W HILE Pericles was at the head of the government a great war broke out between Athens and Sparta. The Spartans had been jealous of the Athenians ever since the command of the fleet had been taken from them and given to Athens. While Aristides was alive, the Athenians had ruled so justly that the other cities would not help the Spartans against Athens; and as the Spartans did not wish to go to war alone, they had to wait for a better chance.
After Artistides died the chance came, for the Athenians then ceased to rule justly. Many cities besides Sparta began to dislike Athens, because, as they said, the Athenians got money from them to keep up the fleet against the Persians, and then used the money to build fine buildings at Athens. So when Sparta made war on Athens, a great many cities sided with her; and, as many cities still sided with Athens, this became the greatest war that had ever been fought in Greece.
For many years the war dragged on. Children who were born after it had begun were grown men before it came to an end. On the sea the Athenians were victorious everywhere; for they had a strong fleet, and were much better sailors than the Spartans. But on the land the Spartans were the best soldiers; so the Athenians had to shut themselves up in their city, while all the grain in their fields was trampled down and their country houses were burned by the Spartans.
Soon after the war began, Pericles died. Then the government at Athens fell into the hands of men who were not so able as he had been. One of these was Alcibiades, who was a rich young man, belonging to one of the noblest families in Athens. He was almost as quick witted as Themistocles had been; and he might have done as much good to Athens as Themistocles did, if he had wished. But Alcibiades cared only for himself. He was very vain, and loved to strut about in fine purple robes such as only the women wore. He was like a great spoiled child; but the people loved him because he was so handsome and so bright, and because he spent his money so freely.
After Pericles had been dead some time, both sides grew tired of the war, and a peace was made that was to last for fifty years. It really lasted only six years, and it was all owing to Alcibiades that the war began again.
Many miles west of Athens there was a rich city named Syracuse. This city had taken no part in the war, but Alcibiades thought that it would be a good thing for Athens to conquer it. So he proposed to the people that they send an army to attack Syracuse; and he was such a favorite with them, that the people agreed to do so, and to make him general of the army.
Just before the army sailed away, the people awoke one morning, and found that the images of the god Hermes, which stood before their doors, had been broken in the night This made them very angry. People said that there was only one person that could have committed such a mad prank, and that person was Alcibiades. Alcibiades denied that he had done it; and, indeed, we do not know to this day whether he did it or not. He was allowed to sail away with the army; but his enemies soon persuaded the people to send after him, and order him to return to be tried for the deed.
It was now that Alcibiades showed how selfish he was. He felt abused at what the people had done, so instead of returning to Athens he went to Sparta. There he got the Spartans to begin the war again, and he showed them how they could do most harm to his city. After this the Athenians fared very badly indeed. The army which they had sent to Syracuse was destroyed, and all their ships were lost, and the Spartans became victorious on the sea as well as on the land.
But Alcibiades soon grew tired of the solemn life which he had to live among the Spartans. He felt, too, that the Spartans despised him because he was a traitor. So after a while he sent to the Athenians, and offered to return and help his countrymen against the Spartans. His friends got the people to agree to this; and Alcibiades turned traitor a second time, and joined the Athenians. For a while he was victorious over the Spartans, and it seemed as if Athens would win after all. Then he grew careless, and he lost several battles. At this the Athenians took the command away from him, and gave it to another. A second time Alcibiades left the Athenians; but this time he did not dare go to the Spartans, for fear they would punish him for his treason to them. So for several years he was forced to keep away from the Greeks altogether.
Meanwhile, the long war came to an end. The Spartans conquered Athens, and tore down its walls, so that it would not be powerful any more. Then they turned their attention to Alcibiades, and he was forced to take shelter with the Persians. But even there he could find no rest, and at last he was murdered by some of his enemies. But whether it was by the Spartans, or by some private person whom he had injured, we cannot tell.