Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Peloponnesian War

Steve Muhlberger
The Peloponnesian War, specifically the Second Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C., has a famous place in history.


The last reason is perhaps the most compelling one. In his History Thucydides made the war a case study in politics, especially the politics of his home city, Athens. An admirer of Pericles and his successful policies, Thucydides wanted to know why the war that Pericles started had ended in the defeat and ruin of Athens. In the book, Athens and demokratia were put on trial. Ever since, the war has been seen in those terms. If it isn't Athens on trial, it is ancient Greece as a whole, which is condemned for its failure to unify. So the Peloponnesian War carries a lot of ideological freight. It
is not just any war.

In this lecture  I will look at a few important aspects of the war and of its aftermath.

Let's begin with why the war broke out.

This is simple. In the previous fifty years, since the time of Xerxes' expedition, Athens and Sparta had been rivals. There was a great deal of jealousy between the leading powers, and determination to maintain their spheres of influence. The situation in Greece was much like the situation of Europe in 1914. Any little spark could set off a war between the two alliances.

In 431, the cities of Corcyra and Corinth came into conflict. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, so Corcyra, which had been non-aligned up till now, called upon Athens for help. Corinth told Athens to stay out, this was none of its business, but got no satisfaction; then the Corinthians went to Sparta and demanded action. 

Sparta could hardly refuse help. The Spartans and the assembled representatives of its Peloponnesian League voted for war. Most Spartans were enthusiastic at the opportunity to show their stuff.  Archidamos, one of the two kings of Sparta, warned his fellow citizens that this would be a hard war to win. His advice was to prepare for a sea war before attacking. This advice was rejected, but it was right.

Pericles, rather than fight the Spartan army that was sent into Attica,  withdrew the rural population into the city. He convinced the Athenians to ignore the destruction of their agriculture and to live off their commerce, fighting only when it was to their advantage. This plan was followed by Athens throughout the entire war, which is one reason it lasted so long.

In the second year of the war, 430, when Athens was choked with refugees while the Spartan army prowled outside the walls, a ship brought plague to the city. Thousands of people died, perhaps as many as a fifth of the population. Thucydides, who caught the plague but recovered, also thought that the plague had a demoralizing effect on the population.  If that was not enough, in the next year Pericles himself died.

For Thucydides and many other historians, the death of Pericles was a great disaster, the first step downward in the decline of Athens. After Pericles, a new generation of leaders grew up. These men were called demagogues or "leaders of the people." They were the first politicians of non-aristocratic stock to hold power in Athens. In the view of aristocrats like Thucydides, demagogues were men who pandered to the popular will and promoted any policy, however violent, that would bring immediate benefits to the citizenry. This meant war, because the poorer citizens, the backbone of the fleet, wanted continued war, which meant continued employment and profit. It was the demagogues' schemes that led Athens down the road to ruin.

Is this an accurate assessment? There is no doubt that Kleon was a ruthless man, who thought victory was everything. But criticism of Kleon on these grounds forgets that he was pursuing the goal of Athenian domination that men like Pericles had set before the citizens long before Kleon was anyone in particular. Both were imperialists; if Kleon was bloodier and more violent, it was because the times were bloodier too -- thanks in large part to Pericles and his generation.

Some of the criticism of Kleon and other war rulers stemmed from the fact that they were the new rich, who made their money in trade or industry, and were not quite respectable. Without democracy and war, they would have never risen to such heights. It is hard to figure out what the aristocrats disliked most: war, democracy or the rule of such no-account nouveaux riches.  Not all the criticism can be dismissed as social or political jealousy, however.   If you read the satirical plays of Aristophanes, largely written during the war, you see a more positive side of the anti-war movement, and understand some of the dislike of Kleon.

In any case, the demagogues were competent if not brilliant war leaders.  Athens did all right, despite the plague and regular devastation of its territory by hostile armies. It maintained itself, its commerce, and the unity of its empire -- the last by punishing any allies who wanted out. But neither Sparta nor Athens could force victory on the other.

In 421, after ten years of war,  the Peace of Nikias was concluded. (named after the aristocratic Athenian who negotiated the agreement). Nikias, like many aristocrats, thought that Athens could live with Sparta, and committed his city to a fifty year truce. The peace hardly lasted a year, because Athens meddled in a conflict between Sparta and its unhappy allies.

By 418, Athens and Sparta were directly in conflict once again. This second stage of the war lasted right up to 404, and the Athenian defeat.

In this stage, Athens suffered far worse than in the first stage. The Athenians took some big risks, and they lost. 

The biggest risk Athens ever took was under the leadership of a slippery character named Alkibiades, whose charming, aristocratic, and scandalous self made him notorious in his own time. He was willing to lead Athens to glory, if they would just listen to him.

In 415, he among others convinced the assembly to send a great fleet and army to Sicily. A small city there had appealed to Athens for protection against Syracuse, the big power on the island. Athenian honor was touched; also there were profits to be made.  Thucydides ridiculed the very idea of an expedition to such a distant place, but it was really no more ridiculous than Britain and France fighting over India or North America in the 18th century.

The Athenian expedition was a disaster. Alkibiades, the original commander was accused of  sacrilege by his enemies and had to flee to Sparta, where he advise hem to reinforce their Sicilian allies. The Spartans did so; their promptness, plus the mistakes of the Athenian commanders, led to the destruction of the Athenian fleet in Sicily.

Sparta also got help from Persia. Athens had maintained her old hostility to the Persians, and had recently irritated the satrap at Sardis. The satrap contacted Athens's enemy and offered to send money so that Sparta could build up its fleet. Without this help, Sparta, tough but poor, might never have been able to match the commercial and maritime colossus in sea power. But once Sparta got on the Persian payroll, Athens began to lose at sea.

In 405, Athens lost almost all its fleet. After agonizing consideration of its options, Athens surrendered. In 404, a negotiated peace stripped Athens of its empire and its walls, but left it otherwise unharmed.

The most interesting aspect of the last years of the war was the internal politics of Athens.

There had always been aristocrats against the war; some of them were also deadly opponents of demokratia. In 411, as Athens lost its grip, a party of 400 seized the city while the fleet was out of port. Alkibiades was in on the plot, and had promised the 400 Persian money if they took the city. The 400 Tyrants, as they were called, were unable to rule. Lots of people, thousands, had been promised places in the new regime, and were very angry to be excluded. An alliance of these people, the democratic fleet, and Alkibiades, who had switched sides again, quickly deposed the 400, and demokratia returned.

Internal division remained. In 404, after the great disaster, after a Spartan army had forced the citizens to tear down their walls, a small group of oligarchs rose against the constitution. There were Thirty Tyrants, this time. They were men like Alkibiades, though he was not one of them: aristocratic, ambitious, in some cases skeptical students of Socrates. They were also vicious. They announced that they were going to purge the city of wrong-doers, and used this as an excuse to execute criminals, democrats and hostile aristocrats indifferently.

The purges galvanized opposition. A group of democrats organized in Thebes, and when the time looked right, attacked and were victorious.

The Spartans had initially supported the tyrants, but even they recognized that this was futile. Sparta allowed Athens to choose its own constitution. The Athenians chose demokratia once more. Over the next few years, the whole so-called "radical" constitution was brought back. Athens had lost its empire, but retained the system of government that was so unique.

What should be said about this war and its significance?

Certainly, it was big and destructive.  One of the chief aspects of the war were the bloody civil conflicts between pro-Athenian and pro-Spartan factions in many states. The Athenian sympathizers were usually democratic, the pro-Spartans, oligarchic.

Communities caught in the middle of the conflict were often destroyed. For instance in 416, Melos, a small island polis that had stayed neutral, was attacked by the Athenians, and the whole population was either slaughtered or enslaved. This was unusually savage, because there was no casus belli, legitimate reason for attack. But many other massacres were committed by both sides. Nearly thirty years of war caused a great deal of suffering all over Greece and even Sicily.

The Peloponnesian War is often seen, however, as even more deplorable than other destructive wars. Two things are often cited.

Neither position can be taken entirely at face value.  At least one scholar, Karl Popper argues that even a successful democracy would have been unacceptable to Thucydides.. It is more certain that Thucydides thought that democracy made a city unfit for greatness; greatness defined as imperial status.

Remember the words Thucydides put in Kleon's mouth, at the debate over the fate of Mytilene: "I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire." This makes more sense as a view of the author than of the demagogue. The whole point of the debate, of Thucydides history, is that the right policies could have maintained the power that Pericles had built up.  Those who follow Thucydides' lead are not really interested in democracy as a way for a community to run its own affairs. If so, they would point out more often that Athens succeeded in maintaining domestic demokratia even in defeat and poverty.

On the second point: The so-called failure of Greece to unite is much the same thing. You can tell because the usual comparison is between Greek failure and Roman success. Anyone who considers the Romans an example of success is a self-convicted imperialist and lover of war and inequality. The Romans succeeded through war; they had lots of people who argued like Kleon; they had not one Melos massacre but hundreds. If ancient Greece failed a test, it is the same test that every other civilization has failed, too.

Thucydides tells us that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest, most dramatic war of all history. Because he wrote so well, he has generally been believed. But the tragedy is that in essential ways the Pelopennesian War was just a slice of Greek life, an extreme and well-recorded example of the way things were all the time.

As in the case of the previous lecture, there are many good works on this period in the DF section of our library.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton, 1966), is a thought-provoking work on (among other things) the significance of the Age of Pericles and the Pelopennesian War.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.