Ancient History & Civilisation


©1. Thucydides’ narrative breaks off in the middle of the year 411, although he returned to Athens from exile after the war ended in 404 (5.26.5) and the last years of the war clearly did leave their mark on his final revisions of the text (e.g., 2.65, 2.100, 4.81, 6.15). Unfortunately, we lack what might have been his accounts of both Athens’ partial military recovery—marked by her two great naval victories at Cyzicus (410) and Arginousae (406)—and her final defeat at Aegospotami (405) where, assisted by obtuse and perhaps inexperienced Athenian commmanders, the Spartan admiral Lysander employed stealth and superior tactical skill to capture—on the beach—almost the entire Athenian fleet in the Hellespont. After that disaster, the Athenians had no means left with which to prevent Lysander from blockading their city, starving her of the grain from the Black Sea region on which she largely depended, and ultimately forcing her to sue for peace. Victorious Sparta, after initially contemplating the total destruction of her defeated adversary, finally decided that Athens would be allowed to continue to exist as a city, but demanded the surrender of what remained of her fleet, the demolition of the walls of Piraeus and the Long Walls, and the granting of complete freedom to the former subject cities of what had been the Athenian Empire. Now supreme in Greece, Sparta thus reduced Athens to a state of isolation, weakness, and dependency which must have been dreadful indeed to the writer of Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

©2. In his obituary of Pericles (2.65), which Thucydides wrote after the end of the war, he acknowledged the vital role of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger in maintaining Sparta. Yet he says little in the body of his text about the rising importance of Persia in Greek affairs. In truth, although the Persian governor at Sardis, Tissaphernes, never did honor his promises to provide a fleet to assist Sparta, his meager financial support, along with that of Pharnabazus in the Hellespont, did permit Sparta to challenge Athens in the Aegean and to bring about the revolt of many Asian Greek cities from Athenian allegiance. It was Cyrus the Younger, however, the successor to Tissaphernes, who demanded of his father, Darius II, that real naval support be provided to Sparta, and whose active assistance and collusion with Lysander encouraged the Spartans to persevere despite setbacks. Thus, even though Aegospotami was won without the help of a Persian fleet, Sparta found herself greatly indebted to Cyrus at the end of the war; and when Darius died in 404 and Cyrus began to assemble an army to support his claim to the throne, Sparta had no choice but to become involved, partly by her obligation of gratitude, and partly by the reflection that if Cyrus were to succeed without her aid, she would feel his wrath. So Sparta made her contribution to Cyrus’ expedition and approved the creation of a mercenary force of Greek hoplites for his army. Their adventurous journey into and out of Mesopotamia was later made famous by one of its Athenian captains, Xenophon, in his bookAnabasis, “The March of the Ten Thousand.”

©3. Cyrus’ army won the battle at Cunaxa near Babylon (401) but gained no victory, for Cyrus himself died on the field, and his death left Sparta, as far as the triumphant King Artaxerxes II was concerned, in an awkward position. Although efforts were made to restore amicable relations, the truth was inescapable. Alcibiades had been right when he predicted (8.46) that Sparta, having liberated the Greeks of Greece from Athens, could not refuse the entreaties of the Greeks of Asia to liberate them from Persia. When Sparta did go to their aid, she brought upon herself a war that was impossible for her to win and which irremediably damaged her supremacy and control over Greece itself; for Persia countered Sparta by encouraging (and in part financing) a new coalition of Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos to oppose Spartan domination. This combined alliance waged the socalled Corinthian War (395-87) against Sparta, defeated her decisively at sea in 394—just ten years after Aegospotami—and ultimately forced her to abandon her attempt to liberate the Greeks of Asia.

©4. Certainly Sparta had no monopoly on folly. When the Athenians, bent on restoring their empire, chose to intervene in cities within the Persian King’s domain, the King in turn allied with Sparta in order to thwart them, and the Athenians, faced again in 387 with the loss of their Black Sea grain supply, had to renounce their imperial goals. The general agreement of 386—known as the King’s Peace—formalized the position. Both Sparta and her opponents in Greece undertook to leave the King in complete control of his domains and, with the threat of Persian support if it were needed, Sparta was established as the enforcer of the peace, the policeman of the Hellenes.

©5. In short, Sparta’s total military victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War gained her little more than a short-lived supremacy in Greece, one that ultimately could not be maintained without the support of Persia, who would not grant it to her unless she accepted conditions and limitations imposed by Persia. Thus it was the King of Persia who seems to have gained most from the war, for with the destruction of the Athenian Empire he recovered his territories in Asia at little cost to himself and was able to cheaply maintain his hold on them by playing off the always-contentious and now utterly disunited Greek poleis (city-states) against each other. Later Kings continued this policy with such success that none of them had to defend against invasion from the west until the Macedonians under Alexander the Great attacked Persia in 334.



©6. Persian dominance in Greece, exerted through, and made possible by, the continuous stalemate among Greek states—arrayed now in one, now in another balanced set of alliances—reveals the increasing inability of the traditional polis (city-state) to deal effectively with new problems of war, trade, and politics in a larger, Mediterranean framework. The polis, a uniquely Greek phenomenon, had developed and flowered in the particular circumstances of the eighth, seventh, and early sixth centuries when, as Thucydides noted (1.12-19), there were no great wars, powerful states, or large-scale enterprises in the Greek world. The key institutions of the polis—an agrarian economy, many owners of small plots of land, rule by a restricted list of citizen voters, and hoplite warfare—to which most Greeks remained deeply attached throughout the period—were not seriously challenged by the outside world until the encroachments and invasions of Persia in the late sixth and early fifth centuries. Although the Greeks threw back the Persians in the first half of the fifth century, they did so through leagues and alliances that proved inimical to the total autonomy, and incompatible with the local focus, that were so central to the classical polis. These inherent conflicts, perhaps first exposed in the fifth century by the Delian League’s rapid transition to a tyrannous Athenian Empire, and then further revealed by Sparta’s clumsy attempt to substitute her own domination for that of Athens, continued to manifest itself in the polis’ essential political failure throughout the fourth century. In fact, the bankruptcy of the polis in the greater and more integrated world that was developing is nowhere more starkly revealed than in the narrow hegemonist goals that the leading Greek poleis continuously and unrealistically pursued during this period. Their myopic vision and sterile objectives embroiled the Greek cities in continuous and increasingly expensive warfare that not only impoverished them but that also allowed Persia to maintain sufficient control to neutralize, at little expense, what otherwise might have been a troublesome and dangerous region.

©7. Athens, for example, could not forego another attempt to recover her imperial assets from the fifth century. Although she was for a time checked by fear of Sparta and of provoking the Great King to intervene, she recognized and seized her opportunity when the Thebans inflicted a severe defeat upon Sparta at the battle of Leuctra in 371. When the decisive impact of that battle became clear, Athens set out to regain two of the most strategic of those assets, the city of Amphipolis (the loss of which was described by Thucydides in Book 4) and the Chersonese on the Hellespont, (which Athens under Pericles had settled, and which would protect her access to the Black Sea). When the Great King was distracted and temporarily paralyzed by the revolt of the satraps (provincial governors) of Asia between 366 and 359, Athens’ attempt to recover her old empire became so offensive and blatant that three of her main allies turned against her and stalemated her in what is known as the Social War of 357-55. Then, when the Great King, having restored order in Asia, threatened Athens with another round of punitive action, the now nearly bankrupt city had no choice but to yield and finally to abandon her imperial ambitions for good.

©8. Sparta’s aspirations to leadership in Greece were also dealt a fatal blow during this period. When the mass of Theban hoplites, arrayed in an extraordinary formation fifty-ranks deep, broke through their opposing phalanx at Leuctra, the Spartan army’s reputation for military invincibility was forever shattered; and the Thebans, led by the great general Epaminondas, were not slow to exploit their new military advantage in order to make it permanent. In 369, Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnesus and invaded Laconia, inviolate for centuries, and on its borders founded and fortified the two great democratic bastions of Megalopolis and Ithome in Messenia—the inhabitants of the latter being given freedom from Sparta after centuries of degrading subjection. By the establishment of these two states, he reduced Sparta in a flash from a world power to a mere local wrangler intent for the rest of her independent existence on recovering the irrecoverable Messene on which Spartan power had depended.

©9. After the resounding victory at Leuctra, Thebes found herself the greatest military power of free Greece. The 380s and the 370s had been the decades of Spartan hegemony; in the 360s Thebes sought to take Sparta’s place, and for a brief moment her prospects seemed good. But with the death of Epaminondas on the battlefield of Second Mantinea (362) and with the onset of the miserable Sacred War that embroiled Thebes with Phocis in a long and debilitating conflict, the threat of Theban power faded.

©10. A new menace to Greece now arose in Macedon, a kingdom that plays only a peripheral role in Thucydides’ narrative, as it did in the Hellenic world before its first great king, Philip II (reigned 359-36). Although the Macedonians spoke Greek, they were considered boorish, primitive, and foreign by most Greeks of Thucydides’ time. After all, they did not live in independent poleis like self-respecting “modern” Greeks; instead, they were citizens of loose and some of them petty kingdoms, who owed loyalty to kings who ruled and played dynastic politics of marriage and war in a style that must have reminded fifth-century Greeks of Homer’s most unsophisticated chieftains. Yet the Argeadae, the royal house of Macedon, traced their ancestry to Argos, and they demonstrated their Hellenic origin sufficiently for Macedonians to be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. By the late fifth century, they had become dominant in their region, and although Thucydides shows them as weakly seeking help, now from Athens, now from Sparta, and dropping and restoring alliances with dizzying speed, their battles in Lyncestis, and their defense against overwhelming invasion from Odrysian Thrace, gained them experience and stature. In the fourth century, under Philip II, they became a menace to all of Greece and indeed to much of the rest of the world also.

©11. During the first part of his reign, Philip extended Macedonian power to Thrace, Thessaly, and the whole of northern Greece. From there, setting his eyes on the riches of Persia, he attempted to control and organize the many poleis of Greece so that they might assist him against Persia, but if they would not, to at least prevent them from joining with Persia against him when he moved east. In other words, he sought less to conquer the Greek cities than to render them impotent. He proved to be a skillful diplomat and an acute judge of his own interests. Above all, he was a resourceful general who commanded a large and superbly trained army. Although occasionally defeated in the field or checked by treaty, he tirelessly maneuvered by both war and diplomacy to increase his influence and power in Greece. The one Athenian political faction (led by the orator Demosthenes) which saw clearly that the huge Macedonian power posed a serious menace to Greek liberty achieved little more, for all its machinations and plots, than to cause Philip to delay his Asiatic plans for a few years. In the end, when Philip finally advanced into Greece proper, his opponents proved so incapable of uniting or otherwise seriously challenging him that he found himself opposed by the armies of only the two most directly threatened poleis: Athens and Thebes. When Philip defeated these armies in the decisive battle at Chaeronea in 338, all hopes of freedom for Greece from Macedonian dominion were extinguished.

©12. Philip settled affairs in Greece to his satisfaction by organizing a “League of Corinth” (337) and by establishing a few strategically placed garrisons throughout the country. Then, returning to Macedon, he prepared for his onslaught on Persia. In the spring of 336, the vanguard of his army crossed over to Asia, with Philip intending to follow shortly. By midsummer, however, he had been murdered. His son, Alexander III, succeeded him and, after a short interval, fulfilled and perhaps overfulfilled his father’s ambitions. Crossing the Hellespont in 334, Alexander completely destroyed Persian military power in a series of brilliant victories in just three years. By 331, when the last Great King, Darius III, died ignominiously in flight, Alexander—known to us as Alexander the Great—began to rule over both Greece and Persia. Ten years later, when he died in Babylon, the independent polis was well on its way to oblivion, and the Hellenistic world was born.


Cyzicus: Epilogue Map, AY.

Arginousae Islands: Epilogue Map, AY.

Aegospotami: Epilogue Map, AY.

Now in command because most of the generals responsible for the victory at Arginousae had been exiled or executed in a postbattle fit of fratricidal, if not suicidal, political antagonism reminiscent of what took place at Corcyra in 427 (3.69).

Hellespont: Epilogue Map, AY.

Black Sea: Epilogue Map, locator.

Piraeus: Epilogue Map, BX.

See 2.65.12.

Sardis: Epilogue Map, BY.

Cunaxa and Babylon: Epilogue Map, locator.

Persia: Epilogue Map, locator.

Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos: Epilogue Map, BX.

Leuctra: Epilogue Map, BX.

Amphipolis: Epilogue Map, AX.

Chersonese on the Hellespont: Epilogue Map, AY.

Asia: Epilogue Map, AY.

Laconia: Epilogue Map, BX.

Megalopolis and Messene: Epilogue Map, BX.

Mantinea: Epilogue Map, BX.

Phocis: Epilogue Map, BX.

Thrace, now the area of modern Bulgaria and European Turkey: Epilogue Map, AY, and locator.

Thessaly: Epilogue Map, AX.

Chaeronea: Epilogue Map, BX.

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