The sixth century which followed was an age of reaction. Men shrank from the violent outbreaks of the preceding generations. It was the time of the “seven wise men,” of the precept “nothing in excess,” of the curbing of aristocracies with their claim to be a law unto themselves. During this epoch of repression a rich and diversified culture which had developed in Sparta was narrowed down to one single imperious interest—war and preparation for war. With the leveling down of the Spartan aristocracy went the decay of the art and letters of which it had been the bearer. The Spartan people became an armed camp living a life of soldierly comradeship and of puritanical austerity, ever solicitous lest its serfs (there were fifteen of them to every Spartan) should revolt and massacre, ever watchful lest the leadership which it had established in Greek affairs (there were 15,000 Spartans and 3,000,000 Greeks) should be imperiled. In Athens the course of development had been directly the opposite of this. There, too, the nobles were ousted from their monopoly of political rights, but on the other hand, the serfs were admitted to citizenship. The men who molded Athens in its period of democratic growth were themselves aristocrats who never doubted for a moment that the culture of their order would ennoble the life of the masses. Hence no pains or expenses were spared by them to build and maintain—at their own cost—public palæstræ and gymnasia in which poor and rich alike could obtain a suppleness and grace of body that added charm and vigor to their movements; and to institute so-called musical contests in which the people generally had to participate, and the preparation for which incited all classes to study literature and art—above all to learn the words and the music of lyric and dramatic choruses. The aristocracy died down in Athens, but the Athenians became the aristocracy of all Greece.

That they did so was largely the work of their most brilliant statesman, Themistocles, whose “Life” by Plutarch is included in The Harvard Classics.〖Harvard Classics, xii, 5.〗 Under his far-sighted guidance Athens built an invincible fleet at great financial sacrifice, cooperated with Sparta with singular devotion and unparalleled heroism in beating off the Persians, and established her maritime empire. Aristides〖H. C., xii, 78.〗 was at first his unsuccessful rival and later his faithful collaborator, and Pericles,〖H. C., xii, 35.〗 whose interest in science, philosophy, jurisprudence, art, and literature makes him the best exponent of the culminating epoch of Greek development, profited sagaciously by their work. He both perfected the institutions of Athenian democracy and defined and organized its imperial mission. No man in high place ever took more seriously the doctrine that all citizens were equally capacitated for public service, yet no more ardent imperialist than he ever lived. The truth is that Athenian democracy with all that it implies was impossible without the Athenian maritime empire. The subject allies were as indispensable to the Athenians as the slaves, mechanics, and traders are to the citizens of Plato’s ideal republic.

This empire Sparta sought to destroy, and to this end waged fruitless war on Athens for ten years (431-421 B. C.). What she failed to accomplish, Alcibiades,〖H. C., xii, 106.〗 the evil genius of Athens, effected, for at his insistence the democrats embarked on the fatal Sicilian expedition. After the dreadful disaster which they sustained before Syracuse (413 B. C.), their dependencies revolted and ceased paying them tribute; whereupon, unable to make head against the Sicilians, Spartans, and Persians, who had joined forces against her, Athens succumbed in 405 B. C. It is doubtful whether any other city of 50,000 adult males ever undertook works of peace and war of similar magnitude. Athens led Greece when Greece led the world.

The Spartans took her place, but they held it only through the support given them by their confederates, Persia and Syracuse. When they quarreled with the Persians they at once lost it; regained it by the Kings’ Peace of 387 B. C., but only to fall before Thebes sixteen years later. Thebes depended solely upon her great warrior-statesman, Epaminondas. His death in battle, in 362 B. C., meant the downfall of the Theban supremacy, and at the birth of Alexander the Great in 356 B. C. the claim could be made that what the Greeks had sought for two hundred years had now been accomplished: all the European Greek cities, great and small, were again free as they had been in the seventh century. In reality, as Plutarch’s biography of Demosthenes〖H. C., xii, 191.〗 shows, they lived rent by factional struggles, in constant fear and envy of one another, and under the shadow of a great peril which union, not disunion, could alone avert.

All Directories