King’s Peace Ends Corinthian War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although dictated by Persia, the King’s Peace, also known as the Peace of Antalcidas, which ended the Corinthian War, had autonomy as its governing principle and served as the beginning of later Hellenic peace movements.

Summary of Event

About a decade after the end of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), the cities of Thebes and Corinth, former allies of Sparta in that conflict, had become alienated by Sparta’s tyrannical interference in Greek affairs. The two cities took advantage of Sparta’s involvement in a war with Persia to challenge Spartan supremacy. They declared war on Sparta and were followed in this act by Argos (a perennial enemy of Sparta), Athens, and a few lesser states. At this juncture, the Persians offered the Greeks money and aid to wage war against Sparta in order to remove the Spartan king Agesilaus II and his troops from Asia. Agesilaus II of Sparta Antalcidas Artaxerxes II Epaminondas

The ensuing war, the Corinthian War (395-386 b.c.e.), pitted Sparta against a Hellenic coalition well funded by Persia. The Spartan admiral Lysander died at the outset of the war, which led to the recall of Agesilaus from Asia. Although the Spartans made small gains, these were offset by the decisive victory by the Athenian admiral Conon and the Persian fleet over Sparta at Cnidus (394) in southwest Asia Minor. Conon returned to Athens and played a large part in rebuilding the Long Walls destroyed there following the Peloponnesian War, assisted by Persian men and money. Athens also recovered the islands of Lemnos (now Límnos), Scyros (now Skíros), and Imbros (now Gökçeada).

Agesilaus II of Sparta.

(Library of Congress)

As the war dragged on, casualties mounted on both sides. In the largest hoplite battle the Greeks had ever fought, the Battle of Nemea (394 b.c.e.) in the northeast Peloponnesus, more than four thousand men were killed fighting. The Spartans tried to ally with the Persians and even convinced their satrap Tiribazus that it was them, and not the Athenians, who were the Persians’ better allies. However, the peace negotiations initiated in 392 ultimately failed, and fighting resumed.

Recent trends in warfare greatly aided the coalition forces. The years following the Peloponnesian War witnessed a rapid development of lightly armed infantry forces, including archers, slingers, and javelin throwers, particularly peltasts named after the small round wicker shield they carried (the Theban peltē). These forces could also play pivotal roles in hoplite confrontations, as they could easily harass the heavily armed hoplites from a distance. Perhaps because of their history of success at hoplite warfare, the Spartans never really learned to make use of light-armed troops. A master of this new type of warfare was the Athenian general Iphicrates. With a force of light infantry, he attacked a division of Spartan hoplites at the Corinthian port of Lechaeum in 390 b.c.e. and annihilated it. This achievement stunned the Greek world and made the reputation of Iphicrates, who became one of Athens’ best known generals.

As the tide of war turned against Sparta, its agent in Persia, Antalcidas, urged negotiations for peace. Artaxerxes II had recently become disenchanted with Athens and its involvement in the political affairs of Egypt and Cyprus, both of which were traditionally Persian areas of influence. Antalcidas therefore won the support of Artaxerxes, who determined the provisions of the peace agreement known as the King’s Peace or the Peace of Antalcidas. At the summons of Tiribazus, deputies from the Greek states met at the city of Sardis in Asia Minor to hear the terms of the peace. At this conference at Sardis, Tiribazus read the edict of the king. According to the historians Xenophon and Diodorus of Sicily, Artaxerxes claimed possession of all the cities of Asia Minor and the islands of Cyprus and Clazomenae (now Klazümen); recognized Athenian rights over Lemnos, Imbros, and Scyros; declared that all other Greek cities were autonomous; and asserted that he was prepared to enforce these terms by force if necessary.

The ambassadors thereafter returned to their cities to report the terms of the peace. They met at Sparta to declare their acceptance, but negotiations nearly broke down over the difficult issue of Boeotian representation. The delegates from the chief city in Boeotia, Thebes, wanted to ratify the treaty on behalf of all Boeotia as a confederation. King Agesilaus demanded that they swear to leave all the Boeotian cities autonomous, according to the provisions of the peace. When he met resistance, he began mobilizing forces to invade Boeotia. In the face of a Spartan attack, the Thebans reluctantly agreed to Agesilaus’s terms.

The end result of the King’s Peace is that Sparta had essentially transformed itself into an instrument of Persia in order to maintain its dominant position in Greece. It was a humiliating situation for the Greeks, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor were subsequently returned to Persian rule.


The King’s Peace was the first of several fourth century b.c.e. attempts to establish a common peace applicable to all Greek states and whose primary principle was that of autonomy. However, as Persia had drafted the particular provisions of this agreement, it intended the peace to demonstrate the influence that it had in Hellenic affairs.

Sparta rapidly assumed the role of Persia’s ally and the guarantor of this peace, although Sparta’s disregard for the autonomy of the other Greek states had instigated the Corinthian War in the first place. Under the pretense of enforcing the provisions of the peace, Sparta immediately thereafter started using force or the threat of force to dismantle a variety of existing arrangements in Greece. In 384 b.c.e., Sparta commanded the city of Mantinea to dismantle its walls and dissolve into five villages. It later dissolved the brief experiment in political union between Corinth and Argos.

During the 380’s b.c.e., the Thebans were divided between a pro-Spartan faction led by Leontiades and a pro-Athenian group led by Ismenias. In 382, Leontiades persuaded the Spartan commander Phoebidas to occupy the Theban acropolis and install a pro-Spartan government. Ismenias was then accused of conspiring with Persia and accepting Persian money and was executed.

Seven of Ismenias’s followers who had sought refuge in Athens secretly returned to their native Thebes. In 379 b.c.e., they overthrew the pro-Spartan government, killed Leontiades, and, with Athenian aid, expelled the Spartan garrison. In the following year, the Spartan officer Sphodrias attempted to seize Athens’ port of Piraeus.

Because of Spartan aggression under the guise of enforcing its terms, the King’s Peace ultimately failed. The Spartan attempt to take Piraeus caused Athens to seek an alliance with Thebes. Athens also proceeded to create a new naval league, called by historians the Second Athenian Confederation, as a revived form of the fifth century b.c.e. Delian League. Unlike its predecessor, however, this league would not become a vehicle for Athenian imperialism as its government was bicameral, consisting of both the Athenian assembly and an assembly of allies, and all proposals required the approval of both bodies.

Soon thereafter the league won a naval victory over the Spartans at Naxos. Because of this defeat and its concern over Jason of Pherae’s attempts to unite Thessaly, Sparta therefore agreed, along with Athens and Thebes, to a new common peace in 375 b.c.e. that acknowledged the existence of the Athenian league. However, fighting soon broke out, and another attempt at a common peace was made in 371. This peace initiative, however, was thwarted by Thebes. Its general Epaminondas had spent much of the 370’s trying to reconstitute the Boeotian Confederation, and as in 377, Thebes once again tried to claim to speak for all of Boeotia. When Agesilaus refused, Epaminondas walked out of the peace congress. Sparta subsequently prepared for war.

As the Spartans attempted to invade Boeotia, the Thebans met them at Leuctra (371 b.c.e.). Using innovative military techniques, such as a slanting attack by the left wing, Epaminondas shattered both the Spartan hoplite force and the myth of Spartan invincibility. He subsequently raided deep into Spartan territory, liberating Messenia and freeing the helots. He again defeated the Spartans at Mantinea (362) but died of his wounds soon afterward. Nevertheless, the failure of the third common peace and the subsequent humiliation at Leuctra led to the end of Sparta’s status as an international power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cartledge, Paul. Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta. London: Duckworth, 1987. A detailed study of the life of the Spartan king. Bibliography and indices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. An interesting and scholarly reassessment of Spartan society and politics. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Charles D. Agesilaus and the Failure of Spartan Hegemony. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. An in-depth analysis of Sparta’s foreign policy in the fourth century b.c.e. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Charles D. Sparta’s Bitter Victories: Politics and Diplomacy in the Corinthian War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. A very useful study of the Corinthian War and the King’s Peace. Bibliography and index.
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