“The Landmark” Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian war (431–404 BC), known as the Attic war to Ancient Greece, as recounted by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War, lasted 30 years and was primarily between the democratic Athenians and oligarchic Spartans.

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Thucydides as a Historian

Thucydides wrote in an impartial manner which was original for the time of writing, which gained him the reputation for developing the inquiry of scientific history. In Book Five, he writes that he desired to “know the exact truth” of events since he lived in exile through the war, granting him the leisure needed for extensive research, and more importantly, he participated in the war as a general (316, 5.25).

To write in the tradition of Thucydides, a historian had to write fairly, with evidence, with an understanding of the events, and without any mention of gods or deities. Finally, Thucydides also extensively contributed to our understanding of human nature in his work, quoting Athenian and Spartan generals to explain why injustices occurred and continue to occur. I will summarize Thucydides’ History and then compare it to the other texts before I look at the themes throughout the books.

Book One

Book One outlines some of the reasons hostilities grew toward Athens. Athens justified their expansion as an empire because they did not gain it violently (43). Athens further claims that they could have been more aggressive because the law states that “the weaker should be subject to the stronger” (43). The Spartan King, Archidamus, points out that Athens has a number of advantages if the Spartans decide to declare war on Athens, namely in their lack of funds and wealth to support the war, but also in their supply of ships, horses, hoplites, and in that their population was greater than any other in the Hellenic world (45). Later on, Sparta votes for war, which receives praise from Corinth (66).

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Book Two

In Book Two, Pericles gives his notorious funeral oration. During the oration, Pericles makes mention of reasons for why Athens has the right to rule (114, 2.40), why the dead died courageously and should be celebrated for their patriotism (115, 2.43), and advises parents of the diseased to try to conceive more children (117, 2.44), among other things. Thucydides then outlines the reasons for the plague (chapters 2.47–65). He goes into extensive detail in what the plague is accompanied with and barely survives himself.

Furthermore, his depiction of the horrors of the plague juxtaposes the ambitious and hopeful speech of Pericles. The theme of natural calamity and fate is repeatedly discussed by Thucydides throughout his work. Similarly, both Sun Tzu and Machiavelli consider natural disasters as unavoidable components to the realities of war. It was already in the second year of the war, that the Athenians started feeling overwhelmed with the war effort due to the outbreak of the plague, which once again contrasts the speech of Pericles. The Athenians “began to find fault with Pericles”, Thucydides writes (123, 2.59). At the point of their despair, Athens attempts to make a truce with Sparta which is unsuccessful (123, 2.59). Thucydides explains that at this point, “Their despair was now complete and all vented itself upon Pericles” (123, 2.59).

Book Three

Book Three outlines the Lesbian revolt (chapters 1–50) and focuses on the Sicilian conflict with the Syracuse which will again be mentioned in Book 6 and 7 extensively. The most important event worth mentioning was the Mytilenean rebellion against Athens. Thucydides sums up the conflict well in a debate held between two Athenian generals, Cleon and Diodotus, known as the Mytilenian Debate (176, 3.37). I will discuss this debate in further detail later on in my discussion of justice.

Book Four

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In Book Four, the Athenians continue to send ships to Sicily (223, 4.2). Thucydides argues that the Athenians had an “eagerness” with which they would fight (231, 4.14). Cleon’s violence and war adventures are further discussed and large casualties are mentioned. Despite the losses, the Athenians “kept grasping at more” (246, 4.42). Further atrocities committed by both sides are discussed. One notable was by the Spartans who killed 2,000 Helots (268, 4.80). The Spartan general, Brasidas, is introduced in these passages (268, 4.80). Brasidas is an important figure in Thucydides’ historical retelling of the war. Brasidas is presented as the hero and as the virtuous general and is contrasted with Cleon, who was described by Thucydides as “the most violent men at Athens” which made him the most popular with the Athenian citizens (176, 3.36). It can be argued that international law has its genesis in some of these passages, particularly the one-year armistice between Athens and Sparta (286, 4.118).

Book Five

Book Five contains one of the most cited passages in all of antiquity and definitely in Thucydides’ account of the war. Cleon and Brasidas fight against one another and both perish. The two generals were the largest proponents of the war, however. The newly appointed leaders, Pleistoanax son of Pausanias, the king of Sparta, and Nicias son of Niceratus, which Thucydides describes as the “most fortunate general of his time”, were both large advocates of peace on both sides (310, 5.16). With increasing losses on both sides of the war, this does not come as a surprise. With both Cleon and Brasidas dead, it seems there is a chance for peace. The Spartans form an alliance with Athens (315, 5.23). This treaty, however, did not come without its opponents, primarily Corinth (316, 5.25).

The Spartans were not holding to their side of the treaty, which made the Athenians doubt them (316, 5.25). The treaty due to these growing hostilities only lasted approximately 6 years. Thucydides retells of his exile which allowed him the time to write about the events (316, 5.26). Alcibiades is another Spartan general that is mentioned and is portrayed as the antagonist in the story (327, 5.42). Toward the end of the Book, the already addressed, Melian dialogue is documented between the Athenians and Melians (351, 5.85). The Melians were neutral in the war, despite their lineage tracing to Sparta, and appealed to the Athenians to hold to their philosophical reputation and knowledge of virtuous living and justice.

The Athenians refused, uttering the infamous words,

“[T]he strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must” (352).

The Melians, of course, object to the “desbar[ing]” of any discussions of justice (352, 5.89). Despite Melian objections, the Melian men were all put to death and the women and children were sold into slavery (357, 5.116).

Book Six to Book Eight

Book Six to Book Eight highlight the Sicilian attack, the Syracuse, the fear in Athenian soldiers and citizens, some of the reasons for why democracies die, and one of my favorite passages encapsulating the horrors of war when the Athenians are retreating from Sicily. Athens arguably lost the war and their dominion over the Peloponnesus because they did not know their enemy, which can be paralleled with Sun Tzu’s claim that “your victory will never be endangered” if you know your enemy (223, ch.9, 60; 205, ch.10, 26). This shows the difference in thinking between that of the Greeks and Sun Tzu at the time. The Athenians could have prevented calamity if they listened to advice such as Tzu’s, “If you cannot succeed, do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight” (229, ch. 12, 17).

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  • Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides a Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. Free Press, 2008.

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