GREATEST of GREEK WARS; SUPPLEMENTING THUCYDIDES' HISTORY OF CONFLICT

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Byline: Mackubin Thomas Owens, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. The same can be said about the Greek historian Thucydides and the study of international relations. As Robert Gilpin, author of many books on international relations theory, writes in "War and Change in World Politics," "In honesty, one must inquire whether or not twentieth-century students of international relations know anything that Thucydides and his fifth-century B.C. compatriots did not know about the behavior of states."

He concludes that it is hard to find any contemporary issue of statecraft and foreign relations that does not have an antecedent in Thucydides' magisterial account of the Peloponnesian War.

Indeed, the Peloponnesian War features everything one finds in modern international relations theory and practice: "international anarchy," the condition in which political entities (poleis or cities) exist in a state of nature with one another; attempts by these poleis to improve their security by means of alliances or war; weak allies who drag stronger allies into war, balance of power considerations; and "security dilemmas" brought about by a lack of trust among the actors.

The seeds of conflict lay in the fifth-century B.C. competition between Athens and Sparta following their successful alliance against the Persians. Athens, a sea power and a democracy created the Delian League, an alliance of poleis around the Aegean Sea, to hold the Persians at bay. Sparta, a narrow oligarchy and a land power, created its own alliance of poleis on the Peloponnesus out of concern about Athenian power. The first Peloponnesian War broke out in 461 B.C., ending 16 years later with a truce that was intended to secure peace for 30 years.

The conflagration of the second Peloponnesian War, the subject of Thucydides' history, can be traced to a spark on the periphery of Greek life, the city of Epidamnus, in which a civil war pitted democrats against oligarchs. The former appealed to Corcyra, which was the metropolis of Epidamnus. Refused help by Corcyra, the democrats of Epidamnus turned next to Corinth, which did life, the city of Epidamnus, in which a civil war pitted democrats against oligarchs. The former appealed to Corcyra, which was the metropolis of Epidamnus. Refused help by Corcyra, the democrats of Epidamnus turned next to Corinth, which did help. This angered the Corcyreans, who sent a fleet to recapture their erstwhile colony, defeating the Corinthian fleet along the way. The Corinthians declared war on Corcyra, who then appealed for help to Athens. The Corinthians likewise sent representatives to Athens to dissuade them from helping the Corcyreans.

The Athenians did not wish to break the Thirty-Year Truce, but they were afraid that if Corinth, which was close to the Spartans, defeated Corcyra and took control of its large fleet, it would tip the balance of power against them. They tried to deter the Corinthians, but were drawn into a sea battle, which infuriated the Corinthians. Athens now feared that Corinth would cause problems in Potidaea, which indeed did revolt against Athens.

Dispatching a force to put down the revolt in Potidaea, Athens asked Sparta to remain neutral. But the Spartans were swayed by the arguments of Corinth and Megara and opted for war. In 431 B.C. Sparta attacked. The first phase of the war, often called the Archidamian War after one of the Spartan kings, saw Attica ravaged by Spartan forces, the outbreak of the plague in Athens and the death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles, but nonetheless ended in a stalemate. This was followed by the Peace of Nicias, a fragile truce that did not hold. The war resumed.

The Athenians embarked on a bold plan to conquer Sicily. The attempt ended in disaster. Meanwhile, the Spartans were shored up by the Great King of the Persians, who wished to recover the cities of the Aegean that Persia had once controlled. …