The Prelude to War
Thucydides reveals that despite direct tensions between the two
superpowers, Athens and Sparta came to the precipice of war in 431 due
to a series of disputes involving minor and middle-rank powers. In this
sense, war was precipitated indirectly through conflicts between lesser
city-states. Thucydides points to three specific incidents involving
Epidamnus, Corcyra, and Potidaea as a prelude to the war.
The Dispute over Epidamnus
The prelude to the great Peloponnesian War began with the outbreak of a
small civil conflict in the coastal city-state of
Social conflict within Epidamnus had been brewing for years
and this finally led to a democratic faction rising within the broader
population. This faction successfully overthrew the aristocratic class,
who, in an attempt to regain control, joined with outside nomadic
forces and laid siege on their own city. Epidamnus had originally been
settled by colonists of Corcyra, an important neutral city-state with a
large navy of 120 triremes. Based on this ancestral connection, the
people of Epidamnus sent ambassadors to Corcyra requesting help. When
it became clear that no help would be forthcoming from Corcyra, the
ambassadors continued on to Corinth, the most important ally of Sparta,
which had been the city-state that founded Corcyra. Thus, Corinth was
indirectly connected to the Epidamnian population through Corcyra. The
Corinthians agreed to help and sent a garrison to protect the besieged
people of Epidamnus.
This action infuriated Corcyra, which felt that Corinth was interfering
with its colony. Tension had existed between Corcyra and Corinth for
some time. The Corinthians believed that Corcyra, although a rich and
powerful city-state in its own right, still owed it the respect that
colonies should always pay their founding state. The Corinthian
decision to support Epidamnus's people, therefore, had less to do with
sympathy for the democratic faction in Epidamnus than with teaching
Corcyra the importance of respect and honor in Greek city-state
relations. The Corcyraeans understood the Corinthian action in the
context of a power-play and felt that if they allowed Corinth to
interfere in this case, Corinth might continue to pressure them. The
Corcyraeans concluded that to remain out of the dispute over Epidamnus
would invite more Corinthian interference in Corcyraean affairs in the
future. Corinth and Corcyra each brought significant support to the
Epidamnian side they favored and a major naval battle ensued involving
over one hundred ships in which Corcyra scored a convincing victory.
The Dispute over Corcyra
The naval victory, however, did not increase Corcyra's sense of
security, but rather required the city-state to re-think its status
since, as a neutral state, it lacked reliable allies. Corinth was
allied to Sparta, the greatest land power in all of Greece. The
Corcyraeans quickly determined that Corinth would not take their recent
defeat lightly and would return with the support of the Peloponnesian
League. Corcyra realized that while its neutrality had allowed it to
flourish as an open trading state, without committed allies it was
vulnerable to greater powers in times of conflict. Corcyra sent
ambassadors to Athens, the other great power in the Greek world, and
presented their case for a new alliance. The Corcyraeans made four key
points in their speech to the Assembly:
Athens would gain the respect of many city-states if it agreed to an
alliance, because Athens would be seen as coming to the aid of a
city-state in trouble. Athens would enhance its reputation as a
reliable partner upon which other states could rest their security.
Corcyra would be indebted to Athens and thus extremely loyal. Although
they had been neutral, the Corcyraeans insisted that they could be
trusted as new partners.
An alliance would not break the Thirty Years Peace Treaty, since
Corcyra was a neutral city-state and thus had the right to join an
alliance of its choice.
War was inevitable between Athens and Sparta and so Athens should do
everything it could to increase its power and show its strength.
Corcyra's navy, which was second in size only to that of Athens, would
be a great asset. They asserted that defying Corinth would send a
strong message to the Peloponnesian League.
The Corcyraeans ended their speech by emphasizing that Athens should
look out for itself and avoid showing weakness to its enemies. They
stated, "When one makes concessions to one's enemies one regrets it
afterwards and the fewer concessions one makes the safer one is likely
to be" (Thucydides,
The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. New York:
Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 56).
Corinth was aware of the Corcyraean delegation and sent its own
ambassadors to Athens to counter the Corcyraean argument. The
Corinthians were invited to speak against the idea of an Athens-Corcyra
alliance and they delivered a speech with four key rebuttal points:
Although perhaps not a technical violation of the Thirty Years Peace
Treaty, an alliance certainly would violate the spirit of the treaty,
which rested on a desire to avoid interference in the relations of
other states and sought to de-escalate, rather than escalate, points of
Athens should be wary of alliances that could drag it into conflicts in
which it has no stake. While allies might bring material resources,
they also bring political baggage.
Corinth and Athens have had decent relations in the past and should not
act as if they are outright enemies.
War is never inevitable but is caused by conscious decisions and thus
can be consciously avoided.
The Corinthians summed up their argument by suggesting that Athens
could find greater security in behaving justly, rather than hastily and
out of a perceived sense of necessity: "The power that deals fairly
with its equals finds a truer security than one which is hurried into
snatching some apparent, but dangerous advantage" (Thucydides,
Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin
Classics, 1985, p. 61).
Two Athenian assemblies had to be held to decide the question of
alliance. After much debate on both sides, the Athenians voted in favor
of what might have been regarded at first as a compromise. Athens
offered Corcyra a defensive alliance under which Athens would lend aid
only if Corcyra was attacked. Since, however, the most likely conflict
would be initiated by Corinth against Corcyra, the Corinthian
delegation left displeased. From their perspective, Athens had rejected
the opportunity to avoid interference and potential conflict in favor
of increasing its power. The Athenians had decided that if war with
Sparta was necessary, it was better to have Corcyra's navy than allow
it to fall into the hands of the Peloponnesian League.
Shortly after their alliance with Corcyra had been extended, Athens
sent ten ships to Corcyra under the expressed orders to involve
themselves in battle only if Corcyra itself was in danger of an enemy
landing. Athens wanted to avoid a breach of the nonaggression treaty
and thus told its generals to avoid direct combat with Corinthian
forces unless Corcyraean defeat looked likely. A naval battle followed,
involving over two hundred Corinthian and Corcyraean warships. At one
point in the battle the Corcyraean left flank began to collapse, and
the Athenian triremes engaged in combat to protect its new ally. The
battle ended indecisively with each side losing a flank, however twenty
additional Athenian ships arrived to reinforce the Corcyraeans. The
next day the Athenian-Corcyraean fleet agreed that the Corinthian fleet
could sail home without further conflict. However, if the Corinthians
wished to advance, all of the Athenian vessels would engage them. The
The Dispute over Potidaea
Athens realized that its decision and the ensuing naval engagement were
additional blows to Corinth, whose prestige had already suffered from
the earlier naval defeat against Corcyra. Athens suspected that Corinth
would plot revenge.
The city-state of Potidaea was a tribute-paying member of the Athenian
empire, but a colony of Corinth. Strategically important, Potidaea
could affect the control of Thrace, a northern region that was
dominated by Athens. In anticipation of some Corinthian plan, Athens
ordered Potidaea to remove one of its defensive walls, send hostages to
Athens, and dismiss the Corinthian administrators who helped govern the
city. In this way, Athens hoped to remove the opportunity for Potidaea
to revolt if Corinth encouraged it to do so. The Potidaeans were
alarmed by the Athenian demands, which essentially would have turned
them into a vassal state. However, the Potidaeans were also aware that
defiance of Athens would likely lead to an Athenian military assault.
The Potidaeans needed to choose between willingly surrendering their
freedom or risking it through resistance. After receiving assurances of
support from the Peloponnesian League, the Potidaeans rejected the
Athenian demands and openly revolted. The Athenians sent ships and over
(heavily armed Greek foot soldiers) to lay siege to Potidaea and the
Corinth saw this as outright Athenian aggression against its colony.
Athens saw it as Corinthian interference with a tribute-paying ally.
BATTLE OF THE TITANS