In his opening lines, Thucydides says he wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta, “beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” At the time, Athens was a great sea power with a democratic political system and innovative leadership that made it a formidable force. Sparta, located in the Peloponnese (the southern peninsula of mainland Greece), was most powerful as a land force. Its system of government favored austere militarism and adherence to tradition. It was the Spartans’ fear of Athens, Thucydides argues, that led them to make their first, preemptive attack in 430.
The initial 10 years of the conflict saw annual Spartan land raids countered by Athenian sea attacks. In 422, the Athenians under their leader Cleon made an unsuccessful attempt to retake Amphipolis. Both Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas died in the battle, pushing the war-weary sides to negotiate a treaty. An uneasy peace followed, but six years later Athens launched a seaborne expedition against Syracuse, an ally of Sparta in distant Sicily. This proved disastrous, and the Athenians were driven from the island in 413 by the combined Sicilian and Spartan forces. Thucydides writes, “they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army—everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.”
The final section of the “History of the Peloponnesian Wars” is an incomplete description of revolts, revolutions, and Spartan gains that cuts off in midsentence. The war’s closing years saw Athens rally in a series of battles only to have its remaining fleet ravaged by the Spartans under Lysander at Aegospotami. Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404.