The Second Peloponnesian War

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The Second Peloponnesian War


Showdown . During the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) the Greeks were at war with each other at least one-third of the time. With this fact in mind it might be tempting to consider the great war between Athens with its allies and Sparta with its allies, which is often called “the Peloponnesian War,” as just another among many long struggles. No doubt the brilliance of Thucydides’ account of the war has contributed somewhat to heightening its profile for historians. For the Athenians, however, it taught important lessons about the nature of their democracy, its ability to conduct war, and the roles to be played by law and popular sovereignty.

An Unsteady Peace . The peace treaty concluded between Athens and Sparta in 445 interrupted hostilities without resolving the causes of the dispute between the two powers. It gave Athens a free hand to dominate its subject allies, one that it exercised quite brutally against the island of Samos in 440. Yet, in general the Athenians did not try to extend their domination over new areas. Pericles, who was both Athens’s leading politician and its most authoritative general, was quite happy to let Athenians enjoy the wealth and dominance they already had. In the mid 440s he embarked on a massive building program that gave Athens the physical attributes to match its imperial power, buildings such as the Parthenon and Propylaea on the Acropolis and the Hēphaisdon near the agora. There is some evidence that he sent bribes to the Spartans to soften their hostility, but the Spartans themselves had little reason to react. The Athenians were not imposing on their territory. The Spartans’ austere lifestyle, which included avoiding the outside world as much as possible, meant that Athens was little direct threat to them.

Political Maneuvering . Nevertheless, Sparta did lead an alliance of states known as the Peloponnesian League, which included Thebes, Corinth, and Megara. Thebes saw itself as the leader of Boeotia, which bordered on Attica, Athens’s territory, and the Athenians had strong relations with the Boeotian state of Plataea, which resented Theban ambitions. Corinth also laid groundwork for war. Athens had allied itself in 434 with Corcyra, an island colony of Corinth’s that lay on the route between Greece and the rich trading area of Sicily and southern Italy. The Athenians assisted the Corcyraeans in defeating the Corinthian fleet, which allowed the island to sever its ties to its mother city. Meanwhile, Potidaea, one of Athens’s allies on the coast of the northern Aegean area known as the Chalcidice, was also a Corinthian colony, and it still received its annual magistrates from the mother city. The Athenians demanded that Potidaea sever these ties with Corinth. The Potidaeans refused, and they and the Corinthians appealed to Sparta for help. The Spartans probably could have been dissuaded from declaring war if Athens had softened its antagonism against Megara, whose markets it was blockading as a result of a border dispute. Nevertheless, the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides is probably right that war could ultimately not be avoided so long as Athens’s ambitions threatened the other Greeks. Modern historians have seen these ambitions in economic terms, citing Athens’s needs for grain from the Black Sea, minerals from the northern Aegean, and timber from Thrace and Macedonia.

A New War . Thebes and Plataea caused the actual outbreak of war in 431. The Plataeans, after repulsing a Theban attempt to seize control of their city, massacred 180 Theban prisoners. Anticipating a reprisal, the Plateans sought Athenian help, while the Thebans turned to Sparta. Pericles dictated Athens’s strategy at the beginning of the war. The Athenians would counter the Spartans’ advantage in hoplite warfare by refusing to meet them on the battlefield. Instead, the Athenians would discipline their impulses to fight, abandon most of the Attic countryside, and withdraw behind the walls that connected Athens and Piraeus. The navy and trading fleets would keep the city fed and supplied. This plan would have been difficult under any circumstances, but the Athenians had not engaged in war on their own territory for over a generation, and many of the men of combat age had never experienced war of any kind. They had grown up in a city that had seen itself as the foremost power of Greece. The first two years of the war proceeded according to Pericles’ plans. The Spartans invaded Attica during the campaigning season, laid the country waste, and withdrew, and the Athenian fleet sailed around the Peloponnese on raiding expeditions.

The Plague . In 430 Athens experienced something entirely unexpected: a plague. The crowded conditions of the city and a total lack of knowledge about how to deal with the disease caused the deaths of one-quarter to one-third of Athens’s population, including Pericles. Despite this catastrophe, however, Athens’s military situation remained much as it had been; what changed was Athens’s leadership. Thucydides saw the change in moral terms, and modern historians tend to follow his assessment that Athens’s political and military leadership was not up to the standard set by the great general who had given the polis over thirty years of service. The new leadership is described as being led by “demagogues” who pandered to the desires of Athens’s demos.

Popular Leaders . Pericles’ death in 429 brought a power vacuum in Athens. He had largely eliminated his political opponents from the scene. Capable men of the aristocracy who felt a calling to public service went into the military, where they were often away from Athens for lengthy periods, unable to build popular support with the demos. In Athens what had arisen instead was a new kind of politician, not from the traditional, landholding aristocracy, but of the demos. The new politicians gained their wealth through trade and manufacturing. Their policies were belligerent, and they appealed to the basest motives of the demos, its jealousy and rapacity. Cleon, the son of a wealthy leather tanner, was one of these new politicians.

Cleon . The historical tradition is universally hostile to Cleon. His bravado and aggressiveness were rewarded with his being able to take credit for the capture of several hundred Spartans on the island of Sphacteria in 425, which led the Spartans to sue for peace. Although the proposals were rejected, the prisoners prevented the Spartans from attacking Attica for the next four years. The Athenians responded by increasing the tribute they demanded from their allies. Attempts were even made to make incursions by land into Boeotia.

Discontent . Despite Cleon’s successes, he was not able to win over everyone. Some believe that Athens, with its authority invested in an amateur, democratic assembly, had need for people such as Cleon, who devoted themselves to mastering the intricacies of the empire and its administration. As Cleon said in the Mytilenean Debate, which was recorded by the historian Thucydides, “a democracy cannot run an empire.” Cleon knew how much money and resources were needed for the empire, especially for his generous doles to the jury courts. When the comic poet Aristophanes criticized him in his early plays, Cleon sued him in court.

Peace of Nicias . The deaths of Cleon and Brasidas at Amphipolis in 422 b.c.e. removed the most belligerent leaders from both Athens and Sparta. Nicias, who had made windfall profits from silver mining, took over the leadership of Athens. Although he catered to the will of the demos as much as anyone, he was sympathetic to the aristocrats and farmers who wanted peace. Since the Spartans wanted peace also, he was able to achieve a peace treaty in 421 b.c.e. without much trouble, and the peace was named for him. Although there are disputes about what was achieved in this first, ten-year part of the Peloponnesian War, it seems pretty clear that despite the losses of the plague the Athenians were the winners. All they had wanted was to continue to hold their empire, and they had achieved this goal.

Alcibiades . Yet, there were restive people in Athens, anxious to put their own mark on Athens’s glory. Although Athens and Sparta had achieved a peace treaty, the issues that separated them were still present. A protege of Pericles, Alcibiades, organized a coalition of poleis in the Peloponnese to check Sparta’s dominance over that peninsula. In 418 the armies of Argos, Mantinea, and Elis fought the Spartans at Mantinea and lost. In 416 the Athenians approached the only major Aegean island that was not part of its alliance, Melos and demanded that it join. The Melians were ethnically Dorian; in fact, they were closely tied with the Spartans. They refused an Athenian ultimatum in a debate that was dramatized by the historian Thucydides as the “Melian Dialogue.” After a siege the Athenians killed all the Melian men and sold their women and children into slavery.

Sicily . The expedition against Melos was only a preliminary, however, for Alcibiades’ greatest ambition: the launching of a fleet to take control of the island of Sicily. Nicias opposed the expedition on the grounds that it would require too many ships, men, and resources. Although he exaggerated the numbers in an attempt to discourage the Athenians, the plan was approved anyway. To make matters worse, he was chosen, against his wishes, as one of the three generals to lead the expedition of 4,500 hoplite soldiers and 94 triremes. Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus made preparations to set off on the largest naval expedition ever by any Greek polis. Shortly before the expedition left, however, accusations were made against Alcibiades that he had profaned the mystery rituals of the cult of Demeter at Eleusis by performing them as part of a drunken party. It was also taken as a bad omen that somebody cut the phalluses off of many of the small statues of the god Hermes, called “herms,” that were located throughout the city.

Scandal and Defeat . Alcibiades was temporarily able to face down the accusations against him, but once the expedition was launched and he was away, they resurfaced and Alcibiades was recalled. Because so many of his political supporters were with the fleet, he knew he would have a bad time of it at home, so instead of going to Athens, he went to Argos, and eventually to Sparta. Without him, the expedition to Sicily suffered from indecisiveness. Nicias had to lead it, and he

opposed the whole venture. The Athenians attacked Syracuse, on the eastern coast of Sicily. The Syracusans called on the Spartans for help, and they were quite happy to renew their war against Athens. By 413 b.c.e. the entire expedition to Sicily was wiped out, including further reinforcements sent out from Athens.

Decelea . Meanwhile in Sparta, Alcibiades recommended that in their renewed war the Spartans set up a permanent garrison in Athenian territory at Decelea, and they followed his advice. From Decelea the Spartans were able to continuously harass the Athenians for the next ten years, preventing them from making use of the countryside of Attica.

Oligarchy . The Sicilian disaster led to turmoil both within Athens and among its allies, who now saw the city as weak. With Persian and Spartan help many revolted. At Athens there was anger at the democratic leaders and at the fortune-tellers who had urged on the expedition. Ten men were appointed as probouloi (councilors) to preside over measures of economic stringency, a move taken to be a first step toward oligarchy. The reserve of one thousand talents set aside on the Acropolis was used to fund the reforms.

Persian Interference . The reasons for the move to oligarchy are explained by Thucydides. There was a perception that Athens could not survive unless the Persian king stopped financing the Spartans and began helping the Athenians. The Persian king would not act, it was argued, unless Athens adopted an oligarchic government. Alcibiades, who had fled from the Spartans and was now advising the Persian governor Tissaphernes, traveled to the island of Samos and put the plan to aristocratically minded generals such as Pisander. He hoped that the plan might bring about his return to Athens. Initially the democrats at both Samos and Athens were timid. Androcles, a leading democrat who had been responsible for the exile of Alcibiades, was assassinated. The oligarchs were highly organized, employing the connections cultivated in their drinking clubs, the hetairiai.

The Four Hundred . A special Assembly was called outside Athens at Colonus, which voted to hand over power to a new Council of Four Hundred. The conservative politician and sophist Antiphon was in charge. The number four hundred was selected because it echoed that of the Solonian Council that predated Cleisthenes’. The new Councilors showed up at the Council House in Athens with a large, armed escort and dismissed the democratically selected Council of Five Hundred. There was a promise given that power would ultimately be in the hands of an Assembly of Five Thousand, a number limited to those who could serve the city either financially or by bearing hoplite weapons. The lower-class thetes who manned the fleet were thus to be excluded.

Turmoil . The oligarchs hesitated over recalling Alcibiades, so he made approaches to the democrats at Samos and took his Persian patronage with him. The oligarchs also encouraged those cities that were still subject to them to adopt similarly oligarchic governments, but they tended to revolt instead. Although the oligarchs had claimed that they would pursue the war against Sparta more efficiently than the democrats, once in power they made overtures of peace to the Spartans at Decelea. The navy at Samos elected from its numbers Thrasybulus to lead a democratic reaction. They elected Alcibiades general, who served as a conciliator. Some of the oligarchs were accused of fortifying Eitioneia, near Athens’s harbor, to help a Spartan invasion. Soon the Four Hundred were deposed, and Athens was again a democracy.

Loss of Support . Led by Alcibiades, the Athenian navy achieved many successes in the years following 411 b.c.e., and the Spartans were led to offer peace. Yet, the newly restored democracy, which was under the influence of a demagogue named Cleophon, only wanted to pursue war. Alcibiades was welcomed home a hero in 407, but his popularity with Athens’s fickle democracy did not last long. A subordinate officer, Antiochus, ignored Alcibiades’ orders not to risk battle and was defeated. The loss was relatively insignificant, but Alcibiades was made to take the blame. He was not reelected general the next year and chose to retire.

Arginusae . Despite the loss of this great general, the Athenians enjoyed one last great victory. The Spartan commander Lysander put together a fleet of 140 ships and managed to destroy 30 Athenian ships in a battle near the island of Lesbos. In response, the Athenians took extraordinary steps to assemble the funds necessary to put together a new fleet of their own, 150 ships strong. The two fleets met at Arginusae, near the Turkish coast, and the Athenians won a decisive victory.

Executions . In the aftermath of the battle, however, a storm prevented the Athenian generals from staying to recover the dead from the twenty-five ships that were lost. The democratic Assembly responded by convicting the generals of impiety and executing them. This procedure was completely unconstitutional, as the philosopher Socrates, who happened to be one of those chairing the Assembly meeting that day, tried to point out: Athenians could not be condemned to death by the Assembly but only by a law court. The execution of the generals, one of whom was the son of the great general Pericles, had disastrous consequences for Athens’s military prospects, which were already precarious after the retirement of Alcibiades. Athens simply could not afford to lose any more generals.

Aegospotami . The Spartan commander Lysander took advantage of a lapse in Athenian strategy in the Hellespont to surprise the Athenian navy and destroy it in the battle of Aegospotami in 405. Only 20 of 180 Athenian ships managed to escape, and many of them fled to Cyprus. With the loss of its fleet and 3,000-4,000 men, Athens was defenseless. Nevertheless, Lysander did not move immediately to demand Athens’s surrender. Instead, he moved through the Aegean, replacing democratic governments loyal to Athens with oligarchic governments loyal to Sparta and forcing the Athenians who lived in and near the various poleis as clerychs to move back to Athens. With its grain supplies cut off by a Spartan embargo, the new arrivals simply exacerbated a famine in Athens.

The Thirty . The Athenians held out for eight months, urged on by the demagogue Cleophon; however, the city finally capitulated in 404, and its Long Walls were torn down. The Spartans were not as severe as some of their allies wanted: they were demanding Athens’s total destruction. Instead, Lysander, as he had done with many of the poleis that had been Athens’s allies, replaced the city-state’s democratic constitution with an oligarchy of thirty select Athenians. Because of their brutal behavior toward their fellow citizens and others living in Athens, this group became despised and known simply as the Thirty or as the Thirty Tyrants.

Political Reforms . The erratic behavior of Athens’s democracy in the last years of the war, as well as the fatigue caused by the war itself, must have made the change in Athens’s constitution quite appealing to many Athenians. The Thirty were appointed both to run the government and to write new laws according to the patrios politeia (ancestral constitution), which would severely limit the franchise, essentially only to the hoplite class, and reform the courts. One of the ways for attacking political opponents in the democracy was malicious prosecution, or sukophantia, which the oligarchs promised to end.

Factions . There were differing views among the Thirty, however. Critias led an extremist group that wanted the franchise strictly limited to three thousand citizens and sought to purge not only the most extreme democrats and sycophants, most of whom had at any rate already fled, but also almost anyone who had prospered under the democracy, whether citizen or metic (metoikos, resident foreigner). Theramenes led a more moderate group, which was willing to broaden the franchise and rejected the wholesale violence of Critias. For his trouble, Theramenes was himself identified as an enemy of the oligarchy and executed, along with approximately 1,500 other victims of the Thirty.

Thrasybulus . A group of democratic exiles had found refuge in Thebes. In 403, led by Thrasybulus, a relatively small group set out for Athens. After defeating a small army at Phyle, on the border of Attica, Thrasybulus’s group grew and moved on to Athens. The Thirty responded by stationing a Spartan garrison on Athens’s Acropolis, which made the Athenians even more hostile to them. In a battle fought near Athens’s port in Piraeus, Critias was killed. Led by their king Pausanias, the Spartans withdrew and, after some negotiations, a reconciliation was achieved among the Athenians. Athens’s democracy was restored again.


Walter Robert Connor, New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1954).

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The Second Peloponnesian War

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