Justice in the Peloponnesian War

The Oxford dictionary of English language defines being just as 1. accordance with what is right; 2. reasonable, based on reasonable grounds. Which brings us to probably the most critical question: Was it a just war? Determining that is probably the hardest to do. To try to establish if the war was just it is necessary to look at the reasons given for starting it, the ones stated by the two sides as well as the ones present in the background, were they the right reasons.

It is also necessary to look at the expectations of the result, were these expectations reasonable. Thucydides claim that “Men’s sympathies for the most part went with the Lacedaemonians. ” is an interesting one to observe since it was not the cities that were held in the Delian League against their will that applied to Sparta for support against Athens but representatives of the Peloponnesian League lead by Corinth. If the statement was true why where they not there asking for assistance?

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In additions to this it also reasonable to question that statement based on the length of the war, and the opposition that was encountered. Woodruff points out in his introduction that Athens by supporting the democrats in these cities had in fact loyalty from at least part of the citizens, as well that Spartans when reaching some of those cities where received with little enthusiasm. We can see this in the case of Acanthus when Sparta has to threaten with the destruction of the city and the crops for the city to agree to liberation.

Woodruff also points out that Athens kept the Aegean see free of pirates, and the Persians at bay. So it can be argued that by most it was not considered oppressive or at least it was better than the alternative. And the payment to Athens was perceived as we today perceive the federal tax, as bothersome, expensive but mostly necessary. This does not negate the fact that some of the cities did want to leave the League, and were forcefully stopped like Thasos or Mytilene.

Nor does it negate that the Delian League had become the Athenian empire, and that many hoped for the Spartans to prevail. Thucydides himself gives us the reasons “Men’s sympathies for the most part went with the Lacedaemonians, especially because they gave out that they would recover the Greek’s liberty… That is how angry most people where against Athenians, some out of desire to be set free from the empire, and others for fear of falling under it. “(37)

The causes for war that are brought up at the Debate at Sparta are the occupation of Potidaea, support of Corcyra, the commercial ban on Megara and the violation of autonomy on Aegina. Since the goal of Corinth and the allies had been to show that Athens had broken the Thirty Years’ Peace Treaty, I will attempt to analyze these points to see whether an injustice and a breach of treaty was really committed by Athens, or Corinth was just asking for Sparta to get involved in a fight when Corinth was unsuccessful to bring around the outcome it wanted on it’s own.

From Pericle’s War Speech we can ascertain that with the Thirty Years’ Peace Sparta and Athens agreed to respect each others thus occupied territory and the allies it had. “We agreed in the Thirty Years’ peace to refer our differences to mutual arbitration, while each party kept what it had in the meanwhile. “(32), “It listed the allies on both sides and barred each side from recruiting the other’s allies. “(16) In that case the Athenian occupation of Potidaea is not a breach of treaty on the Athenian side since Potidaea had been a part of the Athenian empire. Potidaea was a Corinthian colony that had been part of the Athenian empire, but had rebelled against Athens (with Corinthian help) and been put under siege by Athens. “(16). So we can look at this as an internal Athenian problem at best and the interference of a member of the Peloponnesian League in Athens affairs at worst. Maybe in this case Athens should have applied to Sparta for an injustice done by Corinth in inciting rebellion and recruiting Potidaea to the Peloponnesian League.

The situation with Corcyra was not brought up again when the Lacedaemonians sent a delegation to Athens with the conditions for peace (31), so I will disregard it for this analysis since in the end it was not listed as one of the infringements to the Treaty by Athens and “in fact Corinth was the aggressor in her quarrel with Corcyra, and Athens had merely responded to calls for help against Corinth. “(18).

Pericle’s states in his war speech that there is nothing in the treaty that prevents them from blocking commerce with Megara “We will give the Megarians the use of our market and ports if the Lacedaemonians will cancel their policy of expelling us and our allies as aliens (since nothing in the treaty blocks either our current policy or theirs)”(35). And this point seems to be the one where the argument of “injustice done” can be lest used, since Athens has the right to decide whom it will do commerce with, for itself and its empire.

We can paraphrase the Thebans in there speech at Plataea and say that perhaps the Athenians where a trifle rude and inconsiderate with this policy however they did not commit an injustice. And the Megarians where obviously welcome to conduct commerce with the cities of the Peloponnesian League. This brings me to the last of the four issues, setting Aegina free. In this case Athens seems to be in violation of the treaty “the island of Aegina complained that Athens had violated her autonomy (which had been guaranteed in the treaty)”(17).

As Woodruff mentions “We do not know precisely what kind sort of autonomy had been promised the Aegenitans earlier, or how it had been infringed”(16). So without additional information available and with those two statements I have to conclude that Athens did in this case violate the treaty. Therefore we can see on the bases of the points brought up, that the Treaty has been broken twice, once on each side.

Corinth on the side of the Peloponnesian League broke the treaty by aiding the revolt in Potidaea and attempting to recruit it to the Peloponnesian League and Athens in the case of the island of Aegina by violating it’s autonomy guaranteed by the Treaty. However whether the treaty had been broken once, twice, by one side or by both is not the most important issue. The Treaty itself provided for such a situations by “specifying that future disagreements will be settled by arbitration. “(16) It cannot be then “just” to start a war by claiming that the Treaty is not binding since it has been broken.

Any deviation from the Treaty in that case can be considered a breach of the Treaty and thus making it non binding. The real and only valid point for a breach of the Treaty could be made if the parties could not come to an agreement in arbitration and thus making the Treaty invalid by exhausting all other avenues. After examining the points brought up by the Corinthians and the speech of Sthenelaidas “This issue is not to be settled by arbitration or speeches, since the damage is not being done in speech; no, this calls for swift punishment with all out strength. (29) as opposed to the Athenian ambassadors call for arbitration “So while it’s till possible for both sides to use good judgment, we ask you not to dissolve the treaty or break your oaths, but to submit our differences to arbitration according to the agreement. “(25) and again later by Pericles in his war speech “we would like to go to go to arbitration in accordance with the treaty. “(35) we then must deduce that Sparta was not justified in initiating the war against Athens based on the breech of the Treaty.

However as I have noted earlier the breech of the Treaty was not the most important issue to be considered, an would have probably on it’s own gone to arbitration, or remained a local conflict. I must agree with Thucydides when he lists all the previously mentioned points as just the explanations given to the public and states the real reason for war as follows “I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war. (16) And it is with this in mind that we must look at the war and see if it was a just. It is difficult to judge from today’s perspective since today’s views of subjugation, slavery and freedom are different. In essence the question that I keep coming to is: What was the difference between the Athenian empire and the Spartan subjugation of the original inhabitants of Peloponnesus? Why would one be just and the other one not? An argument can be made that Athens in fact had a more just society for the times.

If we assume that the Delian League became the Athenian empire and compare it as such to Sparta then the subjugated people of the Athenian empire were obliged to Athens and might have not been full Athenian citizens but were citizens of their own local cities as compared to the helots at Sparta who where the people Spartans subjugated and had no rights. Considering that the so-called liberators of Greeks where willing to conquer, enslave and kill the same people they where trying to liberate (Brasidas 99), it is hard to believe that Sparta was really concerned with the quality of life of it’s fellow Greeks.

I am more inclined to see them as worried about the quality and continuity of their own way of life. The members of the Peloponnesian League were more concerned by preserving the status quo of Greek life, their units of state defined by the City State and not by an empire that Athens was turning into and if not stopped was territorially going to unify over time, as well as expand. We can clearly see from the speech of the Corinthians at Sparta that one of the major concerns for them is the difference of the Athenians and their embrace of the new. We don’t think you have thought what sort of people these Athenians are: your struggle will be with people totally different from yourselves. They love innovation, and are quick to invent a plan and then to carry it out in action, while you are good only for keeping things as they are, and you never invent anything”(19) We must see the justification of Sparta in going to war since it was attempting to preserve its way of life and it sovereignty and felt threatened by Athens and what it might do in the future. We also must see the justification of Athens in trying to maintain its way of life and the benefits it derived from it.

Without the new outlook of Athens would what we call Western civilization develop as it did. Would we have the teachings of Socrates, Plato, democracy and all the foundations on which later philosophies and cultures have built on. Whether human nature is for the week to be held down by the more powerful of if human nature is for people to be cooperative and considerate to each other, I cannot say, history has shown us both are present and possible. However history has also show us that it is definitely human nature to strive for change, to push the boundaries of the old and look for the new.

Without that basic element of human nature we would not have had progress, and maybe it can be said that this is what defines us as human. Was the war just? We have already established that it was not brought around by what was right and that the Treaty was not supposed to have been broken. We can also conclude that it was not reasonable to expect that the war will preserve the old way of life in Greece, and prevent change. The irony is that whether they were justified or not the old Greek way of life came to an end less then a century later with Alexander the Great and his empire. 1