. Below is a timeline of that war.

1st Stage of the Peloponnesian War from 431-421

Athens (under Pericles and then Nicias) successful until 424. Athens makes attacks the Peloponnese by sea and Sparta destroys areas in the countryside of Attica. Athens makes a disastrous expedition into Boeotia. They try to recover Amphipolis (422), unsuccessfully. Athens fears more of her allies would desert, so she signs a treaty (Peace of Nicias) that allows her to keep face, basically setting things back to how they were before the war except for Plataea and Thracian towns.

431 - Peloponnesian War begins. Siege of Potidaea.
430 - Plague in Athens.
429 - Pericles dies. Siege of Plataea.
428 - Revolt of Mitylene.
427 - Athenian Expedition to Sicily.
421 - Peace of Nicias.

2nd Stage of the Peloponnesian War from 421-413

Corinth forms coalitions against Athens. Alcibiades stirs up trouble and is exiled. Betrays Athens to Sparta. Both sides seek the alliance of Argos but in the Battle of Mantinea she loses most of her military and becomes an Athenian ally.

415-413 - Athenian expedition to Syracuse. Sicily.

3rd Stage of the Peloponnesian War from 413-404

Under the advice of Alcibiades, Sparta invades Attica. Athens continues to send ships and men to Sicily even though it is disastrous. Athens, which had started the war with the advantage in naval battle, loses this advantage to the Corinthians and Syracusans. Sparta then used Persian gold from Cyrus to build her fleet and destroys the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegosotami.

404 - Athens surrenders.

A major contributor to the Athenian defeat was its foolish attack on Sicily. This ill-fated enterprise cost the Athenians an army and a navy at a time they had their hands full battling the Spartans at home. The Athenian plan for Sicily showcased the extreme arrogance of the late empire – an empire that would crumble at the hands of the Spartans.

The Sicilian affair began in the spring of 415 when ambassadors of Athenian Sicilian allies came to Athens asking for help. Two cities in western Sicily, Segesta and Selinus, were in a dispute. Selinus won a battle between them and Segesta appealed to Syracuse for help. Not only was help not given, but Syracuse joined the side of Selinus. The Segestans appealed to Athens for there sense of honor and to protect Sicily against the designs of the Peloponnese (Syracuse was an ally of Corinth who was a member of the Peloponnesean Leagure). They also offered to fund the war.

After much debate in the Athenian Assembly, the decision was made to send a force to Sicily under the command of three generals: Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus. Nicias was reluctant to command the mission, while Alcibiades (nephew of Pericles) was young, charismatic, and all for battle. Lamachus was chosen because he could offer an experienced point of view that would, hopefully, keep the expedition on course.

Things started badly. Just after the army’s departure, Alcibiades was accused of plotting to deface statues of the god Hermes in Athens, and asked to return. Instead he fled to Sparta and joined the Peloponnesean side. Nicias, still reluctant, wasted the first campaign season deciding how to attack Syracuse. He contented himself with building a wall around the city. Then, at the beginning of 414 the Syracusans sent their own envoys to Sparta asking for help. Alcibiades urged the Spartans to defend Syracuse, but they used caution and only sent four ships with no infantry.

Assuming this small fleet was not a threat Nicias worked on his wall, while the Spartans secretly used their allies to increase their force to 3000 infantry and 200 cavalry. They arrived in Syracuse in late 414 and started to construct a wall to counter the wall being built by the Athenians. Lamachus, was killed in a skirmish trying to defend the Athenian wall.

Nicias, now the sole commander and ill with a kidney ailment, realized he would never be able to take the city. He asked to be relieved, but was sent reinforcements under the command of Demosthenes. Not wanting to wait for Nicias to be reinforced, the Spartan commander Gylippus attacked the Athenian fleet in Syracuse harbor and defeated them. Soon after, Demosthenes arrived with plans for an immediate attack, but his two land assaults were unsuccessful during the spring of 413.

By fall, after much argument among the commanders, Nicias decided to withdraw, but was held up by a lunar eclipse on September 13th, which frightened his soldiers. A soothsayer advised that he wait 27 days before withdrawing which gave the Syracusans enough time to attack and destroy the Athenian fleet in the great harbor. Now forced to withdraw by land the Athenians were attacked and defeated. Nicias and Demosthenes were executed. Much of the blame for this debacle rests on Nicias, who was unsure of his goal and overly cautious. He also was carefully guarding his reputation as a winner and unwilling to return home in defeat, fearing the consequences.

This is a classic case of the danger of distance in war (think Viet Nam). The Athenians risked their future on hubris, sending an army far away to a conflict removed from their current struggle. They reinforced a weak commander and wasted an army and navy two times. Thucydides, the great Greek historian, is highly critical of the Athenians for their arrogance during this period. It is hard to get beneath his bias, however, to determine whether the Athenians were as foolish as he makes them out to be. One thing that is beyond dispute – the expedition to Sicily helped produce a Spartan victory in the Peloponnesean War.

The timeline shown came from about.com/ancient history.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mesopotamia and Agriculture

It is interesting to contemplate the following progression:

Irrigation → high production farming → cities.

This is the story of Mesopotamia, the first substantial farming culture on earth. Its agricultural productivity supported the population density required for urbanism.

Before the settlements at Sumer, irrigation was developed in the steppe areas of Mesopotamia between the rivers and the Zagros Mountains. But there were limitations to productivity, including the supply of water and the characteristics of the soil. Men, in their crude knowledge of farming, had to rely on natural processes which were unpredictable.

In Sumer, however, there were no limitations. The alluvial plain was rich and fertile, water from the rivers plentiful, and the soil was easy to work because it was free of stone. The Tigris River is 1,100 miles long, flowing from the Armenian Plateau to the Persian Gulf. With four major tributaries, it is subject to significant flooding each year. At Kut, for example, the river rises from four feet to twenty-six feet.

To grow barley, one needed 40-50 days of moist soil, which naturally presented itself when the river began to recede. The Mesopotamians used a scratch plow (Ard) to create furrows in the soil for planting. It was a crude implement, incapable of turning the soil, but turning the soil was unnecessary since the land renewed its nutrients with each seasonal flood.

To harness the river’s power irrigation canals were constructed to hold water and control distribution, further extending the growing season.

Large crop production density supported a high population density which set the stage for development of urban areas. These were not large cities, but they were the first cities, numbering 15-20,000 people. Sumeria created a new dynamic of human interaction, including social stratification, labor differentiation, and sophisticated political systems.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mesopotamia – The Timeline

Now that we have looked at the geography, we move on to the developmental timeline of the Mesopotamian Culture. The following chart shows this in relation to cultural development of the Aegean.

5,000-3,500 B.C. – The Formative Period

Irrigation became more broadly utilized which facilitated settlement of the grassland areas. By 4,000, an economy was well-established in Susa (see map). Lowlands were not established in a substantial way until irrigation techniques had advanced to the point of insuring a consistent harvest and water-born transportation was able to supply the lowlands with raw materials.

Two cultures evolved: agriculture only in the lowlands and mixed agriculture and pastoralism of the grasslands areas. By 3,500 B.C. the area known as Sumer had grown significantly and created the world’s first urban environment. A good example of a Formative Period settlement is at Eridu, where reed and clay huts have been excavated. Date palm and fish were in the diet, along with cereals. Sheep and goats were herded. Pottery was excavated along with kilns.

The village organizations were chiefdoms and theocratic. Each village contained a temple.

3,500 – 3,000 B.C. – Florescent and Proto-literate Periods

Florescent in this case refers to a period of rapid growth in the civilization. Sumer’s development accelerated with many new villages becoming prominent. One of the most notable was Erech, which has been well excavated. Crafts were well-developed – pottery, carpentry, and metallurgy. The presence of wood and metals from great distances indicates advanced trade.

Writing began with the form of pictographs but advanced along with numerical notation. The plow was improved, wheeled carts were constructed, and sailboats put into use. Bronze weapons and tools were seen after 3000 B.C.

2,900 – 2,500 – The Dynastic Period

This period gets its name to describe the emergence of secular, hereditary, military kingdoms in Sumer. This political trend was accompanied by an increase in militarism and warfare. Fifteen to twenty Sumerian cities had grown more urban by concentrating themselves defensively. Kish and Erech had as many as 20,000 inhabitants. There was evidence of a class society: well to do, poor, and slaves.

There is much speculation about what caused the militancy: competition over scarce resources? Competition over unoccupied land? Lack of a buffer zone? War become chronic and kingships followed. Is this a history lesson?

The kings found their position extremely difficult because there were two types of enemies: like cities in close proximity and raiding nomads. The nomads were particularly difficult to defend against because of their mobility. There was no way to find peace against them except by buying them off. Those caught in the buffer zone had to choose between joining the urban communities and becoming nomads themselves.

2,500 – 1,500 – The Imperial Period

Around 2,500 B.C. attempts at empire building began. In 2,370 B.C, Sargon of Akkad established the first imperial dynasty. Sargon was able to subjugate all of Sumer and hold the upland barbarians at bay.

Sargon was originally a cup bearer for the King of Kish, and later became a successful military leader. He became so successful because he figured out how to “unite barbarian prowess with a foundation of Sumerian civilized technique.” (quote from Service). And as we have seen in other examples, Akkad shortcutted its development by using lessons learned from the Sumerians.

The Sargonic Empire lasted for four generations before it was overthrown by The Third Dynasty of Ur and then eventually, in 1,700 B.C, Ur gave way to Hammurabi of Babylon.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mesopotamia – The Geography

It’s time to go back, way back, 5000 years before the Greeks to look at the mankind’s original civilization -- Mesopotamia. The word is Greek for “between the rivers”, describing the ancient settlements between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. Before we discuss the ancient culture, let’s review the geography, which is fundamental to the development of human society in this particular location. The map below highlights the geography and marks the key cities during the late Neolithic Period.

Geographically, there are three main elements: mountains, steppe, and alluvial plain. Around 7,000 B.C, agriculture was introduced in the steppe and, a thousand years later, mixed herding and farming communities were well-developed. Farming had taken root there because there was adequate rainfall to support a full growing season. Then, by 5,000 B.C, settlers began to move down into the plain, utilizing irrigation to grow their crops. Knowledge of irrigation was probably adapted from techniques successfully developed in the steppe. The alluvial geography facilitated farming in a way that no other geography in the world was able to do. Undoubtedly, it was combination of fertile soil, availability of water, and the absence of stone, that made the difference. This same combination existed in Egypt, which would become the second great human culture.

The rivers not only provided the food to sustain the lives of the people, but were also transportation arteries providing access to the world through trade and the ability to ship important raw materials to destination cities.

While the plain was protected from invasion to the west because of desert, the Zagros Mountains were not high enough to prevent invasions from the north and east. This vulnerability would have a significant impact on the future development of the Mesopotamian Civilization.

Baghdad is shown on the map as a geographical reference only. It was not founded until 700 A.D.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How the Framers of Our Constitution Debated the Roman Republic

The American Constitutional Convention was authorized on February 21st, 1787, for the sole and express purpose of modifying the Articles of Confederation. By the time of the initial committee meetings on May 6th, however, the delegate’s philosophy had shifted toward a completely new government for the United States. Opinions had changed because the lawlessness of Shay’s Rebellion had emphasized the weaknesses in the Articles.

During the committee meetings and the full convention there was extensive discussion about the political systems of antiquity and their usefulness as models for the new government. The delegates considered the British Constitution, Roman Republic, and, to a lesser extent, the Greek Democracy as relevant political systems. They were also influenced by the philosopher Locke and the political theorist Montesquieu. The framers saw the monarch as the major problem with the British system; a tyrant imposing his will on the people. The Roman Republic, as the greatest political system with no monarch, would be better because the executive magistrate was elected and not born to his position.

Committee meetings were held until June 19th, for the purpose of creating a governmental model that could be presented to the whole convention. The entire committee agreed that two legislative bodies should be created: an Assembly and Senate modeling the Roman Republic. Debate on the method of electing members from these two bodies proved to be long and difficult, however. One extreme favored members of both bodies be selected by the states; the other favored members be elected by the people.

On June 6th, Madison argued for direct election of the assembly by the people, using the example of Rome and its factions to show how power could be accumulated for selfish purposes. Madison argued that the only way to avoid the accumulation of power is to divide power into small pieces by letting the people vote directly. No consensus was reached that day, and the discussion of assembly elections was tabled.

As the debate moved on to the model of the Senate, a proposal was made to have Senators elected by the people like the assembly. Small states immediately objected to the unfairness of the proposal and insisted that the Senate consist of equal numbers from each state. Early in the debate, a large number was considered, but Madison spoke against this describing how the number of Tribunes in Rome was enlarged, and the office became corrupt. All finally agreed that the number of Senators from each state should be a small number, and they settled on the number one.

On June 11th, the great Connecticut Compromise was submitted to the committee. It offered to break the deadlock on how to elect the legislature by calling for the people’s election of the assembly by apportioned districts and the states election of Senators. This creative solution removed the major roadblock to the continuation of the convention.

On June 16th, the committee took up its discussion regarding the executive magistrate’s position (President). Most delegates agreed that an executive was needed, because they had suffered through the gridlock of a leaderless Articles of Confederation. All feared tyranny, which could result if a single executive were able to accumulate power, so a dozen members proposed the two executive system of the Roman Consuls. After much debate, the number of was fixed at one based on concerns that two presidents with veto power would stifle government action.

The Convention began on June 20th, and five days later debate began on article four, which was the method of election of Senators. Mr. Pinkney of South Carolina made an impassioned speech about why the Senate should not be a copy of the English House of Lords because there were no titled classes in the United States. Portions of his speech follow:

“The people of the United States are more equal in their circumstances than the people of any other country – and they have few rich men among them.”

“The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I assert that their situation is different from either the people of Greece and Rome, or any other state we are acquainted with among the ancients. Can the orders introduced by Solon be found in the United States? Can the military habits and manners of Sparta be resembled in our habits and manners? Are the distinctions of Patrician and Plebian known among us? I apprehend not – because they are perfectly different.”

“Our true situation appears to me to be this – we are a new extensive country containing within itself the materials for forming a government capable of extending to its citizens civil and Religious liberty.”

“This is the great end of Republican establishments.”

Pinkney was right. The United States was unique. It had come together as thirteen colonies with mutual interests, and different agendas. In the end all agreed to create a political system combining the states with a federal government that would act for the good of the whole.

A couple of facts need additional clarification. The name Assembly was changed to House of Representatives in the August 6th revision of the Articles of the Constitution. I found no evidence of the name change being suggested during debate, so I'm not sure of the origin. The number of Senators from each state was changed to two on July 23rd. The convention debated two versus three, but decided three would be too expensive.