The origins of such a conflict are complex. The primary causes were that Sparta feared the growing power and influence of the Athenian Empire. The Peloponnesian war began after the Persian Wars ended in 449 BCE. The two powers struggled to agree on their respective spheres of influence, absent Persia's influence. This disagreement led to friction and eventually outright war. Additionally, Athens and its ambitions caused increasing instability in Greece.
The profoundly different Athens and Sparta societies were also a significant factor in the war’s outbreak, which also had an ideological aspect. Over time the Athenians, who were the largest maritime power in the Aegean, dominated the Delian League. This era constituted the Golden Age of Athens and was concurrent with Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle's lives.
Gradually, the Athenians began to turn the Delian League into an Empire. Athens used its superior navy to intimidate its allies, and they eventually became mere tributaries of the Athenians. Sparta soon became very suspicious of Athens's growing power. Sparta was the head of the powerful Peloponnesian League, comprised of several large city-states, including Corinth and Thebes. The League was very concerned about the Athenian fleet because it allowed Athens to dominate Greece's seas.
Pericles's Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)
The "Archidamian War"
-431 Jan 2 -
The Spartan strategy during the first war, known as the Archidamian War (431–421 BC) after Sparta's king Archidamus II, was to invade the land surrounding Athens. While this invasion deprived Athenians of the productive land around their city, Athens itself was able to maintain access to the sea, and did not suffer much. Many of the citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the Long Walls, which connected Athens to its port of Piraeus. At the end of the first Year of the war, Pericles gave his famous Funeral Oration (431 BC).
The Athenian strategy was initially guided by the strategos, or general, Pericles, who advised the Athenians to avoid open battle with the far more numerous and better trained Spartan hoplites, relying instead on the fleet.
Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654
Plague of Athens
-430 Jan 1 -
In 430 BC an outbreak of a plague hit Athens. The plague ravaged the densely packed city, and in the long run, was a significant cause of its final defeat. The plague wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers, including Pericles and his sons. Roughly one-third to two-thirds of the Athenian population died. Athenian manpower was correspondingly drastically reduced and even foreign mercenaries refused to hire themselves out to a city riddled with plague. The fear of plague was so widespread that the Spartan invasion of Attica was abandoned, their troops being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy.
The Battle of Naupactus was a naval battle in the Peloponnesian War. The battle, which took place a week after the Athenian victory at Rhium, set an Athenian fleet of twenty ships, commanded by Phormio, against a Peloponnesian fleet of seventy-seven ships, commanded by Cnemus.
The Athenian victory at Naupactus put an end to Sparta's attempt to challenge Athens in the Corinthian gulf and the Northwest, and secured Athens' dominance at sea. At Naupactus, the Athenians' backs had been against the wall; a defeat there would have lost Athens its foothold in the Corinthian gulf and encouraged the Peloponnesians to attempt further aggressive operations at sea.
The Mytilenean revolt was an incident in the Peloponnesian War in which the city of Mytilene attempted to unify the island of Lesbos under its control and revolt from the Athenian Empire. In 428 BC, the Mytilenean government planned a rebellion in concert with Sparta, Boeotia, and certain other cities on the island, and began preparing to revolt by fortifying the city and laying in supplies for a prolonged war. These preparations were interrupted by the Athenian fleet, which had been notified of the plot.
The Athenian fleet blockaded Mytilene by sea. On Lesbos, meanwhile, the arrival of 1,000 Athenian hoplites allowed Athens to complete the investment of Mytilene by walling it in on land. Although Sparta finally dispatched a fleet in the summer of 427 BC, it advanced with such caution and so many delays that it arrived in the vicinity of Lesbos only in time to receive news of Mytilene's surrender.
After the Battle of Pylos, which resulted in the isolation of over 400 Spartan soldiers on the island of Sphacteria, Sparta sued for peace, and, after arranging an armistice at Pylos by surrendering the ships of the Peloponnesian fleet as security, sent an embassy to Athens to negotiate a settlement. These negotiations, however, proved fruitless, and with the news of their failure the armistice came to an end; the Athenians, however, refused to return the Peloponnesian ships, alleging that assaults had been made against their fortifications during the truce.
The Spartans, under their commander Epitadas, attempted to come to grips with the Athenian hoplites and push their enemies back into the sea, but Demosthenes detailed his lightly armed troops, in companies of about 200 men, to occupy high points and harass the enemy with missile fire whenever they approached. When the Spartans rushed at their tormentors, the light troops, unencumbered by heavy hoplite armor, were easily able to run to safety.
A stalemate took hold for some time, with the Athenians trying unsuccessfully to dislodge the Spartans from their strong positions. At this point, the commander of the Messenian detachment in the Athenian force, Comon, approached Demosthenes and asked that he be given troops with which to move through the seemingly impassable terrain along the island's shore. His request was granted, and Comon led his men into the Spartan rear through a route that had been left unguarded on account of its roughness. When he emerged with his force, the Spartans, in disbelief, abandoned their defenses; the Athenians seized the approaches to the fort, and the Spartan force stood on the brink of annihilation.
At this point, Cleon and Demosthenes declined to push the attack further, preferring to take as many Spartans as they could prisoner. An Athenian herald offered the Spartans a chance to surrender, and the Spartans, throwing down their shields, agreed at last to negotiate.
Of the 440 Spartans who had crossed over to Sphacteria, 292 survived to surrender; of these, 120 were men of the elite Spartiate class. "The outcome," Donald Kagan has observed, "shook the Greek world." Spartans, it had been supposed, would never surrender. Sphacteria had changed the nature of the war.
Sparta was dependent on the helots, who tended the fields while its citizens trained to become soldiers. The helots made the Spartan system possible, but now the post off Pylos began attracting helot runaways. In addition, the fear of a general revolt of helots emboldened by the nearby Athenian presence drove the Spartans to action which culminated with the Athenian naval victory at the Battle of Pylos.
An Athenian fleet had been driven ashore at Pylos by a storm, and, at the instigation of Demosthenes, the Athenian soldiers fortified the peninsula, and a small force was left there when the fleet departed again. The establishment of an Athenian garrison in Spartan territory frightened the Spartan leadership, and the Spartan army, which had been ravaging Attica under the command of Agis, ended their expedition (the expedition only lasted 15 days) and marched home, while the Spartan fleet at Corcyra sailed to Pylos.
When the armistice ended in 422, Cleon arrived in Thrace with a force of 30 ships, 1,200 hoplites, and 300 cavalry, along with many other troops from Athens' allies. He recaptured Torone and Scione.
Brasidas had about 2,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry, plus some other troops in Amphipolis, but he did not feel that he could defeat Cleon in a pitched battle. Brasidas then moved his forces back into Amphipolis and prepared to attack; when Cleon realized an attack was coming, and being reluctant to fight before expected reinforcements arrived, he began to retreat; the retreat was badly arranged and Brasidas attacked boldly against a disorganised enemy, achieving victory.
After the battle, neither the Athenians nor the Spartans wanted to continue the war (Cleon being the most hawkish member from Athens), and the Peace of Nicias was signed in 421 BC.
In 425 BC, the Spartans had lost the Battles of Pylos and Sphacteria, a severe defeat resulting in the Athenians holding 292 prisoners. At least 120 were Spartiates, who had recovered by 424 BC, when the Spartan general Brasidas captured Amphipolis. In the same Year, the Athenians suffered a major defeat in Boeotia at the Battle of Delium, and in 422 BC, they were defeated again at the Battle of Amphipolis in their attempt to take back that city. Both Brasidas, the leading Spartan general, and Cleon, the leading politician in Athens, were killed at Amphipolis. By then, both sides were exhausted and ready for peace. It ended the first half of the Peloponnesian War.
The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Lacedaemonians, with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. In the battle, the allied coalition scored early successes, but failed to capitalize on them, which allowed the Spartan elite forces to defeat the forces opposite them. The result was a complete victory for the Spartans, which rescued their city from the brink of strategic defeat. The democratic alliance was broken up, and most of its members were reincorporated into the Peloponnesian League. With its victory at Mantinea, Sparta pulled itself back from the brink of utter defeat, and re-established its hegemony throughout the Peloponnese.
In the 17th Year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian (as were the Spartans), while the Athenians, and their ally in Sicilia, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist their ally.
Following the defeat of the Athenians in Sicily, it was widely believed that the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. Their treasury was nearly empty, its docks were depleted, and many of the Athenian youth were dead or imprisoned in a foreign land.
From 414 BC, Darius II, ruler of the Achaemenid Empire had started to resent increasing Athenian power in the Aegean and had his satrap Tissaphernes enter into an alliance with Sparta against Athens, which in 412 BC led to the Persian reconquest of the greater part of Ionia. Tissaphernes also helped fund the Peloponnesian fleet.
Following the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition, Lacedaemon encouraged the revolt of Athens's tributary allies, and indeed, much of Ionia rose in revolt against Athens. The Syracusans sent their fleet to the Peloponnesians, and the Persians decided to support the Spartans with money and ships. Revolt and faction threatened in Athens itself.
The Athenians managed to survive for several reasons. First, their foes were lacking in initiative. Corinth and Syracuse were slow to bring their fleets into the Aegean, and Sparta's other allies were also slow to furnish troops or ships. The Ionian states that rebelled expected protection, and many rejoined the Athenian side. The Persians were slow to furnish promised funds and ships, frustrating battle plans.
At the start of the war, the Athenians had prudently put aside some money and 100 ships that were to be used only as a last resort. In 411 BC this fleet engaged the Spartans at the Battle of Syme. The fleet appointed Alcibiades their leader, and continued the war in Athens's name. Their opposition led to the reinstitution of a democratic government in Athens within two years.
Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian fleet to attack the Spartans at the battle of Cyzicus in 410. In the battle, the Athenians obliterated the Spartan fleet, and succeeded in re-establishing the financial basis of the Athenian Empire.
Between 410 and 406, Athens won a continuous string of victories, and eventually recovered large portions of its empire. All of this was due, in no small part, to Alcibiades.
The Battle of Notium (or Ephesus) in 406 BC, was a Spartan naval victory in the Peloponnesian War. Prior to the battle, the Athenian commander, Alcibiades, left his helmsman, Antiochus, in command of the Athenian fleet, which was blockading the Spartan fleet in Ephesus. In violation of his orders, Antiochus attempted to draw the Spartans into battle by tempting them with a small decoy force. His strategy backfired, and the Spartans under Lysander scored a small but symbolically significant victory over the Athenian fleet. This victory resulted in the downfall of Alcibiades, and established Lysander as a commander who could defeat the Athenians at sea.
The naval Battle of Arginusae took place in 406 BC during the Peloponnesian War near the city of Canae in the Arginusae islands, east of the island of Lesbos. In the battle, an Athenian fleet commanded by eight strategoi defeated a Spartan fleet under Callicratidas. The battle was precipitated by a Spartan victory which led to the Athenian fleet under Conon being blockaded at Mytilene; to relieve Conon, the Athenians assembled a scratch force composed largely of newly constructed ships manned by inexperienced crews. This inexperienced fleet was thus tactically inferior to the Spartans, but its commanders were able to circumvent this problem by employing new and unorthodox tactics, which allowed the Athenians to secure a dramatic and unexpected victory. Slaves and metics who participated in the battle were granted Athenian citizenship.
The Battle of Aegospotami was a naval confrontation that took place in 405 BC and was the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War. In the battle, a Spartan fleet under Lysander destroyed the Athenian navy. This effectively ended the war, since Athens could not import grain or communicate with its empire without control of the sea.
The Spartan general Lysander has the walls of Athens demolished in 404 BC, as a result of the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Athens surrenders. The War ends.
-404 Jan 1 -
Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC, and its allies soon surrendered as well. The democrats at Samos, loyal to the bitter last, held on slightly longer, and were allowed to flee with their lives. The surrender stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be destroyed and all its citizens should be enslaved. However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece, and took Athens into their own system. Athens was "to have the same friends and enemies" as Sparta.
The overall effect of the war in Greece proper was to replace the Athenian Empire with a Spartan empire. After the battle of Aegospotami, Sparta took over the Athenian empire and kept all of its tribute revenues for itself; Sparta's allies, who had made greater sacrifices for the war effort than had Sparta, got nothing. Although the power of Athens was broken, it made something of a recovery as a result of the Corinthian War and continued to play an active role in Greek politics. Sparta was later humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, but the rivalry between Athens and Sparta was brought to an end a few decades later when Philip II of Macedon conquered all of Greece except Sparta, which was later subjugated by Philip's son Alexander in 331 BC.
Bagnall, Nigel. The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, And The Struggle For Greece. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-312-34215-2).
Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 1-4000-6095-8); New York: Random House, 2006 (paperback, ISBN 0-8129-6970-7).
Herodotus, Histories sets the table of events before Peloponnesian War that deals with Greco-Persian Wars and the formation of Classical Greece
Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8014-0889-X); 1990 (paperback, ISBN 0-8014-9714-0).
Kagan, Donald. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8014-1367-2); 1991 (paperback, ISBN 0-8014-9940-2).
Kallet, Lisa. Money and the Corrosion of Power in Thucydides: The Sicilian Expedition and its Aftermath. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-520-22984-3).
Plutarch, Parallel Lives, biographies of important personages of antiquity; those of Pericles, Alcibiades, and Lysander deal with the war.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
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