Second Athenian Confederacy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The cities of ancient Greece were rarely actually united. In this lesson, we're going to explore one of those periods of time and see how the Second Athenian Confederacy came to be, as well as what happened to it.

The Second Athenian Confederacy

When we talk about ancient history, we often talk about the awesomeness of ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks introduced large-scale architecture, developed Western philosophy, were great warriors, etc, etc.

There's only one problem here: the ancient Greeks weren't a unified culture. They spent most of their history as independent city-states that both fought with and fought against each other. Only at a few times were most of the Greeks united, and one of those times was under the Second Athenian Confederacy (c.378-355 BCE).

It took a common enemy to unite several Greek city-states into a single confederacy. Of course, that common enemy was other Greeks. So, ancient Greece was unified in its fight against ancient Greeks. Have we mentioned that the root of the word ''irony'' is Greek too?


The Second Athenian Confederacy was a coalition of Greek city-states, led by Athens, formed to fight the power of Sparta. So, how did we get here?

The fifth century BCE was characterized by widespread warfare across the Mediterranean. The Greeks united to fight the Persians, then fought each other, then fought the Persians, and then fought each other some more.

Around 404 BCE, these wars led to the Athenian Empire being dissolved and Sparta becoming the dominant power, or hegemon, of the Greek city-states. The Spartan hegemony emboldened the city, which began expanding its power into a near-imperial conquest of the Aegean Sea. The other Greek city-states, especially Athens, were less than pleased with the hegemon.

Formation of the Confederacy

Around 378 BCE, Athens called out to the other Greek city-states and asked them to unite against Sparta's growing power. Together, they drafted the Decree of Aristoteles, which was essentially the formal charter that founded the Second Athenian Confederacy.

The charter, preserved on a stone post called a stele, announced a permanent alliance between Athens and several other Greek city-states in order to preserve their sovereignty against the Spartan hegemony.

It should be noted that while Athens was recognized as the head of this confederacy, every city-state was guaranteed absolute autonomy to conduct their own affairs. This addition was likely a preemptive caution against Athens, which had only a century earlier turned the first Athenian (Delian) League into its own Athenian Empire.

War With Sparta

The Second Athenian Confederacy went to war, fighting against Sparta's campaign to conquer other Aegean city-states. One of Athens' greatest allies in this war was the city-state of Thebes. Motivated by Spartan aggression in Theban territories, they were among the first to join the Confederacy and fought in most of the substantial battles.

The Second Athenian Confederacy began to find military victory pretty quickly. Most of their major victories were naval battles, although they achieved some land battles as well. Thebes, in particular, contributed heavily to the victories over the Spartan armies.

By around 375 BCE, both Athens and Sparta were tired of fighting and began negotiating a truce. Thebes, however, kept fighting and dealt the final blow to Sparta's power in the 371 BCE Battle of Leuctra. With this decisive loss, the Spartan hegemony was over.

Naval battles were a big part of this war


The decline of Sparta left something of a power vacuum in the Aegean, one that Thebes was more than willing to fill. Claiming the title of hegemon, Thebes announced a new Theban hegemony around 371 BCE. This was made possible largely by two Thebans:

  1. Pelopidas was a statesman and general who had helped orchestrate Thebes' entrance into the Second Athenian League and directed the war to remove Sparta from Theban lands.
  2. Epaminondas was also a Theban statesman and general. His tactical acumen lead to the Theban victory in the Battle of Leuctra.

Epaminondas led Theban forces at Leuctra

Under Epaminondas and Pelopidas, Thebes shifted the balance of power in the Aegean. In response to Thebes' growing power and aggression, Athens began to push it out of the Confederacy. It wasn't long until the Second Athenian Confederacy was at war with Thebes, battling for control of Greek territories until around 362 BCE when the Theban hegemony was ended.

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