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How Sparta Beat Back Athens In The Peloponnesian War


After the defeat of the invading Persians, tensions between Athens and Sparta began to escalate, which would ultimately result in an all-out war several decades later.


In the sixth lecture of Hillsdale College’s course on the histories of Athens and Sparta, which you can follow along with me here, Paul A. Rahe, a professor of Western heritage, discusses how Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.

Last week, I wrote about how Sparta and Athens fought alongside one another to defeat the invading Persian armies that tried several times to conquer Greece. After the allied Greek cities defeated invading Persian forces at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. (which you can read more about here and here), tensions between Athens and Sparta began to escalate, which would ultimately result in an all-out war several decades later.

The Rivalry Between Sparta And Athens

Before conflicts with the invading Persians, Sparta and Athens were rivals. The ultimate clash between the two was when Sparta helped to overthrow a tyrannical Athenian ruler, Hippias, in 510 B.C., but these tensions were put on ice as long as there was a threat of another Persian invasion. Despite the Persian forces’ brutal defeat at Plataea, Xerxes planned to invade Greece again to bring it under the control of his massive empire. Knowing Xerxes’s hunger for control of Greece, the two Greek states remained allies with one another — for a time.

The Spartans were jealous of the Athenians because the politician and general tasked with leading the Delian League — a coalition of a number of Greek city-states to protect Greece from the Persians — was Athenian, not Spartan. The Spartans were also wary of the Athenians’ appetite for conquest, which had been whet during the Persian wars. Sparta kept its cool for a while.

A devastating earthquake in 646 B.C. leveled most of Sparta and killed, by some estimates, more than half of those who were considered to be full citizens of Sparta. This loss of manpower and military might spurred slaves to revolt in the region, requiring Sparta to ask Athens for military assistance, despite Sparta’s secret alliance with another city-state that had fought Athens before the earthquake. Athens and Sparta agreed to a five-year peace pact with one another, but Sparta strategically brokered a 30-year-long peace accord with nearby Argos, which was aligned with Athens, in order to invade Athens without their opposition.

Sparta Beats Athens Back

This peace lasted only for a time, as both Athens and Sparta sought opportunities to ally themselves with other cities that would be strategically detrimental to the other.  The Athenians aggravated the Corinthians, a powerful Spartan ally, by forming an alliance with the nearby city of Megara, which was in the heart of the Corinthian Isthmus in 459 B.C. In response, Sparta invaded Athens intermittently for several years, until a massive plague wiped out a portion of Athenian citizens. In its weakened state, Athens agreed to a peace treaty with Sparta, the peace treaty Nicias in 421 B.C. — a 50-year treaty that would last only three years.

At the Battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C., the bloodiest battle to be fought throughout the conflict, the Spartans were able to beat back the forces allied against them, saving their city from total collapse. After this battle, Rahe argues that the Pelopenesian War was effectively over and that Sparta had won.

Sparta’s posture is markedly different in later conflict between the two city states. Sparta’s victory at the Battle of Mantinea spurred the city to be more offensive. No longer a satisfied power, Sparta did not seek to merely maintain the status quo — it had an appetite for more. This change in attitude is what ultimately drove the Spartans to be the victor in the battles to come.