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Pericles bust copy

THE 1st PELOPONNESIAN WAR, 460 - 445 BC: The Rise of Pericles

The Persian Wars had left Athens with a new-found sense of near-unchecked power, power that would spread through force throughout the wars of its Delian League. With wars on all fronts against Persians and fellow Greeks, the other great Greek power, Sparta - at the head of its own Peloponnesian League - would face a series of events of its own that would culminate in the two great Greek powers falling head-first into a series of wars known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The first of these would be a comparative calm before the storm, leading to all-out war that would consume the entire Greek world and undo the anti-Persian unity Greece once felt. This war would also see the rise of Athens' most prominent and successful politician: Pericles.



Check out my previous post on Athens's military campaigns into Egypt and Cyprus, 460 - 450 BC




Athens's head of state during the First Peloponnesian War and beyond was Pericles. He was born into the Acamantis tribe, of the Cholargus family, being of the best of Athenian stock from both sides of his family. Xanthippus, the commander of Athens who defeated the Persians at the battle of Mycale, married the noblewoman Agariste, who was descended from Kleisthenes, the man who birthed Athenian democracy. Agariste was said to have received prophetic dreams late into her pregnancy where she birthed a lion, and a mere few days later, Pericles was born. Aside from having a slightly lopsided and elongated head, baby Pericles was described by Plutarch as being “physically perfect”. It’s this slight disfigurement of the head, however, that would lead Pericles to always be portrayed in artwork wearing a helmet. In his comic work “Chirons”, Cratinus describes Pericles:

Feud and the old-timer
Cronus had sex together
And produced that terrible tyrant
Known by the gods
As ‘he who gathers… his head’.

Growing up, Pericles was very interested in music. Most writers have recorded his music tutor being Damon, allegedly a consummate sophist, hiding his talents from the public behind the cover of music while tutoring Pericles as if he were a public affairs athlete. Damon’s hidden sophistry was eventually found out, and he was ostracised. Pericles would also study under the natural scientist, Zeno of Elea, before studying under Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, known by his contemporaries as simply “the Mind”. Pericles became highly intrigued by Anaxagoras’s teachings, becoming saturated with various aspects of celestial phenomena. Anaxagoras’s influences on Pericles eventually manifested onto Pericles; he gained much pride in himself, developed a lofty manner of speech untainted with any trickery, could keep a straight face better than anyone else, dressed properly, and kept a calm, collected voice whenever he spoke to someone.

All of this combined gave Pericles a fantastic image of himself to others; when conducting business down at the market one afternoon, a man began hurling insults at Pericles. Keeping his calm, Pericles headed home in the evening, with the man following closely behind still hurling unpleasantries at him, and Pericles simply had a house servant escort the man back to his home via torch light.


[ABOVE: A 2nd Century AD Roman copy of a Greek original bust of Pericles, now held in the British Museum]

While a young man, and generally being held to look like the former tyrant Pisistratus, Pericles grew ever warier of the people of Athens. Being from a wealthy background, Pericles grew up wary of being ostracised, so he kept clear from a lot of public day-to-day life, choosing instead to home his abilities in public service on the battlefield. But with notable Athenians being removed from Athenian society, whether it was the death of Aristides, the ostracism of Themistocles, or the campaigns of Cimon, an aristocrat, Pericles decided to align himself with the common masses instead of the rich aristocratic class, despite this being against his own aristocratic nature. Winning the populace’s favour, Pericles gained immense political power, overshadowing that of even Cimon. His public life ground to a halt; the only street in the city in which he would, from now on, be seen was the one leading from the Council Chambers to the city square. He reportedly never even invited any of his friends over for dinner again, and aside from one exception of one of his cousin's weddings, he never attended public feasts. All of his public affairs, aside from emergencies, would be carried out in public by his close associates and friends. One of these was Ephialtes (no relation to the traitor at the battle of Thermopylae) who had overthrown the power of the Areopagus  in which, according to Plato, he gave the Athenian citizens a taste of undiluted freedom, so much so that the people became more unruly. Comic poets of the time describe Pericles as “thundering” or “emitting light” when addressing the people of Athens. When asked who was the superior wrestler out of himself or Pericles, the King of Sparta, Archidamus, said,

Suppose we’re wrestling and I throw him: he disputes the fall, wins the argument, and gets the spectators to change their minds!

He was said to have been very careful not to go on about anything not related to what he wished to speak about when addressing people. When Sophocles, who shared the position of naval commander alongside Pericles, praised a young boy’s looks, Pericles spoke to him:

A military commander should keep his eyes clean, Sophocles, as well as his hands.

He also must have highly respected soldiers and the dead among them; when giving an eulogy for those Athenians who died at Samos, Pericles described them on similar levels as the gods themselves:

For in fact, we cannot see the actual gods, but we deduce their immortality from the worship they receive and the benefits they confer. But those who have died in defence of their country also have the same attributes.

A political rival of Pericles, Thucydides (not to be confused with the historian of the same name) describes Pericles’s form of government as “nominally democracy, but actually rule by the leading man”. Others of his time declared that Pericles first enticed the people of Athens with land and money, and that his policies made the people weaker, corrupted by luxuries and pampered without a hard life.


With Cimon’s strong aristocratic popularity to contend with, Pericles sought to gain favour and power through the people. Cimon’s wealth, however, put Pericles at a disadvantage, since money is what Cimon used to win over the very people that Pericles sought to win over. Thus, Cimon eventually used his now-large influence over the people against the council of the Areopagus, the elite governing council of Athens, since he could never join this council having never met its prerequisites of being elected Archon, Polemarch or Thesmothete. The Areopagus was thus overthrown by Cimon, however, through another council member, Ephialtes, the council then had no real jurisdiction, and thus, despite his great victories abroad, his great wealth he shared with the people, Cimon was ostracised in 461 BC, declared as “pro-Spartan” and “anti-democratic”.


[ABOVE: Ostracon (voting pottery) detailing the names "Pericles", "Cimon" and "Aristides", now held in the Ancient Agora Museum, Athens]




The following year in 460 BC, Athens would see itself engaged in two wars simultaneously; taking advantage of a revolt in Persian-ruled Egypt, an Athenian navy would be sent to the east to fight the Persians, while more unforeseen trouble brewed closer to home, this time involving Sparta.

When one of the kings of Sparta, Leotychides, (who fought at the battle of Mycale) died in 476 BC, his throne was handed over to his grandson, Archidamus II. Having recently lost dominance of the seas to the Athenians, the Spartans, having previously considered war with Athens, ultimately thought it best to improve their military prestige on land, where they best operated.

Territory of ancient Sparta

[ABOVE: A map of the southern Peloponnese showing Sparta, roughly the epicentre of the earthquake]

However, in 464 BC, an earthquake struck the southern Peloponnese. Being 7.2 on the Richter scale, its effects were immediate and devastating; twenty-thousand people in and around Sparta lost their lives, and a vast majority of the city's infrastructure was destroyed; one account relays that only five buildings in all of Sparta remained unscathed. Duty-bound, Archidamus was quick to respond, donning his armour quickly and rushing out personally into the countryside to aid those most severely affected, making him a very popular figure with the people. This earthquake happened to coincide with a minor helot uprising at the time the year before. Ever dissatisfied with their lives under the Spartan boot, the helots - Sparta's enslaved population - capitalised on this moment of weakness and escalated the revolt. Archidamus's popularity, however, allowed him to quickly rally the Spartan people together, and this loyal following of his was quickly organised into a strong force, aiming to crush the slave revolt. The revolt would eventually culminate with the Spartans besieging the now-rebel-held city of Ithome. Surrounding the city, Sparta was able to starve the city of food and resources, forcing the city into submission and tending the revolt some ten years after it had started.


While the slave uprising was eventually crushed, Sparta was desperate for aid while it raged on, so much so that they reached out to Athens for help. As the siege of Ithome was continuing, Sparta knew that Athens, given their prowess in siege warfare, would be of great help. Athens sent men under the command of Cimon. The Helot-occupied city of Ithome was refusing to surrender, and given Sparta’s growing caution of Athens and seeing them as foreigners as much as they viewed the Helots as such, Sparta considered the possibility of the slaves allying with Athens. Sparta thus dismissed Cimon’s army without saying why. This insulted the now-suspicious Athens, and the two cities broke their alliance, formed during the Persian Wars, and Athens would ally with Thessaly, and Argos, Sparta’s oldest enemy. Argos too had recently capitalised on Sparta's moment of weakness during the quake and revolt, crushing the nearby city of Mycenae - a Spartan ally - in 468 BC, resulting in the entire city's population being either enslaved or sacrificed and the city itself - once home to the mythical leaders of the Trojan War - completely destroyed.

When the slave revolt was eventually crushed, Athens would come to resettle many deposed slaves in their allied city of Naupactus. Athens would describe these events as the first causes of estrangement between themselves and Sparta, which would eventually decline to put all of Greece into a colossally destructive war. Sparta's refusal of Cimon's aid would also be a leading factor in his eventual ostracism. With alliances made with each other's enemies and political instability as record highs, Athens and Sparta went to war.




1st stage

[ABOVE: The first few battles of the First Peloponnesian War, 460 - 455 BC, showing Athenian (blue) and Spartan (red) allies and victories]


Athens landed a fleet at port Halieis near Argos, and a battle against Corinth resulted in a Corinthian victory. This was followed by an Athenian naval victory against the Peloponnesians off the isle of Cecryphaleia, which in turn was swiftly followed by a war between Athens and the isle of Aegina, a proud naval power who now had now joined the war on the side of the Peloponnesians. Led by Leocrates, Athens captured seventy of their warships before laying siege to the town. The Peloponnesians were keen to aid Aegina, so they sent three-hundred hoplites, fresh from fighting with the Corinthians. They were able to gain control of the Geraneia Mountains, allowing them to hold a strong position before moving down towards Megara, hoping it would divert Athens away from their siege of Aegina and their ongoing campaign in Egypt. But it didn’t, and Athens was able to muster a force closer to home, commanded by Myronides.

There, an indecisive battle against Corinth took place, leaving both sides confident of their own actions in the fight. This led the Athenians to erect a trophy to commemorate their “victory” at the site, which in turn led the Corinthians to do the same. This stung the Athenian’s “prestige”, so the Athenian army rushed forward out of Megara to kill the Corinthians erecting the trophy. Several were slaughtered, leaving the rest of the Corinthian army vulnerably outnumbered, allowing the Athenians to win the day. A small contingent escaped to an entrenched estate home, but were quickly surrounded by Athenian troops and stoned to death by Athenian skirmishers, while the main Corinthian army returned home. Leocrates thus landed his fleet on Aegina and besieged the city. After nine months, Aegina was forced to join the Delian League.


While large contingents of Athenian detachments were tied down in their conflicts in Egypt, Corinth invaded Megara (both members of the Peloponnesian League) over a border dispute. What started off as a minor conflict consisting of mere raids soon turned into a vicious campaign, and as the more powerful Corinth begun pressing harder, a desperate Megara turned to Athens for aid, equalising the power of each side of this conflict. In return for Megara joining the Delian League, Athens funded the construction of long walls from the city to Nisaea, much like the walls from Athens to Port Piraeus, thus fuelling hatred for Athens by Corinth. Corinth and some of their Peloponnesian allies thus advanced into Megara to reinstate their power, and Athens retaliated, sending an army under the general Myronides. After a hard battle, Athens came out on top, followed swiftly by another Athenian victory at Cimolia.


While these events took place, armies from the region of Phocia were sent to the nearby mountain region of Doris, capturing the three towns of Boeum, Cythinum and Erineüs in the process. As they were on friendly terms with the Dorians, Sparta sent 1,500 hoplites commanded by Nicomedes, son of the former king Cleombrotus and the guardian of then-king Pleistonax, in aid, joined by ten-thousand other Peloponnesian allied forces. The Spartans quickly put the army to flight and forced them to return their captured settlements, restoring Doric control to the region and returning home with his army. The Phocians' route home however would be met with an ambush by hostile Athenian forces, fifty ships and fourteen-thousand men strong, so the Phocians stayed put, leaving Athens free to meet them in full force on land. Athens thus planned to hold the mountain pass of Mount Geraneia that led mainland Greece south to the Peloponnese. This plan was intercepted by Sparta, however, taking an alternate route instead, taking the route to Tanagra. The Athenian army advanced into Boeotia and lined up for battle opposite the Spartans. Athens's army included cavalry detatchments from Thessaly, and during the battle, the Thessalians defected to the Spartans. As the fight raged on for hours, the battle came to a stalemate when nighttime ended the conflict. That night, however, an Athenian supply train was intercepted by the Thessalians. Initially repelled, the Spartans came to their aid and gained the Athenian supplies. Both Athens and Sparta declared that they had won the battle, and simply resorted to signing a four-month truce. In reality, Sparta had won the day.

During the battle, Cimon, still in ostracism, offered to join the fight against the Spartans to prove his “pro-Spartan” accusers wrong, and cement his loyalty to Athens. However, Pericles’s supporters in the army refused his aid, declaring that he was still ostracised, which was true of course, and worried that his "pro-Spartan rhetoric" would cause tensions among the ranks. Turning down such a successful commander may explain why Pericles's supporters went on to fight so boldly during this fight, and it is said that the few men still in the Athenian army at Tanagra who were loyal followers and friends of Cimon, said to have roughly numbered a mere one-hundred, and who had been accused alongside him of being “pro-Spartan” by Pericles, died fighting the Spartans. 


Since the Persian wars, the Boeotian state of Thebes suffered a major knock to its reputation since they notably sided with the Persians during the Persian Wars. Since the rest of the Boeotians around them viewed them in disdain, the Thebans asked the Spartans to aid them in winning hegemony over the rest of Boeotia, in return for their own aid against Athens. The Spartans agreed to this offer, and following the battle of Tanagra, set out for Megara. On the way, they deforested nearby woodlands to make a shorter route back home over the Isthmus of Corinth that would avoid further fights. Meanwhile, Athens again sent an army under Myronides into Boeotia. Arriving in Boeotia with most of his army, Myronides's advisors advised him to wait for more reinforcements, but Myronides argued that those who willingly arrive late will fight equally as sluggishly in battle. The Athenian and Boeotian forces lined up against each other and Myronides ordered his men not to retreat, noting that the flat ground of the battlefield would allow the enemy cavalry to catch up to them easily and kill them. As soon as the sign for battle was given, Myronides ordered his left flank to charge. Despite the long fight lasting all day, this charge was successful, and the Boeotian right was gradually pushed back, causing Myronides to shout out,

We are victorious in the left!

With refreshed vigour from their commander’s words, the Athenian left charged harder at the Boeotian right, likewise causing the Boeotian right to retreat. This victory gave Athens dominance of the regions of Boeotia and Phocis, at which point they had the walls surrounding Tanagra that the Spartans had built destroyed, and took several hostages. Thus, several cities within the regions of Phocis and Locris - except Thebes - were overrun by Athens, and pulled into their ownership.


Command of Athens’s naval forces at this time was under Tolmides, a man of equal fame and valour as Myronides. Keen to make more of a name for himself, Tolmides convinced the Athenians that they should give him the one-thousand hoplites stationed in the city to plunder Sparta’s own territory and ruin their reputation. The Athenians, bolstered by Myronides's recent victories accepted, but Tolmides was keen to take a larger army, and so enlisted three-thousand extra volunteers into his service. With his fifty triremes and four-thousand hoplites, Tolmides sailed for Methone in south-western Messenia, taking the settlement. Sparta was quick to respond with a force of their own, forcing Tolmides to withdraw and instead capture the Spartan port town of Gytheium, burning it and its port down. Tolmides quickly took the island of Cephallenia and the city of Naupactus before landing at Sicyon and defeating the local army there in battle.

Tolmides was then recalled to military affairs in Boeotia, and Athens instead gave command of the Peloponnesian offensive to Pericles. With fifty triremes and a thousand hoplites, he continued ravaging the southern Peloponnese before making his way to Acarnania, swaying many of the cities in the region to side with Athens and the League. With this ever-growing control and influence, Athens won over more of the Greek world. Following his profitable Peloponnesian campaign, Pericles sailed for the Chersonese, granting a thousand of his Athenian followers their own allotment of land, while Tolmides did the same with his followers in Euboea.




Pericles would come to notice the hole that Cimon’s exile had left in the Athenian people’s lives, and Cimon would eventually be brought back from exile. Given Athens’s failure in their foreign war against Persia in Egypt, Pericles signed a peace treaty with Sparta in 454 BC. Some sources, however, state that this peace deal was not made by Pericles until he and Cimon had come to an arrangement, using Cimon’s sister, Elpinice, as their intermediary. Their terms were to hand Cimon two-hundred ships abroad, which he would use to launch his invasion of Persian-held Cyprus, while Pericles kept his power in the Athenian government. Cimon would die suddenly during the Cypriot expedition in 450 BC, and Athens would sign their peace treaty with Persia the following year.


[ABOVE: Elpinice was the daughter of Miltiades, who led the Athenians to victory at the battle of Marathon, 490 BC]

Now an unchallenged powerhouse in Athens, Pericles would be met with political opposition as many councillors wished to see someone else rise in prominence to keep his power in check and balance. The man they would eventually choose to rival Pericles was Thucydides, a lesser soldier than Cimon was, but far more politically inclined. By remaining in Athens during Pericles’s speeches, Thucydides was able to balance the levels of power between the two opposing parties, forcing the aristocrats to come together more often so that their influence wouldn’t be lost while they were otherwise dispersed among the commoners. This rivalry caused two far more distinct factions - “the few” and “the people” - to emerge. Pericles combatted this divide by allowing the people their fair say heard more, designing his policies around them and their gratifications, and pleased them with festivals and processions along the way. He would convince the people to join the Athenian navy on eight-month expeditions, training them as skilled oarsmen and marines and promising them riches when they returned from the Aegean. To grow his and Athens’s power amongst the rest of the Delian League, Pericles organised mass migrations of hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to various cities across the League, and even to places outside of the League, including southern Italy. This was also done partly to relieve Athens of a lot of its less productive citizens, since he considered these people more prone to rebellion.


Since 478 BC, the treasury of the Delian League had been held on the island of Delos, giving the League its name. A centrally-located island for all member states, the purpose of the treasury was for allied Greek states to pool money, soldiers and warships together in order to ward off potential future Persian threats. While Athens founded this League, they were never meant to be "in charge" of it, although they were the largest contributors, however in 454 BC, the treasury was simply moved from Delos to Athens. This ultimately gave the city sole control over the League's finances, and for many historians, this marks the end of the Delian League and the start of the so-called "Athenian Empire:, as the funds would slowly start to be used for more self-interested reasons for Athens instead of for a common cause. Athens would now attempt to stabilise their new empire, starting off with Thessaly, who wished Athens to aid their deposed king in restoring his throne. Under Myronides, Athenian forces were forced to withdraw from Thessaly following a failed siege at the city of Pharsalus.



[ABOVE: Athens's Empire at its territorial height, c.450 BC, from "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, 1926]





2nd stage

[ABOVE: The next few battles of the First Peloponnesian War, 449 - 446 BC, showing Athenian (blue) and Spartan (red) allies and victories]

As a commander of armies, Pericles was known to be cautious, not going straight into a battle that showed signs of great risk, and he did not align himself with past great commanders like Themistocles. He even attempted to dissuade the Athenian Assembly from allowing a commander, Tolmides, to invade Boeotia, declaring it an invasion that would be undertaken at a wrong time, and famously saying that if no one would take Pericles’ advice, then he would instead wait and let the wisest judge of all dictate: time. When Tolmides invaded anyway, loosing much of his army and his own life at the battle of Coronea, Pericles was looked at even more highly as a wise man.

Pericles did, of course, undertake some campaigns, most notably at the Chersonese; Pericles took one-thousand Athenian colonists there with his army, using them to re-bolster the population-depleted cities in the region, and using the army to fend off a series of invasions from the Thracians up north, who were prone to also send brigands and raiding parties deep within Greek territory, causing further internal instability for the Greeks.

His other expedition that brought him great fame was his circumnavigation of the Peloponnese with a hundred triremes, which sailed for Pegae in Megaran-held territory. After his army succeeded and left the coastal region devastated, but when his hoplites made quick progress inland, fear was quickly instilled into the locals, forcing them to seek shelter behind their city walls. An exception was made of the city of Nemea, whose army marched out to meet Pericles. The Athenians won a decisive victory, and Pericles ordered for a trophy to be erected at the battle site, before recruiting some Achaean allies and sailing with them to the opposite coast. There, he scored a victory against the Acarnanians and forced the Oenidaeans into a siege, eventually ravaging their countryside and heading back to Athens; he had proved his worth as a military commander, and that he was to be rightly feared. Moreover, he proved that his people would be safe under him, as the soldiers he had taken with him suffered no setbacks from his chance-expeditions. Pericles also took a well-armed fleet to the Black Sea, reinforcing Athenian dominance by giving the local Greeks what they wanted and letting outside tribes know of their powerful presence. This expedition also helped the city of Sinope overthrow their tyrant, Timesilaus, and when this was achieved, terms were reached and six-hundred Athenian colonists were allowed to settle where the tyrant and his closest associates once lived.

THE 2nd SACRED WAR, c.448 BC

Pericles did not bow down to the impulses of the people, though; when the people spoiled for a fight to try and reinvade Egypt, Pericles persuaded them to work with and defend what they already had instead. he did this mainly to frustrate the efforts of Sparta, as he did in the Second Sacred War; Sparta sent a force towards Delphi, restoring the city from control of the city of Phocis. When the Spartans left, Pericles soon after sent in his own army to reinstate Phocian control of Delphi.


In 447 BC, the Peloponnesians marched north to attack Attica. After ravaging the countryside and laying siege to a few walled cities, they withdrew. Athenian general Tolmides, in response, seized the town of Chaeronea, but his army was soon ambushed on the march back by local Boeotian forces. Among the Athenian dead was Tolmides. Such was the shock of this defeat that Athens agreed for the Boeotians to live under their own rules instead of those imposed by the League, in exchange for a safe return back to Athens.


In 446, both Megara and the isle of Euboea revolted against the Delian League, and Megara sent ambassadors to the Peloponnesian League to negotiate an alliance with them instead. Pericles first led an army to crush the Euboean revolt, but Megara then sent an army to the borders of Attica to plunder the Athenian land, forcing Pericles to move his forces from Euboea to Attica. Noticing that the army’s young commander, the Spartan king Pleistoanax, was heavily reliant on his advisor, Cleandridas, Pericles approached Cleandridas in private and bribed him to pull his army back. When the army withdrew to their various homes, the furious Spartan imposed a fine on Pleistoanax and ordered Cleandridas to be killed, before he went into exile to escape. With this matter settled, Pericles returned his army and fleet - five-thousand hoplites and fifty triremes - to Euboea and undertook a successful campaign of raiding on the island, even expelling the entire population of the city of Hestiaea, after they captured an Athenian ship and killed its crew, and replacing them with Athenian colonists, scaring the other Euboean cities into submission.





[ABOVE: The Athenian Empire in 445 BC, as per the tributes lists. Islands shaded in grey (north-south: Lesbos, Chios, Samos) no longer paid tribute]

With these setbacks for Athens, and with neither Greek power making much headway in the way, both Athens and Sparta agreed to a peace treaty in 445 BC, ending the First Peloponnesian War and giving Athens a period of unrivalled peace and prosperity. Thirty years of peace, however, would only last fourteen years; while this war proved that the relations between the two biggest and most powerful Greek states to be an unstable one, this "First" war would prove to only be a mere calm before the storm compared to the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that would engulf the entire Greek world in flames for decades.








  • Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War", Book 1.101-113
  • Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History", Book XI.63-92, Book XII.1-22
  • Plutarch, "Greek Lives", Cimon + Pericles
  • Polyaenus, "Stratagems of War", Myronides




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Specialising in Ancient and Classical Greek, Persian and Roman studies, particularly military history.

Ancient Greek History
Ancient Greek History

Historical educational posts on Ancient Greek history. I'll be covering Greek history stretching from the Greek Bronze Age and the days of Achilles and Troy, to the Hellenistic Age of Alexander and Cleopatra, covering topics ranging from daily city life to all-out warfare. I'll also be looking a lot into Iranian/Persian history, and their infamous conflicts with the Greeks throughout history. All feedback, positive and/or negative, is very welcome. Hope ya learn plenty-a-stuff! :)

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