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Thucydides: History of Peloponnesian War


The ancient Greece nation faced unprecedented strife and discord among its City-States in the periods leading to the outbreak of Peloponnesian conflict. This state of affairs elicited fear and skepticism among those states that stood to lose influence such as, those states that formed the Peloponnesian league led by Sparta, and in the same breadth, provided confidence for those states that stood to gain influence such as, those states that formed the Delian league led by Athens. According to Thucydides, Peloponnesian conflict is an account of a war in ancient Greece that involved Athens and Sparta as key players. Nevertheless, most of the states in ancient Greece mainland and islands got involved as well, supporting either side of the divide. Thucydides approximates the war to have lasted over 20 years. In the aftermath of the Persian wars, there arose power shifts among the ancient Greece states. The need for security was the major drive for the Peloponnesian conflict after the end of the Persian wars. Sparta and her allied states in the Peloponnesian league were weary of the newly demonstrated power of Athens and therefore had to instigate the conflict with the aim of protecting themselves. In this paper, I will discuss: why Pericles policies should have resulted to Athens victory in the Peloponnesian war; why the city-state of Athens lost the war explaining the key mistakes that Athens made during the war against the Peloponnesian league; the extent Alcibiades policies further led to the ruination of Athens; and finally, why I believe that Thucydides ultimately explains the destruction of the Athenesian expedition in Sicily.

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Thucydides describes Pericles as a great leader whose grand policy for the Peloponnesian war would have assisted Athens to win the war given the policy’s defensive strategy. The main goal of Athens under the leadership of Pericles was to protect the Athenian empire at all costs. This was his overall policy of his grand strategy, that is, to protect Athenian empire. Pericles was famed to be a leader who was cautious and careful. He could not take opportunities that would place his military into situations that were not necessary (Plutarch, 161). Pericles was appointed as Athenian military commander 15 times as evidence of his military prowess (Plutarch, 160). To face the Peloponnesian war, he designed and initiated an elaborate defense strategy for Athens. These included: one, Athens halting further imperial expansion and defending only those colonial empires and key maritime lines of communication sustaining the empires property and prestige; two, securing Athenian citizens behind Athens long protective walls in order to deny Sparta land battle where it had numerical strength and had ability for victory; three, take advantage of Athens superior maritime operations to conduct smart raids from the sea to threaten Sparta’s interests and erode its will to continue fighting.

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Thucydides account of Pericles’ policy of Peloponnesian war indicates how random governance is conditioned to chance randomness and human errors that can not be avoided. Being a perceptive and able leader, Pericles was aware that the cause of history is often arbitrary. He trusted the power of his decision making to defeat the vagaries of luck. Faced with the looming war with Sparta, Pericles crafted a defensive strategy that considered Athenian naval strength and fiscal capability. In his defense plan, Pericles visualized that Sparta was incapable of withstanding an extensive engagement. He understood that the strength of Sparta lay in the traditional Greek land forces, and that Sparta had no significant resources that could assist her wedge an extensive war with Athens. Therefore, in his defense policy, he focused on preserving his forces and mobilized most of the resources to guarding and securing what Athens had already acquired. The Athenian countryside known as Attica, was composed of land that was infertile incapable of feeding the population (Hornblower, 125). It was for this reason that Athens had to acquire resources from abroad to be able to feed its population. Athens was able to get accessibility to grain routes, and also discovered available trading centers for trade and commerce. Additionally, since Athens had large amounts of territory on the sea, it built a navy that was instrumental in protecting its empire and commerce. Due to the superiority of Sparta land force, Pericles anticipated an attack in the Athenian countryside known as Attica. He thus, ordered the countryside population to be relocated to the city and authorized his strong navy to counter attack enemy’s coastal cities.

The Spartans had a superior ability which could not be matched in traditional Greek warfare. Pericles recognized this and proposed that Athens be a fortress that is protected by its maritime empire and its walls. Pericles was very much confident of his defensive strategy. This is depicted when he tell Athenians that, ‘he is more afraid of our blunders than the enemy’s devices,”. Hence, he stressed on the need for Athenians to practice prudent governance to implement effectively the defensive strategy. Pericles emphasized this as a strategy of ensuring that Athens avoids new engagements in foreign ventures that would risk Athenians during the war.

Pericles Peloponnesian war policies were sound and long term and would have resulted to Athens winning the war if these strategies were followed to the later. The exclusive defensive policy he crafted was based upon the confidence he had in the ability Athenians had to defeat the power of the Spartans. Pericles believed that Athens had the naval wealth that was superior over their enemy. Sparta then had agricultural based economy and thus lacked resources while, Athens was an imperial empire and a wealthy city-state. This meant that Athenians could afford to wedge along war while the Peloponnesians, were deficient of resources to finance a protracted war with Athens according to Pericles judgment. Again, Athens was superior at sea thus could not be threatened. Athenians had a naval power that was unmatched while Sparta lacked the financial resources, the naval ships, and sailors trained to be able to mount a challenge to Athenian naval superiority. Pericles also believed that there was division in the Peloponnesian alliance. He believed that these cities were divided by factional interests that would make a unified action difficult. By contrast, Athens was unified and had a maritime empire that had not been damaged by the Peloponnesians. Pericles vividly argued that these advantages would not be of any help to Athens unless they followed his carefully crafted strategy. His war strategy took into consideration that Athens could not match Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies in land battle determined by the clash of competing armies. They had the numerical advantage over the Athenians and thus, were a formidable enemy that Athenians could not defeat in an open land battle (Thucydides, 137).

Pericles devised a defensive policy that maximized Athenian naval power to counteract this apparent strength exhibited by Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies. With a superior navy, Athens was able to rule its empire by sea and obtain goods through maritime trade. Moreover, Pericles had initiated a system of city walls that linked Athens to its Port of Piraeus. These walls shielded Athens from external attacks. In essence, Pericles developed an elaborate defense policy that required Athenians to depend upon their naval strength, which in turn, they would use to make forays to attack the Peloponnesians by sea. He argued and emphasized to the people of Athens to remain resolute in following his new strategy, otherwise they would lose and submit themselves to the ‘slavery of the Spartans. Thucydides appreciated Pericles logic and in his opinion his policy would have proved successful had it been followed to the letter.

There are a number of possible reasons why the city-state of Athens lost the Peloponnesian war according to Thucydides. First, despite of the success of small navy expeditions authorized by Pericles, opinions among Athenians remained divided, as many were not satisfied with defensive policy adopted by Pericles against Sparta (Thucydides, 138). Perhaps this to some extent made the implementation of Pericles policy a bit difficult although, Pericles was able to: pacify those who were spoiling for a fight”. Secondly, as the Spartans continued to destroy Athenian farmlands, a devastating plague swept through Athens. The result of this plague dealt a fatal blow to Athenians who already had expressed dissatisfaction for being crowded in closed walls in the city. This completely demoralized Athenians as Pericles also succumbed to this deadly plague. Thirdly, the death of Pericles ushered in a faction consisting of leaders that was eyeing to take an offensive against Sparta (Thucydides, 138).

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Cleon was the first leader to replace Pericles. He was a man known by Athenians remarkably for demeanor of violence. Cleon came into leadership with aggressive plans that were contrary to Pericles defensive policy (Thucydides, 212). His strategy was to attack Sparta itself in order to incite a helot riot, and in the process drive out Spartans out of Attica. In deed, Pericles demise led to the rise of hawks in Athens who carried out the next face Peloponnesian war, with a series of battles that led to peace negotiations in Nicia. The escalation of battles under the leadership of Cleon was an indication that Athenians were accepting their aims of war to grow beyond Pericles original strategy of defending what they had. During their battle exploits, they were able to capture Pylos and fortified it. Despite many battles, Sparta was unable to win Pylos back. This emboldened Athenian leaders as they ended up capturing some of the famed hoplites of Sparta. This shocked the Spartans as they decided to seek for a peace deal with Athens that was completely in Athenian favor. They send ambassadors to Athens with a peace proposal of ending the war (Thucydides, 273). Athens under the leadership of Cleon aimed at winning more territories and flatly rejected Spartan overtures for a peace that was in favor of Athens. Athens extended further war expeditions against Spartan allies, such as Corinth and Cythera (Thucydides, 290). This scenario placed Sparta into serious trouble as they suffered several defeats and fighting a naval war that was out of their military realm specialty.

However, Sparta managed to register victories in at Delium and Amphipolis. This caused some set backs to Athens imperialistic ambitions combined with rebellion Athens experienced from her allies in the north, forced Athens to agree on Peace of Nicia. The Peloponnesian war did not end with the Peace of Nicia as the Athenians did not shelve their desires of acquiring more empire. Athens’ motivation for the Peloponnesian war shifted and turned to be a war of conquering more territories under Spartan control. Sparta was not happy with the treaty and had to engage in fights with its partners who had refused to sign the treaty. Furthermore, Spartan’s had registered devastating losses in the hands of Athenians. This had demoralized the Spartans completely as they were not eager to return back to battle (Thucydides, 409).

Athens became more overconfident as they drastically escalated their war aims. The original war aims of Athens on expanding their territories was based on protecting Athens from her enemies. However, the successes it registered increased their desires to acquire thus; the war spiraled out of control. The recall of alcibiade as army commander made the situation worse for Athens war efforts. Alcibiade came up with the war policies that further led to Athens eventual ruination. He led Athens unwisely in the Sicilian expedition that would later turn out to be disastrous for Athens campaign. The excitement of capturing the Island of Sicily was based on getting grain and timber available on the island. However, Athens did not understand the island and the people inhabiting in it well. Nicia had advised against Sicily expedition, describing Island as not easy to conquer and control, but Alcibiade went a head and committed Athens to this expedition. They were only interested on the possible benefits of exploiting timber and grain resources available in Sicily Island but forgot to assess the possible drawbacks. Athens sent to the Island, massive force that Thucydides described as looking, “like a demonstration of the power and greatness of Athens” (Thucydides, 429). The strategy to capture the Island failed miserably despite the massive force deployed for the task. The overall outcome of the expedition turned out to be disastrous although early in the campaign, it had registered some success.

Alcibiade, as one of the leaders in the Sicily campaign was summoned back to Athens to face charges of killing Hermae prior to his departure (Thucydides, 448). This marked the turning point of Athens disastrous expedition in Sicily as Alcibiade defected to Sparta rather than go back to Athens and face trial. The inside information Alcibiade had assisted Sparta to free Sicily. He shared much of this information and to a larger extent enabled Sparta to regain its lost military reputation. They managed to register significant victories against Athens. Nicia on realizing the difficult situation in Sicily Island wrote a letter to Athens detailing the difficult situation and requesting a recall. Instead, Athens dispatched more reinforcements which were vanquished by Sparta.

This accelerated Sparta’s confidence as they later once again designed another invasion of Attica itself. Again, Athens suffered a huge set back at Syracuse that lessened their navy ability (Thucydides, 412). Still, the leadership in Athens refused to cut their losses and call off the operations. As Thucydides puts it in the end, Athenian “losses were, total; navy, army, and everything was destroyed” (Thucydides, 537). Athens had exhausted most of her resources to support the Sicily expedition. Alcibiade encouraged revolts all over the Aegean region and Sparta effectively gained more momentum. They managed to conquer Attica and set up a garrison and with assistance from the Persians; they were able to set up a navy (Thucydides, 174). The miserable failure of the Sicilian expedition led to civil strife every where in Athens. The State fell a part entirely. Sparta was able to seize all the naval ships of Athens in the last battle that left Athens utterly vanquished. Their food and navy were now in control of Sparta. Sparta won the Peloponnesian war and regained her dominance in Greece once more. The resulting treaty forced Athens to destroy all her fortifications and as a result become a minor ally to Sparta. All the empire that assisted her with fiscal ability was lost completely. Athens also lost her political influence although the city continued to enjoy a level of wealth, and remained a cultural center among other cities of Greece. The end of the Peloponnesian war placed Sparta in a significant position having succeeded in breaking Athenian empire.

I believe that Thucydides ultimately explains the destruction of the Athenian empire in Sicily Island. This was purely as a result of bad policy and not as a result of bad luck or circumstances outside human control. The policy by Athenian leaders to endorse Sicily Island invasion was an act of bad policy judgment. Nicia, one of the sober leaders and a student of Pericles had even advised against the expedition but no one listened. Athenians were simply overwhelmed by their victories, and this greed led them blindly to wedge Sicilian expedition that was disastrous. Pericles had advised Athenians before, not to engage in further acquisition of empires because he fully understood the consequences which came to pass. The Sicilian adventure was a mistake at the very onset. It portrayed Athens’ greedy desire to conquer more territories. To make matters grave, a whole general is recalled in the middle of the campaign to face charges. Alcibiade recall for indictment was a terrible human error made by Athenian leadership. This mistake deprived Athens the main crusader of the expedition and also enabled Sparta to receive vital information about Athens that resuscitated their vaunted war campaign. This came as a result of Alcibiade defection to Sparta when he was recalled to face trial in Athens (Thucydides, 448).

Thucydides accounts that, Nicia had twice advised Athens against Sicilian adventure, before the expedition and his letter advising Athenian retreat. However, he was not a forceful leader able to force people to listen as Pericles was able to. As Thucydides puts it, Athens summoned and executed all its generals over crimes of war when the war was still ongoing. All these mistakes made by Athens demonstrate bad policy of imperialism to an extent of ignoring the practical situation on the ground. For instance, Pericles had laid out original goals that were specific and practical for Athens that would have steered it to victory in the Peloponnesian war. Instead, Athens embarked on the path of acquiring more after his demise from the plague. His persuasive voice of reason may have assisted Athens to be satisfied with the Peace of Nicias. This was because Nicia himself lacked the influence to convince Athenians against the war.

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In conclusion, Athens policy is viewed as one that is laced with self interest after its successful war campaign against the Persians. At the end of the war with the Persians, the Delian League which started as a voluntary alliance of the Greece states in defense against the Persian aggression later converted into Athens economic and organizational strength for Athenian power. This policy by Athenians became extremely provocative among Delian states. As the Peloponnesian war progressed, Athens failed to build alliance to support its war initiatives to enhance its security. It also failed to support her own security as a means to form an army that could match Sparta’s mighty ground army. All these was as more injurious as Athens reluctance to engage peace with Sparta when the key opportunity a rose. These loopholes in Athens strategic policies indulged it to a protracted and costly war that was not envisioned. In many instances, Thucydides extolled the leadership of Pericles and also suggests that Pericles rational decision making was subject to uncertainty of fortune and inevitability of human error. His account points to chance at numerous points “as a power that trumps even the best laid plans for men”. For instance, he attributes the decisive victory Athens earned in Pylos to a concatenation of accidental events than the defense policy of the navy. Finally, Thucydides appreciates what he observes as a weakness what otherwise he sees as the strength of Athenian system. He adds that the entry of new political leaders onto the Athenian politics serve as to add complexity to a situation that was already confusing. These leaders were mired by personal pride and ambition that promoted self interest, and were interested in competing for power rather than the collective interests of the population. Pericles was able to overcome deficiencies in his policies while he was a live, however, Athens suffered irreparably under his successors; Cleon and Alcibiade.

Works Cited

Hornblower, Simon. The Greek World 49-323 B.C. London: Routledge, 1996

Plutarch, Greek Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguine Books, 1972.

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