Critically Examine the Origins and Consequences of the Peloponnesian War 431-404 B.C Account for the Athenian Defeat

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Critically examine the origins and consequences of The Peloponnesian War 431-404 B.C Account for the Athenian Defeat

The main Peloponnesian War or second Peloponnesian war from 431- 404 B.C was fought between the growing power Athens and the dominating power Sparta. Gilpin notes the importance of this war as it parallels many others in history and characterises realist theory in present day international politics. The following essay will examine the origins and consequences of this war and account for the Athenian defeat.

The ancient historian Thucydides is the main source of knowledge of this period and provides a comprehensive account of the Peloponnesian war. He held a two sided commitment as a relative of the pro- Spartian statesman Cimon and a warm admirer of the anti-Spartan Pericles he therefore held a degree of political impartiality[1]. However Thucydides died before completion of his history. There are also general problems in the nature of historical sources as it is impossible for the historian to note all causes and effects because history presupposes that they have lived long enough or late enough to be aware of those effects. Thucydides instead focused on the symptoms.

In the aftermath of the Persian Wars, Athens reigned supreme with its fleet and formation of the Delian League, made up of colonies from across the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor that it dominated. Athens appeared to have become an imperial force. The magnificent fleet that had served her so well at Salamis projected her trade throughout the Mediterranean as she turned outward. As a result of this growing strength of Athens and the resistance to its growing empire war broke out in 461 B.C. By 455 B.C this first Peloponnesian war ended with a treaty promising peace for thirty years. However this peace was ended by the outbreak of the second, or major Peloponnesian War.

Sparta a land orientated more conservative state took a different approach and turned inward after its victory over Persia it. She built defensive alliances with neighbours on the Peloponnesian peninsula. When the Arcadian cities and Argos challenged her hegemony in 470, Sparta’s allies including Athens came to her aid.

One of the problems that could be argued characterised the Peloponnesian war was the wide difference of attitude in political activity in Greece. The conflict between Cimon and Pericles reflected the ideological differences between the Athenian democratic and Spartan oligarchic structures of power. The meaning of democracy in this time does not correspond with modern usage however compared with Sparta, Athens seemed to merit better the description of ‘democracy’ since the governing minority was comparatively large which in Sparta it was small. The overall attention was drawn to the question ‘were the Greeks to remain united under traditional Spartan leadership, or was it to be accepted that as a result of the Persian Wars, Athens offered an alternative’[2] and this could be said to have caused instability.

Athens growth and the prospect of it as an alternative is the main underlying cause of the war as identified by Thucydides for him ultimately: ‘What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta’[3]. Sparta feared loss of hegemony because of the growth of the power of Athens before the war and twice before the war of 460-446 she had tried to do something about it. According to Sthenelaidas Spartans should ‘Let no one try to tell us that when we are being attacked we should sit down and discuss matters; these long discussions are rather for those who are mediating aggression themselves.’[4] This was stated before Sparta was under attack and could be argued was that he was referring to the Athenian growth of power.

The war could be argued was the rational path for Athens as it was caught in what can be described as a security dilemma. As Pericles stated ‘it is right and proper for you to...
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