On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:
The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).
In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.
Corcyra, a naval power in its own right, had gained outsized influence because of its strategic position along the Adriatic coast, where it dominated the trade routes to Italy and Sicily. A former colony of Corinth, Corcyra managed its own sphere of influence in the western Hellas, where it in turn established it own colonies, including Epidamnus. Riven by factional strife, the incumbent regime of Epidamnus requested assistance from Corcyra but was rejected, whereupon they beseeched Corinth.
Corcyra had long been hostile to its mother country, and when Corinth sent a garrison to Epidamnus, Corcyra considered it an invasion of their own sphere of influence and laid siege to Epidamnus on behalf of an exiled faction. Thus commenced hostilities between Corcyra and Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League.
At this point, Corcyra’s behavior becomes puzzling, self-destructive and borderline irrational. Not only does Corcyra defeat a Corinthian fleet and compel the submission of Epidamnus, but also ravages nearby Corinthian allies, thus humiliating Corinth and compelling a massive response. It is one thing to defend an independent sphere of influence against a foreign great power; it is quite another to attack the foundations of that power’s alliance system. Had Corcyra been content with the defeat of the Corinthian fleet and garrison and made peace overtures to Corinth afterward, Corinth might have written off the venture as a losing proposition over secondary interests. Ravaging Corinthian allies seems to be a classic case of exceeding the culminating point of victory. When the Corinthians began to assemble a great armament to restore their honor and punish Corcyra, the Corcyraeans realized their error. At this point they had 3 options: (a) submit to Corinth under duress and lose their independence; (b) defeat Corinth in battle, an unlikely prospect given the overwhelming force that Corinth was assembling; (c) voluntarily join the Athenian alliance and thereby maintain a degree of independence and simultaneously provoke a general, systemic war throughout the Hellas. Corcyra selected option C.
During their plea to the Athenian assembly, the Corcyraean envoys combine warnings of inevitable war with Sparta with explicit geopolitical arguments that Halford Mackinder and George Kennan probably recognized 25 centuries later:
To sum up as shortly as possible, embracing both general and particular considerations , let this show you the folly of sacrificing us. Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in Hellas, Athens, Corcyra, and Corinth, and that if you allow two of these three to become one, and Corinth to secure us for herself, you will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and the Peloponnesus. But if you receive us, you will have our ships to reinforce you in the struggle (1.36.3)
Corcyra’s earlier miscalculation in the war against Corinth is all the more perplexing, given the clear-eyed understanding of the strategic configuration of the Hellas that they demonstrate in their speech to the Athenians. In the tenuous bipolar system, general stability depended on the neutrality of Corcyra, lest its formidable naval resources be incorporated by one of the leading states and relative power becomes dramatically unbalanced. That is exactly what Corcyra now proposed to Athens, and the probable consequences were obvious, because if Athens could not abide the union of Corinthian and Corcyraean naval power, then neither could Sparta tolerate the combination of Athens and Corcyra. The envoys told the assembly that their “first endeavor should be to prevent, if possible, the existence of any naval power except [their] own; failing this, to secure the friendship of the strongest that does exist (1.35.5)” in the full knowledge that same logic applied to Corinth. Athens was thus faced with an awesome dilemma: reject the Corcyraean alliance and risk the formation of a formidable maritime rival, or accept the alliance and risk sparking a general war with the Peloponnesian League.
Retorting to Corcyra, the Corinthian envoys rejected their geostrategic arguments and instead emphasized honor, justice and the prerogatives of great powers. As a Corinthian colony, Corcyra’s hostility to its mother country was unjust and dishonorable, and Athens would be stained with that same dishonor should it accept Corcyra into alliance (1.39.3). Furthermore, “every power has a right to punish its own allies, (1.40.5)” a principle that Corinth upheld on Athens’ behalf when it declined to support the rebellion of Samos.
For kindness opportunely shown has a greater power of removing old grievances than the facts of the case may warrant. And do not be seduced by the prospect of a great naval alliance. Abstinence from all injustice to other first-rate powers is a greater tower of strength than anything that can be gained by the sacrifice of permanent tranquility for an apparent temporary advantage (1.40.3).
Athens was given a choice between an enticing naval alliance dictated by cold geopolitical calculations, or a vague and intangible sense of honor gained from the equitable treatment of a fellow great power. It selected the first option. “For it began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth…(1.44.2).”
One of the lessons of this episode is that in a bipolar system peace often depends on the neutrality of certain independent powers, which itself depends on an implicit or explicit agreement between all 3 parties. In fact, these systems might be the most dangerous of all because they can become unbalanced; both of the great powers worry that the independent power will incorporate with their rival, creating a hegemon, and will respond to the slightest indication of such a realignment with preemption, thereby sparking a general war. The regime of a neutral power must understand that their independence – and peace – rests on the edge of a knife, and that much hinges on their own statecraft.
At the same time, self-interest and national survival trumps all other considerations. Independent polities under existential threat will not adhere to existing alliance systems and will seek aid from anywhere, no matter the consequences for systemic peace.