The political economy of the original “Thucydides’ Trap”: a conflict economics perspective on the Peloponnesian war

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The Peloponnesian War, 431-404, between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta was a long, destructive war ending with the total surrender of Athens. Scholars of Thucydides, the ancient historian of the conflict, have dwelt on two different explanations of the causes of the War. First, the “Thucydides’ Trap”, which argues that Sparta’s fear of the growing power of Athens rendered peace arrangements non-credible and made war inevitable. Second, the unwise leadership, which blames key political leaders for their erroneous judgments in the affairs of the state. Using the perspective of the economics of conflict the present study questions both views. It argues that the non-credibility of peace is at best an incomplete explanation of the conflict, and the unwise leadership hypothesis requires a systematic account of the factors affecting leaders to choose war. Noting that the clash between Sparta and Athens had started earlier, in 460, the study shows that its causes related to calculations of material and non-material benefits from victory, perceptions of the probability of military success, problems of domestic political accountability, and the valuation of the future. Importantly, it also shows that the role of these factors differed significantly at the different phases of the extended conflict.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPublic Choice
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 20 May 2024


  • Peloponnesian War; Athens; Sparta
  • Thucydides’ Trap;
  • conflict; split-the-surplus settlement;
  • honour; principal-agent; leadership;
  • non-credible commitment


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