Causes Of The Pelopenesian War


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The Causes of the Peloponessian War

Ancient Greece during the 4th century B.C. was home to the city-states of Sparta and Athens. These two communities were the superpowers of the region during that time. The peloponnesian war between these two states evolved out of a string of events that would lead to years of conflict.

When looking for a single cause of the peloponnesian war none can be found. Over time many events contributed to the eventual war between Sparta and Athens. I believe the peloponnesian war evolved because of Athenian support for Spartan enemies, Spartan alarm at a rise in Athenian power, and the drastic differences between the two cultures.

In 435 B.C., Corcyra, a Corinthian colony declared itself independent of Corinth. Corinth responded by sending a fleet to reduce the rebelling island city. In fear Corcyra appealed to Athens for help and swayed by the Corcyrain diplomats, the Athenians sent military aid. A battle took place, in which the navies of Corcyra and Athens fought against those of Corinth. Sparta, who was allied with Corinth and relied upon it as a source of income, saw the Athenian support of the Corcyrain rebels as an act of aggression against the peloponnesian league (Sparta and her allies). The alliance made between Athens and Corcyra was also viewed as a violation of the peace treaty of 445 B.C. between the peloponnesian league and the Athenian league. Athens ignored all Spartan protest about its involvement in the Corcyrain campaign. Further feud was created between Sparta and Athens in 432 B.C. in Potidaea. Potidaea was a city that was tributary to Athens but Corinthian in blood. Tired of paying tribute to Athens the citizens of Potidaea attempted to expel the Athenian power. Athens’ soldiers besieged the city and once again Athenians were battling Corinthians. Corinth, aiding the people of Potidaea faced an embargo by Athens. Enraged by this act Sparta appealed the Athenians to end the embargo, but was ignored. Sparta conviened the peloponnesian council and Greece moved one step closer to the peloponnesian war. It could be argued that Sparta and Athens were already preparing for war with each other and that the support of their allies’ wars against each other was not a direct cause of the war but simply each side trying to hold an advantage for the coming war. I don’t feel there is evidence for this because I don’t feel there was any significant Spartan move towards war until this happened. “The Spartans were not eager for war.”

After the Persian wars there was a development of Athenian control over the commercial and economic life of Greece. This growth was caused by the Persian wars themselves. Athens faced a mighty foe in Persia and therefore formed the Delian League. This league was an alliance of cities based around Athens. Each city contributed funds to the construction and maintenance of a vast navy for use against the Persian threat. After the wars Athens dominated the Delian league and declared the contributions from each city mandatory even though the Persian menace was gone. Over time these “allied” cities came under direct Athenian control and the Athenian Empire began to grow. The large navy was still maintained after the war and Athens, already a naval power in the region tightened its grip on the neighboring waters including those that surrounded the peloponnese. This had the effect of enclosing Sparta’s peninsula in a blanket of Athenian naval power. To the Spartans this development was one of considerable worry. The historian Thucydides wrote; “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired (in Sparta), made war inevitable.” This comment validates the seriousness of Spartan worry and its contribution to the sparking of the peloponnesian war. Sparta’s geography left it vulnerable in some ways. The city of Sparta itself was landlocked and did not have the harbor facilities that Athens possessed. Also, being located on a peninsula left Sparta vulnerable to naval attack, and vulnerable to losing sea-borne trade. As the Athenian empire expanded it placed pressure on relations between Sparta and Athens. “The Athenian custom of establishing in every city democracies dependent upon the Empire seemed to the landowning oligarchy of Sparta a threat to aristocratic government everywhere. For a time the Spartans contented themselves with supporting the upper classes in every city, and slowly forging a united front against Athens.” This statement describes the Spartan reaction to the Athenian growth. Sparta clearly saw this new growing Athenian Empire as a threat despite some views that Sparta was overconfident of its skilled land forces and saw the expanding Athenian Empire as weak and thinly spread out. “They despised the Athenians, but they also feared them, for Athenian naval power was the greatest in the Mediterranean, and they had few ships” . Sparta could not have seen the Athenian Empire as too thinly spread out and vulnerable because the only viable means of transport was by sea and Athens’ naval power assured it control over all sea lanes, making naval attack impossible.Eventually the hostile feelings Sparta held for Athens became a prelude for the peloponnesian war. Diplomatic stability between the two states was further hampered by the drastic differences between them culturally.

Clearly Sparta and Athens functioned under opposite philosophies. The two cities were not even one hundred and fifty miles apart, but were distinctly opposite. While they were related by origin, worshiped the same gods, and spoke the same language they were radically different in their ways of living and thinking. Sparta was stuck fast in the extremes of oligarchy where a small minority held all political power and conquered peoples were reduced to helots (agricultural serfs). Spartans had such a preoccupation with maintaining discipline and class distinction that their entire social system became rigid, almost reclusive. Sparta resisted all forms of change and social expansion and drove toward the single goal of military perfection. “Everything in this (Spartan) civilization was subordinated to the art of war; the sole aim of the state was to create a race of invincible warriors.” Contradicting this, Athens focused on a much different goal of outward show, expansion of trade and readiness to pursue new ideas. Compared to the enclosed, landlocked status of Sparta, Athens stood as a crossroads of the Greek world, bustling with trade and home to constant shipping activity. Athens worked on a much more democratic system than did Sparta. There was no specific slave class among the Athenians and each citizen was allowed to vote on public matters. Athenians incorporated any new knowledge they acquired on their journeys into their culture. They moved forward while Spartans, frightened of foreign influence stood still. This difference of culture led to a natural distrust between the two cultures. Pericles, the Athenian ruler before and during the Peloponessian war once compared the “living force of Athenian freedom with the dead hand of Spartan tyranny”. Thucydides once quoted a Spartan describing the Athenians; ” The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanies by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgement ” These two quotes show a clear dislike between the two peoples. The two superpowers, so different in culture could not avoid conflict, conflict that eventually resulted in the peloponnesian war.

The roots of the peloponessian war can be traced back to many specific instances but on the most part three main elements caused its rise; Sparta’s anger at Athenian aid to Spartan enemies, Spartan fear of Athenian power, and the hostility and mistrust caused by the radical differences between the two societies. The peloponnesian war was inevitable.

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