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Stupid Stuff: The Great Peloponnesian War

WAR MAP of the

The Athenian leader Pericles began the war where his city had advantage – with its navy and marines. He let Sparta and its allies advance on land into Attica. People abandoned their vineyards and farms and fled to safety behind Athens' stone walls. Those with property exposed to the ravages of the enemy were offended by Pericles' strategy, as were most Athenians, who favored direct and immediate attacks.

Sparta's army didn't try to breach the walls that protected Athens, and at the end of one year of fighting, Sparta withdrew from around Athens, having accomplished nothing more than some harassment, destruction of property and having killed people.

Wars often stir up disease, and, after one year of war, plague came to Athens, made worse by the new overcrowding. The plague killed Pericles, and passion influenced the Athenians' choice of a new leader, a man named Cleon, a merchant tanner by trade who was more excitable than had been Pericles. Cleon's desire for vengeance and punishing the enemy matched that of the common Athenian.

In the year 428 (the war's third year) the city of Mytilene rebelled against Athenian domination. As the Athenian navy held Mytilene under siege, Cleon told the Athenian Assembly that pity, sentiment and indulgence were fatal to an empire. Brutal measures, he said, were necessary because of the tenacity and malice of their enemies. Punish Mytilene, he advised, or give up your empire and live in the danger of weakness that would accompany this.

Punishment meant killing the men of Mytilene and selling its women and children into slavery – a punishment designed to make others afraid of following Mytilene's example. A member of the assembly, Diodotus, argued against Cleon, claiming that haste and passion were the two things most opposed to good counsel. Haste, he said, usually goes hand in hand with folly and passion usually with a coarseness and narrowness of mind. He described the brutal measures advocated by Cleon as terrorism that would not prevent other subject states from rebelling but would encourage them if they did rebel to fight to the bitter end.

In a close vote, the toughest of measures lost. The assembly chose to spare Mytilene's population. Athenian marines conquered Mytilene but rather than a genocidal slaughter they merely tore down the city's walls and confiscated its navy. Athens also confiscated Mytilene lands on the shores of mainland Asia Minor, and Athens opened Mytilene to settlement by Athenians. And, as Cleon proposed, Athens had the leaders of Mytilene's revolt executed. But what had been accomplished? The people of Mytilene and others on the island were compelled to be under Athenian domination, but they would be ready to rebel when circumstances improved.

Sparta was also short of accomplishments. In 425 it again invaded Attica – for the fifth time in six years. The Athenian navy subdued a fleet of enemy ships at Navarino Bay (on the southwest coast of Peloponnesian Peninsula) and cut off a battalion of Spartans there. Feeling pressured by this setback, Sparta promised Athens peace and requested an armistice – without having consulted its allies. Cleon tried again to appear tough. He rejected Sparta's offer. He wanted to wait for Sparta's unconditional surrender. The Athenians took 292 Spartan captives back to Athens as hostages and warned Sparta that they would kill these hostages if Sparta again invaded Attica.

Believing that Sparta had been neutralized, Cleon sent a land force against Sparta's Boeotian allies. It was the only major use of land forces by Athens in the war, and the Boeotians defeated them. The sign of weakness that Cleon wanted to avoid was now apparent to allies of Athens farther north, in Chalcidice. They resented the increase in tribute that had been demanded by Athens. Cleon convinced an assembly to allow him to lead a force against the rebellions that erupted in Chalcidice. They defeated some of the rebellions, but on the way to the city of Amphipolis his bravado failed him. He was killed and his army defeated.

Sparta wanted its hostages back, and in 421 Sparta. The new leader in Athens wanted peace, and Athens signed a peace treaty that included a return of prisoners and captured lands. In Athens, rejoicing erupted inspired by the weariness of war. The Athenian playwright Euripides wrote with enthusiasm in one of his plays: "Down with my spear! Let it be covered with spider webs!"

Allies of Sparta, namely Megara, Corinth, and Elis, refused to sign the peace treaty. Sparta responded by offering Athens an alliance in addition to peace, pledging that it would be an ally of Athens for fifty years. Athens accepted, and the two city-states pledged to defend each other, including Athens helping Sparta should its slaves, the Helots, revolt.

Athens screwed it up. It again employed force against rebellion by a city that was a member of its empire. That was Scione (on the western-most finger of Chalcidice). Athens killed all of that city's adult males and made slaves of its women and children. It was one of the more notorious events of the war, and as Diodotus had argued in his debate against Cleon, such action brought no advantage to Athens. Other cities that wished to be free of Athenian rule responded to Athenian cruelty at Scione with a greater determination to win their independence.

Within two years of having made peace, Sparta felt it had recovered from war. Attitudes among the Greeks had not changed enough to prevent the return of the Great War. With Athens creating tensions and interfering in Peloponnesian affairs, Sparta renewed its ties with Corinth, Megara, and Elis. Athens asked Sparta to sever its ties with these cities and Sparta refused. In 418, Athens and Sparta went to the assistance of Peloponnesian cities at war with each other, Sparta on one side and Athens on the other. The armies of Sparta and Athens clashed, and the Spartans won easily. They felt a renewed sense of military superiority, and they enjoyed a new prestige across Greece.

Athens was asked by for help by a city in a conflict in Sicily. The Athenian assembly saw the request as an opportunity get grain from that area. And supporters of the expedition hired oracles who predicted a glorious triumph, and a naval expedition was sent. Sparta feared that if Athens succeeded in Sicily, Athens would become more of a threat. Sparta sent aid and an able military commander to one of the belligerents, Syracuse. The expedition failed militarily, and grieved at the news of more lost sons.

The Athenian defeat encouraged members of its empire to revolt. From Euboea, Lesbos and Chios went messages to Sparta's King, Agis, stating that they would revolt against Athens as soon as a Peloponnesian fleet appeared off their coasts. Persia was interested in regaining its lost empire in Asia minor and sent envoys to Sparta, and Sparta promised the Persians recognition of their control over Greek cities in Asia Minor in exchange for funds for building ships and for hiring men to row these ships. While Athens was building ships to replace what had been lost at Sicily, Sparta was building a naval force could neutralize the power of Athens at sea.

Sparta sent ships and troops to the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, and there in the winter of 413/412 revolts against Athenian rule began. Lesbos signed a treaty with both Sparta and Persia, against Athens. So too did the city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor – while Persia was reasserting itself as an arbiter in the region and demanding tributes from local rulers.

For Athens, defeat abroad led to turmoil at home. In 411, while the Athenian navy was in the eastern Aegean, a group in Athens opposed to democracy launched a coup and set up an oligarchy called the Four Hundred. They created a constitution based on nostalgia for ancestral custom, and they began a rule of terror, and they sought help from those with whom they shared a disdain for democracy: the Spartans. But before help could arrive from Sparta, the Four Hundred were driven from power by those who called themselves the Five Thousand, and in 410 democracy returned to Athens.

With Persian financial resources behind them and a new fleet, Sparta and its allies won a series of military successes against the Athenians. Athens was now surrounded by enemy forces on land and sea and cut off from food sources. Through the winter of 405-04 Athenians suffered hunger. In the spring of 404, Athens surrendered. The Great Peloponnesian War had ended. Also having ended according to some historians was Greece's Golden Age.

Athens would have fared better if it held to an alliance based on equality. Also it would have been better off after the Persian War if it had limited its military actions to specifics acts of self-defense – such as against pirates. This and merely pursuing trade by mutual agreement would have put Athens in a better position regarding the hearts and minds of their fellow Greeks.

Sparta gloried in its victory. It had recovered from its withdrawal from the war ten or so years before. It had lived up to its promise to protect the liberty of those threatened by Athens and to restore liberty to those states that had been "enslaved" by Athens. It celebrated its victory over Athens as the dawn of liberty for Greece.

But the glory of military victories was inclined to fade or to turn sour. Actually, Sparta was on it way to self-inflicted humilitation.

CONTINUE READING: Sparta's Fall, Macedonia's Rise

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.