Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.)Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) - It's tantalizing to imagine what ancient Greece might have become had it managed to unify under a single political system. Unfortunately, differing ideologies and ambitions made that impossible. At the beginning of the 5th century B.C., Sparta was the most powerful Hellenic city-state and it had every intention of staying on top; while Athens had other plans. In the span of less than half a century, Athens transformed first from a modest community into a powerful city-state, and then into an empire. With the emergence of its formidable navy, it sought to break free from its confines on the tiny Attic peninsula, and expand throughout the Aegean and perhaps beyond. The only thing that could stop it was the most powerful land military in Greece. The resulting conflict became known as the Peloponnesian War. Whereas, today we may marvel at the political and economic might that Athens attained as the result of its democratic system, back in the 5th century, Sparta's oligarchs were alarmed. They saw Athens' power surpassing their own, and they planned to do something about it.


The war began in 431 B.C. and dragged on for 27 years, albeit with some breaks in between. Thucydides, the highly regarded historian, is the chronicler of the war. It started with the breaking of a 30-year treaty signed between Athens and Sparta in 446/5(?) B.C. at the conclusion of a conflict between the two states commonly referred to as the "First Peloponnesian War". There was a Corinthian colony called Corcyra on the west coast of Greece that sought alliance with Athens for fear of an attack from its mother city. Athens accepted the offer. Corinth, ally of Sparta, appealed to the Spartans for what it considered Athenian interference in an internal matter. Sparta warned Athens to back off...Athens refused...and the war was on (the outbreak involved more than just this single event, but it was the initial spark. No need to bore you with the full details). As leader of Athens, Pericles proposed a war of attrition by barricading its citizens inside the city's "Long Walls" and conducting naval raids on the Peloponnese (the Peloponnese is the peninsula on which Sparta was located). But so many people confined in such tight quarters led to unsanitary conditions and a plague outbreak in 430 devastated Athens' population, and took the life of its leader, Pericles. Despite this, Athens fought on and nearly won the war after victories at the famous battles of Pylos and Sphacteria in 425. These battles were devastating to Sparta because they trapped several hundred of the city's toughest hoplites on the island of Sphacteria, established an Athenian foothold on the Peloponnese and provided a safe haven for the helots. The helots were Sparta's slave population that made their entire military oligarchy possible. They were forced to work the land to provide food for Sparta so the Spartans could devote their efforts to military training.


Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.)The Battle of Sphacteria was a huge embarrassment for Sparta because their soldiers chose to surrender rather than fight to the death. Surrender was considered a sign of weakness within the Spartan military. Nevertheless, the city was so unnerved by this event, that it sent envoys to Athens to negotiate a peace. The negotiations failed; however, Sparta's fortunes turned the following year when it captured the Athenian colony of Amphipolis. This was the loss for which Thucydides was blamed and exiled from Athens (see Thucydides). This victory allowed Sparta to negotiate on equal terms and the Treaty of Nicias was signed in 421. This first ten year period of the war is usually referred to as the "Archidamian War". The fragile peace lasted 6 years, but hostilities broke out again in 415. That same year, Athens would make a fatal mistake that would ultimately lead to its defeat. And it was all thanks to a charismatic young leader named Alcibiades. He convinced his fellow Athenians to launch a meaningless expedition against the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, 400 miles (644 km) away. Syracuse was a Spartan ally and had attacked an Athenian ally on Sicily. Not only was the campaign unnecessary, but it ended up being disastrous. Syracuse was a powerful city-state in its own right and could match Athens' navy ship for ship. After the exhausting 400 mile trip, Syracuse wiped out Athens' fleet, and eventually the soldiers who manned it over the course of several engagements. Back home, Athens remained strong enough to fend off Sparta for the next several years and even managed to win a few battles.


Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.)However, in 407, Lysander was appointed navarch (ναύαρχος), or admiral, of Sparta's navy and his friendship with Cyrus the Younger (see Xenophon) brought the Persian Empire into the war on Sparta's side. With the aid of Persia's navy, Sparta defeated Athens in 405 at the Battle of Aegospotami and virtually wiped out their navy. Athens was forced to surrender the following year. As an interesting epilogue to the war, Sparta did not destroy Athens as was standard practice in ancient warfare, despite calls from both Corinth and Thebes to do so. Sparta reasoned that the destruction of Athens would create a vacuum in Attica that would quickly be filled by Boeotians from the north; and would lead to the supremacy of Corinth at sea (something the Corinthians may have been counting on). And, in a particularly pointed jab at the city of Thebes, who had medized (capitulated) during the Persian Wars, Sparta pointed out that a city which acted so heroically during the Persian invasion did not deserve to be destroyed. Instead, as terms of its surrender, Athens was required to destroy its defensive walls, limits were placed on the size of its navy, and its democracy was abolished in favor of a Spartan-like oligarchy.