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The Battle of the Milvian Bridge

by February 10, 2022

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 AD) truly changed the history of not only the Roman Empire, but also the world. This battle was one of many in the endless civil wars that scarred the Roman Empire, but its outcome was critical in the evolution of Rome. The victor of the battle went on to establish a new dynasty, lay the foundations for the later Byzantine Empire, and help establish Christianity as the official religion of Rome.
The Background to Milvian Bridge
The Third Century Crisis, which was a series of invasions, civil, wars, plagues and economic crises, nearly destroyed the Roman Empire. Emperor Diocletian established the Tetrarchy, which constituted junior Emperors who governed specific territories within the Empire, and who were answerable to two senior Emperors. This system was successful until the death of Diocletian, but it fell apart soon after his death. The Tetrarchy did not provide for hereditary succession, but soon Maxentius seized his father Maximian’s old territory in Italy and Africa and declared himself Emperor (306 AD).
Diocletian’s system broke down into rival entities that were de-facto independent states. Constantine had succeeded his father in the western provinces of the Empire, and soon extended his control over much of Rome’s European provinces. The usurper Maxentius successfully repelled two invasions of Italy, and was a successful ruler. He fell out with Constantine even though they were related by marriage. Constantine invaded Italy in the Spring of 312 and he quickly overran the north of Italy.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge
In October 312, Constantine advanced on Rome, and he set up camp not far from the city. Maxentius had defeated two previous invasions of his territory by holding up in Rome. On this occasion, he decided to meet Constantine at the strategically important Milvian Bridge over the River Tiber.  Maxentius’ army was larger and also contained the elite Imperial bodyguard, the Praetorian Guards. It appears that Maxentius advanced beyond the bridge, and his units had their back to the Tiber. He had ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge alongside the Milvian Bridge to allow his army to cross the river.
Constantine was a brilliant commander, and his troops were battle hardened veterans of countless battles with the barbarians, and he had superior cavalry. Constantine ordered them to charge the cavalry of Maxentius and routed them, and then he had his infantry advance on the enemy ranks. They gradually pushed back the forces of Maxentius, who ordered a retreat which soon became a route. In one account, the pontoon bridge collapsed, and many of Maxentius men drowned in their heavy armor. Many more were killed as they fled the battle.
The Praetorian Guards made a stand on the bank of the Tiber, and they fought until the last man.  Maxentius died in the battle, and it is believed that he drowned in the River Tiber like so many others. The next day Constantine entered the city of Rome. If Maxentius, who was an able ruler, had not risked an open-battle and hunkered down for a siege, he may have easily defeated Constantine. Many believe that Maxentius was misled by oracles, but this may only be Christian propaganda.
The Milvian Bridge today
The Milvian Bridge today
The Battle and the Rise of Christianity
According to later Christian sources, on the eve of battle, Constantine saw a vision. The Vision of Constantine happened as he was speaking to his troops.  It is claimed in the best-known version that a cross appeared near the sun with the words, “By this sign, you will conquer”.  Many argue that Constantine then converted to Christianity, and that he won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge with the help of the Christian God. In reality, the sign that Constantine saw was not exclusively a Christian one, and it appears that he remained a pagan for many years, and only later became a Christian. Nevertheless, what is beyond dispute is that Constantine tolerated the Christians, and even patronized them. By the time of his death, the Christian Church was the de-facto state religion. It is beyond doubt that Constantine’s victory in the battle was crucial in the rise of Christianity, which previously had been marginalized and regularly persecuted.
Political and Military Implications
The victory of Constantine led to the re-unification under his leadership and the abolition of the Tetrarchy. The emperor later founded the city of Byzantium and made it his capital. This is often seen as crucial in the establishment of the Byzantine Empire, the successor state of Rome. After the battle, Constantine abolished the Praetorian Guard which had been a destabilising influence on the Empire since the First Century AD.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge changed history. The victory was decisive in the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. This is evident in the fact that Constantine is today a saint in the Orthodox Church. The aftermath of the battle led to dramatic military and political changes and in the long-run the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which was to last in some form until 1453 AD.
Norwich, John, Julius (1994). Byzantium. London.

The Melian Dialogue – the Brutal Reality of Power

by October 5, 2021

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Down the centuries people have referred to the works of ancient historians to understand contemporary events. Many have studied the work of Thucydides to understand present-day international relations and politics. In particular, The Melian Dialogue provides a perennial insight into politics, power and international relations.
The dialogue takes place in 416 BC at a point during the Peloponnesian War when the Athenians and Spartans were in a stalemate after both sides agreed to the Peace of Nicias.  In 406 BC, the island of Melos (today Milos) refused to submit to the Athenians. The demands of the Athenians were that the Melians should pay tribute to them and join the Delian League. Athens sent the fleet of the Delian League to the island with orders to attack Melos if the island did not accept its terms and become, in effect, part of its Empire.
The Melian Dialogue
The Dialogue is presented in the form of speeches given by representatives of the Athenians and the Melians. At the start of the dialogue, the Athenians tell the Melians that they have two choices: either surrender or be destroyed. The Melians politely reject this. They claim that they are a free city, and that they are neutral and not a threat to anyone. The Athenians in response state that they must demonstrate their power over the Melians, or they will be seen as weak. The Melian representatives’ counterargument is that if the Delian League attacked the island this would alarm other neutral states and they would join the Spartans.
Bust of Thucydides
Bust of Thucydides
The Athenians reject this argument, and the Melians respond that it would be cowardly for an island that was unconquered for seven centuries to submit without a fight. The Athenians warn the Melians not to hope and believe in honor, because ultimately ‘might is right’ – power is ultimately the only thing that matters. In response to this the Melians say they believe that, though they are weak, they have the support of the gods.
To this the Athenians reply that even the gods only respect power and strength. They insist that the strong should do as they want even if it means that the weak suffer: that men who are stronger will naturally rule the weak and that morality and religion cannot change this. The response of the Melians to this is to retort that the Spartans, who are their kin, will come to their rescue.  The Athenians give the Melians one last chance and say that it is no shame to submit to the those who are more powerful.  According to Thucydides, the Melians offered to the Athenians to sign a treaty that would guarantee their neutrality. This was not enough for the Athenian representatives who wanted them to unconditionally surrender. The Melians refused, and politely dismiss the Athenians representatives.
Aftermath of the Dialogue
The Athenians and their allies proceeded to besiege the city of Melos. The Melians put up a dogged defense even though they were badly outnumbered. Thucydides wrote in his history that the Athenians were only able to take the city because of the treachery of one of its defenders. The victors then took a terrible revenge. They executed every male inhabitant and enslaved all the women and children of Melos, although it does appear that some Melians may have escaped the carnage. Melos was subsequently populated by Athenian colonists. However, after the eventual defeat of Athens (404 BC) by Sparta, the Athenian settlers were forced to leave the island. The Melian exiles then returned to their homeland. 
The Lessons of the Dialogue
It should be noted that the dialogue as described by Thucydides did not happen. The Melian and Athenians envoys are characters that express the opinions of the Greek historian. Thucydides ultimately seems to argue against the view that ‘might is right’. Rather, he argues that those who do not respect morality and do not restrain their actions are at risk of eventually falling to ruin: after the destruction of Melos, the Athenians suffered a series of military disasters beginning with the ‘Sicilian Expedition’.
Sicilian Expedition
A disaster for the Athenians – the ‘Sicilian Expedition’
Thucydides seems to suggest that any state that believes that it can do anything, simply if it is stronger or more powerful than others, is wrong. Many modern commentators have argued that the Melian Dialogue shows that all states should respect the law and morality in their actions, or they too will share the fate of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Some have seen in the Dialogue a rejection of the ‘realist school of international relations’ that argues that a state should only act in its own interests even if this means that they act unjustly.  A further interpretation is that Thucydides shows the Melians to be heroic but foolish and that it is best to bow to the demands of the powerful as it is a natural law.
The Melian Dialogue is one of the Ancient World’s greatest treatment of politics and power. It raises profound questions about the nature of international relations and the role of morality in politics. The Dialogue is still relevant today and many of its arguments are still relevant to world-leaders as they make decisions on foreign affairs. For example, it can demonstrate how a Superpower like America can use its military and diplomatic resources.

Apocryphal, Anecdotal and Sensational: What the ‘Apophthegms’ Tell Us About the Ancient World

by April 28, 2021

Written by Steven Whitehead, Contributing Writer of Classical Wisdom and host of the Spartan History Podcast
To the southwest of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, lies the small town of Pydna. It was here on June the 28th, 168 BCE, that an already-crumbling Hellenic civilization began its final decline.
Under the leadership of Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a Roman army crushed the Macedonian forces led by King Perseus – last in a royal line stretching back to Alexander the Great. In so doing, the Romans proved both the ascendency of their manipular tactics over the phalanx, and the Latins over the Greeks.
Coin showing Perseus, King of Macedonia 179-168 BC
From a relative zenith in the years following the Greco-Persian wars, the various independent city-states of Greece began to devour themselves in a series of internecine wars, with the Peloponnesian conflict between Athens and Sparta as a stand out. Bled dry as a result, the squabbling Hellenes could offer little resistance when the rising power of Macedon swept south, first under Phillip and then his son, enforcing submission to all in their path. This marked the end of the Classical and the beginning of the Hellenistic periods, when Greek culture and influence was spread to most of the known world.
History, however, is doomed to repeat itself and many, including the Romans themselves, considered the conquest of Greece to be an act of preservation rather than an act of destruction. The century following the battle, Pydna saw Rome extend her aegis across the Mediterranean and assume dominion over the remaining independent Greek kingdoms. The Caesars had come and stamped the world with their autocratic and indomitable will.
Julius Caesar
Bust of Caesar
At Chaeronea, which lies east of Delphi, Ploutarchos was born into this world in the year 46 CE. More commonly referred to as Plutarch, he was the scion of a wealthy family and grew to serve his hometown as magistrate. He also spent the last 30 years of his life as high priest at Delphi. Significantly, he was also a prolific author, with much of his surviving work extant and considered extremely important to our understanding of Greco-Roman history.
Plutarch’s magnum opus is known as the Parallel Lives and was, for lack of a better term, a best-seller even in his own time. More a moralizing biographer than historian, Plutarch compared the lives of 23 prominent Greeks with the same number of Romans – all historical figures of renown. It was his way of reconciling the now subservient Greeks, whose culture was still very prominent, with their Roman overlords. We have more in common than in opposition, Plutarch’s works seem to say, an issue tackled by many Greek authors of the period — a poignant lesson for us today. Many of the details recorded within the Lives are found in no other source. The Life of Alexander, for example, remains only one of a handful of tertiary sources regarding the great conqueror. 
Plutarch, image credit: Magzter
Plutarch mentions a great many of his sources and clearly spent a lifetime compiling his research. Salient to our topic, the lives of five Spartans received the attention of his agile and inquisitive mind. Quite possibly as reference material, Plutarch collected a great number of sayings of Spartan men, and, uniquely, of Spartan women as well. They’re known today as the ‘Apophthegms’. The word means a short, suitably laconic aphorism.
These sayings, like the Spartan lives recorded by Plutarch, are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in a deeper dive into the history of Sparta. Apocryphal, anecdotal and sensational, they nonetheless convey the spirit of the Lacedaemonian men and women. 
Below is an example of one, accompanied by some historical context and a description of the saying’s participants.  
After Orontes had conversed with him rather rudely and somebody remarked: Demaratus, Orontes has treated you rudely,Demaratus replied: He has done me no wrong, since its those who converse to curry favor who do harm, not those who show enmity.
This saying, attributed to the deposed king of Sparta, Demaratus, deals intelligently with the attempt of the unknown speaker to raise his ire. In Lacedaemon, the Spartiates respected direct language — one of the many things impressed upon them during their brutal Agoge soldier’s training. Although Orontes appears to have insulted the king, in the mind of Demaratus the far more pernicious threat lay within the honeyed and obsequious attempt to gain his reaction. 
Panel circa 1536 showing Demaratus warning Sparta, author unknown
Coming to the junior Eurypontid throne in 515 BCE, Demaratus had as his colleague in the senior Agiad line Cleomenes the first. Cleomenes was perhaps the most autocratic ruler Sparta endured since the dilution of kingly power under which the dual monarchs became merely part of the Gerousia — the council of elders. This weakening of power, however, meant nothing to Cleomenes, who through experience and prestige dominated Spartan policy during his long reign. This is typified by the fact that when the tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, came to Sparta seeking aid on the eve of the Ionian revolt, the father of history records that it was Cleomenes alone who decided to abstain from conflict with Persia. Interestingly it was his daughter, a young Gorgo, who truly helped the king see the treachery behind Aristagoras’’ plea.
In the Histories, Herodotus has Cleomenes appear as the preponderant power within Laconia. The account of his reign provides valuable insight into the power struggles in the upper echelons of the city’s ruling elite. Any apparent unity or harmony that was perceived from outside Sparta was, at best, only half of the story. Factionalism was an inherent part of the system legendarily instituted by Lycurgus and in Demaratus’ time he was the natural nexus for the anti-Cleomenes party.  
Statue of King Leonidas I in modern-day Sparta
The two kings first clashed seriously in the year 506 BCE, when Demaratus unsuccessfully attempted to frustrate Cleomenes’ plans to install an Athenian aristocrat, Isogoras, as tyrant of Athens. Unthwarted, Cleomenes took the city’s power center, the Acropolis, by force. There he enthroned Isogoras as a puppet controlled by Sparta.
This state of affairs lasted barely three days before the indignant Athenian populace rose up, besieged the foreign force polluting the holiest sites of Athena and forced them into submission – thus reestablishing democracy. Cleomenes was given clemency along with Isogoras and his army, but three hundred of his closest allies were executed to quell the bloodlust of the ever-vengeful Athenian citizenry. This quick and complete reversal of fortunes was believed, at the time, to have Demaratus’ hand in it. Regardless, the event solidified the enmity between the two rulers of Sparta.  
Spartan warriors headed to battle, Corinthian vase, VII century. BC
The next decade-and-a-half saw an increasingly powerful Cleomenes run roughshod over Demaratus, the Gerousia and Ephorate. However, in 491 BCE, the year prior to the battle of Marathon, his luck ran out. In preparation for the upcoming invasion, the Persian king Darius sent harbingers of his doom to the Greek cities in his path, demanding earth and water—customary tokens of submission.
The powerful island of Aegina, an ally of Sparta, was one of the many that submitted. In response, the thoroughly anti-Persian Cleomenes hatched a scheme to arrest the major collaborators. Demaratus contrived to successfully undermine his rival’s plans. Now thoroughly piqued, the Agiad king decided to rid himself of the royal thorn in his side, and enacted a two-pronged attack on the legitimacy of Demaratus’’ kingship.
First, Cleomenes convinced a younger man of the Eurypontid house, Leotychides, to lay charges against Demaratus, suing for his deposition with accusations of questionable parentage. Secondly, he bribed the Delphic oracle into pronouncing it was Apollo’s will that his rival should no longer hold the title of king. These accusations proved too much for the Spartans. Demaratus was relieved of his title and Leotychides assumed the Eurypontid throne. 
The Oracle at Delphi
Dethroned, Demaratus was left with few options. He took one common for disaffected aristocrats in ancient Greece — he medized. By going over to the Persian side, he was presumably gifted lands, title and celebratory status, serving in the courts of first Darius and then Xerxes.
Demaratus also received, with more than a little irony, a front-row seat to see his former countrymen’s valor as he accompanied the invading Persian forces on their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. This was Xerxes’ great attempt to bring the troublesome Greeks to heel, while simultaneously erasing the stain to his fathers’ dishonor for his defeat at Marathon a decade before.
Illustration of Persian envoys being thrown by the Spartans into a well, artist unknown
Demaratus played a seminal role in the Histories, serving the function of wise foreign advisor to the often-exasperated great king of Persia. He famously told his benefactor—who was surprised at the appearance of Spartan-led resistance in the pass of Thermopylae:
“One against one, they are as good as anyone in the world. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept the law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes. It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm — to conquer or die.”
They were words Xerxes would see come to fruition soon enough.
Demaratus’ fate following the invasion isn’t known, though presumably he returned to Asia Minor and his estates within the Persian empire. In regards to Cleomenes, the architect of his exile, Demaratus may have had the last laugh. His former co-king’s impiety in bribing the oracle had come to light by 490 BCE, resulting in him losing his vice-like control over Sparta. From there, Cleomenes went stark-raving mad, supposedly due to his partaking of wine neat – i.e., drinking the unwatered ancient variety widely believed to cause insanity.
Subsequently imprisoned in stocks, his jailors left an apparently reliable Helot in charge of the raving King. Clearly, he had not lost his powers of persuasion and soon convinced the slave to give him a knife, with which he sliced himself to ribbons, committing suicide. In the minds of the ancient Greeks, it was an end sufficiently sticky for sacrilege. Whilst Demaratus showed antipathy for his royal partner, it was Cleomenes who would, in Demaratus’ words, “converse to curry favor” with Delphi, ultimately causing the real harm.
Steven Whitehead is the host and producer of the Spartan History Podcast. Have a listen to his show here:

Sparta: The Warrior State?

by August 21, 2020

Written by Meghan McKenna, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Sparta, home of Ancient Greece’s most brutal warriors, trained from their youths to become capable hoplites. It is an image that has become a staple of our thoughts when thinking about how Spartan society may have been. But is this the case or is this a force-fed misconception due to centuries of misrepresentation? Was Spartan society as militarized as it is portrayed?

The Spartan Mirage

The first person to consider this and put it into writing was Francis Olliers in the 1930s. He discussed how certain philosophers may have set a precedent of a militaristic Sparta which continued to color opinion through the centuries.


Xenophon preferred the Spartan way of life and lived in Sparta for many years. Often, his praise of Spartan life is used to support the idea of Sparta as a heavily militaristic society, and his decision to live there gives credibility to this.

However, not all of Xenophon’s’ writing is considered when creating a picture of a militarised Sparta. In the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, Xenophon writes an in-depth analysis of Spartan society, with the first thirteen chapters showing him praising the way Spartans raise their children, Spartan egalitarianism, and their warrior mindset.

Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques Louis David, 1814. This is a juxtaposition of various historical and legendary elements from the Battle of Thermopylae.

In his final chapters, Xenophon flips his view, explaining that everything that had made Sparta a great city-state was disappearing, as the state became corrupt and no longer followed the laws set by Lycurgus. He further discusses how there was a decrease in morals and prestige, which made other city-states suspicious and cautious of Sparta gaining more power and taking control of Greece.


Herodotus also contributed to the mirage, as his writing can be quite hyperbolic. For example, Herodotus gives historians a notion of the size of Sparta’s population, while also pushing the idea of military supremacy. At one point he describes Sparta as a city of about eight thousand men, “all of them equal to those who have fought [at Thermopylae].”


Plutarch also perpetuates the Spartan mirage, as he writes based on the oral history of Sparta 500 years after its prime. It was Plutarch’s writings that created the famous Spartan phrase, with your shield or on it.


Spartan Warriors on Greek Vase. Google Images

Davies suggests that Plutarch’s writings are idealized, and states that even though Plutarch may have visited Sparta, it wouldn’t have resembled classical Sparta, as it had become “a tourist attraction which made a superficial claim to continuity with its glorious forebear.”

The way in which these classical writers contributed to the mirage is the most important explanation of how the image of a Spartan warrior state has become so widely accepted, not only in our own society, with movies such as 300, but also in other societies due to a snowball effect that began in Ancient Greece itself.


The agōgē is a unique part of Spartan society and was believed to be an education system. Boys would start at the age of seven, teaching them obedience and endurance. Xenophon explains that the staff, known as Mastigophoroi, would carry whips and the boys would wear the same shoes and clothes all year round and would be forced to train on little food, to encourage year-round endurance of the elements and the ability to continue when no food is available.

Spartan boys

Young Spartans Exercising, by Edgar Degas, c1860, displayed in The National Gallery, London.

Many people would take this and instantly connect it to war. However, there is very little in Xenophon’s writing which actually points towards it being a military institution. Jean Ducat suggests that the agōgē may be overemphasized by historians due to its sensational nature and the fact that there is nothing similar to it in other poleis.

But surely military training from a young age would be both sensational and unusual, so why is it missing from other contemporary accounts?

Xenophon later discusses the Spartan formation in the army claiming that it is very easy to follow. Therefore, boys may not even need to have military training, and it is more beneficial to train them to be more formidable and steadfast, which would also come into practice during a harsh winter.

Hodkinson argues that we can make sense of the Spartan education system by putting the upbringing the Spartiate boys had into perspective. As his example, he states: “its commencement at age 7 and its division into three general stages—the paides (age 7–c.13), paidiskoi (age c.14–19) and hēbōntes (age 20–29)—parallels the less formalized stages of boyhood, youth, and young manhood in other poleis.”


Ruins of Sparta from the right bank of the Eurotas. Sparti, Peloponnese, Greece.

Jean Ducat also argues that it is likely that boys had a normal upbringing with private tutors. However, this is not focused on by the ancient writers, as the agōgē is “the most sensational part, certainly … but not necessarily the most important.” So it seems that the agōgē was a highly disciplined education system overseeing a boy’s stages to manhood, rather than a highly militarized training establishment.


Sparta was run with an oligarchical government who had put in place a rigidly hierarchical societal system, which depended on the smooth operation of various state functions and infrastructure. Spartan society would have likely had a plethora of administrative positions entrusted solely to Spartiates, meaning there would have been plenty of nonmilitary jobs and responsibilities available, suggesting that there was more to Sparta than her military.

Although all men were expected to be a part of the military, at the age of thirty adult men were no longer active members. Moreover, many of them would have been injured in wars and no longer have been able to conduct military service. Are we to think that these men did nothing during their time away from the military?


Warriors. Side B from an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 570–565 BC.

Well, we would be wrong…

All families in Sparta had a kleros, an estate that financially supported their family financially, with helots working the land. Managing the kleros and the accounts were the man’s responsibility. The household would receive barley from the government each year, and the man was expected to pay syssitia fees.

There was a system in place to receive and acknowledge these payments, which employed Spartiate men who were either too old to campaign or injured. Once again, we see that there were roles in Spartan society that were nonmilitarized.

Military practices

As previously mentioned, Xenophon discussed the seemingly difficult maneuvers conducted by the Spartan army during battle as being “so easy to understand that no one… can possibly go wrong.” He also mentioned that the men are led by “second lieutenants” who verbally give out orders—orders that other poleis do not give.

Though it is often thought that the Spartan military was highly trained and militarised, in reality, they just employed tactics that were not complicated and worked being given by lieutenants who could control large groups of men.


On the monument to the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas.

If we consider Sparta in comparison to other city-states or countries at the time, its military isn’t very impressive in size. In terms of size, Athens’ military consisted of hoplites totaling 13,000 and its fleet consisted of 300 ships, while Sparta had no navy and approximately half as many hoplites.

Moreover, if we look at the Persian army led by Xerxes, Herodotus describes the army as being made up of over two million fighting men. This is, of course, a hugely overestimated figure, and historians such as Burn suggest that, with the amount of water supply available, the land around Thermopylae could support an army of at least 200,000 men led by Xerxes. But from what Herodotus says we can infer that no matter the actual figure of the army, it vastly outnumbered any Greek army—especially the Spartans.

Warriors, but not a Warrior-State

When you put it in this perspective, it is clear that Sparta’s army was not the most impressive. It certainly goes against the portrayal of Sparta as a highly militarized society to find that they had such a small army and lacked naval warfare capabilities.


Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (The Naval Battle at Salamis), Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868.

The extent to which Sparta was militarized is still hotly debated. There is no doubt that a large part of Spartan society was dedicated to military service and training, but there is evidence to show that it was certainly not their only focus.

With that in mind, perhaps it is time for us to rethink the way we portray this ancient city-state… but that doesn’t mean I won’t be watching 300 anymore.


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 severe 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 the 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 a greater or lesser degree, so long as human nature remains the same.