Why it is still important to study the Peloponnesian War in International Relations


Although the Peloponnesian war happened 2400 years ago, its scenario still happening nowadays in the international arena, and what Thucydides stated about the Peloponnesian War is still happening in global politics among states.

The Peloponnesian War was the most devastating war in the ancient Greek that was between the two most powerful states at that time Athens and Sparta. The outcomes of the war caused a big change in ancient Greek. To explain the Peloponnesian War first have to go through some of the important events that happened during that time. This article attempts to explain the Peloponnesian War from theoretical perspectives.

The ancient Greek was divided into city-states system, granted to an individual, each city ought to manage and deal with its own affairs. Sparta was the most powerful city-state in ancient Greek with a very powerful army. But after the Persian wars, Athens also emerged as a powerful city-state in ancient Greek.

Athens and Sparta allied together against the Persian and they then defeated the Persian in the war, after that Athens became a powerful city-state that started to challenge Sparta and was seeking to become the hegemony and dominate over Sparta. Athens and Sparta had their own alliances; Sparta allies were the Peloponnesian League, while the Athens they formed an alliance system which called the Delian League. The growth of Athens caused a threat to Sparta and was the main reason that Sparta was thinking to fight against Athens.

After the Persian Wars, the Athenians asked Sparta to reconstruct the long wall, but the Spartans refused the Athens’ request, after that and the Athens built the wall, and that gave the Athens a confident, while the Spartans and the Peloponnesian League they were worried about the Athens growing, as a result, Athenians and Spartans involved in an indirect war, the war was between the period 460-445 BCE.It was an indirect war because the Spartans didn’t participate in this war, but their alliance the Corinth involved in the war with Athens and Spartans supported their alliance the Corinthians. The war ended by signing a peace treaty, this peace treaty ensured Athens and Sparta their sphere of influence, and Athens and Sparta’s League accepted each other and they decided not to interfere in each other affairs.  It is worth to mention that, some of the Peloponnesian League members, in particular, the Corinthians were angry because Sparta signed this peace treaty and the Thirty Years Peace Treaty, they also felt that Sparta was lack of the leadership.

Although the two sides had signed the peace treaty and decided to respect each other sphere influence, the growth of Athens still causing fear to the Spartans and its Peloponnesian League. In 440BCE, the Athens’ Delian League happened some of the rebellions, so Corinth had tried to use this opportunity and provoke the Spartans to initiate war against the Athenians but Sparta’s Congress rejected such an idea.

After talking about the indirect causes of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, it’s very important to explain the direct causes of the Peloponnesian War, in 434BCE, the democrats and oligarchs involved in a war against one another and that was in the city-state called Epidamnos, the Athens’ democrats asked Corcyra to help them, but the Corcyra refused their demand and joint to Sparta’s alliance Corinth. Sparta recognized that involving in such a war with Athens would cause losses, as a result, Sparta chose the diplomatic endeavors to resolve the conflict, but unfortunately, the Corinth refused the diplomatic efforts.

The dispute between Athens and Sparta continued and Corcyra asked Athens to help them. Corcyra argued that the war between Athens and Sparta was unavoidable, as a result, Athens allied with Corcyra (defensive alliance) to defend itself against Sparta in the war.

The Athenian historian Thucydides he explained that the war between Athens and Sparta were unavoidable, he stated that:”War was the inevitable result of the growth of Athenian power and its insatiable demand for expansion, and the fear this inspired in Sparta.”In international politics when a state becomes powerful and starts to challenge other powerful states that might cause a direct war among states and this is called a preventive war to start a war to prevent the rising power to attack you and preserve your interests and your national security. In this case, Sparta’s fear of the rise of Athens was the reason that Sparta waged a war against Athens.

Realism theory is the most dominant theory in international relations; it also explains what Thucydides had explained in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. For realists, war is the normal state of affairs. Han Morgenthau he states that “the international politics is a struggle for power”, every state has to protect itself against one another, states can go to war against each other to protect their interests, so for realists war is unavoidable. The neo-realist Kenneth Waltz focuses on the structure of the international politics, he explains that the international arena is an anarchic system, and in this anarchic world states always want to preserve their own interests, when a state rising as a powerful state in the international arena that will cause a threat to other states, as a result, the other states could wage a war against the rising power and that war will be a preventive war, from these explanations we can see that the realists they also argue that the Peloponnesian War was inevitable because the power shifts it very rarely happens peacefully.

For liberalists such as Fukuyama, he explains that the end of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union ended the human’s ideological evolution, and it also ended the role of the government and gave the individual a space to play a vital role in the global arena. Liberals focus on how to maintain peace in the international arena; they argue that states in this anarchic world can collaborate to achieve lasting peace and that will happen through organizations, agencies, institutions, etc. For liberals, peace can happen only through democracy and free trade. From this explanation, we find that liberalism theory is hard to explain the Peloponnesian War because at that time there wasn’t an institution or organization, also the lack of mechanisms for conflict and dispute resolution that contributed to the outbreak of the war.

Amira Ahmed
Amira Ahmed
Amira Ahmed, Ph.D. fellow, School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, China. Master in Diplomacy.


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