Peloponnesian War

Course No. 3372
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3372
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Course Overview

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides called it "a war like no other"—arguably the greatest in the history of the world up to that time. The Peloponnesian War pitted Athens and her allies against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. Thucydides himself was an Athenian general in the fighting, sentenced to exile partway through the 27-year struggle, after losing a key battle to one of Sparta's leading commanders.

Although Thucydides lived to see the end of the war, his history breaks off in its 21st year. Other ancient writers completed the record but without Thucydides's sense of drama and matchless insight—for he is the first historian to seek the true causes of events. His eyewitness account of the war has been a classic for 24 centuries and is still studied for its profound truths about the nature of human strife.

In this course, Professor Kenneth W. Harl draws on this masterpiece as well as other ancient sources to give you a full picture of the Greek world in uneasy peace and then all-out war in the late 5th century B.C.

Into the Thick of Action

Professor Harl is well known to many Teaching Company customers for his compelling courses Rome and the Barbarians, The Vikings, The Era of the Crusades, The World of Byzantium, and others. A connoisseur of detail, he plunges you into the thick of politics, military strategy, economics, personalities, culture, and technology. In these 36 half-hour lectures, you will feel the ancient Greek world come alive as you explore such scenes as:

  • War debate at Athens and Sparta: Thucydides records speeches that took place in citizen assemblies as war fever took hold—and cooler heads were ignored. These make a gripping narrative, comparable to the drama that led to the outbreak of World War I.
  • Plague of Athens: Severe overcrowding in Athens probably touched off the devastating plagues that swept through the city beginning in 430 B.C. Thucydides himself contracted the disease and survived. The great Athenian statesman Pericles was not so lucky.
  • Revolt of Mytilene: In deciding the fate of an ally that tried to change sides, one Athenian demagogue argued that all adult males should be executed and the women and children enslaved. This policy was adopted, but rescinded at the last moment.
  • Battle of Pylos: The unthinkable happened to the proud Spartan army when a contingent of its troops was outmaneuvered by Athenians and captured, eventually leading to a peace treaty that ended the war after 10 years. But the fighting soon flared up again.
  • Sicilian expedition: The climax of Thucydides's account is a massive expedition mounted by Athens against cities allied with Sparta on the rich island of Sicily. Well manned and well equipped, the expedition was ineptly led and would end in disaster.

New Look at an Old Conflict

One of the surprising aspects of the Peloponnesian War is that it sparks lively scholarly debate even today, and Professor Harl introduces you to some of the key controversies. For example, what was the true nature of Sparta's notoriously closed society? Was it, at bottom, alien to our Western values—as some historians now believe? Or did Sparta partake of a common Greek culture that made it more similar than dissimilar to Athens? Professor Harl takes the latter view and argues that this position is crucial to understanding why Sparta achieved something that confounds traditional interpretations: Sparta won the war.

Throughout these lectures, you will focus on the major figures behind events: men like Pericles, who gave Athens her greatest monuments but also did more than anyone to bring on the war; Alcibiades, the gifted and unscrupulous Athenian aristocrat, who first led Athens—then switched sides—then switched back again; and Lysander, the Spartan general who finally won the war but ended his days as a meat carver at the table of the king of Sparta.

Citizens Deciding Their Own Fates

Unlike earlier great wars, the Peloponnesian War was not a conflict between kings but between citizens from different city-states, who shared the same language, gods, oracles, and festivals such as the Olympic Games. Citizen assemblies decided questions of war and peace—literally voting on their own fates, since they were the ones who had to do the fighting.

One of the major themes of the course is that as the war progressed, stasis erupted in city after city. The term stasis comes from the Greek word for standing and means faction-driven sedition or civil war. In the murderous stasis that overtook the island of Corcyra, Thucydides noted, "To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member."

You will also learn other Greek terms. For example, the traditional heavily armed Greek infantryman is called a hoplite, after his massive circular shield, the hoplon, which was designed to cover the soldier while also protecting the man to his immediate left in the fighting line—an innovation that heightened unit cohesion and the sense of comradeship of citizen soldiers in combat.

Culture amid War

Ironically, the Peloponnesian War was fought against the backdrop of Greece's Golden Age, epitomized by Athens and its astonishing innovations in government, architecture, oratory, philosophy, and the dramatic arts. One of the most remarkable aspects of this era is that culture flourished side-by-side with the politics of war—that even as Athenian citizens were honoring Aristophanes's mocking antiwar play The Acharnians by giving it first prize in a drama competition, they were debating with equal ardor whether to continue the war, and deciding overwhelmingly to do so.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War
    In his eyewitness account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides set a standard for writing history that endures to this day. We explore his influence on modern historians and the enduring value of studying this war. x
  • 2
    The Greek Way of War
    This lecture examines the Greek approach to land battles, showing how the institution of the polis led to the use of citizen soldiers called hoplites—a style of fighting that underwent major changes during the Peloponnesian War. x
  • 3
    Sparta—Perceptions and Prejudices
    The disciplined city-state of Sparta headed one side in the war. Ancient sources have created the modern impression of Sparta as an authoritarian and soulless society. This lecture offers a more balanced view. x
  • 4
    Sparta and Her Allies
    We continue our background exploration of Sparta with a look at the Peloponnesian League, a powerful alliance headed by Sparta that extended even beyond the peninsula of the Peloponnesus. x
  • 5
    The Athenian Democracy
    Sparta's rival was Athens, whose most distinctive political institution was democracy. Remarkably for that era, all male citizens over 18 had the right to vote, without property qualifications. x
  • 6
    Athens and the Navy
    From 505 to 480 B.C., Athens built the greatest fleet in the Greek world, an effort that bolstered its democratic institutions: Thousands of citizens of the lower classes, vital to the city's defense because they rowed the ships, were rewarded for naval service with enhanced legal and social privileges. x
  • 7
    Victory over Persia, 490–479 B.C.
    Sparta and Athens were reluctant allies against Persia, which sought to conquer the Greek homeland in 490 B.C. and again in 480 B.C. Athens won glory at the battles of Marathon and Salamis, as did Sparta at Thermopylae. x
  • 8
    Athens or Sparta—A Question of Leadership
    As Persian power waned, Greek cities under Persian control revolted, looking to Sparta for leadership. Rebuffed, they turned to Athens. The resulting alliance led to the foundation of the Delian League. x
  • 9
    Cimonian Imperialism
    Fresh from victories over Persia, the Athenian general Cimon converted the naval alliance of the Delian League into the Athenian Empire. x
  • 10
    Sparta after the Persian Wars
    Thucydides is surprisingly silent about events in Sparta in the 50 years between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. We weigh the view that Sparta preferred isolation, lest its citizens be morally corrupted by overseas service. x
  • 11
    The First Peloponnesian War
    In 461 B.C., Spartans and Athenians clashed in what has sometimes been called the First Peloponnesian War, which lasted until 446 B.C. x
  • 12
    The Thirty Years' Peace
    This lecture examines the Thirty Years' Peace that ended the First Peloponnesian War. Despite differences in how each party understood the treaty, there were reasons to believe peace would last. x
  • 13
    Triumph of the Radical Democracy
    We investigate the reforms sponsored by Pericles that transformed Athens into a full participatory democracy. Pericles established a standard of democratic leadership that later Athenian political figures failed to attain. x
  • 14
    From Delian League to Athenian Empire
    The emergence of Athenian power in the Aegean and the creation of its naval empire completely changed the political dynamics of Greece. x
  • 15
    Economy and Society of Imperial Athens
    Athens was the first state to monetize its markets and base its wealth on seaborne commerce. How did the economies of Sparta and its allies compare? x
  • 16
    Athens, School of Greece
    From the Persian to Peloponnesian Wars, Pericles presided over a golden age in architecture, visual arts, and literature, making Athens the school of Greece and defining Classical civilization for ages to come. x
  • 17
    Crisis in Corcyra, 435–432 B.C.
    General war loomed after a revolt broke out at a remote colony in northwest Greece, inciting a clash between the two rivals Corcyra and Corinth. Athens sided with Corcyra, enraging Corinth, which was allied with Sparta. x
  • 18
    Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War
    The Corcyra crisis put Athens on a collision course with Sparta. We explore whether the chain of events leading to war could have been halted. x
  • 19
    Strategies and Stalemate, 431–429 B.C.
    Pericles aimed to avoid a land battle with Sparta, while harassing Spartan interests by sea to force a negotiated peace. By the third year of the war, a stalemate had developed and Pericles was dead from plague. x
  • 20
    Athenian Victory in Northwest Greece
    In a change of strategy, Athens escalated operations in northwest Greece—a region dominated by Corinth and vital to the Peloponnesians. By 426 B.C., Athens had won an important victory there. x
  • 21
    Imperial Crisis—The Chalcidice and Mytilene
    This lecture looks at fighting in northern Greece, a strategically vital area for Athens. When unrest spread to the island of Lesbos, Athens put down the rebellion and was on the verge of brutal reprisals, but relented. x
  • 22
    Plague, Fiscal Crisis, and War
    We investigate how the war changed the population and prosperity of the Greek world. Athens suffered most, from plague and the despoiling of agricultural land. x
  • 23
    Demagogues and Stasis
    The war transformed the democratic institutions of Athens and ignited stasis (civil war) in city-states on both sides. In Athens, demagogues such as Cleon wielded the power once held by the democratic leader Pericles. x
  • 24
    Pylos, 425 B.C.—A Test of Leadership
    By 425 B.C., Sparta and Athens were locked in a deadly struggle, without prospects of either victory or negotiation. Then Athens achieved a breakthrough at Pylos, trapping Spartan troops and forcing their surrender. x
  • 25
    New Leaders and New Strategies
    The deaths in 422 B.C. of the Athenian Cleon and the Spartan Brasidas removed the two most senior commanders in favor of continuing the war. x
  • 26
    The Peace of Nicias
    During the winter of 422–421 B.C., the Athenian statesman Nicias negotiated what was to have been a 50-year peace treaty with Sparta. But peace would not last. x
  • 27
    Collapse of the Peace of Nicias
    The period from 421 to 418 B.C. saw the disintegration of the Peace of Nicias and the emergence of Spartan and Athenian leaders who were eager to renew the conflict. x
  • 28
    From Mantinea to Sicily, 418–415 B.C.
    This lecture analyzes events surrounding the Battle of Mantinea, which involved shifting alliances aimed at isolating Sparta. x
  • 29
    Sparta, Athens, and the Western Greeks
    Athens had good strategic reasons for trying to outflank Sparta in this theater. We explore the importance of Sicily and southern Italy in the wider Greek world. x
  • 30
    The Athenian Expedition to Sicily
    An ill omen preceded the sailing of the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 B.C. Thucydides's account of the unfolding disaster is the most dramatic and tragic episode of his history, culminating in the campaign at Syracuse. x
  • 31
    Alcibiades and Sparta, 414–412 B.C.
    After the Athenian attack on Syracuse, Sparta declared that the Peace of Nicias had been violated, and renewed war. Sparta now had the invaluable advice of Alcibiades, an exiled Athenian leader. x
  • 32
    Conspiracy and Revolution, 411 B.C.
    In 411 B.C., Athenian aristocrats staged a coup, suspending the democracy and setting up a council of 400 to draw up a new constitution. Their secret plan to turn over the city to Sparta was thwarted when the coup collapsed. x
  • 33
    Alcibiades and Athens, 411–406 B.C.
    Under the generalship of the returned exile Alcibiades, Athens enjoyed a string of victories against Sparta. But the strategic situation changed with the arrival of a new Spartan ally: the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger. x
  • 34
    The Defeat of Athens, 406–404 B.C.
    The years 406–404 B.C. saw a dramatic turn of events leading to the decisive sea battle at Aegospotami, where the Spartan commander Lysander surprised and captured the entire Athenian fleet, ending the war. x
  • 35
    Sparta's Bitter Victory
    We review the immediate aftermath of the war and explore what Spartan victory meant for Greece. In a surprisingly short time, Athenian democracy was restored and the city regained much of its former economic position. x
  • 36
    Lessons of the Peloponnesian War
    What is the historical significance of the Peloponnesian War? How has it been studied by both scholars and popular historians? And what are the real lessons to be learned from this epic conflict of 24 centuries ago? x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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Peloponnesian War is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from No Previous Knowledge I listened to this course over 2 years ago, and it is still my favorite. I had no previous knowledge of the Peloponnesian War. None. I did not learn any early history while in school. I appreciated the background since I had no basic knowledge. I highly recommend it, even if you don't feel you would like old Greek history.
Date published: 2020-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly interesting and in-depth. Refreshes and reinforces historical touchstones I should have been paying more attention to in school.
Date published: 2020-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I liked very much the Peloponnesian war story as was told by the lecturer.The lecture was not just the collection of the facts. The facts were integrated very nicely with the personalities, desires and spirit of the leaders involved in the conflict.
Date published: 2020-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent-the best course I've done I have to compliment Kenneth W Harl on a truly excellent course. You're probably thinking this is another one of those 'glowing hot' cheesy reviews which always look a little suspicious but it's really not. I find some TTC courses 'light froth' or a whistle stop skim through a subject akin to a documentary series on satellite tv but course is NOT that. It is just so rich, in-depth and layered. The sheer number of lectures alone and the different perspectives given to the War has had me enthralled for months.The best course I've listened to by a mile.
Date published: 2018-11-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Lot to Learn There is a lot to learn from this course. Professor Harl is always entertaining and has a particularly good approach to teaching. The Peloponnesian War is an important incident in history that is still important today, in part because of the way that modern historians have tried to draw parallels to modern events. This is well-worth the time.
Date published: 2018-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A story like no other I never thought I would be so engrossed in a series of lectures about the Peloponnesian war, but I actually lost sleep and was so engrossed I finished all 18 hours in only 3 days. Harl often reveals the evidence base for his opinions, tells us when most historians disagree with him, and is gladly willing to mention the opinions of those he disagrees with. He is someone I can easily still love when I disagree with a moment because he gives enough information for me to apply my own knowledge, assumptions, biases, ideology, specialization, and so on to the subject matter. This story is absolutely fascinating through his presentation. As soon as I got back from the road trip during which I devoured these lectures, I came back to to buy more Harl courses to continue the story.
Date published: 2018-07-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Alot of time on introduction and minute details Unfortunately, this course did not meet my expectations. I am very much interested in the war and this time period in history but you had to get through HALF the course to get to the actual war. I think a much better title of the course would be "A History of Athens and Sparta from 490 BC through the Peloponnesian War". Don't get me wrong: this is not a bad course. It had adequate historical narrative covering the Peloponnesian War as well as other major events in the Greek world involving Sparta and Athens from 490 BC to the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC (with a quick recap of major events in the Greek world until 338 BC). I thought lecture 7 (Greek-Persian wars) was a clear highlight of the course. But too much time was spent on minute details without much understanding of how sometimes they all fit into the big picture of the narrative. And there were too many introductory lectures to the actual war: background information is crucial but 18 lectures seem a bit much! If this course is seen more as a history of Athens and Sparta since the begining of the Persian wars then it makes sense but a lot of the factors that led up to the Peloponnesian War could’ve certainly been summed up in much fewer than 18 lectures. Another thing that struck me as odd: After many lectures of in-depth details of strategies and play by play minutiae details of individual battles, the discussion on Sparta’s decisive victory to end the war was surprisingly sparse on details and info. In fact until that point we had heard of very few Spartan victories throughout the course and all the momentum seemed to be with Athens. And maybe the sources were light on this reversal but it just seems odd the professor would spend lecture after lecture creating and building a narrative and then introduce a Spartan total victory that was out of character with it and with few details. If you are interested in the ancient Greek world of the 5th century BC, know alot about the war already, and are interested in learning more then by all means purchase this course. But if you are interested in only the war itself and don't have alot of knowledge on the topic then I feel like you may get more out of another great course: "History of the Ancient World - A Global Perspective".
Date published: 2018-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As an amateur history buff, I found the course to be very interesting. The instructor is very knowledgeable and gets excited in several points during the lectures. It’s clear he has a love of history and enjoys teaching it, I just ordered another course on Alexander the Great taught by the same professor.
Date published: 2018-03-28
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