404 BC. For 27 years, the Greek cities have been at war, a “war like no other” that has tested the very limits of its culture and society. Athens and Sparta, along with their alliances of other cities, have fought across half the Mediterranean. Today, that war is over, with Athens defeated and Sparta triumphant – but it is a hollow victory. The end of the Peloponnesian War marks an end to the glory that was Ancient Greece.
This is my sixth post in my series on the Peloponnesian War, one of my favorite ancient conflicts that I think doesn’t get the attention it deserves today. No movies like 300, no TV series like Rome, no great podcasts (unless…) or novel series. Despite how monumental it is in ancient historical circles, it rarely penetrates to the popular historical circuit. This isn’t for lack of epic moments – there are a horde of heroic last stands, great speeches, heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs. My last post was all about the Athenian general Alcibiades, one of if not THE most fascinating people of ancient Greece. So it’s not for lack of awesome stories that the Peloponnesian War gets left out.
I think it’s because the Peloponnesian War just doesn’t fall into the good-bad, black-white storytelling tradition. Our main source, the historian Thucydides, went out of his way to paint both sides as morally grey – which, based on their actions, is close to the truth. Athens and Sparta were both driven into war by fear, insecurity, and demagoguery, and did everlasting damage to their societies in the process. There’s not a glorious victory, a decisively brilliant end, or a successful conclusion to be had. It’s too murky to make a good epic poem, and the war went through so many swings back and forth that today’s underdog was tomorrow’s reigning champion.
In short, there’s no good place to begin or end the story. It was too big, and there are no clear good guys or bad guys. The Peloponnesian War is too real for the movies, too jagged to fit into Hollywood norms. It is too much like a real war, with the complexities and hard questions and difficult problems of strategy and diplomacy and morality. And that’s what makes it so interesting to me.
So where are we? I will give you ALL the backstory in the links below, but I’ll also give you a quick summary. The Peloponnesian War was a great war between the Greek alliances of Athens and Sparta which started in 431 BC. While Sparta was able to dominate the war on land for the most part, Athens ruled at sea, and due to the broken and difficult terrain of Greece this was a significant advantage. The first stage of the war was marked by a strategic impasse, with Sparta marching into Athenian lands yearly to burn the crops and homes of Athens’ farmers, while the Athenians sat behind their Long Walls unable to do anything about it. At the same time, though, Athens’s fleet was out conducting raids and invasion of Sparta’s allies and territories, with Sparta unable to do anything about THAT.
In 425 BC, the Athenians won a great victory when they defeated the Spartans at the island of Sphacteria just a stone’s throw away from Spartan soil. This dagger in Sparta’s side, as well as numerous setbacks elsewhere, temporarily threw the war into Athens’ favor. It was enough to force a truce, starting in 421 BC. While this was supposedly an opportunity for peace, neither side really respected the terms of the treaty and expected the fight to continue.
Athens, persuaded by the charismatic demagogue Alcibiades, launched a quixotic expedition to Sicily in 415 BC. This massive invasion sapped so many of Athens’ resources and fighting men that its ultimate disaster in 413 put Athens on the permanent backfoot for the resumption of the war. Sparta pitched in to help its allies in Sicily, assisted by the defection of Alcibiades himself after he was (probably) framed for disrespecting the gods. As the war continued, Alcibiades ended up defecting AGAIN to Persia, and AGAIN to try and help his old city of Athens. And that is where our story picks up with a slight overlap.
The situation: it’s 413 BC. Sparta and Athens, along with their alliances, are at war again. But this time things are different. The city of Athens pitched everything they had into the glorious expedition to Sicily – money, men, supplies, resources, their best leaders, and all their hopes and dreams. Its spectacular failure and its almost total destruction have put Athens into a terrible bind. They still have supremacy at sea, and a vast empire of subject cities that contribute resources and men – but for how long? It seemed like Sparta was about to win this thing for good.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. Athens recovered surprisingly quickly from the disaster in Sicily. They would never be what they once were. The great plague of 430 BC had wiped out much of their population, and war and deprivation ever since had only been eclipsed by the Sicilian disaster. But Athens was still rich, strong, and filled with talented men willing to put their lives on the line for their city. They had wisely kept a cache of money and 100 ships that they refused to commit to Sicily, and this reserve ultimately paid off in the battles to come. The failure of the Sicilian expedition SHOULD have wiped Athens out. It would have done so to any other Greek city. But the resilience of its commercial and naval capacity, as well as its’ citizens determination to fight to the end, kept Athens in the fight – and gave them some hope of ultimate victory.
The Spartans, too, were girding themselves for a final showdown. The Spartans had always been reluctant combatants in this war, dragged into conflict by their allied cities like Corinth and Thebes and more concerned with keeping their alliance together than in defeating Athens. But the Sicilian Expedition seemed to demonstrate that Athens was angling for domination of the whole Mediterranean. Sparta, which had previously only sought peace was determined to bring this thing to an end and to destroy Athens as a military power. But for that they needed help. And there was only one power in the Ancient World who hated the Athenians as much as they did.
It was with great misgivings that Sparta allied with its longtime enemy, the killers of Leonidas and the destroyers of the 300 – the Persian Empire. It seemed like a deal with the devil, and just like Satan himself, Persia demanded a high price for their cooperation. Way back in the 490s BC, Sparta had first come into conflict with Persia to defend their fellow Greeks in Ionia, the islands on the west coast of modern Turkey. These Greek cities were some of the most prominent centers of the ancient Greek world, and Sparta had defied the Great King in large part to defend them from Persian conquest. But now Persia demanded a gut-wrenching price. They would only assist Sparta against Athens if Sparta allowed them to reconquer the Ionian cities.
It was a massive betrayal. Sparta, who had gone to war against Persia and even Athens under the banner of “freedom for the Greeks,” sold the Ionian Greeks down the river in order to defeat Athens. The Ionian Greeks would never really get their independence back from Persia, who in 412 BC conquered most of the recalcitrant cities. The war that had begun with the Ionians, which had led to Leonidas’ sacrifice and the epic struggle against Xerxes’ invasion, had come full circle. Greek had sold out Greek to defeat Greek. The whole time, the Persians smiled. There was no better revenge for Salamis than watching their foes eat each other alive.
With the assistance of Persian coin and the Persian fleet, Sparta began to take the war to Athens. On the advice of the Athenian exile Alcibiades, they established a small fort in Athens’ territory which would enable them to invade year-round, as well as blocking off supplies from overland. They also used this fort to raid and destroy the Athenian silver mines that were the source of much of its wealth. With almost its entire mainland territory occupied, and facing increasing financial collapse, Athens relied more and more on its sea routes. The Long Walls, a winding snake of masonry that connected the city of Athens to its port of Piraeus, proved the lifeline: all the grain, oil and money that kept Athens’ war effort going marched in ox-driven wagons between these two high edifices. Athens was now totally dependent on their control of the sea for survival.
Athens was forced to lean more and more on its scattered island empire to fuel its war machine. Sparta, slowly pushing the Athenian people over a barrel economically and materially, sought to break up the Athenian Empire by encouraging revolt and rebellion. Many of Athens’ subject cities, it was true, were not especially thrilled to be part of the Empire. It was not hard to get them to rebel. As their empire broke out in uprisings, the Persians donated money and ships to those cities that revolted, and even Sparta and its allies – traditional land powers – were now fielding fleets in the Aegean to contest the Athenian Navy. Under this pressure, truly, the Athenians would crack.
With the Athenian democracy refusing to back down, some of the city’s aristocrats took power into their own hands. In 411 BC, the Athenian elites decided to overthrow the city’s singular democratic government. They believed that the failures of recent years had proved that democracy was an ineffectual, ruinous form of government. On June 9, 411 BC, the conspirators seized power in Athens and drove out the assembly. They elected a new group of leaders based on the old noble families of Athens, known as the Four Hundred. Critically, though, the Four Hundred had failed in their attempt to take over the Athenian Navy, which sat at anchor near the city of Samos across the Aegean Sea. The failure of this coup would spell the doom of the Four Hundred.
For anyone planning a coup: the military is a MUST. You HAVE to have the support of the military. This is a no-brainer, really.
As the Four Hundred devolved into chaotic infighting and feuding, the Spartans took advantage of the new political chaos. They even started negotiations with one faction in Athens for a total surrender, including the Spartan occupation of the port of Piraeus. This sent nervous shocks throughout the Athenian Empire, nervous shocks which reached the fleet at Samos. Here they took the monumental step of asking Alcibiades, now a three-time traitor, to lead their fleet. With the support of the charismatic, controversial commander, the Four Hundred were overthrown and the democracy was reinstalled.
Despite everything – military defeat, financial instability, political turmoil – Athens somehow survived. Alcibiades correctly perceived that Athens’ survival depended on its sea routes that brought food and supplies to the city, now that Sparta and its allies had occupied and destroyed its territories on the Greek mainland. The main route brought grain from the distant farmers of Ukraine and Turkey through the narrow sea chokepoint of the Bosporus, which itself contained the Greek cities of Cyzicus and Byzantium, both part of the Athenian Empire. The Bosporus separates Europe from Turkey, and has been an important strategic chokepoint until – well, the modern day. (The only reason Turkey is in NATO is that Turkey keeps Russia out of the Bosporus.) Sparta knew that if they could capture and dominate the Bosporus, they could finally starve Athens into submission.
Alcibiades took the Athenian fleet north. His mission was to clear the Spartans from the Bosporus. In a pair of stunning victories at Abydos in 411 and Cyzicus in 410, Alcibiades didn’t just defeat the Spartan defeat – he utterly destroyed it. Cyzicus was a crazy battle of galleys and troops, which involved Alcibiades drawing the Spartans into a trap near the shore of the Bosporus. When the Spartan ships were forced onto shore, the Athenians landed and drove off both Persian and Spartan forces to seize literally all 80 ships in the Spartan fleet. This brilliant chaos of a battle took the metaphorical hand off of Athens’ throat, restoring the flow of trade and food to the besieged city.
For seven years, from 411 to 406 BC, Alcibiades and his cadre of admirals and generals kept Athens in the war. Even though their resources were nearly shot, the Athenians managed to survive. Using their superior naval strength, they were able to snuff out the widespread rebellions in their empire and recover many of their lost territories. The Spartan alliance was slow to build up its fleet, and Sparta – never a naval power – was reluctant to commit its treasured troops to a war at sea. Finally, Persia went through multiple changes of heart, never fully committed to backing the Spartans – they were a threat too, after all.
But with a change of leadership for both Sparta and Persia, the endgame finally began. First, the Persian Prince Cyrus the Younger took command of Imperial forces in the Aegean. Compared to the previous Persian commanders in the area, Cyrus took a special interest and gambled Persian resources on defeating Athens and cooperating with Sparta. He was helped in this endeavor by the new Spartan admiral in the Aegean, a man named Lysander. Lysander was the lover and patron of the Spartan Prince Agesilaus II, and a keen diplomat with an inventive mind for strategy. Lysander’s charisma and ability were only matched by his ambition; he sought Sparta’s domination over all of Greece, with himself at the right hand of his boyfriend as Chief Minister. He immediately charmed the Persian Prince Cyrus, who was something of a fan of Greek culture as well as a similar ambitious spirit: Cyrus wanted to be the new Persian Emperor. The two men made an informal agreement that they would help each other attain their goals.
With Cyrus backing him with money and troops, Lysander set out to spar with Alcibiades in 406 BC. The brilliant Athenian tried to corner the wily Spartan into a decisive battle, but Lysander refused, keeping his fleet in port near Ephesus. Only when Alcibiades withdrew the bulk of the fleet to gather supplies did Lysander strike, luring the substitute Athenian commander into a defeat at Notium. This naval defeat, the first in the seven years of Alcibiades’ command of the fleet, gave Alcibiades’ enemies in Athens the chance they had sought. They deposed him as general, causing the famous commander to flee into exile for the final time. The Athenians had lost their greatest commander when they needed him most – but to be fair, Alcibiades was no one’s idea of a virtuous man.
Even though this window of opportunity had been opened, Lysander was removed from command shortly after his victory. The Spartans were suspicious of his ambitions, and even though they were right to be they didn’t replace him with another decent admiral. Later in 406 BC, the Athenians and the Spartans fought a great naval battle at Arginusae. This was one of the big ones, with over 100 triremes on either side, a pitched conflict roiling on the wine-dark sea as men threw spears at each other from their bucking ships, or heaved their oars as they tried to ram their opposite numbers. This was one of the few conflicts in the war where the Spartan crews and leaders were more experienced than the Athenians, since the Athenians’ best had been sunk at Notium or were currently off elsewhere.
Luckily for the Athenians, their junior commanders employed new and unorthodox tactics. They used a double line of triremes, which prevented the usual Spartan assault tactics of breaking the first line, and also extended their flank far out to the left. These innovative ideas brought the Spartan fleet to ruin, costing them over 70 ships for the price of only 25 Athenian ships sunk. But bad luck didn’t just hit the Spartans. A sudden storm fell upon the area as the battle was ending, scattering the Athenian ships and preventing them from following up their victory or – more disgracefully in contemporary eyes – recovering the stranded sailors from their sunken ships. The public outrage and demagoguery that followed the Battle of Arginusae resulted in the six (VICTORIOUS) Athenian commanders being tried and executed for dereliction of duty. For the last years of the war, then, the Athenian Navy would go forth without its best commanders and under a dark cloud of demoralization.
At this final, decisive hour in 405 BC, Lysander once again took command of the Spartan fleet. He wanted to lure the Athenians into a decisive battle that would wreck their navy and cut off their sea routes that kept them alive. With a Spartan fleet reequipped and rearmed by the Persians through his close connection with Cyrus, Lysander launched a devastating campaign against Athens’ imperial possessions, drawing the Athenian fleet after him. Once he was certain they had his scent, Lysander decided to strike the one target they could not ignore: the Bosporus. A blow at this critical region threatened to starve Athens into submission, and they had no choice but to follow. They had to defeat Lysander immediately, or all would be lost. The final showdown was here.
Though the exiled Alcibiades, living nearby, tried to talk the Athenians out of a premature assault, the commanders turned him down. At the resulting Battle of Aegospotami, the final battle of the Peloponnesian War, each side would have almost 180 ships. It was a truly massive enterprise, but turned out to be surprisingly anticlimactic.
Each side had been playing chicken with each other for days, rowing out as if to fight only for one or the other to decide that today wasn’t a good day and returning to port. On the fifth day of this feinting, the Athenians rolled out to see that the Spartans weren’t coming out to fight at all. They returned to their campsite at Sestos, and the Athenian sailors scattered into the hills to forage for food and shelter for the night. This was what Lysander had been waiting for: his perceived idleness was a trick. Once the Athenians were out of sight, his men boarded their ships and rowed close behind them. Before the Athenians knew it, the Spartans had landed amongst them and captured all their ships with barely any sea fighting at all. While the land combat was chaotic and bloody, the well-prepared Spartan hoplites were more than a match for the surprised Athenian sailors.
The result was devastating: the final blow to Athens. From a fleet of almost 180, they lost all but nine. NINE. Most of the Athenian sailors, captured as they returned to try and fight, had their throats slit and were tossed into the sea. The conclusion was clear: Athens had lost its main route of food and supplies, and now they had no fleet on the high seas to stand between them and Sparta.
Throughout the rest of the year, Lysander’s fleet picked off one helpless city after another, with the Athenians powerless to oppose him. Only at one city – Samos – did Lysander meet determined resistance, and he left a small force to cordon it off while he continued his rampage. He slowly drew closer to Athens, like a lion taking his time stalking his prey. According to the Greek historian Xenophon, once news of Aegospotami reached Athens, “...a sound of wailing ran from Piraeus through the long walls to the city, one man passing on the news to another; and during that night no one slept, all mourning, not for the lost alone, but far more for their own selves.” The end was coming, and everyone knew it: Sparta would demand blood for 27 years of war and horror.
Without a fleet to guard their transports from the Black Sea, and with the Spartan forts on their territory blocking any supply by land, the people of Athens began to die of hunger. Soon Lysander’s fleet was hanging right outside the city, and there was no hope. Despite desperate attempts to fight on and resist the invaders, everyone knew it was over. In March 404 BC, the Peloponnesian War finally came to an end when Athens surrendered. It was over. It was ALL over.
While some of Sparta’s allies – Corinth and Thebes especially – demanded that Athens be utterly destroyed for prosecuting this terrible war, Lysander refused them. With Athens utterly at his mercy, the Peloponnesians could have done anything they wanted to the city. But the Spartans remembered way back in 480 BC, when the Greeks had been united and stood together, and the fleet of Athens had saved the Greeks from conquest by the Persians. For this service, this reason only, Athens would be spared total destruction.
But the Athenians would not get off easy. They were forced to tear down their walls, burn the last ships of their fleet on the beach, and surrender their entire empire. Athens’ democracy was replaced by a set of oligarchs, the Thirty Tyrants, and the city would become a subject state of Sparta. Athens, the most powerful and vibrant of all the Greek cities, the center of culture and learning and philosophy, had been burnt to a crisp in its long struggle. With its final subjugation ended the Golden Age of Greece.
Sparta was now the dominant state among the Greeks, but this position came with a cost. Not only had the Spartans sold their souls to the Persians in order to prosecute the war, but now they faced the fact that most Greek cities were just as worried about a Spartan domination as they were an Athenian one. Within a few years, Sparta’s former allies Corinth and Thebes would be at war with the great city. During one of these wars Lysander himself would be killed, years after the Persian Prince Cyrus had died leading Greek mercenaries trying to seize his throne. The Athenians took advantage of Spartan distraction to restore their democracy and make something of a recovery, somehow clawing their way back into the Greek power rankings after their terrible defeat. Even with the great Spartan victory, Greece did not know peace.
Indeed, the Peloponnesian War had not just permanently ended Greece’s Classical Age – it had permanently weakened all the great cities. When the Macedonians of Philip II and his son Alexander came knocking, eighty years later, they faced a group of cities exhausted by constant war and strife. Philip would crush Athens, Thebes and Corinth; when Sparta finally decided to make a stand, Alexander’s general Antipater crushed them like a bug. What the Persians had always wanted had come to pass: the Greeks, who had once united to defeat Xerxes in the epic battle of their age, had in the end destroyed each other.
United they had stood. Divided they fell. Thus ended the Peloponnesian War: truly a war like no other.
Book Recommendation: For the Peloponnesian War, there is always the original history of Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, which can be found in print basically everywhere and is eminently readable for reasons that have nothing to do with Ancient Greece. It's often used as a handbook in strategy and war studies across the world. For a slightly more concerning take, see the modern comparison of the Peloponnesian War to a possible fight between the United States and China: Graham Ellison's Destined For War: Can America and China escape Thucydides's Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).