The Elephant vs. The Whale: Bringing National Forces to Bear During the Second Peloponnesian War
Paul F. Messina
The great strategic dilemma for both Athens and Sparta during the Second Peloponnesian War was how to bring their strength to bear against each other. While both sides made numerous mistakes in the prosecution of the war, the Spartans were able to bring their strengths, or the strengths of their allies, to bear more effectively against the Athenians, which resulted in Sparta’s ultimate victory. Although set in the ancient world, the policy/strategy mismatch between land and sea warfare capability resulted in phenomena that still have relevance for the 21st century.
The second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, commencing in 431 B.C., is “a classic prototype of a dominant land power against a maritime empire” (Nichols, 2002). The Peloponnesian War provides an opportunity to see nearly every major issue discussed throughout the course of study packaged into a single case. Some of these major issues encountered in modern warfare include pre-war planning, civil-military relations, the adequacy of strategy, and planning the termination of the war.
Sparta, the dominant land power in Greece, was essentially a landlocked city that relied heavily upon the naval forces of its friends, particularly its Corinthian and Megarian allies. The Spartan culture centered on military service as a life-long commitment of its male citizens. The Spartan army was a full-time institution dedicated to the art of warfare; however, Sparta’s military forces were reluctant to take part in any extended campaigns outside of their immediate borders, fearing a possible Helot revolt at home. Thucydides writes, “there is a fear of the rising power of Athens”. Thucydides presents the war as a classic struggle of power politics.
Athens, the dominant sea power in Greece, relied upon its massive naval forces to secure its position in the region. The main economic power of Athens was the result of heavy trade with its neighbors. Without secure sea-lanes, Athens would perish as it had very few natural resources of its own. In fact, Athens even had to import the wood that its naval and trade vessels were constructed of. The rise of Athenian power was not limited to just her navy, but rather the rise of Athenian ideas, Athenian culture, and the Athenian mercantile system. Sparta viewed Athens as a threat simply because of its presence.
In comparing how well Athens and Sparta brought their strengths to bear against each other, we examine the following central thesis. While both sides made numerous mistakes in the prosecution of the war, the Spartans were able to bring their strengths, or the strengths of their allies, to bear more effectively against the Athenians, which resulted in Sparta’s ultimate victory.
The origins of the war tell a great deal about the implications of military power, the problem of conflicting alliances, and how different kinds of regimes make different choices about strategy when going into a conflict.
The Road to War
The Peloponnesian War had its origins in the first war fought between Athens and Sparta. While no clear victor emerged from the first Peloponnesian War, it set the stage for the decisive second Peloponnesian War of 431 B.C. The second Peloponnesian War arose from four main events, specifically (1) the dispute over Epidamnus, (2) the dispute over Corcyra, (3) the dispute over Potidaea, and (4) the debate at Sparta, which led to the declaration of war.
The dispute over Epidamnus began when Epidamnian democrats sought foreign intervention in their dispute with the aristocrats. After the declination of Corcyrean assistance, the Epidamnian’s turned to Corinth. As part of their assistance plan, Corinth dispatched an armed force, which restored the democracy. In retaliation, Corcyra places the city under siege. After Corinth refuses to agree to a Corcyrean arbitration plan, the Corcyrean fleet on blockade defeats the naval forces of Corinth.
In response to its naval defeat against Corcyra, Corinth begins building its naval power. In addition, Corinth turns to its ally, Sparta, for much needed political support.
In response, Corcyra turns to Athens for support. The Corcyrean representatives provided a compelling argument to the Athenian assembly. In its speech, the argument arose that (1) war with the Peloponnesians is inevitable and the Corcyrean navy will be useful to Athens in that war, (2) the destruction of Corcyra would weaken Athens position, and (3) because Corcyra is neutral, an alliance with Athens would not be a violation of the treaty between Athens and Sparta. While the Corinthians responded with a counter-speech, it did little to persuade the Athenian position. According to Thucydides, “It appeared that there would be war with the Peloponnesians and they were loath to give over naval power of such magnitude as the Corcyreans’ to Corinth, though if they could let them weaken one another in mutual conflict it would be favorable for the war the Athenians would have to wage with the Corinthians and other naval powers. And at the same time, the island [of Corcyra] appeared to them to lie favorably for the coasting voyage to Italy and Sicily” (Thucydides, 1.44).
Although the peace treaty between Athens and Sparta remained in effect, Athens began its preparations for war. Athens demanded that the Potidaeans destroy their fortifications and expel all Corinthians from their city. “These demands were made because Athens feared that, under the influence of Perdiccas and of the Corinthians, Potidaea might be induced to revolt and might draw into the revolt the other allied cities in the Thracian area” (Thucydides, 1.56). As a result, the Potidaeans revolt and join the Peloponnesian League, which now threatens invasion of Attica if its new member if attacked.
Finally, the debate at Sparta to the declaration of war that would thrust the Greek world into a conflict, which would last nearly 30 years.
The Corinthians, although technically still at peace, sent delegates to request aid from Sparta. Other allies requested to make speeches at Sparta as well. One issue is that Megara cannot trade with the Athenian empire, drawing on the sympathy of Sparta. By coincidence, some Athenians happen to be at Sparta on business and request permission to make a statement. They remind the Peloponnesians of the power of Athens and the origins of its empire. They claim that (1) It was the Athenian navy that drove the Persians out of Hellas and keeps Hellas safe today; (2) The subject cities voluntarily accepted Athenian hegemony; (3) All imperial powers have the right to manage their own subjects; (4) We are governed by three mighty reasons: honor, need, and profit; and (5) The Spartans should make the decision on its merits, unswayed by the opinion of others. If the Spartans vote for formal hostilities, “You will have begun the war” (Thucydides, 1.78). While King Archidamnus argues against a hasty decision, it is clear that Sparta cannot betray a wronged ally. This argument prevailed and war was now a certainty. Briefly, Sparta decides to go to war (an unlimited war) in order to free the Greeks, while Athens decides to go to war (a limited war) to weather the storm and maintain the status quo.
Bringing Athenian Strengths to Bear in the Peloponnesian War
The Athenians under Pericles entered the war with a passive defensive strategy that reflected not only Athens limited aims but also their expectations about the Spartans. In other words, Athens would engage in a Fabian strategy in the war against Sparta. Athens had a single goal, maintain control of the seas and do not lose.
Athens initial strategy was to withdraw behind their walls, supply Athens from the sea, and obey five main principles. First, maintain Athenian supremacy and vital SLOC’s.
Second, resist fighting the Spartans on land even if it means allowing the Spartans to ravage Attica without resistance. Third, attempt to ravage minor Spartan allies when the chance arose and the cost to do so was low. Fourth, keep the Spartan allies off-balance by using the Athenian navy to engage in quick pinprick attacks and raids by sea in the Peloponnese, and finally, do not expand the empire while the war is ongoing.
Athens had several opportunities throughout the course of the war to bring its strengths or the strengths of an ally to bear against Sparta. Specifically, we address the following key opportunities: (1) Athens initial attempt to utilize the land power Argos in an alliance against Sparta; (2) The Athenian victory at Sphacteria; (3) Athens second attempt to utilize the land power Argos in an alliance against Sparta; and (4) The Sicilian campaign.
Having a strong navy and a weak army, a limited war with a defensive strategy enabled Athens to frustrate Spartan attacks by moving the outlying population within the city walls while Athens’ navy kept order in the empire and ensured a continuous flow of goods into Athens. Athens found itself in a stalemate with Sparta, mainly because Athens could not get at the Spartan Army and could not bring its strength to bear against Sparta in a manner conducive to achieving victory. Because of the current state of the war (stalemate), the Athenians sued for peace in 430 B.C., less than two years into the war. Sparta rejected the Athenian proposal causing the Athenians to reassess their current war strategy.
Cleon stepped forward to replace Pericles after his death from the plague. While Cleon was aware that maintaining control of the SLOC’s was important, he also knew that Athens had to take the fight to the Spartans.
Athens made an initial attempt to expand the conflict by engaging in negotiations with Sparta’s traditional enemy, Argos (city-state to the North of Sparta). If Argos agreed to bring its might to bear against Sparta, Athens would have an alliance that provided it with the army it desperately needed to defeat Sparta completely. Argos declined this initial gesture citing that peace treaty with Sparta, requiring Argonian neutrality, had not expired.
In 425 B.C., Demosthenes accompanied part of the Athenian fleet on its way to Sicily to reinforce an ally. A storm forced the fleet to put into a small area in Messenia called Pylos. It was here at Pylos that Demosthenes suggested building a fort. This was significant because Messenia was the home of the Helots. The Athenians managed to turn the tables on the Spartans by raising the specter of a slave revolt. The Spartans decided to abort their campaign in Attica and proceed to Messenia to attack the fort.
In one of the greatest military blunders in history, Athens was able to defeat a Spartan naval force of 60 ships as well as trap approximately 400 Spartan troops, including 180 spartiates on the island of Sphacteria. This Athenian victory was a large blow to Sparta. As a result, Sparta negotiates a truce with Athens. Under the truce, there will be no more attacks, the defeated Spartan naval vessels cede to the Athenian navy, and Sparta may supply the men trapped on Sphacteria with food and water. Sparta is ready to talk peace with Athens; however, Athens refuses to negotiate a peace with the Spartans. It is arguable that Athens squandered a wonderful opportunity to secure a peace with Sparta. Athens would meet its pre-war goals of maintaining the status quo, however, Athens felt it had the upper hand and pushed its luck in hopes of securing a more favorable peace by changing the balance of power in the region.
In 425 B.C., Athens reaped great rewards from adapting their strategy to a more active war against Sparta. Specifically, Athens ensured that (1) Attica was safe; (2) the Athenian navy added 60 captured triremes to its numbers; (3) Northwest Greece and Corcyra are firmly in Athenian hands; and (4) the Athenian treasury is starting to replenish itself.
By 421 B.C., exhaustion overtook Athens. Athens was unable to muster the forces necessary to defeat Sparta completely. Negotiations ensued from this stalemate, helped along by the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas at the Battle of Amphipolis. The result was the Peace of Nicias. Although Athens derived several important advantages from the Peace of Nicias, it was soon apparent that the peace was fragile and likely would not last.
A leading proponent of an alternative approach to Sparta was Alcibiades who was a key figure in Athens at the time. In 421 B.C., a long peace ended, and Argos resumed its contest with Sparta. Alcibiades saw an opportunity for Athens during this renewed conflict. Athens, for a second time, attempted to negotiate an alliance with Argos against Sparta. Under the proposed alliance, Athens would undertake raids along the coastline as well as send an army to help support Argos against Sparta. The initial plan was popular in Athens, but changed from an offensive alliance to a defensive alliance due to power politics. This change in plan allowed Sparta to seize the initiative and narrowly defeat Argos at the Battle of Mantinea before Athens could reinforce its ally. Sparta had defeated a viable, dangerous threat to its own existence. Athens had squandered a huge “what if” opportunity to bring about the complete defeat of Sparta.
After the Battle of Mantinea, Athenian leaders had to decide on yet another alternative.
A campaign in Sicily was the best course of action for the Athenians for several reasons. Athens would support its allies in Sicily and, in addition, Athens would undertake a preventive war against Syracuse to prevent a third power block from emerging in the region. Although a high-risk plan, Athenian forces arrived in Sicily in 415 B.C. and noticed that Syracuse was unprepared to fight. An Athenian council of war convened to determine the next course of action. The Athenian general Lamachus recommended the immediate attack on Syracuse in order to take advantage of thier unprepared condition. While not enacted, in retrospect, this was probably was the best course of action. The war in Sicily stalemates until 414 B.C.
Athens eventually suffered defeat in Sicily, losing 50% of its naval forces, 25% of its land army and nearly 40% of its citizen rowers available. This defeat led to the final phase of the Peloponnesian War. Despite Sparta’s best efforts, the Athenian navy held firm, even in the face of the newest Spartan ally, Persia. The Athenians were on their way to reasserting themselves in the Aegean and winning back their empire, but the Spartan naval forces found the Athenian navy vulnerable in their homeport. The Athenians were finally defeated in 404 B.C.
Counterarguments against the Athenian strategy of winning by not losing follow. The first area to examine is Athens choice of a Fabian strategy in the initial phases of the Peloponnesian War. While a Fabian strategy is a viable course of action when facing a superior opponent, it is likely not effective when a dominant naval power like Athens is under siege by a dominant land power like Sparta. Had Athens taken a more active role early in the conflict, Athens likely would have a favorable peace with Sparta.
In addition, could an early alliance with Argos have changed the balance of power in the Peloponnese? In retrospect, it appears that such an alliance could have propelled Athens to a land victory over Sparta, securing Athens pre-war goals and allowing Argos to ravage its old, historical enemy.
Was Athens wise to refuse a peace after its stunning victory at Sphacteria? Some argue that Athens squandered its last real opportunity for a lasting peace with Sparta here. Sparta was fully prepared to negotiate with Athens, and, had Athens accepted the gesture of Sparta, would expose the Spartans vulnerability to the rest of the Greek world. The balance of power would have returned to the status quo and peace may have dominated the region for some time.
Another argument addresses Athens power projection in its eventual alliance with Argos. Once Argos came on-board as an Athenian ally, an immediate, decisive blow against Sparta was necessary. Instead, the alliance became defensive in nature and Sparta narrowly defeated Argos at the Battle of Mantinea. Argos was now a non-factor for the rest of the Peloponnesian War and Athens threw away its best chance yet of decisively and completely defeating the Spartan army.
Finally, what if Athens did not undertake the Sicilian campaign? Initially, the campaign proposed by Lamachus was a low-risk high-reward proposition. Once again, though, power politics took a solid plan and turned it into a high-risk plan, which the Athenians would finally succumb due to the intervention of Sparta on behalf of Syracuse. Athens best hope in Sicily was to immediately attack Syracuse and assume control of the region, causing Sparta and its minor allies in Sicily to reassess their priorities against Athens.
In short, Athens was literally able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On several occasions, Athens had the upper hand against Sparta. Whether due to military incompetence, or a power play between political rivals, Athens squandered the opportunities to bring their power and, more importantly, the power of their allies to bear against Sparta. The result was the destruction of Athens and the Athenian way of life in the Greek world.
Bringing Spartan Strengths to Bear in the Peloponnesian War
Sparta entered the war with several key goals in mind, the most important of which were to free the Greeks, and to completely overthrow the Athenian form of government and replace it with a pro-Spartan dictatorship. As a result, Sparta was prepared to launch a war of unlimited aims against Athens.
The initial Spartan strategy included: (1) bait the Athenians outside of their walls to fight and protect their farms and homes in Attica; (2) force Athens to spend resources policing their own empire; (3) destroy Attica on a regular schedule; (4) induce revolution in the Athenian empire; and (5) build a navy as soon as possible to one day challenge Athens life-lines.
Sparta had several opportunities throughout the course of the war to bring its strengths or the strengths of an ally to bear against Athens. Specifically, we address the following key opportunities: (1) The attempt by Sparta to defeat the Athenians at Pylos; (2) The Spartan victory at Amphipolis; (3) Sicilian campaign; and (4) The final defeat of the Athenian naval forces in 405 B.C.
Subsequent to the Athenians building a fortified position at Pylos, the Spartans had no choice but to attack the fortified position.
Pylos represented a direct threat to the Spartans since Pylos was in Messenia, the home of the Helots. Sparta thought they could use a small fleet of 60 triremes to close the gap between Sphacteria and Pylos. The idea was to occupy Sphacteria with a land army to support an operation against the fortification at Pylos. The Spartans were unaware that Demosthenes, through a runner on the coastline, informed the departed Athenian fleet to return to Pylos. The Spartans were defeated at sea in the ensuing naval battle and had her forces trapped on Sphacteria. Sparta had lost an opportunity to bring its power to bear against Athens and now found itself in a precarious position having exposed itself as a vulnerable force. Following the defeat at Pylos and Sphacteria, Sparta asks for a truce and a subsequent peace agreement. The Athenians reject the peace agreement and Sparta remains at war.
Sparta has now suffered defeat at sea, a humiliating surrender at Sphacteria, and is in check by their hostages on Sphacteria. Attica is untouchable and Spartan attention focuses on their prisoners of war. Sparta’s strategic adaptation comes from one of its most talented and unusual generals, Brasidas. Brasidas was an advocate of a more active strategy against Athens. Brasidas knew that that Sparta could not defeat the Athenians at sea, and further knew that Sparta could not attack Attica due to the hostage crisis on Sphacteria. The solution was to march north and hit the ports along the vulnerable grain SLOC’s, scaring the Athenians by causing problems in the rear areas as well as threaten Athenian allies who Athens relied on for resources and tribute. The goal of Brasidas is to capture the city of Amphipolis, the last serious resistance point before heading north to assault the grain routes. Upon his arrival at Amphipolis, Brasidas did not attack. Instead, he offered decent terms and allowed internal divisions in the city to take over.
Soon the city surrenders to him without a fight. Interestingly, the admiral responsible for keeping this area safe was Thucydides. His incompetence and the fall of Amphipolis earned him 20 years in exile. The fall of Amphipolis emboldens some Athenian allies to rebel against Athens. Unfortunately, Sparta does not press to choke-off Athens, nor do they send reinforcements. Instead, Sparta negotiates a truce with Athens to secure the return of its hostages and end the hostilities. After the fall of Amphipolis, Sparta may have vacated an opportunity to press home a decisive victory. Preoccupation with other matters though caused Sparta to lose its focus on the big picture. As a result, no decisive victory emerged at this point.
During the Sicilian campaign, Athens tried desperately to gain and maintain the upper hand against Syracuse. While the overall campaign was at a stalemate in 414 B.C., Syracuse felt the pressure from Athens. The Spartan general Gylippus, upon his arrival to Syracuse, convinces Syracuse to hold on and continue fighting against Athens. Gylippus promises Syracuse that Sparta will renew hostilities against Athens in the spring of 413 B.C. Sparta felt that as long as Athens was in Sicily, Sparta had a chance to fight Athens. Thucydides said, “The Spartans derived most encouragement from the belief that Athens, with two wars on her hands, against themselves and against the Sicilians, would be easier to subdue. They (the Spartans) began to be full of enthusiasm for war” (Thucydides, 7.18). In March 413 B.C., Sparta keeps its promise and attacks Attica. Athens now had a two front war and Sparta had the advantage of nearly uncontested raids against Attica, bringing their power against the Athenian empire. This would mark the end for Athens in the Peloponnesian War.
Sparta realized that it must form a useful alliance in order to compete with the Athenian navy. Without such an alliance, the war would continue to stalemate. A series of alliances with Persia gave Sparta the strength and flexibility to conduct combined land and sea operations. Once Athens’ navy was defeated, Sparta could blockade Piraeus and force Athens to her knees. The alliance with Persia though came at a high price. In consideration of their alliance with Sparta, Persia demanded that all Greek city-states located in the Aegean, on the Asian side, would become part of the Persian Empire. One of Sparta’s original war aims was to free the Greeks. By accepting the Persian demands, Sparta would be able to free about two-thirds of the Greeks. In either case, Sparta agreed and the Peloponnesian League was able to put to sea a very powerful navy. Although Athens fought valiantly and may have been on her way to reasserting her position in the Aegean, their defeat was certain in the summer of 405 B.C. when the Spartan navy took advantage of their lack of security within the Athenian homeports. In a single blow at the Battle of Arginousae, the Athenian mastery of the sea disappeared. Athens overall defeat comes to fruition and Athens surrenders to Sparta in 404 B.C.
Counterarguments against the Spartan strategy follow. First is Sparta’s attempt to gain an impressive victory against Athens at Pylos. Could Sparta have caused the earlier defeat of Athens if it avoided its blunder at Pylos? It is quite possible that Sparta could have caused the earlier defeat of Athens, mainly due to the lifting of the hostage constraint that it incurred because of its defeat at Pylos. Had Sparta been free to maneuver toward Amphipolis and other areas, Athens may well have agreed to a peace. On the other hand, had Sparta been successful in a campaign of this nature, it is unlikely that Sparta would agree to a peace while it had an advantage over its adversary.
Next, we look at the Spartan victory at Amphipolis. Did this have a profound effect on the eventual outcome of the war? Arguably, the victory at Amphipolis worked to the advantage of Sparta by allowing it to negotiate the release of its hostages and was responsible for the impending Peace of Nicias. In terms of the overall war result, it would not be the decisive blow. The decisive blow must come with the defeat of the Athenian navy. The capture of Amphipolis, while significant, would only cause a further protraction of the war.
In terms of the Sicilian campaign, could Sparta’s inaction result in her ultimate defeat? The answer is a resounding yes. Sicily was a key victory for the Spartans and her allies. The defeat of the Athenian fleet as well as part of its army enabled Sparta to gain an equal footing in terms of naval strength in the Aegean at the conclusion of the Sicilian campaign as well as maintain her army superiority.
Finally, what if Sparta did not agree to the Persian terms for an alliance? Could Sparta have gained the decisive victory it needed to defeat Athens? Again, the answer is no. The naval strength the Persian brought to bear was vital in the ultimate defeat of Athens. Without Persian naval power, the Spartan fleet, while equal in numbers to the Athenians at this point, would have been completely defeated. The result would be another stalemate after nearly 30 years of war.
Sparta went to war due to fear of growing Athenian power and dominance. Sparta felt it must defend its hegemony and its leadership position in the Peloponnesian League. In order to remove the threat from Athens, Sparta needed to defeat Athens soundly.
The political objective of Sparta was unlimited: the defeat of Athens, demonstrated by the tearing down of the defensive walls, dissolution of the Athenian-led Delian league, and pro-Spartan leadership in city-states throughout Greece. The Spartan strategy involved land attack in Attica, creating a naval force from allied members to defeat the Athenian navy, and to encourage Athens’ allies to revolt, and possibly ally with Sparta.
The political objective of Athens was to keep the Athenian empire together and to add to the empire until Athens ruled most of the Mediterranean (from Sicily to Persia). The Athenian strategy entailed taking Megara to disrupt Spartan invasions into Attica, establish Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) to Argos, Sicily, and the wheat fields in the Black Sea, provoke a revolution of the Helots in Sparta, destroy the Spartan alliance, and gain a sizeable land force capable of challenging Sparta. Certainly one can say the Athenian strategy was to “win by not losing,” but in order to keep the Athenian alliance together and still receive tribute, ships, soldiers, and food, Athens could not afford to lose.
Athens did not have a large land army, though could have fielded one and attacked Sparta and Corinth directly. Athens relied heavily on its navy. A combined sea-land attack against Sparta while inciting the local slave population to revolt may have shattered Sparta’s alliance.
Sparta did not have a large navy but had a feared land army. Sparta eventually did gain a powerful navy, but only after Persian involvement. Even then, Sparta probably would not have defeated Athens, except for the Athenians mistake to kill off eight of its admirals, leading the way for the Spartan victory at Aegospotomi.
Had Sparta concentrated on interdicting the Athenian SLOCs, and defeating the Athenian navy, they may have defeated the Athenian spirit and undermined its alliance. In the end, neither side emerged as a clear victor. Persia gained back its territory, and Sparta and Athens were too weak to become a major power in the Mediterranean region again.
The policy/strategy mismatch between land and sea warfare capability resulted in two phenomena that still have relevance for the 21st century. Since neither alliance could effectively attack the other’s center of gravity, each initially opted for a war of attrition that sapped resources without essentially harming the opponent in any serious way. The frustration with this state of affairs no doubt aroused Athenian anger in that the outlying Atticans saw their farms and livelihoods periodically destroyed through Spartan incursions. In a democracy, where politicians are subject to public opinion (hence the people leg of the Clausewitzian trinity affecting the government and military legs in terms of policy and strategy), Cleon and his successors chose a more aggressive, and ultimately disastrous, offensive strategy. They still did not attack the Spartan center of gravity. The Spartans, conversely, realized the inherent weakness in their military system and developed an effective naval force.
Secondly, the need for joint or coordinated operations was made clear to the opponents. The Spartans ultimately succeeded in the joint arena while the Athenians failed as in Sicily. Nonetheless, the concept of joint operations became fully ingrained in the Western military system. While there were really no standing naval forces between the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD and the rise of the European navies in the 16th century, the concepts of joint or combined operations pioneered in the Peloponnesian War remained; they were resurrected in the modern era. This is why we study the ancient world of Thucydides.
Athens was not a sated power and Sparta, indeed all of Greece, had much to fear from it. Although the Delian League did not expand territorially in the first fifteen years after the First Peloponnesian War, Athens consolidated its control over its allies during that period and grew enormously wealthy and powerful from their tribute, thus making other Greek cities fear they might be next. The alliance with Corcyra confirmed their worst fears, especially since Corcyra was on the sea route to Sicily, indicating seemingly unlimited Athenian ambitions, and the alliance increased Athenian naval power by 33%. The speech of Athenian ambassadors at Sparta, asserting, “it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” backfired. Instead of intimidating Sparta and its allies, the Athenians scared them to death. The straw that appears to have broken the camels back for Sparta was Corinth’s threat to defect from the Peloponnesian League if Sparta did not aid it in its war with Athens. Fearing to grow relatively weaker against Athens through the loss of Corinth and other allies, Sparta opted for war to hold on to its alliance, a limited rather than an unlimited objective against Athens that appeared to have the unlimited goal of dominating the Mediterranean world, as Rome did a few centuries later. But in execution, “Free the Greeks” became an unlimited objective and wait out the Spartans became a limited objective.
Sparta went to war to defend itself and its allies form the growth of the Athenian empire, but the best way to defeat Athens was to destroy it once and for all. If the Athenians made a big mistake, Sparta could defeat Athens on land in Attica; if not, Sparta would have to wait for other mistakes, like the Athenian debacle in Sicily, and exploit them until it could challenge Athens at sea. Pericles refused the Spartans’ ultimatum to free the Greeks because that would allow Sparta to win without fighting. At a minimum, he meant to hold on to the Athenian empire, but he also intended to enable the Athenian empire to grow until Athens controlled the Mediterranean world (but not during the war). In the best case, the Spartans would give up early or Athens would defeat Sparta’s strategy of taking Attica; but if they did not, he would strip Sparta of allies, acquire other allies for Athens, wear Sparta out with slave revolts, and eventually challenge Sparta on land. If Sparta gave up early, or made a compromise peace, that was fine too: Athens would grow wealthier and stronger, day by day, until Sparta was too weak to resist the long-standing, deep-rooted Athenian bid for hegemony among the Greeks. Each side altered between minimum and maximum goals and best and worst-case strategies according to how well it was doing in the war and who held political power within Sparta and Athens at any particular time.
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