The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War

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The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War

Much of the remainder of the story of Athens will be the story of the great war between Athens and Sparta which began in 431 B.C. This great war has been called the Peloponnesian War and the primary source for the first sixteen years of it will be the Athenian historian Thucydides. The following is from the first sentence of Thucydides' history:
Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning the account from the very start of the war, expecting it to be massive, and indeed, the most important thing that had ever happened. My belief was based on the fact that both sides went to war at the peak of their strength and with their full force, and seeing that the rest of Hellas joined up with one or the other part right at the start, the rest after some thought. This was the greatest disturbance in the history of the Greeks, affecting also a part of the non-Greek world, and indeed, I might almost say, the whole of mankind.
Thucydides describes his history:
Perhaps for some listeners, this non-mythic history may seem less than pleasant. But it will be enough for me if these words are judged useful by those who seek a clear vision of the past and of the things to come, since, by human nature, such things or similar ones will come to be again. This book was not put together as a prize-winner to be heard today, but rather as a possession for eternity.
The year before the actual fighting began (432 B.C.), Sparta and its allies, called the Peloponnesian Confederacy, met in Sparta. Thucydides (thoo-SID-ah-Deez), the Athenian historian tells what happened there.
The Athenians and Peloponnesians had many complaints against each other. The main complaint of Corinth, one of Sparta's allies and a member of the Peloponnesian Confederacy, was that her colony of Potidaea and the Corinthian citizens within it, were being attacked by Athens. The main complaint of Athens against the Peloponnesians was that the Corinthians had caused a member of the Delian League to revolt and were openly fighting against Athens on the side of the Potidaeans. Even though there was fighting at Potidaea, war had not yet broken out. There was still a truce, for up until now the fighting had been only a private matter between Athens and Corinth. But the siege of Potidaea put an end to peace. Corinth had men inside and she wanted to hold onto the place. Corinth asked that the members of the Peloponnesian Confederacy meet in Sparta, and her ambassadors came and accused Athens of breaking the treaty and of trampling on the rights of the Peloponnesians.
The historian Thucydides recorded several speeches. Of these speeches, he wrote:

In this history I have presented many speeches, some delivered before and some after the war began. I found it difficult to remember the exact words used in the speeches which I myself heard, and my sources for those I did not hear had the same problem. My method has been to keep as close as possible to the words that were actually used, and in general, to make each speaker say what seemed to me to be the words required by the situation.

The Speech of the Corinthian Ambassador to the Peloponnesian Confederacy:
Spartans! The confidence which you have in your government makes you doubt everyone else. This is the reason for the limited knowledge you show in dealing with foreign cities. Time after time, we Corinthians have tried to warn you about Athens, and time after time, instead of taking the trouble to test the truth of our statements, you suspected our motives, and so, instead of calling your allies together before Athens attacked, you have waited to do so until it is too late. We Corinthians have the greatest complaint against Athens - a complaint about Athenian crime and also about Spartan neglect. If these attacks on the rights of Hellas had been made in the dark, you Spartans might not know the facts and it would be our duty to tell you them. But, as it is, no long speeches are needed.

Everywhere you look, you see the Athenians preparing slavery for some cities, and accomplishing it for others. Why do you think that even while we are talking now, an Athenian army is attacking our colony of Potidaea? You Spartans are to blame for this. It was you who allowed the Athenians to rebuild their city after the Persian war, and then to build the long walls. It was you who, both then and now, are the cause of what Athens has done. The true cause of any city's slavery is not the empire that reduces that city to slavery, but that country which, having the power to stop that empire, does nothing.
We Peloponnesians are now assembled. It has not been easy to assemble, nor even now do we know why we have come here. We should not still be debating about what the Athenians have done or what crimes they have committed. We should be deciding how we can defend ourselves against Athens. The Athenians have plans. We know the way Athenian aggression works, and how tricky the Athenians are. She now feels confident that your dullness of perception prevents you from seeing what she is doing, but when she sees that you do nothing when she openly attacks one of our colonies, she will have more confidence still. You Spartans, you of all the Greeks, you alone do nothing. You defend yourselves by not doing anything. You look as if you might do something, but all you do is wait until your enemy gets to be twice as powerful as he was in the beginning. You never think to step on your enemy while he is still small. And yet, we used to say that you Spartans could be trusted. I am afraid that we were wrong.

Think back to the Persian war. The Persians had time to come from Asia - from the ends of the world, all the way to the Peloponnese without any large force of yours going out to meet them. And Persia was a distant enemy.

You pay no attention to Athens, and Athens is your near neighbor. Why do you go on the defensive instead of taking the offensive? Why do you wait until Athens is strong to defeat her instead of striking when she is weak? Remember the Persian war! The Persians destroyed themselves. But, we cannot expect Athens to do the same. You Spartans are supposed to protect us, but I pity the city that trusts in you for protection.

I hope that you will not be angry at what I am saying. I speak not out of anger, but in a spirit of friendship, trying to correct your errors. We consider that we Corinthians have a right to point out our neighbors' faults, especially those of the Spartans.

There is a great difference between you and Athens. As far as we can see, you have no knowledge about this difference. You have never considered what kind of opponent you have in the Athenians, or how totally different from you the Athenians are. The Athenians love to change and improve things, and their actions are always swift, both in the planning, and in the execution. You have a talent for keeping what you already have. You don't like to change things, or improve them. And when you are forced to act, you never go far enough. The Athenians are adventurous beyond their power, and

beyond their judgment, and when things look bad, they remain confident.

You Spartans, on the other hand, you attempt less than you could achieve. You doubt even the best made plans - and when things look bad to you, you become hopeless. There is swiftness on their side - delay on yours. They never stay at home - you never leave it. They are always hoping to gain new possessions - you fear that you will lose what you already have. Their bodies they give without hesitation to their country's cause - their brains they employ for her service. They work continuously all the days of their life, and take no time to enjoy a holiday. To them, labor is more pleasant than rest. In fact, if I were to describe the Athenians, I would say that they are a people who, because they don't like to rest themselves, give their neighbors no chance to rest. Such is Athens. Such is your opponent.

Yet, Spartans, you still delay ! You fail to see that peace stays longest with those who refuse to submit to injustice. Your ideal of fair dealing is based on the idea that if you Spartans do nothing wrong, then nobody will do wrong to you. Look at Athens. Look at what we have shown you. Your customs are old-fashioned compared with theirs. It is a law in art, in sport, in politics, that change and improvement are the keys to success. Fixed customs are fine for undisturbed cities, but when action is needed, we must continually change and adapt to circumstances. In this, Athens is infinitely your superior. Here, today, let your delay end. Assist your allies. Assist Potidaea, as you promised, and invade Athenian territory. Do not sacrifice your friends to their bitterest enemies, do not drive the rest of your friends to despair. If you act now, we will all stand by you. For these reasons, choose the right course and make the decision not to let the supremacy which the Peloponnesian's enjoyed under your ancestors be destroyed by the Athenian threat.
Such were the words of the Corinthian ambassador. Now it just so happened, that Athenian ambassadors were in Sparta on some other business. When they heard that speeches had been made against them, they decided to speak to the Confederacy of the Peloponnesians. Their goal was not to defend themselves against the charges brought against them by Corinth, but to show that war between Athens and Sparta was not something that the Spartans should rush into, but an important matter that demanded great care and thought. They also wished to call attention to the great power of Athens; to refresh the memory of the old and to explain matters to the young. The Spartans allowed them to speak and at the proper time, the Athenians came forward and spoke.
The Speech of the Athenian Ambassador to the Peloponnesian Confederacy
The purpose of our mission here was not to argue with your allies, but to attend to other matters. However, the violence of the attack that has been made against us has come to our attention. We come here today, Spartans, not to deny the accusations of Corinth, but to prevent you Spartans from taking the wrong course on a matter of great importance. We also wish to review the whole matter of the Athenian Empire and to show you that we have a right to it. To do this, we will talk about the Persian War. By our actions during that war, we ran great risks. And, because we were successful, we gained advantages. You too gained much from that war. Do not try to rob us of the good that the war brought us. Now, with your permission, we will tell the story of that war and in that story you will see what kind of enemy you will have if you break your treaty with us.

We claim that at Marathon, we, of all the Greeks, were at the front and faced the Persians single-handed. And when they came again, the second time, when we were unable to defeat them by land, we went on board our ships with all our people, and fought again at Salamis. It was this battle that prevented the Persians from capturing all of the Peloponnesian cities, one by one. The best proof of this, is what the Persian king did after he had lost the naval battle of Salamis. Defeated at sea, he considered his power too weak and retreated as quickly as possible with his army. This, then was the result, and it was clearly proved that it was the fleet of Greece that saved the liberty of Greece.

We contributed three very important things to this successful fight. We contributed the largest number of ships, we contributed the ablest commander, and we contributed the most steadfast patriotism. Of the Greek ships that fought at Salamis, almost two-thirds were Athenian ships. The commander was Themistocles. And you all know that it was because of Themistocles, that we fought the battle in the narrows. And you also know, that it was because we fought the battle in the narrows that we were able to defeat the much larger Persian fleet. Indeed, this was the reason why Themistocles was so honored by the Spartans - more honored than any foreigner had ever been before. Finally, for bold patriotism, we Athenians had no competition. We received no help from behind, and seeing everything in front of us already captured by the Persians, we had the spirit - after leaving behind our city, after sacrificing our property - to throw ourselves into our ships and meet the danger, without a thought of resenting your neglect to assist us, when we still might have held on to our city.

Compare the two of us. You still had something to fight for. The cities which you have left were still filled with your wives and children. You had the hope of returning home again. And your coming to Salamis was caused by your desire to protect your own cities. But we left behind us a city that was no longer a city. We staked our lives for a city that had been destroyed; a city that lived on only in our hopes. If we had copied others, and had allowed fear for our own territory to make us give in to the Persians before you came, or if we had allowed the destruction of our city to prevent us from getting into our ships, your naval inferiority would have made a sea fight impossible, and then the Persians would have won the war.

Because of what we Athenians did at Salamis, we should be popular with the Greek cities, and our empire should be popular, too. We gained that empire, not by violence, but because you Spartans were unwilling to defend the Greek cities against the Persians, and because those Greek cities came to us, and asked us to protect them. We thus acquired an Empire. Fear - fear of the Persians was our primary motive, though honor and self-interest did play a part. But, in the end, when almost everyone hated us, and some had already revolted from us, and when you Spartans had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had begun to suspect and dislike us, why then we saw that we could not give up the Empire, especially because every city that left us would join you. No one can quarrel with us for making decisions that protected our own safety.

Look at the case, Spartans. You are supreme on the Peloponnese. The Peloponnesians do as you want them to do. Every leading city has the choice between ruling her friends with a strong hand, or running the risk of danger to themselves. What we did was nothing strange. What we did was nothing wonderful. We did only what anyone would have done in the same case. We accepted an empire when it was offered to us, and we refused to give it up on account of of three strong motives: fear, honor, and self-interest.

We did not set the example. It has always been the law, that the weaker shall be ruled by the stronger. And besides, we believe ourselves to be worthy of our great power. You Spartans used to think that we were worthy of it also. Now, self-interest has made you take up the cry of justice and to say that we Athenians are unjust, an accusation which no one ever brought forward to hinder his own ambition when he had the chance of gaining anything by force. We believe that praise is due not to those who turn down an empire when it is given to them but those who, when they have great power, still are more just than they need to be. We would think that our justice is best demonstrated by comparing us to others that have had great power. When one of our allies has a complaint against us, we do not force that ally to do as we wish. The matter is settled in a court of law - by impartial Athenian law. What is the result? We are accused of being unfair in law. Nobody asks why other great cities are not accused of being unfair at law. The reason is that other cities don't bother to use the law - they just use force.

Our allies are spoiled . They have gotten so used to being treated by us as equals, that whenever they lose a law case, they say that we are unfair, and unjust, and it makes them forget to be grateful for being allowed to keep most of their power. We believe that they are angrier at being defeated in law, then they would be by being defeated by force. If from the very beginning we had forced them to do what we wanted, they would not now be so upset. They would remember that the strong always have power over the weak. It seems to us that men get more upset at losing in a law case than at being forced to do something by brute strength. Losing at a law case looks like being cheated by an equal. Being forced looks like giving in to a superior. They never stop to think how much worse off they would be if they were still under the power of the Persians.

But, we all know the truth. People forget the past and think only of the present. This, at least, is certain, that if you had the power that we have, you would quickly become as unpopular as we are now. Therefore, take some time in making your decision. The matter you are deciding on is of great importance. And, do not be persuaded by the opinion and complaints of others to bring trouble on yourselves, but consider what a terrible thing a war is, and how dangerous and difficult it is to predict the outcome of any war. As a war continues, it gradually becomes a matter of chance - chance which neither side can escape. It is a common mistake in going to war, to begin at the wrong end - to act first and then wait for disaster to sit down and talk the matter out. But we Athenians are not so misguided nor, we hope, are you.

Therefore, while there is still a chance to choose the right course, we ask you not to break the treaty between us, nor to break your oaths - but to have our differences settled according to our agreement, by talking them out But, if you begin the hostilities and break the treaty, we will not hesitate to defend ourselves.
Such were the words of the Athenians. After the Spartans had heard the complaints of the allies against the Athenians and had listened to the speech of the Athenians themselves, they made all the strangers withdraw, and consulted by themselves on the question before them. The opinions of the majority all led to the same conclusion, the Athenians were aggressors, and war must be declared at once. But Archidamus, (ark-ki-DAH-mus), the Spartan king, came forward, and he had the reputation of being a wise and a fair man, and he made the following speech.

The Speech of Archidamus to the Peloponnesian Confederacy
I am an old man, Spartans. In my life I have seen many wars and I see among you many of the same age as myself, who will not make the common mistake of rushing into a war because they do not know what war is like. This war that we are talking about would be one of the greatest size. In a struggle with Peloponnesians and neighbors of ours, our strength is of the same kind and it is possible for us to move swiftly. But a struggle with a people who live in a distant place, who have a great knowledge of the sea, and who are well prepared in every way - with great wealth, both public and private - with ships, with horses and heavy infantry, and a population larger than any other Greek city, and, lastly, a large number of Allies - what can justify us in rushing in to such a war unprepared? Is it our navy? No, for that is inferior. For if we are ever to be a match for them on the sea, we must wait a long time. Is it our money? There we have even a greater inferiority. We don't have it in our treasury - nor are our private citizens willing to contribute from their own private funds. We can feel confidence in our heavy infantry and our population which will enable us to invade and devastate their lands. But the Athenians have plenty of other land in their empire; and they can import what they want by sea. Again, if we are going to try to make their allies revolt against them, these will have to be supported by a fleet, because most of their allies are islands.

What then are we to do? Unless we can beat Athens at sea - or deprive them of the money which feeds their navy, we will meet nothing but disaster. Meanwhile, our honor will be at stake, especially if we begin the war, for we could never hope that the war will end quickly simply by burning their land. I am afraid that his war will be left to our children - for I do not believe that the Athenian spirit will be a slave to their land - nor that the Athenians will become frightened by this war.

I do not ask you to ignore the injuries that they have done to your allies. I ask you not to take arms at once, but to send ambassadors, and to talk with them in a tone not war-like, but not weak either. I ask you to use the intervening time to prepare.

First , we must acquire allies - Greek or Barbarian - it matters not, so long as they will add to our strength - especially to our naval and financial strength. I say Greek or Barbarian - because even the Barbarians can help us now, but if not, after the lapse of two or three years our position will be stronger and we can then attack them if we think proper. Perhaps by that time, the Athenians seeing how well prepared we are, will give in to us.

The longer we wait to march into Attica and destroy Athenian land, the more valuable that land will be. You ought to hold off as long as possible, and not make them desperate, and unwilling to bargain with us. For if while we are still unprepared, we hurry away and attack Attica, we will bring shame to the Peloponnese. Once a war is begun, it is difficult to stop. And nobody should think it is cowardly for a number of confederates to pause before they attack one single city. The Athenians have allies as numerous as our own. These allies pay the tribute. And war is a matter not so much of arms as of money. This is especially true of a war between a land and a sea power.

First, then, let us acquire money - and not allow ourselves to be carried away by the talk of our allies before we are prepared. If we begin the war we will take the blame for it.

As for the delay and hesitation the parts of our character that are always attacked by the Corinthians - these you need not be embarrassed about. If we undertake this war without being prepared, we should not only be hastening its beginning, but delaying its end. Our city has always been free and famous. Yet the Corinthians attack us for delay. The truth is, that we are wise.

Thanks to wisdom, we alone, do not become over-confident in success. We are not carried away by the pleasure of hearing ourselves cheered on to risks which our judgment tells us are unnecessary. We are both war-like and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so. We are war-like because self-control is what makes bravery possible. And we are wise, because we are educated too little to despise our own laws. We are brought up to be obedient and not to think about useless things.

In a war, we do not rely on the enemies' mistakes, but on our own ability. Nor do we believe that there is much difference between one man and another. But we do think that the superiority goes with the man who is raised in the best school. Our laws then, which Lycurgus gave to us, and under which we have always profited, must not be given up - and we must not be hurried into deciding in one day a question which concerns many lives and fortunes, and many cities, and in which honor is deeply involved. We must decide calmly. Our strength should make us calm.

As for the Athenians, send ambassadors to them to discuss Potidaea. In the meantime, prepare for war. This decision will be the best for yourselves and the most terrible to your enemies.
Such were the words of Archidamus.

Last to come forward was Stheneliades (sthen-ah-LIE-a-dass), one of the rulers for that year. He was a young man and he spoke to the Spartans.
The Speech of Stheneliades to the Peloponnesian Confederacy
The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They boasted a great deal, but nowhere did they say that they were not injuring our allies and the Peloponnesians. If they behaved well against the Persians long ago but badly towards us now, they deserve double punishment for having stopped being good and now having become bad! We, on the other hand, are the same then as now, and shall not, if we are wise, over look the complaints of our allies. Others have money, and ships, and horses, but we, too, have good allies, and we should not sacrifice them to the Athenians. And we should not let lawsuits and words decide the matter, as it is not by words that we are harmed. What we should do is give help to our friends, instant and powerful. And let us not be told that it is necessary for us to think about it. We know what is right. Vote, therefore, Spartans, for war. The honor of Sparta demands a war!

Do not allow Athens to become more powerful! Do not betray our friends but rather let us march out and attack our enemies!
With these words, Stheneliades, as ruler for that year, asked the assembly of Spartans to vote. Spartans vote by shouting either "yes" or "no", and whoever shouts loudest, wins. He said that he could not tell which shout was the loudest, but the fact was that he wanted each man to declare his opinion in open, and thus to make them more eager for war. Accordingly, he said, "All Spartans who are of opinion that the treaty has been broken, and that Athens is guilty, leave your seats and go there'" he said, pointing out a certain place. "All who are of the opposite opinion, go there." The Spartans stood up and divided; those who believed that the treaty had been broken were a majority.

Thus the Spartans voted that the treaty had been broken and that war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of their allies - as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, for they saw that most of Greece was already under their control.

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