Constructivist Approach to the Peloponnesian War

Abstract: This paper seeks to explain that constructivism is a superior framework of understanding the Peloponnesian War over realism.

Constructivism is a framework that recognizes the importance of how actors’ behaviours are influenced by norms, values, identities, and cultures (Fierke,14). While liberalism and realism focus on material factors like power and trade, constructivists recognize the importance of ideas in analyzing a nation’s relations (Walt, 12). Constructivism perceives that identities and cultures evolve and that their evolution shapes the way states respond to situations (Walt, 42). A realist’s approach to the Peloponnesian War’s genesis is that Sparta was threatened by Athens taking its place as a rising power and, in the uncertainty of Athenian intention, feared being displaced as a ruling state in the Greek hemisphere. I would argue that realists like Graham are oversimplifying how much Athens violated the norms of this period with their actions. That Athenian and Spartan alliances had opposing ideas of what war and nationhood was. That the identities of who the Athenians and Spartan alliances were, was the cause for the war.

The argument made by Graham Allison in the explanation of the Peloponnesian War 431–405 B.C is that Athens challenged Sparta as a rising power and that bi-polar friction resulted in war (Graham, 4). Graham believes that Athens and Sparta sought to create alliances to counterbalance each other with the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League and that Sparta sought to re-establish their military hegemony (Graham, 5). Graham fails to mention the historical makeup and ideology of the Peloponnesian League and the Delian League. The Peloponnesian League members were likely all originated from Dorian tribes (Lendering, Peloponnesian League). These tribes were separate from the origin of the four tribes found among the Ionian Greeks. Spartan’s spoke Doric Greek, and Athens’s spoke Attic Greek. Nations that were part of Southern Greece had economies tied to agriculture and slave labour. As a result, members of the Peloponnesian league had a domestic policy of isolationism and conservatism. Their foreign policy was to create a security situation that allowed them to enforce productivity in their fields and protect against slaves uprising. Slave uprising was a severe concern for the Peloponnesian League’s oligarchs as a helot uprising nearly destroyed Sparta in 465 B.C. To be part of the alliance, members were required to submit soldiers as tributes to aid against future uprisings (N.A., A Second-Lens Analysis The Collision Course). Athens was a democracy. The Athenian economy relied on naval trade, and after the Persian-Greco war, it became colonialist and anti-oligarchical. In 478 B.C, the Athenians had created the Delian League to counter Persian influence in Europe and prevent pirates from interfering with naval trade (Correa, The rise and fall of the Delian League). The Delian League was a representative democracy of states where each state had a vote. Athens placed the headquarters in Delos, and their alliance survived financially through tributes and taxes (Correa, The rise and fall of the Delian League). After the Persian-Greco war ended, Athens started to expand its hegemony by awarding land titles from defiant Greek cities to Athenian born citizens. The league did this by established cleruchies, which were external Athenian colonies (Harding, Ancient Athens, the Delian League and Corruption). From a constructivist framework, the Peloponnesian War was more complicated than a bipolar battle between a rising power and a fading one, but a battle of oligarchs wanting to maintain their slaves and land versus a trade-based alliance expanding their markets. The alliances had opposing structures, languages, and foreign policy goals.

Constructivism is an approach to identify why states see other states as allies, enemies, or a neutral country. During the Peloponnesian War, Sparta allied itself with its former adversary Persia. A realist would argue that smaller states will create an alliance against a perceived adversary to balance power. This is because realists view the world through materials, strategic resources, and money constituting power (Hurd, CONSTRUCTIVISM — Northwestern University). A constructivist would be finding commonality between how states perceive one another’s identities, rhetoric, and historical behaviour as a gateway to explaining why Sparta sought to align with Persia. A century before the Peloponnesian War, Persia led under Cyrus the Great, had a religious tolerance policy, allowed oligarchs to stay in place, and maintained local traditions. After Persia conquered a region, Cyrus would allow those populations to participate in their religious ceremonies. These policies mimic Sparta’s approach to the Peloponnesian League (N.A., The Rise of Persia). Athens’s ideology was different from that of Sparta. Sparta’s wars were regional, and their bounty was to acquire slaves for agriculture (Cartwright, Sparta). Athens sought to destroy economic threats to their trade. Before the Peloponnesian War, Aegina, part of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League, was recognized as an economic threat to Athenian trade and was besieged and conquered by Athens (N.A., Aegina and its enmity with Athens). Instead of respecting traditions and religions. Athens forced out the oligarchs of Aegis, replaced them with Athenian colonists, and established a democracy favourable to Athens. These colonists became refugees of Sparta (N.A., The ‘First’ Peloponnesian War and The Thirty Year Peace, 460–432 BC). In 440 BC, during the revolt of Samos, Athens once again took control of the Island of Samos, removed their oligarchs, implanted Athenian colonists with land grants, and established democracy. Pericles of Athens may have recalled how Samos sided with Persia 50 years earlier in his motivations to destroy Samos’ oligarchs (Martin, Pericles’ Responsibility for the Samian Revolt and the Peloponnesian War (Chapter 9) — Pericles). Constructivists recognize norms. Both of these actions taken by Athens to replace governments and colonize were outside of the norms of Spartan society. Sparta had never colonized another state since 708 BC when they colonized Taranto (NA, Taranto, Province of Taranto, Puglia). Sparta did not align themselves with Persia to fight Athens purely as a strategic alliance. Sparta may have aligned with Persia because it felt that Athens violated the values that both societies had, and that Persian treatment of conquered societies was more with what Spartan’s viewed as norms.

Constructivists recognize how the emergence of new ideas affects foreign policy. During the war between Persia and Athens, Athens was considered subservient to their neighbour Sparta until the Capture of Sestus 480–479 BC. After the capture, Athens emerged independently from the previously established norm of Spartan leadership. Now no longer the subservient to Sparta, Athens engaged in a series of actions that a constructivist may interpret as a change in ideas. In 476 BC, after the Persian Wars, the Athenian named Cimon created a shrine around the bones of an Athenian hero named Theseus, whom they claimed was the son of their favoured god Poseidon, for his unification of Attica under the Athenian Aegis (N.A., Theseus). This propaganda was a copy of the Dorian historic ceremony of Orestes’s bones that inspired Spartan foundation and hegemony (N.A., Mounting Athenian aggression). Sparta’s most important ceremonies and festivals were dedicated to their favoured god, Apollo (P. Schrader, Sparta and the Gods). Athens, now the Delian League leader, requested all tributes from Delian alliance members to be placed in a religious island favoured by Apollo called Delos. Due to mounting aggression by the Delian Alliance, Sparta called the Peloponnesian assembly in 432 B.C. to speak to city-state members. In Spartan religious culture, they would ask an Oracle for guidance. The Spartans asked Apollo’s oracle to see if they were to take up arms against the Athenian injustices of Samos and Aegina. The Oracle told Sparta that if they fought hard, they would win. Apollo is believed by the Greeks to be associated with ill health and the plague. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta’s oracles words came true, and the Spartans received their sign from the gods; a massive plague broke out in Athens (Flower, Athenian Religion and The Peloponnesian War — Assets). Constructivists recognize how the development of ideas influences foreign policy choices. While Athens sought to emulate the mythos of Sparta to proclaim their new hegemony, Sparta received a religious sign that inspired them to fight the Peloponnesian War.

A realist may argue that Sparta was in an unfavourable position, hindered by its lack of naval power, and thus desired a security and sovereignty outcome that would depend on Athens having more significant competitions with its rival Persia. A constructivist view would be that Sparta’s unfavourable navy did not constrain Sparta from enacting its political will, but that these conditions were one of many that influenced the state’s behaviour. Constructivists would acknowledge that Athens was being shaped by new ideas of colonization and removal of oligarchs and that these ideas defied the norms and values of the Peloponnesian League. Sparta’s behaviour was encouraged by domestic politics, that Apollo had favoured them over Athens, and that the Peloponnesian league had different ideas of how nations should rule. Constructivism is an approach to identify why states see other states as allies, enemies, or a neutral country. That identifiable factors such as nationality, language, religion, gender, and mythos are how states perceive other states’ intentions. The Peloponnesian War was not as Graham described it in realist terms, a battle between two alphas, but caused by schismogenesis of new ideas in Greek societies.

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