The Thebans Attack the Plataeans
The cause of the Peloponnesian War was jealousy—jealousy between Athens and Sparta. Each wished to be the chief State in Greece, and the only way to settle the dispute in those days was by an appeal to arms.
Athens had a great navy and much wealth. She was at the head of an empire, but the States which she had subdued, and which she had forced to pay tribute, were discontented and unlikely to prove useful allies.
Sparta was the head of the Peloponnesian States. She had a strong army, but she had not money with which to carry on war, nor had she, or any of her allies save Corinth, a fleet that would be of any use against the large, well-equipped fleet of Athens.
As long as Athens could keep the mastery of the sea, she would be able to defy the enemy. Famine would soon subdue her if she lost this mastery, for much of her corn supply came from abroad, and if the corn ships did not reach the Piraeus with their precious freight, the people would starve.
On land Athens could not hope to hold her own against Sparta. Pericles knew this well, and so he urged the Athenians to place their trust in their ships.
"Let us give up lands and houses," he said, "but keep a watch over the city and the sea. We should not, under any irritation at the loss of our property, give battle to the Peloponnesians, who far outnumber us. Mourn not for houses or lands, but for men; men may give these, but these will not give men. If I thought that you would listen to me, I would say to you, "Go yourselves and destroy them, and thereby prove to the Peloponnesians that none of these things move you." Such is the power which the empire of the sea gives."
The Peloponnesian War began in the early spring of 431 b.c. when the citizens of the little town of Thebes made a treacherous attack upon the town of Plataea.
Thebes belonged to the Boeotian League, which was on good terms with Sparta, upon bad terms with Athens.
Plataea was in alliance with Athens, but there were traitors among the citizens, and these determined to betray their city into the hands of the Thebans.
One dark, stormy night the gates of the city were opened to admit a band of three hundred Thebans. The main body of the Theban force was still some distance off. At midnight the citizens of Plataea were awakened by the sound of trumpets. They dressed in haste, and then rushing to the market place found it in the hands of the Thebans, who were calling upon the citizens to forsake Athens and to join the Boeotian League.
At first the Plataeans thought it would be useless to resist the enemy, but before long they found that there was only a small band of Thebans in the market place. Heavy rains had made the river Asopus rise, and the main body of the enemy was still on the farther side of the river, looking in vain for a ford.
So the Plataeans shut their gates, barricaded their streets with wagons, and then boldly attacked the enemy.
The Thebans were soon separated from one another and lost their way in the unknown and dusky streets. To add to their confusion, from windows and roofs, heavy missiles were hurled down upon them by the angry Plataean women. A few scaled the city wall and escaped, but the greater number, rushing through a large door which they mistook for one of the city gates, found themselves in a granary from which there was no escape save by the door through which they had entered. It was already held by the Plataeans, and the Thebans were taken prisoners and commanded to lay down their arms.
Meanwhile the main body of the Thebans had reached the city gates to find them guarded by the inhabitants. A herald was sent to bid them withdraw, after releasing the prisoners whom they had taken on their march to the city. Unless this was done without delay, the Plataeans threatened to put to death the Thebans whom they had captured.
It was plain that their plot had failed; so, to save their comrades, as they believed, the Thebans released their prisoners, recrossed the Asopus, and went back to their own city. Then the Plataeans did a cruel and treacherous deed, for they slew two hundred of their Theban prisoners.
The Plataeans sent to Athens to ask for help when the Theban army appeared without their walls, but the danger was over before help could reach them.
Yet, lest the Thebans should return, the women and children were taken to Athens for safety, while eighty Athenians were sent to garrison the walls of Plataea.