The Peloponnesian War was a 27-year-long war that was fought between Athens and Sparta between 431 and 404 BC. Because of its duration and its brutality the Peloponnesian War is sometimes also referred to as an ancient World War.
But why did the Peloponnesian War last so long?
The Peloponnesian War consisted of three interwoven layers. The first layer was the war between Sparta and Athens (and their allies). But Sparta and Athens also interfered in the wars between neighboring city-states (the second layer) and the civil wars within the city-states (the third layer). That, together with the fact that the militaries of Athens and Sparta were so different that both states avoided a direct confrontation in a pitched battle led to the Peloponnesian War lasting for 27 years.
Let`s take a closer look.
431 – 421 BC: The Athenian & Spartan Military Had Contrary strengths and Avoided a Decisive Battle
The first and most obvious reason why the Peloponnesian War took so long is that at least in its first phase (the so-called Archidamian War from 431-421 BC), the Spartan military and the Athenian military avoided facing each other in a decisive battle.
The reason for that was the fact that the Athenian military and the Spartan military had very different alignments and strengths.
Athens had become a naval superpower over the course of the Persian Wars and relied on its superior navy to defeat Sparta. Sparta on the other side had been the dominant land-based military power and had a superior army compared to Athens. So while Athens avoided facing the Spartan army, Sparta avoided fighting the Athenian navy. That resulted in warfare where the armies of Sparta and Athens never crossed each other and were never able to end the Peloponnesian War in a decisive battle.
Please check out my articles on the Spartan army and the Athenian navy for more information!
So for most of the Archidamian War (except for 429 and 426 BC when Athens was hit by the plague) the Spartan army invaded the lands of Athens and devastated the land. But the Athenians had withdrawn their citizens and everything that could be moved behind the city walls of Athens. So the Spartan army could not do anything aside from burning down houses and chopping down olive trees.
Especially the chopping down of olives trees was devastating since these trees need decades before they produce a significant amount of olives (and olive oil). The burnt-down fields and houses were less important since they could easily be rebuilt and planted again in the next year.
And while all the Athenian citizens who fled from the land into the city of Athens certainly made the city extremely crowded (probably one of the reasons Athens was hit so badly by the plague), the food supply was still secure. Athens could rely on the Delian League and the import of grain from the Black Sea and modern-day Ukraine. So the fact that Sparta devastated the Athenian farmland didn`t push Athens to surrender.
Here you can find out more about the number of Athenian citizens.
However, especially the younger generations (they wanted to gain the same fame that their fathers and grandfathers had won in the Persian Wars), as well as the Athenian citizens from the surrounding Athenian lands (who wanted to stop the Spartans from destroying their livelihoods), wanted to leave the safety of the Athenian city walls and face the Spartan army in a pitched battle.
And that was exactly what Sparta hoped for!
Sparta with its superior army hoped that it could lure the Athenian army out of the safety of its city walls by ravaging the Athenian farmlands. A pitched battle between the Spartan and the Athenian army would have most likely ended in a Spartan victory, which would have won Sparta the Peloponnesian War.
But the Athenian leader Perikles refused to allow the Athenian army to leave the city (it is unclear whether or not he even had the legal power to do that, he did it anyway) and face the Spartan army. In a famous speech that Thucydides reports (but that most likely never happened), Pericles states that burnt-down villages and chopped-down olive trees can be replaced, but chopped down men can`t.
Instead, he had other plans to hurt Sparta. Each summer Pericles ordered the Athenian navy to leave Athens and sail to the Peloponnese (the power base of Sparta). There, the Athenian navy and its Hoplites ravaged the farmlands of Sparta’s allies. But just like Sparta in the Athenian farmlands, Athens was also not able to do much more than burn down villages and chop down olive trees.
So during the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 421 BC), the Spartan army destroyed the Athenian lands without being able to endanger Athens itself while the Athenian navy ravaged the coastline of the Peloponnese, also without being able to really hurt Sparta. So both major powers did not face each other.
Instead, the war was shaped by civil wars in different city-states (such a civil war had also started the Peloponnesian War in the first place).
The Peloponnesian War: A War With Three Layers
When we think of the Peloponnesian War, then we usually think of a war between Sparta and Athens (and their military alliances). But that is only partially true.
Yes, Athens and Sparta had a long-going rivalry that eventually pushed them to fight each other. But the Peloponnesian War was not just a war between the two superpowers Athens and Sparta, there were two more layers to the war.
War Between Athens & Sparta (and Their Allies)
The first layer of the Peloponnesian War was the war between Sparta and Athens (and their allies) that was based on an old rivalry. The second layer was the wars between neighboring city-states that were based on old hate and old rivalries. And the third layer was the civil war (stasis) within each city-state between the followers of democracy and the followers of oligarchy. These layers were interwoven when Sparta (oligarchy) or Athens (democracy) supported the followers of their political ideologies during a stasis in one of the city-states.
But let`s first take a look at the second layer, the wars between neighboring city-states. (And I would like to recommend you my article here for more information on the rivalry between Athens and Sparta.
Wars Between Neighboring Citystates With Spartan/Athenian Interference
Ancient Greece was not one uniform state. Instead, the ancient Greek world consisted of more than 1,000 independent city-states.
These city-states were usually pretty close to each other. And the closer two city-states were to each other geographically speaking, the deeper the hate and the rivalries between them were. Famous examples of a rivalry between two Greek city-states are the neighboring cities of Athens and Aegina, Sparta and Argos, Thebes and Plataea, or Mytilene and Mithymna on the island of Lesbos.
By the way.
War in general was pretty normal in ancient Greece. On average the city-state of Athens fought a war every 2 – 3 years. And no peacetime lasted longer than 10 years! And the statistics of other Greek city-states were not that much better.
And especially neighboring city-states often went to war with each other for different reasons that could stretch from a dispute over the ownership of a few heads of cattle to an attempted regime change. And when one state (let`s call it state A) needed support, it would usually ask one of the superpowers, either Sparta or Athens, for military aid (depending on its current political position). But then the other Greek superpower would immediately try to support the rival of the city-state (A).
Let`s take one example and assume that city-state A is ruled by Oligarchs and city-state B is ruled by democrats. And these two neighboring city-states go to war with each other.
Suddenly state A realizes that it needs backup. So, it asks Sparta (the political anchor of oligarchy) for aid. But that poses the risk that the (until now) democratic state B falls under oligarch rule when it loses the war. So Athens (the political anchor of democracy) had to counter the Spartan aid for state A by also sending aid to state B so that state B could maintain its democratic government.
Needless to say that that makes the entire thing difficult and tedious. And it prolonged the Peloponnesian War since the high number of city-states provided a constant supply of wars in that Athens and Sparta could interfere.
But these political wars were not only fought between neighboring city-states, the most brutal wars were fought within the city-states between the supporters of democracy and the supporters of oligarchy.
Stasis: Civil War Between the Supporters of Oligarchy and Democracy Within Each Citystate
As mentioned, some Greek city-states were ruled by the followers of democracy, some by the followers of Oligarchy. But followers of Oligarchy and democracy existed in every city. And that regularly led to civil war (so-called stasis).
Stasis (or civil war within a city-state between the supporters of democracy and the supporters of oligarchy) was not exclusive to the Peloponnesian War. But the interference of Athens and Sparta in these civil wars during the Peloponnesian War made them more brutal.
Before the Peloponnesian War, a Stasis had usually ended with the defeated political group going into exile. But during the Peloponnesian War, the two parties in the civil wars started to massacre each other instead of sending the defeated political player into exile.
And just like in the wars between neighboring cities, both Athens and Sparta liked to interfere in the civil war within a city-state and support the followers of their political systems. So Sparta supported the political followers of oligarchy and Athens supported the political followers of democracy.
And this is where all these layers of the Peloponnesian War come together and create a war that lasted for 27 years.
The Peloponnesian War did not only consist of the fight between Sparta and Athens (plus their allies). Sparta and Athens also interfered in the wars between neighboring city-states and the civil wars within the city-states to ensure that their political allies controlled the city-state. That, together with the fact that the militaries of Athens and Sparta were so different that both states avoided a direct confrontation in a pitched battle led to the Peloponnesian War lasting for 27 years.
It was only in 414 BC when Athens’s old enemy, the Persian Empire, supported Sparta with massive financial aid so that Sparta could build a fleet that matched the mightly Athenian navy.
Because of that, the last phase of the Peloponnesian War was shaped by Naval battles in the Aegean Sea where both Sparta and Athens now had to face each other. It did however take until 404 BC before Sparta was finally able to defeat Athens and win the Peloponnesian War.
But Sparta’s time as a superpower would also run out soon after.
But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War.*
Wolfgang Will: Athen oder Sparta. Eine Geschichte des Peloponnesischen Kriegs.*
Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*
Jenifer Neils: The Cambridge companion to ancient Athens.*
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