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Peloponnesian War

Temple of Apollo at Corinth
Temple of Apollo at Corinth

The Peloponnesian War was begun in 431 BC between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League which included Sparta and Corinth. The war was documented by Thucydides, an Athenian general, in his work The History of The Peloponnesian War. The war lasted 27 years, with a brief truce in the middle.


Causes of the war

According to Thucydides, the cause of the war was the "fear of the growth of the power of Athens" throughout the middle of the 5th century BC. After a coalition of Greek states thwarted an attempted invasion of the Greek peninsula by the Persian empire, several of those states formed the Delian league in 478 BC in order to create and fund a standing navy which could be used against the Persians in areas under their control. Athens, the largest member of the league and the major Greek naval power, took the leadership of the league and controlled its treasury. Over the following decades, Athens was able to convert the Delian league into an Athenian empire. This increase in Athenian military power allowed it to challenge the Lacedaemonians (commonly known as the Spartans), who, as leaders of the Peloponnesian League, had long been the sole major military power in Greece.

The immediate cause of the war comprised several specific actions of Athens that affected Sparta's allies, notably Corinth. The Athenian navy intervened in a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra, preventing Corinth from invading Corcyra at the Battle of Sybota, and placed Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, under siege. The Athenian Empire also levied economic sanctions against Megara, an ally of Sparta. These sanctions, known as the Megarian decree, were largely ignored by Thucydides, but modern economic historians have noted that forbidding Megara to trade with the prosperous Athenian empire would have been disastrous for the Megarans. The decree was likely a greater catalyst for the war than Thucydides and other ancient authors realized, more so than simple fear of Athenian power.

The "Archidamian War"

Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large, usually unbeatable, land armies. The Athenian Empire, though based in the peninsula of Attica, spread out across the islands of the Aegean sea; Athens drew its immense wealth from tribute paid from these islands. Thus, the two powers were relatively unable to fight decisive battles.

The Spartan strategy during the first war, known as the Archidamian War after its king Archidamus II, was to invade Attica, the land surrounding Athens. While this deprived Athens of the productive land around their city, Athens itself was able to maintain access to the sea, and did not suffer much. Many of the citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the Long Walls, which connected Athens to its port of Piraeus. The Spartans also occupied Attica for only a few months at a time; in the tradition of earlier hoplite warfare the soldiers expected to go home to take care of the harvest. Moreover, Spartan slaves, known as helots, needed to be kept under control, and could not be left unsupervised for long periods of time.

The Athenian strategy was initially guided by the strategos, or general, Pericles, who advised the Athenians that if they defended themselves, and did not risk offensive battles, they would be victorious. The Athenian fleet, on the other hand, went on the offensive, winning victories off Naupactus (now Návpaktos ). In 430, however, an outbreak of a plague (possibly typhus) wiped out roughly one quarter of the Athenian population, including Pericles and his sons. After the death of Pericles, his successor, Cleon, began fortifying posts around the Peloponnese, and began raiding along its coasts. One of these posts was at Pylos, where the course of the first war was decided. Cleon won a great victory at the Battle of Pylos and the related Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC, where he captured between 300 and 400 Spartan hoplites.

The Spartans, with many of their men taken prisoner, began to press for peace; but the Athenians were now more resolute. Brasidas, a Spartan general, raised an army of allies and helots and went for one of the sources of Athenian power, capturing the Athenian colony of Amphipolis, which happened to control several nearby silver mines which the Athenians were using to finance the war. In subsequent battles, both Brasidas and Cleon were killed (see Battle of Amphipolis). The Spartans and Athenians agreed to exchange the hostages for the towns captured by Brasidas, and signed a truce.

The Peace of Nicias

The Peace of Nicias lasted for some six years, but was a time of constant skirmishing in and around the Peloponnese. While the Spartans refrained from action themselves, some of their allies began to talk of revolt. They were supported in this by Argos, a powerful state within the Peloponnese that had remained independent of Lacedaemon. The Argives, allies of the Athenians, succeeded in forming a grand alliance against Sparta.

The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Lacedaemonians, with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. The Spartans, "utterly worsted with respect to skill but superior in point of courage", routed the alliance against them. While the battle was indecisive with respect to the Athenian-Peloponnesian conflict, Sparta succeeded in defeating Argos, thus ensuring their supremacy over the people of Peloponnese.

The Sicilian Expedition

In the 17th year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian, while the Athenians, and their ally in Sicily, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist their ally.

The Athenians did not act solely from altruism; they were driven primarily by self-interest. The Athenian people were driven by visions of conquering all of Sicily. Syracuse, the principal city of Sicily, was not much smaller than Athens, and conquering all of Sicily would have brought Athens an immense amount of resources. Alcibiades, an Athenian general, was charged with religious crimes as the expedition set out, and defected to Sparta, where he informed the Spartans that the Athenian planned to use Sicily as a springboard for the conquest of all of Italy, and to use the resources and soldiers from these new conquests to conquer all of the Peloponnese.

The Athenians launched a massive force towards Sicily, over 100 ships with some 5000 infantry. Upon landing in Sicily, several cities immediately joined the Athenian cause. Instead of attacking at once, the Athenians spent the winter gathering allies, and preparing to destroy Syracuse. The delay allowed the Syracusans to send for help from Sparta, who were now aided by Alcibiades.

The Athenians began to besiege Syracuse, but were stopped by Gylippus, a Lacedaemonean general who arrived from Sparta with reinforcements. Upon arriving, he raised up a force from several Sicilian cities, and went to the relief of Syracuse. He took command of the Syracusan troops, and in a series of battles defeated the Athenian forces, and prevented them from investing the city.

The Second War

The Lacedaemonians were not content with simply sending aid to Sicily; they also resolved to take the war to the Athenians. On the advice of Alicbiades, they fortified Decelea , near Athens, and prevented the Athenians from making use of their land year round. The fortification of Decelea also prevented the shipment of supplies overland to Athens, and forced all supplies to be brought in by sea at increased expense.

The Corinthinans, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League sent more reinforcements to Syracuse, in the hopes of driving off the Athenians; but instead of withdrawing, the Athenians sent another hundred ships and another 5000 troops to Sicily. Under Gylippus, the Syracusans and their allies were able to decisively beat the Athenians on land; and Gylippus encourgaed the Syracusans to build a navy, which was able to defeat the Athenian fleet when they attempted to withdraw. The Athenian army, attempting to withdraw overland to other, more friendly Sicilian cities, was divided and defeated; the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed, and virtually the entire Athenian army was sold off into slavery.

Following the defeat of the Athenians in Sicily, it was widely believed that the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. Her treasury was nearly empty, her docks were depleted, and the flower of her youth was dead or imprisoned in a foreign land. They underestimated the strength of the Athenian Empire, but the beginning of the end was indeed at hand.

Athens recovers

Following the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition, Lacedaemon encouraged the revolt of Athens' tributary allies, and indeed, much of Ionia rose in revolt against Athens. The Syracusans sent their fleet to the Athenians, and the Persians decided to support the Lacedaemonians with money and ships. Revolt and faction threatened in Athens itself.

The Athenians managed to survive for several reasons. First, their foes were severely lacking in vigour. Corinth and Syracuse were slow to bring their fleets into the Aegean, and Sparta's other allies were also slow to furnish troops or ships. The Ionian states that rebelled expected protection, and frequently rejoined the Athenian side. The Persians were slow to furnish promised funds and ships, frustrating battle plans. Perhaps most importantly, Spartan officers were not trained to be diplomats, and were somewhat politically insensitive.

At the start of the war, the Athenians had prudently put aside some money and 100 ships that were to be used only as a last resort. These ships were now released, and served as the core of the Athenians' fleet throughout the rest of the war. An oligarchical revolution occurred in Athens, in which a group of 400 seized power. A peace with Sparta might have been possible, but the Athenian fleet, now based on the island of Samos, refused to accept the change. In 411 BC this fleet defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Syme. The fleet appointed Alcibiades their leader, and continued the war in Athens' name. Their opposition led to the reinstitution of a democratic government in Athens within two years.

Alcibiades, while condemned as a traitor, was a very strong personality. He prevented the Athenian fleet from attacking Athens; instead, he helped restore democracy by more subtle pressure. He also persuaded the Athenian fleet to attack the Spartans at the battle of Cyzicus in 410. In the battle, the Athenians obliterated the Spartan fleet, and succeeded in reestablishing the financial basis of the Athenian empire. Between 410 and 406, Athens won victory after victory, and had recovered large portions of its empire. All of this was due, in no small part, to Alcibiades.

Lysander triumphs

Faction triumphed in Athens: following a minor Spartan victory by Lysander at the naval battle of Notium , Alcibiades was not reelected general. He retired, leaving Athens to the mercy of a new and cunning opponent. Lysander was a rare Spartan, comfortable at controlling ships, trustworthy abroad, and with good personal relationships with the Persians.

Opportunity cooperated with him. After a naval battle at Arginusae, in which the Athenians lost 12 ships, the Athenians were unable to rescue the crews due to bad weather. Blaming instead the generals, the Athenians executed all of their top naval commanders, and destroyed the morale of their navy.

Lysander, seizing the opportunity, sailed at once to the Hellespont, the source of Athens' grain. Threatened with starvation, the Athenian fleet had no choice but to follow. By means of a ruse, Lysander tricked the Athenians into a total defeat at the battle of Aegospotami, destroying 168 ships; only 12 Athenian ships escaped, and several of these sailed to Cyprus, including the strategos Conon, who was not anxious to face the judgment of the Assembly.

Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC, and her allies soon surrendered as well. The democrats at Samos, loyal to the bitter last, held on slightly longer, and were allowed to flee with their lives. The surrender stripped Athens of her walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions.


Although the temporal power of Athens was broken, she soon recovered and continued to play an active role in Greek politics. Sparta was in turn humbled by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, but it was all brought to an end a few years later by Philip II of Macedon.

The war continued to fascinate later generations, both because of the way it engulfed the Greek world, and because Thucydides provided deeper insight into the motives and conduct of the players than for any other war in ancient times.

The novel by Stephen Pressfield is a fictional account.


Last updated: 11-10-2004 20:06:57