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Lessons from Ancient Greece that we can still learn


THE Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BC still has many lessons. Two Greek superpowers, Athens and Sparta, spent 27 years in and out of conflict despite peace treaties and strenuous efforts on both sides to avoid war. Their allies and colonies, however, falling out with their neighbours, continually dragged wiser imperial heads into destructive and futile battles. The historian Thucydides, who recorded the conflict, was himself a victim, losing his generalship and being exiled by a vote of the Athenian assembly. He began his history, he said, in order that people in the future might know what had really happened and might learn from it.

These edited extracts are from Book Three of Thucydides’s history, paragraphs 82 to 85. If he were to set about writing a history of the year 2020, he would not find very much had changed.


‘The sufferings which the war inflicted upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, human nature being what it is. War is a rough teacher. Words changed their meanings to accommodate the changed situation. Callous aggression came to be regarded as courage; prudence became weakness; moderation became timidity; willingness to consider evidence and look at all sides of a question became nervousness; fanatical thuggery and treachery became righteous actions. The ideological extremist was trusted while those who urged restraint became the enemy. If someone made a reasonable suggestion, his opponents sought to cover it up or distort its meaning.

‘Ambition, greed and the craving for power caused these evils and intensified the violence. Those in contention were full of fine words and noble expressions: some spoke of equality and political liberty for the people; others spoke of the safety, stability and trustworthiness of sound aristocratic government. Both sides stopped at nothing to get their way. No one wanted to listen to reason but sought fine arguments to justify vile deeds. Meanwhile, ordinary, sensible citizens were trapped between the two: even their quietness was taken as evidence of guilt.

‘The character of the Greeks went from bad to worse. The simple life of honour and decency was laughed at and society divided into hostile camps whose promises were no longer trusted. The less intelligent prospered: knowing their weaknesses and expecting to be defeated in debate they resorted to intimidation and violence. The more intelligent, foolishly confident that reason and evidence would prevail, were caught off-guard and vanquished. Those who were envious of their neighbours engaged in savage and pitiless actions. No longer restrained by convention and law, human nature showed itself to be ungovernable in its passionate disregard for justice, and its hatred of anything superior to itself.’


The end of the war and the defeat of Athens brought to an end the great flowering of Athenian culture, art, science, philosophy, medicine, progress, fortune and hopefulness. Four years later, Socrates was condemned to death, in effect for exercising his right to free speech. A weakened and disillusioned Athens became prey to Persia and then Macedonia. The extracts above speak for themselves and further comment is superfluous.

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