The Collapse of the Peace of Nicias - Spartan Goals and Policy
After the Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias provided much-needed breathing space for a weakened and disgraced Sparta and a war-weary as well as plague-ridden Athens. However, in the Peloponnesus the absence of effective statesmanship and political competence made the period following the making of the Peace one of confusion and ill-channeled ambition.1 While Athens sought to undo the damage done by Brasidas in Thrace, Argos mounted a challenge to Lacedaemonian hegemony in the Peleponneus. Nevertheless Sparta, through innovation, resilience, and warfare successfully pursued a policy of restoration and reconsolidation in the Peloponnesus and thus emerged after the Peace in a formidable position to once again take up arms against the Athenians in the last decade of the Peloponnesian War.
The extent of the crisis the Spartans found themselves in at the time of the Peace of Nicias is visible in their willingness to pursue novel paths. Even before the capture of the Spartiates on Sphacteria, the Spartans had decided to use Helots in Brasidas' campaign in Thrace, granting them freedom in exchange for their services.2 This move can only be understood in the context of the demographic crisis3 that befell Sparta after the earthquake and Helot revolt of 465/4 and of the necessity for Sparta gradually to dismantle the powder keg of looming Helot rebellion - partially by sending some Helots off on Brasidas' campaign. There is also minor evidence suggesting that Sparta—contrary to Thucydides' assertion that the plague never reached the Peloponnesus4 —might indeed have come into contact with the deadly disease and thereby suffered additionally.5 In any event, Sparta's demographic situation became a setback significant enough to make her consider breaking with past conventions. Another example of this is her decision to restore the full rights of the Spartiates captured by Athens on Sphacteria, despite their having disgraced Sparta by surrendering to the enemy and thereby damaging the quasi-mythical image of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae that had so much contributed to furnishing the excellent reputation of Sparta as boundlessly courageous and freedom-loving.6 Finally, another noteworthy novelty the Spartans introduced after an abortive military campaign by king Agis is a law—"hitherto unknown at Sparta," as Thucydides attests—attaching ten Spartiates to him, without whose consent he was not allowed to lead an army out of Laconia.7
The more immediate problem Sparta was facing in the years after the Peace was a rearrangement of alliances in the Peloponnesus under Argive auspices, a move H. D. Westlake describes as a "challenge to Spartan authority, which before the battle of Mantinea [in 418] might have permanently transformed the balance of power in Greece".8 This became possible as the thirty years' truce between Sparta and Argos was about to expire9 and because of the resentment that Sparta's allies felt toward the Peace of Nicias, which was not signed by the Boeotians, Corinthians, Eleans, and Megarians.10 Especially Corinth was angered by the treaty, since it did not recover for her Sollium and Anactorium, two cities in the north-west along the trade route to Italy (and since it did nothing with regard to the concerns that had led her into war in the first place).11 Consequently, after Sparta had entered into alliance with Athens in the winter of 422/1, the Corinthians approached the Argives and, according to Thucydides, told them that Sparta had in view "only the subjugation of the Peloponnesus, or she would never have entered into treaty and alliance with the once detested Athenians, and that the duty of consulting for the safety of the Peloponnesus had now fallen upon Argos," a message that resonated with the Argives who had not hitherto suffered from the war and had great ambitions of their own.12 As a result, a new coalition emerged in the Peloponnesus in 421, which was centered around Argos and joined first by Mantinea; other cities quickly began considering to follow her example, as there was a general concern over a clause in the Peace according to which alterations to the treaty could be made by Athens and Sparta without having to consult the allies for their approval - there was widespread fear that Athens and Sparta could combine to subjugate the less powerful cities.13
When Elis, Corinth, and the Thracian Chalcidians joined the Argive alliance,14 Sparta was under enormous pressure to retain her hegemonic position in the Peloponnesus. Indeed, two ephors hatched a plan to bring Boeotia and Argos into alliance with Sparta by breaking the peace with
Athens; this, however, failed on account of the Boeotian councils, who rejected the plan.15 Sparta therefore fell back on another of her urgent policy needs: convincing the Boeotians to give them Panactum as a bargaining chip to use vis-à-vis Athens for the recovery of Pylos.16 This the Boeotians were only willing to do on condition of Sparta making a separate alliance with her - which the Spartans did, in violation of their agreement with Athens, since they wanted and needed Boeotian friendship more than they feared offending Athens.17
After this, deception, diplomatic blunders, and political incompetence carried the day— Diodorus laments "the confusion that had arisen together with a lack of leadership"18—until Argos entered into alliance with Athens, and, as a result, Corinth turned back to Sparta.19 When Argos moved to attack Epidaurus in 419, a response by Sparta became inevitable. The following winter she sent a garrison to Epidaurus to protect her interest there.20 However, a real change in the Spartans' fortunes only came about when, in the summer of 418, they decided that, in the words of Robin Seager, "the nonsense in the Peloponnese must be stopped before it went any further."21 Accordingly, they made preparations for a major military offensive. Joined by a formidable number of allied troops from Tegea, Arcadia, Boeotia, Corinth and Phlius they came upon the Argives and their allies when, despite a favorable outlook for victory, king Agis accepted an Argive offer to submit to arbitration, foregoing decisive battle.22 Agis was chastised for this missed opportunity at Sparta but he was given another opportunity to prove himself, which came to pass in the same summer at Mantinea, where he inflicted upon Argos a crucial defeat in one of the major battles of the Peloponnesian War.23 This allowed the Spartans to force Argos to dissolve her pact with Athens, Elis, and Mantinea and instead enter into alliance with Sparta. As a consequence, Mantinea, too, came over to Sparta, as they "found themselves powerless without the Argives."24
Hence, despite the fact that the oligarchy that the Spartans imposed on Argos was quickly overthrown, they were able to essentially dismantle the challenge under Argive auspices to their supremacy in the Peloponnesus. Although the Athenians did help Argos militarily, their support was halfhearted and not sufficient to sustain a change in the balance of power in the peninsula.
1 This dilettantism forms the basis of H. D. Westlake's argument in his aptly named "Thucydides and the Uneasy
Peace—A Study in Political Incompetence," The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov. 1971), 315325.
2 Thuc. 5.34.1
3 See n. 6 below.
5 The potential contingency of an outbreak of the plague is accounted for in an abortive treaty between the Spartans and Argives that Thucydides describes in 5.41.2. It is therefore quite possible that either Argos or Sparta—or both—had some exposure to the disease. Since the confidence Argos displayed in this period, trying to regain hegemony in the Peloponnesus, suggests a rather healthy demographic outlook adequate to the enterprise, I would suggest that Sparta is the more likely candidate for having come into contact with the plague - if indeed this were assumed to have really happened, contrary to Thucydides' account.
6 Thuc. 5.34.2; cf. esp. Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press 2008), n. 5.34.2b on p. 321.
7 Thuc. 5.63.4, all translations from the Landmark Thucydides, cf. n. 6 above.
8 Westlake, 316, n. 3.
9 Thuc. 5.14.4
10 Thuc. 5.17.2
11 In 5.30.1 Thucydides asserts that Sollium and Anactorium were the real reasons for Corinth's grievances, whereas publicly her diplomats pointed to her unwillingness "to give up her Thracian allies" as a pretext.
13 Thuc. 5.29
14 Thuc. 5.31.5-6
15 Thuc. 5.38
16 Robin Seager, "After the Peace of Nicias: Diplomacy and Policy, 421-416 B.C." The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1976), 249-69, here 258-9.
18 Diod. 12.77.2-3, transl. by C. H. Oldfather, via ;www.perseus.tufts.edu;. For Alcibiades' notorious deception of the Spartan envoys as well as the Athenian assembly, see Plut. Alcibiades, 14.
19 Thuc. 5.46.5 and 5.48.3 20Thuc. 5.56.2
20 Seager, 267. Cf. also Thuc. 5.57.1.
21 Thuc. 5.57.2 and 5.59.5. Significantly, Thuc. at 5.60.3 describes the troops gathered under Agis as "by far the finest Hellenic army ever yet brought together . . . and all these the flower of their respective populations." A missed opportunity indeed.
22 Thuc. 5.73-4
23 Thuc. 5.81.1. For the treaties of peace and alliance between Sparta and Argos, see 5.77 and 5.79 consolidate control once again within the Peloponnesus and then rededicate themselves to the dismemberment of the Athenian empire."
24 In the aftermath of the Peace of Nicias, the Spartans effectively regained the ground which they needed to ultimately decide the outcome of the Peloponnesian War in their favor.
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- Peloponnesian War Peloponnesischer Krieg Athens Athen Sparta Nicias Peace of Nicias Thucydides Thukydides Strategy War Ioanian War Ionischer Krieg Archideman War Archidemischer Krieg Peloponnese Peloponnesus Argos