What Ancient Greece teaches us about war in Ukraine

In face of the ever-increasing danger and destruction arising from Vladimir Putin’s apparently demented invasion of the Ukraine, I thought it might be helpful to direct at the situation some reflections derived from the great Greek historian Thucydides as to the causes of the Great War between Athens and Sparta in the last third of the fifth century BC (431-404), an event that marred what was otherwise one of the greatest periods of human social and intellectual creativity on record, the Classical Age of Greece, as it would seem to have a considerable bearing on the analysis of the causes of the present conflict.

Why did the two chief states of the Greek world become involved in a long drawn-out and mutually destructive conflict, which drew in most of the rest of the Greek world as well, even as far as Sicily and southern Italy? Well, Thucydides – who was himself a general in the Athenian army, but fell from grace as a result of a military failure in the north of Greece in 424 BC, and was exiled, which gave him the leisure to reflect upon the war, and compose his immortal history of it – declares that, in his view, “the real, though unadmitted, cause of the war was the growth of Athenian power, and the Spartan fear of that growth”.

That is a most perceptive analysis, and I would like to suggest that something like that is best seen as the true cause of the unhappy conflict we are currently faced with in the Ukraine – and possibly further afield, if this is not resolved fairly promptly.

What led Thucydides to his conclusion was, briefly, this: in the wake of the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 479, Athens moved quickly to establish a defensive league of Greek states against a recurrence of Persian aggression, and, over the next three decades or so, this league had become something that looked rather more like an Athenian empire than a league of independent states. In the latter part of this period, it had been tending to enrol a number of states which Sparta would have regarded as within its sphere of interest.

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