The Peloponnesian War | Donald Kagan

Summary of: The Peloponnesian War
By: Donald Kagan


Embark on a riveting exploration of the tumultuous Peloponnesian War, which shattered the ancient Greek world and forever changed the course of history. Kagan’s book delves into the intricate relationships, power struggles, and rivalries between Athens and Sparta leading up to the war, as well as the complex series of events that ignited the conflict in Epidamnus. Discover the unique political, societal structures, and military strategies of each city-state as they navigated the brutal war that spanned decades. This summary will journey through the dangerous terrain of shifting alliances, ambitious generals, and the indomitable spirit of democracy that would ultimately reshape the ancient world.

Sparta vs. Athens

The Peloponnesian War was fueled by the uneasy rivalry between Athens and Sparta. Athens flourished and created a maritime empire with a functioning democracy, while Spartan politics was mixed, with a strict societal structure and a legendary military. Sparta feared Athens’s growing power, leading to the tipping point in 431 BC that resulted in the prolonged war that left lasting effects on ancient Greece.

The Small Spark That Ignited a War

The Peloponnesian War and World War I have notable parallels, such as being sparked by seemingly minor events in obscure parts of the world. In 436 BC, a civil war broke out in Epidamnus, and the democrats sent for help from their founders in Corcyra. When Corcyra refused, the Epidamnians reached out to Corinth, which established a garrison and a new colony. Corcyra was unhappy and sought an alliance with Athens. A war between Corinth and Corcyra ensued, and eventual involvement of Athens and Sparta did not prevent the conflict from spiraling out of control. This small spark set the stage for a much bigger conflict.

Athens and Sparta: Approaching War

In 433 BC, tensions between Athens and Corinth rose as the Corcyrean ambassadors visited Athens, and Corinth sent its own representatives to present its side of the conflict. Corinth argued that Athens shouldn’t get involved due to the treaty between Sparta and Athens, known as the Thirty Years’ Peace. However, the Corcyrean ambassadors pointed out that the treaty did allow any autonomous city to align with Athens or Sparta if they wished. Athens was therefore free to sign an agreement with Corcyra, although the possibility of Corinth making Athens their enemy was apparent. As a result, Athens decided on a purely defensive alliance for the first time in recorded Greek history, hoping for deterrence and non-aggression to prevent further conflict. However, the Battle of Sybota ensued, and Athens was needed to help defend Corcyra from Corinth. Sparta and the Peloponnesian League were initially on the sidelines but got involved in the conflict in Potidea, which had been founded by Corinth and was part of the Athenian League. The Megarian Decree essentially prohibited Megara from using Athenian harbors, leading to grievances against Athens from Sparta and Megara. These events ultimately led to an approaching war between Athens and Sparta.

The Outbreak of War

At the beginning of the war between Athens and Sparta, both sides had moderate leaders who did not want to engage in conflict. However, tensions rose as Athens’ imperial ambitions became a concern for Sparta. Sparta issued several ultimatums, including the dismantling of the Athenian Empire and the removal of the Megarian Decree, but Athens rejected them, citing the treaty behind the Thirty Years’ Peace that required disputes to be resolved through arbitration. With no agreement reached, war finally erupted in March 431 BC.

Athens’ Defensive Strategy

Athens devised a defensive strategy under Pericles’ leadership that relied on its walls and superior naval power while allowing Sparta to raid Attica. However, the strategy was not effective in weakening Sparta, and Athens suffered losses in the form of plague and depletion of its resources. With Pericles’ death, Nicias and Cleon proposed contrasting strategies, marking the end of the defensive plan.

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was a brutal affair with traditional conventions of warfare abandoned. Citizens fought on the side of democracy or Spartan-friendly oligarchs, and prisoners were executed or sold into slavery. Despite shifting balance of power between Athens and Sparta and no sense of security, a period of peace arrived after Athens’ key victory led by Athenian general Demosthenes. Negotiations were underway, and the “Peace of Nicias” was ratified in the year 421 BC.

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