Sparta, where collective heroism dated back to Lycourgos (Lycurgus), soon took the lead in challenging the emerging Athenian empire. Two bouts of war ensued. The first, waged on and off between 460 and 445 bce, turned out to be a draw; but the next Peloponnesian war (431-404 bce), as the Athenian historian Thucydides called it, ended in the overthrow of Athenian empire and democracy. Yet the victorious Spartans were compromised from the start, as they prevailed only after accepting Persian money to finance the creation of the mercenary fleet they needed to defeat the Athenians at sea. The scale and intensity of these struggles altered Greek society very rapidly. Fighting became professionalized and commercialized; both Athens and Sparta hired troops and sailors from outside the polis to supplement armies and navies of citizens. Within Athens, rich and poor parted company when conspirators twice (411 and 404 bce) overthrew the democracy. To be sure, democracy was soon restored in Athens, at least in form; but the solidarity between rich and poor in pursuit of collective greatness never came back. Instead, independent farmer-citizen-soldiers gave way to mercenaries, while Athens, and Greek society everywhere, divided more and more sharply between landowners and dependent tillers of the soil.
Simultaneously, commercial prosperity subsided as the Greeks lost their primacy in producing oil and wine for overseas markets. Politics changed to match, allowing larger landed property holders to monopolize what long remained vivacious political struggles among themselves at home and with neighboring cities. After 404 BCE, the victorious Spartans quickly became even more unpopular than Athenians had been, before meeting defeat in 371 bce by the Thebans, who were in turn overthrown by Philip of Macedon in 338 bce. To keep the peace, Philip made himself commander-in-chief of a Hellenic league of cities. His son, Alexander, after ruthlessly suppressing a revolt, led a combined Macedonian and Greek army against the Persians in 334 bce. His victories brought the Persian empire to an end, and after his death in 323 bce, Macedonian generals set up kingdoms of their own in Egypt, Asia, and Macedon. Greek cities nominally regained their freedom but in fact remained bit players in continuing great power struggles until 31 BCE, when the Romans unified the entire Mediterranean coastline and its hinterlands in a more lasting empire.