Why Did Athens Lose the Peloponnesian War  Essay

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Athens lost the Peloponnesian War for two main reasons. The first was the drain of fighting Sparta, Sparta's allies, Corinth, and Thebes. The protracted, atrocious, and murderous war lasted nearly three decades, gnawing away at the agrarian infrastructure, wrecking the social progress of civic traditions, and consuming an impoverished Athens. The second reason was the effect of the invasion of Syracuse. The invasion lost Alcibiades, all of the army and navy, and Athens' morale. Though the war dragged on for another decade, the combined effects of those two problems lost the Peloponnesian War for Athens.

According to Hansen in A War Like No Other, one reason Athens lost was because it fought not just Sparta, but also Sparta's Peloponnesian alliance, as well as Corinth and Thebes.[footnoteRef:1] The Peloponnesian League consisted of small states like Phlius and Orneae, as well as stronger or more distant (from Sparta) states like Megara, Elis, and Mantinea.[footnoteRef:2] Essentially, all the states on the Isthmus of Greece were in opposition to the Delian League, which was a vast number of small city-states, headed by Athens.[footnoteRef:3] This was war on a new, massive scale.[footnoteRef:4] [1: Hansen, Victor Davis, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House, 2005), 309-311.] [2: Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War (New York: Viking, 2003), 5.] [3: Cawkwell, George, Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002), 41.] [4: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 308.]

Before, wars had been limited by the growing seasons. Battles were usually fought during the summer months, because any other time was not practical.[footnoteRef:5],[footnoteRef:6] Hanson, in Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, lists the practical reasons behind this, saying that March, April, and early May were ideal months for campaigning, since water was available, and grain was still available in the fields to provision the armies.[footnoteRef:7] Hanson makes the point that invasions were not calculated to destroy agriculture -- no salting of the earth -- but instead were intended to incite the people behind city walls to recklessly rush out to preserve their crops.[footnoteRef:8] Traditional war centered on single instances of burning grain, and since soldiers were also farmers who would starve without their grain, it was a successful tactic.[footnoteRef:9] [5: Ober, Josiah, The Athenian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 57-68.] [6: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (London, J.M. Dent; New York, E.P. Dutton, 1910), 2.102.2, 3.88.2.] [7: Hanson, Victor Davis, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998), 50-52.] [8: Ibid., 150-151.] [9: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 24.]

However, this changed in the Peloponnesian War. The Spartan system of apartheid provided food for professional Spartan soldiers, while Athens could afford to import grain via its huge navy. However, in just the first six years, massive crop loss occurred. The Boeotians burned crops at Plataea,[footnoteRef:10] and then the Spartans "laid waste" to Attica two years in a row.[footnoteRef:11],[footnoteRef:12] The Athenians first retaliated in Epidaurus, Troezen, Halieis, Hermione, and Prasiai,[footnoteRef:13] and then later at Cydonia,[footnoteRef:14] Laconia,[footnoteRef:15] and Oeniadae.[footnoteRef:16] The Peloponnesians retaliated at Leukimme[footnoteRef:17] and the Athenians responded at the islands of Aeolus.[footnoteRef:18] In reaction, the Spartans burned the crops at Doris.[footnoteRef:19] Despite the constant agricultural devastation, enough flex remained in the agricultural system that neither side starved immediately. However, farms fell into disrepair, and were not re-inhabited for decades.[footnoteRef:20] The agricultural infrastructure weakened, and in some small city-states, it was fatal. Those smaller city-states simply "ceased to exist."[footnoteRef:21] [10: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.12.] [11: Ibid., 2.47.2 ] [12: Ibid., 2.55.] [13: Ibid., 2.56.5-6] [14: Ibid., 2.85.6] [15: Ibid., 3.7.2] [16: Ibid., 3.7.3] [17: Ibid., 3.79.3] [18: Ibid., 3.88.4] [19: Ibid., 3.102.2] [20: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 297.] [21: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 297.]

Keeping the inhabitants of Attica inside the city walls exhausted the Athenians.[footnoteRef:22] The refugees were unhappy to be there,[footnoteRef:23] had no place to stay,[footnoteRef:24] and overcrowded the city. Then, a plague killed approximately one-half of the total Athenian population over time.[footnoteRef:25] The stress of accommodating the refugees in combination with the fear from the plague ground at social ties in the city. Despite the influx of refugees, the thirty years of war created nonstop death, so ultimately Athens lost 60% of its population.[footnoteRef:26],[footnoteRef:27] Thucydides describes the desperation and lack of social ties that the war brought: "Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased."[footnoteRef:28] The decline of the population from war and disease led to a lack of social capital that undermined Athenian dominance. [22: Ibid., 151.] [23: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.16.] [24: Ibid., 2.17.] [25: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 79-80.] [26: Ibid., 296.] [27: Ibid., 177.] [28: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.53.]

Unhelpfully, Athens' treasury was emptied paying for the war. Not only did Athens have to import food for a besieged population but Athens also built and equipped hundreds of triremes and units of soldiers.[footnoteRef:29] Nearly all the ships purchased with that money, about 97%, were lost.[footnoteRef:30] Athens had to maintain its huge navy, and at the same time create an army that to fight the Syracusans, all while the Spartans plundered Athens' breadbasket, Attica, with impunity.[footnoteRef:31] In the course of the war, Sparta took Laurium's silver and interrupted the Aegean tribute, too.[footnoteRef:32] Furthermore, when the Spartans fortified Delecea, Athens' long, grim defense required the expensive importation of everything the city required -- around the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula.[footnoteRef:33] In contrast, the Persian prince Cyrus gave Sparta nearly unlimited funds to build the navy that won the last battles of the war.[footnoteRef:34] Athens simply ran out of money to compete. [29: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 297.] [30: Ibid., 297.] [31: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 16.] [32: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 7.28.3] [33: Ibid., 7.28] [34: Hansen, Victor Davis, War Like No Other, 273.]

While the depletion of morale and money was in some ways unavoidable, the decision to invade Syracuse was entirely preventable. Not unlike the interlocking defense treaties that kicked off World War I, Athens decided to invade Syracuse in defense of Leontini in the tenth year of the war.[footnoteRef:35] In hindsight, we can see how poor the argument was to punish the Syracusans for conquering and dispersing the Leontini.[footnoteRef:36] The gist of the argument was that to do otherwise would make Athens look weak in Sicily, and leave a threat to their back in a possible ally to the Peloponnesians.[footnoteRef:37] Odds are that the considerable sum of money that the Egestaeans were prepared to pay for the help was fundamental to the decision.[footnoteRef:38] As of 428, Athens had to impose special taxes to raise money for war efforts,[footnoteRef:39] so six years later, the promised sixty talents of silver would have been a critical issue. [35: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 6.16.] [36: Ibid., 8.1.1.] [37: Ibid., 6.16.] [38: Ibid., 6.8.1.] [39: Ibid., 3.19.1]

Perhaps Athens could have carried off the invasion of Syracuse had there not been so much political maneuvering. The Athenian general Nicias made a very poor decision to exaggerate the difficulties the fleet faced in Sicily,[footnoteRef:40] with the result that Athens was heavily invested in the invasion, as it was "by far the most costly and splendid Hellenic force that had ever been sent out by a single city up to that time."[footnoteRef:41] Furthermore, Egesta had duped Athens into fighting for it under false pretenses -- the promised funding did not exist.[footnoteRef:42] Athens went against Pericles' advice "to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war."[footnoteRef:43] Instead, Athens promoted "projects & #8230; whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war."[footnoteRef:44] [40: Ibid., 6.25.2] [41: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 6.31.1.] [42: Ibid., 6.46.1.] [43: Ibid., 2.65.7.] [44: Ibid.]

Political maneuvering was bad not only for the loss of the expeditionary force, but also because of the decision to recall Alcibiades for execution.[footnoteRef:45] Alcibiades defected to Sparta instead of returning to Athens for execution,[footnoteRef:46] which resulted in the fortifications in Decelea.[footnoteRef:47] As the fortifications at Decelea took effect, they deprived Athens of Attica's exports and slaves, as well as easy access across the Isthmus for importing "everything the city required."[footnoteRef:48] As Thucydides put it, Athens transformed from a city into a fortress.[footnoteRef:49] Without access across the Isthmus, Athens' days were numbered, because everything had to be paid for when it was imported. [45: Ibid., 6.61.4.] [46: Ibid., 6.61.7.] [47: Ibid., 6.91.6.] [48: Ibid., 7.28] [49: Ibid., 7.28]

Athens ended up fighting a war on two fronts, and the expense of the fortifications at Decelea began to wear on them. The expedition to Syracuse wasted months, and money funding that expedition for months, while they looked for allies that did not exist[footnoteRef:50] and simultaneously broke the fragile peace of Nicias by invading Laconia on the way to Syracuse.[footnoteRef:51] When Athens lost…

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