Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Struggle Between Athens and Sparta, or the Peloponnesian War

While Athens had been growing rich and strong and beautiful, Sparta had kept to her old rough way of living. She had no stately buildings, no statues, no exquisite carvings, no elaborate embroideries. To think that a people who cared for such foolish things should claim the leadership of Greece made the Spartans more and more scornful of their rivals. They had agreed to keep the peace for thirty years, but they were not sorry when an act of the Athenians gave them an excuse for breaking it.

The fighting did not begin in either Athens or Sparta, but far away in the Ionian Sea, near the island of Corcyra. Trouble had arisen between Corcyra and the mother city, Corinth, and in a naval battle the island had won the victory. When the Corcyreans saw how many ships Corinth was building, they became frightened and asked to join the Athenian league. What reply the Athenians should give was a serious matter. "The Peace of Pericles permits a city not already belonging to any league to join either the Athenian or the Peloponnesian," urged the Corcyreans. "But not with the express purpose of injuring a member of the other," retorted the Corinthians. The Athenians were in a hard position. They realized that sooner or later there would be war between themselves and the Spartans. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, and if she overcame the Corcyreans and added their fleet to her own, she would be altogether too strong on the water to please the Athenians. Then, too, Corcyra was a valuable ally, not only because she had a large fleet, but because the island was a convenient stopping place on the way to Italy, and because, if the Spartans should ever attack the western coast, it would be worth a great deal have a friend so near. The Athenians could not make up the minds either to lose those ships and the friendship of the island or to break the treaty boldly. They finally settled matters in half-way fashion by agreeing to send ten ships into the Ionian Sea, "not to fight with the Corinthians, but to protect Corcyra they said. When a second naval battle took place between Corcyra and Corinth, the Athenians tried at first only to hinder the Corinthian ships without actually attacking them; but when the Corcyreans began to get the worst of it and started to retreat, the Athenians forgot all about the Peace of Pericles and fought as fiercely as if they had never heard of such a thing.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Sparta and the other Peloponnesian states were indignant, and soon they held a sort of court to try the city of Athens. Several cities told how unjustly Athens had treated them. They said that she was dishonorable and was constantly trying to get control of more states. Some Athenian envoys happened to be in Sparta on other business, and they asked if they might speak to the assembly. They reviewed what Athens had done in the Persian War, and showed that she had really been the savior of all Greece. "Our allies came of their own accord," declared the envoys, "and asked us to be their leaders and protectors. An empire was offered us; can you wonder that we accepted it and refused to give it up again?" After the envoys and strangers had gone, the Spartans discussed matters. They decided that the Athenians had broken the treaty. Then both countries began to make ready for war.

Pericles knew that the Spartans would ravage Attica; therefore he persuaded the Attic farmers to come within the city walls. Then were seen long lines of sorrowful men, women, and children slowly making their way to Athens. Their backs were bowed with heavy burdens, for they knew well that whatever was left would be destroyed. From the Acropolis they could see their homes and the fields of ripening grain. A little later they saw the smoke rising from the burning houses, they saw the grain-fields cut down and ruined by the Spartans. It is small wonder that they cried out, "O Pericles, lead us out to battle; lead us out as a general should!" But Pericles said "No." "The Spartans are strong on the land," he had declared long before, "but our strength is on the sea." Therefore he had sent ships to cruise around the Peloponnesus, doing all the damage possible, but he would not go out to meet the enemy in a land battle. After ravaging the fields, the Spartans went home. They might as well have tried to fly to the moon as to break through the mighty walls of Athens. Another season, however, they had a helper not on their list of allies, for the plague appeared in the crowded city, and multitudes died. It came again; and now Athens lost the one man who might have saved her, for soon Pericles lay dying. His friends sat about his bed, sorrowing and speaking together of his victories. Suddenly the dying man opened his eyes and said, "You dwell upon these acts of mine, though many other generals have performed the like; but you take no notice of the most honorable part of my character, that no Athenian through my means ever put on mourning."

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Now came the time when Athens might well have wished that her allies were her friends, for news came to her that Mytilene a city on the island of Lesbos, had revolted. Mytilene had a large fleet, therefore her loss would be of much importance. Athenian forces were sent at once to besiege the city, the Spartan ships that had been promised were slow in coming to her aid, and finally Mytilene was forced to yield. She had surrendered to a cruel master, for the Athenians were not only indignant at the revolt, but also much alarmed lest there should be other revolts. With hardly a moment's thought they decreed that every man in Mytilene should be put to death and every woman and child sold as a slave. If Pericles had been alive, no such inhuman decree would have been passed, but the Athenians were now much influenced by a man named Cleon. "Do not be merciful to them," he said; "punish them as they would have punished you. Be forgiving and virtuous if you like, but wait till forgiveness and virtue are no longer dangerous." The decree was passed, though the better part of the Athenians were so ashamed of it that the following morning they called another meeting and annulled it. But the trireme that carried the decree had sailed the previous night. Would it be possible to overtake it? "We will provide wine and barley for the crew," the envoys of the Mytileneans cried eagerly, "and every man shall have a generous reward if they reach the island first." The rowers sprang to their seats. Half of them rowed by day and half by night, and they ate their barley, kneaded with wine and oil, as they rowed. Nevertheless, the first vessel had too long a start. The decree had been read aloud, and the order to carry it out at once was on the point of being given when the second vessel touched the land. An envoy rushed up the shore to the commander, and the Athenians were saved from the shame of such a barbarous slaughter. The punishment that they did inflict was terrible enough, for they put to death one thousand of the who had been most prominent among the rebels, took away the ships of the Mytileneans, and gave their land to Athenian citizens for a settlement.

Such was the mercy of the Athenians. That same year the mercy of the Spartans was shown at PlatŠa. They had set out to conquer PlatŠa because the little city was so faithful a friend to Athens. "But the Spartans together with the other state took a solemn oath that our city should be forever independent," declared the PlatŠans. "What you say is just," returned the Spartans. "Enjoy your independence, but help us to free the states that are now ruled by Athens." PlatŠa, however, would not desert the Athenians, and the siege began. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War, and in it is an account of this siege written in his usual clear, accurate, interesting fashion. First, the Spartans cut down trees and made a palisade around the city, so that no one could get in or out. They wanted a mound high enough to enable them to shoot down into the city, and they began to make one near the wall by piling up logs crosswise and filling the empty spaces with stones and earth and pieces of wood. Night and day they worked for ten long weeks. Somehow the mound did not grow as fast as they thought it should, and at length they discovered that the PlatŠans had made a hole at the base of the wall and were quietly drawing the loose earth from the mound into the city. Meanwhile, they were also making the wall higher by building it up with brick and timber from their houses. The Spartans could have set this work afire with burning arrows, but the PlatŠans were wise enough to keep heavy curtains of hides and skins in front of it. The besiegers were determined that there should be no more stealing from their mound and so instead of filling it in with loose dirt, they now used masses of clay and reeds bound together. Still the mound did not grow. What could be the matter, they wondered. Finally, some one discovered that those wily PlatŠans had dug a tunnel from the city to the mound, and were drawing in the bundles of clay and reeds at their leisure. This was not all, for they were building an inner wall in the shape of a crescent. The horns touched the outer wall, and the curve was toward the city. If the Spartans should take the outer wall, they would still have the crescent to capture, and this would not be easy with the PlatŠans in front and on both sides of them. The Spartans thought of that, of course, and they brought up immense battering-rams; but the PlatŠans had two ways of managing rams. One way was to drop a noose over them and draw them up. The other was to hang heavy beams directly over them and at right angles to them. When the engine was in good position and ready to give a tremendous blow upon the wall, down went the beam, and off went the head of the ram. Then the Spartans decided to burn the city. They threw quantities of wood over the wall and piled masses of wood between the mound and the wall. They daubed sticks with pitch and brimstone, set them afire, and hurled them after the wood. Such a blaze as there was! Thucydides says that so great a fire had never before been made by the hands of man. There would have been no help for the PlatŠans had not a sudden storm put out the flames. Then the Spartans built two walls sixteen feet apart entirely around the city. Between these walls were the lodgings for the soldiers; so that, when the work was done, it looked like one very thick wall with a moat on either side. As soon as this was finished, the main army went away but left a strong guard behind.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


When winter came and food began to be scanty, a number the PlatŠans crossed the inner moat, full of broken ice, one dark, stormy night, put up ladders, and succeeded in getting over the wall and crossing the outer moat. "The Spartans will expect to try to get to Athens," they said, "so let us start in the direction of Thebes." As they glanced hurriedly back through the darkness, toward the road to Athens, they could see the torches of their pursuers. After a while the fugitives slipped away to the hills and down narrow paths, and soon they were being welcomed at Athens by the women and children who had been sent the before the siege began.

Within the walls of PlatŠa there were now some women-servants and two hundred and twenty-five men, too weak for want of food to be able to defend their city longer. The Spartans could have taken it by storm, but when the war closed, places taken by storm would probably be given back to their former rulers, while those that had surrendered would be kept by the victors. "Will you surrender if we promise you a fair trial?" the Spartans asked, and the famished people yielded. The Thebans hated the PlatŠans, and the Spartans wished to please the Thebans; therefore the "fair trial" consisted chiefly of the question, "Have you done any service for the Spartans or their allies in this war?" As each PlatŠan answered "No," he was led away and put to death. Every man in PlatŠa was slain, and the serving-women were sold as slaves. Such was the mercy of the Spartans.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


A war between men of the same race is always more bitter than other wars, because each side feels that the others must know themselves to be in the wrong: and this war became more and more savage. In almost every city there were two parties,—one that thought the people as a whole ought to rule, as in Athens; the other that thought the government should be in the hands of a few, as in Sparta. These parties quarreled and fought. Sons killed their fathers, and fathers killed their sons. If two men were enemies, one or the other was sure to become a murderer. If a man owed money, he freed himself from his debt by killing his creditor. The whole Grecian world seemed to have gone mad, not only the mainland of Greece, but the islands and even the colonies of Italy and Sicily. The two parties within each city tried to slaughter each other; cities fought against cities; Athenian ships swept across the sea to help some town, and Spartan ships made all speed to help its enemy. There was fighting on the land and on the sea for six long years.

In the seventh year an Athenian fleet was storm-bound in the harbor of Pylos on the Messenian coast. This fell in perfectly with the wishes of the general, Demosthenes, for he had a plan to propose to the other officers. "Let us fortify this place." he said. "We are but forty-six miles from Sparta; the Messenians will help us; and from here we can do great damage to enemy." The other officers scorned the plan. "If you want waste the public money," they said, "there are plenty of other desolate promontories that you can fortify." The storm wind still blew, and the ships could not leave the harbor. It may be that the soldiers were bored and restless with the long stay; but whatever the reason was, permission was at length given them to build the fort. They had no tools to shape the stones, so they fitted them together as best they could. They had nothing in which to carry the mortar, so they heaped it up on their backs and clasped their hands behind them to keep it from falling off; and the fort was built.

When the Spartans heard of this rather remarkable structure, they laughed. "It will be easy enough to tear that down any time," they said "even if the Athenians do not run when they see us coming." However, they concluded it was best get rid of the fort at once, and of the Athenian ships left on guard; so they sent a fleet and a goodly number of soldiers. The soldiers were landed on a long, narrow island called Sphacteria, which almost shut in the harbor of Pylos. The Spartan ships sailed into the harbor and tried for two days to take the rough little fort. Then came the Athenian fleet sweeping down upon them, for they had delayed to close up the harbor. The Spartans on shore were frantic, for their friends on Sphacteria were helpless. They dashed into the water, armed as they were, and tried to pull their empty ships away from the Athenians. Thucydides says the Spartans were carrying on a sea fight from the land, and the Athenians were waging a land fight from their ships.



So many of their prominent men were on the island that the Spartans decided to ask the Athenians to make peace. The Athenians would probably have agreed if it had not been for Cleon. After the death of Pericles, Cleon had done everything that he could to please the people and keep them from following the advice of wiser men. He now persuaded the Athenians to refuse peace except on terms that he knew the Spartans would not accept. He did this because he thought there was a better chance for him to rise in war than in peace.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The Athenians were always fickle and changeable, and soon they turned upon Cleon. "Why did you keep us from making peace?" they demanded. "Our men at Pylos will starve. We can hardly get food to them now, and when winter comes they will surely have to surrender. The Spartan soldiers on the island are safe and comfortable. The Spartans pay a great price to every man who will run the blockade and carry them food. If the man is a Helot, one little voyage makes him free. Hundreds of Helots dive and swim across, and drag after them skins of pounded linseed and poppy-seed mixed with honey. Whenever there is a strong on-shore wind, hundreds more sail out to sea in the night, and with the first light they dash up on the ocean side of the island. The Spartans on Sphacteria have plenty of meal and wine and cheese, while the Athenians at Pylos are starving. It is your fault; why did you refuse to make peace?"

Cleon could think of nothing else to do than to grumble at the generals. "They could easily sail to Sphacteria and capture the Spartan soldiers," he declared. "That is what I would do if I were commander." One of the generals, Nicias, was present. "So far as the generals are concerned, you may take whatever force you wish and try it. Here in the presence of the assembly, I resign to you the command." "Take it, take it," shouted the multitude; "we make you general. Now sail for Pylos." The fickle Athenians had forgotten all about the sufferings of their soldiers, and they were greatly amused to see the dismay of Cleon. He knew that he must either slink away or accept the command. He screwed up his courage and turned upon them. "I am not afraid of the Spartans," he retorted. "Within twenty days I will kill them on the spot or else bring them to you alive." The rabble burst into shouts of laughter, and the wiser folk were as pleased as the rabble were amused. "We have seen the last of Cleon," they said, "unless he really should capture the Spartans."

No one expected the boaster to have any success, but within twenty days he actually did bring back to Athens nearly three hundred prisoners. This is the way it came about. When Cleon reached the island of Sphacteria, he found that the forest which had covered most of it had been burned. The country was cleared, and the general in command was about to make an attack upon the prisoners. Cleon had no plan, so he fell in with this one. There was a hard fight, but finally the Spartans lowered their shields and waved their hands; they had yielded. Then all Greece was amazed. Could this be the same race that had fought at ThermopylŠ until the last man fell? The Athenians could hardly believe the surrender was possible. They were jubilant over their victory, and when the Spartans again asked peace, they refused.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


So the war continued, and on both sides men grew more savage and brutal. The nobles at Corcyra favored Sparta and conspired against the common folk, who favored Athens. Through a trick the nobles were captured and put to death with horrible cruelty. Thus far the Athenians had on the whole been the winning party. They had tried to take Delium in Bťotia and had failed; but they held Pylos, which was the key to Messenia; and Cythera, which had been a great protection to Laconia; and one hundred of the prominent Spartans were their prisoners. The Spartans had made a raid into Attica once a year and had done considerable fighting elsewhere, but they were not one step nearer conquering the Athenians than they had been seven years before. Fortunately for them, a new general appeared on the scene, Brasidas. He was as determined as any Spartan and as bright and quick as any Athenian. He thought the matter over. "If we make another raid into Attica, the Athenians will put our hundred citizens to death. The best thing we can do is to strike at Thrace—and we shall be sure of a welcome from more than one Thracian city. Thrace is rich and has widespreading forests. With her for a friend we can build ships, and then we need have no fear of meeting Athenians on the water."

So said Brasidas. The Spartans thought this was a wild, unreasonable plan; but there was one thing strongly in its favor,—Brasidas had about one thousand men whom he had hired in different parts of the Peloponnesus, and all that he asked of Sparta was to give him seven hundred Helots. "Let him try it," said the Spartans. "The Helots are on the point of revolting and it will be a good thing to get some of them out of the way. He may take a city or two, and when the war is over we can exchange them for Pylos."

So Brasidas started for Thrace and Macedonia. He was not only a keen, shrewd man, but he also knew how to talk and argue and persuade. He even induced tribes friendly to the Athenians to allow him to pass through their lands; and he half-persuaded and half-threatened several cities in Thrace and Chalcidice to yield to him. The Athenians had heard what he was doing, and now they came down upon him. Cleon was their leader, and he was so elated because of the victory at Pylos, that he expected to win as a matter of course. He had good soldiers, but they did not believe in their general. Nearly half of Brasidas's men were Helots, but they had a leader whom they could trust, and, slaves as they were, he was not afraid to trust them. Just before the attack upon Amphipolis, the strongest Athenian colony in Macedonia, he told them how he planned to carry it on. His last words to them were, "Do not lose heart; think of all that is at stake; and I will show you that I can not only advise others, but can myself fight." The battle ended in a victory for the Spartans. Both Cleon and Brasidas were slain. Thucydides was in command of seven ships not far away, but he did not arrive soon enough to prevent the Spartans from winning. The Athenians wanted to blame some one, and they fixed upon him. He was exiled for twenty years. Then it was that he wrote his history of the war. The Helots who had fought so bravely with Brasidas were made free.

There had now been ten years of warfare. Men had been slain, women and children sold into slavery, money wasted, fleets lost, lands ravaged, cities destroyed; and what gain had come of it? The Spartans had discovered that it was quite possible for them to be beaten, or, what the men of ThermopylŠ would have thought far worse, to be forced into a surrender; the Athenians had learned that in spite of their fleet, their sheltered harbor, and their mighty walls, they would be little stronger than other people if their tributary cities should revolt. Both Spartans and Athenians were sobered and were ready to talk of peace. The general Nicias had much to do with arranging it, and therefore the truce of fifty years which was agreed upon in 421 B.C. is called the Peace of Nicias.


The Athenians broke the Peace of Pericles.

The Attic farmers fled to Athens, and the Spartans ravaged Attica. Many Athenians died of the plague.

Mytilene revolted against Athens.

The Spartans conquered PlatŠa. The war became more and more bitter.

The Athenians built a fort at Pylos. The Spartans failed to take the fort. The Athenians refused to make peace, and the Spartans surrendered.

Thus far the Athenians had been the winning party.

The Spartan Brasidas was successful in Thrace and Macedonia.

The Peace of Nicias was signed in 421 B.C.

Suggestions For Written Work

A Spartan tells why Sparta will surely conquer Athens.

A PlatŠan describes the siege of PlatŠa.

An Athenian soldier describes the building of the fort at Pylos.