Athens versus Sparta (Peloponnesian war)

Athens versus Sparta (Peloponnesian war)

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

Violation of agreements, especially in international relations, generates considerable problems regardless of whether it brings a gain or a loss to the parties to the agreements. It is not difficult to understand why this must be so. An agreement embodies a kind of collective promise, and its adoption implies that the parties should adhere to it. It also implies that, by following the rules they stipulated for themselves, the parties will be predictable and reliable to each other as they consider the words of the agreement as a true description of their future behavior. Hence, whenever an agreement gets violated, developments typical of the situation of a broken promise are extremely likely to take place–one party will be advertised as unreliable, as one who is not worthy of negotiations, or whose words are generally not reliable. The violation, then, leads directly to the process of dediscoursification, which is nearly trivial: a violated discourse means that, at least for one of the parties, in future instances of political conflict and a sensed need for discursive resolving of political problems, the likelihood of successful reliance on discourse is significantly reduced.

Violations of collective promise may be more or less flagrant. There is no doubt that, for instance, Hitler’s 1936 violations of the Treaty of Locarno were considered flagrant; however, the will of the other parties to oppose Hitler at the time was minimal. This resulted in a kind of irrational behavior by the parties because they even tried to defend those straightforward violations by referring to national interests of post-World War One Germany, or to an alleged injustice inherent in the Versailles Treaty; they were simply turning a blind eye to the fact that the clause on demilitarized Rhineland was built into the Locarno Treaty too, which, unlike perhaps the Treaty of Versailles, Germany signed willingly (Kagan 1995, 355-360). However, it is in light of later developments that those parties started viewing the violations as they should have at the very start, in reasonable terms, as simply a violation of a given word, as a manifestation of unreliability, duplicity, or hypocrisy.

Most importantly, some violations are more subtle in nature–it is not so easy to demonstrate that such violations are indeed straightforward violations of an agreement. Such violations too may entail some negative consequences, but the party who is in violation will also be able to propose some arguments to defend the thesis that the agreement had not been violated at all, or at least not to a consequentially grave degree, or that it is or was unclear who has the primary responsibility for violation of the requirement of ad litteram implementation of the agreement. Sometimes, as in famous Cicero’s illustration from the De Officiis–on Spartan king Cleomenes who interpreted the “triginta dierum” (“thirty days” in Latin) phrase in a peculiar fashion,– such a defense amounts to an absurdity (Cicero 1921, I 33). Sometimes, however, it reads more plausibly. One should immediately take into consideration the fact that nearly all agreements need to be interpreted to a degree, which implies that whether the alleged violation of a treaty occurred depends on the question, and the problem, of treaty interpretation. Sometimes there is no problem of interpretation; in that case it can be relatively easy to demonstrate that one has violated a treaty; sometimes, however, treaty interpretation will be open to debate, which means that one cannot easily answer the following question: has one straightforwardly violated a treaty, or has one only implemented it in accordance with their own creative, but sufficiently plausible or legitimate, interpretation?

It is fairly interesting to note that the very first war, which has been documented in history in a relatively detailed description, that is, the war between Athens and its allies on one side, and Sparta with its own allies on the other, was preceded by a complicated kind of a treaty violation. Such violations result also in two kinds of predictable outcomes: 1. dediscoursification, i.e. a drastically reduced will to continue working on political/moral problems through the medium of language; 2. metalingual reflection, i.e. explicit focus on the status of the discourse amongst political partners soon to become the warring parties. The Peloponnesian war, which is the topic of this section, is preceded by a peace treaty negotiated in winter 446-5 B.C. As the treaty’s validity was mutually accepted to be limited to a thirty-year period, the treaty got its name “Thirty Year Peace Treaty” (Kagan 1995, 31-32). The very text of the treaty had not been preserved; even worse, there are no authentic fragments or excerpts of the document. However, the chief historian of the Peloponnesian war, Thucydides, frequently refers to parts of the treaty, allowing the readers to form an approximate understanding of what the treaty specifically required.

First, the treaty determined that the Athenians would return the land they had forcefully taken from Lacedaemonians, i.e. the Spartans; furthermore it stipulated that it would be illegal for any member of the two principal alliances (of Athens and of Sparta) to switch sides, which reflected the fact that the previous war was initiated exactly by one such city that switched alliances. The treaty also contains a clause on arbitration as a peaceful means of problem or conflict resolution, through the good offices of a court that would hear, and ultimately decide on, the submissions of both parties. Finally, the treaty empowers the cities that have not been listed explicitly as member of an alliance to join at a later date (“openness of both coalitions to the neutrals”). Twelve years after the adoption of the treaty the matters had become entangled and complicated again, evolving gradually towards an outbreak of another war.

Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian alliance, and Corcyra (today Corfu), a neutral city-state, had conflicting interests over Epidamnus. Epidamnus was officially a colony of Corcyra, but Corcyra decided to remain outside of the conflict within its colony until Corinth decided to meddle into it. It is then that Corcyraeans started supporting an aristocratic faction within Epidamnus. Corinth, on their part, decided to settle a new colony at Epidamnus and invited all the willing Greeks to populate the settlement. A war soon broke out between Corcyra and Corinth which Spartans tried to mediate with some peace proposals; for instance, if Corcyra withdrew its naval force from the shores of Epidamnus, Corinth would consider the Corcyraean demand that the Corinthian settlers leave the city. Such proposals made no impact. Naval fleets of the two cities then clashed at Leucimna. Another important part of this story is that Corcyra’s strength was primarily in its fleet that was second strongest to Athenian: in any future war between the two principal alliances such a fleet was naturally expected to have a major role. In such a situation, in 433 B.C., Corcyra, a neutral city state, appealed to Athenians for help. Corinth itself sent its embassy to Athens at the same time. Predictably, in Athens the spokesmen of Corcyra made a strong case in support of the interpretation that, should Athenians decide to take Corcyra as an ally, they would not be in violation of the Thirty Year Peace Treaty. The city offered its own interpretation, as well as the Corinthian delegation. The latter offered an opposing interpretation, arguing that, should they embrace Corcyra as an ally, Athenians will surely be in violation of the treaty.

Corcyra advocated a literal interpretation of the treaty (Thucydides I, 35); according to the treaty, the “non-enlisted cities” can simply join either of the two principal alliances. However, the Corinthian envoys issued a warning to Athens: as peace was the ultimate purpose of this treaty, making an alliance with a neutral city that is in the state of war with a member of the opposing alliance would imply partaking in the war, and would be contrary to the purpose of the peace treaty. “For although it be in the articles, that the cities written with neither of the parties may come in to whether of them they please; yet it holds not for such as do so to the detriment of either; but only for those, that having revolted from neither part, want protection and bring not a war with them instead of peace to those (if they be wise) that receive them.” (Thucydides I, 40) [1] So, the Corinthian embassy advocated the view that, should an external party make an alliance with a party caught in a state of war, it would result in spreading and escalating of the war–a view that is not necessarily pertinent or true without exception.

Athenians now faced a true moral and intellectual dilemma. It is clear that, on first impression, Athens found the arguments proposed by both Corcyra and Corinth equally persuasive. Thucydides (I, 44) emphasizes that, when the issue was debated during an Athenian parliamentary session, there was a draw–the assembly members equally approved the positions of Corinth and Corcyra. However, the session continued into the next day when Athenians decided to make a special type of alliance, solely for defensive purposes, with Corcyra. The alliance provided that Athens comes to Corcyra defense, and vice versa, if needed, but the two would not be engaged jointly in an offensive action against a third party (Kagan 199, 45). The duration of the Athenian Assembly session clearly indicates that the Athenian parliamentarians found it extremely difficult to make the decision, and that a fierce debate preceded the vote. Thucydides does not record the parts of the debate, which leaves a big loophole in his historical account. Also it seems that he himself never takes a position on an important issue–have Athenians really violated, or not, the provision of the Thirty Year Treaty? This is puzzling, but is also an inspiring detail, which I tend to interpret as a symptom of a deeper attitude, as will be sufficiently clarified by the end of the section.

Hence, the key question is as follows: by having taken Corcyra as an ally, has Athens violated, or contravened, an important provision of the peace treaty then in force? In literal terms, they had not. However, have they committed a violation of the key purposes, or goals, of the agreement? With regard to this question, it seems nearly impossible not to take one of the two positions. For instance, Donald Kagan, an influential American historian of the Peloponnesian war, unambiguously takes the side of the Corinthian delegation, claiming that they had a stronger legal argument on their side; and concluding that Athens had indeed violated the Thirty Year Peace Treaty (Kagan 1995, 43). Furthermore, there is no doubt that Athenians themselves sensed that, should they decide to accept Corcyraean request, they would come extremely close to violating the said agreement. They understood the Corinthian argument very well and gave it a proper weight.

In more general terms, the key issue may be framed as follows: what if a member of the alliance A1 enters into a serious dispute with a party that is innocent and has not seriously contributed to the dispute; and which is moreover interesting or appealing to the alliance A2, with which it has no formal relations? In other words, the treaty was not intended as a document that allows one of the principal parties to initiate a war with the other party by signing an alliance with some “neutrals;” however, it was also not intended as a carte blanche for aggressive members of one alliance to behave as they like in relation to some benevolent “neutrals”–such behavior too may be interpreted as disruption of the balance of power, and bound to have a negative impact on the relations between the two principal alliances. It is through the depiction of their alliance as an epimachia (“defensive alliance” in Greek) that Athenians obviously attempted to soften the negative connotations of their newly-formed agreement with Corcyra. However, one should also note that all defensive coalitions depend on a prior definition of an aggressive party; Corinth and Corcyra obviously had competing and irreconcilable definitions of aggression, which is why the Athenian decision vis-à-vis Corcyra did not lessen, but rather aggravate the tensions.

Regardless of the previous considerations, in the course of the conflict by their naval forces against the Corinthian, Athenians responded to the Corinthian objection, claiming that the former have thereby violated the Thirty Year Peace, as follows: “Men of Peloponnesus, neither do we begin the war nor break the peace; but we bring aid to these our confederates, the Corcyraeans: if you please therefore to go any whither else, we hinder you not; but if against Corcyra, or any place belonging unto it, we will not suffer you.” (Thucydides, I 53) However, the Spartan assembly soon thereafter came to the conclusion that Athenians indeed broke the treaty, and started a war. Corinth and a number of Peloponnesian allies met at Sparta where some unnamed Athenian businessmen, too, took part in the meeting, and addressed the assembly. The reading of the speeches, at least in the version Thucydides presents, obviously implies that the Corinthian delegation wanted revenge. The delegation had not proposed sophisticated legal arguments in support of the thesis that Athens had violated the treaty; they spoke more of the Athenian character, contrasting it to the Spartan one.

The Corinthian argument was unreservedly ad hominem: as Corinthians put it, Athenians are cunning and dangerous, whereas the Spartans are somewhat slow and insufficiently on guard. Hence, the Spartans are advised to follow the Corinthian position and start a war before it was too late. Interestingly, the Athenian businessmen as well addressed the Spartan assembly in the following way: “…we advise you, whilst good counsel is in both our elections, not to break the peace nor violate your oaths; but according to the articles, let the controversy be decided by judgment [arbitration]; or else we call the gods you have sworn by to witness, that if you begin the war, we will endeavour to revenge ourselves the same way that you shall walk in before us.” (Thucydides I 78) In other words, here the Athenians drew on a critical provision of the Thirty Year Peace Treaty concerning the possibility of dispute resolution by arbitration.

As the session of the assembly continued, the Spartan king Archidamus advised against a quick decision in favor of the war, and also against reaching a quick decision to indict Athens for violating the treaty. He warned both of the dangers of war and of obvious economic supremacy of Athens. Most importantly, he pointed out as follows: “one that offereth himself to judgment, may not lawfully be invaded as a doer of injury, before the judgment be given.” (Thucydides I 85) Additionally, Archidamus also advised that the Peloponnesian alliance should prepare itself for a war. However, a bellicose Spartan party, led by Ephor Sthenelaidas, overcame Archidamus; the ephor was the one who persuaded the Spartans that Athens had indeed violated the treaty. As a result, Sparta should only wait for a favorable decision by its allies before officially declaring war. Sthenelaidas was brutal and straightforward:

“I understand not the many words used by the Athenians; for though they have been much in their own praises, yet they have said nothing to the contrary but that they have done injury to our confederates and to Peloponnesus. And if they carried themselves well against the Medes, when time was, and now ill against us, they deserve a double punishment…Let no man tell me, that after we have once received the injury we ought to deliberate. No, it belongs rather to the doers of injury to spend time in consultation. Wherefore, men of Lacedaemon, decree the war, as becometh the dignity of Sparta; and let not the Athenians grow yet greater, nor let us betray our confederates, but in the name of the Gods proceed against the doers of injustice.” (Thucydides I 86).

By this point, the war between the Athenian and the Peloponnesian alliance had already started. The meeting of the whole Peloponnesian league would take place soon and the alliance, encouraged by a prophecy issued by Delphic Oracle, decided to declare war on Athens. Thucydides (I 123) reproduces a long Corinthian speech as delivered at the meeting: “But we should confidently go in hand with the war, as for many other causes so also for this, that both the God hath by his oracle advised us thereto and promised to be with us himself: and also for that the rest of Greece, some for fear and some for profit, are ready to take our parts. Nor are you they that first break the peace, which the God, inasmuch as he doth encourage us to the war, judgeth violated by them; but you fight rather in defence of the same.”

Therefore, it seems that the Spartan or Peloponnesian league started a war to recover the validity of a treaty, to defend the word that was given, to re-establish a discourse, by the force of arms. The league relates to the Athenian wrong-doers as if the latter violently broke the law, a discursive medium; now, the only way to bring Athens back to such medium seemed to be by armed, violent force. This decision was followed by a degree of hesitation; in reality, the war did not start immediately, but through a series of Spartan ultimatums to which Athens responded by issuing some counter-demands. However, de iure the war had already started.

The final ultimatum by Sparta to Athens, one that is very aggressively demanding, reads as follows: “Dismantle your league and declare the Hellenic states independent, if you truly desire peace.” Athenian leader Pericles responds to it as follows:

“For whereas it is said [in the articles], that in our mutual controversies we shall give and receive trials of judgment, and in the meantime either side hold what they possess; they [the Spartans] never yet sought any such trial themselves, nor will accept of the same offered by us. They will clear themselves of their accusations by war, rather than by words: and come hither no more now to expostulate, but to command…nor retain a scruple in your minds, as if a small matter moved you to the war. For even this small matter containeth the trial and constancy of your resolution. Wherein if you give them [the Spartans] way, you shall hereafter be commanded a greater matter….we will let the Grecian cities be free, if they were so when the peace was made; and if the Lacedaemonians will also give leave unto their confederates to use their freedom, not as shall serve the turn of the Lacedaemonians, but as they themselves shall every one think good: also that we will stand to judgment according to the articles, and will not begin the war, but be revenged on those that shall. For this is both just, and for the dignity of the city to answer.” (Thucydides I 140-144)

This was the last in the series of negotiating interactions; Spartans received the response, negotiations were interrupted, and the Peloponnesian war broke out.

Thucydides famously depicts the key cause of all aforementioned developments as follows: “The Lacedaemonians voted that the treaty had been broken, and that the war must be declared, not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of the allies, as because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them.” (Thucydides I 88) “Fear” (deos> in Greek) is thus one of the three major causes of war, according to Thucydides’ classification, which is one of the most influential in the entire history of social science; for instance, Hobbes reproduces Thucydides’ categorization in the Leviathan, which one should not find strange as Hobbes’s translation of the Peloponnesian war is one of the most famous. Furthermore, in his book On the origins of war and the preservation of peace Kagan emphasizes that, in his view, Thucydides’ classification is “most illuminating in understanding the origins of war throughout history” (Kagan 1995, 8). Two further motives, or causes, Thucydides proposes are as follows: “utility” (concrete interest or gain; ophelia in Greek) and “honor/dignity” (or reputation; timé in Greek). Thucydides emphasized those causes frequently in his book; even the speeches by his key heroes read as if they wished to demonstrate unquestionable pertinence and truth of Thucydides’ classification.

However, the classification is to a high degree misleading, since it hides some questions that in this context are very pertinent. The question Thucydides was not ready to pose, or tackle, is as follows: in aiming to satisfy or gratify the aforementioned imperatives (to overcome fear, to gain some utility, and/or protect their honor), why do people occasionally rely not on verbal means, such as negotiation, arguments, or discourse, but on the means of violence, including war? Why do people, in certain contexts, cease to believe in the power of verbal communication as a means of satisfaction of the three key motives? If one decides to apply strictly the terms of Thucydides’ classification, one is forced to draw the conclusion, as Thucydides himself also did, that the question of whether Athens had indeed violated the Thirty Year Peace actually did not matter. Spartans had a fear from the growing power of Athens; hence, they decided simply to oppose it by any means available. Hence, the discussion of speeches, including the issue of Athenian adherence to the peace agreement then in force, seems not to make any notable difference. Spartans simply used whatever excuse was at hand. But, let us face the facts: the question is extremely important. Besides, the question is purely factual–there should be an inter-subjectively verifiable answer to the question whether Athens indeed violated a provision, or the purpose, of the treaty.

Imagine that we agree that Athens had violated the treaty; this means that, in this context, we would support the Spartan accusation–but, keep in mind that now, in Thucydides’ classification, the matter of “fear” becomes also a matter of honor and responsibility; one should not break inexplicably the word given to another party–the other’s honor and dignity serve as a limiting factor, in addition to one’s own honor, or responsibility. On the other hand, if we assume that Spartans were wrong, they initiated the war not as much out of fear as out of misapprehension, an erroneous belief that a discourse, important to the human dignity and honor, was forcefully removed. In other words, our attitude toward the politics that preceded the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war is to a large degree determined by our attitude to the discourse, to matters of treaty interpretation, treaty implication, or violation, and similar; even more importantly, the attitude by the parties themselves, Athens and Sparta, must have been determined by a similar attitude as well–contra Thucydides, the question of whether one has violated a peace treaty is and remains an objectively important one.

This realization should also prompt us to realize that an attitude toward a discourse is among the major causes of war, and the parties are normally aware of such an attitude as demonstrated by their occasional, but explicit, adoption of a metalingual perspective. As Pericles has emphasized in the aforementioned speech, Spartans seemed to be ready to sacrifice their reliance on discourse in order to move to another realm of problem-solving–by war. It is through such sacrifice that they, in the eyes of the Athenians, become barbaric or “less-than-human.” Predictably, Pericles points out that Athenians would do nothing but defend themselves; the defense is a necessity because, strictly speaking, one cannot be an aggressor against those who live in the world of barbarity, whose world is marked by absence of discourse, by a lack of will to communicate, talk, or exchange thoughts and reasons. Hence, it is clear that Athenians too accused Spartans of having violated the treaty provisions. The latter did not want to implement the treaty’s arbitration clause; the clause was in force; hence, Spartans violated the treaty as well.

Let us imagine now some counterfactual situations. Imagine that, prior to their acceptance of Corcyra’s proposal, or even after the first decision by the Spartan assembly, Athenians invite Spartans for consultations. At the fictional meeting they propose their own reasons in support of Corcyra’s proposal, and especially their reasons in support of the thesis that such an attitude should not be treated as a violation of the “neutrals” provision of the Thirty Year Treaty. At the same meeting Spartans would perhaps say that, due to its war with Corinth, Corcyra had assumed a status of a “counter-ally,” that is, an enemy of the whole Spartan/Peloponnesian league. To this Athenians could respond by another argument, etc. etc.

In any case, a dialogue concerning the reasons for some interpretations of the “neutrals” provision could have resulted in, for all sides, a clearer picture of expectations vis-à-vis the provision, of how they ought to interpret it jointly. Finally, the dialogue could have helped them at least clarify the question of when it was legitimate to intervene in some conflicts between one party, unaligned with either league, and another party which is a member, or the leader, of a league. Such clarifications could have been beneficial not only to Athens, but to Sparta too–imagine a situation in which Sparta intervenes in a conflict to which one party is Athens, or a member of the Athenian league, and another is a neutral. In other words, it is not difficult to imagine a counterfactual situation in which a common discourse concerning different reasons for different answers to the question “does an act A involve some violation of the agreement?” leads to confirmation and strengthening of the agreement/treaty, or to a more reasoned and common interpretation of the agreement, or something one should perhaps even call “amendment.”

Such developments, however, did not take place. What did take place are a number of unilateral moves without any consideration given to the partner’s likely response. The question of whether Athens violated the treaty is open one. They did not violate it directly, but one could as well plausibly argue that the Athenian interpretation of the “neutrals” provision, given as it was without elaboration or comment, is indicative of a considerable lack of concern with a likely interpretation of the same provision by one of the key members of the Spartan league. It is also important to emphasize that Sparta arrived at the conclusion that Athens had indeed violated the treaty provision. This is the first step of dediscoursification. Such step, as explained, could have been prevented; and even after it was taken, the parties could have tried to recover their relationship through re-discoursification.

Following that first step, Athens gave its own proposal, to submit the dispute to arbitration, which on first impression sounds intelligent, and was perhaps even benevolent. It may have also implied that Athens, under the force of a judicial arbitration, would have been willing to disengage from its alliance with Corcyra. On the other hand, one could argue that the proposal by Athens was but a cunning trick. This, however, could have been confirmed or denied only by the Spartan acceptance of the Athenian proposal of arbitration, but Spartans refused to probe such a possibility.

At that point Spartans had already left the space of discourse and decided to declare war. Paradoxically, believing that Athens violated the agreement, they refused to activate the only provision through which one could have objectively determined if Athens had indeed violated the “neutrals” provision of the agreement. Hence, now Spartans violated the agreement, while Corinth explained to them that they would fight a war for the purpose of rescuing a downgraded peace treaty. So, now they fully exposed themselves to the accusations of a lack of discursive dignity, of unreliability, and of a disrespectful attitude to their own word/discourse. On the other hand, following the Spartan accusation that it had violated the treaty, Athens must have been aware of the fact that its proposal to activate another provision of the same treaty would not be given a full credibility. The party, which accused another party of violation of a treaty, should normally at least hesitate to give credence to the claim that the accused party would abide by arbitration, especially if the arbitration annulled the interpretation the accused party has already formally, and publicly, adopted.

In both cases we see that some discourses had been “cut out” of a relationship. Instead of producing such discourses, and building them into their relationship, parties had undergone a mutual process of dediscoursification, a drastic reduction of the will to negotiate with one’s interlocutor. The accusation of a treaty violation is extremely severe. Those who violate an agreement also interrupt a discursive relationship in which both parties have invested a lot of energy and effort. They not only make themselves less sociable, they also undermine, or undo, a discursive structure that they themselves have adopted, usually following a previous war or a long and turbulent process of negotiating. They transform themselves from an agent, who has adopted a common history, into an agent of pre-history, or anti-history, who breaks away with the language s/he shared with others.

However, one should also have in mind that there may be some strong reasons that support either a temporary deactivation of some treaty provisions, or a creative reinterpretation of those provisions, as there may also be strong reasons for a temporary delay of promise-fulfillment, or for reinterpretation of promise in light of some unexpected circumstances. In such a case, one ought to communicate with those who depend, and often explicitly rely, on one’s promise. One ought to explain to them one’s reasons, and insist on the view that the binding force of promise continues to apply. One also ought to remain open to the partner’s own “input,” asking them to try putting themselves kindly into “our own shoes.” Finally, one needs to continue counting on one’s partner’s commitment to a reasonable discourse. Should one fail to respect all those oughts and needs, one’s discursive status is bound to be indistinguishable from the status of an egoistic and slippery promise-breaker as one of the key figures of a dediscoursifying agent.

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. In most of my quotes from Thucydides, I follow Hobbes’s translation (Thucydides 1839); however, when this translation reads too outdated, I rely on Crawley’s translation too (Thucydides 1952).

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