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

            When last we met, Athens and Sparta had bloodied themselves into an uncomfortable stalemate after both of their leading generals had been killed in a battle near the city of Amphipolis. So, like two heavy-weight boxers they heard the bell ring and went to their corners to rest and gather their thoughts. Only Athens had a gruff, wizened trainer in its corner shouting “get up ya bum!” and “eat thunder and crap lightning!” in the form of Alcibiades (in this version, played by Burgess Meredith).

            Alcibiades was the second cousin to the renowned Pericles, and after the death of his father, was raised by Pericles as well, so you could say politics was in his blood. But unlike Pericles, who strove for a policy with Sparta along the lines of: “let’s just agree we’re equals and leave each other alone,” Alcibiades couldn’t settle for equality – he had to be the best. Alcibiades refused to accept the peace agreement between the two cities and did everything he could to break it, and make sure Athens came out on top. When Sparta sent envoys to clarify the treaty, Alcibiades tricked them into admitting they had no actual authority to make agreements and publicly humiliated them. When a treaty between the city of Argos and Sparta expired, Alcibiades arranged and alliance with Argos and instigated the defection of numerous Spartan allies.

            This last jab resulted in the major battle of Mantinea, the largest land battle during the entire war even though it technically took place during peace time, in which Sparta finally moved to crush this rising coalition of former friends and enemies. Sparta won the battle, mostly because Alcibiades failed to fully commit to the plan he himself had arranged, and restored its hold over the Peloponnesus. But the political damage was done and Athens was now firmly back in Sparta’s bad books.

             Alcibiades then seized on another opportunity to bring himself and Athens (but mostly himself) glory when the obscure Sicilian city of Segesta appealed to Athens for help against the equally obscure city of Selinus. Alcibiades convinced the Athenians to not only send aid to the Segestans, but to see this as an opportunity to bring all of Sicily into their sphere of influence – even the great city of Syracuse.

            The more cautious Athenian general Nicias strongly advised against this plan, but couldn't turn the Athenians away from the more popular and charismatic Alcibiades. So Nicias switched strategies: if he couldn’t convince the people with straight logic, he would pull the ol’ switcheroo. He told the Athenians: sure, go to Sicily; but be prepared that an invasion of this size will require dozens of not hundreds of ships, thousands of men, and money from every source we have (that oughta scare them away from the idea, he thought).

            Nope. Nicias’ cunning plan backfired and the Athenians proceeded to outfit every ship they had and fill every soldier’s head with dreams of conquest, booty, and glory. What might have been limited to just a small expedition against Selinus blew up into a massive invasion force led by none other than Alcibiades (with Nicias and another general, Lamachus, reluctantly in tow).

           However, just before the force set out from Athens a scandal erupted. All throughout the city the stone hermai – statues of the god Hermes placed for good luck – were desecrated. This was an ominous sign right on the eve of a massive undertaking, but what made it worse was the rumour that this outrage had been conducted by none other than a drunken Alcibiades and his rowdy frat-boy friends! And what’s more (gasp!) is that this was allegedly all part of a conspiracy of his to overthrow the government and place himself in power as a dictator! Ridiculous or not, these rumours were enough to throw the entire city into chaos. Calmer heads eventually prevailed and the expedition was sent out to Sicily; it was agreed that investigations into the profanities would be conducted later.

         Unfortunately for Alcibiades, “later” meant immediately after he and all his supporters (AKA most of the military) had left the city. Alcibiades was quickly convicted in the court of public opinion and a ship was sent to retrieve him and bring him back for trial.

          Meanwhile, in Sicily, rumours began to spread of a massive Athenian invasion force. Ridiculous of course – the Athenians were democrats, and so was Syracuse, so why would they attack? – so probably nothing to worry about. Except... stories kept spreading every day of Athenian ships making their way around the Peloponnesus, up to Corcyra, across the Adriatic sea to Italy... hmmm... maybe we should worry?

          When the Athenians finally did arrive and the rumours were proved true all of Sicily was pretty terrified – including the allies who had invited Athens in the first place. They thought Athens might send a general to advise them, maybe some ships to blockade the enemy’s ports, maybe a few hoplites to help turn the tide, but three generals? One hundred ships? Five thousand hoplites? That’s a bit overkill, right?

           Athens’ allies in Sicily refused to help, seeing the force for what it was: an invasion intended for the conquest of the whole island. Nicias and Alcibiades, still in disagreement about the goals of the expedition, wasted the element of surprise by moving around from one city to the next trying to find either willing allies or weak enemies. Finally, the ship from Athens sent to retrieve Alcibiades arrived. Alcibiades agreed to return, but in his own ship, which he (of course) used to sneak away, eventually making his way to Sparta where he vowed to put just as much effort into destroying Athens as he had once put into destroying them. Sparta cautiously agreed.

           Back in Sicily, Nicias and Lamachus finally decided to just go for it and attack Syracuse. They managed to secure a beachhead, defeated several counterattacks and started to build a wall around the city to cut it off from outside assistance, but the damage of all their delays had been done. Syracuse had prepared for this and had secured allies of its own inside Sicily, and even requested help from Sparta and their original founders, Corinth (yeah, Corinth founded a lot of cities). Sparta sent a general named Gylippus, who managed to break through the Athenian lines and get into the city where he trained their forces and greatly improved morale.

          Nicias, seeing the invasion falling apart, once again tried to bluff the Athenians into pulling out. He wrote a letter advising them of the situation and telling that they would either have to recall the expedition or send just as many troops and ships as the first time. Athens, never one to learn from their mistakes, sent out another massive force, this time under the general Demosthenes. The force arrived, was defeated in a desperate night attack on one of Syracuse’s fortresses, and the Athenian army was right back in the same bleak situation.

          Nicias and Demosthenes attempted to escape with the army by sea, but was defeated on two occasions by the now superior and more numerous Syracusan navy. The army was forced to retreat by land, hoping to make it to friendly territory in western Sicily where they could arrange transportation back home, but were harassed by cavalry from Syracuse the entire way. The army split into two parts, hoping this would also divide the Syracusans (and hopefully at least one part would escape), but both parts were worn down and slaughtered. Nicias and Demosthenes were both killed, and the remnants of their army were enslaved.

         When the news of the disaster reached Athens (allegedly from a traveler getting his hair cut who’s response to the barber was essentially, “oh, you mean you haven’t heard?”) they refused to believe it. Eventually though, they couldn’t deny it any longer and terror spread. The Spartans, believing the war to be formally back on, moved into Athenian territory and built a fortification (based on Alcibiades' advice), which caused massive numbers of Athenian slaves to flee for refuge (although most were just sold again to nearby Thebes). Many of Athens’ vassals in the Aegean also revolted and, lacking their powerful navy, Athens could do nothing about it.

        But Athens recovered surprisingly quickly, springing to action and building more ships and training more rowers to man them. They set out to sea and managed to recover some of their territory, but the damage was done. The Spartans had managed to put together a sizable fleet of their own (under the helpful guidance of Alcibiades) and were getting funds to pay for it from Persia of all places. Athens’ one advantage was still in their long experience at sea. They managed to defeat the Spartans in several sea battles, forcing them to rebuild most of their navy.

        The real trouble, however, lay at home. With the majority of the city’s lower strata of society away at war, a wealthy elite group of 400 men seized power in Athens and reached out to Sparta for peace. The fleet, now stationed on the island of Samos, refused to accept any peace and certainly refused to accept the new government. Alcibiades, who had lost a bit of his influence in Sparta after allegedly sleeping with their king Agis’ wife, now offered himself back to the Athenian navy if they would have him. They accepted him as their leader and managed to reinstate something of a democracy in Athens.

        Shortly thereafter though, the Athenians were defeated at sea by a young rising star in the Spartan military: a man named Lysander. The twice disgraced Alcibiades went back into exile and fled to Thrace. Athens managed to recover from this defeat and achieved another victory at sea at the battle of Arginusae, but when the generals failed to retrieve the dead and wounded from the water after the battle they were all executed by a now furious and irrational populace. Lacking any competent generals the Athenian navy didn’t stand a chance against Lysander, who managed to trick the Athenians into leaving their ships beached and undefended near Aegospotami and simply dragged them away.

        The victorious Lysander sailed to a now defenseless Athens and demanded that the city surrender. Facing starvation and destruction, Athens negotiated with Sparta’s leaders and managed to save themselves from complete destruction (Corinth wanted Athens to receive the same treatment as some of her daughter cities – execution of all males, enslavement of all women and children). Athens would be reduced to a subject of Sparta, her walls would be destroyed, and her ships burned (all to the music of “flute girls” according to the historian Xenophon).

        And so ended the greatest war the world had ever seen (at least as far as the ancient Greeks were concerned). Now you can show off your knowledge when playing Pride and Glory: The Peloponnesian War and prove that you’re a smarter politician than Pericles, or a wiser general than Brasidas. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter at @ponchogamesco, “like” us on Facebook at facebook.com/ponchogamesco, watch our videos on Youtube (including this one where I invade Sicily as Athens and it actually works out pretty good!), and check in here often for more updates!

Corbin Golding