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The Period of Peloponnesian War

1. The fifty-year period, 479 - 431 B.C.

1. At a certain stage of the war against the Persians, Sparta has withdrawn. This was probably related to its apprehensions about the rising power of Athens. So, the struggle against the Persians was headed by the Athenians, and for this purpose they have formed the Delian League. Steven Kreis writes: "Delegates met on the island of Delos in 478 B.C. The allies swore oaths of alliance which were to last until lumps of iron, thrown into the sea, rose again. The Delian League policy was to be established by an assembly of representatives but was to be administered by an admiral and ten treasurers appointed by Athens. It fell upon the Athenian leader, Aristides the Just, to assign an assessment of 460 talents per year, which member states paid in cash or in the form of manned ships." The treasury of the League was initially at Delos, and representatives of the city-states met there.

2. Immediately after the end of war against Persians, Sparta offers Athens to refrain from rebuilding walls around the city, on the pretext that it would give Persians an even stronger base for operations if they should wish to invade Attica. As an answer, Athens immediately start building the walls at an increased tempo, even breaking up own houses to obtain raw materials.

3. At the end of the war, the Hellenes break up into two groups of states: one following Athens, and one following Sparta. The fifty-year period resembles the world during the period of the Cold War, with two poles of power. Thucydides says: "from the end of the Persian war to the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, even though there were some periods of peace, basically these two powers either struggled with each other, or repressed revolts of their allies. Hence, they were in excellent military shape". "The main reason for these insurrections [of the allies of Athens] was that they could not pay a certain amount of taxes or could not provide a certain amount of ships". In time, instead of providing the ships the allies simply paid the tribute. Meanwhile, Sparta installs oligarchies in the government of its allies; the oligarchs put the interests of Sparta above all.

4. An interesting episode is the struggle of the slaves against their owners, and relationship of Athens with Sparta around this issue. Thucydides says that when one of the allies of Athens, the island of Thasos, rebelled, it asked Sparta for help. But Sparta could not come to the rescue "because of an earthquake, as well as because of uprising and departure to Ithoma of helots, perioki, and some others... Helots were descendants of the Messenians, who were enslaved in that famous war [i.e. Messenian war]... and so Spartans, seeing that their war in Ithoma shows no signs of end, asked their allies for help, including Athens, and Athenians came to Sparta with a significant force headed by Cymon. The main reason for which they asked Athenian help was that Athenians had the reputation of being artful during siege operations, and after a long siege it has become clear that they themselves have had no experience in this part of military art... Spartans not being able to take Ithom through an attack, started to be apprehensive about this whole business and the non-orthodoxy of Athenians; they also thought that they were of different nationality, and should they remain in Peloponnesus, they might listen to the people in Ithoma and become sponsors of some revolutionary politics. So, while they kept all their allies, they sent the Athenians back home again... the insurgents in Ithoma, after ten-years of struggle, could not continue, and so they came to an agreement with Sparta: the condition was that they would have a free exit from Peloponnesus and will never again step on its soil; if anyone of them is to be caught in the future, they will become slaves of the one who caught them". Athenians welcome the former slaves and settle them in Naupactus.

In this passage we see several interesting moments. One is that in technical-engineering aspect of war, Athenians stand above the Spartans. This points to their higher culture in general. Second, we see a clash of two opposing antagonisms. On the one hand there is a solidarity of slave owners against the revolting slaves; hence Athenians come to the rescue of Spartans. On the other hand, there is mutual suspicion and antagonism between Sparta and Athens. Eventually this feeling takes over, Spartans send Athenians home, and Athenians offer a refuge to the former slaves. The third moment is that nations which were defeated in a war become slaves as a whole. Thus, at this stage of development of society, the concepts of a "class" and a "nation" coincide. Similar tendency we see today. Some nations are exploited and others play the role of modern slave owners. This has implications for concept of a world revolution: the revolutionaries of the exploited nations should first unite with each other.

2. Peloponnesian war

1. Thucydides: "This was the greatest upheaval in the history of Hellenes, also touching on the greater part of the non-hellenistic world, and I would dare to say upon the whole of humanity". Peloponnesian war can be seen as a world war for its times. On the surface, it was a war between two groups of states; in reality, this was a civil war.

2. Causes for the war: Athens is a state dominated by traders and artisans. Political form of the state is democracy for the citizens of the polis. Sparta is the state of the landowners. Political form is that of oligarchy. Throughout Greece, there is a struggle between the landowning aristocracy and the lower strata of the population. Sparta supports the oligarchy, while Athens supports the traders and artisans.

Thucydides says about the start of the war: "What made the war necessary was the growth of Athenian power and fear which Sparta has had about this". Russian historian Khvostov explains it thus: "economic needs were compelling the Athenians to widen their influence, they needed places from which they could obtain raw materials, especially bread, and to which they could sell the products of their industry. These needs led them to Ionic sea, Sicily and Italy; however, such advance would put Sparta and its allies into dangerous situation. Peloponnesus would be surrounded from all sides by Athenian territories". This explains social-economic causes of the war.

3. As for political causes of the war, in 435-33 we see a clash between Corcyra and Corinth over Epidaurus (in the photograph: theater at Epidaurus). In Epidaurus there is a civil war, as the democratic party has banished the aristocratic party. Aristocrats, using the help of foreigners, attack the city-state both from the land and the sea. Democrats ask Corcyra for help, which it refuses. Then the democrats ask Corinth for help, which it grants, in order to hurt Corcyra, as Epidaurus was a former colony of Corcyra. Internal struggle in Epidaurus turns into a sea battle between Corcyra and Corinth, as a result of which Corcyra wins and takes over the control of Epidaurus. Corinth prepares for future war with Corcyra and hence asks for admittance into the Delian League, even though previously they preferred neutral position in regard to both Athens and Sparta. Corcyra has the largest fleet among Hellenes, and occupies a strategic location on the way from Italy to Peloponnesus. In the event of a looming war between Sparta and Athens, they can cut off the supplies. Hence, Athenians prefer an alliance with Corcyra to an alliance with Corinth. Next, there is a sea battle between Corcyra and Athens, on the one hand, and Corinth and its allies, on the other. Corinth wins! 800 citizens of Corcyra from lower classes are sold as slaves, while 250 from the upper classes are held for ransom and political influence in Corcyra.

Meanwhile, another city state Potidaea is a colony of Corinth and an ally of Athens paying tribute. Athenians tell Potidaea to destroy part of their walls and expel representative of Corinth. The rulers of Potidaea send representatives to Sparta and obtain its support. Hence, they decide to rebel against Athens. Corinth was already an ally of Sparta and it blows the flames of war against Athens.

At the council of Spartans, the king Archidamus advices to prepare the war diplomatically by making alliances with Hellenes and others. He gives a council which should be known by all who prepare for a war: "Practical measures which we undertake are based upon supposition that our enemies are not without brains. And it is correct, for we should base our hopes upon the security of our preventive measures rather than on hopes that our opponents will make a mistake".

Finally, Spartans vote for war, "not so much because they were carried by the speeches of their allies, but because they were afraid of further growth of Athenian power, seeing that the greater part of Hellas was already under the control of Athens" (Thucydides).

Hence, we can conclude that principal reason for war between Sparta and Athens was social and economic antagonism between democratic and oligarchic forces in the Greek world; political events were phenomenal appearances of this antagonism. Something similar can take place today in relationship between countries which have had a socialist revolution and imperialist world. The world strives for uniformity, and it will not tolerate two antagonistic forms of societies.

4. Ideological struggle for domination over the Greek minds takes the form of who will control Delos, religious center of the Greeks. Obviously, the state which will control the Delphi oracle will have the blessings of the gods. "Spartans were involved in a campaign called 'the holy war'. They seized the temple at Delphi and gave it back to the Delphians. As soon as they left, Athenians came, seized the temple, and gave it back to Phocians".

5. Mytilene was "an important member of the Delian League, but it rebelled against Athenian domination in 428 B.C" (Encarta 2004). Hence, they join the war of Sparta against Athens. An interesting turn of events we see during the seige of Mytilene by Athenians. "Salestus [the commander in Mytilene] stopped hoping for arrival of ships [from Sparta], and ordered to give out heavy weapons to the people, who were previously only lightly armed; his plan was to lead them to a battle against Athenians. But as soon as people have found themselves well armed, they stopped obeying the government. They met with each other and demanded that government should openly show the entire provisions in stock and distribute it among the population; otherwise, they will come to an agreement with Athenians and will surrender the city. The government understood that they could do nothing to prevent this, and that they will be in danger if the agreement is concluded without them. Hence, they joined in negotiating agreement with the Athenian army" (Thucydides). After long debates in Athens about the fate of the prisoners taken in Mytilene, a decision is taken for a death sentence against the entire aristocratic party, consisting of around 1000 people.

6. In his story of revolution and civil war in Corcyra, Thucydides makes a statement that "human nature" is responsible for all cruelty. Human nature is identified with envy of one group of people towards another, and hence all mean and cruel acts. In the mouth of Thucydides, "envy" means the struggle of the democratic masses against aristocracy.

7. Another incident of a class struggle we see in Megara. Athenians want to make this town pay a tribute. Hence, they send a detachment against Megara. At this time, "the citizens of Megara were under strong pressure from their exiles in Pegs, who were thrown out of the city in the course of a democratic revolution and created problems with their plunder. Hence, they started to say that it would be good to return the exiles, and not to make the town weak by struggling against two enemies at once. Friends of the exiled party, seeing the general course of the debate, started to speak more openly. As for the leaders of the democratic party, they understood that because of all the privations, people were not likely to stand strong behind them, and so they went for negotiations with Athenian generals... with the goal of surrendering the town to them". As result of this conspiracy, Athenians are let into the town. But then comes a superior Spartan army headed by Brasidas, a skillful politician and general. "Those of Megarians who were involved in conspiracy with Athenians immediately slipped out of the city. Others joined in discussions with friends of the exiles, and these were returned from Pegs, after which there was a solemn oath that there will be no revenge for the past... However, as soon as the exiles took the power, they reviewed the hoplites. They have chosen approximately 100 people, personal enemies and those who were the main helpers of Athenians. People were told to pass a sentence onto these prisoners, and they were all executed. Strict oligarchy was founded in the city. This change of government, made after the revolution, was conducted by a few, but it held for a very long time".

The dilemma of those times can be formulated thus: either you're oppressed by Athens, or you're oppressed by oligarchs. Oppression by Athens appears to us to be more progressive.

Brasidas declares that Sparta struggles for freedom of all towns, that Sparta doesn't have imperialistic ambitions, that Sparta doesn't want to get involved into internal conflicts in every town. This favorably contrasts with the policy of Athens, which demand a tribute from its allies. However, Sparta, just like Athens, establishes dominance of its own party in each city, as it did in the case of Megara.

8. The head of the democratic party in Athens is Cleon. This party wanted war with Sparta, just like, in the course of the English revolution, the masses wanted war against king Carl I, while the moderate party, the Presbyterians, wanted to negotiate a settlement. Thucydides, using the terminology of the English revolution, belongs to Presbyterian party, and he speaks with contempt of Cleon, and also against "extremists" in Corcyra.

Sparta sues for peace with Athens because of the difficult situation of an elite Spartan detachment in Pylos. It approaches an oligarchic party in Athens. Sparta offers to conduct negotiations not in the People's Assembly, but to form a small committee, which will block the popular pressure.

9. In parallel with negotiations with Athens, Spartans start negotiations with the king of Persia. According to M. Khvostov, "in Sparta during the VI and part of the V century there was natural economy", and so Sparta was in need of monetary support from Persia, for example to pay the sailors and soldiers. Thus, the war of Greece against Persia was not over.

10. Spartans were defeated at Pylos in 425 B.C. This leads to mass desertions of helots, and Spartans "fear the growth of revolution in their country". It is a law-like tendency: defeat of the army of the exploiters opens a possibility for the uprising of the exploited. If the first signs of this are desertion, later it can turn into a revolution. That's the main reason why Sparta is in such a hurry to negotiate with Athens. One serious military defeat puts a question mark to existence of Spartan state as such.

After defeat at Pylos, the tactics of Spartans become less bold and defensive. They do not send army far away from home. Spartans "are afraid that another catastrophe, similar to the one in Sphacteria, should overtake them".

Unwilling allies of Athens ask Sparta for an army to rebel against Athens. Spartans send an army consisting of helots. They "were glad to have a good pretext to send the helots out of the country, because with Pylos in the hands of the enemy, they were afraid of revolution".

Precautionary measures against helots take even more treacherous forms. Spartans "issue a proclamation saying that helots must choose those who say they brought the greatest benefit to Sparta on the battlefield, implying that these people were to obtain their freedom. But this was a check which supposed that the first who will claim their freedom will be the first to turn against Sparta. Hence, 2000 people were chosen and they donned garlands and went around the temples, under the impression that they were becoming free people. But soon Spartans killed them all, and no one knew exactly how each one of them was killed".

If Athens resolved upon an uprising of the helots, Sparta would be defeated. But to provoke the uprising of the helots meant to provoke their own slaves. When Athens negotiated peace with Sparta in 422-21 B.C., one of the points of the agreement was the following: "In case of an uprising of the slaves, Athens come with all their forces to the help of Sparta". Struggle against slaves was as important for Athens as struggle against Sparta.

11. Due to the military art of Brasidas, Athenians were defeated in Amphipolis and Delos in 422 B.C. Just like Spartans, they "started to fear for their allies, who, because of these defeats, might rebel on a wider scale". Small scale uprisings were a constant feature in Athenian camp.

12. In 421 B.C. Spartans and Athens reach a settlement, but terms of the settlement, such as return of the occupied cities, are not fulfilled. This is not because Spartans do not want that, but because there are allies, and within each city there is an intense political struggle (remember what happened in Myteline and Megara). The peace holds for 6 years and 10 months. There was no war between the two principal city-states, but war was a constant feature among the allies. For example, there was a war between Epidaurus and Argos. Argos was a democracy and made an agreement with Athens. Spartans, avoiding Athenian ships and blockade, send 300 soldiers to the help of Epidaurus, while Athenias, answering the call of Argos, send helots to fight against Spartans. Thus, Sparta and Athens continue to fight against each other, but indirectly. It is similar to how the USA and the USSR battled each other in after WWII.

13. Spartans settle the helots on the perimeter of their country, in order to get rid of the possible internal enemies, and in order to create a buffer zone between them and the external danger. "Spartans have decided that the helots who fought together with Brasidas could obtain their freedom and could live where they want; then they settled them with other freed helots on the border between Laconia and Elis, and at this time Sparta was already in poor relations with Elis".

14. In 415 B.C. Athenians undertake a second expedition against Sicily. It's important to note that they didn't know the size of the island, and the numbers of its population. Both of these factors are of prime importance for military strategy. Thus, Athenians undertake to fight on two fronts: against Sparta and against Syracuse, their main enemy on Sicily. However, fighting on two fronts goes against strategic advice given by Pericles at the beginning of this war.

Why Athens "comes to the help of its relatives and newly made allies"? Alcibiades, the head of the democratic party in Athens at the time, as well as one of the generals appointed to lead the expedition, says: "As a matter of fact, we have already reached the level where we have to plan new conquests and hold on to the old, as there is a danger that we can fall under the power of others if they will not be in our power". The necessity of united world was already felt then not only in Athens, but in other cities as well.

15. In the minds of Athenian citizens we perceive early imperialist motives for the Sicilian expedition: "the masses in general and an average soldier in particular saw the prospect of obtaining pay for the given period and widening of the empire, so as to obtain a steadily paying position in the future". However, just like the Romans in the not so distant future, they did not want to work themselves for the victory, and preferred to substitute the labor of the slaves. Here is a quote from a letter of general Nicias to Athenians: "There are some who bought slaves, and convinced captains of ships to take these slaves aboard, instead of themselves, thus undermining the effectiveness of the fleet". We should add: not only the fleet, but the state as well.

16. Sparta sends its general and troops to the help of Syracuse. Athenian expedition is defeated totally. After this catastrophe, the allies of Athens revolt: "Euboea was the first one to send its representatives to the Spartan king to discuss the possibility of rebellion against Athens". It was followed by Milet, Chios, and others.

17. While the ruling classes of Chios switch over to the side of the Spartans, the slaves of Chios now see in Athenians, who send a detachment to suppress the rebellion, their liberators: "In Chios there were more slaves than in any other city, with exception of Sparta. Because of their numbers, they were the most severely punished, when they did something wrong. And now, when the Athenian army was solidly behind the fortifications, many of them deserted and ran over to Athenians, and because of their knowledge of territory, caused the greatest harm". 

18. Spartans make an agreement with the Persian king to pay for sending their troops overseas. For 55 ships the representatives of the Persian king paid 30 talents per month. 1 talent is approximately 25-26 kilograms of silver. Hence, the Persians paid around 780 kg of silver per month. However, Spartans and Persians quarrel over how much territory the Persians will control. Persians want to control all the "original" lands up to Boeotia. The politics of Persia was to destroy one Hellenic power with the help of the other, keep the balance between them, and to weaken both as much as possible.

19. In 411 B.C. there is a coup d'etat in Athens. This is a conspiracy of the oligarchs, who represent members of "the most power class in Athens, who more than any others suffered as a result of the war". On the day of the coup, parts of the hoplites who were on the side of the oligarchs keep their weapons, while the other parts is sent home, i.e. disorganized and disarmed. Oligarchs appoint 400 new rulers. These 400, at the head of a detachment of storm troops called "the Hellenic youth", enter the government building, where the democrats are in council, offer them pay for some time in advance, and send them home. Few days before, and few days after the coup there were murders of prominent democratic leaders which no one investigates. When the oligarchs take the power, many democratic leaders were arrested. All citizens of Athens grow suspicious of one another.

Oligarchs attempt to come to an agreement with Spartan king about the end of the war. They are afraid of the mutiny of the fleet, which at the time of the coup was at sea. The oarsmen of the fleet are from the lower classes of Athenian society, thus naturally supporting democrats. On Samos, this fleet helps local democrats to overthrow local oligarchs. There is a sharp conflict between this fleet and the new government in Athens: "the army attempts to impose democracy on the city, while the 400 attempt to impose oligarchy on the army". At a general meeting of the fleet, captains and general suspected of sympathies with oligarchs are relieved of their duties, and new ones appointed, with sharply expressed democratic leanings. Athenian fleet desires to go to Piraeus, the port of Athens, to restore democracy, but due to the efforts of Alcibiades this expedition does not take place.

20. The hoplites in Piraeus second the feeling of the fleet in Samos and rebel against the government of 400. At this moment, a Peloponnesian fleet, together with some former allies of Athens, enter the harbor, and capture without fighting 22 Athenian ships. This defeat leads to a general meeting of all citizens, which votes against the government of 400 and establishes what we may call "a census democracy", which extends to "all who could find for themselves the arms of a hoplite". Oligarchs run away to a fortress held by the Spartans, which controls access of supplies to Athens from land.

21. During the last phase of the war we see a massive escape of the slaves which used to belong to Athenians: "it included 20 thousand slaves - many of them miners at Lavrion - who have switched to the side of the Spartans". Such running away is a preliminary way of slaves freeing themselves. Later we see uprisings of slaves in Rome.

22. Lissander, the Spartan general, was able to capture Athenian fleet of 150 ships when all the crew went on land. After this, Athens were blocked both from the sea and from land. Almost all allies leave Athens, except the people of Samos, who destroyed their own aristocrats. Athens starve, and that's the reason they surrender to Spartans after negotiations.

23. M. Khvostov sees reasons for the general defeat of Athens in their exploitation of their allies, leading to the break up of Delian League and allies running over to the side of Sparta. Thucydides supports this opinion: "The feeling of people were in general on the side of the Spartans, especially since they proclaimed liberation of Hellas as their goal. Both states and private individuals supported them in various ways, and all thought that if he himself won't do something to help the cause, the general efforts will be useless. So bitter was the general feeling against Athens, either from those who wanted to escape from their general rule, or from those who feared they may come under it".

24. There is no doubt that Greeks had before them the problem, or the goal, of national unification. This problem was present in the times Theseus and Thales (VII century B.C.). Thucydides says that in the times of Theseus the people of Attica lived in independent villages, each with its own government. In the times of danger, they would meet and hold a council with the king of Athens. Theseus re-organized the country by canceling the local governments and creating the central one in Athens.

The goal of national unification was necessary from military point of view, as the invasion of the Persians has shown. The union of independent city-states was precarious, and Themistocles had to force the Greek ships to fight. The main problem in the Greek camp was the split between Athens and Sparta, leading to different strategies proposed by each against Persians. For example, Sparta would suggest fighting the Persians around Peloponnesus, thus weakening Athens.

The union which Spartans formed around themselves was powerless. Thucydides writes: "they have no central deciding authority to take quick decisive action, when all have equal voice, even though they are all of different nationalities and each one looks after its own interest; the usual result is that nothing is getting done". The allies of the Spartans didn't have to pay a tribute, which makes them financially dependent on the king of Persia. Thus, the Spartan model of a union was even less promising than the oppressive model imposed by Athens.

25. It is possible that the final reason for defeat of Athens lies within the city, in the class struggle in the society. A good example of that is the situation in Athens during the Sicilian expedition. Thucydides writes: "the mistake was not so much a mistake of judgment towards resistance, which was expected, as inability of those who stayed at home to give proper support to their own forces overseas. They were so busy with personal intrigues to fasten their leadership of the people that they allowed the expedition to lose its moving force, and through quarrels among themselves started to bring confusion into the politics of the state". Thus party strife in Athens leads to the most significant military disaster. Final evaluation of Thucydides about causes for defeat of Athens: "just because they destroyed themselves through their own internal strife, they were forced finally to surrender".

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