The spark for the Peloponnesian war between Athens (with its maritime empire) and Sparta (with its Peloponnesian league) was a rebellion in the remote Corcyrean colony of Epidamnus.
This is the sea seen from Epidamnus (modern Durrës, in Albania), where the rebels were besieged by forty Corcyrean ships in 436 BC.
Albanian 20-lek coins show an ancient ship.
This is the sea opposite Corcyra (modern Corfu), near the Sybota islands, where in a sea battle in 433 Corinth, which had taken the side of the rebels in Epidamnus, was about to defeat a Corcyrean fleet. This is when Athens, one of the principals, first got involved. The appearance of Athenian ships at the Corcyreans’ side was enough to make Corinth lay off. Athens didn’t have to fight.
This is the Gulf of Corinth outside the city of Naupactos (modern Nafpaktos). In 429, after the fighting war had started, the Athenian general Phormio defeated two bigger Spartan fleets here, one after the other…
And so it goes on. The idea of the holiday that Travelling Companion and I are on is Venetian; but there’s plenty to make you think about the Peloponnesian War along the way. The map shows the Venetian empire journey so far, using the map of the game The Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC. Most of the places we’ve been are on it.
Right now we’re in Koroni (ancient Asine), trying to decide what to do tomorrow: visit Methoni (Venetian) or see Pylos and Sphacteria (where for the first time, in 425, Spartan hoplites surrendered rather than fighting to the death).
Athens was a democracy during the Peloponnesian War, as it had been since 510. Not a representative democracy, like those in which we (barring a referendum now and again) live. A direct democracy in which thousands of citizens, meeting each day, drafted and voted on proposals on what the state would do.
Sparta, like other Greek cities, was an oligarchy. In other cities that meant the nobles lived well. In Sparta it meant that thousands of Spartiates lived for war. Helots – serfs or slaves – provided for their physical needs.
It is said – I couldn’t find the source – that Napoleon compared Britain and France to a whale and an elephant. They were each the strongest in their respective realm. They could not get at each other. The same applies here. Athens was invincible at sea, Sparta on land.
Athens made mistake after mistake, notably in its attack on Syracuse in Sicily in 415, but the democracy wouldn’t give up. With Persian money, Sparta eventually built a fleet, aiming to cut off Athens’ grain supplies from the Black Sea. Athens kept beating the Spartan fleet, even when outnumbered, but the kings and the ephors who ruled in Sparta wouldn’t give up. In the end, at Goat River in the Dardenelles, Sparta destroyed Athens’ last fleet – there was no money left to build another – and gained the power to block the grain shipments. Athens surrendered.
As a democrat I’m instinctively sympathetic to Athens. But you can also tell a good story about Spartans’ toughness and indifference to material things. (For a sympathetic fictional account of Spartan soldiers’ exploits as mercenaries in Persian service in the years just after the war, try Conn Iggulden’s The Falcon of Sparta (2018).).
The Peloponnesian War raises many questions.
Do democracies that have empires treat them differently than other polities do?
I don’t think so.
Do democracies make war differently from other polities?
I think so. In 428 Mytilene, the main city of Lesbos, rebelled against Athens. Athens besieged it and it surrendered in 427. The Athenian general, Paches, allowed an embassy to sail to Athens to negotiate the city’s fate. The assembly voted to kill all Mytilene’s adult males and enslave its women and children. “[A] trireme was dispatched to order Paches to carry out the sentence at once. It was not long, however, before the Athenians began to reconsider their decision. Having expressed their anger, some of them recognised the frightfulness of their resolution. [This led to]… a special meeting of the assembly to review the matter the following day… The ship sent to Lesbos after the first assembly carrying the command to put all the men to death had a full day’s head start, but a second trireme was sent off immediately to rescind the order. The Mytilenean envoys in Athens provided food and drink to the rowers and promised them a reward if they reached Lesbos first. Moved by the chance to accomplish a good deed and the hope of gain, the sailors set off at a great pace, refusing even to make the usual stops for eating and sleeping. The men on the first ship were in no hurry to accomplish their frightful task, but they arrived at Mytilene first. Thucydides tells the rest of the tale dramatically. ‘Paches had just read out the decree and was about to carry out its orders when the second ship put in and prevented the destruction. By so little did Mytilene escape its danger’.” (Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, 2003.)
The model carried by this marcher on an anti-Brexit demonstration in London last March refers to this episode. His point may have been that democracies can change their mind.
What’s the best way to write history?
Herodotus, the first historian whose work we know, who wrote about the Graeco-Persian wars, “inflates the incidents that he tells with dramatic detail” (Georgina Laycock), while Thucydides, the second, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, referred to “The absence of an element of romance in my account of what happened”. I am drawn to showy writers like Jan Morris, whose book has inspired our Visit to the Venetian Empire, and Simon Schama. But it is Thucydides whose work provides, for example, a superb basis for wargames exploring why the things that happened may have done so.
How can this war be expressed in a wargame?
It often has been. I have five games covering the whole war, and two or three, from Vae Victis, covering individual campaigns. Yet to give one example of the difficulties, there was fighting across most of the Greek world, from Sicily to the Bosphorus. In most of these places for most of the war’s duration (27 years), it seems that nothing military was happening – by contrast, for example, with the English Civil War, where there were thousands of local skirmishes. How can the rules make sure that the “right” amount of activity takes place?
I’ll write about this soon in some reviews of Peloponnesian War wargames.