Peloponnesian War (431 B.c. to 404 B.c.). Thucydides and the End of Classical Greece

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Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse

Throughout the 5th century B.C., particularly between 460 and 445 B.C., alliances led by Athens and Sparta fought one another for control of Greece. The historian and general Thucydides attributed the trouble to "greed and ambition" and wrote "practically the whole Hellenic world was convulsed.” In Sparta, an An earthquake in 464 B.C. destroyed the city-state and provoked an uprising.

The 27-year (431 B.C. to 404 B.C.) is named after the Peloponnesian League, an alliance led by Sparta that included Corinth and Thebes, that dominated the Peloponnesian peninsula . Sparta had traditionally been stronger militarily than Athens but Athens was stronger and richer as a result of tributes pouring in through the Delian League — an alliance that stretched across the Mediterranean.

The Peloponnesian War was one of the of bloodiest and cruelest wars in ancient history. Greeks for Athens and Sparta committed horrible atrocities against one another and refused to tolerate neutrality by the other Greek city states. Children were murdered in their classrooms by mercenaries; civilians were murdered and enslaved en masse; worshippers were burned at the altar where the prayed and the dead were left to rot in the battlefields.

The Peloponnesian War has been compared to the Cold War, with some history saying it serves as a parable to what might have happened if things got out of hand between the United States (Athens) and the Soviet Union (Sparta). In February 1947, after World War II and as the Cold War was getting started, U.S. President Truman’s said during a speech at Princeton University, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding some of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.”

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Books and Experts: “ History of Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warden (Penguin, 1972); “Peloponnesian War”, a four-volume study on the war, by Donald Kagan (2004, Viking). Kagan is a professor of classics and history at Yale known for conservative political views. Victor Davis Hanson is another expert of the Peloponnesian War at the California State University, Fresno. Dick Cheney described him as his favorite historian and the person who summed up his own philosophy best (One of the lessons of the Peloponnesian War Hanson wrote was that “resolute action” brings “lasting peace”).

Peloponnese League

regions of southern Greece and the Peloponnese
The Peloponnesian League was a Sparta-dominated alliance in the Peloponnesus that existed from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C.. It is known mainly for being one of the two rivals in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), against the Delian League, which was dominated by Athens. [Source: Wikipedia +]

By the end of the 7th century BC Sparta had become the most powerful city-state in the Peloponnese and was the political and military hegemon over Argos, the next most powerful city-state. Sparta acquired two powerful allies, Corinth and Elis (also city-states), by ridding Corinth of tyranny, and helping Elis secure control of the Olympic Games. Sparta continued to aggressively use a combination of foreign policy and military intervention to gain other allies. Sparta suffered an embarrassing loss to Tegea in a frontier war and eventually offered them a permanent defensive alliance; this was the turning point for Spartan foreign policy. Many other states in the central and provincial northern Peloponnese joined the league, which eventually included all Peloponnesian states except Argos and Achaea. +

The Peloponnesian League was organized with Sparta as the hegemon, and was controlled by the council of allies which was composed of two bodies: the assembly of Spartans and the Congress of Allies. Each allied state had one vote in the Congress, regardless of that state's size or geopolitical power. No tribute was paid except in times of war, when one third of the military of a state could be requested. Only Sparta could call a Congress of the League. All alliances were made with Sparta only, so if they so wished, member states had to form separate alliances with each other. And although each state had one vote, League resolutions were not binding on Sparta. Thus, the Peloponnesian League was not an "alliance" in the strictest sense of the word (nor was it wholly Peloponnesian for the entirety of its existence). The league provided protection and security to its members. It was a conservative alliance which supported Oligarchies and opposed tyrannies and democracies. +

Delian League tributes

After the Persian Wars the League was expanded into the Hellenic League and included Athens and other states. The Hellenic League was led by Pausanias and, after he was recalled, by Cimon of Athens. Sparta withdrew from the Hellenic League, reforming the Peloponnesian League with its original allies. The Hellenic League then turned into the Athenian-led Delian League. This might have been caused by Sparta and its allies' unease over Athenian efforts to increase their power. The two Leagues eventually came into conflict with each other in the Peloponnesian War. +

Delian League

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: The "Delian League, or Confederacy of Delos is “the name given to a confederation of Greek states under the leadership of Athens, with its headquarters at Delos, founded in 478 B.C. shortly after the final repulse of the expedition of the Persians under Xerxes I. This confederacy, which after many modifications and vicissitudes was finally broken up by the capture of Athens by Sparta in 404, was revived in 378-7 (the "Second Athenian Confederacy") as a protection against Spartan aggression, and lasted, at least formally, until the victory of Philip II of Macedon at Chaeronea. These two confederations have an interest quite out of proportion to the significance of the detailed events which form their history. They are the first two examples of which we have detailed knowledge of a serious attempt at united action on the part of a large number of selfgoverning states at a relatively high level of conscious political development. The first league, moreover, in its later period affords the first example in recorded history of selfconscious imperialism in which the subordinate units enjoyed a specified lo~cal autonomy with an organized system, financial, military and juaicial. The second league is further interesting as the precursor of the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues.[Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Several causes contributed to the formation of the first Confederacy of Delos. During the 6th century B.C. Sparta had come to be regarded as the chief power, not only in the Peloponnese, but also in Greece as a whole, including the islands of the Aegean. The Persian invasions of Darius and Xerxes, with the consequent importance of maritime strength and the capacity for distant enterprise, as compared with that of purely military superiority in the Greek peninsula, caused a considerable loss of prestige which Sparta was unwilling to recognize. Moreover, it chanced that at the time the Spartan leaders were not men of strong character or general ability... the inelastic quality of the Spartan system was unable to adapt itself to the spirit of the new age. To Aristides was mainly due the organization of the new leavue and the adiustment of the contributions of the various allies in ships or in money. His assessment, of the details of which we know nothing, was so fair that it remained popular long after the league of autonomous allies had become an Athenian empire. The general affairs of the league were managed by a synod which met periodically in the temple of Apollo and Artemis at Delos, the ancient centre sanctified by the common worship of the Ionians. In this synod the allies met on an equality under the presidency of Athens.

“The league was, therefore, specifically a free confederation of autonomous Ionian cities founded as a protection against the common danger which threatened the Aegean basin, and led by Athens in virtue of her predominant naval power as exhibited in the wae against Xerxes. Its organization, adopted by the common synod, was the product of the new democratic ideal embodied in the Cleisthenic reforms, as interpreted by a jurt and moderate exponent. It is one of the few examples of free corporate action on the part of the ancient Greek cities, whose centrifugal yearning for independence so often proved fatal to the Hellenic world.

“Naturally came to pass that certain of the allies became weary of incessant warfare and looked for a period of commercial prosperity. Athens, as the chosen leader, and supported no doubt by the synod, enforced the contributions of ships and money according to the assessment. Gradually the allies began to weary of personal service and persuaded the synod to accept a money commutation. The result was, however, extremely bad for the allies, whose status in the league necessarily became lower in relation to that of Athens, while at the same time theil military and naval resources correspondingly diminished. Athens became more and more powerful, and could afford to disregard the authority of the synod. Another new feature appeared in the employment of coercion against cities which desired to secede. Athens might fairly insist that the protection of the Aegean would become impossible if some of the chief islands were liable to be used as piratical strcngholds, and further that it was only right that all should contribute in some way to the security which all enjoyed The result was that, in the cases of Naxos and Thasos, for instance, the league's resources were employed not against the Persians but against recalcitrant Greek islands, and that the Greek ideal of separate autonomy was outraged. Sparta had so far no quarrel with Athens. Athens thus became mistress of the Aegean, while the synod at Delos had become practically, if not theoretically, powerless.” After this the Delian League for all intents and purposes the Athenian Empire. As friction between Sparta and Athens grew, the result was the Peloponnesian War.


Delos is a small (350.64 hectares), rocky island in the centre of the Aegean Sea in the Cyclades archipelago. Considered “the most sacred of all islands” (Callimachus, 3rd century B.C.) in ancient Greek culture, it was where, the Greek legend goes, Apollo-Sun, god of daylight, and his twin sister Artemis-Moon, goddess of night light, were born. According to UNESCO: “Apollo's sanctuary attracted pilgrims from all over Greece and Delos was a prosperous trading port. The island bears traces of the succeeding civilizations in the Aegean world, from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the palaeochristian era. The archaeological site is exceptionally extensive and rich and conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The island was first settled in the third millennium B.C. . The Apollonian sanctuary, established at least since the 9th century B.C. reached the peak of its glory during the Archaic and Classical period, when it acquired its Pan-Hellenic character. After 167 B.C. as a result of the declaration of Delos as a free port, all the commercial activity of the eastern Mediterranean was concentrated on the isle. Rich merchants, bankers and ship-owners from all over the world settled there, attracting many builders, artists and craftsmen, who built for them luxurious houses, richly decorated with frescoes and mosaic floors.

The island of Delos bears unique witness to the civilizations of the Aegean world since the 3rd millennium B.C.. From the 7th century B.C. to the pillage by Athenodoros in 69 B.C. the island of Delos was one of the principal Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries. The feast of the Delians, which was celebrated every four years in the month of May until 316 B.C. included gymnastic, equestrian and musical competitions, Archaic Age dances, theatrical productions and banquets. Like the Olympic and the Pythic Games, it was one of the major events in the Greek world. =

“Delos is directly and tangibly associated with one of the principal myths of Hellenic civilisation. It was on this arid islet that Leto, made pregnant by Zeus and fleeing the vengeance of Hera, gave birth to Apollo and Artemis after a difficult labour. According to a Homeric hymn, the island, which until then had been floating, became anchored to the floor of the ocean. The newborn Phoebus- Apollo threw off his swaddling clothes bathed the universe in light and began walking with his cither and his bow. Kynthos, the mountain of Zeus, and the wheel-shaped lake, close to which the pregnant Leto suffered labor pains for nine days and nights, remain essential landmarks of the island's sacred geography, which was clearly defined by the additions made to the Delian sanctuary to Apollo between the 6th and the 1st centuries B.C.” =

Greece on the Eve of the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was the culmination of 40 years of simmering tensions between the era’s two great superpowers: free-wheeling, democratic Athens and Sparta, a militaristic oligarchy. Angry about trade restrictions and imperialism, and contemptuous of Athenian permissiveness and lack of discipline, Sparta declared war on Athens in 431 B.C. The war lasted for 27 years, drained both sides of resources, morale and energy.

The Peloponnesian League was fed up with Athens, its political subversion and commercial dominance and it viewed Athens as a threat. Some historians argue that the Peloponnesian War was the result of a break down of a balance of power between two adversaries — Athens and Sparta — and the swift, expansion of one side — Athens.

Both sides championed the war as one of liberation with each side claiming too free a bullied ally. The war began with a relatively small dispute over Corinth, a Spartan ally, and some minor fighting in a town near Athens and escalated into a conflict that years, involved numerous states, and ended with the demise of Athens and the abolition of its democratic institutions.

Pericles, the Delian League and Events Before the Peloponnes War

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: Pericles' policy towards the members of the Delian League transformed them from allies into subjects, A conflict between Corcyra and Corinth, the second and third naval powers of Greece, led to the simultaneous appearance in Athens of an embassy from either combatant (433). Pericles had, as it seems, resumed of late a plan of Western expansion by forming alliances with Rhegium and Leontini, and the favourable position of Corcyra on the trade-route to Sicily and Italy, as well as its powerful fleet, no doubt helped to induce him to secure an alliance with that island, and so to commit an unfriendly act towards a leading representative of the Peloponnesian League. Pericles now seemed to have made up his mind that war with Sparta, the head of that League, had become inevitable. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“In the following spring he fastened a quarrel upon Potidaea, a town in Chalcidice, which was attached by ancient bonds to Corinth, and in the campaign which followed Athenian and Corinthian troops came to blows. A further casus belli was provided by a decree forbidding the importation of Megarian goods into the Athenian Empire, presumably in order to punish Megara for her alliance with Corinth (spring 432 B.C.). The combined complaints of the injured parties led Sparta to summon a Peloponnesian congress which decided on war against Athens, failing a concession to Megara and, Corinth (autumn 432 B.C.). In this crisis Pericles persuaded the wavering assembly that compromise was useless, because Sparta was resolved to precipitate a war in any case.

It was at this time that Cimon, who had striven to maintain a balance between Sparta, the chief military, and Athens, the chief naval power, was successfully attacked by Ephialtes and Pericles. During the ensuing years, apart from a brief return to the Cimonian policy, the resources of the Delian League, or, as it has now become, the Athenian empire, were directed not so much against Persia as against Sparta, Corinth, Aegina and Boeotia.

“The next important event is the revolt of Samos, which had quarreled with Miletus over the city of Priene. The Samians refused the arbitration of Athens. The island was conquered with great difficulty by the whole force of the league, and from the fact that the tribute of the Thracian cities and those in Hellespontine district was increased between 439 and 436 B.C. we must probably infer that Athens had to deal with a widespread feeling of discontent about this period. It is, however, equally noticeable on the one hand that the main body of the allies was not affected, and on the other that the Peloponnesian League on the advice of Corinth officially recognized the right of Athens to deal with her rebellious subject allies, and refused to give help to the Samians.

Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War

20120218-Thucydides_pushkin02.jpg Thucydides (471?-400? B.C.) wrote extensively about events in Greece and told the story of the draining, disastrous 30-year Peloponnesian War that destroyed Athens when it was in its prime in “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Little known about his life other than that he was an soldier and an officer. One of the few times he talks about himself is when he mentions he survived the plague. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, January 12, 2004]

Tracy Lee Simmons wrote in the Washington Post: “One of the most eminently, and now, predictably, quotable figures of the classical world, Thucydides assuredly deserves his press. Few so well understood the machinations of he human heart and mind when facing the extremities of the human predicament — plague, betrayal, defeat, and the abject humiliation of war — and fewer still could distill the hard-won wisdom of experience into tight, shimmering phrases and radiant lapidary passages.”

Thucydides was a participant in the events he described. He caught the plague he detailed with such precision. He was also far from a distant observer of the Peloponnesian War: he was a general high in the Athenian command early in the war who was forced into exile after he failed to prevent the Spartans from capturing the northern city of Amphipolis in 422. He wrote his account years later in part to defend his actions and in the end puts the blame on the demise of Athens on democracy and its demagogue politicians while arguing it was enlightened military that almost saved the day.

Book: “Thucydides, The Reinvention of History” by Donald Kagan (Viking, 2009). Kagan is a professor of classics and history at Yale.

Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War” is the only extant eyewitness account of the first twenty year of the war. He said he began taking notes “at the very outbreak” of the conflict because he had hunch it would be — a great war and more worthy writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past.” His accounts end in mid sentence during the description of a naval battle in 411 but we can tell from other references in his work that he was around to see the war end in 404 B.C.

Fighting at the Beginning of the Peloponnesian War

20120218-Szalamisz.jpg After a diplomatic crisis involving the Corinth ties between Athens and Sparta fell part. Fighting began with a sneak attack in 431 B.C. on the small Athenian protectorate called Plataea, a move widely viewed as an egregious violation of the Greek etiquette of warfare and set the tone for things to come. Yale historian Donald Kagan wrote the hostilities set off cycle of cruelty and reprisals that ended in a “collapse of in the habits, institutions, beliefs and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life.”

Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land-based powers, able to summon large land armies which were very nearly unbeatable (thanks to the legendary Spartan forces). The Athenian Empire, although based in the peninsula of Attica, spread out across the islands of the Aegean Sea; Athens drew its immense wealth from tribute paid from these islands. Athens maintained its empire through naval power. Thus, the two powers were relatively unable to fight decisive battles. [Source: Wikipedia]

Athens won a series of important battles at the beginning of the war. Athens clearly had the advantage at the outset because Sparta had no navy. To counter Sparta’s dominance on land, the Athens adopted the foolishly passive defensive strategy of remaining within their Long Wall — which surrounded Athens and its port in Piraeus 10 kilometers away — and putting up with the Spartans burning their crops, by relying on their navy to ship in food supplies from its Mediterranean allies.

Archidamian War: the First Peloponnese War

The Spartan strategy during the first war, known as the Archidamian War (431–421 BC) after Sparta's king Archidamus II, was to invade the land surrounding Athens. While this invasion deprived Athenians of the productive land around their city, Athens itself was able to maintain access to the sea, and did not suffer much. Many of the citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the Long Walls, which connected Athens to its port of Piraeus. At the end of the first year of the war, Pericles gave his famous Funeral Oration (431 BC).[Source: Wikipedia +]

The Spartans also occupied Attica for periods of only three weeks at a time; in the tradition of earlier hoplite warfare the soldiers were expected to go home to participate in the harvest. Moreover, Spartan slaves, known as helots, needed to be kept under control, and could not be left unsupervised for long periods of time. The longest Spartan invasion, in 430 BC, lasted just forty days. +

The Athenian strategy was initially guided by the strategos, or general, Pericles, who advised the Athenians to avoid open battle with the far more numerous and better trained Spartan hoplites, relying instead on the fleet. The Athenian fleet, the most dominant in Greece, went on the offensive, winning a victory at Naupactus. In 430 BC an outbreak of a plague hit Athens. The plague ravaged the densely packed city, and in the long run, was a significant cause of its final defeat. The plague wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers, including Pericles and his sons. Roughly one-third to two-thirds of the Athenian population died. Athenian manpower was correspondingly drastically reduced and even foreign mercenaries refused to hire themselves out to a city riddled with plague. The fear of plague was so widespread that the Spartan invasion of Attica was abandoned, their troops being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy. +

Thucydides on Civil War in Corcyra

In the fifth year of the Peloponnesian war (427 B.C.), Athens' ally Corcyra fell victim to internal strife, a vicious struggle between the commons, allies of Athens, and the oligarchs, who were eager to enlist the support of the Spartans. The revolt began when Corinth, an ally of Sparta, released Corcyraean prisoners with the promise that the former prisoners would work to convince Corcyra to abandon its ally Athens and join the Peloponnesian side. These men brought Peithias, a pro-Athenian civic leader, to trial on charges of "enslaving Corcyra to Athens" (Thucydides, 3.71.1). He was acquitted and took revenge by charging five of them in turn. However, these men burst in upon the senate and killed Peithias and sixty other people. Shortly after this, skirmishes broke out in the city, between the commons, who enlisted the aid of the slaves, and the oligarchs, who hired mercenaries, which ended with the oligarchs being routed. The Athenian general, Nicostratus, tried to bring about a peaceful settlement and ensure an offensive and defensive alliance between Corcyra and Athens. [Source: Tufts]

On the impact of this conflict on individuals and society, Thucydides: wrote in “History of the Peloponnesian War” Book 3.82-83: “So savage was the factional strife that broke out - and it seemed all the worse in that it was the first to occur. Later on, indeed, all of Hellas (so to speak) was thrown into turmoil, there being discord everywhere, with the representatives of the demos (i.e. the extreme democratic factions) wanting to bring in the Athenians to support their cause, while the oligarchic factions looked to the Spartans. In peacetime they would have had no excuse nor would they have been prepared to summon them for help, but in the midst of a war, the summoning of outside aid readily offered those on both sides who desired a change in the status quo alliances that promised harm for their opponents and, at the same time, benefit for themselves. [Source: Thucydides: “History of the Peloponnesian War” Book 3.82-83, translated by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan, 1995]

“Many harsh events befell the various cities due to the ensuing factional strife - things which always occur in such times and always will occur, so long as human nature (physis) remains the same, although with varying degrees of violence, perhaps, and differing in form, according as variations in circumstances should arise. For in peacetime, and amid prosperous circumstances, both cities and individuals possess more noble dispositions, because they have not fallen into the overpowering constraints imposed by harsher times. But war, which destroys the easy routines of people's daily lives, is a violent schoolmaster, and assimilates the dispositions of most people to the prevailing circumstances.

Gorgo of Corcyra

“So then, affairs in the cities were being torn apart by faction, and those struggles that occurred in the latter stages of the war - through news, I suppose, of what had occurred earlier in other cities - pushed to greater lengths the extravagance with which new plots were devised, both in the inventiveness of the various attempts at revolt and in the unheard-of nature of the subsequent acts of retaliation.

“And people altered, at their pleasure, the customary significance of words to suit their deeds: irrational daring came to be considered the "manly courage of one loyal to his party"; prudent delay was thought a fair-seeming cowardice; a moderate attitude was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything. Rash enthusiasm for one's cause was deemed the part of a true man; to attempt to employ reason in plotting a safe course of action, a specious excuse for desertion. One who displayed violent anger was "eternally faithful," whereas any who spoke against such a person was viewed with suspicion. One who laid a scheme and was successful was "wise," while anyone who suspected and ferreted out such a plot beforehand was considered still cleverer. Any who planned beforehand in order that no such measures should be necessary was a "subverter of the party" and was accused of being intimidated by the opposition. In general, the one who beat another at performing some act of villainy beforehand was praised, as was one who urged another on to such a deed which the latter, originally, had no intention of performing.

“Indeed, even kinship came to represent a less intimate bond than that of party faction, since the latter implied a greater willingness to engage in violent acts of daring without demur. For such unions were formed, not with a view to profiting from the established laws, but with a view toward political advantage contrary to such laws. And their mutual oaths they cemented, not by means of religious sanction, but by sharing in some common crime.

“Fair proposals offered by the opposing faction were accepted by the party enjoying the superior position in a guarded fashion, not in a truly generous spirit. More concern was placed on exacting vengeance from someone else than on not suffering a wrong yourself in the first place. And if ever oaths of reconciliation did come about, having been exchanged in the face of some temporary difficulty, they remained in force only so long as the parties possessed no resources from any other source. The one who was quicker to seize the opportunity for some daring outrage, if ever he saw his opponent off his guard, took more pleasure in taking vengeance in this way than if he had done so openly, considering this method to be safer and thinking that, by getting the upper hand through deceit, he had won in addition the prize for cleverness. And indeed, most people accept more readily being called clever, when they are knaves, than being called fools when they are honest: the latter they take shame in, whereas they preen themselves on the former.

Athen's Long Wall helped keep it supplied by the sea

“The cause of all of these things was the pursuit of political power, motivated by greed and ambition. And out of these factors arose the fanatical enthusiasm of individuals now fully disposed to pursue political vendettas. For the leading men on both sides in each city, employing fine-sounding phrases and advocating either equality before the law for the masses (in the case of the democrats) or the moderate rule of the best men (in the case of the oligarchs) made a show of serving the common good but in fact engaged in competition for personal advancement. Competing in every possible fashion to get the better of their opponents, they went to the farthest extremes of daring and executed even greater acts of vengeance, not limiting themselves by the demands of justice or the interests of the city, but only by their whims at any particular moment. In their efforts to gain power either through the use of trumped up lawsuits or by force, they were always ready to pursue the political vendetta of the moment. The result was that neither side was wont to pay any regard to personal integrity: those who succeeded in accomplishing some act of malice under cover of some fine phrase were the ones to gain general approval. By contrast, those citizens who chose the middle course of moderation perished at the hands of both factions, either for their failure to join in the struggle or due to envy at the fact that they were surviving amid the general chaos.

“Thus moral degeneration of every type took hold throughout Hellas due to factional strife, and simplicity of character — with which a concern for honor is intimately connected — became an object of mockery and disappeared. People were ranged against one another in opposite ideological camps, with the result that distrust and suspicion became rampant. (2) For there was no means that could hope to bring an end to the strife — no speech that could be trusted as reliable, no oath that evoked any dread should it be broken. Everyone, when they had the upper hand, reckoned that there was no hope of any security by means of promises or oaths, and so concentrated on taking precautions not to suffer any injury rather than daring to trust anyone. (3) And, for the most part, those of more limited intelligence were the ones to survive: in their fear regarding their own deficiencies and their opponents' cleverness, lest they might be defeated in debate (e.g. in a political trial) or be forestalled in laying some plot by their opponents' cunning, they turned to action right away with a boldness born of desperation. Their opponents, overconfident in their assurance that they could anticipate the plots of their less intelligent antagonists, and feeling that they could attain their ends by cunning rather than by force, tended to be caught off guard and so perished.”

Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

Things began going badly for the Athenians when the plague struck in 430 B.C. and killed a quarter to a third of the city’s population. The mysterious disease began in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya to Greece in 430-426 B.C. The plague ripped through the city-state's military, killed Pericles, affected the course of the Peloponnese war, changed the balance of power between Athens and Sparta, and ending the Golden Age of Athens and Athenian dominance in the ancient world.

No one is sure exactly what disease the plague of Athens was. Some believe it was the Ebola virus, or perhaps the bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax ormeasles. It had same symptoms of typhus fever but otherwise was not like any known disease. Knowledge of the epidemic is based largely on an account by Thucydides, who was sickened by the plague but recovered.

In 2006, scientists from the University of Athens announced that the Great Plague of Athens was actually an outbreak of typhoid. According to Live Science: “A new DNA analysis of teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit indicates typhoid fever caused the epidemic. The study, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, found DNA sequences similar to those of the modern day Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever. The study was by the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. Typhoid fever is transmitted by contaminated food or water. It is most common today in developing countries. [Source: Live Science, January 23, 2006]

Symptoms of the Plague in Athens in 430 B.C.

The best account of the plague was written by Thucydides. He wrote: "The disease began, it is said, in Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and suddenly fell upon the city of Athens...Athenians suffered...hardship owing to the crowding into the city of the people from the country districts...Bodies of dying men upon another, and half dead rolled about in the streets and , in their longing for water, near all the fountains. The temples too , in which they had quartered themselves, were full of corpses of those who died in them."

plague in an ancient city

Thucydides wrote: "Suddenly while in good health, men were seized first with intense heat of the head, and redness in the mouth, both the throat and the tongue, immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural fetid breath."

"In the next stage , sneezing and hoarsnesss came on , an in a short time the disorder descended to the chest, attended by severe coughing. And when it settled in the stomach that was upset, and vomits of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, there also attended by great distress; and in most cases ineffectual retching followed by violent convulsions...Externally the body was very hot to the touch ; it was not pale but reddish, livid, and breaking out in small blisters and ulcers.”

"Internally it was consumed by such heat that the patients could not bear to have on them the lightest covering...and would have liked to throw themselves into cold water...When the patients died, as most of them did on the seventh to ninth day from internal heat, they still had some strength left."

Among the illnesses that have been suggested or proposed are dysentery, smallpox, measles, influenza, anthrax, typhus, bubonic plague and a host of other illnesses including an Ebola-like virus. Most of the diseases don't pass the test for one reason or another.

Thucydides on Cleon and The Mitylenian Debate

After the plague struck the political scene in Athens then began to be dominated by demagogues like Cleon who roused the masses with crude rhetoric that Aristophanes likened to the squeals of a scaled pig and urged them to pursue a more aggressive strategy. Under Cleon the war became a series of surprise victors such as the capture of a tenth of the Spartan army at Sphacteri in 425 B.C. and the stinging loses such defeat at Delium in 424 B.C. In 427 B.C. Cleon proposed killing all the men and enslaving all the women in the city of Mytilnes on the island of Lesbos, The Athenian assembly approved the measure only to have a change of heart and rescind it the next day.

The Mytilenian Debate in the Athenian Assembly concerned reprisals against the city-state of Mytilene, which had attempted unsuccessfully to shake off Athenian hegemony, during the Peloponnesian War. The Debate occurred in 427 B.C. Thucydides reports it in book three of his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” and uses the events and the speeches as a major opportunity to reflect and to offer his views on the political and ideological impact of the war on the parties involved. [Source: Wikipedia]

Thucydides wrote: “Upon the arrival of the prisoners with Salaethus, the Athenians at once put the latter to death, although he offered, among other things, to procure the withdrawal of the Peloponnesians from Plataea, which was still under siege; and after deliberating as to what they should do with the former, in the fury of the moment determined to put to death not only the prisoners at Athens, but the whole adult male population of Mitylene, and to make slaves of the women and children. It was remarked that Mitylene had revolted without being, like the rest, subjected to the empire; and what above all swelled the wrath of the Athenians was the fact of the Peloponnesian fleet having ventured over to Ionia to her support, a fact which was held to argue a long meditated rebellion. [Source: Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Book 3, chapters 36-50, Charleston]

“They accordingly sent a galley to communicate the decree to Paches, commanding him to lose no time in dispatching the Mitylenians. The morrow brought repentance with it and reflection on the horrid cruelty of a decree, which condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty. This was no sooner perceived by the Mitylenian ambassadors at Athens and their Athenian supporters, than they moved the authorities to put the question again to the vote; which they the more easily consented to do, as they themselves plainly saw that most of the citizens wished some one to give them an opportunity for reconsidering the matter.”

Mitylenian Debate: Cleon Advocates Harsh Punishment

Thucydides manuscript
Thucydides wrote: “An assembly was therefore at once called, and after much expression of opinion upon both sides,Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, the same who had carried the former motion of putting the Mitylenians to death, the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with the commons, came forward again and spoke as follows: "I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mitylene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is ensured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty. The most alarming feature in the case is the constant change of measures with which we appear to be threatened, and our seeming ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority; that unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination; and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. [Source: Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Book 3, chapters 36-50, Charleston]

“"In order to keep you from this, I proceed to show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mitylene. I can make allowance for those who revolt because they cannot bear our empire, or who have been forced to do so by the enemy. But for those who possessed an island with fortifications; who could fear our enemies only by sea, and there had their own force of galleys to protect them; who were independent and held in the highest honour by you- to act as these have done, this is not revolt- revolt implies oppression; it is deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies; a worse offence than a war undertaken on their own account in the acquisition of power. The fate of those of their neighbours who had already rebelled and had been subdued was no lesson to them; their own prosperity could not dissuade them from affronting danger; but blindly confident in the future, and full of hopes beyond their power though not beyond their ambition, they declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right, their attack being determined not by provocation but by the moment which seemed propitious....

“"No hope, therefore, that rhetoric may instil or money purchase, of the mercy due to human infirmity must be held out to the Mitylenians. Their offence was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore, now as before, persist against your reversing your first decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire- pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence should be shown towards those who will be our friends in future, instead of towards men who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies as before. To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just towards the Mitylenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mitylenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger.

Make up your minds, therefore, to give them like for like; and do not let the victims who escaped the plot be more insensible than the conspirators who hatched it; but reflect what they would have done if victorious over you, especially they were the aggressors. It is they who wrong their neighbour without a cause, that pursue their victim to the death, on account of the danger which they foresee in letting their enemy survive; since the object of a wanton wrong is more dangerous, if he escape, than an enemy who has not this to complain of. Do not, therefore, be traitors to yourselves, but recall as nearly as possible the moment of suffering and the supreme importance which you then attached to their reduction; and now pay them back in their turn, without yielding to present weakness or forgetting the peril that once hung over you. Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you are fighting with your own confederates."

Mitylenian Debate: Diodotus Advocates Compassion

an Athenian general

“Such were the words of Cleon. After him Diodotus, son of Eucrates, who had also in the previous assembly spoken most strongly against putting the Mitylenians to death, came forward and spoke as follows: "I do not blame the persons who have reopened the case of the Mitylenians, nor do I approve the protests which we have heard against important questions being frequently debated. I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind. As for the argument that speech ought not to be the exponent of action, the man who uses it must be either senseless or interested: senseless if he believes it possible to treat of the uncertain future through any other medium; interested if, wishing to carry a disgraceful measure and doubting his ability to speak well in a bad cause, he thinks to frighten opponents and hearers by well-aimed calumny. What is still more intolerable is to accuse a speaker of making a display in order to be paid for it. If ignorance only were imputed, an unsuccessful speaker might retire with a reputation for honesty, if not for wisdom; while the charge of dishonesty makes him suspected, if successful, and thought, if defeated, not only a fool but a rogue. The city is no gainer by such a system, since fear deprives it of its advisers; although in truth, if our speakers are to make such assertions, it would be better for the country if they could not speak at all, as we should then make fewer blunders. The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents but by beating them fairly in argument; and a wise city, without over-distinguishing its best advisers, will nevertheless not deprive them of their due, and, far from punishing an unlucky counsellor, will not even regard him as disgraced. In this way successful orators would be least tempted to sacrifice their convictions to popularity, in the hope of still higher honours, and unsuccessful speakers to resort to the same popular arts in order to win over the multitude. [Source: Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Book 3, chapters 36-50, Charleston]

“"This is not our way; and, besides, the moment that a man is suspected of giving advice, however good, from corrupt motives, we feel such a grudge against him for the gain which after all we are not certain he will receive, that we deprive the city of its certain benefit. Plain good advice has thus come to be no less suspected than bad; and the advocate of the most monstrous measures is not more obliged to use deceit to gain the people, than the best counsellor is to lie in order to be believed. The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return. Still, considering the magnitude of the interests involved, and the position of affairs, we orators must make it our business to look a little farther than you who judge offhand; especially as we, your advisers, are responsible, while you, our audience, are not so. For if those who gave the advice, and those who took it, suffered equally, you would judge more calmly; as it is, you visit the disasters into which the whim of the moment may have led you upon the single person of your adviser, not upon yourselves, his numerous companions in error.

“"However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mitylene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be dearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion capital, I, who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present temper against Mitylene; but we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mitylenians useful to Athens.

“"Now of course communities have enacted the penalty of death for many offences far lighter than this: still hope leads men to venture, and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design. Again, was there ever city rebelling that did not believe that it possessed either in itself or in its alliances resources adequate to the enterprise? All, states and individuals, are alike prone to err, and there is no law that will prevent them; or why should men have exhausted the list of punishments in search of enactments to protect them from evildoers? It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that, as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless; and that as long as poverty gives men the courage of necessity, or plenty fills them with the ambition which belongs to insolence and pride, and the other conditions of life remain each under the thraldom of some fatal and master passion, so long will the impulse never be wanting to drive men into danger. Hope also and cupidity, the one leading and the other following, the one conceiving the attempt, the other suggesting the facility of succeeding, cause the widest ruin, and, although invisible agents, are far stronger than the dangers that are seen. Fortune, too, powerfully helps the delusion and, by the unexpected aid that she sometimes lends, tempts men to venture with inferior means; and this is especially the case with communities, because the stakes played for are the highest, freedom or empire, and, when all are acting together, each man irrationally magnifies his own capacity. In fine, it is impossible to prevent, and only great simplicity can hope to prevent, human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever.

Spartan shield found in Pylos

“"We must not, therefore, commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the punishment of death, or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement of their error. Consider a moment. At present, if a city that has already revolted perceive that it cannot succeed, it will come to terms while it is still able to refund expenses, and pay tribute afterwards. In the other case, what city, think you, would not prepare better than is now done, and hold out to the last against its besiegers, if it is all one whether it surrender late or soon? And how can it be otherwise than hurtful to us to be put to the expense of a siege, because surrender is out of the question; and if we take the city, to receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue which forms our real strength against the enemy? We must not, therefore, sit as strict judges of the offenders to our own prejudice, but rather see how by moderate chastisements we may be enabled to benefit in future by the revenue-producing powers of our dependencies; and we must make up our minds to look for our protection not to legal terrors but to careful administration. At present we do exactly the opposite. When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises, as is only natural, and asserts its independence, it is no sooner reduced than we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea, and, the insurrection suppressed, to make as few responsible for it as possible.

“"Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities the people is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher the people of Mitylene, who had nothing to do with the revolt, and who, as soon as they got arms, of their own motion surrendered the town, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have the people on their side, through your having announced in advance the same punishment for those who are guilty and for those who are not. On the contrary, even if they were guilty, you ought to seem not to notice it, in order to avoid alienating the only class still friendly to us. In short, I consider it far more useful for the preservation of our empire voluntarily to put up with injustice, than to put to death, however justly, those whom it is our interest to keep alive. As for Cleon's idea that in punishment the claims of justice and expediency can both be satisfied, facts do not confirm the possibility of such a combination.

“"Confess, therefore, that this is the wisest course, and without conceding too much either to pity or to indulgence, by neither of which motives do I any more than Cleon wish you to be influenced, upon the plain merits of the case before you, be persuaded by me to try calmly those of the Mitylenians whom Paches sent off as guilty, and to leave the rest undisturbed. This is at once best for the future, and most terrible to your enemies at the present moment; inasmuch as good policy against an adversary is superior to the blind attacks of brute force."

Verdict of the Mitylenian Debate: Leaders Killed, the Rest Spared

Thucydides wrote: “Such were the words of Diodotus. The two opinions thus expressed were the ones that most directly contradicted each other; and the Athenians, notwithstanding their change of feeling, now proceeded to a division, in which the show of hands was almost equal, although the motion of Diodotus carried the day. Another galley was at once sent off in haste, for fear that the first might reach Lesbos in the interval, and the city be found destroyed; the first ship having about a day and a night's start. Wine and barley-cakes were provided for the vessel by the Mitylenian ambassadors, and great promises made if they arrived in time; which caused the men to use such diligence upon the voyage that they took their meals of barley-cakes kneaded with oil and wine as they rowed, and only slept by turns while the others were at the oar. [Source: Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Book 3, chapters 36-50, Charleston]

“Luckily they met with no contrary wind, and the first ship making no haste upon so horrid an errand, while the second pressed on in the manner described, the first arrived so little before them, that Paches had only just had time to read the decree, and to prepare to execute the sentence, when the second put into port and prevented the massacre. The danger of Mitylene had indeed been great.

“The other party whom Paches had sent off as the prime movers in the rebellion, were upon Cleon's motion put to death by the Athenians, the number being rather more than a thousand. The Athenians also demolished the walls of the Mitylenians, and took possession of their ships. Afterwards tribute was not imposed upon the Lesbians; but all their land, except that of the Methymnians, was divided into three thousand allotments, three hundred of which were reserved as sacred for the gods, and the rest assigned by lot to Athenian shareholders, who were sent out to the island. With these the Lesbians agreed to pay a rent of two minae a year for each allotment, and cultivated the land themselves. The Athenians also took possession of the towns on the continent belonging to the Mitylenians, which thus became for the future subject to Athens. Such were the events that took place at Lesbos.

Battle of Sphacteria at Pylos

Battle of Sphacteria, Peace of Nicias, Battle of Mantinea

After the death of Pericles, the Athenians turned somewhat against his conservative, defensive strategy and to the more aggressive strategy of bringing the war to Sparta and its allies. Rising to particular importance in Athenian democracy at this time was Cleon, a leader of the hawkish elements of the Athenian democracy. Led militarily by a clever new general Demosthenes (not to be confused with the later Athenian orator Demosthenes), the Athenians managed some successes as they continued their naval raids on the Peloponnese. Athens stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia, quelled the Mytilenean revolt and began fortifying posts around the Peloponnese. One of these posts was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria, where the course of the first war turned in Athens's favour. The post off Pylos struck Sparta where it was weakest: its dependence on the helots, who tended the fields while its citizens trained to become soldiers. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The helots made the Spartan system possible, but now the post off Pylos began attracting helot runaways. In addition, the fear of a general revolt of helots emboldened by the nearby Athenian presence drove the Spartans to action. Demosthenes, however, outmanoeuvred the Spartans in the Battle of Pylos in 425 BC and trapped a group of Spartan soldiers on Sphacteria as he waited for them to surrender. Weeks later, though, Demosthenes proved unable to finish off the Spartans. After boasting that he could put an end to the affair in the Assembly, the inexperienced Cleon won a great victory at the Battle of Sphacteria. The Athenians captured 300 Spartan hoplites. The hostages gave the Athenians a bargaining chip. +

After these battles, the Spartan general Brasidas raised an army of allies and helots and marched the length of Greece to the Athenian colony of Amphipolis in Thrace, which controlled several nearby silver mines; their product supplied much of the Athenian war fund. Thucydides was dispatched with a force which arrived too late to stop Brasidas capturing Amphipolis; Thucydides was exiled for this, and, as a result, had the conversations with both sides of the war which inspired him to record its history. Both Brasidas and Cleon were killed in Athenian efforts to retake Amphipolis (see Battle of Amphipolis). The Spartans and Athenians agreed to exchange the hostages for the towns captured by Brasidas, and signed a truce. +

With the death of Cleon and Brasidas, zealous war hawks for both nations, the Peace of Nicias was able to last for some six years. However, it was a time of constant skirmishing in and around the Peloponnese. While the Spartans refrained from action themselves, some of their allies began to talk of revolt. They were supported in this by Argos, a powerful state within the Peloponnese that had remained independent of Lacedaemon. With the support of the Athenians, the Argives succeeded in forging a coalition of democratic states within the Peloponnese, including the powerful states of Mantinea and Elis. Early Spartan attempts to break up the coalition failed, and the leadership of the Spartan king Agis was called into question. Emboldened, the Argives and their allies, with the support of a small Athenian force under Alcibiades, moved to seize the city of Tegea, near Sparta. +

The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans (Lacedaemonians), with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. In the battle, the allied coalition scored early successes, but failed to capitalize on them, which allowed the Spartan elite forces to defeat the forces opposite them. The result was a complete victory for the Spartans, which rescued their city from the brink of strategic defeat. The democratic alliance was broken up, and most of its members were reincorporated into the Peloponnesian League. With its victory at Mantinea, Sparta pulled itself back from the brink of utter defeat, and re-established its hegemony throughout the Peloponnese. +

Battle of Delium map (anim)

The Battle of Delium took place in 424 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. It was fought between the Athenians and the Boeotians, who were allies of the Spartans, and ended with the siege of Delium in the following weeks.

Tide Turns Against Athens in the Peloponnesian War

The Athenians would eventually go on to carry out a number of atrocities. In 416 B.C., under the Alcibiades, they invaded the island of Melos, killing all the men and enslaving everyone else for the crime of being neutral. For many historians this event was the watershed of Athens’s moral decline. The Spartans also used underhanded tactics. After Athens attacked the Spartan port of Gytheion and set fire to Spartan ships, Spartan soldiers retaliated by disguising themselves as visiting athletes and retook the port.

The tide turned after Sparta received aid from its old enemy Persia. By this time Sparta’s tactic of burning crops was really beginning to take its toll. Violent internal strife, economic problems and a succession of oppressive regime was ripping Sparta apart from the inside. Sparta’s alliance with Persian gave it an economic crutch enabling it to weather its own troubles and build an army and navy at a critical moment.

The decisive battle occurred on Sicily at Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. The event occupies two full books of Thucydides account of the war, The flamboyant general Alcibades persuaded the Athenian assembly to send a huge armada to attack Syracuse. In the Battle of Syracuse the underdog Sicilians routed the Athenians after they sailed into their harbor and were trapped. The Athenian armada was decimated at the Aegispotami in the Hellespont in 405 B.C. .

Thucydides: The Melian Dialogue

The Siege of Melos occurred in 416 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War. Melos is an island in the Aegean Sea roughly 110 kilometers east of the Greek mainland. Though the Melians were of the same ethnic group as the Spartans, they chose to remain neutral in the war. Athens invaded Melos in 416 B.C. and demanded that the Melians surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or face annihilation. The proud Melians refused, and after a siege the Athenians captured their city, slaughtered the men, and enslaved the women and children. This siege is best remembered for the Melian Dialogue by Thucydides, which is a dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians before the former launched the siege. It is taught as a classic case study in political realism to illustrate that selfish and pragmatic concerns ultimately motivate a country at war. [Source: Wikipedia]

Thucydides wrote: “The next summer Alcibiades sailed with twenty ships to Argos and seized the suspected persons still left of the Lacedaemonian faction to the number of three hundred, whom the Athenians forthwith lodged in the neighbouring islands of their empire. The Athenians also made an expedition against the isle of Melos with thirty ships of their own, six Chian, and two Lesbian vessels, sixteen hundred heavy infantry, three hundred archers, and twenty mounted archers from Athens, and about fifteen hundred heavy infantry from the allies and the islanders. The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon (Sparta) that would not submit to the Athenians like the other islanders, and at first remained neutral and took no part in the struggle, but afterwards upon the Athenians using violence and plundering their territory, assumed an attitude of open hostility. Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son of Tisimachus, the generals, encamping in their territory with the above armament, before doing any harm to their land, sent envoys to negotiate. [Source: Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War” Book 5, chapters 84-116, Charleston]

These the Melians did not bring before the people, but bade them state the object of their mission to the magistrates and the few; upon which the Athenian envoys spoke as follows: “Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people, in order that we may not be able to speak straight on without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before the few), what if you who sit there were to pursue a method more cautious still? Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.”

The Melian commissioners answered: “To the fairness of quietly instructing each other as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.”

Melians and Athenians Present Their Sides

Thucydides wrote: “Melians: “And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?
Athenians: “Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.”
Melians: “So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.”
Athenians: “No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.”
Melians: “Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: “As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.”

Melians: “But do you consider that there is no security in the policy which we indicate? For here again if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide.” How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

Athenians: “Why, the fact is that continentals generally give us but little alarm; the liberty which they enjoy will long prevent their taking precautions against us; it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.”
Melians: “Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.”
Athenians: “Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.”
Melians: “But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.”

Athenians: “Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.”

Melians: “You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.”

Athenians: “When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.”

Melians: “But it is for this very reason that we now trust to their respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.”
Athenians: “Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.”
Melians: “But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.”

Athenians: “Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) look to this even more than others. At least, such is their distrust of their home resources that it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbour; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?...You may one day experience, only to learn, as others have done, that the Athenians never once yet withdrew from a siege for fear of any. But we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore show great blindness of judgment, unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this...You are well advised, you will guard against; and you will not think itdishonourable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs toyou; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded as to choose the worse.”

Siege of Melos

Thucydides wrote: “The Athenians now withdrew from the conference; and the Melians, left to themselves, came to a decision corresponding with what they had maintained in the discussion, and answered: "Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both."

“Such was the answer of the Melians. The Athenians now departing from the conference said: "Well, you alone, as it seems to us, judging from these resolutions, regard what is future as more certain than what is before your eyes, and what is out of sight, in your eagerness, as already coming to pass; and as you have staked most on, and trusted most in, the Lacedaemonians, your fortune, and your hopes, so will you be most completely deceived."

“The Athenian envoys now returned to the army; and the Melians showing no signs of yielding, the generals at once betook themselves to hostilities, and drew a line of circumvallation round the Melians, dividing the work among the different states. Subsequently the Athenians returned with most of their army, leaving behind them a certain number of their own citizens and of the allies to keep guard by land and sea. The force thus left stayed on and besieged the place.

“About the same time the Argives invaded the territory of Phlius and lost eighty men cut off in an ambush by the Phliasians and Argive exiles. Meanwhile the Athenians at Pylos took so much plunder from the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) that the latter, although they still refrained from breaking off the treaty and going to war with Athens, yet proclaimed that any of their people that chose might plunder the Athenians. The Corinthians also commenced hostilities with the Athenians for private quarrels of their own; but the rest of the Peloponnesians stayed quiet. Meanwhile the Melians attacked by night and took the part of the Athenian lines over against the market, and killed some of the men, and brought in corn and all else that they could find useful to them, and so returned and kept quiet, while the Athenians took measures to keep better guard in future.

“Summer was now over. The next winter the Lacedaemonians intended to invade the Argive territory, but arriving at the frontier found the sacrifices for crossing unfavourable, and went back again. This intention of theirs gave the Argives suspicions of certain of their fellow citizens, some of whom they arrested; others, however, escaped them. About the same time the Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly garrisoned. Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence, under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas, the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”

Southern Italy and Greece at the time of the Sicilian Expedition

Sicilian Expedition

The decisive battle occurred on Sicily at Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. The event occupies two full books of Thucydides account of the war, The flamboyant general Alcibades persuaded the Athenian assembly to send a huge armada to attack Syracuse. In the Battle of Syracuse the underdog Sicilians routed the Athenians after they sailed into their harbor and were trapped. The Athenian armada was decimated at the Aegispotami in the Hellespont in 405 B.C. .

In the 17th year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian (as were the Spartans), while the Athenians, and their ally in Sicilia, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist their ally. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Athenians did not act solely from altruism: rallied on by Alcibiades, the leader of the expedition, they held visions of conquering all of Sicily. Syracuse, the principal city of Sicily, was not much smaller than Athens, and conquering all of Sicily would have brought Athens an immense amount of resources. In the final stages of the preparations for departure, the hermai (religious statues) of Athens were mutilated by unknown persons, and Alcibiades was charged with religious crimes. Alcibiades demanded that he be put on trial at once, so that he might defend himself before the expedition. The Athenians however allowed Alcibiades to go on the expedition without being tried (many believed in order to better plot against him). After arriving in Sicily, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens for trial. Fearing that he would be unjustly condemned, Alcibiades defected to Sparta and Nicias was placed in charge of the mission. After his defection, Alcibiades claimed to the Spartans that the Athenians planned to use Sicily as a springboard for the conquest of all of Italy and Carthage, and to use the resources and soldiers from these new conquests to conquer the Peloponnese. +

The Athenian force consisted of over 100 ships and some 5,000 infantry and light-armored troops. Cavalry was limited to about 30 horses, which proved to be no match for the large and highly trained Syracusan cavalry. Upon landing in Sicily, several cities immediately joined the Athenian cause. Instead of attacking at once, Nicias procrastinated and the campaigning season of 415 BC ended with Syracuse scarcely damaged. With winter approaching, the Athenians were then forced to withdraw into their quarters, and they spent the winter gathering allies and preparing to destroy Syracuse. The delay allowed the Syracusans to send for help from Sparta, who sent their general Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. Upon arriving, he raised up a force from several Sicilian cities, and went to the relief of Syracuse. He took command of the Syracusan troops, and in a series of battles defeated the Athenian forces, and prevented them from invading the city. +

Nicias then sent word to Athens asking for reinforcements. Demosthenes was chosen and led another fleet to Sicily, joining his forces with those of Nicias. More battles ensued and again, the Syracusans and their allies defeated the Athenians. Demosthenes argued for a retreat to Athens, but Nicias at first refused. After additional setbacks, Nicias seemed to agree to a retreat until a bad omen, in the form of a lunar eclipse, delayed any withdrawal. The delay was costly and forced the Athenians into a major sea battle in the Great Harbor of Syracuse. The Athenians were thoroughly defeated. Nicias and Demosthenes marched their remaining forces inland in search of friendly allies. The Syracusan cavalry rode them down mercilessly, eventually killing or enslaving all who were left of the mighty Athenian fleet. +

Athenian Navy in Sicily

After the Sicilian Expedition

During the disastrous Sicilian expeditions Athens needed the help of the islanders on Melos, who the Athenians had just ruthlessly slaughtered. The total defeat of the Athenian fulfilled a prediction by the Melians. “We know that in war fortune sometimes makes odds more level than could be expected.” Thucydides wrote, “They now suffered very nearly what they had inflicted, They had come to enslave others, and were departing in fear of being enslaved themselves.”

The Spartans were not content with simply sending aid to Sicily; they also resolved to take the war to the Athenians. Sparta counterattacked with soldiers in blood-red cloaks. The Spartans cut off Athens grain supply from Thrace and the Black Sea and laid siege to Athens: people starved, more fields were burned.

On the advice of Alcibiades, they fortified Decelea, near Athens, and prevented the Athenians from making use of their land year round. The fortification of Decelea prevented the shipment of supplies overland to Athens, and forced all supplies to be brought in by sea at increased expense. Perhaps worst of all, the nearby silver mines were totally disrupted, with as many as 20,000 Athenian slaves freed by the Spartan hoplites at Decelea. With the treasury and emergency reserve fund of 1,000 talents dwindling away, the Athenians were forced to demand even more tribute from her subject allies, further increasing tensions and the threat of further rebellion within the Empire. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Following the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition, Lacedaemon encouraged the revolt of Athens's tributary allies, and indeed, much of Ionia rose in revolt against Athens. The Syracusans sent their fleet to the Peloponnesians, and the Persians decided to support the Spartans with money and ships. Revolt and faction threatened in Athens itself. +

The Athenians managed to survive for several reasons. First, their foes were lacking in initiative. Corinth and Syracuse were slow to bring their fleets into the Aegean, and Sparta's other allies were also slow to furnish troops or ships. The Ionian states that rebelled expected protection, and many rejoined the Athenian side. The Persians were slow to furnish promised funds and ships, frustrating battle plans. Between 410 and 406, Athens won a continuous string of victories, and eventually recovered large portions of its empire. +

Athens Surrenders

Faction triumphed in Athens following a minor Spartan victory by their skillful general Lysander at the naval battle of Notium in 406 BC. Alcibiades was not re-elected general by the Athenians and he exiled himself from the city. He would never again lead Athenians in battle. Athens was then victorious at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Spartan fleet under Callicratidas lost 70 ships and the Athenians lost 25 ships. But, due to bad weather, the Athenians were unable to rescue their stranded crews or to finish off the Spartan fleet. Despite their victory, these failures caused outrage in Athens and led to a controversial trial. The trial resulted in the execution of six of Athens's top naval commanders. Athens's naval supremacy would now be challenged without several of its most able military leaders and a demoralized navy. +

Retreat of the Athenians from Syracuse

Unlike some of his predecessors the new Spartan general, Lysander, was not a member of the Spartan royal families and was also formidable in naval strategy; he was an artful diplomat, who had even cultivated good personal relationships with the Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger, son of Emperor Darius II. Seizing its opportunity, the Spartan fleet sailed at once to the Dardanelles, the source of Athens's grain. Threatened with starvation, the Athenian fleet had no choice but to follow. Through cunning strategy, Lysander totally defeated the Athenian fleet, in 405 BC, at the Battle of Aegospotami, destroying 168 ships and capturing some three or four thousand Athenian sailors. Only twelve Athenian ships escaped, and several of these sailed to Cyprus, carrying the strategos (general) Conon, who was anxious not to face the judgment of the Assembly. +

Facing starvation and disease from the prolonged siege, Athens surrendered in April 404 BC, and its allies soon surrendered as well. The democrats at Samos, loyal to the bitter last, held on slightly longer, and were allowed to flee with their lives. The surrender stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be destroyed and all its citizens should be enslaved. However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece, and took Athens into their own system. Athens was "to have the same friends and enemies" as Sparta. +

After the Peloponnesian War

After Athens surrendered to Sparta,The Long Walls that surrounded Athens were torn down by the Spartans to music of flutes. Sparta installed despotic rulers but mercifully allowed Athens' people to live. Captured Athenian soldiers were put to work as slaves in Syracuse's stone quarries.

The decline of Greek civilization and the end of the Golden Age of Athens began in 404 B.C. with Sparta's victory over Athens in the Great Peloponnesian War. Although democracy was reestablished in Athens in the 4th century B.C. and Plato founded of the Academy in 387 B.C. and Aristotle founding the Lyceum in 335 B.C., the war left Greece bitterly divided and open to conquest from Macedonia.

After the Peloponnesian Wars, Greek culture declined: ambition replaced honor, oratory skill became a method of furthering one’s career and attaining power, democratic institutions were undermined by corruption and citizens demanded “rights, not duties, and pleasure instead of work.”

Sparta remained the supreme power in Greece for about 30 years. Non-Spartan Greeks chafed under Spartan rule. There were rebellions and unrest and progressively fewer Spartan warrior to carry on the traditions. Finally when only a few hundred Spartan citizen-soldier remained the Thebans under Epaminodas defeated Sparta. Later it like the rest of Greece came under the control of Alexander the Great.

Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.): Spartans Downfall Described by Xenophon

In 371 B.C., the Spartans suffered a disastrous defeat to the Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra, in Boeotia, on the road from Plataea to Thespiae, The Spartans never recovered from the blow this disaster gave to their prestige. It was poetic justice that this punishment for their ill rule should come from Thebes — the city they had used shamefully beyond all others. The credit for the victory falls to Epaminondas, though he is not named by the historian Xenophon (died 354 B.C.), who was a great admirer of the Spartans and did not to glorify their most formidable enemy.

Xenophon wrote in Hellenica, Book VI, Chap. IV: “When the Spartan king [Cleombrotus] observed that the Thebans, so far from giving autonomy to the Boeotian city states [as demanded], were not even disbanding their army and had clearly the purpose of fighting a general engagement, he felt justified in marching his troops into Boeotia [from Phocis where he had been]. The point of ingress which he adopted was not that which the Thebans expected from Phocis, and where they were keeping a guard at a defile, but marching through Thisbae, by a hilly and unsuspected route, he arrived before Creusis, taking that fortress and twelve Theban war ships to boot. After this, he advanced from the seaboard, and encamped in Leuctra in Thespian territory. The Thebans encamped on a rising ground immediately opposite at no great distance, and were supported by no allies, save their [fellow] Boeotians. [Source: William Stearns Davis, “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East, pp. 279-284]

“At this juncture the friends of Cleombrotus came to him and urged upon him strong reasons for delivering battle. "If you let the Thebans escape without fighting," they said, "you will run great risks of suffering the extreme penalty at the hands of the state....In times past you have missed doing anything notable, and let good chances slip. If you have any care for yourself, or any attachment to your fatherland, march you must against the enemy." Thus spoke his friends, and his enemies remarked, "Now our fine fellow will show whether he is really so partial to the Thebans as is alleged."

“With these words ringing in his ears, Cleombrotus felt driven to join battle. On their side the Theban leaders calculated that if they did not fight, their provincial cities would hold aloof from them, and Thebes itself would be besieged; while if the populace of Thebes failed to get provisions there was a good chance the city itself would turn against [its own leaders]; and seeing that many of them had already tasted the bitterness of exile, they concluded it were better to die on the battlefield than renew the exile's life. Besides this, they were somewhat encouraged by an oracle, predicting that "the Lacedaemonians would be defeated on the spot where stood the monument of the maidens," — who, as the story goes, being outraged by certain Lacedaemonians, had slain themselves. This sepulchral monument the Thebans decked with ornaments before the battle. Furthermore, tidings were brought from the city that all the temples had opened of their own accord; and the priestesses asserted that the gods foretold victory. Cleombrotus held his last council "whether to fight or not" after the morning meal. In the heat of noon a little wine goes a long way; and people said it took a somewhat provocative effect upon their spirits.

“Both sides were now arming, and there were unmistakable signs of approaching battle, when, as the first incident, there issued from the Boeotian lines a long train bent on departure — they were furnishers of the market, a detachment of baggage bearers and in general such people as had no hankering to join in the fight. [A band of the Spartan allies headed them off, and drove them back to the Boeotian camp . . . ] the result being to make the Boeotian army more numerous and closely packed than before. The next move was as a result of the open plain between the two armies — the Lacedaemonians posted their cavalry in front of their squares of infantry, and the Thebans imitated them. Only there was this difference — the Theban horse were in a high state of training and efficiency, thanks to their war with the Orchomenians, and also their war with Thespiae; the Lacedaemonian cavalry was at its very worst just now. The horses were reared and kept by the richest citizens; but whenever the levy was called out, a trooper appeared who took the horse with any sort of arms that might be presented to him, and set off on an expedition at a moment's notice. These troopers, too, were the least able-bodied of the men — just raw recruits simply set astride their horses, and wanting in all soldierly ambition. Such was the cavalry of either antagonist.

“The heavy infantry of the Lacedaemonians, it is said, advanced by sections three abreast, allowing a total depth to the whole line of not more than twelve. The Thebans were formed in close order of not less than fifty shields deep, calculating that victory over the [Spartan] king's division of his army would involve the easy conquest of the rest.

“Cleombrotus had hardly begun to lead his division against the foe, when, before in fact the troops with him were aware of his advance, the cavalry had already come into collision, and that of the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) was speedily worsted. In their flight they became involved with their own heavy infantry; and, to make matters worse, the Theban regiments were already attacking vigorously. Still strong evidence exists for supposing that Cleombrotus and his division were, in the first instance, victorious in the battle, if we consider the fact that they could never have picked him up and brought him back alive unless his vanguard had been masters of the situation for the moment.

“When, however, Deinon the polemarch, and Sphodrias, a member of the king's council, with his son Cleonymus, had fallen, then it was that the cavalry and the polemarch's adjutants, as they are called, with the rest, under pressure of the mass against them, began retreating. And the left wing of the Lacedaemonians, seeing the right borne down in this way, also swerved. Still, in spite of the numbers slain, and broken as they were, as soon as they had crossed the trench which protected their camp in front, they grounded arms on the spot whence they had rushed to battle. This camp, it should be borne in mind, did not lie on the level, but was pitched on a somewhat steep incline.

“At this juncture there were some Lacedaemonians, who, looking upon such a disaster as intolerable, maintained that they ought to prevent the enemy from erecting atrophy, and try to recover the dead, not under a flag of truce, but by another battle. The polemarchs, however, seeing that nearly 1000 of the total Lacedaemonian troops were slain, and seeing, too, that of the 700 regular Spartans who were on the field some 400 lay dead; aware likewise of the despondency which reigned among the allies, and the general disinclination on their part to fight longer — a frame of mind not far from positive satisfaction in some cases at what had happened — under the circumstances, I say, the polemarchs called a council of the ablest representatives of the shattered army, and deliberated on what should be done. Finally, the unanimous opinion was to pick up the dead under a flag of truce, and they sent a herald to treat for terms. The Thebans after that set up a trophy, and gave back the bodies under a truce.

Decline of Sparta After The Battle Leuctra

Xenophon wrote in Hellenica, Book VI, Chap. IV: “After these events a messenger was dispatched to Lacedaemon (Sparta) with news of the calamity. He reached his destination on the last day of the gymnopaediae [midsummer festival] just when the chorus of grown men had entered the theater. The ephors heard the mournful tidings not without grief or pain, as needs they must, I take it; but for all that they did not dismiss the chorus, but allowed the contest to run out its natural course. What they did was to deliver the names of those who had fallen to their friends and families, with a word of warning to the women not to make any loud lamentation, but to bear their sorrow in silence; and the next day it was a striking spectacle to see those who had relations among the slain moving to and fro in public with bright and radiant looks, whilst of those whose friends were reported to be living, barely a man was seen, and these flitted by with lowered heads and scowling brows, as if in humiliation. [Source: William Stearns Davis, “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East, pp. 279-284]

After this, Elis and the Arcadian states seized the opportunity to throw off the yoke of Spartan hegemony. The Peloponnesian League was then further reduced by the Theban liberation of Messenia from Spartan control in 369 BC. The states of the north-eastern Peloponnese, including Corinth, Sicyon and Epidauros remained loyal to Sparta, but as the war wore on in the 360s B.C., many joined the Thebans or took a neutral position, though Elis and some of the Arcadian states realigned themselves with Sparta. In 338 BC, the Peloponnesian League was disbanded when Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, formed the League of Corinth after defeating Thebes and Athens, incorporating all the Peloponnesian states except Sparta. [Source: Wikipedia, Encyclopædia Britannica]

End and Legacy of Classical Greece

Weakened by feuds between rival city states and threat from Carthage and Rome, the Greek colonies eventually were conquered by the Romans around 210 B.C., but Greek cultures, customs and language lasted for centuries more. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, most people in Naples still spoke Greek as their first language.

In 146 B.C. the Romans destroyed Carthage and Corinth, the home of the last Greek league of cities that had tried to resist Roman expansion. Under the command of Roman consul Lucius Mummius Corinthian men were slaughtered, women and children were sold into slavery, art was shipped back to Rome and Corinth was turned into a ghost town.

Ancient Greece is still very close to use today. Many of are buildings are constructed to look like Greek temples, our coins have changed little in design since Greek coins, our comedies are based as many of the same kind of jokes used in Greek plays and some of our greatest sporting events are modeled on ancient Greek games. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

People on the isolated village of Ólimbos speak a Greek dialect that is so old some of the words date back to Homer's time. Their musical instruments include goatskin bagpipes and the three stringed lyre. The tools they use to cultivate wheat and barley are the same as those used by the Byzantines.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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