Thucydides an Athenian aristocrat and veteran of the Peloponnesian War documented the war from the beginning of the conflict in 431 BC to its conclusion in 404 BC. His on the scene reporting was the first of its kind and has been used by historians and political theorists for the last twenty four hundred years. Thucydides documentation of Athenian political and military actions prior to the war has been the basis of realist’s theory in the world of international relations. From an international relations perspective his analysis of war squarely points the finger at Athens and its quest for power in the Delian League and the region. Athens dominance in the Delian League allowed it to convert the alliance into an Athenian Empire that threatened the entire region and shifted the balance of power in the region. As Athens power grew it took on an imperialistic and militaristic policy that not only threatened its alliance but neutral states as well. The change in Athenian attitudes toward neutral states can be seen in its response to Melos elders concerns over Athens attempts to take over their state, “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  Sparta, the premiere military power in Greece felt its influence weakening as Athens power began to creep into Spartan spheres of authority. Athens power spread throughout Spartan sphere of influence with alliances with city states such as Corcyra. Sparta viewed the rise of these alliances and the Athenian Navy as a direct threat to their and allies’ resources and food supply. The super power status of Sparta was giving way to the imperialistic moves of the Athenian city state.
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For much of the period prior to the Peloponnesian War Sparta was the premiere military force in Greece. Sparta’s society was a 400 year old stratified, militaristic system that bread men for war. Sparta’s military was the envy of the Greek world and its hoplite army the model of efficiency. Sparta’s men were allowed to spend all their time training for war due to Sparta’s large helot slave population. The helot’s tended to all agricultural and manual labor requirements for the state which allowed the men of Sparta to concentrate of military tactics. The primary function of the Sparta army was to defend the city and its colonies from any outside threat or in the event of a helot uprising. Due to the extremely large helot population, Sparta’s army was on a constant state of readiness to counter any helot insurgency. This war like mentality spread Sparta’s reputation to all corners of Greece allowing it to seize the status of super power.
With Athens emergence as the other super power after the Persian wars it provided a balance of power in Greece and allowed the formation of opposing political systems and alliances. Sparta lead the Peloponnesian League, a group of oligary city states that benefited from Sparta’s vast land army for protection. Athens led the Delian League, a group of democratic city states that came together to defend the region against further Persian aggression. Athens assumed command of all military matters, dictated and allotted the distribution of league contributions. Athens with the resources of the Delian League began to tilt the balance of power and threaten Sparta’s position as a super power. Ultimately, Athens dominance threatened commerce and trade throughout the region causing the Spartan lead Peloponnesian League to take military action against Athens and the Delian League.
According to Thucydides the cause of the war was the “fear of the growth of the power of Athens.”  At the conclusion of the Persian Wars Athens had become the undisputed leader in Greece, the School of Hellas, and for thirty years was to enjoy the faboulus Golden Age. Under Pericles leadership Athens grew in austereity becoming the fitting home for unsurpassed intellectual and artistic achievements. To enure Greece’s prosperity and defend against a possible Perisian invasion, a coalition of city states formed the Delian League. Due to Athens standing as a naval power after the Persian War it assumed the primary leadership role. The primary purpose of the Delian league was to create and fund a standing navy to defend against future Persian raids into Delian held territory. Initially as a way to fund the league, members provided Athens an annual tribute of money or ships. Athens appointed financial officers to manage the leagues treasury on the Island of Delos, the leagues headquarters. In an effort to consolidate Athens power Pericles relocated the tresury from Delos to Athens. This event moved the focus from defending league members interests to improving Athens status as a regional power and raised Athens as Greece’s cultural center. Athens at this point was keeping one sixtieth of all revenues to benefit its own wealth and projects. Under Pericles leadership Athens used league funds to build monuments such as the Parthenon on the Acropolis and improvements to Athens infastructure. “It is a remarkable fact that the thirty-plus monuments, temples, and buildings that we associate with Athens of the Golden Age were built in about eight years, while Pericles dominated Athenian politics.”  Additionally, league members lost control of their ships to Athens as Athens assumed control of all naval operations increasing its importance and power in the league. Athens control of league resources allowed it to prosper and enhance its influence across the region. The control of these reources was very important to Athens as a whole due to the area around the city not being suitable for producing a abundant supply of crops. Athens survivied because its navy controlled the seas and the colonies that produced the grain and other food stables for the city. This rise of influence came at the expense of league members as they witnessed their liberties and wealth decrease. The consolidation of Athenian power among league menbers had transformed the Delian league into the Athenian Empire.
The alliance that was formed out of democratic ideals of prosperity and protection of league members began to tear apart. Athenian increase in power, to almost tyrant levels caused league members began to question its overall purpose due to the decreased threat from Persia. With a decreased threat from Persia some league members wished to limit tributary payments to Athens or leave the alliance all together. Naxos was the first city state to revolt but was “forced back to allegiance”  but they would would not be the last. Megara was one of the members of the league that wished to separate from Athens empire and allign itself with Corinth in the Peloponessian League. In a break with Athens, Megara had supplied ships to Corinth during the battle of Sybota in 433 and along with Corcyra assitance Athens soundly defeated the Corinthian Navy. In retaliation for supplying naval assistance to Corinth, Athens, at Pericles insistance imposed a trade embargo against the City Megara in the form of the Megarian Decree.
The Megarian Decree prevented Megara Merchants from trading with Athenian markets. Pericles may have used the issue of Megara inhabitants cultivating land that was consecrated to Demeter and the killing of a Athenian herald to put forth the decree.  The harshness of the decree seems more in line with Athens anger with Megara’s Military support for Corinth during the battle of Sybota. As a result of the trade embargo Megara appealed to Sparta for help. Sparta’s King Archidamus was reluctant to provide aide to Megara due to the possibility of going to war with Athens. Some in Sparta wanted to use the Megara Decree to go to war with Athens to curb its growing power. Thucydides writes of Sparta’s growing concern with Athens power, “The Spartans voted that war should be declared not so much because they were influenced by the speeches of their allies as because they were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power.”  Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian League believed that Athens actions were another attempt to enhance Athens power in the region and that a line needed to be drawn if Peloponnesian League was to maintain a power position in the region. In attempt to avoid war Sparta dispatched ambassadors to Athens to give a last minute ultimatum. Diodorus of Sicily documents Sparta’s diplomatic event, ” And the Spartans dispatched ambassadors, ordering the Athenians to rescind the action against the Megarians and threatening, if they did not accede, to wage war upon them together with the forces of their allies.”  This approach goes directly against the Athens/Sparta agreement to settle disagreements by arbitration. The ultimatum also fuels the fires of war within the Athenian assembly and its master politician Pericles.
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The Athenian assembly gathered in 432 BC to hear in the Spartan ultimatum to withdraw the Megara Decree or face war with the Peloponnesian League. At the head of the Athenian government was Pericles a noted general (strategoi) and statesman. Under Pericles leadership Athens transformed the Delian league into a tool for Athenian imperialism. Pericles known for his great oratory skills used the moment to deliver his famous speech highlighting Athens glory during the ritual burying of the dead. His speech incited the assembly by “saying that for them to accede to the demands of the Spartans, contrary to their own interests, would be the first step toward slavery  . Pericles reminded the assembly “for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of most Hellenes, will be found to be only commensurate with their deserts.”  Pericles lectured the assembly that Sparta had no right to dictate Athens policies and how it used the resources of its alliance. He also reminded the assembly that it was Sparta that was breaking established doctrine on disputes and that this action symbolized Sparta’s disrespect towards Athens position of power in the region. With the aid of Pericles speaking skills and assembly’s confidence in its military and diplomatic abilities followed Pericles lead and rejected the Sparta ambassadors.
Sparta and the Peloponnesian League followed the Athenian rejection with a declaration of war. Conflict between Athens and Spartan led Peloponnesian League was nothing new and had been brewing for some time. Athens and members of the Peloponnesian League had fought a series of pitched battles prior to this event with Athens emerging the victor each time. During the battle of Sybota Islands, Sparta witnessed their Megarans and Corinthians allies suffer significant defeats. As leader of the Peloponnesian League, Sparta felt increased pressure from league members to act militarily to counter Athens power. Sparta had grown weary of Athens military build-up and diplomatic activities in the area and had looked for reasons to counter her imperialistic actions. Athens building of the Long Walls in 479 BC had stirred great amount of resentment in Athens to the point of going to war over its construction. Sparta detested the building of the Long Walls and looked at this building as a major escalation of military activities in the area. The building of the walls connected Athens with its port in Piraeus and virtually made Athens an island nation within Greece itself. The construction of the great walls was equivalent to today’s US missile defense system. As with the missile defense system, the great walls had both a defensive and offensive capability and caused Sparta to view its construction as simply an offensive weapon system. The reason Sparta viewed this as an offensive weapon system is the port in Piraeus handled all of Athens grain shipments coming from Hellespont and the Black Sea Regions. The walls that connected Athens and Piraeus ensured Athens supply of grain and its survival as long as Athens controlled the sea. Additionally, the strategic value of the Long Walls rendered Sparta’s land army useless, eliminating its only military offensive capability. Since Sparta lacked a navy that could challenge Athens, the Long Walls were an additional weapon system that tilted the balance of power in Athens favor. Sparta in an effort to preserve its super power status and influence in the region was left with little recourse then to pursue war against Athens.
Athens aggressive development of the Delian League into an Athenian Empire proved to be that catalyst to war. The imperialistic policies and actions of the Athenian City state caused Sparta to question its own security
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