Ancient Greece


The Pelopponesian War

   Suspicious and fearful of Athenian power and wealth, the Spartans were not happy with the thirty year peace they had agreed to. The Athenians themselves had become chauvinistic and power hungry, and seemed ready to begin to reassert their power on the mainland of Greece. In 431, spurred on by a relatively trivial event in a distant part of the Greek mainland, Sparta and Athens fell into another war which is simply called, The Peloponnesian War.

   The Spartans wished to fight a land war, which they were very good at. They outnumbered the Athenians two to one, odds they believed the Athenians could stand up to only for a very short time. At the outbreak of the war, then, they invaded Attica and began burning crops in order to starve the Athenians into submission.

   The Athenians, however, had a harbor and a powerful navy. Pericles knew that they could hold out against the Spartans for several years on the tribute money from the Empire. He also knew that he could take the war right to the doorsteps of Spartan allies, by sailing troops along the coast of Greece and landing them far from Athenian lines. Although Pericles died in the second year of the war in a plague that devestated Athens, the Athenians, nevertheless, kept to the Periclean strategy of prosecuting the war.

   Both sides believed that their strategy would wear down the other side and force a surrender. However, this really didn't happen. After ten years of fighting and some disastrous events among allied cities, the situation was no different than it was at the beginning of the war. Both sides had become worn down, so Sparta and Athens signed a fifty year peace called the Peace of Nicias, after the Athenian politician and general who was leading Athens at the time. Essentially similar in view and ability to Pericles, Nicias was a brilliant and cautious man who managed to pull off an effective truce. Everyone was allowed to go home, and the territorial status as it stood at the time of the peace, was allowed to remain in place. Athens kept its continental territories and allies, and Sparta got to keep all the territories it had acquired.

   Nicias, however, had rivals in the democratic assembly. Perhaps the most talented of these rivals was a young, brilliant follower of the philosopher Socrates named Alcibiades. With creativity, energy, and immense oratorical ability, Alicibiades in 415 BC convinced the Athenians to attack the Greek city-states on the island of Sicily and bring them under the glove of the Athenian Empire. Although the expedition was in part under the leadership of Nicias, it soon turned into a disaster. In 413 BC, the entire army was defeated and captured and a large part of the great, powerful fleet of the Athenians was destroyed in the harbor of Syracuse. Athenian power since the Persian Wars had rested solely on the power of the navy; the disastrous Sicilian expedition left Athens almost completely powerless.

   Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spartans soon attacked Athens and—worse news piled on top of bad news—they were soon joined by the Persians who were still smarting from the war Athens had so vigorously prosecuted in the first half of the fifth century. For awhile the Athenians hung on, even enjoying tremendous victories when the war was shifed to the Aegean Sea. But in 405, the rest of their navy was destroyed in a surprise attack, and by the next year the situation was hopeless. In 404 BC, the Athenians surrendered totally to the Spartans, who tore down the walls of the city, barred them from ever having a navy, and installed their own oligarchic government, the Thirty. The Age of Athens, the Age of Pericles, the Classical Age, the Athenian Empire, had come to an end.

The Spartan Hegemony: 404-371 BC

World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96