Why were Sparta and Athens rivals? (A complete guide)

The rivalry between Sparta and Athens and the Peloponnesian War that was the result of that rivalry is widely known. But what made Sparta and Athens, both were allies during the Greco-Persian Wars, such bitter rivals that they would wage an all-out war against each other?

The rivalry between Sparta and Athens goes back to 510 BC when Sparta helped Athens to get rid of its last tyrant. But since the Athenians rightfully feared Sparta would set up a government that was dependant on Sparta they asked the Persian king for help. The rivalry intensified when after the Greco-Persian Wars both Athens and Sparta claimed the dominant position in Greece for themself. That resulted in the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC)

Let`s find out more!

Problems between Sparta & Athens before the Greco-Persian Wars

Although Sparta and Athens were allies during the Greco-Persian Wars, more on that here, the relationship prior to the Greco-Persian Wars was strained.

And the major reason for that are events that took place around the time Athens had gotten rid of its last tyrant Hippias in 510 BC.

The Athenian politician Cleisthenes had plans to overthrow the tyrant Hippias but realized that he would need external help. By bribing the oracle of Delphi Cleisthenes was able to ensure that Sparta the oracle would council Sparta to take care of removing the Athenian tyrant.

Spartan help for Athens to overthrow the tyrant

Now it might seem a little strange that Sparta would do that on the advice of an Oracle. But Sparta had a strict anti-tyrant policy that led them to fight tyranny even if Sparta was not directly affected.

And the spartan king Cleomenes, more on the role of the spartan kings here, who at that point was the dominating politician in Sparta had another motivation.

By helping in overthrowing the Athenian tyrant Sparta would not only weaken Athens but might also have the chance to install a new government that was dependant on Sparta.

The first spartan attempt to overthrow Hippias was undertaken by a small group of irregulars. They planned to land in Athens and use the element of surprise to get rid of Hippias. But that failed.

After the first (and second) attempt had failed the spartan king Cleomenes had to take matters into his own hands and marched a spartan army consisting of hoplites, more on the Hoplites here, to Athens.

Hippias on the other hand was able to entrench himself with loyal troops in the acropolis of Athens. And while Sparta was a master at winning field battles using their dreaded phalanx, more on the spartan phalanx here, sieges were not a specialty of Sparta (or any other classical Greek power)

Sparta was not able to win that conflict by military strength. But after granting Hippias free passage to the city of Sigeion in 510 BC, Athens was finally free of its tyrant.

Or was it?

By the way. In case you wonder what happened to Hippias. He fleed into the Persian empire where he would play a major role during the Greco-Persian was since the Persian King planned to reinstall him as a dependent ruler in Athens. These plans were crossed by the battle of Marathon, more on that here.

Sparta interfering in Athenian politics after the end of tyranny in Athens

Hippias, the last Athenian tyrant had been outcasted in 510 BC.

But it turned out that just getting rid of a tyrant wasn`t really enough. The family of Hippias, the Peisistratides, had ruled Athens for almost 40 years. What political system should take the place of tyranny?

Cleisthenes, the man who had initiated the overthrowing of the tyrant, proposed domestic politics that were ajar to the politics of Solon (including the idea that every citizen should participate in state politics which would later be developed into the attic democracy).

But Cleisthenes was not able to push through against his rival Isagoras.

Isagoras was backed by a group of reactionary radicals. Their goal was to reinstall the system the Peisistratid tyrants had overthrown. That system intended the rule of a close circle of noble families accomplished by 300 noble representatives. That transformed the aristocracy into an oligarchy!

The ideas of both parties, Cleisthenes and Isagoras, collided leading to the second phase of the revolution (the first one being getting rid of the tyrant). Isagoras and his supporters of an oligarchy were outnumbered. So Isagoras needed an ally

And that ally once more was Sparta.

The spartan king Cleomenes had soon realized that the democratic forces led by Cleisthenes could undermine Sparta’s position in Greece. So he had great sympathies for establishing a weak government in Athens that was dependant on Sparta.

While the spartan troops that were still in Athens were able to evict Cleisthenes but succumbed to the supporters of Cleisthenes.

Once more the spartan king Cleomenes had to take things into his own hands. But that time it turned out as a disaster.

Cleomenes, Isagoras, and a small spartan army occupied the fortress of Athens but quickly found themselves being besieged in the fortress from which they had planned to control Athens.

After the spartan force was granted free passage back home to Sparta Cleisthenes returned and the supporters of Isagoras were either exiled or executed.

While Cleisthenes was able to install his political system the threat was not over yet since spartan revenge was highly likely.

And that forced Cleisthenes to take a risky step.

Athens seeks Persian protection against Sparta

Since Athens did not have the power to stand against Sparta and its militaristic society, more on why Sparta was such a militaristic society here, it needed a stronger power for protection.

And that power was the Persian empire. According to the ancient Greek Historian Herodotus Athens put itself under the protection of the Persian king Dareios I.

But the Persian governor in Sardes with whom the Athenian legation was negotiating understood the Athenian offer of an alliance according to Persian traditions as an act of submission. The Athenian people`s assembly later denied any submission.

During that time Sparta had actually sent another army but as soon as rumors of an alliance between Athens and the Persian empire came up that army was scattered and marched home in separated marching columns.

So in a way, one could say that the alliance/submission to the Persian empire was the first stepping stone for Athens’s rise to power.

But that came at a cost. When Athens supported a rebellion against the Persian king following the year 499 BC the Persian king was obviously not overly amused over the fact that a community he saw as his subservient was burning down one of his provincial capital.

That incident, the Ionian Revolt, is generally seen as the start of the Greco-Persian Wars. Please check out my article here for more information on the Ionian revolt.

Greco-Persian Wars: Sparta & Athens united against a common enemy

Before the Greco-Persian Wars, more on what started them here, Athens and Sparta had a strained relationship. But that changed with the rise of a common enemy.

During the Greco-Persian Wars, Athens (which had transformed itself into a leading naval power) and Sparta (still the leading military power in Greece) were forced to work together.

Both states were able to gain decisive victories against Persian forces. And while the claim that the first Persian campaign into Greece would have subjugated all of Greece if they would not have been stopped at Marathon, more on the battle of Marathon here, is most likely wrong, the first campaign was certainly a threat to Athens.

Now there were 4 major battles during the Greco-Persian Wars, more on them here. Two of these battles were fought under the command of Sparta and two under the command of Athens.

And that fact was a problem after the Greco-Persian wars!

The Rivalry between Sparta & Athens after the Greco-Persian Wars

While the battle of Marathon and the battle of Salamis were won because of Athenian participation Sparta was mostly responsible for the battle at the Thermopylae and the battle of Platea. More information in my article here.

After the Greco Persian Wars, both Athens and Sparta felt like their sacrifices and accomplishments should guarantee them the leading position within Greece.

Athens presented the argumentation that because they had stopped the Persian advance at Marathon and had destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis they should be the new leading power inside Greece.

And Sparta did the exact same thing arguing that their sacrifices at the battle of the Thermopylae had bought enough time to prepare for the victory at Salamis. And that the battle at Platea that changed the course of the war (and that was one of the largest hoplite battles in antiquity) was won by the spartan phalanx.

That conflict would result in the Peloponnesian war.

The Peloponnesian war – the result of the rivalry between Sparta & Athens?

The Pentecontaetia („the 50 years“) was a time between the end of the Greco-Persian Wars in 479 BC and the start of the Peloponnesian war in 431 BC that was marked by Athens becoming the dominant naval power in the eastern Mediterrane as well as a growing dualism between Athens and Sparta.

In  431 BC the conflict over who should be the dominant power in Greece escalated. And due to the arms race during the Pentecontaetia both Athens (leading the Delian League) and Sparta (leading the Peloponnesian League were well prepared for war.

What followed was a kind of ancient world war in which not only Athens and Sparta and their allies but also the Persian Empire and Sicily would play an important role.

But that is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


A. Heuß, G. Mann (Hrsg.); Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte, Band III Griechenland – Die hellenistische Welt (Frankfurt a. Main 1986).