How Did That Lack of a Central State Work Out for the Greeks?


"The members of the Delphian Federation took an oath neither to destroy to the ground the city of a member polis when they fought among themselves, nor to cut off the water supply in war or peace... Such stipulations… however, should not be optimistically understood as the important beginnings of international organization. It is obviously out of keeping with elementary facts of Greek history if we interpret an agreement between small neighboring cities of the same stock and civilization not to exterminate each other in dispute over an acre of land as a great achievement in international law. There is no cause for enthusiasm when closely related cities agreed to leave a few houses standing and to stop slaughtering when half the population is killed. It is, on the contrary, cause for astonishment that such rules were about the best that could be achieved in the direction of national unification. The federations must be seen against the background of the death struggle that was permanently going on amongst the poleis." -- Eric Voegelin, Order and History: The World of the Polis, p. 123

18 comments:

  1. Alright, for a while. That is, until Athens or Sparta started acting the part of the imperial master over their respective confederacies, then you end up with things like the Social War. Eventually those Greek city-states that were loosing many of their traditional rights under either Athenian or Spartan centralization rebelled. It ended badly for both the Athenian and Spartan attempts.

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    1. "Alright, for a while."

      Well, if you consider "death struggles" to be "alright," that is.

      "That is, until Athens or Sparta started acting the part of the imperial master over their respective confederacies..."

      Voegelin is talking about a period well before that. Again, IF you consider ongoing "death struggles" to be alright, then what can I say?

      Now I agree, the situation where you ALMOST have a central state (Athens versus Sparta) is pretty bad.

      But then came Macedon. How many death struggles between Greek cities have you heard about in the last 2300 years?

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    2. Wouldn't this argument ultimately say that a one world government/state is best? Since such a government would put an end to fighting between different nation states?

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    3. @HE
      I think it only works when the central govt corresponds to an entity that people can fell allegiance too without it being narrowly based. Now other such things have been tried, race or religion, with disastrous results. The nation state though seems to have some success. If people can be loyal to it while it can accommodate new and changing groups then we have an it that might work. So far nation states are the best candidates, and they form organically. france yes yugoslavia no. So I don't think your inference from nation state to one world govt follows.

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    4. I understand your point. It would work in Greece in the classical period, because Greece was already a nation prior to Macedonian or Roman conquest, even if the nation was not centrally ruled.

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  2. The death struggle only worsened when they did approach having a central state. The Athenian hegemony over the Delian League that arose after the Persian Wars is what precipitated the suicidal, large-bloc, pan-Hellenic Peloponnesian War, which dwarfed the accumulated impact of the petty city-to-city wars that preceded it.

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  3. "The Athenian hegemony over the Delian League that arose after the Persian Wars is what precipitated the suicidal, large-bloc, pan-Hellenic Peloponnesian War, which dwarfed the accumulated impact of the petty city-to-city wars that preceded it."

    Well, may it dwarfed it: I'd like to see some stats. But, see the above:

    Now I agree, the situation where you ALMOST have a central state (Athens versus Sparta) is pretty bad.

    But then came Macedon. How many death struggles between Greek cities have you heard about in the last 2300 years?

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    1. Again, it became a matter of huge empires and blocs clashing, instead of petty wars between city-states. The Macedonian, Ptolemaic, and Seleucid empires, and the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues, each of which contained many city-states, all massacring each other. And then Rome came, centralizing things further, enslaving innumerable Greeks, and taxing the rest into poverty and cultural regression.

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    2. "Again, it became a matter of huge empires and blocs clashing, instead of petty wars between city-states."

      Yes, but here there is no doubt anymore: death tolls from violence decreased with the onset of larger states.

      This makes a lot of sense: the fighting is on the margin between organized societies, and this made for fewer margins.

      As far as the rest of the post: yes, civilizations rise and fall. Do you really think "THE STATE" is the cause of that?!

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    3. By the way, you've never heard of the PAX ROMANA, Daniel?

      Things are never perfect, but Rome gave the Mediterranean 200 years of peace like it had never known before, with a flourishing high culture.

      Yes, I know, some bad things still happened. As I am not a utopian, I still see one of the best periods of ancient history.

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    4. Rome did become relatively less ravenous after it transitioned from a Republic to a Principate. But as Rousseau said, "There is peace in dungeons." And as Tacitus had Calgacus say, "To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wasteland and call it peace."

      Rome was a parasite city, living off of the wealth of the old cities of the east (yes, you can fund a lot of leisure for poets and orators when you do that), and failing to really advance western Europe. It was the high Middle Ages, a time of political polycentrism, when, not only chattel slavery was almost eliminated, but the vast wastelands of Europe became really agriculturally cultivated and urbanized.

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    5. I have always placed a high value on Pax Romana. This is unfashionable I know. The Romans were nasty people in many ways; St Augustine's diagnosis of them is spot on (they suffered from lustrum dominum). They were brutal. But they brought peace and they kept it pretty well.

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    6. "The Hellenistic period or Hellenistic civilization is the period of ancient Greek history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of ancient Rome as signified by the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 B.C. During this time, Greek cultural influence and power was at its zenith in Europe and Asia, experiencing prosperity and progress in the arts, exploration, literature, theatre, architecture, music, mathematics, philosophy and science." -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellenistic_period

      "It was the high Middle Ages, a time of political polycentrism..."

      When warfare was so bad they had to try to institute the Peace of God? Those Middle Ages?

      Daniel, these comments are really jokes, as I note in my latest post: you keep pointing out that, however much better things were, they weren't perfect!

      Who could believe it? The Kingdom of Heaven did not reign on earth?

      I've laughed enough for today: please stop!

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    7. Daniel James Sanchez needs to read the recent summary by Ward-Perkins. Or consider that the Roman empire had an eastern half that outlived the western half. And comprehended just those warring city states Gene mentions.

      Rome was absolutley extractive, but that does not mean it made the mediteranean world poorer. Peace and trade. Insert Monty Python Life of Brian link here.

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    8. No, I'm not pointing out that things were imperfect, but that they were worse.

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    9. To someone who can ignore facts in that way, there is simply nothing left to say except, "Adios!"

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  4. Why aren't you approving my perfectly civil response to your 9:32 AM comment?

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    1. Hi Daniel.

      There was, indeed, nothing uncivil about your comment. But at a certain point it becomes obvious that there is nothing to be gained by continuing a discussion. At that point I try to stop!

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