Have you ever met two people who were mad at each other, but rather than directly confronting each other, they were passive aggressive towards each other? You would definitely call it a sort of fight, but it’s not the same as an all-out verbal (or physical) fight. Sometimes countries act the same way, and rather than having their armies face off, they fight each other through economic or political actions. This indirect type of conflict is called a cold war. Some people might not know all of the different cold wars in history besides the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, so we want to take the next few weeks to explore some of these cold wars. This week, we will take a look at the first cold war in history, between Athens and Sparta.
Ancient Greece consisted of several city-states, including Athens and Sparta. These two city-states had to team up (along with the other city-states) to fight against Persia in the Greco-Persian Wars of 499-449 BC. After successfully repelling the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, the city-state of Athens began to rise above the rest of the Greek city-states as the strongest one. In fact, the Greek historian Thucydides gave a name for Athens’ rise to power between the Persian invasion and the Peloponnesian War: Pentecontaetia (it doesn’t sound very flattering, doesn’t it?). The other Greek city-states didn’t particularly enjoy the Athenian Empire that formed, especially Sparta. After driving Persia completely out of Greece, Athens started forcing some city-states to pay tribute to the Delian League of Athens. Athens used the tribute to strengthen its already-powerful fleet and to fund a massive public works system in Athens. Sparta was not a fan of the tribute, and so the friction between Sparta and Athens during the Pentecontaetia can be considered the first cold war.
From the beginning of the Pentecontaetia, Sparta worked to indirectly undermine Athens. First, Sparta tried to prevent the walls of Athens from being rebuilt. Sparta had a strong army that was almost impossible to beat on land, so Athens would be defenseless against Sparta without her walls. However, the Spartan efforts were thwarted. The historian Thucydides wrote that Sparta became indignant from this.
Another cold war conflict between Athens and Sparta occurred in 465 BC, when a helot revolt broke out in Sparta (helots were a class between citizens and slaves in Sparta). Sparta called their allies, including Athens, to help them suppress the revolt. Athens sent Sparta a contingent of 4,00o heavily-armed soldiers called hoplites. But when Athens’ army arrived, Sparta dismissed the hoplites, but they allowed the other allies to remain. This obviously did not help the relations between Athens and Sparta; Athens was greatly offended by this rejection by Sparta.
The cold war of Athens and Sparta really heated up after that. In 459 BC, Athens got involved in a conflict between Megara and Corinth, who were both allies of Sparta. Athens ended up gaining a foothold in the isthmus of Corinth, which was a big strategic move for Athens. If Sparta wanted to invade Athens on land, they would have to pass through the Corinthian isthmus. Gaining control of this small strip of land gave Athens a strong defense against Sparta. This acquisition of Athens kicked off 15 years of sporadic conflict between several city-states, including Sparta, and Athens. This conflict is called the First Peloponnesian War, and it came to an end by the signing of the Thirty Years’ Peace. The peace between the city-states began to wear down, and eventually full-out war broke out between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
Sometimes cold wars heat up to an actual war, and sometimes the differences of two countries cool down. The cold war between Athens and Sparta led up to the historic Peloponnesian War. Next week, we’ll take a look at the famous Cold War between the USSR and the United States, so stay tuned!