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Athenian Hegemony and Its Lessons for America

Our common European civilization—of which the old American Republic is an integral part, or else it is nothing —is rooted in "the glory that was Greece." Our spiritual and intellectual mentors are to be found among Greek thinkers, scientists, and artists.

This inheritance is reflected even in the way we repeat the political follies of the Greeks: Our present leaders do not seem to know that, after leading an alliance of independent commonwealths against a mighty aggressor from the East, Athens grew rich and arrogant in the aftermath of her victory. Her leadership degenerated into hegemony, which the Athenians justified as "exporting democracy." Imperial Athens was obeyed for several decades —initially out of self-interest, then out of fear rather than respect—but in the end, it was hated. Power generated countervailing power: Other Greek city-states united against Athens, and she fell at the end of the fifth century B.C., never to recover her political or military hegemony.

Historical parallels between epochs and events can be valid only because human nature remains constant. Our jet engines and internet search engines do not make us significantly different from our European ancestors. To claim that the material progress of the past century or two makes us wiser or better than the Greeks of 25 centuries ago would be preposterous. The story of the rise and fall of Athens should...

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