War and Power in Classical Greece: Lessons for Superpowers and the World

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly – Public Domain


Humans have had almost ceaseless difficulties in working and living together. Superstition, religious ideas, race, geography, ownership of land, and language engulf them so much, they often fail to extend a friendly hand to people who don’t fit their schizophrenia of who among humans is like them. This culture has been generating a deadly record of competition and conflict.

The terror of survival coded war and peace in human genes and societies.

The sixth century BCE Greek natural philosopher Herakleitos praised war as the father and king of everything. He should know. He lived in Ephesos in Ionia (Asia Minor), where Greeks had several flourishing independent states. These Greeks lived next to the Persians. War was nothing unusual. The Greeks had a war god named Ares.

The Greeks struggled long and hard in organizing a society that best suited their passions for excellence and freedom. They formed many small communities sharing the same language, piety for the gods, and vision of non-Greeks and the cosmos.

The polis

The Greeks called their community polis (city-state) from their conviction that each member of the political community would have to work with other members for common security and prosperity.

The Greeks of the polis thought that living together would solidify their way of life stamped by polis culture. This polis experience gave the Greeks politismos / civilization.

The rule of law was the chief characteristic of governing the polis. The Greeks called this rule of law politeia (government / constitution / republic). It guaranteed individual rights and the common good, including the defense of the polis. The hope was that the institutions of the polis, especially those of government, the rule of law, and the temples inspiring piety towards the same gods, would make living safer and, equally important, would help people to respect and like each other.

Lawgivers and polis constitutions aimed to make the polis an invisible university for the education of citizens in virtuous behavior. There were some criminals in poleis, but the polis tried to make crime unacceptable and impossible.

The democratic polis of Athens, for example, would pay citizens to attend the theater whose plays explored dramatic stories from the time of the heroes, the era of the Trojan War and Homer, patriotism, peace, tragedy, and the beautiful and virtuous.

Plato praised the polis. He even wrote his own Politeia (Republic), a dialogue-story of political genius and imagination. Plato’s student,  Aristotle, could not see how a human being would maintain a semblance of civilization outside of the polis.

The footprint of the polis was usually small. Each polis had enough land for houses, temples, agora, courts, schools, theaters, and stadia. It also had a much larger area of land for raising its own wheat and barley, grape vines for wine, fruit trees and vegetables, and olive trees. Farmland was essential for food self-sufficiency.

Agriculture also assured the political survival of the polis. Peasant farmers, not philosophers, defended the polis and invented democracy.

The Greeks had a couple of millennia of experimenting with their poleis (city-states). They straddles mainland Greece, the region of the Black Sea, southern Spain and France, Asia Minor and northern Africa. Italy, starting from Naples to Sicily, was pretty much Greek. The Romans called that region Magna Grecia (Great Greece). In the fifth century BCE, there were about 2,000 Greek poleis in the Mediterranean.

The polis became the laboratory of political theory and power. Political theory was not abstraction. Theory comes from reasonable speculation and seeing living and imagined reality. Life, especially political life, life lived in a polis, was full of surprises, satisfactions, and difficulties. Political theory sprang from a variety of political experience with tyranny, monarchy, oligarchy, democracy and other constitutions in foreign countries like Persia and Egypt.

Democratic Athens invented an array of institutions to empower the average Athenian male citizen to govern and be governed. Athenian juries were large and complex organizations. They were immune to corruption. It was impossible to predict who would be a juror in a forthcoming trial.

Athenians could seek justice in courts, courts of appeal, and district courts. There were no judges or lawyers in a trial. The citizen who filed a suit against another citizen would have to explain to usually large number of jurors why he sought the punishment of another citizen. Hired speech writers could embellish the presentations of prosecutors and defendants.

Athenians served as jurors and magistrates. They slowly evolved to accommodate a variety of constitutions, which enlarged the rights and obligations of citizens.

The polis was not some kind of ideal city of perfect equality, justice, science and civilization. Plato’s Politeia highlighted perfection and virtue. But Plato never run a polis.

Sparta and Athens

The real polis, say Athens and Sparta, grew to vigorous states that dominated mainland Greece, especially in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Athens and Sparta joined forces and defeated the Persian Empire in early fifth century BCE.

This was no small accidental victory. This was a big victory that saved the Greeks and Western civilization from extinction.

In reading Herodotos, the fifth century BCE historian of the Persian Wars, one has a sense of the cosmic confrontation unfolding in Persia, Ionia, dotted with Greek poleis, and Greece. The mighty Persian King Darius could not tolerate independent Greek poleis on the borders of his vast empire. He threatened these cities and the cities appealed to Sparta and Athens for military assistance.

The Spartans were the strongest polis in Greece. Their mixed constitution combined oligarchy, monarchy, democracy and communism. Male Spartans lived the lives of soldiers. They removed their sons at the age of seven from their mothers and trained them in military barracks to be soldiers. Sparta was a permanent military camp.

In order to remain soldiers, the Spartans had enslaved fellow Greeks, Messenians, descendants of Agamemnon and the Trojan War Myceneans, to grow food for them.

This grave injustice kept Sparta on a permanent state of war readiness, lest the enslaved Messenian helots revolted. This cloud of fear and uneasiness colored everything the Spartans did in Greece or abroad. Second, Sparta was, for all practical purposes, an oligarchy, with little if any sympathy for democracy.

Athens, on the other hand, did not wear a military straightjacket. Athenians were convinced they were autochthonous, springing from their own land. Yet they were opened to the world, their navy brought them all over the Mediterranean for trade and ideas. The peasant farmers of Athens made up its soldiers who always fought bravely in the hoplite phalanx.

Leading Athenian citizens experimented with all forms of political power. They started with kings who resembled powerful nobles of the era of the Trojan War. These kings, and kings in other Greek poleis, came out of the oligarchy but did not have the power of modern kings like Louis XIV. They had moderate power. Athens eventually abolished hereditary monarchy. Kings became officials elected for a year.

When in the sixth century BCE, the rural oligarchs in Athens overstepped their power, the moderate of the Athenian nobles gave the legislative key of their troubled polls to Solon. This was a former archon (ruler) who, within a year, 594-593 BCE, abolished the slavery of Athenians by Athenians. His laws aimed at eunomia (dominance of good law) and Seisachtheia (shaking off of burdens of political inequality).

Solon supported small family farmers and set the foundations for a democratic constitution in Athens.

The political history of classical Greece is primarily the struggle for power between democratic Athens and the military superpower of oligarchic Sparta.

The Persian Wars

The Persian Wars brought to light the enormous but hidden competition of Athens and Sparta. First of all, in the early fifth century BCE, the Persian danger brought Athens and Sparta together.

In 490 BCE, the Athenians confronted the Persians at Marathon. But before the battle, they sent the fast runner Pheidippides to Sparta appealing for help. Pheidippides reached Sparta by running 140 miles in a day. The Spartans said they could not join the Athenians at Marathon before  there was a full Moon.

Athenian hoplites and 600 soldiers from the polis of Plataea fought a larger Persian army at Marathon, inflicting on the Persians a crushing defeat. The Persians suffered 6,400 casualties and the Athenians lost 192 hoplites.

The new Persian king, Xerxes, immediately started preparing for a war of revenge. Herodotos reports that, in 480 BCE, Xerxes invaded Greece with an armada of more than 2,500,000 troops, 1,207 trireme warships, and 3,000 smaller warships for carrying troops and cavalry. More likely, the Persian army was a multi-national force of around 200,000 soldiers from 46 countries.

Under the leadership of Sparta, the Greeks formed the Hellenic League to fight the Persian invaders. Thirty-one poleis joined the Hellenic League. They took an oath to fight the Persians to death in order to preserve freedom. Sparta was the hegemon of this alliance, the first such union of Greek states since the Trojan War. Argos, the main enemy of Sparta in Peloponnesos, and Crete remained neutral.

The Greeks asked the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi for guidance. The priestess was so fearful of the coming Persian invasion, she uttered cries of despair. But during the second pleading for advice, she mumbled something about wooden walls and Salamis.

The Hellenic League sent King Leonidas of Sparta to block the Persians from entering Peloponnesos at the mountain pass of Thermopylae in Central Greece. In August 480 BCE, Leonidas and his 300 fighters sacrificed their lives on the cause of Greek freedom.

The Persians then invaded and burnt Attica and Athens. With the news of Thermopylae, Themistocles, the Athenian general commanding Athens, insisted the Greeks should send their fleet of 271 triremes (of which 147 were Athenian warships) to Salamis, an Athenian island close to Attica.

In September 480 BCE, Themistocles sent a trusted slave, Sikinnos, to Xerxes, deceiving him to send his fleet to Salamis. Xerxes did and the Athenians and other allies annihilated the Persian fleet in the narrow strait between Salamis and the Greek mainland.

In August 479 BCE, Spartans and Athenians finished off the Persians at Plataea. They executed Theban leaders who sided with the invading Persians.

The defeat of the Persians lifted an enormous danger over Greece. It inspired the Athenians to greatness: a political and civilization enlightenment. The Spartans, however, returned to their military barracks, losing their sleep, and leaking their worries about the rising Athenian power in the post-Persian world.

Athens founded the Delian League, which included all vulnerable poleis to potential Persian attack. Athens and her allies freed  other Greek cities under Persian influence and control and kept peace in Ionia, home of several great Greek poleis.

In time, some of the Greek allies of Athens started paying Athens for the security they received.

Scholars describe this relationship between Athens and its Aegean and Ionian allies as the Athenian Empire.  I find such claim problematic.

Empire is always hostile political arrangements between a ruler and his subjects. Persia was an empire. Athens never imitated or acted like Persia. Athens might have been harsh at times, and especially during the Peloponnesian War.  However, in the fifty years between the Persian and Peloponnesian War, Athens did not treat Greeks as conquered subjects.

Democratic Athens, however, was preparing itself for hegemony. It sponsored Thurii, a Panhellenic polis in the Tarentine gulf in southern Italy. Athens wanted to see a polis made up of Greeks from all over the Greek world. Probably Athens wanted to unite Greece.

Athens was tasting and living power. That power was changing it. Perikles, its political leader, used Athens’ new wealth (the money allies paid Athens for security) to build the Parthenon. He was proud telling Athenians their polis was “the school of Hellas” (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 2.41).

The Peloponnesian War

Athens had the largest fleet in the Mediterranean. No Greek or foreign state was a match its constantly growing confidence and power – a reality building antagonism and hostility among the Spartans.

Thucydides, the Athenian general who recorded the war that broke out in 431 BCE between Athens and Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies, assures us that it was the ceaseless growth of Athenian power that became the main reason for the war (The Peloponnesian War 1.23).

Power does lift up its owner but it also radiates jealousy among those whose power is declining or in doubt. The Spartan superpower of the Greek world could see Athens was drawing accolades. Anywhere Athens went oligarchic regimes gave in to democratic constitutions and governments.

In other words, power is indivisible. You either have it or you don’t. When you have it, others are attracted to you. They imitate your schools, economy, even the clothes you wear, the music you invent, and the food you eat.

America since 1945 has been a classic example of this political power. China’s greatest ambition is to become an exact copy of America.

Like sex, power is a monopolistic aphrodisiac. It becomes the center of everything. It does not split in two.

The Peloponnesian War caused irreparable damage to Greece. Both sides of the war (Spartan and Athenian) perpetuated atrocities. Greeks started treating other Greeks like barbarians.

Decline and fall of Sparta

In 404 BCE, Athens sunk to the humiliations of defeat. Sparta rose back to superpower status. Sparta had brought Persia back to Greek politics. Persian gold funded Sparta, a factor of emerging corruption in the military society of this invincible oligarchy. Sparta also was not accustomed to the niceties of diplomacy. It demanded and got the money Greek poleis used to pay Athens. This additional money increased corruption among Spartans who were forbidden by their own constitution from owning coins of gold or silver.

The Spartans had destroyed the walls of Athens, but did not agree with the proposal of Corinth and Thebes, powerful Spartan allies (on the Isthmus linking Central Greece to Peloponnesos and Boeotia in Central Greece) to wipe out Athens. Nevertheless, Sparta put its own tyrannical regime in Athens.

Other Greek poleis started resenting Sparta. An Athenian general, Thrasyboulos, attacked the thirty tyrants Sparta had imposed on Athens and fought to a standstill the Spartans who came to restore the tyrants. In 403 BCE, Thrasyboulos restored democracy to Athens, winning the greatness he deserved.

Sparta tried to freeze Greek politics while it remained superpower. It convinced the Persian king to issue an edict on the independence of Greece, dissolving confederacies, save that headed by Sparta, and ordering the autonomy of all poleis.

This blatant and Spartan-inspired Persian interference in Greek affairs increased the hostility of the Greeks for Sparta. Thebes decided to do something about it.

In 371 BCE, two Theban generals, Pelopidas and Epaminondas, lead 6,000 Theban hoplites against 10,000 Spartan hoplites. The Theban victory at Leuktra in Boeotia was decisive.

The defeat of Sparta by Thebes shattered  the political power of Sparta. Thebes delivered the final blow soon after. In 369 BCE, Thebes led a huge army of some 50,000 to 70,000 Greek soldiers into Sparta’s home ground in Lakonia, something that had never happened before. The Spartans did not go out of their villages to meet this formidable army.

The Thebans inflicted considerable damage to the countryside of Sparta. In addition, they cut the jugular vein of Spartan power. They freed the Messenian helots, giving them their own polis at Pylos in Peloponnesos, the capital of Nestor, the Mycenaean king who fought in the Trojan War. Freeing the helots effectively destroyed the power of Sparta – for good.

These examples of power politics in classical Greece suffice to illustrate the nature of political power. It is insatiable, corrupting, and tyrannical.

Thucydides lived through the events he described, shedding light on why the Greeks fought for so long the most destructive war in Greek history. He was right that his history of the Peloponnesian War would last forever. It has. It remains a required text in most military academies and universities teaching history and political science. The book is insightful, always timely, riveting and telling of the weaknesses and strengths of human character.

It should also become the required text for those elected or appointed to high political office, especially among politicians seeking to become president of the United States.

War is necessary to defend freedom, like the war the Greeks fought against the mighty Persian Empire or the war Europeans and Americans fought to defeat tyrannical Hitler and the Nazis. But, otherwise, war makes men barbarians.

The polis, at the center of the Peloponnesian War, was a great political idea that brought about the Greek “miracle”: natural philosophy, epic poetry, drama, comedy, theater, history, classical architecture, astronomy, biology, geography, cartography, medicine, mathematics and democracy, the Parthenon, Plato and Aristotle.

But not all poleis were equal or thought of themselves as equal. One Greek superpower followed another in wars that weakened Greece, making it a tempting target for outsiders.

It always happens. Which is to say, Greek history is always relevant and important and timely.

The Europeans repeated the political mistakes of the Greeks. The result was two Peloponnesian Wars that nearly destroyed civilization. Instead of wars, the Europeans could have founded a strong confederation that would have prevented tyrants like Hitler.

Climate change and political theory

Now, in 2020, the world of some 200 states is also in the precarious position of the Greek poleis and European states.

Overarching this conglomerate, there are three states, superpowers all: US, Russia and China. Then there are other additional nuclear-armed states in the second tier, and everyone else is at the bottom of the barrel.

Now that the US has become temporarily the kingdom of Trump, intelligent Americans and the world seem to be in a shock. The new Washington consensus is all about building castles and walls around the United States. The Trump regime is an enemy of public health and the natural world, a friend of polluters, oilmen, loggers, and oligarchs.

Given the certain nemesis of climate change, the world is astonished at the stupidity and immaturity of Americans for their political choice of Trump.

However, political power will survive Trump. The next American president may well be Joe Biden who has a saner and “democratic” view of power — and the world.

Will Biden, like Perikles, be able to fight off climate change enough to bring about a golden age for civilization? Or will he be tempted to enrich the munition merchants by another deadly contest with the other superpowers?

Biden could earn the Nobel Peace Prize and immortality by getting the United States, Russia and China to establish a Peace League, in which the three would pool the trillions they spend on armaments to fight climate change and convert the world petroleum economy to a carbon-free economy.

Second, will Biden grasp the enormity of political power, now that such elixir is wrapped by the life and death threats of the virus plague, climate change, overpopulation, disappearing fresh water, nuclear weapons, and the ceaseless destruction of the natural world.

Third, if Biden does understand these rising crises, and is willing to tame them, the world has a chance to avoid the third, final and fatal, Peloponnesian War.

Political power can be muzzled for the benefit of all. And unlike the Politeia of Plato, an inspiring pie in the sky, this Politeia of America, Russia and China can restructure the world from a death-pursuing bunch of heavily armed nomads to a peaceful, ecological, and livable commonwealth of nations.

These nations must reduce their populations dramatically, which, among other things, may necessitate abandoning religious beliefs or religions or economic doctrines teaching man’s domination of the Earth and unlimited human procreation. Enough of these superstitions.

That way, humanity survives in polis-like communities with small populations working the land and enriching their ancient traditions with the best assets of science and virtue.


Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.