Athens vs. Sparta: Was War Between the Two Inevitable?

In 480 and the years prior the Athenians and Spartans, banned together to defeat the Persian Army. The Spartans stand at Thermopylae, allowed the Athenians time to prepare, and ultimately allowed the victory. With both of these great city-states located so close together in Hellas, there differences would ultimately lead to dissension. Throughout the course of this paper, I hope to explain the reasoning behind the dissension between Sparta and Athens, made war between these former allies inevitable. Whenever there is an argument or war there is always differences between both parties involved.

In order to understand the causes of the Peloponnesian War, we must look at their differences. One of the main differences that the Athenians and the Spartans had was their way of education. Athenian boys were tutored at home until the age of six or seven years old. After seven they were sent to neighborhood schools where they were taught primary education until around the age of fourteen. These neighborhood schools were usually private schools, but the amount of money for tuition was usually affordable enough for the poor to send their children for a few years.

During primary school the boys were usually taught calisthenics and how to play certain games. Older boys were taught more militaristic activities such as boxing or wrestling. All ages of Athenian boys read heavily, as well as were taught to sing songs, play instruments, and do mathematics. Athenian boys who could not afford to go to school usually began apprenticeships. No matter what however, at the age of 18 all boys were required to go to military school for two years, after completion of that they were allowed to live however they wanted.

Athenian girls were not officially schooled, they were usually taught in the own homes. The purpose of an Athenian education was to train people to be thinkers, people who are well-trained in the arts and sciences (Columbia). The education of the youth establishes a precedent for the differences between the way Spartans and Athenians lead their lives. At age seven, training for the military began for all Spartan boys, theyre forced to leave their homes and go to military schools, where they endure all types of harsh training and discipline.

The main lesson was learning to take pride in enduring pain and hardships. During their teenage years they were taught wrestling, boxing, swimming, javelin and discus throwing. This athletic training allowed them to become better soldiers. When Spartan boys turned eighteen, they were forced to go out and steal food; if they were caught they were punished severely. In this way Spartan boys were training to become better soldiers, this provided a real life way of allowing the boys to become more stealth like and cunning.

At the age of twenty the boys had become men, and they were forced to attempt a numerous number of tests which dealt with their physical and leadership skills. Whoever passed became a part of the Spartan Army and was allowed to take a wife, but could not live with her. It is important to realize, that it wasnt until the age of thirty, and through service in the Spartan army, that these boys were considered real men. These men would usually serve into their fifties, as the age of release was officially sixty (Wikipedia).

Spartan girls went to school at the age of seven and were taught wrestling, calisthenics, and gymnastics. The schools were basically the same as the ones that the Spartan boys had gone to. The reasoning behind this was that the Spartans believed strong women, produced strong offspring, which meant that the offspring would then become strong soldiers who would serve the state. The primary goal of the Spartan education was to create a strong military and it did just that. Another major difference between the Athenians and the Spartans was their military.

Both the Spartans and Athenians had different military trademarks. The Athenians were known for their navy, while the Spartans were known for their hoplites. The Athenians navy contained a type of boat called a trireme, which was one of the fastest ships in this time period and allowed the Athenians to do something very different then they had in the past. Before the creation of the trireme the way of war on ships was that two people at war would jump on each others boats and begin fighting. The trireme changed this by allowing the Athenians to ram into the enemies ships, which caused them to sink.

The Spartans peculiar form of government enabled them to be professional soldiers. To be more precise: it not only enabled them, it even forced them to be superior soldiers as a small group of Spartans had to dominate an enormous amount of subjects and unwilling allies. The Spartans hoplite phalanx was not different in the way of formation it was different, because the Spartans were trained to be soldiers from the age of 7, and were taught to be very fierce and strong. The Spartan army was superior in Hellas, and in the rest of the known world. No other army was so well trained, and had such excellent equipment.

They believed that a traditional training was the key to success, and for centuries they were right as they had never lost a battle in spite of their small numbers (Wikipedia). The forms of government between both city-states, also created for dissension amongst Athens and Sparta. Both established two different types of government. Sparta was ruled over by oligarchy is of government by a few, usually the rich, for their own advantage (Columbia). Athens was ruled over by democracy in which the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat (Columbia).

Each government had there strengths and weaknesses, but it is important to realize that, the ethics behind oligarchy, put the hand in the power of the leaders, and allowed for a war-like attitude in Sparta, while the power in the hands of the people in Athens, gave them more of a say, into their own well-being. The Athenian democratic government, which may have given the citizens in Greece more freedom, was not the best form of government for the time. The democracy in Athens cannot really be called a true democracy since there were several flaws in the government and the way it worked.

Only ten percent of the total population of Athens actually had voting rights and all of these citizens were upper class men who were over thirty years old. Women, no matter what the class or age, were given no freedom at all. Life may have been sophisticated and graceful in Athens but the Athenians were often mocked by opposing countries and other city-states for having no bravery, patriotism or courage. This was shown by the repeated attacks on Athens. If the Athenians had a more war-like reputation, they probably could have avoided many of those conflicts that eventually led to the loss of the power Athens held in Ancient Greece.

It was he who led them, rather than they who led himcertainly when he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence, he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; so, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen. But his successors, who were more on a level with each other and each of whom aimed at occupying the first place, adopted methods of demagogy which resulted in their losing control over the actual conduct of affairs.

Such a policy, in a great city with an empire to govern, naturally led to a number of mistakes, amongst which was the Sicilian Expedition. (Thucydides, 164) The democracy of Athens really hit rock bottom, upon the death of Pericles. As Thucydides shows, while he did support Pericles, he didnt necessarily support democracy. The only way that democracy in Athens was successful was under Pericles, and when he passed away, the true nature of democracy was revealed. His successors followed self-serving policies, quarreled among each other, lacked foresight and in general destroyed themselves by internal strife.

The people as a whole were too easily influenced and were too interested in personal advancement rather than the good of the state. Thucydides seemed to believe that the best form of government was one which placed authority in the hands of a few wise leaders who were able to overcome personal desires to pursue policy that benefited the state rather than the individual. In other words, Thucydides was in favor of a change to the Spartan Oligarchy. In the city-state of Sparta, the government was controlled by an oligarchy in which the power was held by a group of five men, ephors.

It may not seem very fair that the citizens had little say in the decisions made by the government but, at the time, this was the better government. The Spartans needed to give up comfort and culture for a more disciplined military approach. Over the years, the Spartan’s ruthless and brutal reputation in war grew so large that other nations and city-states were so frightened that they would not attack Sparta even despite the rather small size of the Sparta army. By putting the power into the hands of just a few, each Spartan soldier would fight with a great deal of passion for his country.

As mentioned earlier, this passion was established at an early age, from early on Spartan youth was taught that the Spartan army was the only way. For that specific time period the oligarchy government in Sparta was better for the Ancient Greeks than the democratic government in Athens. The government in Athens worried more about the citizens of its city-state then its own well-being. The Spartan oligarchy may not have given its citizens a lot of freedom but it was successful in gaining attention and respect from the other Greeks and their rival nations.

When thinking about the city-states which controlled the Hellas area, it is important to remember that Athens controlled toe coastal states around the shores of the Aegean Sea, thus resulting in their naval dominance. The Spartans who laid claim to the independent states on land, along with Corinth (a seaport) established themselves as a military power. Thus, they would take exception to an attack on their sea colony. At first, Corcyra was neither allied with the Spartan or Athenian league.

They decided to put the ball in the court of Athens, and offer them their support (Thucydides, 54). Athens, looking out for its own interest really couldnt turn down the support of the Athenians, this would indeed make their already powerful navy, even stronger. Athens had no wish to see the strong navy of Corcyra pass into the hands of Corinth. Then too, it was a fact that Corcyra lay very conveniently on the coastal route to Italy and Sicily. So, with these considerations in mind, Athens made her alliance with Corcyra (Thucydides 62).

Now although the Athenians, didnt actively participate in the war between Corcyra and Corinth, there presence was a major cause of downfall for the Corinthians, who consistently backed down because of their threat. The problem ensued when the Spartans viewed the Athenians as in violation of the peace treaty established with the Thirty Years Truce. So Corcyra remained undefeated in her war with Corinth and the Athenian fleet left the island. But this gave Corinth her first cause for war against Athens, the reason being that Athens had fought against her with Corcyra although the peace treaty was still in force (Thucydides, 67).

According to Thucydides, the major cause of the Peloponnesian War was the fear of the growth of the power of Athens. The war began after sharp contests between at Sybota between Corinth and Corcyra, in which Athens came to the aid to Corcyra, an Athenian naval stronghold. The first important action was the initial invasion of Attica by a Spartan army in 431. Sparta accused Athens of aggression and threatening war, and demanded that the Athenians back down. Led by Pericles, they refused to do so and it caused for the beginning of the Battle of Plataea.

While, the Athenians support at Plataea was again not at full capacity, the Spartan army suffered a defeat at sea, when in 428, they tried to aid Mytilene, who was planning on revolting against Athens, but failed miserably. Urged on by the Cleon, the Athenians voted to massacre the men of Mytilene and enslave everyone else, but they killed only the leaders of the revolt. However, the Spartans were still successful at Plataea. “War began when the Athenians and the Peloponnesians broke the Thirty Years Truce which had been made after the capture of Euboea.

As to the reasons why they broke the truce, I propose first to give an account of the causes of complaint which they had against each other and of the specific instances where their interests clashed: this is in order that there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes. But the real reasoning for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta. ” (Thucydides 1. 23) War was inevitable from the onset of the Athenian victory in the Persian War.

The power and wealth associated with their victory, gave them an ethnocentric view of the world around them. What was problematic, was that the Spartans had played a major role in the Athenian victory. The gratitude that was being placed on the shoulders of the Athenians was somewhat unjustified, as the Spartans did not receive their due. On top of that, Sparta served as a protectorate to many of the smaller states. The Spartans felt responsible to defend their colonies against Athenian aggression, but also the allied city-states claimed that since Sparta was the only other major power that it was Spartas duty to protect the smaller states.

Sparta would not allow Athens to abuse its power over the smaller city-states. Part of it had to result from the actions of Athens during the post Persian War era. With the burden placed on the shoulders of the Spartans, this caused a belief in the smaller city-states that the Athenians were indeed as strong as all would believe, thus the smaller cit-states developed the thought that indeed Athenian attack was inevitable.

When two great and powerful city-states ban together for a common cause the results will in turn will have great expectations. Those expectations were met when an undermanned Greek army defeated the large Persian Army throughout the course of the Persian War. The problem occurs when each of the city-states own ego gets in the way of the cause. They handily defeated the Persians, but the Athenians took the credit for it, and paid homage to themselves, through elaborate celebrations of victory.

In their minds, they were at the head of Hellas. The Spartans took exception to this and rightfully so. The credit has to go to them as well, for the large part that they played in the victory over Persia. This dissension in the end had a lot to do with the Peloponnesian War. Never mind the military structures and governments that each set up, which made their differences clear cut. There was no way to avoid the war between these two great powers, it was inevitable, just as Thucydides had predicted.


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