Peloponnesian War

(Historic Moments: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: The Peloponnesian War, a military conflict between the two greatest powers of ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, was also the final stage of a long-standing struggle between conflicting political, economic, and social systems.

Summary of Event

In the late spring of 431 b.c.e., the tensions that had existed between Athens and Sparta since the end of the Greco-Persian War suddenly erupted into open conflict. The resulting war became known as the Peloponnesian War because Sparta’s area of greatest influence was the Peloponnese, the peninsula on which it was located. The causes of the war were long-standing. The Great Peloponnesian War (also known as the First Peloponnesian War; 459-445 b.c.e.), largely a conflict between Athens and Corinth, with Sparta also participating, had ended with a truce between Athens and Sparta, but neither side had abided completely by its terms.

In 433 b.c.e., Athens defended the island of Corcyra against Corinth and excluded the city of Megara from commerce with any city in the Athenian empire. Both Corinth and Megara were Spartan allies, and the Athenians’ actions were taken as open acts of aggression, provoking a war between the two cities that had long vied for domination in Greece. In May, 431, Athens and Sparta finally erupted into war.

The military leader Pericles developed a strategy intended to win an easy victory for Athens. Pericles avoided direct conflicts with the much larger Spartan land army and took his forces to the sea, where Athens had an advantage. The entire population of Attica, the region in which Athens was located, withdrew behind the Long Walls, a defensive structure that connected the city to its port. Safe behind these defenses, the Athenians allowed the Spartans to invade Attica. The loss of Attic grain caused by this invasion was not a significant problem. The protection of the Long Walls permitted the Athenians to import substantially all the food they needed by sea.

Nevertheless, the crowding that resulted in Athens because of Pericles’ strategy had one effect that the general had not foreseen: the spread of disease. After the first year of the war, a plague erupted in Athens, killing as much as one-quarter of the population. Pericles was fined and not selected as general for the following year. In the intervening period, Pericles himself became ill and died of the plague in the autumn of 429 b.c.e. Without the guidance of Pericles, the Athenians began to take increasingly brutal measures against their adversaries.

In 428 b.c.e., Mitylene, a city on the island of Lesbos, attempted to free itself from the Athenian empire. The Athenians resisted this action and starved the city into submission by May of 427 b.c.e. Back in Athens, the assembly decreed that all Mitylenaean men were to be killed, with the women and children sold into slavery. After a ship had already been dispatched to carry out this decree, the assembly reconvened to examine the severity of its sentence. Cleon of Athens, a politician popular with the masses, argued that the punishment of Mitylene had to be carried out as planned. He described the Athenian empire as a tyranny, saying that the state was now compelled to act like a despot and use terror and cruelty to keep its subjects in check. In the end, Cleon’s arguments failed. The Athenians voted to “lighten” Mitylene’s penalty by executing “only” about one thousand of the rebels, seizing the island’s fleet, and destroying its defensive walls. Within six years, however, the harsh penalties proposed by Cleon would be used against rebel...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)