As most students of Greek history know, the Peloponnesean War caused the destruction of all the Athenians had built during their Golden Age. The Athenian political system, culture, and pride of accomplishment were all torn apart by their Peloponnesean conquerors. Ironically, the Spartans, as victors, were not able to gain from their “Pyrrhic” victory because they did not know how to rule. In a few decades the Polis was dead; victim of the power of larger states – Macedonia and then Rome. The Greeks had fought among themselves to exhaustion and because they could not be united, their fate was sealed.
But we get ahead of ourselves because this post is about the events leading up to the Peloponnesean War and not its results. So we ask ourselves what it was that lead to this debacle? Was the war preventable? It seems not, because it was one of those times in history where men put themselves on a path to destruction seemingly without logic - when ego or fear puts emotion above reason.
According to Thucydides, the Peloponnesean War was inevitable because Sparta could never trust a strong Athens. Sparta saw Athenian policy as provocative, and couldn’t get past their own paranoia.
The events leading to war happened far from Athens and Sparta in Epidamnus, a thriving polis located along the west coast of Greece on the Ionian Sea. Epidamnus had been founded by Corinth but settled by the Corinthian ally Corcyra. In 435 B.C, civil war broke out in Epidamnus and the overthrown aristocratic class appealed to Corcyra for aid, which was refused. The Epidamnians consulted the Oracle about their troubles and were told to hand over their city to Corinth. The Corinthians accepted this new role because they felt an obligation to Epidamnus and also harbored hatred against the Corcyrians for previous offenses.
The Corcyrians were livid when they became aware of the Corinthian involvement and immediately laid siege to Epidamnus. Later, when they heard of Corinthian preparations for war, the Corcyrians sent an embassy to Corinth to negotiate a settlement. Their offers were ignored by Corinth who sent an armada to Epidamnus to break the siege. At the resulting battle of Leucimme, the Corinthians were defeated.
Stung by defeat, the Corinthians spent the next year building ships to prepare for a decisive battle. Corcyra, for its part, appealed to Athens seeking arbitration. Both parties gave presentations to the Athenians in 433, who eventually sided with Corcyra and executed a treaty of protection in case Corcyra was attacked. Athens had walked a fine line between protecting Corcyra and breaking the Peloponnesean Treaty.
By the time the Corinthian fleet sailed, the Corcyrian armada had expanded to include Athenian ships as protection. Through an apparent misunderstanding of the situation, the Corcyrians thought the Corinthians were about to attack so they offered battle. The ensuing Battle of Sybota was mostly a draw but the Athenians had been drawn into the battle and were active in fighting the Corinthians. Both sides claimed victory, but the Corinthians viewed the Athenian involvement as an act of war, because they had broken the Peloponnesean Treaty.
Concerned about Corinthian preparations for war, Athens acted against a Corinthian colony at Potidaia in Thessaly. They ordered the Potidaians to pull down their fortifications and send hostages to Athens. The city revolted and Athens sent thirty ships with hoplites to put it down. Corinth, in its own response sent an army along with mercenaries to defend Potidaia. A siege began between the parties, which was paused when the parties sent representatives to Sparta in 432. After speeches from both sides, the Spartan king Archidamos, pleaded for restraint and negotiation to avoid war. Unfortunately, his words of caution were negated by the Ephor Sthelaidas who incited the assembly’s emotions and got them to agree that the Athenians had broken their treaty.
So now the stage was set for the destructive Peloponnesean War. A chain of events linked by treaty and broken my pride and emotion would lead to the end of The Golden Age. So many chances at resolution lost; so many links in the chain that could have broken it and kept the peace. But perhaps Thucydides was right. If not this chain perhaps their would have been another one to cause the war. Power is selfish in history because it knows itself and sees an opposing power as a threat. Treaties fail more than they succeed because the dynamics that led to them change -- money, land or the personalities of the players tip the balance one way or the other.