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The Peloponnesian War

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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 Epidamnus. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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, I.34; 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:

  1. 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 conflict.

  2. 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.

  3. Corinth and Athens have had decent relations in the past and should not act as if they are outright enemies.

  4. 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, I.42; [] Thucydides, The 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 Corinthians withdrew.

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 three thousand hoplites (heavily armed Greek foot soldiers) to lay siege to Potidaea and the surrounding region.

Corinth saw this as outright Athenian aggression against its colony. Athens saw it as Corinthian interference with a tribute-paying ally.



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