Greeks, for once, did not have a word for it. ‘Geopolitics” comes from Greek roots: g , ‘earth’, and politika, ‘politics’, literally, ‘the affairs of the polis – of the city/country/state’. Yet, although the ancient Greeks did have the words ‘geography’, ‘geometry’ and ‘georgia’ – literally, ‘working the earth’, that is, agriculture – they did not have the word ‘geopolitics’. It is a neologism, coined by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén in 1900.
In truth, the Greeks invented geopolitics, and then disinvented it, so to speak. That is, the Greeks invented the notion of the interrelationship of geography and politics; indeed, they elaborated it in myriad ways. Greek notions of geopolitics can be characterised by three basic concepts: duality, determinism and demography.
Among other things, the Greeks came up with the granddaddy of all clashes of civilisation and they rooted it firmly in geography. They eventually reached the conclusion, however, that certain underlying concepts transcended geography or national boundaries; these held true for human nature in general.
To be sure, one could site the origin of geopolitics even earlier than in ancient Greece, among the Egyptians, who thought of their country as ‘The Land’; to them, no place else could compare. The Greeks were similarly ethnocentric, but they subjected the idea to more rigorous analysis.
Greek experience trained them in the interrelationship of war and geography. The early Greeks were contentious and warlike. Their homeland on a peninsula at the southern tip of the Balkans was riven with mountains, so they had to take geography into account in order to meet for conversation or conflict. And they looked farther afield.
The Greeks had a long history of armed expansion that took them out from their homeland on the Greek peninsula and across the Aegean Sea: to the islands, the Anatolian mainland and Cyprus, dating back 1,000 years before the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC, all the way back to the Bronze Age. Around 1490 BC, the Greeks conquered Minoan Crete and took over its former colonies in the eastern Aegean Islands and on the Anatolian mainland at Miletus. Two centuries of wars and raids in Anatolia and Cyprus followed, culminating in the Trojan War (the reality of which differed greatly from the myth, while nonetheless resting on a kernel of fact). The breakdown of Aegean Bronze Age civilisation around 1180 BC eventually gave way, after several centuries of relative poverty and isolation, to an era of expansion, in which Greek traders sailed the seas and Greek colonists planted new settlements from Spain to the Black Sea (beginning c750 BC). The Greco-Persian wars in the Classical period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC ended with the conquests led by the Macedonian kings, Philip and Alexander (359–323 BC). Greek speakers took over the Persian Empire and expanded Greek civilisation as far eastward as India (323–30 BC).
The Greeks knew very well, therefore, what Socrates meant when, as Plato recorded in the Phaedo, he said that people in the Mediterranean lived around the sea ‘like ants or frogs around a pond’.
Lacking good maps, the Greeks tended to think in terms of visible geographical features, especially dramatic ones, like mountains (eg Mount Olympus), narrow passes (eg Thermopylae), islands or waterways (eg the Hellespont or the Strait of Messina). The Greek peninsula lacks rivers, so the Greeks found the Nile impressive. No wonder Herodotus concluded, in his Histories, that ‘Egypt is the gift of the river [Nile].’
Modern thinkers have pointed out that the mountainous nature of much of Greece made it difficult to unite the city-states, but the ancients were not much troubled by that. They tended to take city-state particularism for granted. Besides, various leagues, confederacies and monarchies did manage to impose control over large portions of Greece, if not all of it, at one time or another.
Greek thought tended to work in dualities, for example: being and becoming, word and deed, nature and culture. When it came to geopolitics, they focused on the difference between Europe and Asia. We might call that East vs West but the Greeks thought, rather, in terms of North vs South.
Hecataeus of Miletus (c560–480 BC) exemplifies early Greek geopolitical thought. A worldly man, he appreciated the size and power of the Persian Empire and advised his fellow citizens against revolting. In vain – the Ionian Revolt (499–494 BC) broke out and failed.
He wrote a Periodos or Periegesis Ges, that is, a ‘Description of the World’, based on travels in the Mediterranean that generally followed the coasts, from Spain eastward through Europe, Asia, Egypt, Libya and back to the Pillars of Heracles. To what extent he travelled himself or relied instead on others is unclear. He also produced a map of the world, improving on an earlier version. Writing later, again in the Histories, Herodotus is probably describing Hecataeus in this critique: ‘And I laugh to see how many have before now drawn maps of the world, not one of them reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the Ocean river, and Asia and Europe of a like extent. For myself, I will in a few words indicate the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn.’
Hecataeus divided the world between Europe and Asia, making Africa a part of the latter, as he saw Africa, like Asia, as part of the south.
Another work, several generations later, expands the contrast between north and south. In the Hippocratic corpus of writings there is a short treatise known as On Airs, Waters, and Places (c 450–400 BC). It represents an early example of human ecology or bioclimatology. The work posits a strong connection between climate and national character. For the author (conventionally known as Hippocrates but of uncertain identity), Asia and Europe each breed vastly different people. The climate of Europe (the north) changes dramatically with the seasons and is often harsh while the climate of Asia (the south) is seen as mild and invariable. As a result, the people of Europe tend to be hardworking, passionate, strong and courageous, while the people of Asia tend to be indolent, torpid, feeble and cowardly. A further consequence is that Europeans tend to be free and independent while Asians tend to submit to absolute monarchy. The work sums up Asia thus: ‘Manly courage, endurance of suffering, laborious enterprise, and high spirit, could not be produced in such a state of things either among the native inhabitants or those of a different country, for there [Asia] pleasure necessarily reigns.’
For Hippocrates, geography was destiny. Later Greek writers, including no less a figure than Aristotle, argued in a similarly deterministic vein. Aristotle states, in Book 7 of his Politics, that the Greeks occupy a happy mean between the cold climate of Europe and the warm climate of Asia. Europeans are spirited but lack intelligence and skill; Asians are intelligent and skillful but lack spirit. Europeans are free but lack political organisation or the ability to rule. Asians are condemned to be subordinates if not slaves. But Greece lies in the middle, not only geographically but: Greeks are intelligent and skillful, spirited and free, and so good at politics that they could rule all mankind if they would overcome their divisions and unite.
On Airs, Waters and Places anticipates by several millennia recent notions of a clash of civilisations. It is far from rigorous, though, and it bears the imprint of the politics of its day. The work’s contempt for Asians suits the mood of Greek triumphalism that followed the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480–79 BC, led by the Persian king, Xerxes, himself. Greece’s victory was a triumph of training, discipline and organisation – with a large dose of guile – over raw numbers, since the Persian forces greatly outnumbered Greek manpower resources. The contrast only heightened the Greek sense of swagger.
Not all Greeks, however, were jingoistic Colonel Blimps. In fact, the greatest of the Greek commentators on the Greco-Persian Wars took an ecumenical view.
Herodotus (c485–424 BC), the so-called ‘Father of History’, wrote a great work chronicling the rise of Persia among the civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean, its clash with the Greeks between c540 and 479 BC, and its defeat in the face of Greek strength and cunning. Certainly, he highlights the differences between Hellenes – as the Greeks called themselves – and the barbaroi (singular, barbaros), or ‘barbarians’: meaning, to the Greeks, all non-Greek speakers, especially Persians. We don’t know if the term barbaros originally had a non-pejorative meaning but, if so, it quickly changed and took on a connotation of the savage, brutal and uncivilised by Herodotus’ day.
Yet Herodotus doesn’t simply criticise non-Greeks. He praises the Egyptians, for instance, for their religious and philosophical wisdom. He admires the Scythians for their freedom and courage and ability to defeat a Persian invasion. And he sees the Persians as less the antithesis of Hellenism than as a warning of the dangers facing Greeks and all human beings. Herodotus tells the story of Greece’s triumph over a massive Persian invasion of 480–79 BC, a victory that not only drove the invader out of the Greek peninsula but also liberated the Greeks of Anatolia after 60 years of Persian rule. Herodotus closes his Histories with an anecdote from an earlier generation. Having recounted Persia’s utter defeat in Greece under King Xerxes (who ruled from 486–465 BC) and Greece’s subsequent naval offensive across the Aegean to Anatolia, he looks backward to King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire (who ruled c 559–530 BC). According to Herodotus, after Cyrus conquered his empire, his leading Persian followers brought him a proposal. Their plan suggested that he move the Persians from their rough highland home in southwest Iran to an easier, more fertile land – an idea that they enthusiastically endorsed. Cyrus, however, rejected the idea. He said that it would turn the Persians from rulers into subjects. The reason, he said, was this: ‘Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.’
Cyrus’ Persian advisers agreed with him. Herodotus writes: ‘The Persians now realised that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than dwelling in tilled valleys to be slaves to others.’
It is noteworthy that this is the last line of Herodotus’ long book. The argument is geopolitical and would not be unfamiliar to readers of Hippocrates. Yet, unlike Hippocrates, Herodotus doesn’t use the analysis to foster a Greek sense of superiority. On the contrary, he highlights Greece’s vulnerability. Consider the sequence of passages in his text.
Herodotus leads into the anecdote about Cyrus with the story of the Athenian siege of the city of Sestos on the Hellespont in 479 BC. When hunger reduced the inhabitants of the city to a state of collapse, the Persian commanders fled but were caught. The Athenians punished the Persian general, Artyaktes, savagely: they crucified him and stoned his son to death before his eyes. Note several significant points: Artyaktes was the descendant of the very man who proposed the plan that the Persians move to a new country. The Athenian commander at Sestos was Xanthippos, a man whose son, Pericles, later became Athens’ greatest statesman. Crucifixion was a savage custom, but Pericles would use it again, about 40 years later, to punish rebels against Athens – rebels who were Greeks, not Persians.
Finally, and perhaps most important, by the time Herodotus published his Histories c425 BC, Athens was no longer a plucky David fighting a Persian Goliath. After defeating Persia, Athens became an imperial power itself. It became the leader of an alliance of about 250 Greek city-states. In theory, Athens was only first among equals in that alliance, but in practice it turned into an imperial power. It treated its subjects harshly and it crushed revolts. Indeed, in some ways Athens modelled itself on the Persian Empire, the very state that it had earlier opposed.
Herodotus was born in Anatolia but he lived part of his adult life in Athens under Pericles, whom he probably met. His Histories was published in the early years of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the great conflict between two rival coalitions headed by Athens and Sparta. The war tore the Greek world apart and opened the door for Persia to re-enter Greek affairs. Pericles was Athens’ leader at the start of the war and the chief war hawk, but his policies had failed by the time Herodotus finished his book.
What, then, is Herodotus’ point in ending his work with the Cyrus story? It is a lesson to Athenian readers about the arrogance of power. Just as Cyrus understood the fragility of Persia’s empire, so Herodotus understood the instability of Athens’ rule. When Persia invaded Greece in 480 BC, Athens was a young, poor, rugged democracy, able to steel itself to the sacrifice and hardship required for victory. Three generations later, around 425 BC, a critic might say that Athens had become a wealthy and bloated imperial democracy, spoiled by luxury and licence. That same critic might find that the Athenian scene was littered with demagogues, pampered youth, duplicitous students of the Sophists, malleable masses eager for foreign conquest, and disgruntled oligarchs who felt more loyalty to Sparta than to their own country. In short, he might conclude that Athens, like Persia, was now at risk of turning into a soft land that bred soft men.
The message is this: Greeks were not immune to the forces that caused empires to rise and fall. In fact, they were part of the same human nature as barbarians. Herodotus, hence, took a giant step away from the ethnocentrism of Hippocrates or, later, Aristotle.
Herodotus’ successor as a great historian, Thucydides (around 460 to 497 BC), shows even greater interest in discovering universal laws rather than ones applying to only one nation. At the outset of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides announces that he decided to write about the war from its very start because of its practically global scale: ‘No movement ever stirred Hellas more deeply than this; it was shared by many of the Barbarians, and might be said even to affect the world at large.’
He claims to have discovered universal truths that transcend borders. He writes: ‘And very likely the absence of myth in my narrative may be disappointing to the ear. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things, shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten.’
Thucydides’ interest lies not with the Greeks or Persians as such, but rather in ‘the order of human things’.
Like earlier Greek writers, Thucydides uses dichotomies as analytical tools. Also, like earlier writers, he has an interest in what we would call geopolitics. Thucydides offers insights into the impact of geography on war and diplomacy. For example, he highlights Athens’ predicament as a sea power vulnerable to invasion by land. He recognises the strategic significance of the little city-state of Megara, astride the land route between Athens and Sparta. He underlines the importance of Corcyra’s location on the sea route from Greece to Italy.
Yet, unlike various other Greek thinkers, Thucydides has little interest in climate or environment; his focus is rather on regimes. He zeros in on the confrontation between Sparta and Athens, which pitted oligarchy against democracy. As was typical of classical Greece, oligarchic Sparta was a land power. Not all democracies were sea powers, but Athens was. So, land versus sea becomes a key dichotomy in Thucydides.
‘Control of the sea is a great thing,’ Thucydides reports Pericles telling the Athenian people. As a former Athenian strategos – a term meaning both general and admiral – Thucydides brought a deep knowledge of war at sea to his work, and the book has become a classic of naval history. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Thucydides as an advocate of sea power. He believed that Athens’ citizen rowers displayed greed and a lack of self-restraint; he calls them ‘the naval crowd’. He believes that, when it came to politics, their voice outweighed that of the moderate and prudent men of property – and so ultimately imposed a heavy price on Athens. As he well knew, the land power of Sparta won the war in the end, although only by acquiring a navy thanks to an alliance with Persia – and that required surrendering the Greeks of Anatolia back to Persian rule. It was costly, but it was victory. Thucydides concluded that Sparta’s dull but stable landed oligarchy was better able to handle the strain of war than Athens’ brilliant but fickle naval democracy.
Unlike the modern American naval thinker, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Thucydides did not think that control of the sea was the determining historical factor. He considered it highly important but, in the last analysis, he considered the nature of the regime to be a greater determinant of success or failure in war than the type of arms one used. He argues that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War not because it had a navy, or an inadequate navy at that, but because it had a bad system of government – direct and unfettered democracy. Democracy, according to Thucydides, tends to lead to factionalism and the triumph of private agendas over the public interest. In his judgement, only the presence of an Olympian statesman, like Pericles, kept Athenian democracy on the straight and narrow. No one of Pericles’ stature was available to follow him. His death early in the war unleashed factionalism that ultimately brought Athens down.
Nowadays, it is not only historians or classicists but also political scientists and military professionals who read Thucydides with profit. It’s a sign that he was interested more in underlying concepts about the nature of regimes, and the use of armed force, than in geographical specificity or environmental determinism. In a sense, Thucydides took the ‘geo’ out of ‘geopolitics’. He abjured geographic determinism. His book is a classic because it transcends notions of Greek and barbarian, and speaks to the human condition more generally. Yet, if he wanted to understand the future better, Thucydides might have paid more attention to demography.
A Greek of Thucydides’ generation could never imagine that, one day, the whole Hellenic world would be conquered by a small Italian city-state. And yet, about 250 years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, in 146 BC, Rome took control, by force of arms, of the entire Greek peninsula. To do justice to Rome’s conquest of Greece would take a long story, and one balancing a variety of factors. The best ancient analysis is in Polybius, a Greek who wrote a classic history about Rome’s rise to power, focusing on its regime and its comparative strengths. From the point of view of Greek notions of geopolitics, however, it is worth noting a different factor – a brute statistic of demography. By virtue of its strong Italian alliance, Rome was a population giant. No other ancient state granted citizenship on the massive scale that Rome did, and no other ancient state had as many loyal allies. As a result, Rome had access to a staggering number of soldiers, in the order of 750,000 men. And they were a formidable fighting force. Even when united, the Greeks could muster nothing of similar numerical magnitude.
Demography is not destiny, but giant Rome conquered little Greece. No Greek geopolitical theorist had expected that.
Duality, determinism and demography: The Greeks on geopolitics by Barry Strauss was first published in The Return of Geopolitics: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2019