The Peloponnesian War and the Decline of Leadership in Athens
Thucydides set out to narrate the events of what he believed would be a great war—one requiring great power amassed on both sides and great states to carry out. Greatness, for Thucydides, was measured most fundamentally in capital and military strength, but his history delves into almost every aspect of the war, including, quite prominently, its leaders. In Athens especially, leadership was vital to the war effort because the city’s leaders were chosen by its people and thus, both shaped Athens and reflected its character during their lifetimes. The leaders themselves, however, are vastly different in their abilities and their effects on the city. Thucydides featured both Pericles and Alcibiades prominently in his history, and each had a distinct place in the evolution of Athenian empire and the war it sparked between Athens and Sparta. Pericles ascended to power at the empire’s height and was, according to Thucydides, the city’s most capable politician, a man who understood fully the nature of his city and its political institutions and used his understanding to further its interests in tandem with his own. After Pericles, however, Thucydides notes a drastic decline in the quality of Athenian leaders, culminating in Alcibiades, the last major general to be described in The Peloponnesian War. While he is explicit in this conclusion, he is much more reticent regarding its cause. What changed in Athens to produce the decline in the quality of its leadership?
The development of an empire is a change strongly emphasized in the Archeology as a radical departure from the Hellenic tradition, and consequently a major source of conflict among the Greeks. Prior to the advent of Greek navies, Thucydides claims that “wars by land there were none, none at least by which power was acquired; we have the usual border contests, but of distant expeditions with conquest the object we hear nothing among the Hellenes” (I.15.2). The Greeks practiced what was essentially a policy of strict isolationism—fighting when they felt their own territorial holdings being violated but refraining from complex inter-Hellenic alliances and subjugation for profit. The navies, and especially their role in the Persian Wars changed all this.
Equally significant in containing Greek power early on was the tradition of rule by tyrants, who, as a result of their “habit of providing simple for themselves…made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them…” (I.17). Here too, however, a sweeping change took place just before the Persian invasion as Sparta put down Greek tyrants and set up democracy in Athens. It was these two significant changes—the construction of a navy in Athens and the institution of democracy as its government—that put Athens in a position to assume the role of major Mediterranean power, and it was the Persian invasion that gave it the chance to take advantage...