The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was a war fought between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 until 404 BCE (historyofwar). The war went so long because neither power was able to gain power over the other due to Athens’ strength on the sea and Sparta’s power on land.  The war is traditionally split into many parts; the Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias, The Sicilian Expedition, and the Decelean War. The war was a huge power struggle that changed the Hellenistic world.

The Archidamian War began in 431 and lasted until 421 BCE (Mathisen). “At the start of the war, much of the Greek world was tied to either Sparta or Athens through alliances, leagues or membership of the Athenian empire.” (historyofwar)Sparta would march on Attic, and the Athenians would retreat into the city of Athens, refusing to fight. The Spartans did not have siege technology and the Spartans had no way to capture a walled city besides starvation, betrayal, or surrender. They tried to invade five separate times, but could not gain any ground. The war really started when the Thebes attacked Plataea, the only city that hadn’t joined the Theban dominated Boeotian League, but Plataea did not fall at that time (Historyofwar). A plague struck Attica, stopping the Spartan attacks on the city for a time. The Spartans were able to take Plataea in 427, gain allies in the Macedonians, capture Amphipolis in 424, and kill Athenian general Cleon. In 425, the Athenians responded by capturing 120 Spartans on Sphacteria, the first time that Spartans had ever been forced to surrender. By 421, both sides were willing to negotiate for peace. The Peace of Nicias began.

800px-Map_Peloponnesian_War_431_BC-en.svgMap of Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War

The Peace of Nicias was named after the Athenian general who negotiated for Athens. The Spartan prisoners were returned, Athens lost the city of Plataea but gained a port from Megara, and Athens kept Nicea. Everything else was returned to the way it was before the war, settling nothing and upsetting many Spartan allies. The treaty was able to last for about six years, but there were constant skirmishes in and around the Peloponnese (Wikipedia). Argos, a powerful state, tried to create a coalition of states with the support of the Athenians. The Spartans tried to break it, but failed and the Spartan king’s leadership skills were questioned (Wikipedia). The largest battle at the time, and during the entire war, was the Battle of Mantinea, where the coalition was defeated by the Spartans. The alliance broke and most states reincorporated themselves into the Peloponnesian League.

The next major event of the war was the Sicilian Expedition. “In the next few years the Athenians took the offensive. They attacked the Sicilian city Syracuse and campaigned in western Greece and the Peloponnese itself (Britannica).” This second period of fighting lasted eleven years, starting in 415. After the Athenians destroyed the city of Melos for not joining the Delian League, Alcibiades, the Athenian leader, tried to gain more power and income by attacking the city of Syracuse. An impossibly large force was suggested to try to dissuade this from occurring, but the proposal passed. One hundred warships, one hundred thirty supply ships, five thousand hoplites, and one thousand three hundred troops were sent to Sicily (Mathisen). Sicily was initially caught off guard, but gained the upper hand, even when the Athenians sent reinforcements. “Aided by a force of Spartans, Syracuse was able to break an Athenian blockade. Even after gaining reinforcements in 413, the Athenian army was defeated again. Soon afterward the navy was also beaten, and the Athenians were utterly destroyed as they tried to retreat (Britannica).” This caused members of the Delian League to begin revolting and Athens lost much of its prestige in the Greek world.

During this time though, Sparta had decided to take to war on land again in a war called the Decelean war. They fortified Decelea and established a permanent military base. “The Spartans, advised by Alcibiades, decided to occupy a fortress in Athenian territory… on the slopes of Mount Parnes (historyofwar).”They also allied with Persia to get the money to pay for a navy, having to promise to let the Persians reoccupy Ionia if they won (Mathisen). “Over the winter of 412-411 the treaty between Sparta and Persian was renegotiated. This time Sparta agreed not to attack any Persian possession or former possession, not to take tribute from any of them, the Persians agreed not to attack the Spartans, both agreed to help the other, although the exact nature of the help was left unclear, both sides agreed to make war jointly against the Athenians, and only make peace together (historyofwar).”  Athens was desperately trying to recuperate from their defeat and was forced to use its reserve fund of 1,000 talents and demand tribute from allies which increased tensions (wiki). Political upheaval continued to wrack Athens making it weaker (historyofwar). Athens continued to win naval victories, but in 404, the Athenian fleet was destroyed. The Athenians were forced to agree to the terms of Sparta and obey Spartan foreign policy. They were also forced to accept an oligarchic government. Athens was completely ruined and both Sparta and Athens were weakened by the long years of warfare.

The Peloponnesian War changed the power structure and political giants of the Hellenistic world. Athens went from being one of the strongest city states in Greece to being effectively ruined, while Sparta grew into a world power. The power struggle between Athens and Sparta showed the power of Greece and changed the Hellenistic world.


“Peloponnesian War.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.


“Peloponnesian War | Ancient Greek History.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica,

n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.


“Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC.” Second or Great Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC.

N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.


Mathisen, Ralph W. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations: From Prehistory to 640 CE. 2nd ed. New York:

Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

“Map Peloponnesian War 431 BC-en” by Map_Peloponnesian_War_431_BC-fr.svg: Marsyasderivative work: Aeonx (talk) – Map_Peloponnesian_War_431_BC-fr.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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