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(The GREEKS at WAR (494 to 371 BCE – continued)

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The GREEKS at WAR, 494 to 371 BCE (7 of 8)

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Athens Loses, Sparta Wins

Athens sent a naval expedition to Sicily where the city-states of Selinus and Segesta were at war against each other, the city of Segesta having sought an alliance with Athens. Athenian trade was booming again and Athenians believed their city had recovered financially. The population of Athens had started growing again, and it had many slaves. Athens still had no sure source of the grain it needed, and some among the Athenians saw remedy in the acquisition of grain from across the Mediterranean Sea to the west, in the region of Sicily and southern Italy. The Athenian assembly saw the request from Segesta as an opportunity to extend their city's power and influence to that part of the world, so the Athenian assembly voted to send a force to Sicily.

Aristophanes was to satirize the expedition in his play The Birds, portraying it as a project by crooks, profiteers and fiddling bureaucrats. Another who opposed the expedition was one of the three men designated as its commander, who consulted with various seers and diviners who prophesied its doom. And supporters of the expedition hired rival oracles who predicted a glorious triumph.

The expedition established itself on land and in the protected waters around Syracuse, and slowly it began to encircle and blockade the city. The expedition won allies among some cities in Sicily, who supplied it with stores of food.

Sparta feared that if Athens succeeded in Sicily, Athens would overshadow Carthage in the western Mediterranean and would become more of a threat. Responding to a request from Syracuse, Sparta and Corinth sent aid, including an able military commander from Sparta, Gylippus, who took charge of Syracuse's defense. Gylippus led a force that broke through the Athenian's blockade and rallied the city's defenders – while the Athenian expedition bungled opportunities.

The expedition proved a failure. Many Athenians lost sons in the expedition, and the citizens of Athens grieved and feared for their city and themselves. News of Athens' defeat in Sicily encouraged Persia to regain control of Asia Minor, and Persia began sending envoys to Sparta in hope of gaining Sparta's assent and cooperation.

Athens' losses also encouraged members of its empire to revolt. From Euboea, Lesbos and Chios went messages to Sparta's King, Agis, stating that they would revolt against Athens as soon as a Peloponnesian fleet appeared off their coasts. Sparta promised the Persians recognition of their control over Greek cities in Asia Minor in exchange for funds for building ships and for hiring men to row these ships, and Sparta sought naval reinforcements from Syracuse. While Athens was building ships to replace what they had lost at Syracuse, Sparta was hoping to build a navy that could neutralize the power of Athens at sea.

Sparta sent ships and troops to the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, and there in the winter of 413/412 the revolts against Athenian rule began. Lesbos signed a treaty with both Sparta and Persia, against Athens. So too did the city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor – while Persia was reasserting itself as an arbiter in the region and demanding tributes from local rulers.

For Athens, defeat abroad led to turmoil at home. In 411, while the Athenian navy was in the eastern Aegean, a group in Athens opposed to democracy launched a coup and set up an oligarchy called the Four Hundred. They created a constitution based on nostalgia for ancestral custom, and they began a rule of terror and totalitarianism. The Athenian fleet would have liked to return to Athens to drive the Four Hundred from power, but they believed they were needed where they were, to defend the empire. The Four Hundred sought help from those with whom they shared a disdain for democracy: the Spartans. But before help could arrive from Sparta, the Four Hundred were driven from power by those who called themselves the Five Thousand, and the following year democracy returned to Athens.

With Persian financial resources behind them and a new fleet, Sparta and its allies won a series of military successes, including a victory over the Athenian main fleet. This left Athens surrounded by enemy forces on land and sea and cut off from sources of food. Through the winter of 405-04 Athenians suffered hunger. In the spring of 404 – twenty-seven years after the glorious cause had first begun – Athens surrendered. The Great Peloponnesian War had ended.

Athens was defeated. It fared worse than it might have had it merely pursued trade by mutual agreement and held to alliances based on equality.

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