Thought After Teaching Today

We’re used to thinking of the Peloponnesian War as somehow parallel to the Cold War, with the Delian League in the role of NATO, and the Peloponnesian League as the Warsaw Pact. This comes naturally because Athens was the democracy, while Sparta was this grim, militaristic place where everyone was equal in deprivation. I suppose the fact that Athens was far more commercial than Sparta is also a factor. But what if the opposite is true? Consider the respective powers’ treatment of their alliances: Athens treated the Delian League far more like the USSR treated the member states of the Warsaw Pact than the US ever treated NATO (Mytilene and Melos as Budapest and Prague). And keep in mind that America is not a democracy in the Athenian sense. In Athens, every citizen got a vote, not for a representative, but in the assembly itself, on any question put before it. This would be as if every American had a vote in the House of Representatives, with no Senate, Presidential veto, or Supreme Court to deny their resolutions. This was really quite radical, and Athens had a great deal of the natural sympathy of the landless throughout the Greek world (there were always democratic factions in every polis) – much as Communism had an inherent appeal to the downtrodden of the Third World during the Cold War.

I don’t think that historical comparisons are never appropriate but I do think that we need to use them with care.