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The Peloponnesian War

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The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was a military conflict in ancient Greece involving the Delian Alliance led by Athens on the one hand and the Peloponnesian Alliance led by Sparta on the other.

Athens and Sparta have long been at odds. To a large extent, they were determined by the different political structure of states. Athens was a democracy, whereas in Sparta power was in the hands of the oligarchy. In the poleis that were allied with them, both sides tried to establish a similar state system to their own. The political contradictions were compounded by the difference in origin: the Athenians (like most of their allies) were Ionians, while the Spartans and, in turn, their allies were mostly Dorians.

Traditionally, historians divide the Peloponnesian War into two periods. In the first period (the"Archidamian War"), the Spartans made regular incursions into Attica, while Athens used its advantage at sea to raid the Peloponnesian coast and suppress any signs of discontent in its power. This period ended in 421 BC with the signing of the Peace of Nicaea. The treaty, however, was soon broken by renewed skirmishes in the Peloponnese. In 415 BC, Athens sent an expeditionary force to Sicily to attack Syracuse. The attack ended in a crushing defeat for the Athenians; the expeditionary force was completely wiped out. This led to the final phase of the war, commonly referred to as the Dhekeleian or Ionian War. In its course, Sparta, having received impressive support from Persia, built a significant fleet. This allowed her to provide assistance in the Aegean Sea and in Ionia to the member states of the Delian Maritime Union dependent on Athens that wished to withdraw from the latter (Chios, Miletus, Euboea, etc.), undermining the power of the Athenian power and finally depriving Athens and its remaining allies of naval superiority. Destruction of the Athenian fleet at the naval battle of Aegospotamae (405 AD). However, the invasion of the City of Athens left no chance for the Athenians to continue the war, and the following year Athens surrendered.

Map of the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was the first military conflict from which a significant amount of contemporary evidence has been preserved. The most famous of these is Thucydides ' History, which covers the period from the beginning of the war to 411 BC. His work, which had a great influence on the development of historical science, largely determined the modern vision of the Peloponnesian War and the world in which it occurred. At the beginning of the war, Thucydides was an Athenian general and statesman, a political ally of Pericles. However, in 424 BC. he was exiled for the loss of the strategically important city of Amphipolis, and his history was written, at least in part, during the twenty years he spent away from his hometown.

Many historians have written works that continue the story of events from the point where the "History" of Thucydides ends. Only Xenophon's Greek History, which covers the period from 411 to 362 BC, has come down to us. This work, despite its value as the only source contemporary to this period, is subject to reasonable criticism by today's researchers. Xenophon's work is not a "history" in the tradition of Thucydides, but rather a memoir designed for readers already familiar with the events. In addition, Xenophon is very biased and often simply omits information that he finds unpleasant; in particular, he practically does not mention the names of Pelopidas and Epaminondas, who played a huge role in the history of Hellas; historians use his work with caution.

Other ancient works about the war were written later and have come down to us in fragments. Diodorus Siculus, in his" Historical Library " written in the first century BC, covers the entire war. His work is variously evaluated by historians, but its main value lies in the fact that it is the only one that gives a different vision of events from Xenophon. Some of Plutarch's Biographies are closely related to the war; although Plutarch was primarily a biographer and moralist, modern historians draw useful information from his writings. It is important to note that these authors used both direct sources and extensive, though not extant, literature. In addition, modern historians use as sources of speech, artistic works and philosophical works of this period, many of which relate to the events of the war from one or more points of view, as well as numerous data from epigraphy and numismatics.


Thucydides believed that the Spartans started the war in 431 BC .e."out of fear of the growing power of the Athenians, who even then... subjugated most of Hellas." Indeed, the fifty years of Greek history that preceded the beginning of the Peloponnesian War were marked by the emergence of Athens as the strongest power in the Mediterranean. After repelling the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, Athens soon became the leader of a coalition of Greek states that continued the war with the Persian Empire in its dependent territories in Ionia and the Aegean Archipelago. During this period, known as the Pentecontaetia ("fiftieth anniversary", the name given by Thucydides), Athens, which originally occupied a leading position in the Delian Union, gained the status of ruler of a vast Athenian power. Persia was forced to abandon its possessions on the shores of the Aegean Sea, which became dependent on Athens. At the same time, the power of Athens grew considerably; many of its formerly independent allies became dependent states, obliged to pay tribute. These funds have enabled Athens to maintain a strong navy, and since the middle of the century they have also been used for Athens ' own needs — to finance the large-scale construction of public buildings and the beautification of the city.

Tensions between Athens and the Peloponnesian states, including Sparta, began at the very beginning of the Pentekontaetia. After the retreat of the Persians from Greece, Sparta tried to prevent the restoration of the Athenian walls destroyed by the enemy (without walls, Athens was little protected from attack from land and could easily fall under Spartan control), but was rebuffed. According to Thucydides, although the Spartans did not take any action at this time, they were " secretly ... very annoyed that they did not succeed in achieving their goal."

The conflict between the states broke out again in 465 BC, when the Helot revolt occurred in Sparta. The Spartans asked for help in suppressing it from all their allies, including the Athenians. Athens sent troops, but after their arrival, the Spartans declared that "their help was no longer needed" and sent the Athenians home (other allies remained). According to Thucydides, the Spartans refused aid out of fear that the Athenians might turn to the rebels. In the end, the rebel Helots surrendered, but on the condition that they would be expelled, not executed; Athens settled them in the strategically important city of Naupactus, located at the narrowest point of the Gulf of Corinth. The result of these events was the withdrawal of the offended Athenians from the alliance with Sparta and their conclusion of an alliance with Argos, a constant rival of Sparta, and Thessaly.

In 459 BC, Athens took advantage of the war between its neighbors Megara and Corinth, which were part of the Peloponnesian Union, and concluded a treaty of alliance with Megara. As a result, the Athenians gained a foothold on the Isthmus of Corinth and in the Gulf of Corinth; in addition, the influence of Athens in Boeotia increased. All this led to the entry of Sparta into the war, and the so-called Peloponnesian War began. During the war, Athens was forced to leave under Spartan control possessions in the Greek mainland outside of Attica (including Megara and Boeotia), but the important island of Aegina remained in the Athenian Union. Concluded in the winter of 446/445 BC, the Thirty-year Peace recognized both States ' right to control their own allies.

Bust of Thucydides

Archidam's War

The first period of the conflict is traditionally called the Archidamian War in historiography, after the Spartan king Archidamus II, who commanded the combined forces of the Peloponnesian Union. It should be noted that Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, Megara, Sicyon and the Corinthian colonies, were land states. They had the ability to raise a very large army; the leaders of the union, the Spartans, were renowned as excellent warriors. The fleet of the Peloponnesians was only about a third of the Athenian, and could not be compared with the latter in any way in terms of strength. The war plan of the Peloponnesian Alliance involved primarily the invasion of Attica and the devastation of the lands around Athens, as well as the defeat of the Athenian army in a decisive battle.

Athens, although located on the Attic Peninsula in mainland Greece, owned vast territories mainly on the islands of the Aegean Sea. In this regard, they have developed a different strategy. The basic plan proposed by Pericles, in any case, did not involve a deliberately losing decisive battle on land. Instead, Athens had to use its superior fleet in terms of the number of ships and the quality of training as the main means of war. In the event of an enemy invasion, the inhabitants of the rural areas of Attica were to take refuge behind the walls of Athens, leaving their homes, and food and other goods were to be delivered to the city exclusively by sea. The financial well-being of Athens, which consisted primarily of the tribute paid by the allies, allowed them to hope for the success of such tactics.

The war began with a surprise attack by Sparta's allies, the Thebans, on the small town of Plataea. This polis, although located in Boeotia, was nevertheless an Athenian ally for a long time. Thebes, on the other hand, intended, if not to gain control of Plataea, at least to return it to the union of Boeotian cities. After sneaking inside the city's unguarded peacetime walls, a group of more than three hundred Thebans, led by two Boeotarchs, called on the Plataeans to return to their alliance with the rest of the Boeotian cities. At the same time, the invaders behaved quite peacefully, occupying only the market square, relying, obviously, on the support of their local supporters. However, their calculation turned out to be wrong: regrouping and realizing that there were not many Boeotians, the Plataeans attacked the enemy; in a brief night battle, the invaders were partially destroyed, partially managed to escape from the city, and most of them (180 people) were taken prisoner. The main force of the Thebans, who arrived later, were late and were forced to leave the vicinity of the city on the condition that the prisoners would be spared their lives. After they left, the Plataeans, in violation of the agreement, killed the prisoners.

In May 431 BC, a sixty-thousand-strong Peloponnesian army invaded Attica, ravaging the Athens area. Until 427 BC, similar invasions occurred every year (except 429 BC), but they lasted about three weeks each time; the longest invasion (430 BC) lasted only forty days. The reason for this was that the Peloponnesian army was actually a civilian militia, and, accordingly, the soldiers had to have time to go home to take part in the harvest. In addition, the Spartans needed to keep their helots under constant control, since the long absence of the main forces of Sparta could lead to their revolt.

Map of the Peloponnesian War

The Spartan invasion forced the Athenians, in accordance with the original plan, to evacuate the entire population of Attica outside the city walls. The influx of refugees has led to overcrowding in the city and a large crowding of the population; sources indicate that many people do not have a basic roof over their heads. At the same time, the Athenian fleet proved its superiority over the Peloponnesian, winning two battles — at Cape Rion and at Naupactus (429 BC) and beginning to devastate the Peloponnesian coast.

In 430 BC, an epidemic broke out in Athens, which was overwhelmed by refugees (the symptoms carefully described by Thucydides seem to indicate typhoid fever; some scientists see this disease as a plague; modern molecular genetic methods have proved that the disease was caused by the causative agent of typhoid fever. For the period up to 426 BC (with small interruptions) it claimed about a quarter of the city's population (approximately 30 thousand people). Among the victims of the epidemic was Pericles. The disease prevailed not only in Athens itself, but also in their army. The fear of the disease was so great that even the Spartans called off the invasion of Attica.

Significant changes have also taken place in the internal political life of Athens. The death of Pericles led to the radicalization of their politics. The influence of Cleon, who advocated a more aggressive conduct of the war and a rejection of the predominantly defensive policy of Pericles, grew significantly. Cleon relied mainly on the radical democratic elements of Athenian society, especially the urban trade and craft circles. The more moderate party, which relied on landowners and Attic peasants and advocated peace, was led by a wealthy landowner, Nikias. As the position of Athens finally began to improve, Cleon's group gradually began to gain more and more weight in the National Assembly.

Despite serious problems, Athens nevertheless withstood the heavy blows of the first period of the war. In 429 BC, the rebellious Potidea was finally captured. The revolt on the island of Lesbos (427 BC) was not crowned with success, while the Athenians took the main city of the island — Mytilene. At Cleon's suggestion, the People's Assembly of Athens even passed a resolution ordering the execution of all adult males on the island and the sale of women and children into slavery; however, this decision was replaced the next day by a decision to execute thousands of supporters of the oligarchy.

In 427 BC, bloody feuds began on Kerkyra. The reason, as in Lesbos, was the hostility between local aristocrats and supporters of democracy. The victory in the feud went to the Democrats, who destroyed their rivals; the island remained part of the Athenian power, but was seriously weakened. At the same time, in 427 BC, after a long siege, Plataea fell under the onslaught of the Peloponnesians and Thebans. The survivors of their defenders were executed, and the city itself was destroyed.

From 426 BC, Athens took the initiative in the war. This was facilitated by the approximately doubling of the foros (tribute levied on the allies) in 427 BC. In addition, in 427 BC, a small Athenian squadron was sent to Sicily, where, with the help of allied cities (primarily Rhegia), it successfully fought against the Spartan allies there. Under the leadership of the energetic strategist Demosthenes (not to be confused with the later Athenian orator Demosthenes), Athens managed to achieve some success in Greece itself: the war was transferred to the territory of Boeotia and Aetolia-a large detachment of Peloponnesians of 3 thousand Hoplites was defeated at Olpach; Nicias captured Kyphera, an island south of Laconica; a chain of strong points was created around the Peloponnese. In 424 BC, Athenian troops planned to invade Boeotia from both sides, hoping for the performance of their supporters-democrats inside the country.

The great success of the Athenians at this stage of the war was the capture of the town of Pylos in western Messenia, which had a convenient harbor. This actually struck at the very heart of the Spartan state (Pylos is located 70 kilometers from Sparta) and created an undisguised threat to the rule of the Spartans over the Helots. In response, Sparta took decisive action. The troops besieging Athens were withdrawn from Attica, the fleet was assembled, and a select Spartan detachment was landed on the island of Sphacteria, which closed the entrance to the harbor of Pylos.

Bust of Pericles

However, the Athenian fleet under the command of Demosthenes defeated the Peloponnesians and cut off the garrison of Sphacteria, and after a while forced it to surrender. 292 Spartan Hoplites were captured, including 120 noble Spartiates. Cleon, appointed by the Athenian people's assembly, dissatisfied with the long siege, commanded the final stage of the battle.

The blow dealt to Sparta was so strong that the Spartans offered peace. However, Athens, expecting a quick final victory, did not agree. It also played a role that the head of the party of supporters of the continuation of the war, Cleon, after the fall of Sphacteria, became the most influential Athenian politician.

However, it soon became clear that Athens had underestimated the strength of the Peloponnesian Alliance. Although the Spartans stopped ravaging Attica, the Athenians were dogged by setbacks: an attempt to land at Corinth was repulsed by the enemy, and in Sicily, the unification of the local poleis forced the Athenians to sail home. The attempt to withdraw Boeotia from the war also failed: the Boeotian authorities warned the Democrats to speak, of the two Athenian invasion armies, one was repulsed with damage, and the other was defeated at Delium, and the strategist Hippocrates, who commanded the Athenians, fell in battle. The greatest setback awaited the Athenians in Thrace. Entering into an alliance with Macedonia, the talented Spartan general Brasidas took the city of Amphipolis — the center of Athenian possessions in this region; Athens lost strategically important silver mines (it was for this defeat that the historian Thucydides, son of Olor, was expelled from Athens).

To recapture Thrace, Athens sent an army, at the head of which Cleon was put. However, at the Battle of Amphipolis, the Spartans defeated the Athenians; both Cleon and Brasidus were killed in this battle.

In the end, both Sparta and Athens agreed to make peace. Under the terms of the treaty, the pre-war situation was restored; the parties were to exchange prisoners and return the captured cities. After Nikias, who headed the Athenian embassy, Mir was named Nikiev.

Dekeleian (Ionian) War

Sparta did not confine itself to sending reinforcements to Sicily. On the advice of Alcibiades, a new plan for the invasion of Attica was developed. Now, instead of periodic short-term raids, the Spartans decided to gain a foothold here for a long time. In the spring of 413 BC, the village of Dhekeleia, located 18 km from Athens, was occupied and fortified, which now housed a permanent Spartan garrison. Thus, the Athenians were forced to completely transfer the city to sea supply. In addition, access to the Lavrian silver mines was cut off, which also affected the situation of Athens, and about twenty thousand Athenian slaves fled to the Spartans.

Athens was in a very difficult situation. To prevent defeat, they began building a new fleet and began to gather all the forces of their power.

However, the Spartans did not waste any time in vain. After the victory in Sicily, they decided to strike in the traditionally priority region for Athens-the Aegean Sea basin. In 412 BC, Chios, the strongest ally of Athens, rebelled, and was supported by the Ionian cities of Clazomenes, Eriphra, Theos, and Miletus. Sparta sent a strong fleet to help them, including the ships of the Sicilian allies. By 411 BC, Ionia had completely fallen away from Athens. To top it all off, Sparta turned to Persia for help and received considerable financial support in exchange for being willing to hand over the cities of Ionia to the Persians. One of the key figures in this agreement with the governor of Sardis Tissaphernes was Alcibiades.

Athens was facing defeat. However, they had no intention of giving up and were prepared to take emergency measures. Foros was abolished, and instead a 10% duty was imposed on the transport of goods through the Straits, and assistance was provided to democratic parties in allied cities (for example, in Samos). The assembled forces were immediately sent to Ionia, which greatly improved the situation of the Athenians in this region. In addition, the Spartan forces, which were heavily dependent on Persian money, began to experience supply disruptions, as the Persians were unprofitable for a complete defeat of Athens. The intrigues of Alcibiades, who wanted to go back to the side of the Athenians, who had considerable weight with the governor of Sardis, Tissaphernes, also played a role.

Significant changes have taken place in Athens itself. Military failures led to an increase in the influence of supporters of the oligarchy, and in 411 BC they carried out a coup d'etat. The number of full citizens was limited to 5,000, and the real power was given to the Council of Four Hundred. Such an important element of Athenian democracy as payment for the performance of official duties was abolished. The new government offered peace to Sparta.

Attica: Athens and Dhekeleia

However, the Spartans rejected the proposals. Nor did the Samos-based Athenian navy recognize the oligarchic government. In fact, a dual power was formed in the Athenian state, which the Athenian allies were not slow to take advantage of: the rich island of Euboea and the cities in the Straits rebelled (this was extremely important, since most of the grain was imported to Athens from the Black Sea). The Athenian fleet had to suppress these actions, which was headed by Alcibiades, who again passed to the Athenians and received significant powers. In 411 BC. the Athenians first put the Spartan fleet to flight at Kinossem, and a little later won a decisive victory over it at Abydos; in 410 BC they defeated the Spartans and Persians at Cyzicus, and in 408 BC they besieged the key city of Byzantium. Military successes soon led to the fall of the oligarchic regime, and the restoration of democracy. Between 410 and 406 BC, the Athenians won one victory after another and soon managed to restore much of their former power. Alcibiades played a significant role in these victories.

But the Spartans were also not going to sit idly by. Lysander, an energetic military commander who had the rare talents of a Spartan diplomat and naval commander, was sent to Ionia with the fleet. In addition, he had excellent personal relations with the Persians, who stopped financial aid to Athens and sent him significant funds.

The situation for the Spartans was made easier by the fact that after a small defeat at Notius (406 BC), the most capable Athenian commander, Alcibiades, was removed from the command of the fleet and retired into voluntary exile. In 406 BC, the Athenian fleet, which spent the last reserve of funds — gold and silver Parthenon utensils-still won a significant victory at the Arginus Islands, destroying more than 70 enemy triremes and losing 25 of their own. However, the storm made it impossible to rescue the sailors from the sunken Athenian ships, and on their return home, the victorious strategists were awaiting trial.

One of the pritans (members of the pritania, the executive body of the Council of Five Hundred) the lot turned out to be Socrates, who, as best he could, resisted the illegal trial, but, despite this, the strategists were convicted and executed.

Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet was forced to go back to active operations. The Spartans, under Lysander's command, reappeared in the Straits. Under the threat of starvation and complete financial collapse (Athens now depended not only on the supply of grain from the Black Sea, but also on the duty levied in the Straits), the Athenian fleet went to meet the Spartan one. However, in the conditions of general demoralization and falling discipline, the hastily assembled fleet at the mouth of the small river Egospotama fell into the trap of Lysander, who caught the Athenian ships at anchor by surprise and destroyed them almost completely (only twelve of the 180 triremes managed to escape). The strategist Conon did not dare to come to Athens and fled to Cyprus.

Athens had no navy, no army, no money, no hope of escape. After five months of siege by land and sea, the city surrendered. In April 404 BC, a peace treaty was signed (Feramenov peace). Athens was deprived of the right to have a fleet (except for 12 ships), tore down Long Walls, gave up all its overseas possessions and entered into an alliance with Sparta. Moreover, these conditions were still relatively merciful: for example, Thebes and Corinth generally offered to destroy the city.

A separate condition in the agreement was the return of exiles to Athens (mostly supporters of the oligarchy).

Results of the war

For a brief period, the openly oligarchic rule of the "Thirty Tyrants", openly supported by Sparta, was established in Athens. The most famous of these was Critias. The "Thirty tyrants" launched a real terror in the city, both against their political opponents and simply against rich people whose funds they wanted to seize. However, after some time (in 403 BC), the oligarchy was overthrown, and democracy was restored in Athens.

The economic effects of the war were felt all over Greece; poverty became normal in the Peloponnese, and Athens was completely devastated and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The war led to profound changes in Greek society; the conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, which supported friendly forces in other cities, made civil wars a frequent event in the Greek world. The growth of social tension has repeatedly resulted in armed confrontations.

The conflict, which was initially limited in nature and in which both sides initially followed certain "rules", quickly grew into a comprehensive war, unprecedented in cruelty and scale in Greece. Violations of religious and cultural prohibitions, the devastation of entire regions and the destruction of cities were widespread during the fighting.

In the warring States themselves, the war has led to significant changes in domestic politics. The growing popularity of demagogues in Athens (Cleon, Hyperbole, Androcles, Cleophon) during the war was replaced with the conclusion of peace by oligarchic tyranny. Sparta, although it did not change the state system, nevertheless also experienced the influence of military operations. There is an impoverishment of a significant number of full-fledged citizens, and vice versa-the enrichment of some representatives of the top of the policy. In 399 BC. The Kinadon conspiracy was uncovered, involving impoverished citizens who had lost their civil rights.

Profound changes have taken place in international relations. Athens, the strongest polis of Greece at the beginning of the war, eventually became a dependent state, the Athenian power disappeared, and the leading power in Greece became Sparta, which began to exercise its hegemony throughout Greece. However, the Spartans ' brusqueness in their foreign policy, their desire to rely solely on force, and their lack of flexibility soon led to friction with their allies and a general increase in anti-Spartan sentiment. Their outcome was the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC), which briefly established Thebes as the hegemon of Greece. The role of the Persian Power in Greek international relations has grown significantly. Its intervention (mainly in the form of financial aid, since an open military invasion of Greece, as in the times of Darius I and Xerxes, Persia was no longer decided because of its internal problems) repeatedly changed the course of hostilities. The goal of the Persians was to maintain a balance between the warring parties, and ultimately, their mutual weakening. Eventually, by the middle of the fourth century BC. among the Greek poleis, there is no longer a single one that can dominate the others, and the polis system itself as a form of supreme state administration has practically outlived its usefulness and has fallen into decline. As a consequence, in 337 BC, Greece was conquered by the rising power of Macedonia, which united all the Greek cities under its rule and set out on the path of becoming a new superpower.

In general, we can say that with the end of the Peloponnesian War, a new stage in the development of Greek society began.

Related topics

Ancient Greece, Athens, Sparta