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.
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.