The Causes of the Great Peloponnesian War
It was inevitable that resentment among the so-called 'allies' of the Athenians at their subjugation and exploitation would fester. The 'allies' were subject to the laws decided upon in the Athenian ekklesia: Athenian magistrates were imposed on them; legal cases involving the death penalty had to be referred to Athens. Athenian coinage and weights and measures were enforced upon them. The Allies had discovered the lessons, so obvious in our own day, that an 'alliance' with a greater power may turn into the subversion of one's own government and effective subjugation, and that democracies may give some liberty to their own citizens, while simultaneously denying it to those of other states effectively under their power. Resentment was also felt keenly in rival Sparta, which had for centuries been regarded as the leading power in Greece. It was equally natural that all those independent states, such as Megara and Corinth, which felt themselves threatened by the growing power and 'political meddlesomeness' of the Athenians should line up with 'the Spartans and their allies', known to history as the Peloponnesian League. Thucydides says that: 'the growth of Athenian power alarmed the Spartans and compelled them to war.' After a false start, war broke out between those states loyal to Athens and those which wished to bring about the downfall of Athenian power.
This was a terrible war, involving at one time or another most of the Greek states. Since the Athenians were identified with democracy, and rule by 'the Many', the dominant aristocracies of the conservative states feared the attraction of Athens for their own people, and in many states, civil wars broke out, with the aristocrats favouring Sparta, and the common people Athens.
This was not merely a war between states, it was a struggle between two different ideals and ways of life. The Spartans stood for the old-fashioned militaristic values of the Dïrians, while the Athenians represented radical new ways of thinking, which required rational justification for institutions and actions rather than blind appeal to custom. This made many fearful, even among the aristocrats in Athens itself.
The Archidamian War
Ñericles' policy was to fight offensively at sea, where the large Athenian navy could be used to best advantage, and to fight defensively on land, withdrawing behind the Long Walls and avoiding direct confrontation with the superior Spartan hoplites, who were by far the most powerful and prestigious fighting force in Greece.
During the war, each year, at the beginning of the campaigning season the Spartans, led by King Archidemus, invaded Attica, and the country people were obliged to abandon their homes and fields, and retire behind the Long Walls. Many encamped in an area below the eastern walls of the acropolis known as the 'Black Stones', where the Delphic oracle had expressly forbidden settlement, in the area of the modem Anafiotika. An unforeseen consequence was that, crowded together under siege conditions during the hot summer months, epidemics broke out. Ñericles himself died in this manner in 429.
Athens was an open society, and the long, inconclusive but damaging war provoked some real questioning. Socrates began his own struggle for understanding and truth in his dialogues with leading young aristocrats. Amazingly, after six years of warfare Aristophanes was able to put on his play The Acharnians, a plea for peace, ascribing the beginning of the war to 'a bunch of good-for-nothing individuals.' It won first prize. How many modem states, including those which most loudly claim to be democratic, would tolerate the public performance of an anti-war play during a long and exhausting war, let alone reward its author!
When Mytilene seceded from the Delian League, the Assembly voted to massacre all the inhabitants, sending out a ship with those orders. On the next day, the people relented and contented themselves with ordering the destruction of the city's defences and the loss of their fleet and land. They sent out another ship with new orders to overtake the first. At the time this was seen by some Athenian aristocrats as an indication of the inherent instability of democracy.
The Uneasy Truce
After a decade of bitter fighting a truce was agreed by the exhausted parties in 421, after the Athenians had managed to capture some Spartans hoplites on an island in the mouth of the bay of Pylos. Contrary to the reputation which they carefully fostered, the Spartans hoplites surrendered.
Influence in Athens began to pass from generals to orators, such as Kleon, who could sway the Ekklesia. Remarkably, when the fighting ended, building immediately began again in Athens. In 420 the Asklepeion at the southern foot of the Acropolis was founded, when the god was brought up to the city from Zea, perhaps ultimately from Epidaurus. Work began on the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion.
The Sicilian Expedition
The Ñeace was not destined to last. The most prominent man of his day in Athens, the handsome and charismatic young nobleman Alcibiades, persuaded the Athenians to launch an ambitious naval expedition to go to Sicily to threaten the grain supply of the Spartans and their allies by taking Syracuse, the Spartans' most powerful allies on that island. This was the largest naval expedition the Athenians ever mounted, and it set out with high expectations.
One night just before the fleet was due to set sail, some of the erect phalloi of the Hermai, stylised representations of the god Hermes which were set up on property boundaries in the streets, were broken off. This shocked many conservative citizens, and after the departure of the expedition, investigations were held. Household slaves were interrogated, and Alkibiades and his friends were accused of mocking the Eleusinian mysteries in wild drinking parties. The state trireme was sent to arrest Alkibiades and bring him back to Athens to face trial in the absence of his supporters in the fleet. Not unaware of his enemies' intentions, he escaped and offered his services to the enemy.
Without the dynamic leadership of Alcibiades, the Sicilian Expedition proved a disaster. Now poorly led, after a failed siege of Syracuse, the Athenians were themselves threatened by Sicilian forces reinforced by Spartans. The besiegers found themselves besieged. After several failed attempts to extricate themselves, the Athenians were pursued and cut down. The survivors were imprisoned in the quarries of Syracuse, and either died there or were sold as slaves. Late in 413 the news of the disaster, and the total loss of ships and men, reached Athens. [Read about the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in Athens.]
The Peloponnesian War Renewed
The war had already been resumed. But this time, on the advice of Alcibiades, the Spartans converted Dekelea, twenty kilometres from the acropolis, into a permanent base, so that the end of the campaign season would bring no relief to the besieged country folk packed behind the Long Walls. Some twenty thousand slaves from Laurion deserted to the Spartans at Dekelea, and the lucrative silver mines had to be closed down. Yet despite the odds, the indefatigable Athenians built themselves a new navy using a special reserve fund they had set aside for such an emergency twenty years before.
Under the strain of renewed war and siege, bitter social divisions began to appear once more among the Athenians. In 411 a group of four hundred oligarchs took over the city for several months, breaking into the bouleuterion and paying of the councillors. This coup was overthrown by the sailors who returned from Samos and had a law passed which condemned to death anyone trying to subvert democracy. Yet despite their internal problems, a victory at sea persuaded the Athenians to turn down a Spartan offer to end the war in 410.
The Spartans called upon Persian aid, and after a long struggle of attrition, Athenian naval power was finally extinguished in the battle of Aegospotami in 405, when their ships were surprised onshore and one hundred and sixty destroyed. It was said that on the night when the news of this defeat was brought to Piraeus by the galley Paralos, the people of Athens first knew that something was terribly wrong when they heard a cry of wailing approaching the city from the port. Not only was Athens' last fleet lost, the route from the Black Sea, by which the grain which fed Athens was imported was severed. Athens was blockaded for several months by land ánd sea by Lysandros.
In 404 B.C., facing famine, the city finally surrendered. Á Spartan garrison was installed, and the Athenians were forced to demolish their own Long Walls to the sound of pipe music.
© John L. Tomkinson