Thucydides asserts that the Peloponnesian War was caused by "…the rise of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta." Does this argument place the blame for the start of the war on Athens or on Sparta? That is the thesis question to be approached in this paper. Using quality references -- books and scholarly articles -- this paper will answer the thesis question and provide the necessary research to verify any scholarly assertions. Indeed, the answer to the thesis question is that while Athens put pressure on Sparta's allies -- and hence, Sparta felt the heat of Athenian policies that harmed Sparta's allies -- it was Sparta that actually launched the war. So it can be said that Athens laid the groundwork by irritating and angering Sparta over a long period of time in many instances. But Sparta cast the first stone -- lit the fuse that Athens had put in place -- in the Peloponnesian War.
The Tensions between Athens and Sparta
There had been friction and tension between the two powers for many years, Author Donald Kagan explains in his book On the Origins of War (Kagan, 1995, p. 27). The Spartans were "suspicious and resentful at the growth of Athenian power," Kagan asserts (27). Some leaders in Sparta had been bitterly opposed to the Athenians decision to rebuild their city walls once the Persians had left, but requests by Sparta for Athens to cease rebuilding those walls were rejected, Kagan points out (27). Moreover, the Athenian attack on the island of Thasos (then allies with Sparta) in 465 B.C. further agitated Sparta, which was part of the reason that the association between Sparta and Athens (developed when the two powers were allies against Persia) had ended. As to the outcome of those specific tensions (vis-a-vis the Thasos attack), the Spartans "…were afraid of the boldness and the revolutionary spirit of the Athenians (this is Thucydides' quote presented by Kagan on page 28).
The Athenians went about further angering the Spartans during the battle between two allies of Sparta, Corinth and Megara. While Sparta chose not to become involved in that war (which Megara was losing), Megara announced it would "…secede from the Spartan Alliance and join with Athens" if the Athenians would back up Megara vs. Corinth (Kagan, 30). Much to the chagrin of Sparta, the Athenians accepted Megara into their fold, and a "powerful" sense of loathing was therefore initiated by Corinth towards Athens, Kagan continues (30).
Meanwhile, Athenian general and historian Thucydides points to the dispute over Corcyra (during which the Corinthians were defeated at sea by Corcyra) as another event that led to great tensions and eventually to the Peloponnesian War. In the History of the Peloponnesian War (translated by Rex Warner), Thucydides (1972, p. 54) reports that the Corinthians approached Athens for support and assistance against the Corcyra forces. "If you grant our request," the Corinthians said to Athens, "you will find that in many ways it was a good thing that we made it… [because] you will not be helping aggressors, but people who are the victims of aggression" (Thucydides, 55). The world will "admire you for your generosity" and you will be "stronger than you were before," the Corinthians expressed to the Athenians (Thucydides, 55).
Moreover, the Corinthians asserted that it would not be "…a breach of your treaty with Sparta if you receive us into your alliance" because "we are neutrals" (Thucydides, 56). After a long and involved speech that attempted to justify the Corinthian request to become allies with Athens, the Athenians turned and made an alliance with Corcyra, Thucydides explains (62). This led inevitably to Athens vs. Corinth, and it is an important point in the history of the region because "…it gave Corinth her first cause for war against Athens" because the Athenians had sided with Corcyra even though a peace treaty was supposedly still in force (Thucydides, 67).
Who is Responsible for the start of the Peloponnesian War?
Author Kagan presents Thucydides' view that the war "…was the inevitable result of the growth of the Athenian Empire" (Kagan, 68). Athens had a reported "…insatiable demand for expansion" and this caused fear in Sparta that boiled over, according to Kagan's reading of Thucydides (68). That viewpoint was apparently not universal, Kagan continues, because many in Athens believed the war could have been avoided "…if only the Athenians had not invoked the Megarian Decree or withdrawn it at the Spartans' request" (68). Those same Athenians held Pericles "alone responsible" for the war because Pericles was the author of the decree.
The Megarian Decree prevented Megarian merchants from participating in the Athenian Empire's markets and made them angry enough to complain bitterly to Sparta. The issue came about, according to history scholar Harl (Tulane University), because some young Athenian men were apparently inebriated and kidnapped a prostitute in Megara; in turn, the Megarians kidnapped two Athenian women. So, with these acts as background, laws were put in place that caused Megarian people to suffer and even starve, Tulane's report explains.
Meanwhile Kagan presents the background leading up to the war and notes that allies of Sparta, the Corinthians, were part of the pressure that was placed on the Spartans to respond to Athens' Megarian Decree. Sparta offered to engage in peace -- and in fact keep the treaty that was in existence at that time -- with the Athenians only if the Megarian Decree would be "withdrawn" (Kagan, 73). On the other hand by insisting that Athens back down from the Megarian Decree or prepare for war made "war inevitable" for Pericles -- even though Athens did not have the "military power to deter Sparta effectively" (Kagan, 73).
This situation involved not just two great powers, but two "coalitions," made up of several states, and when the coalition Sparta had put together felt threatened, so too did Sparta, Kagan continued. Interestingly, according to Kagan, if the Athenians had fully understood the impact of their Megarian Decree -- a strategy that was not backed up by traditional military muscle -- they might not have launched the Megarian Decree and indeed they might have "…taken a more conciliatory approach" (74). The Athenians were counting on a defensive strategy -- the navy and high walls around the city -- that had not been tested, and hence they were playing with fire by punishing the Megarians.
In his book The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Kagan again mentions that the war could not have taken place had there not been a history of "…Athenian expansion" and had there not been "…sentiment in Sparta hostile to Athens" (Kagan, 1969). Kagan's generalization on page 350 uses the phrases "bipolar impasse," "bipolar world," and "bipolar mold," to describe the apparent inevitability of the friction between Sparta and Athens -- which led to war. In fact, after the Persian War Sparta refused to "contain" its military outreach and the Athenian Empire was in the process of expanding there was "no formula available that could lead out of the bipolar impasse" (Kagan, 350).
Was it just a matter that there was a "powder keg" or "tinderbox" of tensions and this made it certain war would follow? Kagan asks on page 354. He doesn't answer that question, so it can be assumed it was a rhetorical question. "The greatest guilt" should be attached to Corinth, Kagan asserts (354), because they had "the freest choice and sufficient warning" of the results of their aggression, and yet they wouldn't back down. Some guilt certainly should be attached to Sparta and to Athens as well. It should be noted that Kagan spends an enormous amount of energy to setting the table for why the war was launched -- all the ingredients (pointed to by Thucydides)…