THERE IS AN art as well as a science to history. As an artist, the historian uses his imagination, or his experience if he has any, to place himself in the time about which he writes. His aim is to explain, through an imaginative analysis of motivations and currents of thought, how the people of that time came to be such idiots. He attempts to understand what led them to make so many boneheaded decisions that he would not have made if he had been in their place.

The Greeks made more boneheaded decisions in their history than any other ancient people; it is therefore not surprising that the art of history itself must be attributed to them.

To Herodotus, the “Father of History,” we owe the first serious attempt at history in the modern sense. Herodotus set out to tell the story of a turning-point in world history: the conflict between Greece and Persia. It was a turning-point in world history because, of course, the Greeks were writing the history. From the Persian point of view, it was a minor frontier nuisance; but for the Greeks, it was a life-or-death struggle to determine whether Greece would be ruled by Eastern despotism or by the many indigenous Greek forms of despotism.

Herodotus traces the Persian conflict back to the Trojan War: the Greeks traced everything back to the Trojan War, and Herodotus’ audience would have been bitterly disappointed if he had found the roots of the Persian conflict anywhere else. Modern historians, however, tend to trace the conflict back to the Persian conquest of Lydia. Old King Croesus, the inventor of money, could not buy an army good enough to defeat the Persian Empire. What a marvelous opportunity for a long digression on the futility of wealth!—a digression we shall miss merely because the present author is too lazy to write it.

The disappearance of Croesus’ semi-Hellenized Lydian kingdom meant that Persia was now rubbing up against, and soon absorbing, the easternmost Greek cities. The great collision between Greece and Persia had begun. But to understand it, we must first understand what we mean by “Greece” and “Persia.” And that will prove more difficult than it might seem. “Greece” and “Persia” are both very slippery ideas.

The Persian Empire was a large agglomeration of different nations, all professing allegiance to the Persian emperor, but generally allowed to keep their own traditions and much of their own government as long as they would sit still and pay their taxes. The unifying principle was the emperor himself, whose person was so sacred that it was forbidden to look directly at him. For all we know, he may have been a department-store mannequin. What was important was that there were enough people who believed that there was such a thing as an emperor to make an empire.

Greece, on the other hand, had no unifying principle at all. The Greeks were divided into an infinite number of city-states, each consisting of a city with just as much of the surrounding territory as it could steal from its neighbors on a good day. The Greeks did speak the same language, but only in the way that a citizen of Liverpool speaks the same language as a citizen of Brooklyn.

The Greek cities had about as many systems of government as there were cities; but the two systems that made the deepest impression on the thoughts of the Athenian philosophers, and thus the two we spend the most time talking about today, were the systems of Athens and Sparta.

Sparta was governed by a sophisticated form of fascism, in which the individual citizen was regarded as existing only for the sake of the state. The Spartans destroyed every child that showed any sign of weakness or deformity, and they trained the survivors from a very young age to be perfect warriors for the state if they were boys, or perfect mothers of warriors if they were girls. For the other necessities of life, the Spartans had a slave caste, the Helots, a race of Untermenschen who existed only to perform the sort of manual labor that was too icky for purebred Spartans to deal with. In his most optimistic moments, Adolf Hitler could only dream of attempting in Germany what the Spartans had actually accomplished.

Athens, on the other hand, was governed as a democracy, which is to say that her citizens existed only to make money for the upper classes. Of course, for democracy to function properly, it is necessary to disguise its true intent, leading the governed to believe that they are governing themselves—a notion so absurd that it is difficult to imagine how anyone ever actually fell for it. Who would be so foolish as to believe that the powerful would willingly allow the powerless a share in their power? Nevertheless, the appearance of popular sovereignty was preserved, and the people were generally persuaded that they had chosen their own leaders, all of whom, by the merest coincidence, happened to be rich and powerful already. How amusingly naïve the ancient Greeks were! It is impossible to imagine the sophisticated public of today falling victim to such a transparent deception.

As long as there was no pressing external danger, the Greek cities were content to burn up their resources in perpetual squabbling. When the Persian Empire began to look like a real threat, however, the memory of the Trojan War came back to them. They recalled that there had been a time when they had laid aside their differences, brought the combined military forces of all Greece together, fought a desperate ten-year struggle, and finally succeeded in one glorious cooperative accomplishment: bringing a middle-aged woman back from Troy. If they could get that done merely by working together, surely it would be mere child’s play to overcome the Persian threat.

When the threatened Persian war failed to begin on schedule, the Athenians decided to stir things up a bit. Several of the Ionian Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean—including Miletus, home of the proto-philosopher Thales—were ruled by Persia under the usual liberal terms. The Athenians gave lavish promises of assistance to the anti-Persian parties in those cities. Never stopping to think that there was something of a difference in size between Athens and Persia, the Ionian cities rebelled, killing the Persian governors and declaring themselves independent.

The Persians may have been reasonably liberal-minded on the subject of local government, but this was pushing things a bit too far even for them. They put down the rebellion, wiped Miletus off the map, and overran Thrace and Macedonia as well. Then they came looking for Athens.

Faced with this imminent invasion of Greece proper, the Greek cities came together in a spirit of unity they had not exhibited since the fall of Troy. Setting aside their petty quarrels, they decided as with one mind to stay out of the way and let Persia stomp Athens into gravel.

Absurdly, however, Athens won the battle of Marathon. The story everyone has heard about the runner who brought news of the victory back to Athens, only to expire with the word “joy” on his lips, is almost certainly false. So, too, are the similar legends of large groups of people who gather in our cities today and attempt to duplicate that fatal run for no better reason than sporting recreation. Obviously one thing that has changed very little in the past two and a half millennia is human gullibility.

The victory at Marathon sent the Persians packing and bought Greece ten years of respite from foreign invasions. The Athenians spent the years from 490 B.C. to 480 B.C. (remember that the ancients used a peculiar chronology that counted years backwards) building up the most formidable navy in the world. For some reason, they had decided that it would be best not to rely on their neighbors to defend them from the next invasion.

In 480 B.C., the news reached Greece that Xerxes, the Persian emperor, was on his way with an army of five million men. (Modern historians believe that number to be exaggerated, calculating that Xerxes could hardly have supported more than 4,850,000 men.) Athens was the obvious target; so, once again, the Greek cities banded together, and, with noble unanimity, decided to retreat to a safe distance and see what would happen to Athens. Sparta did send a tiny detachment to hold the pass at Thermopylae, where they died heroically but uselessly, since the Persian host ran over them like a freight train crushing a unicycle. It would be churlishly cynical to suggest that the Spartans had calculated exactly how cheap a price would buy their city a reputation for immortal valor while still keeping every important Spartan out of harm’s way,—so of course one will not suggest it.

Seeing that, once again, they had only themselves to rely on, the Athenians placed all their hope on their navy, which inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Persians. Once the mighty empire was down, the other Greek cities were no longer afraid to kick it, so that all Greece could claim a share in the credit for expelling the Persian invaders.

The defeat of the Persians left Greece with two great powers, Athens and Sparta; and from here on it becomes strangely difficult to tell whether we are talking about the 400s B.C. or the 1900s A.D. Freed from the common enemy, the two superpowers were at leisure to recall how much they hated each other. The collision was inevitable; but, instead of a straightforward war between Athens and Sparta, the great division was played out as innumerable smaller conflicts all over the map. Athens, the champion of democracy, undermined the governments of its neighbors and propped up ruthless dictators whenever doing so seemed to earn a temporary advantage over Sparta; and finally the Athenians humiliated themselves with an ill-advised meddling in Sicily, a place that seemed as far away from them as, oh, say, Southeast Asia does from us.

So Sparta and her allies gained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War, at least temporarily; but it looked very much as though Athens might be gearing up for a rematch.

Quite suddenly, however, everything changed, and local politics became quaintly irrelevant. The Greek liberties, so jealously guarded, were extinguished by an unstoppable force from Macedon. And, really, it was all Aristotle’s fault.