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Corinthian War

Corinthian War (395-387 BC)

The Corinthian War (395-387 BC) saw the Spartans, with eventual Persian aid, defeat an alliance of Thebes, Corinth, Argos and Athens and apparently remain the dominant power on mainland Greece. However the early part of the war took place at the same time as a Persian-Spartan War (400- 387 BC) that saw Sparta lose her short-lived maritime empire, and it was quickly followed by an intervention at Thebes that ended in disaster.


In 404 BC Sparta finally won the Great Peloponnesian War (with Persian help). Athens was forced to dismantle her walls, lost her empire, was only allowed a tiny fleet and the democracy was dismantled. For a brief time Sparta became the dominant Greek naval power, although most of her ships came from allies.

Over the next few years the Spartans made poor use of their dominance. They became involved in a war with Elis that ended in 400 BC with a Spartan victory, but didn't make them many friends. In Athens a pro-democratic revolt soon broke out against the oligarchy. The Spartans intervened, but King Pausanias decided to allow the restoration of democracy.

Further afield the Spartans quarrelled with their Persian allies. They supported the revolt of Cyrus the Younger against his brother Artaxerxes, but this ended with the death of Cyrus at Cunaxa (401 BC). This left the Greek cities of Asia Minor exposed to Persian attack, and they called for aid from Sparta. The Spartans responded to that call, triggering a long war (Persian-Spartan War, 400-387 BC). The early campaigns of this war were conducted with little energy on the Spartan side, but it did trigger the construction of a new Persian fleet, with command of an Asian Greek contingent going to the Athenian leader Conon.

Sparta responded by sending Agesilaus II to Asia Minor with reinforcements. Corinth, Boeotia and Athens all refused to provide contributions to this army, and the Corinthians even disrupted its departure. Agesilaus arrived at Ephesus in the spring of 396 and began a more effect campaign. He won a battle at Sardis in 395, and was rewarded with command of a strong fleet, but soon after this he was withdrawn to fight in Greece.

The War

Causes of the War

In 404 BC a Spartan led alliance that included Thebes and Corinth had finally defeated Athens, ending the Great Peloponnesian War. Spartan arrogance in the aftermath of that victory helped to pave the way for the Corinthian War, in which her former allies sided against her. Corinth and Thebes had wanted to see the city of Athens totally destroyed after the war, but the Spartans had refused. Their allies had also been denied any of the spoils of the victory. In the years after the end of the war the Spartans had strengthened their position in Thessaly, an area that Thebes considered to be within her sphere of influence. As a result both Corinth and Thebes had refused to cooperate with Sparta, first when the Spartans intervened to help end a period of political chaos at Athens, then in a war against Elis and finally in the expeditions to Asia Minor. The Athenians had provided troops for the conflict with Elis, and for Thibron's expedition in Asia Minor, but in 396 they refused to provide troops for Agesilaus's expedition.

The Spartan-Persian War also saw Persian envoys visit Greece, carrying with them sizable bribes. Their first envoy had been captured by the Spartans, but a second, Timocrates of Rhodes, reached the mainland safely and visited Thebes, Corinth, Argos and possibly Athens. Timocrates won friends wherever he went, presumably aided by the absence of Agesilaus and his troops in Asia Minor.

According to our sources the Thebans provided the spark that actually started the conflict. Boeotia was bordered on the west by Phocis, the region that included Delphi, a sizable area that stretched north from the Gulf of Corinth almost all the way to the Gulf of Euboea. Phocis sat between the Eastern (or Opuntian) and Western (or Ozolian) Locrians. Eastern Locris was a narrow strip of land on the Gulf of Euboea, while Western Locris was a larger area, similar in shape to Phocis. The Phocians and Locrians were long-standing rivals, although most of the time their rivalry was limited to raiding.


In 395 the Theban leadership needed to find a way to force the rest of the Boeotian League into a war with Sparta. Boeotia was allied with Locris, and they decided to provoke a conflict between Locris and Phocis. The Theban leaders convinced the Locrians to levy a tax in a disputed area. The Phocians responded with an invasion of Western Locris. The Locrians called for help from the Boeotian League, which responded by preparing to invade Phocis.

The Phocians responded by sending envoys to Sparta to plead for help. In Sparta they easily won over Lysander, the great leader of the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, who had just returned from a fairly unsuccessful intervention in Asia Minor, and probably also got the support of King Pausanias. The Spartans ordered the Boeotians not to intervene, but unsurprisingly the Boeotians ignored this demand. The Spartans mobilised their forces and prepared for a two-pronged invasion of Boeotia.

The Spartans decided to invade Boeotia from east and west. Lysander was given command of the western invasion, which was to be launched from Phocis, using Phocian and Spartan allied troops. The main Spartan army and their Peloponnesian allies were to concentrate at Tegea under the command of King Pausanias, advance through Corinthian territory and invade from the east. The two forces were meant to meet up at Haliartus, west of Thebes, close to the southern shores of Lake Copais.

Lysander moved quickest. He successfully detached Orchomenus, on the western shores of Lake Copais, from the Boeotian League, and then advanced around the lake towards Haliartus. He arrived outside the city a few days ahead of Pausanias, but after the Thebans had thrown a garrison into the city.

The Thebans had also convinced the Athenians to agree to an alliance, a remarkable resurgence for a city that had suffered a crushing defeat in the previous decade. The Athenians moved quickly, and they were able to take over the defence of Thebes, allowing the Theban army to move to Haliartus. In a battle outside the walls Lysander was killed and his army forced to retreat (battle of Haliartus, 395 BC). Pausanias arrived within a day or two, but chose not to risk a battle against the combined Theban and Athenian armies close to the walls of a hostile city. Instead he arranged for a truce, recovered the bodies of the Spartan dead, and then retreated west into Phocis. Lysander was buried just across the border. The Spartans left a garrison on Orchomenus and then returned home.

In the aftermath of this defeat Pausanias was put on trial, charged with moving too slowly, failing to fight to recover Lysander's body and his earlier decision to allow Athens to restore her democracy. He was condemned in his absence, and spent the rest of his life in exile. His was succeeded by his underage son Agesipolis, so for a short period Sparta was without a senior leader in Greece.


The next recorded campaign took place in the north, in southern Thessaly, around the Gulf of Malis. Medius, ruler of Larissa in Thessaly asked for help in his war against Lycophron, tyrant of Pherae. The allies sent 2,000 men, mainly from Boeotia and Argos, under the command of Ismenias of Thebes. Together with Medius they captured Pharsalus. The Boeotians and Argives then moved south and took Heracleia in Trachis, where the Spartans had a garrison. In an attempt to divide the Peloponnesians any captured Spartans were executed while other Peloponnesians were allowed to go home. The Argives were left as a garrison and Ismenias advanced into friendly territory in Locris. On the way he convinced the Aenianians (at the western end of the Gulf of Malis) and the Athamanians (from western Thessaly) to join with him, giving him around 6,000 men. The Phocians sent an army to face him, but this was defeated in a costly battle at Naryx (394 BC). The Boeotians and their allies lost 500 men, the Phocians 1,000. Both armies were then disbanded, and the various contingents returned home.

Attention now turned to the Corinthian front, with the returning Agesilaus II a looming presence. The anti-Spartan allies met at Corinth and decided to invade Laconia, but they then wasted time deciding who would command the army (eventually deciding to rotate command between the four main powers) and how deep their battle line would be. In the meantime Aristodemus, the guardian of Agesipolis, raised a fresh army and led it north to Sicyon, two miles from the Corinthian gulf and twelve miles west of Corinth.

The two armies clashed on the coastal plain between Corinth and Sicyon (battle of Nemea). According to Xenophon the Spartans were outnumbered (although his figures miss out a Achaean contingent that he then mentions in the battle). Along most of the line the allies defeated Sparta's own allies, and pushed them off the battlefield. However both lines had drifted to the right, and so the Athenians, on the allied left, were badly outflanked by the Spartans. The Spartans crushed the Athenians, and then advanced along the battle line, defeating the Argives, Corinthians and Thebans in turn. The survivors escaped back to Corinth, where at first they were denied access to the city. The battle of Nemea was a clear Spartan victory, but it didn't open the road to Attica or Boeotia. With Corinth still held against them by a powerful army, the Spartans decided to wait for Agesilaus to return from Asia.

The summons home had come as a bitter blow to Agesilaus, who was in the middle of planning a major campaign in the east. He obeyed his orders, and decided to return at the head of a powerful army. The Greeks of Asia Minor were happy to move west, but his own Spartan troops weren't so keep on fighting other Greeks and had to be enticed back with the promises of prizes for the best contingent. He probably had around 15,000 men, but his choice of the land route meant that he would need them. He left Asia Minor in mid-summer, leaving his son in law Peisander in command of the war against Persia.

Agesilaus had to fight off attacks as he marched west across Thrace. He learnt of the Spartan victory at Nemea while at Amphipolis in Thrace, and ordered the messenger to spread the news amongst Sparta's allies. He was able to bluff his way through Macedon, but once again came under attack on his way through Thessaly. He won a significant cavalry victory over the Thessalians on the way south, and soon afterwards crossed into pro-Spartan territory.

We now reach one of the few secure dates in this war. On 14 August 394 BC a partial eclipse of the sun took place. On that day Agesilaus had just entered Boeotia from the north-west, when news reached him of the disastrous Spartan naval defeat at Cnidas. The Spartan fleet had been destroyed and Peisander had been killed. In order to maintain the morale of his men, many of whom came from cities that were now exposed to Persian attack, he announced that the battle had actually been a victory, although he did acknowledge the death of Peisander.

The allies responded to the new threat by dispatching an army north from Corinth. According to Xenophon this included contingents from Boeotia, Athens, Argos, Corinth, Aeniania, Euboea and Locris. Given that Corinth still had to be defended, the Athenian, Corinthian and Argive contingents were probably not large.

Agesilaus also had a composite force. He had been sent one Spartan 'mora' from the Corinthian front, and half a 'mora' from Orchomenus. He already had a force of enfranchised helots who had been fighting with him in Asia Minor, along with the troops from Asia Minor and reinforcements raised in Orchomenus and Phocis. He had a numerical advantage in light infantry, and matched his opponents in cavalry.

The resulting battle of Coronea (394 BC) was described in more detail than normal by Xenophon. At the start the Spartans were successful on their right, where the Argives fled without a fight. The Spartans allies in the centre were also successful, although after some fighting. On the left the troops from Orchomenus were defeated, and the Thebans advanced into the Spartan camp. Agesilaus turned his main force around, and the hardest fighting took place as the Thebans attempted to rejoin their defeated allies. Eventually some broke through, but it was clear that the battle was a Spartan victory. Even so the allied army was still largely intact.

Agesilaus decided not to try and push his way past them, and instead retreated west into Phocis. A Spartan raid into Locris ended in disaster when the polemarch Gylis and eighteen Spartans were killed, and after that Agesilaus disbanded his army and returned to Sparta.

The next few years were dominated by a stalemate around Corinth, which lasted into 390. The Spartans raided east from Sicyon into Corinthian territory, and the allies responded to the raids. The Spartans were unable to carry out a siege of Corinth while the allied army remained intact.


In 393 the Peloponnese came under direct attack when the Persian fleet under Conon and Pharnabazus crossed the Aegean and began to raid the coastline. They attacked Pherae in Messenia, in the south-west of the Peloponnese, attacked a number of other areas, and then captured the island of Cythera, off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, to use as a base. Next Pharnabazus travelled to Corinth to meet with the allies and offer them money. Conon was then sent to Athens to help restore the long walls and the fortifications of Piraeus. Conon provided money, and the crews from his ships carried out much of the work.

The Corinthians used their share of the money to build a fleet, which under the command of Agathinus gained control of much of the Corinthian Gulf. This was a short-lived success. The first Spartan commander, Podanemus, was killed in a minor attack. His second in command, Pollis, was forced to retire wounded. He was replaced by Herippidas, who had more success. During his time in command a new Corinthian admiral, Proaenus, evacuated Rhium (on the northern shore of the gulf), which was reoccupied by the Spartans. Herippidas was later replaced by Agesilaus's half-brother Teleutias, who regained control of the Gulf of Corinth.


In 392 Corinth was weakened by civil strife. A peace or pro-Spartan party began to form, and the war party decided to strike first. Many of the pro-Spartan leaders were massacred on the last day of a religious festival. Some of the others fled into exile, while a few remained within the city. At about this time Corinth and Argos merged into a single legal community - a novel legal idea, and one that angered the exiles even more. Two of the leaders who had remained within Corinth offered to let the Spartans into the Long Walls. Praxitas, the Spartan polemarch at Sicyon, decided to take them up on their offer. He was let into the gap between the walls, where he fought off an allied counterattack and captured Leuchaeum, the northern port of Corinth, connected to the city by the Long Walls. He then went on to capture positions on the opposite side of the Isthmus of Corinth, opening the road to Attica and Boeotia.

During 392 the Spartans made a first attempt to end the war with Persia. Antalcidas was sent to Sardis to negotiate with the satrap Tiribazus. The Spartans argued that Conon and his fleet actually posed a greater danger to Persia than the Spartans did. The allies responded by sending envoys from Athens, Boeotia, Corinth and Argos, who countered the Spartan arguments.

Antalcidas's proposal was that Sparta would abandon her support for the Greek cities of Asia. In return the cities and islands would be declared autonomous. Tiribazus was won over, but the other Greek powers opposed these proposals. The Athens were said to have feared that they would lose control of Lemnos, Imbros and Scyros, key points on the shipping route to the Black Sea, Thebes that she would lose the Boeotian League and Argos that she would lose her merger with Corinth. Without orders from Artaxerxes, Tiribazus was unable to accept these peace terms, although he did arrest Conon and provide financial support for the Spartans.

Winter 392/1

Peace negotiations continued at Sparta during the winter of 392/1. The Spartans had some success. The Athenian delegation, led by Andocides, accepted the Spartan offer to acknowledge their rule of Lemnos, Imbros and Scyros, but not any further expansion. Thebes would be allowed to keep all of the Boeotian League apart from Orchomenus. Argos remained hostile as the Spartans refused to accept her merger with Corinth. In any event the Athenians turned down the peace terms, and the war continued.

Soon after the failure of the peace talks the allies recaptured Lechaeum and the Long Wall, but they would prove unable to hold them for long.


In the spring of 391 Agesilaus led the first Spartan invasion of Argive territory of the war. This may have been a diversionary tactic to pull allied troops from Corinth, for Agesilaus then turned back and recaptured the Long Walls while his brother Teleutias captured Lechaeum from the sea.

In the east Sparta suffered a setback in her war with Persia. The pro-Spartan satrap Tiribazus had attempted to argue his case in front of Artaxerxes at Susa, but lost his case and was replaced as satrap of Sardis by Struthas, who was more pro-Athenian. The previously disgraced leader Thibron was sent back to Asia Minor to take command of a new campaign, but he was defeated and killed in an ambush.

In the autumn of 391 Ecdicus, the Spartan navarch for 391/390, was sent east with eight ships to support a group of oligarchic exiles from Rhodes, who had been ousted by a pro-Athenian democracy. Ecdicus had some success, convincing Samos to change sides, but he discovered that Rhodes was firmly held by the democrats and he was outnumbered by two-to-one. He decided to spend the winter of 391-390 at Cnidus.


In the spring of 390 Ecdicus was replaced by Teleutias, the Spartan naval commander at Lechaeum. Teleutias took his own twelve ships with him, and gained another 14 on the way. He then captured ten Athenian ships that were on their way to support Evagoras of Salamis of Cyprus, who was involved in a revolt against Artaxerxes. This was a dangerous move for the Athenians, who began to alienate Artaxerxes.

Also in the spring of 390 Agesilaus invaded Corinthian territory once again. He captured the Piraeum peninsula, where the Corinthians had their main herds of cattle. He may then have moved back towards Corinth in an attempt to support a coup by the exiles based at Lechaeum, but if so this was crushed by Iphicrates before the Spartans could arrive. Agesilaus did capture the site of the biannual festival of Poseidon at Isthmia, and the exiles conducted the festival. After the Spartans withdrew the Argives reoccupied the site and held a second festival. The Spartan successes encouraged the Boeotians to begin fresh peace talks, but the situation was changed by a dramatic and unexpected Spartan defeat.

Spartan warfare was often disrupted by religious ceremonies and festivals. On this occasion it was the biannual Hyacinthia, celebrated by the people of Amycles. Agesilaus allowed all of the Amyclaeans in the army to gather at Lechaeum at the start of their journey home. They were escorted out of Corinthian territory by the Spartan mora and cavalry based by Lechaeum. Their commander then led his 600 hoplites back towards Lechaeum without any cavalry escort. The Athenian commanders Iphicrates and Callias decided to attack, and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spartans. Agesilaus was forced to temporarily abandon his campaign, and the peace talks ended.

Later in the year the Athenians sent out a fleet of forty warships, commanded by Thrasybulus, to counter the temporary increase in Spartan sea power. His original orders were to help the democrats of Rhodes, but he soon decided that they didn't need his help, and so instead he moved north to the Hellespont. He was able to form an alliance with the Thracian kings Amadocus and Seuthes and won control of Byzantium, Chalcedon and part of the Hellespont region. He was able to re-impose a 10% tax on all ships coming from the Black Sea, an important source of income for Imperial Athens.

In about 390 BC Athen's old enemy of Aegina joined the fray. The Spartan harmost on the island, Eteonicus, began to raid the Attic coast. The Athenians built a fort on the island, and resisted a first Spartan attempt to capture it.


In 389 Agesilaus was distracted by a campaign in Acarnania, to the north-west of the Gulf of Corinth. Sparta's Achaean allies had taken control of Calydon, a city in south-west Aetolia, and had enrolled the Calydonians as citizens. The city was now being threatened by the Acarnanians, with the support of Athens and Boeotia. The Achaeans demanded help from Sparta, and hinted that they would have to end their alliance if they didn't get it. The Spartans bowed to this pressure and sent Agesilaus, with two mora and an allied force, supported by an Achaean army. This army crossed the gulf and reached the Acarnanian border. Agesilaus sent a message to the Acarnanian assembly, demanding that they swapped sides. When this was turned down he invaded, and ravaged the area. The Acarnanians moved their cattle into a remote mountain area, but Agesilaus caught them out with a sudden eighteen mile march and captured most of the animals. This success was short-lived - on the following day a force of light infantry took up a position on high ground above the Spartans and forced them to retreat. The Acarnanians almost trapped the Spartans in the mountains, but Agesilaus managed to force his way out. He continued his raid into the autumn, but despite several attempts was unable to capture any cities. He left just before it was time to sow the next year's crops, arguing that the Acarnanians would be more likely to accept peace terms in the next year if they had a crop to protect. He then marched east through Aetolia and crossed the Corinthian Gulf from Rhium.

In the spring of 389 Thrasybulus took his fleet south from the Hellespont. He found some support for Sparta along the coast, and despite losing 23 ships in a storm managed to capture Eresus and Antissa. He was then forced to head towards Rhodes, where the democrats had suffered a defeat, but he was killed at Aspendus while his troops were plundering the area. The rest of his fleet safely reached Rhodes.

In the Hellespont region Athens sent a force under Agyrrhius, while Sparta sent Anaxibius to try and restore their position. The Spartans had the best of the early fighting, but began to suffer after Iphicrates was sent to take control on the Athenian side. Probably in the following year Iphicrates ambushed and killed Anaxibius.

In the summer of 389 the Spartan commander Gorgopas was posted at Aegina with a fleet of twelve ships. This forced the Athenians to evacuate their fort, and they then based a squadron of warships commanded by Eunomus at nearby Cape Zoster to watch the Spartans.


In the spring of 388 Agesilaus announced that he was about to return to Acarnania, and as he had predicted they sued for peace. The Acarnanians formed an alliance with Sparta and made peace with the Achaeans, leaving the Spartans free to campaign elsewhere.

The Argives had avoided invasions in 390 and 389 by moving the sacred month of the Carnea to match the Spartan preparations. After accepting this for two years, King Agesipolis visited the oracles and Olympia and Delphi to get permission to ignore this trick. The oracles agreed, and the king led an invasion of Argive territory. On the first day there was an earthquake, which many would have taken as a bad omen, but Agesipolis publically interpreted it as a sign of divine support. The raid continued on until a thunderbolt hit the camp, killing several men. By this point the Spartans had done a great deal of damage and were happy to withdraw.

Further afield the Persians began to turn against the Athenians. As well as supporting Evagoras, the Athenians also allied with an Egyptian rebel. This helped convince Artaxerxes that the Athenians were indeed his main enemy, and Tiribazus was restored as satrap at Sardis. The pro-Athenian satrap Pharnabazus was also recalled, and replaced by Ariobarzanes, a friend of the Spartan diplomat Antalcidas. This encouraged the Spartans to appoint Antalcidas as navarch, and he set off for Susa in the company of Tiribazus.

The Spartans won a minor naval victory during 388. The Athenian squadron of warships at Cape Zoster opposite Aegina attempted to intercept the fleet that had transported Antalcides to his new post. After a day-long chase the Athenians gave up and returned to their base. Gorgopas, the new harmost of Aegina, followed the retreating Athenians under the cover of darkness and ended up taking four of their twelve triremes. The rest escaped back to the Piraeus.


In 387 the Athenians decided to send Chabrias, their commander at Corinth, to help Evagoras on Cyprus. He picked up reinforcements at Athens, and decided to attack Aegina. He landed his light troops at night and placed them in ambush. He then landed his hoplites in daylight and waited for Gorgopas. The Spartan commander attacked, and fell into the trap. Gorgopas and around 350 of his men were killed. The Spartans sent Teleutias to rally the survivors. He began with a daring raid on the Piraeus, in which he captured several ships. The profit from this raid paid his troops for a month.

Antalcides's visit to Artaxerxes at Susa had produced results. Artaxerxes had agreed to support the Spartan peace terms, and to enter the war on Sparta's side if the allies didn't accept them. Antalcides then conducted a skilful naval campaign and ended up with a fleet of 80 ships, with which he was able to block the grain route from the Black Sea.

In the autumn of 387 Tiribazus summoned all of the Greek powers to come to Sardis to hear the new peace terms, and every major Greek power responded by sending envoys.


There were two terms at the heart of the new peace deal. First, the cities of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Clazomenae (built on an island very close to the coast) would be ruled by Persia. Second, every other Greek city would be autonomous, but Athens would keep Lemnos, Imbros and Scyros. The Peloponnessian League was also allowed to survive, but Thebes had to dissolve the Boeotian League and the merger between Corinth and Argos ended. This 'King's Peace' or Peace of Antalcidas effectively acknowledged that the Persians were the arbiters of Greek politics, and gave them relatively uncontested control over the Greeks of Asia Minor (the issue that had first triggered the Greek-Persian Wars over a century earlier). It also gave Sparta a position of enhanced power, and responsibility for implementing the peace (in fact, if not in the treaty itself).

This apparent increase in Spartan power wouldn't last for long. In 382 a passing Spartan army took control of Thebes. Three years later the Thebans revolted, triggering the Theban-Spartan War (379-371 BC). Just as this war appeared to be coming to an end, the Spartans suffered the crushing defeat at Leuctra (371 BC) that ended their long series of victories in major hoplite battles and exposed the Peloponnese to the invasions that crushed Spartan power.


[1] "History of War"

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