History of the Peloponnesian war

peloponnesian-warThe Peloponnesian War, which raged from 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek military conflict, fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. The name of the war derives from the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in southern Greece where Sparta and its allies were located. This war is considered one of the seminal events of ancient history and its chronicler, the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, provides one of the early and definitive works of historical narrative in his “History of the Peloponnesian War”.

The seeds of conflict were sown in the preceding years, following the Persian Wars (499-449 BC) which had united various Greek city-states, including Athens and Sparta, against the external threat posed by the Persian Empire. After the Persian defeat, Athens emerged as a naval superpower while Sparta remained dominant on land, each heading different leagues or alliances of city-states. Athens led the Delian League, a coalition of maritime city-states, and Sparta headed the Peloponnesian League, a consortium of land-based city-states in the Peloponnese. Over time, Athens’ expansionist policies and its growing power began to alarm Sparta and its allies, leading to increasing tensions between the two blocs.

The war was fought in three phases, starting with the Archidamian War (431-421 BC), named after the Spartan king Archidamus II. This phase saw a series of battles, sieges, and skirmishes across Greece, with neither side able to secure a decisive advantage. A temporary cessation of hostilities was achieved with the signing of the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC, but the peace was fragile and short-lived.

The war flared up again with the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC), an ill-fated Athenian attempt to expand its influence by conquering the city of Syracuse in Sicily. The expedition ended in a disastrous defeat for Athens, with a great loss of men and ships, significantly weakening its military and naval power.

The final phase of the war, known as the Decelean War or the Ionian War (412-404 BC), witnessed a renewal of hostilities across Greece and in the eastern Aegean. Sparta, bolstered by Persian support, ramped up its military operations, and gradually wore down Athenian resistance. The war concluded with the siege and subsequent surrender of Athens in 404 BC, marking a shift in the balance of power in ancient Greece and ending the city-state’s golden era.

The consequences of the Peloponnesian War were profound. Athens’ defeat resulted in the loss of its empire, a period of oligarchic rule, and a significant loss of its former military and economic power. The war brought devastation to Greece, significantly weakening the major city-states and paving the way for the eventual conquest of Greece by the Kingdom of Macedon, heralding the end of the classical era of ancient Greek civilization.

The Peloponnesian War is remembered not only for its military engagements but also for its exploration of power politics, human nature, and the catastrophic consequences of war, themes eloquently explored in Thucydides’ narrative. Moreover, the war and its intricate examination provide a rich source of study and analogies for military strategists, political theorists, and historians alike, making it a significant chapter in the annals of human history.

The causes

A) economic: Athens seeks its expansion to the west, i.e. the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic Sea, but this brings it into conflict with Corinth (a key ally of Sparta), which has vital economic interests in this area.

B) political: The main reason was Sparta’s fear of the increase in the power of Athens, as well as the ideological and political (i.e. in the polity) difference between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta.

How did the war begin?

A) the Corfiots who were fighting against the metropolis of Corinth asked for and received the help of the Athenians, which was considered a violation of the Thirty Years’ Peace.

B) The Corinthians push Potidea to defect from the Athenian alliance

C) In retaliation, Pericles forbids the ships of the Megarians, allies of Sparta, to enter the ports of the Athenian alliance (this decision was called the “megarian resolution”).

Archidamian War (431-421 BC)

The Spartan king Archidamus invades and plunders the Attic countryside with his army. In the 2nd year of the war, a deadly epidemic breaks out in Athens, killing 1/3 of Athens. of the people with Pericles among the many victims (he dies in 429 BC) and as a result demagogic politicians dominate the city, i.e. those who lead the people astray for their own personal benefit. Athens faces defections from its allies due to the economic pressures it puts on them, while the war is transferred by the Spartans to Macedonia (distraction tactics, i.e. distracting the enemy’s attention from the real objective). At the battle of Amphipolis with the ambiguous result kills both the 2 pro-war generals, the Spartan Brasidas and the Athenian Cleon.

The battle of Sphakteria (425 BC)

The battle of Sphakteria (425 BC) is the second stage of the battle that ended with the surrender of the Spartan army (Peloponnesian War). The chain of events that led to this almost unprecedented disaster began when an Athenian force under Demosthenes landed on the rocky promontory of Pylos, southwest of the Peloponnese, and established a fortified position. The Peloponnesian army under King Agi abandoned the invasion of Attica and returned to the Peloponnese, while the forces already in Sparta moved west to deal with the new threat.

Because Demosthenes was a serious problem, the Spartans gathered their fleet at Pylos, with the result that he found himself besieged by land and sea. The Athenian position was on a promontory at one end of the gulf of Pylos. The island of Sphakteria which was outside the mouth of the gulf had been captured by the Spartans.

The Spartan fleet moved into the bay, trapping the Athenians and preventing any attempt at supply and resupply. At the Battle of Pylos the Athenians managed to repel a double attack by the Spartans, but were literally saved by the arrival of the Athenian fleet, which inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spartan counterpart in the inner bay, lifting the blockade of Pylos.

A force of 420 Spartan hoplites, under the command of Epitadas son of Molobros, found themselves trapped in Sphakteria. The Spartans responded by sending senior officials to Pylos to examine the situation. When it became clear that they could not hope for supplies or to save the hoplites, they asked the Athenians for a truce.

The biggest weakness in the Spartan system was the lack of “similars” and as a result the loss of 420 Spartans was a gap that could not be filled. This was reflected in the terms they agreed with the Athenians. Every warship that had taken part in the previous battles and every warship in Lacedaemon would be surrendered to the Athenians during the armistice. The Spartans would cease all attacks on Pylos, while the Athenians would cease attacks on Sphakteria and allow food to be made available on the island. The truce would remain in effect while Spartan representatives traveled to Athens to negotiate peace terms.

But the peace negotiations and terms did not satisfy the Athenians. They demanded the return of the territories they lost at the end of the first Peloponnesian war, and when negotiations broke down, they refused to abide by the terms of the armistice and did not return the warships. The truce lasted 20 days.

After negotiations failed, fighting resumed. The Spartans continued their attacks on the Athenians at Pylos, while the Athenians maintained a naval blockade of Sphakteria. While both sides were under siege, the Spartans made efforts to transport supplies to their troops. Volunteers were called to try to carry supplies to the island, for a fee and freedom as a reward for the helots. Some waited for the right weather and then sailed to the island at speed, destroying the ships but gaining the reward. Others swam underwater, carrying items protected by skins.

The campaign in Sicily (415 – 413 BC)

Alcibiades, who dominates Athens, persuades the municipality to campaign in Sicily, pretending to send aid to the city of Egesta, which was at war with Selinunda. Three generals are appointed: Alcibiades, Lamachus and Nikias (who does not agree with the campaign).
However, once they reach Sicily, Alcibiades is recalled to Athens to be tried for impiety, as his political enemies accuse him of cutting off the heads of Hermes (columns with the head of Hermes that served as signposts in the city). He prefers to escape to Sparta and betray his homeland by giving its enemies two pieces of advice that are disastrous for his city:
a) to send an army to Sicily to help their Syracusian allies and
b) to occupy and fortify Decelia in Attica, so that Athens does not communicate with
outdoors .

The Spartan general Gylippos arrives in Sicily and disaster follows for the great Athenian army. According to the historian Thucydides: “Nothing existed that was not lost
and few of many returned home

The Decelean War (413 – 404 BC)

In this phase, the Persians appear in the role of regulator of things: following them advice of Alcibiades (now in Asia Minor) for maintaining the war between Athenians and Spartans, help the Spartans financially to build a fleet and to dominate the Aegean. The Athenians put Alcibiades back in command of the fleet, but they are defeated in Samos by the Spartan general Lysander. Then the Athenians with defeat the general Konon in the naval battle of Arginousa 406 BC, (but execute the 6 chief generals, because they did not manage due to the stormy sea to gather them
shipwrecked), but suffer great destruction from Lysander in the Aegos Potamis in 405 (Lysander won by trickery and surprise).
Defeated and blockaded by land and sea, the Athenians make peace with
derogatory terms:
1) surrender all but 12 of their warships
2) demolish the Long Walls and the walls of Piraeus
3) to accept back all political exiles and
4) to follow the Spartans, having the same friends and enemies as them.

411 BC The oligarchic movement in Athens

During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), and more specifically on the 14th of the month of Thargilion (June 9) of 411 BC, an oligarchic movement took place in Athens, which overthrew the democratic state and established the so-called Beginning of the Four Hundred.

After the disastrous campaign of the Athenians in Sicily (415-413 BC) the democratic state in Athens began to falter. Its wealthy inhabitants, who shouldered the costs of the war, faced financial difficulties and planned its overthrow and the establishment of an oligarchic state. In fact, they did not hesitate to resort to terrorism in order to achieve their goal. Prominent democratic leaders, such as Androcles, were assassinated by groups of young aristocrats.

The oligarchic movement was led by the keen orator Antiphon, who operated mainly from the background. Other important personalities of the oligarchs were the demagogues Phrynichos and Peisandros, once mortal rivals and now allies for the common cause, and the moderate Theramenes.

The oligarchs demanded a cut in spending and the limitation of active citizens to only those who were “financially and physically” able to benefit the city. For them it was the only way to save Athens, which had lost its military advantage in its confrontation with Sparta.

The conspirators first won over the Church of the Municipality when they announced that Persia was willing to help Athens financially through the mediation of Alcibiades. However, when he did not keep his promises, the oligarchs could not back down, in an Athens that was in a state of disarray.

They convened the Church of the Municipality and proposed to create, with a mixed system of appointment and election, the House of Four Hundred, which would have absolute powers, while the war lasted. This Parliament could consult a body of 5,000 citizens, whenever it considered it necessary.

The Four Hundred, consisting mainly of extreme oligarchs, were unwilling to share power with the Pentakisili. They imposed their will and dissolved the democratically elected House of 500. The overthrow of democracy had been accomplished.

The coup plotters could not have maintained their power if they did not have the consent of the mighty Athenian fleet, which at that time was anchored in Samos. They did not succeed, which contributed to the death of their venture.

The crews, as soon as they learned of the movement in Athens, swore allegiance to democracy, deposed their leaders and elected new ones. Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus were two of them. The new leaders of the fleet recalled Alcibiades and declared their intention to continue the war against Sparta.

In Athens, the new oligarchic government suffered from internal problems from the start, as a conflict broke out within it between moderate and extreme elements. The moderates, led by Thirameni, demanded the replacement of the Four Hundred with an enlarged oligarchic body of 5,000, in which representatives from the lower classes (couples and above) would also participate.

Under pressure, the extreme oligarchs under Phrynicus were ready to make peace with the Spartans, sacrificing hegemony and even the independence of the city. At the same time, they began to wall the Hetionia peninsula (today’s Drapetsona), at the entrance to Piraeus.

The rumors of Thiramenes, that the fort was intended to facilitate the landing of the Spartans, provoked the reaction of the hoplites, who demolished it. Phrynichos also fell victim to these rumors, who was murdered. After this development the moderate oligarchs took the upper hand and installed the “principle of 5,000”, in September 411 BC.

Thucydides praises the new polity, which was a combination of oligarchic and democratic elements. Of the leaders of the extreme oligarchs, Antiphon was sentenced to death and drank hemlock, while Peisander fled to the Spartans. Democracy in Athens was restored in June 410 BC, after the double victory of the Athenian fleet at Cyzicus.

Results of the Peloponnesian war

The Peloponnesian wars were destructive in every way and would lead to the decline of the whole of Greece: Thousands were the dead of the war, cities had turned into ruins, the countryside had abandoned by the rural population and the economy had suffered a serious blow. Equally important was the collapse of moral values: in human relations the deceit, in the place of religious faith, doubt prevailed, the Persians were summoned by the Greeks to interfere in Greek affairs.