Wednesday, 5 September 2012

History, myth and self-destruction among the Greeks: more thoughts on JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath

More reflections emerging from reading Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, in which JE Lendon stresses the role of status and prestige in that particular conflict and, indeed, in all conflicts.

Lendon makes clear that for the classical Greeks, imbued with Homeric culture, identity and rank were shaped not only by the historical but also the mythical past. Thus, we note that at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian war and the defeat of Athens (404 BC) – and despite the urgings of its allies – Sparta declined to destroy Athens because of the city’s role decades earlier in the service of Hellas during the Persian wars.

For the same reasons, Alexander the Great was lenient towards Athens despite its overt hostility towards Macedonia – its part in the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) and the revolt of Thebes (335 BC) – although the Macedonians had no such compunction when it came to Thebes itself, which was razed and its population sold into slavery, and not just because in resisting Macedonia, the Thebans had lobbied for assistance from the Persian king, but because this treachery was part of an inherited pattern of betrayal, in Alexander’s eyes, in which Thebes had also sided with the Persian invaders more than a century before.

More illustrative, perhaps, of the way the past informed Greek self-perception, we note that Sparta’s perennial Peloponnesian rival Argos, after being defeated in the Battle of Champions (546 BC) and the Battle of Sepeia (494 BC), never reconciled itself to its diminished status and Sparta's hegemony in the peninsular and in Hellas; the Argives justifying their obsessive enmity towards Sparta on the grounds that in the legendary war that, essentially, established the Greeks as a nation, i.e. the Trojan war (1250 BC), it was Argos (under King Agamemnon) that led the pan-Hellenic expedition in Asia, while Sparta (and its cuckolded king, Menelaus) was a bit-part player.

 As Lendon puts it:
‘On the basis of Argos’ standing in myth, Argos could claim the highest rank of any Greek state. And the Argives were anxious to vindicate their rank in every succeeding generation.’
This vicious irreconcilable rivalry meant that from the fifth century onwards, Argos’ main foreign policy objective was to undermine Sparta and this it did by allying itself with whichever state happened to be fighting the Lacedaemonians – with Athens during the Peloponnesian war; with Thebes, Athens and Corinth in the Corinthian war; with Thebes, under Epaminondas, who took on and dealt a shattering blow to Spartan leadership and power, most notably at the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC); with Macedonia, as it sought to establish and maintain hegemony in Greece; and, finally, with Greece’s Roman overlords.

Indeed, Argos’ interminable feud with Sparta is typical of inter-Greek state relations – in fact, such abiding antipathies could be found as much within Greek states as between them – in which destroying yourself seemed a price worth paying so long as you took your rival down with you. No surprise, therefore, that Greeks inspired the concepts of the Cadmean as well as the Pyrrhic victory.

For more discussion emanating from Song of Wrath, go here.

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