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Historical Imagination: Siege of Attica & Death of Pericles

On occasion I am asked why I chose to study and teach history. It’s a fair question to which I enjoy responding. Naturally, I have an arsenal of potential responses. But my most authentic response is that I indulge in exercising my imagination.

All  historical eras inspire my imagination; but my recent foray into ancient Greece has kicked my imagination into a higher gear. Though the historical record of modern times is far from complete, the record of ancient Greece is agonizingly incomplete. Curious minds are forced to reconstruct, assume the higher naiveté, and imagine.

Take for instance the siege of Attica in during the Peloponnesian War. Notwithstanding efforts to maintain the 30 Years Peace, King Archidamus led the Spartan charge into Attica. What ensued was almost beyond imagination.

Pericles’ strategy, novel for its time, was to fight a defensive battle for Attica. He knew that Athens was no match for the Spartan military on land. So he, with the consent of the Assembly, ordered all Atticans behind the long walls of Athens. He believed that, “if the Athenians would remain quiet, take care of their [naval] fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail.” (Thucydides 2.65.7) As a Monday morning quarterback (2400 years removed) I will criticize the Periclean strategy in another post.

But first, imagine the Attican farmer taking his last glance at his land before trekking to the walled city. He knew full well that the Spartans would lay his land to waste. His animals would be slaughtered. His vines, which take decades to grow to fruition, would be uprooted. His dwelling and all of the memories that it holds will be razed.

Imagine the thousands of Attican farmers moving en masse into Athens. They set up home anywhere they could. Some slept in temples devoted to lesser Gods. Some slept among strangers. Some slept under the stars. None were under the impression that the siege would be over soon.

Imagine a plague comes and takes the lives of 1/3 to 1/2 of the Athenians behind the walls. Panic sweeps the streets. Demoralized one day and dead the next. Survivors could not even offer a proper burial to the fallen, thereby undermining the single most solemn rite in the Greek religious tradition. Imagine laying your spouse or your child into a mass grave.

Imagine being Pericles, the architect of this suicidal strategy. His only two sons died of this plague.

Pericles’ citizens turned against him. They met in the Assembly and tried to blame him for this nightmare. But his people could not claim ignorance or innocence–they supported his strategy. He told them that any blame belongs to all citizens, that they made decisions together, that they were fighting for their freedom together, that no one should be ashamed, and that the future remains glorious (Thucydides 2.64.6). But to no avail. Pericles was charged and heavily fined on a trumped up charge of embezzlement. Evidently, he still had the respect of the people for he was elected general once again in 429.

Months later Pericles was afflicted with the plague. He lay dying in bed. He mourned his fear that “no one of the Athenians now alive has put on mourning because of me.” (Plutarch 38.4) The greatest man of his era died without male heirs and convinced that he was isolated and despised. Imagine being one the greatest statesmen of all time, the father of the Golden Age of the Classical era, and dying in a pool of guilt, regret, and despair.

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