Ultimate and proximate causes of war are seldom the same. For, while great wars are ultimately fought over contrasts in ideology, religion, or philosophy, such abstractions alone cannot set them in motion. The spark that ignites the tinder of ideological conflict is always something smaller — often something downright petty. The Peloponnesian War that destroyed the traditional life of Greece was no exception to this rule. When the conflict began, it did so for ostensible reasons oddly removed, both geographically and politically, from the cultural incompatibilities between Sparta and Athens that were its real cause. And the oracle in Delphi played a direct if inadvertent role in providing this proximate cause for war.
One day in 435 BC, a delegation came to Delphi from a remote city known as Epidamnos, one of the northernmost outposts of Greek civilization. Epidamnos had been founded some years earlier by colonists from the island of Corcyra, which you may know as Corfu; Corcyra had in turn been settled by Corinth many, many years before that. Both colonies, however, had revolted against their founding cities and declared independence.
Of late, Epidamnos had fallen prey yet again to civil strife. The people of the city, fed up by a long period of aristocratic misrule, had expelled their rulers from their palace and sent them into exile, vowing to set up a democracy instead. But the former rulers had made common cause with the barbarians who dominated the continent east and north of this lonely Greek outpost. They were now besieging the city with their new allies.
The desperate people of Epidamnos first sent a delegation to Corcyra to plead for help, but found that none was forthcoming from that quarter. The islanders had been none too pleased when Epidamnos had chosen to declare its independence from them, and saw no reason to save their former colony now.
So, the delegation made the journey to Delphi. “Who among our Greek countrymen will help us in this time of urgent need if not Corcyra?” they asked the oracle.
“You also have ties with Corinth, albeit by one more degree of separation,” said the oracle on behalf of her god. “And Corinth was angered when Corcyra declared independence, just as Corcyra was unhappy when you did the same. Go to Corinth now and plead your case. You may find that the Corinthians will thrill to the opportunity to show up their former colony by coming to your aid themselves. But if supporting a Greek city in dire straits and humiliating Corcyra in the process are not sufficient motivation for them, you may tell them as well that the god Apollo desires their intervention.”
So, the delegates made their way to Corinth. And there, just as the oracle had predicted, they met a sympathetic reception. In fact, the Corinthians immediately marched an army northward to come to the aid of Epidamnos. It was an impressive force; Corinth was arguably the most militarily powerful of all the Greek cities after Sparta and Athens. Its army broke the siege as soon as it arrived at Epidamnos — for the barbarian besiegers were no match for it, which fact they could see perfectly well.
But after marching into Epidamnos as liberators, the leaders of Corinth were loath to give the city up again. They decided to make it a colony of their own, and made special offers to their own citizens to tempt them into making the journey north to augment the city’s existing population and settle lands around it which they intended to claim from the barbarians. This power grab in what Corcyra regarded as its region of the world enraged that island even more than had Corinth’s original intervention. As soon as the bulk of the Corinthian army had returned home, Corcyra attacked and conquered Epidamnos itself.
It did so in the hope that the Corinthians would be willing to let the incident go, occurring as it had so far from Corinth’s own borders — but this was not to be. Corinth sent its navy into the Adriatic Sea to harass the ships sailing in and out of Epidamnos, which in turn prompted Corcyra to send its own navy to engage the raiders. Being thus further provoked, Corinth announced to all the world that it intended to launch a seaborne invasion of Corcyra proper, to put an end to the island’s insolence once and for all.
In counting on Corinth being uninterested in prosecuting a long-term war in this remote region of the world, Corcyra had thus badly miscalculated. It needed allies. And yet, being so far removed from the heart of Greece, Corcyra had heretofore maintained an aloof posture and avoided signing any alliances with the cities there; this now looked very much like another mistake. It sent a delegation to Athens to plead for help, hoping that Corinth’s membership in the Peloponnesian League would be sufficient cause to convince Athens to join the war on the other side. In 433 BC, the Corcyraean spokesman appeared before the Athenian Council of Archontes.
“Noble Athenians,” he began, “I do understand that when someone who has no history with another asks that other for assistance, some measure of skepticism is warranted. The burden is clearly on us to explain why the military support we request will not only be safe for you to undertake but of real practical benefit. I say to you, then, that if you come to our aid now, you will deal a brutal blow to the prestige of your rival Corinth, whilst showing yourself to be a beneficent power willing and able to help those who are oppressed by the cities of the Peloponnesian League.
“For it truly is we of Corcyra who are in the right in this affair. It is Corinth that has violated the laws of justice by seizing a colony far from itself which rightfully belongs to other Greeks. We have even offered to submit the matter for adjudication before the oracle in Delphi, only to be refused. What further proof does one need that the Corinthians themselves are aware that justice is on our side?
“Even we on our island far away can see that a war is coming between Sparta and its allies — Corinth among them — and your city. It is fear and jealousy of Athens that makes such a war inevitable. In the war, Athens will need as many allies of its own as it can find. You must be aware that our naval strength is not inconsiderable. By joining forces with us now, you make plans against the Peloponnesian League instead of waiting passively for the plans that are made against you to come to fruition. Together the Athenian and Corcyraean navies will be able to control all of the Adriatic, Ionian, Cretan, and Aegean Seas when the great war with Sparta begins — but only if you help us now. If you fail to help us, you run the risk of Corcyra’s navy being added to Corinth’s instead. The Athenian navy alone, powerful though it is, will be hard-pressed if that should come to pass.”
But the Corcyraean delegate was not the only speaker on that day. The Corinthian ambassador to Athens was also present at the assembly, as was his right. He now rose to speak.
“Athenians,” he said, “the Corcyraeans accuse us — us — of injustice? If a sense of justice prevailed among them, their island would still be a colony of Corinth, the city of their fathers against whom they revolted for no good reason whatsoever. Then, to compound the injustice, they sinned against their own sons in Epidamnos by failing to come to their aid in their time of greatest need. Finally, they made war upon us for having answered the plea for help which they chose to ignore! Is it any wonder that we have decided to reclaim this wayward child who is rightfully ours and teach it proper manners?
“I would ask you to note that the Corcyraeans began to talk of arbitration in Delphi only after it became clear that we Corinthians did not intend to let them steal Epidamnos away from us without paying a hefty price. The same is true of this latest talk of theirs of alliances. Where was Corcyra when this very ground on which we stand was in the hands of the Persians? Corinthians, I would remind you, fought beside you at Salamis to recapture it while Corcyra remained studiously neutral.
“The so-called ‘practical benefits’ of Athenian intervention described by the Corcyraeans are so transparently self-serving as hardly to be worth rebutting. Suffice to say that we of the Peloponnesian League do not regard war with Athens as inevitable. In fact, to show its good faith, our friend and ally Sparta signed a treaty guaranteeing thirty years of peace, whose term is currently barely one-third expired. But if you enter now into this conflict that rightfully involves only Corinth and Corcyra, Sparta may very well regard it as a violation of the terms of that treaty. Thus the ‘inevitable’ war these Corcyraeans talk of may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
With this veiled threat still ringing in their ears, the Council of Archontes retired to debate the Corcyraean request in company with the Council of 500. It was a thorny question; one didn’t have to be Socrates to see that neither side in the burgeoning conflict stood upon any moral high ground. The only truly aggrieved party in the affair was Epidamnos, which had no representative at all on hand to argue its cause. Accordingly, many said at first that Athens should stay out of the conflict, that the whole petty dispute wasn’t worth risking the fragile peace that now held sway between Athens and Sparta. But others, including the great Pericles, shared the Corcyraeans’ real or professed belief that war with Sparta was inevitable; in their eyes, it made sense to use this period of peace to jockey for advantage in the war that must come. And certainly no one wished to fight the combined Corinthian and Corcyraean navies, if and when war did come.
When the debates were over, Pericles himself announced the compromise he had brokered, which gave Corcyra some but not all of what it had asked for. Athens would act as Greece’s high-minded essential mediator — a role it relished — by entering into a defensive alliance with Corcyra: it would defend the latter against any Corinthian attack on its home island, but it would not participate in any operations elsewhere. Athens quickly dispatched a fleet to protect Corcyra under these terms.
Whereupon Corinth sent a fleet of its own to test the Athenians’ resolve. When the two fleets met off the coast of Corcyra, neither side’s commander was quite sure what to do. The Corinthian admiral sent a message to his Athenian counterpart. “Engaged as we are in chastening our enemies, we find that you have placed yourselves between us and them. Do you intend that we treat you too as our enemies?”
And the Athenian admiral answered: “We do not wish to break the peace, but Corcyra is our ally. If you continue to sail toward that island, we will do our best to stop you. But if you wish to sail anywhere else, we will place no obstacle in your way.”
Under other circumstances, the great war might have begun then and there in the Adriatic Sea. As it was, though, the Corinthian admiral had been ordered to test the Athenians’ resolve but not to push them to the point of war, for Sparta had told Corinth in no uncertain terms that any war it chose to unilaterally enter into over Corcyra or Epidamnos would belong to Corinth alone. Such a war Corinth had no chance of winning against Athens. So, the Corinthian admiral withdrew.
From that day forward, however, Corinth was deeply aggrieved against Athens. Not daring to prosecute a unilateral war, the Corinthians sought constantly to shatter the delicate state of peace that existed between Athens and Sparta. At the next meeting of the Peloponnesian League in Sparta, their representative spoke.
“Time after time,” he said, “we have warned you of the danger posed by the growing power and arrogance of the Athenians, and time after time you have dismissed our warnings as the disingenuous products of our private interests. But the real facts of the case are undeniable to anyone with the eyes to see them. The Athenians prepare methodically for an eventual war against the Peloponnesian League, while said league does nothing on its own behalf. Is it not better to crush an enemy in his infancy, rather than allowing him to double and then redouble in power?
“I say to you again that you have no conception of what a menace Athens has already become to all the rest of Greece. You cannot see this because the very differences in your philosophies of life blind you to it. The Athenians are addicted to innovation; theirs is a culture of invention and acquisition. You wish only to keep what you have, with a total want of invention. The Athenians are adventurous beyond their power, daring beyond their judgment, and sanguine in the face of danger. You attempt less than what your power could accomplish, mistrust your own judgment, and see danger even where it does not exist. The Athenians act promptly. You procrastinate. The Athenians are constantly away from home, seeking always to extend their frontiers. You are disinclined to leave home because you wish not to leave your existing territory exposed.
“The Athenians are swift to follow up a success, and slow to recoil from a reverse. A scheme unexecuted is to them a greater shame than one that ends in failure upon the execution, for in them the pain of failure is quickly replaced by fresh plans for even grander schemes. The best of them happily toil every day of their lives, for they find greater pleasure in getting more than in enjoying what they already have. By taking no rest themselves, the Athenians give no rest to others. This is the nature of your enemies — and formidable enemies they are.
“You Spartans wish only for stability, wish for everything to remain as it has been since the time of Lycurgus. But the world around you is changing more rapidly than ever before, and it will crush you and your old-fashioned ways in its headlong flight if you do not take action. The only way to preserve the Sparta of old is, paradoxical though it may sound, to change along with the world. You must invade Attica and crush this threat to all you hold dear. Your staunch ally Corinth stands ready to assist you in the cause.”
But just as the Corinthians still had an ambassador among the hated Athenians, the Athenians had an ambassador in Sparta. Although he wasn’t permitted to join the assembly of the Peloponnesian League, word reached him of the incendiary speech the Corinthian representative had delivered there. The ambassador asked for special permission to address the same assembly, and this was granted.
“My purpose in Sparta is not to interfere in the affairs of my host and its allies, but strictly to attend to the needs of Athens in its relationship with Sparta,” he said. “Yet the vehemence of the slanders that have been made against Athens now forces me to come forward.
“Put simply, Athens deserves its preeminent position in Greece. I remind you once again that it is first and foremost due to Athens that Greece remains Greek at all. We saved the land of all our forefathers twice from the Persian threat, once at Marathon and once at Salamis. The influence in the world which we have since acquired came to us not by violence, but because many of the peoples of the Aegean willingly attached themselves to us. If we have made moves to prepare for war against the Peloponnesian League in recent years, that is only because you had already ceased to be our friends, had begun to treat us with naked suspicion and dislike. In circumstances such as these, it would be the height of folly not to prepare for our own defense.
“You in Sparta would have done the same — have done the same many times in the past. Indeed, Corinth looks to you now only because it perceives you to be relatively strong, and it is far too weak to go to war with Athens alone. If the Corinthians got their wish, and together you managed to defeat us, they would soon begin to look upon you with the same fear and loathing with which they regard us today. For the truth is that your institutions and way of life are much more incompatible with those of the rest of Greece than ours are. The only claim you have to your allies’ loyalty is the claim of power.
“Take your time, then, in choosing between peace and war. Remember as you do so that wars are chance affairs whose outcomes and implications are impossible to predict. You can be sure of only one thing: while we do not choose war, we will defend ourselves to the utmost if one is forced upon us — and, as we proved against the Persians, our utmost is a force to be reckoned with.”
After the Athenian ambassador had had his say, the Spartans were left to confront the decision before them. They sent everyone away — not only the Athenian but all of the foreign representatives to the Peloponnesian League — in order to debate in private. Most of the senators, as well as the king named Pausanias, took the Corinthian argument to heart and said that Sparta and its allies must attack Athens now, before the latter’s growing strength made victory impossible. But the other king, an elderly monarch named Archidamus who had reigned for more than forty years, advocated caution.
“I have experienced many wars in my life,” he said. “I know the reality of war all too well, and no longer make the mistake, so common among our Spartan youth, of seeing it as the solution to every problem. This war we are contemplating would be of a magnitude comparable only to the struggles against the Persians and the Trojans. But in those wars all of Greece was more or less united against a common enemy. This war would pit Greek against Greek in a struggle to the death, and that alone should give us pause. For these are no barbarians we would be fighting. I happen to be personal friends with Pericles of Athens, and thus know well the qualities of both that man and the people he represents; these qualities should not be underestimated. The Athenians are better at seaborne warfare than any of us, as well as richer than any of us. And they have huge quantities of additional ships and sailors at their disposal, thanks to their far-flung network of vassals and allies. Exactly how would we win a war against such an opponent?
“Yes, our legions here on the mainland are superior to theirs, in numbers and in quality. We could occupy Attica and besiege their city with relative ease. But they are well-equipped to hold out against such a siege — much more so than they were when the Persians invaded. For they have used their wealth to build walls around their city that are by all accounts well-nigh impregnable, and they could easily import all of the foodstuffs and other supplies they need from the seas which they will control with such ease.
“Therefore I repeat: how are we to win such a war? It seems to me that we must either destroy their fleet in battle or deprive them of the resources they need to sustain it — which, because those resources themselves arrive by sea, amounts to the same thing. And we are ill-equipped to do this thing, even with the help of allies like the Corinthians who possess some of the sea-faring traditions which we Spartans lack. If we begin this war, our stubborn Spartan honor will demand that we continue to wage it without end, even once it has become clear that neither side can possibly win it — for the Athenians will have as hard a time defeating us on the mainland as we will have defeating them at sea. A Greece fighting a perpetual civil war … is this really the legacy we want to leave to our children?
“Perhaps, as our friend from Corinth so stridently claims, war between Sparta and Athens is inevitable. But it need not happen now. We should preserve the peace for at least another few years. In the meantime, we can seek out allies with the ships — or the gold to build them — which we lack. Greek or barbarian, it matters not, as long as they add to our power. Perhaps this will even make war unnecessary; if we can exhibit a fleet equal to theirs, perhaps the Athenians will begin to demonstrate more humility.
“The Corinthian’s attacks against our Spartan character were unjust; we should not allow them to serve their intended purpose of goading us into war. This innate conservatism which he condemns is the best part of us. Just as we are not carried away by the approbation of others, we do not take to heart spurious insults like those of our Corinthian friend. We are warlike — proudly so! — but also wise. For to wage war well requires wisdom — requires an understanding that the enemy can also be clever and capable, and that, just as the Athenian ambassador said, the vagaries of chance can upset even the best-laid plan. Therefore it is best to have a backup plan for every primary plan, and another plan after that, all resting upon their intrinsic soundness rather than hopes that the enemy will blunder. These practices are the legacy of our ancestors, which have long made Sparta the greatest warrior nation in the world. Those forefathers of ours would never have embarked on a voluntary war like the one we contemplate today without a firm plan — or rather plans — for winning it.
“Attempt to preserve the peace as long as possible whilst preparing for war. This course is best for us and worst for our enemies.”
Immediately after the wizened old king had finished speaking, however, one of the most prominent of the Spartan senators stood up to present the opposite view.
“I believe we are rather over-complicating the issue,” he said. “The Athenian ambassador did not even bother to deny his city’s unjust behavior toward our ally Corinth, much less his city’s desire to run roughshod over the rest of Greece. And if his city did Greece a great service fifty years ago — albeit not so singular a service as he claims; Sparta and others contributed to the cause at Thermopylae and also Salamis, not to mention at the final Battle of Plataea — that only makes its current behavior all the more reprehensible by contrast. The path of Spartan honor is clear here. We should not deny the damage being done to our ally because it is inconvenient for us to acknowledge; nor should we refuse to right a wrong today with the vague aspiration of doing so tomorrow instead. This is not a matter for discussion but for force of arms. Long deliberation is a sign of weakness; the strong and true know which course is the correct one. Do not fall prey to the sophistry of the Athenians! Do not betray our ally! Vote, Spartans, for war! And let us advance against the Athenian oppressors!”
The vote was taken in the traditional Spartan fashion. All of those who wished to go to war went to one side of the room; all of those who wished to preserve the peace went to the other. The former were revealed to be in the decided majority. So, in the fourteenth year of the supposed thirty-year peace, Sparta opted for war. The simple argument from rigid principle advanced by the senator had carried the day against the more nuanced position of the king. Thus is it often in matters of war and peace. Old King Archidamus, who knew this to be true better than anyone, shook his head sadly.
The Spartans reassembled the other representatives to the Peloponnesian League to inform them of their choice; now it was up to the rest of them to vote on whether they too wished to go to war. The Corinthians reacted with undisguised glee, but many of the others were more muted in their expressions of support for the common cause, mentioning many of the same practical worries about their collective ability to defeat the Athenians that King Archidamus had so recently shared in private council. The Corinthian spokesman attempted to allay their fears.
“We have every reason to expect success in war against Athens,” he said. “We have superiority in numbers and military experience, and I trust that we will all hew to the Spartan model of absolute military discipline. It is true that the Athenian navy is at the moment more powerful than ours, but we can ask at Delphi for a loan — a loan which can hardly be refused, given that most of the cities of Greece belong to our league. With that money, we can buy ships and sailors. The Athenians’ advantages, where they exist, are in techniques and materials, while ours are grounded in something more ineffable: our superior martial character. The former we can learn and acquire, but the latter the Athenians will find as inaccessible to the likes of themselves as human speech is to the beasts of the field. With our intrinsic strengths on our side, we need not plan overmuch. For victory in war goes seldom to the side which plans best, but rather to the one best able to combine bravery with tactical ingenuity in the heat of the moment.
“Most of all, though, victory in war belongs to the party that has justice on its side. This the gods assure; witness the outcomes of the Trojan and Persian Wars. And we already have tacit proof that the god in Delphi condones our reasons for going to war now. Did not Apollo tell the people of Epidamnos at the start of the current crisis that they should turn to Corinth for help? He knows all things — past, present, and future — and thus must surely have known that that request would set in motion the chain of events that has led us to this point today. Obviously what has transpired is just what he desired. Do we really wish to risk his wrath by flinching now at the pivotal moment?
“Delay not, fellow allies of Sparta, but vote for war! Remain undeterred by its immediate terrors. Look forward instead to the lasting peace which will follow the removal of the Athenian menace!”
Stirred or shamed by this heated speech, unwilling to risk damaging their relations with Sparta, the majority of the representatives did as the Corinthian asked. Many continued to worry privately over the rickety foundation used to raise the edifice of war, with its vague evocations of superior character and its dubious assertions of divine sanction. Nevertheless, war it was to be.
Having thus decided, the Peloponnesian League still needed to give the war a firm diplomatic justification. It accordingly sent a trio of envoys to Athens with an ultimatum in the form of a long list of real and contrived grievances, accompanied by demands that Athens change its behavior; renouncing its protection of Corcyra was only the beginning of the list. Acceding to the demands would mean giving up Athens’s preeminent place among the cities of Greece in favor of a posture of complete, subservient humility. To this it would never agree, as those who had sent the ultimatum knew full well. Still, there was spirited debate within the Council of Archontes, the Council of 500, and indeed everywhere in Athens over whether some form of compromise might be possible. But Pericles, for decades now the essential man in Athenian politics, was having none of it.
“If there is one principle which I have always regarded as sacred, it is that of no concession to Peloponnesian bullying,” he said. “The document which we are all discussing now purports to be an instrument of diplomacy, but it is in fact no such thing; it is an instrument of war, as surely as is a spear or a trireme. For the Spartans and their lackey cities do not desire negotiation; they have already decided that they will have war no matter what our response. Certainly they themselves would never accept terms of peace such as the ones they purport to offer us here; no Greek city would. Even if we gave in to all of their demands, it would avail us not. They would merely come again next year with a list of additional, still more extreme requirements. This is the way of the bully, as most of us learned during our boyhoods. Only one response to such a one is effectual: a calm, steely-eyed refusal to be cowed.
“It is true that such a refusal likely means war, but we have good reason to feel optimistic about our chances in such a conflict. Thanks to the superiority of our navy — now further augmented by the navy of Corcyra — the Peloponnesians will be unable to dent our trade in the Aegean. If we can but manage to hold onto Athens itself here on the mainland, we will be able to survive perfectly well. The asymmetry of a sea power versus a land power may bode a long war, but we are better able to survive such a war of attrition than they are. We can cut them off from all seaborne trade, whilst harassing their coastal settlements, until they tire of the affair. There is just one thing we must avoid at all costs: we must not be seduced into marching out to meet the Peloponnesians in open battle on land. For even if we won the first such battle, it would cost us more soldiers than we can afford to lose. We must hold fast within our city’s strong walls and stay the course. This war will require as much patience as valor from us.
“For now, though, we should send these Spartan envoys back whence they came, with the message that we utterly reject this imposition upon our sovereignty, which would reduce us to the status of little more than Spartan vassals. We should say that we have no desire for war and do not plan to start one, but that we are certain of our ability to defeat any who are so rash as to declare war upon us.”
Pericles’s influence proved as immense as ever; Athens voted to do just as he said.
Only hours after the envoys returned to Sparta with the Athenian response, the Peloponnesian League formally declared war against Athens and the rest of the Delian League. And with that event, the bitterest tragedy of the Age of Men was launched on its inexorable way.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and onl