Peloponnesian War

Spartan warrior

A Spartan warrior lands in Sicily where an army has been sent to rescue the island from the Athenians.

Map showing the principal scenes of battle between Athens and Sparta

Map showing the principal scenes of battle between Athens and Sparta.

The ancient Greeks were among the most innovative and artistic people that ever lived. But, although the Greeks had much in common, they did not form one nation but were divided into separate city-states. They fought each other frequently, and gradually two city-states became larger and stronger than the others: these were Athens and Sparta. In time a great rivalry grew up between them and war seemed likely. But then Greece was threatened by a foreign invader, the Persians, and for a time their jealousies were set aside.


In the heroic struggle of the Greeks against the mighty power of Persia an important part was played by the Athenians; the great victories at Marathon and Salamis were mainly due to them. Sparta did not achieve as much, although history remembers the extraordinary achievement of 300 Spartans in holding up the entire Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae. After the war was over Athens became the leading state of Greece and many Aegean states joined together (in the Confederation of Delos), recognizing Athens as their ruler.


Athens did not always rule justly and unselfishly, and eventually some of these states became discontented and looked to Sparta to free them. Moreover, the power of Athens continued to spread, and Sparta, Corinth, and other city-states felt themselves to be in danger. War actually broke out in 431 BC, nearly 50 years after the end of the Persian War. It was to last for 27 years.


The two sides

Although they were both members of the Greek family, Athens and Sparta were remarkably different from each other. Athens, situated on the east coast of Greece in the district of Attica, was democratic and forward-thinking; Sparta, lying in the south of Greece in the Peloponnese, was aristocratic and conservative. Athens owed her wealth to her trade but was dependent for food on corn imported from the Ukraine. Sparta was essentially an agricultural community. Athenians had a passion for learning and the arts; Spartans tended to despise these things and considered that the only thing that mattered was physical strength and fitness.


Athens was essentially a sea power and depended on her fleet, and the walls of the city linked Athens with the port of Piraeus; Sparta depended depended entirely on her army. The Athenians were enterprising and adventurous and had founded an empire overseas; the Spartans were cautious and stay-at-home. Today Athens is remembered for her contribution to architecture, philosophy, and the arts; Sparta is remembered for her grim military discipline and the toughness of her people.


First part of the war: 431–421 BC

These then were the enemies who confronted each other; Athens was supreme at sea and Sparta on land.


In the first year of the war the Spartans invaded Attica and for a month laid it waste. The Athenians could do nothing to stop them; all they could do was to bring the inhabitants into Athens itself where they would be safe behind the walls which protected the city. The leader of Athens at that time was a wise and capable man called Pericles; he decided to avoid any open battle with the Peloponnesian or Spartan army, while using his fleet to harry, and virtually to blockade, the Peloponnese. At first this strategy seemed to meet with success, and several raids were made on the Peloponnesian peninsula by the Athenian army.


Portrait of Pericles


In the first year the war went as Pericles had foreseen it would, but in 430 Athens suffered a great disaster. The Spartans had again invaded Attica, and in the overcrowded city of Athens a terrible plague broke out. A quarter of the population died, including Pericles.


This was very serious, as the running of the war was then taken over by less capable and responsible people. Pericles was succeeded by Cleon, a leather merchant, who thought that the war should be conducted more boldly. At first he had some success, but soon a powerful Spartan army under a great general called Brasidas marched north to make an attack on Chalcidice. This was a critical time for the Athenians, because if Chalcidice was lost, their control of the Aegean Sea might be threatened and with it their supply of corn from the Ukraine. Cleon personally led an expedition to try and save Chalcidice, but at the Battle of Amphipolis he was defeated, and both he and Brasidas were killed.


Soon afterwards peace was arranged between the two sides, and they pledged themselves to return all prisoners and all territories which they had captured from each other. But these terms were not strictly kept and it soon became probable that war would break out again. In Athens there was a group of young men who were eager to avenge the defeat at Amphipolis and wanted a fight to the death.


Expedition to Sicily

At the head of the "war party" was a young man called Alcibiades. Handsome, clever, and persuasive, he gained great influence in Athens. Soon after war had broken out again, he urged that a large expedition should be sent to Sicily, since Syracuse, its main city, was anti-Athenian.


Portrait of Alcibiades


Many Athenians were opposed to this idea, but the enthusiasm of Alcibiades was unstoppable. In the summer of 415 BC a large fleet was fitted out and an army of 30,000 men made ready.


In normal circumstances this should have been a big enough army, but the Athenians made the mistake of putting in command someone who had been opposed to the whole idea. This man was called Nicias, and in the course of the campaign he made many blunders.


Alcibiades also sailed with the expedition, but soon after reaching Sicily he was recalled home in rather strange circumstances. Just before the fleet had left Athens some hooligans had gone around the city damaging sacred statues of the god Hermes. Many people believed that this was the work of Alcibiades, and so he was sent to stand trial. Alcibiades was so angry that he at once set off for Sparta, where he offered his services against Athens!


The attack on Sicily was to prove a complete failure. It was the heaviest defeat in the whole war and was so disastrous that Athens never recovered from it. Soon afterwards several Athenian colonies rose in rebellion and, later, help was given to Sparta by Persia. For ten years the Athenians held out, cooped up within their walls. But the Spartans finally found a leader, Lysander, who was as skillful at sea as he was on land. In 405 the Athenian fleet was defeated at the Battle of Aegospotami. Soon after, the Athenians were forced to surrender.


And so, in 404 BC, the Peloponnesian War came to and end with the defeat and humiliation of Athens.


Athens in defeat

The conditions of peace imposed on Athens were severe:


  • All the fortifications of Athens and the port of Piraeus were to be demolished.
  • The whole Athenian fleet, with the exception of ten ships, was to be surrendered.
  • All conquered territories were to be given up.

    The ruin of Athens and the death of so many Athenians was one of the great tragedies of history. The story of the war has been told in one of the world's great historical masterpieces written by the Athenian writer Thucydides. In moving terms he tells how the Athenians lost all the advantages with which they had started the war.