Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


               Thucydides is our primary source for the Peloponnesian war. He was an upper-class Athenian who started writing his "history" shortly after the war began. He was a wealthy aristocrat by writing in his "history" that his family owned gold mines in Thrace in Northern Greece. Thucydides served as a commander, one of the ten annually elected officers who directed the hoplites in wars and certain other matters that demanded scrutiny and rapid decision making. As a commander, he wrote reports of his military campaigns to send back to the assembly and his accounts of battles often read like military reportage. He reported an account with the Spartan side led by brilliant general Brasidas. His history is unfinished although obviously lived until after the end of the war. In the early 420’s, Athens was struck by a plague which killed one-third of the population after the Peloponnesians invaded a particular polis. From his writings that we base the history of the Peloponnesian war -a bloody war between the Spartans and the Athenians.

Historical Background

                 The Peloponnesian war was actually the second war between the Spartans and the Athenians. The war had its roots in the Persian wars in 499-479 B.C.  The Ionian Greeks (who were more prone to sea-faring and trading than the Dorians) rebelled against the Persian empire with a little help from the Athenians. The battle was in Marathon, a small plain in Attica. The Persians being led by Xerxes and the Athenians by Themistocles. The Persians had been beaten that prompted the Persians to try again. In 480 B.C, the Greek fleet met the Persians at Salamis, west of Athens. The Persians failed again. The Athenians pretended leadership of the war against Persia in the Greek coastland of Asia Minor. The Athenians and it’s allies formed the Delian league as alliance against the Persians. It is a league formed in 477  B.C. with a common treasury at the sacred island of Delos. Athens was the dominant member and an Athenian was always to be admiral. The Athenians soon treated their allies harshly that their major allies revolted such as Thasos. The Delian league used its forces against its own members that Sparta was alarmed. In 460, Sparta and Athens went to war when Megara withdrew from the Spartan alliance and allied itself with Athens. The war ended with no major damages for both in 455 B.C.

                 In 451 B.C., Athens and Sparta signed a “Thirty-Years Peace”. It actually lasted only for three years when Megara went over to the Spartan alliance and allowed Sparta army to invade Attica. Later in 446, Athens signed another “Thirty-years Peace” with Sparta in which each agreed to respect the alliance of both. As the Athenians secure their empire, some of Sparta’s allies  urged to revolt from Athens but the Spartans were cautious so they refused.

                 Between 433 and 431 B.C., series of events occurred that finally drove the Spartans to war. One of these was the dispute between Corinth and its colony Corcyca. Corinthians asked for support to the Athenians to crush Corcyca. The Athenians instead, unwilling that the large Corcycan fleet would fall into their enemies, signed a defensive pact with Corcyca. Corinth now looked for ways to bring Sparta and Athens to war. Athens gave way to realize this Corinthian wish in the city of Potidaea in Chalcidice that maintained close ties with the Corinthians as well as the Athenians. The Athenians suspected that Corinthians might persuade the Potidaeans to revolt against the Athenians so the Athenians demanded Potidaeans to expel its magistrates. This ultimatum triggered the revolt instead of avoiding it. One (mainly volunteers) was led by Corinthian general Aristeus. Aristeus’ army was driven back into the city while Athenians settled in for a siege. Finally in the spring of 431 B.C., the Spartan alliances formally voted for war against Athens. All of Greece prepared for war. A Theban attempt, over three hundred strong made an armed entry into Plataea, an ally of Athens. Hostilities and prosecution began and at this time, the Peloponnesian war had begun.

Research Report

                  Thebes attacked Plataea in an attempt to join it’s own Boeotian League. Plataea before fought alongside Athens at Marathon. The Athenians offered thanks every five years in remembrance. Athenians did not want Thebes to dominate over Plataea so Athens declared war on Thebes. Sparta came to the defense of its ally, Corinth rallied to Sparta and everyone chose up sides.

                 The Peloponnesian war was traditionally divided into three phases: the Archidamian war (431-421 B.C.), the Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (420-413 B.C.) and the Ionian war (412-404B.C.). The Archimadian war is named after the Spartan king Archidamus, who opposed war with the Athens. In this first phase of Peloponnesian war, the Archidamian war, the Spartans and their allies conducted few invasions of Attica, the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh summers.  In the third summer they laid siege to Plataea instead and in the sixth they aborted their attempt because of a series of earthquakes. The invasions damaged Attica in different degrees. Thucydides tells us that the second and the fourth invasions were hard to bear, while the damage by the first was  limited by Archidamus’ leisurely  handling of it, and that of the third by effective employment of the Athenian Calvary. In the second invasion, Thucydides attributed great loss of life brought about by the plague.

                 The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian expedition was the second phase of the Peloponnesian war.  "After a series of negotiations, led by Nicias on the Athenian side (gave name to the “peace” that followed), Sparta and Athens signed a fifty-year peace treaty in the spring of 421" (K. Kuhlman). In the spring of 415, Athens started an expedition to Sicily. Before, Athens sent small fleets to Sicily to protect their allies there yet this expedition aimed to conquest the whole Sicily. Their primary target was Syracuse, the “Athens” of Sicily. They believed that if they conquered Syracuse, the whole Sicily would submit easily to the expanding Athenian empire. Nicias, one of the remaining Athenian generals, wrote a letter to Athens saying that the expedition should be withdrawn if there were no substantial reinforcements. The Syracusans defeated the Athenian fleet in the Great Harbor. The  Athenians sailed out again to try to destroy the blockade yet again they were driven back until no Athenians wanted to man the ships and the only choice left was to retreat by land.

                The Ionian war was the third phase of the Peloponnesian war. Spartans believed that Athens was completely weak. Yet they have learned differently that an Athenian fleet , drove the enemy fleet into the deserted harbor of Spiraeum near the border with Epidaurus.  Alcibaides persuaded the Spartans to send him to Chios with five ships and then there, he persuaded the Chios to revolt. Rebellion quickly spread first in Clazomenae to Eresus in Lesbos. Tissaphernes was the first Persian aid that was to prove so vital to Spartan victory. The Athenians besieged Miletus but when they heard of the approach of the Peloponnesian fleet outnumbering them, the general decided to withdraw rather than to risk his fleet in battle. There were battles after then like the battle in Cynossema where the Peloponnesians came close to defeating Athenians in naval battle. Athens was saved by Thrasybulus. In Greece itself, Athens lost ground as the Spartans finally took Pylos and the Megarans recaptured Nisaea while in the Hellespont, Alcibiades continued to restore the Athenian position. In a later war, Lysander (Spartan) captured almost the entire fleet of Athenians on the beach (in Aegospotami). Only ten Athenian ships escaped this battle of Aegospotami. This ended the wars. Finally, in March 404 B.C., the Athenians surrendered.  The Peloponnesian war was over.

Historical Significance

                 One of the historical significances is that the victory of Spartans maintained and preserved Greek liberty (which the Greeks themselves understood--for another 250 years). For Spartans, theirs was the world of independent city-states.

                 Current scholars believed that the history of Peloponnesian war has something important to contribute to our understanding of International Relations in the 20th century just  as Thomas Hobbes found it relevant to  the 17th century.  Thucydides is credited being the founding father of what has come to be known as the Realist school of International Relations. This Realist view of International Relations consists  of basic assumptions about how the international system operates, who the key actors are, and what motivates them.

                 Thucydides’ work can provide us with historical examples to illustrate some of the most basic concepts modern scholars have developed in order to analyze International Relations. Thucydides’ narrative is a wonderful description of dramatic events which we attach such labels as “deterrence” or “balance of power”. As Thucydides tells us himself that the Peloponnesian war was the product of two developments following the ends of the Persian wars. The first development was the uneven and unprecedented growth of power in the international system of Fifth-century B.C. Greece and the resultant creation of an unstable international structure. The second development was a series of diplomatic encounters that began with the Corcyrean dispute and rose from the precipitation of the war. The escalation of these diplomatic conflicts was the immediate and sufficient cause of the war.


Lebow, Richard and Strauss, Barry. Hegemonic Rivalry.  United States of America: Westview Press, 1991.

Luginbill, Robert D. Thucydides on War and National Character. United States of America:Westview Press, a Member      the Perseus Books Group, 1999.

Finley, John H. Thucydides - The Peloponnesian War. United States of America: Random House, Inc. 1951.

Hamilton, Charles and Krentz, Peter. Polis and Polemos. California: Regina Books, 1997

Cakwell, George. Thucydides and the Peloponnesian war.  New York: Routledge, 1997

Web Resources

<> - The Pague in Athens during the Peloponnesian war

<> - The Peloponnesian War

<> - What is the Best Way to live --Lectures on Thucydides

<…USES%20OF%20THE%20PELOPONNESIAN%20WAWR.htm> - The causes of Peloponnesian War.



<> - Epic of the Peloponnesian War: Historical Commentary on the Peloponnesian War