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Athenian strategy in the Peloponnesian War

Athens' fleet and fortifications made its urban center impregnable to direct attack. Already by the 450s the Athenians had encircled the city center with a massive stone wall and fortified a broad corridor with a wall on both sides1 leading all the way to the main harbor at Piraeus2 seven kilometers to the west. The technology of military siege machines in this period was unequal to the task of broaching such walls. Consequently, no matter what damage was done to the agricultural production of Attica in the course of the war, the Athenians could feed themselves by importing food by ship through their fortified port. They could pay for the food with the huge financial reserves they had accumulated from the dues of the Delian League and the income from their silver mines.3 The Athenians could also retreat safely behind their walls in the case of attacks by the superior Spartan infantry. From this impregnable position, they could launch surprise attacks against Spartan territory by sending their ships to land troops behind enemy lines. Like aircraft in modern warfare before the invention of radar warning systems, Athenian warships could swoop down unexpectedly on their enemies before they could prepare to defend themselves. This two-pronged strategy, which Pericles devised for Athens,4 was therefore simple: avoid set battles with the Spartan infantry even if it ravaged Athenian territory but attack Spartan territory from the sea. In the end, he predicted, the superior resources of Athens in money and men would enable it to win a war of attrition.

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