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Stories from Thucydides

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In a former volume we have traced the course of events which ended in the complete overthrow of Xerxes and his great army. Our present task is to describe the chief incidents in the cruel and devastating war, commonly known as the Peloponnesian War, which lasted for twenty-seven years, and finally broke up the Athenian Empire. The cause of that war was the envy and hatred excited in the other states of Greece by the power and greatness of Athens; and in order to make our story intelligible we must indicate briefly the steps by which she rose to that dangerous eminence, and drew upon herself the armed hostility of half the Greek world.

We take up our narrative at the point of time when the Athenians returned to their ruined homes after the defeat of the Persians at Plataea. Of their ancient city nothing remained but a few houses which had served as lodgings for the Persian grandees, and some scattered fragments of the surrounding wall. Their first task was to restore the outer line of defence, and by the advice of Themistocles the new wall took in a much wider circuit than the old rampart which had been destroyed by the Persians. The whole population toiled night and day to raise the bulwark which was to guard their temples and their homes, using as materials the walls of the houses which had been sacked and burnt by the Persians, with whatever remained of public buildings, sacred or profane, and sparing not even the monumental pillars of graves in the urgency of their need.

But jealous eyes were watching them, and busy tongues were wagging against that gallant race of Attica which had been foremost in the common cause against the barbarian invader. "These Athenians are dangerous neighbours," was the cry. "Let us stop them from building their wall, or Athens will become a standing menace to ourselves." Before long these murmurs reached the ears of the Spartans, and they sent envoys to dissuade the Athenians from fortifying their city. Their real purpose was disguised under the mask of anxiety for the general safety of Greece. "It is not expedient," they urged, "that the Persians, when next they come against us, should find fencéd cities which they may make their strongholds, as they have lately done in Athens and in Thebes. Cease, therefore, from building this wall, and help us to destroy all such defences, outside of Peloponnesus. If we are attacked again, we will unite our forces within the isthmus, and meet the invader from there."

But Themistocles was not the man to be hoodwinked by the simple cunning of the Spartans. By his advice the Athenians dismissed the envoys, promising to send an embassy to discuss the matter at Sparta. As soon as they were gone, Themistocles caused himself to be appointed as head of the embassy, and set out at once for Sparta, instructing the Athenians to keep his colleagues back until the wall had been raised to a sufficient height for purposes of defence. Arrived at Sparta, he kept himself close in his lodging, and declined all conference with the authorities, alleging that he could do nothing without his colleagues....