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Historical Commentary on the Peloponnesian War

By Kurt Kuhlmann


What is now known as the Peloponnesian War was actually the second war between the Athenian and Spartan coalitions. The conflict between Athens and Sparta had its roots in the Persian Wars earlier in the fifth century B.C. After the Persian expedition led by Xerxes against Greece had been repulsed in 479, the Athenians assumed the leadership of the war against Persia in the Greek coastlands of Asia Minor. The Delian League, formed in 478 as an alliance against Persia, assumed the form of an empire as the Athenians began using force to prevent any of their "allies" from withdrawing from the League.

The First Peloponnesian War began in 460 when Megara withdrew from the Spartan alliance and allied itself with Athens. The Athenians built long walls for the Megarans to their port at Nisaea, thereby earning the everlasting enmity of Megara's old rival Corinth. At the height of their success in this war, the Athenians, allied with Megara and Argos, controlled all of Central Greece except for Thebes. Fortune turned against them in 454 when the destruction of a large Athenian force aiding an Egyptian revolt against Persia led to unrest and rebellions throughout the Athenian Empire. In 451 Athens and Sparta signed a "Thirty-Years Peace" in which Athens agreed to abandon its alliance with Argos, while Sparta promised to give up its alliance with Thebes. Athens was finally able to turn its full attention to the Persians, and in 449 Persia recognized the independence of the Greek cities and agreed to peace.

Athens did not remain undisturbed in triumph for long, however. Three years later, a revolt broke out in Boeotia which was to spell the end of Athens's "continental empire" on the Greek mainland. After a force sent against the Boeotians was defeated, the Athenians evacuated Boeotia, Phocis, and Locris. Then Euboea revolted as well, and after an expedition was dispatched to deal with the rebels, Megara went over to the Spartan alliance and allowed a Peloponnesian army to invade Attica -- the "Thirty Years Peace" had lasted for only three. The Athenians agreed to renounce their claims on Central Greece and to give up their alliance with Megara, and the Spartans withdrew, allowing the Athenians to put down the Euboean revolt. Later in 446 Athens signed another "Thirty-Years Peace" with Sparta in which each agreed to respect the alliances of the other.

The Athenians continued to consolidate their empire, crushing a revolt by Samos in 440 and forcing it to tear down its walls, give up its fleet, and pay an indemnity. Some of Sparta's allies began to urge the Spartans to aid cities which attempted to revolt from Athens, but the cautious Spartans time and again refused to make an open break with Athens.

Between 433 and 431, a series of events occured that finally drove the Spartans to war. The first of these began as a dispute between Corinth and its colony of Corcyra. When the Corinthians began assembling a fleet to crush Corcyra, the Corcyrans appealed to Athens for assistance. By this point, war between Athens and the Peloponnesian League (a modern name for the Spartan-led alliance) was regarded as inevitable by both sides; since the Athenians were unwilling to let the large Corcyran fleet fall into the hands of future enemies, they chose instead to augment their naval strength by signing a defensive alliance with Corcyra. A small Athenian naval force helped the Corcyrans repulse the Corinthian fleet at the Battle of the Sybota Islands in September 433.

The Corinthians, no friends of Athens in the best of times, now began to look for ways to bring the Spartans into war against the Athenian empire. The Athenians handed them a golden opportunity the following year. The city of Potidaea in the Chalcidice, a member of the Athenian empire, also maintained close ties with Corinth, its mother city. The Athenians, anticipating that the Corinthians might induce the Potidaeans to lead a general revolt of the cities in the region, demanded that Potidaea expel its Corinthian magistrates and tear down its walls. Instead of averting the revolt, this Athenian ultimatum triggered it. Before the Athenians could react, a force of 2,000 "volunteers" commanded by the Corinthian general Aristeus had reached the city. The Athenians immediately gathered their own forces in response, and after a sharp battle outside Potidaea, Aristeus' army was driven back into the city. With the arrival of Phormio with 1,600 more hoplites, the Athenians settled in for a siege.

The Spartans decided that Athens had finally gone too far. In the spring of 431, the Spartan alliance formally voted for war against Athens. All of Greece began to prepare for war. While the armies mustered, several months were spent in futile last-minute negotiations between the two sides. Open hostilities were precipitated when a Theban attempt to sieze the Athenian-allied city of Plataea by treachery was bloodily repulsed. The Peloponnesian War had begun.


The Peloponnesian War is traditionally divided into three phases: the Archidamian War (431-421), the Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (420-413), and the Ionian War (412-404). The first ten years of the war are named after the Spartan king Archidamus, who had opposed war with Athens and whose cautious policy dominated Spartan strategy at the start of the war.

Both Athens and Sparta began the war with strategies that each felt sure would bring them victory. And, like in most wars, both sides expected a relatively short war. The Spartan strategy was traditional: gather an overwhelmingly powerful hoplite army at the Isthsmus of Corinth and invade Attica during the summer. The elite Spartan hoplites would guarantee victory in battle, and if the Athenians chose to stay behind their walls, the Peloponnesian army would ravage and plunder Attica. Eventually Athens would either sue for peace or be forced to fight to defend its land.

The Spartans had good reason for confidence in this strategy: it had worked against all enemies for centuries. But fifth century Athens was unlike any city Greece had ever seen, and as a result the Peloponnesian War was far longer and bloodier than either side had expected. By the combination of its empire and its supremacy at sea, Athens could not be forced to surrender or fight by an invasion of its territory. Athens' fleets allowed it to import grain to feed itself if Attica were ravaged or occupied; tribute from Athens' empire allowed it to pay for these imports and to maintain its fleet. The Long Walls to Piraeus guaranteed Athens access to the sea, so as long as the grain supply from the Black Sea was not cut off, Athens was relatively invulnera ble.

Pericles, the unchallenged leader of the Athenian democracy at the start of the war, based his strategy upon this unique position. His plan was to gather the population inside Athens and abandon Attica to the enemy. While the Peloponnesian army was camped uselessly before the walls of Athens, the Athenian fleet could raid the coastline of the Peloponnese at will. Because of its vast treasury and yearly tribute, Athens could carry on the war year-round. The Peloponnesians, by contrast, had to return home for the harvest, and were also much more vulnerable to the effects of having their lands ravaged. Pericles was confident that after a few years of this, the Spartans would realize the futility of war with Athens and would consent to leave Athens in pe ace with its empire.

In the first year of the war, 431, both sides proceeded as planned. Archidamus led a large army into Attica where it plundered at will. The Athenian army showed no signs of offering the hoplite battle the Spartans hoped would decisively end the war. After several weeks, the Peloponnesian retired and dispersed. Meanwhile, the Athenians equipped a fleet of 100 ships and sent it raiding around the Peloponnese. Once the Spartan army was gone, Pericles led the Athenian army out to ravage the Megarid in re tribution for the invasion of Attica.

The year ended without either side having gained any significant advantage. Both strategies relied on winning the war by "attrition" of the enemy's will rather than by direct "annihilation" of his military forces, a process that is both difficult to predict and to measure. Would ravaging Attica (or the Peloponnese) cause the Athenians (or the Spartans) to tire of war, or would it embitter them and make an end to the war without complete victory more difficult? The length of the war and the depths of sa vagery to which it sunk suggest that the latter effect far overshadowed any war-weariness produced by these strategies.

The next summer, the Peloponnesians again invaded, and Pericles again restrained the Athenians from marching out to battle. A few days after the Peloponnesians arrived, however, unforseen disaster struck Athens: a virulent plague broke out in the city crowded with refugees from the countryside, killing one-third of the population. Meanwhile, a large force sent to reinforce the siege of Potidaea succeeded only in carrying the plague to the troops already there, and returned after a loss of 1,000 out of 4,000 men. Nevertheless, Potidaea finally surrendered in the winter of 430/429, after a siege of over two years. The Athenians still had several other rebellious Chalcidean cities to deal with, however. The next summer, the Athenian army of 2,000 hoplites and 200 cavalry marched against Spartolus only to be badly mauled by a Chalcidean army of cavalry and light infantry.

By 429, the Spartans had begun to realize that simply invading Attica every year was not going to end the war, at least not soon. So far so good for PericlesÕ strategy. But the Spartans were no more ready to give up than the Athenians. Instead, they began a long trial-and-error process to find a new way to destroy Athenian power. In 429, it was mostly error.

That summer, the Peloponnesian army gathered at the Ithsmus of Corinth as usual, but rather than invading Attica it headed north and attacked Plataea. Despite the fact that the Plataeans could muster less than 500 soldiers to man their defences, the city resisted the best efforts of the Peloponnesians to take it. This was, in fact, typical of Greek warfare at the time. Only very rarely was a fortified city taken by storm. The usual method was simply to surround the city and wait for it to surrender, either by starvation or by treason (which was commonplace). After a summer of frustration, the Peloponnesians dismissed most of their army and the rest settled in for a siege.

Meanwhile, several ambitious Spartan expeditions in western Greece had come to grief at the hands of Athenian naval power. The past winter, a small Athenian fleet of 20 triremes under Phormio had arrived in Naupactus to blockade the Gulf of Corinth. Early in 429, the Spartan general Cnemus managed to slip across into Acarnania with 1,000 hoplites to help an Ambraciot army attack the city of Stratus. The Corinthians sent out a fleet of 47 triremes to reinforce him, which was intercepted by Phormio's 20 ships. The Peloponnesians showed little confidence in their naval ability. Despite their numerical superiority, the Corinthians adopted a purely defensive formation, forming their ships into a circle with the prows facing outward. The Athenians formed a line and began sailing around them, threatening to ram at every pass. A wind soon came up, as Phormio knew it did every morning, and the Corinthian ships began to lose formation and drift into each other. When the confusion was at its height, Phormio gave the signal to attack, and the Corinthian fleet was routed with great loss. The Spartan reaction to this debacle is worth quoting in Thucydides' own words:

The Spartans now sent out to Cnemus and his fleet an advisory commission . . .. Their orders were to make ready for another battle at sea and to do better in it and not to be driven off the sea by a few ships. For the Spartans, especially since this was their first taste of naval engagements, found it very difficult to understand what had happened, and so far from thinking that there was anything wrong with their own navy, concluded that the defeat was the result of cowardice, not taking into consideration the contrast between the long experience of the Athenians and the short training which their own crews had received.1

Phormio meanwhile sent word to Athens for reinforcements, and twenty more ships were dispatched. Before they arrived, however, the second battle took place. The Peloponnesian fleet, reinforced to 77 ships and under the joint command of Brasidas and Cnemus, faced off against the Athenians at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth for a week. The Athenians wanted the Peloponnesians to sail out into the wider channel where their seamanship could come into play; Brasidas and Cnemus, for the same reasons, wanted the Athenians to come into the narrower waters. Finally, the Peloponnesians forced the battle on their own terms by sailing towards Naupactus. Phormio was forced to defend his base. Nine of his ships were trapped and driven ashore. The remaining 11 Athenian triremes were pursued to Naupactus by the now-disordered Peloponnesian fleet, already singing the victory chant. Suddenly, the trailing Athenian ship turned about and rammed its closest pursuer. At this, the leading Peloponnesian ships stopped to let the rest of the fleet catch up with them, and the remaining Athenian ships pounced, capturing 6 enemy ships and scattering the rest in confusion. The Athenians also recovered their own ships which had been taken in the first part of the battle. Fearing the arrival of Athenian reinforcements, the Peloponnesian fleet retired to Corinth.

The Peloponnesians were not quite finished. Upon learning that the Megarans had 40 triremes laid up in Nisaea, the Peloponnesian commanders decided on an audacious plan. The Athenians, overly confident in their own naval superiority, had left the harbor of Piraeus open and unguarded. Taking their crews across the Isthmus of Corinth, the Peloponnesians manned this new fleet and left Nisaea by night with nothing to stop them from sailing into Piraeus and possibly ending the war at one stroke. But then their nerve failed, and instead they contented themselves with plundering the small island of Salamis off the Attic coast. The news that a Peloponnesian fleet was at Salamis touched off a panic in Athens, but when they manned their ships and sailed out the next morning, the Peloponnesians retired without a fight. Such an opportunity would not come again for the Spartans.

In September 429, Pericles died, possibly from the lingering plague. The impact that his loss had on the future course of the war is unclear. Certainly, his ability to lead the Athenian democracy would be sorely missed. It seems unlikely that Pericles would have allowed the Sicilian Expedition to be undertaken if he had lived that long. On the other hand, Pericles' original strategy was almost completely defensive. It is at least debatable whether the Spartans could have been induced to make peace without the Athenians demonstrating an ability to seriously hurt them. Thus, if Pericles had lived, he may have actually hindered Athenian attempts to find some way out of the stalemated war. But this was all still in the future.

Later that year, Sitalces, the king of Thrace (to the north and west of the Athenian province of Thrace), overran most of Macedon and the Chalcidice with a huge army. Nominally allied with Athens, the sudden arrival of such a massive barbarian horde frightened even the Athenians, who failed to send the promised supplies and naval support. Sitalces' large but unwarlike army could do little more than drive the Chalcideans and Macedonians inside their fortifications, and soon withdrew after it ran out of food.

The summer of 428 again saw a Peloponnesian invasion of Attica, but far more dangerous for the Athenians was the news that the city of Mytilene on Lesbos was preparing to revolt. A fleet of 40 triremes was quickly dispatched to try to nip the revolt in the bud, but the Mytileneans were forewarned and had prepared their defences by the time the Athenians arrived. The Athenian force was insufficient to storm the city, and soon the whole island except for Methymna joined Mytilene in revolt. The Athenians were able to establish a naval blockade of Mytilene itself, but most of Lesbos remained in enemy hands. At the same time, a second fleet was sent out from Athens raiding around the Peloponnese to Naupactus, where it carried out an ineffectual attack on Leucas.

While this was going on, Mytilenean ambassadors were trying to persuade the Spartans to assist them in their rebellion. They argued that with one fleet blockading Lesbos and the other sailing around the Peloponnese, the Athenians would not be able to resist a second invasion of Attica with combined land and naval forces. The Spartans agreed, and summoned their allies to muster again at the Isthmus. Before their reluctant allies could reassemble, however, the Athenians manned a third fleet of 100 triremes and sent it cruising down the coast of the Isthmus to demonstrate that they were far from the limit of their strength. The Spartans abandoned the idea of a second invasion, but continued to gather a fleet to send to Lesbos the next year. On Lesbos, the arrival of 1,000 hoplites under Paches in the fall allowed the Athenians to besiege Mytilene by land and sea, but the Mytileneans were encouraged to hold out by the expectation of Spartan support.

A Spartan fleet of 40 ships commanded by Alcidas was sent out to Lesbos the next summer, at the same time that the Peloponnesian army invaded Attica, in the hope of keeping the Athenians busy on two fronts simultaneously. Alcidas apparently was not looking forward to meeting the Athenians at sea, and wasted time in a leisurely journey around the Peloponnese. The Spartan fleet managed to evade the fleet at Athens, but when it arrived in the Aegean islands, Alcidas learned that Mytilene had surrendered a week earlier, despairing of any aid ever reaching it. At a war council, Alcidas was advised to sail for Mytilene anyway, in the hopes of catching the Athenians off guard; or, perhaps, he could sieze a city on the Ionian coast as a base to spread revolt. Instead of opportunity, Alcidas saw only danger. He turned the fleet around and headed for home at top speed.

This same summer, Plataea also finally surrendered to the Peloponnesians, despairing themselves of any Athenian relief force ever coming to their rescue. The Spartans held a sham trial, in which the Plataeans were forced to answer "yes" or "no" to the question, "Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in the present war?"2 All the Plataeans answered "no," of course, and were all executed. The Thebans later razed the city to the ground. Mytilene narrowly avoided the same fate. The vengeful Athenian assembly voted to kill and sell into slavery the entire population, but repented the next day. A trireme dispatched with news of the reprieve arrived in Mytilene just as Paches was about to begin carrying out the executions.

The war continued to descend into new depths of savagery as 427 drew to a close. A civil war broke out in Corcyra between pro-Athenian "democrats" and pro-Spartan "oligarchs." The oligarchic faction instigated the violence when they broke into a meeting of the governing Council and slaughtered 60 members. The Athenian fleet at Naupactus, now commanded by Nicostratus, soon arrived and arranged a truce favorable to the democratic faction, but before it could depart, Alcidas and the Peloponnesian fleet sailed up in support of the oligarchs. A confused and indecisive battle ensued, in which part of the Corcyran fleet deserted to the Peloponnesian side in the midst of the fighting. The Peloponnesians generally had the best of the battle, but declined to attack the city. Upon learning that an Athenian fleet of 60 ships was bearing down on Corcyra, Alcidas again made a speedy getaway. The arrival of this Athenian fleet under Eurymedon sealed the fate of the Corcyran oligarchs. For seven days, while Eurymedon's fleet sat in the harbor, the Corcyran democrats engaged in the wholesale massacre of their enemies. Even so, 500 managed to escape, and after Eurymedon sailed away they established themselves in the mountains and carried on a guerilla war against the city.

The next summer, 426, the Peloponnesians cancelled their annual invasion of Attica after earthquakes struck. The Athenians sent out two fleets, one under Demosthenes to cruise around the Peloponnese, the second under Nicias to attack Melos. Nicias' force of 60 ships and 2,000 hoplites failed to bring the Melians to terms, so he sailed north to raid the Boeotian coast. Demosthenes, meanwhile, reached Naupactus and embarked on an ill-fated invasion of Aetolia. He hoped that after conquering the Aetolian tribesmen, he could raise an army to invade Boeotia from the "back door," without using any Athenian manpower. Unfortunately for this grand plan, his initial invasion ended in disaster. His small army made it to Aegitium, whose inhabitants fled into the hills. Soon, however, the Athenians found themselves surrounded by an army of lightly-armed tribesmen, and got a harsh lesson in the vulnerability of a hoplite phalanx unsupported by light troops of its own.

[The Aetolians] came running down the hills on all sides, hurling their javelins, falling back whenever the Athenian army advanced, and coming on again as soon as it retired. So for some time the fighting went on in this way, with alternate advances and retreats, in both of which the Athenians had the worst of it.3
A company of archers with the Athenians kept the Aetolians at bay for a time, but when their captain was killed, the archers scattered, and the Athenian army dissolved in panic. Many were killed immediately; others became lost in the forests and hills and were hunted down by the Aetolians. Demosthenes managed to escape with a small remnant of his army to Naupactus. The soldiers reembarked for Athens, but Demosthenes remained behind, fearing the wrath of the Athenians. He soon had an opportunity to redeem himself.

The Spartans, taking advantage of the hostility that Demosthenes' invasion had caused, agreed to send an army to join the Aetolians in attacking Naupactus. Early in the fall, 3,000 Peloponnesian hoplites commanded by Eurylochus assembled at Delphi and marched west along the coast--thus avoiding the sea-passage that had proven so troublesome. They met up with their Aetolian allies in front of Naupactus, but found the city well-defended by 1,000 Acarnanian hoplites that Demosthenes had brought in in the nick of time.

The arrival of Eurylochus's large army soon generated a new opportunity. Envoys from Ambracia met with Eurylochus and urged him to assist them in attacking Acarnania. The Spartan commander accepted the plan. The two armies joined up near Argos at a place called Olpae, and faced off against an Acarnanian army led by Demosthenes. After a hard-fought battle, the Acarnanians drove the enemy back into their camp, killing Eurylochus in the process. That night, Menedaius, the new Spartan commander, made a secret deal with Demosthenes to allow the Peloponnesians to escape. Demosthenes' goal of discrediting the Spartan cause was achieved with a vengeance when the confused Ambraciots attempted to follow the Peloponnesians through the enemy lines and were cut down with great slaughter. The following day Demosthenes sealed his victory by destroying a second Ambraciot army which had been sent as reinforcments for the first. According to Thucydides, the two Ambraciot defeats were the worst disaster suffered by a single city in the entire war. Demosthenes returned to Athens in triumph.

The following year, Athenian fortunes in the war rose to their zenith. The campaigning season began normally enough with the usual Peloponnesian invasion of Attica, and the Athenians sent out their usual fleet to sail around the Peloponnese. The fleet was commanded by Eurymedon and Sophocles, but also carried Demosthenes in an unofficial capacity. A Peloponnesian fleet had been sent to attack Corcyra, and the Athenian fleet was hurrying to its rescue. Off the coast of Laconia, however, news arrived that the Peloponnesians had already arrived at Corcyra. Demosthenes persuaded his comrades to put in at a desolate cape known as Pylos, where he planned to build a fort as a base to raid Laconia and stir up the helots (the Spartan slave class). The Spartan reaction was dramatic. When King Agis, in command of the army invading Attica, heard of the Athenian incursion, he immediately withdrew and brought his troops back to Sparta. The fleet was ordered to return from Corcyra, and managed to avoid the Athenian fleet which had meanwhile sailed to Zacynthus after leaving Demosthenes a small garrison for his fort.

The Spartans made careful preparations to deal with both the fort and the expected return of the Athenian fleet. Pylos was located near a bay protected by a long, thin island, making a harbor with two entrances. The Spartans put hoplites on the island (Sphacteria) to prevent the Athenians from landing there, and planned use their fleet to block the Athenians from entering the harbor. For two days, the Athenians in Pylos fought off a furious Spartan assault from both land and sea. Then, the Athenian fleet was sighted. The Spartan fleet formed its defensive line across the harbor mouths at either end of Sphacteria. The Athenians, seeing that the Spartans were not coming out to fight, sailed into the harbor and quickly drove the Spartan fleet ashore. Suddenly, the fatal flaw of the Spartan plan became apparent: the hoplites on Sphacteria were trapped.

The Spartans immediately called for a truce to begin negotiations to end the war. Modern readers may be surprised that the possible loss of 420 soldiers could lead to such a drastic remedy. The reasons are found in the nature of Greek armies and of Spartan society. Greek hoplites were generally drawn from the highest social classes, the land-owning "citizens" of the city-state. As a result, Greek states were very sensitive to casualties. This was especially true of Sparta, whose relatively tiny "Spartiate" class which made up the army was supported by a large population of helots similar in status to serfs or slaves. This arrangement made the Spartan army the best in Greece, since it was freed from all but military duties, but it also meant that the Spartans lived in constant danger of helot rebellion. The Spartans therefore were extremely cautious about sending a large part of their army out of the Peloponnese. Heavy losses among the Spartiate class also posed a long-term threat to the survival of Spartan society. The loss of 420 citizens out of 5,000 would be a heavy blow for the Spartans, and they hoped to avoid it if at all possible.

A truce was arranged, although its terms were distinctly favorable to the Athenians: the Spartans were required to turn over to the Athenians at Pylos all their ships anywhere in Laconia. Incredibly, the Spartans agreed to this provision. The peace negotiations went nowhere, however. Cleon, an Athenian politician who had stepped into the vacuum left by Pericles' death, demanded that the Spartans hand over Nisaea, Pegae, Troezen, and the whole of Achaea (all of which Athens had been forced to give up back in 446). That price for 420 men was too high even for the Spartans. When the ambassadors returned and reported their failure, the Spartans asked for their ships back according to the terms of the truce. Predictably, the Athenians refused, and that was effectively the end of the Peloponnesian fleet for many years.

The Athenians had driven such a hard bargain for peace because they believed that the men on Sphacteria were beyond rescue. But while they were definitely trapped, they showed no signs of giving up, and the Athenians were not eager to attack them. The Spartans managed to get enough food across to the island, using swimmers and small boats, to keep their men fed. The Athenians, meanwhile, were beginning to find their position untenable, packed into a tiny outcropping with winter approaching. Finally, Cleon was sent from Athens with reinforcements of light troops and orders to storm the island immediately. Demosthenes led the attack, and showed what he had learned from his disastrous foray into Aetolia the previous year. He landed his army at first light, taking the Spartan sentries by surprise. When the main body of Spartans advanced against his hoplites, they found themselves flanked by Demosthenes' javelin-throwers, slingers, and archers:

[The Spartans] were unable . . . to engage with the hoplites or to reap the advantages of their own specialized training. They themselves were held up by the weapons shot at them from both flanks by the light troops, and the Athenian hoplites, instead of moving forward to meet the attack, remained in their positions. Though they drove back the light troops at any point where they ran in and approached too closely, they still fought back even in retreat, since they had no heavy equipment and could easily out-distance their pursuers over ground where . . . the going was rough and difficult and where the Spartans in their heavy armor could not press the pursuit.4
The Spartans eventually despaired of this one-sided combat, and retreated back to a fortified hill at the other end of the island. This position proved to be impregnable until a group of Athenians managed to scale the cliff behind the Spartan position, exposing them to attack from both sides. At this point, Demosthenes halted his troops and asked for the Spartan surrender. They accepted.

The Spartan surrender sent shock waves throughout Greece. A large part of the Spartan reputation for invincibility in battle had been based on the belief that Spartans would rather die fighting to the last man than surrender (with the stand of Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae as the most famous example). Added to that, the Athenians proclaimed that they would execute the prisoners if a Peloponnesian army invaded Attica again.

With Attica safe from invasion and a strong garrison in Pylos fomenting rebellion in Laconia, 424 was not a banner year for Peloponnesian arms. The Spartans dispersed their hoplites to every coastal hamlet to try to stop Athenian raids, but the soldiers showed no inclination to come out from behind their walls and fight the Athenians. That summer the Athenians landed 2,000 troops on Cythera and captured it, giving them an impregnable base to carry out further raids on the Peloponnese. In the face of these threats, the Spartans formed a cavalry force for the first time, to give them the mobility to deal with the sea-borne Athenian raids.

Another Peloponnesian disaster was narrowly averted at Megara that same summer. A Megaran faction made secret arrangements to surrender the city to the Athenians. The long walls and the port of Nisaea were captured as planned by a strong force under Hippocrates and Demosthenes, but the conspirators in Megara itself were discovered before they could open the gates to the Athenians. Brasidas happened to be nearby in Corinth, and he quickly marched to the rescue.

Brasidas was actually in Corinth assembling an army for a daring expedition to Thrace. The Spartans hoped to give the Athenians a taste of their own medicine by stirring up rebellions in its subject cities in Thrace and the Chalcidice. But they risked little on this seemingly desperate venture--Brasidas' army was made up of 1,000 mercenaries plus 700 helots given their freedom in exchange for serving as hoplites (a good way to get troublemakers out of Laconia, incidentally). Envoys from cities in the Chalcidice had promised aid, and Perdiccas, the king of Macedon, had hinted that he might also support a Peloponnesian army if it made it that far, although he was ostensibly allied with Athens. The hard part was getting across the plains of Thessaly, home to skilled cavalrymen friendly to Athens. By a combination of bluff, diplomacy, and hard marching, Brasidas succeeded in reaching Dium without incident. From there, he marched to Acanthus, which opened its gates to him. Once again, the Athenians faced the danger of revolt in Chalcidice, this time supported by a strong enemy army.

While Brasidas was making his way north, the Athenians were putting a risky plan of their own into action, a two-pronged attack on Boeotia. Demosthenes, with a force out of Naupactus, had secret arrangements for Siphae to be betrayed to him. On the same day, Hippocrates was to march into Boeotia from Athens and build a fort at Delium (near Tanagra). The Athenian leaders hoped that the combination of attacks would prevent the Boeotians from mustering in full strength against either of them. The plan immediately went awry. The plot in Siphae was betrayed beforehand, preventing its capture by Demosthenes and allowing the full Boeotian army to muster against Hippocrates when he marched to Delium, unaware of his danger. Even so, the fortification was finished and the Athenian army was returning home before the Boeotians attacked. The battle of Delium was the largest so far in the war, involving about 7,000 hoplites on each side. Hippocrates was killed and the Athenians were driven back into Attica.

Brasidas' venture had far better success. From Acanthus, he moved to Argilus, which immediately revolted against Athens. His next target was Amphipolis. Arriving under the cover of a stormy night, he took the city by surprise and persuaded the inhabitants to surrender before help could arrive from Thasos. (Thucydides was the commander of the Athenian fleet at Thasos, and was exiled because of his failure to save Amphipolis--thus giving him the opportunity to write his history.) The fall of Amphipolis was a severe blow to the Athenians. The road to Thrace and the Hellespont was now open to further Spartan invasions. The Athenians spent the rest of the war trying to recover Amphipolis, in vain.

Athenian control of Chalcidice now threatened to unravel completely. In short order Cleonae, Torone and a number of smaller cities either revolted or were captured by Brasidas. That spring, 423, the two sides agreed to a one-year armistice. The Athenians wanted time to secure their remaining cities in the Chalcidice. The Spartans hoped that Brasidas' success had been enough to convince Athens to make permanent peace--and return the prisoners taken at Sphacteria. The truce immediately ran into difficulty. When Spartan and Athenian commissioners arrived in the Chalcidice with news of the truce, they discovered that the city of Scione had recently gone over to the Spartans. The Athenians claimed that it had revolted after the truce was declared, and therefore must be returned to Athens, but Brasidas refused. The furious Athenians immediately passed a decree that all the inhabitants of Scione were to be killed when it was recaptured, and sent out Nicias and Nicostratus with 50 ships and 2,000 hoplites to do just that. While they were on the way, Mende also went over to Brasidas, now blatantly in violation of the armistice.

Mende fell to the Athenians when a friendly faction opened the gates and drove out the Peloponnesian garrison. The Athenians next besieged Scione. Brasidas could only stand by helplessly at Torone. The Athenian fleet prevented Brasidas from crossing to Scione by sea, and Potidaea blocked land access to the beleaguered city.

The next summer the truce expired. The Athenians wasted no time in dispatching Cleon with over 2,000 hoplites to restore their position in Thrace and the Chalcidice. When he arrived at Scione, still under siege, Cleon learned that Brasidas had temporarily left Torone weakly garrisoned. He moved against it immediately, and took it by assault before Brasidas could return. His next target was Amphipolis. In a confused battle before its walls, Cleon was killed and the Athenian army routed. Brasidas himself was mortally wounded in the battle, and died moments after learning of his victory.

Both sides were now ready for peace:

The Athenians had suffered a serious blow at Delium and another one soon afterwards at Amphipolis; they no longer possessed the same confidence in their strength which had induced them to reject previous offers of peace . . .. They were also apprehensive about the allies, fearing that they might be encouraged by these defeats to revolt on a more serious scale . . .. The Spartans on their side had found that the war had gone very differently from what they had imagined when they believed that they could destroy the power of Athens in a few years simply by laying waste her land. The disaster suffered on the island had been something which had never been known before in Sparta; her territory was being raided from Pylos and Cythera; the helots were deserting . . ..5
After a series of negotiations, led by Nicias on the Athenian side (who gave his name to the "peace" that followed), Sparta and Athens signed a fifty-year peace treaty in the spring of 421.


The so-called "Peace of Nicias" was never much of a peace, but more like a lull in the ongoing war. As Thucydides explained,
It is true that for six years and ten months [Athens and Sparta] refrained from invading each other's territory; abroad, however, the truce was never properly in force, and each side did the other a great deal of harm, until finally they were forced to break the treaty they had made . . . and once more declare war openly upon each other.6
The peace was in trouble from the start. The treaty required both sides to return everything it had won in the war, with the exception that Athens retained Nisaea. Megara understandably opposed the treaty, as did Corinth and Boeotia, the two most powerful members of the Spartan alliance after Sparta itself. The Spartan commander in Amphipolis was unable or unwilling to compel the Chalcidian cities to return to the Athenian empire. The Peloponnesian garrisons were withdrawn, but the cities refused to cooperate. Still, the Athenians hoped that the Spartans might yet compel their allies to fulfill the treaty's terms, and returned the prisoners at the beginning of the summer, a decision they would come to bitterly regret.

That summer, Scione fell. By now, the Athenians no longer had any qualms about destroying an entire city. They killed all the adult males and enslaved the women and children as they had resolved when the siege was undertaken. While the Athenians could claim they were acting within the terms of the peace treaty, this act of savagery did not induce any other Chalcidean cities to throw themselves on Athenian mercy.

By 420, the Athenians had already broken the letter of the treaty by making an offensive-defensive alliance with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis. The Athenians were angered by the Spartan failure to fulfill the terms of the peace, especially the failure to return Amphipolis. Alcibiades, a rising young Athenian politician, was the moving force behind the alliance. He saw it as an opportunity to break apart the Peloponnesian League with minimal risk to Athens itself. In the summer of 419, at Alcibiades' urging, Argos prepared to invade Epidaurus. The Spartans twice marched to the Argive border, but twice turned back after receiving unfavorable sacrifices. The Spartan inaction only served to embolden the Argives, who raided Epidaurian territory all that summer and winter. Finally, the Spartans realized that if they did not do something, the Argives might replace them as the leader of the Peloponnese. That winter, 300 Spartan troops managed to slip into Epidaurus by sea. In response, the Athenians regarrisoned Pylos (which they still held contrary to the treaty's terms) with rebel helots.

The next year the Spartan king Agis marched into Argos with the full Peloponnesian army. The overawed Argives agreed to make a treaty with the Spartans, and Agis withdrew without a battle. As soon as they were gone, however, the Argives changed their minds. The Argive League army captured Orchomenus, and prepared to attack Tegea. The Spartans were now in danger of being completely cut off from their allies to the north. Agis quickly marched to Tegea's aid. The two armies met just south of Mantinea in the largest hoplite battle of the war, with over 20,000 men on both sides. The Spartans came close to disaster when their left wing was routed, but they defeated the enemy left wing in turn and went on to a convincing victory. The battle of Mantinea shattered the nascent Argive League. Argos renounced its alliance with Athens, Elis, and Mantinea, and signed a peace treaty with Sparta. By 417, the pro-Athenian democratic faction regained control in Argos, but they could do no more than provide Athens with a strong ally. Sparta's leadership of the Peloponnese had been restored by its victory at Mantinea.

The next year the Athenians besieged the island city of Melos. This was the setting for Thucydides' famous "Melian Dialogue," in which the Athenians argue that might makes right and therefore the Melians must surrender to Athens' superior power. It is probable that this was not intended to represent the actual negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians, but rather was Thucydides' portrayal (and condemnation) of the moral bankruptcy the war had brought to Athens. At any rate, the Melians refused to submit. When the Athenians took Melos in the winter of 416/15, it received the same treatment as Scione.

In the spring of 415, Athens launched its fateful expedition to Sicily. The Athenians had sent small fleets to Sicily earlier in the war, to protect their allies there and expand their influence, but this Sicilian Expedition was on a far different scale. The aim this time was nothing less than the conquest of the whole of Sicily. The primary target of the Athenians was the city of Syracuse, the "Athens" of Sicily. The Athenians believed that if they could conquer Syracuse, the rest of Sicily would quickly submit, greatly expanding the strength of the Athenian empire.

The combined force from Athens and its "allies" came to 134 triremes and 5,100 hoplites, all lavishly equipped. The Athenians had received promises of support from many smaller Sicilian cities before they set out, but when the Sicilians saw the tremendous size of the Athenian force, they became more afraid of the Athenians than the Syracusans and refused to help. Still, the Athenians were confident that their army was powerful enough to besiege Syracuse unaided.

Before the siege was begun, however, a ship arrived with orders that Alcibiades, one of the three commanders, was to return to Athens to stand trial for sacriligious crimes which had occurred on the eve of the expedition's departure. It is probable that these charges were fabricated by Alcibiades' political enemies, but apparently he was unwilling to take any chances. On the way back to Athens, he escaped and made his way to Sparta.

The siege of Syracuse started promisingly enough. Lamachus and Nicias, the remaining Athenian generals, took a strong position near the harbor of Syracuse and began building a wall of circumvallation. Lamachus was killed in a Syracusan attempt to drive the Athenians back from the walls, but they were defeated and the Athenian siege tightened. Nicias believed that the Syracusans were on the point of giving up, and he delayed finishing the encircling walls while he negotiated with factions inside the city. Meanwhile, however, the Spartan general Gylippus had arrived in Sicily to try to aid Syracuse. Upon learning that Syracuse was not yet entirely cut off by land, he gathered his own troops as well as some Sicilian allies and succeeded in fighting his way into the city. His arrival immediately bolstered Syracusan morale. From this point on, things began to go wrong for the Athenians.

Gylippus began building his own wall from Syracuse across the end of the Athenian siege wall which had not yet reached the sea, thus preventing them from completely blockading the city. An Athenian attempt to stop him and destroy the new wall failed. Nicias now fell into despondency. He wrote a letter to Athens that unless very substantial reinforcements were sent, the expedition would have to be withdrawn. To his surprise, the Athenians sent a second fleet of 65 ships and 1,200 hoplites, commanded by Demosthenes and Eurymedon. The arrival of this new fleet restored Athenian spirits. The energetic Demosthenes resolved to either restore the Athenian position or to withdraw immediately. A night attack on the Syracusan cross-wall degenerated into confusion and Athenian defeat. Demosthenes and Eurymedon persuaded Nicias that the Athenian position was now untenable, and the fleet made ready to set sail. The night before they were to leave, an eclipse of the moon occured. Nicias, "who was rather over-inclined to divination and such things,"7 refused to even consider sailing until they had waited the required 27 days. Even the gods seemed to be conspiring against the Athenians.

The delay proved fatal. The Syracusans next defeated the Athenian fleet in Syracuse's Great Harbor, killing Eurymedon, and began mooring a line of ships across the entrance to trap the Athenians completely. The Athenians sailed out again to try to destroy this blockade, but they were again driven back in a furious battle in the confined space of the harbor. Demosthenes wanted to attack the barrier again the next morning, since the Athenians still had more ships than the Syracusans, but the demoralized Athenian sailors refused to man the ships. The only choice left was to retreat by land. The Athenian army struggled on for eight days under constant attack by Syracusan cavalry. Demosthenes surrendered the main body of the army after it was surrounded in an olive orchard. The vanguard under Nicias kept on for two more days until the Syracusans caught up with it at the Assinarus River, where the thirsty Athenians were slaughtered as they trampled each other trying to get to the water. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed. Most of the other survivors perished while imprisoned by the Syracusans in an abandoned quarry. Thucydides called the Sicilian Expedition the "greatest action" in Greek history:

To the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats; for they were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only a few returned. So ended the events in Sicily.8
The news of the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition stunned Athens. The Athenians correctly feared that the disaster in Sicily would inspire revolts throughout their empire and lead to redoubled efforts by the Peloponnesians. Open war with Sparta had broken out again earlier that year (413) when King Agis, tired of suffering raids on Laconia without retaliation, invaded Attica for the first time since 425. This time, however, he constructed a fort at Decelea (near Oropus), giving the Athenians a taste of their own medicine. For the rest of the war, the Peloponnesian garrison of Decelea wore down Athenian morale with constant raids and provided refuge for over 20,000 runaway slaves.


The Spartans, along with most of Greece, believed that Athens was all but finished. Agis sent out orders to the Spartan allies to build a new fleet. Meanwhile, envoys from Euboea, Chios, and Lesbos arrived in Sparta asking for aid in revolting from Athens. Even more ominous for Athens, ambassadors from the Persian satraps Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes arrived as well. The two satraps ruled the provinces of Asia Minor: the Hellespont and the Ionian coast, respectively. They were great rivals, and each hoped that in alliance with the Spartans, he could bring the nearby Athenian cities under his control.

The Spartans, on the advice of Alcibiades, decided that the Chians, with a fleet of their own and the cooperation of Tissaphernes, were the best bet. A fleet of 21 ships sailed from Cenchraea "quite openly, in contempt of the weakness of the Athenians, since they had so far shown no sign of having any considerable fleet."9 The Peloponnesians soon learned differently. An Athenian fleet, which had been watching the port, suddenly pounced and drove the enemy fleet into the deserted harbor of Spiraeum near the border with Epidaurus. The Spartans almost gave up the idea of aiding the island revolts at this unexpected defeat, but Alcibiades persuaded them to send him to Chios with five ships. Arriving ahead of the news that the Spartan fleet was bottled up at Spiraeum, Alcibiades persuaded the Chians to revolt. Rebellion quickly spread, first Clazomenae, Erythrae, and Teos, then Miletus, then Mytilene, Methymna, and Eresus on Lesbos. Tissaphernes, encouraged by the Spartan success, signed an alliance with the Spartans, the first of the Persian aid that was to prove so vital to eventual Spartan victory.

The Athenians clearly recognized the grave danger posed by the revolt of Chios. In short order, four small fleets with a total of 46 ships were sent out as fast as they could be made ready. An Athenian fleet took Mytilene by surprise; the rest of Lesbos was soon restored to Athenian control. Next Clazomenae fell to the Athenian assault. The Chians were now hard pressed, as the Athenians took control of the sea around the island and defeated them three times on land. After this, the Chians stayed inside their walls, leaving the Athenians free to ravage their lands as they pleased.

Athens continued to put forth its maximum effort. A new fleet of 48 ships, carrying 3,500 hoplites, sailed to Samos then landed to besiege Miletus. When the Athenian commander learned of the approach of a Peloponnesian fleet of 55 ships, including 22 from Sicily, he decided to withdraw rather than risk his fleet in battle. For the remainder of the year, the Athenian and Peloponnesian fleets faced off from their bases at Samos and Miletus. The only naval battle of consequence occurred when an Athenian detachment of 20 ships, sent to intercept reinforcements sailing from the Peloponnese, ran into the entire Peloponnesian fleet off Syme Island.

All winter and spring of 412/411, both sides brought up reinforcements and consolidated their position. The Peloponnesians succeeded in bringing Rhodes into rebellion, but they lost the services of Alcibiades when King Agis discovered that he was the father of his wife's child. Alcibiades escaped to the protection of Tissaphernes, who valued his advice highly. Later in 411, Alcibiades returned to Athens after a series of complicated intrigues involving a brief oligarchic coup.

Athens staggered under blow after blow during 411. At the beginning of spring, the Boeotians captured Oropus by treachery. The Chians, in desperate straits from the Athenian blockade, sortied with their fleet and defeated the Athenian. Next, a small Spartan force marched up the coast from Miletus into the Hellespont, where it brought Abydos and Lampsacus into rebellion. Strombichides, with a small detachment of the Athenian fleet from Samos, recaptured Lampsacus, but Abydos held out. Ten Spartan ships from Miletus got past Strombichides' fleet at Sestos and reached Byzantium, which immediately revolted. Cyzicus and Chalcedon followed. The Athenian position in the Hellespont was on the point of collapse, and the Spartans moved quickly to exploit their opportunity.

Mindarus, who had replaced Astyochus as the Spartan commander, ordered the 16 ships at Abydos to keep a close watch on Strombichides' fleet, while he sailed for the Hellespont with the whole Peloponnesian fleet from Miletus. He eluded the Athenians at Samos and united with the rest of his fleet in Abydos. The Athenian ships at Sestos narrowly escaped to join the fleet hurrying up in pursuit of Mindarus. After resting five days at Elaeus, the Athenian fleet of 76 ships attacked Mindarus' 88 in the battle of Cynossema (a promontory between Elaeus and Abydos). For the first time, the Peloponnesians came close to defeating the Athenians in a major naval battle. Thrasybulus saved the day for the Athenians when he brought his squadron down on the victorious Peloponnesian center and scattered it. The Athenians followed up their victory by retaking Cyzicus. Still, Mindarus only lost 21 ships to the Athenians' 15, so his fleet was still to be reckoned with.

The Athenian victory at Cynossema was offset by a disaster much closer to home. A Spartan fleet of 42 ships sailed around Attica and put in at Oropus, something the Spartans would never have dared only a few years ago. The Athenians, alarmed at the threat to Euboea, hastily scraped together crews for 36 ships and sent them to Eretria. The Spartan fleet fell on the Athenians while they were gathering food there, capturing 22 of their ships. The Eretrians rose in rebellion and slaughtered those Athenians who had fled there for safety. Soon all of Euboea except for Oreus was in Peloponnesian hands. Fortunately for the Athenians, the Peloponnesian fleet there was summoned to the Hellespont by Mindarus to offset his losses at Cynossema. On the way, it ran into a winter storm which sank all but a few of the ships.

Mindarus continued to gather all available ships to the Hellespont that winter. A second large battle took place near Abydos when the Athenians attempted to ambush 14 ships sailing from Rhodes and Mindarus came to their rescue. This time, the battle was more lopsided in the Athenians' favor. They captured 30 Peloponnesian ships, who were only saved from complete disaster when Pharnabazus brought up troops to protect Peloponnesian ships which had been driven ashore. Pharnabazus' offer of support had been instrumental in convincing Mindarus to bring the fleet to the Hellespont in the first place, much to the chagrin of Tissaphernes.

By the spring of 410, Mindarus again had naval superiority in the Hellespont, despite the losses of the two battles the previous year. The Athenians had been forced to disperse their fleet for lack of funds, and only 40 ships remained to Mindarus' 80. Accompanied by a Persian army, he sailed to Cyzicus and retook the city. The Athenians collected their fleet again in the Hellespont. Now they outnumbered Mindarus, and moved to take Cyzicus back. A squadron of 40 ships under Alcibiades acted as a lure to draw Mindarus' fleet out of Cyzicus harbor. The rest of the Athenian fleet appeared from behind a headland to cut Mindarus off from the city. A fierce land-sea battle ensued as Mindarus drove his ships ashore to the protection of Pharnabazus' army. Athenians troops landed near the city eventually defeated the Persian and Spartan forces. Mindarus died defending his ships. The Athenian victory was decisive: the entire enemy fleet was destroyed or captured, and Cyzicus retaken. Athens once again firmly controlled the waters of the Hellespont.

Spartan morale was shattered by the defeat and the death of Mindarus, as was shown by a letter sent to Sparta by his second-in-command: "The ships are lost. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We know not what to do."10 The Spartans offered peace to the Athenians, but they declined even at this late date, unwilling to give up Euboea or concede Spartan control over Byzantium, key to Athens' vital Black Sea grain supply.

So the war dragged on. In Greece itself, Athens lost ground as the Spartans finally took Pylos and the Megarans recaptured Nisaea. In the Hellespont, however, Alcibiades continued to restore the Athenian position. By the end of 409, he had recaptured Chalcedon, Selymbria and Byzantium, leaving Abydos the sole Spartan city in the area. A major Carthaginian invasion of Sicily in the summer of 409 resulted in the withdrawal of all Sicilian fleets from Greece for the remainder of the war, another serious blow to Peloponnesian naval strength. The Athenians also began exploring a possible settlement with Persia. Ambassadors were sent to treat with the Great King, but they turned back when they learned that the Spartans had already obtained a firm offer of support.

The next summer Alcibiades returned to Athens for the first time since he had departed with high hopes seven years earlier at the head of the Sicilian expedition. He was greeted as a hero and voted supreme command last enjoyed by Pericles. In the fall of 408 he sailed from Athens with a fleet of 100 triremes with the intention of driving the Spartans completely out of Asia Minor and the Aegean. Chios, Rhodes, Andros, Ephesus and Miletus all still remained in Spartan hands. The Spartans had not been idle, either. That summer, a new Spartan general, Lysander, had taken command, and a new satrap had replaced Tissaphernes: Cyrus, the son of the Great King himself. The two soon discovered that their interests coincided remarkably well, and Persian aid flowed as never before. By the spring of 407, Lysander was snugly ensconced at Ephesus with a new fleet of 90 ships. After detaching 20 ships to besiege Andros, Alcibiades arrived at Notium with his remaining 80. When Lysander showed no inclination of coming out to challenge the Athenian fleet, Alcibiades left the fleet in command of Antiochus and took his hoplites to join Thrasybulus in besieging Phocaea. While he was gone, Antiochus took the fleet to Ephesus in an ill-considered attempt to duplicate the Athenian victory at Cyzicus. Trying to lure Lysander out at the head of 10 ships, Antiochus' ship was somehow sunk before his squadron could withdraw, and the Peloponnesian fleet sallied forth into the midst of the disorganized and leaderless Athenian fleet. The resulting rout cost the Athenians 22 ships. Alcibiades raised the siege of Phocaea and hurried back to Notium with Thrasybulus' 30 ships, but Lysander stayed safely in Ephesus, savoring his victory. Alcibiades' many enemies in Athens used the defeat at Notium to secure his recall. Once again, he was forced to flee, this time to his personal estate in Thrace. The Athenian fleet withdrew to Samos where Conon took over command.

The Athenian situation in the spring of 406 was again serious. Because of lack of funds, Conon had crews for only 70 of his more than 100 ships. Morale had plummeted after the battle of Notium. On the Spartan side, confidence was high. Callicratidas, Lysander's replacement, brought with him youthful energy and a new policy towards Persia. Spurning Persian aid bought with the slavery of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, he set out to use his 140-ship fleet while he could still afford to pay for it. Callicratidas sailed north to Chios past the Athenians at Samos, but Conon declined to challenge his vastly superior fleet. After capturing an Athenian fort on Chios island, Callicratidas next sailed to Lesbos. Methymna fell by a combination of assault and treachery. Conon's fleet, sailing up to defend Lesbos, was driven into Mytilene with the loss of 30 ships. Callicratidas brought up troops from Methymna and besieged Conon in the city. News of the his success induced Cyrus to resume payment for the Peloponnesian fleet.

Conon managed to get word to Athens of his desperate plight, and within thirty days the Athenians managed to scrape together a fleet of 110 ships which immediately set out for Samos. This fleet represented Athen's last effort: its treasury was empty and its manpower exhausted. Inexplicably, Agis failed to take advantage of this opportunity to attack the skeletal force left to defend Athens.

After picking up 45 more ships that had assembled at Samos, the Athenian fleet sailed for Mytilene, commanded by a grand total of eight generals. Callicratidas divided his fleet, now 170 ships strong, leaving 50 to continue besieging Conon and taking 120 with him to intercept the approaching Athenians. For the first time, the Peloponnesian fleet had the advantage of superior seamanship; most of the trained Athenian crews were blockaded in Mytilene. The two fleets met in the Arginusae Islands southeast of Lesbos in the largest naval battle of the war. After a day-long struggle, the Athenian numerical superiority finally tipped the balance. Callicratidas was killed when he fell overboard as his ship rammed an enemy. The fierceness of the fighting is shown by the unusually heavy losses: 70 Peloponnesian and 25 Athenian ships were sunk or disabled. The aftermath of the battle led to controversy and recriminations in Athens. All eight generals were recalled on the charge of failing to rescue hundreds of sailors clinging to the wreckage strewn across the area of the battle. Two fled, but the other six were tried and executed.

When Eteonicus, in command of the Spartan fleet at Mytilene, heard of Callicratidas' defeat, he quickly raised the siege and sailed for Chios. The crushing victory at Arginusae restored Athenian control of the sea. Once again, the Spartans asked for peace, but once again, the Athenians rejected the offer. This time, however, the Athenians were in a far more dangerous position. The Peloponnesian fleet, while crippled, was far from eliminated: 90 ships still remained at Chios. Moreover, Athens could not raise another fleet. If the fleet now at sea was defeated, the Peloponnesians could besiege Athens and Piraeus with impunity.

The Spartans wasted no time in putting the Athenians to the test. Lysander returned to command the Peloponnesian forces, bringing 35 ships to Ephesus where he reassembled his fleet. Feinting south to Rhodes, Lysander turned north and sailed for the Hellespont with the Athenian fleet in pursuit. He landed first at Abydos, then attacked and took Lampsacus by storm. The Athenian fleet landed at the village of Aegospotami on the shore opposite Lampsacus to watch for an opportunity to attack Lysander's fleet. Aegospotami had no harbor, forcing the Athenians to pull their ships up on the beach every day. After five days of waiting, the Athenians grew careless. In a surprise attack, Lysander caught almost the entire fleet on the beach. Only ten Athenian ships escaped this "battle" of Aegospotami; 170 were captured or destroyed. Lysander executed all 3,000 Athenians captured in the battle.

The war was now all but over. The Athenians prepared grimly for a hopeless siege, expecting that the fate of Lysander's prisoners was a sign that they would share the fate of the Melians and Scionians. Lysander sailed leisurely towards Athens, capturing every city he came to on the way and sending any Athenians on ahead of him to swell Athens' population in the coming siege. In the fall of 405, Lysander's fleet arrived off Piraeus and a Peloponnesian army surrounded Athens. Still, Athens did not surrender, and the siege continued into the spring of 404. Part of Lysander's fleet went to besiege Samos, the only other city which still resisted the victorious Peloponnesians. Finally, in March 404, the Athenians surrendered. The great Peloponnesian War was over.


Considering the circumstances, the peace terms offered by the Spartans were surprisingly lenient. The Athenian empire was gone, of course, and the Athenians had to destroy the Long Walls and the walls around Piraeus. Only ten ships were left to the Athenian navy. Athens was also required to join the Spartan alliance and follow Sparta's lead in foreign policy. Nevertheless, Athens retained its independence and its land, more than the Athenians might have expected and more than some of Sparta's allies wished.

Although the war ended in a complete Spartan victory, Sparta's hegemony over Greece proved ephemeral. Sparta's claim to be fighting for the freedom of Greece was belied already by the price of Persian support, returning many Greek cities in Asia Minor to Persian domination. Much of the former Athenian Empire became subjects to an equally onerous Spartan rule. But not for long--within three decades of the end of the war Thebes had replaced Sparta as the dominant Greek power.

The long years of warfare had weakened the entire fabric of Greek civilization. The economic costs of the war were incalculable. Most of the principal Greek states suffered serious population declines as well, either directly from war losses or indirectly from the hardships caused by the war. Corcyra was only the most famous instance of the widespread factional strife between oligarchs and democrats that increased in ferocity as the war dragged on. The defeat of democratic Athens by oligarchic Sparta probably sealed the fate of Greek democracy. Instead of peace and freedom, the destruction of the Athenian empire brought Greece only continued strife and eventual conquest by Macedon. Greece thus paid a very high price for Athens' and Sparta's strategic shortsightedness at the beginning of the war.


Click on the footnote to return to the main text.

1 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. by Rex Warner (Penguin Books, 1954), II, 85.

2 Thucydides, III, 52 (p. 225).

3 Thucydides, III, 97 (p. 252).

4 Thucydides, IV, 33 (p. 286).

5 Thucydides V, 14 (p. 356).

6 Thucydides, V, 25 (p. 363).

7 Thucydides, VII, 50 (p. 511).

8 Thucydids, VII, 87 (p. 537).

9 Thucydides, VIII, 8 (p. 543).

10 Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 245.

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