A Quick and Dirty History of the Peloponnesian War – Part One

     “Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate, here by the barbarians, here by the parties contending (the old inhabitants being sometimes removed to make room for others); never was there so much banishing and blood-shedding, now on the field of battle, now in the strife of faction. Old stories of occurrences handed down by tradition, but scantily confirmed by experience, suddenly ceased to be incredible; there were earthquakes of unparalleled extent and violence; eclipses of the sun occurred with a frequency unrecorded in previous history; there were great droughts in sundry places and consequent famines, and that most calamitous and awfully fatal visitation, the plague.”

     That’s how one of the most famous books in history begins. No, not Yertle the Turtle, though that’s a good one too. I’m talking about Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Along with being a particularly good read (despite a startling lack of sections on turtle-stacking), it’s also the main source for our upcoming game Pride and Glory. The game is set during this brutal, twenty-seven year long war in ancient Greece between the cities of Athens and Sparta that has come to be known as the Peloponnesian War, after the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece where the Spartans lived.

     If your first thought was: “That sounds like a cool game setting”, we agree (so does Neville Morley, professor of ancient history at Bristol University). If your first thought was: “Isn’t this war what the last Hobbit movie was about?” then this blog post is for you. While you don’t have to know anything about the historical war to have fun playing Pride and Glory, we wanted to share a really quick and dirty history of the war so you can show off in a new way on game night, instead of the usual way: by lifting the table over your head with one hand, Charles Atlas style.

     If you’ve seen any of the 300 movies you have a general idea of how things got started (if you haven’t seen them, do so now, I’ll wait). Basically the Persians invaded Greece in 480 BC, struggled to get past about 7,000 Greeks with 300 elite Spartans at Thermopylae, captured Athens and destroyed everything they could, then got their butts kicked at Salamis and Plataea, went running back to Asia, and everyone lived happily ever after.

     Except that’s not how the Greeks saw it. For all they knew the Persians would be back the very next year, with even more troops, even more ships, and even more money to bribe the more weak-willed among them (cough, Thebes, cough). The Greeks had to take action, and fast. With the new naval strength of Athens, and under the military command of Sparta, the Greek allies struck back at Persia, freeing most of the islands in the Aegean and the coast of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) from Persian rule. THEN everyone lived happily ever after.

     Except, not quite (you have to stop falling for that). The newly liberated Greek islanders, Ionians, and Hellespontines didn’t exactly appreciate being told what to do by the harsh, militaristic Spartans either, so they reached out to Athens to take command of the continuing war against Persia. The Spartans, who were wondering when they could go back home anyway, were only too happy to oblige. Athens took the allies under their wing and even sealed the deal by dropping iron weights into the sea, everyone swearing that only when the weights rose up again would the alliance be dissolved. This League of Extraordinary GentleGreeks was called the Delian League, after the sacred island of Delos where they stored their collective treasury.

     This alliance worked out swimmingly, until some of the smaller islands started to complain about the Athenians too (some people just can’t be pleased by anything). They were getting tired of having to commit ships and sailors to patrolling the seas when it was becoming more and more obvious the Persians were never coming back. The Athenians pointed out the fact that no iron weights had miraculously floated to the surface recently, so no, they couldn’t leave; they could, however, pay a small fee so that the Athenians could hire more sailors and equip more ships to replace those the allies were failing to contribute. This pleased everyone and Athens continued to protect the seas, now earning a little cash while doing it.

     One of the larger islands in the Aegean, Thasos, eventually got upset about this arrangement as well and decided to revolt from the Delian League. Well, Athens would have none of that, and promptly set out a force to put down the rebellion. The Thasians soon learned that being an island state and paying someone else to do nothing but train to be better sailors than you was probably a bad idea, and quickly found themselves defeated at sea and besieged. They secretly reached out to the Spartans, who had been silently brewing their anger at this upstart city of Athens, and got them to agree to invade Athens’ territory.

     And they would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for the meddling Poseidon, god of earthquakes. A massive ‘quake hit the center of Spartan territory and devastated their city. Now, the thing you need to know about the Spartans is that they lived a highly militarized lifestyle, spending most of their time training to fight. In order to continue this lifestyle they had to have, oh, about 200,000 slaves to do things like farm the land and whatnot.  Now, if you’re a slave of a brutal, militarized society that was just destroyed by an earthquake, are you going to hang around and help? Probably not. You’d probably revolt and build a fortress on a mountain just like they did, putting a bit of a delay on the Spartan’s plan to invade Athens.

     The Athenians, ignorant of the whole “Thasian invasion” conspiracy, did what any good neighbor would do and offered to help the Spartans out with exterminating those pesky rebels (something Athens was getting particularly good at). The Spartan’s initially accepted, but then sent the Athenians packing back home after they got suspicious they might be doing more harm than good.

     Athens, offended by this rebuff, allied themselves with Sparta’s long-time enemy, Argos, and stole away one of Sparta’s allies, Megara. With their slaves still right at their doorstep the Spartans could do nothing but fume, until finally, after ten long years, they negotiated surrender terms. The slaves would be allowed to leave Spartan territory, but if they ever returned they would be killed on sight. Athens, now intentionally trolling Sparta any way they could, settled these exiled slaves in the coastal city of Naupactus, just across from the Spartan’s home territory in the Peloponnesian peninsula.

     The next few years were a “cold war” between Athens and Sparta in which they both did their best to be a pain in the other’s butt without actually fighting (except one time when about 20,000 soldiers happened to bump into each other and had a bit of a kerfuffle). But Athens eventually spread itself too thin, losing about 50,000 men trying to bring Egypt into their growing territory. Just when things were about to fall apart for them, with Megara revolting and some of their closest allies trying to leave the League, Sparta sent an army to Athens' door and the two cities agreed to a Thirty Year Peace, in which any disagreements would be settled by a neutral party.

     With this treaty in place, everyone lived happily ever... okay, you’re too smart to fall for that again. We’ll end it here for today, on the cusp of the war itself. Check in often for more updates on Pride and Glory as we get closer to launching our Kickstarter campaign, “like” us on Facebook at facebook.com/ponchogamesco, follow us on Twitter @ponchogamesco, and watch an unboxing of the game on Youtube. ‘Bye for now!

     Corbin Golding