The Peloponnesian War - A Tale of Dilemmas, Power Struggles, and Human Nature

July 18, 2023
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Introduction and Background

Throughout history, humanity has witnessed countless wars, resulting in immeasurable loss of life, land, and resources. From ancient times to the present, conflicts have shaped civilizations, often leaving profound impacts on societies. In this narrative, we will delve into one of the most significant wars of its time, the Peloponnesian War, which engulfed the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. This analysis will explore the reasons behind the war, the key figures, and how inherent dilemmas, the balance of power, and human nature played a pivotal role in its inevitability.

At the heart of the Peloponnesian War lies Thucydides, a renowned ancient Greek historian and Athenian general. Born around 460 BC, Thucydides lived during a tumultuous period in Greek history. As an Athenian general, he was appointed to secure the colony of Amphipolis against the famous Spartan commander, Brasidas. Unfortunately, he failed to achieve the desired success and voluntarily went into exile. Thucydides was not only a historian but also a philosopher, presenting history through the lens of political events. His work on the Peloponnesian War provides invaluable insights into the causes and consequences of this epic conflict.

The roots of the Peloponnesian War can be traced back to the emergence of city-states in ancient Greece, known as "Poleis." Around 2000 BC, these city-states, including Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Larissa, and Megara, evolved in the Aegean region. Their geographical location, along with flourishing trade and colonial activities, fostered social, political, and cultural interactions between Western and Asian civilizations. However, this region's strategic significance also made it prone to conflict, with wars frequently arising between city-states or within them.

Dilemmas: The Seeds of Conflict

One of the main reasons making the Peloponnesian War inevitable was the prevalence of dilemmas. Dilemmas entail choosing between two undesirable options, often leading to instability and conflict. In the context of the Peloponnesian War, two types of dilemmas played a crucial role - the Security Dilemma and the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Security Dilemma

The Security Dilemma, a concept in political science, occurs when actions taken by one state to enhance its security trigger reactions from others, resulting in decreased security overall. A classic example can be seen in the Epidamnus conflict, where civil war broke out, and the city sought help from Corcyraeans, who declined. Subsequently, Epidamnus turned to Corinth, an ally of Sparta, which led to the Corcyraeans besieging the city. Misinterpretations of each other's actions escalated the situation, eventually sparking the Peloponnesian Wars.

Prisoner's Dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilemma is another intriguing aspect that influenced the war's inevitability. It describes a scenario where two individuals, unaware of each other's actions, must choose between cooperation and betrayal. Applied to the Peloponnesian context, Athens' alignment with Corcyra was perceived as breaking the Thirty Years' Peace rules. Nonetheless, the fear of being left isolated pushed Athens towards this decision. The lack of trust and uncertainty about each other's intentions further contributed to the escalation of conflict.

Cold War Comparison

An apt comparison to understand the impact of the Security Dilemma is the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1991. As both superpowers sought to increase their security, mutual distrust led to an arms race, escalating tensions and creating a delicate balance of power.

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Civil War: Catalyst or Consequence?

Many have attributed the Peloponnesian War to the civil war in Epidamnus. However, it is crucial to consider whether this was the root cause or merely a catalyst for the conflict. In the case of Epidamnus, civil strife indeed led to alliances forming between different city-states, but deeper underlying issues existed even before the civil war.

For instance, tension between Corcyra and Corinth predates the civil war in Epidamnus, with Corinth's displeasure at Corcyra's economic and political success. Such diplomatic conflicts laid the groundwork for the Corinth-Corcyra War, which subsequently drew in Athens and ultimately led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Therefore, while the civil war in Epidamnus may have triggered events, it was not the sole cause of the larger conflict.

A similar situation can be observed in the case of World War I. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary served as the spark, but underlying tensions and power struggles among European powers were the true reasons for the war's outbreak. Civil wars and assassinations often act as triggers, but the real causes lie deeper within political rivalries and shifting power dynamics.

The Unsteady Balance of Power

Another pivotal factor contributing to the inevitability of the Peloponnesian War was the unsteady balance of power among the Greek city-states. Athens' rise as a dominant naval and commercial power threatened the Spartans, who preferred a conservative, land-oriented approach. This growing power imbalance worried the Spartans, prompting them to seek alliances with other city-states to counterbalance Athens' influence.

The Delian League, an organization led by Athens and aimed at protecting states against the Persian threat, further exacerbated the power imbalance. Athens collected significant taxes from member states, fueling its own strength and influence. The Spartan alliance system with other city-states and the growth of Athenian power set the stage for a conflict that eventually erupted into the Peloponnesian War.

Bandwagoning and the Balance of Power

Contrary to traditional balance of power theory, in which weaker states align to counterbalance stronger states, the situation in the Peloponnesian War demonstrated bandwagoning behavior. Weaker states sought to ally with the more potent Athenians instead of the Spartans, fearing isolation and the consequences of opposing Athens' might. This bandwagoning further complicated the power dynamics, intensifying the conflict between Athens and Sparta.

World War I Comparison

Similar dynamics were at play in the lead-up to World War I. The rapid growth of German industry and its emergence as a powerful player worried France and Britain, leading to a complicated network of alliances. As weaker states aligned with the stronger powers, the balance of power became increasingly precarious, eventually culminating in global conflict.


In summary, the Peloponnesian War was an inevitable consequence of inherent human dilemmas, shifting power dynamics, and a lack of trust among the Greek city-states. Dilemmas such as the Security Dilemma and Prisoner's Dilemma created an atmosphere of uncertainty and competition. The civil war in Epidamnus acted as a catalyst, but underlying issues and diplomatic conflicts were the true causes of the war.

Furthermore, the unsteady balance of power between Athens and Sparta fueled their desire for alliances and counterbalancing strategies. In a bid to secure their interests, weaker states often bandwagoned with the stronger powers, leading to further polarization and ultimately, conflict.

The Peloponnesian War stands as a testament to the complexities of human nature and the persistent challenges in maintaining peace and stability. While war remains a tragic and costly reality, understanding the historical factors that contribute to conflict can help guide future efforts to promote diplomacy, cooperation, and mutual understanding. As we reflect on the lessons of the past, we must strive to build a world where the pursuit of peace and prosperity prevails over the path of war and destruction.


  1. Thucydides. (c. 431 BCE). The History of the Peloponnesian War (Translated by Richard Crawley). Project Gutenberg.
  2. Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W. W. Norton & Company.
  3. Wohlforth, W. C. (2009). Unipolarity, Status Competition, and Great Power War. World Politics, 61(1), 28-57.
  4. Hanson, V. D. (2010). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. Random House.
  5. Ostwald, M. (1987). From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens. University of California Press.
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