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Causes and Results of the Peloponnesian War

Kayla Armstead, Andrew Peterson
  • Author
    Kayla Armstead

    Kayla has taught history for over 2 years. They have a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and Bachelors in Social Science Education from Florida State University. They also have a 6-12 Social Studies Certification.

  • Instructor
    Andrew Peterson

    Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

Explore the Peloponnesian War and understand the political and economic causes of the war. Discover the results and the impact of the Peloponnesian War. Updated: 12/19/2021

Overview of the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between the two powerful Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. As the most politically and economically powerful city-states in Greece, the two factions developed a long-standing rivalry. Athens' power only grew when it became head of the Delian League, alarming Sparta and many other city-states. War broke out when Sparta gathered its allies to challenge Athens' power, a risky choice considering Athens' military might. Athens responded by preparing its navy and army. The war was fought from 431–404 BCE. Midway through the war, the two powers were able to come to a truce; but the peace did not last, and the city-states returned to conflict six years later. In 404 BCE, the Peloponnesian War resulted in a Spartan victory. However, the fragmentation of Greece following the war led to dire consequences for the city-states, and for Greece as a whole.

Background of the War

The Peloponnesian War was a general conflict between the rival city-states of Greece that lasted from 431-404 BCE. Classical Greek civilization did not have a central government or ruling empire but was instead made up of small, independent communities called city-states. Such a system led to political fragmentation, rivalry, and eventually, war. Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth are examples of some of the more famous city-states of this period and were among the main actors in the Peloponnesian War.

The city-states of Greece governed themselves and were highly competitive with one another when it came to trade, warfare, cultural influence, politics, and even sporting competitions. These tensions eventually led the two dominant city-states of Sparta and Athens to go to war in 431 BCE. Soon thereafter the other major city-states of Greece were drawn into the conflict.

The Peloponnesian War gets its name from the Peloponnesus, which is the southern peninsula of Greece where much of the conflict took place. Much of what we know about the Peloponnesian War comes to us from the Greek historian Thucydides who lived through the war and composed a history of the conflict.

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Causes of the Peloponnesian War

What caused the Peloponnesian War? Sparta and Athens had been long-standing rivals throughout the Classical Greek era. While there were many other city-states in Greece, these two emerged as the most powerful. They were ideologically opposed, with Sparta centering its entire society on the development of a strong military, and Athens focusing primarily on education, philosophy, and building its economy. As Athens gathered more power, Sparta began to worry for the future. The power of these two regions and their growing rivalry, were sparked into conflict due to rising tensions caused by the Delian League.

Political Structure of Ancient Greece

The political structure of ancient Greece was decentralized. City-states were population centers, and their surrounding areas were organized into a single political unit. Each city-state functioned as its own independent government. Greece was made up of over a thousand city-states, with no central ruler over them all. The geography of Greece separated these city-states both politically and culturally, as mountains, rocky terrain, and islands physically separated regions. Several important city-states included Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Elis, Syracuse, and Rhodes. All of these city-states competed for political power and resources. Conflict between city-states was common. The later formation of the Delian League, a political organization meant to unite the city-states, attempted to solve the problem of political fragmentation. However, it only led to more conflict and divisions between city-states.

The Delian League

The Delian League was created in response to the Persian Wars. Being decentralized put the Greek city-states at a huge risk when attacked by foreign powers; it was difficult to amass large armies, especially in the smaller city-states. When the Persians invaded, Greek city-states joined together under the Delian League to fight against the Persian threat. This was organized under Athens' leadership in the Delos city-state. Athens had the largest and most powerful navy, which was a great asset in the fight against the Persians. Sparta, as well as several hundred other city-states, joined the military alliance in order to defend themselves from the outside threat. The Persian Wars lasted between 500–479 BCE, but the league remained powerful long after the war had ended. Under Athens' leadership, members of the league were required to pay tribute in order to fund the league. This influx of wealth strengthened Athens and allowed it to prosper, leading to resentment and discontent from other members of the league.

A Greek map of the Delian League (orange) and Athens (red)

Map of the Delian League

Sparta's Rebellion

Sparta was the only city-state that could match the power and influence of Athens. Sparta and its allies, mostly members of the Delian League, grew upset at Athens' power. Together, they moved to challenge the city-state. Corinth, a Spartan ally, moved into Corcyra to protect their economic interests against Athens, and Sparta came to defend its ally. When it did, the Peloponnesian War broke out as Athens attempted to defend its interests. Most of the fighting would occur on the Peloponnese, a region of southern Greece, which is where the conflict derived its name.

The King of Sparta speaking with representatives of different city-states before the Peloponnesian War

The court of the King of Sparta

The Conflict and Its Causes

There are a number of factors that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war. Firstly, the political structure of classical Greek society was itself a cause of war. With many independent city-states competing for resources and cultural influence, war was always a danger. Secondly, the alliance known as the Delian League had brought the city-states of Greece into an uneasy military alliance that many members began to resent over time.

The Delian League was an alliance formed after the Persian Wars (500 - 479 BCE) as a means to deter future attacks on Greece from the mighty Persian Empire. Athens became the natural leader of the Delian League since it had the largest navy with which to combat Persian advances. The other city-states of Greece paid tribute to Athens to help support the military coalition. As a result, Athens enjoyed a great deal of prosperity under the Delian League. However, this ultimately worked to foster animosity towards Athens and can be counted as a major cause of the war.

The third cause of the Peloponnesian War was likely due to Sparta's rebellion. War really wouldn't have been possible at all if Sparta had not risen to challenge Athenian hegemony. The Peloponnesian War was underway once Sparta and its allies moved to challenge Athens.

Although there were many actors and city-states involved, the Peloponnesian War formed around two distinct rival sides: one led by Sparta and the other led by Athens. Fighting took place throughout Greece and the Aegean Sea and even impacted areas as distant as Sicily. Athens and Sparta were both able to rely upon a number of allied city-states, which meant that the war spread throughout Greece.

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Video Transcript

Background of the War

The Peloponnesian War was a general conflict between the rival city-states of Greece that lasted from 431-404 BCE. Classical Greek civilization did not have a central government or ruling empire but was instead made up of small, independent communities called city-states. Such a system led to political fragmentation, rivalry, and eventually, war. Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth are examples of some of the more famous city-states of this period and were among the main actors in the Peloponnesian War.

The city-states of Greece governed themselves and were highly competitive with one another when it came to trade, warfare, cultural influence, politics, and even sporting competitions. These tensions eventually led the two dominant city-states of Sparta and Athens to go to war in 431 BCE. Soon thereafter the other major city-states of Greece were drawn into the conflict.

The Peloponnesian War gets its name from the Peloponnesus, which is the southern peninsula of Greece where much of the conflict took place. Much of what we know about the Peloponnesian War comes to us from the Greek historian Thucydides who lived through the war and composed a history of the conflict.

The Conflict and Its Causes

There are a number of factors that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war. Firstly, the political structure of classical Greek society was itself a cause of war. With many independent city-states competing for resources and cultural influence, war was always a danger. Secondly, the alliance known as the Delian League had brought the city-states of Greece into an uneasy military alliance that many members began to resent over time.

The Delian League was an alliance formed after the Persian Wars (500 - 479 BCE) as a means to deter future attacks on Greece from the mighty Persian Empire. Athens became the natural leader of the Delian League since it had the largest navy with which to combat Persian advances. The other city-states of Greece paid tribute to Athens to help support the military coalition. As a result, Athens enjoyed a great deal of prosperity under the Delian League. However, this ultimately worked to foster animosity towards Athens and can be counted as a major cause of the war.

The third cause of the Peloponnesian War was likely due to Sparta's rebellion. War really wouldn't have been possible at all if Sparta had not risen to challenge Athenian hegemony. The Peloponnesian War was underway once Sparta and its allies moved to challenge Athens.

Although there were many actors and city-states involved, the Peloponnesian War formed around two distinct rival sides: one led by Sparta and the other led by Athens. Fighting took place throughout Greece and the Aegean Sea and even impacted areas as distant as Sicily. Athens and Sparta were both able to rely upon a number of allied city-states, which meant that the war spread throughout Greece.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What impact did the outcome of the Peloponnesian War have on Greece?

The Peloponnesian War left Greece divided and weak. Because of this, Macedon was able to more easily invade and conquer the region.

What were the three main causes of the Peloponnesian War?

The Peloponnesian War was caused by the growing power of Athens and Sparta. It was also caused by their rivalry, and the tensions built between city-states by the Delian League.

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