Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III


Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

First was Athens’ catastrophic misread of the nature and motivations of their Spartan enemy. In his oration to the Athenian assembly, Pericles was contemptuous of Sparta’s capacity for war on account of the agrarian poverty of the Peloponnesus, the political dysfunction of the Peloponnesian League, and the rampant individuality of Spartan society:

As to the war and the resources of either party, a detailed comparison will not show you the inferiority of Athens. Personally engaged in the cultivation of their land, without funds either private or public, the Peloponnesians are also without experience in long wars across sea, from the strict limit which poverty imposes on their attacks upon each other … The great wish of some is to avenge themselves on some particular enemy, the great wish of others to save their own pocket. Slow in assembling, they devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any matter of common concern, most of it to the prosecution of their own affairs. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come of his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (1.141)

The triumphalism of this speech was in sharp contrast to that of Archidamus, the Spartan King, who was keenly aware of Sparta’s weakness and advised caution before embarking on war against the powerful Athenian empire, which was superior by nearly every measure of strategic power (1.80).

More damaging to Athens in the long run was the failure to discern Sparta’s existential motivations. This blunder seems inexcusable, given the long history of relations between the two cities and the insights thus gained into the Spartan character. Throughout the History Athenian officials are forthright in their rhetorical defense of their empire, repeatedly invoking the motives of “fear, honor and interest” along with the natural prerogatives of the strong over the weak (1.76.2). But Athens did not bother to examine Sparta’s actions through the same lens. The fear, honor, and interest that led Athens to acquire a vast maritime empire was also forcing the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies into a harried outburst against encroaching Athenian power.

The Spartans voted that the treaty had been broken, and that war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them (1.88).

The problem for Sparta was that these geopolitical considerations were always in conflict with the conservative and inward-looking pathologies of Spartan society. As the Corinthians bitterly noted, Sparta would only take action when the threat had already grown to unmanageable dimensions:

You, Spartans, of all the Hellenes are alone inactive, and defend yourselves not by doing anything but by looking as if you would so something; you alone wait till the power of an enemy is becoming twice its original size, instead of crushing it in its infancy (1.69.4).

By the time Sparta was roused to action the situation was already a crisis. Last minute efforts for a diplomatic solution were stillborn due to Sparta’s infamous lack of subtlety. When the Spartan embassy to the Athenian assembly demanded that Athens abandon its empire to maintain peace (1.139.3), Athens did not recognize the ultimatum for what it was – a desperate and frightened plea by a status-quo power suddenly cognizant of its vulnerability – but thought it an outlandish demand deliberately used as a pretext for war.

Misjudging Sparta was the root cause of Athens’ second strategic mistake: failure to understand the nature of the war. Athens thought that the war would be limited and that actual hostilities could be confined to specific theaters. But Sparta and the Peloponnesian League considered Athens to be an existential threat, and the war was prosecuted with the corresponding intensity. The conflict was systemic throughout the Hellas and clashes were possible wherever Spartan and Athenian influence collided. Early Athenian actions were characterized by tentative half-measures crafted in the delusion that the war would be an unremarkable border conflict, as when Athens reinforced their new Corcyraean allies with a fleet that was far too small and burdened by restrictive rules of engagement (1.49).

Finally, Athens’ misjudgments about Sparta and the upcoming war led to the most catastrophic error: flawed strategy. Ironically, after enumerating all the financial, military and political weaknesses of the Peloponnesian League, Pericles advised Athens to avoid battle, adopt a defensive posture, and rely on their maritime empire to supply them with food and resources.

If they march against our country we will sail against theirs, and it will then be found that the desolation of the whole of Attica is not the same as that of even a fraction of the Peloponnesus; for they will not be able to supply the deficiency except by a battle, while we have plenty of land both on the islands and the continent. The rule of the sea is indeed a great matter. Consider for a moment. Suppose we were islanders: can you conceive a more impregnable position? Well, this in future should, as far as possible, be our conception of our position. Dismissing all thought of our land and houses, we must vigilantly guard the sea and the city … We must not cry over the loss of houses and land but of men’s lives; since houses and land do not gain men, but men them. And if I had thought that I could persuade you, I would have bid you go out and lay them waste with your own hands, and show the Peloponnesians that this at any rate will not make you submit (1.143.4-5).

Thus, Pericles conceded that Athens could not contest a Spartan-led invasion of Attica, and that Athens’ best strategy was to stay behind their walls and outlast them via attrition. This assumed that the Spartans would tire of the war when their devastation of Attica was insufficient to subdue Athens.

This strategy closely aligned with that of Themistocles, who “was always advising the Athenians, if a day should come when they were hard pressed by land, to go down into the Piraeus, and defy the world with their fleet (1.93.7).” And this was largely how the Persian invasion of was defeated 50 years earlier, when Xerxes withdrew his army after Salamis because could no longer supply them without his fleet. But its application in the vastly different context of the Peloponnesian War was a disaster for Athens.

The passive and defensive orientation of the strategy was ill-suited to the aggressive and enterprising character of the Athenians, assuring popular discontent and political crisis when positive results were not quickly achieved. It also depended on Athens maintaining a dominant navy to secure its empire and sea lines of communication. Pericles was blithely dismissive of Sparta’s naval potential:

Familiarity with the sea they will not find an easy acquisition. If you who have been practicing at it ever since the Persian invasion have not yet brought it to perfection, is there any chance of anything considerable being effected by an agricultural, unseafaring population, who will besides be prevented from practicing by the constant presence of strong squadrons of observation from Athens? With a small squadron they might hazard an engagement, encouraging their ignorance by numbers; but the restraint of a strong force will prevent their moving, and through want of practice they will grow more clumsy, and consequently more timid (1.142.6-8).

These words would haunt Athens as the war lasted year after year, decade after decade.

Finally, Pericles’ strategy was geared for the wrong enemy. Sparta was not a foreign hegemon operating on an expeditionary basis, at the end of long and tenuous sea lines of communication. It was part of the Hellas itself, with an agrarian power base firmly ensconced in the Peloponnesus. Spartan allies bordered Attica and only a short march across the Isthmus of Corinth separated the Peloponnesian army from Athens itself. Unlike Persia, Sparta was not waging a “war of choice” that could be abandoned when costs reached an unacceptable level. It was in an existential struggle against Athenian power, having resolved “that they could endure it no longer, but that the time had come for them to throw themselves heart and soul upon the hostile power, and break it … (1.118.2)” At this level of commitment, the only strategy that could subdue Sparta was an invasion of the Peloponnesus to threaten Sparta’s grip on the helot population.

By underestimating Sparta and misunderstanding the nature of the war, Athens selected a flawed strategy that was optimized for a limited war against a distant adversary with a weak commitment. The actual enemy was a neighbor waging total war with an existential level of commitment. So when Sparta failed to defeat Athens by land, it shifted focus to the sea and Athens’ empire, thereby attacking the foundations of Athenian power.

Athens achieved many triumphs during the long years of war, and Sparta suffered many defeats, but these strategic miscalculations at the outset greatly contributed to Athens’ eventual doom.


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