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Why Athens Lost the Peloponnesian War


Peloponnesian War refers to an ancient Greek conflict that involved the Delian League led by Athens, and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. The war can be categorized into three phases by noting the historical perspectives. The first phase is the Archidamian War, where Sparta invaded Attica in repeated moves while Athens was advantaged by the naval power, raiding the Peloponnese coast.1 Due to the rise of conflict, frequent attempts led to supremacy battles, hence the cause of unrest in the existing empires then. The second phase involved a massive force that was an expeditionary attack on Syracuse, which led to the destruction of many segments of the regions then (Plutarch, 1916). Having been destroyed, the force led to the final phase known as Decelean War, which is also known as Ionian War. The phase indulged Sparta getting reinforcement from the Achaemenid regime, which undermined Athens’s supremacy when it came to naval power. Thus, Athens lost the war due to the absence of experienced leaders in conjunction with destruction of Athens fleet and emergence of epidemic in the region.

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Factors Contributing to Athens’s Defeat

Absence of General Alcibiades Leading to Lysander Triumphs

The absence of experienced leadership gave other parties a chance to defeat Athens. During the war, the Alcibiades flew from Athens after a negligible Spartan victory that was necessitated by the leadership of general Lysander in the war in Notium in 406 BC.2 Alcibiades had exiled himself from the city of Athens after members had failed to reelect him, hence Sparta taking advantage of the disorganization that had ensued then.3 The Athenians lost the battle because there was no experienced leader who would manage to integrate the changing factors in the war; hence, the incompetency of the new groups that took charge contributed to the failure. Although during the battle of Arginusae, Athens had managed to be victorious, the similar fraction of losing 70 ships by Sparta while Athens lost 25 made a notable realization that revealed the weaknesses that Athens had then.

Poor weather that was evident then made Athenians not rescue their stranded crews or clear the fleet that remained for Spartans. Thus, due to the challenges, there was a controversial trial that caused outrage in the city, which presented itself to be one of the major factions that facilitated the victory of Lysander.4 From the discussion in this paragraph, it is clear that Athens did not have a critical execution of the war through leadership and other linear elements that would make them win over the other sides. The fact that Lysander had some unique strategies made Athens shortchanged of ideas that could help them win the war.

According to analysis historians have concerning Lysanders, he was a competent and brave diplomat and was brilliant in marine executions. He made amicable relationships with an Achaemenid prince named Cyrus, who was the son of Darius II (Thucydides, 1974). Through the learning of the opponent, Lysanders was able to spot various weaknesses that he took advantage of, hence contributing to the victory over the other party, Athens. The skills that Lysanders had made him seize the opportunity whereby Spartan soldiers had a steady invasion of Dardanelles, the source of Athenian grain (Plutarch, 1916). That strategy worked perfectly for Lysanders as Athens had not otherwise apart from adhering to the demands of Sparta, hence leading to the weakened force in the war.

In 405 BC, Lysanders had defeated the Athenian military at war in Aegospotami which led to the destruction of 168 ships at the same time, capturing more than 4000 Athenian sailors who were playing a key role in the war.5 It is important to note that due to the fear of starvation and the disease, as mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Athens had to surrender in 404 BC. All the allies that supported Athens had no otherwise apart from surrendering (Thucydides, 1974). There was massive destruction of property such as the Athenian walls and the fleet, which ensured that the city would not organize for a successful comeback.

The strategy by Lysanders and the absence of General Alcibiades were the major moves that led to the surrender of Athens during the war. The collaborative base between Corinth and Thebes forced Athenians to concede to the destruction of property and slavery of all its citizens (Plutarch, 1916). That move ensured that Athens would not have any starting point as they were tied from all sides of the major forces.6 Therefore, Lysander’s triumph strategies and absence of leadership are major factors that led to Athens losing the war.

The Plague of Athens

During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian victory seemed within reach, and everyone was optimistic that they would win. However, during the second year of the war, an epidemic hit Athens’s city, hence killing thousands of people. An estimation shows that the plague cleared between 75,0000-100,000 people, which translated to a quarter of the population.7 The plague entered Athens through Piraeus, which acted as the city’s main port and was the only channel where food and other items would come to the country from. Due to the plague, there was non-adherence to laws and religious beliefs, which created a disorganized culture that necessitated the disunity that led to the defeat of Athens by the Spartans.

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There were stricter laws that resulted in the punishment of aliens who claimed to be Athenians. Some of the leaders of Athens, such as Pericles, were killed by the plague, raising the state of unrest as many felt that the war had overtaken the need to fight but combat the situation. With time during the war, the plague’s power doubled as it was said that the number of pathogens that had caused it had reached 30, making it worse than before.8 Therefore, it is important to say that Athens had double tragedies at the same time since there was no other group that was facing such trauma during the war. The concentration of challenges made Athens fail to balance the war (Plutarch, 1916). Hence, one of the key reasons they lost is the plague that hit the city.

One of the Historians named Thucydides, who had contracted the disease but survived, said that the plague was said to originate from Ethiopia and passed through other countries, majorly, Egypt and Libya, then the Greek world. The plague’s severity was so adverse that even the physicians could not predict where it was likely to hit. The disease’s deadliness causes a state of disgruntled minds that did not seem to work on a similar issue but many. The city then was characterized by overcrowding, which made the disease spread faster, claiming 25% of the lives.9 According to Thucydides, the plague killed many expert seamen and infantry groups, which limited sailors who were likely to have a channel to continue fighting.

A disastrous Silicon Expedition made Athens not recover from the plague, a subject that made the city continue having challenges when it comes to the war. This account of the plague may be related to the mass grave and nearly 1000 tombs dated between 430 and 426 BC (Thucydides, 1974). The absence of soldiers due to the plague, the disorganization of government, and lack of medicinal remedy led to the contributing factors as to why Athens lost (Plutarch, 1916). During that time, it was hard to apply the Pericles strategy and it would not work anymore. Pericles’s strategy encouraged people to take care of the Athenian walls and safeguard the main port so that the town would have supplies.10 In what appears to prevent Spartans from accessing the town, the model could not work perfectly since the plague had hit people at the port, which Pericles had held like a major area in helping Athenians have sustainable life during the war.

According to historical backgrounds, the plague hit people whereby vast symptoms would be spotted, which limited the extent to which people would contain the war. Basically, people were weak as wounds were all around the body, and no healthcare service would contain the situation making the party lose focus in the war (Thucydides, 1974). From the discussion in the paragraph, it was nearly impossible for Athens to even fight amidst the emergence of the epidemic, and thus, the defeat started ensuing. The war, which almost took three decades, would see Athens resort to other ways, which led to the slavery and intimidation by Sparta allies in the war then.

The Destruction of Athenian Fleets

It is also important to mention that Athenians had their fleets destroyed. The victory of Sparta on Athens was a result of collaborative bases between Spartan allies and Sparta. Here, the Corinthians, Spartans, and other forces in Peloponnesian League had ganged against Athens. In an attempt to fight the enemies, Athens sent 100 ships and more than 5000 troops to Sicily.11 This move is termed as a wrong decision by many scholars as Athens was supposed to withdraw instead of looking for a comeback. Through the strategies of Gylippus, the Syracusans and the allies built a strong navy in response to Athenian attempts to forcefully take the war in their favor.

First, Spartans defeated Athens on land, and the naval base developed was to completely make Athens surrender. The escalation of the war led to the killing of many Athenian troops and confiscation of major elements that were used to fight in their favor then (Plutarch, 1916.). The entire army that belonged to Athens was sold to slavery by the Sicilians, and the division caused the final defeat that supplemented the other factors mentioned in the above sections.12 After Athenians lost their power to Sicily, it was the time that they had to get a clear way to fight back. However, there was a challenge since the Athens treasury was nearly empty.

Additionally, the docks were depleted from the destruction of the fleets, and many of the youths in the city were dead or taken to foreign prisons. Athenians failed to combat the Sicilian expedition because of the mistake that was made earlier of not electing Alcibiades (Thucydides, 1974.). The murder of the key leader later would raise concerns as other leaders felt that they would follow suit of what happened to Alcibiades. Therefore, it is critical to say that the destruction of the fleet had started way back when the responsible people did not practice the plans of Alcibiades.

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The massive reinforcement sent to Athens by Demosthenes did not work as Athenians could still turn the tide of the battle due to the Spartan Gylippus joining the fray. The collaboration gave rise to the spirits of recruiting allies that, later on, would make the battle to be in favor of Spartans. More than 18,000 Athenians and the allies got slain and 7,000 captured by the Spartan base of collaborated allies.13 Therefore, it is clear that without the numbers, the war would not favor Athens, hence posing a defeat. According to Thucydides, the Athenians were inclined to offer assistance but were ambitious in conquering the city of Sicily. Due to the clear focus that was evident with the group, the allies of Sparta would not allow the likely win that was seen as forthcoming (Thucydides, 1974). The allies formed collaborative links that led to the destruction of many fleets. Therefore, due to the loss of manpower and critical resources, Athens had no other apart from surrendering, which marked the end of the Peloponnesian War.


The Peloponnesian War occurred between Athens and Spartans in 431-404 BC. The war was fought in various and involved allies joining the initial rivals hence determining the course of the battle. During the war, Athenians were close to winning until a major epidemic strike came during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. The plague caused by more than 30 pathogens hit Athens City; hence, the soldiers, mostly youths, were unable to combat the two forces. The plague killed almost 25% of the population, which meant a deficit in terms of people who were supposed to fight then. Doctors could not discover a fast solution, and therefore, Athens was affected by the port, which served as the main entry for supplies and food.

The other reason Athens lost the battle was a result of the massive destruction of the fleet by the Sicilians. Many troops were killed while others were imprisoned or taken for slavery. Lastly, Athens lost the war because of the emergence of Lysanders, who was brave to formulate strategies such as seizing Athens’s naval bases. That was necessitated by the absence of one of the generals of the war named Alcibiades, who had been forced to exile, leaving a military leadership gap that was not filled to the expected range during the war. Athens, having all those constraints, was less likely to win the war as the battle required complete readiness and strength in all perspectives.


Fins, Joseph J. “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides.” Hastings Center Report 50, no. 3 (2020): 50-53. Web.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Thomas Hobbes: The Introductory Texts of His Translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides”. Filosofia Unisinos 19, no. 2 (2018). Web.

Platias, Athanassios; Koliopoulos. Thucydides on Strategy. Oxford: Oxford University Press UK, 2017.

Plutarch. Life of Alcibiades. Vol. IV, Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1916.

Powell, Anton. Athens And Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC. Routledge, 2016.

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Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated and edited by Rex Warner. Penguin Books, 1974.


  1. Thomas Hobbes, “Thomas Hobbes: The Introductory Texts of His Translation of the History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides,” Filosofia Unisinos 19, no. 2 (2018), Web.
  2. Joseph J. Fins, “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides,” Hastings Center Report 50, no. 3 (2020): 50-53, Web.
  3. Joseph J. Fins, “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides” 51.
  4. Joseph J. Fins, “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides,” 52.
  5. Anton Powell, Athens, and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History From 478 BC. Routledge, 2016.
  6. Thomas Hobbes, “Thomas Hobbes: The Introductory Texts of His Translation of The History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides,”
  7. Joseph J. Fins, “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides,” 53.
  8. Anton Powell, Athens, and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History From 478 BC.
  9. Joseph J. Fins, “Pandemics, Protocols, And the Plague of Athens: Insights from Thucydides,” 51.
  10. Athanassios; Koliopoulos Platias, Thucydides On Strategy Oxford: Oxford University Press UK, 2017.
  11. Athanassios; Koliopoulos Platias, Thucydides On Strategy
  12. Thomas Hobbes, “Thomas Hobbes: The Introductory Texts of His Translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.”
  13. Thomas Hobbes, “Thomas Hobbes: The Introductory Texts of His Translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.”

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