The Peloponnesian War

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The Peloponnesian War

What were Athens’ and Sparta’s political objectives at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War? To what extent did Athens and Sparta pursue strategies compatible with their political objectives?

The Peloponnesian War was fought in three phases between the Athenians and Spartans. In order to determine the political objectives of Athens and Sparta a review of the time periods is required. The Peloponnesian War between the Athenian Empire, formerly the Delian League, and Sparta, the Peloponnesian League, began in 460 BC and ended in 445 BC. The war concluded in a draw. It flared up again from 431 BC until 421 BC with an Athenian victory. The climatic phase was from 413 BC until 404 BC, which concluded in a victory for Sparta. The a key point that has to be addressed is comparing the dominant Spartan continental land power against the dominant Athenian sea power. Whether or not the war is judged avoidable, it would certainly appear to have been the case that there was little active antagonism between Athens and Sparta from the heroic days of 480-479 BC until the late 460s BC. The traditional view of the principal cause of the Peloponnesian War is Thucidydes’ claim that it was Sparta’s fear of the growth of Athens power. The war was triggered due to the events that took place in 462 BC. When the Spartans requested assistance from the Athenians to help them put down a revolt. The Athenians responded by sending approximately 4,000 heavy infantry. But before the Athenians arrived, a Spartan general named Cimon dismissed the force. The Athenians were furious and renounced their treaty. Now let’s go back to look at the political objectives of each city and determine whether Athens or Sparta pursued strategies to support their political objectives. Athens secured new alliances with Argos, Magara and the state of Thessaly. In developing these relationships, Athens was able to land-lock Sparta, have a superb hoplite army in Sparta’s “front yard”, and acquire the services of an outstanding cavalry force. The Athenians constructed long walls connecting their city walls to the fortified port of Piraeus. The Spartans were not able to break these fortifications and would have to devise a strategy to challenge this obstacle. Pericles, Athens’ imperial leader, designed a strategy of balanced maritime offense and severely constrained continental defense. Sparta would be denied access to Athens’s urban center of gravity by the city walls and the ability to survive by maritime resupply routes and trade. Periclean strategy was to outlast the Spartan strategy of ravagement on land by raiding from the sea against vulnerable Spartan coastal assets. Pericles developed a strong continental defense, but his strategy against the Spartans did not allow him to plan for an Athenian victory. Pericles estimated that the Spartans would give up attempting to lure the Athenians into a direct and decisive battle after that strategy had failed in the past. He believed that the Athenian superior economic strength would allow Athens to win as long as the Athenians did not embark on future expeditions. The Athenians sent a representative to the Spartan assembly to voice their positions about the prospects of war. This was a strategic and political move on the behalf of the Athenians for the purpose of maintaining peace in the region. The Athenians explained that they had achieved their power justly and building their empire was not an ambition, but a necessity based on fear, honor and self-interest. They felt that the Spartans should have understood this because they were a great power themselves. The Athenians’ tone during the assembly was businesslike and concluded that the treaty should be enforced to the letter and arbitration should resolve any issue. The Athenians were prepared to go to war should the treaty be broken. The point the Athenians were making was the best way to avoid a war is...
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