Brief history of the Archidamian war

The first phase of the Peloponnesian War is called the Archidamian War and is characterized by the Spartan invasions of Attica, the plundering of the Peloponnesian beaches by the Athenian forces and the epidemic that decimated Athens.

In the first phase of the war, historians gave the name of the king of Sparta, Archidamus, who was the head of the Peloponnesian forces that occupied Attica – but not Athens – in the first years of the war. However, the failed Theban raid on the city of Plataea in March 431 BC is considered the first offensive action of the war.

Archidamus appeared in Attica 2 months later and began its desolation, while the Athenians shut themselves up in the Long Walls, avoiding confrontation with the Peloponnesian infantry and limiting their aggressive movements to the navy – they sent it to plunder the coasts of the Peloponnese as a distraction and mainly Ilia.

When the Peloponnesians left at the end of July, the Athenians occupied Aegina, laid waste the regions of Lokre and plundered Megara. At the end of the first year, during the burial of the dead Athenians, the Epitaph of Pericles was pronounced.

At the outset, Sparta and its allies aimed to weaken Athens through annual invasions of the Athenian countryside, particularly the region of Attica.

These invasions, which typically took place during the summer, were intended to devastate Athenian farmlands and force the Athenians to come out and fight in open battle, where the superior Spartan hoplite phalanx could dominate.

However, the Athenian strategy, largely crafted by their influential leader Pericles, was to avoid direct land battles with the Spartans. Instead, Athens relied on its strong walls, which connected the city to its ports at Piraeus, and its powerful navy to sustain supplies and carry out raids along the Peloponnesian coast.

Pericles’ strategy also involved using Athens’ naval supremacy to conduct raids on Spartan territories and their allies, aiming to disrupt their supply lines and create economic difficulties. This approach, while frustrating for the Spartans, allowed Athens to avoid the risk of losing a decisive land battle. The Athenians also sought to maintain their empire and the tribute that came from their allies, which was essential for funding their war effort.

One of the most significant and tragic events of the Archidamian War was the outbreak of a devastating plague in Athens in 430 BC. The overcrowded conditions within the city walls, where rural inhabitants had taken refuge from Spartan invasions, facilitated the rapid spread of the disease.

The plague killed tens of thousands of Athenians, including Pericles himself, leading to a severe blow to Athenian morale and a leadership crisis. Despite this setback, Athens continued to resist and even launched several offensives.

Throughout the war, there were notable engagements, such as the Battle of Pylos in 425 BC, where the Athenians, led by the general Demosthenes, captured a group of Spartan soldiers on the island of Sphacteria. This was a significant psychological blow to Sparta, which prided itself on the invincibility of its warriors. The capture of these soldiers gave Athens a valuable bargaining chip, leading to temporary truces and negotiations.

Another key event was the Athenian invasion of the Boeotian city of Delium in 424 BC, which ended in a significant defeat for Athens at the Battle of Delium. This defeat highlighted the challenges Athens faced when operating far from its naval base and the difficulties of sustaining extended land campaigns.

The war saw several shifts in strategy and leadership on both sides. After the death of Pericles, Athenian politics became more volatile, with leaders like Cleon advocating for a more aggressive stance against Sparta. Conversely, Sparta saw the emergence of new leaders who sought to find a way to end the protracted conflict.

The war reached a turning point in 421 BC with the signing of the Peace of Nicias, named after the Athenian general and politician who negotiated it. This treaty was intended to last for fifty years and marked a temporary halt in hostilities.

Both sides agreed to return captured territories and prisoners, aiming to restore the status quo. However, the peace was tenuous and marked by continued skirmishes and mistrust. It ultimately failed to address the underlying causes of the conflict or bring about a lasting resolution.

In summary, the Archidamian War was a period of intense struggle marked by strategic innovations, devastating setbacks, and fleeting successes. It set the stage for the continued conflict that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Athenian Empire and a reshaping of the Greek world.

The war’s initial phase highlighted the strengths and vulnerabilities of both Athens and Sparta, showcasing the interplay between land and naval power, the impact of leadership and public morale, and the harsh realities of protracted warfare.