Monday, October 14, 2013

Peloponnesian War (Part Two)

Last time...on the Canned Historian:

  • Greek city-states became Greek city-men during the Persian War.
  • Workplace tensions between Athens' Delian League and Sparta's Peloponnesian League could not be resolved by HR, initiating the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC.
  • Sparta refuses to get wet, and Athens doesn't want to get out of the pool, so the war goes nowhere at first.
  • Jack Bauer rescues his daughter and takes down the Serbian agent who kidnapped her, only to realize that he killed the agent's body-double's second-cousin-twice-removed, and had mistaken his daughter with a My Size Barbie.
  • Athens and Sparta agree to the Peace of Nicias, putting the war on hold...for now...

Fig.1: Despite popular knowledge, 
this gentleman would not be 
involved in Syracusan politics 
until the mid-4th century BC.
By 415 BC, Athens and Sparta had been at "peace" for six years (I use that word as lightly as Burger King uses "healthy" to describe their new menu options). There had been fighting between Athens' and Sparta's allies in their respective Leagues, but the two main powers had stayed out of their gym class squabbles for the most part. But then Athens received a nice letter from some friends on the island of Sicily, asking them to help in their struggle against the big man on campus there: Syracuse (not really fig.1). Athens saw an opportunity not only to help a friend out, but to plant a foot in Sicily and hopefully use its resources to eventually defeat those Spartans. Okay, to be honest, Athens was really only thinking of that second thing, but who hasn't been a little selfish when given the chance to take over a large island in the Mediterranean? You and I have no right to judge!

Fig.2: All the ladies loved 
Alcibiades' debonair person-
ality and sophisticated vocab-
ulary, or as he put it, he was 
simply "da bomb."
Athens chose three stooges...I mean, generals to oversee the expedition. Unfortunately all three had a different plan of action. Nicias (of "Peace of Nicias" fame) was against the whole trip to begin with, and just wanted to get everyone on Sicily together for a tea party and agree to play nice with one another from now on. Pansy. Lamachus, a wily old veteran, advocated for taking Syracuse by storm, cracking a few heads, showing them who's boss, and taking over from there. Then there was Alcibiades (fig.2), a young and upcoming dude who was the one who convinced the assembly to go ahead with the expedition in the first place, stating that taking over Sicily would be "totally radical." His plan was to "crash out" on Sicily for a while, and make a few "bros" that may want to help in their "beef" against those "zaboobs" in Syracuse. The three butted heads until Lamachus voted for Alcibiades' plan, since everyone admitted that Nicias' tea party thing was "weak sauce." It didn't go so well since the Sicilians knew the Athenians didn't quite have their best interests at heart. Then Alcibiades was accused by his political enemies of defacing religious idols back in Greece. He was ordered to return to Athens, but instead he decided to "peace out" and fled to Sparta instead, giving them the "lowdown" on Athens' plans and vulnerabilities. Well now, who turned out to be the zaboob after all?

The Athenians continued their occupation of Sicily nonetheless. They defeated the Syracusians in a pitched battle outside the city walls, but both sides put out their JV teams and the victory was not decisive. Meanwhile, Sparta decided to get in on this action and sent a general named Gylippus, along with a small fleet, to aid Syracuse. His help proved instrumental in foiling the siege, as well as picking off Athenian soldiers in minor skirmishes. Lamachus would meet his end during one of these battles: his aggressive mentality finally caught up to him as he got his own head cracked in several places. Nicias was the last Athenian general standing, which is ironic since he was the one who didn't even want to go to Sicily in the first place. With siege after siege failing, and with more and more soldiers dying or falling ill, and with less and less bottles of triple-filtered sparkling raspberry-flavored water to spare, Nicias wrote to Athens in early 414 BC asking for an unreasonable amount of reinforcements in troops, weapons, and supplies. He hoped the assembly would reject this and recall the whole expedition. Much to his horror, his request was actually granted, and Athens invested even more money and manpower into the trip. Sounds like somebody was getting terrible advice from their broker!

Fig.3: After Sicily, the next time the 
moon would play a large role in 
deciding the outcome of a military 
expedition was Napoleon's failed 
attempt to use its cheesy surface 
for rations during his Invasion
of Russia.
The Spartans continued to take advantage of the distracted Athenians, and on Alcibiades' "gnarly" advice, occupied strategic towns in Attica; they even captured the secret Athens clubhouse underneath that weeping willow in their neighbor's yard, despite the cardboard "No yucky Spartans allowed" sign nailed to the trunk. Gylippus' help to the Syracusians also paid off, and by August 413 BC, Nicias finally convinced the Athenian assembly to allow his retreat from Sicily. But then something strange happened: a lunar eclipse occurred in the sky. And Nicias, who had been the most practical Athenian to that point, went crazy superstitious: he prevented the fleet from leaving until the next full moon appeared without a hitch, suggesting they should spend that time repairing all the cracks in the boat so no one could inadvertently break their mother's back. They became sitting ducks for the Syracusians and Spartans, as they used that month to destroy all of their ships, capture the entire fleet (including Nicias, who was eventually executed after being tortured to walk under a ladder with an open umbrella indoors), and sold them into slavery. Astronomy class had never been so deadly.

It pretty much went downhill for Athens from then on. A coup ousted the assembly in 411 BC, and Athens came under the control of a group known as the Four Hundred, ruling alongside their beloved One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This created a mini-civil war situation within Athens for the next two years, which Sparta and their allies were more than happy to take advantage of. Athens managed to hang in there, and even scored a major naval victory at the Battle of Arginusae. Unfortunately, the celebration was marred by the fact that several Athenian sailors were unable to be rescued due to a storm, and many blamed the generals for never seeing Black Hawk Down and knowing never to leave a man behind. There was a whole big trial and everything, and six of Athens' top generals were executed in Greek history's biggest over-reaction until Socrates was forced to commit suicide for breaking off a cracker in the hummus. Athens never got over the loss, and the Spartans, under the cunning general Lysander, would finally ditch their arm floaties and truly fight on the seas. They won a naval battle at Aegosoptami, destroying the rest of Athens' navy and taking away their privileges to swim in the deep end. With their sea empire gone, Athens had no choice but to surrender for good in 404 BC.

The Peloponnesian War was finally over, but its effects would echo throughout Greece for decades to come. Now that Sparta was top dog, they started doing the same annoying things Athens did after the Persian War: bossing around their allies, forcing neutral city-states under their control, leaving the toilet seat up. So eventually Athens allied with their former enemies in Corinth and Thebes against Sparta. But then Athens became powerful again, and they switched sides against them. Eventually Thebes emerged as the dominant state, followed by Corinth, then Sparta again, then Athens for a little bit, then Hoboken for some odd reason, then Thebes once more. This merry-go-round of hegemony in Ancient Greece was mercifully ended by King Philip of Macedon, ruler of the land to the north that conveniently started getting stronger as Greece was busy destroying itself. Once Philip conquered Greece in 338 BC, his son Alexander (who is believed to have been pretty Great) conquered most of the known world (fig.4), plus a slice of Antarctica for good measure.

Fig.4: The size of Alexander the Great's empire would make the Greek city-states realize how small and petty they really are. Didn't stop them from squabbling over trading rights or who had the fullest beard, but at least they were aware of the insignificance of their lives.
The so-called Golden Age of Greece ended with the Peloponnesian War. Gone were the days of Athenian democracy, Corinthian architechure, and Spartan dominance in Big Ten basketball. Greece would be ruled by Macedonians, Romans, Turks, and overseas yogurt companies represented by John Stamos for over two thousand years. And yet you can argue that Alexander's empire allowed for the spread of Greek culture first into Asia, then eventually all over the world. Which is good news for everyone, except those freshmen pledges about to get hazed! Nonetheless, the Peloponnesian War teaches us a valuable lesson: we should all learn to work with our neighbors, not against them, and find a peaceful way to sort out our differences.  Also, never invade Sicily. You're just bound to have a bad time.

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