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The Peloponnesian War

(431-404 BC)

" From all the previous military events, the biggest was the Persian War, which ended with two naval battles and two land battles, while the current war lasted too long and caused so much suffering in Greece, as never before. Never before had so
many cities been conquered and destroyed, either by the barbarians or by the Greeks who fought each other. Indeed, in many states, after having been destroyed, a new population was installed. There has never been so many exiled and killed, either in war or in civil strife. During this time there were also many destructive earthquakes and eclipses of the sun more than had ever been before. Further, major droughts occurred in many places and caused famine. Finally there was a terrible epidemic, that caused great damage and destruction. All this was happening during the war. The war began when the Athenians and the Peloponnesians denounced the thirty-year libations which had been in place since the revolution of Evia. I will first expose what were the reasons for the differences that led to war in order that no one wondered later what was the cause that led the Greeks to be involved in such a big and complicated war. The real, but unspoken reason was, I think, the great development of Athens that scared the Lacedaemonians and forced them to fight."

Before the brake of the Peloponnesian war almost all the Greek city states had split into two rival camps and only the motives remained for the start of the tougher civil conflict in the ancient Greek world. Local conflicts between the Athenians and their opponents, especially Sparta, Thebes and Corinth, ended with the signing of the Thirty Years Peace Treaty (445 BC) but did not provide answers to their differences. The two major alliances, namely the Athenian and the Peloponnesian, incited antagonism which led to an open rupture. The confrontation also had its roots in other factors such as racial differences, Athenians (Ions) and Spartans (Dorians), plus the state structure of the two rivals, namely the democratic Athens and the oligarchic Sparta and finally the hegemonic tendencies of Athens.

Since the treason of Pausanias (467 BC), Sparta was somehow neglected from the Greek world, and watched with jealousy the gradual increase in power of Athens. However,they were biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of the errors which the Athenians made, for instance, forgetting that their allies were not their subjects. The discontent of the allies was pronounced but they did not dare to cast off the yoke on their own. That is why they were sending to the Lacedaemonians secret entreaties and thus,gradually, took the road of civil war.

The war could have probably been delayed if Corinth had not created a conflict with Corfu due to Epidamnos, which was a colony of Corfu with Corfu being a colony of Corinth. In the ensuing conflict between the metropolis and the colony, the Athenians were involved in a battle with 30 ships which took part near Sivota (433 BC) on the side of Corfu. The Corinthians, then, for revenge, prompted a rebellion in Potidaia, which was their colony, but belonged to the alliance of Athens. Pericles'reaction to this was the resolution of Megara, which excluded Megara from the ports and markets of the Athenian state. The Corinthians then persuaded the Spartans to form an alliance with them and declare war on Athens (432 BC). In the beginning, Pericles tried to thwart the conflict, but the Peloponnesians raised excessively demanding conditions, so eventually he had to accept the war. And so began the greatest civil conflict of the ancient Greeks.

The war lasted about thirty years. Its events were the subject of two ancient historians, Thucydides and Xenophon. The historians saw the events of the war in three different periods: The Archidameio or the decade long war (431-421 BC), the Sicilian expedition (415-413 BC) and the Dhekelian or Ionic War (413-404 BC) .

In the beginning, the war was limited to small conflicts and lootings with few casualties amongst the rivals. In the third year of the war, however, a terrible plague arrived in Athens, killing a third of the population including Pericles himself (429 BC). Pericles was succeeded by Cleon, who now held the power of the state and the leadership of the war. In 428, the capital of Lesvos rebelled against Athens but it was besieged and conquered by the Athenians.

The punishment of their former allies was tough with over 1000 men killed, the walls of the city of Mitylini shattered and the land being distributed to Athenian citizens. On the other hand, the Spartans punished the Plataeans in revenge for the killing of Thebans'. After a siege of two years they captured the city and with unprecedented ferocity massacred the defenders, even though they had surrendered to their opponents.

In 426, the Athenian general Demosthenes had brilliant success in Akarnania and in 425 captured Pylos. In 424 the Spartans spread the war to Thrace and Brasidas, the Spartan leader, conquered Amphipolis. In 423 there was a brief truce and Halkidiki defected from Athens. In 422 Cleon campaigned in Thrace against Brasidas and during the battle of Amphipolis both leaders were killed.

In 421 the "Peace of Nicias" was signed but instead of 50 years as planned, it lasted only five years. Alcibiades, whose influence was growing in Athens, allied with Argos (420), whom he sent against Epidaurus (419). The Spartans defeated the Athenians in Mantinia and reconciled with Argos. In 416 the Athenians captured Milos and massacred or sold as slaves its inhabitants.

In 415, Alcibiades dragged the Athenians into a distant expedition to Sicily but after being accused of cutting off the heads of Hermon, he left the expedition and requested asylum in Sparta. The Spartans complained that the peace had been breached and sent help to Syracuse. This was followed by a complete destruction of the Athenians in Sicily (413). In 412 the Athenians lost their allies in Asia Minor while the Spartans, with the mediation of Alcibiades, closed an alliance with the Persians.

In the meanwhile in Athens, the Council of the Four Hundred came in to power. The Athenians withdrew Alcibiades and won the battles in Sestos and Cyzicus (410). In 409 the Megarians retook their seaport. The Spartans conquered Pylos and the Athenians failed to keep Ephesus. In 408 Alcibiades sought an alliance with Persia, but Darius II sent Cyrus to Asia Minor to help the Spartans instead of the Athenians. Darius', unlike his predecessors who wanted to extend the conflict, wished to end the war.

Alcibiades had success in Propontis (407), but his lieutenant Antiochus was defeated in Ephesus by Lysander. The Athenians accused Alcibiades as responsible and took away his leadership, and replaced him with ten generals. In 406 the Athenians defeated the successor of Lysander, Kallicratidas, in the battle near Arginouses, but the following year Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet in the battle of Aegospotami . Only Conon escaped with eight triremes in Cyprus. Three thousand Athenian prisoners were executed. In 404 Athens was besieged by land and sea and finally fell, surrendering after a heroic resistance. The walls were demolished and the fortifications were razed. Eventually Athens was under the yoke of the 30 tyrants imposed by the Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War was devastating for all Greek cities, and particularly those which became areas of conflict, or those who suffered the consequences of confrontation with one of the two great powers, as happened in Plataea, Mytilene, Milos and 15 other cities. The impact was decisive for the future of the Greek cities, because apart from the physical destruction and the atrocities committed by all sides, the conditions were created for the Persian's implication in the internal affairs of the Greek world. The immediate and obvious effects of the war was the defeat of Athens and thus the recognition of the Spartan hegemony of the Greek cities (404 BC). However, the fate of city-states during the next century were the indirect effects of this war.

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