The Peloponnesian War: War and Empire

Byron King recounts the story of a struggle between Athens and Sparta that became known as The Peloponnesian War.

TODAY I WRITE of an ancient war, that between Athens and Sparta. My source, if you do not already know what I am about to say, is a writer known as the “first historian,” the incomparable Thucydides. His book on the Peloponnesian War has been a staple of historians, scholars, and military theorists for 2,400 years. If you have never read this book, I recommend it highly. I will say more in a postscript. But for now, let us go back in time to the middle of a war that would not end.


By 416 B.C., democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta had been fighting for 15 years. The war had commenced in 431 B.C., when the Spartans took to the field in an effort to put a stop to the imperial expansions of Athens. But 15 years may as well have been a lifetime, because it was a time of pain that did not cease. Certainly, those 15 years had cost the lives of many thousands killed in battles on land and sea, or by the deadly plague that struck Athens in 429 B.C. In battle after battle, the armies collected their dead and raised the traditional funeral pyres. The bones of the deceased made their way back to the home state, there to be interred in crypts of honor and to the accompaniment of fine speeches. But was there some end in sight?

Conflict raged across the lands that are now Greece. Life was austere, even for the wealthiest families. Travel was difficult, and certainly dangerous. Social norms were breaking down. Nothing was safe. Few things were even sacred. “What have we done?” the people must have thought. “Into what pit have we fallen?”

A few people recalled the warnings of Sparta’s leader Archidamus, who had counseled against the original expedition against powerful Athens. “I fear,” he said, “that it is more likely that we shall be leaving (this war) to our children after us.” Anticipating an aspect of waging successful war that Carl von Clausewitz would write down 22 centuries later in his great work On War, Archidamus was forecasting no quick decisive victory. Yet still, the Spartans invaded.

The Peloponnesian War: Pericles’ Error

The Athenian leader Pericles also wanted to avoid a war with Sparta. But if war came, Pericles had counseled caution, and a strategy of defense. Pericles explained that “if the Athenians would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail.” But this strategy relied on the enemy Spartans to fail, and not on the Athenians to take some move toward victory. In all likelihood, Pericles had never read, let alone heard of, the military scholar Sun Tzu. But in Chapter 4 of Sun Tzu’s great work, The Art of War, the Chinese master had stated that “invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack.” In a great strategic error, Pericles had set forth only half of the equation.


So after 15 years, the war had cost much, but at the same time had reached no outcome. There was no point in sight that could mark a real termination of fighting and hostilities. All of the blood and treasure, which had been poured into bitter combat, had not served to effect a fundamental change in the power relationships between Athens and Sparta. The war was ongoing.

As Clausewitz would have said, the centers of gravity of each state remained intact. Sparta still possessed its powerful army, and Athens maintained its dominating navy. There had been no culminating engagement, and neither side had won a decisive victory over the other. Skirmishing continued at the periphery of each state, as did each side’s attempts to form new alliances to the detriment of the other. But both sides faced the daunting prospect of their war with each other continuing for an indeterminate number of years. Something had to change.

Consciously or subconsciously, the Athenians were prepared to adopt a new strategy. And it was a man named Alcibiades, a dynamic young officer, who came up with a bold plan to expand the war in a manner that, he claimed, would ultimately benefit Athens and weaken Sparta. Alcibiades proposed to invade Sicily and assist a group of smaller city-states in attacking Spartan-related colonies there, specifically Syracuse. Although Sicily was 1,000 miles from Athens, the Athenian thinking was that bringing down Syracuse would lead to a serious weakening of Spartan power.

The operational plan of Alcibiades was to send a contingent of 60 Athenian ships, called “triremes,” and a modest number of troops to Sicily. Once there, they were to form alliances with groups of Sicilian cities and tribes that were presumed to be friendly to Athens. Then, leveraging these local parties, the Athenian plan was to take over Syracuse and gain control over a main source of food and supplies that were being exported to Sparta. With Sicily in the Athenian alliance, it would be possible for Athens to use its naval power to blockade the regions around Sparta until the Spartans were starved into submission. It was a plan with relatively low material risk to Athens, yet potentially high strategic payoff.

The Peloponnesian War: Intelligence Failure

One of the key Greek leaders, Nicias, was opposed to the Sicilian plan of Alcibiades as a costly and distant diversion. But rather than oppose the Alcibiades plan directly on its merits, Nicias pretended to support it while pointing out its dangers and immense cost. In the tumult of the debate, the Athenians turned logic on its head and voted to send 100 triremes on the expedition instead of the 60 proposed by Alcibiades. The formerly low-risk plan was beginning to become a higher-risk play.

The Athenians also appointed Nicias as well as Alcibiades and another military leader named Lamachus as generals. In what we would today call an “intelligence failure,” Athens apparently did not realize that Syracuse was a large and powerful city and, having been founded as a colony of Athens’ traditional competitor and Spartan ally Corinth, a probable enemy. Did the Athenians truly understand the scope of effort that would be required in Sicily?

The night before the expedition was to leave Athens, someone (probably enemy saboteurs) mutilated numerous statues of gods throughout Athens. Alcibiades was accused of profaning these god-images, a very serious crime against religion in that era. He wanted to answer the charges. But a significant number of Athenian allies and fighting auxiliaries had agreed to join in with the expedition to Sicily solely due to the presence of Alcibiades. Athens could not lose this key man, who was the architect of its strategy, so his trial was postponed.

In the winter of 415 B.C., the Athenians embarked for Sicily on 134 triremes with over 5,000 ground troops and a total force of more than 30,000. Logistically, it was an undertaking of immense scale. And also, in an early case of what we today call “mission creep,” the original “low-risk” plan of Alcibiades had more than doubled in scope.

Initially in Sicily, the cautious strategy of Nicias and Alcibiades to use diplomacy and small engagements won over some small cities, and led to the establishment of an Athenian base camp. The plan of Alcibiades was beginning to take shape.

The Peloponnesian War: Betrayal of and by Alcibiades

Then suddenly and summarily, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens to stand trial for impiety. This cost this major Athenian expedition its true leader, its original planner, its prime architect. At home in Athens, the political leadership utterly misunderstood the implications of its obligation, and certainly its failure, to support the military leadership in the field. By way of comparison, this would have been the equivalent of President Lincoln firing General Grant based on rumors of Grant’s excessive drinking, instead of offering to send a barrel of Grant’s favorite whiskey to each of his other generals in the field.

Alcibiades sensed that treachery and political intrigue in Athens was the cause of his recall. So Alcibiades took an opportunity to escape while en route to Athens, and in an act of utter treason, went over to the Spartans. Alcibiades made a plethora of self-serving justifications for his defection, that he “loved his country” and hence was obliged to resist the evil leaders who were driving Athens to ruin. But in the end, Alcibiades went on to explain in detail the Athenian plan to the Spartans.

In Chapter 13 of his work, Sun Tzu writes of the use of spies in war, and the necessity of understanding what is going on in the enemy camp: “Spies are a key element in warfare. On them depends an army’s every move.”

But Alcibiades was more than a spy and turncoat. He provided the Spartans with a complete tutorial on Athenian weaknesses and helped Sparta to develop a strategy for defeating Athens. Among other key insights, Alcibiades urged the Spartans to take and fortify a strategic region on the approaches to Athens, as well as to reinforce Syracuse. This was all but a road map to the heart of Athenian power. The Athenians condemned the absent Alcibiades to death, and his property was confiscated. But the damage was done.

Despite the loss of Alcibiades and probable compromise of not just operational security but the entire strategic plan, the Athenians continued to execute his strategy in Sicily. This was utter foolhardiness on the part of the Athenians. It was as if events on the ground in Sicily had taken on a life of their own, and the Athenians were incapable of re-assessing their situation, let alone of regaining control of their own destiny despite the defection of Alcibiades. Initially, the Athenians won some small battles against forces allied with Syracuse, but Nicias failed to press his advantage.

The Athenians had received promises of support from many smaller Sicilian cities before they set out. But when the Sicilians saw the tremendous size of the Athenian force, they became more afraid of the foreign Athenians than the local masters of Syracuse and refused to help.

Good will began to break down between the Sicilians and Athenians as the former began to question the motives of Athens in its pursuit of objectives in Sicily. In a debate with one Sicilian tribe, the local leader accused the Athenians of trying to win another empire. The Athenians admitted that they held their empire by fear but claimed they were concerned about security, not enslaving anyone. This tribe decided to remain technically neutral, but later supported Syracuse. Thus were events turning against the Athenians.

Still, the Athenians were confident that their army was powerful enough to besiege Syracuse without the need for local forces, and so they commenced this effort. The siege of Syracuse started promisingly enough. Generals Lamachus and Nicias took strong positions near the harbor of Syracuse and began to confront the walls of Syracuse. Within days, Athenian general Lamachus was killed in the fighting. But the Athenians pressed on with their siege.

The Peloponnesian War: Marching on Syracuse

After one good spell of advances toward Syracuse, Nicias believed that the people of the besieged city were on the point of giving up. Nicias delayed finishing the siege works that he had been constructing while he negotiated with factions inside the city. That is, he neglected to focus on the military principle of seizing the advantage. In fact, the delay worked to his detriment.

Meanwhile, a Spartan general named Gylippus, freshly briefed by Alcibiades, had arrived in Sicily to aid Syracuse. Upon learning that Syracuse was not yet entirely cut off by land, he gathered his own troops as well as some Sicilian allies and succeeded in fighting his way into the city. His arrival immediately bolstered morale within Syracuse. From this point on, things began to go wrong for the Athenians. It was certainly friction of battle and fog of war at work. But it seems also as if the fates had conspired to throw all of their ill winds against the Athenians.

It was bad enough that Lamachus had been killed in action. Then Nicias fell ill from the effects of the Sicilian climate. Nicias wrote to the leaders in Athens for reinforcement, and asked to be replaced. The Athenians in Sicily had lost their entire leadership and command structure. The Sicilian expedition, which had started as what Clausewitz labeled as a “bold stroke,” was rapidly transforming into not just error, but a colossal blunder.

Were the Athenians simply unwilling to reassess their situation? Or were they perhaps unable to do so, due to the stubbornness and hubris of their character? Certainly, they did not entertain the prospect of conceding the defeat of their Sicilian plan, nor to make arrangements to salvage what was possible. Instead, Athens sent a second expedition to Syracuse led by two more generals, Eurymedon and Demosthenes, with 73 more triremes and 5,000 more foot soldiers. Now the Athenians had staked more than half of their navy, and about one-third of their army, on this distant expedition to Sicily. Athens had risked its fleet and army, but for what?

At one point, an otherwise prudent Athenian attempt to retreat failed to occur, due entirely to Athenian superstition regarding an eclipse of the moon, which occurred the night before the Athenians had planned to leave. Superstitious Nicias refused to sail until the Athenians had waited the required 27 days. To the detriment of military necessity, Nicias was subservient to convention.

The Peloponnesian War: A Fatal Delay

This delay by Nicias proved fatal. In the narrow harbor of Syracuse, the Athenians were at a disadvantage, and the soldiers of Syracuse, like the Greeks against the Persians at Salamis in an earlier time, were fighting for their freedom against foreign invaders.

The forces of Syracuse had obtained a technical advantage in, of all things, their navy by adopting a procedure to strengthen the hulls of their ships. Thus could the ships of Syracuse better fight at close quarters with Athenian vessels. As a result, the much smaller navy of Syracuse defeated the Athenian fleet, killing Athenian general Eurymedon in the process. The victors began mooring a line of ships across the entrance to trap the Athenians completely.

The Athenians sailed out again into the harbor of Syracuse to try to destroy this blockade, but they were driven back in a furious battle in the confined space of the body of water. Athenian warriors were confused by the shouts and war cries, called “paeans,” of their Sicilian allies, which sounded like the war calls of the forces of Syracuse. In the fog of battle, this confusion gave advantage to the opponent. Athens was repulsed.

Demosthenes wanted to attack the barrier again the next morning, in that the Athenians still had more ships than the navy of Syracuse, but the demoralized Athenian sailors refused to man their stations. The Athenian fleet was trapped, defeated, and destroyed. This was, in its own way, an Athenian Tsushima.

The only choice left was to retreat by land. Athenian general Nicias, however, lacked an appreciation of the urgency of his predicament. In his own fog of war, he gave his troops one day to pack their equipment before decamping. But this delay allowed Spartan general Gylippus to move and position troops at strategic points along the Athenian route of march. Thus the Athenian army struggled on for eight days under constant attack by horse-mounted cavalry of Syracuse. After his main body was surrounded, Demosthenes surrendered.

The Peloponnesian War: Few Return Home

The vanguard of the Athenian army, under its general Nicias, kept on for two more days until the soldiers of Syracuse caught up with it at the Assinarus River, on the southeast side of Sicily. There, the thirsty Athenians were slaughtered in droves as they trampled each other trying to get to the water.

Demosthenes and Nicias were quickly executed. Most of the other survivors of their mighty Athenian expedition perished while imprisoned by the victorious forces of Syracuse, in horrid conditions in a rock quarry. In one of the saddest accounts in all of military literature, Thucydides called the Sicilian Expedition the “greatest achievement” in Greek history. But in the end “they were destroyed, as the saying is, with total destruction, their fleet, their army, everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily.”

“Everything was destroyed,” we are told. So with such an outcome we are entitled to ask, was the Sicilian campaign a good strategy, but poorly executed? Or was it simply bad strategy from the outset? It is too facile merely to look at the result and reason backwards. We must know more. The first rule of winning a war is to avoid defeating yourself.

So let us ask questions and think in terms of principles of war. If Alcibiades’ proposal to send 60 triremes and a modest number of troops was a good idea, was it “better” operational planning to adopt Nicias’ proposal and more than double the force? This gets into issues of simplicity versus complexity, mass versus economy of force, maneuver versus security. If the original plan was for a relatively small force of Athenians to make allies on Sicily, and leverage these allies to subdue Syracuse, was it “better” to send a larger force that was perceived by the locals as an army of conquest?

And what would have happened had the Athenians pardoned Alcibiades for any perceived slight to the gods, and kept him fighting in the field instead of recalling him to stand trial? This poses a contrast between the leadership at home interfering in personnel issues, versus supporting mission accomplishment.

As to the things that you cannot foresee, what would have happened had Alcibiades not defected in the process, and compromised the security of the entire Athenian plan? Here we see an issue involving having to take a known objective, versus working without the element of surprise. Would the forces of Syracuse have been able to defeat the Athenian effort, absent the treachery and insider knowledge of Alcibiades, leveraged with the able assistance of Sparta’s Gylippus?

Finally, what if Nicias had not hesitated at crucial moments in a series of battles, again and again, and on numerous occasions, thus handing the initiative to the opponent? Here are issues of when to seize the offensive, versus when to remain defensive.

The Peloponnesian War: How Could This Have Been Avoided?

As Sun Tzu said, “The skillful warrior can achieve his own invulnerability. But he can never bring about the enemy’s vulnerability.” The Sicilian campaign highlights a litany of Athenian strategic, operational, and tactical mistakes that brought about their vulnerability, and led ultimately to their “total destruction.”

The news of the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition stunned Athens. At first, people simply did not believe that their mighty forces could have suffered defeat in a distant land and at the hands of what the Athenians viewed as primitive people. Could anyone have seen this coming? If so, why did no one listen? This raises the question of when and how should the messenger break the news of catastrophe to the leadership, let alone to the people? How do people mentally process such unwelcome information of utter disaster?

How does a nation absorb the magnitude of its loss? By way of example, during World War II, it was several months before the leadership of the Imperial Japanese Navy even informed the emperor of the losses at Midway. And after Stalingrad, German citizens were seen to wear black armbands for many months.

But with the news of the Sicilian disaster, it was as if the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. The Athenian treasury was nearly empty, her docks were depleted, and thousands of her soldiers were dead and unburied, or imprisoned as slaves in a foreign land. Was this the beginning of the end?

The Athenians correctly feared that the disaster in Sicily would inspire revolts throughout their empire and lead to redoubled efforts by the Spartans. Closer to home, war with Sparta had broken out again earlier that year, 413 B.C., when the Spartan king, weary of suffering raids on his territories without retaliation, invaded the agricultural lands of Athens for the first time since 425 B.C. This time, however, following the template provided by Alcibiades, he constructed a fortress in the midst of the Athenian territories, and thus controlled access to the Athenian hinterland. For the rest of the war, this Spartan garrison wore down Athenian morale with constant raids. The garrison also provided refuge for many thousands of runaway slaves, which greatly harmed the Athenian economy.


But still, the Athenians managed to survive a while longer. How did they accomplish this? Thucydides said it best. “(I)n the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible.… Summer was now over.”

The war between Athens and Sparta continued for another nine years, until Sparta was able to defeat the remaining elements of the Athenian navy at a place called Aegospotami. In this battle, the Athenians lost 168 ships, or essentially all that remained of their navy. Only 12 Athenian ships escaped.

Athens held an empire, and its continuous expansion caused Sparta such great fear as to convince the Spartans to start a war. After much fighting in their own regions, Athens attempted to widen the war by invading and subduing Sicily, but this turned out to be an utter disaster for the Athenians. Perhaps the disaster could have been avoided. But the facts of history are that the Athenians gambled and lost, and blundered their way to defeat on Sicily.

After Sicily, the Athenians returned to their strategic element, which was the sea. They fought on for a time, and bravely. But they did so only because they were using their last strategic reserves of ships and funds. At this stage, the Athenians could not afford to make mistakes, let alone to incur losses that could not be replaced. And as Sun Tzu might have put it, after many years of “bringing about their own vulnerability,” the Athenians made their fatal mistake at Aegospotami.

So finally the Athenians were compelled, by an accumulation of acts of force, to do the will of the Spartans. Facing starvation and disease from prolonged siege on her landward side, and now with her navy defeated, Athens surrendered in 404 B.C. Her allies soon surrendered as well. The terms of surrender stripped Athens of her walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. The war ended. Athens was ruined. The world and its destiny would belong to others.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 26, 2005

P.S. A very fine and readable version of The Peloponnesian War is The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler, published by Simon & Schuster in 1996.

The history of empires is a history of things both great and sad, wise and foolish, filled with tales of error caused by human nature that is immutable. If you want to read more about the folly of empires past and present, please purchase a copy of a book that is so new that the ink is not even dry. It is entitled Empire of Debt, written by Agora’s own Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin. Empire of Debt is about to be published in November 2005 by the highly respected house of John Wiley & Sons. The book packs a lot of history into its many pages. With its unique Bonner-Wiggin writing style, the book manages to connect all of the dots to current events.

Click here to snag your pre-release copy of Empire of Debt…