What factors led to the Athenians' defeat in the Peloponnesian War?

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Some key reasons for Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War include the length of the conflict, which left a depleted force, a devastating plague, and Persian economic support of the Spartans.

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The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) was a decisive event in the history of Ancient Greece. The conflict finally ended a long struggle between Athens and Sparta for supremacy. Athens and Sparta had long been the leading Greek city-states, and their rivalry had led to intermittent conflict over the years. Athens, with its magnificent fleet and allies in the Delian League, was probably the stronger of the two. Sparta possessed an extremely formidable army, though. How did Sparta win?

First of all, Athens was weakened by a plague early in the war. The disease killed about 25% of its people—including the irreplaceable Pericles. Pericles had ably led Athens for many years, and he made Athens a colonial power. Also, he promoted the city's artistic and cultural development. The plague and Pericles's death meant that Athens would not win a quick war. Pericles's successors were less able men who often squabbled among themselves.

Second, Athens made a huge error by trying to conquer Sicily. It should have kept its forces on the Greek mainland. Syracuse, the major city on Sicily, had excellent cavalry. Nicias, the Athenian commander in Sicily, was indecisive. He was also superstitious, and that impeded his decision-making at a key point in the campaign. In 413 BCE, the Athenians were crushed in Sicily, and Nicias was executed.

Finally, Sparta's leaders were better at key points in the long war. For example, Admiral Lysander built a strong Spartan navy with Persia's help, and he defeated the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE. Athens surrendered the next year.

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Many Athenian allies resented Athenian imperialism and periodically rebelled against Athenian domination. Afraid to show any signs of weakness in this situation, the Athenians brutally suppressed those city-states that dared to remain independent, such as the island of Melos; this brutality demonstrated that Athenian power was evolving into unprincipled military despotism which would inspire more and more rebellion from without and disunity within.

The Athenian government deliberately used social divisions within allied cities to try to turn the impoverished masses of the allied population against their own middle and upper classes; this was part of their strategy in allowing allies to serve in the Athenian navy. Ultimately, these divisions may well have contributed to undermining the Athenian government as well.

The first important step on the way to Athenian defeat was the Sicilian expedition, which ended disastrously, with thousands of Athenians having to capitulate to their enemies. War caused much suffering and great impoverishment in Athens. It exacerbated social and political tensions in the city and thereby provided an opportunity for antidemocratic forces to make a bid for political power. Many people were tired of the endless wars and looked forward to peace, even on minimally acceptable terms.

Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans respected the relative autonomy of their allies within the Peloponnesian League, and the latter therefore did not consider Spartan hegemony a threat to their own independent existence. This means that the Peloponnesian league remained more stable and effective over a longer time than the Delian league.

While the Athenian navy was still victorious, Athenian domestic political instability and conflicts prevented the Athenians from recovering their strength even after the successful battle off the islands of Arginusae. Meanwhile, the Persian government subsidized the building of a new Spartan navy, which decisively defeated the Athenians and brought an end to the Peloponnesian war.

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There were several factors that led to the Athenians' defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Bear in mind that this war actually encompassed almost the entire Greek world at the time, with many Greek states becoming drawn into it. The Athenian faction was itself an alliance of states from around the Aegean sea, with Sparta, likewise, leading a collection of states from inland. Athens was, given its geography, therefore powerful in naval terms, while Sparta had a more powerful army. At first, the Spartans lost badly in this war. Then the city of Athens became afflicted by a plague which killed its leader, Pericles, who had been significantly responsible for much of Athens's strategy. The plague also killed a huge proportion of the Athenian army and had a terrible influence upon Athenian morale. However, Spartan attempts to take advantage of this weakness did not succeed; Sparta was not able to conquer Athens during this period.

It was only later, during the second of two stages in the war, that Athens began to suffer decisively. The key issue the Athenian army had was when it lost heavily during the Sicilian Expedition. The Athenian army and navy were destroyed in this expedition, which eventually led Athens into political turmoil. This in turn weakened Athens. When the navy sought to restore democracy, they were unwilling to engage in peace talks with the Spartans, which led to a number of costly defeats. Eventually, the Spartan fleet, supported by aid from the Persians, was able to destroy the Athenian navy. Subsequently, a blockade allowed the Spartans to starve Athens into a surrender.

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The Peloponnesian War was a war between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta.  This war lasted 27 years from 431 B.C to 404 B.C. and ended with a Spartan victory. In general, Sparta had a powerful army and was able to control land battles and Athens had a powerful navy and was able to control the sea.  Sparta was able to eventually win this war for several reasons.  First was a disastrous Athenian military expedition to Sicily.  Athens wanted to capture the city of Syracuse and acquire a new source of grain for Athens.  The Athenians lost 200 warships in this military undertaking, weakening its naval power.  More importantly, Sparta gained an ally in Persia.  With Persian assistance, Sparta was able to build a more powerful navy, and was able to defeat and destroy the Athenian navy in the Hellespont.  With this defeat, Athens lost control of the Aegean Sea. Athens was no longer able to bring food into the city.  With their food supplies running low, Athens was forced to surrender to Sparta.  Perhaps the most important factor in the whole war was the aid given to Sparta by the Persians.

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What were the reasons for Athens' defeat in Peloponnesian War?

Given the scale and time-frame of the conflict, the Peloponnesian War is a deeply complicated subject of study (and, I'd suggest, a discussion on the causes of Athens' defeat would be comparably complex and multifaceted). For one thing, consider that the war itself, dragging on for as long as it did, eventually became a war of desperation for both sides (and, from that perspective, Persian intervention seems to have been critical in securing Athens' defeat). In addition, Athens' war effort was hampered by the factionalism inherent to its own democratic system and by its own strategic mismanagement of the war. In preparing this answer, I have drawn heavily from The Greeks: History, Culture and Society, by Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), which devotes its sixteenth chapter to an account of the Peloponnesian War.

When the war began, Pericles was the dominant political voice in Athens and the critical voice in shaping the early phase of the war. Ultimately, Pericles envisioned a Fabian strategy, by which the key to victory was not to engage the Spartan army, but rather to wait Sparta out while maintaining control of the sea to keep its resources and food stores intact. This strategy proved largely successful (Sparta was ultimately unable to overcome Athens' fortifications), but in the process it led to severe overcrowding, resulting in the outbreak of a devastating plague (killing Pericles himself in the process). Pericles' death removed Athens' most influential and important statesman, and his approach was abandoned in favor of more ambitious, high risk strategies. (For more information on this early stage of the war, see pp. 335-337 in Morris and Powell.) This transition is illustrated in one of the war's critical turning points, the Sicilian Expedition, with Athens attacking Syracuse.

The key voice in advancing the Sicilian Expedition was Alcibiades, who was chosen among the expedition's commanders, only to face charges of impiety as the fleet departed. This turn of events proved doubly disastrous: on the one hand, it removed one of Athens' most capable commanders, but moreover, rather than face trial, Alcibiades would defect to Sparta. His influence would see Sparta commit their own forces to Sicily, which would turn into a military disaster for the Athenians, with both their army and fleet destroyed. (For a more expansive account on the Sicilian Expedition and its complicated history, see pp. 344-352 in Morris and Powell.)

Finally, it's important to recognize the role of Persia in determining the winner of the war. As the war dragged on (with both sides exhausted), Sparta agreed to return the Ionian cities to Persian control in exchange for the promise of financial support (though this support would prove limited at first). Later, the ascension of Cyrus to the satrapy of Ionia would secure for Sparta a significant influx of wealth in exchange for promises of military support (when Cyrus would make his own eventual bid to succeed his father as king). This influx of wealth proved critical in shaping Athens' defeat. (This last stage of the war, including Persian intervention, is detailed in pp. 354-359 in Morris and Powell.)

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