Ethics & Public Policy Center

Mastering the Master

Published in Commentary magazine, November 2009 on November 1, 2009



The Peloponnesian War is renowned, and notorious, as the most momentous and destructive conflict of the classical Greek world, surpassing the Trojan War memorialized in the works of Homer and the great tragedians, and the war between the Greeks and the Persians celebrated in Herodotus’ History.The principal combatants were the city-states of Athens and Sparta, and their clients, colonies, and friends in the Athenian Empire and the Spartan Alliance. Athens and Sparta represented polar opposites in political structure and civic temperament. Athens was the world’s first great democracy, with every free, native-born Athenian male accorded full citizenship and the right to vote in the assembly, which met at least 40 times a year to propose, debate, and decide political questions, including every crucial wartime matter. Athenians took pride in the liberal tolerance with which they treated each other, and in the bold address with which they dominated everyone else they could. When people speak of classical Greek civilization as a pinnacle of human excellence, they usually mean Athenian politics and culture first and foremost.

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