In 480BC, they stood shoulder to shoulder, to face their bitterest enemy. By 430BC, a mere 50 years later they were at gates of war.
Athens and Sparta, two leading Greek city-states, who, finding themselves on the same sides of the debate, once made common cause to resist the Persians, now laid waste to each other. Lakonia and Attika, embroiled in flames of warfare. That was to consume their world. The demise of their empires and the fading of a civilization.
The story of the Peloponnesian War is not new, it is one that like many patterns in history repeats over and over again, perhaps the players' names change, perhaps the outcomes, but the blood and tear-stained backdrop remain, always; constant and unchanging, a vivid reminder of our, very human, and perhaps immutable, nature and our history.
To understand this war let's look at Greece from the time period. In the years leading to the Peloponnesian War, there was very rarely a case of a unified Greek identity. Greece was a patchwork of City-States, who spoke a similar language and believed in the same Gods. Yet all of them vastly different from one another. With different customs and histories, there was always a lack of cohesive identity within the Greek Cities. Each city was independent and had its own Government. The governments ranged from proto-democracies like Athens or law-bound oligarchies like Sparta.
In 480BC when Persia knocked on the doors of Greece and demanded complete subjugation of all Greek city-states, the Greek world's various city-state gathered together at Corinth, to discuss a further plan of action. Many Greek Cities favored capitulation to Persia. After all, Persia was a massive empire, stretching from India in the east, to Asia Minor in the west. There is little hope for the Greeks against such a force. However, two unlikely allies found themselves on the same page. The Attikan city of Athens, and the Lakonian state of Sparta. Leonidas, the king of Sparta, found himself at the head of an unlikely alliance, with an unlikely partner. Yet with similar goals in mind Athenians and Spartans managed to combine forces, Athens would lead the forces at sea, while Sparta would lead the troops at the ground. A place to meet the Persians was chosen, it was to be Thermophylae, a small strip of land, guarded by a mountain on one side, and the sea on other. A good place for defense. Leonidas was to lead the land defense. He handpicked 300 Spartans and was then joined by similar numbers from other Greek city-states, in total nearly 5000 men were to hold Thermopylae. Their purpose, to hold Thermophylae and allow the Greek city-states time to gather their strength form an army and rout the Persians. The Greeks were however betrayed. The Persians were told about another route to bypass Thermophylae, through which they could encircle the trapped army and advance unopposed into the Greek world. The final defenders of Sparta, including king Leonidas, fought bravely and held on even in hand to hand combat, against Persians to the last man. The battle of Thermophylae is today a testament to bravery and sacrifice, defense against unbelievable odds, and perhaps the firsts kindling of a Hellenic identity. This however would not last. Persia had won the land battle and was to subjugate the Greek city-states, Athens was razed and Persia had subjugated Greece. However, Greek forces once again united and combined managed to shrug off the Persian yoke. Hellas was free at last.
Until now, Sparta had been the dominant force in the Greek world, it's military unparalleled and it's heavy infantry unchallenged. However soon a new kind of dominant power was emerging.
The Athenians had some time ago discovered massive silver veins in the mountains near Attika. With this newfound bullion, Athens's wealth soared. Athens could not hope to field military as powerful as Sparta, but the Athenian navy was renowned and respected. Thus, it was in this navy that Athens decided to invest it's newly obtained wealth in. Against the backdrop of preventing another Persian invasion, the Athenians formed the Delian league. A coalition of Greek City-States which came together for mutual defense against outside invasions named so for the island of Delos, where the league kept its treasury. This alarmed Sparta and it's Peloponnesian allies, who (now called the Peloponnesian League) saw the Delian league as an Athenian attempt to challenge the status quo and establish Athens as an empire in their own right.
Later, again, against the backdrop of protection against a Persian invasion, Athens started the construction of a long wall, from the city of Athens to the port of Piraeus, Athens's principal port. The construction of the longwall did not sit well with the Spartans, who instead suggested the Athenians that instead of building a from Athens to Piraeus, the Greek world would be better served by building a wall across the isthmus of Corinth to protect the Peloponnese from further invasions. Athens of course fully mindful that a wall-less Athens was completely at the mercy of any invasion force, Persian or Peloponnesian, decided to still continue with the construction, helped again in part by the newfound Athenian wealth, partly from tributes acquired via the Delian league and partly from the Attikan silver. The use of the Delian league's treasury to finance the walls of Athens did not sit well with many Greek city-states, including members of Delian league, and to the Peloponnesian league, the Delian league was starting to look more and more like an Athenian empire instead of a league for mutual protection. Sparta was rebuffed and felt threatened by these new developments. The Athenian navy and Delian league continued to gain power while Sparta and its allies were boxed in in the Peloponnese. Tensions between Athenians and Spartans remained high.
In 465 BCE, a helot rebellion broke out in Sparta, already crippled by an earthquake, the Spartan king asked the rest of the Greek world for help. The Athenians dispatched a sizeable contingent, of 4000 hoplites to help the Spartans contain the rebellion. This contingent was however dismissed on arrival, due to the tension and mistrust that was simmering between Athens and Sparta, the Sparta leadership was suspicious about the intentions of the Athenians, 'what if they joined and assisted the helots in their rebellion' thought the Sparta leadership. Thus, the Athenian contingent, sent to help the Spartan army maintain control was dismissed by Sparta and sent back to Athens. This aggrieved Athens which was taken aback by this sudden hostility and decided to repudiate its alliance with Sparta. Later when the helots' rebellion was contained and the helots had surrendered, the Athenians offered them land and settlement near the city of Naupaktos, located by the Gulf of Corinth.
Later on, in the intermediate Allies, the Athenians concluded alliances with various other city States across Greece, with Thessaly, a powerful Greek City-State to the north, another with Argos, a traditional Spartan rival, and another with a Greek city-state on the isthmus of Corinth: Megara.
In 459 BCE, conflict broke out between Megara and Corinth. Megara was an important city-state, located on the Gulf of Corinth, nominally both Megara and Corinth were Spartan allies. However, Athens took this opportunity and quickly allied itself with Megara, thus placing itself against Corinth who was a Sparta ally. This angered Sparta, who soon followed up with a declaration of war and thus began the first Peloponnesian war. The rising power of Athens was pitched against the then-dominant power of Sparta. Though weak on land, the Athenians were unchallenged at the sea, and their newly built long walls meant that they could not be besieged as supplies could always continue through the port of Piraeus. Athenians also won some early victories, at Cecryphalia and at Aegina, where Athenian fleet decisively defeated the Peloponnesian fleet and consequently laid siege to the city of Aegina. In Megara, Athenians managed to grab a victory against Corinthians.
Athens however was stretched thin, and on many fronts, the Delian league was also fighting in Egypt, against the Persians. While at home it made efforts against the Peloponnesian League. However, as Sparta committed more and more land resources to the war, Athenian dominance began to be challenged. At the battle of Tanagara, the Spartan army defeated the Athenian, but failed to capitalize due to heavy losses and marched home. Athens rebounded quickly and in what can only be termed an annus mirablis for the Athenian cause, won a staggering series of victories. Aegina finally gave in to the Athenian siege and joined the Delian league, Athenians established footholds in Boeotia and completed the construction of their long walls. A massively successful expedition to raid the coasts of Peloponnese was also undertaken and caused Sparta heavy losses.
However, misfortune befell the Athenians. After their staggering string of victories in Greece, Athens which was also committed in Egypt faced a shocking loss. In Egypt, the Athenian expedition was soundly defeated by the Persians, in 454 BCE, around a similar time, the treasury of the Delian League was moved from Delos to Athens prompting tensions between the Athenians and other league members. In Thessalyan, Athenian mission to restore Orestes was unsuccessful and Athens had to march home, defeated. These events had a detrimental impact on the Delian League and Athens was faced with a crisis on the home front. Thus, when Cimon, the peace-loving leader of Athens, ostracised for his call for restraint before the Peloponnesian war broke out, came back to the city, Athens pressed for peace. A five-year truce was arranged.
In 449 BCE, a more lasting attempt at peace was made Pericles, the then leader of the Athenian democracy, by calling for a pan Hellenic Congress to discuss the future of Greece. Spartans however suspicious of the attempt derailed the entire event by not attending.
The peace was not long-lived, in 449 BCE, Sparta split Delphi from Phokis, restoring Delphic autonomy. The Phokian forces, along with the support of Athens marched on Delphi to restore it to Phokian control, Delphi being one of the most sacred spots in Greece, and the Delphic oracle respected and revered across the Greek world, the control of Delphi and influence over the Oracle meant influence over the Greek world.
In 447 BCE, a revolt in Boeotia against the Athenians challenges Athens' might on the continent. The revolt was successful and Boeotiawas able to secure its independence from Athens, defeated at the battle of Coronea. Athens' continental ambitions now at an end, Pericles decided to withdraw from mainland Greece and abandoned Boeotia, Phokis and other strongholds on the mainland.
Seeing the success of the Boeotian revolt, Euboea and Megara too revolted. Seeing an opportunity Sparta invaded Attika, Pericles pressed on either side, managed to bribed the Spartan king to lift the siege, and decided to deal with revolters in Euboea. Back in Sparta, king Pleostoanax, who abandoned victory at hand was fined heavily and layer forced to flee in Exile. In Euboea, the revolters were crushed with an iron fist. The landowners of Chalkis had all of their property confiscated, and the residents of Istiaia massacred and replaced with Athenian settlers. With this, the first Peloponnesian drew to a close, as a truce between Sparta and Athens was negotiated, a 30 years peace which lasted merely 15 years and later resulted in the more devastating (second) Peloponnesian war, with more conclusive and deadly results.
In hindsight, Thucydides, considered the father of history along with Herodotus, writes. Athens and Sparta were destined for war. The rising power of Athens disturbed Sparta, and as Athens became more and more powerful, Sparta more and more insecure of its position, this insecurity fuelling many of Spartan actions, most notably, the dismissal of the Athenian contingent, which finally, along with several other pieces falling in place, led to war.
This is a pattern all too familiar in history, as new powers make their entries onto the world stage, they threaten the old ones. Athens in 400 BCE, or Sweden in the 17th century, or Germany from the later 19th to early 20th century. In search of their place under the sun, every empire that seeks to challenge another faces conflict. Conflicts that end with varying degrees of success.
In the 17th century, Sweden’s rise threatened the Holy Roman Empire, the Russians, and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. And as the Swedish ambition of Domini Mari Baltici became more and more enticing, the war came closer, and ever closer. Here in the Great Northern war and the 30 years’ war, Sweden won some impressive early victories and catapulted itself to the status of great power in northern Europe.
In the late 19th century, the rising eminence of Prussia threatened the French and their influence in continental Europe. Things came to a head in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 where the Prussian war machine, splendidly subjugated the French, a victory culminating in the declaration of a German empire in the Hall of mirrors in Palace of Versailles, and laying the foundations of a short-lived, German-dominated Europe.
As German strength grew and Germany became the leading power of Europe, it struggled to find its place under the sun. The rising ambitions of the Kaiser (and more importantly his Kriegsmarine) forced long-time rivals of England and France to join together into the entente cordiale. Things once again came to head in two devastating conflicts that wracked Europe and paved the way for the rise of two new regimes.
History is all an endless cycle. The names change, the places changes but people and the stories they tell, remain inherently similar. The story of Thucydides traps one such example.