Thucydides has said, “If you ride on the tiger of war, it is hard to get off.” Athens and Sparta experienced this concept for almost 30 years. To the general and historian, Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War was the greatest war because it lasted for such a long time and during this time it caused much suffering for the Greeks. Civil wars are the most devastating.
Thucydides also states in his History of the Peloponnesian War, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and fear it caused to Sparta” (Thucydides, 49). Thucydides goes further to say, “That the truest cause (of the war) I consider to be one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the terror which this inspired, made war a necessity to Laecedaemon” (Samons, 285). This was the cause that was least spoken of. When a shared power develops an imbalance, war is often the result.
There were underlying reasons for the breaking of a thirty-year truce between Athens and Sparta. These reasons were the dispute over Epidamnus and Athens fighting with Corcyra against the Corinthians when a peace treaty was in effect, grievances of Corinth that Athens was attacking Potidaea, and Athenian grievances against the Spartans because they had supported a revolt of a city that was in alliance with Athens. An additional reason for breaking the truce was the Megarian decree that may have been the final spark that ignited this great holocaust of war.
The causes for the Peloponnesian war were both fundamental or long term and also incidental, or short term. This war broke out because of a series of incidents, which were mentioned, in the previous paragraph. The fundamental cause that these incidental events gave fuel to, was the fear that the Spartans had developed of the Athenians and Athens’ increasing powerful hold over the Hellene.
When the war broke out in 431BC, the Spartans wished to prevent further Athenian expansion and the Athenians hoped to wear down the Spartans and keep their empire as it was. The Spartan king, Archidamus, warned the Spartans about taking on such a worthy opponent and that it was doubtful that they would win against the Athenians who had much land and could import by sea. Pericles would make no concessions and would not revoke the Megarian Decree, which quite probably was the impetus for the war to begin. Pericles felt that the Spartans wished to enslave the Athenians and would not back down.
Plutarch blames Pericles for the war and says that he should have lifted the Megarian embargo. Plutarch had concentrated on one small element in the moss gathering momentum of all things contributing to the war. His outlook was more of a popular, gossip aspect and really not based on the whole picture of what had preceded this decree.
Historian, Donald Kagan, disputes Thucydides’ thoughts that the growth of Athens led to the inevitable war with Sparta. His contention is that Athens did not grow in power between 445 and 435 BC, which would have been the years preceding the onset of the war. He states that Corinth decided that the affair at Epidamnus would be a perfect opportunity for them to take revenge upon the Corcyreans, who were their enemy. The Corinthians felt that with the help of the Peloponnesians, they could defeat the Corcyreans. Athens did try to limit its help to the Corcyreans, in order to alleviate the appearance of breaking their alliance with Sparta.
Kagan also thinks that Pericles made errors in producing the Megarian decree and giving Potidea an ultimatum. There was a core of mutual suspicion and distrust between Athens and Sparta, which was very deep. The hatred between Corcyra and Corinth was at the heart of matter, and Sparta was so weakly organized that it allowed a weaker power to drag it into a war, that was not in Sparta’s best interests.
Kagan suggests that the growth of the Athenian Empire and Spartan jealousy and fear of Athenian power provided the flammable material that ignited the first Peloponnesian War and then the subsequent troubles at Epidamnus, fed by the Corinthians, Megarians, Potideans, Aegentians, the Spartan war party, and the Athenians themselves added fuel to the fire. He postulates that the Corinthians had the greatest guilt, but also that Sparta deserves part of the blame for being provoked by the Corinthians, and that the Athenians also must assume their share of the guilt (Samons, 301).
Kagan gives blame to statesmen who did not have the foresight to see what such a war would mean to the Hellenes. None expected such a protracted war and looked no further than the immediate concerns of what they felt would be advantageous to their immediate plan. The statesmen failed to see that they were opening Greece up to possible conquest by a foreign nation. In civil war, possibly more so than in war between two different nations, both sides lose a great deal. Kagan states, “It (war) was caused by men who made bad decisions in difficult circumstances. Neither the circumstances nor the decisions were inevitable (Samons, 305).
To sum up Kagan’s thesis on the cause of the Peloponnesian War, would be that fundamentally Sparta was afraid of the growing power of Athens and the incidental problems at Epidamnus, with the addition of Corinthian, Megarian, Potidean, and Argentian energies added more fuel. The Spartan seduction into helping the Corinthians and the Athenian arrogance added even more fuel. Poor foresight and myopic statesmen made very human mistakes and did nothing to prevent this cataclysm. Poor diplomatic measures did not help to alleviate problems.
G.M.E. de Ste. Croix lays blame for the Peloponnesian War solely on the shoulders of the Spartans, because it was they who invaded Athens. He glosses over the relevance of the incidents at Potidea and Corcyra to support this argument. He suggests that the Megarian decree was a very minor factor, which the Spartans chose to use as an excuse to attack Athens. This decree was probably not even economically motivated or an intentional act of imperialism. It was probably no more than a social measure to give some humiliation to the Megarians for violating the sacred land. He states that no distinction can be made between the incidental and fundamental causes of the war. De Ste. Croix interprets Thucydides’ account of the war as a demonstration of a Spartan attempt to find an excuse to break the peace with Athens and to prevent further expansion of Athens (Samons, 305). The long-term cause of the war was the growth of Athenian power and the short-term cause was the fear that the paranoid society of Sparta had of Athens.
The decision to go to war with Athens was a based on a very close vote in the assembly. Sparta had a great need to keep the Peloponnesus under their control, for to allow Athenian ideas to come into the area would allow for stimulation of the helots which would be to the vast detriment of the Spartan society. As stated by de Ste. Croix, “The Helot danger was the curse Sparta had brought upon herself, and admirable illustration of the maxim that a people which oppresses another cannot itself be free” (Samons, 315).
Kagan thinks that the war was inexorable and de Ste. Croix felt that it was inevitable. Professor Daly, BGSU, feels that Sparta made the decision to attack Athens, but the war was not inevitable and could have been stopped in its early stages if Sparta had told the Corinthians that they were not interested in being their protector. Athens was too anxious to obtain the Corcyrean fleet and this may have colored their view of whether they should come to Corcyra’s aid. Sparta did not want to weaken the Peleponnesian League, but Corinth felt more comfortable with Sparta because Corinth was an oligarchy.
This writer feels that war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable due to the nature of Spartan society and the paranoia that it fed on. Fear is one of the greatest motivators, and can remove all rational thought. Sparta has their entire society to lose if Athens came to them with their innovative ideas and developing democratic way of government. All the incidents involving Corinth, Corcyra, Potidea, Epidamnus, and Megara gave Sparta reasons to break their treaty with Athens. When one is desperate enough, even the flimsiest excuse can appear solid.
Pericles and Athenian Politics
Thucydides viewed Pericles as a “first citizen” of Athens (his administration as distinctly aristocratic) and pro-Spartan conservatives saw him as a tyrant who was to be blamed for the Peloponnesian War. To Athenians, Pericles had knowledge, integrity, eloquence, and honest character. He has the foresight to see what was going to happen, the ability to communicate with the people, and integrity, and all of these characteristics made him a great leader. Proof of the Athenian trust in him was his re-election to the office of generalship for 30 years.
Pericles had the same abilities as Themistocles, who was able to look to the future of Athens and persuaded the newly victorious Athenians to turn from their hoplite phalanx army to a navy, and not only accomplished that, but also persuaded them to make sacrifices to pay for it. This would have been not an easy feat, after the hoplites had won the battle at Marathon. Pericles himself stated the characteristics that were necessary for a statesman and these were; “to know what must be done and to be able to explain it; to love one’s country and to be incorruptible” (Samons, 201).
Pericles was the first to provide payment for jury duty and was as good of a test case of democracy as anything else. He did not get too far ahead of his crowd. Kagan felt that Pericles was a possible model for contemporary leaders such as FDR and Churchill. He was a strategos who led his troops in body. Pericles sponsored the growth of the arts and played the political game and went to war alongside his troops.
Kagan states that new democracies will need leadership such as that of Pericles and that such leadership is not easily obtained in present time. He also feels that those who wish to form a democracy would do themselves a service by turning to Pericles and Athens (Samons, 203). After Pericles’ death, it seemed that many subsequent leaders were compared to his character and it became the “wish we had back what we do not have now, because it was much better” time.
Frank Frost feels that all the Athenians supported the empire and that their forces supported Pericles, and any opponents he had, such as Cleon, came from the left (Samons, 184). Plutarch says that the aristocrats of Athens chose Thucydides, son of Melesias, to counter Pericles. He also says that any major success that Pericles enjoyed was due to the loyalty of his followers who came from all parts of the Athenian society.
W.R. Connor states that Pericles became important by making himself an indispensable expert in the public affairs (Samons, 189). Athenian political organization required expert leadership and continuity; here frequent elections produced a too frequent change in personnel. The growth of Athens demanded a new kind of political leadership and Pericles was a great example of what it needed. Politics had become a full-time career and one that Pericles was able to do (Samons, 191). Pericles’ single-minded devotion to the business of running Athens was what Athens needed.
Pericles was the leader that Athens needed in this stage of its development. This writer feels that the war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable, but that Pericles had the ability to change that. A strategos, who had been reelected for 30 years, would have had great influence with the Athenian population. His intractableness in dealing with the Megarians certainly gave the Spartans, at least in their own minds, a reason to break the treaty and to attack Athens.
This writer postulates that some type of war was inevitable because Athenian power was increasing in the eyes of the paranoid Spartans and to the Spartans this shift of power could/would mean the end of their society. Any apparent infraction on the part of the Athenians gave Sparta the reason they needed to do what they did best, and that was to fight and try to control using military power.
Kagan, D. 1987, The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Ithaca.
Samons, Lauren J. Athenian Democracy and Imperialism (1998)
Carol graduated from Riverside White Cross School of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio and received her diploma as a registered nurse. She attended Bowling Green State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Literature. She attended the University of Toledo, College of Nursing, and received a Master’s of Nursing Science Degree as an Educator.
She has traveled extensively, is a photographer, and writes on medical issues. Carol has three children RJ, Katherine, and Stephen – one daughter-in-law; Katie – two granddaughters; Isabella Marianna and Zoe Olivia – and one grandson, Alexander Paul. She also shares her life with her husband Gordon Duff, many cats, and two rescues.