Lessons From The Past: The Spartan-Athenian Rivalry


     Preoccupied as we often are with current events, we run the risk of forgetting some of history's most important lessons.  In particular, on the few occasions when we do turn our gaze backwards in an effort to make sense of the nuclear arms race, we rarely look farther than the scientific breakthroughs and political events which led to the Alamogordo test of July 16, 1945.  To be sure, the recent past is more relevant to understanding the present and predicting the future than the remote past.  To be sure too, nuclear weapons have had a momentous impact on modern events and their arrival on the world's stage has permanently altered the course of human history.  Nonetheless, an exploration of the remote past can still yield some lessons for contemporary diplomacy and politics. 


     Long ago, I was fascinated with Greek history and culture.  Years later, I became familiar with some aspects of twentieth century history.  Like many others, I soon noticed some striking parallels between, on the one hand, the Spartan‑Athenian antagonism in the ancient world, and, on the other hand, Soviet‑American antagonism in the contemporary world.  As far as I am aware, although this resemblance is widely acknowledged, many of its features have not received sufficient attention from contemporary scholarships.  This paper highlights few parallels, as well as a few lessons that can be drawn from them by the world's public and policy makers.1


     The conflict between the two leading states of ancient Greece spans the period which begins, roughly, in 478, B.C. (the date of the successful conclusion of the defense of most of the Greek world against Persian invasion), to 322, B.C. (when both Greek States, and most of the Greek world, fell under the dominion of the semi‑Greek monarchy of Macedonia).  This conflict developed after both Sparta and Athens, in combination with other Greek states, formed a grand alliance and successfully defeated a series of unprovoked Persian invasions of the Greek peninsula.  Likewise, the conflict between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. assumed perilous proportions when their grand alliance defeated the imperialistic designs of the Axis powers.  In either case, victory, which made it possible for a higher form of civilization to persist, was followed by a bitter Cold War between the erstwhile allies.


     If we disregard the plight of slaves and women, which was despicable in both ancient states, we can characterize Athens throughout most of this period as a genuine democracy.  Because of its small size, the greater interest shown by its citizens in politics, the far simpler political issues of those days, and the direct involvement of most Athenians in the governance of their state (especially through the assembly and courts of law), Athens could lay claim, in some ways, to have been the most genuine democracy that ever existed on earth.  This, however, was offset by lesser regard for civil liberties, by more pronounced class distinctions, by a lesser degree of upward mobility, by slavery, and by discrimination against women.  Despite some earlier attempts to overthrow the democracy, by the beginning of the fourth century it appeared stable and secure.  By the middle of the fifth century, its internal enemies were apparently too weak to bring its downfall without foreign aid or intervention.  It took defeat in war with Macedonia, followed by a Macedonian ultimatum (322 B.C.), to bring Athenian democracy to an end.


     Athens was a great commercial center.  For a long time, its navy was the most powerful in Greece.  As her democratic institutions, commercial strength, and naval power grew, Athens gradually turned into one of the greatest cultural center the world has ever seen.  It produced a great number of accomplished individuals, and attracted, at least for a time, outstanding intellectuals and artists from all corners of the Greek world.


     By and large, internal disputes (with a few notable exceptions like a brief Spartan‑created oligarchical reign of terror), were resolved peacefully through moderation, progressive expansion of civil rights and the political franchise, and gradual reforms.  For instance, at one point in Athenian history enslavement of citizens who failed to pay debts was prohibited by law; later, welfare payments to the poor became the law and practice of the land.  After the democracy became fully established, a few Athenians might have given some thought to religious heterodoxy, the abolition of slavery, more rights for women, and cosmopolitanism.  Throughout this period, individualism was on the rise.


     Unlike many other Greek states, but like Athens, Sparta enjoyed political stability.  Also like the Athenians, Spartans considered themselves as free men.  Here, however, the similarity ends.  Although the Spartan constitution contained some democratic and oligarchic elements, it can be best characterized as totalitarian.  To keep his country secure from its many internal and external enemies, a Spartan's body and mind were ruthlessly manipulated.  For example, Spartans were not allowed to travel abroad and foreigners were not allowed to visit their state, except on official business.  As a result of these marked collectivist tendencies, in the period that concerns us there were few cultural achievements to speak of in Sparta.  Nothing in fact of what the world had come to associate with the Greek Genius had come from that corner of the Greek world:  the extant record tells us about scores of Spartan politicians and generals, but nothing about Spartan philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, or sculptors.


     On land, Spartan armies were the best in Greece; for a time they appeared invincible to other Greeks.  During their conflict with the Athenians, Spartans have temporarily developed sea power, but they never became a true naval power nor acquired their democratic rival's finesse at sea.  They were an agrarian people, uninterested in commerce.  A naive reading of Sparta's constitution led some historians to suggest that Spartans practiced economic egalitarianism, but this view is altogether mistaken.  In fact, in the fourth century, B.C., economic inequalities cost many citizens their political franchise.  Thus, while the effective population of citizens who enjoyed the full political franchise and who had a stake in the survival of Athenian democracy grew, in Sparta it declined to perilous proportions.  This decline contributed to the emergence by 362 B.C. of Athens as the far stronger of the two, and to the fact that Athens was the only one among the older states of Greece which could possibly check Macedonian imperialism. 


     Spartan anti‑individualism, caution, and extreme conservatism were legendary.  Full citizens were a small minority, making up something like 1% of the Greek population in their state.  They were much hated by the remaining 99%, who talked about them, according to one Spartan rebel, as if they "could eat them raw."2a  But the privileged few were able to retain their position, thereby contributing to their country's decline from power, through a capable system of secret police, propaganda, and indoctrination.  It was clear in the fourth century that their state could be saved only through social reforms.  But, one historian tells us, "there was something in the Spartan air which made a peer rarely capable of disloyalty to the privileges of his own class."2b


     The similarities in all this of Athens to America and Sparta to Russia are too obvious, and have been often enough commented upon, to require elaboration.  This parallelism also involves many details, of which three more examples will be cited here. 


     A historian of Ancient Greece, writing in 1900, remarks that "few sights are stranger" than the spectacle of some Athenian intellectuals and first‑rate thinkers "turning their eyes from their own free country to regard with admiration the constitution of Sparta," where a free thinker "would not have been suffered so much as to open his mouth."2c  Throughout this century we have grown accustomed to the same phenomenon in our midst too.  Until German defeat, both Nazi and Soviet collectivist systems had their followers.  Both are scarcely as popular now as they have been some fifty years ago, yet some of us still point to some past or present authoritarian state, or some tried and untried collectivist ideology, as a beacon of peace, justice, and survival.


     Another interesting parallel concerns Athens' dependence, before its fall, on paid mercenaries to fight its wars.  In America this process is only in its beginnings.  Moreover, in the nuclear age this development could have greater bearing on internal security and the preservation of freedom than on external wars.  But it is clear that the first stage in this process is already well under way:  like the Athenians before their fall, Americans no longer depend on unpaid citizen‑soldiers to fight their wars.


     Another parallel concerns the extraordinary impact of money on Athenian and American politics.  Almost every Greek politician was corruptible, and the outcome of many a battle was not determined by military might or strategy, but by access to money and by strategic bribery of key Greek officials.  Similarly, it is widely acknowledged that money plays an important role in determining the course of American diplomacy and of contemporary world history.  As one observer put it:  "to get elected these days, what matters most is not sound judgment or personal integrity or a passion for justice.  What matters most is money.  Lots of money."3  This has also been subjected to quantitative studies which show a "disturbing correlation between . . . campaign contributions and how members of Congress . . . vote in bills important to special interest groups."4  Jokes sometimes capture the essence of our predicament better than dry descriptions, so let us give an American Congressman the last word on the subject:  "business already owns one party and now it has a lease, with option to buy, on the other."5


     The resemblance between the ancient and modern rivalries is, of course, incomplete.  Again, for brevity's sake, only two marked dissimilarities will be noted here.  First, the Spartan establishment succeeded much better than its Soviet counterpart in persuading everyone that its brand of totalitarianism was freedom.  Partially as a result of this, Spartans were, unlike the Soviets, excellent soldiers.  Second, the U.S. had not achieved the cultural eminence, and especially the astounding outpouring of creativity, that characterized Athens.  The Soviets, unlike the Spartans are interested in culture and have made some outstanding contributions to it.  So the American‑Soviet cultural gap is not as wide as the Athenian‑Spartan gap.

     The foreign policies of the two ancient rivals deserve particular attention.  As far as Sparta is concerned, once it subjected or brought under its influence its immediate neighbors, it did not seem to harbor further expansionary or imperialistic designs.  Sparta did not try to unify Greece under its rule; its policy was chiefly directed at preventing any other state from doing so.  This policy succeeded for centuries but eventually backfired: at the end Sparta did not fall under the dominion of its old Athenian adversary but under the Macedonian, and then the Roman, dark horses.  Most likely, if given a choice, the typical fifth‑century privileged Spartan would have preferred Athenian rule to this fate.


     Spartan foreign policies were notoriously parochial.  In foreign states in whose internal politics the Spartans had a say, Spartans "took care that they should be governed by oligarchies in the exclusive interest of Sparta."6a  These oligarchies, which were hated by the majority of the people in the states where they had been set up, were often supported by a Spartan garrison.  Often these oligarchies, e.g., the oligarchies Sparta set up in Athens in 404 B.C. and in Thebes in 382 B.C., were extremely ruthless and bloodthirsty.  This, however, did not seem to bother Spartans much, as long as foreigners were governed in Sparta's "exclusive interest."  

      In short, Sparta's chief claim to fame is of a negative sort:  as long as its military strength lasted, it prevented the unification of Greece and kept a great number of Greeks dispossessed, miserable, or in chains.  It deserves mention not because it made great contributions to humankind, but because it managed, through its military power, to prevent others from making as large a contribution as they could; thereby, in all likelihood, arresting the progress of civilization.  With the possible exception of Soviet expansionist tendencies (I cannot go into this controversial issue here), all this is reminiscent of Soviet foreign policies.


     But our chief interest is in the foreign policy of Athens, our ancient predecessor.  Possibly, Greek states considered themselves as more separate and distinct from each other than modern nations consider themselves today.  But in the face of the Persian invasion they have managed to achieve a limited degree of unity.  During the Persian wars, Sparta was in the leading position.  Still, perhaps owing to its geographical position, Athens made greater contributions and sacrifices to the common effort.


     After the war, Spartan high‑handed treatment of its erstwhile allies, and the still present Persian threat, prompted some Greek states to enter into a voluntary league with Athens.  This league, as well as the continued growth of Athenian democracy, commercialism, and naval power, had shifted the Grecian balance of power in favor of Athens.  It caused therefore a great unease among the Spartans and their allies.  This, more than anything else, in the view of the historian Thucydides (who took part in this long war) precipitated the long war between the two city‑states.  So, although their ideologies could hardly be farther apart, the war between Sparta and Athens did not, apparently, break out for ideological reasons.  Rather, it had its roots in balance of power considerations and in mutual fear.  A few incidents actually triggered the outbreak of hostilities and were publicly alleged to have caused the war.  But, Thucydides writes (and most modern historians concur) that "the real though unavowed cause I believe to have been the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedaemonians [=Spartans] and forced them into war."6b  This view is supported by the known facts.  For instance, when the balance of power shifted in favor a third state like Thebes, Sparta and Athens did not hesitate to form an alliance aimed at containing Theban power.   


     The predominance of balance of power considerations among the roots of this ancient conflict lends credence to the following view:  Soviet‑American rivalry can be more accurately ascribed to the terror and suspicions with which each views the other's power and intentions than to conflicting ideologies.  This suggests one lesson from the remote past:  we need not look for the elimination of one or the other social system to achieve peace, but for the elimination of mutual terror and suspicion. 


     In view of the many striking parallels between Athens and America, fundamental differences between them are in themselves instructive.  This point can be illustrated through their dissimilar policies towards democratic and dictatorial parties among their allies. 


     The Spartans supported in their spheres of influence heartless and reactionary dictatorships.  The Athenians in turn supported the people and the democratic parties.  Internal revolutions were a common occurrence, and they often led cities to switch alliances.  As a result, the oligarchic few everywhere favored Sparta and sought its support while the democratic many favored Athens and sought its support.  For example, Thucydides writes about an oligarchic conspiracy in Platea, a small democratic state friendly to Athens, which the Platean people thwarted at great risk to themselves, for they "were strongly attached to the Athenian alliance."6c


     In contrast, some observers believe that America stifles democratic developments in less developed countries like South Korea and El Salvador in an effort to secure her pre‑eminent political and economic position there.7  According to this interpretation, the U.S. often favors the unpopular dictators‑‑whose survival hinges on America's good will toward them‑‑because they are more sympathetic to American security and business interests than either their communist or democratic opponents.  Other observers feel that America's military policies (whose real goal according to them is not deterrence but retaining a meaningful edge over the Soviet Union) are aimed at discouraging Russian interference in the affairs of America's Third World dictatorial clients.8 


     Even if we accept this characterization of American foreign and military policies, it still goes without saying that Athenian behavior does not prove the folly of America's choice (if only because the present is not a mere repetition of the past).  All the same, this putative divergence between Athenian and American policies makes one wonder:  Could the long‑term strategic and commercial interests of the American people be improved by emulating their Athenian forerunners' consistent preference for democratic parties among their allies? 


     Another interesting parallel between Athenian and American foreign policies concerns their alleged imperialistic tendencies.  The subject of both Athenian and American imperialism is hotly disputed; I am not in a position here to conclusively settle either controversy.  As far as Athens is concerned, it seems true that the Athenian confederacy was turned into an empire of sorts, that member states were not allowed to secede, and that attempts of secession were crushed, sometimes with chilling cruelty.  What is not entirely clear is whether attempts to secede were always initiated by oligarchic takeovers and foreign meddlings in the rebellious states' affairs, or whether such attempts enjoyed at times the genuine support of the democratic majority.  Most historians would still agree, I think, that what had started as a voluntary confederacy did gradually turn into what can, perhaps, be called a benign empire.  Athenian rule may have not been harsh, but it was inequitable and was often resented.  Thus, secessions were suppressed by force, strategic decisions were made in Athens alone, and some of the tribute money collected from member states was used for strictly Athenian purposes.  In all this, nationalism, selfishness, and greed undoubtedly played a part:



      Most Athenian citizens were naturally allured by a policy of expansion which made their city great and powerful without exacting heavy sacrifices from themselves.  The day had not yet come when they were unwilling to undertake military service. . . . The empire furthered the extension of their trade, and increased their prosperity.  The average Athenian . . . was not hindered by his own full measure of freedom from being willing to press, with as little scruple as any tyrant, the yoke of his city upon the necks of other communities."1d  


     This view might be on the harsh side, and perhaps unduly influenced by the historian Thucydides who happened to be‑‑besides being the most trustworthy extant writer on this period‑‑an  Athenian aristocrat who had been banished into a long exile by the democracy.6d  But there is little doubt that this characterization is based on reality.  Something like Athenian imperialism most likely existed, although its methods and the extent of its unpopularity are unclear.


      Athenian imperialism had disastrous consequences.  History is too complex and unpredictable to try to fathom what would have happened if Athens had conducted a wiser foreign policy.  But it is just possible that her history, and the history of the world, would have been markedly different.  Instead of conducting an intermittent and indecisive war with Sparta for decades, she might have won.  Instead of losing her freedom to Macedonia in 322 B.C., she might have annexed Macedonia and the rest of Greece, kept the world safe for democracy for centuries (or perhaps even for all time), kept human progress afoot, and thereby forestalled the gradual descent into barbarism and the Dark Ages which overtook the Western world.


      The course which had a chance of giving Athens and the world this brighter prospect would have entailed a farsighted foreign policy.  Instead of exploiting her confederates and treating them as inferior to herself, Athens might have treated them as equals or near‑equals.  Instead of selfishly pursuing her own interests, she might have pursued everyone's interests.  She might even have created some kind of an egalitarian federal union, in which all city states would have retained their internal political structure but would have fully integrated their military and foreign policies.  Such a policy would have required, from a Greek, a great deal of vision and foresight.  Yet some Athenian intellectuals (but not popular politicians or the public) did in fact realize that only greater cooperation among city‑states could bring order and security to Greece. 


      To those who detect similar imperialistic tendencies in American diplomacy,7,8 all this suggests yet another lesson from the remote past:  to survive, we shall be well‑advised not to follow Athens' imperialistic behavior.  For, according to this view, we too have been guilty at times of immorality and foolishness, thereby sadly betraying the causes of freedom and human progress.  We exploit, these observers allege, some nations for our strategic and commercial interests, instead of gaining their respect and allegiance by treating them as equals and by genuinely trying to help them.  We have formed our own confederacy, but have no plans of enlarging it and, by making our subjects as free and prosperous as we are, cementing our friendship.  In the nuclear age, this behavior might cost our species even more than one thousand years of darkness.


      Another parallel between Athenian and American foreign policies concerns the little ability of both nations to learn from their mistakes.  By the year 404 B.C., Athens' imperial folly contributed to her defeat.  Sparta's allies wanted to raze Athens and sell their vanquished foes into slavery.  But Sparta, either because it could not sink so low, or because it won this round of the war thanks to the treachery of some Athenian oligarchs, imposed a bloody and subservient tyranny instead.  The tyrants, however, proved incapable of ruling.  The democrats rebelled, and the tyrants requested Spartan intervention.  A Spartan army was sent to negotiate peace between the contending factions, and, uncharacteristically, made possible, in effect, the full restoration of democracy.  Thus, by the

year 403, though Athens had lost the war and her empire, she was saved from destruction and dictatorial rule.  Athens was given a second chance.


     At the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the strongest nation in Greece, but her pre‑eminent position was not to last.  Although the Athenians offended Greek sensitivities, their imperialism, by all accounts, was fairly benign and competent.  By comparison, Spartan imperialism was ruthless, arrogant, and incompetent.  In 378 B.C., Spartan oppression and the still present Persian menace led to the formation of a second voluntary Athenian confederacy.  This time special precautions had been taken to give Athens' allies greater voice and to prevent the recurrence of past Athenian transgressions.  But the Athenians seemed unable to learn from their own history, and soon reverted to their old, benign but offensive, imperialism.  Unable or unwilling to create a democratic league of nations, they were faced with rebellions and chose, eventually, to altogether give up their unjust and offensive empire.  This parochial imperialistic policy contributed to their eventual downfall and to the demise of democracy. 


     The U.S. seems to share Athens' distaste for learning from the past.  Take, for instance, the nuclear arms race.  The repetitiveness of every nuclear debate, the enormous costs of the modern arms race whose only rationale is not preparation for war but its prevention, the net decline in the national security of both sides, and the steep decline in America's meaningful military edge over Russia and other potential adversaries, strongly suggest that this race is a strikingly irrational enterprise.  Thus, looking back on American refusal to conclude a comprehensive test ban treaty in 1963, our one‑time chief negotiator to the test ban talks in Moscow observed:  "When you stop to think of what the advantages were to us of stopping all testing in the early 1960s when we were still ahead of the Soviets it's really appalling to realize what a missed opportunity we had."9  A similar conclusion was reached in 1977 by a former science advisor to President Eisenhower.  Opponents of the total ban, he said, "concocted elaborate scenarios on the feasibility of clandestine Soviet tests, befogging the central issue that a comprehensive ban would have been to our advantage, in view of our technological lead."10  Similarly, some historians believe that it is precisely our shortsighted policies that drove countries like Cuba into the Soviet orbit. 


     It would seem, then, that there exists a marked resemblance between ancient Greece and the contemporary world.  This resemblance, reaching across twenty‑four centuries of human history, suggests that there are strong, underlying forces which determine the course of human events, and that it will take extraordinary measures to confer greater rationality and humaneness on either Soviet or American international behavior.  And herein lies a final lesson:  If these measures are not taken, if, at the very least, Gorbachev's efforts to create communism with a human face fail, American democracy might come, within the next one hundred years or so, to a close. 







1.   H. D. F. Kitto wryly put forward a similar argument about Athenian democracy:  "Except that it all happened so long ago, and so far away, and in a language which is so very dead, it might almost be worth our while today to pay [Athens' experiment in popular government] some attention."  (The Greeks, 1986 reprinting of the 1957 revised edition; p. 135).


2.   Bury, J. B. A History of Greece (1900).


     a) p. 535 (XII,3). b) p. 536.  c) pp. 581‑2 (XIII,5). 


     d) p. 366 (IX, 5).


3.  Public Citizen (Fall 1983), p. 6.


4.  Public Citizen (Spring 1984), p. 6.


5. Quoted on p. 112 of:  Adams, Gordon.  The Politics of Defense     Contracting (1982).


6.  Thucydides.  The Peloponnesian War (Written in the last quarter of the 5th century B.C.; all quotations are from Benjamin Jowett's translation).


  a) bk I, 19.  b) bk I, 23.  c) bk II, 3.


     d) Thucydides also attributes to Pericles‑‑the foremost political figure in Athens at the early stages of her long war with Sparta‑‑the following admonition to his fellow citizens:  "Do not imagine that you are fighting about a simple issue, freedom or slavery; you have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you."


7.   Gerard Chaliand eloquently expresses this view:  "The Soviet regime is without doubt the bloodiest and most deceptive caricature in modern history, a cruel parody of the ideas that supposedly inspire it. . . . And yet in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, national liberation movements . . . generally find that the  Soviet Union is on their side, while the liberal democracies of the West have almost always during the past three decades been on the side of oppression in the Third World."  See his Report from Afghanistan (1980), pp. 7‑8.


          According to its proponents, this interpretation of American foreign policies emerges from documents of the State Department, from the writings of former State Department officials, and from the writings of the majority of Western scholars.  The interested reader can study in detail American relations with any Third World country, or begin with factual accounts of the following countries.




Stavrianos, L. S.  Greece:  American Intervention and Opportunity (1952).


Wittner, Lawrence, S.  American Intervention in Greece, 1943‑1949 (1982).




Whetten, Nathan L.  Guatemala:  The Land and the People (1961).


Fried, Jonathan L. et al. (eds).  Guatemala in Rebellion (1983).


     Immerman, Richard H.  The CIA in Guatemala (1982).


Blasier, Cole.  The Hovering Giant:  U.S. Responses to Revolutionary Change in Latin America (1976).


     Grieb, Kenneth.  Guatemalan Caudillo, the Regime of Jorge Ubico (1979).


Schlesinger, Stephen and Kinzer, Stephen.  Bitter Fruit (1982).



Organization of American States.  Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Guatemala 1983.


South Vietnam:


There has been a great number of studies on Vietnam.  The best I have come across is Bernard Brodie's brief account in his War and Politics  (1973).  Other accounts of this tragedy can be found in:


Karnow, Stanley.  Vietnam:  A History (1983).


     Lederer, William, J.  Our Own Worst Enemy (1968).


8.   This interpretation can be found in:


     Bottome, Edgar.  1986  The Balance of Terror (2nd edition).

     Malcolmson, Robert W.  1985  Nuclear Fallacies.


Holdren, John P.  The dynamics of the nuclear arms race: history, status, prospects.  In:  Cohen, Avner and Lee, Steven (editors) 1986  Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity, pp. 41‑83.


Rumble, Greville.  1985  The Politics of Nuclear Defence.

Elsberg, Daniel.  Introduction to:  Thompson, E. P. and Smith, Dan (editors)  1981 Protest and Survive, pp. i‑xxviii.


9.  Averell W. Harriman, quoted on p. 242 of:  Seaborg, Glenn T.  Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Test Ban (1981).


10.  George Kistiakowsky quoted on page 63 of:  Neal, Fred W. (ed)  Detente or Debacle (1979). 


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