Last Updated 13 Apr 2020

Why Athens Lost the Peloponessian War

Category Athens
Essay type Research
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“They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed as the saying is with total destruction, their fleet, their army; everything was destroyed and few out of many returned home. ” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 481) The Sicilian military campaign of Athens proved to be one of the most disastrous military campaigns in ancient times.

The loss of thousands of soldiers and sailors, hundreds of vessels and vast amounts of money from the treasury reduced tremendously the Athenian ability to wage war; however, even in spite of such a loss, Athens was still able to prolong the war for nine more years until the Spartans defeated Athens in 404 B. C. The downfall of Athens came as a result of Spartan military operations, which destroyed the Athenian navy and cut off Athens from the supply of grain from Ionia. The decisive battle at Aegospotami in 405 B. C put an end to the Athenian empire and Athenian military power.

There were many reasons for the demise of Athens, ranging from bad leadership and preparation for war to a lack of overall strategic concept for conducting the war against Sparta and its allies. All of these reasons contributed to the downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War; however, this paper will focus only on the failure of Athens to execute Pericles’s strategy. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because of a failure to follow the strategy of Pericles, which ultimately led to reckless expeditions, ill-advised war decisions and loss of allies.

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Pericles was an Athenian politician and general during the time when tensions between Sparta and Athens were rapidly escalating. The two city-states were constantly feuding over interests and were unable to compromise on several issues such as the siege of Potidaea, Megarian decree, and allowing Aegina become independent. This unwillingness of both sides in turn, pushed the rival poleis into a war against each other, which marked the start of the first Peloponnesian War.

Before the hostilities began, Pericles laid out a strategy before the council, which if Athens were to follow would lead to a favorable outcome over the Lacedaemonians. The principles of Pericles’ strategy centered on naval warfare, attrition and limited foreign engagements during the time of war. Pericles being a wise strategist and a general knew the strengths and weaknesses of Athens and their opponents Lacedaemonians. Athens could not match the Spartan superiority in the hoplite warfare; however, Athens was capable of destroying Sparta by conducting raids from the sea on Spartan territory.

The Athenian maritime fleet became one of the most powerful fleets in the ancient world after the defeat of Persia. The Athenian navy consisted of hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors who over the years gained experience and became second to none in their craft. Their familiarity with the sea allowed Athens to sail anywhere and raise fortification against any enemy in their own land. Such an advantage over the seas prevented Athenian opponents from committing too many resources and soldiers against Athens because of the fear that Athens might strike while they were on an expedition.

Furthermore, the domination of the seas allowed Athens to become wealthy from trading with her allies and colonies. The money made abroad combined with the tributes from allies allowed Athens to acquire means for prolonged wars. On the other hand, Sparta in the eyes of Pericles could not afford this luxury and had to fight shorter wars. “Spartans personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, had no private or public funds, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across the sea. (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 82) Pericles saw that Sparta can only gain land and money by battle, while Athens had plenty of islands where they received their resources from, which in turn did not require Athens to engage in many battles. In addition, Lacedaemonians were also limited by the type of alliance they were in, where each member had an equal vote. The group had to reach a consensus before they could act, while Athens made decisions and her allies followed. Pericles foresaw that the Peloponnesian League members in their war decisions would press for their own well-being instead of the common good.

Therefore, when Athens would attack one of the allies of Sparta, Spartans would be put in a position where they had to choose to either to protect their allies and abandon the attack on Athens, or to continue the attack without support. That was the strategy of Pericles to defeat Lacedaemonians and their allies. By remaining in the city and conducting naval warfare, Athens would eventually reach a favorable outcome against the Spartans. Additionally, for as long as they abstained from new conquest during the war and kept their allies with them they had a good chance in winning the war.

Following the death of Pericles in 429 B. C. the Athenian strategy for the war began to change. “Private ambitions and interests in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies, projects whose successes would only conduce to the honor and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war. ” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 126) Personal ambitions and interests were in many cases put before the common good.

This change in the strategy was exhibited in many situations and the most prominent was the Sicilian campaign. It was not in Athens’ strategic interest to invade Sicily because the city was still struggling with enemies within their homeland. But, common good and the strategic interest of a polis were overshadowed by eloquent speeches of individuals who promised wealth and expansion of the Athenian Empire as the results of the expeditions. However, these expeditions proved to be more detrimental than beneficial to the city of Athens.

The Sicilian campaign is the prime example of unnecessary expedition, which stemmed more from personal ambitions than overall interest of the city. Athens became involved in Sicily because of her alliance with Egesta, which was at war with Selinuntines. The Egestaeans called upon Athens to assist them in war not only because they signed an alliance and belonged to the same Ionian ethnic groups but also because of supposed danger that Syracusans the allies of Selinuntines posed to Athens. Egestaeans persuaded Athenians that if they would not act Syracusans would take over Sicily and than would join the Peloponnesians in attacking Athens.

The envoys from Athens were dispatched to survey the situation in Sicily and when they returned Athens decided to join the Egestaeans in the war against Selinuntines and Syracusans. Few Athenians questioned the decision of the council, however, among them was Nicias the general who was leading the expedition to Sicily. Nicias argued that the expedition to Sicily would bring Athens more enemies and more problems. Athens needed to focus on the war with the Lacedaemonians and securing the empire they established and not to undertake new conquests. However, his arguments fell on deaf ears and Athens began to prepare for the expedition.

Over five thousands hoplites and one hundred triremes were dispatched from Athens to Sicily in 415 B. C. The goal of the expedition was simple, to capture Syracuse, however, Syracuse stood its ground and the Athenian generals requested more soldiers and ships from Athens. Even with the reinforcements, Athens was unable to gain advantage over the Syracusans. The results of the expedition were disastrous and not what the Athenians had expected. Syracuse and their allies, with the help of Spartans were able to stop and later annihilate the Athenians in Sicily.

The Athenian failure in Sicily reverberated across the Greek world, which led to more problems for the Athenians. With the news of the defeat, not only did the enemies of Athens become more emboldened to take actions against Athens but also the Athenian colonies began to revolt which caused Athens both economic and political problems. Athens’ source of strength came from her allies and colonies. They did not only provide Athens with money in a form of tribunes but also supplied her with resources such as wood, silver or food.

The Athenian alliance system was set up in such a way that it required everyone to contribute money, ships or men. These contributions were then put to use in the war by Athens. The contributions kept on coming in for as long as Athens could control her allies, however when Athens began to engage in battles and started losing them, the allies revolted. The allies and colonies began to revolt because Athens could no longer proceed with forces against them. Additionally, the treatment by Athens created resentment among the allies and colonies. The allies no longer saw themselves as equals but as servants to Athens.

When Lacedaemonians came through, their city’s majority changed sides because they believed that would receive freedom from by siding with Sparta. The revolutions of allies in many cases were also due to the bad treatment by Athens. After engaging in campaigns, which did not bring back the desired result, Athens pressed her allies for more tribunes and contributions. The poleis which did not want to pay more eventually revolted, than Athens was forced to put down the revolutions with force, which alienated the allies even more. The revolts and losses of allies had a profound impact on Athenian war efforts.

Not only did they require Athens to diverge manpower and resources away from the war but also Athens was cut of from tribunes, which they badly needed after the failure in Sicily. “If you consent not to combine schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war, and will abstain willfully involving yourselves in other dangers, indeed, I am more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices. ” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 85) The leaders of Athens and majority of the Athenian populace did not take the advice of Pericles to heart.

Witnessing the destruction of the countryside from inside the Long Walls, many Athenians became enraged with Pericles’s strategy. People like Cleon and Alcibiades who promulgated more offensive and daring plans in the war, became leaders. With their promises of wealth, glory and fame, they were able to persuade Athenians to engage in unneeded expeditions. However, these expeditions only drew the attention away of what was actually needed to end the war. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because of her failure to follow Pericles’s strategy.

Pericles’s strategy stressed the importance of navy and staying within one’s walls which if was adhered to by the Athenians; it would ultimately lead Athens towards a favorable outcome. However, personal ambitions and interest preceded the common good, which resulted in failed expeditions and policies. These disastrous expeditions in the end were compounded with revolts and losses of allies, which ultimately led to the Athenian downfall. Athens was no longer able to provide manpower and resources to continue the war and ultimately was taken over by Lacedaemonia.

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Why Athens Lost the Peloponessian War. (2017, Apr 11). Retrieved from

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