Skip to Content

Category Archives: History

[post_grid id="10050"]

The Plague of Athens

by April 1, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Throughout history, civilization has overcome natural and manmade challenges and adversities. Our histories are riddled with accounts of famines, wars, pestilences, and of course, plagues.

One such instance was the Plague of Athens, and now as the Coronavirus sweeps through our cities and countries, it is perhaps timely to remember the lessons of the past and learn from their experiences.


The epidemic, known as the Plague of Athens, swept through the main city of Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in about 430 BC. It entered the city after decimating an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants who lived in the city and near its port of Piraeus; Athens’ only port for food and supplies. Before the plague, it was believed that the Athenians would win the war. The outbreak shattered that belief.

So, what happened? Where did this epidemic come from, and what were the effects? In today’s climate of panic and hysteria surrounding the Coronavirus, it’s interesting to reflect on our predecessors’ experiences when facing an invisible enemy.


The Acropolis of Athens, as seen from Philopappou Hill. A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

How was the disease able to cause such extreme damage? It’s a case of supply and demand gone wrong. As the war between the Delian League (Athens and supporting city-states) and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and supporting city-states) raged on, the Delian League’s favorite tactic was to advance and then retreat behind the city walls, using the Athenian navy to harry their opponents.
Conversely, the Peloponnesian League was better suited to land attacks. After repeated skirmishes, more and more inhabitants of the Attica countryside began moving towards Athens and the city walls for protection. It didn’t take long for this shifting populace to start overcrowding the already busy streets of the city.

Whilst under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenians used this method of attack-and-defend. Though it worked for a while, their reliance on the Athenian navy to then bring in food through Piraeus was the weak point in their armor. With the increased numbers within the city, the navy could not supply enough food to meet the demand.

Alongside this, with a burgeoning population, who were now living too close to one another, hygiene was questionable, and this allowed for diseases to develop and spread at an unstoppable speed. The plague was indiscriminate, and the death-toll grew rapidly, claiming even the lives of Pericles, his wife, and their two sons.

Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides, who also contracted but survived the epidemic, wrote that it was so severe and deadly, that no one could remember anything like it. Physicians at the time didn’t understand what caused it, or how it was spreading so quickly, and were unable to treat the symptoms. In fact, they often died quicker than their patients due to multiple exposures to the infected.

The plague is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it spread to Egypt, Libya, and into the Greek territories through the Mediterranean Sea. Once the navy was exposed to this epidemic, it was only a matter of time before Athens would become infected; it is thought that an estimated 25% of the population died as a result.

Plague on Society

With the Spartan army watching the funeral pyres burn from a safe distance, and with the plague ravaging the city, it’s no wonder that the city’s inhabitants became quite fatalistic. As a result, society’s morals disappeared, and lawlessness became the new norm.

Thucydides also documented his observations on society’s response to the outbreak. He states that people ceased to fear the law because they already felt that they had a death sentence hanging over them. They believed there was no point in acting with honor, as they wouldn’t live long enough for this to matter. 

MICHAEL SWEERTS Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

As such, people who would normally be money conscious became excessive spenders to the point of bankruptcy, whilst poorer relations suddenly inherited great wealth due to extended family dying.

In fact, this was one reason why the plague swept through the city so easily; people initially acting with compassion for those afflicted then became infected themselves. The greater their exposure, the more likely it became that they would die. As a result, caring for the sick was stopped, and the ill were left to die alone.

Once deceased, the bodies were placed on pyres for burning. At this time, it was not uncommon for a funeral pyre to be appropriated by other users, who wished to burn their dead as soon as possible. Others were dumped in mass graves, one atop the other. One such mass grave was discovered at Kerameikos, outside of Athens, with 240 bodies interred, 10 of which were children—all victims of the plague.

As the disease wore on, those who survived developed an immunity, which allowed for them to care for those who would become ill. There may have been some semblance of gratitude from patient to carer, as many of the city’s inhabitants felt abandoned by their gods.

Sick child

John William Waterhouse – A Sick Child Brought Into the Temple of Aesculapius

The temples had become sites of mass grieving, filled with refugees from the war, or from the plague. These temples would soon become filled with the dead or dying, and the Athenians took this as a sign that the gods favored the Spartans. Thucydides, however, cites this behavior as the city’s residents simply being superstitious.


Whatever the cause, the effect on Athens’ society was irrevocable. With many of the poorer inhabitants inheriting wealth from their deceased family, the power balance between the rich and poor shifted dramatically. 

As mentioned above, survivors who had developed an immunity were better able to care for the infected. Thucydides backs this up, stating that the most sympathetic to the plights of others were those who had contracted and survived the disease themselves. However, a large number of these survivors were eventually discovered to have been “metics” (a foreign resident of Athens who did not have citizen rights in their Greek city-state of residence)—that is, illegal citizens—who did not have rights and protections as a legal Athenian citizen.

Once discovered, many of these metics were reduced to being slaves and stricter laws were passed regarding becoming an Athenian citizen. These laws not only significantly reduced the rights and well-being of the remaining metics, but also resulted in a decreased number of available soldiers for the Athenian military, as well as a decrease in the political power of Athens herself.


Kerameikos Archeological park. Taken at Athens, greece, April 2011 (public domain)

The damage caused by loss of political strength and citizen morale could not be reversed. In time, Athens would be defeated by Sparta, and their place in history, as a major power in Ancient Greece, would become forfeit.


It’s easy to become swept up in the hype and hysteria that surrounds Coronavirus. But, just like the Athenians, if we only focus on that, instead of following good hygiene and keeping a respectful distance of others, we will likely face a similar fate. 

What can we observe from this ancient experience? To be reasoned and compassionate towards others. Not to put ourselves at risk, but also not to deny others assistance if it is safe to offer it. Care for those around us, and when we find ourselves to be survivors, not to turn on each other out of greed or fear.

We can learn much from our ancient forebears, and the best lesson is to be moderate and mild, to temper our intake—both of food and information; to act with reason and to refrain from ill tempers and dishonorable acts. That way, we leave a fine example for history to share with future generations.

Christianity and the Rise of the Hospital in the Ancient World

by March 27, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Most of us are lucky enough to be within driving distance of a major hospital. It is often the case that we take our medical services for granted. In the Classical era, things were very different. Though the Greeks and Romans made many innovations, they failed to provide any public healthcare. The establishment of the first hospitals was a result of Christianity.
Hospitals Before the Coming of Christianity
Before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, healthcare was left to the individual and the family. There had been some charitable hospitals in existence in Rome in the 1st century BC, and even by the 1st century AD  there were only private hospitals accessible to the rich.
However, there were many temples and sanctuaries to the Greek God of Healing, Asclepius. All over the Roman world there were shrines to the God, called Askleipions. Here sick people went if they needed to find relief from some illness or condition.

View of the Askleipion of Kos, the best preserved instance of a Greek Askleipion.

Many regard these as among the first hospitals because priests would often tend to the sick and comfort them in their illness. There were many facilities for the sick and many of the priests of Asclepius were renowned as healers.  Yet, only believers were allowed to enter these early medical facilities.
There was also the series of military hospitals set up by various Emperors. These were only designed for wounded and ill soldiers and did not provide treatment for the general population.
Christianity and Medicine
The Christian faith was very concerned with religious philanthropy.  That is, it was a creed that encouraged its followers to help those who were unfortunate and needy. It was part of a Christian’s duty to alleviate the sufferings of others. Jesus himself performs several miracles that involve healing, and St. Luke is reported as having been a physician in Antioch.
“Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and practice hospitality.” Romans 12:13

Quadrangle from the Monastery of Great Lavra. Luke the Evangelist. 15th century

In the first centuries of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus were occasionally driven underground and persecuted. The community came to depend on each other. Christians who were physicians would help their fellow believers in times of need. As churches were established some of them were used as informal hospitals. The Christians would often help others during epidemics such as the Antonine Plague.
“Each of us must consider his neighbour and think what is for his good and will build up the common life.” Romans 15:2
The Birth of the Hospital
After the Battle of the Milveian bridge, Christianity gradually became the state religion. This not only brought religious toleration for Christians but also a special status. Soon churches and cathedrals were springing up all over the Empire. They became the centre of communities and the sick often received treatment there.
The first hospitals were built in association with Christian basilicas. They were part of the Churches efforts to help the poor, which was a religious obligation. Local bishops were the driving forces behind these institutions.
Hotel-Dieu de Paris

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left).

There is no agreement on who built the first hospital, but it is claimed that Leontius of Antioch built one between the years 344 to 358. At around the same time, possibly with the support of the Emperor, a deacon was placed in charge of the hospitals in Constantinople. This would suggest that hospitals run by Christians had been established even earlier than the mid-4th century AD.
These hospitals proved to be very popular with many, especially in urban areas. By the end of the 4th century there were a vast number of hospitals run by Christians throughout the Empire, but primarily in the Eastern provinces (a reflection of the fact that these provinces were more Christianised and also wealthier). Saints such as Saint Sampson and Basil of Caesarea (Saint Basil the Great), both built hospitals in what is now modern Turkey.
What were these hospitals like?
The majority of these hospitals were staffed by clerics or Christian laypeople, who cared for the sick. Doctors were far and few between, but many were chief physicians. They were deeply influenced by Greek ideas on medicine and by medical thinkers such as Galen and Hippocrates. By modern standards these hospitals were basic and unsanitary.
These early Christian hospitals were mostly reserved for the poor and outsiders such as immigrants, and were concerned with helping the poor die with respect and dignity.  These facilities only offered basic care and succour because of the limited state of medicinal knowledge. Some were bigger, such as the one founded by St Basil of Caesarea. His foundation had an aged isolation unit, wards for sick travelers, and a leprosy house.

Public Domain

Hospitals after the Fall of Rome
After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the evolution of the hospital continued. In the West, monasteries provided basic health care to the poor and dying. However, in the Byzantine Empire, the successor state of the Roman Empire in the East, there was a large increase in the number of hospitals.
The Byzantine Emperors bestowed lavish sums on the Church, and this meant that extensive hospitals were built that offered in-patient care and had even departments for those with different afflictions and diseases. These Early Byzantine hospitals would go on to greatly influence the development of medical facilities in the Muslim world.
The word “hospital” has the ability to conjure up different feelings in different people, based on the experiences we’ve had. Yet, I think everyone can and should appreciate the long development of our idea of hospitals as a place where all people can go for care and to be healed.

Automation in the Ancient World: The Robots of Greece and Rome

by January 31, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A common topic of discussion these days is the growing automation of the world. Basically, automation means any machinery or self-operating machinery. They are designed to act in a predetermined way and according to instructions, the best example of this is perhaps a robot.
We think that automation and automatons are modern inventions. In fact, like so much else, we owe a debt to the Romans and Greeks, who were pioneers in automation.
Early automation
The word automation or automaton comes from the Greek. Homer was the first to use this term. In Greek mythology, there are many references to self-moving machines. The poet described tables in Olympus that could be automated.
Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, created automatons, or robots, to work in his workshops. This deity also created a killer-robot, Talos, who would throw rocks at the enemy.
Talos 2

A Cretan coin depicting the giant automaton Talos.

The famous inventor Daedalus reputedly created a moving statue that could speak rather like a robot. In another myth, Alkinous, the King of Phaecia, had mechanical watchdogs that guarded his palace. These fables had some basis in fact, as the Greeks were capable engineers.
Robots and automata of the Greeks
The Greeks were able to design and build self-directed machines. There is evidence that they built a bronze automaton of an eagle and a dolphin that were on display at the Olympic Games. Many of the automatons developed were only toys, such as the birds invented by Archytas (c. 428 – 347 BC). However, one inventor known as Philon of Byzantium (c. 280 BC – 220 BC), invented a repeating crossbow.
It seems that in the Hellenistic period, developments in automation really advanced. In this period inventors used a complex system of levers, pulleys and wheels to build self-directed machinery. Rhodes became well known for its machine and there were two automatons in one of its main squares, to impress visitors.
A book on automation, On Automaton-Making, was written by the mathematician-engineer, Hero of Alexandria, and in it he described many of his automatons and self-operating machines. These included hydraulic systems, fire engines, wind-operated machines, and even a self-propelled cart. He also invented a number of war machines. It appears that in Alexandria there was a theatre that consisted only of automatons, who performed dramas for audiences.

Hero’s sketch of Opening Temple-Doors by Steam, b. c. 200, from A History
of the Growth of the Steam-Engine, by Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.

Religious automatons and automation
Religion was a very important part of ancient life. Many of the inventions that were developed came to be used in religious processions and temples. From the sources, we know that the Greeks used self-operated machines for religious purposes.
In religious and civic processions, which were a feature of life in cities such as Athens, automatons played a major role. In civic festivals, these machines were a type of entertainment technology. The god Nysa was part of a religious procession in Alexandria, and a figure of the god was carried in a cart and it would stand up and pour libations, which greatly impressed the crowds.
The automated snail of Demetrius of Phalerum is one of the earliest and most intriguing references to a processional automaton from the ancient world. Demetris was a tyrant and used the automaton to impress the population and make them accept his rule.
As for shrines and temples, it seems automatons were used to impress the faithful. There are many references to these technologies. They include references to figurines that could pour libations and also appeared to dance. Some accounts indicate that there was a shrine to Dionysus that had a number of automated figures. Several temples had trumpets that would sound when a door was opened and many shrines had automated water dispensers.

Hero’s Steam Fountain, b. c. 200, from A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine, by Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.

Antikythera mechanism
The majority of technology developed by the Greeks seems to have only been for entertainment, spectacle, and toys, However, the Antikythera mechanism (1st century BC), recovered from a sunken ship in the Aegean Sea, appears to be the first analog computer, and it was designed to make astronomical calculations possible in order to determine the timing of the Olympics.
Roman robots
There is little record of the Romans developing automatons, however, they were great engineers. It seems that, like the Greeks, they used automatons as toys, entertainment and public spectacles.
Mark Anthony had an automaton of Julius Caesar, made of wax, depicting Caesar rising from his deathbed and turning, slowly, to display his twenty-three bleeding wounds to the crowd. This started a riot and led to Brutus and the other killers of Caesar fleeing the city.
There are also reports that Roman temples used mechanical birds and figurines in a similar manner to the Greeks.

Illustration from Roman Watermills: From the 1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., by Wilson of High Wray

The end of automation in the ancient world
The collapse of the Roman Empire meant that much of the knowledge of self-operating machines was lost. However, much still survived and the Byzantines, and later the Arabs, built machines based on Greek and Roman models.
It is common for us today to theorize, and even worry, about the future of technology—the possibilities and the dangers that await us from automation and AI. The automatons of today and the future are and will be, of course, more advanced than those of our Greek and Roman ancestors. Nonetheless, they still inspire us to this day.

International Trade in the Ancient World

by January 14, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisodm
We are all aware of the great achievements of the Greeks and the Romans. However, they were also great traders and they helped to establish an international trade network that changed the world.
The Early International Trade Network
After the Bronze Age collapse caused by the invasions of the Sea Peoples, the international trade system was in disarray. It was the Phoenicians, based in what is now Lebanon, that revived trade. They bought metals from as far as Spain and also traded luxury goods. Their colony of Carthage helped to create a pan-Mediterranean trade network.
The Greeks competed with the Phoenicians, especially after they established many colonies in the 8th century BC. In particular, they controlled the trade with the Black Sea. City-states such as Athens grew wealthy from this trade and they exported manufactured goods, such as vases, far and wide.
By the 4th century BC, many parts of the Mediterranean traded with each other. They exchanged mainly luxury goods, such as wine, but also metals and grains. Olive oil and wine was also traded over vast distances and they were stored in amphorae. Most international trade was undertaken by oared galleys because land travel was too slow and dangerous.

A collection amphorae retrieved from a shipwreck

The Hellenistic Age
The conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great unsurprisingly had a huge impact on the known world. It also transformed international trade. Asia was opened up to Greek traders and they collaborated with local merchants, creating a vast international economy. Macedonian colonists in Egypt and Asia maintained their traditional way of life, demanding goods from the Greek mainland, and this stimulated commerce across borders.
Alexander founded many cities on trade routes, as was particularly the case in Bactria and Syria. These cities helped to greatly expanded commerce and as a result grew fabulously rich.
Meanwhile, the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies helped to link the Indian subcontinent with the Mediterranean. The Seleucids traded with the Mauryan Indian kingdom and the Ptolemies also traded with India, using an Indian Ocean sea route. Moreover, the Ptolemies established stations on the east coast of Africa in order to obtain war elephants and they gradually became trading posts as well.
The Roman Empire and International Trade
From an early date Rome was an important trading center, especially in salt. As Rome conquered Italy over the centuries, it built roads and fostered trade, and when the Roman Republic acquired territories outside Italy, it established colonies of merchants. After the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War, it dominated long-distance trade.

Roman coins found in India

The first two centuries of the Roman Republic were times of peace and prosperity, and the various provinces of the Empire traded with each other. The Romans were very interested in international trade; they received much of its grain from North Africa and exported luxury items, such as wine, to provinces such as Britain. After Augustus annexed Egypt he promoted policies that greatly benefitted local merchants, such as building a port on the Red Sea coast.
Soon there were many more ships traveling to India during the Monsoon season when the winds were favorable. The Romans traded extensively with the Indo-Scythians and later the Kushan Empire, typically buying rare Indian goods, such as spices with coins.
During these voyages, the ships would visit Arabia and soon the Romans traded with ports in the area as well. Indeed, Augustus considered invading Arabia Felix (modern Yemen) which was fabulously rich from its trade in Frankincense.
The Romans also traded on the east coast of Africa. Again, they followed the precedent of the Ptolemies, trading with African communities on the Indian Ocean coast. The Romans received slaves, ivory and tortoise shells from the kingdom of Aksum (Eretria and Ethiopia). It is believed that Roman ships traveling from ports in Egypt reached as far south as modern Tanzania.
Roman merchants also traded with the Germanic tribes, but only during periods of peace.
on a camel

A Silk Road trader on a camel

The Silk Road
By the 1st century BC, the Han Chinese Empire had expanded into Central Asia, allowing them to trade with the Kushan and the Parthian Empire. The Silk Road was a network of mainland routes that connected China and South-East Asia with West Asia. As the Silk Road grew, Rome was able to trade indirectly with China, through intermediaries. The goods were mainly moved on the back of camels that made the long and dangerous journey. However, a maritime route was later established from a Chinese controlled port in Vietnam to Roman Egypt.
An especially popular import from the far East was Chinese silks. In fact, the Senate tried to ban the wearing of silk because it was deemed immoral. Nonetheless, many Roman ladies wore skimpy silk dresses to the horror of the Senators.
Greek and Roman Merchant Class
In ancient Greece, international trade was in the hands of merchants known as emporoi who often worked in large associations, and were also often ship owners. There is some evidence that there were Roman merchant guilds as in Medieval Europe and they engaged in international trade. Negotiatores were wealthy merchants who bought goods in bulk and sold them to small traders. They often became very rich and could also act as bankers; only they could finance trade missions to India and elsewhere.
Much of the international trade was dominated by plebeians or former slaves, as members of the elite could not engage in trade by law. However, they were probably investors in commercial ventures. The growth of transnational commercial networks resulted in the development of new financial techniques, and even basic accounting, in the Classical era.

Greek merchants from an amphorae

The Decline of International Trade
The Roman Empire had a massive trade deficit because of its insatiable hunger for luxury goods. This led to a shortage of coinage in the 3rd century AD, and this is often seen as one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. At the same time, China had fragmented into a number of kingdoms, losing control over Central Asia. The Silk Road became less secure and trade declined. Rome’s economy almost collapsed in the 5th century and trade with India was also much reduced. When the Germanic invasions led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, international trade collapsed. However, the Eastern Roman Empire continued to trade with its neighbors, including China via the Silk Road, after the fall of Rome.

Timeline of Ancient Greek history

by October 15, 2019

3000 BCE First Settlers: Hunter-gathers begin to settle in what is Greece. A bronze age culture and civilization begins on the island of Crete.
1600 BCE Mycenaean Greece: Bronze age kingdoms in mainland Greece. Powerful kings who ruled centralized states and who built great palaces such as Mycenae.
1194 BCE Trojan War: This was a war between the Mycenaean kings and Troy, a city on the coast of modern Turkey.
1184 BCE Trojan War: The destruction of Troy after the Greeks captured the city by using a Wooden Horse.
Trojan Horse Painting

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid

1100 BCE Dorian Invasion: Dorian tribesmen from the north invade and destroy the Mycenaean kingdoms. The Dorians brought iron to Greece. However, their invasion also led to a ‘Dark Ages’ in Greece when civilization largely collapsed.
900- 800 BCE Alphabet: The Greeks develop their own alphabet that was modeled on the Phoenician alphabet.
c. 800 BCE Homeric Poems: The legendary poet Homer is reputed to have composed the two great Greek epics. They were the Iliad, a poem on the Trojan War and the Odyssey, which celebrates the adventures of Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca.
750 BCE Age of Colonization: As the Greeks emerged from the Dark Ages, they began to colonize coastal areas and islands all over the Mediterranean. Many colonies in Italy become rich, and cultural centers such as Tarentum and known as Magna Graecia.
776 BCE First Olympic Games: The first Olympic Games are held at Olympia. The event was staged in honor of the Gods.
Ancient Olympics

Illustration of the Ancient Olympic Games

743-724 BCE First Messenian War: This was a war between the Messenians and the Spartans. The Spartans emerged triumphantly and enslaved the Messenians. This was critical in the development of the unique Spartan constitution and way of life.
650 BCE The Age of the Tyrants: Social and political tensions lead to the overthrow of noble governments in cities such as Athens. These tyrants are often credited with introducing much-needed reforms.
621 BCE Draco’s Code of Law: Draco writes down Athens’ laws for the first time and they become notoriously harsh.
580 BCE Solon’s reforms: Solon introduces a series of laws and reforms in Athens. They failed in the short-term, but they are credited with laying the foundation for Athenian democracy.

Solon before Croesus, By Nikolaus Knüpfer

508/9 BCE Democracy in Athens: Cleisthenes reforms the Athenian Constitution and makes it more democratic. Ordinary citizens have political power for the first time.
499-493 BCE Ionian Revolt: The Greek city-states in Ionia (Turkey) revolt against the Persian Empire but are crushed. Many Ionian Philosophers flee and spread their ideas in Greece.
490 BCE First Persian War: The Persians send an invasion fleet to Greece in order to punish those who supported the Ionian Revolt.
490 BCE Battle of Marathon: The Athenian hoplites under the command of Miltiades defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
Map of the battle

Battle of Marathon map

480 BCE Second Persian War: King Xerxes led an invasion force into Greece. He is delayed by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Later in the year, a Greek coalition defeated the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis. At the Battle of Platea, the Greeks finally drive the Persians from Greece.
480–404 BCE Athenian Golden Age: After the defeat of the Persian, Athens experienced a golden age of culture. Great building such as the Parthenon was built, the theatre, philosophy, and the arts flourished.
454 BCE Athenian Empire: Athens turned the anti-Persian Delian League into an Empire. It used its mighty fleet to dominate other city-states.
458 BCE Aeschylus: Aeschylus trilogy of plays the Orestia is staged, which is a landmark in the development of Greek tragedy.
Portrait of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

431 BCE Peloponnesian Wars Begins: The Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta and their allies. The war rages on land and sea.
404 BCE Peloponnesian Wars Ends: Athens loses the Peloponnesian Wars after the destruction of her navy. Sparta becomes the dominant Greek power. It imposed the anti-democratic 30 tyrants on Athens.
403 BCE Democracy: Democracy was restored to Athens, by the general and politician Thrasybulus.
399 BCE Trial of Socrates: The philosopher Socrates was charged with impiety in Athens. He was found guilty of the charge and executed.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

380 BCE Plato’s Academy: The philosopher Plato establishes the Academy in Athens. This is widely seen as the world’s first university.
371 BCE Battle of Leuctra: The Thebans defeat the Spartans. This is the end of Spartan supremacy in Greece.
359 BCE Philip IIs coronation: Philip II became King of Macedon and turns it into a major Greek power.

347 BCE Plato’s death: Plato, often seen as the world’s greatest philosopher dies
338 BCE Battle of Chaeronea: Philip II, King of Macedon defeats the Greek of city-states. He establishes the League of Corinth. Macedonian kings largely dominate the city-states.

336 BCE Coronation of Alexander the Great: Alexander the Great becomes king after the assassination of his father Philip II.
The founding of Alexandria

Alexander the Great founding Alexandria, Placido Costanzi (Italy, 1702-1759)

335 BCE The Lyceum: Aristotle founds a school known as the Lyceum.
333 BCE Battle of Issus: Alexander the Great defeats the Persians at the Battle of Issus. The Macedonian King declares himself king of Asia, after the death of the Persian king.
331 BCE Conquest of Egypt: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt.
326 BCE Alexander invades India: The great general invades India but is forced to return after his troops mutiny as Opis.
323 BCE Alexander the Great dies: The great conqueror dies in Babylon without a heir.
322-275 BCE Wars of the Diadochi: There are a series of civil wars between Alexander’s generals. It ends with the Battle of Ipsus and the final partition of the Macedonian Empire into Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid Empire, and the Macedonian Kingdom.
322 BCE Aristotle death: Aristotle one of the world’s greatest philosophers dies.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

212 BCE Romans take Syracuse: Romans capture Syracuse, in Sicily, end of Greek independent city-states in Magna Graecia. Archimedes the mathematician and engineer, are killed.
168 BCE Battle of Pydna: Macedonians defeated by Rome.
146 BCE Battle of Corinth: The Romans defeat an alliance of Greeks at the Battle of Corinth and Greece became part of the Roman Empire.
30 BCE Death of Cleopatra: Suicide of Cleopatra after Battle of Actium. She was the last independent Greek ruler in the Mediterranean.

The Darkest Depths of Human Nature: Three Examples From the Peloponnesian War

by October 4, 2019

Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general, is most famous for his narrative of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The war was a struggle between Athens and Sparta and led to all-out war between the Greek city states as they sided with one or the other.
Thucydides documented not only the military and political decisions that were decisive during the war, but in so doing captured the darkest depths of human nature itself. He closes his preface to The History of the Peloponnesian War with the following remark:
 This history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it. But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past—which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so—those readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of a contest.

Bust of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general.

Indeed, it is not the most delightful history to hear, not simply because there is no mythology in it, but because the violence carried out upon Greeks by fellow Greeks is so vicious and reflects all too well the violence held just beneath the surface within us today.
Yet, if such violence is part of our condition, part of our very nature, then we would do well to listen closely to the stories Thucydides passes onto us, so that we might avoid their recurrence.
Through the course of his narrative of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides shows again and again that human beings are motivated primarily by fear, ambition, self-advantage, and a desire to rule over others. He sees these motives at play throughout the war between Athens and Lacedaemon (area of ancient Greece that comprised the city-state of Sparta), leading to some of the worst mistakes and injustices carried out on both sides.

Origins of the War

The origin of the war, according to Thucydides, was rooted in fear. Though the Lacedaemonians gave other reasons, Thucydides claims that fear was the underlying motive. As he put it, “the growth of Athenian power… put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” This was also one of the reasons that other cities joined Sparta, “some out of the desire to be set free from their empire, and others for fear of falling under it.”
The Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846)

A similar analysis is made concerning the Athenian empire. The Athenian ambassadors at Sparta, after hearing the complaints against them by representatives from Corinth, Aegina, and Megara, make a speech of their own.
In this speech they claimed that, after taking the lead and finishing the war against the Persians (Greco-Persian Wars, 492-449 BCE), “we were compelled to develop our empire to its present strength by fear first of all, but also by ambition, and lastly for our own advantage.” They went on to say that, “If we have been overcome by three of the strongest motives—ambition, fear, and our own advantage—we have not been the first to do this. It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger.”
The Athenians, despite the fear and anger aroused against them (as Master Yoda once put it, “Fear leads to anger”), claimed that they could not be accused of anything more than acting in accordance with the nature of things.

The Plague

In the second year of the war a plague struck Athens, one so terrible Thucydides describes it as “too sever for human nature.” With the spread of disease and desperation came lawlessness. The quick reversals of fortune, Thucydides claims, led men to dare “to do freely things they would have hidden before—things they never would have admitted they did for pleasure.” He continues, writing:

And so, because they thought their lives and their property were equally ephemeral, they justified seeking quick satisfaction in easy pleasures. As for doing what had been considered noble, no one was eager to take any further pains for this, because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But the pleasure of the moment, and whatever contributed to that, were set up as standards of nobility and usefulness. No one was held back in awe, either by fear of the gods or by the laws of men: not by the gods, because men concluded it was all the same whether they worshipped or not, seeing that they all perished alike; and not by the law, because no one expected to live till he was tried and punished for his crimes. But they thought that a far greater sentence hung over their heads now, and that before this fell they had a reason to get some pleasure in life.

The Plague

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

This is what Thucydides meant when he said the plague was too severe for human nature. The devastation wrought by the plague brought forth their true tendencies that, before then, had remained dormant, held down by fear of the gods and the laws of men.
These two checks on our true nature had been rendered powerless… what became feared most was death by plague. And this fear, along with our tendency to pursue our own advantage, led people to seek immediate satisfaction in base pleasures. The very things that had once been considered noble, Thucydides tells us, were abandoned for such base pleasures.
During the plague even the great citizens of Athens succumbed to these inner tendencies—tendencies that, in better times, lurk only beneath surface.

The Corcyrean Civil War

The civil war that took place on Corcyra is another example of our inner tendencies being brought to the surface. This civil war was between Corcyrean democrats and oligarchs, the former sympathetic to Athens and the latter sympathetic to the Lacedaemonians.
Once again, all became permissible. As Thucydides tells us, “there was nothing people would not do, and more: fathers killed their sons; men were dragged out of the temples and then killed hard by; and some who were walled up in the temple of Dionysus died inside it.” In the same way that what was considered noble was flipped on its head during the plague, the valuations of actions and traits were reversed:

Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature…In brief, a man was praised if he could commit some evil action before anyone else did, or if he could cheer on another person who had never meant to do such a thing. 

How many of us have seen, in these divisive times, individuals praising what they once condemned? Defending actions they would otherwise find abhorrent? In our more reflective moments, have we not seen this within ourselves?
Athenian defeat

This copper engraving by Matthaus Merian depicts the Athenian naval victory near Corinth over the Corinthian and Spartan fleet around 430 B.C.E. Photograph by akg-images/Newscom

Thucydides goes on to tell us that family ties were trumped by party loyalty, piety was all but forgotten, and that those who tried to remain neutral were attacked from both sides. How could this happen? Thucydides explains:
The cause of all this was the desire to rule out of avarice and ambition, and the zeal for winning that proceeds from those two… And though [each party] pretended to serve the public in their speeches, they actually treated it as the prize for their competition; and striving by whatever means to win, both sides ventured on most horrible outrages and exacted even greater revenge, without any regard for justice or the public good.
Does this state of affairs sound at all familiar?

The War Within

The cause of the evils of war, according to Thucydides, is not war itself, but us. If we were other creatures with a different nature, perhaps war would not be so terrible, or not occur at all.
When he describes fear, ambition, self-advantage, and our desire to rule over others, as our natural tendencies, he is not saying that we always act from these motives. For him, these always lie within us but are brought to the surface by disastrous events or great periods of hardship:
In peace and prosperity, cities and private individuals alike are better minded because they are not plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their will; but war is a violent teacher: it gives most people impulses that are as bad as their situation when it takes away the easy supply of what they need for daily life. 
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

William Tecumseh Sherman, that great general of the Union Army, made famous the phrase that “War is hell.” Albert Camus, in his Notebooks, jotted down the following: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives… inside ourselves.”
Thucydides would nod in agreement with both. What makes war hell is that it emanates from the hell within us, always waiting for the right to circumstances to unleash its fury. Or, as the Joker puts it in the Dark Knight,
You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.
Human nature is laid bare in the events Thucydides describes because they reveal to us our innermost tendencies, what lurks beneath the surface at all times. In the right conditions these tendencies stay beneath the surface but, when put under stress or hardship, they all too readily are unleashed and wreak the type of havoc witnessed during the Peloponnesian War. And, importantly for Thucydides, such events will always have these effects, to greater or lesser degrees, so long as human nature remains the same.