The Nature of Strategy: Pericles and the Peloponnesian War

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays selected for honorable mention, from Ash Graham of the Australian Defence College.

Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War provides for a range of lessons about the nature of strategy applicable to a wide audience. The period demonstrates the inherent complexity in understanding the concept of strategy, a concept that remains devoid of a coherent, agreed, and universal definition. What is certain is that strategy indeed exists, with survival of the state and subsequently the pursuit of power as key features, and is ultimately a fundamental element of statecraft. Simply, strategy is taken here to mean how the objectives of the state (the purpose, or ends) are achieved through the actions of the state (the means, or combat).[1]

A senior Athenian statesman and general of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles provided Athens a central figure whose genius and understanding of the nature of strategy contributed greatly to the growth of the Athenian Empire. Sparta, the main rival to Athenian power, despised the Athenian democratic way of life, and felt threatened by the expansion of its empire around the Mediterranean. Equally, Sparta (and her allies) feared for the survivial of their own Peloponnesian League owing to the growth of Athenian hegemony. The clash of wills that ensued was an outcome of the power struggle between the Athenian democracy and the Spartan oligarchy.

The fundamental tenet of any state is that it will seek to survive and, if able, pursue power. This tenet is executed through strategy. The application of this tenet possesses a series of inherent and constituent features, and these are reflected in the nature of strategy. The tenet of state survival and pursuit of power can be illustrated in the context of three of these features: the political objective; strategy and military culture; and geography and operating environment. Firstly, the nature of the political objective will be highlighted through Thucydides’s record of the Peloponnesian War. Second, the nature of the strategy and military culture of Athens will be explored through Pericles’s funeral oration. Finally, the nature of the geographical and operational environment will be considered through the exploration of a series of discrete examples from the period. The insights into these three features of the nature of strategy will offer an understanding of the fundamental and underlying desire for the state to survive and pursue power.

The Political Objective

The political objective is a key feature of the tenet of state survival and pursuit of power and provides detailed insights into the nature of strategy. To draw out a number of these insights, this section will examine the nature of the political objective in a brief chronological journey through Thucydides’s record of the Peloponnesian War beginning with the Pentecontaetia, through to the road to war, and finally during the 431/0 BCE period of the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans.

The Walls protecting Athens and acccess to the ports of Piraeus during the Peloponnesian War (U.S. Army/Wikimedia)

Athens’ steady rise and subsequent dominance as a Greek power leading up to the commencement of the Peloponnesian War is described by Thucydides through the events of the Pentecontaetia; a period that saw the steady advancement of the Athenian empire around the Mediterranean. Anticipating the fear this rise in power would generate in her enemies, Athens engaged her entire population in the construction of a wall around the city, and the construction of a secondary walled corridor between Athens and the port town of Piraeus.[2] These walls were central to the state’s defence in countering any contest to the heart of her empire. This undertaking is indicative of the magnitude of the real threat Athens faced, and equally how Athens pursuit of power would require aspects of survival to be incorporated into her own expansion strategy.

This period that saw the rise of Athens as a dominant power in Greece also corresponds with the formative period of Pericles’s education and appreciation of strategy, its application by the state, and what his role would become. Chronologically, the first mention of Pericles by Thucydides is in 454 BCE, some 25 years into the Pentecontaetia, where he led the defeat of the Sicyonians, took Achaea, but unsuccessfully laid siege to Oeniadae.[3] In the three years preceding these events, Athens experienced a series of damaging military and political failures, resulting in Sparta temporarily experiencing a greater than usual level of power over Athens.[4] Pericles’s partial success served to rebalance this power, which was formalised in 451 BCE through a five-year truce between Sparta and Athens.[5] This truce illustrates the threat each posed to the other at the time, was ultimately a pre-cursor to the Thirty Years’ Peace, and characterises the nature of strategy in terms of the need for states to temper their aspirations in achieving a balance between survival and pursuit of power.[6]

The relative stability that accompanied the Thirty Years’ Peace lasted until 432 BCE. Sparta, along with most of her allies, feared the threat posed to their independence by aggressive Athenian expansion.[7] At the time, Athens posited that she acquired her empire peacefully and that such a pursuit of power was both necessary and acceptable to maintain an empire.[8] By contrast, Sparta feared this expansion, but sought to delay hostilities to build force and draw Athens into a land battle at a later time. Corinth, however, a major Spartan ally in the Peloponnesian League, implored Sparta to declare war, concluding:

We must believe that the tyrant city that has been established in Hellas has been established against all alike, with a program of universal empire, part fulfilled, part in contemplation; let us then attack and reduce it, and win future security for ourselves and freedom for the Hellenes who are now enslaved.[9]

Sparta then undertook to declare war on Athens.[10] This decision demonstrates that the nature of strategy will determine a state’s action as it seeks to survive when its political objectives are threatened by another state’s power.

Despite the decision for war, and in what was partially an attempt at diplomacy to achieve her political objectives and buy time for preparations, Sparta offered Athens an ultimatum which would avoid conflict and again rebalance power in Greece.[11] Pericles, however, maintained the political objectives of Athens, confident in its military capability over Sparta, stating, “I hope that you will none of you think that we shall be going to war for a trifle.”[12] He then conveyed to the assembled Athenians, “We must not fall behind them [the Spartans], but resist our enemies in any way and in every way, and attempt to hand down our power to our posterity unimpaired.”[13] In maintaining the ongoing pursuit of power consistent with the nature of strategy, Pericles had convinced Athens that to go to war was in the interest of its survival.

"The Plague of Athens" by Michiel Sweerts (Wikimedia)

War ensued around the Mediterranean. Despite several Athenian successes at sea, Sparta continued attempting to draw Athens into a land battle by twice invading and ravaging the Athenian property in the country. This caused the Athenians turned on Pericles. Despite this, he maintained that victory would be achieved if they upheld the political objective of defending within the city walls and then defeating the Spartans at sea.[14] He again maintained that this should be the approach in the second year of the war around the time Athens was struck down by the plague.[15] Pericles implored the Athenian people to stay the course and continue to live in line with the political objective for the good of the state, reminding them, “A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country be ruined he must he ruined with it.”[16] This critical point in the war illustrates not only that the political objective of the state are intrinsically linked to the survival of the state, but also highlights the importance of the question of toward what end the state maintains the course toward that objective.

Strategic and Military Culture

State survival and the pursuit of power are profoundly influenced by the strategic and military culture of the state. An exploration of the nature of Athens strategy and military culture of Athens can be achieved through a deep dive into Pericles’s funeral oration, given at the completion of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.

The funeral oration was a customary event that provided the state with the opportunity to remember and honour its citizens who had died in battle during that year.[17] Pericles was chosen to provide this oration, and the content extended further than the customary eulogy to essentially form a call to action for the second year of the war after the end of the winter. The unusual content of this eulogy provides a comprehensive insight into the Athenian strategy and military culture, and how this culture directly relates to Athens strategic objectives of foremost survival, but moreover expansion of power.

Pericles commenced by honouring Athens’ ancestors, saying “they dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor.”[18] He also highlighted the idea that the Athenian people had inherited this empire from their effort.[19] He continued by recalling the history of Athenian military achievement, and how this “stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression.”[20] It is unsurprising that this military theme and description of the culture and history was forefront in the oration as it reinforced the military culture. Pericles weaves a military culture into the strategic narrative, whilst also anticipating the recommencement of battle after the winter. Were Athens to lose this momentum, they would be at serious risk from the Spartans who had committed their state to the destruction of the Athenian empire.

The speech continued by recognising the unique Athenian democratic values and way of life as a model to other states, describing the equality of justice in Athenian law, and the freedom provided by government to the people.[21] In doing so, he implies that these values and way of life lead to Athenians being good citizens.[22] Whilst there was a degree of irony—even untruthfulness—in Pericles’s suggestions that the Athenians were free (given Athens forceful expansion of a democratic empire), he nonetheless demonstrates the strategic worth of culture and values of the state and how the nature of these link directly with the quest for power. Simultaneously, Pericles seeks to protect the state by reinforcing a sense of enduring allegiance and service to the state in preparation for the second year of the war.

Athens, seeing herself as a model for Hellas, took pride in her democratic principles. Having drawn the parallels between the Athenian past and present to demonstrate that power had been hard won and maintained, Pericles justified the righteousness of Athenian expansion by cloaking it under a policy of openness.[23] In implying the world would otherwise want to be conquered by Athens, he contrasted Spartan invasion with Athenian salvation.[24] In doing so, Pericles relates Athens military culture with overall national superiority, and then uses these to validate Athens expansion of the empire.

Pericles laboured to make the connection between strategy and military culture, and how this feature of the nature of strategy was present in state survival. He highlighted the superiority of Athens as the “school of Hellas,” implying that there was too much to lose in terms of Athenian national power.[25] He made particular reference to the heroism of its citizens who “nobly fought and died” to ensure Athens became the power it was at the time.[26] He prefaced this connection by stating, “And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, is proved by the power of the state acquired by these habits.”[27] In doing so, Pericles strenuously reinforces the cultural obligation for service in the interest of Athenian survival.

Geographic and Operational Environment

The Athenian fleet shown in a 19th century engraving (Wikimedia)

The nature of strategy is greatly influenced by the geographical and operational environment within which a state exists, and is a feature closely associated with that state’s survival and pursuit of power. This association as it applied for Athens and Pericles can be explored through several examples from the period.

The importance of the location of Piraeus was seen many years before the Peloponnesian War as key to the survival of Athens. The ability for Athens to “gain in the acquisition of power by becoming a naval people” could never be realised from within a land-locked city.[28] Piraeus being “a locality that has three natural harbors” provided Athens with the geographic link to its chosen operational environment.[29] Whilst the wall around Athens provides insight into state survival, the desire for the physical connection between Athens and Piraeus provides insight into the state’s pursuit of power.

The true strength of Athens was indeed at sea. The preference for the operational environment to be characterised by a maritime strategy was established many years before the Peloponnesian War, when Themistocles (a predecessor of Pericles) “first ventured to tell them to stick to the sea and forthwith began to lay the foundations of the empire.”[30] This strategy endured as Athens sought to pursue power, and as war ensued around the Mediterranean Pericles maintained that victory would be realised if they maintained defence within the city walls and then defeated the Spartans at sea.[31] In the first year of the war, Athens realised many successes at sea culminating in a significant success under Pericles leadership at the end of that year when the Athenians ravaged Megara, as much a symbolic message to Sparta as it was physical.[32] This victory also set the conditions for Athens to maintain momentum after the winter, unaware that an event outside their control would turn the tide of the war.

Whilst maintaining territory provides for survival, gaining territory leads to increased power. Importantly, it is not the territory alone that provides power, but the ability to utilise the resources that are present, terrorise, enslave, or conversely free a people, or expand an ideology.[33] Pericles articulated his speech to the Athenians and throughout his sea campaigning in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, and the Athenian successes during this period reflect the correlation between gaining territory and increasing power.[34]

After the Athenian decision to go to war was made, Pericles employed the strategy of defence within the Athenian walls. Athenians grudgingly abandoned their rural homes, were told “not to go out to battle, but come into the city and guard it, and get ready their fleet, in which their real strength lay.”[35] What could not have been forecast by Pericles in deciding upon the operating environment was the plague that would strike Athens at the beginning of the second year of the war with a devastating effect on its population.[36] The purpose of highlighting this example is to demonstrate that the nature of strategy does not always play out as planned and that chance in war can affect the survival of the state as much as the enemy.

State survival and pursuit of power, as a tenet of strategy, were well understood and pursued by Pericles. This was a watershed moment in Athens’s history, and the study of his strategy today provide into how the nature of strategy is reflected in this tenet.


Thucydides’s account of the Athenian Empire in the lead up to the Peloponnesian War provides a series of insights into the nature of strategy, demonstrating the tenet of the state is its survival and pursuit of power. The journey through the Pentecontaetia, the road to war, and the Peloponnesian War itself demonstrates how the political objective consistently guides the primary concern of survival, and moreover the desire to seek power. The Athenian example of attempting to avert war by asserting its power demonstrates that survival and seeking power can occur simultaneously. The funeral oration delivered by offers a snapshot of how strategy and military culture can characterise the state, and this narrative reveals how connecting the political objectives with the cultures of the people, the military, and the state together as one assist in the preservation of the state. The various examples of the importance of the geographic and operational environment provide understanding into the relationship between state survival and power, where gaining and maintaining territory shapes the operating environment and increases power, and equally how the uncertainty of chance in war can upset the best laid plans.

Strategy is indeed a key feature in the survival of states and their pursuit of power, a fundamental element of statecraft. The Periclean strategy to ensure the survival of Athens, as a foundation for her pursuit of power and growth of the Athenian empire, were apparent as objectives of the state (the purpose) and demonstrated by the numerous examples in Pericles actions (the means). That Pericles was unable to ultimately defeat the Spartans and subsequently achieve Athenian hegemony before he succumbed to the plague left this task to his successors. What the Periclean strategy does provide is insight into the importance of understanding the implications of the political objective, strategy and military culture, and geography and operating environment and their influence on the nature of strategy.

Ash Graham is a logistics officer in the Australian Army. He is currently a student attending the Australian Command and Staff Course (Joint) at the Australian Defence College. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Defence Force.

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Header Image: "Pericles' Funeral Oration" by Philipp Foltz (Wikimedia)


[1] von Clausewitz, C., M. Howard, and P. Paret. ‘Purpose and Means in War.’ In On War. Princeton University Press, 1989.

[2] Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler, and Richard Crawley. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press, 2008, 49-50.

[3] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 61.

[4] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 57-61.

[5] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 61.

[6] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 63.

[7] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 38.

[8] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 43.

[9] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 68-69.

[10] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 49.

[11] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 79-80.

[12] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 81.

[13] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 85.

[14] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 103-104.

[15] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 123.

[16] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 124.

[17] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 110.

[18] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 111.

[19] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 112.

[20] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 112.

[21] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 112.

[22] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 112.

[23] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 113.

[24] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 113.

[25] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 114.

[26] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 114.

[27] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 114.

[28] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 55.

[29] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 51.

[30] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 51.

[31] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 103-104.

[32] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 106-107; 109-110.

[33] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 39; 46; 53; 56; 62-63; 69-70, 83; 101-103; 106-107; 109-110; 113.

[34] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 80-85; 106-110.

[35] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 98.

[36] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 118