If you’re interested in the conflicts of ancient Greek culture, I think this is the story for you. Today we are going to look at the great Peloponnesian War. Before you can understand the Peloponnesian (pell uh puh NEE zhun) War, we should look at what the “Peloponnese” represents.
When you look at Greece on a map, notice how the southern portion of it is almost a separate island. That peninsula is called the Peloponnese. Their main city-state was Sparta. And just 100 miles to the northeast was Athens. Now, these two city-states did not get along and their differences eventually erupted into the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C. Now, for the rest of the story: The Peloponnesian War—for Kids!
The Clash of Athens and Sparta
Let’s look at the two cultures in this war. Although both people groups were Greek, the Athenians and the Spartans were very different. The Spartans were harsh warriors who believed in military strength. They were even known to leave their newborn infants outside to die if they appeared weak or small. It was their custom to allow only the strong to survive.
The Spartans put their boys into military training by age 7. Spartan boys grew up in dormitories away from their families where they were taught the skills of warfare. Part of their training consisted of learning how to steal and kill. Failure would result in severe beatings. Girls were also trained for war, but they usually learned these tactics at home. The adult Hoplite (Greek) soldiers armed themselves with long spears (Dorus), short swords (Xiphos), round shields (Hoplons), and crested helmets.
The Democratic Athenians, however, were much different (Democracy is a term which describes the people, not a king, in the main place of power). They were a hotspot for the arts, philosophy, and architecture. War was good to them only if it helped protect their culture. In anticipation of war, the Athenians built a brilliant structure called the “Long Walls” at Port Piraeus (pie REE us). This was a fortified brick wall that went from the heart of Athens to the sea.
A Great War and a Plague!
Unfortunately, the Long Walls weren’t helpful in keeping unwanted things out. Just one year after the Peloponnesian War started, a plague broke out in Athens. Because Athens was so heavily congested, it was difficult to treat the victims properly. One-fourth of Athenian soldiers and much of the general population died. In spite of the plague, war was still the biggest threat. It raged on for years—sometimes in favor of Sparta, sometimes in favor of Athens. The other city-states of Greece kept changing sides in the war, giving their support to whatever side seemed to be winning.
For a time the mighty Persians joined in the war against Athens. (Persia was a world superpower at the time, and a huge asset to Sparta.) If mass illness and the arrival of the Persians weren’t bad enough for Athens, 15 years into the war, Alcibiades (al suh BYE uh deez), their self-indulgent leader, fled to Sparta as a traitor. He helped the Spartans for a time. Later, Alcibiades convinced half of Athens to forgive him! He promised that he would bring Persia to the side of Athens! The fact that some Athenians would forgive Alcibiades nearly caused a civil war. Athens was a mess.
The Struggle for Power and the Fall of Athens
In 411 B.C., a rich ruling class of Athenians took over with a Council of Four Hundred. It lasted only 4 months. Still striving for order, they were replaced with a Council of Five Thousand. (Can you imagine trying to manage these numbers?) For a brief time, there was hope of Athens’s survival. But in 405 B.C., a Spartan general named Lysander led a fleet of warships in a surprise attack against the Athenian navy and wiped them out. The Athenians who were left had no choice but to surrender. The Athenians were forced to tear down the Long Walls with their own hands while musicians played instruments in celebration of the Spartan victory. Certainly, this was a humiliating turn of events for the Athenians.
The Peloponnesian War was officially over when Lysander installed a group of 30 men to rule Athens. These were soon known as the “Thirty Tyrants” for their murderous cruelty. They killed anyone who disagreed with them and hated the democracy and free thinking Athens once cared so much about.
It is a shame that the city-states of Sparta and Athens couldn’t make peace with one another. The muscle of one and the brains of the other would have made a great team. Though the Spartans officially won the Peloponnesian War, they never ruled successfully again. They lived to survive, but knowing not what they were surviving for, they collapsed.
Activities for All Ages
Younger and Middle Students: Hoplite (Greek) Helmet. (An author favorite!)
Materials: Bike helmet (This project is temporary and should not damage a good helmet.); one can of Play-Doh modeling compound or soft clay; 20-30 uncooked spaghetti noodles. Find pictures of hoplite helmets. Now let’s begin!
- Knead a handful of Play-Doh modeling compound or soft clay into a ball.
- On your table press the ball into a strip about ½ inch deep, 2 inches wide, and 4–5 inches long.
- Stick the strip to the center of the bike helmet. Press it down securely.
- To make bristles, grab 3–6 pieces of spaghetti, breaking them in half if needed. Stick them upright into the strip. Continue until you’re satisfied with the fullness of the crest.
- Add paper details like nose or ear guards if wanted.
- This is the fun part; Wear your helmet! Stage a battle scene or train in your helmet like the real Hoplite soldiers.
Older Students: The Two-Sides of Alcibiades.
Write a short biography on the life of Alcibiades. Historians can’t agree on what to feel about him; some admire him and some don’t. Try to give both sides of his story. At the end, write your opinion of this powerful ruler.