Hubris, Empire and War: The Nemeses of Athenian Democracy (Lecture Outline and Quotes Compiled by Paul Ewing)


                                (lecture outline with quotes, compiled by Paul Ewing, 1990)

“In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are activated by higher motives because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities. But war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a violent teacher and assimilates men’s characters to their conditions…” Thucydides



            A. in Mythology

                        But thee, Prometheus racked

                        With anguish infinite,

                        I shudder to behold:

                        For Zeus thou dost defy–self willed–

                        Revering overmuch the sons of men.

                        For tell me, O my friend,

                        How rendering unto them

                        This thankless service, art thou helped?

                        Can short-lived mortals mend thy plight?

                        Seest thou not the feeble helpless state,

                        Shadowy as a dream, whereto are bound

                        The purblind race of men?

                        No human counsels shall avail

                        To pass the bounds of that great harmony

                        Which Zeus ordains.

                        So I am taught, Prometheus, by the sight

                        Of this thy ruined state.” –Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

            B. in Homeric epic

                        “…the day is coming when Achaeans one and all will miss me sorely, and you in your despair will be powerless to help them as they fall in their hundreds to Hector killer of men. Then, you will tear your heart out in remorse for having treated the best man in the expedition with contempt.” Achilles on himself in the Illiad by Homer

            C. in Herodotus’ “History of the Persian War”

            “After Solon’s departure Croesus was dreadfully punished, presumably because God was angry with him for supposing himself the happiest of men.” Herodotus The Histories


            A. Polis in Homeric epic

            “But now my death is upon me. Let me not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.” Hector facing imminent death at the hands of Achilles in the Illiad of Homer

            B. Polis in Herodotus’ History of the Persian War

            [Solon’s response to Croesus’ question as to why Tellus is the happiest of men] “…first, his city was prosperous, and he had fine sons, and lived to see children born to each of them, and all these children surviving; and secondly, after a life by which by our standards was a good one, he had a glorious death. In a battle with the neighboring town of Eleusis, he fought for his countrymen, routed the enemy, and died like a soldier; and the Athenians paid him the high honor of a public funeral on the spot where he fell.” Herodotus, The Histories

            “The best country is the one which has the most.” Herodotus

            C. Polis in Philosophy

            “Man is a political animal.” –Aristotle

            D. Rival poleis: Athens and Sparta

            E. The Glory that wasn’t Greek!

                        1. Delian League and Empire

                        2. Contradictions of a Democratic Empire

                                    a. Public works paid for by empire


                                    b. Democracy and empire: some contradictions

                                                1.) funding democracy: “For out of the income derived from the contributions made by the allies and from internal levies more than twenty thousand persons were maintained.” Aristotle, Constitution of Athens

                                                2.) perpetuating empire “…the real strength of Athens lies in the ability of the allies to contribute their quota of money; but to the democratic mind it is manifestly an even greater advantage for individual Athenians to lay their hands on the wealth of the allies, leaving them only enough to cultivate their estates and live upon them, but not powerful enough to entertain treasonable designs upon Athens…. So the allies find themselves more and more in the position of slaves to the Athenian democracy.” –Anonymous, The Constitution of Athens

                                                3.) Mitylenians petition the Spartans:

                                    “But we did not become allies of the Athenians for the subjugation of the Hellenes, but allies of the Hellenes for their liberation from the Mede [Persians], and as long as the Athenians led us fairly we followed them loyally. But when we saw them relax their hostility to the Mede, and try to compass the subjection of the allies, then our apprehensions began.”

                                    –Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

                                    c. The arrogance of power: Pericles oration on imperial democracy:

                                    “Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” Pericles Funeral Oration, 431 B.C.

                                    “Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own…” Pericles Funeral Oration, 431 B.C.

                                    “To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas….” Pericles Funeral Oration Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War



            A. Second Peloponnesian War–the beginning of the end

                        1. Siege and plague

            B. Third Peloponnesian War–the end of the Greek beginning

                        1. Alcibiades–“bad boy” of democracy

                                    a. Melos

                                    Athenians to the Melians: “You know as well as we that there is no question of right and wrong except when power is equal. That is the way the world is–the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.”

                                    “Our allies would think our friendship for you to be a sign of our weakness, while if you are our enemies, this is a sign of our power.”

                                    “If you are well advised you will avoid this error, and not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the modest offer of becoming its tributary ally….”

                                    the siege of Melos:

                                    “the Melians showing no signs of yielding, the generals at once began hostilities…and besieged the place….the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves…”   –Thucydides, The History of the Peloponneisan War

                                    b. Syracuse

                        “…Do not rescind your resolution to sail to Sicily, on the ground that you would be going to attack a great Power. The cities in Sicily are peopled by motley rabbles, and easily change their institutions to adopt new ones; and consequently the inhabitants have no real feeling of patriotism…. From a mob like this you need not look for either unanimity in counsel or concert in action…” Alcibiades speech as told by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War

                                    c. Treason

                                    d. Murder

                        2. The tyranny of the majority: Execution of the Admirals

                        “But the majority kept crying out that it was monstrous if the people were to be hindered by any stray individual from doing what seemed right.”                                   

                                    f. defeat

                                    “So happy were the people of Athens at the coming of peace that they rushed with great enthusiasm to pull down the walls to the accompaniment of female flute players. It was a suitably ignoble end to a war that had poisoned the soul of Athens.” –F. Roy Willis, Western Civilization: An Urban Perspective p. 117.


            A. The Greeks           

                        “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished since that time when first there stood in division of conflict Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilles.” Homer Illiad


                                    “This day will be the beginning of great evils for the Hellenes.” Melisippus referring to first day of invasion as told by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War


            B. The Historians

                        “The Peloponnesian War left Athens its buildings, but impaired its nobility of thought.” F. Roy Willis, Western Civilization


                        “Not only did the Peloponnesian War put an end to the political supremacy of Athens, it annihilated freedom throughout the Greek world and sealed the doom of the Hellenic political genius.” –Burns, Lerner, Meachan in Western Civilizations Vol. 1., p. 123.


                        “Unbridled arrogance shocked the Greeks morally, politically and aesthetically. It was, in their view, quite different from legitimate ambition, since this was possible only with a large degree of self-control and even of self-sacrifice. At all periods from the Heroic Age to the fourth century, arrogance was regarded as the worst of evils, because it made chaos of all attempts to achieve balance and harmony in the self and because it scorned the social obligations on which the city-state depended.” C.M. Bowra in The Greek Experience


                        ” The supreme tragedy of the Greeks was, of course, their failure to solve the problem of political conflict.” Ralph, Lerner, Meacham and Burns World Civilizations

            C. A Sage

                        “It is easier to fight for one’s ideals than to live up to them.” –unknown


            D. A Twentieth Century Playwright

               “Since 1945 past and present are the same.

               And it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘real’ or a play–

               Imagination and reality both go the same way.

               So don’t say it’s just a bunch of ancient Greeks.

               It’s their tears that will be flowing down your cheeks.”

                        –Tony Harrison, The Common Chorus: Part I Lysistrata, 1988.















































2 thoughts on “Hubris, Empire and War: The Nemeses of Athenian Democracy (Lecture Outline and Quotes Compiled by Paul Ewing)

  1. There is no place in my beliefs to follow anyone of history past … No god will find my foot steps following those preceding me to their terrible ends because I am wiser for their misguided allegiance as history so brutally portrays … I know what ever I aspire to in life the ability to live up to that/those responsibility/ies is mine alone … I am not an assuming being … I am a human being …

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