The Second Peloponnesian War: Hobbesian Causes
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Athens and Sparta. The two most well-known city-states of Ancient Greece, and the cornerstones of Western Civilization. They were also the leaders of two alliances that fought head to head in a series of wars. The focus of this paper will be on the Second Peloponnesian War, fought between 431 and 404 BC. The Second Peloponnesian War provides an excellent example for the Hobbesian/Realist theory of war.
As can be determined by the name of the war, it took place after Athens and Sparta had already fought in one Peloponnesian War. The first war was ended with a Thirty Years’ Peace agreement which was violated less than half that amount of time later. Sparta was the first to declare war, but according to Tannenbaum, the fault really lies with Athens.
Athens, in 433, forged a defensive alliance with Corcyra, an ex-colony and opponent of Corinth (Tannenbaum, 1975). This might seem an innocent act, except for a few details. For one, Corinth was a member of the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League. Second, Corcyra was not simply an “opponent” of Corinth, they were actively at war. Signing a defensive alliance meant that Corinth would have to drop its plans for an attack, and effectively surrender to their foe without ever losing a battle (Tannenbaum, 1975).
The real strategy of Athens, however, was in pre-empting the hostilities. Athens had always assumed the fighting was going to recommence eventually. They knew the peace was too strained to last. Therefore, they decided to act in a manner that would provide an advantage to them, even if it would risk war itself (Tannenbaum, 1975). The treaty with Corcyra exactly matched the actions that started the first Peloponnesian War, and it is highly doubtful that anyone in the Athenian government would have forgotten about it (Tannenbaum, 1975). They knew they were risking Spartan retaliation, or Corinthian response at least. This action, however, granted them a strategic location in the naval routes favored by Athens. Had they not stepped in, and Corinth had won, the Peloponnesian League would have a distinct advantage over the superior navy of Athens when the fighting began again.
In this reasoning for the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War, we see the balance of power between two powerhouses: Athens, a democratic naval champion, and the legendary Spartan oligarchy. As Dawson states, Hobbes and the Realists believe that war serves the function of “achieving gain, safety, and reputation, anticipating enemies to prevent imbalances . . .” (Dawson, 1996, p. 4). When Sparta saw that Athens was making moves to shift the balance of power, they were compelled to start a war, or perhaps more accurately, resume one. Sparta could not allow Athens to gain a strategic advantage, so it acted instead. They may have taken the first military action, but Athens truly started the war with a simple signature on a treaty.
In the end, Athens lost, was forced to raze its defensive walls, destroy much of its famed fleet, and many of its citizens and slaves were lost to fighting, disease and starvation, leaving little labor for restoration (Burke, 1990). Within a few decades, freedom and democracy had been restored and the Athenian military was recuperating, but unfortunately for them, and the Spartans, the Macedonians were about to rewrite history again.
Burke, E. (1990, April). Athens after the Peloponnesian War: Restoration Efforts and the Role of Maritime Commerce. Classical Antiquity, 9(1), pp. 1-13. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from JSTOR.
Dawson, D. (1996, Feb). The origins of war: Biological and anthropological theories. History and Theory, 35(1), pp. 1-28. Retrieved September 12, 2012 from JSTOR.
Tannenbaum, R. (1975). Who Started the Peloponnesian War? Arion: New Series, 2(4), pp. 533-546. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from JSTOR.
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