War, Peace, and World Orders in European History

By Anja V. Hartmann; Beatrice Heuser | Go to book overview

3

War and peace in ancient Greece

Hans van Wees

The modern image of war, peace and international relations in ancient Greece is very much the image that the historian Thucydides sought to project in his history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC): a world in which every state was always out to increase its power at the expense of others and where unscrupulous power politics had reduced all ethical concerns to mere pretence; a world in which war was the norm and annihilation the price of defeat. Ancient Greece thus seems to fit perfectly the extreme 'realist' scenario of an anarchic system of states constantly struggling for survival and power. Yet Thucydides' own account of the war shows that the hard-nosed analyses which he offered were one-sided, and other evidence confirms that Greek international relations were much more complex, and rather less brutal, than he suggested. There was indeed constant tension and frequent warfare between the city-states throughout the archaic and classical periods (c.700-500 and 500-300 BC), but we cannot follow Thucydides or modern realists in attributing this to simple 'laws of human nature'. Relations between political communities in Ancient Greece were shaped by a culture which did much both to encourage and inhibit the eruption of armed conflict.


Hellas: an international society of city-states

As a system of many communities, the Greek world - which consisted of several hundred city-states (poleis,

), situated not only in Greece itself but all around the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, with heavy concentrations on the coasts of the Aegean, Sicily and southern Italy - had two notable characteristics. First, although the city-states took some pride in being different from one another in dialect, script, cults, political institutions and material culture, they believed that they shared certain essential characteristics which set them apart from all other cultures as Greeks (or 'Hellenes', as they called themselves). Intercommunity relations among the city-states accordingly differed from those between Greeks and non-Greeks. Second, despite intense rivalry between communities, they were bound to one another by such a variety of relationships that it

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