What were the cultures, national interest, strengths and weaknesses of Athens and Sparta at the outbreak of the war?

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Greece had recently emerged victorious from the Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.). Perceiving themselves as the leaders of Hellas and superior to their neighbors, the Athenians worked to gain influence over the other city-states and dipped into the common treasury to build up their own city. Athens dealt with the opposition to its power by occupying several city-states in the 470s and 460s, leaving Sparta and Corinth as the only obstacles to Athenian supremacy. After a period of tensions, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) finally broke out. The war resulted in Athenian defeat and what essentially amounted to the downfall of Greece.

Following the initial battles of the war, Athenian statesman Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration, which was recorded by the historians Thucydides (460-395 B.C.). See the link below. The speech reflects the Athenians' view of themselves as an open, educated, democratic, law-abiding, free, self-sufficient, and culturally superior society. Pericles uses the Spartans or Lacedaemonians as an opposite example. He implies their lack of openness, refinement, and self-sufficiency. Pericles also acknowledged their masculinity but suggests that it comes at the price of erudition, unlike in Athens.

Historians tend to agree that at the start of the war, Sparta has the stronger army and Athens had the superior navy. While Pericles had secured Persian neutrality before the war, Sparta's ability to secure Persian naval support during the war swung things in Sparta's favor. Given the outcome of the war, Pericles likely overestimated Athenian superiority over the Spartans.

For more on Athens and Sparta at the start of the war, examine Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. See the second link below. He tends to see Athenian democracy as a weakness rather than a strength.

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Athens and Sparta were two of the most powerful city-states in Greece at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, a conflict that lasted from 431 to 404 BC.

In this conflict, Athens was primarily a naval power. Through its leadership of the Delian League after the Persian war, Athens has become a de facto empire, exacting tribute from its allies. In part as a result of its plundering treasure from the Delian League, Athens had become the preeminent cultural center of Greece, known for its architecture, poetry, drama, and other arts. Politically, Athens was a democracy, albeit one with the franchise restricted to a small number of male citizens.

Sparta was primarily a land power, and a far more militaristic society. Its government was a hybrid, combining elements of monarchy and oligarchy. Much of the Spartan economicl system depended on the subjugation and labor of helots, a class of quasi-slaves who significantly outnumbered the ruling Spartans and would occasionally revolt.

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