The Peloponnesian War: Intrigues and Conquests in Ancient Greece
When speaking of ancient Greece, most of us tend to think of their sprawling city states, iconic classical culture, philosophers, and myths – and rightly so. Classical Greece was certainly a civilization like no other – well ahead of its time. But under the surface of such highly developed cultures, conflict brews. And the history of Greece was full of such struggles and lengthy wars.
The one we’re recounting today is the so called Peloponnesian War, the decades-long conflict which would decide the future of the region and resolve the shifting influences of several wealthy city states. Filled with cunning political scheming, astonishing military prowess, and a lot of intrigue, the Peloponnesian War is definitely one of the thrilling chapters of ancient Europe.
Prelude to the Peloponnesian War: The Delian League
To fully understand the precursors of the Peloponnesian War, we need to take a peek into the turbulent years that preceded it. It was the end of an important era in Greek history, known as the Persian Wars, and a time full of legendary feats and thriving city states.
The Persians of the Achaemenid Empire made repeated invasions into mainland Greece. Athens – as the dominant force on the peninsula – bravely defended against all incursions.
Then, in 490 BC, the Persian army suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Marathon and ten years after it was defeated at sea at Artemision and on land at Thermopylae – where just 300 Spartans held off a significant Persian force, or so the history books say. One year after that, the Persian defeat was complete – they were beaten at Plataia and Mykale and finally driven out.
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Greek troops rushing forward at the Battle of Marathon during the Peloponnesian War. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)
This important decade of warfare helped establish further power vacuums in Greece, and a growing shift between the wealthy city states of Athens and Sparta. This culminated with the establishment of the Delian League – and that is where our story begins.
Athens held the leadership of this league, an association of close to 330 members – all influential Greek city states – with the aim to continue the fight against the Persians. But all was not so ideal.
Most of the members of the league had to pay taxes and tributes into a joint treasury – a treasury which was soon transferred to Athens. The era that followed is commonly called the Athenian Empire – something very far from a ‘league’.
From these events, Athens formed itself as the increasingly dominant force in Greece, with several smaller rebellions against it, and the growing tensions between Athens and Sparta. As the main historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides says that “the growing power of Athens was the fact that made the war inevitable”. And in 431 BC – that war would begin in earnest.
Map of the nations during the start of the Peloponnesian War around 431 BC. (Aeonx / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Blaze Begins: The Archidamian War
As an answer to the Delian League, Sparta created its own coalition of city states – the Peloponnesian League. It was significantly smaller, but the tensions between the two were getting stronger. These tensions would escalate in March of 431 BC, when several hundred men from Thebes – a city allied to Sparta – clashed with the people of Plataia, an ally of Athens.
This clash started a domino effect, igniting an already volatile situation in the region and officially starting the Peloponnesian War. This war is generally split into three stages: the Archidamian War, the Sicilian Expedition, and the Ionian War. Collectively, they comprise the entire conflict between Sparta and Athens, which is also known as the Attic War.
The Archidamian War, also known as the ‘Ten Years War’, lasted from 431 to 421 BC, and revealed the initial differences between the two main city states. Sparta, a traditionally land-based and militaristic state, took to pillaging and invading Attica – the lands surrounding Athens.
This tactic served to sever the food supplies for Athenians from the land. But, in expectation of this, the Athenians fortified a long causeway that connected them with their main port – Piraeus – and were thus able to maintain a supply of food via the sea routes.
Athens was a mostly sea-based state – with heavy focus on their vast fleet of Greek triremes, and openly avoided direct land battle with the superior Spartan hoplites. But their cunning fortification and sea based supply through the port of Piraeus soon proved catastrophic – only one year after the start of the war, a plague ravaged the populace of Athens, caused by the supplies of rotten grain. One in every three people died, with the final toll coming close to 30,000 Athenians, including their most popular general – Pericles.
The Plague of Athens during the Archidamian War, part of the Peloponnesian War. (Fæ / Public Domain)
The war went on though, and the Athenians managed a few successful naval raids in the ongoing years. But the plague that struck them would be one of the defining moments of the entire war.
The Treaty that Never Was: The Peace of Nicias
In the final stages of the Archidamian war, both sides suffered defeats – the Spartans at Pylos and Sphacteria, and the Athenians at Delium and Boeotia. Their most prominent generals were killed, and with that, both factions were ready for peace – with their resources nearly exhausted.
This resulted in the Peace of Nicias, originally called the ‘Fifty-Year Peace’. But the peace was such only in name. It lasted for a mere six years, troubled with constant small conflicts in the Peloponnese.
The peace treaty itself was not thoroughly liked by all the city states. The chief one of these was the powerful Argos, a state that went so far as to create its own separate alliance with Mantinea and Elis – all three states neighboring Sparta.
This caused a fresh shifting of powers and rattling of swords, further disturbing the flimsy peace treaty and resulting in the largest and bloodiest battle of the entire Peloponnesian War – the Battle of Mantinea. The battle ended with a last-minute Spartan victory, which once more resettled the matters in the area and boosted the influence of Sparta.
The Sicilian Expedition
In 415 BC, the Athenians came up with a daring plan in hopes to re-establish their power and influence in the region. A prominent orator and general of Athens, Alcibiades, was the main proponent of this plan: A vast Athenian fleet would sail to the west, in an attempt to conquer Syracuse, a prominent and very wealthy Greek city state on the island of Sicily. The plan was adopted, and soon after an enormous fleet of roughly 100 ships and 5,000 men, sailed towards Syracuse.
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Peloponnesian War, Sicilian Expedition 415 - 413 BC, the Athenian fleet before Syracuse. (Stella / Public Domain)
But once there, things went sour. The Athenians hesitated and had to winter without any significant action accomplished. This gave a window of opportunity for the Syracusans to ask Sparta for help – help which they received.
With the help of the Spartan reinforcements, the people of Syracuse managed to inflict a crippling defeat on the Athenians, ending their expedition in a disaster. With roughly two thirds of their once powerful fleet destroyed, the Athenians suffered a heavy blow.
Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse, the Peloponnesian War. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)
The Crumbling of an Empire: The Ionian War
With their fleet almost wiped out, and Alcibiades changing sides and becoming a Spartan ally, things weren’t looking up for Athens. They were harassed from both land and sea, which diminished their food supplies, and raised the costs of supplying by sea.
Another blow was suffered when the Spartan hoplites liberated almost 20,000 slaves from the Athenian silver mines. This was a blow aimed at their treasury, which was now running critically low.
To counter this, the Athenians decided to demand even higher taxes from the subjects in the Delian League. This was met with great tensions, which would erupt into open rebellions against Athens.
The most critical of these was the revolt of Ionia, partially encouraged by the Spartans. This started the third and the final stage of the Peloponnesian War – the Ionian War.
It was at this point in time that the Persians again come into play. Seeing Athens as the biggest threat in the region, they openly fund Sparta and its allies with large sums of gold.
But the Athenians would not go out so easily. What followed was the period full of ups and downs, with unexpected twists lurking at every corner.
Lysander Triumphs: the Battle of Aegospotami
Alcibiades turned out to be a man of quite varying allegiances. After abandoning Athens, the first time, he was influential in Sparta for a while, until he made some enemies and was forced to flee – to Persia this time. He was there only a short while though, before he once more came back to Athens, managing to gain trust again.
The multitude saluting the return of Alcibiades with loud acclamations. (Gunduu / Public Domain)
His return would not be in vain, because from 410 to 406 BC, Athens would manage to string several victories that would place it back on its feet. Alcibiades was able to persuade the remnants of the Athenian fleet to engage Spartans in battle – a battle which destroyed the Spartan fleet and gave some financial foothold back to Athens.
But this would prove to be short lived. With Sparta being financed by the Persians and the Ionians revolting, things were not looking up.
Once more the Athenian food supplies were harassed, and the fleet was close to starving – and thus forced to act. And that fleet would meet its end in the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War – the Battle of Aegospotami.
The clever Spartan general Lysander lured the Athenian fleet into a pitched battle and proceeded to utterly destroy it. Only one year later, in 404 BC, the Athenians, surrounded and exhausted, surrendered completely, marking the end of the Peloponnesian War.
In the Aftermath of the Peloponnesian War
The aftermath of this war was largely controversial for most of Sparta’s allies. With the defeat of the so-called Athenian Empire, the sphere of political power and all of its subjects and revenues were shifted entirely towards Sparta – while her allies got nothing.
And only nine years after, an entirely new war would break out – the Corinthian War. Lasting from 395 to 387 BC, this war was led by an alliance of Athens, Thebes, Argos, and Corinth, under the support of the Achaemenid Empire and was fought entirely against Sparta.
Fought so soon after the Peloponnesian War, this new conflict was full of fresh alliances and new states. The result of this war was largely inconclusive.
Towards the end of it, Persians once more switched sides and decided to support Sparta once more. This defection resulted in the Peace of Antalcidas – which ended the conflict.
The result of the war was the autonomy of every Greek city state and an overall Spartan domination in the hegemony of the Greek states. But in another nine years, yet another new war would erupt – the Theban-Spartan war which lasted from 378 to 362 BC – and this war would finally lead to the loss of Spartan influence.
Final Thoughts on the Peloponnesian War
Most of what we know of the largely complex history of the Peloponnesian War, comes from an Athenian historian – Thucydides, who left behind him one of the earliest historical works – The Histories – a detailed account of the war in eight books. And with an interesting quote, we can easily summarize the Peloponnesian war: “War is a matter not so much of arms as of money”.
Eight books of the Peloponnesian War written by Thucydides. (Rob at Houghton / Public Domain)
Money, influence, power – these were the driving forces of this conflict, and in truth, many others. Even if the armies engaged were never too large for the period, a lot was still at stake. And war was followed by war, until the powers shifted, and wealth and influence passed hands. And the story goes on.
But some things are certain – the history of ancient Greece is much more complex and warlike than it first appears. But even so, the collective that was comprised of these numerous city states, left behind it an immortal legacy rich with mythology, art, philosophy, and history – all of which are a sure testament of the sprawling Greek civilization.
But every rose has its thorns and the Peloponnesian War remains a testament to that.
Top image: Ancient Greek warrior fighting in the combat. Credit: Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock
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