When the Peloponnesian War broke out, people didn’t think Athens would suffer a defeat. The Spartans had a fleet too powerful to be crushed in a short period of time, but long-term indicators including economic strength and strategies all pointed to the victory of Athens. Moreover, the Spartans’ skills in hand-to-hand combats were not at an unrivaled level as already pointed out by Aristotle. The Spartan warriors’ skills had been acquired only because others hadn’t tried the skills. When others started to follow them, Sparta lost their strength. In the end, Athens could have learned the Spartans’ skills in the long run.
However, things started to turn against Athens over time. Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, analyzed that what drove the downfall of Athens was the early death of Pericles, who was a prominent leader, a great figure who could have brought a triumph to Athens, and a talent the Athenians could never have had since.
Pericles had an outstanding ability to unite the Athenians, who were easily swayed by conflicts between the poor and rich, egoism and populism, and to lead people’s collective goal in the most desirable direction.
Admittedly, his talent is overstated to a degree. He was not a sincere leader living up to ethical standards. If there had been sufficient records, we might have criticized him for being a populist or a deceitful agitator. In that case, an excellent political engineer may be the best title we can grant him.
Yet, it is true that he was still a great leader. After he died, the country was split, and the future of Athens was sacrificed for immediate gains. Leaders did not try to persuade or intervene, but rather encouraged people to make a wrong choice and aggravated an internal division. Every time there were chances of winning the combats, leaders and citizens alike chose the worst possible option.
Pericles, on the contrary, used all possible means to bring together the country. This must be the most important virtue and mission that a leader should have.