The History of the Peloponnesian War

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A number of sources of friction sparked the hostilities, notably Athenian intervention in a quarrel between Corinth Sparta's ally and her colony Corcyra, but the real reason for the conflict, according to the Athenian historian Thucydides, was the rise of Athens to greatness, which made the Spartans fear for their own position. Athens was morally the aggressor, but it was Sparta who first declared war. In the event, Sparta's army was far superior in quality and quantity, but the Athenians had an even bigger advantage at sea.

The defences of Athens were strong and the city could not be starved into surrender, as it was connected to the port of Piraeus by the Long Walls and could import supplies almost with impunity. It had sufficient finances to buy supplies and pay the fleet and army. This was the assessment of the situation made by Pericles, the Athenian leader, and his strategy was based upon it. He persuaded the country population to move themselves and their possessions into the city and into the space between the Long Walls, temporarily sacrificing their farms.

Wikimedia Commons. The first 10 years of the war, known as the Archidamian War from the name of the Spartan king who led the incursions into Attica, were indecisive. The Peloponnesians who invaded and ravaged Attica in found it deserted, and after about a month returned home; this was to be, in general, the pattern for the next six years. In , however, a devastating plague broke out in Athens and the city lost more than a quarter of her population.

Fatefully, Pericles himself died of plague in , his death depriving Athens of the only leader who could cajole the unruly Athenians to stick with a coherent strategy. Allowing the Melians to remain neutral would set a dangerous precedent and threaten Athenian hegemony. Over two millennia later, this line of reasoning still resonates.

Particularly now, as populism reemerges, insights into the power of words to influence public sentiments and decision-making remain acutely and painfully up-to-date. In his book of the same name, he describes the constant struggle of nation states to maintain and optimise power and hegemony in order to prevent other states from dominating them.

And a tragedy it is. Both the Athenians and the Melians remain steadfast. Melos an Aegean island inhabited by Dorians refuses to submit.

About History of the Peloponnesian War: A Companion Books III-V

Athens ends up murdering all men of military age and selling their wives and children into slavery. It is such resonances which make the History stand out and endure. The voice of the characters within the story reverberate with the voice of Thucydides as its author. It remains a must-read for all who want to understand how power politics manifest, and learn about its effect on the psychology of humankind, both individual and collective. All translations are from M. Finley and R. Screen music and the question of originality - Miguel Mera — London, Islington.

Edition: Available editions United Kingdom.

Wikimedia Commons. Julia Kindt , University of Sydney. Bust of Thucydides. A fragment of the fourth book of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Wikimedia Commons In Thucydides, the war found an author of meticulous standard and dedication who created a work that still resonates in the disciplines of history, international relations, and political science. He set the bar and set it high: And the results, by avoiding patriotic storytelling, will perhaps seem the less enjoyable for listening.

No self-esteem issues here.

Guide to the classics: Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War

My war is bigger than yours When Thucydides set out to compose his work, the writing of warfare was already a notable tradition launched with a bang by the legendary Homer about three centuries earlier. A double bust of Herodotus and Thucydides. Wikimedia Commons With Thucydides, the writing of war took a new direction. Although Thucydides was aware that all authors exaggerate the importance of their topic, he still felt inclined to make a case for his: And this war — even though men always consider the war on hand the most important while they are fighting but once they have ended it are more impressed by ancient ones — will nevertheless stand out clearly as greater than the others for anyone who examines it from the facts themselves.

Yet Thucydides himself apparently saw no problem; there was no conflict between his aim to tell what really happened and his use of speeches, although he did find the subject important enough to warrant an explanation: Insofar as these facts involve what the various participants said both before and during the actual conflict, recalling the exact words was difficult for me regarding speeches I heard myself and for my informants about speeches made elsewhere; in the way I thought each would have said what was especially required in the given situation, I have stated accordingly, with the closest possible fidelity on my part to the overall sense of what was actually said.

The tragedy of power politics The same sharp analysis runs throughout the work. Ruins of Ancient Sparta in Greece. These tensions would escalate in March of BC, when several hundred men from Thebes — a city allied to Sparta — clashed with the people of Plataia, an ally of Athens. This clash started a domino effect, igniting an already volatile situation in the region and officially starting the Peloponnesian War.

Collectively, they comprise the entire conflict between Sparta and Athens, which is also known as the Attic War. Sparta, a traditionally land-based and militaristic state, took to pillaging and invading Attica — the lands surrounding Athens. This tactic served to sever the food supplies for Athenians from the land. But, in expectation of this, the Athenians fortified a long causeway that connected them with their main port — Piraeus — and were thus able to maintain a supply of food via the sea routes.

Athens was a mostly sea-based state — with heavy focus on their vast fleet of Greek triremes , and openly avoided direct land battle with the superior Spartan hoplites. But their cunning fortification and sea based supply through the port of Piraeus soon proved catastrophic — only one year after the start of the war, a plague ravaged the populace of Athens, caused by the supplies of rotten grain.

One in every three people died, with the final toll coming close to 30, Athenians, including their most popular general — Pericles.

An Introduction to the Work of Thucydides

The war went on though, and the Athenians managed a few successful naval raids in the ongoing years. But the plague that struck them would be one of the defining moments of the entire war. In the final stages of the Archidamian war, both sides suffered defeats — the Spartans at Pylos and Sphacteria, and the Athenians at Delium and Boeotia.

Their most prominent generals were killed, and with that, both factions were ready for peace — with their resources nearly exhausted. But the peace was such only in name. It lasted for a mere six years, troubled with constant small conflicts in the Peloponnese. The peace treaty itself was not thoroughly liked by all the city states.

The chief one of these was the powerful Argos, a state that went so far as to create its own separate alliance with Mantinea and Elis — all three states neighboring Sparta. This caused a fresh shifting of powers and rattling of swords, further disturbing the flimsy peace treaty and resulting in the largest and bloodiest battle of the entire Peloponnesian War — the Battle of Mantinea.

The battle ended with a last-minute Spartan victory, which once more resettled the matters in the area and boosted the influence of Sparta. In BC, the Athenians came up with a daring plan in hopes to re-establish their power and influence in the region. The plan was adopted, and soon after an enormous fleet of roughly ships and 5, men, sailed towards Syracuse. But once there, things went sour.

The Athenians hesitated and had to winter without any significant action accomplished. This gave a window of opportunity for the Syracusans to ask Sparta for help — help which they received. With the help of the Spartan reinforcements , the people of Syracuse managed to inflict a crippling defeat on the Athenians, ending their expedition in a disaster. With roughly two thirds of their once powerful fleet destroyed, the Athenians suffered a heavy blow.

Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse, the Peloponnesian War. They were harassed from both land and sea, which diminished their food supplies, and raised the costs of supplying by sea. Another blow was suffered when the Spartan hoplites liberated almost 20, slaves from the Athenian silver mines. This was a blow aimed at their treasury, which was now running critically low.


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To counter this, the Athenians decided to demand even higher taxes from the subjects in the Delian League. This was met with great tensions, which would erupt into open rebellions against Athens. The most critical of these was the revolt of Ionia, partially encouraged by the Spartans. This started the third and the final stage of the Peloponnesian War — the Ionian War.

It was at this point in time that the Persians again come into play. Seeing Athens as the biggest threat in the region, they openly fund Sparta and its allies with large sums of gold. But the Athenians would not go out so easily. What followed was the period full of ups and downs, with unexpected twists lurking at every corner.

Alcibiades turned out to be a man of quite varying allegiances. After abandoning Athens, the first time, he was influential in Sparta for a while, until he made some enemies and was forced to flee — to Persia this time. He was there only a short while though, before he once more came back to Athens, managing to gain trust again.

The multitude saluting the return of Alcibiades with loud acclamations.

His return would not be in vain, because from to BC, Athens would manage to string several victories that would place it back on its feet. Alcibiades was able to persuade the remnants of the Athenian fleet to engage Spartans in battle — a battle which destroyed the Spartan fleet and gave some financial foothold back to Athens.

What Caused the Peloponnesian War?

But this would prove to be short lived. With Sparta being financed by the Persians and the Ionians revolting, things were not looking up. Once more the Athenian food supplies were harassed, and the fleet was close to starving — and thus forced to act. And that fleet would meet its end in the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War — the Battle of Aegospotami.