After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.
Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.
Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.
The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.
In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”
Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.