“Peloponnesian War Strategies”


Naval War College

JPME Assignment

Strategy & Policy, Module 4

September 2, 2003

“Examine Pericles’ strategy for winning, or at least not losing, the Peloponnesian War. Explain and analyze how Cleon’s strategy differed from Pericles’ strategy. Analyze the strategic options that Athens and Sparta had during


Pericles’ and Cleon’s dissimilar personalities definitely influenced their strategies in leading Athens’ prosecution of the Peloponnesian War. Had Athens and Sparta opted to pursue different strategic alternatives, the evolution of the war may have diverged substantially from its actual course, the final outcome certain to impact not only the Greek empire, but Western civilization as well. As it stands, the Peloponnesian War remains an archetypal model of a high-stakes, multi-theater, coalition conflict–a struggle between a dominant land power and a seafaring empire the lessons which are worthy of examination to this day. Let us scrutinize the strategies endorsed by two of Athens most influential generals between 431 and 422 BC, as well as strategic options available to the principal protagonists, Athens and Sparta, but not taken.

Pericles the Patient One

In 431 BC (all ensuing dates are BC), Pericles recognized that Athens’ energy was derived from the sea, an advantage which led to wealth garnered from access to remote markets and the voluminous trade conducted therewith. The elected general’s primary objectives, then, were to maintain Athens’ naval supremacy and to ensure the empire’s alliance system remained in tact. As Athens had recently completed construction of its nearly insurmountable walls–a daunting nine meters high by four meters wide, fortified by archers, lancers, and sword-wielding warriors–linking it to the port of Piraeus, the Athenians could afford a defensive strategy. Pericles had been responsible for bringing Athens into its “golden age”, and while he did not want to sacrifice such tremendous economic, political, social, cultural, and military gains, he did not want to succumb to what he perceived as unreasonable pre-war Spartan negotiating demands either. The perspicacious Pericles was cognizant of Sparta’s numerical and qualitative ground advantage. In 431, for example, Sparta invaded Attica with only two-thirds of its available force, or thirty thousand hoplites and thirty thousand light infantry. Athens, at her best, could muster only thirteen thousand hoplites. Traditional phalanx-oriented warfare would categorically favor Sparta, so the tactic of withdraw-and-wait behind impregnable walls seemed more than sensible. Accordingly, Pericles’ Peloponnesian War plan called for the recall of Athenian citizens–including rural farmers–to the city’s island fortress, the sustenance of Athens’ maritime supremacy through the protection of vital sea lines of communication (SLOC), the provision of supplies by sea, and an avoidance of hand-tohand combat with the Spartans–even if they ravaged Attica uncontested. Pericles realized it would take time for Sparta to build a navy, especially one as good as Athens’, with hardened rowers and veteran captains. In the meantime, if Sparta did not give up first, the Athenian fleet would conduct rapid raids on Sparta’s coastal allies–as targets of opportunity at low cost–to vex Peloponnesian forces already preoccupied about having to leave their peninsula, lest the long-enslaved Helots revolt. Essentially, Pericles persuaded his people to be patient, to loiter, to linger inside Athens’ impenetrable ramparts while the Spartans hurled insults from below, beckoning the Athenians to come out and fight as they had the Persians. He convinced the polis to attempt no new conquest while the war endured, and to let Sparta tire itself out in prosecuting a fruitless war in Attica . Eventually, Sparta would realize that it could not defeat Athens, either militarily or psychologically, to the discredit of her Hellenic reputation. Sparta’s hawkish, pro-war faction would be forced to give way to more reasonable members of the oligarchy, and peace would once again rule in the Aegean.

While sound enough to convince the populace, Pericles’ strategy was not without its weaknesses. In fact, in committing to hostilities, Athens affirmed only two specific objectives: to maintain nautical supremacy, and to outlast her adversary’s will to wage war. Thus, her approach was more of a “we must not lose” enterprise of deterrence than a “we must win” undertaking. Concluding the conflict with a return to the status quo ante would be satisfactory for the Athenians, who would thereby retain their empire, reap the benefits of unfettered trade routes, reaffirm Delian League dominance, remind the Greek world that Sparta was not invincible, and resume their rise to Hellenic hegemony. Entering the war with a passive, defensive strategy, however, reflected not only Pericles’ limited aims, but perhaps an underestimation of Sparta’s resolve. Athens’ strategy of exhausting Sparta left the Peloponnesus with little to fear; absent retaliation, the only cost incurred by the Spartans would be that of supplying troops as they marched into and pillaged Attica. Conversely, while the Acropolis was laden with riches, Athens didn’t have unlimited material and human resources, and couldn’t be everywhere at once. Once Sparta realized this and acted on it, she eventually adapted well enough to turn Athens’ strengths against her, facilitating Athens’ tax-burned allies’ efforts to rid themselves of the ever-elongating Athenian yoke, thereby forcing Athens to expend considerable capital policing her own empire. Eventually, as the Spartans managed to bait Athens into fighting, by attacking Attica on a regular schedule, by fomenting revolution in the Athenian empire, and by constructing a naval force credible enough to choke or at least challenge outlying Athenian SLOCs , Sparta managed to turn Athens’ strengths into liabilities. As a seafaring, mercantile power, Athens was dependent on imports, including not only grain from present day Ukraine, but timber to build the triremes and city walls to import and protect such grain. Extended SLOCs were difficult to defend in their entirety, and therefore became vulnerabilities. Moreover, closer to home, the city-state’s silver came from the mines at Laurium, in southern Attica. As the Spartans sacked the mines, Athens was deprived of an important source of capital. Worst of all, after Pericles fell victim to the plague, the city-state was left–if not leaderless–then without an experienced, judicious, and articulate leader, who not only understood the nature of conflict versus the Spartans, but could assuage the city of its losses and assure them of the best corrected course. In hindsight, Pericles’ diplomatic strategy was ineffective due to its lack of a credible, formidable, offensive threat to Sparta . It did not deter Sparta from attacking, and required Pericles’ presence and persuasion to remain valid. It therefore fell from favor and finally failed with Pericles’ passing.

Cleon the Opportunist

In contrast to Pericles’ careful thought, deliberate speech, and measured action, Cleon was an opportunistic hawk, impelled by his own quest for glory, and perhaps a bit by a self-perceived inferiority complex in comparing himself to Pericles. With the elder statesman-general gone, however, Cleon seized his opportunity to step to the fore. More aggressive than Pericles–described in fact by Thucydides as the most violent man in all of Athens–Cleon believed the integrity of Athens’ empire was based on the fear of its subjects, its “disaffected conspirators”, whose obedience was ensured more by empirical force than their earnest loyalty to Athens . Cleon advocated the exploitation of sea power to maximum Athenian advantage, campaigning to take the fight to the Peloponnesus, to widen the conflict by incorporating Sparta’s historic enemy Argos, who until this point had remained neutral per a long-standing peace agreement. He proposed the establishment of a fortification around the Peloponnesus, believing that if the Athenians could not be everywhere all the time, neither could the Spartan army. As Corbett believed–that a strong naval component may prevail over a robust ground force by targeting strategically-important peripheral locations and impeding the adversary’s ability to project force–Cleon enacted, in part, in 425 at Pylos. His daring raid into Sphacteria caught the Spartans by surprise, overwhelmed their warrior detachment startled at such an audacious maneuver, and led to the vastly outnumbered Spartans’ surrender. Cleon returned to Athens with nearly 300 hostages, including 120 Spartiates, and advised Sparta that if they invaded Attica again, their prisoners of war would die. Through Cleon’s bold, if lucky, joint operations, Athens attained the upper hand, enabling her to exercise important strategic leverage over Sparta which later led to decisive successes . Adapting to asymmetric situations by orchestrating unconventional solutions, Cleon turned the tables on the Spartans, who had begun the war with the unlimited aim of crushing the Athenian empire and imposing harsh terms on the city-state–intending to have Athens pull down her walls, give up her navy, and replace the unruly democracy with a pro-Spartan autocratic oligarchy . Now prostrate to Athens’ demands on account of the POWs Cleon had captured, Sparta relinquished her original objectives (at the peace of Nicias), and renounced her “free the Greeks” slogan for a new “free our POWs” campaign” . Ironically, while Pericles had pressed for peace at the expense of his own reputation and civil standing, Cleon opposed it–according to Thucydides–“because he thought that if tranquility were restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited.” Unfortunately for Cleon, it was his careless overconfidence and brash ineptitude that led to his downfall when his equally wily and dynamic opponent Brasidas overwhelmed and routed his forces at Amphipolis in 422. Regrettably for Athens and Sparta, both Cleon and Brasidas perished in the battle, each side losing what may have been its most promising leader in terms of contriving unconventional schemes and pressing zealously for a quick decisive victory and the war’s termination.

The “What If…” Scenarios

Was the war’s outcome preordained? Certainly not. Any of numerous options available to the protagonists, if adopted, may have significantly impacted the war’s course and conclusion. Until the arrival of Brasidas and Cleon, Athens’ and Sparta’s original war strategies had been recipes for stalemate. Since neither side was able to strike at the other’s center of gravity–Sparta’s army or Athens’ navy–neither side developed a winning formula. Had Pericles combined his strategy of attrition at Attica with a campaign of more vigorous offensive naval operations on the Peloponnesian peninsula, Sparta may have felt the sting of Athens’ ubiquitous naval strikes, realized her maritime impotence, and sooner softened her stringent “free the Greeks” requirement. Similarly, had Sparta more swiftly commenced targeting Athenian supply lines, even on land, as far away as Crimea or Egypt, it may have thwarted Athenian SLOCs in foreign areas undefended by insuperable Athenian walls. Sparta might simply have more promptly solicited the crucial financial and logistical support provided by Persia later in the war.

Furthermore, each side had several opportunities to sue for peace, in scenarios which, while perhaps not optimal at the time, would have quelled the conflict and preserved each side’s respective orders of battle, treasuries, populations, and spheres of influence. When Athens sued for peace in 430, hardly two years into the war, Sparta rejected it, still intent on liberating the Greeks and destroying the Athenian empire. After all, Pericles was dead, and his strategy had proven ineffective for Athens.

Cleon, probably surprised and inflated by his success at Sphacteria, may have foolishly refused a Spartan peace offer in 425 following his unprecedented hostage seizure. Fortune had favored Athens that year, and she reaped the benefits of having embraced a more aggressive campaign: Attica was safe, her navy was in tact, Corcyra was in her hands, and the treasury had started to replenish itself. Had Cleon accepted the Spartan peace offering, Athens could have suspended combat operations before the Acropolis’s once vast riches were depleted, thereby enabling Athens to ease the tax burden imposed on allied states. Furthermore, Sparta, was growing more desperate–especially after having petitioned Persia for help and been declined–and would no longer have annually ravaged the farmlands of Attica. Having destroyed or captured over sixty Spartan triremes at that point, Athens would have preserved its naval superiority and may have averted the rebellion of restive states. None of these benefits were realized, however, due to Cleon’s short-sightedness and the passion of an Athenian populace which overwhelmed reason. Evident in this case study is that fact that in regional wars, strategy’s social dimension–the management of public opinion–is as important as the execution of smart military operations in consonance with attainable political objectives . Fortunately for Athens, the hostage trump card she held precluded any Spartan assault, but Athens’ failed campaigns at Megara and Boeotia in 424 should have been an indicator that her moment was passing.

Financially, as Athens’ vast resources were strained, she was forced to exact additional on taxation from her allies, which ironically only disenfranchised her Delian League subsidiaries and left her more susceptible to unrest and rebellion–needier states resenting having to pay tribute the coalition’s wealthiest ally . Conversely, had Athens’ sought to enfranchise her allies by amplifying the ostensible Spartan threat and promising a not only a share of Athens’ wealth but a probable tax reduction following the conflict’s cessation, her allies would have felt less embittered by the tall tariffs levied on them and more eager to contribute to Sparta’s defeat. As it was, however, some of Athens’ allies in the eastern Aegean perceived Persia as the principal threat to their welfare, and Athens was not able to maintain coalition cohesion. In this sense, Athens suffered political collateral damage which counterbalanced whatever impressive performances she managed to pull off to the west.

As far as strategic options that Sparta had but did not take, one of them was proper prior planning. Bent on freeing the Greeks by annihilating the Athenian empire, Sparta–aside from Archidamus–made no effort to acknowledge, challenge, or even contend with Athens’ naval superiority in a Greek archipelagos comprised of islands, inlets, isthmuses, and peninsulas. In fact, strategic enlightenment and its corresponding military adjustments did not manifest themselves in Sparta until the emergence of Brasidas, whose success, it may be argued, was derived from his ability not to think like his commando comrades. Much like his archrival Cleon, Brasidas espoused a more creative strategy, a change in the linear thinking that had flummoxed Spartan leaders once their conventional, rather one-dimensional tactic of ravaging Attica proved unproductive. He was perceptive enough to grasp that since Sparta could not prevail at sea, could not conquer Athens’ walls, and should not attack the city on account of the Spartiate captives she held, Sparta could march north and assault Athenian ports along her extended, exposed grain SLOCs, interrupt commerce, ransack coastal communities, and convince Athens’ remote city-states that the empire was crumbling, that Athens could not protect them, and that they should renounce all ties to the Delian League–if not simply for the oppressive compulsory taxation its membership entailed. He also recognized the wealth Athens derived from the colony of Amphipolis, and proceeded to capture it with its lucrative silver mines which had financed Athens’ war. Granted, Brasidas’ era succeeded Pericles’, but his scheme was not all that avant-garde. It simply identified Athens’ weakness vice emphasizing Sparta’s strength, and attacked Athens at her points of least resistance rather than doggedly assailing her city walls and despoiling outlying fields. The bottom line here is that Sparta could have and should have pursued this course of action much earlier in the war .

As far as strategic options that Athens had but did not take, foregoing the invasion of Sicily was one of them. Motivated as much by greed as any altruistic affinity for her Ionian allies threatened by Doric Syracusans, Athens’ summer of 414 expedition, then spring of 415 attack proved disastrous, since the winter interval had allowed Syracuse to recruit Spartan support. Conquering Sicily would have garnered tremendous resources for Athens, but she had played a risky hand finally called by Gylippus, whose tenacious Spartan forces finally prevented Athens from investing Sicily. Athens had engaged and become ensnarled in a catastrophic strategic overextension, a victim of her own imperial overstretch–induced by nothing other than her desire to expand her empire and her disdain for her Lacedaemonian neighbors.

The examples are many, both during Pericles’ and Cleon’s times and after, of missed opportunities and poor choices made on both sides of the Isthmus of Corinth. Alcibiades, for example, injudiciously engaged Sparta in a land war, disgracing himself and decimating the Athenian army. Sparta, for her part, in seeking a truce with Athens, effectively sold out her Peloponnesian League partners Megara, Corinth, and Thebes, who remained hostile to and technically at war with Athens, consigned to make annual truces with her. In failing to resolve her allies’ grievances with Athens, Sparta sacrificed her own trust and confidence– credibility crucial to her leadership assertion and role following her Peloponnesian War triumph.

Any or all of these scenarios, if opted for and pursued by the protagonists, may have fundamentally altered the course of the war, and the fate of the Greek world.


Many argue that his unwavering commitment to the Megarian Decree may have been a mistake on Pericles’ part, and that its annulment may have staved off the Peloponnesian War. While Pericles avowed that yielding on the Megarian Decree would have lead to even greater Spartan peace accord demands , it may be more true that Sparta so feared Athenian ascendancy in the Aegean that they sought any excuse for and means by which to declare war. Had Sparta not been eager for war, the Pericles-orchestrated peace of 445 may have endured. But Sparta had anxiously awaited an opportunity like that which arose in 432, when Athens was embarrassed by the abrupt revolt of Potidaea, the ensuing two-year blockade of whom began to sap Athenian military resources. Sparta pounced at the opportunity, confident of rapid victory, unreceptive to Pericles’ offer of arbitration, instead delivering an ultimatum which would have virtually neutralized Athens’ Hellenic influence, obliging Pericles to implore his people to refuse, at which point Sparta could declare war.

Supporters of Cleon’s novel tactics may agree that he was right to rebuff Sparta’s peace offering following his victory at Sphacteria. Sparta had erred, Sphacteria was a fortuitous–certainly unforeseen–turn of events, and no real change in the bipolar power balance ensued. If the war halted here, nothing would have been resolved. Moreover, what if Sparta regained Sphacteria and re-attacked? Athens would not be able to live down her magnanimous naiveté. But it can be convincingly argued that the Spartan proposal would have been a good idea. Following their loss at Pylos, the Spartans were bereft of a fleet and would not have been able to contest Athens nor transport troops via sea for some time. Certainly, then, it was an auspicious opportunity of which Athens failed to avail itself. Moreover, exploiting such opportunity may have enabled Athens to achieve Pericles’ goal of winning by not losing .


The Peloponnesian War pitted a nascent, dynamic democracy versus an obdurate, oligarchical dictatorship. Athens embarked on the war as a limited conflict, intending only to weather the storm, then return to the status quo ante bellum . Pericles, wise as he was, misinterpreted the will of his Spartan opponent–apparently unaware of the impact on the Peloponnesus of Athens’ ascent to Aegean dominion, while the Athenians were loathe to abide by Pericles’ cautious admonitions even if he had calculated correctly. Even though the Peloponnesian War protagonists existed in close geographic proximity, shared a common language, history and culture, and had long interacted with each other, it may be said that Pericles’ prediction of his enemy’s course of action were flawed. The great Athenian fell victim to a misconceived theory of victory, a subtle policy-strategy mismatch — erroneous assumptions about how military operations would shape political objectives at home, and how his enemy would react militarily and politically to Athenian initiatives . His strategy overemphasized the importance of naval operations, and undervalued the significance of ground tactics.

Both contestants began the war with seemingly sensible strategies that played to their respective strengths. It quickly became apparent, however, that their schema were sensible for prosecuting a war, but not for winning one. Until Cleon and Brasidas arrived on the scene, neither side was determined or capable of delivering a quick, decisive blow; Sparta wreaked havoc on Attica, while Athens looted coastal Peloponnesus, each in a permissive environment, a lesson in near-sighted strategy and unintended consequences. The wars early years also suggest a problem of script writing, as each side initiated combat operations with perfunctory expectations of what the other side would do, a circumstance either engendered or compounded by fact that the pair of pugilists had fought before. In essence, sagacious as Pericles and Archidamus both were, each side proceeded to fight the last war, unmindful and unprepared for unexpected events, such as a sudden spell of the plague, a fortification at Pylos, or an attack on Amphipolis.

Perhaps it may be said that both sides were so fixed on what was “right”, in their own eyes, that they failed to recognize what was “good” for the Greek world. In the end, Athens’ walls were pulled down, her navy confiscated, her beloved democracy subjugated as a group of pro-Spartan leaders emerged. The conflict demonstrates how a superior power squandered almost superfluous resources in following a flawed strategy. The protracted clash devastated not only Athens and Sparta, but their respective ways of life, and eventually led to the collapse of the Greek world — a twenty-four hundred year old lesson in pride and its awful consequences worth heeding today.


1. Kagan, Donald; On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace; Anchor Books (Random House), 1996, New York.
2. Lee, Brad; “Retrospect and Prospect”; video lecture (2 parts); Naval War College; 2003.
3. Maurer, John; “The Downfall of Athens”; video lecture; Naval War College; 2003.
4. Nichols, Tom; “The Archidamian War”; video lecture; Naval War College; 2003.
5. Thucydides; The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War; Strassler, Robert (editor); Touchstone; 1996; New York.
6. Wikipedia Encyclopedia; Peloponnesian War; www.wikepedia.org/ wiki/ Peloponnesian_war


Thucydides, 2.65.7.
Nichols, 24:15.
Kagan, pg. 67.
Thucydides, pg. 176 (3.37.2)
Lee, Part 2; 4:14.
Lee, Part 2; 13:39.
Maurer; 4:45.
Thucydides, pg. 310 (5.16.1)
Nichols, 26:40.
Lee, part 2, 33:50
Lee, part 2, 29:50
Nichols, 36:08.
Wikipedia, page 1.
Maurer, 7:22.
Nichols, 18:30.
Nichols, 33:02.
Nichols, 20:30.
Lee; Part 1; 14:40; 19:00.
Kagan, pg. 213.

Written by Glenn Yeck | Comments Off on “Peloponnesian War Strategies”