Friday, July 1, 2011


I had to get this since I enjoyed Harl's other Teaching Company course (Rome and the Barbarians) so much. This lecture series is a bit shorter (24 lectures) and not as complex, nor as hard to follow. Harl's true expertise is in the Roman Empire and so in this series he is not quite as passionate or opinionated, and these lectures are generally less dense than those on Rome. Of course, Harl's lectures can get overly dense and his opinions often carry him on long digressions, so these aren't necessarily negatives. And where his thinking about Rome represents a highly distinctive view of history, these lectures stay pretty close to the typical presentation of Greek history. It is a relatively straightforward trip through the long struggle between Sparta and Athens, though Harl's perspective is, I think, colored by his Roman expertise. His views on the of nature of classical empire and the nature of Mediterranean power come from the Romans, making him more comfortable with the hard facts of empire, and causing him to emphasize the Spartan and Athenian relationships with allies more than their internal histories and cultures. He sees the war as a struggle between two ideas of how to manage the Greek world, treating Athenian democracy and Spartan traditionalism as something like two political positions that were present in varying degrees in all city-states throughout Greece.

Because he is so accepting of the fact empire, he feels no need to make excuses for that of Athens. He does not see the empire as a betrayal of Athens' democratic ideal. Instead he sees the golden age of Pericles and Sophocles and Socrates and Euripides as a product of certain military and imperial developments. The great festivals of fifth century Athens and the great fortunes that sponsored the great tragedians came, after all, from the empire. But more than that, Harl argues that the development of the Athenian navy, with its reliance of massive numbers of rowers performing identical tasks, led to a notion of equality that was integral to Athenian identity. The development of the trireme, which would dominate Mediterannean warfare even through the Punic Wars, is therefore the crucial technological innovation of the age, both for its effects on battle and on politics. Military participation and the social importance that came with it had been limited to the hoplite class that had to pay for its own armor and training. With the trireme this importance was spread to a huge class of people, making the trireme and its team of democratic rowers are the perfect symbol of Ancient Greece. (Just as, perhaps, the modern yacht, with its insanely wealthy owner motoring away from the revolting masses, is the perfect symbol of modern Greece.)

Harl's take on ancient Sparta is perhaps more interesting, or at least more surprising. He tries to get past both the silly glorifications of Sparta, seen in films such as The 300, and the rather condescending views of ancient Athenians, with their attitude of intellectual superiority, that has been passed down over the centuries. In this view Athens is a wise and freedom-loving democracy powered by a democratic navy while Sparta is an oppressive kingdom that rigidly controlled  its citizens and even more rigidly controlled its helot population. Centuries later this attitude hardend into the British glorification of its own navy and dismissal of certain land-based powers, most notably Germany. Harl argues that this attitude is obviously colored by later nationalisms, and further, that is is not even remotely accurate. Athenian armies were quite impressive and respected throughout Greece, and it was at with a navy that Sparta ultimately defeated Athens in the War. Harl tries to describe the people of Sparta as something like a ruling elite of the Peloponnesus, contrasting the Athenians who functioned as a ruling elite of Ionia.

Harl goes on to describe the main events of the War in detail, from the Ionian revolt against Persia down to the Athenian defeat. he follows Thucydides' account closely but trying to identify his biases. Thucydides is a proud Athenian, for one thing, and he is also not a fan of rowdy Athenian democracy after the death of Pericles, and these must be taken into consideration. Harl treats the developments leading up to the war as a series of diplomatic incidents, of alliance obligations and various city-states trying to deal with their respective colonies. He argues that the significance of Athens' heavy-handed treatment of Megara--a city that lay at the land bridge connecting Athens to Sparta--has been underappreciated by historians as a cause of the war, partly because of a desire to protect the great Pericles from any negative press, and partly because of a desire to make the origins of the War analogous to future crises, such as World War I.  Harl gives a pretty detailed treatment of the battles and expeditions and at all times while trying to show the interplay of the various political forces, not simply of Athens against Sparta, but the factions within each side, as well as the factions within the allies.

Athens, for instance, mismanaged its expedition into faraway Syracuse in the midst of the war due to squabbling among the upper class. This squabbling led to a temporary end of Athenian democracy, and even contributed to the furor that was behind Socrates' execution. Nor was Spartan political power so simple. It was largely poor management of its own colonies that allowed Athens to become an imperial power in the first place, and it was Sparta who appealed to Persia for the financial help that enabled it to ultimately defeat Athens.

I can't say this course is as valuable as Harl's Rome and the Barbarians. That course was somehow bigger than its subject matter, an exploration of how ancient cultures and economies and empires functioned and of historical archaeology and interpretation, while this one is only as valuable as  a history of the Peloponnesian War--still pretty high. The events of the war have become Exhibit A for political scientists--Harl frequently refers to the ideas of George Grote and Donald Kagan, both of whom have written books on the subject--and the style of Thucydides has served that function for many historians. Combine that history with a scholar as interesting as Harl and you get something worth listening to.

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