The Peloponnesian War

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The Peloponnesian Wars were a series of wars fought against two of the strongest city-states in ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta. In this essay I will concentrate on the Second Peloponnesian War, that is, the war that occurred between 431 – 404 BCE.

The beginning of the Peloponnesian War has often been attributed to the Athenians believing that Sparta, who led the Peloponnesian League, would have struck first which is attested by Thucydides. However, this has been much in debate. No doubt, some or all of the Athenians in 433 may well have thought that at some point war with the Peloponnesians would probably occur; this at least is what Thucydides states. It is essential to emphasize the obvious difference between thinking that something may occur at some point, and taking decisive action to prepare for it.

Another reason for the beginning of the war suggested was the disagreement between Athens and Sparta over the island of Ionia. Herodotus recounts that Athens resented Sparta’s proposals to evacuate Ionia because it amounted to a decision about her own colonies.

It has been suggested that lack of resources was the key reason to the foundation of the Peloponnesian War. It is significant that Pericles opens his exhortation to the Athenians at the outbreak of war by dwelling on their financial status with specifics and fine detail. This would have been in the forefront of Pericles’ considerations.Although he had good reason to avoid the possibility of a major hoplite defeat, the reaction to the first invasion showed that Perikles could not afford to abandon Attika entirely to the enemy because of the risk of damage to his own political position and to the Athenian will to resist.There is much evidence from both the fifth and fourth centuries to show that such a refusal to fight was considered dishonourable.

Sparta attacked Attica each year, burning all the crops in which Athens used to feed herself. Thucydides states that Pericles’ plan to deal with the Peloponnesian threat in 431 BCE was to withdraw behind the walls of Athens and to replace the resulting loss of agricultural products by imports. In this way Athens could take full advantage of her empire and her naval supremacy to feed herself while avoiding a major hoplite engagement. However, this could not last and Athens was forced to fight. Pericles undertook a programme of seaborne raids on the Peloponnese and invasions of the Megarid.However, Pericles died during the 429 BCE due to the plague.

However, Athens could not prevent the Peloponnesian League army from crossing her borders and could not defeat it once it had arrived. Only one other active defensive option remained: mobile defence and this was in fact the one which Pericles and his successors used. This strategy accepted that the enemy could not be stopped at the borders nor defeated in a decisive hoplite engagement and sought instead to limit the damage done to the countryside. This was achieved by the continual harassment of the invasion force, using cavalry (or psiloi) to restrict its movement and, as far as possible, to prevent its ravaging the city’s agricultural hinterland (Spence, p.96-97).

In 428 BCE, the island of Lesbos revolted, which caused the Athenian Assembly to vow to kill every person on the island. This was quickly stopped, but when the island of Melos tried to keep their neutrality, the Athenians killed everyone.

The Peace of Nicias gave a short period of peace but this was not to last for long. The Athenian allies on the island of Scilly came under attack from Syracuse; however, Sparta sent reinforcements to aid Syracuse. The Athenians were massacred.

In 411 BCE, the Athenians sent 100 ships to engage the Spartans at the Battle of Syme, led by the general Alcibiades. It was due to Alcibiades that Athens won several victories in the following years. However, in 406 BCE, Alcibiades found himself exiled from Athens no longer in charge of the military. Sparta, allied with the Persian king Artaxerxes, attacked Athens and restarted to burn Attica’s crops annually. Facing starvation and with no funds left to continue the war, Athens offered her surrender in 404 BCE. Sparta stripped Athens of all her overseas territory, her fleet and tore down her walls, thus destroying one of the great city-states of ancient Greece.


Flory, Stewart (1988) Thucydides’ Hypothesis about the Peloponnesian War, Transactions of the American Philological Association, The John Hopkins University Press.

Hornblower, Simon (1992) The Religious Dimension to the Peloponnesian War or What Thucydides Does Not Tell Us, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Department of the Classics, Harvard University.

Spence, I. G. (1990) Perikles and the Defence of Attika During the Peloponnesian War, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.


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