War’s Paradoxes II: From the Peloponnesian War to ‘Leading From Behind’

(For the first post on War’s Paradoxes, click here.)

1. Why did Athens Lose the Peloponnesian War?

It really did not in a way: Athens no more lost the war than Hitler did the Second World War between September 1939 and May 1941. Instead it was defeated in a series of wars (only later seen as elements of one long “Peloponnesian War”) against a litany of enemies -- none in isolation necessarily fatal, all in succession and ultimately together lethal.

To the surprise of the Greek world, after the ten-year, first phase, “The Archidamian War” (431-421 B.C.), Athens had fought Sparta to a standstill -- despite losing one quarter of its population to the plague (including the irreplaceable Pericles), losing the battle of Delium, suffering five annual invasions, and having to put down revolts from Lesbos to Amphipolis.

At the war’s outbreak, the anti-Athenian alliance of the Peloponnesian League and Thebes lacked both a sufficient navy and coherent strategy to dismantle the Athenian Empire. The second phase, or “The Sicilian War” (415-413 B.C.), proved a self-induced disaster to Athens, not just by the loss of 200 ships far off on Sicily, and two entire overseas forces, but by the reentry of Sparta into the war, the end of the Peace of Nicias, the new allegiance of the powerful Western Greeks to the Spartan alliance, the treason of the talented Alcibiades, and the new enemy fort at Decelea in Attica.

Nonetheless, in the third phase of the war, “The Ionian War” (413-404 B.C., sometimes seen as inclusive of a later land element, or the  “Decelean War” of Spartans ravaging Attica), a resurgent Athens fought the new gargantuan alliance of Sparta, the Peloponnesian League, Thebes, Sicily, and now Persia to a standstill, in a series of deadly sea battles off the coast of Asia Minor and in the Hellespont. Finally, after the victory at Arginusae (406 B.C.), Sparta was ready to call it quits and return to the status quo ante bellum. Athens instead pressed ahead only to see its fleet ruined at Aegospotami and the city besieged by land and sea, with its lines of commerce in the Aegean cut -- ensuring its humiliating and utter defeat by 404 B.C.

The historian Thucydides notes the resilience of radical democracy and the advantages a maritime empire brings to war; yet, ultimately from his incomplete history (the account ends in mediis rebus in 411 B.C., and is continued less imaginatively by Xenophon) he suggests that the Athenian dêmos was too reckless, fickle, and fractious, and thus allowed too many opportunities to go to waste. If Athens could not have defeated the Peloponnesian League outright, it nonetheless might have so pruned away the sources of Spartan power as to render it irrelevant -- in the later fashion of Epaminondas, the Theban liberator (ca. 418-362 B.C.), who must have studied the war, in enacting his brilliant tripartite strategy of freeing the Messenian Helots, creating huge fortified and democratic cities in the Peloponnese to hem Sparta in, and crafting an army that could fight Spartan hoplites at home or abroad on equal terms.

Thematic in the war was the sense of Nemesis -- that victories lead to hubris that leads to overreaching that leads to folly, and eventually ruin. The hardest thing for a nation at war seems to be to judge, at a moment of victory, whether to press on and properly exploit the momentum, or to hold back and avoid overextension. Note MacArthur’s decision to go past the 39th Parallel all the way to the Yalu, or the German campaign of 1942 all the way to the Volga River.