Peloponnesian War Strategies Just before the Peloponnesian War began, Pericles of Athens and King Archidamus of Sparta provided net assessments of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. Evaluate their projections. A study of the strategies and projections of King Archidamus of Sparta as compared to those of Pericles of Athens reveal Archidamus’ understanding of the superiority of land power as a basis for success at sea in the ancient Mediterranean – as well as Pericles’ naivet as to this tenet.
Background The Peloponnesian War between the city-states of Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies) lasted from 431-404 BC. Conflicts between the two cites dated back further, however, with skirmishes from 460-445 effectively ending in a draw. Major fighting in the Peloponnesian War occurred from 431-421 and ended in Athenian victory. Renewed conflict raged from 413-404, ultimately concluding in Spartan victory. An understanding of these very different cultures is illustrative of their leaders’ ultimate strategies and projections before the conflict.
At the time of the war, Greece was divided into two great alliances. Sparta dominated the Peloponnesian League, an alliance in the Peloponnese region. These allies included small states close enough to the militant Sparta to be easily controlled; stronger (and more remote) states over which Sparta still had considerable influence; and the truly strong, independent cities of Thebes and Corinth. Spartan dominance rose from its unquestionable position as the preeminent continental army of the region.
The farming and manual labor of the city was provided by slaves, which freed the male citizens to serve in the army. Spartan boys were all trained to serve in the military as professional soldiers, with individual and family needs subordinated to the needs of the state. The Athenian Empire was a more voluntary alliance of city-states that were impressed by the Athenian Navy’s prowess in the Persian War and were willing to pay for its protection. Athens used this revenue to further improve its navy, as well as improve its own infrastructure and defenses. Included in these improvements was the construction of large walls around the city and down to the port at Piraeus, home of the Athenian Navy.
The open Athenian democracy stood in stark contrast to the strict oligarchy of Sparta. A political, philosophical and cultural center, Athens’ power and prosperity depended on its command of its great maritime empire, which was centered on the Aegean Sea. Its navy grew along with the alliance. There was an increasing concern in the Peloponnesian League that Athens’ rapid growth was an opportunistic exploitation of Athenian allies and a direct threat to the League. Well-founded or not, these fears came to a head in 432, when Spartan allies lobbied hard for the League to check Athenian growth by declaring war. At these debates, a Spartan ally from Corinth chastised the perceived aggressive expansion of Athens, stating (Athenians) are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so.
Spartan Strategy It was at this point in the debates that Sparta’s King Archidamus revealed his wisdom in both politics and war fighting. Noting Athens’ naval superiority and expansive financial resources, he was fully aware that a conflict could not end quickly. I fear, he explained, that it is more likely that we shall be leaving (this war) to our children after us. Archidamus knew well the tenet proffered by the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu centuries before, who stated, Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed. When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted.
A protracted campaign would not be good for Sparta. A delay in actually beginning warfare, however, would aid the Spartan cause. Archidamus proposed drawing out diplomatic efforts at reconciliation in order to buy time for preparations. He then proposed courting new allies with the specific goal of increasing naval and financial resources. He was keenly aware that the mightiest army in the world could not win without naval support.
Archidamus did not suppose that he could match the Athenian Navy, however, no matter how many new allies Sparta courted. His strategy instead was to use his army to dominate Athenian allied cities and take all Athenian land outside the walled city of Athens – in effect, hold it hostage. He would then use his navy to block Athens’ main external source of grain supplies from Crimea. Corinthian allies proposed additional tactics, including the establishment of fortified camps on seized Athenian lands and fostering revolts among Athenian ally cities, which would choke off revenue to the war chest.
War was still not Archidamus’ hope, and his suggestion for extensive diplomatic efforts at resolution was not purely tactical stalling. Indeed, envoy after envoy was sent to Athens proposing various terms of compromise, but Athens, and in particular Pericles, was unwilling to make concessions. Athenian Strategy Much of Athens’ unwillingness to compromise stemmed from the supreme confidence Pericles had in both his navy and his overall strategy. He knew the Spartan Army was without peer and anticipated the seizure of Athenian lands outside the city walls.
In fact, he even proposed that Athenians lay waste to their own lands to deny the Spartan army resources and the opportunity to do so itself; but he knew this was an unrealistic request of the people. Pericles intended to draw citizens inside the protective walls to wait out the Spartan advance. At the same time, the mighty Athenian Navy would both conduct offensive raids on Spartan coastal assets and bring in supplies at the port at Piraeus. Pericles explained that if the Athenians would remain quiet, take care of their fleet, refrain from trying to extend their empire in wartime and thus putting their city in danger, they would prevail. In other words, the best offense is a good defense.
This conservative strategy, too, has support from Sun Tzu, who noted that invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack. Comparison Of Strategies Reviewing King Archidamus’ projections, from both his perspective and with the benefit of hindsight, reveal his sagacity. Archidamus was keenly aware of Sparta’s main weakness – its navy – and took affirmative steps before engaging in battle to address the problem. He delayed engagement for this purpose, but also to allow cooler heads to prevail after the heated debates demanding a swift attack on Athens. Archidamus knew that a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning. This tactic makes sense from a practical standpoint as well.
In comparison, it would be easier for a nation to acquire or ally with a navy in some form than to acquire an army. Buying ships is easier than buying soldiers. Archidamus could not hope to acquire a navy equal to Athens’, but he did not need such a fleet. He did not need to defeat the entire Athenian Navy; he only needed to complete the choke-hold on Athens begun by his army outside the city walls. Pericles’ strategy, on the other hand, had problems from the onset. While Archidamus sought to shore up his weak navy, Pericles made no attempt to shore up his weak army; and as strong as the Athenian Navy was, it did not pose a major threat to the city of Sparta.
The ancient ships of the era did not pose a threat of shore bombardment or major amphibious landings. While Athenian forces made raids and even established small coastal bases in Spartan territory, these forays were unable to inflict sufficient damage to aid the Athenian fight. In addition, crowding the Athenian populace into the walled city created a great risk of infectious disease. Indeed, a terrible plague wrought havoc on the besieged city from 430-429 and again in 427. Pericles himself fell to the plague in 429. The extent to which this amounts to Monday morning quarterbacking is uncertain; but at the bare minimum, Pericles seems to have underestimated the extent of the hardships his strategy would bring on the people.
The author and historian Donald Kagan expanded on this point. First, he noted that the plan lacked credibility. Pericles asked Athenians to passively hide behind the walls and watch the Spartan Army level their farms and homes. He asked them to tolerate the insults and accusations of cowardice the enemy would hurl at them from beneath their walls.
Secondly, in a related theory, Kagan noted that this strategy flew in the face of Greek habit and culture. Indeed, Athens abandoned this strategy after Pericles died in 429. This is not to say that the plan was unsuccessful to that point – but it was un-Athenian to just do nothing and wait. Alternative Analysis Athenian tactics in the years following Pericles’ death resulted in the near-total loss of the fleet and eventual victory for Sparta.
These facts certainly lend credibility to Pericles’ defense-based strategic principles, which were by no means foolhardy. He correctly observed that a power dominant by sea can do certain things which a land power is debarred from doing; as, for instance, ravage the territory of a superior, since it is always possible to coast along to some point, where either there is no hostile force to deal with or merely a small body. In addition, Pericles knew the Spartan culture. He knew that it was a tumultuous city-state where the risk of rebellion by the slave population was always a real threat. When a great armed force marched out of the city, the risk of rebellion grew exponentially. If enough Spartan forces were busy pounding their fists against the thick walls of Athens, it is not inconceivable that Athens could set up camp on the Spartan coast and launch a successful offensive campaign from there – particularly if Spartan slaves could be turned against their masters.
Conclusion Pericles’ projections and strategies were sound in principle, but as Kagan explained, they were too difficult in practice because they flew against human nature. Further, Pericles did not seem to share King Archidamus awareness of the war’s inevitable duration. The negative impact on Athenian morale must have been profound as their homes and farms were destroyed, their friends and family fell to the plague, and the war dragged on for yet another generation. King Archidamus, on the other hand, realized the protracted nature of the engagement.
He worked hard to avoid it and harder to prepare for it. By realizing Sparta’s own weaknesses early and aggressively seeking ways to ameliorate them, he showed sound leadership and tactical prowess. Sun Tzu would have approved. History.