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

           Will Athens reclaim its lost territories and glory? Will the Thirty Year Peace between Athens and Sparta hold? Who put the “bop” in the “bop shoo bop shoo bop”? These are the questions I left you dangling with last time, if you read blogs while listening to doo-wop albums like I do.

            Picking up where we left off, the Spartans and the Athenians lived in relative, albeit tense peace for about fourteen of the treaty’s thirty years, until an island in the far north-west of Greece got itself into hot water. The island of Corcyra was originally founded by colonists from the city of Corinth, but had since grown into a significant naval power in its own right. They even established a colony of their own on the mainland called Epidamnus. Then one day, Epidamnus exiled some of the more volatile members of their community, who then promptly allied with the local barbarian tribes and came back to capture the city for themselves. Epidamnus sent to Corcyra for help, but they decided they had better things to do.

            Well, when mom says no, what do you do? Go to grandma of course! So Epidamnus went to Corinth for help instead, and they agreed. Now, Corinth had more reasons to help Epidamnus than just a shared heritage; they also hated Corcyra with a passion and feared their growing navy. So when Corinth showed up to help Epidamnus, Corcyra also showed up with a bone to pick. They demanded that the Corinthians shove off and the Epidamnians re-admit their exiled citizens, while the Corinthians, never ones to back down from a fight, responded by sending even more ships and troops.

            A sea battle broke out and the Corcyraeans came out on top, but the Corinthians were not finished yet. Over the next few months they built even more ships, hired even more rowers, and talked even more cities into joining the fight. Corcyra now realized they were in over their heads, and sent to Athens for help. Corinth sent envoys to Athens as well, basically to tell Athens to mind its own business, and that the Thirty Year Peace with Sparta would be broken if Athens allied with a city that was already involved in a war.

            Athens, hearing both sides of the argument, decided on an exclusively defensive alliance with Corcyra (they would help only if the land of Corcyra itself was in danger) and sent ten ships to show their support. The Corinthians and their allies sent 150 ships to do battle with the Corcyraeans, and were doing a good enough job of it that the Athenians felt they had to intervene, despite their orders. Even then the Corinthians might still have won the day if another twenty Athenian ships hadn’t arrived just in time and scared the enemy away.

            Fearing Corinthian retaliation, Athens sent more troops and ships to one of the cities they controlled in Thrace, Potidaea, which was also originally colonized by Corinth (only Potidaea had a much better relationship with “mom”). If the conflict with Corinth got any worse and Potidaea decided to split from Athens, this would make for big trouble in their Thracian territory, so the Athenians demanded that Potidaea hand over hostages and tear down their wall (preceding Ronald Reagan by about two and a half millennia). The Potidaeans sent representatives to Athens to try to talk some sense into them, but also sent envoys to Sparta to try to get help. Sparta gave the Potidaeans the same response they gave to the Thasians a few decades earlier: if you revolt, we’ll help by invading Athens’ territory (and they no-doubt crossed their fingers that another earthquake wouldn’t intervene).

            With this promise of Spartan aid the Potidaeans declared their independence from Athens, who were none too pleased and proceeded to surround the city to starve it into submission. Meanwhile, mother Corinth called for an assembly at Sparta, inviting anyone who had a grievance to air against Athens. Corinth scolded Sparta for being so slow to action against Athens and for letting her get to this level of power in the first place and called for swift punishment of the upstart city.

            Some Athenians, who just “happened” to be around at the time of this meeting told the Spartans to mind their own business; if they had a complaint, they should take it to arbitration as the Thirty Year Peace required. They also warned that if it was war the Spartans wanted, they should be prepared for a long and bitter one. Archidamus, one of the two kings of Sparta, couldn’t agree more. He urged the Spartan’s to have cool heads about this and not to rush into a war they would surely leave to their children.

            However, one of the other leading Spartan’s, a man named Sthenelaidas, stood up, called Archidamus a pansy and called all red-blooded Spartan’s to defend their allies who were in need. The assembly voted that the Athenians had broken the peace, and that they would go to war. It was fourteen years after the treaty was agreed to, in 432 BC.

            After some negotiations between the two cities (with each side making a more ridiculous demand than the other), communication finally broke down and war seemed inevitable. Realizing this, the city of Thebes wanted to make sure they got their fair share of the profits of war and launched a surprise attack on Athens’ nearby ally, Plataea. The Plataeans managed to defeat the attack, but now blood was in the water. Sparta launched an invasion of Attica, the territory of Athens.

            The Athenians, following the advice of their most prominent politician, Pericles, refused to come out and fight, but instead launched retaliatory attacks on the Spartans' territory from their ships. Pericles’ plan was to show the Spartans that their strategy of ravaging Athenian land would never work and they would have to agree to peace once they realized this.

           What Pericles’ didn't foresee was the horrific plague that struck Athens in the second year of this strategy due to the overcrowding in the city’s streets. About one to two thirds of Athens’ population was killed by this unidentified disease, including Pericles. The only benefit, if you can call it that, was that the Spartan’s stayed clear of Athenian territory for fear of catching the sickness as well.

           Seizing on the opportunity the plague presented, one of Athens’ subjects, the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, revolted (and again, failing to learn from their lessons, the Spartans promised to help). Pulling themselves out of their suffering the Athenians sent a fleet to blockade the city and troops to cut it off on land. The Spartans planned to send a fleet of ships as well, but dragged their heels about it and only got around to sending a single ship bearing a single Spartan envoy named Salaethus. After sneaking inside Mytilene, Salaethus’ had a plan: distribute weapons and armour to all the people to launch a surprise attack on the Athenians. There was only one hiccup in the plan: the entire populace turning against the city’s government the second they got their hands on a weapon.

           The people demanded that the government distribute the food they had hidden away or they would make surrender terms with Athens that excluded the leaders. Fearing this, the government agreed to surrender to Athens so long as no one would be killed until the Athenian assembly had decided on their case.

            This might not have been such a bad idea if the entire Athenian population wasn't kind of peeved at the whole “being at war and their allies revolting all the time” thing. The Athenians voted to kill every male in Mytilene and enslave the women and children, sending a ship back to Lesbos with this message. The next day, feeling a bit bad about their decision, they changed their mind and voted only to kill 1,000 of the most responsible rebels and sent out another ship, which arrived only moments before the first ship’s grisly orders were put into effect.

            The Athenians now decided they had had enough of the recently deceased Pericles’ strategy of self-defense, and launched a series of aggressive attacks on Sparta and her allies. Under the general Demosthenes they conducted a devastating campaign in the territory of Aetolia in western Greece, and then fortified a beachhead near the ancient city of Pylos right in Sparta’s home territory. This attack in particular terrified the Spartans as Pylos was very near to where many of their slaves were kept. If another slave revolt were to happen, especially in the middle of a war, Sparta would be destroyed.

            A division of Spartans tried to push the Athenians out of Pylos, but ended up getting themselves stuck on a small island just offshore called Sphacteria. The Athenians surrounded the island with ships and, under the general Cleon, landed troops on the island and forced the Spartans there to surrender, taking them prisoner to Athens.

           To retaliate, Sparta sent their bravest general Brasidas north with an army of Spartans and liberated slaves. Their target was the resource-rich Athenian territories in Thrace which supplied the city with its timber and silver, both constructing and paying for their many ships. It was now Athens’ turn to be terrified, and they again sent Cleon to handle the situation. Cleon landed his troops near the city of Amphipolis which Brasidas had recently captured, and the two armies clashed killing both generals in the process. Amphipolis remained in Spartan hands, but both sides were bloodied enough that they agreed to another peace treaty in 421 BC, this one guaranteed to last for Fifty Years.

           As you might expect, this treaty didn't last long either, but more on that another day. In the meantime, “like” us on facebook at facebook.com/ponchogamesco, follow us on twitter @ponchogamesco, check out our videos on Youtube, and check in here often for more content. ‘Bye for now!

  Corbin Golding