The Peloponnesian War

After the triumph over the Persians, the Greek world divided into two major groups: Sparta and its supporters, and the Athenian Empire.  The fundamental, long-range cause of the Peloponnesian War was the fear that Sparta and its allies had of the growing Athenian Empire.  Athens and Sparta had built two very different kinds of societies, and neither state was able to tolerate the otherís system.  A series of disputes finally led to the outbreak of war.

At the beginning of the war, both sides believed they had winning strategies.  The Athenians planned to remain behind the protective walls of Athens while the overseas empire and the navy kept them supplied.  Pericles knew perfectly well that the Spartans and their allies could beat the Athenians in direct battles, which was the chief aim of the Spartan strategy.  The Spartans and their allies surrounded Athens, hoping that the Athenians would send out their army to fight beyond the walls.  But Pericles was convinced that Athens was secure behind its walls and retaliated by sending out naval excursions to ravage the seacoast of the Peloponnesus.

In the second year of the war, however, plague devastated the crowded city of Athens and wiped out up to 1/3 of the population.  Pericles himself died a year later, a severe loss to Athens.  Despite decimation by the plague, the Athenians fought on in a struggle that dragged on for another 27 years.  A crushing blow came when the Athenian fleet was destroyed.  Athens was besieged (attacked) and surrendered soon after.  Its walls were torn down, the navy was disbanded, and the Athenian Empire was destroyed.  The great war was finally over.

The Peloponnesian War weakened the major Greek city-states, and dashed any possibility of cooperation among the Greek states.  The next 70 years of Greek history are a sorry tale of efforts by Sparta, Athens, and Thebes (a new Greek power at the time) to dominate Greek affairs.  In continuing petty wars, the Greeks remained oblivious to the growing power of Macedonia to their north.

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