Following the Greco-Persian Wars, two Greek city-states emerged as particularly strong and important. One was Athens, the home of democracy, which, under the wise leadership of a man named Pericles, had steadily built up a large navy that allowed it to control an empire around the Aegean Sea. The other was Sparta, the city of well-trained and courageous warriors in the southern part of the Greek peninsula, called the Peloponnesus. Although they had been allies throughout the Greco-Persian Wars, the two had been rivals in power for some time. They finally began to battle each other for dominance in 431 BC.
The war between the two city-states was lengthy and often difficult because they were so mismatched in their strengths. Whereas the Athenians had a large and powerful navy, the Spartans had a strong army. As a result, the Athenians were strongest at sea while the Spartans were strongest on land. Each tried to fight the other in that area where it had its strength and avoid fighting where it had its weakness.
Early in the war, Sparta gained the upper hand by using its strength on land to surround the city of Athens. Their plan was to cut off supplies coming to Athens from the outside. They hoped that by not allowing food and other necessities into the city the Athenians would be forced to send out their army to battle them. And they knew that the Athenian army could not stand up against their powerful warriors.
The Athenians were forced to abandon the farms around their city to the Spartan army now surrounding them, but they were able to bring food and supplies into their city by sea. They used their strong navy to have food shipped to them from their colonies. While the Spartan siege did not prevent supplies from coming into Athens, it did keep the people contained in the city. All of the people of Athens were forced into a densely packed area inside the city’s center. The result was that a disease broke on near the beginning of the siege and spread quickly among the people.
The plague in Athens killed more than 25% of the population, one in every four people. Even those who did not die often got sick with the disease and had to endure its horrible symptoms. Even if a person recovered, they often were left permanently disabled by the plague.
In spite of the plague, the Athenians refused to surrender to the Spartans. In order to break the stalemate, each side tried to convince the other city-states of Greece to join them. The Athenians used their powerful navy to continue to force other city-states into submission and join their side. In 415-413 BC, however, this policy went horribly wrong for the Athenians. They attempted to invade Sicily, an island many miles away from Athens. The Sicilians, however, defeated the Athenians and slaughtered 40,000 soldiers from Athens and the city-states allied with Athens.
In the end, the plague and the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition weakened Athens so severely that they had to surrender to the Spartans. The Spartans considered destroying the city and enslaving the people, but decided against it. Instead, they tried to put an end to the Athenian democracy by making Athens an oligarchy like themselves. The attempt to change Athens’s government to an oligarchy resulted in the murder of many important Athenians and a great deal of tumult in the city. The attempt eventually failed and Athens’s democracy was restored.
Following the Peloponnesian War, neither Athens nor Sparta ever regained the strength each had formerly possessed. Both were so weakened by the war that they had no choice but to stop fighting each other. While they continued to influence the other Greek city-states with their ideas, neither was able to establish a dominant position over the other Greek city-states again.
1. Which two Greek city-states fought the Peloponnesian War against each other?
2. Who won the Peloponnesian War?
democracy – a system of government in which the people rule themselves by voting on decisions
oligarchy – a system of government in which a state is ruled by a small group of people