According to Thucydides, it was bound to happen. ‘The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon [as ancient Sparta was known], made war inevitable,’ wrote the 5th-century BC Athenian historian and general in his History of the Peloponnesian War – the classic, eight-volume account of the conflict, which would later earn him the sobriquet the ‘father of scientific history’ for its impartial, evidence-based approach.
It was, of course, a civil war, stretching from 431 to 404 BC – an epic feud between the two leading city-states of the age that would go on to engulf almost the whole of the ancient Greek world, eventually spreading beyond the borders of modern-day Greece even as far as Sicily, the Dardanelles, and Cyprus. But the way it began, as a power struggle between ambitious rivals, with each pursuing influence through a complex system of armed alliances, has led some modern historians also to draw comparisons with other conflicts – not least, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
On one side were the conservative, agrarian Spartans – or, rather, the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League, founded in the 6th century BC, whose members included not only the major powers of the great Peloponnese peninsula but also those of central Greece. On the other was the fast-rising, democratic, Athenian-dominated Delian League, founded in 478 BC as a defence against Persian aggression, whose power was concentrated among the many islands and coastal states of the Aegean Sea.
Primarily a land-based power, Sparta had its main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in the south-eastern Peloponnese. Known for its austere military regime and obsessive focus on discipline, the city-state was home to the only fully professional army in Classical Greece – whose heavy infantrymen, called hoplites, were famed for the effectiveness of their phalanx formation.
Such martial strength, however, came at a human cost – including the reduction of local subject populations to the status of helots (effectively state serfs), forced to work the fields on behalf of their hated Spartiate overlords.
For its part, Athens possessed the world’s greatest navy – a legacy of the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BC), during which it won a landmark naval victory over the much larger forces of King Xerxes I at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). In the decades that followed, the prowess of the Athenian fleet allowed the increasingly influential city-state to establish maritime hegemony over the Hellenes, while the construction of the fortifications known as Long Walls helped to make it impregnable against attack.
As Paul Rahe explains in the first of two articles forming our special for this issue, it was against this backdrop that tensions between the two rival city-states would build inexorably in the aftermath of the Persian conflict, until the point at which they were to explode finally into open conflict. The war that followed – including the 418 BC Battle of Mantineia, described by Paul in his second article – saw power shift in Sparta’s favour, ushering in the period of decline that traditionally marks an end to Greece’s fabled ‘Golden Age’.
This is an extract from a special feature on The Peloponnesian War from the latest issue of Military History Matters magazine.