The reasons behind the Peloponnesian War were both political and a failure of diplomacy. After the Persian War, Athens began stretching further out into the Eastern Mediterranean and colonizing. This was a major growth that enriched Athens while putting them on the doorsteps of other cultures. One of their colonies, Corcyra, was threatened by Corinth. Though this colony did not have a massive navy, they had enough ships to concern Athens, who did not want Corinth to get them. This would have lessened Athens’ dominance in the Mediterranean. This might not, by itself, have been a reason for a large number of Greek deaths in the coming years, but the fact that Corinth was an ally of Sparta, added fuel to the Athens and Sparta tensions. As Corinth attacked Corcyra, inevitably they began exchanging blows with Athens.
The issues arising among the colonies began to create paranoia in Athens. One colony that was part of the Athenian League was actually founded by Corinth. With an increase in hostilities with Corinth, Athens demanded that Potidaea make a highly vocal decision as to whom they were tightly aligned with. Their demand of Potidaea to break all ties with Corinth did not set well with anyone except Athens. Corinth pleaded with Sparta to come Potidaea’s defense if Athens attacked the colony. This was enough drama for Macedonia to come in the picture and help stir things up. Through their instigation, Potidaea revolted along with Chalcidice and Bottiaea. The result was Athens attacking Macedonia while Corinth became allies with Chalcidice and Bottiaea. Appeals for Sparta to attack Athens increased and came from multiple allies.
Before the assembly in Sparta, Corinth declared the fault laid at the feet of their Spartan allies since they allowed their fellow Greeks to get out of hand by proclaiming, “You it was who first allowed them to fortify their city after the Persian war, and afterwards to erect the long walls… and yet Athens you utterly disregard.” They proceeded to plead for the attack of Athens by reminding Sparta of their past commitments. “Here, at least, let your procrastination end. For the Present, assist your allies and Potidaea in particular, as you promised, by a speedy invasion of Attica….”
Athens had representatives present to hear the speech and explain their reasoning why war would be the wrong action. They pointed out how Sparta had condoned Athens colonization and actions by keeping quiet all this time and pointed out what could be the final result of the action of war. “If you were to succeed in overthrowing us and in taking our place, you would speedily lose the popularity….”
Sparta was swayed by Corinth’s words and made a decision that changed the face of Greece. The words of a leader, Sthenelaidas, put Sparta on the spot by pointing out that the Athenian representatives “said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and the Peloponnesus.” Athens did not deny their actions so Sparta had the justification to move forward.
The Peloponnesian War was brought about by the rivalry that existed between Athens and Sparta and provoked by Spartan allies who felt threatened by Athens’ growth. Without the initial attacks of Corinth and the rebellion instigation of Macedonia, The Peloponnesian War might not have been so muddied with politics and vendettas.
- Sarah B. Pomeroy et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).