The Peloponnesian War 431–421


The war began in the spring of 431, when the Spartan king Archidamus sent to Athens a herald who was rebuffed, and then formally invaded Athens’ territory (Thuc. II. 10–12): hence this first phase of the war is known as the Archidamian War. Sparta was fighting to liberate the Greeks, and to protect its own position, by breaking up the Athenian empire; it had persuaded itself that it was in the right (though later it came to have doubts: VII. 18. i-ii), and Thucydides claims (though his narrative does not support this) that it had persuaded most of the Greeks (II. 8. iv, cf. Archidamus in 11. ii). The war between Corinth and Corcyra had petered out; Athens was besieging Potidaea; the friction between Athens and Megara was worsening; and Athens was to expel the inhabitants of Aegina in the first year of the war. After the unsuccessful Theban attack on Plataea in the early spring, Athens evacuated all except the men capable of fighting, and supplied food and a garrison (II. 6. iv).

Almost every year to 425, the Peloponnesians invaded Attica in the spring: in 429 they began the siege of Plataea instead; in 426 they turned back because of earthquakes; in 425 they returned after fifteen days because of the confrontation at Pylos; and after their success the Athenians threatened to kill their prisoners if there was another invasion (Thuc. TV. 41. i).The longest invasion, in 430, lasted forty days (II. 57. ii).The psychological effect on the Athenians was probably worse than the physical: the Peloponnesians will have done considerable short-term damage to Athenian agriculture (but they will not have damaged every field every year, and perhaps some farmers in remote places risked not migrating into the city), but olives and vines are hard to kill, so there will not have been great long-term damage.

Thucydides was dissatisfied with the use of official years (Athens’ year, and those of some other states, started in the summer, so that one campaigning season was spread over two years, but other states had other starting-points), and he used his own system of seasonal years, divided into about eight months of summer and four of winter (cf. II. 1–2. i, V. 20, 25. i—26. i). His narrative rarely digresses outside that framework; but here it will be convenient to look at the main events of the Archidamian War by regions rather than year by year.

The War in the West

Athens and the Peloponnesians (particularly Corinth) both had allies in the north-west of Greece, and this was an area which Athens could reach by sea. In their major naval expedition of 431, a hundred Athenian ships were joined by fifty from Corcyra and others from western allies: after descents on Laconia and Elis (Thuc. II. 25), they continued north to Acarnania, and to the uncommitted island of Cephallenia, which they won over (II. 30). In the following winter a Corinthian expedition reinstated a ruler whom they had expelled from the Acarnanian city of Astacus (II. 33). In 430 the Peloponnesians took the initiative, attacking the island of Zacynthus, allied to Athens, but failing to win it over (II. 66); and on the mainland an attack by Ambracia and its barbarian allies on Athens’ ally Amphilochian Argos was also unsuccessful (II. 68). In the winter, in order to control the Gulf of Corinth, Athens sent twenty ships under Phormio, who had been active in the west earlier (cf. p. 75), to Naupactus on the north side of the Gulf, where in the 450’s (cf. p. 50) it had settled the Messenians who were allowed to leave the Peloponnese (II. 69. i).

In 429 Ambracia asked the Peloponnesians to join it in a major attack on Acarnania. The Spartan Cnemus brought 1,000 hoplites, and the combined army attacked Stratus, in the south of Acarnania; but when the barbarians in the centre rushed ahead of the others, and were caught in an ambush, the attack collapsed, and Cnemus withdrew (Thuc. II. 80–2). A fleet of forty-seven ships from Corinth and its neighbours was intended to join Cnemus, but to do that it would have to pass Phormio at Naupactus. With more than twice the Athenians’ numbers, the Peloponnesians did not expect Phormio even to challenge them; but he did. They formed a circle with their ships facing outwards; the Athenians sailed in line round them, and attacked successfully when the wind rose and the Peloponnesians were thrown into confusion (II. 83–4). The Spartans did not appreciate the Athenians’ superiority in skill; Cnemus on leaving Acarnania joined the defeated fleet, and Brasidas and others were sent as advisers. In a second battle the Peloponnesians had seventy-seven ships to the Athenians’ twenty; Phormio was forced to move westwards from Naupactus to the narrow mouth of the Gulf, and when the Peloponnesians attacked they got the upper hand; but they immediately thought their victory was secure, and when they pursued the eleven Athenian ships which had escaped towards Naupactus Phormio was able to turn defeat into victory (II. 85–92). By that time Athens had dispatched a further twenty ships, but they went first to take part in a conflict in Crete, and did not arrive in time to be of use (II. 85. iv-vi, 92). In the winter Phormio campaigned in support of the Acarnanians, and then returned to Athens (II. 102–3). No more is heard of him: probably he died. In 427 he was succeeded at Naupactus, at the Acarnanians’ request, by his son Asopius, who campaigned unsuccessfully in Acarnania and in the pro-Spartan Leucas, where he was killed (III. 7).

In 427 a bitter civil war began in Corcyra, after Corinth had sent back upper-class prisoners taken in 433 (cf. p. 90) to undermine Corcyra’s democracy and alliance with Athens. Nicostratus went with twelve Athenian ships from Naupactus to support the democrats, Alcidas with fifty-three Peloponnesian ships to support the oligarchs; Alcidas won a naval battle, but despite the urging of Brasidas (present with him as an adviser after his inept attempt to support Mytilene: cf. p. 114) he failed to follow it up, and when he learned that another sixty ships were approaching from Athens he withdrew. For seven days the Corcyraean democrats massacred many of their opponents, while the Athenians looked on - and Thucydides attaches to this episode a general comment on the collapse of standards in strife between pro-Athenian democrats and pro-Spartan oligarchs in the Greek cities (III. 70–85; general comment 82–3; 84 is an interpolation).

Also in 427 Athens accepted an invitation to intervene in a war in Sicily. Syracuse was getting the upper hand in a war with Athens’ ally (cf. pp. 85, 90) Leontini, and Leontini appealed to Athens, sending a delegation which included the orator Gorgias (whose style of rhetoric is said to have made a great impression on the Athenians: PI. Hp. Mai. 282 B, Diod. Sic. XII. 53. ii-v). Athens sent two generals with twenty ships, ‘on the grounds of their kinship, and wanting to prevent the transport of grain to the Peloponnese from there and prospecting whether it would be possible for them to get control of affairs in Sicily’ (Thuc. III. 86). We do not know to what extent the Peloponnesians were importing grain from Sicily, but if they did they could spare more time from their own farms for fighting. Whether the Athenians were already thinking of conquest in Sicily in 427 cannot be confirmed, but they were certainly doing so by the end of this campaign in 424.

In 426 the Athenian commanders at Naupactus were Demosthenes and Procles. Prompted by the Acarnanians, they first attacked Leucas; but they were then persuaded by the Messenians at Naupactus to march into Aetolia, to the north-east. Success there might pave the way for an attack on Boeotia from the west (cf. Thuc. III. 95. i), and this year the Athenians were in fact to make direct attacks on Boeotia (cf. p. 115); the circumstances of the campaigns make it hard to believe that they were planned in conjunction with each other, but it is possible that Demosthenes knew the other attacks were intended and did at least hope to reach Boeotia in the same summer. The Aetolians were a primitive people, living in mountainous country unsuitable for hoplites, and the Athenians did not wait for light-armed support (III. 97. ii). A town called Aegitium was abandoned by its inhabitants, and the Athenians took it, but they were attacked with missiles by light-armed men from the surrounding hills, Procles was among those killed, and Demosthenes had difficulty in extracting the army and returning to Naupactus (III. 91. i, 94–8). Probably Demosthenes was deposed: Thucydides writes that he was afraid to return to Athens (III. 98. v). Still at Naupactus in the autumn, he persuaded the Acarnanians to come to defend it when the Aetolians prompted Eurylochus, the Spartan commander at Heraclea (cf. p. 117), to attack it (III. 100–2). Eurylochus was then asked to join Ambracia in a winter attack on Amphilochian Argos, and the Acarnanians invited Demosthenes to command their forces against Eurylochus. Learning from his experience at Aegitium, he ambushed and defeated his opponents to the north of the city; to damage their reputation he allowed the Peloponnesians but not the others to escape; and further north, at Idomene, in an early morning attack he defeated a relieving army from Ambracia (III. 102. v-vii, 105–114. ii). Thucydides comments that Ambracia could have been taken but the Acarnanians were afraid to see it in Athenian hands (III. 113. vi); and the peoples of the region then made a hundred-year treaty (III. 114. ii-iv), so that, although the Athenians had had the better of the fighting here, they ultimately derived no benefit from it.

Surviving oligarchs were still harassing the democrats in Corcyra; and the war in Sicily was proceeding (Thucydides’ narrative of it is disjointed and low-key, like his narrative of Athens’ naval expeditions of 431 and 430). In winter 426/5 the western allies persuaded Athens to send a further forty ships to Sicily: ahead of them, Pythodorus was sent immediately with a few ships, to succeed Laches, the one still living of the original two commanders, who apparently was deposed (III. 115).

In spring 425 the Spartans sent sixty ships to support Corcyra’s oligarchs. Athens dispatched under Sophocles and Eurymedon the forty ships destined for Sicily; but on the way they were to support the democrats in Corcyra; and before that Demosthenes (who had returned to Athens and was probably a general-elect for 425/4) had permission to use the squadron as it sailed round the Peloponnese (Thuc. rV. 2. ii-iv).

For what follows Thucydides seems to exaggerate the element of chance (though there was such an element) and to minimise the element of planning. On the west coast of Messenia there is a bay at Pylos (cf. map 4 and ill. 12), with the island of Sphacteria leaving a narrow opening to the north and a wider opening to the south (the modern town of Pylos is on the mainland by the southern opening). A storm provided the opportunity for the Athenians to pause by the northern opening, and build fortifications on the mainland. When the ships continued northwards, Demosthenes and some men stayed behind. The Spartans recalled their invading army from Attica, marched to Pylos, and summoned their ships from Corcyra; Demosthenes recalled the Athenian ships, which had gone only as far as Zacynthus. The Spartan ships arrived first, entered the bay, and landed some men on Sphacteria; then the Athenian ships arrived, and defeated the Spartans, so that the men on Sphacteria were trapped. There was a truce for negotiations, which Cleon wrecked in the Athenian assembly. When he taunted Nicias, the general who had been appointed to go to Pylos, Nicias invited Cleon to go in his place, and Cleon found himself committed to doing so. He promised to bring back the Spartans from Sphacteria, or to kill them there, in twenty days; he took light-armed troops; a fire on the island destroyed much of the brushwood which protected the Spartans; the Athenians landed on the island, and, after some fighting, 292 of the original 420 men, 120 of them being Spartiate citizens, surrendered. They were taken back to Athens - within Cleon’s twenty days. Sparta sued unsuccessfully for peace. The Athenians garrisoned Pylos with Messenians from Naupactus, who spoke the Messenian dialect and could go about the country undetected. The Athenians now had a valuable stronghold in Spartan territory; but Thucydides disapproved of this success (it was achieved by Cleon, whom he disliked, and Demosthenes, of whom his approval is muted, and it involved the rejection of Spartan peace offers, which he probably thought should have been accepted [IV. 3–6, 8–23, 26–41]).

Sophocles and Eurymedon continued to Corcyra, where the surviving democrats were captured and treacherously killed (IV. 46–8). But Corcyra was exhausted, and we hear no more of it until its involvement in Athens’ Sicilian expedition of 415–413. Sophocles and Eurymedon reached Sicily in the autumn. But in 424 a truce between Camarina, on the Athenian side, and Gela was followed by a congress at Gela of the Sicilian Greeks. Thucydides gives a speech to Hermocrates of Syracuse, warning of the Athenians’ ambition, and urging the Sicilians to make peace and not to invoke outside intervention (an argument convenient for Syracuse, which could dominate Sicily if its opponents did not obtain outside help). A treaty was made, and the Athenian generals had to accept it; but they returned to a confident and ambitious Athens (Ar. Eq. 173–4, 1300–15, attributes to Hyperbolus ambitions extending to Carthage), and were accused of having been bribed to withdraw: Eurymedon was fined and the other two were exiled (IV. 58–65). Leontini, which had asked for Athens’ help in 427, was with the support of its upper class taken over by Syracuse, but afterwards some of them with the help of the expelled democrats established

Ill. 12 The bay of Pylos: aerial photograph. Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford


Map 4 The bay of Pylos (after P. J. Rhodes, Thucydides: History IV. 1-V. 24 [Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1998])


strongholds and tried to reassert its independence. In 422 Athens sent Phaeax and two other envoys with a couple of ships, but they met with a mixed reception and returned to Athens (V. 4–5).

Greece and the Aegean

The Peloponnesians invaded Attica in the spring of most years to 425 (cf. p. 108). Athens attacked Megara with a full levy twice a year, beginning in the autumn of 431 (Thuc. II. 31) - which means that the decree of Charinus, ordering these attacks (cf. p. 91), must be dated to the summer of 431. Also in 431 the Athenians sent out a large naval expedition, a hundred of their own ships and more than fifty from their western allies, which made raids on the west coast of the Peloponnese and continued further north (II. 17. iv, 23. ii, 25, 30: cf. p. 108); they sent another thirty ships up the Gulf of Euboea (II. 26); they expelled the inhabitants of Aegina, many of whom were settled by the Spartans at Thyrea, on the east coast of the Peloponnese (II. 27). In 430 an expedition of a hundred Athenian ships and fifty from Chios and Lesbos went to the Argolid: an attempt to capture Epidaurus was unsuccessful, other places were raided; Prasiae, south of Thyrea, was captured and sacked, but not retained as a hostile stronghold (II. 56). The naval activity of these years is problematic (cf. pp. 102–3): it used large and expensive forces but does not seem to have achieved significant results.

Confident of their naval superiority, the Athenians were not guarding the Piraeus against an attack by sea. In winter 429/8 the Spartan Brasidas responded to a Megarian suggestion that the Peloponnesians should attack the Piraeus. The Peloponnesians caused panic in Athens, after which the Athenians did take more precautions, but they lost their nerve and did not in fact attack the Piraeus but merely raided Salamis (II. 93–4).

The cities of Lesbos were still relatively independent, ship-providing members of the Delian League. Mytilene was attempting a union of the cities other than Methymna. It had contemplated revolting against Athens before the war, but had not been supported by Sparta; in 428 it did plan revolt, and was hurried into it when opponents informed Athens. Athens sent forty ships; Mytilenaean representatives at the Olympic festival appealed for Peloponnesian support. Sparta’s first plan was for an additional invasion of Attica, to distract the Athenians, but August was a busy time for Peloponnesian farmers and the invasion did not take place; and the Athenians manned a hundred ships with which they raided the region of the Isthmus, and sent further forces to blockade Mytilene (III. 2–18). Eventually, in 427, the Spartans sent Alcidas with forty ships, and, ahead of him, Salaethus to say that help was coming. But Alcidas travelled slowly, taking and killing prisoners rather than winning supporters. Salaethus, despairing of his coming, armed the ordinary people of Mytilene for a final burst of resistance, but they refused to fight (apparently because they were starving rather than because they were pro-Athenian: III. 27. iii, cf. p. 193) and Mytilene surrendered. The Athenian commander, Paches, sent Salaethus and those most responsible to Athens. The original decision, on the proposal of Cleon, was to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children, and a ship was sent to take the news to Mytilene; but the next day the decision was reconsidered. Thucydides gives us speeches by Cleon and Diodotus, and Diodotus’ proposal to kill only those who had been sent to Athens (still more than a thousand) was carried. A second ship taking the comparatively good news travelled quickly enough to prevent the killing of all the men. Mytilene lost its ships, its walls and its mainland possessions, and ownership of its land was given to Athenian cleruchs - but an inscription (IG i3 66) suggests that if Thucydides is right there was a relaxation not long afterwards. Paches recovered Colophon, on the Asiatic mainland near Ephesus, where since 430 a party backed by the Persians had gained control (III. 34); Alcidas scuttled back to Greece, pursued by storms (III. 25–50). Some Mytilenaean exiles established themselves on the mainland opposite, and made raids from there (III. 52).

In 429 the Peloponnesians, instead of invading Attica, had begun a siege of Plataea (Thuc. II. 71–8): perhaps they were worried about the plague in Athens (cf. pp. 118–19), perhaps they were under pressure from Thebes. No further help for Plataea came from Athens (though those who escaped to Athens were given citizenship); for the winter of 428/7 Thucydides gives a dramatic account of the escape of half of the men (III. 20–4). In the summer of 427 the remainder surrendered: after they and the Thebans had stated their cases the men (about 225 including a few Athenians) were killed and the few women were enslaved (III. 52–68). The fate of Plataea did not have a serious effect on the course of the war, but it was near to Athens and a long-standing ally, and enabled Thucydides to make various points about the war, so he gave it a detailed treatment.

In 426 an Athenian force under Nicias attacked Melos, by now the only Aegean island not in Athenian hands, but failed to win it over. If the inscription recording financial contributions to Sparta (cf. p. 101) belongs to the 420’s-410’s, Melos afterwards became a supporter of Sparta. He then sailed to the Gulf of Euboea, and at Tanagra in south-eastern Boeotia joined a large army which had marched out from Athens. They won a battle but then returned home (III. 91).This was the summer in which Demosthenes was hoping to reach Boeotia through Aetolia, but a fully coordinated plan is hard to believe in: cf. p. 110.

The main sanctuaries of the Greek mainland were hostile to Athens, and the Athenians may after the plague (cf. pp. 118–19) have felt that the gods were hostile. In winter 426/5 they ‘purified’ Delos, more drastically than Pisistratus had done in the sixth century, by removing all bodies buried on the island and forbidding births and deaths there, and they established or re-established a major quadrennial festival (Thuc. III. 104). Work on the temple of Apollo, abandoned in the middle of the century (cf. p. 69), was resumed. In 422 they went further and expelled the living Delians, but they allowed them to return in 421 (V. I, 32. i, cf.VIII. 108. iv).

In 425 Nicias sailed into the Saronic Gulf with an Athenian fleet: he landed and won a battle at Solygea, in Corinthian territory, and (as Demosthenes had installed a garrison at Pylos) installed a garrison at Methana in the Argolid (rV. 42–5). An Athenian alliance with Halieis is perhaps to be dated shortly afterwards (IG i3 75: 424/3?), and Cleon seems to have gone on a deputation to Argos (Ar. Eq. 465–7: cf. p. 103). Chios had been anti-Spartan in 427 (III. 32. iii); in winter 425/4 it had started building a new wall, but, remembering Mytilene, was obedient when Athens objected (rV. 51). The inscription recording contributions to Sparta includes ‘the Chian exiles who are friends of the Spartans’: possibly it was when Chios assured Athens of its loyalty that these men were sent into exile. In 424 Nicias again commanded an Athenian fleet, capturing the island of Cythera, and making raids on Laconia, including the area where the Aeginetans were settled: the settlement was destroyed, and the surviving Aeginetans were taken to Athens as prisoners (rV. 53–7). With Pylos and Cythera in their hands the Athenians should have been in a position to intervene effectively in Laconia and Messenia, but, for whatever reason, they never achieved as much as they hoped and the Spartans feared (cf. p. 103).

Athens’ regular attacks on Megara had continued. In summer 424, when exiled oligarchs seized Pegae, the port on the Gulf of Corinth, Megara’s democratic leaders, preferring Athens to their own oligarchs, plotted to betray the city to Athens, but the plot was revealed. An Athenian force under Hippocrates and Demosthenes was let into the long walls linking Megara to Nisaea, and captured Nisaea; but the city of Megara remained closed, the Spartan Brasidas, preparing for his expedition to the north (cf. p. 117), frightened the Athenians away, and the oligarchic exiles returned and took control of Megara (IV. 66–74). In the winter the Megarians recaptured and destroyed the long walls, but Athens retained Nisaea (IV. 109. i).

In the winter of 424/3 another plot misfired. Pro-Athenian democrats in Boeotia had made contact with Athens, and there was a plan by which simultaneously Siphae, on the Gulf of Corinth, was to be betrayed to Demosthenes, who would arrive by sea from Naupactus, there was to be a rising at Chaeronea, in the north-west, and an Athenian army was to march out to the sanctuary of Delian Apollo (Delium), in the south-east. It is not clear whether there was enough support for Athens across Boeotia to make this worthwhile; but, in any case, the plot leaked out, and the intended synchronism broke down, so that the Boeotians did not have to deal with all the threats at the same time. Boeotian forces occupied Siphae and Chaeronea; Demosthenes went to Siphae but withdrew. After that Hippocrates with in theory a full levy of citizen and metic hoplites (but perhaps not a fully effective levy, since 7,000 is a rather low figure) marched to Delium and fortified it, and then with most of his force set out for Athens. The Boeotians under Pagondas assembled at Tanagra, with 7,000 hoplites, 1,000 cavalry and a large number of light-armed troops. They attacked the Athenians, charging downhill; the Thebans on the right were, unusually, twenty-five deep (eight deep was normal); as tended to happen in hoplite battles (cf. Thuc. V 71. i, and pp. 135–6, on the battle of Mantinea in 418), the right wing of each phalanx was getting the better of the fighting; but when Pagondas brought in some of the cavalry, whom he had held back out of sight, the Boeotians defeated the Athenians. There followed arguments over the return of the Athenian dead and the status of Delium; eventually the Boeotians recaptured Delium (IV 76–7, 89–101. iv). An Athenian expedition to Euboea (Philoch. FGrH 328 F 130: not in Thucydides) may have been a response to unrest after Delium. In 423 the Thebans destroyed the wall of pro-Athenian Thespiae, west of Thebes (rV 133. i); in 422 the Athenian fort of Panactum, in the mountains between Attica and Boeotia, was betrayed to the Boeotians (V 3. v).

The North-East

Macedon was important as the best source of timber for shipbuilding; king Perdiccas continued to shift between Athens and the Peloponnesians in his allegiance. Further east, Athens gained an alliance with the Thracian ruler Sitalces in 431 (Thuc. II. 29, cf. 67, Ar.Ach. 134–73). Potidaea, after a long and expensive siege, capitulated in winter 430/29 and was resettled as an Athenian colony (II. 29. vi, 58, 67. i, 70; cf. M&L 66 = IG i3 514 ~ Fornara 129).

The Chalcidians based on Olynthus, and their neighbours the Bottiaeans, continued in revolt against Athens (cf. p. 90); from the early years of the war we know of a few isolated incidents. In 429 the Athenians attacked Spartolus, west of Olynthus: hopes of betrayal did not materialise; they won a hoplite battle but were driven off by their opponents’ cavalry and light-armed (II. 79). In the following winter there was a plan for Sitalces to attack Perdiccas and the Chalcidians with Athenian support, but the Athenians, allegedly not believing that he would act, failed to arrive. Sitalces did act: for a month he overran Macedon and the territory towards Chalcidice, but he was then reconciled with Perdiccas and withdrew (II. 95–101). We learn from inscriptions that, in order to keep them loyal (cf. p. 188), Athens made special arrangements for two cities of the Delian League: Methone, on the coast of Macedon, at various points between 430 and 423 (M&L 65 = IG i3 61 ~ Fornara 128); and Aphytis, on the western prong of Chalcidice, perhaps in 428/7 (IG i3 62).

In winter 426/5 we have the first sign of the Spartans’ interest in the north, in their acceptance of an invitation from the Trachinians to found a colony at Heraclea, near the pass of Thermopylae (Thuc. III. 92–3: NB 92. iv). After the Athenians’ successes at Pylos and Cythera, many Spartans began to lose heart for the war; but at some point the Chalcidians and Brasidas asked for support, and in the summer of 424 we find the adventurous Brasidas preparing a force of liberated helots and 1,000 Peloponnesian mercenaries to go to this part of the Athenian empire which was accessible by land (IV. 70. i, 74. i, 79. ii). He set out after supporting the oligarchs of Megara (cf. p. 116). Travelling via Heraclea andThessaly he reached Macedon, where Perdiccas hoped to use him against one of his own rivals, Arrhabaeus, but Perdiccas and Brasidas quarrelled, and Perdiccas then reduced his support for Brasidas (IV. 78–83).

Brasidas next went to Acanthus, on the east coast of Chalcidice, where the citizens were divided. Thucydides gives him a speech, and says he made similar speeches elsewhere (‘he was not a bad speaker for a Spartan’: IV. 84. ii): he insists that he has come as a liberator, not to substitute one master for another or to support one party against another - but he will devastate their crops if they refuse to cooperate. The Acanthians found his speech attractive (but IV. 108. v describes one of his claims as enticing but untrue), and were afraid for their grapes, not yet harvested: by a secret ballot they decided to go over to him (IV. 84–8). Other successes followed, the greatest at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis in winter 424/3: the historian Thucydides, serving as an Athenian general, travelled from Thasos in time to keep Ei’on, on the coast, in Athenian hands but not Amphipolis; and for that he was exiled, possibly at the instance of Cleon (Marcellinus, Life of Thuc. 46). The cities were inclined to write off Athens, and more of them joined Brasidas. The Athenians sent out garrison forces, and Brasidas appealed to Sparta for reinforcements but without success (IV. 102–16).

In the spring of 423 those who were anxious for peace negotiated a year’s truce between Sparta and Athens, which they hoped would lead to a lasting settlement. Scione, on the western prong of Chalcidice, went over to Brasidas after the truce was made but before the news of it arrived: he refused to give it up, and nearby Mende joined him too. Cleon carried a decree for Scione’s recapture, and although the truce held elsewhere it did not hold in the northeast (IV. 117–23). While Brasidas again fought for Perdiccas and quarrelled with him, an Athenian force under Nicias and Nicostratus arrived, recovered Mende and started to besiege Scione. By now Sparta had dispatched reinforcements to Brasidas, but the currently pro-Athenian Perdiccas arranged to prevent the main body from travelling through Thessaly, though some men reached Brasidas and some of them were appointed as governors of cities (IV. 124–32).

Early in 422 Brasidas made an unsuccessful attack on Potidaea. The truce was prolonged until August (Thuc. V. 1: cf. p. 119). When it finally lapsed, Cleon had himself sent to the north-east with a substantial force. He recovered To rone, on the middle prong of Chalcidice (a creditable achievement), and went to E’ion. Brasidas was based in Amphipolis. When the Athenian army grew impatient, Cleon took it out to reconnoitre. Brasidas saw the Athenians, and when they turned back towards Ei’on he attacked and defeated them; Brasidas and Cleon were both killed. Thucydides exaggerates the heroism of Brasidas and the cowardice of Cleon, but it does seem that the Athenians were caught in a trap which they ought to have avoided. Amphipolis adopted Brasidas in place of the Athenian Hagnon as its founding hero, and Athens was never to recover it; the surviving Athenians sailed home (V. 2–3, 6–11). At the end of the summer the Spartans again sent reinforcements to the north-east, but the Thessalians obstructed them, and on hearing of Brasidas’ death they turned back (V. 12–13).

The Progress of the War

At first the Athenians spent their money irresponsibly, and Pericles may have been more optimistic than Thucydides was prepared to admit. Athens survived the Peloponnesian invasions, and suppressed the revolt of Mytilene; the Peloponnesians survived the Athenian attacks, but learned how far they were inferior to the Athenians in skill at sea. The Athenians were doing somewhat better than the Peloponnesians, but there was no prospect of a quick result.

In 430 Athens was struck by a plague, which persisted until 426/5; the crowding of the people inside the fortifications during the summer helped it to spread. Thucydides gives a vivid account both of the symptoms and of the effect on the Athenians’ morale, but the disease has not been, and probably cannot be, conclusively identified. It killed about a third of the hoplites and cavalry, and presumably a similar proportion of the rest of the population (II. 47. iii-54, cf. 57–9, III. 87. i-iii). Whereas in 431 Pericles was criticised for his defensive policy (II. 21. iii-22. i), in 430 he was criticised for leading Athens into the war: he was deposed and fined, and the Athenians attempted to make peace with Sparta. As was to happen so often, peace was not made: the state which had the upper hand thought total victory was within its grasp. Pericles was re-elected and the war continued; he died, weakened by the plague, in autumn 429 (II. 59–65. iv; deposition Diod. Sic. XII. 45. iv, Plut. Per. 35. iii-v).

After that the Athenians brought their finances under control and risked more adventurous strategies. Some resulted in failures or empty successes, but the occupation of Pylos in 425 and Cythera in 424 put Athens in a position to exert pressure on Sparta, and in 425 it was Sparta’s turn to make peace offers which Athens turned down. But Pylos and Cythera were not effectively exploited, and Athens’ run of successes was followed by a run of failures - at Megara in 424, in Boeotia in 424/3, in the north-east from 424 to 422. From 425 there were some Spartans who wanted peace (although that would mean deserting their actual and potential allies), and some Athenians turned towards peace too. Hence the year’s truce of spring 423, renewed (as a corrupt sentence in Thucydides almost conceals) until August 422. Cleon and Brasidas were particularly eager to continue the war; and after they were killed Nicias in Athens and king Plistoanax of Sparta (exiled after the Thirty Years’ Peace [cf. p. 57] but brought back 427–426) were able to work for peace (Thuc. V. 16. i).

From the beginning both sides had appreciated the potential importance of involving Persia in the war (Thuc. II. 7. i, cf. Archidamus in I. 82. i). In 430 Peloponnesian envoys to Persia were betrayed to the Athenians in Thrace and executed. In spring 425 Aristophanes’ Acharnians featured an Athenian embassy which had spent years in luxury without obtaining money from Persia (61-125). In winter 425/4 the Athenians captured a Persian envoy bound for Sparta, and had his letters translated: they complained that a series of envoys from Sparta had not brought a clear and consistent message - presumably because Persia was demanding the return of the Asiatic Greeks, to Sparta’s great embarrassment. The Athenians sent the envoy back with envoys of their own, but when they learned of the death of King Artaxerxes (in winter 424/3) they abandoned their mission (IV. 50). After that, apart from one sentence (in V 1),Thucydides has no mention of the Persians until 413/2 (VIII. 5). However, in 392/1 the orator Andocides gave as an example of the Athenians’ folly their making an alliance with the King through Andocides’ uncle Epilycus, but then abandoning it to support the rebel Amorges (III. Peace 29; Amorges appears in Thuc. VIII [cf. pp. 150–1]). An additional fragment of an inscription makes it clear that the Heraclides honoured for helping towards a settlement with the King was Heraclides of Clazomenae, who later became an Athenian citizen, and whose help must have been given before the end of the Peloponnesian War (M&L 70 with 1998 Addenda = IG i3 227 with Addenda ~ Fornara 138 lacking additional fragment: 423?). It can now hardly be doubted that, although Thucydides mentions the unsuccessful embassy but not the successful, when the bastard Darius II had disposed of rival claimants and established himself as King (by March 423), the Athenians did make a treaty with him. It would have been even harder for them than for the Spartans to hand over the Asiatic Greeks, but in 423 both the Athenians and Darius were insecure, and a non-aggression pact could have satisfied both sides.

Peace discussions between Athens and Sparta were renewed in 422/1. Sparta’s anxiety was increased by the fact that its thirty-year peace with Argos was about to expire; and at the end of the winter, to increase pressure on Athens, Sparta announced plans to set up a hostile fort against Attica. What is commonly called the Peace of Nicias was made in the spring, about ten years after the beginning of the war, to last for fifty years, on the basis that prisoners taken and conquests made during the war were to be returned, with a few qualifications: Thebes was to keep Plataea and Athens Nisaea, on the pretext that these had surrendered voluntarily, but it was explicitly stated that Amphipolis was to be returned to Athens; six cities in the north-east were to pay tribute at Aristides’ rate but could otherwise be neutral if they wished, but others including Scione could be treated by the Athenians as they liked. If it had been fully implemented this was a peace which should have satisfied Pericles and Thucydides: the Athenian empire had survived the assault on it and Sparta had failed to assert the freedom of the Greeks. But it was not fully implemented. Among Sparta’s allies, Boeotia, Corinth, Megara and Elis did not share Sparta’s desire to end the war, and all rejected the peace because territorial demands of theirs were not satisfied (cf. pp. 131–2); when Amphipolis refused to be handed back to Athens, the Spartan governor acquiesced. To reassure Athens, Sparta added to the peace a fifty-year alliance, and the Athenians then returned their prisoners from Sphacteria and so gave up their ability to put further pressure on Sparta (V. 14–24). Without full acceptance and implementation on the Peloponnesian side Athens was unwise to accept the peace; and the polarisation of Greece which had been unstable in the 430’s was to remain unstable.


See in general Cawkwell, Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, Kagan, The Archidamian War, Lazenby, The Peloponnesian War. For many campaigns there are valuable investigations in Pritchett’s series Studies in Ancient Greek Topography.

Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, points out that olives and vines are hard to destroy and that Peloponnesian invasions could not do long-term damage to Athenian agriculture; J. A. Thorne, ‘Warfare and Agriculture: The Economic Aspect of Devastation in Classical Greece’, GRBS xliii 2001, 225–53, stresses in response that appropriation and destruction of the grain harvest would have a serious short-term effect.

On episodes involving the Athenian Demosthenes see Roisman, The General Demosthenes. The suggestion that his Aetolian campaign was part of a three-pronged attack on Boeotia was popular in the early twentieth century and was accepted by Kagan, The Archidamian War, 199–200, 202; difficulties are noted by Rhodes, Thucydides:

History, III, 247, 252. On Pylos see also M. H. B. Marshall, ‘Cleon and Pericles: Sphacteria’, images xxxi 1984, 19–36; Wilson, Pylos 425 BC; and, for different views on the problem of distances, R. A. Bauslaugh, ‘The Text of Thucydides iv. 8 6 and the South Channel at Pylos’, JHS xcix 1979, 1–6, C. Rubincam, ‘The Topography of Pylos and Sphakteria and Thucydides’ Measurements of Distance’, JHS cxxi 2001, 77–90.

On the campaign in the north-east which ended with the battle of Amphipolis, further successes of Cleon, suppressed by Thucydides, were suggested by A. B. West and B. D. Meritt, ‘Cleon’s Amphipolitan Campaign and the Assessment List of 421’, AJA2xxix 1925, 54–69, A. G. Woodhead, ‘Thucydides’ Portrait of Cleon’, Mnem.4 xiii 1960, 289–317 at 304–6, but shown to be unlikely by W K. Pritchett, ‘The Woodheadean Interpretation of Kleon’s Amphipolitan Campaign’, Mnem.4 xxvi 1973, 373–86, B. Mitchell, ‘Kleon’s Amphipolitan Campaign’, Hist, xl 1991, 170–92 at 176–82. On the site of Amphipolis see Lazaridis, Amphipolis.

On the plague at Athens see A. J. Holladay and J. F. C. Poole, ‘Thucydides and the Plague of Athens’, CQ2 xxix 1979, 282–300, with various further studies, all collected in Holladay, Athens in the Fifth Century, ch. 9A-F.

The Peace of Epilycus was believed in by H. T Wade-Gery, ‘The Peace of Kallias’, HSCPSupp. i 1940, 121–56 at 127–32 = his Essays in Greek History, 201–32 at 207–11; rejected by D. L. Stockton, ‘The Peace of Callias’, Hist, viii 1959, 61–79 at 74–9; made virtually certain by M. B. Walbank’s identification of an additional fragment of M&L 70 = IG i3 227 ~ Fornara 138, in ‘A Correction to IG ii2 65’, ZPE xlviii 1982, 261–3, ‘Herakleides of Klazomenai: A New Join at the Epigraphical Museum’, ZPE li 1983, 183–4.

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