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12

Why were the Greeks able to unite against the Persian Empire, only to go to war with one another two generations later?

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Why were the Greeks able to unite against the Persian Empire, only to go to war with one another two generations later?

The Greeks themselves would have fought about the answer to this question. The Athenians, for example, who claimed to be the people who had really led the Greeks to victory in the Persian Wars, would say that it was only because they had managed to defeat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE - exactly 2,500 years go, by the way; this is the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon - the Athenians would say that if they wouldn't have won the Battle of Marathon, the Persians would have overrun Greece and that's where it is. The rest of the Greeks would say that if the Athenians had not antagonized the Persians, then the Persians would never have invaded Greece in the first place, so the Athenians were at fault.

But the historian, Herodotus, would say if the Persians were bound to try to absorb the Greek cities at some point, so the Athenians were really the only thing standing between the Persians and utter oblivion. In fact, when the Persians returned a decade after the Battle of Marathon, it was very clear that a much more united Greek endeavor was needed in order to repel them and so the Spartans were finally persuaded to involve themselves in this, as were a number of other Greek City-States. But even then, the Greeks weren't fighting as a united Greek force. They weren't fighting as Hellenes, which is the name the Greeks gave themselves. They were fighting as individual city-states, as Thebans, as Athenians, as Spartans. So, even in victory against the Persians, they were divided.

After the Persians went home, the Greek city-states pursued their own interests. Athens, for example, pursued its interests in becoming essentially an imperial power. It now had this tremendous navy that it had developed in order to fight the Persians and it decided to use this navy to colonize other areas of the world and also to force other Greek city-states who had established colonies around the Mediterranean to pay protection money, essentially, for the Athenians really wanted to see themselves as the police force of the ancient world.

There were a lot of Greeks who felt that this was inappropriate. Why did they fight the Persians and avoid becoming absorbed into that empire only to become subject to the Athenian commercial empire? So these tentative alliances began to fall apart and what you see emerging is the set of alliances that we see in the Peloponnesian Wars, which began in 431. We essentially see the Athenians and their allies who have something to gain from Athenian naval power, and we see the Spartans and their allies who resist the Athenian dominance of their world.

It's a very sad story, a story that's almost worthy of a Greek tragedy: this capacity of a group of people to come together and then their incapacity to hold on to that common endeavor.