Historical events of the 428/7-348/7 period (or 431-338 BC)
Plato was born (according to the prevailing opinion) roughly three years after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, and died nine years before the Battle of Chaeronea. Within that century, Athens and Greece at large were shaken by huge battles and experienced critical political reversals.
By the time Plato was born, Athens had already reached its apogee. With its democratic regime firmly established and Pericles as the dominant figure in public affairs (he was elected general for several consecutive terms), Athens had imposed its hegemony over much of the Greek world and had undertaken a grand project of civic edification that produced works of unparalleled beauty. In 431, however, a ferocious confrontation with Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies erupted. That war, which came to be known as the Peloponnesian, went on, intermittently, for 27 years.
In the first ten years of that confrontation, dubbed the Archidamian War, the Peloponnesians, led by the Spartan king Archidamus, repeatedly raided and pillaged the land of Attica. Protected behind their Long Walls, the Athenians shied away from large infantry engagements, preferring to launch naval raids against Peloponnesian targets. As people were densely packed in the walled city, conditions were rife for the outbreak of an epidemic; the plague of 430 wiped out almost one third of the Athenian population. Pericles fell victim to the plague in 429. Plato was probably born in the following year.
In 425, the Athenians managed to capture 120 Spartan hoplites near Pylos, thus dealing a huge blow to the military prestige of their enemies. But the Spartans took the war to Thrace, threatening vital Athenian interests in the area. War-weary, both sides signed a peace treaty, the Peace of Nicias, named after the Athenian general who brokered it; it was to last for fifty years. Yet peace prevailed for only seven years.
In 416, and though the peace treaty was still in place, the Athenians subjugated the neutral island of Melos and sold its people into slavery, while one year later they launched a huge expedition against Sicily. They committed the mistake, however, of recalling their general Alcibiades, who had advocated the operation, leaving the unenthusiastic Nicias in charge. In the end, the Athenian expeditionary force, troops and fleet, was annihilated at Syracuse, where general Nicias was also killed. Sparta’s renewed involvement in 414 marked the resumption of the war in earnest.
Following Alcibiades’ advice, who had in the meantime defected to the enemy side, the Spartans established a permanent military presence in Decelea, forcing a state of perpetual siege on the Athenians. Thus, the final phase of the war was called Decelean. During the Decelean War, Sparta secured Persian money to fund its fleets. Faced with great difficulties, the Athenians repealed democracy in 411, surrendering power to the oligarchic faction. This temporary polity, which became known as the regime of the Four Hundred, was overturned with the intervention of the Athenian fleet. Alcibiades took an active part in this, and having offered to serve his homeland once more, was elected general. In 406 the Athenians were triumphant against the Spartans at the Battle of Arginusae, but they executed their victorious generals for having failed to collect their shipwrecked crews after the engagement.
In the same year as the Battle of Arginusae, the people of Syracuse elected Dionysius as strategos autokrator (=general with absolute powers) to deal with the threat of the Carthaginians. He established himself as a tyrant, however, and ruled over the great Sicilian city until his death in 367. (Plato visited Dionysius’ Syracuse at a mature age and became associated with the eminent politician Dion, but his attempt at a political intervention ended in tragedy.)
The Peloponnesian War swung decisively to the Spartan side following the destruction of the Athenian fleet in the Battle of Aegospotami. The victorious Spartans, led by their general Lysander, imposed humiliating terms on Athens. The Long Walls were demolished and Athens was forced into the Peloponnesian alliance. An oligarchic system replaced democracy once more, central to which was the institution of the thirty archons, who became known in history as the Thirty Tyrants. Among them was Critias, a student of Socrates and Plato’s uncle. One year later, however, their opponents succeeded in overthrowing the oligarchy and restored the democratic polity.
Plato was roughly 24 years old when Athens was defeated and her democracy was dissolved. It seems that he was initially intrigued by the prospect of participating in this regime reformation. He was repulsed by brutality of the oligarchs, however, and refrained from any political involvement. Socrates’ trial and execution in 399 compounded his disillusionment with the political affairs of his home city.
Xenophon, a coeval of Plato, also voiced his revulsion at the oligarchs. In 401 he participated in Cyrus’ attempt at a coup against his brother Artaxerxes II. Cyrus’ campaign, which became known as the Anabasis, ultimately failed, and Xenophon found himself serving under the Spartan king Agesilaus.
Following their victory in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans set their sights on Persia. Under the leadership of Agesilaus they campaigned in Asia Minor to liberate the Greek cities. Thus Persia turned to their enemies, offering financial support. With their aid, the Athenian general Conon, who lived in exile following the defeat at Aegospotami, vanquished the Spartans at the Battle of Cnidus. At the same time, military operations by Corinth, Athens, Thebes, and Argos forced Agesilaus to return to the Peloponnese, where he reasserted Sparta’s supremacy in the Battle of Coronea (394). Conon also returned, to Athens, where using Persian funds he rebuilt the Long Walls and built a new fleet. As Sparta’s hegemony was challenged, another eight years of fighting ensued. Plato’s Academy was probably founded during this period.
Sparta turned to Persia for help, once more. A peace treaty signed in 386, called the (Persian) King’s Peace, forced the Greek cities to recognize Persian dominion over Asia Minor and required the dissolution of all coalitions between them.
The first to challenge this new status quo were the Thebans, who expelled the Spartan garrison from their city with the aid of the Athenians. In 377, the Athenians succeeded in reestablishing their alliance on a new basis. This led to renewed conflict with Sparta, in both land and sea.
In 371, the Spartans led by their king Cleombrotus campaigned against Thebes as the city was resisting their bid to restore the peace and its Persian terms. They were vigorously opposed by the Theban generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas, and suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. Cleombrotus and his 300 Spartans were slain in the battlefield. In the following year, Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnese as the leader of a large coalition. His greatest achievement was the liberation of Messenia from the Lacedaemonians and the establishment of the city of Messene, which was inhabited by former helot slaves and was accepted as an equal by all the other Greeks. Soon after, Megalopolis was also established, in an effort to unite Arcadia against Sparta. Thus, a significant part of the Greek world came under Theban hegemony. In 367, representing Thebes Pelopidas travelled to Susa to vouch for the peace the Persian king wished for.
In 362, Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnese once more. He failed to enter the unfortified city of Sparta, but was victorious in the Battle of Mantinea defeating the allied forces of Sparta and Athens.
In the meantime, following the death of Dionysius in 367, his son, Dionysius the Younger, became tyrant of Syracuse. Plato was once again invited by Dion to offer his services, but this attempt proved equally unsuccessful as his first.
In 360, the Macedonian king Perdicas III was killed along with 4,000 of his troops in a battle against the Illyrians. His brother, Philip II, acceded to the throne. Within a few years, Macedon had become a major player in Greek affairs. They reorganized their army, and assimilated fundamental elements of high Greek culture. Having effectively dealt with the Illyrians, the Paeonians, and the Thracians, Phillip started asserting his rule over the whole of Thrace, threatening vital Athenian interests. His son Alexander was born in 356.
The Macedonian threat became even more acute for Athens when they captured Amphipolis and Olynthus in a time when the Athenian League was convulsed by defections. Emerging victorious from the so-called Third Sacred War, the Macedonians also secured a prominent role in the religious affairs of the old Greek world. They soon had control over the whole of Thessaly. By 351, Demosthenes had begun rousing the Athenians against them through his fiery Philippic orations.
Plato passed away in 347, just as the confrontation between Athens and Macedonia was entering its most decisive phase. Nine years later, in 338, the Macedonians crushed the combined forces of Thebes and Athens in the Battle of Chaeronea. In 337, Phillip II convened the Council of Corinth, where he was proclaimed hegemon (=leader) of the Greeks, and commenced preparations for a huge campaign against Persia. His generals, Parmenion and Attalus, started their military operations in Asia Minor in 336.
- Schuller, W. Ιστορία της αρχαίας Ελλάδας. Αθήνα, 1999.
- Bengtson, H. Ιστορία της αρχαίας Ελλάδος, από τις απαρχές μέχρι τη ρωμαϊκή αυτοκρατορία. Αθήνα, 1991.
- Gourbeillon, A.S., Mossé, C. Επίτομη ιστορία της αρχαίας Ελλάδας (2.000-31 π.Χ.). Αθήνα 1, 1996.