The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC)
The decisive victories of the Greek coalition forces against Persia (480 − 479 BC) calmed the Persian pressure upon the Greek world for decades. Furthermore, the Greeks also managed to defeat the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily at the Battle of Himera in 480 BC. In this victorious hour, the most powerful Greek city-states found themselves in a perfect position to make an attempt at dominating the Greek world at large.
The Spartans returned to their traditional isolation on the Peloponnese, fearing rebellions among their enslaved subjects there and showing little interest in capitalising on the opportunities history now handed them. This basically left Sparta’s former ally Athens in charge of organising the Greek defence against the Persian threat in the east. To this end, Athens helped to establish the Delian League in 478 BC, inviting a great number of city-states to join forces. But Athens gradually tightened its grip on the League and then used it to build an empire of its own. The Athenian armada dominated the Aegean and Black Sea, trade routes were manoeuvred to the Athenian docks at Peiraieús (Greek: Πειραιεύς), League members became Athenian puppets and rebellions against Athenian leadership were brutally put down. As such, enormous wealth was accumulated to fund the Athenian democracy, realise vast construction programs and expand the Athenian war capacity.
Athens thus became the dominant city-state in the Greek world, commanding resources and military might most other states could only dream of. But as its power and prestige grew, so grew its ambitions. The Athenians had tasted what it meant to be a veritable empire, to be better and stronger than others – and they wanted more. However, this desire to be better and stronger was a very common sentiment among the overly competitive Greek city-states. More eyebrows were raised at the fact that Athens and the Delian League not only had the desire to want more, but also had the power to take it. As the fifth century BC progressed, the situation in the Greek world polarised dangerously. Sparta and its Peloponnesian League understood that Athens would sooner or later completely overwhelm all of its rivals, if left unchecked. The establishment of a radicalised democracy in Athens added even more to the rivalry between the two power blocks – the dynamic, democratic Athenians and their Delian League faced the conservative, oligarchic Spartans and their Peloponnesian League. By 431 BC, a large-scale ideological struggle for dominance of the Greek world had become very likely.
The Peloponnesian War was ultimately triggered by a series of seemingly minor happenings. A dispute between the island of Korkyra and its colony Epidamnos ended in an undecided battle between their respective allies Athens and Corinth in the waters off the Sybota Isles in 433 BC. Trouble then arose on the Chalkidike peninsula in 432 BC. Originally a Corinthian colony, the city of Poteidaia had been press-ganged into the Delian League. Athens ordered Poteidaia to end its traditionally friendly relations with Corinth and threatened serious reprisals if this demand was not met. But Poteidaia asked the Peloponnesian League for help and Sparta promised to invade Attika if Athens went through with its threats. Encouraged by this, the people of Poteidaia staged a revolt against the Delian League. Athens then issued the so-called Megarian Decree (Greek: Μεγαρικό Ψήφισμα), setting up an economic blockade of the city of Megara as punishment for switching sides to the Peloponnesian League and to provoke Sparta into rash action. The Peloponnesian League now voted in favour of war. Sparta attempted last-minute negotiations with Athens but when these failed, war became inevitable.
The Peloponnesian War, now unleashed, would prove to be the most destructive conflict the Greek world had ever known until then. Sparta invaded Attika in 431 BC and began raiding the countryside in hopes of provoking a land battle. Mindful of Sparta’s elite army, Athens did not take the bait and retreated within its famed Long Walls, surrendering the Athenian hinterland and relying completely on its food supplies by sea. Simultaneously, Delian League ships started raiding the Peloponnesian coasts. Despite a devastating plague (430 − 429 BC), Athens held out well and managed to keep its empire together. So long as the Delian League’s naval supremacy or the Peloponnesian League’s land supremacy could not be broken, a stalemate persisted.
While conflicts between Greek city-states were common long before the Peloponnesian War, warfare had been quite formalised in the Greek world. The warring city-states saw each other as Greek – not foreign and therefore inferior – and many ties of blood and friendship existed between their respective elites. Wars were solely a military matter and were typically decided in a single battle. Large-scale atrocities against civilian population or property were considered dishonourable and were therefore rare. Furthermore, the deep devotion to religious festivals and traditions helped to limit the extent and brutality of conflicts between Greek city-states. The Peloponnesian War nevertheless quickly exploded into a ‘total war’, throwing aside any considerations of religion, family, friendship or pan-Hellenic sentiment. Both sides committed major atrocities against each other, murdering or enslaving civilian populations, purposefully ravaging vast portions of countryside and burning down entire cities. Greek warfare thus radicalised and would become far more brutal than it had been.
By 425 BC, the Delian League’s forces had built a stronghold at Pylos in Peloponnesian territory which held out against attacking Spartan forces. Delian League ships then sunk the Spartan fleet and managed to trap the Spartan army on the tiny isle of Sphakteria. In one of the most dramatic events of the war, the Spartans surrendered instead of fighting to the death as expected. However, Thebes decisively defeated the Athenian forces at Delion in 424 BC and the Spartans sent an expedition over land all the way to Thrace, successfully igniting rebellions against Athens, capturing the Athenian colony of Amphipolis and defeating the Delian League’s attempts at resistance. Sparta and Athens ultimately concluded the peace treaty of Nicias in 421 BC, but the chaotic diplomacy and uneasy peace surrounding it exploded at the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC where Sparta once again claimed victory.
In an attempt to regain the initiative, Athens sent a major invasion force to Sicily in 415 BC, in hopes of neutralising the Corinthian colony of Syracuse once and for all. This ended in a complete disaster when Peloponnesian forces destroyed the entire expedition in 413 BC. Sparta now took its chance and invaded Attika again while multiple members of the Delian League managed to break away or switch sides.
On Sicily, the city of Segesta asked Carthage for help as it could now no longer count on Athens and found itself at odds with the city of Selinous, an ally of the Peloponnesian League. Eager to avenge its humiliation at Himera in 480 BC, Carthage agreed to help Segesta and initiated new campaigns in Sicily, achieving a series of victories before being repelled by the plague and Syracusan forces in 397 BC. No peace treaties were signed, however, and this Second Greek-Punic War would drag on until 340 BC.
In the Greek world meanwhile, the Peloponnesian League ultimately won the war with aid from the Persian Empire. Becoming increasingly interested in the massive conflict raging among the Greeks, Persia once more hoped to press its advantage and helped to pay for a Peloponnesian fleet able to break the Delian League’s naval supremacy. With the assistance of the Persian prince Cyrus II, the Spartan commander Lysander managed to convince most of the Delian League’s members in Asia Minor to defect. The dramatic finale of the war happened at Aigospotamoi in 405 BC, where the Peloponnesian League at last managed to destroy the Delian League’s naval power. Athens now lost its vital food supplies from the Black Sea and its economy collapsed. Victory within his grasp, Lysander sailed the Peloponnesian armada to Peiraieús itself in 404 BC, effectively forcing Athens to capitulate.
The Delian League had lost the war and was disbanded by the victors, the Athenian Empire fell apart completely, the Athenian democracy was banned and Sparta installed a repressive oligarchic regime to rule Athens henceforth. Sparta took over the Athenian position of power in the Greek world and temporarily became the strongest Greek city-state in 404 BC…
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