There is often a peculiar lag between a declaration of war and its reality. Such was the case after the Peloponnesian League chose war against the Delian League. Athens, having decided from the outset to adopt a defensive posture, had little motivation to initiate actual hostilities, given that some there still hoped that a mere show of firm resolve would be sufficient to bring the Spartans back to the negotiating table. And Sparta, meanwhile, had to rally its allies and build up its forces before it could realistically take the war to Athens.
During this strange period of war that was not yet truly war, Sparta sent a delegation to Delphi to confirm the god Apollo’s support for its side and to ask whether he had any special instructions. This placed the oracle there in a difficult position indeed; Delphi was surrounded by powers allied with Sparta. Coincidentally or not, she returned from her consultation with the god with exactly the message which the Spartans most wished to hear. “If you put your whole strength into the war,” she said, “victory will be yours. Apollo will stand beside you throughout.”
The Spartans immediately made their way to the chief treasurer of the town. “Apollo has pledged his wholehearted support for our war against Athens,” they said pointedly. “Now, we require a loan from his treasury in order to finance it.” The treasurer looked uncomfortable in the face of the demand — much as the oracle had looked only a short time before, in fact — but could see no alternative but to grant it. The Spartans left Delphi later that day with chests bursting with gold, the first of many such “loans” to come. Likewise, the town would become an important military staging ground for the Peloponnesians in the years to come.
Thus Delphi inadvertently lost its status as a neutral arbiter for all of Greece. When men came to write the history of the war that was about to begin, they would write of Delphi as a partisan of the Spartan side, a position that neither the oracle nor the people of the town relished in the least. And yet what else could they have done but accede to the Spartans’ demands, surrounded as they were by the Spartans’ allies and without military power of their own?
But if the people of Delphi greeted the coming war with misgivings, this was not true of the people who lived in the cities of the Peloponnesian League. The time before the realities of war set in are the times that most stir the blood of both the old men who choose wars and the young men who are doomed to fight and die in them. Certain that theirs was a noble cause and that glory awaited them on the battlefield, the flower of Greek youth rushed to enlist themselves. The poets chanted, the musicians piped, and the maidens cheered as the newly minted soldiers marched through the streets of the cities and villages that lay between their homes and Sparta, where the army that would invade Attica was gathering. The very air surrounding them seemed drenched in auguries; when a once-in-a-century earthquake struck the island of Delos, the home of Apollo’s second largest temple as well as the namesake of the Delian League, the symbolism inherent in the event hardly seemed to require the assistance of the partisan prophets who rushed to proclaim its meaning.
While the young men thus drilled and thrilled to the adventure awaiting them, the old men saw to the logistics of war. Sparta sent much of the gold it had gathered from Delphi to its few island dependencies, with instructions to begin using it to build triremes.
Athens did its best to prepare as well, but it faced a marked disparity in sheer weight of population. Almost all of Greece beyond Attica had grown to resent Athens for its power and its riches, and even those cities that remained ostensibly neutral tended to favor the Spartan cause in reality. Even Argos — traditionally Athens’s staunchest ally, and the only city of the Peloponnese not to have joined the Peloponnesian League — opted for neutrality rather than casting its lot with Athens. Of the significant mainland cities, only Plataea, where the final defeat of the Persians had occurred almost fifty years before, agreed to fight with the Athenians. The latter chose to take this at least as a good omen.
By the early summer of 431 BC — almost a year after the declaration of war — Sparta was bursting at the seams with soldiers from across Greece. Archidamus, the old Spartan king who had opposed the war prior to its declaration, agreed to lead the combined army, in the hope that by dint of luck and experience he could bring it to the swift, clean end which he had so recently told the Spartan Senate was unlikely. Now, he knew, was no longer the time for nuance, much less prevarication. When he spoke to his assembled army just before it set off on the march to Attica, he did so in the tones of a general rather than a senator. For the next best thing to a war avoided, he knew, was a war won quickly and decisively.
“Spartans, Peloponnesians, and Greeks,” he began, “never has a larger or more potent army set off from this city than the one I see before me today. The hopes and prayers of all of Greece are with us as we march out to do battle with the Athenians.
“We have numbers and experience on our side, but we should not let those factors seduce us into a false confidence. Do not let them become an excuse for negligence on the march. Show respect for your enemies — for, I promise you, they are worthy of it. Now is not the time for arrogance. Do not be timid, but always temper your confidence with apprehension. The city we march against has wise leaders and an army of soldiers much like yourselves, willing to lay down their lives for their cause. Remember that the formidability of a soldier’s foes only adds to his eternal glory when he overcomes them. To overcome these Athenians, you must live from now until the end of this campaign by the Spartan watchwords of discipline, vigilance, and obedience.”
Privately, however, Archidamus still grieved over the misfortune he saw coming to all of Greece. Even as his army began its march, he called his swiftest messenger and passed him a private note he had written to his friend Pericles the previous night. In it, he asked Pericles to meet him at a place in Attica where the two had hunted together several times in the past. “Peace may still be possible,” he wrote. “Let us try one last time to find a way to avoid this conflict whilst preserving the honor of both our cities.” But the note never made it into the hands of Pericles; a sentry at the gates of Athens turned the messenger away, following Pericles’s own strict orders. Archidamus wept in his tent after the messenger returned and told of his rejection — wept not just for the Spartans who must soon die but for the Athenians as well.
The Athenians greeted the news of the tremendous army marching in their direction with understandable alarm. Pericles did his best to cheer his fellow citizens, going through the same litany of Athenian strengths that he had used to convince them to reject the Spartan ultimatum of the year prior.
His plan remained to cede all of the territory of Attica except for Athens itself. As word of this got around, people from the villages, farms, and estates scattered across Attica streamed toward the city to take refuge behind its strong walls. They slept wherever they could find space, from the ramparts of the walls to the acropolis at the city’s center. The legendary trading fleet of Athens had to labor heroically just to import enough food to sustain them all. The fighting had not yet begun in earnest, and already Athens was being transformed by the war; the bustling city of commerce became a sullen encampment of refugees.
Meanwhile the invading army was beset by tensions of its own. Archidamus advanced with painful slowness through the Isthmus of Corinth and into Attica. The soldiers and even some of their officers muttered darkly about cowardice and alleged Athenian sympathies. In actuality, though, Archidamus’s slowness had a different wellspring. Knowing how difficult if not impossible it would be to defeat the Athenians while they remained within their walls, he wanted to draw them out of their city into open battle. By prolonging his advance, he heightened the nervous tension inside Athens, and, so he thought, made that event steadily more likely.
And it must be said that his assessment was to some extent correct. As the slow Peloponnesian advance continued, the military men of Athens especially, along with the refugees whose lands were being destroyed, agitated more and more to sally forth and attempt to end the ravaging of Attica. “Sixty years ago we had the exact same argument that we are having today,” they said. “And when Miltiades finally convinced us not to cower behind our walls, the result was a smashing victory at Marathon.”
Pericles tried to explain that the current situation was completely different from that fondly remembered past — Athens’s walls had been less sturdy at that time, and the invaders had been much farther from home and much less acquainted with Athens’s military capabilities — but it was a constant struggle to maintain his grip on the impatient public. The tension was exacerbated by the overcrowding, such that fights broke out in the streets over the question. Prophets churned out pronouncements supporting one side or the other, to be hurled at the opposing camp in lieu of arrows. Soon many began to directly condemn Pericles, in terms that would have been unimaginable before the current crisis. But through it all, that man held fast, and managed to keep just enough of the government and military leadership from breaking ranks to tamp down the dissension.
Pericles did have another plan for relieving the pressure inside and outside of his city. Just as Archidamus feared he would, he sent the Athenian fleet to attack the defenseless coast of the Peloponnese. The ravages of the Peloponnesian army in Attica were now matched by the ravages of the Athenians in that army’s own homelands. The Athenian ships disgorged soldiers almost every night to burn fields and villages all along the coast. The soldiers grew bolder after their first successes, moving further and further inland as it became clear that the vast majority of the land’s would-be defenders had marched across the Isthmus of Corinth as part of Archidamus’s army. (The Spartan king had begged the senate to leave more troops behind to defend the fragile homeland, but he had been overridden.) The Athenians burned so many crops and killed so much livestock that the prospect of a famine in the coming winter began to loom large.
This was the state of the war at noon on August 3, 431 BC, when a bizarre and terrifying sight greeted Greeks everywhere: the sun went out for several long moments. As usual, neither side in the war could agree even among themselves whether the solar eclipse was a portent of doom for them or for their enemies. Although he was at long last getting close to the walls of Athens, Archidamus took it as a sign that he must retreat back to the Peloponnese to protect what remained of the harvest. So, his army marched — much faster this time — back across the Isthmus of Corinth. Knowing better than to engage with such a sizable force, the Athenian raiders in the Peloponnese melted away again, back to the safety of the sea.
Pericles’s plan had thus worked perfectly, if only in the nick of time. The Athenians had gotten the better of the first season of war, although this was perhaps small comfort to the villagers and farmers who now left the sanctuary of the city to view the devastation the Peloponnesians had left behind them.
That winter a funeral was held to commemorate the first handful of Athenian soldiers to have lost their lives in the war. Pericles, being now restored in the good graces of just about everyone following the manifest success of his strategy, delivered the eulogy.
“These men met danger face to face,” he said, “and never shirked from the ultimate exigency. For thus offering up their lives, they receive a renown that never grows old, and will be remembered upon every occasion where the deeds of Athenian heroes are commemorated. This should be a comfort if not a condolence to those of you — parents, wives, siblings, children — whom these men have left behind. Lament, but rejoice as well! For these men died as heroes, as noble as any of the heroes of the Age of Gods!” He followed this with a lengthy recitation of the Athenian ideals of democracy and individual freedom for which the soldiers had died.
Whether such fine words were truly enough to alleviate the sorrow of those left behind, or for that matter whether Pericles himself believed as completely as he let on in the necessity of the current war, no one can say. Certainly the land which surrounded him as he spoke provided an illustration of the other wages of war through its burnt crops and massacred livestock — the wages of destruction rather than glory.
The next year’s campaigning began just as the previous one’s had. Once again, Archidamus set out from Sparta toward Athens with his army, albeit whilst leaving one-third of his soldiers behind this time to guard the coastal regions against the Athenian raiders. And once again the people who lived in the countryside of Attica rushed to Athens for safety. But then came the element of chance in war — the very thing of which Archidamus had so urgently tried to warn his people. Thankfully for him and them, this chance benefited his side rather than the enemy: a deadly plague came to Athens.
No one could say authoritatively whence the disease had come, but theories nevertheless abounded, and one of these eventually hardened into accepted truth. It said that the plague had begun years ago far to the south — farther south even than Egypt — and made its slow way northward with migrants and travelers. When it neared Greek shores, so the people said, the Spartans had paid its foreign carriers to bear it with them into Athens. All rationality left the people of Athens in the face of the disease’s terrible omnipresence. As the plague continued and the Athenians grew ever more desperate, mobs attacked and killed anyone in the city of southern extraction, even those who had been living among their assailants as good neighbors and loyal citizens for years. For fear, alas, is all too often the handmaiden of hatred. And the Athenians had good reason to be afraid.
The disease started in the head and worked its way downward. A man in good health in the morning might suddenly be afflicted in the afternoon with hot flashes and reddened, swollen eyes. Blood would begin oozing from his throat and tongue, and his breath would become as fetid as a corpse rotting in the sun. Sneezes and hoarseness turned into a hacking cough as the sickness made its way down into his chest. When it reached his stomach, he began to throw up globs of festering black bile. Even when his stomach was finally empty, he continued to retch in violent spasms, each one more painful than the one before. His skin turned a livid red, breaking out everywhere in greasy pustules and ulcers, its surface so sensitive that he could not tolerate the touch of even the softest bedding or clothing. The agony became such that he could neither rest nor sleep.
Some victims — the lucky ones, some said — died relatively quickly, when the disease reached into their bowels and caused a diarrhea that seemed to empty them of life itself. But others thrashed in pain for a week or more, as if the disease enjoyed their torment, as if it somehow fed off of it. Even the minority of the infected who survived often wished they had not, for the disease left them impotent, blind, or insane — or all three. These “recovered” victims shambled through the rest of their days in a funk, having lost fingers and toes and, more importantly, been sapped of the vital energy that makes a life worth living.
The ironies were cruel; the plague became the greatest leveler of all in the Athenians’ stridently egalitarian society. The strong died as easily as the weak, the old as the young, the rich as the poor. None of the traditional remedies proved the slightest bit effective. Nor could any new ones be found; what seemed to do good in one patient seemed but to hasten death in another. Further, just to treat the victims of the plague was to court almost certain infection oneself. Only those who had recovered from the disease with mind and body intact enough to succor the sick were able to do so safely, for the plague never chose the same victim twice. Many of these did yeoman work caring for their fellow citizens, but their numbers were few and the burden was overwhelming.
Carrion birds and starving dogs were wise enough to cut a wide berth around the plague dead. Yet this the people of Athens found impossible to do, packed in behind their walls as they were. Some of the sick threw themselves into the city’s ponds and aqueducts in an attempt to extinguish the burning agony of their inflamed skin, and thereby introduced the pestilence into the water supply. Parties of the recovered were organized to collect the bodies and toss them off the walls — but, again, there were just so many dead to contend with. Athens was a scene of abject horror, its shambling sick and rotting dead a mockery of the magnificent architecture that still towered all around them. The corpses piled up on the very steps and porticoes of the acropolis and the Areopagus and lay draped across the fountains in the central square.
When Archidamus’s army approached the walls of Athens, and saw them ringed all around with the corpses of the plague’s victims, it immediately retreated. Wanting no part of the disease himself, Archidamus contented himself with pillaging and burning the entire length of Attica, from its northern border with Boeotia to its southern border with the sea. This time, the Athenians were in no condition to reply in kind by attacking the Peloponnese even had Archidamus not left a substantial force behind to defend it.
It was all but impossible not to see the hands of the gods in these events, whichever side one fought on in the war; the plague had come at the perfect time to cause the maximum devastation. Many whispered about the promise of divine favor which the god in Delphi had given the Spartans. Some Athenians, having lost all faith in the established order of things and along with it all fear of the consequences of their actions, began to rob, rape, and kill random strangers in the streets, further compounding the city’s misery. Attica was blighted, Athens was plagued; the war seemed already lost.
The Athenian government was riven with the same dissension that held sway in the streets. Citizens and archontes alike blamed Pericles for the state of things. All of his high-minded rhetoric now seemed the prattling of an idealistic fool; they just wanted their city’s suffering to end. Over his objections, they sent an envoy to Archidamus to tell him that they were now willing to abide by the terms of the Spartans’ earlier ultimatum. But the Spartan king, being honor-bound to abide by a decision that had long since been made by the full Spartan Senate, had to inform them that those terms were no longer on the table, that Athens must now unconditionally surrender and prepare for life as a vassal of Sparta if it wished to end the war. Breathing a sigh of relief at the Spartans’ truculence, Pericles tried one last time to rouse his people to the cause of Principle.
“I am not surprised by the anger that has been directed toward me in these times of hardship,” he said, leaning wearily against the speaker’s podium as he did so; his heretofore powerful oratorical voice too was thinner than it had ever been before. “In such times, men always look for a convenient scapegoat on which to vent their wrath. But I would remind you that, although I may have counseled war, you yourselves voted for it. And I continue to believe that I counseled and you voted rightly. The only thing that has come to pass which my counsels did not anticipate has been this damnable plague, something no man could possibly have predicated. How, then, can you possibly blame me for it? Would you have given me credit for it if it had struck the Spartans instead of us?
“It goes without saying that war is the gravest of follies when great principles are not at stake. But when faced with the choice which we faced — a choice between the certain loss of our city’s independence and a chance to preserve it — it is the one who chooses the former rather than the latter who deserves blame. This holds true even if the latter choice is girded round with enormous uncertainty and danger, holds true regardless of the ultimate outcome of the struggle.
“Even the finest nature quails momentarily before such a sudden, unexpected, and inexplicable disaster as this plague that decimates us now. Most of us have lost loved ones to it already. Yet our private grief must give way to our determination to preserve the commonwealth. I say it to you again: in the broad strokes, the considerations that made me confident of our chances in this war still apply. Athens still controls the sea. You should think of Attica as merely the terrace leading onto the Aegean Sea, our real house of state. Fight on and win this war, and in a few years time Attica will thrive again as it did a few years ago. But bow down now and you will lose something far more precious — your freedom — forevermore. Resolve once again, here and now, to follow the path of glory and honor! Send no more peace envoys to the Spartans; never again betray such weakness to our sworn enemy! Find the strength to bear up through any calamity, until total victory is ours!”
His exhortations served their purpose. Those assembled were fired once more with zeal; they rejected the Spartan call for unconditional surrender. And, blessedly, the plague faded away when the cooler winds of autumn blew into Athens and the gates opened again to let the people out of the city, after Archidamus had returned to Sparta for the winter.
But the plague did inflict one final cruelty upon Athens before it departed for good: Pericles himself was one of the last Athenians to die from the disease. The people would come to miss their first citizen gravely in the years of war to come.
Recognizing that the protracted war of attrition he had feared was now a reality, Archidamus opted to march northward the next year out of the Isthmus of Corinth to attack the city of Plataea, Athens’s one mainland ally. But Plataea put up an unexpectedly firm defense, aided by the Athenian and Corcyran fleets, which relentlessly harassed the Peloponnesian encampments near the port city. Archidamus returned home that fall having accomplished little. The following year, he returned to Attica to pillage and burn there, but never came close to breaching the walls of Athens.
And at the end of that campaign, the weary old King Archidamus joined his friend Pericles in death. They were both wise, but they had proved not to be wise enough to secure a future for their people as splendid as the recent past. Along with these two old friends, each representing in his way the best in the culture that had produced him, died the best parts of Greece.
For Archidamus and Pericles left behind a burgeoning generation that was being forged in the crucible of total war — a generation of men who had known only war and who seemed capable of little else. In the face of the ongoing carnage, Principle hardened into Hatred. War is a thoroughgoing corrupter of men, and this one destroyed both sides’ political ideals, as it did the dreams of glory of the young men who had first set out to fight it. It ceased to be about anything other than hatred of the enemy, a fact which the ever more ruthless tactics of both sides reflected. Soon, peaceful messengers at the gates of a city were not just rejected but executed, prisoners of war not forced into labor but beheaded or drowned. Such is the inevitable course of war — even of wars entered into in the service of high-minded ideals. When the Peloponnesians finally managed to capture Plataea the year after the death of Archidamus, they razed it to the ground and massacred its people in their blind fury, for they no longer had any moderating leader to control their worst impulses. That was to be the way of things from now on.
Despite the belated victory over Plataea, Sparta and Athens did indeed fight one another to the standstill in Attica, Boeotia, and the Peloponnese which both Archidamus and Pericles had predicted. So, the war spread to other fronts as the two sides jockeyed for a strategic advantage that might break the impasse. Still unable to fight the Athenians head-on among the islands of the Aegean Sea and elsewhere, the Peloponnesians took to bribing or tricking Athens’s foreign partners and dependencies into revolt. The savagery with which the Athenians crushed these uprisings crushed as well any remaining pretense that they were independent allies rather than vassals; the Athenian trading network was revealed in the breach to be precisely the empire which the rest of Greece had accused Athens of building.
But whatever the predictions of Archidamus and Pericles, the war was never actually doomed by either its own nature or its own causes to go on for the almost three decades it wound up lasting, much less doomed to take down with it all of the highest ideals of the Greeks; those things were entirely the fruit of the foolishness of the men who waged it. As the years ground on and the pendulum of war swung back and forth, there were numerous opportunities to end the struggle on honorable terms for everyone, but the new leaders could never be content with what they had won, were perpetually tempted to try to win one more battle in order to secure a still more advantageous peace for themselves. It was as if they in their small-mindedness couldn’t even conceive anymore of a Greece that wasn’t at perpetual war with itself.
In 425 BC, for example, the Athenians won a smashing victory over the Spartans near the storied old town of Pylos in the western Peloponnese. The Spartans were prepared to accept a peace very favorable to the Athenians, but the latter rejected their overtures in the hope of securing yet more favorable terms. Instead a daring Spartan general led an army which he had mustered in Delphi farther north than his people had ever ventured before, capturing the important Aegean city of Amphipolis, an important source of gold and silver and timber for the Athenian fleet. Buoyed by this stunning success, Sparta regathered itself to fight on a wider front than ever before.
Still, a limited sort of peace did come in 421 BC, when a long, disheartening stretch without a major victory for either side gave an opening for a brief-lived flowering of good sense among the two cities’ leadership. They signed the treaty that became known as the Peace of Nicias that year, after the Athenian general who with great difficulty managed to convince the rest of his city’s government and military to accept it. It aimed to return Greece to the status quo that had prevailed ten years before, attempted to wipe the slate clean and forget all of the killing and destruction that had taken place since. It even attempted to restore Delphi’s sacred neutrality, guaranteeing as its very first provision the right of all to visit and consult with the god there whenever they wished. For a brief time, the Athenian embassy and treasury in Delphi were occupied again, and the people there could almost begin to believe that all really was going back to the way it had been before.
But even at its most hopeful the peace was never complete, and this proved its undoing. Corinth and Thebes were so embittered against Athens that they refused to sign the treaty, opting to continue the war without the Spartans. Even as they did so, they continually prodded Sparta to rejoin the fray, constantly presented evidence of what they claimed was Athenian treachery against the terms of the peace treaty.
In 418 BC, Sparta took the bait: it attacked Argos, which had been ostensibly neutral even when the war was still raging between Athens and Sparta but had always tacitly supported the Athenians. Athens promptly declared war on Sparta in response. With the Peace of Nicias thus shattered, Delphi became once again a source of funds and a military staging area for one side in the war rather than a center of spiritual guidance for both. It seemed that hostility between Athens and Sparta simply ran too deep, that the destruction they had already visited upon one another was simply too enormous to allow things to end in such anticlimactic fashion as the Peace of Nicias. Someone had to win for this war to truly end. That, at any rate, is one point of view. Another holds that all of Greece took leave of its collective senses and opted to commit suicide, to destroy itself out of some obscure nihilistic impulse. But then, the motivation for war often seems inscrutable to those on the outside looking in.
So, the war ground on, becoming ever more brutal and tawdry as it did so. In 416 BC, the Athenians invaded the neutral island of Melos, which they accused of having rendered some slight aid to the Spartans. They massacred its entire adult male population as a lesson to anyone else in their power sphere who might have been tempted to do the same. Not only had ethical considerations ceased to weigh on the Athenian generals’ minds, but any sense of nuanced strategy seemed to desert them as well. They employed only blunt force now.
Through all these years of war, Sparta and its allies had been slowly building up their naval forces, while at the same time concealing this fact from the Athenians. In 413 BC, this patient labor finally paid off. Far off to the west, in the harbor of Syracuse on the island of Sicily — the war had now spread far and wide indeed — the bulk of the carefully husbanded Peloponnesian navy met the cream of the Athenian fleet and shocked the world by destroying it almost down to the last vessel. Weeping and wailing filled the streets of Athens when news of the defeat reached the city. How could the war be won now?
The Battle of Syracuse did indeed become the turning point of the war, as the huge losses Athens incurred there, combined with revolts throughout its maritime empire — the fruit of the heavy-handed tactics employed at places like Melos — and the sheer weight of the cities arrayed against it on the mainland began to decisively shift the balance of power. Athens’s old arch-enemy the Persians joined the war on the Spartan side, causing more trouble all over the Aegean Sea; Argos dropped out of the war again, soon to be followed by Corcyra, the proximate cause that had started the war in the first place. At Delphi, a murder of crows attacked the golden statue of Athena that stood outside the Athenians’ beautiful temple to their patron goddess, and pecked at it until it was unrecognizable in its disfigurement.
Sparta pressed its advantage, occupying all of Attica permanently now rather than merely sending the occasional army to ravage the place. The people inside the walls of Athens lived in a haze of privation, of perpetual near-starvation; it had long been the case that the only food that reached the city came from the sea, but now the diminished Athenian navy was harder pressed than ever to deliver it.
And yet still Athens fought on; Greeks of later generations would shake their heads in wonder that it managed to do so for so long. Backed into a corner as it was, knowing the retribution that Sparta would likely inflict if it ever had their city at its mercy, the Athenians could see no other alternative. Athens even found ways to win some battles. In fact, it tragically squandered two more opportunities to end the war on terms that would have allowed it to maintain its independence if not all of the influence it had once commanded in the world. The first of these came in 410 BC, when an outnumbered Athenian fleet won a major victory near Cyzicus. But, incredibly, Athens rejected the Spartan peace overtures that followed, being unwilling to accept the relatively modest concessions the overtures demanded. They made that same foolish choice again in 406 BC, after what would prove the final Athenian victory of the war, which occurred near the island of Lesbos. The following year, the ever-improving Peloponnesian navy annihilated most of the remaining Athenian fleet in another battle in the Hellespont.
The Spartans were now able to set up a blockade around Athens in order to starve the city into submission. The Athenians had no hope of breaking through it by main force. The only food which reached the city now came from brave individual captains who ran the gauntlet, demonstrating as they did so that the Athenians were still among the best sailors in the world. But these scattered efforts couldn’t even begin to feed all of the populace, and conditions deteriorated in the city until even the terrible time of the plague paled in comparison to the misery that life there had become.
Finally, Athens could hold out no longer. One morning in 404 BC, the sailors maintaining the blockade looked toward the city to see a flag of surrender flying there. After 27 years of horrors piled upon horrors, the Peloponnesian War was over.
(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 online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)