Athens and Sparta were both Greek cities and their people spoke a common language. In every other respect they were different. Athens rose high from the plain. It was a city exposed to the fresh breezes from the sea, willing to look at the world with the eyes of a happy child. Sparta, on the other hand, was built at the bottom of a deep valley, and used the surrounding mountains as a barrier against foreign thought. Athens was a city of busy trade. Sparta was an armed camp where people were soldiers for the sake of being soldiers. The people of Athens loved to sit in the sun and discuss poetry or listen to the wise words of a philosopher. The Spartans, on the other hand, never wrote a single line that was considered literature, but they knew how to fight, they liked to fight, and they sacrificed all human emotions to their ideal of military preparedness.
No wonder that these sombre Spartans viewed the success of Athens with malicious hate. The energy which the defence of the common home had developed in Athens was now used for purposes of a more peaceful nature. The Acropolis was rebuilt and was made into a marble shrine to the Goddess Athena. Pericles, the leader of the Athenian democracy, sent far and wide to find famous sculptors and painters and scientists to make the city more beautiful and the young Athenians more worthy of their home. At the same time he kept a watchful eye on Sparta and built high walls which connected Athens with the sea and made her the strongest fortress of that day.
An insignificant quarrel between two little Greek cities led to the final conflict. For thirty years the war between Athens and Sparta continued. It ended in a terrible disaster for Athens.
During the third year of the war the plague had entered the city. More than half of the people and Pericles, the great leader, had been killed. The plague was followed by a period of bad and untrustworthy leadership. A brilliant young fellow by the name of Alcibiades had gained the favor of the popular assembly. He suggested a raid upon the Spartan colony of Syracuse in Sicily. An expedition was equipped and everything was ready. But Alcibiades got mixed up in a street brawl and was forced to flee. The general who succeeded him was a bungler. First he lost his ships and then he lost his army, and the few surviving Athenians were thrown into the stone-quarries of Syracuse, where they died from hunger and thirst.
The expedition had killed all the young men of Athens. The city was doomed. After a long siege the town surrendered in April of the year 404. The high walls were demolished. The navy was taken away by the Spartans. Athens ceased to exist as the center of the great colonial empire which it had conquered during the days of its prosperity. But that wonderful desire to learn and to know and to investigate which had distinguished her free citizens during the days of greatness and prosperity did not perish with the walls and the ships. It continued to live. It became even more brilliant.
Athens no longer shaped the destinies of the land of Greece. But now, as the home of the first great university the city began to influence the minds of intelligent people far beyond the narrow frontiers of Hellas.