The Corinthian War: Timeline & Causes

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 far from unified, and they often fought. In this lesson, we're going to explore one major conflict called the Corinthian War, and see how it changed life in the Aegean.

The Corinthian War

When we talk about the origins of Western history, we almost always start with the Greeks. The ancient Greeks laid foundations for Western philosophy, art, and government, but there's one big problem with talking about them this way. The Greeks weren't actually a unified culture.

What we call ancient Greece was really a collection of independent regions known as city-states, each with its own unique identity. These city-states sometimes worked together, but often fought each other as well. From roughly 395-386 BCE, the Greek city-states would be wrapped up in a major conflict known as the Corinthian War.

The Corinthian War was just one conflict fought between Greek city-states


The Corinthian War was the product of a century of fighting between Greek city-states. In the 5th century BCE, Athens united the city-states in order to fight Persian invasions and ended up creating an Athenian empire. Athens' growing power was challenged by the Greek city-state of Sparta, starting the Peloponnesian War.

In 404 BCE, Sparta emerged victorious, claiming Athens' title of hegemon, the most powerful of the Greek city-states. Amongst the most influential people in Sparta were Lysander, the admiral who had been responsible for Athens' defeat, and the man he had helped elevate to king during a Spartan succession crisis, Agesilaus.

King Agesilaus and Lysander started Sparta's reign as hegemon with lots of support from the other Greek city-states. However, Sparta claimed all of the plunder from the Peloponnesian War rather than sharing with its allies.

To make matters worse, Sparta began its own conquest of weaker members of their alliance, just as Athens had done at the start of its empire. Spartan forces first marched on the Greek city-state of Elis in 402 BCE, and by 398 BCE started advancing into Ionia, today part of Turkey.

The Greek city-states of Thebes and Corinth became quickly alarmed at the Spartan conquests, and after receiving Persian ambassadors who shared this concern, decided that it was time for another war.

War Begins

Thebes knew that it would have to fight Sparta, but didn't want to challenge the hegemon outright. So, the Thebans encouraged one of their smaller allies to make a claim over territory they disputed with one of Sparta's allies. These two powers went to war, bringing Thebes into the conflict first and then Sparta. The first major battle occurred at the city of Haliartus in 395 BCE. Lysander was killed, and the Spartans retreated.

War Escalates

While Sparta regrouped, Thebes built up its alliance, formally bringing Corinth, Athens, and Argos to its cause. From 394 BCE, the fighting began in earnest. Despite early victories for both sides, the Spartan military started gaining advantage.

The Spartans were expecting, however, that most of their victory would actually come from their naval superiority. Unfortunately for them, the mighty Persian navy had become fearful that Spartan aggression in Ionia could either impede their own plans there or spill into Persia, and the Persians entered into the conflict. These fleets met at the Battle of Cnidus, which the Persians won, effectively expelling the Spartans from Asia Minor.

The Spartans hoped to rely on their naval strength, but lost to Persia at the Battle of Cnidus

With Sparta's navy damaged but its mainland army still strong, Persian generals headed to Greece. These generals brought money and resources from the Persian emperor in order to build up Corinth and rebuild Athens' defenses, which had been destroyed at the end of the Peloponnesian War. With Persian help, Athens recovered and grew quickly, turning from a defeated and damaged city into a powerful force almost instantly.

Persians and Greeks

In 392 BCE, Sparta sent ambassadors to Persian governors asking them to switch sides. Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos learned about this and sent their own representatives. At the resulting conference, Sparta proposed a peace treaty in which all the Greek city-states would be guaranteed their autonomy. But the talks fell apart since Athens, Thebes, and Corinth all hoped to maintain the new territories they'd acquired in the war.

So, it was back to war. The Spartans rebuilt their navy and again invaded Persian territories and the regions around Corinth. Athens built up its own navy in response to Sparta's return as a maritime power, and the two fought several battles around the coastline.

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