The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War

by Donald Kagan


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For three decades in the fifth century b.c. the ancient world was torn apart bya conflict that was as dramatic, divisive, and destructive as the world wars of the twentieth century: the Peloponnesian War. Donald Kagan, one of the world’s most respected classical, political, and military historians, here presents a new account of this vicious war of Greek against Greek, Athenian against Spartan. The Peloponnesian War is a magisterial work of history written for general readers, offering a fresh examination of a pivotal moment in Western civilization. With a lively, readable narrative that conveys a richly detailed portrait of a vanished world while honoring its timeless relevance, The Peloponnesian War is a chronicle of the rise and fall of a great empire and of a dark time whose lessons still resonate today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142004371
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/27/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 196,028
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Donald Kagan is Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. His four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War is the leading scholarly work on the subject. He is also the author of many books on ancient and modern topics.

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For almost three decades at the end of the fifth century b.c. the Athenian Empire fought the Spartan Alliance in a terrible war that changed the Greek world and its civilization forever. Only a half-century before its outbreak the united Greeks, led by Sparta and Athens, had fought off an assault by the mighty Persian Empire, preserving their independence by driving Persia's armies and navies out of Europe and recovering the Greek cities on the coasts of Asia Minor from its grasp.

This astonishing victory opened a proud era of growth, prosperity, and confidence in Greece. The Athenians, especially, flourished, increasing in population and establishing an empire that brought them wealth and glory. Their young democracy came to maturity, bringing political participation, opportunity, and political power even to the lowest class of citizens, and their novel constitution went on to take root in other Greek cities. It was a time of extraordinary cultural achievement, as well, probably unmatched in originality and richness in all of human history. Dramatic poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes raised tragedy and comedy to a level never surpassed. The architects and sculptors who created the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, at Olympia, and all over the Greek world powerfully influenced the course of Western art and still do so today. Natural philosophers like Anaxagoras and Democritus used unaided human reason to seek an understanding of the physical world, and such pioneers of moral and political philosophy as Protagoras and Socrates did the same in the realm of human affairs. Hippocrates and his school made great advances in medical science, and Herodotus invented historiography as we understand it today.

The Peloponnesian War not only brought this remarkable period to an end, but was recognized as a critical turning point even by those who fought it. The great historian Thucydides tells us that he undertook his history as the war began,

in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before, inferring this from the fact that both powers were then at their best in preparedness for war in every way, and seeing the rest of the Hellenic people taking sides with one side or the other, some at once, others planning to do so. For this was the greatest upheaval that had ever shaken the Hellenes, extending also to some part of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of mankind. (1.1.2)1

From the perspective of the fifth-century Greeks the Peloponnesian War was legitimately perceived as a world war, causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another, which ultimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside. It also reversed the tendency toward the growth of democracy. When Athens was powerful and successful, its democratic constitution had a magnetic effect on other states, but its defeat was decisive in the political development of Greece, sending it in the direction of oligarchy.

The Peloponnesian War was also a conflict of unprecedented brutality, violating even the harsh code that had previously governed Greek warfare and breaking through the thin line that separates civilization from savagery. Anger, frustration, and the desire for vengeance increased as the fighting dragged on, resulting in a progression of atrocities that included maiming and killing captured opponents; throwing them into pits to die of thirst, starvation, and exposure; and hurling them into the sea to drown. Bands of marauders murdered innocent children. Entire cities were destroyed, their men killed, their women and children sold as slaves. On the island of Corcyra, now called Corfu, the victorious faction in a civil war brought on by the larger struggle butchered their fellow citizens for a full week: "Sons were killed by their father, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it" (3.81.2-5).

As the violence spread it brought a collapse in the habits, institutions, beliefs, and restraints that are the foundations of civilized life. The meanings of words changed to suit the bellicosity: "Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness." Religion lost its restraining power, "but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation." Truth and honor disappeared, "and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow" (3.82.1, 8; 3.83.1). Such was the conflict that inspired Thucydides' mordant observations on the character of war as "a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances" (3.82.2).

Although the Peloponnesian War ended more than twenty-four hundred years ago it has continued to fascinate readers of every subsequent age. Writers have used it to illuminate the First World War, most frequently to help explain its causes, but its greatest influence as an analytical tool may have come during the Cold War, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, and which likewise witnessed a world divided into two great power blocs, each under a powerful leader. Generals, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars alike have compared the conditions that led to the Greek war with the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

But the story of what actually took place two and a half millennia in the past, and its deeper meaning, are ultimately not easy to grasp. By far the most important source of our knowledge is the history written by the war's contemporary and participant Thucydides. His work is justly admired as a masterpiece of historical writing and hailed for its wisdom about the nature of war, international relations, and mass psychology. It has also come to be regarded as a foundation stone of historical method and political philosophy. It is not, however, completely satisfactory as a chronicle of the war and all that the war can teach us. Its most obvious shortcoming is that it is incomplete, stopping in midsentence seven years before the war's end. For an account of the final part of the conflict we must rely on writers of much less talent and with little or no direct knowledge of events. At the very least, a modern treatment of accessible scope is needed to make sense of the conclusion of the war.

But even the period treated by Thucydides requires illumination if the modern reader is to have the fullest understanding of its military, political, and social complexities. The works of other ancient writers and contemporary inscriptions discovered and studied in the last two centuries have filled gaps and have sometimes raised questions about the story as Thucydides tells it. Finally, any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself. His was an extraordinary and original mind, and more than any other historian in antiquity he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity. We must not forget, however, that he was also a human being with human emotions and foibles. In the original Greek his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is by necessity an interpretation. The very fact that he was a participant in the events, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that must be prudently evaluated. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be as limiting as accepting without question Winston Churchill's histories and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so important a role.

In this book I attempt a new history of the Peloponnesian War designed to meet the needs of readers in the twenty-first century. It is based on the scholarship employed in my four volumes on the war aimed chiefly at a scholarly audience,2 but my goal here is a readable narrative in a single volume to be read by the general reader for pleasure and to gain the wisdom that so many have sought in studying this war. I have avoided making comparisons between events in it and those in later history, although many leap to mind, in the hope that an uninterrupted account will better allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

I undertake this project after so many years because I believe, more than ever, that the story of the Peloponnesian War is a powerful tale that may be read as an extraordinary human tragedy, recounting the rise and fall of a great empire, the clash between two very different societies and ways of life, the interplay of intelligence and chance in human affairs, and the role of brilliantly gifted individuals, as well as masses of people in determining the course of events while subject to the limitations imposed upon them by nature, by fortune, and by one another. I hope to demonstrate, also, that a study of the Peloponnesian War is a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife, and about the potentialities of leadership and the limits within which it must inevitably operate.

1Adapted from the translation of Richard Crawley (Modern Library, New York, 1951). Throughout, references are to Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War unless otherwise indicated. The numbers refer to the traditional divisions by book, chapter, and section.
2These have been published by the Cornell University Press. Their titles are The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (1969), The Archidamian War (1974), The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (1981), and The Fall of the Athenian Empire (1987).

Table of Contents

The Peloponnesian WarIntroduction

Part One. The Road To War

Chapter One: The Great Rivalry (479-439*)
Sparta and Its Alliance
Athens and Its Empire
Athens Against Sparta
The Thirty Years' Peace
Threats to Peace: Thurii
The Samian Rebellion

Chapter Two: "A Quarrel in a Far-away Country" (436-433)

Chapter Three: Enter Athens (433-432)
The Battle of Sybota
The Megarian Decree

Chapter Four: The Decisions for War (432)
Sparta Chooses War
The Athenian Decision For War

Part Two. Pericles' War

Chapter Five: War Aims and Resources (432-431)


Chapter Six: The Theban Attack on Plataea (431)
The Spartan Invasion of Attica
Attacks on Pericles
The Athenian Response
Pericles' Funeral Oration
The War's First Year: An Accounting

Chapter Seven: The Plague (430-429)
The Plague in Athens
Pericles Under Fire
Peace Negotiations
Pericles Condemned
The Spartans Go to Sea
Potidaea Recaptured

Chapter Eight: Pericles' Last Days (429)
Sparta Attacks Plataea
Spartan Action in the Northwest
Enter Phormio
The Spartans Attack Piraeus
The Death of Pericles

Chapter Nine: Rebellion in the Empire (428-427)
The "New Politicians" in Athens
Conspiracy on Lesbos
Athens Reacts
Mytilene Appeals To The Peloponnesians
The Siege of Mytilene
Sparta Acts On Land and Sea
The Fate of Mytilene
The Mytilene Debate: Cleon Versus Diodotus

Chapter Ten: Terror and Adventure (427)
The Fate of Plataea
Civil War at Corcyra
First Athenian Expedition to Sicily

Part Three. New Strategies

Chapter Eleven: Demosthenes and the New Strategy (426)

The Spartans in Central Greece
Athenian Initiatives
Demosthenes' Aetolian Campaign
The Spartans Attack The Northwest

Chapter Twelve: Pylos and Sphacteria (425)
Athens' Western Commitments
Demosthenes' Plan: The Fort at Pylos
The Spartans on Sphacteria
The Athenian Naval Victory
Sparta's Peace Offer
Cleon Against Nicias
The Spartan Surrender on Sphacteria

Chapter Thirteen: Athens on the Offensive: Megara and Delium (424)
Cythera and Thyrea
Disappointment in Sicily
The Assault on Megara
Athens' Boeotian Invasion

Chapter Fourteen: Brasidas' Thracian Campaign (424-423)
The Capture of Amphipolis
Thucydides at Amphipolis
Nicias' Expedition to Thrace

Chapter Fifteen: The Coming of Peace (422-421)
Cleon in Command
The Battle of Amphipolis
The Death of Brasidas and Cleon
The Coming of Peace
The Peace of Nicias

Part Four. The False Peace

Chapter Sixteen: The Peace Unravels (421-420)

A Troubled Peace
The Spartan-Anthenian Alliance
The Argive League
Sparta's Problems
The Corinthians' Mysterious Policy
The Boeotians

Chapter Seventeen: The Alliance of Athens and Argos (420-418)
The Athenian Breach with Sparta
Spartan Humilations
Alcibiades in the Peloponnesus
The Spartans Against Argos
Confrontation in the Argive Plain

Chapter Eighteen: The Battle of Mantinea (418)
Agis' March to Tegea
To Force a Battle
The Allied Army Moves
The Battle
Politics Intervene
The Meaning of Mantinea

Chapter Nineteen: After Mantinea: Politics and Policy at Sparta and Athens (418-416)
Democracy Restored to Argos
Politics at Athens
Ostracism of Hyperbolus
The Athenian Conquest of Melos
Nicias Against Alicibiades

Part Five. The Disaster in Sicily

Chapter Twenty: The Decision (416-415)

Athens' Sicilian Connections
The Debate in Athens
The Debate to Reconsider

Chapter Twenty-One: The Home Front and the First Campaigns (415)
Witch Hunt
Athenian Strategy
The Summer Campaign of 415
The Flight of Alcibiades

Chapter Twenty-Two: The First Attack on Syracuse (415)
The Athenians at Syracuse
Syracusan Resistance
Alcibiades At Sparta

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Siege of Syracuse (414)
The Illness of Nicias and the Death of Lamachus
Athens Breaks the Treaty
Help Arrives at Syracuse
Nicias Moves to Plemmyrium
Nicias' Letter to Athens
The Athenian Response

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Besiegers Besieged (414-413)
Sparta Takes the Offensive
The Fort at Decelea
Reinforcements for Both Sides
The Capture of Plemmyrium
The Battle in the Great Harbor
The Second Athenian Armada: Demosthenes' Plan
The Night Attack on Epipolae
Retreat or Remain?

Chapter Twenty-Five: Defeat and Destruction (413)
The Final Naval Battle
The Final Retreat
The Fate of the Athenians
A Judgment on Nicias

Part Six. Revolutions in the Empire and in Athens

Chapter Twenty-Six: After the Disaster (413-412)

The Probouloi
Spartan Ambitions
Agis in Command
Persian Initiatives
The Spartans Chooses Chios
Alcibiades Intervenes
Tissaphernes' Draft Treaty

Chapter Twenty-Seven: War in the Aegean (412-411)
Athens Fight Back
Decision At Miletus
Alcibiades Joins the Persians
A New Spartan Agreement with Persia
A New Spartan Strategy
Rebellion at Rhodes
The Importance of Euboea
A New Treaty With Persia
The Spartans in the Hellespont

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Revolutionary Movement (411)
The Aristocratic Tradition
Democracy and the War
Thraysybulus and the Moderates
The Real Oligarchs
Phrynichus Against Alcibiades

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Coup (411)
Peisander's Mission to Athens
The Oligarchs' Breach with Alcibiades
Divisions Among the Plotters
The Democracy Overthrown
The Oligarchic Leaders

Chapter Thirty: The Four Hundred in Power (411)
The Democracy at Samos
Pharnabazus and the Hellespont
Alcibiades Recalled

Chapter Thirty-One: The Five Thousand (411)
Dissent Within the Four Hundred
The Oligarchic Plot to Betray Athens
The Threat to Euboea
The Fall of the Four Hundred
The Constitution of The Five Thousand
The Five Thousand in Action

Chapter Thirty-Two: War in the Hellespont (411-410)
The Phantom Phoenician Fleet
The Battle of Cynossema
The Battle of Abydos
The Battle of Cyzicus

Part Seven. The Fall Of Athens

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Restoration (410-409)

Sparta's Peace Offer
Democracy Restored
The War Resumed

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Return of Alcibiades (409-408)
Athens Attempts to Clear the Straits
Athenian Negotiations with Persia
Alcibiades Returns

Chapter Thirty-Five: Cyrus, Lysander, and the Fall of Alcibiades (408-406)
Prince Cyrus Replaces Tissaphernes
The Emergence of Lysander
The Collaboration of Cyrus and Lysander
The Battle of Notium
The Fall of Alcibiades

Chapter Thirty-Six: Arginusae (406)
The New Navarch
Conon Trapped at Mytilene
Athens Rebuilds a Navy
The Battle of Arginusae
Rescue and Recovery
The Trial of the Generals

Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Fall of Athens (405-404)
Another Spartan Peace Offer
The Return of Lysander
The Battle of Aegospotami
The Results of the Battle
The Fate of Athens
Theramenes Negotiates a Peace


Sources for the History of the Peloponnesian War

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From the Publisher

"The best account [of the Peloponnesian War] now available." —Los Angeles Times Book Review

"A fresh, clear and fast-moving account... for general readers." —The New York Times Book Review

"Drawing on incomparable knowledge as a classicist, international relations theorist and military historian, Donald Kagan... has devoted a single volume to guiding us through that epic of miscalculation, hubris and strategic overreach, supplying supplemental observations and correctives to Thucydides’ classic History of the Peloponnesian War." —The Washington Post

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