Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC

Archidamian War
Brief Peace
The Last Years

The Great Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was a titanic struggle between Athens and Sparta that engulfed the entire Greek world, and that ended with the total defeat of Athens and the destruction of her naval empire.  

The Great Peloponnesian War is largely famous because of the efforts of the historian Thucydides, the second great Greek historian. His work on the Peloponnesian Wars was written after he was exiled from Athens for a failure early in the war, and he combines a personal knowledge of many of the main figures of the time with a determination to discover the truth. Thucydides was writing soon after the end of the wars, but sadly his great work ends in mid-sentence in 411 BC, but until then he provides us with one of the greatest works of ancient history.


In 480-479 BC the combined forces of Athens and Sparta played a central part in the Greek victories at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, the great victories that defeated the second Persian invasion of Greece. In the aftermath of these great victories the Spartans took a leading role in the campaign to liberate Greek cities on the east coast of the Aegean, but the Spartan leader Pausanias acted with increasing arrogance and was soon disgraced. Sparta withdrew from the war and returned to her more traditional isolationism. 

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

Leadership of the war against Persian then passed to Athens. Their role was officially recognised by the formation of the Delian League, in which each ally agreed to provide an agreed amount of men, ships or money. The league's treasury was placed in the sanctuary of Apollo on the island of Delos in the Cyclades. The League would eventually achieve its aim. A Persian fleet was destroyed at the battle of the Eurymedon River in 466, removing the direct threat to the Aegean. An attempt to help a rebellion in Egypt ended in disaster and the destruction of the entire expedition (459-455), but the League bounced back and in 449 a formal peace treaty, the Peace of Kallias, ended the war.

During this period the Delian League slowly turned into an Athenian Empire. Any attempt to leave the league was met with force. The island of Naxos was the first member of the league to discover this, although this came in 470, before the Persians had been defeated at the Eurymedon River. In 465, the year after the Persian defeat, the island of Thasos revolted, and was subjected to a two year long siege. In both cases the rebellious state's original military commitment to the league was replaced with a cash payment, and the rebels were reduced to tributary status.  

The rise of the Athenian Empire greatly worried the conservative Spartans, but they also had some more direct problems. In the mid 460s a major earthquake hit Sparta, triggering a revolt of the Helots, the slave population that supported the Spartan economy. The helots took up a strong defensive position on Mount Ithome in Messenia, and resisted all Spartan attempts to dislodge them. In 462 Sparta called for help from her allies, which at this date included the Athenians. An Athenian army was dispatched, under the command of Kimon, but soon after arriving the Athenians were sent home, probably because they were sympathetic to the Helot cause. Kimon was exiled by an angry public, and the alliance between Sparta and Athens crumbled.

Two years later the First Peloponnesian War (460-446) began. This was not really a single fifteen year long struggle, but was a series of clashes between Athens, Sparta and their allies. For much of this war Athens controlled Boeotia, but this domination ended after the Athenians were defeated at Koroneia in 446 BC. In the same year Athens and Sparta made peace, although the 'Thirty Years Peace' only lasted for fifteen years.

One key development during this period was the construction of the 'Long Walls', which linked Athens to the port of Peiraieus. These walls would allow the city to withstand repeated Spartan blockades during the Great Peloponnesian War. The existence of the Long Walls would allow Pericles to suggest the strategy that foiled Spartan attempts to threaten Athens early in the Great Peloponnesian War.


Thucydides gives both long term and short term reasons for the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War. The long term causes were the rise of Athenian power and the concern this caused in Sparta, Corinth and Thebes. Although we tend to think of Athens the democracy and Sparta the military state, to many at the time it was the Athenians who posed to biggest threat to their freedom. The members of the Peloponnesian League retained their independence, and each had a vote in the league. In contrast Athens dominated her empire, and only a handful of islands and cities retained their independence.

The short-term reasons for the war were a series of minor conflicts and revolts that involved Athens. The first was the Corinth-Corcyra War. This began as a despute between Corcyra (Corfu) and her colony of Epidamnos, but soon escalated to include Corinth on the side of Epidamnos and Athens on the side of Corcyra. The two major powers clashed at the naval battle of Sybota (433 BC), in which both sides claimed victory, although the Corinthians abandoned their campaign.

Next was the revolt of Potidaia in 432 BC. This city, on the Chalcidice peninsula, was a colony of Corinth but part of the Athenian Empire. This worried the Athenians, who demanded that the city abandoned its Corinthian connections. Instead the people of Potidaia decided to ask Sparta for help. The Spartans agreed that if Athens attacked Potidaia then they would invade Attica. This encouraged the Potidaians to begin their revolt.

A third cause was the Megarian Decree, a decision of the Athenian Assembly to forbid the people of Megara from using Athenian harbours or markets. Megara had been an Athenian ally until 446, but was now allied with Sparta.

All of these complaints, and the Athenian responses, were heard in the Spartan assembly. The full Spartan citizens then met privately to decide what to do. The general mood was in favour of war, but King Archidamos (after whom the first ten years of the war would later be named) was more cautious. Despite Archidamos's concerns, the assembly voted for war. Next the issue had to be decided by the Peloponnesian League. A majority of members of the league agreed that Athens had broken the terms of the Thirty Year's Peace. The Spartans made one more attempt to preserve the peace, sending an embassy to Athens, but when this failed war began inevitable.

Archidamian War

At the start of the war much of the Greek world was tied to either Sparta or Athens through alliances, leagues or membership of the Athenian empire. Sparta controlled large parts of the Peloponnese, with Corinth as an ally. The other major Peloponnesian power, Argos, remained neutral during the first phase of the war. Macedonia tended to ally with Sparta, although this was never an entirely stable relationship. Sparta's allies also include Thebes (north-west of Athens), Boeotia and most of the northern coast of the Corinthian Gulf.

The Athenian Empire was rather more scattered. The city ruled Attica (the area around Athens), but this was vulnerable to Spartan attack. The large island of Euboea was also held, as were most Aegean islands, and the Greek communities on the coast of Asia Minor, the southern coast of Thrace, the Chalcidice peninsula, through the Hellespont and up to Byzantium and the entrance to the Black Sea. A large amount of the food needed to feed Athens came from the areas around the Black Sea. Athens also had support in Thessaly, and amongst some of the Greek states on the west coast.

The war between these two power blocks would drag on for over twenty five years. The main reason for this prolonged struggle was that for some time neither side had the ability to inflict serious damage on the other. Sparta was unable to challenge Athens at sea, and so could neither conquer her empire nor threaten her food supplies. The Spartans also lacked the expertise in siege warfare that they would have needed for a direct attack on the city. In turn the Athenian army wasn't powerful enough to risk a battle with the feared Spartans, particularly when combined with their able Theban and Boeotian allies.

The key to this stalemate was the Athenian decision to abandon the Attic countryside to attack and retreat behind the walls of Athens whenever the Spartans approached. The great Athenian statesman Pericles was largely responsible for this strategy, which was made possible by the Long Walls and by Athenian control of the seas.

The first few years of the war fell into a similar pattern. The Spartans invaded Attica five times between 431 and 425, although the longest of these invasions, in 430, only lasted for forty days. At the same time the Athenians used their naval power to attack around the edges of Spartan territory.

The war actually started with a surprise attack by Thebes on Plataea (431 BC). This was the only Boeotian city that hadn't joined the Theban dominated Boeotian League, and was thus a key Theban objective. The surprise attack failed, and Plataea wouldn't fall until 427 BC, but it did serve as an effective declaration of war. 

The first year of the war saw the first Spartan invasion of Attica. Pericles was able to convince his fellow Athenians not to try and fight, and instead to retreat into the city. Archidamus was blamed for giving the Athenians time to carry out this move, advancing slowly from the Isthmus of Corinth, and then attempting to besiege the border fortress of Oenoe. They then moved into Attica, but had no response to the Athenian refusal to come out and fight. Eventually their supplies ran out and the Spartans had to retreat. At the same time the Athenians sent a fleet of 100 triremes around the coast of the Peloponnese, where they carried out a series of raids.

One side-effect of Pericles' plan to concentrate the population of Attica inside Athens was the outbreak of a devastating plague that hit the city between 430-428. This plague also followed the Athenian army. In 430 a large army under Hagnon was sent to Potidaia, but the plague killed 1,050 out of the 4,000 hoplites and the army achieved nothing. Eventually the city surrendered on terms in the winter of 430/429, and its citizens and auxiliary troops were allowed to leave in safety (a rare occurrence during this war). 

The plague returned to Athens in 429, this time killing Pericles, and removing his restraining influence. The year also saw the Peloponnesians begin the formal siege of Plataia (429-427 BC), which lasted for two years.

In the summer of 429 the Spartans attempted to conquer Acarnania, the area to the north-west of the Gulf of Corinth. Their plan was for an army to invade from the north while a fleet operated off the coast. Both parts of the plan ended in failure. The allied army formed up at Leucas, an island just outside the gulf of Ambracia, then moved east, before advancing south into Acarnania from the eastern end of the gulf. The army reached as far south as Stratus, the largest town in the area, but suffered a defeat in battle just outside the town and was forced to retreat. At about the same time a naval force moving west from Corinth to join the invasion was defeated by a smaller Athenian fleet in the naval battle of Chalcis. The Peloponnesians then combined the fleet that had lost at Chalcis with the fleet that had taken part in the invasion of Acarnania, but despite outnumbering the Athenians by seventy-seven warships to twenty still suffered a second naval defeat, at the battle of Naupactus.

Although the most famous Athenian intervention on Sicily came later in the war, their involvement began much earlier. In 425 the Athenians decided to send a fleet around the Peloponnese to aid their allies on Sicily. Demosthenes, who accompanied this expedition, managed to convince its leaders to allow him to fortify the rocky headland of Pylos, in the south-west of the Peloponnese, and give him a small garrison. The Spartans moved a force to attack this Athenian foothold on their own territory, but the resulting battle of Pylos (425 BC) saw the Athenians thrown back a Spartan attack. It ended when an Athenian naval force arrived and defeated the Spartan fleet in the bay of Pylos. This left 420 Peloponnesian hoplites trapped on the island of Sphacteria, which ran across the mouth of the bay. After a forest fire removed the cover on the island Demosthenes landed his troops on the island, and after a short fight the Spartans surrendered.

This was one of the most dramatic moments of the entire war. Spartans were not expected to surrender, but to die in battle. Around 120 full Spartan citizens were captured on Sphacteria, and their fate played a part in Spartan policy until they were released after the Peace of Nicias of 421 BC.

Elsewhere Athens was less successful. An attempted two-pronged invasion of Boeotia ended in a disastrous defeat at Delium (424 BC). In the same year the Spartan general Brasidas led an army overland to Thrace, where he was able to raise a rebellion amongst Athens's allies in the area. Most notably elements in the recently founded Athenian colony of Amphipolis rebelled. An expedition led by the historian Thucydides arrived just too late to save the city, and it fell to the Spartans. Thucydides was exiled for his role in this failure.

Tentative peace negotiations began after the battle of Sphacteria. In 423 BC they achieved some success when a one year truce was agreed. Brasidas managed to find ways around it in Thrace, but it was obeyed elsewhere. When the truce expired in 422 an Athenian army under Cleon was sent to Thrace. Cleon attempted to recapture Amphipolis, but was defeated and killed in a disastrous battle outside the city.

Brief Peace

Brasidas was also killed during this battle. With two of the more warlike leaders dead, the peace parties in Athens and Sparta gained ground, and in 421 BC they agreed the Peace of Nicias. This restored the situation at the start of the war, although Athens kept Nicaea and Sparta kept Plataea, both cities having changed sides after an agreement was reached with the citizens.

The peace treaty was not popular amongst Sparta's allies. Corinth and the Boeotians both opposed the treaty, and in particular the clause that allowed Athens and Sparta to make changes to it without consulting their allies. Sparta responded to this defiance by agreed an alliance with Athens, in which each city agreed to come to the other's aid if their territory was invaded.

One of the reasons for this dramatic new alliance was that Sparta's peace treaty with Argos was about to expire. Argos was Sparta's main rival in the Peloponnese, and having stayed out of the war between Athens and Sparta was now one of the stronger Greek cities. The Spartans were worried that Argos would create an alliance in the Peloponnese that they would struggle to defeat.

The Spartans were right to be concerned. A period of somewhat confused diplomacy now followed, which ended with Argos at the head of an alliance of Greek cities that included Athens and some of Sparta's allies from the first phase of the Peloponnesian War. The diplomatic dance began during 421 BC as Sparta's allies were returning home after the disagreements over the peace treaty. The Corinthian delegates went to Argos on their way home, and denounced the Spartans. They suggested that the Argives should create a new defensive alliance, open to any independent Greek state. The purpose of this alliance would be to help control replace Sparta as the main power in the Peloponnese.

The Argives already believed that war with Sparta was coming, and so were easily convinced by the Corinthians. Twelve men were appointed to carry out the negotiations with any city other than Athens or Sparta - if either of those cities wanted to join, then the people of Argos would have to make the decision.

The first city to join the new alliance was Mantinea, another Peloponnesian city. They were accompanied by all of their allies. As this news spread around the Peloponnese, a number of other cities considered making the same move while the Spartans sent an embassy to Corinth to try and convince them not to turn against Sparta. This embassy failed. A deputation from Elis arrived in Corinth where an alliance was agreed between the two cities. The Eleans then went to Argos and joined their alliance. Soon after this Corinth also joined up, as did the cities of the Chalcidice in Thrace. The Boeotians and Megarians stayed neutral.

Corinth soon began to loose enthusiasm for the new alliance. Argos and Corinth attempted to convince Tegea, a key Spartan ally, to change sides. When Tegea refused to turn against Sparta the Corinthians began to be worried that they would isolated, and that no other Peloponnesian states would join them. The alliance also failed in its first military test. The Spartans decided to move against the Parrhasians, allies of Mantinea in Arcadia, in the centre of the Peloponnese. Argos provided a garrison for the city of Mantinea, leaving the Mantinean army free to help their allies, but despite this the Spartans were victorious. The Parrhasians were detached from their alliance with Mantinea, and a Mantinean fortress was destroyed.

In the winter of 421-420 new ephors came into office in Sparta. The new men were opposed to the peace treaty, and approached the Corinthians and Boeotians with a plan that they hoped would bring it to an end. The plan was for Boeotian to join the Argive alliance and then try and bring Argos into an alliance with Sparta. On their way home the Boeotian and Corinthian representatives ran into two senior leaders from Argos, who also suggested that Boeotian join the new alliance. The Boeotian military leaders supported this plan, but they still had to convince the four Councils of Boeotia to approve the new alliance. The councils had not been informed of the suggestion made by the ephors in Sparta, and voted against the proposal. Instead, early in 420 BC the Boeotians agreed a new alliance with Sparta.

This left the Argives feeling isolated. They believed that the Athenians must have known of the new alliance between Sparta and Boeotia, and were worried that their entire new alliance would soon side with the Spartans. Accordingly they sent an embassy to Sparta to discuss a new peace treaty. These ambassadors came close to success, but support for their mission faded after the Argives realised that the Athenians were actually increasingly angry with the Spartans, who they believed had breached the peace treaty. The Argives then sent an embassy to Athens, where with the support of the young politician Alcibiades they were successful, eventually getting the Athenians to join their alliance. The Allies now included Argos, Athens, Mantinea and the Eleans, Corinth didn't joint this new alliance, and technically it didn’t breach the alliance between Sparta and Athens, or the peace treaty, both of which remained in force.

The armies began to march in 419 BC. An Athenian army under the command of Alcibiades marched through the Peloponnese visiting the new allies. A Spartan army under King Agis marched to the border, then turned back because the sacrifices were unfavourable. Once the Spartans had retreated the Argives invaded Epidaurus. A Spartan force marched to stop them, but once again turned back after the auspices were bad, and an Athenian force send to support the Argives turned back once they learnt that the Spartans had retreated. In the meantime Epidaurus was ravaged.

The next major clash came in 418 BC. Once again Epidaurus was under pressure, and the Spartans decided to help. They ordered their allies to meet up at Phlius, and assembled an impressive army. The Boeotians sent 5,000 hoplites, 5,000 light troop, 500 cavalry and 500 infantry trained to fight alongside the cavalry. Rather tellingly Corinth sent 2,000 hoplites. The Argives also summoned their allies, and received help from Mantinea and Elis.

The two armies came close to a battle on a number of occasions, but this first campaign ended without a major battle. On the day before the battle finally seemed inevitable two leaders from Argos and King Agis from Sparta met and agreed to arbitration. The two armies disengaged, but the move was unpopular on both sides, with members of both armies believing that they had missed a chance for a great victory.

Soon after this non-battle, the Athenians arrived to join their allies. The united armed besieged and captured Orchomenus in Arcadia, and then moved to Mantinea, where they prepared to attack Tegea. The Spartans reacted by sending a large army to support their allies. The two sides met in battle at Mantinea (418 BC), and the Spartans were victorious. In the following year the Argives made peace with Sparta, and the alliance they had formed collapsed. Although Spartan and Athenian forces had clashed at Mantinea, no terms of the Peace of Nicias had been breached, and so the uneasy peace continued. 


Something of a stalemate now developed in Greece, with Sparta and Athens each involved in minor actions that didn't lead to a breach of the Peace of Nicias, but that did mean that the conflict continued. Despite the defeat at Mantinea, the Athenian public remained confident, and so when an embassy appeared from some of the Greek cities of Sicily asking for help the Athenians were in the right mood to respond. They had already campaigned on Sicily, although only on a small scale, and had allies on the island. In 416 BC one of those allies, Segesta, went to war with Selinus but was defeated. The Segestans then allied with Leontine, another Athenian ally, and the two cities sent an embassy to Athens asking for help against Selinus and its ally Syracuse. A number of arguments were used in an attempt to gain Athenian support, including the idea that Syracuse might be about to gain control over the entire island, and would then help Sparta against Athens.

The Athenian people were soon won over to the idea of a campaign on Sicily, but not all of their leaders shared this enthusiasm. Nicias was particularly opposed to the war, believing that the Athenians were underestimating the difficult of the task. When his first arguments failed, Nicias tried exaggerating the size of army and navy that he believed it would take to succeed, but this backfired, and the assembly granted the generals all of the ships and men that Nicias had demanded. The army was to be commanded by Nicias, his political opponent and supporter of the war Alcibiades and the older but less important general Lamachus.

The expedition began badly. The Athenians had hoped to find allies amongst the Greek cities of southern Italy, but even their long-terms allies in Rhegium refused to take sides. The money promised by Segesta also failed to appear, and turned out not to exist, the Athenian envoys sent to investigate it having been the victims of an elaborate con. The three generals each proposed a different solution to the problem. Lamachus wanted to launch a surprise attack on Syracuse. Nicias wanted to visit Segesta and Selinus, see if any Sicilians supported him, and if not return to Athens. Alcibiades wanted to seek allies from every power on Sicily, and especially Messenia, at the north-eastern corner of the island. The allied army would then advance on Syracuse. Lamachus eventually supported Alcibiades, but his plan suffered an early setback when Messenia refused to support the Athenians.

The first Athenian success came at Catane, half way between Syracuse and Messenia. After originally refusing to admit the Athenians, the city was won over, and the Athenian expedition finally had a suitable base on Sicily. Soon after this Alcibiades suffered a dramatic fall from power. He was accused of impiety, and a trireme sent from Athens to arrest him. He was forced to leave Sicily, but managed to escape arrest and take refuse in the Peloponnese.

This left Nicias and Lamachus in joint command. They were now to win the only major Athenian victory of the campaign, but failed to take advantage of it. Realising that the Syracusan cavalry made it very difficult for their army to move on land, the Athenians decided to trick the Syracusans into marching towards Catane. They then shipped their entire army to a position at the southern end of the Great Harbour at Syracuse (putting them several miles south of the city). The Syracusan army marched back south, only to suffer a defeat in a battle fought on ground of the Athenian's choosing. The Athenian victory at the battle of Syracuse (or of the Anapus River) of 415 BC had no long term impact on the war. Soon after winning the victory the Athenians abandoned their camp close to Syracuse and returned to Catane. This is generally seen as the turning point of the campaign. By failing to press their advantage after the battle the Athenians gave their enemies time to recover, and for Syracuse to persuade Sparta to declare war and send some limited aid.

The winter of 415-414 went badly for the Athenians. The Syracusans raided their camp at Catane, forcing them to spend the winter at Naxos. Their attempts to find allies on Sicily were generally unsuccessful. Both Athens and Syracuse sent envoys to Camarina, but the city decided to stay neutral. The Athenians had also expected to find allies amongst the Sicels, one of the native groups on Sicily, and some independent Sicel communities did come over to them, but most were dominated by Syracusan garrisons and remained loyal. The Syracusans were much more active. The walls of Syracuse were extended to make it harder for the Athenians to build siege walls around the city. The temple of Zeus was fortified. Spikes were driven into the sea at any potential landing point. They also sent envoys to Greece, where they attempted to gain support from Corinth and Sparta.

The Syracusan envoys were received with enthusiasm in Corinth, and the Corinthians voted to provide them with as much direct support as possible. They also agreed to try and persuade the Spartans to support Syracuse and to wage open war against Athens in Greece. The envoys arrived in Sparta at the same time as Alcibiades, who now spoke in favour of a Spartan intervention on Sicily. He claimed that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily, the Italian cities in Italy and Carthage, before returning to crush Sparta. The Spartans agreed to send a small force, under the command of Gylippus, to help Syracuse.

The Athenian siege of Syracuse began in the spring of 414 BC. At first things went their way. They began to build a blockading wall around the city, and stopped two attempts to built counter walls. Unfortunately Lamachus was killed during this fighting, leaving Nicias in command. He appears to have been a rather careless commander, and when Gylippus arrived on Sicily he was able to get past the Athenian lines, and join up with the Syracusans. With his help the defenders were finally able to build a counter wall that blocked the progress of the Athenian wall north of the city, preventing the city from being blockaded.

The second year of the siege began with a land and naval battle that saw the Athenians defeat the Syracusan fleet, but lose control of the headland at the southern entrance to the Grand Harbour. From now on they had to fight to get supplies to their army and navy inside the harbour. A second naval battle ended in an Athenian defeat - a great shock for a maritime power. Crumbling Athenian morale was restored when Demosthenes arrived with reinforcements, but he then attempted an ambitious night attack on the Syracusan fortifications on the heights and suffered a significant defeat.

The Athenians now realised that they had to retreat, but dithered over how and when to escape. Just as they were about to leave by sea there was an eclipse of the moon, and the more superstitious members of the army (including Nicias) insisted that they wait for 27 days. This gave the Syracusans time to prepare for them, and the attempt to leave by sea ended in defeat. This forced the Athenians to move by land. Short of supplies, this retreat ended in disaster, and the entire Athenian force surrendered. Nicias and Demosthenes were executed, and the surviving Athenians put to work in the stone quarries outside Syracuse. 

The Last Years

The Spartans officially resumed hostilities in 414, using some Athenian naval incursions into their waters as the official pretext. The Spartans, advised by Alcibiades, decided to occupy a fortress in Athenian territory, and in the spring of 413 captured Decelea, on the slopes of Mount Parnes. This position was visible from Athens, and would become a permanent thorn in their sides. The Spartans were able to raid Attica at will. They also blocked the land route to Euboia, a large island that had provided Athens with much of its food, and Decelea became a refuge for Athenian slaves. The Spartans also began to build a large fleet of their own. This would be the key to the final Spartan victory - despite a number of naval defeats they now had the resources to replace their losses, and rapidly gained experience of naval warfare. Eventually the Athenians would lose control of the sea, and with it the entire war. 

The Athenian disaster on Sicily encouraged revolts across their empire.  The Spartans almost had too many potential new allies, each making a different demand. The Euboeans were first to arrive in the winter of 413-2. They were followed by a contingent from Lesbos, then from Chios, and then by representatives from two of the nearest Persian satraps. Both had the same idea - use the Spartans to weaken Athenian control over the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Tissaphernes wanted the Spartans to campaign in western Asia Minor, while Pharnabazus wanted them to operate in the Hellespont.

The Spartans decided that their campaign in 412 would start with a naval expedition to Chios, and then to Lesbos. This expedition ended rather disastrously. The Athenians discovered that Chios was planning to revolt, and managed to intercept and destroy the Spartan fleet at Spiraeum, in Corinthian territory. Alcibiades convinced the Spartans to send a second fleet, and accompanied this smaller force of five ships in person. The Athenians won a second victory in this period, defeating a fleet of Peloponnesian ships coming back from Sicily off Leucadia.

Alcibiades' arrival encouraged the Chians to begin their revolt. Clazomenae soon joined the revolt. The Athenians immediately sent a small fleet to the area, but it was forced to flee to Samos. The revolt then spread to Teos and Miletus. A larger Athenian fleet reached Miletus just after the revolt, and took up a position on the nearby island of Lade, from where they blockaded Miletus.

Soon after the revolt of Miletus, Sparta and Persia concluded a formal alliance. This treaty had four clauses: All territory and all cities now or in the past held by the king of Persia (at this point Darius II) should be held by him; Both Spartan and the Persians should attempt to stop any money from reaching Athens; Both sides should make war on Athens and should only make peace with the others agreement; Anyone who revolts against either Persian or Sparta to be considered an enemy of the other.

A series of minor engagements then took place on the coast of Asia Minor, with most focus on Chios and Miletus. The Athenians won a victory outside Miletus, but on the same day a large Peloponnesian fleet arrived (accompanied by a number of Syracusan ships that had sailed east to join the attack on Athens, and so nothing was gained. The Athenian fleet escaped to Samos. At the same time Chios was effectively besieged.

Over the winter of 412-411 the treaty between Sparta and Persian was renegotiated. This time Sparta agreed not to attack any Persian possession or former possession, not to take tribute from any of them, the Persians agreed not to attack the Spartans, both agreed to help the other, although the exact nature of the help was left unclear, both sides agreed to make war jointly against the Athenians, and only make peace together. Any troops fighting on Persian territory at the request of the Persians would be paid by the Persians. The final clauses are an interesting reflection on the somewhat chaotic nature of both the Spartan alliance and the Persian Empire. If any state that had signed up to the treaty attacked Persian, then the Spartans agreed to stop them, while the Persians agreed to stop anyone who attacked the Spartans from their territory.

The changing balance of naval power was demonstrated over the winter of 412/11, when the Spartans won a minor naval victory over an Athenian fleet off Cnidus. In the aftermath of this defeat a second Athenian fleet appeared on the scene, but refused to fight. The Athenians were now well aware that they couldn't afford to risk a defeat.

At this point cracks began to appear in the alliance between Persian and Sparta. The key to the problem was that both treaties had referred to all territories currently controlled by the Great King and all territories once controlled by him or his predecessors. This would have included a large number of Aegean islands, Thessaly and parts of Greece down to Boeotia. The Spartan negotiators demanded a better treaty, and Tissaphernes left in a rage.

The winter of 412-411 saw the start of a dramatic political crisis in Athens. It began when some of the Spartans turned on Alcibiades and ordered their commander in Asia Minor to kill him. Alcibiades escaped to Tissaphernes, and became his advisor. Alcibiades suggested that a total Spartan victory would be against their best interests. Instead they should play the two sides off against each other, weaken them as much as possible and then expel the Spartans from Asia Minor. Tissaphernes accepted this advice, and began to delay his support for the Spartans.

Alcibiades then worked on getting recalled to Athens. He decided that his best chance was to convince the Athenians to overthrow their own democracy and implement an oligarchy. He found support amongst the fleet at Samos and amongst the richer citizens back in Athens.

In one of the most extraordinary twists of the war, the Athenians now proposed to vote away their own democracy. The argument used to convince them was that their only chance to win the war was to gain the support of the Persian king, and the only way to achieve this was to replace the unpredictable democracy with a more stable oligarchy, as well as to recall Alcibiades. Both proposals were initially very unpopular in Athens, but eventually the people began to be won over by a lack of any obvious alternative. Even so it took a coup to actually make the change.

The negotiations with the Persians soon proved disappointing. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades decided to sabotage the talks because he wasn't sure of his own status with Tissaphernes. Alcibiades made a series of increasingly unacceptable demands. First he demanded the return of all the Greek cities of Asia Minor to Persia, then the return of a number of Aegean islands. Both of these proposals were accepted by the Athenians, but then Alcibiades demanded that the Persians be allowed to build as large a fleet as they like in the Aegean. This was too much, and the negotiations were broken off.

After the end of these negotiations Tissaphernes arranged a third treaty with the Spartans. This was similar to the second treaty, but with no mention of lands that had formerly belonged to the Persians, and a promise that a Persian fleet would join the Spartans. This treaty greatly reduced Alcibiades' usefulness to the Persians, and also removed one of the main reasons for the Athenian abandonment of democracy.

Despite the changing circumstances, the plotters still continued to work towards replacing Athenian democracy. A series of political murders began in Athens, and the supports of democracy were intimidated by violence. A council was then called, and the new system was forced into place. The democratic council of 500 was replaced by a newly selected council of 400. This council was to select a group of 5,000 richer Athenians who would form the new assembly. Pay for public service was abolished.

When the news of the coup reached Samos the fleet refused to accept it, and set itself up as the last refuge of the democracy. The Spartans reacted by bringing an army to Athens, hoping to take advantage of the possible chaos in the city, but despite the coup the city's defenders were still alert and the Spartans retreated. Serious negotiations then began between Sparta and the Athenian oligarchs. The Spartans in Asia Minor were also unable to take advantage of the turmoil in the Athenian camp. In a rather ironic twist, the democrats at Samos now invited Alcibiades to join them, and then to lead them.

The 400 quickly lost their grip on Athens. The turning point came when a Spartan fleet sailed past the city and landed on Euboea. The Athenians suffered a defeat at Eretria (411 BC), and the island of Euboea rebelled. This cut Athens off from one of its last remaining source of food, leaving the city reliant on food from the Black Sea.

In the aftermath of this defeat the people of Athens overthrew the 400. It was officially replaced by a new '5,000', this time made up of every citizen who could afford to equip themselves as a hoplite. The fall of the oligarchy restored the link between the city and its fleet, and morale was soon restored by a military victory. The battle of Cynossema (411 BC) saw an Athenian fleet defeat a Peloponnesian fleet that had entered the Hellespont. Indeed this area would become the main theatre of the war for the next few years, and a second victory was won soon afterwards at Abydos.

Sadly at this point the surviving copies of Thucydides end in the middle of a sentence. Our main source after this is the Hellenica of Xenophon, a useful but rather less impressive work of history. Diodorus also provides a version of events, although this is more variable in quality.

In 410 the Athenians won a major victory that appeared to have altered the balance of power once again. The battle of Cyzicus (410 BC) saw the Peloponnesian fleet in the Hellespont virtually destroyed, securing Athens's grain supply from the Black Sea. Byzantium, which had rebelled against Athens, held out, but was now isolated. 

This victory ended the rule of the '5,000' and saw the restoration of the democracy. The military situation continued to fluctuate. In 410 the Messenian garrison of Pylos was forced to surrender. In 409 the Athenians won a land battle near Megara against a force that included a number of Spartans. In 408 the Athenians went onto the offensive around the Hellespont, capturing a number of cities including Byzantium.

The final phase of the war began in 407. In this year the Spartans appointed a new admiral, Lysander, to command their fleet in the Aegean. He would prove to be an able leader who improved the quality of the Peloponnesian fleet, and laid the foundation of the final Spartan victory. In the same year Cyrus, the younger son of the Great King, was appointed as satrap of Lydia, Great Phrygia and Cappadocia. He was determined to support Sparta and to ensure the defeat of Athens.

In 406 Alcibiades fell from grace for a second time. He was appointed to command the army fighting in Asia Minor, but he was not entirely trusted by the fleet. In the spring he left the main fleet to visit Thrasybulus, leaving his helmsman Antiochus in command. Antiochus was ordered not to risk a battle, but he was unable to resist the chance to ambush some of Lysander's fleets. The resulting battle of Notium was a minor Athenian defeat, but Alcibiades was blamed for it, was removed from his command, and decided to go into exile in Thrace instead of risking a return to Athens.

The same period saw a change of command on the Spartan side, where Lysander was replaced by Callicratidas. The new commander was apparently unpopular with the fleet, and definitely with Cyrus, but his time in command would be short. The Athenian fleet, now under Conon, was blockaded in Mytilene. A messenger managed to reach Athens, where a fresh fleet of 110 ships was raised. This fleet crossed the Aegean, collecting another 40 ships on the way. The two sides clashed in the battle of the Arginusae Islands (406 BC), a major Athenian victory. The Spartans lost more than seventy ships, the Athenians twenty-five. Callicratidas was amongst the dead.

The aftermath of the defeat was disastrous for Athens. A storm blew up soon after the fight ended, and the Athenians were unable to rescue the survivors of the twenty-five lost ships. Eight of the generals were recalled to Athens. Six went, while two fled. After a prolonged debate the six generals were condemned to death. Thrasyllus, one of the more experienced commanders of the last few years, was amongst the victims of this hysterical over-reaction. The Athenians then reacted against their own behaviour, and Callixenus, the man who had proposed the death penalty, was himself soon killed.

By the start of the campaigning season of 405 BC Lysander had been restored to command, although officially as second in command to get around a Spartan rule against serving for two terms in a single command. Towards the end of the summer Lysander took his large fleet into the Hellespont, in an attempt to intercept the Athenian grain fleets. An Athenian fleet of 180 ships followed, under three new generals. For four days the two fleets faced each other across the Hellespont, the Athenians at Aegospotami, the Spartans at Lampsacus. On five days the Athens put to sea to offer battle, and Lysander refused to take the bait. On the fifth day, as soon as the Athenians returned to shore and dispersed from their ships, Lysander attacked. The resulting battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) was the final decisive battle of the long Great Peloponnesian War. Caught entirely by surprise, the Athenian fleet was annihilated. Conan escaped with eight or nine ships, but the rest of the fleet was captured, along with two of the three generals.

Everyone now knew that the war was effectively over. Both of the Spartan kings led an army to Athens - Agis from the fort at Decelea, Pausanias from the Peloponnese. Lysander sailed to the Piraeus with 150 ships, and blockaded the city from the sea. The resulting siege of Athens lasted into 404 BC, but the final outcome was never in doubt. The only issue was what terms would be imposed. Corinth and Thebes led a group of cities that wanted to see Athens destroyed, the men of military age executed and everyone else sold into slavery, but the Spartans refused to impose such draconian terms (officially because of the important services Athens had performed for Greece, but probably because they didn't want to see either Corinth or Thebes step into a power vacuum in Attica).

The final terms were comparatively moderate, considering the length and often bitter nature of the war. Athens was to dismantle the Long Walls and the fortifications of the Piraeus. She was only allowed to retain twelve warships. Exiles were to be allowed to return home and Athens was to become an ally of Sparta on the same terms as members of the Peloponnesian League - to have the same friends and enemies as Sparta and to follow them on land and sea. After the terms were accepted Lysander's fleet sailed into the Piraeus, and began to demolish the walls to the sound of flutes.


In some ways Athens quickly recovered from her defeat. The democracy was overthrown and replaced by the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, but this was short-lived. The democracy was soon restored, and Athens soon regained some naval power and a more limited empire. Sparta's attempt to gain control of at least part of the old Athenian empire failed, and their alliance with Persian soon came to an end. By 395 Sparta had so annoyed her former allies that a new war broke out, the Corinthian War (395-387 BC). This time Thebes, Corinth and Persia allied with Athens against Sparta, and an Athenian admiral commanded the Persian fleet. This war was ended by the King's Peace of 387, in which the King of Persian promised to guarantee the autonomy of all Greek cities outside Asia Minor. At the same time most of the restrictions on Athens were removed.

The real significance of the Great Peloponnesian War was that it ended any chance that Athens would come to dominate the Greek world. The rule of Imperial Athens would probably have been far harsher than we tend to realise - her democracy was firmly limited to citizens of Athens, and that citizenship was far more limited than in the later Roman Empire. Sparta and later Thebes would also fail to dominate Greece. Fifty years after Sparta's humbling of Athens, Philip II of Macedon would appear on the scene, and the period of the independent Greek cities states would soon come to a permanent end.  

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 August 2011), Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC,

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