Democracy in Ancient Athens

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta began in 431BC and ended in 404BC, lasting twenty-seven years total.  In "The First Peloponnesian War", Athenians agreed to a thirty year peace treaty with Sparta, but it only ended up lasting fourteen years before more conflict arose between the two strong forces. Sparta feared the growing strength of the Athenian government as it expanded, and conflict quickly arose when Athens decided to pursue an expedition to Corcyra.  "...Their expedition to Corcyra would renew dormant hostilities with the Spartans and ultimately embroil Athens in the most destructive of all its conflicts, the Peloponnesian War" (Hale, 138).  Continuing with a theme of hostility, "the Corinthians lost no time in descending upon the leaders of their alliance, the Spartans, to accuse Athens of breaking the peace...That winter Sparta hummed with angry allies demanding that Athens be attacked and humbled" (Hale, 143).  Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens refused to back down and conflict ensued. After a long and bloody twenty-seven years of war (detailed below in a timeline), Athens was defeated and their democracy was destroyed.  According to the historian Thucydides, the final decisive factors in the loss of the Peloponnesian War had been ships, money, and sea power (Hale, 245).  This war was a critical time period of events for Athenians, which wounded their political power for an amount of time, but never their Athenian spirits. "Soon the battered ship of state would again be afloat, lifted from its resting place and swept one final time into surge" (Hale, 246).  
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Timeline of The Peloponnesian War

431 BC- The first year of the Peloponnesian War.  Athenians evacuate the countryside, Spartans lead army of Peloponnesian league through Attica (Hale, 324).

430 BC- Second year of the Peloponnesian War.  Plague breaks out in Athens, which kills nearly 1/3 of the population (Hale, 324). 

429 BC- Third year of the war.  Pericles dies (Hale, 324).

423 BC- In the ninth year of the war, Spartan general Brasidas captures the city of Amphipolis and the Athenians and Spartans agree on a one-year truce.  Due to the capture of Amphipolis, Athenian general Thucydides is exiled (Hale, 325).

422 BC-  After the truce ends, Cleon and Brasidas die in battle at Amphipolis (Hale, 325). 

416 BC- Sixteenth year of war.  The Athenian fleet seizes the island of Melos and executes Melians for refusing to join the Athenian alliance (Hale, 325).

415 BC- Athenians send out a major naval expedition against Syracuse in Sicily (Hale, 325).

413 BC- Athenians send out reinforcements to Syracuse but the entire force is destroyed in a series of disastrous naval and land battles (Hale, 326).

411 BC-  Twenty-first year of war.  In Athens, oligarchs seize control of the government and establish the rule of the Four Hundred (Hale, 326).

410 BC-  Twenty-second year of war. Athenian fleet wins a victory over Spartans.  Democracy is restored at Athens follows the defeat of the oligarchic forces by Spartans in a naval battle at Eretria and the Athenians turn down a peace offer (Hale, 326).

406 BC- The Spartans blockade Athens' best ships in Mytilene harbor, but the Athenian general Conon get an appeal for help through to the Assembly.  Athenians win a victory over a Spartan fleet, but afterwards the generals are condemned to death for their failure to pick up Athenian corpses and survivors from the sea (Hale, 327).   

405 BC-  In the twenty-seventh year of the war, an Athenian fleet tracks the Spartans under Lysander to the Hellespont where the Athenians are defeated at Aegospotami in the final battle of the war (Hale, 327).  

404 BC-  The Peloponnesian war ends in early Spring with the surrender of Athens to Lysander's forces.  The Long Walls are torn down, the navy is reduced, and an oligarchy of Thirty Tyrants is imposed on Athens (Hale, 327).

403 BC- Democracy is restored at Athens when Lysander falls from power (Hale, 327).

Significance of The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War shows us the implications of an influential democracy becoming too powerful.  This style of governing could have also hindered the Athenian's performance in battle and ability to react to danger in time, due to the fact that the Athenians had to comply with the people, or demos, for every war-related decision.  This war also has a significance to the modern day sources of conflict, proving that fear, honor, and interest are the most fundamental categories that begin wars in the first place (Kagan, 233).  The excessive confidence and ambition of the Athenians proved to be a positive quality, but only when the correct type of leadership is present.  Thycidides argues "such a regime can be effective only when led by a strong, wise, competent, unselfish leader like Pericles.  Without such guidance a true democracy is likely to go astray and follow the advice of unfit, irresponsible, and selfish demagogic leaders who will lead the state...into disaster" (Kagan, 234).  This issue is still extremely relevant to our modern world and it "remains inescapably crucial to the understanding and conduct of human affairs, regardless of the intellectual fashions of our time" (Kagan, 234). 
Above is a video from, detailing the events of the Peloponnesian War, its causes, and its outcome. Enjoy!