Classical Greece - 5th Century BC - The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War

In 431 BC war broke out between Athens and Sparta and its allies. The war was not really a struggle between two city-states as it was a struggle between two coalitions, or leagues of city-states. These two leagues were the Delian League in which Athens was the leading member, and the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta.

The Delian League grew out of the necessity of presenting a unified front of all Greek city-states against Persian aggression. In 481 BC, Greek city-states, including Sparta, met in the first of a series of "congresses" that strove to unify all the Greek city-states against the danger of another Persian invasion. This coalition of city-states formed in 481 BC became known as the "Hellenic League" and included Sparta. As noted above, the expected Persian invasion of Greece under King Xerxes occurred in September 481 BC when the Athenian navy defeated the Persian navy. The Persian land forces were delayed in 480 BC, by a much smaller force of 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans and 700 men from Boeotian Thespiae at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persians finally left Greece in 479 BC following their defeat at Plataea.

The Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was the final battle of Xerxes' invasion of Greece. After the Battle of Plataea, the Persians never again tried to invade Greece. With the disappearance of this external threat, cracks appeared in the united front of the Hellenic League. In 477 BC, Athens became the recognised leader of a coalition of city-states that did not include Sparta. This coalition met and formalized their relationship at the holy city of Delos. Thus, the League took the name "Delian League." The official purpose of this new League was to liberate Greek cities still under Persian control. However, it became increasingly apparent that the Delian League was really a front for Athenian imperialism throughout the Aegean.

A competing coalition of Greek city-states centered around Sparta arose and became more important as the external Persian threat subsided. This coalition became known as the Peloponnesian League. However, unlike the Hellenic League and the Delian League, the Spartan League was not a response to any external threat — Persian or otherwise. The Spartan League was unabashedly an instrument of Spartan policy aimed at the security of Lacedaemon (the prefecture on the Peloponnese Peninsula in which Sparta was located) and Spartan dominance over the Peloponnese Peninsula. Sometimes the Spartan League is called the "Peloponnesian League." This term is ambiguous on two scores. The "Peloponnesian League" was not really a "league" at all. Nor was it really "Peloponnesian." There was no equality at all between the members as might be implied by the term "league." Furthermore, most of its members were not from the Peloponnese, but rather were located outside the Peloponnese Peninsula. Indeed, the terms "Spartan League" or "Peloponnesian League" are actually modern terms. Contemporaries actually used the term the "Lacedaemonians and their Allies" to describe the so-called league.

The Spartan League had its origins in Sparta's conflict with another city on the Peloponnese Peninsula--Argos. In the 7th century BC, Argos dominated the Peloponnese Peninsula. Even in the period of time after 600 BC, the Argives attempted to control the northeastern part of the Peloponnese Peninsula. The rise of Sparta in the 6th century, naturally, brought Sparta in conflict with Argos. However, with the conquest of the Peloponnesian city-state of Tegea in 550 BC and the defeat of the Argives 546 BC, the Spartan's control began to reach well beyond the borders of Lacedaemon.

As these two coalitions grew, their separate interests kept coming into conflict. Under the influence of King Archidamus II (who ruled Sparta from 476 BC through 427 BC), Sparta, in the late summer or early autumn of 446 BC, concluded the Thirty Years Peace with Athens. This treaty took effect the next winter in 445 BC Under the terms of this treaty, Greece was formally divided into two large power zones. Sparta and Athens agreed to stay within their own power zone and not to interfere in the other's power zone. Despite the Thirty Years Peace, it was clear that eventual war was inevitable. As noted above, at all times during its history down to 221 BC, Sparta was a "diarchy" with two kings ruling the city-state concurrently. One line of hereditary kings were from the Eurypontid Dynasty while the other king was from the Agiad Dynansty. With the conclusion of the Thirty Years Peace treaty Archidamus II, the Eurypontid King at the time, felt he had successfully prevented Sparta from entering into a war with its neighbors. However, the strong war party in Sparta soon won out and in 431 BC Archidamus was forced into going to war with the Delian League. However, in 427 BC, Archidamus II died and his son, Agis II succeeded to the Eurypontid throne of Sparta.

The immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War vary from account to account. However three causes are fairly consistent among the ancient historians, namely Thucydides and Plutarch. Prior to the war, Corinth and one of its colonies, Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), got into a dispute, in 435 BC, over the new Corcyran colony of Epidamnus. War broke out between Corinth and Corcyra. Sparta refused to become involved in the conflict and urged an arbitrated settlement of the struggle. In 433 BC, Corcyra, sought the assistance of Athens in the war on Corinth. Corinth was known to be a traditional enemy of Athens. However, to further encourage Athens to enter the conflict, Corcyra pointed out, to Athens, how useful a friendly relationship with Corcyra would be, given the strategic locations of Corcyra itself and the colony of Epidamnus on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea. Furthermore, Corcyra promised that Athens would have the use of their (Corcyra's) navy, which was the third largest navy in Greece. This was too good of an offer for Athens to refuse. Accordingly, Athens signed a defensive alliance with Corcyra.

The next year, in 432 BC, Corinth and Athens argued over control of Potidaea (near modern-day Nea Potidaia), eventually leading to an Athenian siege of Potidaea. In 434-433 BC Athens issued the "Megarian Decrees", a series of economic decrees that placed economic sanctions on the Megarian people. Athens was accused by the Peloponnesian allies of violating the Thirty Years Peace through all of the aforementioned actions, and, accordingly, Sparta formally declared war on Athens.

Many historians consider these to be merely the immediate causes of the war. They would argue that the underlying cause was the growing resentment on the part of Sparta and its allies at the dominance of Athens over Greek affairs. The war lasted 27 years, partly because Athens (a naval power) and Sparta (a land-based military power) found it difficult to come to grips with each other.

Sparta's initial strategy was to invade Attica, but the Athenians were able to retreat behind their walls. An outbreak of plague in the city during the siege caused heavy losses, including that of Pericles. At the same time the Athenian fleet landed troops in the Peloponnese, winning battles at Naupactus (429 BC) and Pylos (425 BC). But these tactics could bring neither side a decisive victory. After several years of inconclusive campaigning, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias concluded the Peace of Nicias (421 BC).

In 418 BC, however, hostility between Sparta and the Athenian ally Argos led to a resumption of hostilities. Alcibiades was one of the most influential voices in persuading the Athenians to ally with Argos against the Spartans. At the Mantinea Sparta defeated the combined armies of Athens and her allies. Accordingly, Argos and the rest of the Peloponnesus was brought back under the control of Sparta. The return of peace allowed Athens to be diverted from meddling in the affairs of the Peloponnesus and to concentrate on building up the empire and putting their finances in order. Soon trade recovered and tribute began, once again, rolling into Athens. A strong "peace party" arose, which promoted avoidance of war and continued concentration on the economic growth of the Athenian Empire. Concentration on the Athenian Empire, however, brought Athens into conflict with another Greek state.

Ever since the formation of the Delian League in 477 BC, the island of Melos had refused to join. By refusing to join the League, however, Melos reaped the benefits of the League without bearing any of the burdens. In 425 BC, an Athenian army under Cleon attacked Melos to force the island to join the Delian League. However, Melos fought off the attack and was able to maintain its neutrality. Further conflict was inevitable and in the spring of 416 BC the mood of the people in Athens was inclined toward military adventure. The island of Melos provided an outlet for this energy and frustration for the military party. Furthermore there appeared to be no real opposition to this military expedition from the peace party. Enforcement of the economic obligations of the Delian League upon rebellious city-states and island was a means by which continuing trade and properity of Athens could be assured. Melos was alone among all the Cycladic Islands located in the southwest Aegean Sea had resisted joining the Delian League. This continued rebellion provided a bad example to the rest of the members of the Delian League.

The debate between Athens and Melos over the issue of joining the Delian League is presented by Thucydides in his Melian Dialogue. The debate did not in the end resolve any of the differences between Melos and Athens and Melos was invaded in 416 BC, and soon occupied by Athens. This success on the part of Athens whetted the appetite of the people of Athens for further expansion of the Athenian Empire. Accordingly, the people of Athens were ready for military action and tended to support the military party, led by Alcibiades.

Thus, in 415 BC, Alcibiades found support within the Athenian Assembly for his position when he urged that Athens launch a major expedition against Syracuse, a Peloponnesian ally in Sicily. Segesta, a town in Sicily, had requested Athenian assistance in their war with the another Sicilian town — the town of Selinus. Although Nicias was a skeptic about the Sicilian Expedition, he was appointed along with Alcibiades to lead the expedition.

However, unlike the expedition against Melos, the citizens of Athens were deeply divided over the Alcibiades' proposal for an expedition to far off Sicily. The peace party was desperate to foil Alcibiades. Thus, in June 415 BC, on the very eve of the departure of the Athenian fleet for Sicily, a band of vandals in Athens defaced the many statues of the god Hermes, that were scattered throughout the city of Athens. This action was blamed on Alcibiades and was seen as a bad omen for the coming campaign. In all likelihood, the coordinated action against the statues of Hermes was the action of the peace party. Having lost the debate on the issue, the peace party was desperate to weaken Alcibiades' hold on the people of Athens. Successfully blaming Alcibiades for the action of the vandals would have weakened Alcibiades and the war party in Athens. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Alcibiades would have deliberately defaced the statues of Hermes on the very eve of his departure with the fleet. Such defacement could only have been interpreted as a bad omen for the expedition that he had long advocated.

Even before the fleet reached Sicily, word arrived to the fleet that Alcibiades was to be arrested and charged with sacrilege of the statues of Hermes. Due to these accusations against him, Alcibiades fled to Sparta before the expedition actually landed in Sicily. When the fleet landed in Sicily and the battle was joined, the expedition was a complete disaster. The entire expeditionary force was lost and Nicias was captured and executed. This was one of the most crushing defeats in the history of Athens.

Meanwhile, Alcibiades betrayed Athens and became a chief advisor to the Spartans and began to counsel them on the best way to defeat his native land. Alcibiades persuaded the Spartans to begin building a real navy for the first time — large enough to challenge the Athenian superiority at sea. Additionally, Alcibiades persuaded the Spartans to ally themselves with their traditional foes — the Persians. As noted below, Alcibiades soon found himself in controversy in Sparta when he was accused of having seduced Timaea, the wife of Agis II, the Eurypontid king of Sparta. Accordingly, Alcibiades was required to flee from Sparta and seek the protection of the Persian Court.

Sparta had now built a fleet (with the financial help of the Persians) to challenge Athenian naval supremacy, and had found a new military leader in Lysander, who attacked Abydos and seized the strategic initiative by occupying the Hellespont, the source of Athens' grain imports. Threatened with starvation, Athens sent its last remaining fleet to confront Lysander, who decisively defeated them at Aegospotami (405 BC). The loss of her fleet threatened Athens with bankruptcy. In 404 BC Athens sued for peace, and Sparta dictated a predictably stern settlement: Athens lost her city walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. Lysander abolished the democracy and appointed in its place an oligarchy called the "Thirty Tyrants" to govern Athens.

Meanwhile, in Sparta, Timaea gave birth to a child. The child was given the name Leotychidas, son of Agis II, after the great grandfather of Agis II — King Leotychidas of Sparta. However, because of her alleged dalliance with Alcibiades, it was widely rumoured that the young Leotychidas was actually fathered by Alcibiades. Indeed, Agis II, himself, refused to acknowledge Leotychidas as his son until he relented in front of witnesses, on his death bed in 400 BC.

Upon the death of Agis II, Leotychidas attempted to claim the Eurypontid throne for himself. However, there was an outcry against this attempted succession. The outcry was led by the victorious navarch (admiral) Lysander, who was at the height of his influence in Sparta. Lysander argued that Leotychidas was a bastard and could not inherit the Eurypontid throne. Accordingly, Lysander backed the hereditory claim of Agesilaus, son of Agis by another wife, other than Timaea. Based on the support of Lysander, Agesilaus became the Eurypontid king as Agesilaus II, expelled Leotychidas from the country, and took over all of Agis' estates and property.

Read more about this topic:  Classical Greece, 5th Century BC

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