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The Peloponnesian War: A Concise Overview

Updated on July 3, 2011

“This was the greatest disturbance in the history of the Hellenes, affecting also a large part of the non-Hellenic world, and indeed, I might almost say, the whole of mankind.” These were the words written by the Greek historian, Thucydides, in 431 B.C.E, the same year as the Peloponnesian War –which he dedicated an incredible contemporary account to- began to engulf the entirety of Greece. This encompassing conflict consumed the city-states of Greece, which held allegiances either with Athens, ruler of the waters, or Sparta, who dominated the land. Throughout its twenty-seven year duration, peace could have been managed on multiple occasions between the feuding societies. Yet, war continued to infest the very body of Greece until the Athenian naval empire lay decimated, and any resistance towards a growing Macedonian threat was lost. Still, before this devastating consequence was in sight, the rise of powers, diplomatic rivalries, and lesser disputes culminated the beginnings of a war that Thucydides himself claimed “…would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that preceded it”.

The year 431 witnessed a fierce division between Sparta and Athens: the former held alliances under the Peloponnesian League, while the latter elicited support by way of the Athenian Empire. This partition within Greece was a direct result of the differing ideologies between these central powers. Sparta sought strength through totalitarianism, holding the city in esteem above the citizen, whereas Athens placed faith in democracy and the ultimate value of its populace.

Any attempt at co-existence between these dichotomized principles was completely negated at Epidamnus, an isle off the western coast of Greece that fell victim to an internal struggle between democratic and aristocratic powers, both of which sought foreign assistance for their cause. Corinth, a Spartan ally, offered support to the entitled elites, while Corcyra, a colony of Corinth itself, came to the aid of the self-governing citizenry. Although the battle ended in favor of Corcyra before the greater forces of Athens and Sparta became involved, Epidamnus now stood without alliance and requested backing from the Athenian Empire. Herein lay the first of many pivotal stepping-stones towards the ultimate conflict as recorded by Thucydides.

While Sparta and Athens had been able to avoid direct conflict at Epidamnus, Potidaea proved far different. Here, in 432 B.C.E, another outlying colony of Corinth appealed for aid from Sparta’s totalitarian regime after Athens’ naval presence instigated an incursion. The attack then extended further to another Spartan ally, Megara, who Athens forced outside of their trading empire, inflicting disastrous economic consequences upon the Corinthian outlier. In response to this persistent aggression and Athens’ multiple abuses of a previous treaty, Sparta assembled the Peloponnesian League to encourage a vote for war, subsequently plunging the nation of Greece into chaos. Thucydides, whilst acknowledging the importance of these successive events, further suggested that a watershed had occurred due to the simple “…growth of Athenian power and the fear which it caused in Sparta”.

And so, commencing with the Archimadian phase (431-421), the Peloponnesian War began. This initial stage included the Siege of Potidaea and Plataea, the Mytilene revolts, unremitting Spartan land assaults and Athenian offensive raids. The Peace of Nicias attempted to establish an early end to the conflict, offering to return Greece to its pre-war status quo with the inclusion of a few minor concessions. For the duration of seven years, relations remained calm, yet strained, but dissatisfaction over the provisions of the Peace could no longer be diplomatically quelled, thereby casting the allies of Athens and Sparta into a renewed state of conflict, coined “The Second War”.

This series of engagements consisted to the most part of the Sicilian Expeditions, during which the city of Syracuse was exploited for resources by the Athenians and provoked the former to call upon Spartan aid. The encounters that followed decimated Athens financially, morally, and militarily, whereby Sparta managed to shift the balance of power in their favor. A subsequent hiatus in major warring although allowed Athens an opportunity to rebuild its forces, thus negating any hopes of establishing yet another peace.

The concluding years of the Peloponnesian war featured a Persian-backed Spartan naval fleet, an invasion of Attica, and a series of conflicts from 410-406 B.C.E, culminating in Athenian victory. At the closing of this “finest Athenian hour”, Sparta was offered a new set of terms directed to return the state once more to its pre-war standing. Yet, a small victory at Lysander and the continuous support offered by the Persians prolonged a Spartan surrender, leaving the force intact to counter the Athenians at the final battle at Aegospotami in the year 405. After a period of crushing defeats by land and sea, famine and disease infested Athens surrendered in 404 B.C.E.

In the wake of the war, Athens democratic government was replaced by a Spartan oligarchy, a board of “Thirty Tyrants”. Under the rule of the Thirty, the once esteemed Empire suffered a myriad of humiliating decrees: the Delian League was dissolved, defensive fortifications were destroyed, the citizenry’s rights were restricted, and the Athenian navy was diminished. But not only Athens bore the repercussions of a three-decade long war; the endemic state of conflict left Greece a weakened entity, a condition that would prove devastating half a century later as Macedon began its fateful attempts at world conquest


Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Thanks ata!

      Yes, it certainly was, and it was terribly difficult not to go off on countless tangents while writing this compact synopsis.

      I'm so glad you still managed to appreciate it.

      -Lilith

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 

      7 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Great Hub. The Peloponnesian War is one of the few conflicts in history that is comparable to the World Wars in the effect it had on the combatant states.

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