This week’s Quote of the Fortnight dives once again into the classics – this week we refer to Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, the history of the ultimate war between the imperial democracy of Athens and the orthodox oligarchy of Sparta. Referred to as the seminal text in military history, the story chronicles the numerous diplomatic errors, police actions, and imperial tensions between the two city-states and their allies. An ancient analogue to the Cold War, Athens’ downfall is told to the utmost accuracy according to Thucydides; he admits he dramatizes and fictionalizes the speeches of the main political figures. One instance in this epic retelling is Thucydides’ speculation of the different interpretations of the future ruins of Athens and Sparta – and his prediction turns out to be prescient.
“Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies and frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation.
If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is.”
Thucydides, 1.10, History of the Peloponnesian War
As Thucydides predicted, Sparta no longer exists – it is all ruins now, while Athens persists as the capital of the modern Greek state and the cultural foundation of Western civilization. It is hard to believe Sparta was once so powerful, while the ruins of Athens continue to fascinate, inspire the romanticization of their empire based on their ambitious urban design.