Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War


Thucydides tells a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War, a major military conflict between Greek Powers. At the source of this war lies the conflict around Corcyra, an emerging naval power. After defeating Corinth’s fleet in a dispute over their shared colony of Epidamnus, it established itself as a geopolitical force and launched raids against Corinthian colonies and allies1. This triggered the other side to prepare for a counteroffensive2. Seeing these preparations and expecting the conflict to escalate further, Corcyra appealed to Athens for aid, shortly followed by a counter-appeal by Corinth3. These appeals, and Athens’ ultimate decision to lend defensive support to Corcyra, have played a crucial part in the course of the war.

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The Appeals

The Corcyran appeal described them as the offended party, suggested that Corinth, supported by its Peloponnesian allies, would capture Corcyra and proceed with an offensive against Athens. Corinth’s statement blamed Corcyra for this conflict and constituted an ultimatum: allying with Corcyra would break an existing treaty and provoke Corinthian aggression4. Thucydides argues that the Athenians viewed war with the Peloponnese as inevitable and, therefore, chose to support Corcyra, though only defensively, to negate their potential opponents’ advantage, should they claim the independent power.

When considering the appropriate response to these appeals, the Athenian powers were faced with a challenging choice. First was the moral decision of who the aggressor was in this conflict. Although the politics and events surrounding the Epidamnus situation were complex, the Corinthians were justified in blaming Corcyra for only intervening after the colony had declared Corinth it is champion. Siding with Corinth over this claim could have allowed Athens to ease the existing tensions with the Peloponnesians and possibly avoid the conflict’s escalation entirely. However, morals are a minor element in geopolitical decisions, and the influence won with Corinth is of questionable value to Sparta and the rest of its alliance.

The second consideration was Corcyra’s emergence as a naval power and proposal of allegiance to Athens. Although it was a significant power in the region at the time, its fleet was insufficient to resist a directed offensive. Athens had to consider this fleet as an asset in the upcoming conflict. Accepting would mean gaining the use of this asset at the cost of committing to opposing Corinth and likely escalating the situation prematurely. Refusing, as noted in the Corcyran appeal, would allow the fleet to be seized by Corinth and used against Athens5. The heavy losses in the subsequent battle at Corcyra can be attributed to an insufficiently radical decision in this matter.

Finally, Athens had a peace treaty with Sparta and its allies, which included Corinth. Allying with Corcyra would break this treaty, making escalation unavoidable. However, Athens attempted to maneuver around it by only offering defensive support rather than a full alliance. It is evident that Athens viewed a war against the Peloponnese as inevitable, and, therefore, sought to secure an early advantage. Thucydides mentions that the goal was to see both Corcyra and Corinth weakened by their conflict, giving their opponent an opportunity for a strong initial offensive6. Therefore, choosing to support Corcyra defensively meant Athens could be present in the coming battle and intervene as necessary to weaken Corinth’s forces.


Athens’ choice in responding to Corinth and Corcyra’s appeals in their conflict was a crucial point leading up to the escalation of the Peloponnesian war. In attempting to balance its moral, geopolitical, and strategic interests, while still viewing the major conflict as inevitable, the city-state made an insufficiently radical decision. Its attempt to preserve its existing treaty rendered it unable to intervene insufficient force as Corcyra’s fleet took heavy losses, destroying the asset Athens sought to secure. Furthermore, its intervention damaged the treaty and may have contributed to the escalation of the Peloponnesian war.


Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Martin Hammond. Oxford: World Oxford Classics, 2009.

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  1. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, trans. Martin Hammond (Oxford: World Oxford Classics, 2009), 16.
  2. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, 17.
  3. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, 17.
  4. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, 20-23.
  5. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, 20.
  6. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, 23.
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