THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
I made the generalization that the story of Athens in the 5th
century BC (more specifically, from the end of the Persian war in 479
BC until the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC) has both tragic
elements and the elements of a real tragedy, elements that show forth
particularly clearly in the pages of Thucydides. The last set of
lecture notes looked at the first two plays of our tragic tetralogy,
first the rise of Athens immediately after the Persian War, then the
transformation of the Delian League into an empire.
Thinking or this period in dramatic terms, one might divide things up
The Rise of the Delian League (479-460): Athens is ashes, but
rises from those ashes to lead Greece to victory after victory,
liberating the Ionians. The climax: the great victory of Cimon at
The Wars of Pericles (468-445): Athens begins turning the Delian League
into an Athenian empire. Democracy is complete, the Athenian
economy and Athenian culture boom. Athens suffers a setback, but
is still well off after a compromise treaty with Sparta, etc.
The Archidamian War (431-421): The first part of the Peloponnesian War
proper. Athens is aggressive, breaks the treaties, has considerable
success, but suffers a setback. A compromise treaty leaves the
Athenians well off.
The Decelean War (420-404): Athens is aggressive, breaks
its treaties, has considerable success, but suffers a disaster.
All wars have two kinds of causes: underlying causes and immediate
causes. Underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War include fear
and jealousy of Athens and ongoing economic rivalry between Athens and
city-states like Megara and Corinth.
Immediate causes include:
• Athens interference in a dispute between Corcyra, a
Corinthian colony, and Corinth itself over policy in Epidamnus.
• Athenians interference in Potidaea, another
• The Megarian decrees, an Athenian measure banning
the Megarians from trading in any port controlled by Athens.
By 432, Athenians expansion was becoming worrisome, and Sparta’s allies
insist on a conference to discuss the issue at Sparta. Sparta’s
allies push for an immediate declaration of war. Sparta is
reluctant to do so. One of the Spartan Kings, Archidamus, warns
that a war with Athens would likely be a long, drawn-out affair.
He notes that all wars are chancy affairs. Nevertheless, Sparta
agrees to give Athens an ultimatum: rescind the Megarian decrees and
lift the siege of Potidea, or we’re headed to war.
The Athenians are eager for war. Pericles tells them war will
come eventually anyway, and there’s no time like the present: Athens is
in an advantageous position. So the war begins.
Year one: the Spartans invade Attica, but Pericles’ has the Athenians
retreat behind their walls, making up for their devastated fields by
importing everything they need. Meanwhile, the Thebans attack
Plataea, an Athenian ally. The Thebans, with the help of Plataean
traitors, take the city. But when the Plataeans realize how small
the attacking army really is, they turn on the occupiers and slaughter
them. Thebes is really mad.
Year two: the Spartans attack Plataea, giving the Plataeans a chance to
surrender. The Plataeans count on promises of Athenian help, and
they are determined to fight. They don’t get the help, and they
hold out for a long time. But, finally, they have to
capitulate—and the Spartans show them no mercy at all.
Meanwhile, Athens is having major troubles. Plague breaks out in
the city, killing 1/3 of the population and leading to lawlessness,
immorality, and loss of religious faith. Pericles himself dies of
the plague eventually, and, without his leadership, the democratic
element of the population begins to follow less moderate figures like
One of Athens allies, Mytilene, revolts. The angry Athenians
attack the city, capture it, and then have to decide what to do.
Cleon proposes making them an example: kill all the men, sell all the
women and children into slavery. The ecclesia votes for just
that. But, after a night’s sleep, they regret the decision, and
at a new meeting of the ecclesia, they rescind he harsh decree.
Fortunately, a new set of messengers gets to Mytilene in time to
prevent the blood-bath.
Political tensions within Athens are high. A real problem is that
the democratic element and the aristocratic element want really
different things. In general, the democrats want an aggressive
foreign policy. The aristocrats (like Nicias) want peace and a
good relationship with Sparta. But the generals come from the
aristocratic element—and that makes the aggressive policy favored by
the democrats hard to maintain. Pericles, from an old, wealthy
family with plenty of military leadership experience had been what the
democrats needed. The new leaders (like Cleon) didn’t have the
Cleon still finds it easy to criticize. The generals are dragging
their feet, he says. Why haven’t they brought the siege of Pylos
to a successful conclusion? They aren’t trying. Put me in
charge, and I could take the place in three weeks.
Of course, the aristocrats see their chance. The urge a vote to
give Cleon command at Pylos—and Cleon can hardly refuse the
assignment. And what happens?
Well, he does it. Within three weeks, Pylos does fall to the
Athenians. Of course, Cleon has a bit of help from Demosthenes, a
more experienced general, but he’s scored both a military and a
political victory. He’ll get that aggressive foreign policy he
wants—though he’ll continue to be hindered by his political opponents
back home. Sparta also isn’t as committed to supporting its
commanders the way it should.
In 421, forces led by Cleon and by the Spartan general Brasidas meet
head to head. Both men are undercut, and both die. Time to
The Peace of Nicias (421) was supposed to last for 50 years. It
lasted for one year—and really not even for that. Even though
Athens and Sparta don’t fight directly, there’s lots of other conflict
Athens resumes its aggressor role with the rise of Alcibiades.
Alcibiades was a strange figure in more ways than one. Apparently
very good looking, he courted and was courted by both men and
women. He was a student and friend of Socrates (whom he wanted as
a lover!) He was a brilliant general and, though from an old
aristocratic family, he favored the same aggressive policy as the
democrats of Athens wanted.
But Nicias was going to oppose and aggressive policy, and, even if the
war element got the policies it wanted, it was going to be hard to win
the war with divided counsels.
Athens had a way of resolving the divided counsel thing:
ostracism. Hyperbolos (the new Cleon, a pre-war democratic
Athenian demagogue) wanted to get rid of Nicias. He figured that
his supporters and Alcibiades supports could team up and ostracize
Nicias. Didn’t work. Alcibiades told his supporters to put
Hyperbolos name on the ostraca, so who ends up ostracized?
Hyperbolos. And now Alcibiades has sole leadership of the
pro-war, democratic element.
Despite the opposition of Nicias, Alcibiades gets the aggressive policy
he wants. Among other targets, the Athenians now attack Melos,
trying to force this neutral city-state to join their side. In
416, Melos capitulates. What is to be done? The Athenians
assembly votes to kill all the men and sell all the women and children
into slavery. This time, there is no reprieve.
Our hero Athenians appear to have entirely lost their morals: an their
minds as well. They now set out to attack Syracuse, a city-state
on the island of Sicily. The put Alcibiades in charge of the
attack, but, not entirely trusting him, they want a more reliable man
to exercise a moderating influence. They send Nicias!
Shortly after the expedition sets out, Alcibiades faces judicial
charges in abstentia. Someone had mutilated the hermae, phallic good
luck symbols prominent in Athens, and Alcibiades got the blame.
This was a serious religion offense, and when Alcibiades figures out
what’s going on, he abandons the fleet, takes refuge in Sparta, and
gives the Spartans a potentially winning strategy, fortifying Decela
(an outpost near Athens) and using that outpost to subdues the
city. But he apparently seduces the wife of the Spartan king, and
he has to leave Sparta too.
Meanwhile, the Athenians, instead of calling their fleet home, continue
the attack on Syracuse under the reluctant command of Nicias. A
recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what the Athenians get: a
At Athens itself, the Aristocratic element takes advantage of the
disaster to seize power, setting up an oligarchic government, 400
aristocrats (including Theramenes) who will now run the
government. The pro-democratic group sets up a rival government
at Samos, and, for three months, it looks as if the Athenians are going
to fight a civil war. But that isn’t going to happen just
yet. Both sides agree to a compromise government, 5000 Athenians
(including Theramenes) who will oversee Athenian affairs. As part
of the compromise, Alcibiades is allowed to return to Athens.
Sparta wants peace at this point, and it should have been time to bring
the war to an end.
But our heroes haven’t quite learned their lesson yet. With
Alcibiades in command once again, Athens has a series of victories, but
after a setback (not really his fault), he ends up exiled again—this
time fleeing to the Persians.
No matter. Athens has other generals, and in 406 BC, these
generals win a great victory at Arginusae. As the generals pursue
their defeated foes, they leave behind ships to rescue Athenians who
had been on Athenians ships wrecked at Arginusae. Unfortunately,
a storm comes up and many of the shipwrecked sailors died. News
gets back to Athens: but there were perhaps some unnecessary
deaths. So the Athenian assembly votes to hold the generals
responsible, voting to put them to death! Among those executed,
Athens still has one decent general left, Conon. But in 404, the
Spartan general Lysander catches Conon off-guard and destroys the
Athenian fleet. Without supremacy on the seas, Athens is
doomed. The Spartans can now take the Piraeus (the harbor of
Athens), and now a siege will work. Athens can’t supply itself
from overseas anymore. After seven months, they surrender.
The Thebans and Corinthians want Athens destroyed, or at least punished
severely. The Spartans aren’t so vengeful, though. Athens’
wall have to go, and a government sympathetic to Sparta will rule (the
30 tyrants), but there aren’t the reprisals one might have expected.
Something of a Catharsis here? Well, perhaps.