The war between Athens and the Athenian empire versus Sparta, Thebes,
Corinth, and other members of the Peloponnesian Confederacy 431 - 404 B.C.
Large scale campaigns and heavy fighting took place from Sicily to the coast of
Asia Minor and from the Hellespont and Thrace to Rhodes. It was the first war
in history to be recorded by an eye witness historian of the highest caliber.
It has come down through history as the archetypical war between a commercial
democracy and an agricultural aristocracy and a war between a maritime
superpower and a continental military machine. Thucydides' history is itself a
classic, which for generations was considered a foundation of a proper
The war began on 4 April 431 B.C. with a Theban attempt to surprise Plataea,
Athens' ally and outpost on the northern base of Cithaeron. It ended on 25
April 404 B.C., when Athens capitulated.
The cities of the Boetian Confederacy under Theban leadership were Sparta's
allies from the first. Syracuse and other Sicilian cities gave active help in
the last part of the war. Argos, her hands tied by a treaty with Sparta,
remained neutral during the first ten years, but as a democracy, was
benevolently inclined towards Athens. Persia at first held aloof, waiting for
an opportunity to regain her dominion over the Greek cities of the Asiatic
seaboard, which Athens had liberated, but finally provided the crucial
financial and logistic support required by Sparta to conduct a maritime
offensive. Athens, was unpopular with many members of her own empire, but held
most under control by her maritime supremacy. The war may be divided into three
major periods or five phases:
The Archidamian war; phase 1 431-427; phase 2 426-421:
The Sicilian war 421-413
The Ionian or Decelean War; phase 1 412-404; phase 2 407-404:
Cause of the war
The underlying cause of the war was Sparta's fear of the growth of the
power of Athens. This is Thucydides' own final judgment. The whole history of
the rise and power of Athens in the 50 years preceding justifies this view,
though the immediate occasion of the war concerned Corinth, Sparta's chief
naval ally. Since the peace of 445 B.C. Pericles had consolidated Athenian
resources, made Athens' navy incomparable, concluded in 433 B.C. a defensive
alliance with the strong naval power Corcyra (Corinth's most bitter enemy), and
renewed alliances with Rhegium and Leontini in the west. The very food supply
of the Peloponnese from Sicily was endangered. In the Aegean Athens could
always enforce a monopoly of seaborne trade. To this extent the Peloponnesian
War was a trade war and on this ground chiefly Corinth appealed to Sparta to
take up arms. The appeal was backed by Megara, nearly ruined by Pericles'
economic boycott, and by Aegina a reluctant member of the Athenian empire.
But if Sparta had not also been eager for war then peace would have lasted.
Sparta was waiting an opportunity that came when Athens was temporarily
embarrassed by the revolt of her subject-ally Potidaea in Chalcidice in the
spring of 432 B.C. The rebel city held out until the winter of 430 B.C. and its
blockade meant a constant drain upon Athenian military, and naval resources.
Sparta seized the opportunity. Confident of speedy victory she refused an offer
of arbitration made by Pericles. Instead, Sparta sent an ultimatum that would
have practically destroyed Athenian power. Pericles urged the people to refuse
and Sparta declared war.
Phase 1: 431-427
In a war between the main military and main naval powers in Greece a
decisive result was unlikely to occur quickly. Sparta relied on the traditional
strategy of Greek warfare. She hoped that by invading Attica and destroying the
crops she would force Athens either to sue for peace or come out to fight the
standard set piece battle in which typical Greek wars were decided. In numbers
as well as discipline and combat effectiveness of troops Athens was decidedly
inferior to the Spartan-Theban forces. The defect in this strategy was that
Athens unlike other Greek cities could not be starved into surrender, nor be
made to fight a pitched battle by occasional occupation of its individual
citizen's farm lands. Her food supply came principally from Egypt and Crimea.
The the old king of Sparta, Archidamus, knew this and warned his people about
it. But the Spartans were still confident in a quick victory in pursuing their
strategy of annihilation.
Pericles based his own confidence on his opposite strategy. He wanted only the
status quo ante and not conquest, which was quite beyond the means available.
Therefore, knowing his city walls were impregnable and connected Athens to the
sea at Piraeus and his navy would be able to insure the food supply, he opted
for a defensive strategy of attrition.
When the Spartans invaded, the rural population of Attica moved into the city.
Athens became an island impregnable to attack. Its great fleet would secure the
empire against revolts from within and attacks from without and take the
offensive to raid the Peloponnesian coast. Meanwhile, every spring and autumn
the Athenian land army would devastate the lands of Sparta's allies (especially
Megara) at the Corinthian Ismuth, while the Spartans were home tending to their
own crops. If Megara could be recovered, then Spartan land access to Attica
would be blocked and her Theban allies would not dare come down from the north
The Periclean strategy also had weaknesses. He was too fearful of the effect
that high casualties would have on public sentiment in a democracy, if he had
conducted more aggressive offensive military actions. He had not seen the
opportunities for combined land and naval actions to bring a higher intensity
of war to Spartan territory with little risk in order to hasten the effect of
the attrition on Sparta. The defect essentially was that the Athenian people's
morale proved unequal to the strain, and, after his death, rushed into rash
attempts to over-reach their means. Meanwhile, the Spartans were stoic and
persistent in the face of failure, until they found foreign resources
sufficient to turn the tables on Athens.
Chance too entered the lists, when in June 430 plague brought with the vital
grain from Egypt or Libya swept the city, overcrowded with the rural refugees.
Athenian troops sent north to reenforce the army besieging Potidaea merely
brought the plague along. But no other Greek city suffered, thanks to the lack
of contact during the war. Pericles himself died in 429. Megara held out,
although starving. The Athenian naval raids on Sparta's coastal allies were too
feeble to bother Sparta. Therefore it was Athens which suffered the attrition
meant for Sparta. Athens' vast financial resources were strained and she began
exacting even more onerous taxation from her empire, which only engendered more
unrest and rebellion. In particular a strong force sent to operate from Cythera
would have at least kept Sparta's armies out of Attica. Thus the admiral,
Pericles, threw away the strategic opportunities available by the proper use of
Athens began to offer peace in 430, but Sparta refused. In 430-29 Potidaea
finally surrendered, boosting the Athenian position. Then in the fall of 429
Athens won two great naval battles at Chalcis and Naupactus. The later won by
Phormio taking advantage of superior Athenian seamanship. In June 428 Mitylene
on Lesbos revolted. In 427 the Spartan fleet under command of Alcidas retreated
without even offering battle, instead of helping Mitylene, forcing the city to
surrender in July. But this was countered by the surrender in August of Athens'
ally, Plataea, to a Theban army which destroyed both population and city
itself. In 426 Athens gained the upper hand in Corcyra, but only after a
ghastly slaughter. This brought the war to a near stalemate.
Phase 2: 426-421
In 426 Athens began more active operations under direction of new political
leaders of the democratic party, Cleon and Demosthenes. Despite continued
resistance by the upper classes led by Nicias, they initiated a vigorous
offensive strategy. Athenian forces attempted to carry the war to Boeotia
(Thebes), Sparta, and even Sicily. In 426 two Athenian armies moved toward
Thebes, one under Demosthenes via Acarnania under cover of an attack on
Sparta's ally, Ambracia; and the other under Nicias via Tanagra. The plan
failed. Demosthenes' force of mostly local allies was trapped and routed,
although he managed to escape to Naupactus. Nicias, ever the reluctant warrior,
won a small victory at Tanagra and then withdrew. To cover expenses Cleon in
425 raised the tribute from the empire. Sparta began reprisals. A large army
under Eurylochus marched from Delphi, threatened Naupactus, and laid siege to
Amphilochian Argos. Demosthenes won two great victories at Olpae and Idomene by
clever tactical techniques. This destroyed Spartan hegemony, pushed Arcania and
Abracia out of the war, and opened the way for the Athenian navy to Sicily.
In 425 Athens won its greatest victory at Spacteria. Its fleet en route to
Sicily put in at Navarino Bay and Demosthenes built and garrisoned a fort there
on Pylos promontory. The Spartans attacked by land and sea. He drove off the
assault on the fort, and the Athenian fleet, returning at his request, blocked
the Spartan navy in the bay and cut off the Spartan force of 420 men on
Spacteria island. Athens secured the surrender of the enemy fleet, leaving
Sparta without one for many years. Cleon brought reinforcements, which enabled
the Athenians finally to overwhelm the Spartan resistance and capture 292
prisoners including 120 Spartiates, who were taken to Athens. This was an
unprecedented disgrace for Sparta. The "hostage" issue of these
prisoners-of-war not only secured all Attica from Spartan attacks, but was
played upon by Athens until Sparta sued for peace, which, foolishly, Cleon
In 424 all Athenian offensive plans failed. Their admirals were forced to
return from Sicily, due to Syracusan policies, but were nevertheless severely
punished by the democratic led assembly. In November their three- pronged
offensive against Thebes was defeated at Delium, thanks to a new tactical
deployment of Pagondas using a deep infantry wing and skillful use of cavalry.
The Athenian attempt to capture Megara by treachery was blocked by the Spartan
relief force under Brasidas. Brasidas then marched full speed through Boeotia
and Thessaly to Chalcidice stirring up revolt and offering freedom. Amphipolis
In 422 Brasidas continued his victorious campaign despite Athenian
reinforcements. Brasidas sallied from Amphipolis and defeated the Athenian
force, killing Cleon, but dying in the process as well. Thus in one battle two
of the greatest advocates and practitioners of offensive warfare died. Then, by
April 11, 421 Nicias concluded a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta that he
hoped would end the war.
Phase Three: 421-417
All the animosities and policy conflicts which divided the Greek cities
remained during this period as all sides strove to regain their strength.
Corinth and Thebes refused to adhere to the peace treaty. Neither Sparta nor
Athens actually fulfilled its obligations, except that Athens did give up its
Spartan prisoners. In 420 a new alliance of Athens, Argos, Mantinea, and Elis
faced the Spartan - Boeotian Alliance. Athens now had a new democratic leader
The reminder of the war was marked by the bitter internal political struggle
between the democratic war party led by Alcibiades and the aristocratic
(oligarchial) elements led by Nicias and others. This struggle led to outright
treason, vicious internal partisan purges, and the final destruction of Athens'
empire, hegemony, and very independence.
Athens' third offensive strategy was the most ambitious conception so far, but
it was ultimately negated by the internal opposition of Alcibiades' political
opponents. Thanks to the new allies in the Peloponnese, she threatened Sparta
at home and forced Sparta into pitched battle on home territory. Sparta
responded to the crisis by bringing forth another great military leader in King
Agis. Taking the initiative, Agis assembled a powerful army at Phlius by
masterly night marching and descended from the north on Argos, but was forced
to make a treaty and withdraw due to the failure of his Boeotian allies.
However, a few months later Alcibiades was able to pressure the Argives into
denouncing the treaty and threatening Tegea. Athens then sent only an
inadequate force in support and Elis sent none at all. Agis brought up the full
Spartan army and in August 418 won the largest land battle of the war at
Mantinea. This not only restored Spartan self-confidence and prestige but also
knocked out Athens' allies.
Athenian hopes now rested on taking up an even more bold offensive to cut
Spartan and Corinthian supplies from Sicily. In 416 B.C. Alcibiades promoted an
ambitions strategic plan for conquering Syracuse, controlling all of Sicily,
defeating Carthage, and then returning with greatly strengthened forces to the
final defeat of a surrounded Peloponnese. The conception was brilliant, but
required the undivided support of the entire Athenian polity. The democrats
embraced it with enthusiasm, but as usual Nicias opposed and recommended
continued traditional operations in Chalcidice. The expedition was voted and
launched in June of 415, but with a fatally divided command of Alcibiades,
Nicias, and the professional soldier, Lamachus. The campaign was barely begun
when Alcibiades was recalled to stand trial on charges brought by his
opponents, (desecrating the hermes) leaving the hopes of Athens in the hands of
the chief opponent of the strategic plan. Rather than face certain execution,
Alcibiades fled to Sparta!
At first the campaign gained successes. Syracuse was duly invested by land and
sea, but Athenian attempts to build a wall of circumvallation were blocked by a
Syracusian counter wall. Lamachus was killed, the fleet was defeated, then
supplies ran out, a Spartan general arrived to aid the defense, and Nicias was
procrastinating as usual. A second fleet was sent under Demosthenes. But his
assault in July 413 was also defeated. Demosthenes then urged a general
withdrawal to Athens, but Nicias would neither advance nor retire. The Athenian
fleet was blocked in the harbor and then defeated in battle. Nicias attempted
to move the army inland, but it was pursued, surrounded, and finally massacred.
Both generals were executed and the few "survivors" were enslaved.
Phase Four: 412-408
Sparta resumed the war officially in August 414 and all Greece expected
Athens to loose. Sparta now had a strong fleet with additional reinforcements
from the west. Athens had lost its best sailors and had nearly exhausted its
treasury. In March 413 King Agis occupied Decelea to keep Athens in a constant
blockade on the land side and cut off the Athenian silver mines. The Athenian
empire soon started to fall apart with one city revolt after another in 412 and
411. Finally Persia entered the contest by authorizing its satrap in Sardis,
Tissaphernes, to support Sparta. An oligarchic party seized power in Athens and
started to offer surrender until blocked by a resurgence of the democratic
party. Alcibiades now fled from Sparta to Sardis where he persuaded
Tissaphernes to withhold his support from Sparta. The Athenian navy now
recalled Alcibiades to command and resumed operations.
With the grain supply from Sicily in complete Spartan control and that from
Egypt blocked by the same forces, (and Persia), Athens now was totally
dependent on food from Crimea through the Hellespont. There the Athenian
commanders Thrasybulus and Thrasylus defeated the Spartan, Mindarus, at
Cynossema in September of 411. In March of 410 Alcibiades won a great victory
over the opposing navy and supporting Persian army at Cyzicus on the Sea of
Marmora, giving Athens again maritime supremacy. Sparta again suggested peace,
but the democrat demagogues as usual refused to listen.
In 409 Alcibiades recaptured Byzantium, cleared the Bosporus and secured the
grain supply. He made a triumphant return to Athens on 16 June 408, but his
enemies remained unreconciled.
Phase Five: 407-404
In autumn of 408 a new Spartan admiral, Lysander, arrived at the chief
naval base at Ephesus and began building a new fleet with the aid of the new
Persian satrap, Cyrus. With unlimited Persian resources, he soon had a
formidable force, but continued throughout 407 to refuse Alcibiades'
enticements to come out for battle. Finally Alcibiades was forced to divide his
own fleet due to supply shortages. Leaving one force at Notium under Antiochus
to observe but with strict orders to refuse battle, Alcibiades sailed north to
re-provision by plundering enemy towns. Lysander promptly sailed out and routed
Antiochus. Alcibiades returned to renew the blockade but the damage was already
done. His personal enemies at home were now able to force his recall. Instead,
Alcibiades again fled, this time to a castle near the Hellespont.
For the next year Lysander was superseded by Callicratidas, according to the
Spartan legal requirement for single year appointments. Callicratidas blockaded
the Athenian fleet of Conon in Mitylene harbor. Another fleet sailed from
Athens and in the battle of Arginusae in August 406 the largest fleets so far
seen in the war entered battle. Callicratidas was drowned while loosing and
Sparta again offered peace. Again the Athenian democrats led by Cleophon
refused. Even more incredible, during the course of their victory bad weather
had prevented the Athenian admirals from rescuing some of their own sailors
from sinking ships. The democrat party had them recalled and executed. The new
generals for 405 were Alcibiades' opponents.
They now moved the entire fleet up to the open beach at Aegospotami on the
Asiatic side of the Hellespont. Lysander lay opposite in a good harbor at
Abydos. Vainly Alcibiades went to warn his townsmen of their danger, but his
opponents would not listen. In September 405 Lysander captured practically the
whole Athenian fleet without a blow and thus brought the entire war to an end
in one stroke. With the grain supply now cut Lysander could proceed to Athens
itself to blockade it from the sea while the Spartan army under King Pausanius
held the land side. After six months of starvation and no prospect for relief,
Athens surrendered on generous terms offered by Sparta. Corinth and Thebes
protested, demanding total destruction, but Sparta did not want to create too
great a power vacuum. The city walls and those connecting Athens to Piraeus
were torn down and the empire dissolved.
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