“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.

(For Part Two, go here)


In the century following the Persian Wars, Sparta would find herself enmeshed in a long fratricidal struggle against her erstwhile ally, Athens.

These two leading Greek cities could not have been more different.

Athens was a great cosmopolitan metropolis. Its public buildings, such as the Parthenon, were the wonder of the Ancient World; and still amaze today. Sparta was a collection of villages. Its public buildings were modest, and Sparta left no lasting stone monuments. Athens was defended by great fortress walls. Sparta’s “walls” were the spears and shields of its scarlet-cloaked warriors. Athens is remembered for its philosophers and playwrites. Sparta is remembered for the simplicity and hardness of its men and the conditions under which they chose to live (“spartan”); and the pithy, sarcastic brand of humor they were known for (“laconic”). And it is known for its invincible warriors, the Spartans, and their immortal stand at Thermopylae.

Ancient Sparta

Athens was a democratic state, where every issue of governance and policy was voted upon daily by the (male) citizens. Meeting on a rocky outcropping beside the Acropolis, overlooking the  city’s agora, all Athenians so interested could come and hear or take part in the oratory; could vote on any and every decision of the day. It was a system that allowed maximum civic participation; but put no constitutional restraints on the emotional whims of its constituents.

Sparta, on the other hand, was a constitutional monarchy, in which policy was set by the annually elected ephors; and laws were made by a senate composed of elderly Spartans. The bulk of the citizens obeyed their leaders without question.

(Of the two systems, Sparta proved the more enduring, surviving for nearly 500 years with little internal strife. Athenian democracy was short-lived, lasting less than two centuries and interrupted by periods of demagoguery and tyranny.)

Athens was a maritime power, relying on foreign trade for her wealth; and the Mediterranean’s greatest navy to defend her interests.

Sparta was a land power, an agrarian power, with little monetary wealth (Sparta didn’t mint gold or silver; but instead used iron bars for internal financial transactions!). Her army, composed of every Spartan male, was the finest and most professional in the world. Though the true Spartan (“Spartiate”) component of any Spartan field force was relatively small (there were never more than 5,000 Spartiates at the city’s peak), the Spartan Alliance of Peloponnesian states could field the largest and best hoplite force in the Greek world.

The 42 years of active conflict between these two very different states has come to be known as the First and Second Peloponnesian Wars (between the Athenian Empire and Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies).

Its chief cause was Athenian imperial expansion at the expense of the freedom of smaller Greek cities around her. In the years following the Persian Wars, Athens had gobbled up many of the tiny Greek cities that had either allied with her against the Persians; or Greek islands and states that had been freed from the Persian yoke. Though originally enlisting these small states as allies in the Athenian-led “Delian League”; Athens had in time converted this alliance into an empire, with herself as the Queen City of Greece.

The various cities of Greece had demanded of Athens that she free the Greek cities under her dominance, and cease to make war upon others. When Athens refused, the other Greeks turned to Sparta for succor.

Sparta had watched the rise of the Athenian Empire with concern. Though in no way competing with her own more narrow interest in and around the Peloponnese; the Athenian’s democratic ways rubbed the oligarchic Spartans the wrong way.

Sparta had always played a traditional role of freeing other Greek cities from their own local tyrants. So the appeal to Sparta by Corinth, Thebes, and dozens of smaller cities that she free Greece from Athenian tyranny fell upon fertile soil.

Sparta and Athens had been allies and co-leaders of Greece in the war against Persia. Leading men on both sides worked for decades toward amity between the two powers. But in the end, their differences were far greater than their common interests.

The First Peloponnesian War broke out in 460, lasting 15 years. Athens had the advantage early in the conflict. Its powerful fleet won battles at sea, and despite a Spartan victory at Tanagra in 457, the Athenians had the better of the land battles against

Sparta’s allies; most notably defeating Thebes and temporarily knocking that city out of the war. However, Athens overreached; sending a large portion of its fleet and army to Egypt to intervene in a revolt against Persia. That expedition ended in a disastrous loss for Athens, her entire force destroyed.

Athens needed a respite, and the so-called Thirty Years Peace brought active hostilities to a close in 445; with Athens making concessions in territory and policy to appease Sparta and her allies.


The Thirty Years Peace lasted only 14 years. In 431, war broke out again; this time because of Athenian support of the island of Corcyra (Corfu) against her mother-city, Corinth; and over Athenian military action against the former Corinthian colony of Potidaea.

At Corcyra, where the Corcyran democratic government had aligned itself with Athens, a Corinthian naval force was on the verge of defeating its Corcyran opponents when an Athenian squadron intervened; preventing a Corinthian victory. At Potidaea, a city in southern Macedonia and member of the Delian League/Athenian Empire, an Athenian army was laying siege to the city to bring it into compliance with Athenian dictates. Corinth, the mother-city, sent “unofficial” aid to the city, including contingents of warriors to help defend it. This directly violated the terms of the Thirty Years’ Peace; which had stipulated that the Athenians and the Peloponnesians would respect each other’s autonomy and “spheres of influence”.

The final provocation was Megarian Decree, issued in 433/2 BC, imposing stringent trade sanctions on Megara. Once an Athenian ally, Megara had treacherously turned on its Athenian garrison and joined the Spartan Alliance. A more recent provocation was the killing of an Athenian herald. By forbidding Megara to trade with the Athenian Empire, the city was essentially cut-out of all Aegean trade and ports. An economic disaster for the Megarans, it led them to appeal to Sparta for redress.

In 432, at Corinth, a conclave of the Spartan allies and delegates from Athens debated matters. The allies (particularly Corinth, Megara, and Thebes) were for renewed war against Athens. The Corinthian delegation warned Sparta that if it remained passive in the face of Athenian aggression against its allies, it would find itself eventually at war in any case, but bereft of allies. The Athenians, in turn, cautioned Sparta to think carefully before going to war against so powerful a state as Athens!

Sparta deliberated, and despite the risks involved, the Gerousia moved that Sparta declare war against Athens and its League. The motion carried in the Apella, and Sparta duly declared war. Thus began the so-called “Archidamian War” (431-421 BC), the first part of the (second) Peloponnesian War.

As noted by historian Victory Davis Hanson[1], this was to be a war like no other before it. It would be fought in multiple theaters of war, simultaneously, both on land and sea. Unlike most previous wars, it was not decided by one campaign, battle of siege. It would involve many of these, small and large; as well as low-intensity raids and “special operations”. It would embroil most of the Greek world, as well as those “barbarian” states on the fringe of Greece. And it would last an unprecedented 27 years!

It lasted far longer than any of the belligerents could foresee in 431. It did so primarily because neither of the two leading powers could successfully fight (nor force the other to fight) on its “own turf”. Sparta was a land power, its renowned scarlet-cloaked phalanx so invincible in battle that Athenian strategy from the beginning was to refuse to meet them on land.  Athens was a naval power, its fleet larger and better trained than any in the world. Sparta, on the other hand, started the war without a fleet to speak of. And though its Corinthian allies were a naval power, they were no match for the Athenians and lost nearly every engagement of the war.

It was as if a lion were to challenge a shark: however bellicose, neither was in a position to hurt the other in its own sphere.

Each side began the war with a strategy it confidently believed would bring victory.

Sparta and its allies, in the best practice of contemporary Greek military convention, believed that its matchless hoplite army could and would march into Attica (the territory around the city of Athens) unhindered. The Athenians would be forced to leave the shelter of their walls and defend their farmlands from devastation. When they did so, the resulting battle could only end in Spartan victory!

But the Spartan leaders had not taken into account one critical flaw in this plan: Athens did not rely upon the farms of Attica for sustenance.

Athens was a maritime power, whose fleets patrolled and controlled the trade lanes of the Aegean and adjacent seas. Most of the corn supply needed to feed its teeming population came by sea from the vast plains north of the Black Sea (modern Crimea and the Ukraine). Unless this “Pontic” grain supply could be cut, Athens could sacrifice its local farms, and had no need to face the Peloponnesian army on the plains of Attica.

Athens, led by the brilliant but bellicose statesman, Pericles, felt confident in the soundness of its defenses. Pericles believed (and articulated to the Athenians at the beginning of hostilities) that time was on the side of Athens. That safe behind herLong Walls (fortifications that surrounded Athens and connected the city to her principal harbors of Piraeus and Phaleron, approximately 6 kilometers away), Athens could avoid land battle with the Spartans. Meanwhile, due to its control of the sea, it could continue life as normal at home while using its fleet and army to keep its subject cities in line and to harass the Peloponnesian coast. By pinprick raids and naval blockades, the Athenians could wear down the Peloponnesians economically; in time forcing Sparta to agree (at the least) to a peace based upon status quo ante bellum.

However, Pericles presciently warned, Athens must not expand the war or start any new military ventures until peace with Sparta was achieved. Pericles knew his people. The Athenians were a uniquely intrepid people; “adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment… born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[2] Pericles knew that Athens’ greatest risk lay in the people losing patience with his strategy of attrition; and in over-extending themselves by some bold new adventure. If she could just stay the course he set for them at the beginning of the conflict, victory would be certain.

What Pericles couldn’t foresee was the arrival in the second year of the war of a devastating plague; one that would sweep through Athens, decimating its population.

To this day, the exact etiology of the “plague” is unknown. Its multiple symptoms are unlike any disease currently in existence. The disease has traditionally been considered an outbreak of the bubonic plague; but modern scholars have advanced alternative explanations. These include typhus, smallpox, measles, and even anthrax.

Thucydides claimed that the plague began in Ethiopia, following the trade routes through Egypt and then to the Greek world. This possible African origin has led to a theory that a form of Ebola or other viral hemorrhagic fever may have been the cause of this plague.

With the Peloponnesian army ravaging the Attic countryside (for the second year in a row), and Athens overcrowded with refugees, the city was ripe for an epidemic. The effect was devastating: Athens lost perhaps one third of the people sheltered within its walls. Among the dead was the Athenian leader, Pericles, who died during one of the secondary outbreaks in 429 BC.

The war went on.

Athens won minor naval victories, under its brilliant admiral, Phormio, in the Gulf of Corinth. Her naval squadrons raided the Peloponnesian coasts, and kept their “allies” cowed and obedient.

Sparta and her allies dutifully marched every year into Attica, fruitlessly challenged the Athenians to battle; and disappointed, burned the farms in the countryside as compensation. The only strategic victory of the war in these early years was the siege and capture of the Athenian friend and ally, Plataea. Site of Greece’s crowning victory of the Persian War, she had paid for her amity with Athens and enmity of neighboring Thebes, with destruction.

That said, this brought a Spartan victory not one wit closer. Athens still stood strong and defiant, despite a devastated countryside, despite the decimation of plague. Pericles’ strategy seemed to be working.

The Archidamian War dragged on inconclusively   till 425 BC; until an otherwise insignificant skirmish on the fringes of the Spartan dominion sent shockwaves through the Greek world.


[1] Hanson, V.D A WarLike No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War Random House, New York 2005

[2] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.66-77.

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  3. I’m not saying it was an early strain of the zombie virus or anything…but that would make a sick-ass movie! Athenian hoplites facing diseased cannibals within the walls of their city to prevent its sPread on the world! It’s gold, Barry! Gold!

    Oh and once again, excellent article 🙂

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  5. Pingback: FREE DOWLOAD: Part 1 of our 3 Part Series on Sparta | History Bytes

  6. lucasparrini says:

    Nice blog!
    I will follow it! Thank you for this text!

  7. james says:

    It is generally known that the Spartans did not where coned helmets as Thucydides claims. He probably saw Laconian or other Peloponnesian soldiers. Xenophone is the better source for The Spartans because he actually stayed and visited there often. The helmet would have been the classical hoplite Corinthian style with red as the primary color.

    • NC says:

      Were you alive then? No? Unless you know the truth from a past life or by some other means, then it’s not wise to make such assertions, even if it’s written about by some ancient author. Also, keep in mind that the Spartan state existed for a long time, and there were likely changes to the soldiers’ outfits in that timeframe.

      • james says:

        My ancestors are from Greece, my parents are from Greece and our family name comes from Laconia with Mani connections. The Maniatis are direct decendents of the Spartans. So it is worth mentioning by you about a past life, which my not be so far fetched. I also have had an emotional attachment to Sparta during the classical age. However what I have written is as accurate as can be deduced from years of study. My major in college was history with Ancient and the Middle Ages as my concentration. So I consider myself well educated in the area of study I have mentioned.

      • james says:

        Still waiting for your comment

      • james says:

        Yes it is OK to call me Jim the Spartan now.

  8. james says:

    The primary color for the plum would be red and naturally the helmet and armour would be bronze to be more specific. Plus at the battle of Platea, I believe there were actually 9,000 Spartan Knights or also called The Spartiate.

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