The Contest for Hegemy: Sparta, Thebes, and Athens (404 - 350s B.C.)

14.14. The Struggle for Dominance after the Peloponnesian War

In the fifty years after the Peloponnesian War, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens fought to win a dominant position of international power in the Greek world. Athens probably never regained the same economic and military strength that it had formerly wielded in the fifth century B.C., perhaps because its silver mines were no longer producing at the same level. Nevertheless, it did recover after the re-establishment of democracy in 403 B.C. and soon became a major force in international politics once again. Sparta's widespread attempts to extend its power in the years after the Peloponnesian War gave Athens and the other Greeks states ample opportunity for diplomatic and military action. In 401 B.C., the Persian satrap Cyrus, son of a previous king, hired a mercenary army to try to unseat Artaxerxes II, who had ascended to the Persian throne in 404. Xenophon, who enlisted under Cyrus, wrote a stirring account in his Anabasis of the expedition's disastrous defeat at Cunaxa near Babylon and the arduous and long journey home through hostile territory of the terrified Greek mercenaries from Cyrus's routed army. Sparta had supported Cyrus's rebellion, thereby arousing the hostility of Artaxerxes. The Spartan general Lysander, the victor over Athens in the last years of the Peloponnesian War, pursued an aggressive policy in Anatolia and northern Greece, and other Spartan commanders meddled in Sicily. Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos thereupon formed an anti-Spartan coalition because they saw this Spartan activity as threatening their own interests at home and abroad.

14.15. The Corinthian War and the King's Peace

In a reversal of the alliances of the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Persian king initially allied with Athens and the other Greek city-states against Sparta in the so-called Corinthian War, which lasted from 395 to 386 B.C. But this alliance failed, too, because the king and the Greek allies were seeking their own advantage rather than peaceful accommodation. The war ended with Sparta once again cutting a deal with Persia. In a blatant renunciation of its claim to be the defender of Greek freedom, Sparta acknowledged the Persian king's right to control the Greek city-states of Anatolia in return for permission to secure Spartan interests in Greece without Persian interference. The King's Peace of 386 B.C., as the agreement is called, effectively returned the Greeks of Anatolia to the dependent status of a century ago before the Greek victory in the Persian Wars of 490-479 B.C.

14.16. Spartan Aggression and Athenian Resurgence

Spartan forces attacked city-states all over Greece in the years after the peace. Athens, meanwhile, had restored its invulnerability to invasion by rebuilding the long walls connecting the city and the harbor. The Athenian general Iphicrates also devised effective new tactics for light-armed troops called peltasts by improving their weapons. The reconstruction of Athens's navy built up its offensive strength, and by 377 B.C. the city had again become the leader of a naval alliance of Greek states, but this time the members of the league had their rights specified in writing to prevent high-handed Athenian behavior. Spartan hopes for lasting power were dashed in 371 B.C., when a resurgent Thebes defeated the Spartan army at Leuctra in Boeotia and then invaded the Spartan homeland in the Peloponnese. At this point the Thebans seemed likely to challenge Jason, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly, for the position of the dominant military power in Greece.

14.17. Stalemate after the Battle of Mantinea

The alliances of the various city-states shifted often in the repeated conflicts that took place in Greece during these early decades of the fourth century B.C. The threat from Thessaly faded with Jason's murder in 370 B.C., and the former enemies Sparta and Athens momentarily allied against the Thebans in the battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese in 362 B.C. Thebes won the battle but lost the war when its great leader Epaminondas fell at Mantinea and no credible replacement for him could be found. The Theban quest for dominance in Greece was over. Xenophon adroitly summed up the situation after 362 B.C. with these closing remarks from the history that he wrote of the Greeks in his time (Hellenica ): "Everyone had supposed that the winners of this battle would be Greece's rulers and its losers their subjects; but there was only more confusion and disturbance in Greece after it than before." The truth of his analysis was confirmed when the naval alliance led by Athens dissolved in the mid-350s B.C. in a war among the leader and the allies.

All the efforts of the various major Greek states to extend their hegemony over mainland Greece in this period therefore ended in failure. By the mid 350s B.C., no Greek city-state had the power to rule more than itself on a consistent basis. The struggle for supremacy in Greece that had begun eighty years earlier with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War had finally ended in a stalemate of exhaustion that opened the way for a new power—the kingdom of Macedonia.

Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander