Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanation of the Peloponnesian War

Frank Hoffman argued recently that observers should evaluate Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War with skepticism: “Like any historian,” he explains, “Thucydides had to create a framework for the war and had to select facts, weigh sources, and arrange a narrative. That narrative is very much a personal history with honor and reputations at stake, and it was crafted without direct access to many of the principals and the kind of archival sources we take for granted now.” This conclusion may strike some as bold, even presumptuous; 2,500 years removed from the destruction of ancient Greece’s city-state system, how can a contemporary observer credibly question the foremost chronicler of that event? There are several answers one might offer: among them, that historical understanding is an ongoing enterprise, not a fixed objective; that no proposition is entitled to an exemption from reasoned interrogation (and certainly not on the arbitrary grounds that there should be a statute of limitations on conducting such inquiries); and that even the most penetrating of observers suffer from biases that undermine their analysis.

Reviewing the work of scholars who have examined the Peloponnesian War gives grounds for questioning not only Thucydides’s “purportedly dispassionate style” (Hoffman’s phrase), but also one of his most well-known conclusions: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” First, it is overly deterministic to contend that Athens and Sparta were fated to confrontation; Thucydides himself concedes that it is impossible to identify “the immediate cause which plunged the Hellenes into a war of such magnitude.” Second, one could argue that hostilities broke out because Sparta feared that aggressive Athenian democracy promotion would ultimately incite its slave population to take up arms. Had it chiefly been preoccupied with the growth of Athenian power, intuition suggests that it would have invaded Attica well before 431—but it did not. And while Sparta, as an oligarchy, was firmly opposed to democratic governance on principle, it eschewed ideological crusades. During the first half of the fifth century BC, in fact, even as Athenian democracy “gained in legitimacy through Athenian achievements in arts, sciences, and wealth,” Sparta largely refrained from taking countervailing actions.[1]

"What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard."
Painting of "Pericles' Funeral Oration" by Philipp Foltz (Wikimedia).

In brief, neither growing Athenian power nor the advance of Athenian-style democracy was, in and of itself, unduly worrisome to Sparta; rather, it was the intersection of those two phenomena that sowed concern. According to historian Victor Davis Hanson, it was only when “Athens began to combine its lust for power with a radical ideology of support for democracy abroad” that Sparta “concluded that the threat transcended mere armed rivalry and promised to infect the very hearts and minds of Greeks everywhere.”[2] Of particular concern to Sparta were the slaves upon whose labor its economy subsisted.

Sparta’s Fear of a Slave Revolt

Far from being incidental to the Spartan polis, slavery was among its central characteristics. Slaves—or helots, as they were known—widely outnumbered non-slaves, perhaps by as much as a factor of ten.[3] According to the director of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, a “fundamental feature of Spartan society was that the Spartiate citizens lived as rentier landowners supported by a servile population…who worked their estates.”[4] Any disturbance to this arrangement threatened not only Sparta’s agrarian economy, but also, by extension, the leadership’s authority. The English classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford observed how centrally “the constant menace of revolt” figured in its decision-making: “To meet this danger, and not for the purposes of conquest, their military system was designed and maintained.”[5] Sparta spared no measure to achieve domestic tranquility: the University of British Columbia’s Nigel Kennell observes that it “regularly sent young elite soldiers out into the countryside as armed death squads to murder any helot they found on the roads after dark or any working in the fields they thought too robust.”[6]

Helots are served excessive alcohol by the Spartans so their drunken behavior serves as an object lesson for Spartan youth.

As Cornford’s judgment implies, however, fear of a slave revolt did more than influence Sparta’s approach to internal order; it was instrumental in shaping the city-state’s foreign policy, for an external antagonist—or even mere opportunist—could attempt to turn the helots against Sparta’s leaders. As it happens, they scarcely required encouragement. According to Jean Ducat, France’s foremost authority on Sparta, there existed “a state of open war between the helots and the Spartans throughout the period from 520 to 460.”[7] Most notably, following an earthquake in the Eurotas Valley in 464 that destroyed much of Sparta, the city-state’s slaves joined forces with their counterparts in Messenia to attempt a coup. Even though strategic tensions between Sparta and Athens had been rising following their collective defeat of the Persians in 479, the former initially welcomed the latter’s assistance in suppressing the uprising. Soon, however, Sparta asked the Athenian contingent to leave, fearing that the democratic ideology of its members might encourage further helot subversion: British historian Paul Cartledge explains that “[t]he Spartans simply did not want several thousands of democratically minded citizen-soldiers running loose among their Greek servile underclass in their tightly controlled territory.”[8]

Sparta’s Assessment of Athenian Power

The chief rebuttal to the argument presented here is that, per Thucydides’s famous formulation, Sparta was more concerned about growing Athenian power than about a slave revolt. There are at least three difficulties with this explanation. First, the rise of Athens may have been more perceived than real. According to Donald Kagan, one of the foremost scholars of ancient Greece, if there was any increase in Athenian power prior to the Spartan invasion of Attica, it occurred in the aftermath of the civil war in Epidamnus, which drew in Sparta’s principal ally, Corinth, and the erstwhile neutral city-state of Corcyra (Corcyra appealed to Athens for assistance, and Athens enlisted it in a defensive alliance). On balance, though, he concludes that it “did not grow between 445 and 435.”[9]

Second, Sparta does not appear to have been as concerned about Athenian capabilities as proponents of Thucydides’s account suggest. According to the late British classicist A. W. Gomme, it had concluded that “Athens was not too powerful on land and was reasonably quiet.”[10] Kagan corroborates this assessment, noting that “the Spartans…seem not to have been unduly afraid of Athenians, at least until the crisis had developed very far.”[11] Some scholars actually think that Kagan understates Spartan confidence. According to political scientist Richard Lebow, for example, Sparta believed it could “invade Attica, overwhelm the Athenians in a single battle, dictate the terms of settlement, and return home to bask in the glory of their victory.”[12]

Third, if Sparta were gravely concerned about Athenian power, it exhibited an incongruous dispassion. Few would dispute, of course, that particular Spartans exhibited a reckless temperament. In late 432, the Spartan king Archidamus and a group of Athenian envoys had agreed that war between Sparta and Athens would be mutually disastrous. And yet, the Spartan ephor Sthenelaidas incited his countrymen to go to war anyways: according to Hanson, he “shouted out a few slogans about Spartan pride and power. The Spartan military assembly then immediately voted for war. They seemed to be swayed…by emotion rather than reason.”[13] But one should not tar the entire Spartan national-security establishment with the imprudence of a few individuals. Historian Lawrence Tritle notes that Sparta “sent at least four embassies to Athens in an attempt to head off the conflict.”[14] Kagan, moreover, credits Sparta with displaying “restraint” in the face of Athenian provocations.[15]

Concluding Thoughts

Temple on the island of Delos. The treasury of the Delian League was stored in the Temple of Appollon at Delos. (

Sparta was largely a status quo power—unquestionably brutal in maintaining order at home, but generally conservative in expanding its empire and responding to Athenian impingement. It neither attempted to export its ideology beyond the confines of the Peloponnesian League nor undertook to quash any and all expressions of democratic governance in the Greek city-state system. As time progressed, however, Athens became unsatisfied with merely extoling its political system; it sought to export democracy and employed increasingly violent means to do so. No less than Pericles conceded that Athens had “forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring.” International relations scholar Michael Doyle notes that Athens used force to ensure the subordination of its allies in the Delian League: “Military interventions resulted in either the restoration of a pro-Athenian (usually democratic) faction, the total depopulation of the land and its repopulation with Athenian settlers, or a confiscation of land for the purpose of establishing a garrison colony.”[16] 

Sparta had already been struggling mightily to contain its slaves prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. The spread of democratic ideology among them could only have fueled their restlessness. From Sparta’s perspective, Georgetown University’s Mark Kauppi explains, “Athens was not simply another powerful state on the rise; Athenian democracy…helped to mold an Athenian citizen whose daring and self-assurance were a driving force behind Athenian imperialism.”[17] In short, Sparta came to regard Athenian ideology not as a mere irritant, but as a mortal threat.

Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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Header Image: Pottery showing a Greek battle. (G. Dagli Orti|Getty Images)


[1] Daniela Huber, Democracy Promotion and Foreign Policy: Identity and Interests in U.S., EU, and Non-Western Democracies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): p. 8

[2] Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House, 2006): p. 13

[3] Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Anchor Books, 1996): p. 19

[4] Stephen Hodkinson, “Spartiates, helots, and the direction of the agrarian economy: toward an understanding of helotage in comparative perspective,” chapter in Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari (eds.), Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): p. 285

[5] Francis Macdonald Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoricus (London: Edward Arnold, 1907): p. 9

[6] Nigel M. Kennell, Spartans: A New History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010): p. 84

[7] This quote is historian Peter Hunt’s paraphrase of Ducat. See Peter Hunt, Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): p. 29

[8] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece (New York: Overlook Press, 2003): p. 34

[9] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca: Cornell Univesity Press, 1989): p. 345

[10] A.W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides (London: Clarendon Press, 1945): p. 349

[11] Ibid., p. 346

[12] Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests, and Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): p. 86

[13] Hanson, A War Like No Other: p. 15

[14] Lawrence Tritle, The Peloponnesian War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004): p. 29

[15] Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War: p. 354

[16] Michael Doyle, Empires (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986): p. 57

[17] “Thucydides: Character and Capabilities,” chapter in Benjamin Frankel (ed.), Roots of Realism (London: Frank Cass, 1996): p. 143