Peloponnesian War

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Peloponnesian War

(pĕl`əpənē`zhən), 431–404 B.C., decisive struggle in ancient Greece between AthensAthens
, Gr. Athínai, city (1991 pop. 2,907,179; 1991 urban agglomeration pop. 3,072,922), capital of Greece, E central Greece, on the plain of Attica, between the Kifisós and Ilissus rivers, near the Saronic Gulf. Mt. Aigáleos (1,534 ft/468 m), Mt.
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 and SpartaSparta
, city of ancient Greece, capital of Laconia, on the Eurotas (Evrótas) River in the Peloponnesus. Spartan Society

Sparta's government was headed by two hereditary kings furnished by two families; they were titular leaders in battle and in religion.
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. It ruined Athens, at least for a time. The rivalry between Athens' maritime domain and Sparta's land empire was of long standing. Athens under PericlesPericles
, c.495–429 B.C., Athenian statesman. He was a member of the Alcmaeonidae family through his mother, a niece of Cleisthenes. He first came to prominence as an opponent of the Areopagus (462) and as one of the prosecutors of Cimon, whom he replaced in influence.
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 (from 445 B.C.) had become a bastion of Greek democracy, with a foreign policy of regularly intervening to help local democrats. The Spartans, who favored oligarchies like their own, resented and feared the imperialism and cultural ascendancy of Athens.

The war began after sharp contests between Athens and CorinthCorinth
or Kórinthos
, city (1991 pop. 27,412), capital of Corinth prefecture, S Greece, in the NE Peloponnesus, on the Gulf of Corinth. It is a port and major transportation center trading in olives, tobacco, raisins, and wine.
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 over Corcyra (now KérkiraKérkira
or Corfu
, Lat. Corcyra, island (1991 pop. 104,781), 229 sq mi (593 sq km), NW Greece, in the Ionian Sea, the second largest of the Ionian Islands, separated by a narrow channel from the Albanian and Greek coasts.
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; 433) and PotidaeaPotidaea
, ancient city, NE Greece, at the narrowest point of the Pallene (now Kassándra) peninsula in Chalcidice (now Khalkidhikí). It was a Corinthian colony (c.600 B.C.) but joined the Athenian-dominated Delian League.
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 (432). The first important action was the initial invasion of AtticaAttica
, region of ancient Greece, a triangular area at the eastern end of central Greece, around Athens. According to Greek legend, the four Attic tribes were founded by Ion; in later legend Theseus combined 12 townships into a single state.
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 by a Spartan army in 431. Pericles brought the rural population within the walls, and the Athenian fleet began raids, winning victories off Naupactus (now Návpaktos). Meanwhile a plague (perhaps bubonic) wiped out (430–428) probably a quarter of the population of Athens, and Pericles died. His successor, CleonCleon
, d. 422 B.C., Athenian political leader. The son of a tanner, he had little education; nevertheless, he was a gifted speaker. He began his political career with a series of relentless attacks on Pericles. He was antagonistic to Sparta and successfully opposed (425 B.C.
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, won a great victory at Sphacteria (now Sfaktiriá) and refused a Spartan bid for peace.

The Spartan leader BrasidasBrasidas
, d. 422 B.C., Spartan general in the Peloponnesian War. In 424 B.C. he saved Mégara from Athenian attack, and then conducted an able campaign in Thrace, capturing Amphipolis and other cities and greatly weakening the Athenian cause through his military successes
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 now brilliantly surprised Athens with a campaign in NE Greece, taking (424) Athenian cities, including Olynthus and Amphipolis. Fighting went on over these even after an armistice (423) and ended in a decisive Spartan victory at Amphipolis, in which Brasidas and Cleon were both killed (422). The new Athenian leader, NiciasNicias
, d. 413 B.C., Athenian political leader and general. After Pericles' death he emerged as the primary rival of Cleon and his war party. He was a moderate democrat, not an oligarch, and he wanted peace with Sparta. In 421 he arranged the Peace of Nicias.
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, arranged a peace (421), but his rival AlcibiadesAlcibiades
, c.450–404 B.C., Athenian statesman and general. Of the family of Alcmaeonidae, he was a ward of Pericles and was for many years a devoted attendant of Socrates. He turned to politics after the Peace of Nicias (421 B.C.
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 persuaded the Athenians to invade powerful SyracuseSyracuse
, Ital. Siracusa, city (1991 pop. 125,941), capital of Syracuse prov., SE Sicily, Italy, on the Ionian Sea. It has a port and is a market and tourist center. Its manufactures include machinery and processed food.
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. In the greatest expeditionary force a Greek city had ever assembled, Alcibiades and Nicias both had (415) commands, but before the attack on Syracuse had begun, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to face a charge of sacrilege. He fled to Sparta; at his advice the Spartans set up a permanent base at Decelea in Attica and sent a military expert, GylippusGylippus
, fl. 415–404 B.C., Spartan commander in the Peloponnesian War. He was sent to help Syracuse in its defense against Athenian attack, and it was his resourcefulness and skill combined with Athenian ineptitude that brought about one of the greatest defeats Athens
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, to Syracuse. The incompetent Nicias lost his chance to surprise Syracuse, and after two years his force was wiped out (413).

Soon Persia was financing a Spartan fleet. Alcibiades sailed it across the Aegean, and there was (412) a general revolt of Athenian dependencies. At Athens the Four Hundred, an oligarchic council, managed (411) a short-lived coup, and Alcibiades, who had quit the Spartans, received (410) an Athenian command. He destroyed the Spartan fleet at Cyzicus (410). The new Spartan admiral, LysanderLysander
, d. 395 B.C., Spartan naval commander and statesman. Toward the end of the Peloponnesian War he was made admiral and built up the Spartan fleet so that it defeated (407 B.C.) the Athenians off Notium. Later he was responsible for the capture (405 B.C.
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, built (407) a fleet with Persian aid and won a naval battle off Notium, and Alcibiades was driven from Athens. The Athenians won one more victory at Arginusae, near Lesbos, in 406 and again declined an offer of peace.

The next year Lysander wiped out the Athenian navy (at AegospotamosAegospotamos
, river of ancient Thrace flowing into the Hellespont. At its mouth in 405 B.C. occurred the culminating battle of the Peloponnesian War. Lysander and his Spartan fleet had come north to cut the grain supply of Athens.
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, 405) and then besieged Athens, which capitulated in 404. Lysander installed an oligarchic government (the Thirty Tyrants) at Athens, which never regained its former importance. For about 30 years afterward Sparta was the main power in Greece.


The primary source for the Peloponnesian War (to 411) is ThucydidesThucydides
, c.460–c.400 B.C., Greek historian of Athens, one of the greatest of ancient historians. His family was partly Thracian. As a general in the Peloponnesian War he failed (424 B.C.
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; Xenophon's Hellenica is an inferior sequel. See also G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972); D. Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (2003): V. D. Hanson, A War like No Other (2005); J. T. Roberts, The Plague of War (2017).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peloponnesian War


the most important war in the history of ancient Greece, waged from 431 B.C. to 404 B.C. between two alliances of Greek city-states—the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League. The war engulfed all of Greece as well as the Greek cities in southern Italy and in Sicily.

Historiography conventionally divides the Peloponnesian War into three principal stages: the Archidamian War (named after the Spartan king Archidamus II), from April 431 through April 421; the Sicilian War, from the summer of 420 through September 413; and the Decelean, or Ionian, War, from 413 through April 404. The Sicilian and Decelean wars are sometimes viewed as a single stage.

The general upsurge of economic life in the Greek city-states and the growth of trade after the Greco-Persian Wars intensified the rivalry among the major trade and handicraft centers— Athens on one side and Corinth and Megara on the other. The conflict involved chiefly the western markets of Italy and Sicily and the markets of Macedonia, Thrace, and the Black Sea Coast in the northeast. Crucially important was the control of strong-points along the routes to the markets of Corcyra and Epidam-nus in the west and the Chalcidice Peninsula in the northeast. To this were added the political rivalry between Sparta and Athens for hegemony in Greece and the social contradictions between the two, which led Athens to aid the democratic factions in the Greek city-states and Sparta to support the oligarchic factions.

Three conflicts, related to Corcyra, Potidaea, and Megara, led to the Peloponnesian War. Corcyra was striving to become independent of its parent state, Corinth. In the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth over their common colony Epidamnus, Athens gave Corcyra naval assistance in 433. This aggravated relations with Corinth, which responded in 432 by sending military aid to its colony of Potidaea, a member of the Delian League that had rebelled against Athens. That same year, Athens closed the harbors of its possessions to the citizens of Megara, thus striking a powerful blow against Megara’s trade. Sparta, to whom the allies turned for help, made a number of deliberately unfulfillable demands to Athens, which were rejected. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Athens and its allies had a powerful navy, while Sparta was superior on land. In the course of the war, Sparta built the navy that eventually brought it victory.

The Archidamian War. The war was begun by the Thebans, allies of Sparta, who attacked the Boeotian city of Plataea, an Athenian ally, in April 431. In mid-June the Peloponnesians, led by Archidamus, invaded Attica, whose population sought refuge in Athens. The invasion was repeated the following year. Its repercussions were aggravated by the plague epidemic that broke out in Athens in 430 and 429, killing many inhabitants, including Pericles. The conflict in Athens between the moderate group, headed by Nicias, and the radicals, led by Cleon, became critical. After Cleon’s victory, the Athenians began operations in the Peloponnesus. In 425 the Athenian Navy captured a base of operations in Pylos; 120 Spartan aristocrats were then taken captive on the island of Sphacteria. In the final phase of the Archidamian War the battleground moved to Chalcidice, where the Spartan military leader Brasidas achieved a series of victories. The deaths of both Cleon and Brasidas in the battle at Amphipolis in October 422 weakened the forces of both sides. In 421 the Peace of Nicias was concluded, according to which the status quo was to be maintained for 50 years.

The Sicilian War. The conditions of the Peace of Nicias did not remove the factors that had caused the war. Discontent was growing both among Sparta’s allies and in Athens, where the most militant faction, headed by Pericles’ nephew Alcibiades, had won out. The coalition of the Peloponnesian city-states of Argos, Mantinea, and Elis formed at his initiative in 420 attacked Sparta with Athenian support, but it was defeated at Mantinea in August 418. There followed a series of local conflicts from 417 to 415. In the spring of 415, against Nicias’ wishes, Athens organized an expedition against Syracuse, Corinth’s colony in Sicily. Its defeat in September 413 was a severe blow to Athenian power.

The Decelean War. Alcibiades had fled to Sparta at the beginning of the Sicilian expedition after being accused in Athens of blasphemy. In 413 the Spartans, following his advice, occupied the Attic fort of Decelea and began to wage war in Attica continuously, not seasonally as before. Athens’ position was made more difficult after 20,000 slaves fled to the Spartans and a number of Ionian cities left the alliance. The Athenian oligarchs organized a coup and in 411 established the power of the Four Hundred in Athens. Their rule was short-lived, and Alcibiades, who had quarreled with the Spartans, led the Athenian Navy to victories in Ionia between 411 and 408.

In 406 the Athenians defeated the Peloponnesian navy near the islands of Arginusae, but in 405 the Spartan admiral Lysan-der, having rebuilt the fleet with Persian aid, routed the Athenian fleet led by the strategus Conon at Aegospotami in the Hellespont. In April 404 the Athenians, besieged from land and sea, capitulated. Among the peace conditions dictated by the victors were disbandment of the Delian League, surrender of the Athenian Navy except for 12 patrol ships, removal of the Long Walls and of the fortifications of Piraeus, and Athenian entry into an alliance headed by Sparta. The oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants was established in Athens.

The protracted, bitter, and devastating Peloponnesian War led to a decline in Greek international prestige and to Persia’s resurgence. The economic destruction, impoverishment of the peasantry and artisans, aggravation of the social struggle, and internecine wars led, in the fourth century B.C., to an economic, social, and political crisis in the city-state system and, ultimately, to Greece’s subjugation to Macedonia.


Thucydides. Istoriia. vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1915. (In Russian translation.)
Xenophon. Grecheskaia istoriia. Leningrad, 1935. (In Russian translation.)
Plutarch. Sravnitel’nye zhizneopisaniia, vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1961–64. (In Russian translation.)
Aristophanes. Komedii, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1954. (In Russian translation.)
Aristotle. Afinskaia politiia. Moscow, 1937. (In Russian translation.)


Lentsman, la. A. “Peloponnesskaia voina.” In Drevniaia Gretsiia. Moscow, 1956. Pages 267–348.
Lur’e, S. “Voprosy voiny i mira 2300 let tomu nazad.” Letopis’, 1916, no. 6. Pages 184–202.
Grundy, G. B. Thucydides and the History of His Age, 2nd ed., vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1948.
Henderson, B. W. The Great War Between Athens and Sparta. London, 1927.
Romilly, J. de. Thucydide et l’impérialisme athénien. Paris, 1947.
Lotze, D. Lysander und der Peloponnesische Krieg. Berlin, 1964.

IA. A. LENTSMAN (based on the article in the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.