The Decelean War: Facts & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Decelean War represented a major shift in the relationship between Greek city-states. In this lesson, we'll explore this history and see how the war reshaped the Aegean.

The Decelean War

The Peloponnesian War was one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of ancient Greece as the Greek cities fought each other for control. It was a roller coaster with wins and losses, heroes and traitors. Eventually, this crazy war came to an end. The Peloponnesian War lasted from roughly 431 to 404 BCE, but the last phase of the conflict was what set the tone for Greek history yet to come. Lasting from about 413-404 BCE, the Decelean War represented the end of one conflict and the dawning of a new era of Greek history.

The Peloponnesian War to 413 BCE

Here's a brief recap of a very complex war. After Athens started creating an empire, Sparta attacked, kicking off the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. They signed a peace treaty in 421 BCE, ending phase one of conflict. Fighting broke out again between 421 and 415 BCE, at which point Athens decided to basically stake it all on a massive invasion of Sicily. The Sicilian Expedition was a catastrophe, and in 413 BCE the entire Athenian force was destroyed. By the time it was over, Athens' most important leaders had either been killed or exiled, and the city was in bad shape.


That brings us to the start of the Decelean War. Right before the Sicilian Expedition ended, King Agis of Sparta seized the town of Decelea in 413 BCE. Decelea was a trading town north of Athens that controlled an important silver mine. Agis was encouraged to do this by Alcibiades, an Athenian leader who defected to Sparta. By 412 BCE, Sparta was gaining more control in mainland Greece and had started conquering Athenian colonies. They commanded the respect of their allies.


Sparta and Persia

Despite their losses, Athens was still wealthier than Sparta. In fact, the entire Peloponnesian League that Sparta commanded was bankrupt. And, the Athenian navy still vastly outranked Sparta's ragtag collection of poorly coordinated ships. Sparta needed help and they turned to Persia.

The Persians, fearful of Athenian encroachments into their colonies on Asia Minor, were happy to help. The Persian satrap (provincial governor) of Sardis, Tissaphernes, and the satrap of Dascylium, Pharnabazus, both wanted the Spartans to focus their efforts on getting the Athenians out of Asia Minor.

Sparta began attacking Athenian colonies and encouraging several of its allies to rebel. Athens then did something no one truly expected, they recovered. While still struggling politically and socially, they tapped into reserves and quickly built a massive fleet. The Athenian Navy was back in action. The Spartans partially blamed the former Athenian Alcibiades for letting this happen, and King Agis ordered him killed. Alcibiades fled to Sardis and convinced the satrap Tissaphernes to withdraw support from Sparta. Thus, Sparta was unable to provide support to crucial rebellions within allied cities of Athens.

The Oligarchic Revolution

Although the Athenian navy recovered, the city itself was still suffering from economic and social unrest. The idea began to circle that Athenian-style democracy had failed and that Athens could only recover if the aristocrats took charge. This idea was encouraged by Alcibiades, who convinced the Athenian aristocrats that Tissaphernes would start financially supporting them in the war if they gave up democracy and instituted an oligarchy. The aristocrats obliged, and in 411 BCE rebelled in the Oligarchic Revolution. A group of 400 aristocrats seized power and could have reached a peace agreement with Sparta, but the navy refused to recognize their authority. Within two years, the navy's example led to the restoration of the democracy. Alcibiades was labeled a traitor but won favor back by leading the Athenian fleet to victory over the Spartans at several points between 410 and 406 BCE.

Lysander and the End of the War

Soon, however, the tides would turn. A Spartan commander named Lysander took over the Spartan fleet and struck up a friendship with the Persian prince Cyrus. With Cyrus' financial support, Lysander quickly built a major fleet and even more impressively, learned how to use it. Alongside Persian ships and sailors from Cyrus, Lysander started defeating the Athenians at sea, the one battlefield they had always controlled.

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