War and Social Upheaval: The Peloponesian War (431-404 BC)

Figure 1.--Alcibiades (c450 404 BC) was a prominent Athenian statesman and general which played a major role in the Peloponnesian War. almost incomprehensively, he served strategic advisor, military commander, and politician in Athens, Sparta, and Persia. There were few figures in history that managed to serve three deadly foes, especiallty military commanders. And after fleeting Athens for Sparta and Persia, h even managed to return to Athens in a leadership position. Here is a 19th-century illustration, 'Return of Alcibiades to Athens," Athenian commander Alcibiades is welcomed back to Athens after leading his men to victory at the Battle of Cyzicus (410 BC) The Sicilian Expedition yjat played such a critical role inthe defeat of Athens was conceivd by Alcibiades. Some military historians contend that if he had been given command of the athenian expedition instead of Nicias that Athens may have prevailed. Source: H. Vogel, 19th centry.

The Peloponesian War was on of the epic struggles of the ancient world. The most important source of information on the Peloponnesian War was written by Thucydides in 431 BC. The Peloponnesian war started beginning in 431 B.C. The war centered on the struggle between Athens and Sparta fvor dominance in the Greek world. Most wars between Greek City states were short, non-conclusive battles. The Peloponesian War lasted 27 years. Athens at the time was the leading power in reece, primarily because of its fleet and maritime empire. It was the Atenian fleet that had defeated the Persians. Sparta, playing upon the resentment of other Greek city states over Athenian hegenomy, asembeled an alliance. Realizing that the Athenian fleet wlould have to be destroyed, the Spatand sought help from the Persians. The Atenian fleet was destroyed at Aegospotami. The Spartans after the Battle of Attica were able to besiege and ultimately defeat Athens.

Major Participants

The Peloponesian War was conducted by Athens and its Allies and Sparta and its allies. They were both Greek city states, but were very different. Athens was in its golden age, producing an artistic and literary heritage that helped to found Western cibilization. Sparta was a harsh barracks state, with no notable cultural tradition, that maintained a conquered subject people, the helotai for agricultural labor. Persia also played an important role.


The dominate city state for much of Greek history was Athens. Athens saw itself, and in many ways was, the intellectual center of Greece. It was one of the first city-states to develop after the Greek Dark Ages. The city was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Although Athens was of enormous impact to western civilization, it and the other city states were not large. Athens was the largest and at the height of its power had a population of only about 0.2 million. Only a fraction of this population wereactual citizes, about a third of the male population. Much of the population lived in the rural areas outside the city. Other city states, even the other important ones had much smalller populations. It was in Athens that the concept of political democracy was born in 508 BC. Athenian democracy was, however, limited to a relatively small numbers of citizens. While limited, Athenian democracy was direct. The Athenian citizens met monthly in the Assembly to discuss state affairs. It was Athens that was the center of Greek resistance to the Persians. It was Pericles who devised the strategy for defeating the Persians, including the naval victory at ????. Athens as a result of the Persian Wars (490-479 BC) acquired an extensive empire. Its art, literature, and philosophy in many ways lay the foundation for Western civilization. Athens at the time of the Peloponesian War was in its golden age. There was also prevalent in Athens an uncritical, boastful patriotism--noy unlike "My country, right or wrong."


There were many similarities between Greek city staes. Sparta was, however, organized much different than the other impotant Greek city states. Sparta was the largest of the city states in area, controlling almost all of the Peloponnesian peninsula. While there were relatively few citizens, the Spartan state controlled a substantial population. It was militarily important because of its social structure. The Spartan military ruled over a small middle class and large population of workers or hellots--virtualy slaves tied to the land of the military elite and state. Today we view Spara as barracks state and Athen as a center of culture and learning. It should be stressed that this was not how many Greeks at the time saw Sparta. Many admired Sparta as a repostory of tradiutional values, especially the selfless devotion of individuals to the state as well as the plain life and sacrifices made by the Spartans.


Persia is not one of the early cradles of civilization and Persian civilization did not develop in river valley. Persian civilization developed east of the Fertile Crescent on the Iranian plateau of central Asia. The Iranian plateau was not settled until about 1500 BC by Aryan tribes, especially the Medes. The name Persian comes from the Parsua, another Aryan tribe. The first great war chief was Hakhamanish or Achaemenes who founded the Achaemenid dynasty about 700 BC. The Achaemenids built a great capital city at Persepolis. They conquered a vast empire from Egypt to India. Conquered were allowed to keep their own religion, customs, and laws and were governed by natove princes. The Persians encouraged cultural diversity. They saw the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, concepts that profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian theology. Darius the Great after crushing a Ionian Greek revolt in Anatolia was defeated by the Greeks in the epic battle of Marathon in 490 BC, one of the decisive battles of history. Cyrus the Great was one of the great Persian kings. Alexander defeated Darius III in battles 334-331 BC, destroying the Persian Empire. Alexander hoped to unite the Greeks and Persians into one great empire. His early death undid these ambitious plans. Following a civilm war among his generals, Seleucus, gained control over the Persian part of his empire. At the same time Potolomy gained control of Egypt. Unlike Alexander's plans, Seleucus ruled Persia as a conquered land through Greek troops and satraps. The Parthians overthrew the Greeks, who were unable to generate Persian support, about 250 B.C. The Parthians came from the deserts of central Asia. Unlike the Greeks, they were impressed with Persian civilization and ruled Persian through native kings. The Parthian empire lasted more than four centuries and during that period there was no important Persian revolt. The Parthians were one of the few people who successfully resisted the Roman Empire, desimating a Roman army led by Anthony. This played a major role in the defeat of Anthony and Cldeopatra by Octavian. Gradually Christianity spread to Persia and the power of the Parthians wained. Artaxerxes, a descendant of Sassan, in 226 A.D., declared Persia independent of Parthia and began a military campaign aginst neignoring countries and the Parthians. The revived Persian Empire like the Parthians were able to challenge Rome at the height of its power.


Pericles was born about 495 BC into an aristocratic family. Pericles saw Sparta as a danger and sought to increase the power of the Delian League. He initiated a series of domestic reforms. Primarily he sought to enfranchise the lower classes and give all athenian citizens a role in the Government. He destoyed the influence of the Areopagus Council whivh had dominted Athens. He reformed the judicial system. Members og juries were paid for the first time. He established a system of circuit judges for the Demnes. Salaries were also instituted for other gicernment officials, including the military. Pericles also persued an active foreign policy. The Persian Ears had won Athens an empire. Pericles promoted Athens imperial expansion. He tolerated little dissent within the Delian League. He demanded loyalty oaths from allies and took hostages from subject city states. To futhur consolidate its control of the Delian League, the trasury was moved from Delos to Athens (454 BC). The funds were primarily used for Athens. It financed the construction of the Acropolis and other purposes such as paying naval wages. The funds played role in the cultural development now known as the Golden Age.

The Persian Wars

The Greek ciy states led by Sparta and Athens had joined together to defeat the Persians. Pericles had played a major role in devising the strategy that had defeated the Persians. After Persia was defeated in 479 BC, the allies gradually persued their own interests. The Spartan units returned to Lacadeamonia and primarily focused on regional concerns. Athens felt more threatened by th Persians who had destroyed the city. Athens built a formidable defensive wall to protect the city i ever attacked agin. Athens formed the Delian League to ensure that Persia would not dare attack a united Greece.

Pax Attica

Athens was the leading power of Greece following the Persian Wars (490-479 BC). The artistic and literary flowering ws known throughout Greece, but the commercial success and huberis of the Athenians offended many other Greeks. The Pax Attica was not universally seen as a force for order and stabiliy. Many Greeks saw it as a force to perpetuate Athenian hegemony and imperial power. Thus there were many democratic city states, like Syracuse, in the Spartan coalition. Other Greek city states objected to Athens description of itself as "School of Hellas".


The most important source of information on the Peloponnesian War was written by Thucydides beginning in 431 BC. Thucydides was an Athenian who was exiled early in the War. He was able to travel throughout reece and talk to many of the participants. Gicen his background, he sees the War through an Athenian perspective. His banishment may have given him a degree of bias against Athens. His thesis is that the war was the outcome of Athenian greed, demagogy, and imperial overreach.

War Begins

Tensions developed between Sparta and Athens after the defeat of the Persians. There were a variety of political and economic issues. Many of the other Greek city states side with either Athens or Sparta. Sparta and its allies seek to break the power of Athens an its hegemony in the Grrek world. Their principal objectives becomes the destruction of the Atenian Empire. Athens attempted to avoid a direct land engagement ith Sparta and instead attempted to weaken Sparta's allies through naval raids. A substantial Spartan army challenged the Athenians in 431 BC. The red-cloaked Spartan hoplites with a "L" emblazoned on their shields (Lacedemon was the Spartan province) were a formidable force.

Pericles' War Strategy

Pericles believes that Sparta's vaunted army could defeat the Athenian army. He thus decided to avoid a direct engagement with the invading Spartan force. He ordered Athenian forces to withdraw from he rural areas of Attica. Assetts such as flocks of sheep were driven from the rural areas of Attica to Euboea. The Athenian army retreated to the city where they were protected by the city walls. The Spartans hurled insults at the Athenians and pillaged the countryside, destroying crops and olive groves. [Kagan] Some in Athens criticise Pericles and demand a more aggressive strategy. There is opposition to Pericles from those who lost their property. Others object to retreating from the Spartans and the appearance of cowardice. The Athenian Assembly support Pericles. A plague strikes Athens in 431 BC and Pericles dies. The opposition demanding a more aggresive strategy seize control.

Battle of Delium (424 BC)

Delium was a serious Athenian defeat. A weak Athenian army of older men invaded the Boeotian Confederacy in 424 BC. The Atenians fared badly, in part because a planned diversionary move was not launched. The Athenian shock at this lost hardenened into oppsition to peace moves that could have ended the war at an early stage. The victory of the Thebians and Boeotians helped in the development of more effective armies that were to make the future victories of Epaminondas possible. [Hanson]

Peace of Nicias (421 BC)

The Athenians gain an important victory at Sphacteriathe in 425 BC. The Spartans on Sphacteriathe Island have to surrender. Sparta offered Athens peace and an alliance in exchange for the prisonors. Athenes rejected the Spartan offer and threatened to kill the prisonors if Sparta attacked. The Spartns withdraw, but Athenian losses in various encounters and the cost of continuing warfare slowly affected Athenian resolve. Defeat at the Battle of Delium was the first major Athenian defeat (424 BC). Finally Athenian leaders were convinced to accept peace with Sparta. The resulting the Peace of Nicias provided for a 50 year peace.

Brutilization of Warfare

The ritualized warfare between hoplites became in the Peloponesian War a much more butal struggle. Rather than just a brief battle between hoplites, became life and death struggle in whicg civilians were slaughtered and property destroyed. Bodies were desecrated--a departur from Greek custom. [Kagan] Womwn and children in captured cities were old into slavery.

Sicily (415-413 BC)

The Peace of Nicias did not endure. War broke out again in 416 BC. The turning point of the War came in Sicily. An ally of Athens, Segesta of Sicily, requested military assistance in 415 BC. This meant war with Syracuse. Athens sends a substantial force commanded by Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus. This was a terribly risky decission to involve a substantial part of the Athenian army in such a distant campaign. [Kagan] It is hard to understand why they did it. Alcibiades is crticised and recalled. Fearing censure, he defected to Sparta. He advises the Spartans to attack Athens to prevent reinforcements. A Athenian naval force is defeated in Syracuse harbor, over 200 triremes are lost (413 BC). The Athenian forces on Sicily denied support gradually weaken. The Syracuse calvary decimate the retreating force. The surviving Athenian leaders are executed and surviving soldiers are enslaved in quaries wher most die. Casulties totaled 40,000 men-60,000 men--a dissaster for Athens. Losses of this magnitude sevrely weakened Athens and meant that victory was no longer possible. [Kagan]

Athens Defeated (404 BC)

Alcibiades advises the Spartand to maintain pressure on the Athenians. Athens attempted to strengthen its alliance and eliminated forced tributes from its subject city states. Alcibiades encounters problems in Sparta and flees to Persia. He eventually returns to Athens and joins the fight against Sparta. Sparta gains the support of Persia (412 BC). The Persians see an opportunity to weaken Athens. They provide ships and men to Sparta and assist them in building a fleet. This allows Sparta for the first time to challenge the Athenian fleet. Lysander is put in command and he attacks the Ahenians in the Hellespont--at Aegospotami. Lysander then attacks throughout the Aegean, driving Athenian collonists and allies into Athens. The city walls prevent a Spartan frontal attack. Lysander besieges Athens. The city resists, but people begin starving in the winter. Finally Athens surrenders (Spring 404 BC).

Peace Terms

Sparta's allies want Anthens punished. Sparta does not go that far, but demands a punative peace. Athens has to tear down its walls. The walls according to ?? were pulled down to the music of flute girls. The remaing fleet and empire is surrendered. Athens has to follow Sparta's foreign policy. Sparta saw Athenian democracy as dangerous and demanded that what they saw as a more relable oligarghic system be installed. What became known as the 30 tyrants ruled Athens and conducted a blood bath of anti-Spatan Athenians. While severe, the Spartan demands were not as draconian as the Athenians had expected. In the brutal War, the Athentians had killed men and sold women and children into slavery. Many had thought that this was the fate that had awaited them. Many Spartans and their allies had wanted this. In the end, the Spatans decided against this, fearful of a power vacuum. The partans were already having difficulty with allies like Thebes. It was decided that completely destroying Athens would help Thebes become more powerful.


Most historians accept Thucydides assesment of an overreaching, prideful Athens. This no doubt a factor of some importance. A recent historical assessment maintains that the Athenians underestimated Spartan resolve and ingenuity. Also Athenian patriotism and pride was unable to follow Pericles' strategy and forgo offensive strategies. [Kagan]

Impact of the War

Athens was completely defeated. The War devestated the Greek economy. While Sparta won the War, the economic costs were staggering. The only real winner was Persia which sought to weaken the Greeks. Sparta dominated Greece for a brief time. Other Greeks, however, were not willing to accept Spartan hegemony any more than Athenian hegemony, Thebes under Epaminondas confronted the Spatans at Leuctra (371 BC). Epaminondas was killed at the Battle of Mantinae (362 BC). Once defeated by the Thebians, Sparta's influenced rapidly declined within Greece. [Kagan] The Thgebians in particular helped free the Mecinians from helotage. Without the wealth and agricultural production of Mecinia, Sparta could not be an important power in Greece. Conflicts between city states continue until Greece increasingly comes under the control of Philip of Macedonia.


Hanson, Victor Davis. Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Live and How We Think (doubleday: 2003), 278p.

Kagan, Donald. The Peloponesian War (Viking, 2003), 511p.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponesian War

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Created: July 14, 2003
Last updated: 11:54 AM 5/27/2015