Wine, beauty, grace and art. One would never imagine a state rich in such luxurious indulgences would belie a history rife with strife and conflict. The very idea of bloodshed and death wouldn't exactly come to mind when one takes a tour of the Amphitheatre of Athens or feast their eyes on the beauty of the many mythological Gods and Goddesses in Greece.
One such key event that shaped Greek history was the Peloponnesian War, which occurred between 431 BC - 404 BC. Though it started out initially as a series of small skirmishes between the different factions led by the Sparta and Athens, the conflict eventually erupted into a full blown war encompassing the majority of the mediterranean and be known as one of the most devastating wars in Ancient Greece. Though Sparta ultimately emerged victorious, it was a hard fought war of attrition that left both parties with great losses.
However, the Peloponnesian War did not happen unexpectedly. Instead it was the result of critical events such as the formation and actions of the Delian League, the Helot Revolt, the disagreement over the rebuilt of Athens’ city walls, as well as Athens involvement in the affairs of the Peloponnese league which led up to the eventual war. As such, looking at the events that preceded the Peloponnesian war is an integral step to understanding how the war began.
Ironically, Athens and Sparta started out as allies as they united to protect Greece from Persia’s invasion during the Greco-Persian War in an attempt to regain and protect its independence. Following the conclusion of the war, Athens began aiming to establish an Athenian empire. Their actions sowed dissent among the other city-states and eventually provoked retaliation from Sparta. As the tensions between the two city-states became more apparent, conflict was inevitable as both sought to lay claim as the strongest city-state in Ancient Greece.
According to Greek Historian Thucydides,
Before we delve into the reasons that caused the Peloponnesian War, here is a timeline to provide a more visual picture of the order of events that led up to the war.
Formation of Delian League
Following Greece’s victory in the Greco-Persian Wars, various Greek city-states came together to form the Delian League in 478 BCE, led by Athens to protect Greece’s interest. The creation of the league further acted as a “shield” that helped safeguard the Greece from potential attacks should Persia intend to strike again.
Through its superior military might, especially in naval warfare, Athens helmed control of the Delian League. Though the members of this alliance were initially seen as equals, the power structure quickly deteriorated into a hierarchical system where other city states were coerced into paying tributes to Athens. In A New History of the Peloponnesian War by Lawrence Tritle, the money collected, originally intended for use against threats from Persia, were instead utilized for Athens’ own agenda in acquiring more prestige (“After the Persians”, pp8-9). Funds from the Delian League financed military expeditions for Athenian interests while improving Athen’s own economic power. During this period of time, better known as The Pentecontaetia (479 BCE to 431 BCE) Athens established itself as a formidable power among the Greek city states by further developing its politics, infrastructure, economy and most importantly it’s military.
After establishing its leadership, Athens started to abuse the league’s power for it’s own agenda. The other members, who were not tributaries in all but name were unable to go against the Athenian might. According to A History of the Classical Greek World by Rhodes P.J, as a result of the Athenian’s heavy-handed control of the league, dissent among the neutral states grew, and eventually contributed to the start of the Peloponnesian War (“The Formation of the Delian League”, pp21-23).
Another key event that led to the war was the treatment of the Athenian’s reinforcement during the Helot revolts. Sparta, like most city-states in ancient Greece, were heavily reliant on slavery. As such, the revolt of the helots was seen as a threat to their rule and the stability of the city state.
According to Lendon’s research on Athen’s and Sparta’s relationship preceding the Peloponnesian War, Sparta sent out a call of aid to the other city states, including Athens to quell the uprising, which was answered by Cimon, an Athenian statesman and general in support of maintaining friendly relations with Sparta (pp 256). In Peloponnese and Athens by Dana Facaros and Lina Theodorou, Athens was able to muster a force of 4000 men (“ Messenia”, pp 432).
However, according to Lendon, the Athenian troops were sent back on the account that Sparta had gathered enough troops to subdue the helots (pp 266). Though the reasons to which the Athenian troops were dismissed remains a highly debated issue till today, it could be argued that they were rejected due to Sparta’s insecurity as mentioned by Lendon as there were fears that the Athenians might turn their back against them and aid the helots (pp 265).
Essentially, Sparta did not trust Athens and had doubts about their intention to help them. However, the very mistrust that Sparta exhibited through the dismissal of the Athenian troops offended Athens which worsened the relationship and deepen the tension between the two city states.
Disagreement over the rebuilding of Athens city walls
During the Greco-Persian Wars, the original city walls of Athens were destroyed by the Persians. According to Greek Historical Inscriptions by P. J Rhodes and Robin Osborne, when that war ended and the Athenians returned to their city, the restoration of the city included rebuilding the fallen walls (“Rebuilding of Piraeus walls”, pp46). However, Sparta and her allies were against the idea as mentioned by Donald Kagan in his book, The Outbreak Of The Peloponnesian War (“The War in Greece”, pp 80), because they reasoned that the walls would make Athens a great base for an invading army.
Also, at that point of time, the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow land bridge connecting mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula, was already an adequate protection against invaders.
This act of disagreement reflected the fear Sparta and her allies had in regards to the Athenians rising in power should the wall be rebuilt. Based on Donald Kagan’s book, it was due to the political maneuverings of a particularly apt Athenian politician and staunch supporter of an Athenian Empire, Themistocles, that Sparta was misled into allowing Athens to erect their walls (“The Origins of the Athenian Empire”, pp 36). The reconstruction of the wall formally began in 461 BCE which further fortified the Athens, leading to more misgivings as Sparta realized they were made fools out of.
Athens unnecessary involvement
What can be seen as the final event which led to the start of the First Peloponnesian War was Athens’ participation in the battle between Megara and Corinth, two members of the Peloponnesian League in 459 BCE. In an open act of hostility against Sparta, Athens decided to intervene in favor of Megara. According to Donald Kagan, Athens’ support of Megara, as well as their attempt to secure a position on the Corinthian Gulf, was seen as a declaration of war against Sparta (“The War in Greece”, pp 80). Even though Sparta did not wish to go to war with Athens, Corinth’s importance meant that they could not afford to lose such a valuable ally. As such, this played a huge part in forcing Sparta’s hand (“The War in Greece”, pp 80).
This led to a series of battles known collectively to most as the 'The First Peloponnesian War' which was between Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and other city-states. These battles served as a precursor for things to come in the eventual Peloponnesian War.
Athens and Sparta were two of the leading forces in Greece during that time period. With the ongoing mistrust and conflicts that the two states had, it finally ended with them starting a new war, just after a brief period of peace following the war with the Persians. By looking at the reasons why the Peloponnesian War began, we are better able to understand how the war came about.
Furthermore, both city states were strong in different aspects of warfare, with Sparta renowned for its strong Army and near invincibility in land skirmishes while Athens owned a Navy whose fleets were considered the strongest in Greece. A such, in preparation of defense of their respective homes, it was inevitable that there would be a conflict in interests between the both city states.
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By: Kimberley, Glenn, Vincent and Derek