Megarian Decree

Megarian Decree: name of the Athenian policy to bar merchants from Megara from the Athenian markets. Sparta went to war with Athens because it refused to revoke the decree.


In the winter of 433/432, or perhaps a bit earlier, the Athenian politician Pericles proposed, and the Assembly accepted, a law that has become known as the "Megarian Decree". It was a most extraordinary decision. The issue itself was simple. The inhabitants of Megara, a neighbor city of Athens, had cultivated land that was consecrated to Demeter, had killed an Athenian herald, and were accordingly punished. Their merchants were excluded from the market of Athens and the ports in its empire, the Delian League. In other words, the Megarian Decree was something like a modern trade embargo. The remarkable aspects are that this type of sanction, although known from the ancient Near East, was unknown in the Greek world and that trade embargoes in peace time were unheard of in East and West.

Whatever the decree's originality, it was not what it seemed to be. If farmers have transgressed a sacred law, it is strange to punish merchants. Curtailing the import of agricultural products from Megara would have been a "smart sanction" (in his Acharnians, the Athenian comedian Aristophanes mentions pigs, fish, salt, figs). It is likely that the decree had another, political aim.

In the late 430s, Athens and Corinth were on very bad terms. The Athenians had allied themselves to Corcyra (a colony of Corinth) and had demanded that Potideia (a Corinthian colony that was also a member of the Delian League) would no longer have magistrates from Corinth. In the battle of Sybota in 433, the Corcyrans and Athenians had already defeated a Corinthian navy, which had also included ships from Megara. It would not be exaggerated to say that the Peloponnesian War had already started.

The Corinthians were members of the alliance of Sparta, the Peloponnesian League, and were trying to convince the other members that Athens was becoming too powerful, and that a war of liberation against the tyrannical superpower was in everyone's best interest. Athens could not ignore this threat, but was also unable to attack Corinth, because that would immediately result in Spartan intervention. The Athenian diplomats, therefore, tried to isolate Corinth. The Megarian Decree served exactly this purpose: it made it very clear that towns that supported Corinth, as Megara had done during the Sybota campaign, would suffer.

Of course the Megarians would complain in Sparta, but Pericles, who was a personal friend of the Spartan king Archidamus II, knew that the Spartan government was not prepared to go to war for the sake of a Corinthian-Athenian conflict. This turned out to be a mistake. Not all Spartans were against war.

Our main source for the outbreak of the Archidamian War in 431 is the History of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides. Two times, he mentions that the Megarian Decree was a major source of irritation.note However, he is not really interested in it, because

The Spartans voted that [...] war should be declared not so much because they were influenced by the speeches of their allies as because they were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power.[{Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.88.1; tr. Rex Warner.}}

In Thucydides' view, the complaints about the Megarian Decree were mere pretexts for war, and were not the real cause, which he seeks in something that looks more like a philosophical statement about human nature than a historical explanation. Other authors had a less profound and more practical judgment. Here is what Diodorus of Sicily, who uses Ephorus of Cyme as his source, says:

When the Athenians voted to exclude the Megarians from both their market and harbors, the Megarians turned to the Spartans for aid. And the Spartans [...] dispatched ambassadors [...], 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 [Athenian] 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 to the demands of the Spartans, contrary to their own interests, would be the first step toward slavery.note

This is more or less confirmed by Thucydides, who states that the penultimate Spartan ultimatum was that there would be no war if the Athenians withdrew the Megarian Decree. Incidentally, this was a shocking betrayal of Corinthian interests.

Diodorus' statement that Athenian unwillingness to revoke the Megarian Decree was the direct cause of the war, makes sense. Sparta and Athens had been at war before and had concluded a peace treaty in which they had decided that future conflicts were to be solved by arbitration. Now, the Spartans ordered the Athenians to do something, which in fact meant that they ignored the agreed-upon procedure and refused the Athenians a right to conduct their own foreign policy. This was unacceptable to the Athenians. Wars have been fought for less important principles.

However, this is the type of argument that is hard to explain and not every Athenian will have understood what was going on. For example, the near-contemporary orator Andocides says that "we went to war again on account of Megara, and allowed Attica to be laid waste" (On the Peace 8), but this is in fact wrong: war broke out because Sparta was not willing to submit the grievances of its allies to arbitration, as it had agreed to do.

Because so many Athenians did not really understand what they were fighting for, there were all kinds of rumors that Pericles had used the Megarian Decree to distract the people from stories about his private life. We know about these rumors from Plutarch's Life of Pericles (29-31) and two contemporary comedies, Acharnians and Peace, by Aristophanes, who called the Decree "written as if it were a drinking song" (text).

Thucydides and Ephorus/Diodorus ignored these rumors, which means that they have in fact misrepresented the general climate in Athens, and cannot explain why Pericles fell from power almost immediately after the war broke out.

It looked as if the two alliances had gone to war for a trifle. As has been shown, this was certainly not the case. On the other hand, it is strange that the Spartans were willing to betray their strategically important allies in Corinth and made a non-negotiable demand concerning an issue that was unimportant to Sparta. Megara's trade was, after all, not of great strategic significance. It seems that Spartan moderates like Archidamus believed that if they did a major concession to Athens and asked a small concession in return, war could be averted. The Athenian refusal to make this small concession must have shocked the Spartans profoundly and the "hawks" wrote the final ultimatum: the Athenians were to dismantle their empire. And the war came.

So, the story of the Megarian Decree is essentially one of failing diplomacy. Pericles believed he could isolate Corinth, but in fact strengthened those members of the Spartan alliance who wanted war; Archidamus believed that he could ask for the revoking of the Decree after he had sacrificed Corinth, but in fact gave Pericles an opportunity to present the Spartan demands as unjustified. The story of the Megarian Decree is a tragedy of errors.

This page was created in 2005; last modified on 15 October 2020.