Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Perceived Inevitability of the Peloponnesian War

Donna Welles 
IR Theory
Georgia Tech
September 18, 2012

The Perceived Inevitability of the Peloponnesian War

          The introduction to Book One of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War has a variety of functions as it provides the reader with, (1) Historical context of this particular military conflict amid other Hellenic wars such the Trojan War and the Persian War, (2) Insight into the nature of government at the time - how it can be that a city is a colony of one power while it is allied with another , (3) Insight into Athens' rise by virtue of its system of government which usurps its allies' navies and demands monetary tribute whereas Sparta demanded no such tribute but instead set up oligarchic systems of governments in its satellites loyal to Sparta.

          Finally, the author explains that, although the remainder of Book One would be dedicated to enumerating the specific disputes that triggered the Spartan declaration of war against Athens, the Peloponnesian War was in fact inevitable because of the rise of Athenian power as well as Sparta's fear of this power. While it is likely the case that the Peloponnesian War was inevitable for these reasons, it is arguable that the region's understanding of the nature of the Athenian power developed as a result of these disputes and therefore they did in fact serve a causal function in the beginning of the war.

The Dispute Over Epidamnus
          Within the city of Epidamnus, a democratic faction overthrew the aristocracy and drove the aristocrats into exile. Soon the aristocrats sought help from a foreign enemy and began to besiege the city. Struggling against these outside attacks, the democrats first asked Corcyra for assistance and, having been rejected and acting on the advice of the Oracle at Delphi, they enlisted the help of Corinth. A naval battle ensued between Corinth and Corcyra which resulted in a Corcyrean victory and the city of Epidamnus had been overrun and its inhabitants were largely sold as slaves.

          There are two main themes associated with Athenian regional dominance within this dispute which began small in nature. First, there was an instance when the Corcyreans took with them to Corinth a Spartan envoy as added leverage in their negotiations. From the reading it appears that the Spartan presence there had little to no effect, the Corinthians did not appear alarmed or intimidated and, in fact, the Corinthians rejected all of the Corcyrean proposals. This lack of esteem and lack of gravitas enjoyed by the Spartan envoy contrasts greatly with attitudes toward Athenian delegations throughout Book One.

          A second indicator of Athenian dominance within this dispute is the indirect relationship Athens has with the actors. Although Epidamnus was a colony of Corcyra, it was founded by Phalius - a Corinthian. Later, readers learn that Corinth had enjoyed a long diplomatic history with Athens and in fact this relationship had proved to be the decisive factor in previous military engagements. So, Athenian interests indirectly reach all the way to the city of Epidamnus although their direct involvement had not yet been solicited. Such a relationship illustrates the vast diplomatic net Athens has cast.

The Dispute Over Corcyra

          Shortly after its defeat against Corcyra, Corinth spent vast sums building up its military - specifically its navy. These efforts of course draw the attention of Corcyra and eventually, as apprehension grew, both Corinth and Corcyra sent envoys to Athens requesting either assistance or at the very least neutrality. After hearing lengthy arguments from both sides, Athens opted to side with Corcyra and sent a handful of ships to assist in the naval battle that ensued resulting in another
Corinthian defeat. Corcyra remained undefeated in its engagements against Corinth and Corinth for the first time had real cause to resent Athens.

          Again, two themes illustrating Athenian regional dominance emerge and again, a dispute that began relatively small in nature, involving Athens only tangentially evolved into a major international conflict perpetuated by Athens' regional dominance.

          The first of these themes is Athens' military dominance. Each of the speaker agreed that Athens had the greatest navy of the region followed by Corinth and Corcyra. When Athens sided with Corcyra it was partially because it feared the ramifications of the Corinthian navy usurping the Corcyrean navy. Such a combination would present a major threat to the Athenian navy, which at the time was unrivaled.

          Also, multi-layered international relations were at stake when Athens sent the handful of ships to assist Corcyra in their naval battle against Corinth. Not wanting to overtly break diplomatic ties with Corinth, the Athenian ships initially served a supporting role in the battle. As the battle progressed, however, Athenian ships were forced to engage the Corinthians directly thus severing diplomatic ties between the nations. The author asserted that, in terms of number of ships involved, this had been the biggest battle that had ever taken place between two Hellenic states.

The Dispute Over Potidaea

          The Potidaea dispute immediately followed the naval battle where Athenian and Corinthian ships engaged each other directly. Within this dispute the two forces working against Athenian interests were, (1) Corinth - as a reprisal for siding with Corcyra and breaking former diplomatic ties, and (2) Perdiccas - Potidaea's leader and a member of the royal Macedonian family who had been angered when Athens sided against him in a previous dispute. Neither of these actors was successful as the naval battle that ensued resulted in another Athenian victory. 

          Within this dispute, Athenian regional dominance can be found in the nature of the relationship between Athens and Potidea, the tactics the aforementioned aggressors used against Athens, and the outcome of these tactics as they proved unsuccessful.

          Although Potidea was a Corinthian colony, it was an ally of Athens in the tribute-paying class. Aware of the Corinthian anger towards them, Athens pushes for anti-Corinthian reforms in Potidea such as banishing the Corinthian magistrates, forcing them to send hostages to Athens, and making militarily strategic modifications to the city.

          Rather than openly engaging Athens, Perdiccas proceeded to use third parties to insight large-scale war. In addition to sending agents to Sparta to involve them in the war, he approached Corinth and lobbied them to support a revolt in Potidea. Athens paralleled such thinking in that they did not take action to defend against an overt attack, rather they were concerned about rebellion among their tribute-paying allies.

          None of these efforts were successful in ending Athenian regional dominance as Athens simply relied on a successful alliance with Macedonians and together they were able to quash the uprising. Certainly the failure of such an elaborately orchestrated scheme would have resonated throughout the region.


          The final section of Book One is titled, "The Debate at Sparta and the Declaration of War" and it is comprised four major speeches including appeals from (1) A Corinthian for Spartan action in response to Athenian hostility, (2) An Athenian for Hellenic solidarity citing the Persian War and the Battle of Marathon as examples when the nations had worked together effectively, (3) the Spartan King for restraint against an unbeatable enemy, and (4) a Spartan Ephor for courage to wage war against mighty Athens before it became even mightier.

          Although Athens was arguably the same strength while war was being debated at Sparta as it was before the Dispute over Epidamnus, the perception of this power had indeed changed. In order of the appeals made at Sparta: But for the events that unfolded, Corinth would likely not have felt threatened, especially given the fact that at the time they still enjoyed peaceful diplomatic relations with Athens. A long history of cooperation between Athens and Sparta could have continued had Sparta not seen the inefficacy of its envoys in the Corcyra - Corinth dispute. The Spartan King would not have the evidence of multiple successive Athenian naval victories to aid in his argument that Athens was unbeatable. Finally, it was the escalation put forth by the increased revelation of this Athenian power that developed through the disputes that inspired the Spartan Ephor to fear further revelation of Athenian power.

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