In the 5th century BC the political situation in Greece became interesting. As a result of Greco-Persian wars arose two federations of city-states. These were Peloponnesian League and Delian League dominated by Athens.
Earlier, in the times of wars with a powerful neighbour, those two federations were united under one banner of Hellenic alliance. However, once the external threat was gone the situation between Athens and Sparta became really tense.
Peloponnesian League united the southern part of Greece. It had regular infantry with a strong Spartan lead. At the same time Athenians in Delian League quicky subordinated other city-states of the union, moved the treasury from the Island of Delos to Athens and became marine and economical power.
It’s easy to see that both leagues endeavored to supremacy over Greece. This is the only attempt in Greek history to unite all the poleis under the banner of one organisation.
On such political-economical background started a common internal conflict, called by the next generations Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC). The main reason of this conflict was economical situation. However this was also an excuse to start offensive actions by both sides and to unload a very tense situation.
The starting point of the conflict became however smaller states such as Corinth or Thebes. Corinth, located next to dynamically developing Athens, was afraid to lose current economic influences. Thebes had always been hostile towards Athens.
Also important was the atmosphere in Sparta. The state was concerned about steps undertaken by Delian League, mainly an attempt to secure East part of Peloponnese and later Sicily in order to connect trade exchange with Italy.
The first person who realised what the current situation meant was an Athenian Pericles. On his initiative the fleet was modernised and a plan of marine actions was implemented. Athens started some activities on a small scale. They evacuated people to the North, took the control over grain suppliers to Peloponnese and made attempts to get new allies.
A direct conflict point became a dispute between Corcyra and Corinth. Facing danger the first one asked Athens for help.
On the other hand, dependant to Athens Potidea kept trade contacts with Corinth. For obvious reasons, meaning profit, Potidea left Delian League. Corinth was too weak to resist the powerful neighbour and looked for support from Sparta. The outbreak of the common Greek conflict became the matter of time.
Pericles, a forward-looking politician, took some preventive steps. Having the permission of the Council of Elders, he closed ports for Megarian goods. Today we would say that he imposed embargo. Megara was economically connected with Corinth. In such situation, under the impression of breaking the peace from 446 BC by Athens, each side started preparations to a war.
Spartans started marching towards Athens. They avoided open fights, used a tactic of burning crops and destroying villages. Despite having large sums of money, Delian League couldn’t issue a regular army.
And ships? What’s the use of ships in overland encounter? So an old practice know from the times of Persian Wars was implemented - people were evacuated. In overcrowded Athens a plague started spreading. The city was divided into two parties: an oligarchic of wealthy aristocrats and a democratic of craftsmen and merchants. Democrats, under the lead of Cleon, took control in first expeditions. They even managed to block Gulf of Corinth and conquer Potidea.
There were attempts to make a peace with Sparta. However too confident Athenians made so high demands that Spartans had to reject them. Then was a sudden turn of events. Energetic Spartans quickly mobilised their forces and supported rebellious cities and conquered part of Thrace. Nevertheless the society started feeling the burden of war and despite of Athens being really weak, both sides made a peace. From the name of the supporter of peace in Athens it was called the Peace of Nicias (421 BC).
The peace didn’t last long. The dispute between two camps in Athens started again. It’s worth asking what was the reason of it? The answer is simple. Democrats as merchants saw lots of advantages in continuing war. They supplied weapons, equipment and other things necessary for military activities.
Aristocrats were in a complete opposite situation. As they couldn’t cultivate their land, what was their main source of income, and a vast part of it was destroyed by Spartans, they recorded huge losses. It’s worth to look at it, as a similar mechanism is often seen in history, which as we know likes to repeat itself.
And so the Peace of Nicias turned out to be completely unstable for a simple reason. None of the sides could return conquered lands and at the same time keep the conditions of the peace.
This time the war party came to the fore. Its leader became Alcibiades, a skillful demagogue. Following his persuasion cities of Peloponnese united into an anti-Spartan coalition. Its activity was quickly suppressed by organised army of Peloponnesian League during the battle of Mantineia (418 BC).
Embittered Athenians submitted Alcibiades to an ostracism, a court where pottery shards were used. However he cleverly re-directed the anger of the crowd against his political rival Hyperbolus. This way Alcibiades get some room to maneuver. Now he was handing out the cards in the Peloponnesian War.
West from Greece there was an island. This island was full of sun, land and olive trees. It was called Sicily. Ionic Greeks tempted by its charms settled there. But they weren’t the only ones who appreciated its qualities.
In Northern Africa there was growing a sovereign state of Syracuse. Later, as Carthage it would play a crucial role in the history of Eternal Rome. And so the Carthaginians were happily settling down on the other side of the island. However there was a problem. The island was too small to fit all the settlers, both Doric (Carthaginians) and Ionic (Greeks). At the same time it was too fertile for any side to give up.
At the time discussed in this article, Doric cities started getting advantage over the Ionic. The situation was really tense. Two cities, Lentini and Segesta asked Athens for help. It’s easy to guess that the latter agreed willingly. Athenians were tempted by perspective of spoils, wealth, extending their influences, surrounding Peloponnese and a possibility to attack Sparta from the West.
Of course the expedition was lead by Alcibiades. He realised that the army of Delian League isn’t numerous as it was destroyed by internal quarrels. In addition there was a constant need of controlling dependent poleis to prevent from any rebels. He also understood that the only chance for a winning battle is to surprise the enemy and efficient and quick action.
When he got a huge marine and overland armies ready, making his political opponents feel rather scared, something unexpected happened. Someone in the heart of Athens committed sacrilege. It was really tense. The sharp edge of anger was directed towards Alcibiades. His opponents called him to a court process. However he, considering the situation, managed to get the judgement set aside and quickly set off to Sicily.
Favourable winds blew with the Greeks and the gods looked at them kindly sending them victories. In Greece however oligarchs stepped forward. They demanded Alcibiades’ return to homeland and resumption of trail.
Not seeing any other options, the defendant agreed to come back to the coast of the Peninsula. However on his way he escaped to Peloponnese and since then he was helping Spartans, who granted him asylum.
Without the energetic leader the army scattered and was easily surrounded by Syracusans. The soldiers were forced to surrender and then were made slaves. This was the end of the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC).
The Greeks couldn’t experience peace. At their mountain country was looking Persian king. Democratic system and the memory of Xerxes’ defeat during Persian Wars were really bothering “The Lord of the World”.
Sparta was taking advantage of Athens’ weakness. Following Alcibiades’ advice, it was harassing poleis by constant attacks and destroying their crops.
In Athens oligarchs started a revolution and overthrow democracy. This was what the Persian king was waiting for. Immediately he demanded to return due tributes from Asia Minor and denied sovereignty of Greek poleis in this region. At the same time he sent his reliable and clever “silver archers”. Wherever they arrived, they contributed to the victory of the king.
This was all about money. This time it got into Spartans’ hands. The king was waiting for further development of the situation.
Spartans quickly started building their own fleet. They also cut Athens off from their food base, Euboea Island. Political horizon od Sparta was really narrow and without hesitation they gave away Asia Minor territories for financial substitutes.
Of course oppressed Athens tried to defend itself. The situation became catastrophic. The currency devalued, keeping the fleet costed lots and there were food shortages. In such a situation restoration of democracy became only a formality. New additional war taxes didn’t bring any improvement.
A light in a tunnel appeared together with Alcibiades. He had already got into disputes with Spartans and Persians, on whose lands he was staying. As a true politician he made an effort to cancel his sentence. He moved the centre of struggles into Asia Minor coast and tried to negotiate with Persia. Unsuccessfully.
The influence of Alcibiades fell quickly. The Empire wouldn’t think of supporting any side of the conflict, as it was more convenient to wait until the Greek states would destroy one another. The situation became clearer when the throne ascended Persian prince Cyrus the Younger.
The prince wasn’t going to wait. Especially that he had an ambitious plan to take over the crown of Achaemenids. He generously supported Spartans lead by Lysander. Spartans quickly gained advantage on the sea defeating Alcibiades’ feet. And again Alcibiades experienced the fact that crowd’s mood often changes and he fell into disgrace.
Athenians had a one triumph in the battle of Arginusae, however the victorious commanders died in a storm following the battle. Sparta quickly made up its losses and also raised the pay for rowers. This caused a massive desertion from Athenian fleet.
After being defeated by Spartans at Aegospotami, Athenian fleet was attacked unexpectedly in the Hellespont. Athenians were surrounded from both land and sea and they surrendered. The walls of the city were destroyed. Most of the fleet was burnt. And Athens lost their privileged position. All unions were dismissed and Sparta became a hegemon and a watchman.
Not only Athens were destroyed. An attempt to unite Greece and change the system of poleis was gone. At the same time a new card in the Greek history opened.