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Posted: December 24th, 2018

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War: A Brief Overview

The Peloponnesian War was a prolonged conflict that lasted from 431 to 404 BCE, involving the two most powerful city-states of ancient Greece: Athens and Sparta. The war had a profound impact on the Greek world, reshaping the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the region.

The main cause of the war was the fear of Athenian imperialism among the other Greek states, especially Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian League. Athens had emerged as the dominant naval power in the Aegean Sea after its victory over the Persian Empire in the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BCE). It also established a vast alliance of island and coastal states, known as the Delian League, which paid tribute to Athens and followed its foreign policy. Sparta, on the other hand, was the leader of a conservative land-based coalition of states in the Peloponnese and central Greece, which valued autonomy and tradition over expansion and innovation.

The war can be divided into three phases: the Archidamian War (431-421 BCE), the Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (421-413 BCE), and the Ionian War (413-404 BCE). The first phase was named after the Spartan king Archidamus II, who led several invasions of Attica, the territory around Athens. The Athenians, following the strategy of their leader Pericles, avoided direct confrontation with the superior Spartan army and relied on their navy to harass the enemy’s coast and supply lines. The war was marked by several major battles, such as the naval Battle of Pylos (425 BCE), where the Athenians captured a large number of Spartan hoplites, and the land Battle of Delium (424 BCE), where the Spartans defeated an Athenian army. The plague that devastated Athens in 430-429 BCE also contributed to its weakening, killing Pericles and many other citizens. The first phase ended with the Peace of Nicias, a treaty that restored the status quo ante bellum and recognized the spheres of influence of both sides.

The second phase was characterized by renewed hostilities, triggered by the Athenian intervention in Sicily. Athens sent a large expeditionary force to support its ally Segesta against Syracuse, a Corinthian colony and a Spartan ally. The Sicilian Expedition turned into a disaster for Athens, as it lost most of its ships and soldiers in a series of battles and sieges. The failure of the expedition encouraged Sparta to resume the war against Athens, with the support of Persia, which provided money and ships to the Spartan fleet.

The third phase was dominated by naval warfare in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. The Spartans, under their admiral Lysander, gained control of several key islands and cities that were part of the Athenian empire, such as Lesbos, Chios, and Byzantium. They also established a permanent base at Decelea in Attica, which cut off Athens from its silver mines and farms. The Athenians managed to recover some of their losses with a victory at the Battle of Arginusae (406 BCE), but they suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Aegospotami (405 BCE), where Lysander captured or destroyed almost their entire fleet. The following year, Athens surrendered to Sparta, ending the war.

The Peloponnesian War had far-reaching consequences for Greece and beyond. It resulted in the collapse of the Athenian empire and democracy, which were replaced by a short-lived oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants. It also weakened Sparta’s power and prestige, as it faced rebellions from its former allies and subjects. The war paved the way for the rise of new powers, such as Thebes and Macedon, which eventually challenged and conquered much of Greece. The war also influenced Greek culture, literature, and philosophy, as it inspired works such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Euripides’ tragedies, and Plato’s dialogues.

Bibliography:

– Kagan, D. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books.
– Lazenby, J.F. (2004). The Peloponnesian War: A Military Study. London: Routledge.
– Thucydides. (1996). The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Edited by R.B. Strassler. New York: Free Press.
– Hornblower, S. (2011). The Greek World 479-323 BC. London: Routledge.
– Hanson, V.D. (2005). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House.
– Pomeroy, S.B., Burstein, S.M., Donlan, W., and Roberts, J.T. (2008). Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

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