Why Athens Lost the Peloponessian War

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“They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed as the saying is with total destruction, their fleet, their army; everything was destroyed and few out of many returned home.” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 481) The Sicilian military campaign of Athens proved to be one of the most disastrous military campaigns in ancient times. The loss of thousands of soldiers and sailors, hundreds of vessels and vast amounts of money from the treasury reduced tremendously the Athenian ability to wage war; however, even in spite of such a loss, Athens was still able to prolong the war for nine more years until the Spartans defeated Athens in 404 B.C. The downfall of Athens came as a result of Spartan military operations, which destroyed the Athenian navy and cut off Athens from the supply of grain from Ionia. The decisive battle at Aegospotami in 405 B.C put an end to the Athenian empire and Athenian military power. There were many reasons for the demise of Athens, ranging from bad leadership and preparation for war to a lack of overall strategic concept for conducting the war against Sparta and its allies. All of these reasons contributed to the downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War; however, this paper will focus only on the failure of Athens to execute Pericles’s strategy. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because of a failure to follow the strategy of Pericles, which ultimately led to reckless expeditions, ill-advised war decisions and loss of allies. Pericles was an Athenian politician and general during the time when tensions between Sparta and Athens were rapidly escalating. The two city-states were constantly feuding over interests and were unable to compromise on several issues such as the siege of Potidaea, Megarian decree, and allowing Aegina become independent. This unwillingness of both sides in turn, pushed the rival poleis into a war against each other, which marked the start of the first Peloponnesian War. Before the hostilities began, Pericles laid out a strategy before the council, which if Athens were to follow would lead to a favorable outcome over the Lacedaemonians. The principles of Pericles’ strategy centered on naval warfare, attrition and limited foreign engagements during the time of war. Pericles being a wise strategist and a general knew the strengths and weaknesses of Athens and their opponents Lacedaemonians. Athens could not match the Spartan superiority in the hoplite warfare; however, Athens was capable of destroying Sparta by conducting raids from the sea on Spartan territory. The Athenian maritime fleet became one of the most powerful fleets in the ancient world after the defeat of Persia. The Athenian navy consisted of hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors who over the years gained experience and became second to none in their craft. Their familiarity with the sea allowed Athens to sail anywhere and raise fortification against any enemy in their own land. Such an advantage over the seas prevented Athenian opponents from committing too many resources and soldiers against Athens because of the fear that Athens might strike while they were on an expedition. Furthermore, the domination of the seas allowed Athens to become wealthy from trading with her allies and colonies. The money made abroad combined with the tributes from allies allowed Athens to acquire means for prolonged wars.

On the other hand, Sparta in the eyes of Pericles could not afford this luxury and had to fight shorter wars. “Spartans personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, had no private or public funds, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across the sea.” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 82) Pericles saw that Sparta can only gain land and money by battle, while Athens had plenty of islands where they received their resources from, which in turn did not require Athens to engage in many battles. In addition, Lacedaemonians were also...
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