The PeloponNesian War

Following the persian wars in which the smaller armies of greece took on and defeated the powerful army of the great persian empire, the greeks were starting to feel pretty invincible. Particularly athens, a city that had dealt persia it’s first blow, with the battle of marathon, and then it’s final blow, at the battle of salamis. At marathon, the athenians outsmarted the persians by strengthening the wings of it’s hoplite phalynx army, and weakening the center. the persians went crashing through the center of the athenian army, and then the two athenian wings closed in on them from both sides. the persians were easily defeated. after marathon, there was the battle at thermopolae, where the spartans joined athens in the fight for greece. this was the battle that the greeks lost. an army of three hundred spartans killed persian king xerxes’ bodyguards, known as the immortals, but eventually every last spartan warrior on the battle field that day fell to his death. the persians then came back and attacked athens. the athenians fled their city and took to the island of salamis. the persians burned the deserted city of athens to the ground and then came to salamis looking for the athenian people. that’s when athens struck. they hit the persians at sea, smashing into their ships, sending them crashing into the rocky cliffs of the narrow terrain. the persian army was defeated, once and for all, and had been dealt all major blows by the athenian army.


all of this made the athenians suddenly very arrogant. They had defeated the persians, but there was no guarantee that the persian army would not one day return for revenge. After all, that was exactly what had happened in the past when the persians had come back to greece for the battle of thermopalae, just ten years after they had been defeated at marathon. Knowing that  a future attack by a revenge-seeking persia was a strong possibility, the athenians used their surplus of wealth to build up their navy force. they also came up with a defensive plan and proposed an organization of joining forces with all neighboring cities of greece. This plan was for the cities to unite as a single cooperating unit. it was to be known as the delian league and the idea was that each of these cities would fight for and defend each other in any future incidents of war.


In 478 BC, the league was established, composed of delegates from each of the aegean greek states. each of these states contributed money and that money was put right into building up the athenian navy even more. in return, the navy pledged to protect any of the members of the league. and while the athenians seemed very open to including many different neighbors and accepting them as members of the league, there was one greek state that was intentionally not included..., sparta.


Sparta was never given an invitation to the league because the athenians wanted to maintain control and felt that sparta might try to override their authority. what the athenians did not count on, was that sparta would take this form of rejection personally and would harbor a deep resentment for athens as a result. in retaliation for what they saw as an intentional insult, sparta now began to build up its own league with neighbors, known as the peloponnesian league. this organization wasn’t entirely defensive like the delian league, but was intended instead to be an opposition to what athens was doing. with all of the stored up, bitter resentment,  as well was the massive undertaking of building up and strengthening these immense fighting forces, it was only a matter of time before the two leagues confronted each other on the battle field.


But the athenians were not aware of what sparta was doing. they were naive about not inviting sparta to join their league, not realizing that sparta would be offended by this action. the athenians certainly never imagined that sparta would start a league of their own that called challenge the delian league in warfare. and so the athenians turned their back on sparta and put the attention of the delian league in other places near and around greece.


The first undertaking of the league was to eliminate the threat of pirates from the aegian sea. This was accomplished quickly in order to make the sea a safe area for men to go about conducting their business without having anything to fear. Athens had an economy built on trading at sea, and so the elimination of this pirate threat was an immediate priority. After this, the athenians again looked to persia.


as students of the past, who watched as persia returned for battle after battle during the persian wars, the athenians knew that warfare left unresolved could easily lead to more warfare in the future. and so the athenians realized the important of making it clear to the persians that what took place in the past could never occur again. the athenians did this by pushing persia’s boundaries back even further and making it known to them that athens was the new authority. Persia saw from this that athens needed some assurance, and so they agreed to the truce of callias in 449 B.C. this settled the conflict between the two nations once and for all by declaring a line of agreement for a boundary that was not to be crossed by either side.


The athenians now went about reconstructing the parthenon, an area used for public meetings on the acropolis (the capital hill). They also now began to look at the rest of greece to insure that there were no threats to come from that direction. with the persian threat now quelled, athens was almost looking for a problem. and so they looked at their colony of sicily, and island off the southern tip of italy, that was closer to sparta than it was to athens. out of fear that the people of sicily would not show allegiance to them and would choose sparta instead, athens decided to punish sicily, cutting them off from athenian goods. this caused great unrest among the other states of greece, as athenian colonies now began to fear that they had given athens too much control.


THe problem grew even worse when athens used a similar tactic against a city known as megaru. sparta was allies with the great city of corinth and both of these cities were already both fearful and frustrated with the abuse of power by athens. corinth was allies with megaru. when athens decided to shut out the goods of megaru from all athenian markets, the corinthians knew it was time to take a stand.


Corinth and sparta now decided to address their peloponesian league and examine the purposes for its creation. they realized that unlike the delian league, they were not intending to build up an empire. instead, their league was established in order to ensure the rights and freedoms of all greek states. athens was now posing a threat to these rights, acting as a bully, and punishing whoever it desired.


Sparta made direct demands on athens to concede certain powers. the athenian leader was a man named pericles. he told his people that if they agreed to these concessions, the spartans would only ask for more. it would be a sign of weakness that sparta would fully take advantage of. and so pericles convinced his people that they would reject these spartan demands.


In 431 B.C., sparta attacked. they marched on athens and destroyed anything in their paths. pericles convinced the people to evacuate their homes and join him inside the fortified city walls. the athenians adhered to his advice and left their homes in the country. but the athenian walls could not hold them all, for two thirds of the people of athens lived in the countryside. following pericles’ orders, they now all packed in together and living conditions rapidly deteriorated. a plague spread throughout the city and pericles was one of many who caught the plague and died.


The spartans had a stronger army than the athenians did, but athens had the stronger navy. the people of athens were crushed by the loss of their great leader, pericles, who had overseen the rise of athens as the most powerful and prosperous city in greece. They now looked to their navy to help them compete with the spartan attacks.


under the new leadership of a man named alcibides, who replaced pericles, The athenian ships were sent out to attack peloponnesian cities along the coasts. While he waited for his ships to return, alcibides planned out what was to be the greatest athenian naval attack. It would take place at the sicilian city of syracuse, a spartan ally that was part of the peloponnese. Alcibides knew that “If syracuse fell into athenian hands, the balance of power would shift considerably toward the athenian side in any future conflicts with sparta and the peloponnesian league,” (Cantor, 115).


Syracuse was a city that had been colonized by corinth, and when the athenian ships returned home from successfully attacking the peloponnesian coastal cities, alcibides filled the navy general in on his plans. the attack was to be a surprise and seemed like it would certainly be another athenian victory. alcibides, however, had many enemies in athens, who began to worry about this leader becoming too powerful.


Alcibides did not partake in the organized religion of the athenians, and this made many people feel that he was disrespecting their beliefs. they did not like him and they knew of the potential ripple effects behind his planned attack on syracuse. if the attack was a success, most likely the athenians would win the war. if this happened, then alcibides would receive a tremendous boost in popularity for being the leader who had organized the victorious plan.


The enemies of alcibides knew that this was their chance. if they were to strike against him, then it needed to be now. They knew that some sort of a campaign was needed against alcibides, but they did not know how to go about it. then, the night before the attack on syracuse, they found their chance. on the eve before the great surprise attack, a number of religious statues throughout the city were defaced. The enemies waited until alcibides sent his navy off to sea the next day, and then they let the charges fly.


alcibides’ enemies claimed that he had been one of the defacers of these statues. they were so relentless in their arguments, that they were able to convince the athenian people to acknowledge alcibides as a possible suspect. and so he was to be prosecuted and put on trial. alcibides now fled the city of athens.


it was a classic case of one man becoming too powerful and others fearing him as a result. alcibide’s enemies knew that if the syracuse battle was successful, there would be no end to his political power. and so they found a way to remove him from office. but alcibides felt betrayed by his people, and when he left athens, he went directly to sparta. he told the spartans that he had detailed information regarding an oncoming athenian attack, and the spartans welcomed him in.


Alcibides told the spartans that the attack was coming to syracuse. the spartans now told their corinthian allies of this attack and together both forces assembled at syracuse to prepare for the athenian attack. the athenians, meanwhile, were now left without a strong leader. pericles had been their champion, and after him, alcibides had nicely taken up the reigns, but with him gone, they did not know where to turn. perhaps some of the generals who had stayed behind in athens while the ships were sent out, saw how alcibides was punished for being too powerful and refused to take up in his stead out of fear for what could happen to them as well.


with no strong leadership left in athens, the people decided to send out more ships to reenforce the ones that had already left. they saw the plan by alcibides as their last hope, the final action left to them by their last great leader. and so, not knowing that the spartans would be expecting the attack, they decided to add to it by sending more ships.


The spartans knew complete details about the attack that was coming their way, having the man who orchestrated the plans of the attack now working alongside them. they built up their ships withe metal plating. when the athenians arrived, the spartans rammed into their ships with this new metal plating and the great athenian navy found it’s ships being smashed to pieces.


Because the people of athens had sent out their reinforcements so early, there was no time for them to turn back. Sparta saw the reinforcements off in the distance and went after them. these reinforcements were easily defeated as well.


Athens was severely weakened from this loss, but was not completely defeated just yet. the people now melted down their statues and temples on the acropolis, destroying the great works of art that their leader pericles had overseen. they used this metal to reenforce another fleet and with this fleet was able to defeat sparta in a number of victories at sea.


The athenians had the stronger navy and the spartans knew it. they had only won the battle at syracuse because of alcibides coming their way and helping them to prepare. now they saw that if they were going to defeat athens once and for all, they would need to defeat them where the athenians were strongest. at sea.


The spartans now turned to persia, one of the first victims athens had taken on in order to make an example and establish it’s city as the new dominant power of greece. The Persians had conceded to the line of agreement with athens, but now saw a chance to rebuild itself at athens’ expense. the spartans asked persia for help in building up its fleet. the persians asked for asia minor in return and the sparta willingly gave this land over.


Sparta now attacked athens by both land and sea. they surrounded the athenians and left them no routes for escape. Athens had no choice by to surrender, and in 404 B.C. the great city was made to tear down its walls. the city which had once dominated the greek empire would never again return to the same level of prominence and power that it once held.


the athenians lost the war because of their extreme arrogance. they made enemies of the persians and then  too easily punished their own colonies, making other neighbors of greece fear that athenian power was becoming too strong. After the death of pericles, the athenians were fortunate to find a replacement with as much strategic military knowledge as alcibides. instead of acknowledging this good fortune and supporting alcibides during the time of his big attack, the people of athens turned on him simply because he did not agree with their religious views. their paranoia of alcibides and what a successful military attack on syracuse would do for him blinded them from seeing that the success of the attack would be good for them as well. instead, the athenian people once again chose to see themselves as invincible, and as a result, alcibides prepared sparta for the attack, and the spartans crushed them in battle. that battle led to future spartan successes, especially after sparta appealed to the persians, who had also felt that they had been wronged and embarrassed by the might of athens. With the help of persia, the spartans were finally able to be victorious in defeating the athenians and ending the peloponnesian war.