Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC

Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC

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Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC

Archidamian War
Brief Peace
The Last Years

The Great Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was a titanic struggle between Athens and Sparta that engulfed the entire Greek world, and that ended with the total defeat of Athens and the destruction of her naval empire.

The Great Peloponnesian War is largely famous because of the efforts of the historian Thucydides, the second great Greek historian. His work on the Peloponnesian Wars was written after he was exiled from Athens for a failure early in the war, and he combines a personal knowledge of many of the main figures of the time with a determination to discover the truth. Thucydides was writing soon after the end of the wars, but sadly his great work ends in mid-sentence in 411 BC, but until then he provides us with one of the greatest works of ancient history.


In 480-479 BC the combined forces of Athens and Sparta played a central part in the Greek victories at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, the great victories that defeated the second Persian invasion of Greece. In the aftermath of these great victories the Spartans took a leading role in the campaign to liberate Greek cities on the east coast of the Aegean, but the Spartan leader Pausanias acted with increasing arrogance and was soon disgraced. Sparta withdrew from the war and returned to her more traditional isolationism.

Leadership of the war against Persian then passed to Athens. Their role was officially recognised by the formation of the Delian League, in which each ally agreed to provide an agreed amount of men, ships or money. The league's treasury was placed in the sanctuary of Apollo on the island of Delos in the Cyclades. The League would eventually achieve its aim. A Persian fleet was destroyed at the battle of the Eurymedon River in 466, removing the direct threat to the Aegean. An attempt to help a rebellion in Egypt ended in disaster and the destruction of the entire expedition (459-455), but the League bounced back and in 449 a formal peace treaty, the Peace of Kallias, ended the war.

During this period the Delian League slowly turned into an Athenian Empire. Any attempt to leave the league was met with force. The island of Naxos was the first member of the league to discover this, although this came in 470, before the Persians had been defeated at the Eurymedon River. In 465, the year after the Persian defeat, the island of Thasos revolted, and was subjected to a two year long siege. In both cases the rebellious state's original military commitment to the league was replaced with a cash payment, and the rebels were reduced to tributary status.

The rise of the Athenian Empire greatly worried the conservative Spartans, but they also had some more direct problems. In the mid 460s a major earthquake hit Sparta, triggering a revolt of the Helots, the slave population that supported the Spartan economy. The helots took up a strong defensive position on Mount Ithome in Messenia, and resisted all Spartan attempts to dislodge them. In 462 Sparta called for help from her allies, which at this date included the Athenians. An Athenian army was dispatched, under the command of Kimon, but soon after arriving the Athenians were sent home, probably because they were sympathetic to the Helot cause. Kimon was exiled by an angry public, and the alliance between Sparta and Athens crumbled.

Two years later the First Peloponnesian War (460-446) began. This was not really a single fifteen year long struggle, but was a series of clashes between Athens, Sparta and their allies. For much of this war Athens controlled Boeotia, but this domination ended after the Athenians were defeated at Koroneia in 446 BC. In the same year Athens and Sparta made peace, although the 'Thirty Years Peace' only lasted for fifteen years.

One key development during this period was the construction of the 'Long Walls', which linked Athens to the port of Peiraieus. These walls would allow the city to withstand repeated Spartan blockades during the Great Peloponnesian War. The existence of the Long Walls would allow Pericles to suggest the strategy that foiled Spartan attempts to threaten Athens early in the Great Peloponnesian War.


Thucydides gives both long term and short term reasons for the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War. The long term causes were the rise of Athenian power and the concern this caused in Sparta, Corinth and Thebes. Although we tend to think of Athens the democracy and Sparta the military state, to many at the time it was the Athenians who posed to biggest threat to their freedom. The members of the Peloponnesian League retained their independence, and each had a vote in the league. In contrast Athens dominated her empire, and only a handful of islands and cities retained their independence.

The short-term reasons for the war were a series of minor conflicts and revolts that involved Athens. The first was the Corinth-Corcyra War. This began as a despute between Corcyra (Corfu) and her colony of Epidamnos, but soon escalated to include Corinth on the side of Epidamnos and Athens on the side of Corcyra. The two major powers clashed at the naval battle of Sybota (433 BC), in which both sides claimed victory, although the Corinthians abandoned their campaign.

Next was the revolt of Potidaia in 432 BC. This city, on the Chalcidice peninsula, was a colony of Corinth but part of the Athenian Empire. This worried the Athenians, who demanded that the city abandoned its Corinthian connections. Instead the people of Potidaia decided to ask Sparta for help. The Spartans agreed that if Athens attacked Potidaia then they would invade Attica. This encouraged the Potidaians to begin their revolt.

A third cause was the Megarian Decree, a decision of the Athenian Assembly to forbid the people of Megara from using Athenian harbours or markets. Megara had been an Athenian ally until 446, but was now allied with Sparta.

All of these complaints, and the Athenian responses, were heard in the Spartan assembly. The full Spartan citizens then met privately to decide what to do. The general mood was in favour of war, but King Archidamos (after whom the first ten years of the war would later be named) was more cautious. Despite Archidamos's concerns, the assembly voted for war. Next the issue had to be decided by the Peloponnesian League. A majority of members of the league agreed that Athens had broken the terms of the Thirty Year's Peace. The Spartans made one more attempt to preserve the peace, sending an embassy to Athens, but when this failed war began inevitable.

Archidamian War

At the start of the war much of the Greek world was tied to either Sparta or Athens through alliances, leagues or membership of the Athenian empire. Sparta controlled large parts of the Peloponnese, with Corinth as an ally. The other major Peloponnesian power, Argos, remained neutral during the first phase of the war. Macedonia tended to ally with Sparta, although this was never an entirely stable relationship. Sparta's allies also include Thebes (north-west of Athens), Boeotia and most of the northern coast of the Corinthian Gulf.

The Athenian Empire was rather more scattered. The city ruled Attica (the area around Athens), but this was vulnerable to Spartan attack. The large island of Euboea was also held, as were most Aegean islands, and the Greek communities on the coast of Asia Minor, the southern coast of Thrace, the Chalcidice peninsula, through the Hellespont and up to Byzantium and the entrance to the Black Sea. A large amount of the food needed to feed Athens came from the areas around the Black Sea. Athens also had support in Thessaly, and amongst some of the Greek states on the west coast.

The war between these two power blocks would drag on for over twenty five years. The main reason for this prolonged struggle was that for some time neither side had the ability to inflict serious damage on the other. Sparta was unable to challenge Athens at sea, and so could neither conquer her empire nor threaten her food supplies. The Spartans also lacked the expertise in siege warfare that they would have needed for a direct attack on the city. In turn the Athenian army wasn't powerful enough to risk a battle with the feared Spartans, particularly when combined with their able Theban and Boeotian allies.

The key to this stalemate was the Athenian decision to abandon the Attic countryside to attack and retreat behind the walls of Athens whenever the Spartans approached. The great Athenian statesman Pericles was largely responsible for this strategy, which was made possible by the Long Walls and by Athenian control of the seas.

The first few years of the war fell into a similar pattern. The Spartans invaded Attica five times between 431 and 425, although the longest of these invasions, in 430, only lasted for forty days. At the same time the Athenians used their naval power to attack around the edges of Spartan territory.

The war actually started with a surprise attack by Thebes on Plataea (431 BC). This was the only Boeotian city that hadn't joined the Theban dominated Boeotian League, and was thus a key Theban objective. The surprise attack failed, and Plataea wouldn't fall until 427 BC, but it did serve as an effective declaration of war.

The first year of the war saw the first Spartan invasion of Attica. Pericles was able to convince his fellow Athenians not to try and fight, and instead to retreat into the city. Archidamus was blamed for giving the Athenians time to carry out this move, advancing slowly from the Isthmus of Corinth, and then attempting to besiege the border fortress of Oenoe. They then moved into Attica, but had no response to the Athenian refusal to come out and fight. Eventually their supplies ran out and the Spartans had to retreat. At the same time the Athenians sent a fleet of 100 triremes around the coast of the Peloponnese, where they carried out a series of raids.

One side-effect of Pericles' plan to concentrate the population of Attica inside Athens was the outbreak of a devastating plague that hit the city between 430-428. This plague also followed the Athenian army. In 430 a large army under Hagnon was sent to Potidaia, but the plague killed 1,050 out of the 4,000 hoplites and the army achieved nothing. Eventually the city surrendered on terms in the winter of 430/429, and its citizens and auxiliary troops were allowed to leave in safety (a rare occurrence during this war).

The plague returned to Athens in 429, this time killing Pericles, and removing his restraining influence. The year also saw the Peloponnesians begin the formal siege of Plataia (429-427 BC), which lasted for two years.

In the summer of 429 the Spartans attempted to conquer Acarnania, the area to the north-west of the Gulf of Corinth. Their plan was for an army to invade from the north while a fleet operated off the coast. Both parts of the plan ended in failure. The allied army formed up at Leucas, an island just outside the gulf of Ambracia, then moved east, before advancing south into Acarnania from the eastern end of the gulf. The army reached as far south as Stratus, the largest town in the area, but suffered a defeat in battle just outside the town and was forced to retreat. At about the same time a naval force moving west from Corinth to join the invasion was defeated by a smaller Athenian fleet in the naval battle of Chalcis. The Peloponnesians then combined the fleet that had lost at Chalcis with the fleet that had taken part in the invasion of Acarnania, but despite outnumbering the Athenians by seventy-seven warships to twenty still suffered a second naval defeat, at the battle of Naupactus.

Although the most famous Athenian intervention on Sicily came later in the war, their involvement began much earlier. In 425 the Athenians decided to send a fleet around the Peloponnese to aid their allies on Sicily. Demosthenes, who accompanied this expedition, managed to convince its leaders to allow him to fortify the rocky headland of Pylos, in the south-west of the Peloponnese, and give him a small garrison. The Spartans moved a force to attack this Athenian foothold on their own territory, but the resulting battle of Pylos (425 BC) saw the Athenians thrown back a Spartan attack. It ended when an Athenian naval force arrived and defeated the Spartan fleet in the bay of Pylos. This left 420 Peloponnesian hoplites trapped on the island of Sphacteria, which ran across the mouth of the bay. After a forest fire removed the cover on the island Demosthenes landed his troops on the island, and after a short fight the Spartans surrendered.

This was one of the most dramatic moments of the entire war. Spartans were not expected to surrender, but to die in battle. Around 120 full Spartan citizens were captured on Sphacteria, and their fate played a part in Spartan policy until they were released after the Peace of Nicias of 421 BC.

Elsewhere Athens was less successful. An attempted two-pronged invasion of Boeotia ended in a disastrous defeat at Delium (424 BC). In the same year the Spartan general Brasidas led an army overland to Thrace, where he was able to raise a rebellion amongst Athens's allies in the area. Most notably elements in the recently founded Athenian colony of Amphipolis rebelled. An expedition led by the historian Thucydides arrived just too late to save the city, and it fell to the Spartans. Thucydides was exiled for his role in this failure.

Tentative peace negotiations began after the battle of Sphacteria. In 423 BC they achieved some success when a one year truce was agreed. Brasidas managed to find ways around it in Thrace, but it was obeyed elsewhere. When the truce expired in 422 an Athenian army under Cleon was sent to Thrace. Cleon attempted to recapture Amphipolis, but was defeated and killed in a disastrous battle outside the city.

Brief Peace

Brasidas was also killed during this battle. With two of the more warlike leaders dead, the peace parties in Athens and Sparta gained ground, and in 421 BC they agreed the Peace of Nicias. This restored the situation at the start of the war, although Athens kept Nicaea and Sparta kept Plataea, both cities having changed sides after an agreement was reached with the citizens.

The peace treaty was not popular amongst Sparta's allies. Corinth and the Boeotians both opposed the treaty, and in particular the clause that allowed Athens and Sparta to make changes to it without consulting their allies. Sparta responded to this defiance by agreed an alliance with Athens, in which each city agreed to come to the other's aid if their territory was invaded.

One of the reasons for this dramatic new alliance was that Sparta's peace treaty with Argos was about to expire. Argos was Sparta's main rival in the Peloponnese, and having stayed out of the war between Athens and Sparta was now one of the stronger Greek cities. The Spartans were worried that Argos would create an alliance in the Peloponnese that they would struggle to defeat.

The Spartans were right to be concerned. A period of somewhat confused diplomacy now followed, which ended with Argos at the head of an alliance of Greek cities that included Athens and some of Sparta's allies from the first phase of the Peloponnesian War. The diplomatic dance began during 421 BC as Sparta's allies were returning home after the disagreements over the peace treaty. The Corinthian delegates went to Argos on their way home, and denounced the Spartans. They suggested that the Argives should create a new defensive alliance, open to any independent Greek state. The purpose of this alliance would be to help control replace Sparta as the main power in the Peloponnese.

The Argives already believed that war with Sparta was coming, and so were easily convinced by the Corinthians. Twelve men were appointed to carry out the negotiations with any city other than Athens or Sparta - if either of those cities wanted to join, then the people of Argos would have to make the decision.

The first city to join the new alliance was Mantinea, another Peloponnesian city. They were accompanied by all of their allies. As this news spread around the Peloponnese, a number of other cities considered making the same move while the Spartans sent an embassy to Corinth to try and convince them not to turn against Sparta. This embassy failed. A deputation from Elis arrived in Corinth where an alliance was agreed between the two cities. The Eleans then went to Argos and joined their alliance. Soon after this Corinth also joined up, as did the cities of the Chalcidice in Thrace. The Boeotians and Megarians stayed neutral.

Corinth soon began to loose enthusiasm for the new alliance. Argos and Corinth attempted to convince Tegea, a key Spartan ally, to change sides. When Tegea refused to turn against Sparta the Corinthians began to be worried that they would isolated, and that no other Peloponnesian states would join them. The alliance also failed in its first military test. The Spartans decided to move against the Parrhasians, allies of Mantinea in Arcadia, in the centre of the Peloponnese. Argos provided a garrison for the city of Mantinea, leaving the Mantinean army free to help their allies, but despite this the Spartans were victorious. The Parrhasians were detached from their alliance with Mantinea, and a Mantinean fortress was destroyed.

In the winter of 421-420 new ephors came into office in Sparta. The new men were opposed to the peace treaty, and approached the Corinthians and Boeotians with a plan that they hoped would bring it to an end. The plan was for Boeotian to join the Argive alliance and then try and bring Argos into an alliance with Sparta. On their way home the Boeotian and Corinthian representatives ran into two senior leaders from Argos, who also suggested that Boeotian join the new alliance. The Boeotian military leaders supported this plan, but they still had to convince the four Councils of Boeotia to approve the new alliance. The councils had not been informed of the suggestion made by the ephors in Sparta, and voted against the proposal. Instead, early in 420 BC the Boeotians agreed a new alliance with Sparta.

This left the Argives feeling isolated. They believed that the Athenians must have known of the new alliance between Sparta and Boeotia, and were worried that their entire new alliance would soon side with the Spartans. Accordingly they sent an embassy to Sparta to discuss a new peace treaty. These ambassadors came close to success, but support for their mission faded after the Argives realised that the Athenians were actually increasingly angry with the Spartans, who they believed had breached the peace treaty. The Argives then sent an embassy to Athens, where with the support of the young politician Alcibiades they were successful, eventually getting the Athenians to join their alliance. The Allies now included Argos, Athens, Mantinea and the Eleans, Corinth didn't joint this new alliance, and technically it didn’t breach the alliance between Sparta and Athens, or the peace treaty, both of which remained in force.

The armies began to march in 419 BC. An Athenian army under the command of Alcibiades marched through the Peloponnese visiting the new allies. A Spartan army under King Agis marched to the border, then turned back because the sacrifices were unfavourable. Once the Spartans had retreated the Argives invaded Epidaurus. A Spartan force marched to stop them, but once again turned back after the auspices were bad, and an Athenian force send to support the Argives turned back once they learnt that the Spartans had retreated. In the meantime Epidaurus was ravaged.

The next major clash came in 418 BC. Once again Epidaurus was under pressure, and the Spartans decided to help. They ordered their allies to meet up at Phlius, and assembled an impressive army. The Boeotians sent 5,000 hoplites, 5,000 light troop, 500 cavalry and 500 infantry trained to fight alongside the cavalry. Rather tellingly Corinth sent 2,000 hoplites. The Argives also summoned their allies, and received help from Mantinea and Elis.

The two armies came close to a battle on a number of occasions, but this first campaign ended without a major battle. On the day before the battle finally seemed inevitable two leaders from Argos and King Agis from Sparta met and agreed to arbitration. The two armies disengaged, but the move was unpopular on both sides, with members of both armies believing that they had missed a chance for a great victory.

Soon after this non-battle, the Athenians arrived to join their allies. The united armed besieged and captured Orchomenus in Arcadia, and then moved to Mantinea, where they prepared to attack Tegea. The Spartans reacted by sending a large army to support their allies. The two sides met in battle at Mantinea (418 BC), and the Spartans were victorious. In the following year the Argives made peace with Sparta, and the alliance they had formed collapsed. Although Spartan and Athenian forces had clashed at Mantinea, no terms of the Peace of Nicias had been breached, and so the uneasy peace continued.


Something of a stalemate now developed in Greece, with Sparta and Athens each involved in minor actions that didn't lead to a breach of the Peace of Nicias, but that did mean that the conflict continued. Despite the defeat at Mantinea, the Athenian public remained confident, and so when an embassy appeared from some of the Greek cities of Sicily asking for help the Athenians were in the right mood to respond. They had already campaigned on Sicily, although only on a small scale, and had allies on the island. In 416 BC one of those allies, Segesta, went to war with Selinus but was defeated. The Segestans then allied with Leontine, another Athenian ally, and the two cities sent an embassy to Athens asking for help against Selinus and its ally Syracuse. A number of arguments were used in an attempt to gain Athenian support, including the idea that Syracuse might be about to gain control over the entire island, and would then help Sparta against Athens.

The Athenian people were soon won over to the idea of a campaign on Sicily, but not all of their leaders shared this enthusiasm. Nicias was particularly opposed to the war, believing that the Athenians were underestimating the difficult of the task. When his first arguments failed, Nicias tried exaggerating the size of army and navy that he believed it would take to succeed, but this backfired, and the assembly granted the generals all of the ships and men that Nicias had demanded. The army was to be commanded by Nicias, his political opponent and supporter of the war Alcibiades and the older but less important general Lamachus.

The expedition began badly. The Athenians had hoped to find allies amongst the Greek cities of southern Italy, but even their long-terms allies in Rhegium refused to take sides. The money promised by Segesta also failed to appear, and turned out not to exist, the Athenian envoys sent to investigate it having been the victims of an elaborate con. The three generals each proposed a different solution to the problem. Lamachus wanted to launch a surprise attack on Syracuse. Nicias wanted to visit Segesta and Selinus, see if any Sicilians supported him, and if not return to Athens. Alcibiades wanted to seek allies from every power on Sicily, and especially Messenia, at the north-eastern corner of the island. The allied army would then advance on Syracuse. Lamachus eventually supported Alcibiades, but his plan suffered an early setback when Messenia refused to support the Athenians.

The first Athenian success came at Catane, half way between Syracuse and Messenia. After originally refusing to admit the Athenians, the city was won over, and the Athenian expedition finally had a suitable base on Sicily. Soon after this Alcibiades suffered a dramatic fall from power. He was accused of impiety, and a trireme sent from Athens to arrest him. He was forced to leave Sicily, but managed to escape arrest and take refuse in the Peloponnese.

This left Nicias and Lamachus in joint command. They were now to win the only major Athenian victory of the campaign, but failed to take advantage of it. Realising that the Syracusan cavalry made it very difficult for their army to move on land, the Athenians decided to trick the Syracusans into marching towards Catane. They then shipped their entire army to a position at the southern end of the Great Harbour at Syracuse (putting them several miles south of the city). The Syracusan army marched back south, only to suffer a defeat in a battle fought on ground of the Athenian's choosing. The Athenian victory at the battle of Syracuse (or of the Anapus River) of 415 BC had no long term impact on the war. Soon after winning the victory the Athenians abandoned their camp close to Syracuse and returned to Catane. This is generally seen as the turning point of the campaign. By failing to press their advantage after the battle the Athenians gave their enemies time to recover, and for Syracuse to persuade Sparta to declare war and send some limited aid.

The winter of 415-414 went badly for the Athenians. The Syracusans raided their camp at Catane, forcing them to spend the winter at Naxos. Their attempts to find allies on Sicily were generally unsuccessful. Both Athens and Syracuse sent envoys to Camarina, but the city decided to stay neutral. The Athenians had also expected to find allies amongst the Sicels, one of the native groups on Sicily, and some independent Sicel communities did come over to them, but most were dominated by Syracusan garrisons and remained loyal. The Syracusans were much more active. The walls of Syracuse were extended to make it harder for the Athenians to build siege walls around the city. The temple of Zeus was fortified. Spikes were driven into the sea at any potential landing point. They also sent envoys to Greece, where they attempted to gain support from Corinth and Sparta.

The Syracusan envoys were received with enthusiasm in Corinth, and the Corinthians voted to provide them with as much direct support as possible. They also agreed to try and persuade the Spartans to support Syracuse and to wage open war against Athens in Greece. The envoys arrived in Sparta at the same time as Alcibiades, who now spoke in favour of a Spartan intervention on Sicily. He claimed that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily, the Italian cities in Italy and Carthage, before returning to crush Sparta. The Spartans agreed to send a small force, under the command of Gylippus, to help Syracuse.

The Athenian siege of Syracuse began in the spring of 414 BC. At first things went their way. They began to build a blockading wall around the city, and stopped two attempts to built counter walls. Unfortunately Lamachus was killed during this fighting, leaving Nicias in command. He appears to have been a rather careless commander, and when Gylippus arrived on Sicily he was able to get past the Athenian lines, and join up with the Syracusans. With his help the defenders were finally able to build a counter wall that blocked the progress of the Athenian wall north of the city, preventing the city from being blockaded.

The second year of the siege began with a land and naval battle that saw the Athenians defeat the Syracusan fleet, but lose control of the headland at the southern entrance to the Grand Harbour. From now on they had to fight to get supplies to their army and navy inside the harbour. A second naval battle ended in an Athenian defeat - a great shock for a maritime power. Crumbling Athenian morale was restored when Demosthenes arrived with reinforcements, but he then attempted an ambitious night attack on the Syracusan fortifications on the heights and suffered a significant defeat.

The Athenians now realised that they had to retreat, but dithered over how and when to escape. Just as they were about to leave by sea there was an eclipse of the moon, and the more superstitious members of the army (including Nicias) insisted that they wait for 27 days. This gave the Syracusans time to prepare for them, and the attempt to leave by sea ended in defeat. This forced the Athenians to move by land. Short of supplies, this retreat ended in disaster, and the entire Athenian force surrendered. Nicias and Demosthenes were executed, and the surviving Athenians put to work in the stone quarries outside Syracuse.

The Last Years

The Spartans officially resumed hostilities in 414, using some Athenian naval incursions into their waters as the official pretext. The Spartans, advised by Alcibiades, decided to occupy a fortress in Athenian territory, and in the spring of 413 captured Decelea, on the slopes of Mount Parnes. This position was visible from Athens, and would become a permanent thorn in their sides. The Spartans were able to raid Attica at will. They also blocked the land route to Euboia, a large island that had provided Athens with much of its food, and Decelea became a refuge for Athenian slaves. The Spartans also began to build a large fleet of their own. This would be the key to the final Spartan victory - despite a number of naval defeats they now had the resources to replace their losses, and rapidly gained experience of naval warfare. Eventually the Athenians would lose control of the sea, and with it the entire war.

The Athenian disaster on Sicily encouraged revolts across their empire. The Spartans almost had too many potential new allies, each making a different demand. The Euboeans were first to arrive in the winter of 413-2. They were followed by a contingent from Lesbos, then from Chios, and then by representatives from two of the nearest Persian satraps. Both had the same idea - use the Spartans to weaken Athenian control over the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Tissaphernes wanted the Spartans to campaign in western Asia Minor, while Pharnabazus wanted them to operate in the Hellespont.

The Spartans decided that their campaign in 412 would start with a naval expedition to Chios, and then to Lesbos. This expedition ended rather disastrously. The Athenians discovered that Chios was planning to revolt, and managed to intercept and destroy the Spartan fleet at Spiraeum, in Corinthian territory. Alcibiades convinced the Spartans to send a second fleet, and accompanied this smaller force of five ships in person. The Athenians won a second victory in this period, defeating a fleet of Peloponnesian ships coming back from Sicily off Leucadia.

Alcibiades' arrival encouraged the Chians to begin their revolt. Clazomenae soon joined the revolt. The Athenians immediately sent a small fleet to the area, but it was forced to flee to Samos. The revolt then spread to Teos and Miletus. A larger Athenian fleet reached Miletus just after the revolt, and took up a position on the nearby island of Lade, from where they blockaded Miletus.

Soon after the revolt of Miletus, Sparta and Persia concluded a formal alliance. This treaty had four clauses: All territory and all cities now or in the past held by the king of Persia (at this point Darius II) should be held by him; Both Spartan and the Persians should attempt to stop any money from reaching Athens; Both sides should make war on Athens and should only make peace with the others agreement; Anyone who revolts against either Persian or Sparta to be considered an enemy of the other.

A series of minor engagements then took place on the coast of Asia Minor, with most focus on Chios and Miletus. The Athenians won a victory outside Miletus, but on the same day a large Peloponnesian fleet arrived (accompanied by a number of Syracusan ships that had sailed east to join the attack on Athens, and so nothing was gained. The Athenian fleet escaped to Samos. At the same time Chios was effectively besieged.

Over the winter of 412-411 the treaty between Sparta and Persian was renegotiated. This time Sparta agreed not to attack any Persian possession or former possession, not to take tribute from any of them, the Persians agreed not to attack the Spartans, both agreed to help the other, although the exact nature of the help was left unclear, both sides agreed to make war jointly against the Athenians, and only make peace together. Any troops fighting on Persian territory at the request of the Persians would be paid by the Persians. The final clauses are an interesting reflection on the somewhat chaotic nature of both the Spartan alliance and the Persian Empire. If any state that had signed up to the treaty attacked Persian, then the Spartans agreed to stop them, while the Persians agreed to stop anyone who attacked the Spartans from their territory.

The changing balance of naval power was demonstrated over the winter of 412/11, when the Spartans won a minor naval victory over an Athenian fleet off Cnidus. In the aftermath of this defeat a second Athenian fleet appeared on the scene, but refused to fight. The Athenians were now well aware that they couldn't afford to risk a defeat.

At this point cracks began to appear in the alliance between Persian and Sparta. The key to the problem was that both treaties had referred to all territories currently controlled by the Great King and all territories once controlled by him or his predecessors. This would have included a large number of Aegean islands, Thessaly and parts of Greece down to Boeotia. The Spartan negotiators demanded a better treaty, and Tissaphernes left in a rage.

The winter of 412-411 saw the start of a dramatic political crisis in Athens. It began when some of the Spartans turned on Alcibiades and ordered their commander in Asia Minor to kill him. Alcibiades escaped to Tissaphernes, and became his advisor. Alcibiades suggested that a total Spartan victory would be against their best interests. Instead they should play the two sides off against each other, weaken them as much as possible and then expel the Spartans from Asia Minor. Tissaphernes accepted this advice, and began to delay his support for the Spartans.

Alcibiades then worked on getting recalled to Athens. He decided that his best chance was to convince the Athenians to overthrow their own democracy and implement an oligarchy. He found support amongst the fleet at Samos and amongst the richer citizens back in Athens.

In one of the most extraordinary twists of the war, the Athenians now proposed to vote away their own democracy. The argument used to convince them was that their only chance to win the war was to gain the support of the Persian king, and the only way to achieve this was to replace the unpredictable democracy with a more stable oligarchy, as well as to recall Alcibiades. Both proposals were initially very unpopular in Athens, but eventually the people began to be won over by a lack of any obvious alternative. Even so it took a coup to actually make the change.

The negotiations with the Persians soon proved disappointing. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades decided to sabotage the talks because he wasn't sure of his own status with Tissaphernes. Alcibiades made a series of increasingly unacceptable demands. First he demanded the return of all the Greek cities of Asia Minor to Persia, then the return of a number of Aegean islands. Both of these proposals were accepted by the Athenians, but then Alcibiades demanded that the Persians be allowed to build as large a fleet as they like in the Aegean. This was too much, and the negotiations were broken off.

After the end of these negotiations Tissaphernes arranged a third treaty with the Spartans. This was similar to the second treaty, but with no mention of lands that had formerly belonged to the Persians, and a promise that a Persian fleet would join the Spartans. This treaty greatly reduced Alcibiades' usefulness to the Persians, and also removed one of the main reasons for the Athenian abandonment of democracy.

Despite the changing circumstances, the plotters still continued to work towards replacing Athenian democracy. A series of political murders began in Athens, and the supports of democracy were intimidated by violence. A council was then called, and the new system was forced into place. The democratic council of 500 was replaced by a newly selected council of 400. This council was to select a group of 5,000 richer Athenians who would form the new assembly. Pay for public service was abolished.

When the news of the coup reached Samos the fleet refused to accept it, and set itself up as the last refuge of the democracy. The Spartans reacted by bringing an army to Athens, hoping to take advantage of the possible chaos in the city, but despite the coup the city's defenders were still alert and the Spartans retreated. Serious negotiations then began between Sparta and the Athenian oligarchs. The Spartans in Asia Minor were also unable to take advantage of the turmoil in the Athenian camp. In a rather ironic twist, the democrats at Samos now invited Alcibiades to join them, and then to lead them.

The 400 quickly lost their grip on Athens. The turning point came when a Spartan fleet sailed past the city and landed on Euboea. The Athenians suffered a defeat at Eretria (411 BC), and the island of Euboea rebelled. This cut Athens off from one of its last remaining source of food, leaving the city reliant on food from the Black Sea.

In the aftermath of this defeat the people of Athens overthrew the 400. It was officially replaced by a new '5,000', this time made up of every citizen who could afford to equip themselves as a hoplite. The fall of the oligarchy restored the link between the city and its fleet, and morale was soon restored by a military victory. The battle of Cynossema (411 BC) saw an Athenian fleet defeat a Peloponnesian fleet that had entered the Hellespont. Indeed this area would become the main theatre of the war for the next few years, and a second victory was won soon afterwards at Abydos.

Sadly at this point the surviving copies of Thucydides end in the middle of a sentence. Our main source after this is the Hellenica of Xenophon, a useful but rather less impressive work of history. Diodorus also provides a version of events, although this is more variable in quality.

In 410 the Athenians won a major victory that appeared to have altered the balance of power once again. The battle of Cyzicus (410 BC) saw the Peloponnesian fleet in the Hellespont virtually destroyed, securing Athens's grain supply from the Black Sea. Byzantium, which had rebelled against Athens, held out, but was now isolated.

This victory ended the rule of the '5,000' and saw the restoration of the democracy. The military situation continued to fluctuate. In 410 the Messenian garrison of Pylos was forced to surrender. In 409 the Athenians won a land battle near Megara against a force that included a number of Spartans. In 408 the Athenians went onto the offensive around the Hellespont, capturing a number of cities including Byzantium.

The final phase of the war began in 407. In this year the Spartans appointed a new admiral, Lysander, to command their fleet in the Aegean. He would prove to be an able leader who improved the quality of the Peloponnesian fleet, and laid the foundation of the final Spartan victory. In the same year Cyrus, the younger son of the Great King, was appointed as satrap of Lydia, Great Phrygia and Cappadocia. He was determined to support Sparta and to ensure the defeat of Athens.

In 406 Alcibiades fell from grace for a second time. He was appointed to command the army fighting in Asia Minor, but he was not entirely trusted by the fleet. In the spring he left the main fleet to visit Thrasybulus, leaving his helmsman Antiochus in command. Antiochus was ordered not to risk a battle, but he was unable to resist the chance to ambush some of Lysander's fleets. The resulting battle of Notium was a minor Athenian defeat, but Alcibiades was blamed for it, was removed from his command, and decided to go into exile in Thrace instead of risking a return to Athens.

The same period saw a change of command on the Spartan side, where Lysander was replaced by Callicratidas. The new commander was apparently unpopular with the fleet, and definitely with Cyrus, but his time in command would be short. The Athenian fleet, now under Conon, was blockaded in Mytilene. A messenger managed to reach Athens, where a fresh fleet of 110 ships was raised. This fleet crossed the Aegean, collecting another 40 ships on the way. The two sides clashed in the battle of the Arginusae Islands (406 BC), a major Athenian victory. The Spartans lost more than seventy ships, the Athenians twenty-five. Callicratidas was amongst the dead.

The aftermath of the defeat was disastrous for Athens. A storm blew up soon after the fight ended, and the Athenians were unable to rescue the survivors of the twenty-five lost ships. Eight of the generals were recalled to Athens. Six went, while two fled. After a prolonged debate the six generals were condemned to death. Thrasyllus, one of the more experienced commanders of the last few years, was amongst the victims of this hysterical over-reaction. The Athenians then reacted against their own behaviour, and Callixenus, the man who had proposed the death penalty, was himself soon killed.

By the start of the campaigning season of 405 BC Lysander had been restored to command, although officially as second in command to get around a Spartan rule against serving for two terms in a single command. Towards the end of the summer Lysander took his large fleet into the Hellespont, in an attempt to intercept the Athenian grain fleets. An Athenian fleet of 180 ships followed, under three new generals. For four days the two fleets faced each other across the Hellespont, the Athenians at Aegospotami, the Spartans at Lampsacus. On five days the Athens put to sea to offer battle, and Lysander refused to take the bait. On the fifth day, as soon as the Athenians returned to shore and dispersed from their ships, Lysander attacked. The resulting battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) was the final decisive battle of the long Great Peloponnesian War. Caught entirely by surprise, the Athenian fleet was annihilated. Conan escaped with eight or nine ships, but the rest of the fleet was captured, along with two of the three generals.

Everyone now knew that the war was effectively over. Both of the Spartan kings led an army to Athens - Agis from the fort at Decelea, Pausanias from the Peloponnese. Lysander sailed to the Piraeus with 150 ships, and blockaded the city from the sea. The resulting siege of Athens lasted into 404 BC, but the final outcome was never in doubt. The only issue was what terms would be imposed. Corinth and Thebes led a group of cities that wanted to see Athens destroyed, the men of military age executed and everyone else sold into slavery, but the Spartans refused to impose such draconian terms (officially because of the important services Athens had performed for Greece, but probably because they didn't want to see either Corinth or Thebes step into a power vacuum in Attica).

The final terms were comparatively moderate, considering the length and often bitter nature of the war. Athens was to dismantle the Long Walls and the fortifications of the Piraeus. She was only allowed to retain twelve warships. Exiles were to be allowed to return home and Athens was to become an ally of Sparta on the same terms as members of the Peloponnesian League - to have the same friends and enemies as Sparta and to follow them on land and sea. After the terms were accepted Lysander's fleet sailed into the Piraeus, and began to demolish the walls to the sound of flutes.


In some ways Athens quickly recovered from her defeat. The democracy was overthrown and replaced by the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, but this was short-lived. The democracy was soon restored, and Athens soon regained some naval power and a more limited empire. Sparta's attempt to gain control of at least part of the old Athenian empire failed, and their alliance with Persian soon came to an end. By 395 Sparta had so annoyed her former allies that a new war broke out, the Corinthian War (395-387 BC). This time Thebes, Corinth and Persia allied with Athens against Sparta, and an Athenian admiral commanded the Persian fleet. This war was ended by the King's Peace of 387, in which the King of Persian promised to guarantee the autonomy of all Greek cities outside Asia Minor. At the same time most of the restrictions on Athens were removed.

The real significance of the Great Peloponnesian War was that it ended any chance that Athens would come to dominate the Greek world. The rule of Imperial Athens would probably have been far harsher than we tend to realise - her democracy was firmly limited to citizens of Athens, and that citizenship was far more limited than in the later Roman Empire. Sparta and later Thebes would also fail to dominate Greece. Fifty years after Sparta's humbling of Athens, Philip II of Macedon would appear on the scene, and the period of the independent Greek cities states would soon come to a permanent end.

Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC - History

The Peloponnesian Wars ("The Great War" 431-404 BC)

The Peloponnesian Wars were a series of conflicts between Athens and Sparta. These wars also involved most of the Greek world, because both Athens and Sparta had leagues, or alliances, which brought their allies into the wars as well. The Athenian Thucydides is the primary source of the wars, as he fought on the side of Athens. Thucydides was ostracized after the Spartans' decisive victory at the Battle of Amphipolis in 422 BC, where Thucydides was one of the Athenian commanders. Thucydides wrote a book called The History of the Peloponnesian War. From 431 to 404 BC the conflict escalated into what is known as the "Great War." To the Greeks, the "Great War" was a world war, not only involving much of the Greek world, but also the Macedonians, Persians, and Sicilians.

The Peloponnesian Wars were ugly, with both sides committing atrocities. Before the Peloponnesian Wars, wars lasted only a few hours, and the losing side was treated with dignity. The losers were rarely, if ever, chased down and stabbed in the back. Prisoners were treated with respect and released. Thucydides warns us in his histories that the longer wars go, the more violent, and less civilized they become. During the Peloponnesian Wars, prisoners were hunted down, tortured, thrown into pits to die of thirst and starvation, and cast into the waters to drown at sea. Innocent school children were murdered, and whole cities were destroyed. These wars turned very personal, as both Athens and Sparta felt that their way of life was being threatened by the other power.

As you read in the last chapter, Athens, along with about 150 other city-states, formed the Delian League as a way to protect against a possible Persian invasion. If any one of the Delian league members was attacked, the other league members would come to their support. In 466 BC, an important battle took place at Eurymedon, off the coast of Asia Minor. The Delian League navy crushed the Persian navy so badly, that some of the Delian league members thought the threat by Persia was gone, and the league was no longer necessary. Some of the islands in the Aegean wanted to leave the league, they no longer wanted to pay money and provide ships. Athens stepped in and did not permit these Greeks to leave the league. Athens treated these city-states harshly by tearing down their walls, taking their fleet of ships, and insisting they continue to pay the league taxes. Apparently is was easy to join the Delian League, but impossible to back out, and the league was beginning to look more like an Athenian empire.

The Pentecontaetia &ldquothe period of fifty years&rdquo (a word created by Thucydides) was the time from the end of the Persian Wars to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides tells us that this was a time of distrust between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides tells us that Athens greatness during this period brought fear to Sparta. What is interesting about that statement is that for the first time in history, emotion is said to be the cause of a war.

Let me give you one example of the distrust between the two city-states. As you read in the last chapter, a great earthquake rocked Sparta in 465 BC. The desperate Spartans asked Athens for help, but when the Athenians sent hoplites to Sparta, the Spartans, having second thoughts, sent them back to Athens. The Spartans put down the helot rebellion on their own, but could not remove a band of helots from high on a mountain top fortress. A deal was struck where the Spartans promised the helots they could leave the citadel peacefully, if the helots promised to move outside of Spartan territory. Thinking that the helots would scatter, the Spartans were alarmed to find out that the Athenians allowed all of these helots to settle in Naupactus, an Athenian controlled harbor city on the Corinthian gulf, directly across from Peloponnese. Here, the helots were free to do great harm to Sparta and her allies by controlling the gulf.

Athens had everything going for it before the outbreak of the "Great War." Athens controlled the Aegean Sea, and bullied the Delian League, so that only two other city-states in the league had their own navies. In 454-53 BC, Athens moved the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens, creating a bank in the back of the newly-built Parthenon on the Acropolis. Athens then demanded 1/60th of the league money for a "donation to Athena," which really meant it was a tax on the league members going directly to Athens. The Athenians had allies all around them by land, including an alliance with Megara, a former Peloponnesian League friend of Sparta. Athens also and controlled the seas.

Phase One of the Great War - The Archidamian War (431-421 BC)

The Peloponnesian League met in 432 BC. Corinth, a city-state in that league, complained that Sparta was not doing enough to control Athens. Sparta decided to go to war with Athens. Pericles, whom we read about in the last chapter, was the clear leader of Athens at this point, replacing Cimon, who had been ostracized, and later, after returning to Athens, had died fighting the Persians. Pericles was confident in a quick Athenian victory. If the Spartans and their allies should invade Athenian territory, the Athenians could hide behind the Long Walls. Pericles knew that the Spartans had no knowledge of siege warfare, or destroying walls. The Spartans could destroy the farmland of Attica (Athenian territory), but grain would continue to flow from the Black Sea to the port of Piraeus, and then into Athens.

In 431 BC, King Archidamius of Sparta invaded Athenian territory. The Spartans only stayed for a few months, cut down some olive trees, and then headed back to the Peloponnese. They repeated this in 430 BC. In that same year, Pericles gave his famous "Funeral Oration," in which he praised the dead Athenian soldiers for giving their lives for Athens. Pericles went on to say that Athens would win, because Athens' way of life was clearly better than Sparta's.

Pericles felt Athens would win a quick victory over Sparta. Pericles felt that after a few years of raiding the Athenian countryside, the Spartans would eventually become frustrated by the Long Walls and agree to peace on Athens' terms. But then, something went terribly wrong for Athens. In 429 BC, a plague hit Athens. Some of the grain coming into Piraeus was tainted, and people started to die in the streets. Athens had become over-crowded as all of the people of Attica were now cramped into the city, fearful of the Spartans. Disease spread quickly, and the Long Walls became a prison, rather than a fortress. Around 30,000 Athenians died, including Pericles, the Athenian leader. Thucydides contracted the plague, but survived. The Spartans quickly left Attica, fearful that they may catch the plague as well. The war dragged on.

In 428 BC the Athenians had gained a foothold in the Peloponnese, by taking the old City of Pylos. When the Spartans tried to regain the city, 400 Spartan hoplites became trapped on the nearby Island of Sphacteria. The Athenians starved the Spartans into eventual surrender and brought 120 Spartan hoplites back to Athens. They placed these Spartan hoplites on display in a human zoo, as no Athenian had seen a Spartan hoplite up close. Sparta was desperate to have these warriors returned, and was willing to comes to terms with Athens.

Phase Two &ndash Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (421-413 BC)

In 421 BC, a 50-year peace treaty was signed by Sparta and Athens, the treaty was called the Peace of Nicias, named after the Athenian who made the treaty. One of the terms was that the captured Spartan hoplites be allowed to return home. It was a shaky peace at best, and in 420 BC, the Spartans were accused of marching hoplites into Elis during an Olympic year. Sparta was not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. At this time some of the Peloponnesian League cities decided to rebel against Sparta, and were helped by Argos, the long-time enemy of Sparta, and by Athens. In 418 BC, the largest land battle of the war took place in the Peloponnese at Mantinea. Here Sparta defeated Argos, Athens and their Peloponnesian allies, and returned them to the Peloponnesian League. During the war, Athens always won at sea, but lost on land. Some historians compare Athens to the whale, and Sparta to the elephant.

416-413 BC &ndash The Sicilian Expedition

In 416 BC, Alcibiades, a young Athenian and follower of the philosopher, Socrates, convinced the Athenians to take the war to Sicily, by attacking the city-state of Syracuse. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and friendly to the Peloponnesian League. Alcibiades was very convincing, as he was an excellent public speaker. Alcibiades made the point that if Athens should take Syracuse, all of Sicily would fall, and give Athens new riches and power. It would only be a matter of time before Sparta would surrender. Sicily was 800 miles away from Athens, and it would take several ships in the Athenian navy to attack Syracuse.

The night before the expedition set sail, the sacred statues of Hermes were vandalized. Alcibiades and his friends were accused of drinking and then smashing the statues. This was awkward, because Alcibiades was the leader of the expedition. Alcibiades was allowed to set sail with the Athenian fleet, but when the fleet arrived at Thurii, a Greek colony on the southern coast of Italy, a messenger ship from Athens caught up with the fleet. This small boat was to take Alcibiades back to Athens, as he had been tried and convicted of smashing the statues. Unwilling to return, Alcibiades, along with his pet dog, jumped ship and swam to Thurii.

Nicias was now in charge of the attack on Syracuse, even though he had argued against it back in Athens. When the Athenian fleet landed in Sicily, close to Syracuse, the unwilling Nicias dragged his feet. The Athenians were slow to make the necessary walls to close off Syracuse by land, even though the mighty Athenian Fleet had closed of Syracuse by the sea.

Meanwhile, Alcibiades fled to Sparta, where he convinced the Spartans to help the Syracusans. Sparta sent one boat to Syracuse with a commander by the name of Gylippus. Gylippus raised an army in Sicily and defeated the Athenians. Foolishly, Nicias asked Athens to send reinforcements. When the new soldiers arrived, the Athenians finally decided the war was lost and to head back home. A rare lunar eclipse prevented the Athenian fleet from leaving the harbor, and during that delay, the Syracusans placed a metal chain across the harbor, trapping the Athenian fleet. The Athenians fled by land, but were hunted down, killed or thrown into pits to starve. Oddly, the Syracusans admired the tragedies of the Athenian playwright, Euripides, and any Athenian prisoner who could give a good performance of lines of Euripides, was released. Nicias was killed, and the Athenians lost most of their fleet. This was the turning-point of the war.

Peloponnesian War Phase Three: The Ionian War (412-404 BC)

At the advice of Alcibiades, the Spartans built a permanent fort in Attica so they could destroy the Athenian countryside year-round. This also cut off the access to the silver mine, and the Athenians were running out of resources. Alcibiades was flirting with the queen of Sparta while her husband was in Athenian territory, as Alcibiades had suggested, year-round. When the Spartan king found out about this, he returned to Sparta, only to find that Alcibiades had fled again, this time to Persia.

Now living in the Persian Empire, Alcibiades convinced the satrap of Lydia to slow down payments to Sparta, which the Persians had used to help Sparta gain a fleet of warships. Alcibiades was now no friend to Sparta, and he told the Persian satrap that by keeping Athens and Sparta even in power, they would eventually wear each other out, leaving the way clear for the Persians to gain power.

Seeing the influence Alcibiades had with Persia, Athens made it clear they wished for him to return and become a general. Athens was hopeful Alcibiades could convince the Persians to give aid to Athens. The Delian League was beginning to crumble, and Athens needed new allies. Alcibiades eventually returned to Athens to a hero's welcome. The charges brought up against Alcibiades for smashing the statues were dropped.

Alcibiades had great victories at the sea battles of Abydos and Cyzicus, keeping Athens in control of the Hellespont, but in 406 BC, at the Battle of Notium, Alcibiades was defeated by Lysander, a Spartan who was comfortable at sea. This Spartan whale would go on to become famous, while Alcibiades was recalled to Athens. Rather than face a trial, Alcibiades retired.

In 406 BC, the Athenians won the Battle of Arginusea, but the commanders of the fleet did not attempt to rescue sailors from the sea. Back in Athens these commanders were put on trial and sentenced to death. Socrates, the father of philosophy, protested this outcome. Socrates was no fan of democracy, as he felt it led to mob rule, and poor decision making.

Finally, in 405 BC, at the Battle of Aegospotami , Lysander captured the Athenian fleet in the Hellespont. Lysander then sailed to Athens and closed off the Port of Piraeus. Athens was forced to surrender, and Sparta won the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.

Gray crossed swords indicate a Spartan victory, Black crossed swords indicate an Athenian victory. Explosion icon: Delian League member revolt Green: Neutral areas Yellow: Persian Empire

Spartans terms were lenient. First, the democracy was replaced by on oligarchy of thirty Athenians, friendly to Sparta. The Delian League was shut down, and Athens was reduced to a limit of ten triremes. Finally, the Long Walls were taken down. Within four years, the Athenians overthrew the "Thirty Tyrants" and restored their democracy. Looking for someone to blame for the loss to Sparta, the Athenians placed Socrates on trial. He was found guilty of corrupting the minds of young Athenians, and not believing in the gods. Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock, a slow acting poison that you drink from a cup.

The Peloponnesian War had a lasting effect on the Greek world. Both Sparta and Athens were weakend. Thebes, defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC to become the most powerful Greek polis, and then, Philip II of Macedonia defeated Thebes and the Greek allies to become master of the Greek world. We will learn more about Philip and his son Alexander in the next chapter.

Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC - History

The Peloponnesian War is the name given to the long series of conflicts between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 until 404 BC.

The reasons for this war are sometimes traced back as far as the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes, which Sparta always opposed. However, the more immediate reason for the war was Athenian control of the Delian League, the vast naval alliance that allowed it to dominate the Mediterranean Sea.

By 454 BC, when the League's treasury was transferred to Athens, the alliance had become an empire in all but name. Over the next two decades it began treating its fellow members as ruled subjects rather than partners, and fought several short wars to force members who wanted to leave the League to rejoin it.

In 433 BC, when Athens signed a treaty of mutual protection with Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) - one of the few other city-states with a major navy of its own - Sparta and its allies interpreted the move as an act of provocation. A year later Sparta cancelled its peace treaty with Athens.

Then in 431 BC a contingent of soldiers from Thebes, Sparta's ally, tried to seize control of a town called Potidea. Caught and imprisoned, the townspeople put all 200 members of the advanced party to death. When a messenger from Athens arrived the next day to persuade the town against such a rash act, it was too late. The war had begun.


Thucydides is considered to be one of the great "fathers" of Western history, thus making his methodology the subject of much analysis in area of historiography. [ citation needed ]

Chronology Edit

Thucydides is one of the first western historians to employ a strict standard of chronology, recording events by year, with each year consisting of the summer campaign season and a less active winter season. This method contrasts sharply with Herodotus.

Speeches Edit

Thucydides also makes extensive use of speeches in order to elaborate on the event in question. While the inclusion of long first-person speeches is somewhat alien to modern historical method, in the context of ancient Greek oral culture speeches are expected. These include addresses given to troops by their generals before battles and numerous political speeches, both by Athenian and Spartan leaders, as well as debates between various parties. Of the speeches, the most famous is the funeral oration of Pericles, which is found in Book Two. Thucydides undoubtedly heard some of these speeches himself while for others he relied on eyewitness accounts.

These speeches are suspect in the eyes of Classicists, however, inasmuch as it is not clear to what degree Thucydides altered these speeches in order to elucidate better the crux of the argument presented. Some of the speeches are probably fabricated according to his expectations of, as he puts it, "what was called for in each situation" (1.22.1). [4]

Neutrality Edit

Despite being an Athenian and a participant in the conflict, Thucydides is often regarded as having written a generally unbiased account of the conflict with respect to the sides involved in it. In the introduction to the piece he states, "my work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever" (1.22.4).

There are scholars, however, who doubt this. Ernst Badian, for example has argued that Thucydides has a strong pro-Athenian bias. [5] In keeping with this sort of doubt, other scholars claim that Thucydides had an ulterior motive in his Histories, specifically to create an epic comparable to those of the past such as the works of Homer, and that this led him to create a nonobjective dualism favoring the Athenians. [6] The work does display a clear bias against certain people involved in the conflict, such as Cleon. [7]

Role of religion Edit

The gods play no active role in Thucydides' work. This is very different from Herodotus, who frequently mentions the role of the gods, as well as a nearly ubiquitous divine presence in the centuries-earlier poems of Homer. Instead, Thucydides regards history as being caused by the choices and actions of human beings.

Despite the absence of actions of the gods, religion and piety play critical roles in the actions of the Spartans, and to a lesser degree, the Athenians. [8] Thus natural occurrences such as earthquake and eclipses were viewed as religiously significant (1.23.3 7.50.4) [9]

Rationalization of myth Edit

Despite the absence of the gods from Thucydides' work, he still draws heavily from the Greek mythos, especially from Homer, whose works are prominent in Greek mythology. Thucydides references Homer frequently as a source of information, but always adds a distancing clause, such as "Homer shows this, if that is sufficient evidence," and "assuming we should trust Homer's poetry in this case too." [10]

However, despite Thucydides' lack of trust in information that was not experienced firsthand, such as Homer's, he does use the poet's epics to infer facts about the Trojan War. For instance, while Thucydides considered the number of over 1,000 Greek ships sent to Troy to be a poetic exaggeration, he uses Homer's Catalog of Ships to determine the approximate number of Greek soldiers who were present. Later, Thucydides claims that since Homer never makes reference to a united Greek state, the pre-Hellenic nations must have been so disjointed that they could not organize properly to launch an effective campaign. In fact, Thucydides claims that Troy could have been conquered in half the time had the Greek leaders allocated resources properly and not sent a large portion of the army on raids for supplies.

Thucydides makes sure to inform his reader that he, unlike Homer, is not a poet prone to exaggeration, but instead a historian, whose stories may not give "momentary pleasure," but "whose intended meaning will be challenged by the truth of the facts." [11] By distancing himself from the storytelling practices of Homer, Thucydides makes it clear that while he does consider mythology and epics to be evidence, these works cannot be given much credibility, and that it takes an impartial and empirically minded historian, such as himself, to accurately portray the events of the past.

The first book of the History, after a brief review of early Greek history and some programmatic historiographical commentary, seeks to explain why the Peloponnesian War broke out when it did and what its causes were. Except for a few short excursuses (notably 6.54–58 on the Tyrant Slayers), the remainder of the History (books 2 through 8) rigidly maintains its focus on the Peloponnesian War to the exclusion of other topics.

While the History concentrates on the military aspects of the Peloponnesian War, it uses these events as a medium to suggest several other themes closely related to the war. It specifically discusses in several passages the socially and culturally degenerative effects of war on humanity itself. The History is especially concerned with the lawlessness and atrocities committed by Greek citizens to each other in the name of one side or another in the war. Some events depicted in the History, such as the Melian dialogue, describe early instances of realpolitik or power politics.

The History is preoccupied with the interplay of justice and power in political and military decision-making. Thucydides' presentation is decidedly ambivalent on this theme. While the History seems to suggest that considerations of justice are artificial and necessarily capitulate to power, it sometimes also shows a significant degree of empathy with those who suffer from the exigencies of the war.

For the most part, the History does not discuss topics such as the art and architecture of Greece.

Military technology Edit

The History emphasizes the development of military technologies. In several passages (1.14.3, 2.75–76, 7.36.2–3), Thucydides describes in detail various innovations in the conduct of siegeworks or naval warfare. The History places great importance upon naval supremacy, arguing that a modern empire is impossible without a strong navy. He states that this is the result of the development of piracy and coastal settlements in earlier Greece.

Important in this regard was the development, at the beginning of the classical period (c. 500 BC), of the trireme, the supreme naval ship for the next several hundred years. In his emphasis on sea power, Thucydides resembles the modern naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose influential work The Influence of Sea Power upon History helped set in motion the naval arms race prior to World War I.

Empire Edit

The History explains that the primary cause of the Peloponnesian War was the "growth in power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta" (1.23.6). Thucydides traces the development of Athenian power through the growth of the Athenian empire in the years 479 BC to 432 BC in book one of the History (1.89–118). The legitimacy of the empire is explored in several passages, notably in the speech at 1.73–78, where an anonymous Athenian legation defends the empire on the grounds that it was freely given to the Athenians and not taken by force. The subsequent expansion of the empire is defended by these Athenians, ". the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest came afterward." (1.75.3)

The Athenians also argue that, "We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up." (1.76) They claim that anyone in their position would act in the same fashion. The Spartans represent a more traditional, circumspect, and less expansive power. Indeed, the Athenians are nearly destroyed by their greatest act of imperial overreach, the Sicilian expedition, described in books six and seven of the History.

Earth science Edit

Thucydides correlates, in his description of the 426 BC Malian Gulf tsunami, for the first time in the recorded history of natural science, quakes and waves in terms of cause and effect. [12] [13]

Thucydides' History is extraordinarily dense and complex. His particular ancient Greek prose is also very challenging, grammatically, syntactically, and semantically. This has resulted in much scholarly disagreement on a cluster of issues of interpretation.

Strata of composition Edit

It is commonly thought that Thucydides died while still working on the History, since it ends in mid-sentence and only goes up to 410 BC, leaving six years of war uncovered. Furthermore, there is a great deal of uncertainty whether he intended to revise the sections he had already written. Since there appear to be some contradictions between certain passages in the History, it has been proposed that the conflicting passages were written at different times and that Thucydides' opinion on the conflicting matter had changed. Those who argue that the History can be divided into various levels of composition are usually called "analysts" and those who argue that the passages must be made to reconcile with one another are called "unitarians". This conflict is called the "strata of composition" debate. The lack of progress in this debate over the course of the twentieth century has caused many Thucydidean scholars to declare the debate insoluble and to side-step the issue in their work.

Sources Edit

The History is notoriously reticent about its sources. Thucydides almost never names his informants and alludes to competing versions of events only a handful of times. This is in marked contrast to Herodotus, who frequently mentions multiple versions of his stories and allows the reader to decide which is true. Instead, Thucydides strives to create the impression of a seamless and irrefutable narrative. Nevertheless, scholars have sought to detect the sources behind the various sections of the History. For example, the narrative after Thucydides' exile (4.108ff.) seems to focus on Peloponnesian events more than the first four books, leading to the conclusion that he had greater access to Peloponnesian sources at that time.

Frequently, Thucydides appears to assert knowledge of the thoughts of individuals at key moments in the narrative. Scholars have asserted that these moments are evidence that he interviewed these individuals after the fact. However, the evidence of the Sicilian Expedition argues against this, since Thucydides discusses the thoughts of the generals who died there and whom he would have had no chance to interview. Instead it seems likely that, as with the speeches, Thucydides is looser than previously thought in inferring the thoughts, feelings, and motives of principal characters in his History from their actions, as well as his own sense of what would be appropriate or likely in such a situation.

Critical evaluations Edit

The historian J. B. Bury writes that the work of Thucydides "marks the longest and most decisive step that has ever been taken by a single man towards making history what it is today.” [14]

Historian H. D. Kitto feels that Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War not because it was the most significant war in antiquity but because it caused the most suffering. Indeed, several passages of Thucydides' book are written "with an intensity of feeling hardly exceeded by Sappho herself." [15]

In his Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl R. Popper writes that Thucydides was the "greatest historian, perhaps, who ever lived." Thucydides' work, however, Popper goes on to say, represents "an interpretation, a point of view and in this we need not agree with him." In the war between Athenian democracy and the "arrested oligarchic tribalism of Sparta," we must never forget Thucydides' "involuntary bias," and that "his heart was not with Athens, his native city:"

"Although he apparently did not belong to the extreme wing of the Athenian oligarchic clubs who conspired throughout the war with the enemy, he was certainly a member of the oligarchic party, and a friend neither of the Athenian people, the demos, who had exiled him, nor of its imperialist policy."

Thucydides' History has been enormously influential in both ancient and modern historiography. It was embraced by many of the author's contemporaries and immediate successors with enthusiasm indeed, many authors sought to complete the unfinished history. For example, Xenophon wrote his Hellenica as a continuation of Thucydides' work, beginning at the exact moment that Thucydides' History leaves off. Xenophon's work, however, is generally considered inferior in style and accuracy compared with Thucydides'. [ citation needed ] In later antiquity, Thucydides' reputation suffered somewhat, with critics such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus rejecting the History as turgid and excessively austere. Lucian also parodies it (among others) in his satire The True Histories. Woodrow Wilson read the History on his voyage across the Atlantic to the Versailles Peace Conference. [16]

In the 17th century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about Thucydides as follows:

It hath been noted by divers, that Homer in poesy, Aristotle in philosophy, Demosthenes in eloquence, and others of the ancients in other knowledge, do still maintain their primacy: none of them exceeded, some not approached, by any in these later ages. And in the number of these is justly ranked also our Thucydides a workman no less perfect in his work, than any of the former and in whom (I believe with many others) the faculty of writing history is at the highest. [17]

The most important manuscripts include: Codex Parisinus suppl. Gr. 255, Codex Vaticanus 126, Codex Laurentianus LXIX.2, Codex Palatinus 252, Codex Monacensis 430, Codex Monacensis 228, and Codex Britannicus II, 727. [18]

Grenfell and Hunt discovered about 20 papyrus fragments copied some time between the 1st and 6th centuries AD in Oxyrhynchus, including Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 16 and 17.

Peloponnesian War 431–404 BC

The Peloponnesian War is the name given to the great conflict between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies that broke out in 431 BC and ended with the surrender of Athens in 404 BC. Warfare was not continuous: ten years of fighting (often called the Archidamian War after the Spartan king Archidamus II, who led the first three invasions of Attica) were concluded by the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC eight years of uneasy peace and occasional clashes followed, during which the Athenians’ great Sicilian expedition was disastrously defeated (413 BC), before the peace was abrogated (also in 413) and the final phase, sometimes known as the Ionian War, began.

The Thirty Years’ Peace of winter 446/45 BC, which had ended the earlier period of sporadic warfare between Athens and Sparta, had removed all Athenian footholds from the Peloponnese and the isthmus of Corinth and appeared to regulate relations between the two states for the future. But the Athenians’ control of the subject allies that formed their empire was unimpaired and, when their continuing expansionism led them in 433 BC into actions over Corfu, Potidaea, and Megara that were not against the letter of the peace, but were seen by the Spartans’ most influential allies, the Corinthians, as against its spirit and hostile to themselves, the Spartans decided to go to war if the Athenians did not back down (late 432 BC). Despite some busy Spartan diplomacy, Pericles persuaded the Athenians to stand firm and hostilities began in spring 431 BC, with the Spartans widening the issues by demanding that the Athenians free their subject allies (Thucydides, 1. 139).

At the start the Spartans expected to achieve their aims quickly by invading Attica, provoking the Athenians into battle and defeating them, an expectation shared, says Thucydides (7. 28), by most other Greeks. But, although they led Peloponne-sian armies into Attica in five of the first seven years of the war and did a great deal of damage to Athenian agriculture, they could not draw the Athenians out to fight, an assault on their fortifications being out of the question. Meanwhile any hopes they had of challenging Athenian naval power proved groundless. Without the resources to build and man a large enough fleet, they tried to obtain Persian help, but the Persians were not interested so long as Athenian naval power was unimpaired, and the same factor deterred Athens’ maritime allies from rebelling and transferring their money and rowers to support the Spartans in the first ten years of the war just one of them, Lesbos, revolted in 428 BC and in 427 BC learned the hard way that the Spartans could do nothing effective to help them. One area of the Athenian empire, the Chalcidice peninsula, was vulnerable to the Spartans’ land power, but they were slow to exploit this advantage, despite the fact that the Corinthians had been able to send a small army to the area in 432 BC to help Potidaea and that the Potidaeans did hold out under siege until winter 430/ 29 BC, while other smaller rebels nearby were never subdued. Eventually in 424 BC Brasidas did take a force to Chalcidice and, despite having only 1,700 hoplites, who were volunteers and liberated helots, won over a number of the Athenians’ allies and their substantial colony at Amphipolis.

The Athenians’ unassailable fortifications and their dominant fleet kept them safe from immediate danger provided that they avoided major battles on land, but, despite Pericles’ public confidence in their financial strength (Thucydides, 2. 13), they were not adequately funded for a long war. It is possible that Pericles, who evidently directed their strategy, planned to use the fleet for offensive operations and that the attack he led on Epidaurus in spring 430 BC was the beginning of them, but the onset of the plague at that moment put an end to any such notions. Lasting two and a half years, its severity was exacerbated by the congestion caused by refugees from the countryside, where the longest of the Peloponnesian invasions, lasting 40 days, was in progress, and it seems that overall the Athenians lost from it up to a third of their fighting men. In the short term their war effort was brought to a standstill and they unsuccessfully sent envoys to Sparta to negotiate terms for peace, before Pericles rallied them he himself died of the plague in autumn 429 BC and thereafter, in Thucydides’ view (2. 65), his steadying influence was sorely missed. The Spartans, however, failed to exploit the Athenians’ difficulties and their recovery was spirited. They reacted vigorously to the revolt of Lesbos in 428 BC, raising 200 talents from the first ever property tax on citizens, and crushed it the following spring.

After some small-scale offensive operations in 427 and 426 BC, including the dispatch of 20 ships to support their allies in Sicily against the Syracusans, in the summer of 425 BC the Athenians won a major victory near Pylos in the southwest Peloponnese. A fleet of 40 ships en route for Sicily was used by the enterprising general Demosthenes to fortify a small peninsula. A Spartan attack on the fortifications failed, the Spartan fleet that entered the bay was defeated, and a Spartan force that was put on the island of Sphacteria at the bay’s entrance was cut off. The Spartans thereupon obtained a truce, so that they could send envoys to Athens about peace, and were evidently ready to ignore the interests of their allies on whose behalf they had claimed to go to war, in order to remove the Athenians and rescue their men. The Athenians, however, prudently demanded the concession of footholds on the isthmus and on Peloponnesian coasts that they had held before 446 BC as a guarantee that the Spartans would not renew the war within a few years once they had surrendered their advantage, and negotiations broke down. The Athenians then kept the Spartan ships that had been given as surety for the truce and later stormed Sphacteria, taking prisoner 292 hoplites, whom they held in Athens as hostages against any further invasions of Attica. Early the following summer (424 BC) they captured the island of Cythera, off the south coast of Laconia, and, using it and Pylos as bases for ravaging Spartan territory and as refuges for Spartan serfs, they had high hopes of victory to pursue this, the previous winter they had decided to increase their revenue from their allies to about three times the prewar figure.

At this point, however, things went wrong for the Athenians. First, their 60 ships returned from Sicily unsuccessful after the Greek cities there had made peace with one another. Then an attempt to win over Megara, whose territory they had raided regularly since 431 BC, failed. This setback was not disastrous, but in the autumn an ambitious attack on Boeotia ended with a defeat in a pitched battle near the frontier close to Delium in which 1000 precious hoplites were lost. By this time Brasidas’ small army had reached Chalcidice and was winning over allied cities, and, when he had crowned these successes with the capture of Amphipolis, the Athenians agreed to conclude a one-year truce (spring 423 BC). Although it did not lead, as the Spartans hoped, to a permanent peace, there was little fighting in southern Greece when it expired. The Athenians concentrated on trying to recover lost allies in Chalcidice first Nicias and then Cleon had some success, but, when the latter was defeated and killed in a battle outside Amphipolis, in which Brasidas also perished, they too were ready to compromise.

The treaty as agreed in spring 421 BC, the Peace of Nicias, provided inter alia for the return of prisoners, the withdrawal of the Athenians from Pylos and Cythera, and the restoration to them of Amphipolis and their revenues from Chalcidice, but its terms were never fully implemented. The Athenians gave back the prisoners from Sphacteria, but, because the Spartans could neither force the Amphipolitans to return to their control nor persuade other important allies, including Corinth and Thebes, to ratify the treaty, they kept Pylos and Cythera. In a flurry of diplomatic activity, which led to some renewed warfare, it looked at one time as if Sparta and Athens might combine against the former’s allies and then that the Spartans might be defeated by a combination of the hitherto neutral Argives and other disaffected allies, Elis and Mantinea, backed to some extent by Athens but the Spartans won a crucial battle near Mantinea in 418 BC and recovered the leadership of the Peloponnese, although the Argives remained allies of Athens.

Athenians had fought at Mantinea, but the peace remained in force with neither side eager to resume full-scale war. Nevertheless, the Athenians were still restless and, disinclined to do the hard work necessary to recover Amphipolis and their control of the north, their thoughts turned to Sicily, where, according to Thucydides (3. 86 and 4. 65), they had conquest in mind when sending the ships in 427 and 425 BC. In the spring of 415 BC, lured by an appeal from non-Greek Segesta, they voted to send a fleet of 100 triremes and an army to the island under Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus in the hope that they would conquer it and use its resources to achieve final victory over the Spartans at home.

Despite a slow and indecisive start, the recall of Alcibiades to face a charge of sacrilege and the death in battle of Lamachus, the Athenians in summer 414 BC were about to put Syracuse under siege and it seemed likely to surrender, but the arrival of Gylippus, sent out by the Spartans, on the advice of the exiled Alcibiades, to organize the city’s defence, turned the tide and in the winter the Athenians became more besieged than besiegers. Nicias recommended the recall of the expedition, but the people at home preferred to send substantial reinforcements (spring 413 BC). This was to no avail, because the Athenians failed to regain the initiative and, with the Syracusans establishing naval superiority and Nicias unwilling to agree to withdrawal without the people’s approval, the whole force was destroyed.

This defeat was catastrophic for the Athenians, not only for the losses of men, ships, and money, but also for its consequences in the Greek homeland. The Spartans had already declared the war renewed and established a garrison at Decelea in northern Attica that served as a base for year-round ravaging and a refuge for some 20,000 slaves over the remaining years of the war. They now began to send fleets into the Aegean, where the destruction of Athens’ naval power was encouraging its allies to revolt and the Persians to intervene in the hope of recovering control of the Asiatic Greeks.

The Athenians, however, despite internal discord, fought back, matching the Spartans almost ship for ship, limiting the revolts of allies and recovering some cities, while the Persians restricted their commitment to intermittent financial backing of the Spartan navy, even when in winter 412/11 BC the western satraps guaranteed their support in a treaty in which the Spartans recognized the Persian king’s right to rule over all the Asiatic mainland. The Athenians indeed survived a shortlived oligarchic revolution in the summer of 411 BC and their fleet, which had remained loyal to democracy and had shrewdly accepted Alcibiades back from exile to join its leaders, won two battles, in the second of which, off Cyzicus in the Propontis (Sea of Marmora) in the summer of 410 BC, all the Spartan ships were destroyed or taken.

A Spartan peace offer was now rejected and the Athenians pressed on with the recovery of lost allies, but the process was incomplete in 407 BC, when the arrival in the eastern Aegean of a competent Spartan admiral, Lysander, coincided with the Persian king’s appointment of his son Cyrus to take charge in the west and make effective his support of the Spartans. Lysander’s victory at Notium led to Alcibiades’ withdrawal into exile, an indication of continuing dissension at Athens. This again showed itself in 406 BC, when, after the Athenians had defeated Lysander’s successor off the Arginusae islands, eight of their victorious generals were prosecuted for failing to pick up the survivors in a storm and six of them were executed. Then in 405 BC Lysander was restored to the command, lured the Athenian fleet into the Hellespont (Dardanelles), and in a surprise attack took 170 of their 180 ships almost without a fight, as they were beached for the night near Aegospotami. It was the decisive blow. Up to this point the war could still have ended in stalemate or even victory for the Athenians, but these were their last ships and now Lysander cut their corn-supply lifeline, took over their allies, and expelled their colonists from the Aegean and then joined in the siege of Athens, which ended inevitably in surrender (spring 404 BC). Some of the Spartans’ allies wanted Athens destroyed, but Sparta was content to reduce the Athenians to the status of a subject ally, with most of their fortifications demolished and, soon after, their democracy replaced by a repressive pro-Spartan oligarchy.

The war has always been seen as a turning point in the history of ancient Greece. Both protagonists, the victors as much as the vanquished, were irremediably weakened. A serious shortage of manpower combined with defects of character and judgement to bring down the Spartans’ new Aegean empire within ten years and only Persian support enabled them to keep their control of the Peloponnese as far as 370 BC. The Athenians recovered remarkably and briefly were again the leading city, but they lacked not only the wealth, but also the vigour and dynamism of their 5th-century BC ancestors. Neither of these states nor the Thebans, whose strength and confidence grew significantly during the war, could effectively unite Greece against the expansion of Macedonian power under Philip II. In 338 BC he defeated the combined army of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea and then could afford simply to ignore the Spartans’ refusal to join in his settlement of Greek affairs.

This was certainly a sorry episode in Greek history not only for the long-term damage it inflicted on Greek freedom, but also for the extremes of cruelty practised by some of its participants. In 427 BC the Spartans killed all the surviving defenders of Plataea, an ally of Athens, when they surrendered in 421 BC the Athenians did the same to Scione, a rebellious ally and in 416 BC, during the formal period of peace and following no known act of recent hostility by the victims, they attacked Melos and on its surrender killed all the men of fighting age and sold the rest of the population into slavery in 413 BC the Syracusans butchered many defenceless Athenians in the final disaster and sent the rest to the stone quarries. Other atrocities were committed when within cities the partisans of the two protagonists clashed in bitter civil strife (stasis), most notably at Corfu in 427 BC.

In contrast to these barbarities were the admirable doggedness and heroism of the defenders of Plataea (429–427 BC) and especially the remarkably resilient spirit of the Athenians that enabled them to recover from the plague of 430–428 BC and the Sicilian disaster of 413 BC. Remarkable too were their continued public patronage and enjoyment of art and drama through the times of crisis right to the end. The Erechtheum on the Acropolis was built during the war and many of the surviving tragedies of Euripides, some of those of Sophocles, and 9 of Aristophanes’ 11 extant comedies come from these years, performed at public festivals at public expense. The war, however, provided the essential comic situations of Aristophanes’ Acharnians (425 BC), Peace (421 BC), and Lysistrata (411 BC), and the tragic consequences of warfare were vividly echoed in Euripides’ Troades (415 BC) and Hecuba (c. 424 BC). But its greatest contribution to the development of the Hellenic tradition was in inspiring Thucydides to write his history. With his strict sense of relevance and careful collection and treatment of information he set standards of objectivity and scientific analysis that no other ancient historian, Greek or Roman, could match, while at the same time being a master of dramatic narrative and at conveying the tragic quality of history.

Further Reading

Andrewes, A., “Thucydides and the Persians”, Historia, 10 (1961): pp. 1–18.

Brunt, P.A., “Spartan Policy and Strategy in the Archidamian War”, Phoenix, 19 (1965): pp. 255–280.

Cawkwell, George L., Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

de Ste. Croix, G.E.M., The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, London: Duckworth, and Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Kagan, Donald, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1969 reprinted 1989.

Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1974 reprinted 1990.

Kagan, Donald. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kagan, Donald. The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lewis, D.M. et al. (editors), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5, 2nd edition).

Meiggs, Russell, The Athenian Empire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Thucydides, Works, translated by C. Forster Smith, revised edition, 4 vols, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1928–1930 (Loeb edition).

Thucydides, Works. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1918 (Loeb edition many reprints).

Xenophon. A History of My Times, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1978.

Alcibiades 451/50–404/03 BC

Athenian general and politician

Born into a wealthy family, Alcibiades became the ward of Pericles and his brother Ariphron after his father Cleinias was killed at the battle of Coronea in 447 BC. Although he had fought at Potidaea in 432 BC, where he was wounded and his life saved by Socrates, his first datable political activity was in 420 BC in the immediate aftermath of the Peace of Nicias, which had ended the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, 5. 43). While Nicias advocated that diplomatic pressure should be exerted on the Spartans to persuade their allies to conform to the treaty by carrying out agreed concessions to the Athenians, Alcibiades sought to exploit the Spartans’ difficulties with their allies, even at the expense of the peace. He won the argument and an alliance was made with the Argives and two of Sparta’s renegade allies, Mantinea and Elis, but he was unable to obtain sufficient votes to secure the necessary resources to support his policy: only 1300 Athenian troops fought at the battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, when victory enabled the Spartans to recover their lost allies and restore their domination of the Peloponnese.

Thucydides comments on Alcibiades’ youth in 420 BC he reports that Nicias referred to him as “a young man in a hurry” in the debate on whether to send an expedition to Sicily in the spring of 415 BC (Thucydides, 6. 12). Alcibiades was handsome and eloquent, and his charisma had been enhanced by his success in the Olympic festival of 416 BC, when three of his seven entries in the chariot race were placed first, second, and fourth. His advocacy of the Sicilian expedition clearly contributed to the atmosphere of great enthusiasm and high expectations Thucydides reports that in the end those opposed to the scheme did not dare to vote against it (6. 24). Nevertheless, his flamboyance and palpable personal ambition created mistrust, helped by the deviousness he had shown in an ostracism campaign, probably in 416 BC, when he had agreed with Nicias that they should protect one another by directing their supporters to vote against Hyperbolus (who was then ostracized) and then by a highly unusual proposal to appoint Alcibiades sole commander of the expedition (which was rejected in favour of his sharing responsibility with Nicias and Lamachus) and in the public hysteria that followed the sacrilegious mutilation of the many busts of Hermes on the streets of Athens, his enemies were able to link him with rumours of revolutionary plots to establish oligarchy or tyranny.

When the expedition reached Sicily and Nicias favoured a concentration on limited objectives, Alcibiades failed to support Lamachus’ proposal of a direct attack on Syracuse, the chief threat to Athenian interests, which might well have succeeded. Instead he forced Lamachus to back his own plan first to secure more allies, despite their having failed to receive the expected help from Thurii, Rhegium, and Segesta. Alcibiades’ policy was adopted with limited success, Naxos and Catane being won over, but Messana and Camarina refusing. At this point he was recalled to stand trial, but, knowing that his enemies at home had been poisoning minds against him since his departure, he eluded his escort at Thurii and fled to the Peloponnese, the Athenians sentencing him to death in his absence.

It is debatable how far Alcibiades’ recall affected the Athenian forces, because Nicias now supported Lamachus’ plan after twice defeating the Syracusans outside their city, in the early summer of 414 BC he was completing a series of blockade walls around the town and had high hopes of its surrender. Alcibiades, however, had gone to Sparta and urged the Spartans to send help to Syracuse, emphasizing the extent of Athenian ambitions and their threat to the Peloponnese, and suggesting that the Spartans should at least send a competent general to organize its defence (Thucydides, 6. 91). The Spartans were persuaded and sent Gylippus, whose leadership of the Syracusans was a major factor in the disastrous defeat of the Athenians in 413 BC.

In 412 BC Alcibiades was influential in persuading the Spartans to send ships to the eastern Aegean in order to foment revolts among Athens’ allies he himself helped to win over Chios and Miletus. Meanwhile, king Agis, whose wife he had seduced, persuaded the Spartans that he was unreliable and should be eliminated, but he took refuge with Tissaphernes, satrap of the Anatolian coastal provinces, whom he sought to turn against the Spartans, also hoping thereby to facilitate his own recall to Athens. He then tried to promote a sympathetic regime there by promising that the removal of democracy would secure Persian help and, although negotiations between Tissaphernes and the Athenian envoys failed and the Persians made a treaty with Sparta, the move against democracy, which had started, succeeded, and a short-lived oligarchy was set up in summer 411 BC.

Ironically, Alcibiades’ exile was now cancelled by the commanders of the Athenian fleet at Samos, who refused to accept the oligarchy’s authority. On joining them he played important roles first in preventing them abandoning their position in the eastern Aegean to attack Athens, and then in victories over the Spartans in the Hellespont (autumn 411 BC) and off Cyzicus (spring 410 BC). This must have been the period in Thucydides’ mind when he said that “his conduct of the war was excellent” (6. 15), and he went on to recover Byzantium in 408 BC.

At this point (407 BC) Alcibiades thought that it was safe to return to Athens. There he received a warm welcome, his exile was officially rescinded, and he enhanced his popularity by organizing the annual procession to the festival at Eleusis to go by land for the first time since the Spartan occupation of Decelea in north Attica in 413 BC. There was still, however, according to Xenophon (Hellenica, 1. 4. 17), underlying mistrust of his ambitions and, when he briefly left the fleet in charge of his helmsman Antiochus, who was rashly provoked by Lysander and lost 22 ships, he was relieved of his command and prudently retired into exile. About a year and a half later Aristophanes in his Frogs had Dionysus say about him that the city “longs for and hates him and wishes to have him” (line 1425). But he was still in exile near the Hellespont in the late summer of 405 BC, when his warning to the Athenian generals of their folly in beaching their fleet at Aegospotami was disregarded and a surprise Spartan attack took all but eight ships almost without a fight and effectively won the war. After Athens’ surrender in 404 BC Alcibiades crossed to Asia, where he was soon killed, probably on the orders of Pharnabazus, satrap of Phrygia, at Lysander’s request.

Tradition held that Alcibiades was both the object of Socrates’ passion and his pupil, and this association, it seems, was much in the mind of Socrates’ accusers when they charged him with corrupting the city’s youth. Plato had him figuring prominently with Socrates in his Symposium and Alcibiades I (Alcibiades II is almost certainly not Platonic). Paired by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives with the Roman Coriolanus, he was taken up, like Coriolanus, by Shakespeare, who used him in his historically inaccurate Timon of Athens. He has continued to fascinate the modern world, notably as the central character of Peter Green’s novel Achilles His Armour (1955).

Born in Athens in 451 or 450 BC, Alcibiades was brought up by his guardian Pericles and was a pupil of Socrates. As a politician he was flamboyant but inconsistent, supporting first Athens, as one of the leaders of the disastrous Sicilian expedition, then Sparta. Losing the confidence of both, he fled to Persia but was subsequently recalled to direct operations of the Athenian fleet. Exiled again, he crossed to Asia after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and was murdered in Phrygia in 404/03 BC.

Further Reading

Ellis, Walter M., Alcibiades, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Kagan, Donald, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kagan, Donald. The fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lewis, D.M. et al. (editors), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.5, 2nd edition).

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin, 11 vols, London: Heinemann, and New York: Macmillan, 1914–1926 (Loeb edition vol. 4).

Plutarch. The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, reprinted 1975.

Thucydides, Thucydides, translated by C. Forster Smith, revised edition, 4 vols, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1928–1930 (Loeb edition many reprints).

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1918 (Loeb edition many reprints).

Xenophon. A History of My Times, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1978.

Peloponnesian War For Kids – Ancient Greece

The Peloponnesian War was a war between the two most powerful Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. The war lasted from 431 to 404 BC.

Sparta eventually won the war, but both city-states were weakened by all the fighting. Sparta and Athens never regained the military strength and power they once had.

Key Background Information

Athens and Sparta both had many allies. In fact, their alliances were so big that almost every Greek city-state was allied with either Athens or Sparta.

For this reason, the Peloponnesian War was a huge military conflict that involved almost all of Ancient Greece.

Athens and Sparta had fought each other once before the Great Peloponnesian War, in what is sometimes called the First Peloponnesian War.

The First Peloponnesian War (460-446 BC) ended with a truce called the Thirty Years’ Treaty.

After Athens and Sparta signed the treaty, Athens became more and more wealthy and powerful. Athens was able to buy an even bigger fleet of ships and rebuild their Long Wall fortifications, which protected their harbor of Piraeus.

Sparta and its allies did not trust Athens and became jealous of the city-state’s growing power.

What started the Peloponnesian War?

The large and complicated alliances of the Ancient Greek world were a major factor in the Peloponnesian War.

Athens wanted timber and minerals from Thrace, and so they demanded that Poteidaia remove their fortifications. Poteidaia asked for protection from Sparta, and Sparta agreed. Athens still attacked the city.

At the same time, Athens issued the Megarian Decrees. This prevented the city-state of Megara from using any trade ports of Athens or Athens’ allies.

Megara had been an ally of Sparta for many years. Sparta asked Athens to change their mind about the Megarian Decrees. Athens refused.

Around the same time, battles broke out between other allies of Athens and allies of Sparta. A combination of these events started the Peloponnesian War.

Athens and its allies formed the Delian League. Sparta and its allies, including the city-state Corinth, formed the Peloponnesian League.

Sparta even received help from an unlikely source: Persia. The Persians sent money to Sparta to build more warships.

Sparta dominated by land, and Athens dominated by sea. This is one reason the war raged for so many years.

The Spartans continued to use their famous phalanx formation, fighting in closely packed ranks and protecting one another with shields. They added more men to make the phalanxes deeper and wider.

During the Peloponnesian War, both sides began using mixed troops, combining foot soldiers and cavalry (soldiers on horses). They also recruited slaves and foreigners for their armies.

Strategy became extremely important in Ancient Greek warfare for the first time. Sieges were a common feature of the war.

Sieges involved repeatedly attacking a city directly and/or surrounding cities with a wall and starving them into surrender.

During this time, Athens also suffered a devastating plague that killed many citizens, including the great Athenian general Pericles.

Athens did recover to win a series of battles between 410 and 406 BC, but their good fortune did not last for long.

The Defeat of Athens

In 405 BC, the famous Athenian fleet was defeated in battle by the Spartan general Lysander. Athens did not have the army to defeat Sparta on land.

Athens’ food supply was running low, and the people of Athens were starving. The city-state surrendered in 404 BC.

Thebes and Corinth wanted Sparta to destroy the city and enslave its people, but the Spartans refused. They made Athens tear down its Long Walls but refused to do additional damage to the city.

Athens was also not allowed to rebuild a fleet of more than 12 ships. They also had to pay tribute to Sparta, now recognized as the dominant power in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece

The Peloponnesian War was fought between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. It lasted from 431 BC to 404 BC. Athens ended up losing the war, bringing an end to the golden age of Ancient Greece.

The word Peloponnesian comes from the name of the peninsula in southern Greece called the Peloponnese. This peninsula was home to many of the great Greek city-states including Sparta, Argos, Corinth, and Messene.

After the Persian War, Athens and Sparta had agreed to a Thirty Year Peace. They didn't want to fight each other while they were trying to recover from the Persian War. During this time, Athens became powerful and wealthy and the Athenian empire grew under the leadership of Pericles.

Map of the Peloponnesian War
The Alliances of the Peloponnesian War from the US Army
Click map to see larger version

The first Peloponnesian War lasted for 10 years. During this time the Spartans dominated the land and the Athenians dominated the sea. Athens built long walls all the way from the city to its seaport Piraeus. This enabled them to stay inside the city and still have access to trade and supplies from their ships.

Although the Spartans never breached the walls of Athens during the first war, many people died inside the city due to plague. This included the great leader and general of Athens, Pericles.

After ten years of war, in 421 BC Athens and Sparta agreed to a truce. It was called the Peace of Nicias, named after the general of the Athenian army.

Athens Attacks Sicily

In 415 BC, Athens decided to help one of their allies on the island of Sicily. They sent a large force there to attack the city of Syracuse. Athens lost the battle horribly and Sparta decided to retaliate starting the Second Peloponnesian War.

The Spartans began to gather allies to conquer Athens. They even enlisted the help of the Persians who lent them money to build a fleet of warships. Athens, however recovered and won a series of battles between 410 and 406 BC.

In 405 BC the Spartan general Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet in battle. With the fleet defeated, the people in the city of Athens began to starve. They did not have the army to take on the Spartans on land. In 404 BC the city of Athens surrendered to the Spartans.

The city-states of Corinth and Thebes wanted the city of Athens destroyed and the people enslaved. However, Sparta disagreed. They made the city tear down its walls, but refused to destroy the city or enslave its people.

Effects of the Peloponnesian War

Following the Peloponnesian War, Athens underwent a period of harsh oligarchic governance and Sparta enjoyed a brief hegemonic period.

Learning Objectives

Understand the effects of the Peloponnesian War on the Greek city-states

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Peloponnesian War ended in victory for Sparta and its allies, but signaled the demise of Athenian naval and political hegemony throughout the Mediterranean.
  • Democracy in Athens was briefly overthrown in 411 BCE as a result of its poor handling of the Peloponnesian War. Lysander, the Spartan admiral who commanded the Spartan fleet at Aegospotami in 405 BCE, helped to organize the Thirty Tyrants as Athens’ government for the 13 months they maintained power.
  • Lysander established many pro-Spartan governments throughout the Aegean, where the ruling classes were more loyal to him than to Sparta as a whole. Eventually Spartan kings, Agis and Pausanias, abolished these Aegean decarchies, curbing Lysander’s political influence.
  • Agesilaus II was one of two Spartan kings during the period of Spartan hegemony, and is remembered for his multiple campaigns in the eastern Aegean and Persian territories.
  • Agesilaus’s loss at the Battle of Leuctra effectively ended Spartan hegemony throughout the region.

Key Terms

  • oligarchy: A form of power structure in which a small group of people hold all power and influence in a state.
  • harmosts: A Spartan term for a military governor.
  • hegemony: The political, economic, or military predominance or control of one state over others.

The Peloponnesian War ended in victory for Sparta and its allies, and led directly to the rising naval power of Sparta. However, it marked the demise of Athenian naval and political hegemony throughout the Mediterranean. The destruction from the Peloponnesian War weakened and divided the Greeks for years to come, eventually allowing the Macedonians an opportunity to conquer them in the mid-4 th century BCE.


Democracy in Athens was briefly overthrown in 411 BCE as a result of its poor handling of the Peloponnesian War. Citizens reacted against Athens’ defeat, blaming democratic politicians, such as Cleon and Cleophon. The Spartan army encouraged revolt, installing a pro-Spartan oligarchy within Athens, called the Thirty Tyrants, in 404 BCE. Lysander, the Spartan admiral who commanded the Spartan fleet at Aegospotami in 405 BCE, helped to organize the Thirty Tyrants as a government for the 13 months they maintained power.

During the Thirty Tyrants’ rule, five percent of the Athenian population was killed, private property was confiscated, and democratic supporters were exiled. The Thirty appointed a council of 500 to serve the judicial functions that had formerly belonged to all citizens. Despite all this, not all Athenian men had their rights removed. In fact, 3,000 such men were chosen by the Thirty to share in the government of Athens. These men were permitted to carry weapons, entitled to jury trial, and allowed to reside with the city limits. This list of men was constantly being revised, and selection was most likely a reflection of loyalty to the regime, with the majority of Athenians not supporting the Thirty Tyrants’ rule.

Nonetheless, the Thirty’s regime was not met with much overt opposition for the majority of their rule, as a result of the harsh penalties placed on dissenters. Eventually, the level of violence and brutality carried out by the Thirty in Athens led to increased opposition, stemming primarily from a rebel group of exiles led by Thrasybulus, a former trierarch in the Athenian navy. The increased opposition culminated in a revolution that ultimately overthrew the Thirty’s regime. In the aftermath, Athens gave amnesty to the 3,000 men who were given special treatment under the regime, with the exception of those who comprised the governing Thirty and their associated governmental officials. Athens struggled to recover from the upheaval caused by the Thirty Tyrants in the years that followed.


As a result of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, which had primarily been a continental culture, became a naval power. At its peak, Sparta overpowered many key Greek states, including the elite Athenian navy. By the end of the 5 th century BCE, Sparta’s successes against the Athenian Empire and ability to invade Persian provinces in Anatolia ushered in a period of Spartan hegemony. This hegemonic period was to be short-lived, however.


After the end of the Peloponnesian War, Lysander established many pro-Spartan governments throughout the Aegean. Most of the ruling systems set up by Lysander were ten-man oligarchies, called decarchies, in which harmosts, Spartan military governors, were the heads of the government. Because Lysander appointed from within the ruling classes of these governments, the men were more loyal to Lysander than Sparta, making these Aegean outposts similar to a private empire.

Lysander and Spartan king Agis were in agreement with Corinth and Thebes that Athens should be totally destroyed in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, but they were opposed by a more moderate faction, headed by Pausanias. Eventually, Pausanias’ moderate faction gained the upper hand and Athens was spared, though its defensive walls and port fortifications at Piraeus were demolished. Lysander also managed to require Athens to recall its exiles, causing political instability within the city-state, of which Lysander took advantage to establish the oligarchy that came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants. Because Lysander was also directly involved in the selection of the Thirty, these men were loyal to him over Sparta, causing King Agis and King Pausanias to agree to the abolishment of his Aegean decarchies, and eventually the restoration of democracy in Athens, which quickly curbed Lysander’s political influence.

Lysander: A 16th century engraving of Lysander

Agesilaus and His Campaigns

Agesilaus II was one of two Spartan kings during the period of Spartan hegemony. Lysander was one of Agesilaus’s biggest supporters, and was even a mentor. During his kingship, Agesilaus embarked on a number of military campaigns in the eastern Aegean and Persian territories. During these campaigns, the Spartans under Agesilaus’s command met with numerous rebelling Greek poleis, including the Thebans. The Thebans, Argives, Corinthians, and Athenians had rebelled during the Corinthian War from 395-386 BCE, and the Persians aided the Thebans, Corinthians, and Athenians against the Spartans.

During the winter of 379/378 BCE, a group of Theban exiles snuck into Thebes and succeeded in liberating it, despite resistance from a 1,500-strong Spartan garrison. This led to a number of Spartan expeditions against Thebes, known as The Boeotian War. The Greek city-states eventually attempted to broker peace, but Theban diplomat Epaminondas angered Agesilaus by arguing for the freedom of non-Spartan citizens within Laconia. As a result, Agesilaus excluded the Thebans from the treaty, and the Battle of Leuctra broke out in 371 BCE the Spartans eventually lost. Sparta’s international political influence precipitated quickly after their defeat.

The Second Peloponnesian War

Showdown . During the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) the Greeks were at war with each other at least one-third of the time. With this fact in mind it might be tempting to consider the great war between Athens with its allies and Sparta with its allies, which is often called “the Peloponnesian War,” as just another among many long struggles. No doubt the brilliance of Thucydides’ account of the war has contributed somewhat to heightening its profile for historians. For the Athenians, however, it taught important lessons about the nature of their democracy, its ability to conduct war, and the roles to be played by law and popular sovereignty.

An Unsteady Peace . The peace treaty concluded between Athens and Sparta in 445 interrupted hostilities without resolving the causes of the dispute between the two powers. It gave Athens a free hand to dominate its subject allies, one that it exercised quite brutally against the island of Samos in 440. Yet, in general the Athenians did not try to extend their domination over new areas. Pericles, who was both Athens’s leading politician and its most authoritative general, was quite happy to let Athenians enjoy the wealth and dominance they already had. In the mid 440s he embarked on a massive building program that gave Athens the physical attributes to match its imperial power, buildings such as the Parthenon and Propylaea on the Acropolis and the Hēphaisdon near the agora. There is some evidence that he sent bribes to the Spartans to soften their hostility, but the Spartans themselves had little reason to react. The Athenians were not imposing on their territory. The Spartans’ austere lifestyle, which included avoiding the outside world as much as possible, meant that Athens was little direct threat to them.

Political Maneuvering . Nevertheless, Sparta did lead an alliance of states known as the Peloponnesian League, which included Thebes, Corinth, and Megara. Thebes saw itself as the leader of Boeotia, which bordered on Attica, Athens’s territory, and the Athenians had strong relations with the Boeotian state of Plataea, which resented Theban ambitions. Corinth also laid groundwork for war. Athens had allied itself in 434 with Corcyra, an island colony of Corinth’s that lay on the route between Greece and the rich trading area of Sicily and southern Italy. The Athenians assisted the Corcyraeans in defeating the Corinthian fleet, which allowed the island to sever its ties to its mother city. Meanwhile, Potidaea, one of Athens’s allies on the coast of the northern Aegean area known as the Chalcidice, was also a Corinthian colony, and it still received its annual magistrates from the mother city. The Athenians demanded that Potidaea sever these ties with Corinth. The Potidaeans refused, and they and the Corinthians appealed to Sparta for help. The Spartans probably could have been dissuaded from declaring war if Athens had softened its antagonism against Megara, whose markets it was blockading as a result of a border dispute. Nevertheless, the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides is probably right that war could ultimately not be avoided so long as Athens’s ambitions threatened the other Greeks. Modern historians have seen these ambitions in economic terms, citing Athens’s needs for grain from the Black Sea, minerals from the northern Aegean, and timber from Thrace and Macedonia.

A New War . Thebes and Plataea caused the actual outbreak of war in 431. The Plataeans, after repulsing a Theban attempt to seize control of their city, massacred 180 Theban prisoners. Anticipating a reprisal, the Plateans sought Athenian help, while the Thebans turned to Sparta. Pericles dictated Athens’s strategy at the beginning of the war. The Athenians would counter the Spartans’ advantage in hoplite warfare by refusing to meet them on the battlefield. Instead, the Athenians would discipline their impulses to fight, abandon most of the Attic countryside, and withdraw behind the walls that connected Athens and Piraeus. The navy and trading fleets would keep the city fed and supplied. This plan would have been difficult under any circumstances, but the Athenians had not engaged in war on their own territory for over a generation, and many of the men of combat age had never experienced war of any kind. They had grown up in a city that had seen itself as the foremost power of Greece. The first two years of the war proceeded according to Pericles’ plans. The Spartans invaded Attica during the campaigning season, laid the country waste, and withdrew, and the Athenian fleet sailed around the Peloponnese on raiding expeditions.

The Plague . In 430 Athens experienced something entirely unexpected: a plague. The crowded conditions of the city and a total lack of knowledge about how to deal with the disease caused the deaths of one-quarter to one-third of Athens’s population, including Pericles. Despite this catastrophe, however, Athens’s military situation remained much as it had been what changed was Athens’s leadership. Thucydides saw the change in moral terms, and modern historians tend to follow his assessment that Athens’s political and military leadership was not up to the standard set by the great general who had given the polis over thirty years of service. The new leadership is described as being led by “demagogues” who pandered to the desires of Athens’s demos.

Popular Leaders . Pericles’ death in 429 brought a power vacuum in Athens. He had largely eliminated his political opponents from the scene. Capable men of the aristocracy who felt a calling to public service went into the military, where they were often away from Athens for lengthy periods, unable to build popular support with the demos. In Athens what had arisen instead was a new kind of politician, not from the traditional, landholding aristocracy, but of the demos. The new politicians gained their wealth through trade and manufacturing. Their policies were belligerent, and they appealed to the basest motives of the demos, its jealousy and rapacity. Cleon, the son of a wealthy leather tanner, was one of these new politicians.

Cleon . The historical tradition is universally hostile to Cleon. His bravado and aggressiveness were rewarded with his being able to take credit for the capture of several hundred Spartans on the island of Sphacteria in 425, which led the Spartans to sue for peace. Although the proposals were rejected, the prisoners prevented the Spartans from attacking Attica for the next four years. The Athenians responded by increasing the tribute they demanded from their allies. Attempts were even made to make incursions by land into Boeotia.

Discontent . Despite Cleon’s successes, he was not able to win over everyone. Some believe that Athens, with its authority invested in an amateur, democratic assembly, had need for people such as Cleon, who devoted themselves to mastering the intricacies of the empire and its administration. As Cleon said in the Mytilenean Debate, which was recorded by the historian Thucydides, “a democracy cannot run an empire.” Cleon knew how much money and resources were needed for the empire, especially for his generous doles to the jury courts. When the comic poet Aristophanes criticized him in his early plays, Cleon sued him in court.

Peace of Nicias . The deaths of Cleon and Brasidas at Amphipolis in 422 b.c.e. removed the most belligerent leaders from both Athens and Sparta. Nicias, who had made windfall profits from silver mining, took over the leadership of Athens. Although he catered to the will of the demos as much as anyone, he was sympathetic to the aristocrats and farmers who wanted peace. Since the Spartans wanted peace also, he was able to achieve a peace treaty in 421 b.c.e. without much trouble, and the peace was named for him. Although there are disputes about what was achieved in this first, ten-year part of the Peloponnesian War, it seems pretty clear that despite the losses of the plague the Athenians were the winners. All they had wanted was to continue to hold their empire, and they had achieved this goal.

Alcibiades . Yet, there were restive people in Athens, anxious to put their own mark on Athens’s glory. Although Athens and Sparta had achieved a peace treaty, the issues that separated them were still present. A protege of Pericles, Alcibiades, organized a coalition of poleis in the Peloponnese to check Sparta’s dominance over that peninsula. In 418 the armies of Argos, Mantinea, and Elis fought the Spartans at Mantinea and lost. In 416 the Athenians approached the only major Aegean island that was not part of its alliance, Melos and demanded that it join. The Melians were ethnically Dorian in fact, they were closely tied with the Spartans. They refused an Athenian ultimatum in a debate that was dramatized by the historian Thucydides as the “Melian Dialogue.” After a siege the Athenians killed all the Melian men and sold their women and children into slavery.

Sicily . The expedition against Melos was only a preliminary, however, for Alcibiades’ greatest ambition: the launching of a fleet to take control of the island of Sicily. Nicias opposed the expedition on the grounds that it would require too many ships, men, and resources. Although he exaggerated the numbers in an attempt to discourage the Athenians, the plan was approved anyway. To make matters worse, he was chosen, against his wishes, as one of the three generals to lead the expedition of 4,500 hoplite soldiers and 94 triremes. Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus made preparations to set off on the largest naval expedition ever by any Greek polis. Shortly before the expedition left, however, accusations were made against Alcibiades that he had profaned the mystery rituals of the cult of Demeter at Eleusis by performing them as part of a drunken party. It was also taken as a bad omen that somebody cut the phalluses off of many of the small statues of the god Hermes, called “herms,” that were located throughout the city.

Scandal and Defeat . Alcibiades was temporarily able to face down the accusations against him, but once the expedition was launched and he was away, they resurfaced and Alcibiades was recalled. Because so many of his political supporters were with the fleet, he knew he would have a bad time of it at home, so instead of going to Athens, he went to Argos, and eventually to Sparta. Without him, the expedition to Sicily suffered from indecisiveness. Nicias had to lead it, and he

opposed the whole venture. The Athenians attacked Syracuse, on the eastern coast of Sicily. The Syracusans called on the Spartans for help, and they were quite happy to renew their war against Athens. By 413 b.c.e. the entire expedition to Sicily was wiped out, including further reinforcements sent out from Athens.

Decelea . Meanwhile in Sparta, Alcibiades recommended that in their renewed war the Spartans set up a permanent garrison in Athenian territory at Decelea, and they followed his advice. From Decelea the Spartans were able to continuously harass the Athenians for the next ten years, preventing them from making use of the countryside of Attica.

Oligarchy . The Sicilian disaster led to turmoil both within Athens and among its allies, who now saw the city as weak. With Persian and Spartan help many revolted. At Athens there was anger at the democratic leaders and at the fortune-tellers who had urged on the expedition. Ten men were appointed as probouloi (councilors) to preside over measures of economic stringency, a move taken to be a first step toward oligarchy. The reserve of one thousand talents set aside on the Acropolis was used to fund the reforms.

Persian Interference . The reasons for the move to oligarchy are explained by Thucydides. There was a perception that Athens could not survive unless the Persian king stopped financing the Spartans and began helping the Athenians. The Persian king would not act, it was argued, unless Athens adopted an oligarchic government. Alcibiades, who had fled from the Spartans and was now advising the Persian governor Tissaphernes, traveled to the island of Samos and put the plan to aristocratically minded generals such as Pisander. He hoped that the plan might bring about his return to Athens. Initially the democrats at both Samos and Athens were timid. Androcles, a leading democrat who had been responsible for the exile of Alcibiades, was assassinated. The oligarchs were highly organized, employing the connections cultivated in their drinking clubs, the hetairiai.

The Four Hundred . A special Assembly was called outside Athens at Colonus, which voted to hand over power to a new Council of Four Hundred. The conservative politician and sophist Antiphon was in charge. The number four hundred was selected because it echoed that of the Solonian Council that predated Cleisthenes’. The new Councilors showed up at the Council House in Athens with a large, armed escort and dismissed the democratically selected Council of Five Hundred. There was a promise given that power would ultimately be in the hands of an Assembly of Five Thousand, a number limited to those who could serve the city either financially or by bearing hoplite weapons. The lower-class thetes who manned the fleet were thus to be excluded.

Turmoil . The oligarchs hesitated over recalling Alcibiades, so he made approaches to the democrats at Samos and took his Persian patronage with him. The oligarchs also encouraged those cities that were still subject to them to adopt similarly oligarchic governments, but they tended to revolt instead. Although the oligarchs had claimed that they would pursue the war against Sparta more efficiently than the democrats, once in power they made overtures of peace to the Spartans at Decelea. The navy at Samos elected from its numbers Thrasybulus to lead a democratic reaction. They elected Alcibiades general, who served as a conciliator. Some of the oligarchs were accused of fortifying Eitioneia, near Athens’s harbor, to help a Spartan invasion. Soon the Four Hundred were deposed, and Athens was again a democracy.

Loss of Support . Led by Alcibiades, the Athenian navy achieved many successes in the years following 411 b.c.e., and the Spartans were led to offer peace. Yet, the newly restored democracy, which was under the influence of a demagogue named Cleophon, only wanted to pursue war. Alcibiades was welcomed home a hero in 407, but his popularity with Athens’s fickle democracy did not last long. A subordinate officer, Antiochus, ignored Alcibiades’ orders not to risk battle and was defeated. The loss was relatively insignificant, but Alcibiades was made to take the blame. He was not reelected general the next year and chose to retire.

Arginusae . Despite the loss of this great general, the Athenians enjoyed one last great victory. The Spartan commander Lysander put together a fleet of 140 ships and managed to destroy 30 Athenian ships in a battle near the island of Lesbos. In response, the Athenians took extraordinary steps to assemble the funds necessary to put together a new fleet of their own, 150 ships strong. The two fleets met at Arginusae, near the Turkish coast, and the Athenians won a decisive victory.

Executions . In the aftermath of the battle, however, a storm prevented the Athenian generals from staying to recover the dead from the twenty-five ships that were lost. The democratic Assembly responded by convicting the generals of impiety and executing them. This procedure was completely unconstitutional, as the philosopher Socrates, who happened to be one of those chairing the Assembly meeting that day, tried to point out: Athenians could not be condemned to death by the Assembly but only by a law court. The execution of the generals, one of whom was the son of the great general Pericles, had disastrous consequences for Athens’s military prospects, which were already precarious after the retirement of Alcibiades. Athens simply could not afford to lose any more generals.

Aegospotami . The Spartan commander Lysander took advantage of a lapse in Athenian strategy in the Hellespont to surprise the Athenian navy and destroy it in the battle of Aegospotami in 405. Only 20 of 180 Athenian ships managed to escape, and many of them fled to Cyprus. With the loss of its fleet and 3,000-4,000 men, Athens was defenseless. Nevertheless, Lysander did not move immediately to demand Athens’s surrender. Instead, he moved through the Aegean, replacing democratic governments loyal to Athens with oligarchic governments loyal to Sparta and forcing the Athenians who lived in and near the various poleis as clerychs to move back to Athens. With its grain supplies cut off by a Spartan embargo, the new arrivals simply exacerbated a famine in Athens.

The Thirty . The Athenians held out for eight months, urged on by the demagogue Cleophon however, the city finally capitulated in 404, and its Long Walls were torn down. The Spartans were not as severe as some of their allies wanted: they were demanding Athens’s total destruction. Instead, Lysander, as he had done with many of the poleis that had been Athens’s allies, replaced the city-state’s democratic constitution with an oligarchy of thirty select Athenians. Because of their brutal behavior toward their fellow citizens and others living in Athens, this group became despised and known simply as the Thirty or as the Thirty Tyrants.

Political Reforms . The erratic behavior of Athens’s democracy in the last years of the war, as well as the fatigue caused by the war itself, must have made the change in Athens’s constitution quite appealing to many Athenians. The Thirty were appointed both to run the government and to write new laws according to the patrios politeia (ancestral constitution), which would severely limit the franchise, essentially only to the hoplite class, and reform the courts. One of the ways for attacking political opponents in the democracy was malicious prosecution, or sukophantia, which the oligarchs promised to end.

Factions . There were differing views among the Thirty, however. Critias led an extremist group that wanted the franchise strictly limited to three thousand citizens and sought to purge not only the most extreme democrats and sycophants, most of whom had at any rate already fled, but also almost anyone who had prospered under the democracy, whether citizen or metic (metoikos, resident foreigner). Theramenes led a more moderate group, which was willing to broaden the franchise and rejected the wholesale violence of Critias. For his trouble, Theramenes was himself identified as an enemy of the oligarchy and executed, along with approximately 1,500 other victims of the Thirty.

Thrasybulus . A group of democratic exiles had found refuge in Thebes. In 403, led by Thrasybulus, a relatively small group set out for Athens. After defeating a small army at Phyle, on the border of Attica, Thrasybulus’s group grew and moved on to Athens. The Thirty responded by stationing a Spartan garrison on Athens’s Acropolis, which made the Athenians even more hostile to them. In a battle fought near Athens’s port in Piraeus, Critias was killed. Led by their king Pausanias, the Spartans withdrew and, after some negotiations, a reconciliation was achieved among the Athenians. Athens’s democracy was restored again.

Watch the video: Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC - 2nd vid - Teaching, Play-through, u0026 Round table by Heavy Cardboard (July 2022).


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