Peloponnesian War 431–404 BC

The Spartans marched slowly and to the music of many pipers in their ranks … So that the men could close on the enemy steadily and evenly and not fall out of formation.

The Peloponnesian War is the name given to the great conflict between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies that broke out in 431 BC and ended with the surrender of Athens in 404 BC. Warfare was not continuous: ten years of fighting (often called the Archidamian War after the Spartan king Archidamus II, who led the first three invasions of Attica) were concluded by the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC; eight years of uneasy peace and occasional clashes followed, during which the Athenians’ great Sicilian expedition was disastrously defeated (413 BC), before the peace was abrogated (also in 413) and the final phase, sometimes known as the Ionian War, began.

The Thirty Years’ Peace of winter 446/45 BC, which had ended the earlier period of sporadic warfare between Athens and Sparta, had removed all Athenian footholds from the Peloponnese and the isthmus of Corinth and appeared to regulate relations between the two states for the future. But the Athenians’ control of the subject allies that formed their empire was unimpaired and, when their continuing expansionism led them in 433 BC into actions over Corfu, Potidaea, and Megara that were not against the letter of the peace, but were seen by the Spartans’ most influential allies, the Corinthians, as against its spirit and hostile to themselves, the Spartans decided to go to war if the Athenians did not back down (late 432 BC). Despite some busy Spartan diplomacy, Pericles persuaded the Athenians to stand firm and hostilities began in spring 431 BC, with the Spartans widening the issues by demanding that the Athenians free their subject allies (Thucydides, 1. 139).

At the start the Spartans expected to achieve their aims quickly by invading Attica, provoking the Athenians into battle and defeating them, an expectation shared, says Thucydides (7. 28), by most other Greeks. But, although they led Peloponne-sian armies into Attica in five of the first seven years of the war and did a great deal of damage to Athenian agriculture, they could not draw the Athenians out to fight, an assault on their fortifications being out of the question. Meanwhile any hopes they had of challenging Athenian naval power proved groundless. Without the resources to build and man a large enough fleet, they tried to obtain Persian help, but the Persians were not interested so long as Athenian naval power was unimpaired, and the same factor deterred Athens’ maritime allies from rebelling and transferring their money and rowers to support the Spartans; in the first ten years of the war just one of them, Lesbos, revolted in 428 BC and in 427 BC learned the hard way that the Spartans could do nothing effective to help them. One area of the Athenian empire, the Chalcidice peninsula, was vulnerable to the Spartans’ land power, but they were slow to exploit this advantage, despite the fact that the Corinthians had been able to send a small army to the area in 432 BC to help Potidaea and that the Potidaeans did hold out under siege until winter 430/ 29 BC, while other smaller rebels nearby were never subdued. Eventually in 424 BC Brasidas did take a force to Chalcidice and, despite having only 1,700 hoplites, who were volunteers and liberated helots, won over a number of the Athenians’ allies and their substantial colony at Amphipolis.

The Athenians’ unassailable fortifications and their dominant fleet kept them safe from immediate danger provided that they avoided major battles on land, but, despite Pericles’ public confidence in their financial strength (Thucydides, 2. 13), they were not adequately funded for a long war. It is possible that Pericles, who evidently directed their strategy, planned to use the fleet for offensive operations and that the attack he led on Epidaurus in spring 430 BC was the beginning of them, but the onset of the plague at that moment put an end to any such notions. Lasting two and a half years, its severity was exacerbated by the congestion caused by refugees from the countryside, where the longest of the Peloponnesian invasions, lasting 40 days, was in progress, and it seems that overall the Athenians lost from it up to a third of their fighting men. In the short term their war effort was brought to a standstill and they unsuccessfully sent envoys to Sparta to negotiate terms for peace, before Pericles rallied them; he himself died of the plague in autumn 429 BC and thereafter, in Thucydides’ view (2. 65), his steadying influence was sorely missed. The Spartans, however, failed to exploit the Athenians’ difficulties and their recovery was spirited. They reacted vigorously to the revolt of Lesbos in 428 BC, raising 200 talents from the first ever property tax on citizens, and crushed it the following spring.

After some small-scale offensive operations in 427 and 426 BC, including the dispatch of 20 ships to support their allies in Sicily against the Syracusans, in the summer of 425 BC the Athenians won a major victory near Pylos in the southwest Peloponnese. A fleet of 40 ships en route for Sicily was used by the enterprising general Demosthenes to fortify a small peninsula. A Spartan attack on the fortifications failed, the Spartan fleet that entered the bay was defeated, and a Spartan force that was put on the island of Sphacteria at the bay’s entrance was cut off. The Spartans thereupon obtained a truce, so that they could send envoys to Athens about peace, and were evidently ready to ignore the interests of their allies on whose behalf they had claimed to go to war, in order to remove the Athenians and rescue their men. The Athenians, however, prudently demanded the concession of footholds on the isthmus and on Peloponnesian coasts that they had held before 446 BC as a guarantee that the Spartans would not renew the war within a few years once they had surrendered their advantage, and negotiations broke down. The Athenians then kept the Spartan ships that had been given as surety for the truce and later stormed Sphacteria, taking prisoner 292 hoplites, whom they held in Athens as hostages against any further invasions of Attica. Early the following summer (424 BC) they captured the island of Cythera, off the south coast of Laconia, and, using it and Pylos as bases for ravaging Spartan territory and as refuges for Spartan serfs, they had high hopes of victory; to pursue this, the previous winter they had decided to increase their revenue from their allies to about three times the prewar figure.

At this point, however, things went wrong for the Athenians. First, their 60 ships returned from Sicily unsuccessful after the Greek cities there had made peace with one another. Then an attempt to win over Megara, whose territory they had raided regularly since 431 BC, failed. This setback was not disastrous, but in the autumn an ambitious attack on Boeotia ended with a defeat in a pitched battle near the frontier close to Delium in which 1000 precious hoplites were lost. By this time Brasidas’ small army had reached Chalcidice and was winning over allied cities, and, when he had crowned these successes with the capture of Amphipolis, the Athenians agreed to conclude a one-year truce (spring 423 BC). Although it did not lead, as the Spartans hoped, to a permanent peace, there was little fighting in southern Greece when it expired. The Athenians concentrated on trying to recover lost allies in Chalcidice; first Nicias and then Cleon had some success, but, when the latter was defeated and killed in a battle outside Amphipolis, in which Brasidas also perished, they too were ready to compromise.

The treaty as agreed in spring 421 BC, the Peace of Nicias, provided inter alia for the return of prisoners, the withdrawal of the Athenians from Pylos and Cythera, and the restoration to them of Amphipolis and their revenues from Chalcidice, but its terms were never fully implemented. The Athenians gave back the prisoners from Sphacteria, but, because the Spartans could neither force the Amphipolitans to return to their control nor persuade other important allies, including Corinth and Thebes, to ratify the treaty, they kept Pylos and Cythera. In a flurry of diplomatic activity, which led to some renewed warfare, it looked at one time as if Sparta and Athens might combine against the former’s allies; and then that the Spartans might be defeated by a combination of the hitherto neutral Argives and other disaffected allies, Elis and Mantinea, backed to some extent by Athens; but the Spartans won a crucial battle near Mantinea in 418 BC and recovered the leadership of the Peloponnese, although the Argives remained allies of Athens.

Athenians had fought at Mantinea, but the peace remained in force with neither side eager to resume full-scale war. Nevertheless, the Athenians were still restless and, disinclined to do the hard work necessary to recover Amphipolis and their control of the north, their thoughts turned to Sicily, where, according to Thucydides (3. 86 and 4. 65), they had conquest in mind when sending the ships in 427 and 425 BC. In the spring of 415 BC, lured by an appeal from non-Greek Segesta, they voted to send a fleet of 100 triremes and an army to the island under Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus in the hope that they would conquer it and use its resources to achieve final victory over the Spartans at home.

Despite a slow and indecisive start, the recall of Alcibiades to face a charge of sacrilege and the death in battle of Lamachus, the Athenians in summer 414 BC were about to put Syracuse under siege and it seemed likely to surrender, but the arrival of Gylippus, sent out by the Spartans, on the advice of the exiled Alcibiades, to organize the city’s defence, turned the tide and in the winter the Athenians became more besieged than besiegers. Nicias recommended the recall of the expedition, but the people at home preferred to send substantial reinforcements (spring 413 BC). This was to no avail, because the Athenians failed to regain the initiative and, with the Syracusans establishing naval superiority and Nicias unwilling to agree to withdrawal without the people’s approval, the whole force was destroyed.

This defeat was catastrophic for the Athenians, not only for the losses of men, ships, and money, but also for its consequences in the Greek homeland. The Spartans had already declared the war renewed and established a garrison at Decelea in northern Attica that served as a base for year-round ravaging and a refuge for some 20,000 slaves over the remaining years of the war. They now began to send fleets into the Aegean, where the destruction of Athens’ naval power was encouraging its allies to revolt and the Persians to intervene in the hope of recovering control of the Asiatic Greeks.

The Athenians, however, despite internal discord, fought back, matching the Spartans almost ship for ship, limiting the revolts of allies and recovering some cities, while the Persians restricted their commitment to intermittent financial backing of the Spartan navy, even when in winter 412/11 BC the western satraps guaranteed their support in a treaty in which the Spartans recognized the Persian king’s right to rule over all the Asiatic mainland. The Athenians indeed survived a shortlived oligarchic revolution in the summer of 411 BC and their fleet, which had remained loyal to democracy and had shrewdly accepted Alcibiades back from exile to join its leaders, won two battles, in the second of which, off Cyzicus in the Propontis (Sea of Marmora) in the summer of 410 BC, all the Spartan ships were destroyed or taken.

A Spartan peace offer was now rejected and the Athenians pressed on with the recovery of lost allies, but the process was incomplete in 407 BC, when the arrival in the eastern Aegean of a competent Spartan admiral, Lysander, coincided with the Persian king’s appointment of his son Cyrus to take charge in the west and make effective his support of the Spartans. Lysander’s victory at Notium led to Alcibiades’ withdrawal into exile, an indication of continuing dissension at Athens. This again showed itself in 406 BC, when, after the Athenians had defeated Lysander’s successor off the Arginusae islands, eight of their victorious generals were prosecuted for failing to pick up the survivors in a storm and six of them were executed. Then in 405 BC Lysander was restored to the command, lured the Athenian fleet into the Hellespont (Dardanelles), and in a surprise attack took 170 of their 180 ships almost without a fight, as they were beached for the night near Aegospotami. It was the decisive blow. Up to this point the war could still have ended in stalemate or even victory for the Athenians, but these were their last ships and now Lysander cut their corn-supply lifeline, took over their allies, and expelled their colonists from the Aegean and then joined in the siege of Athens, which ended inevitably in surrender (spring 404 BC). Some of the Spartans’ allies wanted Athens destroyed, but Sparta was content to reduce the Athenians to the status of a subject ally, with most of their fortifications demolished and, soon after, their democracy replaced by a repressive pro-Spartan oligarchy.

The war has always been seen as a turning point in the history of ancient Greece. Both protagonists, the victors as much as the vanquished, were irremediably weakened. A serious shortage of manpower combined with defects of character and judgement to bring down the Spartans’ new Aegean empire within ten years and only Persian support enabled them to keep their control of the Peloponnese as far as 370 BC. The Athenians recovered remarkably and briefly were again the leading city, but they lacked not only the wealth, but also the vigour and dynamism of their 5th-century BC ancestors. Neither of these states nor the Thebans, whose strength and confidence grew significantly during the war, could effectively unite Greece against the expansion of Macedonian power under Philip II. In 338 BC he defeated the combined army of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea and then could afford simply to ignore the Spartans’ refusal to join in his settlement of Greek affairs.

This was certainly a sorry episode in Greek history not only for the long-term damage it inflicted on Greek freedom, but also for the extremes of cruelty practised by some of its participants. In 427 BC the Spartans killed all the surviving defenders of Plataea, an ally of Athens, when they surrendered; in 421 BC the Athenians did the same to Scione, a rebellious ally; and in 416 BC, during the formal period of peace and following no known act of recent hostility by the victims, they attacked Melos and on its surrender killed all the men of fighting age and sold the rest of the population into slavery; in 413 BC the Syracusans butchered many defenceless Athenians in the final disaster and sent the rest to the stone quarries. Other atrocities were committed when within cities the partisans of the two protagonists clashed in bitter civil strife (stasis), most notably at Corfu in 427 BC.

In contrast to these barbarities were the admirable doggedness and heroism of the defenders of Plataea (429–427 BC) and especially the remarkably resilient spirit of the Athenians that enabled them to recover from the plague of 430–428 BC and the Sicilian disaster of 413 BC. Remarkable too were their continued public patronage and enjoyment of art and drama through the times of crisis right to the end. The Erechtheum on the Acropolis was built during the war and many of the surviving tragedies of Euripides, some of those of Sophocles, and 9 of Aristophanes’ 11 extant comedies come from these years, performed at public festivals at public expense. The war, however, provided the essential comic situations of Aristophanes’ Acharnians (425 BC), Peace (421 BC), and Lysistrata (411 BC), and the tragic consequences of warfare were vividly echoed in Euripides’ Troades (415 BC) and Hecuba (c. 424 BC). But its greatest contribution to the development of the Hellenic tradition was in inspiring Thucydides to write his history. With his strict sense of relevance and careful collection and treatment of information he set standards of objectivity and scientific analysis that no other ancient historian, Greek or Roman, could match, while at the same time being a master of dramatic narrative and at conveying the tragic quality of history.

Further Reading

Andrewes, A., “Thucydides and the Persians”, Historia, 10 (1961): pp. 1–18.

Brunt, P.A., “Spartan Policy and Strategy in the Archidamian War”, Phoenix, 19 (1965): pp. 255–280.

Cawkwell, George L., Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

de Ste. Croix, G.E.M., The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, London: Duckworth, and Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Kagan, Donald, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1969; reprinted 1989.

Kagan, Donald. The Archidamian War, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1974; reprinted 1990.

Kagan, Donald. The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kagan, Donald. The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lewis, D.M. et al. (editors), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5, 2nd edition).

Meiggs, Russell, The Athenian Empire, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Thucydides, Works, translated by C. Forster Smith, revised edition, 4 vols, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1928–1930 (Loeb edition).

Thucydides, Works. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1918 (Loeb edition; many reprints).

Xenophon. A History of My Times, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1978.

Alcibiades 451/50–404/03 BC

Athenian general and politician

Born into a wealthy family, Alcibiades became the ward of Pericles and his brother Ariphron after his father Cleinias was killed at the battle of Coronea in 447 BC. Although he had fought at Potidaea in 432 BC, where he was wounded and his life saved by Socrates, his first datable political activity was in 420 BC in the immediate aftermath of the Peace of Nicias, which had ended the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, 5. 43). While Nicias advocated that diplomatic pressure should be exerted on the Spartans to persuade their allies to conform to the treaty by carrying out agreed concessions to the Athenians, Alcibiades sought to exploit the Spartans’ difficulties with their allies, even at the expense of the peace. He won the argument and an alliance was made with the Argives and two of Sparta’s renegade allies, Mantinea and Elis, but he was unable to obtain sufficient votes to secure the necessary resources to support his policy: only 1300 Athenian troops fought at the battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, when victory enabled the Spartans to recover their lost allies and restore their domination of the Peloponnese.

Thucydides comments on Alcibiades’ youth in 420 BC; he reports that Nicias referred to him as “a young man in a hurry” in the debate on whether to send an expedition to Sicily in the spring of 415 BC (Thucydides, 6. 12). Alcibiades was handsome and eloquent, and his charisma had been enhanced by his success in the Olympic festival of 416 BC, when three of his seven entries in the chariot race were placed first, second, and fourth. His advocacy of the Sicilian expedition clearly contributed to the atmosphere of great enthusiasm and high expectations; Thucydides reports that in the end those opposed to the scheme did not dare to vote against it (6. 24). Nevertheless, his flamboyance and palpable personal ambition created mistrust, helped by the deviousness he had shown in an ostracism campaign, probably in 416 BC, when he had agreed with Nicias that they should protect one another by directing their supporters to vote against Hyperbolus (who was then ostracized) and then by a highly unusual proposal to appoint Alcibiades sole commander of the expedition (which was rejected in favour of his sharing responsibility with Nicias and Lamachus); and in the public hysteria that followed the sacrilegious mutilation of the many busts of Hermes on the streets of Athens, his enemies were able to link him with rumours of revolutionary plots to establish oligarchy or tyranny.

When the expedition reached Sicily and Nicias favoured a concentration on limited objectives, Alcibiades failed to support Lamachus’ proposal of a direct attack on Syracuse, the chief threat to Athenian interests, which might well have succeeded. Instead he forced Lamachus to back his own plan first to secure more allies, despite their having failed to receive the expected help from Thurii, Rhegium, and Segesta. Alcibiades’ policy was adopted with limited success, Naxos and Catane being won over, but Messana and Camarina refusing. At this point he was recalled to stand trial, but, knowing that his enemies at home had been poisoning minds against him since his departure, he eluded his escort at Thurii and fled to the Peloponnese, the Athenians sentencing him to death in his absence.

It is debatable how far Alcibiades’ recall affected the Athenian forces, because Nicias now supported Lamachus’ plan; after twice defeating the Syracusans outside their city, in the early summer of 414 BC he was completing a series of blockade walls around the town and had high hopes of its surrender. Alcibiades, however, had gone to Sparta and urged the Spartans to send help to Syracuse, emphasizing the extent of Athenian ambitions and their threat to the Peloponnese, and suggesting that the Spartans should at least send a competent general to organize its defence (Thucydides, 6. 91). The Spartans were persuaded and sent Gylippus, whose leadership of the Syracusans was a major factor in the disastrous defeat of the Athenians in 413 BC.

In 412 BC Alcibiades was influential in persuading the Spartans to send ships to the eastern Aegean in order to foment revolts among Athens’ allies; he himself helped to win over Chios and Miletus. Meanwhile, king Agis, whose wife he had seduced, persuaded the Spartans that he was unreliable and should be eliminated, but he took refuge with Tissaphernes, satrap of the Anatolian coastal provinces, whom he sought to turn against the Spartans, also hoping thereby to facilitate his own recall to Athens. He then tried to promote a sympathetic regime there by promising that the removal of democracy would secure Persian help; and, although negotiations between Tissaphernes and the Athenian envoys failed and the Persians made a treaty with Sparta, the move against democracy, which had started, succeeded, and a short-lived oligarchy was set up in summer 411 BC.

Ironically, Alcibiades’ exile was now cancelled by the commanders of the Athenian fleet at Samos, who refused to accept the oligarchy’s authority. On joining them he played important roles first in preventing them abandoning their position in the eastern Aegean to attack Athens, and then in victories over the Spartans in the Hellespont (autumn 411 BC) and off Cyzicus (spring 410 BC). This must have been the period in Thucydides’ mind when he said that “his conduct of the war was excellent” (6. 15), and he went on to recover Byzantium in 408 BC.

At this point (407 BC) Alcibiades thought that it was safe to return to Athens. There he received a warm welcome, his exile was officially rescinded, and he enhanced his popularity by organizing the annual procession to the festival at Eleusis to go by land for the first time since the Spartan occupation of Decelea in north Attica in 413 BC. There was still, however, according to Xenophon (Hellenica, 1. 4. 17), underlying mistrust of his ambitions and, when he briefly left the fleet in charge of his helmsman Antiochus, who was rashly provoked by Lysander and lost 22 ships, he was relieved of his command and prudently retired into exile. About a year and a half later Aristophanes in his Frogs had Dionysus say about him that the city “longs for and hates him and wishes to have him” (line 1425). But he was still in exile near the Hellespont in the late summer of 405 BC, when his warning to the Athenian generals of their folly in beaching their fleet at Aegospotami was disregarded and a surprise Spartan attack took all but eight ships almost without a fight and effectively won the war. After Athens’ surrender in 404 BC Alcibiades crossed to Asia, where he was soon killed, probably on the orders of Pharnabazus, satrap of Phrygia, at Lysander’s request.

Tradition held that Alcibiades was both the object of Socrates’ passion and his pupil, and this association, it seems, was much in the mind of Socrates’ accusers when they charged him with corrupting the city’s youth. Plato had him figuring prominently with Socrates in his Symposium and Alcibiades I (Alcibiades II is almost certainly not Platonic). Paired by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives with the Roman Coriolanus, he was taken up, like Coriolanus, by Shakespeare, who used him in his historically inaccurate Timon of Athens. He has continued to fascinate the modern world, notably as the central character of Peter Green’s novel Achilles His Armour (1955).


Born in Athens in 451 or 450 BC, Alcibiades was brought up by his guardian Pericles and was a pupil of Socrates. As a politician he was flamboyant but inconsistent, supporting first Athens, as one of the leaders of the disastrous Sicilian expedition, then Sparta. Losing the confidence of both, he fled to Persia but was subsequently recalled to direct operations of the Athenian fleet. Exiled again, he crossed to Asia after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and was murdered in Phrygia in 404/03 BC.

Further Reading

Ellis, Walter M., Alcibiades, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Kagan, Donald, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Kagan, Donald. The fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lewis, D.M. et al. (editors), The Fifth Century BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.5, 2nd edition).

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin, 11 vols, London: Heinemann, and New York: Macmillan, 1914–1926 (Loeb edition; vol. 4).

Plutarch. The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, reprinted 1975.

Thucydides, Thucydides, translated by C. Forster Smith, revised edition, 4 vols, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1928–1930 (Loeb edition; many reprints).

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Xenophon, Hellenica, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, London: Heinemann, and New York: Putnam, 1918 (Loeb edition; many reprints).

Xenophon. A History of My Times, translated by Rex Warner, revised edition, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1978.


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