Sparta & Athens: War Footings

One ascertains a general reluctance on the part of Sparta to go to war with Athens in both the First Peloponnesian War and the later main war. The evidence presented by writers like Thucydides convey this disinclination on the part of the Lacedaemonians. I sense that the Spartans did not truly envision what danger the Athenians posed to their place on the Hellenic world stage. I also take from their actions, that they were far more focused on their internal interests in the Peloponnese, whilst Athens was in a far more exponentially avaristic mood for empire building. The two main antagonists, in these coming wars, were in very different positions, politically speaking. Sparta was focusing on its traditional local enemy Argos, after denying them a peace treaty after the battle of Sepeia. Athens, then, finalised a peace treaty with the Argives. There were outbreaks of war between Argos and allies of Sparta in the Peloponnese.

In some ways, I liken the Athenians actions toward Sparta at this time, as to children at the zoo, poking sticks through the bars of the lion’s cage. Sparta is the established military and political powerhouse of the Hellenic world and Athens is the rising new kid on the block. Sparta had previously sent Cimon and the Athenian forces out of Lacedaimonia in 462, but that rejection was tempered by an explanation of sorts. When Megara left the Peloponnesian League and allied with Athens, this brought Athens into a state of war with Corinth under the terms of established treaties. There is this repeated theme in Thucydides account of the wars and their preambles, of Sparta’s allies urging her to war with Athens and Sparta reluctantly acquiescing after much consideration of the alternatives.

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The First Peloponnesian War 458-446 involves the Corinthian forces far more than any Spartan direct military participation, excepting their expedition to Doris in 458/7 and their invasion of Attica in 446. One gets the impression about the Spartans, that they were slow and considered prior to acting, but when they went in, they did it with their full force. The Doris campaign exhibited these traits in the size of the contingent. Once the Spartans were in a territory they stayed there and did as much damage as possible. They did not, however, press on into Attica at this time and they did not take on the Athenians in Boeotia. All of which conveys a general reluctance where Athens is concerned.

The bribing of Pleistoanax by Pericles in 446, reported by Plutarch, and the Spartan withdrawal from Attica on this basis, is further evidence of a reluctance by some sections within the Spartan leadership to avoid all-out war with Athens at this time. There were those in Sparta who were keen for war, which is indicated by the punishment meted out to Pleistoanax by the ephors. This writer would emphasise the shock to the Spartan system inflicted by the earthquake and Helot revolt in the years just prior to the First Peloponnesian War as strong contributors to Sparta’s less than aggressive approach to Athens at this time. The Spartans not only avoided opportunities for more conflict with the Athenians, they also resisted opportunities to attack Argos. Both Archidamus and Pleistoanax, showed by their behaviour, that neither of the two kings were in pro-war stances during this first war.

©Robert Hamilton