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The Peloponnesian war is still widely studied in the history of Western Civilization. It was the second war that lasted between 431BC and 404BC. Athens and her empires (Spartans) engaged each other fiercely in the war.
The main catalyst of the war was intense conflict that had dominated Athens and Sparta. The very conflict was also evident during the earlier wars in Persia (McKay et al. 205). The genesis and progress of the war was heavily documented by Thucydides. He attributed the rising Athens imperialism power as the major cause of the war. One of the devastating impacts of the war was witnessed in Athens.
The latter dismantled its empire, a move that divided the entire Greek state. The division left Greece powerless to prevent Persian Empire from reclaiming their Asian possessions (Encyclopedia Britannica (a) par. 8). Nonetheless, the works of an Athenian historian named Thucydides provides a lot of information on Peloponnesian war. Modern scholars have tried to make several interpretations to the war by critical reading of Thucydides account (Bagnall 122).
Major causes of the war
According to McKay et al. (555), any major war may be triggered by either known or unknown forces. In order to explore the rationale of this war, clhistorians have borrowed much from Thucydides’ writings. Thucydides, an Athenian General, wrote an account of the Peloponnesian War. However, some historians doubt if he ever took part in the war since some of his documented works are surprisingly vivid and coherent to qualify for a third-person narration (Encyclopædia Britannica (b) par.18).
According to Bagnall (122), the major cause of the war as accounted by Thucydides was the indiscriminate expansion of Athenian power. The increased power, presence and authority of Athenian were by far and large, linked to economic dynamism and Periclean Imperialism. Moreover, the increase in Athenian power instilled fear on Sparta.
The latter retaliated by developing a grudge that would eventually lead to war (Encyclopædia Britannica (a) par. 6). Besides, the Spartans had always enjoyed great power and since Athenians had overshadowed their presence in Peloponnesus, retaliation was the best way to go in order to resume the powerful position. According to McKay et al (566), the above explanation could be equated to Greek Culture at that time which viewed life as a perpetual struggle among human beings to gain advantage.
According to Thucydides, Sparta army had no reason to fear Athenian rise to power since their army was larger and well equipped. At the beginning of the war, the Spartan army was estimated at 2000 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites as compared to Athens who had only 1200 cavalry and 13,000 hoplites (Bagnall 182).
However, Athenian navy was stronger than Spartan although the interest of Spartans in the sea was limited. Their only passion was in Peloponnesus. As such, they had no reason to fear. According to Bagnall (192), the fear could be linked to Corinth, the Spartan leader who feared Athenian imperialism in contrast to fearing the size of the army. Imperialism had set a ground for Athens to compete on an equal basis with Sparta for Aegean and western colonies.
Investigation over the reliability of Thucydides account of the war has always interested some scholars who view him as a partisan of Athens and that his account could mislead the audience altogether. According to Encyclopædia Britannica( a, par.12), if indeed Thucydides was a partisan, his works could have hidden the fact that Athens was the aggressor.
In addition, other scholars have viewed the reason to be too simplistic to cause such an overwhelming war. Wars have always been associated with differing political and ideological beliefs between two opposing sides, but Thucydides account lack any explanation on the above factors (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 6).
Bagnall (202) suggests that Thucydides may have been embroiled in a conflict that would have arisen between the supporters of democracy and oligarchy. In addition, the Dorian’s and Ionians cultural and racial differences were different and could be a basis of conflict. He refutes Thucydides as a reliable source of the event leading to the Peloponnesian war for it ignores the main ingredients that fuel any war (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 12).
Thucydides used the events of the 50-year period before the war to arrive at his ideology of what would have sparked the war (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 19). Bagnall (221) refutes Thucydides explanation since the historical events before the war were not enough to justify the war.
He perceives Thucydides account as an escape strategy since he could not personally understand why the war broke out. Thucydides account shows that Pericles had prepared for the war by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Athenian army long before the Peloponnesian league (McKay et al. 596).
As a strategy to gain advantage over Athenians, Pericles had built a wall between Piraeus and Athens. In addition, he increased his reserve find with over 6,000 talents. According to (McKay et al. 616) the strategy was amount to cause conflict with other states. He adds that Thucydides could have accounted Pericles imperial ambition as another reason the colonies went to war.
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McKay et al. (602) concludes that Peloponnesian war can be attributed to several factors rather than the mere fear created by Athenian imperialism. The conflicts that existed between Athenians and the Peloponnesian league are myriad. Hence, it is not possible to pin point a particular incident as the major cause of the war. He advocates that the causes of this war should be viewed as a complex string of related factors such as conflict between democracy and oligarchy.
Development stages of Peloponnesian war
Historians classify the war into three parts namely the Archidamian war (431-421 BC), the peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (420-413 BC) and the Ionian war (412-404 BC).
Archidamian (431-421 BC)
The Archidamian period war that spanned for ten years was named after a Spartan king, Archidamus. The honor was for his contribution to the cautious policy that the Spartans employed during the start of the war. It was also due to the fact that he had directly opposed going to war with Athens (Encyclopædia Britannica (b) par. 16).
The Archidamian stage saw each of the two opposing sides come up with strategies aimed at achieving victory in the war that each side hoped would be short (Bagnall 112). The Spartans adapted a traditional strategy that involved gathering a large and powerful hoplite army at Corinth’s isthmus. The hoplites would have guaranteed Spartans victory if Athens attacked while a reserve Peloponnesian army would guarantee attack Athens in Attica if they decided to hide behind the walls of Attica (Bagnall 121).
Spartans chose the above strategy as it has brought them victory in all the previous battles against their enemies. However, the Athens proved to be experienced in war a thing which made the war to prolong than each of the sides had anticipated. Athens had a big empire and held a supreme position at sea a situation that put them at an advantage, and thus could not be forced to surrender. The position also made them not to fall onto Spartans trick to fight back when their territories were invaded. The sea ensured they had a constant supply of grains and other commodities even if Attica was ravaged (Bagnall 122).
Pericles, on the other hand, exploited Athens strategic position and planned to gather his army inside Athens and deserted Attica to the enemy (Encyclopedia Britannica (a) par.17). His strategy was to lure the Peloponnesian army before the walls of Athens, and then attack their coastline at ease. Athens was at an advantage since the Peloponnesians could not carry on for long as they had to return home to harvest so they can refill their supplies (Bagnall 144).
During the first year, the strategies of the two sides seemed to be working since they proceed according to plan. Archidamus army invaded Attica but Athens remained adamant to attack (Bagnall 144). Spartan had invaded Attica in the hope that Athens hoplites would offer resistance of which they would attack fiercely and the plan was to end the war as soon as possible. Since no amount of provocation would make the Athenians hoplites to fight back, Peloponnesian had to retire and disperse after several weeks.
When they finally withdrawn, Athenians took the opportunity to equip a fleet of 100 ships and they raided Peloponnese. In addition, Pericles got his army out of Attica, and they raided Megarid as a revenge of Attica invasion (Encyclopædia Britannica (b) par.46). According to (Bagnall 145) their strategies of relying on attrition to win the war was what made it difficult to predict and measure how long the war would last, and if it would end in the first place.
The following summer saw the Spartans adapt a direct attack strategy. Led by their King Archidamus they invaded Attica and destroyed most of it (McKay et al. 662). The Athenians reacted to the attacks by attacking the Spartan navy, but their strategy was proving to be too expensive.
In addition, the Athenians got a blow when their leader Pericles died from a plague that claimed more a third of Athenian citizens (McKay et al. 615). The Spartans took the weakening advantage of Athenians, and attacked Plataea of which they managed to subside by 427 BC. The success victory to seize Plataea made the Spartans think they were winning the war, and a wrap up they invaded Attica again. However, their calculation was wrong, and Athenians suppressed the Lesbos revolt in 427 (McKay et al. 665).
They also embarked on a more aggressive attack where they invaded western Greece also managed to gain possession if Minoa island and in turn reclaimed a strategic position to the port of Megara. Under the leadership, of general Nicias Athenians succeeded to seize Isle of Melos, countryside of Tanagra and Locris, also tried to attack Westside of Greece to not avail (Bagnall 148).
As the war progressed, Athenians were receiving more courage to launch more daring attacks. The regained confidence drove them to invade the island of Sphacteria, and they captured 292 Spartan soldiers. They also adapted another strategy in an attempt to damage Spartan economy, where they built a fortress at Pylos from where they used to receive runaway slaves and helots (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 28).
The war continued as each side tried to outdo the other and each attack led to disasters after another. It came a time when both sides saw the need for a peace treaty as no one was ready for surrender (Bagnall 149). The peace treaty was called the peace of Nicias. Athens had survived the Archidamian war and this did not settle well with Spartans who always viewed themselves as superpower. Another war was not far from being fought as Spartans would take any available opportunity to show their mighty.
The peace of Nicias
Like any other conflict, the Peloponnesian war claimed lives, destroyed fortunes and eroded patience of both the Spartans and Athenians (McKay et al. 667). The harsh situation forced them to look for a chance to make peace agreements. The period is named after Nicias, the leader of Athenian as he was in charge of negotiating for truce (Bagnall 146).
After negotiations, a thirty years period was agreed on. The war was not to be ended but a call for a cease fire was initiated. However, this was never the case since violence erupted yet again. The period lasted for seven years only that was full of skirmishes (Encyclopedia Britannica (a) par. 28). During the peace period, Athenian was able to recruit many citizens into the navy and when they eventually found a leader another war was could not be prevented.
The Sicilian expedition
The new Athenian leader in the name of Alcibiades came up with another strategy to build up on his uncle’s strategy. Initially, Athens exploited the strategy of defense, but with Alcibiades on board Athenians could now figure out how to defeat Spartans (Bagnall 146).
The Athenians under the leadership of Alcibiades planned for the Sicilian expedition amidst strong opposition from Nicias because he did not trust his nephew. However, all his strategies to persuade the citizens to refuse the expedition fell on deaf years as Alcibiades who was a good speaker convinced the citizens to support the cause (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 26).
As days progressed. there was nothing to stop the expedition and as a tradition Alcibiades and Nicias were elected the commanders of Athenian army, and another commander Lamachus to be the mediator incase of any differences between the two. The Athenian army that was sent to Sicily was very large almost exhausted their treasury (McKay et al. 592).
The expedition was doomed to fail from the onset since having been accused of a crime in the eve of the expedition; Alcibiades was arrested along the way. When he was being taken back to Athens for charges, he managed to escape in the sea and later joined the Spartans side where he gave them all the secrets of the expeditions (Bagnall 148).
Athenians had made a gross error to withdraw Alcibiades while he was the key architect behind the expedition. There were several setbacks that commenced when they failed to attack Syracuse (Bagnall 132).
In the process of assaulting Syracuse, Lamachus was killed leaving Nicias a lone leader. Nicias was not a good leader when it came to conducting invasion as he only excelled in defense. He was slow and missed several great opportunities, which led to many of his mean being killed. Back home the Athenian assembly had heard of the devastating news and they sent him more men for reinforcement (McKay et al. 658).
Athenian army was ill equipped, and they could not win the war. Thus, they concentrated to keep their fleet save to take them back to Athens. However, Nicias kept postponing their departure from Syracuse, and the Spartans ambushed their fleet cutting off any transport back home (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 22). The Athenian army adequately short of supplies resorted to cross to Sicily, which were their sympathizers.
However, this was not to be as Spartans laid an ambush for them as they were crossing the river. They slaughtered most of them, capture the rest and enslaved them. It is reported that very few Athenians navy made it home. The Sicily expedition which is recorded in Greek history because of the large number of the army involved, ended in defeat for the Athenians (Bagnall 138).
Consequences of the war
The war turned out to be a catastrophe for Athens. She lost her empire and also never regained any political influence in the region (Encyclopedia Britannica (a) par. 36). However, she managed to preserve her wealthy status in the region. On the hand, Spartan won the war but was ill equipped to deal with the victory phase.
The expertise of her leaders and the governance structure were not appropriate to the big region (Encyclopedia Britannica (b) par. 18). It never built a new empire, and her attempt to lead Greeks failed. The defeat of Athens left Greece disunited, and vulnerable to future attacks. Scholars equate the Athenians defeat as a Greece defeat as only she was capable of creating a united Greece (McKay et al. 694).
Bagnall, Nigel. The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Greece. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006. Print.
Encyclopedia Britannica (a). Ancient Greek civilization, 2011. Jun. 23 2011, web. <https://www.britannica.com/place/ancient-Greece>.
Encyclopedia Britannica (b). Peloponnesian War. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011. Jun. 23. 2011, web. <https://www.britannica.com/event/Peloponnesian-War>.
McKay, P. John et al. A History of Western Society (9th ed.). Urbana-Champaign: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2008, Print.