Peloponnesian War (Research Pap.)

Category: Greece, Sparta
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2023
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Destined for War

As humans have evolved into vast, complex civilizations, a growing trend became notable to mankind, which was corruption. Speculating that Herodotus was the first true historian, and Thucydides was the second, then the Peloponnesian War would be the first form of government corruption in which war became inevitable. At this point, the war varies in perception of the two great alliances, and why the war was even fought.

This essay will demonstrate how the Peloponnesian War stood as a great example of how superpowers become thrust into battle with one another, based upon corruption, vast difference in lifestyles, and the urging from smaller entities. Focus will be on how both Athens and Sparta’s political, social and diplomatic systems forced them into battle, but the battles themselves are of little concern in this essay. It was the “behind the scenes” events that can best explain and summarize the war.

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With the focus laying upon the causes of the war, it becomes important to remember that, what began as a great alliance, turned into the devastation of Greece and allowed the conquest of Philip of Macedonia to commence. Let us begin with the culture of Athens and Sparta, in an attempt to explain the vast contrast within the two city-states. The Spartans were obsessed with their military superiority, while the Athenians were interested in comfort and culture. Granted, the Athenian Navy was the strongest maritime force of the age, but more on this when we get to corruption.

The culture of Athens and Sparta

The culture of Athens and Sparta was different to their core; everything from political to daily living conflicted, causing them to become competitive and distrustful of each other. The Spartan government was a very complex structure, which consisted of a dual monarchy, a warrior assembly (apella), a council of elders (gerousia) and the ephors. Herodotus claims that the two royal families of Sparta, which consisted of the Agiadai and Eurypontidai families, shared a common ancestry and could trace their lineage back to Herakles himself.

Thus making the royal families by blood lines, which would be unable to be displaced, as opposed to that of military power, which could be overthrown. The kings were limited in their power as they only held command of the military. They had no influence in the laws which were left to the apella, gerousia and ephors. The apella was composed of every Spartan warrior who had reached the age of thirty. The apella’s primary functions included electing members for the gerousia, and the ephors. The apella held the ultimate power on matters of legislation and policy.

The manner in which they voted was through a process of acclamation. Above the apella was the gerousia, which consisted of the two kings and twenty-eight members of Spartan warriors who had reached the age of sixty. The members elected into the gerousia served a life term, and could only be removed by the ephors. The true nature of the gerousia is unknown, but Herodotus wrote the gerousia could serve as a court to hear capital cases. The last political body of the Spartans and possibly the most important is that of the ephors. The five ephors were freely elected each year and attended much of the daily business of Sparta.

Each month the kings and the ephors would exchange oaths, to which each pledged to uphold the position of the other. The ephors were the true controlling body of the Spartans, and thus resembled an oligarchy rule. It was this oligarchic rule of the ephors which insisted on the agoge, and placed Sparta into a militaristic focused city-state. The government in Athens followed a very different course than Sparta. Athenian citizens had the duty to vote or hold office. During the 6th century B. C. , Athens instituted a unique form of government in which the citizens had a direct say in the election of leaders.

Cleisthenes who created the Assembly

This early form of democracy was lead by Cleisthenes who created the Assembly, which comprised every citizen of Athens, and the Council of Five Hundred. This Council was comprised of fifty representatives from each of the Ten Tribes of Athens. This ensured each tribe had an equal say in the creation of laws and election of leaders. To ensure equality, the law was set that each member of the fifty from one of the ten tribes must not be related, nor hold the same occupation as any other member…to ensure there was no nepotism or common vestment.

The Council of five hundred represented the legislative body of Athens. The executive power was placed within the Strategus, in which 10 generals were elected into office for one year terms, of these 10 strategi, one was elected as leader of the group and served as commander in chief. The judicial power of Athens was placed with the Areopagus, or the Supreme Court. This body was made up, primarily, of wealthy land owners who had been elected as archons (judges) in the past. This legislative, executive and judicial branched government is reminiscing to all modern day democracies.

The major deviation from modern times being that Athens was a direct democracy, in which the citizens had to be present to vote. Each branch of the government was capable of vetoing one another, thus establishing a check and balance system. It was also customary to expel from the country, any speaker who became too powerful, in a process called ostracism. Every year the Council voted and one member would be ostracized (banished) for a period of ten years. Athens would vote by tossing colored rocks into a giant pot.

This would be a very time consuming process as each topic would have orators speak on its behalf, and upon conclusion of the debate the voting would begin. The rocks were either white or black, where white stood for approve and black represented a denial. When choosing a person to ostracize, broken shards of pottery called ostrakon would be used with the intended person of exile name, etched onto the shard. After all votes were made, the numbers of each were tallied and the victor/ostracized proclaimed. This would take a long time and thus the Athenians prided themselves upon their dedication and attention to detail.

This could have lead modern historians to view the Spartans as impulsive, and the Athenians as cautious. This has been a major misconception, as evident by the speech given by King Archidamus of Sparta, in which the Spartan King asked the council to exercise reason and caution before declaring war upon Athens. In turn, Pericles himself urged the Athenians to war against a dominant land army. Another difference between the two great city-states was their daily living and how it affected the trade in the two cities.

The Athenian Economy

The Athenian economy was heavily dependent upon foreign trade and because of their location on the Aegean Sea, maritime became life, and the sea meant life and livelihood. While trade was a necessity in Athens, Sparta relied upon their slave labor. The Helots (slaves) of Sparta were the driving force of Spartan agriculture, and allowed for Spartan’s excessive free time to translate into their dedication to the agoge. Since Sparta was cut off from the rest of Greece by two mountain ranges there was little trade being conducted, and thus alliances ere not a suitable strong point of Sparta. The Spartans rarely traveled from their city-state or allowed foreigners into it, thus making the only true vantage of joining Sparta, being that of their reputation in battle. With Sparta being an isolationist state, their perception would have been considered truth and fact, no matter what was written of them. One of the greatest differences between the Athenian and the Spartans regarded their attitude towards women. The role of women in the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta sheds light upon the acceptable values of their time.

Spartan women had similar equality to their male counterpart (except for voting rights). Spartan women did little housework or sewing, as they relied upon their slave labor to conduct the daily chores. Due to the men being in the military and often away from home, the women had full authority over their households and were not forced into a life of only childbearing and housekeeping. Since Spartan women demonstrated a greater authoritative influence, the nation thrived and became a beacon of advancement, which would truly be a closer resemblance to modern civilizations than Athens.

When Athenian girls came of age, their fathers offered them for marriage. Even as wives, they were required to stay indoors at all times, and their primary life tasks were child rearing, housework, and sewing, thus giving them no possibility to contribute to the Athenian's development and culture. Sparta was uneasy, perpetually concentrating on war and the state of Sparta as a whole, while the Athenians focused their attention on comfort and found time to foster great thinkers in science, philosophy, literature…etc.

Differences in Government

With their differences in government, physical surroundings and views on women, Sparta and Athens represented the two very different ways a polis could have been back in the fifth century of Ancient Greece, and thus set them-selves on a crash course for supreme dominance, but war and battle would hold a true value to the Greeks, and so it was battles which lead to great alliances and enemies. In 478 BC, following the defeat of Xerxes' invasion of Greece, Pausanias the Spartan led Hellenic forces against the Persians.

He was an unpopular commander (who may have conspired with the Persians), and Sparta was eager to stop prosecuting the war. Sparta surrendered the leadership of the ongoing campaign to Athens, whom was eager to accept it. The Athenians now had their opportunity to take the reins and gain glory for themselves and Greece. The Delian League was inaugurated in 477 BC as an offensive and defensive alliance against Persia. The principal cities in the League were Athens, Chios, Samos, and Lesbos, but many of the principal islands and Ionian cities joined the league.

Athens led the Delian League from the beginning, though at its founding the treasury was located on the island of Delos, and each state in the league had an equal vote. The assessment due from each state was assigned by Aristides the Just, leader of the Athenians; some members were assessed ships, others troops, others weapons, and others money. A council of all the cities met at Delos regularly, probably when bringing their assessment to the island. The turning point of the Delian league occurred in 461 BC, when Cimon was ostracized, and was succeeded in his influence by democrats like Ephialtes and Pericles.

Peloponnesian League

This signaled a complete change in Athenian foreign policy, neglecting the alliance with the Spartans and instead allying with her enemies, Argos and Thessaly. Megara deserted the Peloponnesian league and allied herself with Athens, allowing construction of a double line of walls across the Isthmus of Corinth, protecting Athens from attack from that quarter. Around the same time they also constructed the Long Walls connecting their city to the Piraeus, its port, making it effectively invulnerable to attack by land.

The Athenian dominance within the Delian league was unmatched and unquestioned; this led to major changes within the Delian league and Athens. This progression and events will be discussed later within this essay. Reverting back, the Delian league was not the only alliance within Greece, as the Spartan lead Peloponnesian league also took root. In the second half of the 8th century B. C. , Sparta conquered Messenia, a state in the southwest of the Peloponnese. The land was turned over to Spartans and the Messenians turned into helots.

The Messenians revolted in the middle of the next century, but after 17 years, the Spartans prevailed. By the time the Spartans were attacking the Arcadian city of Tegea, in the 6th century; her plans for the conquered citizens had changed. Tegea was made a dependent state obligated to furnish troops. Sparta soon created a confederacy of most of the other Peloponnesian states according them a similar arrangement: Sparta was in charge (known as the hegemon) and they would supply troops. Each had its own treaty and sent deputies to help in decision-making.

This became known as the Peloponnesian League. Unlike that of the Delian League, the Peloponnesian league has no official start date, as each treaty was collected and approved over time and in that time the tag name of Peloponnesian league was given. This league was formed in recognition of Sparta’s dominance and no misconceptions of that were ever given. Each city-state that joined recognized Sparta’s military power as better than their own, and utilized the Peloponnesian League as a body guard against other city-states looking to invade them.

Under the protection of the Spartans, their allies enjoyed a voice when they would have been forced to remain silent. Unlike Athens, the Spartans did not make their allies pay any tribute, but they did ensure they were governed by oligarchies (who would work in the interest of the Spartans). It is important to note: Argolis and Achaea were excluded from this league. Argos and Sparta had been at odds over the territory of Thyreatis. Their first battle had proved to be inconclusive, as the story goes, all but one on the Spartan side and two on the Argive side were killed.

The Argives claimed the victory because more survived, and went back home. The Spartan stayed on the spot and therefore claimed he was the victor. The next time the two sides fought, the Argives clearly lost and forfeited the territory to Sparta. With two powerful alliances within Greece, one would conclude that war would have been inevitable; however, Sparta did not want to advance into war with Athens. Athens did not wish to advance into war with Sparta, but the corruption of Athens created a chain of events which spawned the forthcoming war.

Sparta’s Jealousy

Thucydides expresses the cause of the Peloponnesian war to be that of Sparta’s jealousy and concern in Athens growing power. This is stated in Book 1 verse 23, when Thucydides states, “But the real reason for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta. ” This view point is, in my opinion, very closed minded to the whole. The history of the Delian league leads to a better perspective in that the Delian League, particularly the Athenians, were willing to force cities to join or stay in the League.

As an example to this, let us examine Carystus, a city on the southern tip of Euboea, who was forced to join the League by military force of the Athenians. The justification for this was that Carystus was enjoying the advantages of the League (protection from pirates and the Persians) without taking on any of the responsibilities. Furthermore, Carystus was a traditional base for Persian occupations. The Athenian politicians had to justify these acts to Athenian voters in order to get votes, and so they utilized oration to sway the public vantage of the situation.

Next is Naxos, a member of the Delian League, which attempted to secede, and was enslaved; Naxos is believed to have been forced to tear down her walls, lost her fleet, and her vote in the Delian League. Thucydides tells us that this is how Athens' control over the League grew. “Of all the causes of defection that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity to men who were not used to and in fact not disposed for any continuous labor.

In some other respects the Athenians were not the old popular rulers they had been at first; and if they had more than their fair share of service, it was correspondingly easy for them to reduce any that tried to leave the confederacy. The Athenians also arranged for the other members of the league to pay its share of the expense in money instead of in ships and men, and for this the subject city-states had themselves to blame, their wish to get out of giving service making most leave their homes.

Thus while Athens was increasing her navy with the funds they contributed, a revolt always found itself without enough resources or experienced leaders for war. ” -Thucydides At this point it is important to note that Thucydides is an Athenian General, and even though he offers a large writing to state he will approach his historical account with eyewitness testimony and scientific based method…he is bound to bias. Even the name most commonly known as the Peloponnesian War is biased upon the Athenian view point. In Spartan record, the war is referred to as the Athenian War.

In ancient Greek writings the name of a battle is given to the opposing side, as to infer the enemy started the confrontation and modern translation is inclined to demonstrate this. If at this point one is resistant to this view point, I offer Thucydides own words when commenting on why Athens became the dictator of the Delian League, “"We have done nothing surprising, nothing contrary to human nature, if we accepted leadership when it was offered and are now unwilling to give it up. " -Thucydides With Thucydides now shown as biased record, the observation of what truly caused the Peloponnesian/Athenian war is to come to light.

Superpowers of Ancient Greece

Athens and Sparta were the superpowers of ancient Greece, with only Corinth possessing the ability to be of notable mention in matching these powers. In 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens, allegedly to keep it safe from Persia. However, Plutarch indicates that many of Pericles' rivals viewed the transfer as Athens way to utilize the leagues monetary resources to fund elaborate building projects. They also switched from accepting ships, men and weapons, to only accepting money. The new treasury established in Athens was used for many purposes, not all relating to the defense of members of the league.

It was from tribute paid to the league that Athenians built the Acropolis and the Parthenon, as well as many other non-defense related expenditures. It was during this time, Donald Kagan expresses, and the Athenian Empire arose, as the technical definition of empire is a group of cities paying taxes to a central, dominant city, while keeping local governments intact. This is what began to occur within the Delian League. It was turning from an alliance to an empire…against the wishes of the league. With Athens now being the most powerful of the Delian league, the smaller city-states were obliged to remain…or join Sparta.

The smaller city-states are, in my opinion, the true cause of the Peloponnesian War, as they began to bounce from an alliance with Athens to Sparta and vice versa. If Athens and Sparta are to be viewed as two boulders, connected by a single chain (which represents the smaller city states), as the chain pulls from one to the other…the boulders become destined to collide. This situation is reminiscing to England v. France, U. S. A. v. Russia (Cold War) and multiple other wars since the Peloponnesian War. Both sides had many opportunities for diplomacy to take effect, and the outcomes pushed force into the only method of resolution.

Diplomacy in Sparta

Diplomacy in Sparta consisted of the allies of the Peloponnese to take up the forum and express their grievances. Corinth laid the foundation and even though the Spartan king attempted to refrain from entering into a war with Athens, the council voted to declare war upon Athens for their many violations of the peace treaty. With that, an ultimatum was sent to Athens; The Spartan assembly decreed that Athens should abandon the siege of Potidaea and should give Aegina her independence, but the chief point was that war could be avoided if Athens would revoke the Megarian decree which excluded the Megarians from all ports n the Athenian Empire and from the market in Attica itself. The Athenians focused upon the latter of the demands, (seeing as they would not yield to the first), and in this Pericles gives a riveting speech to the assembly stating that giving in to any of Sparta’s demands would be an act of submissiveness and that would, in turn, lead to Sparta dictating further Athenian actions. The council voted for war and thus the Athenian war began. This was the final attempt at diplomacy before the two juggernauts squared off against each other.

Diplomacy, to this point, has kept the giants in their respective corners, but the inferior city-states pushed them into battle. The Spartans knew of their inferiorities on the ocean, and of their perpetual tether to their homeland…and in so, they were limited. The Athenians relied upon their superior numbers, finances, navy and arrogance to see them through as victors. On paper the battle was desperately in the Athenians favor, but Sparta was breed for war, and Athens had turned friends into enemies. Finally, it is important to remember Athens set out with great intention, as the Delian League was a symbol of unity and cohesive teamwork.


With that great power, Athens became dependent upon the tributes and became a superpower of monumental stature. Athens then began punishing any of those that wished or attempted to defect from the Delian league. It is now apparent why the Delian league is synonymous with the Athenian Empire, and proof that power leads to corruption. About now, one remembers that Sparta won this conflict, (with the aid of the Persians), and became the supreme ruler of all Greece. True to the Peloponnesian league, Sparta instituted an oligarchy within the borders of Athens, and that lasted for thirty years.

It was not corruption that led to the fall of the Athenian oligarchy; it was the people and their customization to democracy. The oligarchy was overthrown and democracy was instilled back into the polis. This demonstrates that not all subjective groups with power will abuse it, but when power is free to be grasped…beware. The story continues to demonstrate how Athens and Sparta were so devastated by fighting each other, that Philip of Macedonia was able to sweep in and conquer all of Greece. This set up the perfect opportunity for Alexander the Great, (Philips son) to conquer the known world and spread the greatness of Greece to all corners.

Without the Peloponnesian War, Philip would probably not been able to conquer and the Hellenistic theology would have been confined. When viewing epic battles between the boulders of humanity, it is essential to remember; the outcome is necessary for the future line of events to occur.


  1. Donald Kagan, 2003, The Peloponesian War, Publisher: Penguin Group (U. S. A) Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Aristotle, Xenophon, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, trans.
  2. J. M. Moore (Berkeley California: University of California Press, 1975) * Paul Cartledge, 2002, The Spartans, Publisher: Vintage Publishing (New York)
  3. Nic Fields, 2007, Thermopylae 480 BC: Last Stand of the 300, Publisher: Osprey Publishing (Oxford UK) * Karolos Papoulias, 2006, Athens-Sparta, Publisher: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (U. S. A. )
  4. D. M. Macdowell, 1986, Spartan Law, Publisher: Penguin Group (Edinburgh Scot. )
  5. C. A. Hignett, 1952, History of the Athenian Constitution to the end of the fifth century B. C. Publisher: University of Oxford press (Oxford)
  6. Yannis Lolos, 2006, The history of Athens from the eighth to the late fifth century B. C. , Publisher: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (U. S. A)
  7. Herodotus, The Histories,ed. John Marincola, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin Group publishing, 2003) --------------------------------------------
  8. [ 1 ]. Herodotus, The Histories,ed. John Marincola, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin Group publishing, 2003) Verse 6. 52
  9. [ 2 ]. Herodotus, The Histories,ed. John Marincola, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin Group publishing, 2003) Verse 5. 6-60
  10. [ 3 ]. Herodotus, The Histories,ed. John Marincola, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin Group publishing, 2003) Verse 5. 40
  11. [ 4 ]. Aristotle, Xenophon, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, trans. J. M. Moore (Berkeley California: University of California Press, 1975) Verse 15. 7 of Xenophon “The Politeia of the Spartans”
  12. [ 5 ]. Aristotle, Xenophon, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, trans. J. M. Moore (Berkeley California: University of California Press, 1975) taken from Aristotle’s The Constitution of Athens
  13. [ 6 ]. Aristotle, Xenophon, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, trans.
  14. J. M. Moore (Berkeley California: University of California Press, 1975) taken from Aristotle’s The Constitution of Athens
  15. [ 7 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 79-85
  16. [ 8 ]. Herodotus hints to this, but quickly states the facts are not there for condemning
  17. [ 9 ]. Kagan, 2003, The Peloponnesian War, Published by Penguin Group (U. S. A. )
  18. [ 10 ]. Lolos, The history of Athens from the eighth to the late fifth century B. C. , 2006, Publisher: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (U. S. A)
  19. [ 11 ]. Hegemon utilized by Thucydides to describe this relationship
  20. [ 12 ]. Cartledge, The Spartans, 2003, Publisher: Vintage Books (U. S. A)
  21. [ 13 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 19
  22. [ 14 ]. Fields, Thermopylae 480 B. C. , 2007, Publisher: Osprey Publishing (U. S. A)
  23. [ 15 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 23
  24. [ 16 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 99
  25. [ 17 ]. Cartledge, The Spartans, 2003, Publisher: Vintage Books (U. S. A) pg. 181
  26. [ 18 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 76
  27. [ 19 ]. Kagan, 2003, The Peloponnesian War, Published by Penguin Group (U. S. A. )
  28. [ 20 ]. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin Group Publishing, 1972) Verse 1. 39
  29. [ 21 ]. I utilize the term Athenian war, because it was the Athenians who ultimately decided to engage in battle, as the Spartans were trying to appease their allies and avoid war as well.

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