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Stupid Stuff: The Great Peloponnesian War

WAR MAP of the

The Athenian leader Pericles began the war where his city had advantage – with its navy and marines. He let Sparta and its allies advance on land into Attica. People there abandoned their vineyards and farms and fled behind Athens' stone walls. Those with property exposed to the ravages of the enemy were offended by Pericles' strategy, as were most Athenians, who favored direct and immediate attacks.

Sparta's army didn't try to breach the walls that protected Athens, and at the end of one year of fighting, Sparta withdrew from around Athens, having accomplished nothing militarily substantial.

Wars often stir up disease, and after one year of war plague came to Athens, made worse by the new overcrowding. The plague killed Pericles, and passion influenced the choice of a new leader, a man named Cleon, a merchant tanner by trade who was more bombastic than Pericles had been. Cleon's desire for vengeance and punishing the enemy matched that of the common Athenian.

In the war's third year (428) the city of Mytilene rebelled against Athenian domination. As the Athenian navy held Mytilene under siege, Cleon told the Athenian Assembly that pity, sentiment and indulgence were fatal to an empire. Brutal measures, he said, were necessary because of the tenacity and malice of their enemies. Punish Mytilene, he advised, or give up your empire and live in the danger of weakness that would accompany this.

Punishment meant killing the men of Mytilene and selling its women and children into slavery — a punishment designed to make others afraid of following Mytilene's example. A member of the assembly, Diodotus, argued against Cleon, claiming that haste and passion were the two things most opposed to good counsel. Haste, he said, usually goes hand in hand with folly and passion usually with a coarseness and narrowness of mind. He described the brutal measures advocated by Cleon as terrorism that would not prevent other subject states from rebelling but would encourage them if they did rebel to fight to the bitter end.

In a close vote, the toughest of measures lost. The assembly chose to spare Mytilene's population. Athenian marines conquered Mytilene but rather than a genocidal slaughter they merely tore down the city's walls and confiscated its navy. Athens also confiscated Mytilene lands on the shores of mainland Asia Minor, and Athens opened Mytilene to settlement by Athenians. And, as Cleon proposed, Athens had the leaders of Mytilene's revolt executed.

Then, 425, Sparta again invaded Attica — for the fifth time in six years. The Athenian navy had its success. It subdued a fleet of enemy ships at Navarino Bay (on the southwest coast of Peloponnesian Peninsula) and cut off a battalion of Spartans there. Feeling pressured by this setback, Sparta promised Athens peace and requested an armistice — without having consulted its allies. Cleon again appeared tough. He rejected Sparta's offer. He wanted to wait for Sparta's unconditional surrender. The Athenians took 292 Spartan captives back to Athens as hostages and warned Sparta that they would kill these hostages if Sparta again invaded Attica.

Believing that Sparta had been neutralized, Cleon sent a land force against Sparta's allies in Boeotia (a region neighboring Attica to the north). It was the only major use of land forces by Athens in the war, and the Boeotians defeated them. The sign of weakness that Cleon wanted to avoid was now apparent to allies of Athens on the Chalcidice Peninsula (including the city of Scione). These cities resented the increase in tribute that Athens was demanding of them. Cleon convinced an assembly to allow him to lead a force against rebellions that erupted in Chalcidice. Some of the rebellions were put down, but on the way to the city of Amphipolis Cleon's bravado failed him. He was killed and his army defeated.

Sparta wanted its hostages back. The new leader in Athens wanted peace, and in 421 Athens signed a peace treaty that included a return of prisoners and captured lands. In Athens, rejoicing erupted inspired by the weariness of war. The Athenian playwright Euripides wrote with enthusiasm in one of his plays: "Down with my spear! Let it be covered with spider webs!"

Allies of Sparta, namely Megara, Corinth, and Elis, refused to sign the peace treaty. Sparta responded by offering Athens an alliance in addition to peace, pledging that it would be an ally of Athens for fifty years. Athens accepted, and the two city-states pledged to defend each other, including Athens helping Sparta should its slaves revolt.

But Athens screwed it up. It again employed force against rebellion by a city that was a member of its empire. That was Scione (a city on the western-most finger of the Chalcidice Peninsula). Athens killed all of that city's adult males and made slaves of its women and children. It was one of the more notorious events of the war, and as Diodotus had argued in his debate against Cleon, such action brought no advantage to Athens. Other cities that wished to be free of Athenian rule responded to Athenian cruelty at Scione with a greater determination to win their independence.

Within two years of having made peace, Sparta felt it had recovered from war. Attitudes among the Greeks had not changed enough to prevent the return of the Great War. With Athens creating tensions and interfering in Peloponnesian affairs, Sparta renewed its ties with Corinth, Megara, and Elis. Athens asked Sparta to sever its ties with these cities, and Sparta refused. In 418, Athens and Sparta went to the assistance of Peloponnesian cities at war with each other, Sparta on one side and Athens on the other. The armies of Sparta and Athens clashed, and the Spartans won easily. They felt a renewed sense of military superiority, and they enjoyed a new prestige across Greece.

Athens was asked by for help by a city in Sicily, Segesta, in conflict with another city in Sicily, Selinus. The Athenian assembly saw the request as an opportunity get grain from that region. Supporters of the expedition hired oracles who predicted a glorious triumph, and a naval expedition was sent. Sparta feared that if Athens succeeded in Sicily, Athens would become more of a threat, so it sent aid and an able military commander to an ally in Sicily, Syracuse. The Athenian expedition failed militarily, and Athenians grieved at the news of more lost sons.

The Athenian defeat in Sicily encouraged members of its empire to revolt. From Euboea, Lesbos and Chios went messages to Sparta's King, Agis, stating that they would revolt against Athens as soon as a Peloponnesian fleet appeared off their coasts. Persia was interested in regaining its lost empire in Asia minor and sent envoys to Sparta, and Sparta promised the Persians recognition of their control over Greek cities in Asia Minor in exchange for funds for building ships and for hiring men to row these ships. The winning of friends was playing it roll in who would win the war. And while Athens was building ships to replace what had been lost at Sicily, Sparta was building a naval force could neutralize the power of Athens at sea.

Sparta sent ships and troops to the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, and there in the winter of 413/412 revolts against Athenian rule began. Lesbos signed a treaty with both Sparta and Persia, against Athens. So too did the city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor – while Persia was reasserting itself as an arbiter in the region and demanding tributes from local rulers.

For Athens, defeat abroad led to turmoil at home. In 411, while the Athenian navy was in the eastern Aegean, a group in Athens opposed to democracy launched a coup and set up an oligarchy called the Four Hundred. They created a constitution based on nostalgia for ancestral custom, and they began a rule of terror. They sought help from those in other cities with whom they shared a disdain for democracy, most significantly the Spartans. But before help could arrive from Sparta, the Four Hundred were driven from power by those who called themselves the Five Thousand, and in 410 democracy returned to Athens.

With Persian financial resources behind them and a new fleet, Sparta and its allies won a series of military successes against the Athenians. Athens was now surrounded by enemy forces on land and sea and cut off from food sources. Through the winter of 405-04 Athenians suffered hunger. In the spring of 404, Athens surrendered. The Great Peloponnesian War had ended.

Athens would have fared better if it had won more of the hearts and minds of their fellow Greeks. Terror had not worked for them. Athens would have fared better if it had held to an alliance based on equality and pursued trade by mutual agreement — in other words without empire. Athens would have fared better if it had limited its military responses to specific acts of self-defense (including suppressing piracy).

But the benefits of modesty was not the lesson learned by Sparta. Sparta gloried in its victory. It had promised to protect the liberty of those threatened by Athens and to restore liberty to those states that had been "enslaved" by Athens. And now it celebrated its victory over Athens as the dawn of liberty for Greece.

It was posturing. The idea that they the Spartans were building a new interstate order in their part of the world was an illusion. They were about to show that they didn't know how to do that. But they rejected calls for the complete destruction of Athens, for killing Athenian adult males and enslaving its women and children – as Athens had done to Scione. Sparta spared Athens, claiming its respect for the service Athen provided the cities in the 490s, combating Persia's invasions. (But Sparta was worried that eliminating Athens would allow too much of a growth in power to Athen's neighboring city, Thebes.)

If there were sources that could guide the Spartans in creating a new order, the Spartans would not be giving them sufficient attention. Diplomacy was not about to create harmony or a federation of Greece's states, and, despite its posturing, Sparta was on it way to a self-inflicted humiliation.

CONTINUE READING: Sparta's Fall, Macedonia's Rise

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.