Asia than Xerxes ever did in Greece). Some who conscripted slaves, or hired mercenaries, or butchered civilians were relegated to the status of near murderers rather than war makers. Nonetheless, wars of all sorts went on and were judged as bad or good by their perceived conduct, results, morality, and utility.
Indeed, in matters military, the greatest difference between our own world and the ancients’ is this present-day notion that war itself—rather than particular wars per se—must be inherently evil. Aristophanes’ Peace is a screed against the Peloponnesian War, as is Euripides’ Trojan Wars . Neither playwright, however, would have objected to the Persian wars and the “Marathon men” who fought them.
The Greek mind had little in common with either “The Sermon on the Mount” or Immanuel Kant’s idealistic guidelines for how to ensure perpetual peace between nations. Few Greeks trusted in expressed good intentions or shared notions of brotherhood to keep the peace—although writers as diverse as Plato and Isocrates outlined ways in which the city-states could curtail internecine conflicts. What usually stopped wars from breaking out for a season or two was more likely the notion of an enemy’s larger phalanx, bigger fleet, or higher ramparts, which created some sort of perceived deterrence—and with it the impression that any ensuing war for an adventurous state could be too unprofitable, costly, or drawn out.
I emphasize “more likely,” since hubris, miscalculation, greed, misplaced honor, and an array of other emotions often led strategoi (generals)—like Alcibiades, Pelopidas, Cleombrotus, and Pyrrhus—to roll the knucklebones when reason advised otherwise. Disastrous wars were common because-less-than-competent leaders often misjudged the likely outcome or felt the costs would be worth the desired benefits.
The Roots of War
W HILE WAR WAS innate to the ancients, and its morality more often defined by particular circumstances, fighting was not necessarily justified by prior exploitation or legitimate grievance. Fifth-century Greek historians largely introduced into the Greek vocabulary the binary prophasis and aitia —the pretext and the real cause—often to emphasize that what military leaders claimed were understandable provocations were not, or at least not believable ones.
Nor did aggression have to arise from poverty or inequality. States, like people, the historian Thucydides demonstrates, could be envious—and unpredictable and aggressive without apparent reason. Theban oligarchs in spring 431 had no ostensible reason to attack tiny, neighboring Plataea at a time of peace, a provocation that helped to start the Peloponnesian War. I should say “no logical reason,” inasmuch as the Thebans entertained a long-standing hatred of the isolated Athenian ally, a belief that they could take the city at little cost, and, in the fashion of Mussolini in 1940, a hunch that they should stake a quick claim to spoils since a powerful ally (in this case, Sparta) was about to prevail in a far larger war.
If megalomaniacal assailants like King Xerxes of Persia could sense there was little cost to enacting their agendas, they surely would persist in seemingly unnecessary aggression until convinced otherwise. Again, I emphasize words like “unnecessary,” in the sense that a Persia of more than twenty million had no real reason to absorb tiny, materially poor, relatively underpopulated, and distant Greece—other than to make an example of an upstart people who had humiliated the Great King during the earlier Ionian War and the disastrous Persian landing at Marathon. It certainly did not need more lebensraum for the Persian peoples.
The Athenians in Thucydides’ history claim that they acquired and kept their empire largely out of “honor, fear, and self-interest”—more than any rational calculation of profit making or the acquisition of valuable foreign territory. Sparta preempted and