Aezanis, Temple of Zeus, 117-138 AD 
History/Classics 310
Athenian Empire: 480-404 B.C.



 Book List 
 Reserve Readings
 Themistocles Decree
 Megarian Decree
 Athenian Treaties

 Early Sparta and Athens
 514-482 B.C. 
 Pentekontaeteia, 479-431 B.C.
  Peloponnesian War 

 Finances in Athens
 Greek Coinage and Measures



In either late 433 B.C. or in early 432 B.C. the Athenian assmbly passed the Megarian Decree, which excluded Megarian merchants from the markets of the Athenian Empire.  Thucydides mentions the decree twice as a major grievance by the Peloponnesians in the summer of 432 (see I . 67. 4 and I. 139-140 = Penguin trans. pp. 73 and 118-119), but he fails to record either the date of its passage or its purpose because he regarded it as pretext rather than a true cause of the war. Plutarch, however, reports the commonly held view that this decree, which was proposed by Pericles, started the war (Per. 29-31. 1; Penguin trans. pp. 195-97). 

See discussion in D. Kagan, Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, 1969), pp. 251-72 and R. Meiggs, Athenian Empire (Oxford, 1970), pp. 430-32 and contrast the unorthodox opinions held by G. E. M. de Ste Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, 1972), pp. 225-90. 

The other sources for the decree are as follows: 

1. Aristophanes, Acharnians (425 B.C.), ll. 515ff (Penguin trans., p. 72).  The hero Dikaiopolis explains the causes of the war: 

. . . Why should we blame it all on the Spartans?  It was Athenians, Athenians mind you, not Athens, remember that not the city, but a bunch of good-for-nothing individuals, not even real citizens but aliens who wormed their way in, bad stuff through and throught--it was they that started the whole thing!  They started bringing charges against the Megarians.  First it was their woollies and before long, whenever they saw anyone with a watermelon, or a young hare or a piglet, or some garlic and rock-salt. "Ah!" they said, "Megarian contraband," and had them confiscated and put under the hammer that very day.  Well, that was minor--just our national sport, as you might say; but then some young chaps got drunk and, for a lark, went to Megara and kidnapped their tart Simaetha.  Well, this raised the Megarians' hackles, and they stole two of Aspasia's girls in retaliation. And that, gentlemen, was the cause of the war that has been raging throughout Greece these six years:  it was all on account of three prostitutes.  Because Pericles, Olympian Pericles, sent out thunder and lightning and three all Greece into confusion. He began making laws written like drinking songs: 

"No Megarian shall stand on sea or on land 
And from all our markets they're utterly banned." 

Well pretty soon the Megarians were starving by slow degrees, and not unnaturally they asked their allies the Spartans to try and get the decree reversed, since aftaer all it had only been made, as I said, because of three prostitutes.  They asked us, more than once, but we refused, and so the shields began to clash. 

2. Aristophanes, Peace (421 B.C.), ll. 603ff. (Penguin trans. p. 118.  The god Hermes recalls the origins of the war. 

 Listen to me, my poor farming friends, and you will have what became of her [i.e. Peace].  It all started when Pheidias got into a spot of bother.  Because Pericles was afraid he'd share Pheidias' fate--he knew how you liked to get your teeth into people--and so before anything could happen to him, he threw a little firebrand into the City marked "Megarian Decree" and in a moment it was a ablaze, with him fanning the flames, and the smoke was in the eyes of every Greek, at home or abroad.  The vines tried hard to resist, but in the end one of them began crackling, the wine-jars started hitting and kicking one another in rage, and there was nobody could bring the blaze under control and Peace just vanished. 

3. Andocides, Or. III. 8 (in Minor Attic Orators, LCL vol. 1, p. 505) 

The we went to war again on account of Megara, and allowed Attica to be laid waste; but the many privations which we suffered led us to make a peace once more, this time through Nicias, the son of Niceratus. 

4. Diodorus Siculus XII. 39. 4 (LCL vol. 4, pp. 455-57). 

Now when the Athenians voted to exclude the Megarians from both their markets and harbors, the Megarians turned to the Spartans for aid.  And the Spartans, being won over by the Megarians, in the most open manner dispatched ambassadors in accordance with the decision of the Council of the [Peloponnesian] League, ordering the Athenians to rescind the action against the Megarians and threatening, if they did not accede, to wage war upon them together with the forces of their allies.  When the assembly convened to consider the matter, Pericles, who far excelled all his fellow citizens in skill of oratory, persuaded the Athenians not to rescind the action, saying that for them to accede the demands of the Spartans, contrary to their own interests, would be the first step toward slavery.  Accordingly he advised that they bring their possessions from the countryside into the city and fight it out with the Spartans by means of their command of the sea. 

Dr. Kenneth W. Harl 
Office: History 211 (504)862-8621 
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 Tulane University
Last updated 03/19/98
by Annette Lindblom