Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy; Stanley M. Burstein et al. | Go to book overview

9
THE CRISIS OF THE
POLIS AND THE AGE OF
SHIFTING HEGEMONIES

The long Peloponnesian War wrought changes in the Greek world so far- reaching that it is impossible to imagine the course of history without it. To be sure, fourth-century Greeks continued to farm and weave and fight, and the politically aware polis remained the primary unit of government for several generations. Years of futile warfare, however, accompanied by economic difficulties and attendant civil strife led many people to question their relationship to the world around them. Already around the middle of the fifth century Greek thinkers had begun to ask key questions about the human community. What was the purpose of civic life? Why had people come together in communities in the first place? Were the laws of the polis in accord with nature or in conflict with it? Why were some people free and others slaves? How were Greeks different from non- Greeks? Should Greeks war with other Greeks and enslave them when victorious?

To these questions others came to be added. Why should some have so much more than others? Did the autonomous city-state provide the best way of life? Did the exclusion of women from decision-making go without saying? Was warfare worth the sacrifices it entailed? A smaller group debated larger questions-- the nature of justice, of piety, of courage, of love. Though many of these concerns had engaged fifth -century minds, the postwar generations were more prone to this kind of questioning and less confident that they lived in the best of all possible worlds. New genres took the place of the old as the search for meaning in life moved forward on different paths: whereas the painful issues of human existence had been explored during the fifth century in tragedy and history, fourth- century thinkers developed the philosophical dialogue and treatise.

While many Greeks were subjecting their traditional values to scrutiny, others perpetuated the squabbles of the fifth century. The Peloponnesian War had

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