Introduction to the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was fought between Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. During this conflict, Greek warfare evolved from a limited form of conflict to all-out warfare between city-states, with large-scale atrocities.

During the first phase, known as the Archidamian War, Sparta launched repeated invasions of Attica. Athens used its naval superiority to raid the Peloponnese coast.

Sparta and its allies were land-based powers, whereas the Athens empire had developed impressive naval power. As a result, the two powers were relatively unable to fight decisive battles. The Spartan strategy during the Archidamian War was to invade the land surrounding Athens, depriving Athenians of the productive land around their city. Athens maintained access to the sea so it did not suffer much from this strategy, although many citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the long walls connecting Athens to port Piraeus.

Initially Pericles guided Athens to avoid open battle with the more numerous and better trained Spartans, who were primarily armed with spears and shields. His strategy was to rely instead on Athens’ superior naval fleet.

Following a devastating plague that wiped out about one half of the population, Athenians abandoned Pericles’s defensive strategy in favor of a more aggressive one that would bring war directly to Sparta and its allies.

The Peace of Nicias was signed in 421 BCE, concluding the first phase of the war. There was, however, continued fighting and calls for revolt throughout the Peloponnese.

The destruction of Athens’ fleet during the Decelean War ended the Peloponnesian War. Athens surrendered a year later in 404 BCE. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens be destroyed and all its citizens enslaved, but Sparta refused to destroy a city that had done good service at a time of great danger to Greece. Sparta took Athens into its own alliance system.

The Peloponnesian War shattered religious and cultural taboos, devastated much of countryside, and destroyed whole cities.

Source: Introduction to the Peloponnesian War
CC BY-SA Boundless World History. Authored by: Boundless.

Back to top