In the late 6th century there had been a conflict between Sparta and Athens. The Spartans had not been democratic supporters of the democratic reformer Clystades in Athens, and they had attempted to intervene in Athenian affairs to support the rival aristocratic party in Athens against Clystades. The Athenians got bitter about this intervention and sent representatives to the Persian emperor urging the formation of an alliance between Athens and Persia to protect against any further Spartan invasions into Athens.
The Persian emperor King Darius I exposed that the only way it is going to enter in an alliance was if the Athenians gave him the tokens of “earth” and “water”. This meant that the Athenians would be indicating that the Persian emperor is fully sovereign over all the earth and the sea. Now, the Athenians didn’t know what that meant so they just went ahead and gave him a bit of earth and water. After the Athenian representatives realized what they had done they were mortified, but nevertheless, they didn’t want to return empty handed to Athens. As soon as the Athenians found out about this they became horrified to know their representatives had put them into a relationship of inferiority, but they never officially canceled the agreement with the Persians.
In 499 B.C. the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), rose up against the Persians, and ask Sparta and Athens for help. Sparta eventually said no, and Athens sent them 20 naval ships to support the Ionian uprising. However, the Persians are victorious. After this, King Darius I seeks revenge on the Greeks, especially on the Athenians, for not being subject to him and making a violation. So the Persians keep demanding “earth” and “water” from the Greeks, but the Spartans instead threw two Persian representatives into a well where they died.
It was until 490 B.C. that the Persians rose against the Greeks, in which the Athenians rushed to Sparta for help, but they claimed to be in a religious ritual and therefore could not give assistance. This means that the Athenians were practically on their own, but were able to be completely victorious (this was the Battle of Marathon).
Ten years later the son of Darius, Xerxes sends a quarter million men and over 500 ships to Greece, in search of revenge. Many Greek City-States united to repel against the invasion, but it got to the point that they were told to take cover, and protect their families however they could. By the time the Persians arrived to Athens it was empty and they burned all of it to the ground. However, under influence of Themistocles, the Athenians had built a substantial navy in which they were able to be triumphant.
After the Persian wars, Sparta made allies with other city-states in which together they were called the Peloponnesian league. Also, Athens had its own league, with its own allies called the Delian league. The Delian league was made for the only purpose to push back any further attacks by the Persian Empire. At this moment Athens and Sparta are the two most powerful and influential of the Greek city-states.
In the Delian league, each city-state had to supply either ships to the common cause of assembling a common naval force or contribute money which could be turned into ships. As the time went on, most of the city-states decided to contribute money instead of supplying ships. This was because Athens had ship yards for the purpose of building ships, and it also had the best craftsman building them. Over time, their league turned into trying to thwart the Persians in various places when that was possible. However, with the passage of time, some Greeks began to wonder two things. The first one was; how much of a threat does the Persian Empire really have against us after all these years? Number two was; what is Athens doing with all the money we are paying them? It is supposed to go into creating a common naval force for the defense of the Greek cities, but very suspiciously, right around this time, Athens is undergoing a project where the Athenian leader Perycles is making a tremendous amount of public works, and artistic renderings. Where did he get the money for that? Because of these two questions, some cities began to declare that they didn’t want to be part of the Delian league anymore, and would cease making the annual tribute payment. However, Athens forced them back in. As a matter of fact, this breaks out into a war. Athens began treating several cities in a bad way, including some of the allies of Sparta. This led into some questioning; one thing would be for Athens to kick around its allies, but it can’t do this to the Peloponnesian league.
Nevertheless, the real precipitating factor was how Thucydides says it:
Thucydides: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in [Sparta], made war inevitable”.
Sparta became concerned that Athens was turning too powerful, ambitious, and arrogant, and it needed to be put down. So the war is a war with Sparta and its allies against Athens and its allies.
In 431 B.C. the Peloponnesian war began, where Sparta and its allies invade Athens. Year after year the war continues until finally in 404 B.C. Sparta is able to land the decisive blow. As a result, the Delian league is dissolved, because Sparta had made an alliance with the Persians by consenting to them, and the Persians helping Sparta build a navy. Sparta established an empire because of its victory, and Athens submitted to it. Yet, several city-states joined to fight Sparta, where it was overthrown in 371 B.C., and by the mid-fourth century B.C. no state was dominant.
In conclusion, the Persian wars led to the Peloponnesian war, where every Greek city-state became exhausted for so many wars.