(Adapted from a map by Pinpin.)

After a war is lost, the losers must decide among themselves who was most to blame and who was simply a victim of circumstance. But the converse is also true: after a war is won, the victors must decide among themselves who has earned the biggest share of the glory and who could have done more for the cause. Greece was no exception to this rule as it looked about itself dazedly in 479 BC, still trying to understand how its improbable deliverance had come about. The Persian War became Greece’s collective crucible of character. For many years to come, “What did you do in the war?” would be the question on every tongue, to be asked of individual men and cities alike. The answer could be a source of either the greatest pride or the most abject shame.

The actions of Delphi were scrutinized as closely as those of any other city. In these increasingly skeptical times, when some were beginning to look upon the old beliefs with a decidedly jaundiced eye, there were insinuations made about the lack of confidence in the oracle’s countrymen which many of her prophecies had conveyed before the war; there were whispers that Delphi’s supposed divine rescue from Mardonius’s army was, at best, a distortion of the full truth; there was talk of secret deals and dishonorable transactions meant to preserve Delphi’s special status after a Greek defeat.

Yet most Greeks proved willing to give Delphi and its oracle the benefit of the doubt. For, as a new sense of shared Greekness swept the land in the wake of the great victory, Delphi remained in some ineffable sense the seat of Greek consciousness. The living soul of Greece still burned there.

Accordingly, the oracle ordered every other city in the land to extinguish the fires that burned in its temples and sacred spaces, saying that all of them had been polluted by the barbarian invaders. Then she ordered the fires relighted using torches kindled at her own temple’s sacred flame. One zealous soul from the city of Plataea ran from Delphi to his home in a single day in order to make Plataea’s temple of Artemis the first site to rekindle its flame. He dropped dead upon his arrival, whereupon he was buried with reverence in the temple itself.

The oracle discarded the timidity that had marked her tenure prior to the war and leaned into her power with abandon. Apparently forgetting about her own gloomy prewar prophecies, she ordered that every city in Greece which had surrendered to the Persians, or simply hadn’t given everything it could have to the war effort, should pay a stiff tithe to the god of Delphi by way of repentance for its lack of faith. Part of this money was used to build a grand monument to the heroes of the war on the very terrace of Apollo’s temple. It took the form of a statue of the god almost as tall as the temple itself, pulverizing a Persian ship with his bare hands. The rest of the money was used for another monumental sculpture: three golden stars on a life-sized ship’s mast of bronze, which took pride of place at the other entrance to the temple, between the offering bowls of Croesus.

But the grandest monument of all was built using the spoils of war which the Persians themselves had left strewn over the landscape behind them as they retreated. Just in front of the temple, there was erected a column soaring higher than any other structure in Delphi. Atop it were mounted three serpents made of gold and bronze, supporting a golden tripod whose distinctive gleam could be seen on the horizon from leagues away on a sunny day. It was Delphi’s crowning glory.

These monuments were unprecedented in that they were the shared project of all of Greece, tangible evidence of a new spirit of fellowship. And yet they were only the beginning of the redoubled frenzy of building which was suddenly going on in the town. Gold and marble poured into Delphi along with craftsmen to work them, as every Greek city — and not a few barbarian ones — attempted to outdo its peers in size and beauty. Delphi received more attention than most of the donor cities’ own central squares. Some cities even started to stamp the façade of the temple of Apollo onto their coins. Delphi had become a united Greece’s de facto capital.

The Pythian Games now assumed an importance and popularity that eclipsed those of the Olympic Games, long their only real rivals. They took place over five days at the end of summer on every fourth year, as they always had, but expanded dramatically in scale and variety. Not only all manner of athletic competition but every form of performance art was on offer, along with grand exhibitions of painting and sculpture. Delicacies from abroad were heaped upon the banquet tables to satisfy the spectators’ appetites, and exotic animals were herded into cages for their amusement. The Games culminated on their final day in the chariot races, the winner of which was guaranteed eternal fame and glory — not least because Pindar of Thebes, the finest poet of his generation, was always on hand to pen an ode in the champion’s honor, placing him almost on an equal footing with the legendary heroes of the Age of Gods.

Nevertheless, this was the Age of Men, and politics were more complicated and more time-consuming than they had been of old, when the gods could be trusted to take an active role in affairs. Thus Delphi buzzed even when neither the Pythian Games nor any of the many smaller festivals were taking place. Its people’s winter retirement to the Corycian Cave became a matter of ceremony only, for the new Greece needed Delphi the whole year round. The rulers and diplomats who came to the town still consulted with the oracle, but just as important were their consultations with one another. Delphi was the place where deals were made, treaties negotiated, transactions conducted. Most of the major cities maintained permanent embassies at Delphi, which buildings became, like so much else in the town, a way to demonstrate via their size and opulence the power and wealth of the ones who had built them.

There was no question which city came out of the Persian War with the biggest surfeit of both. While the Spartan stand at Thermopylae was justly celebrated for the time it had won for the embattled Greeks, it was the Athenians who had ultimately won the war by combining wiliness with resolution at Salamis. Pindar penned odes to “renowned Athens, rich, violet-crowned, bulwark of Greece.” The treasury the Athenians built at Delphi rivaled the temple of Apollo itself in grandeur. For, just as Athens had come to dominate Greece, it also dominated Delphi, that microcosm of the place.

Athens took the lead in a coalition that was formed to root the last of the Persian aggressors out of those islands of the Aegean which they had occupied in earlier years. In doing so, it met little active resistance from Xerxes, who had turned his attention to domestic affairs after his failed foreign adventure. The Spartans’ lack of naval prowess made them ill-suited for such expeditions. Like Xerxes, they largely stayed home, which only served to further increase Athens’s prestige and power.

Athens’s navy grew ever more mighty. The city had the best shipyards in all of Greece if not the world, and the best-trained sailors to man its ships. These sailed far and wide in seas that were now for the most part peaceful, establishing a vast trading empire that made Athens ever richer.

The people who lived in the city converted much of their wealth into beauty. Athenian craftsmen remained the most accomplished in Greece, and now they had an embarrassment of rich materials to work with. Their marble statues, friezes, and other sculptures reached new levels of refinement, as they learned how to capture bodies in motion so accurately that their works almost seemed to flex their muscles before their spectators’ eyes. Upon the city’s acropolis the people built the Parthenon to the glory of Athens and its patron goddess Athena; it was a temple of breathtaking size and impossibly intricate construction, more splendid even than the things the Athenians had built at Delphi.

Meanwhile Athens’s wealth, or rather the ease it enabled among many of the populace, combined with the traditional Athenian love of debate and rhetoric to create the liveliest intellectual milieu the world had ever known, a haven for free thought of all stripes. Every day, masses of people turned up at the city’s central square to discuss both the pressing practical issues of the moment and the eternal questions that preoccupy men of all ages. A group of teachers who came to be known as the sophists made a living charging the young and ignorant for a share of their lives’ wisdom. Some of these dared to suggest that the gods might not exist at all. “Whether the gods exist I cannot discover, nor what their form is like,” said the sophists’ leading light, whose name was Protagoras. “For me, man is the measure of all things.”

Another figure was to be seen every day on the square in the center of a knot of interlocutors, but he never lectured like Protagoras and the others. Socrates wore the same shabby robe every day of the year, and wore no shoes at all upon his feet. He claimed to be an amateur in philosophy, which was literally correct: he accepted no money for his teachings. In fact, he claimed to have no teachings to impart: “I have all of the questions, but none of the answers.” But then, he understood that wisdom often lies in the asking, not the answering. Accordingly, he taught, if that is the right word, by asking his way ever deeper into the topic under discussion, forcing his interlocutors to hold their own beliefs up to the most unrelenting examination. He became the most influential philosopher of all time whilst seldom making a declarative statement. When the oracle in Delphi was asked whether any man was wiser than Socrates, her answer was for once as simple as could be: “No.”

Others saw their wisdom enacted on the stage. Every year, Athens held a festival to Dionysus, that most human of all the gods, where the best playwrights of the age presented their latest works to the public, interrogating the trials and tribulations of mortal existence via stories drawn mostly from the Age of Gods. Three of their number became particularly renowned, such that their names may still ring familiar to you in your own time: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Their work reflected the slow drift away from unquestioning piety in Athens’s intellectual life: while Aeschylus, the first of the trio to find success, supported the traditional view of things, Euripides, the last of them, wrote in slyly subversive modes that seemed at times almost to be mocking the old order — and Sophocles, naturally, was somewhere in the middle.

Still others saw their wisdom enacted on the page. A man named Herodotus invented a new field of literary endeavor known as the “history” when he set out to chronicle the causes and conduct of the recently concluded Persian War, and wound up recording the origin story and current state of most of the world as he knew it. A man named Hippocrates developed a revolutionary approach to medicine, emphasizing physical cures rather than spiritual ones. He made all of his students swear an oath, the first clause of which was to “do no harm” to their patients. The doctors of your time still take the same oath.

The greatest Athenian political figure of the age was a man named Pericles. He was of noble birth himself, but nevertheless believed wholeheartedly in democracy. He dominated Athens’s government for several decades from his position on the Council of Archontes, introducing many reforms meant to expand citizen participation in the city’s affairs. He arranged for jury members to be paid for their service, thus making it easier for them to judge their peers in court, as Solon had intended; he also arranged payment for bureaucrats in order to keep jobs in government from devolving exclusively to wealthy men of leisure who were divorced from the needs of the masses; he introduced a Council of 500, consisting of 500 ordinary citizens chosen by lot, to assist the Council of Archontes in making laws and administrating them. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, he set the tone of public discourse through his love of philosophy and beauty in all its forms; the personality of Athens as a whole became to a large extent the personality of Pericles the individual. His people loved him, and he loved his people.

In one of his speeches, Pericles described Athens’s most noble qualities as he saw them, whilst inadvertently capturing as well some of the overweening arrogance that marked both this man and his city — an arrogance which was already coming to annoy and antagonize many of the other Greek cities:

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring cities; we are a pattern to others rather than imitators of them. Our government favors the many rather than the few. Our laws provide equal justice to all; our institutions reward individual merit only. We live our private lives in freedom, feeling no call to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, as long as he does nothing to injure ourselves or others. We work hard, but we also know how to refresh ourselves after our business is finished for the day. We enjoy our games and festivals without guilt, and we are proud to have built the most beautiful city in the world.

“Indeed, we throw open our city to the world, so that everyone may have the opportunity to see it and to learn from our example. If a would-be enemy profits occasionally from our liberality in some petty detail, so be it; we trust to our genius for innovation to keep us always well ahead of our rivals in the broader strokes. For, while those rivals depend on regimentation and systematization for their strength, we have the native spirit of our citizenry, who are free to do as they please but not one whit less able for all that to join forces and overcome an enemy of our city when necessity demands it.

“Likewise, we are capable of surviving great hardship when the situation demands it, but deem it silly to subject ourselves to hardship when it is unnecessary. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy. Our wealth is for use rather than self-aggrandizement, and we consider poverty shameful only where it stems from laziness rather than misfortune. We take the running of our city as a joint project for all of us, and regard those of our citizens who fail to take part in public life as unworthy of the blessing of living here. We look on careful discussion as a wise preliminary to action, not as an impediment to it, and let generosity rather than expediency be our guide to social relations.

“In short, we are the school of Greece. One has to cast a wide net in the rest of the world to find a single man who is so capable, ethical, and versatile as the typical Athenian. That is a plain matter of fact, proved by the noble way of life we have built, for which so many heroes have fought and died. Athens itself is the living validation of the many wise Athenians who have turned their minds to the question of what constitutes a truly just society. Surely the worldwide fame of the greatest among our forefathers — men like Solon, Cleisthenes, Themistocles — is no more than what they deserve.”

And the people cheered wildly, and said that the name of Pericles too should be added to that list of Athenian wise men.

While Athens was thus going from strength to strength, Sparta was struggling. It seemed that the gods had decreed that Athens’s gain would be Sparta’s loss. In 465 BC, a massive earthquake devastated Sparta, killing far more of its people than the Persians had. Sparta’s food supply had long depended on the rural region of Messenia in the western Peloponnese, whose people it had long held in more or less a state of subjugation. In the wake of the earthquake and the chaos it unleashed, these people turned against their masters, threatening them with starvation. Athens, being all too eager to step into Sparta’s old role as the protector of all of Greece, sent soldiers to help the hard-pressed Spartans put down the rebellion. But this act the Spartans themselves saw as a deliberate effort to humiliate them further amidst all their difficulties. They haughtily told the Athenians to turn around and go back home, for they were perfectly capable of managing their own affairs — and, indeed, they did put down the rebellion in the end.

So, the old rivalry between Athens and Sparta had already flared up anew less than two decades after the pair had united to drive out the Persians; Greece’s brief period of unity was already on the wane. All of the old contrasts in culture and attitude remained, amplified all the more by the disparity in the two cities’ recent fortunes. Athens was strong and proud and self-satisfied, while Sparta, which had always been unable to accept any form of subservience, seethed with a resentment born of its own wounded pride. And as usual Delphi was stuck in the middle, a prize for the two to fight over. In fact, the first skirmishes in the total war to come were over possession of this center of the Greek world. For as long as the center held, at least nominally independent from both Athens and Sparta, neither could hope to bend the rest of Greece completely to its will.

Phocis, the region of Greece where Delphi lies, had been a kingdom of its own since before the time of Orestes, but the rest of Greece had always taken pains to ensure that Delphi itself did not fall under the Phocians’ sway. In recent decades, this had been accomplished through the mechanism of the Amphictyonic League. But the League, like so much in Greece, was now being pulled apart along the fault lines developing between its two most powerful members. In 457 BC, Phocis saw the advantage in casting its lot with Athens in the bipolar struggle. With the backing of that city, it announced that it now considered Delphi to be part of its territory, and sent a governor and soldiers to assume control. The people of Delphi looked on while the Amphictyonic League did nothing for fear of angering Athens. This concrete proof of the League’s uselessness marked its end as a credible force.

Most of Greece grudgingly accepted the Phocian and Athenian power grab when it became clear that it changed almost nothing in practical terms. The new Phocian governor played little more than a ceremonial role, and Delphi largely continued to see to its own affairs as it always had. The flow of diplomats, suppliants, spectators, and sightseers who passed through the town in this ongoing period of prosperity continued unabated.

But the wounded pride of the Spartans was festering even as they rebuilt their city and military from the recent disasters that had befallen them. In 449 BC, they decided they were strong enough once again to take action. A small Spartan army sailed over the Gulf of Corinth and marched up to Delphi with the professed purpose of restoring its independence. The Phocians, wanting no war with Sparta, promptly withdrew.

The Spartans made what was for them an unusual effort to ingratiate themselves with the people of Delphi and to rebuild their base of support there. Hardly known as monument builders or treasure hoarders, they lavished a surprising amount of both upon the town. The people there were on the whole grateful for their deliverance — or at least pragmatic enough to make it appear so. The oracle offered the Spartans the special status of spokesmen for all of Greece, which meant that they were able to ask her god questions about issues that didn’t directly concern their city. Her decree to this effect was inscribed for all the world to see on the brow of a bronze wolf inside Apollo’s temple.

Inevitably, though, the Athenians refused to accept their relative demotion in status. Pericles himself made the issue a personal priority, and Athens sent an army of its own to Delphi. When it arrived, the Spartans in the town were for once able to look past their martial pride: realizing they were badly outnumbered, and not wanting to shed blood here at the holiest spot in Greece, they retreated to fight another day. The Athenians promptly demanded and got the same special dispensations which the oracle had permitted the Spartans. A second decree, giving Athens too the right to inquire about universal questions, was inscribed on the side of the very same bronze wolf.

This rather absurd game of one-upsmanship might have continued indefinitely, until it finally resulted in open warfare on the streets of Delphi. But thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, in the unlikely form of Archidamus, one of the current kings of Sparta. Realizing that his city was not yet ready for war with Athens, he managed to convince his royal opposite number and the Spartan Senate to work out a compromise with the Athenians in 445 BC. Both sides agreed to return to the status quo of a neutral Delphi, albeit with both retaining their special privileges with the oracle, and agreed to refrain from military conflict for the next thirty years. The squabbles over Delphi that preceded this peace treaty would come to be remembered as the Second Sacred War — an altogether more grandiose name than their petty reality deserved.

The treaty was a short-term blessing for Delphi in particular and Greece in general, but it did nothing to resolve the underlying tension that had forced it. Sparta was coming back into its own, and increasingly defining itself by its antagonism to the values of democratic, individualistic Athens. Although few of the other cities of Greece fully embraced the Spartan ethos of the autocratic collective in the abstract, all were feeling more and more threatened by the fast-growing wealth and faster-growing arrogance of the Athenians, whose mercantile empire now encompassed most of the islands of the Aegean Sea and many of its coastal cities; Athens had even struck trade deals and alliances with the once-hated Persians. So, with the notable exception only of Athens’s stalwart ally Argos, the other Greek cities cast their lots one by one with Sparta in the evolving power struggle. By 435 BC, Thebes and Corinth were Sparta’s allies, and even the Phocians had betrayed their erstwhile patrons to join with Sparta. Athens and its far-flung allies were known as the Delian League, after their meeting place on the island of Delos; Sparta and its homegrown allies were known as the Peloponnesian League. It seemed to each side that its differences with the other were irreconcilable. They were not, of course, but perception is reality in matters of peace and war.

What is it in the souls of men that makes them willfully seek out conflict in times of peace? That is a question for a philosopher like Socrates. For the people of Greece, the simple fact was that war was once again approaching — this one a civil war. In time, the forces about to be unleashed would bring about not only the end of Greece’s short-lived period of peaceful prosperity, but the end of Greece itself as it had been constituted since the Age of Gods.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.

(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

11 Comments for "Chapter 19: The Apex of Greece"

  • Wouter Lammers

    “ The Phocians, wanting no war with Sparta, promptly withdraw.”
    Should that be “withdrew”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes. Thanks!

      • Wouter Lammers

        And that was a nice piece! Excited for the war to come, nice foreshadowing.

  • Aula

    “whilst seldom ever making a declarative statement”

    should be “seldom if ever”

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Ronald Whitehand

    Thank you for a very deep and clear explanation about the glory days and eventual collapse of Greece. Your concluding remarks imply the collapse was in effect self harm caused by truculence on the part of the militaristic Spartans and I suppose Athens. What fools they were.
    There seems to be a parallel here with the militaristic Junkers of Prussia who never gave up in defeat thereby paving the way for a fractured political generation in Germany with all the horrors that followed.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, these are broad narrative arcs that play out again and again in the course of history. As Mark Twain famously said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

      The Peloponnesian War, like most of them, is tragic most of all because of how unnecessary it was. I appreciate Will Durant’s description of it as “the suicide of Greece.”

  • Will Moczarski

    Protogaras -> Protagoras

    unecessary -> unnecessary

    as least nominally independent -> at least

    under the Phocians sway -> Phocians’

    Amphicytonic -> Amphictyonic
    (two instances)

    the Spartan occupiers -> is the Athenian bias intentional? They would probably see themselves as liberators, having just restored Delphi’s independence.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • The Pachyderminator

    Typo: “could only look on while the Amphictyonic League. League, the very organ that ought to have done so”

    • Jimmy Maher



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