Power and Tragedy

Starting with the Trojan War in the thirteenth century BCE, the Greeks embarked on a gigantic Grexit that lasted for centuries. They migrated to other more prosperous lands.

The Greeks of Euboea were pioneers in this political movement: searching and finding better life outside of Greece. In the eighth century BCE, some of them abandoned the island of Euboea for another island in Italy. This was Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. They gave their new polis a strange name: Pithekousa. This is a name derived from the Greek word for monkey: Pithekos.

Three hundred years after the Euboeans established their prosperous monkey kingdom in Italy, by the fifth century BCE, the Greeks had made southern Italy into Great Greece (Megale Hellada, Magna Graecia) and converted the Mediterranean into a Greek lake dotted with hundreds of poleis.

This cultural and imperial expansion of Greece slowed down considerably in late fifth century BCE. War broke out between Athens and Sparta, threatening Greek society and institutions, including Greek society outside of mainland Greece.

The Peloponnesian War

We call this war the Peloponnesian War. Sparta started it. And Sparta was at the heart of Peloponnesos.

The Peloponnesian War wrecked Greek dreams and triumphs at home and abroad. Centuries of efforts in building a free, prosperous, mostly democratic, and civilized country, the first in the world, never reached completion. Most went up in the smoke of war.

The Peloponnesian War stripped the Greeks naked. It revealed an intensely agonistic and often antagonistic culture. Thucydides, the fifth century BCE Athenian general turned the world’s greatest historian, wrote in his story of The Peloponnesian War (6.80.3) that the Spartans and the Athenians, like good Dorians and Ionians, were eternal enemies. The two highly contested words are αἰεὶπολεμίων(aiei polemion) – being in perpetual war or enemies forever.

Now, why should Athens and Sparta be such bitter enemies? Could Thucydides be exaggerating?

Ionians and Dorians

Both Ionians and Dorians were Hellenes (Greeks). The Ionians were primarily from Athens and Attica and the Dorians were primarily from the northern region of Hellas known as Epirus. Dorians settled in Peloponnesos. The Spartans were their chief champions.

Unlike modern scholars’ pet theory of a Dorian invasion of Greece from somewhere in northern Europe or Asia, the Dorians did not “invade” Greece from outside or inside Greece. The Dorians were Greek people who migrated from Epirus to  Peloponnesos.

In addition, it was the mingling of the traditions of the Dorians with those of the Ionians that gave birth to Hellenic freedom, science, architecture, art, philosophy, literature and religion.

Ionians and Dorians invented and designed the Olympics and other Panhellenic athletic and religious festivals primarily as patriotic and anti-war institutions. Hostile acts or war ceased during those sacred games. The heroes reputed to have invented the Olympics, Herakles and Pelops, were Panhellenic heroes.

The Dorians and Ionians were children of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilization that reached its climax in the second millennium BCE.

In late thirteenth century BCE, the Dorians and Ionians, fought and won the Trojan War. The protagonists of that  conflict included the Dorian Helen, daughter of Zeus and wife of the Spartan King Menelaos. Sparta sent sixty ships to Troy; King Agamemnon of Argos was commander-in-chief of the Greek troops in Troy and brother of Menelaos; and the Ionian king of Ithaca, Odysseus, was decisive in the execution of the war. Menelaus, Agamemnon and Odysseus worked very closely together.

Athens sent fifty ships to Troy under the leadership of Menestheus.

The Homeric epics don’t sing any struggle between Athens and Sparta. On the contrary, the epics nourished the Ionian Thucydides as much as the Dorian Spartan King Brasidas. Thucydides was the Athenian general responsible for the protection of the Athenian polis of Amphipolis in Macedonia. Yet Brasidas outwitted Thucydides and captured Amphipolis. Athens retaliated against Thucydides. It exiled him for 20 years.

The Peloponnesian Wart became a killing ground that engulfed the entire Greek world for twenty-seven years in the last three decades of the fifth century BCE.

There are about 2,500 years between the fifth century BCE and us living in the twenty-first century.

The fifth century BCE

The fifth century BCE was the first epoch of Greek Enlightenment that gave birth and nourished some of the most original and lasting inventions and creations of Greek culture: natural philosophy, scientific medicine, political theory, democracy, classical architecture and art, and dramatic theater.

In the fifth century BCE, Athens and Sparta were at the height of their material prosperity and power. Together, in the beginning of the fifth century, Athenians and Spartans defeated the Persians and, perhaps, without exaggeration, they started thinking themselves to be the Greek superpowers that had a right to rule the rest of the Greek people.

It’s quite possible Athens was planning of uniting all the Greek poleis into a Hellenic republic. Sparta might have had a similar ambition.

The Peloponnesian War shattered the dreams of both Athens and Sparta. It was an unforeseen catastrophe. Thucydides recorded the history of the  war. He was certain his story would be “of permanent value ” (1.22). He was right.


It is fitting I praise Thucydides. His story of The  Peloponnesian War is a work of everlasting importance. I find it wrenching, dramatic, violent, and yet beautiful.

In his book, Greece (1963, 156). M. Rostovtzeff, one of the greatest twentieth-century scholars on Greek and Roman history, described Thucydides’ work  as “one of the noblest monuments of the Greek genius in literature and art — a masterpiece both in detail and in its general survey of a period of primary importance.”

The narrative stuns me, revealing hatred, atrocities, and raw power. How could this happen, I keep asking myself, among people who spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, and lived in the land of their ancestors.

The lament of Thucydides is about the ferocious killing among the Hellenes.

Yet that story of killing and tragedy also includes political power, Eros, philosophy, and beauty of what the Greeks were creating, doing, and saying in the fifth century and after.

The Greeks were surrounded by people who plundered for living and slept armed to the teeth. The Greeks contemptuously called their neighbors barbarians. The Greeks thought they were not far removed from being gods. They knew they were at least relatives of the gods.

Greek mythology

The Greeks drew their early history from myths. Modern scholars, sometimes in error but more often in ignorance and malice, describe Greek myths as unbelievable childish legents. However, the Greeks looked at their myths differently. They saw the myths bringing them closer to the gods, particularly Prometheus,  Zeus, Demeter, Dionysos, Athena, Hephaistos, and Apollo — divine powerhouses of knowledge, rain, thunder and the heavens, hospitality, agrarian civilization, science, technology, culture and the arts.

The Greeks thought the gods were mostly on their side. They loved the stories they inherited about their gods — and had no doubt these stories, myths, were true. Plato (Republic 621b8-c1) and Aristotle (Poetics 1450a3-5) thought so.

The elimination of the Persian danger gave the Greeks confidence and pride, even hubris, in their mission: each polis becoming the best in Greece, and each citizen striving to be the best in his polis.


Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — probably more than any other Greek dramatists — understood the rising insolence among their contemporary Greeks. They pleaded with them to preserve their freedom by being moderate towards each other and by following their sacred religious traditions.

That’s why they gave birth to tragedy. That’s why they gave such a powerful and beautiful expression of the Greek Eros for freedom. They read Homer and created a thousand tragedies out of his immortal epics.

If and when men stepped beyond the bounds allowed by their ancient customs and the gods, tragedy was inevitable. The dramatic poets captured tragedy’s passion: tears, anguish, and suffering that brought the catharsis of the drama.

The Peloponnesian War was the ultimate tragedy, to which Thucydides gave the greatest stage of all — the entire Greek world. Thucydides condensed the historic drama of the Greek people, with the result his story explains not merely the destructive fight of Athens and Sparta but throws light on nearly all subsequent Greek history.

The defeat of Athens by Sparta led to the corrupt excesses of democracy in Athens, including the state execution of Socrates – teacher of Plato and moral philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle

These political events made Plato. He grew up during the Peloponnesian War. His dialogues are linked to Athens, Greek history, and the heavens. His anger fertilized his imagination and obsession about things extraterrestrial: the ideal and heavenly models of everything, including the irreconcilable struggle between body and soul.

Plato painted this dramatic ideal in an unforgettable canvass in the dialogue Phaedo. We see Socrates in prison spending the last hours of his life with a few dedicated followers discussing matters of life and death.

Socrates zeros in on the body (tempted and influenced by food, desires, pain, pleasures, corruption and sex) and the soul (invisible, divine,  master of consciousness and knowledge and truth). Every piece of tasty food, pleasure and pain, Socrates says, nail the soul to the body, polluting and drugging it to the point of uselessness.

The soul is infected by the evils of the body, wrecking its mission of searching and discovering the truth. In such a state, the soul is out of touch with the pure and the divine. This reality, Plato says, undermines philosophy and the true lovers of learning and wisdom, philosophers. The body becomes an impediment to their search for truth. This means searching for wisdom and  pure knowledge becomes a death wish. True philosophers are always busy practicing death. Would it not be better for those philosophers  dying rather than staying alive?

Plato is a great philosopher and profound thinker. Yet I always felt uncomfortable with his abstract thinking – about the soul and the body. We don’t know what soul is. We have no evidence such a thing exists. But even if we associate the soul with our inner world of thought and intelligence, dreams and ambition and affection and passion, we cannot separate it from the body. They are one.

I think Plato invented  abstractions out of desperation. The Greeks of his time failed him miserably. He could not explain the violence of the Peloponnesian War, the collapse of Athens, and the death of Socrates. Plato witnessed things falling apart.

Violence and tyranny also gave birth to Christianity, Islam, theology, monasticism, the dark ages, the Cold War and nuclear bombs. Not that Plato had anything to do with those later developments, but his struggle to explain the unexplainable was not unique.


The Christians borrowed Plato’s views on flesh, pleasures and the soul, only to make them monstrous in their theology and politics of total control of the faithful human sheep.

Aristotle studied with Plato for twenty years. Plato influenced Aristotle. But the Peloponnesian War was history to Aristotle. He grew up in the royal house of the Macedonian kings. His  father  was the physician to those kings. Aristotle breathed curiosity and politics. His feet were solidly planted on Greek soil and the Earth.

He tutored Alexander the Great who conquered the world and made Greek thought universal. The successors of Alexander built their kingdoms around the ideas of Aristotle.

Despite the magnificent works of Aristotle in natural philosophy, metaphysics, politics, ethics, rhetoric, and poetry, including his invention of zoology and science, and his influence in the civilization of the Greek kingdoms in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Hellas was doomed.

Antagonisms and wars among the political successors of Alexander took off after the death of Alexander. These Hellenic conflicts made it easier for Rome stepping into a divided Greece. The inevitable result was decline and the eclipse of Greek political independence and freedom.

The final humiliation and gigantic tragedy came with the Christianization of Greece and Europe in the fourth century. Christians uprooted Hellenic civilization. Yet fragments of that controversial but original culture survived, fueling the Renaissance and our world.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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