History Of the Peloponnesian War: Failure and Accomplishment
War, regardless political motivation, geographical expansion, euthanasia, national defense, or any of several other reasons, brings to both sides involved consequences that change history forever. Civil wars, global wars, or nation-to-nation wars are fraught with devastation that inflicts untold misery on the citizenry of all entities involved. Before discussing the events of the Peloponnesian war, a situation that has now been archived in history journals, it is extremely important to discuss the overall consequence of any war, regardless of nature or time. Upon reviewing, and digesting, that which is presented below, one will surely conclude that any act of war is a mark against civility followed by a legacy of emptiness.
In order to garner an understanding of what war casts upon the world, it is necessary to first gain an appreciation for the real effects of war – both individual and wide-ranging. In doing so we can then understand war, not as it was suppose to happen, rather as a situation wherein all citizenry suffers. Not only does war rob people of that which is rightfully theirs but also commandeers national resources, lands, individual rights, and political systems. Further, war sustains the unsustainable, namely multitudes of bereaved families and orphans. Not only does war redirect the energy of those who previously have worked constructively to strengthen a nation’s position in the world but also creates fear, hatred, intolerance, and animosity. By robbing a country of its natural resources war stifles economic growth and prevents monies from being spent on much needed services on each country’s home front. In the end, war produces no hero, no champion- only a new landlord and war’s revenge becomes another’s social justice. The only hope in the aftermath of war is the possibility of catharsis (Kaminer, Stein, Mbanga & Zungu-Dirwayi, 2001).
When discussing and evaluating the Peloponnesian war of 431-404 BC one must look at the individuals, the people, the circumstances, the culture, and the legend (Warner, 1954). Although the time span of 431 BC to 404 BC represents but a miniscule portion of one second on the face of time, the period is rather representative of that which the world new and accepted. War and a strict dual society in both Athens and Sparta was the framework of the times. During this time, and known as the Classical Age, citizenship rules in Athens were significantly strengthened to ensure that Athenian culture was retained as well as to discourage “mixed” marriages which could possibly weaken the Athenian heritage and social structure. In addition numerous conflicts with the Persians became so frequent that the Delian League (a counsel representing many city states; 478 BC) was formed to take up arms against the Persians in order to reclaim their former city-states. Unfortunately however, as plague, revolt, and the continued strain placed upon Athens by its ruler, Pericles, Athens finally surrendered to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War. One cannot skip to the end of the Peloponnesian War, however, without first looking the first 100 years before the war.
During the early part of the classical Period (500 BC – 336 BC) the adversarial relationship between Greece and the Persian Empire was intense and fraught with frequent battles. Under the rule of Darius I the Persian Empire continued with its expansion and the demands it made upon conquered city-states for money and manpower. Once Athens gave its support to the Delian League. Learning of the Delian League formation Darius I sought to crush all allies of Athens and began by invading Greece. Unfortunately, however, even though Darius I crushed an important ally of Greece he was tremendously humbled as the battle cost him dearly. Following these noteworthy events an astute politician in Athens by the name of Themistocles urged the Athenian legislative body to undertake the challenge of building a huge number of warships (Triremes) in the event Athens would have to defend itself from the Persians. To defray the costs of the massive national defense-building project the revenue from the silver mines at Laurion were used to defray the enormous cost. These modern day war galleys had an armored prow that could, under planned collisions, burst through the side of an enemy ship. The Triremes were the state of the art in battleship construction with their three tiers of oarsmen and advanced construction. When, in 480 BC Darius’ successor, Xerxes, led the largest army the world had ever known at the time against the entire Greek world he ordered a that a “Hellespont” (bridge supported by a large number of ships) so that he could proceed through Greece and related countries on into Europe. Once on land and near Thermopylae a small army of 300 Spartans and Boeticians (led by King Leonidas) kept a watchful eye on Xerxes for several days. Unfortunately, and without assistance for Sparta, Athens demise was swift and brutal. Although the city was laid to ruins, the Athenian navy was able to inflict a great deal on devastation on Xerxes at the battle of Salamis in 479 BC. From that point forward Athens recovered its trade status, rebuilt the city under the rule of Percicles and built a tribute to the goddess Athene – the Acropolis. In addition the arts and humanities began to make great strides in the humanities and philosophy visa via the works of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato.
Although Athens was on a course of reconstruction and economic development the between Sparta and Athens began to deteriorate. In a rather small war between Corcyra (supported by Sparta) and Corinth (supported by Athens), Athens became subjected to a Spartan siege or a participant in the great Peloponnesian War or wars from 431 BC to 404 BC. Not only was Athens under continual attack from Sparta but also in 430 BC Athens was beset with a plague that lasted several years and consumed almost 25% of the Athenian population. However, even with the plague Sparta was unable to pierce the defensive walls of Athens that linked Athens to Piraeus and as such foodstuffs managed to be brought into the beleaguered city Warner, 1954). As a sidebar note, and absent of any recorded historical evidence, the plague that nearly crushed Athens was thought to be the work of the Spartans – by catapulting their own plague afflicted soldiers over the walls into Athens. In an attempt to rid their city-state area of Spartans Athens sent an enormous army of soldiers (415 BC) against the Spartans. As a direct loss of the in the battlefield Athens suffered political uncertainty and in 411 BC democracy was officially dismantled and the system was replaced by a council of 400 men who attempted to assert control over all Athens.
Frustrated in their attempts to conquer Athens the Spartans formed an allegiance with their previous foe, the Persians. By paying Sparta handsomely for its allegiance, or at least its willingness not to war with Persia, Sparta began, in earnest, to overthrow Athens. In the year 405 BC Sparta launched a massive naval affront on Athens as inflicted on Athens the ruination of its navy. As such, Sparta could now starve Athens into submission. When completed Sparta totally abolished democracy as Athens once knew and the Athenian Empire was dismembered. What both sides lost, even though one side won the war, was a century of culture, the demise of economic superiority, and the loss of political democratic prominence. For Athens the loss was not only in loosing the Empire but its naval fleet and all fortifications. For Sparta winning the ward meant the loss of respect in the Greek world, an ever-increasing threat of the Helot problem, and the migration of a once steadfast population. The story cannot, however, end without attention being paid to just what was it that caused the wars between two similar societies within a common geographical region. To answer this question one must look at the Athenian and Spartan society in general with respect to a historical commentary.
Although both societies were bastions of a military society the primary cause of the war was radically different worldviews between both Sparta and Athens. Although the war ruined Athens the enmity between Sparta’s land empire and Athens maritime dominance was longstanding. Under Pericles Athens became the trumpet for democracy while Sparta flaunted its oligarchy ideologies. During the entire Greek Empire period Athens was known to be an open, democratic and money-oriented society and heavily dependent on the financial backing, given or taken, of its allies and protectorates. On the other hand Sparta, an agrarian and closed society, was tightly controlled by a few and highly regulated. Not only did slave labor in Sparta provide the necessary state-owned labor force for agricultural programs but also for the support of a never seen before formidable land based army. Although Athens was supreme in the water it could not surpass the military land strength of the Spartans.
The Peloponnesian war, as reported by historians, religious pundits, military analysts, and tellers of legends, is one of the greatest tragedies in world history. Not only did the fall of Athens indicate the end of progress and philosophical thought, but also ended Greece’s contribution to the world as a whole. One must remember, however, knowing that Greece was the center of democracy, it was not as selective as some claim. In its claim of spreading democracy Athens was able to justify the coercion of various outlying territories and spread the image of the city-state as being the only universal benefactor of all mankind. Sparta had conceivably attacked Athens because she extended his need for expansion too far and Sparta feared that she would eventually become an Athenian colony and known to all historians is that Sparta leads but is not a follower (Strassler, 1996).
That which politicians and nations can learn form the Peloponnesian Greek tragedy may rightfully be applied to the present day and age. Whether or not history repeats itself is not a rhetorical question as all can seen in the events of 431 BC-404 BC being replicated in modern society. Today many countries around the world are not dissuaded from the dangers of war for they blindly prefer might to right. These countries are blindly confident in their future and are seemingly full of hope and aspirations beyond their perceived and actual power – yet not beyond their ambitions. Is it then, therefore, that war is determined by a moment which seems approving, right, and advantageous rather than by provocation? (Kagan, 1995).
Kagan, Donald. 1995. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York:
Kaminer D, Stein D, Mbanga I, Zungu-Dirwayi N. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa: Relation to Psychiatric Status and Forgiveness Among Survivors of Human Rights Abuses. Br J. Psych 178 (2001): 373-377
Thucydides / Rex Warner, (Translator, 1954) the History of the Peloponnesian War: Revised
Edition. Penguin Classics.
Strassler, R.B., ed. 1996. The Landmark Thucydides. New York: The Free Press.
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