Ancient Greece in 431 BC was not a nation. It was a large
collection of rival city-states located on the Greek mainland, on
the west coast of Asia Minor, and on the many islands of the Aegean
Most of the city-states had become allied with one or the other of
the leading military powers, Athens and Sparta. Athens was a great naval power,
while Sparta relied mainly on its army for superiority. In 431 BC
these alliances went to war against each other in a conflict called
the Peloponnesian War. The war, which went on for 27 years, is
named for the Peloponnesus, the peninsula on which Sparta is
The result of the war was the crushing defeat of Athens and the end
of its maritime empire. A more long-range result was the weakening
of all the city-states. This made them vulnerable to a takeover by
Macedonia several decades later. A brilliant account of the war was
written by the historian Thucydides as events unfolded. His work
still stands as a definitive source of information on the war.
The Athenian Empire and the Spartan Alliance coexisted as long as a
balance of power was maintained between them. A truce called the
Thirty Years' Treaty had been signed by both powers in 445 BC.
Within a decade the truce was breaking down as Athens sought to
extend its empire. In 433 Athens allied itself with Corcyra, a
colony of Corinth, but Corinth was an ally of Sparta. Incited by
Corinth, Sparta accused Athens of aggression and threatened war.
Athens, under the leadership of Pericles, refused to back down. War
began in the spring of 431, when Thebes, a Spartan ally, attacked
Plataea, an ally of Athens.
The war fell into three phases. First came ten years of
intermittent fighting, concluded by an uneasy truce in 421. This
truce phase, named after the Athenian general Nicias, lasted until
415. The final phase began when Athens launched a massive and
ill-fated assault against Sicily. This campaign was so catastrophic
for Athens that the city barely recovered militarily. In 411 the
democracy at Athens was also temporarily overturned, and the city
remained in political turmoil for years. When the democracy was
restored, its leaders could not agree on truce terms, and many
wanted to continue the war at all costs. Fighting went on for the
next six years. Athens rebuilt its fleet, while Sparta and its
allies created their own navy. The end for Athens came in 405, when
the Spartan navy under Lysander decisively defeated the Athenians
in the battle of Aegospotami.
As the war began, Sparta and Athens each took advantage of their
military strengths. Sparta, with its much larger army, ravaged
Attica the territory around Athens while the Athenian navy raided
cities on the Peloponnesus. This strategy lasted for two years.
Meanwhile Pericles' death in 429 left the democracy prey to hostile
factions and reckless leaders who pursued their own advantage. Most
of the leaders were warmongers who insisted on vigorous prosecution
of the conflict. Chief among these demagogues was Alcibiades, who
was as irresponsible as he was brilliant. By 425 Sparta's hopes for
victory were bleak, and its leaders were ready to ask for peace.
Slowly, however, the fortunes of war changed. Sparta, under its
general Brasidas, scored significant victories at Chalcidice (424)
and Amphipolis (422). Both were serious losses for Athens. The
Athenian leader Nicias persuaded the city to accept Sparta's offer
to cease hostilities in 421.
The six-year truce was used by both sides to win more allies. The
peace was doomed because the fighting thus far had settled nothing.
On both sides there were men eager to renew the conflict.
Alcibiades took the lead in promoting the Sicilian expedition in
415. When he was recalled to Athens to stand trial for religious
offenses, he defected to Sparta. Athens was badly defeated at
Sicily but survived for a few more years because Sparta did not
press its advantage after the Sicilian losses.
By 412 Sparta, with the help of allies, had built its own navy.
This was done with aid from Persia, a traditional enemy of the
Greek city-states. Sparta's alliance with Persia, however, made the
other city-states uneasy, and they became less eager to revolt
against Athens. Athens was in trouble politically by this time. An
oligarchy (government by a few) overthrew the democracy in 411, and
the oligarchs were soon replaced by a more moderate regime. Full
democracy was restored in the summer of 410 after a major Athenian
naval victory over the Spartans. Alcibiades was recalled by Athens
and given supreme command. But in 406 his fleet was lost in the
battle of Notium, won by Sparta's Lysander, who was the ablest
Spartan commander in the war. Battles continued, mainly at sea,
with each side trading losses.
In 405 Lysander took his navy northward to the Hellespont (now
called the Dardanelles) to cut off Athens from its vital grain
supply lines to the Euxine (now called the Black) Sea. Lysander
made a surprise attack on the Athenian ships at Aegospotami while
the crews were dispersed on land. All but nine of the Athenian
ships were lost, and several thousand Athenians and their allies
were slain. Peace was signed in the spring of 404. Sparta won the
war and imposed humiliating terms on Athens. The city walls were to
be torn down; the fortifications of its port, the Piraeus, were to
be destroyed; and all but 12 warships were to be surrendered.
Athens was henceforth to be a Spartan ally and to follow the same