In the ninth and final lecture of Hillsdale College’s course on the histories of Athens and Sparta, which you can follow along with me here, Victor Davis Hanson, a history fellow at the college, explains the downfall of ancient Athens.
When Athens fell at the hands of the Spartans at the conclusion of the 27-year Peloponnesian War, other cities rejoiced because of the city’s brutal reputation. Athens could no longer oppress Thebes or the Island of Lesbos, so the people of these cities celebrated Athens’s demise in 404 B.C.
But this was not the end of Athens. The city would rebuild itself again to become greater than ever before.
How Athens Picked Up The Pieces
Through their victory in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans amassed a large empire it struggled to control. (You can read more about the Spartans after the war and the city’s eventual collapse here.) With the Spartans’ attention on ruling varying states and cities within Greece, the Athenians were able to rebuild their city. They restored the farmlands and their homes after they were destroyed throughout the war. They also still had much of their infrastructure intact — mines, quarries, etc. — which enabled them to create wealth and eventually restore their fleet of ships.
The Athenians restored their democratic system of government by overturning the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and reestablishing democratic courts once again. Almost immediately after democracy was restored, the Athenians voted to execute Socrates, marking a very different time in Athens’ history. During this time, Athens paid its citizens to serve on juries, go to the theater, and to vote. These measures empowered the poorest citizens of Athens, but ultimately bankrupted the city.
Athens’ massive welfare to its citizens affected how they thought of themselves and of money and wealth. Athenians would tattle on one another for failing to report and pay taxes on income, while others reported fellow Athenians for seeking aid under false pretenses. Many Athenians would become increasingly dependent upon the state financially and this impacted the way they viewed wealth — as a finite resource to be forcibly redistributed, rather than something that can be created and that can increase.
Athenians Lose Their Cultural Identity
Because of the massive amount of money Athens paid out to its citizens, the Athenians were reluctant to go to war or to invest in their military. Every amount spent paying a rower’s salary or restoring a ship is an amount that cannot be spent on theater tickets or some other frivolous activity.
During the same time period, the Athenians grew intellectually systematic, categorizing knowledge and ideas. Sculpture changed as well. Athenian artists in this period of time viewed their work as something that ought to perfectly recreate reality as it exists. A century before, Athenian artists viewed their work as something that ought to represent an ideal. Rhetoric in Athens in 400 B.C. began to become a flashier skill. Bigger words and a more demonstrative presentation were emphasized above simplicity and substance.
Around this time, Philip II of Macedon was amassing power and becoming a significant threat to Athens. Several prudent Athenians in the assembly, particularly Demosthenes, tried to warn their countrymen that the city would soon be under attack. He argued they should build more naval warships and invest in their army to protect themselves. The Athenians, however, were not interested in investing in their military at the expense of subsidizing the theater or other frivolous things.
At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., Philip II defeated the Athenians and the Spartans, thus marking the end of freedom in Greece. Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, ruled Greece with an iron fist and conquered much of the known world at the time. Their leadership in battle and as rulers was devoid of morality and social norms, which effectively ended intellectual life in the Western World — that is, until Rome emerged as a powerhouse centuries later.