In writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides looked for human causes behind results and refused to credit the gods with responsibility for the acts of human beings. Impartially he chronicles the clash of a military and a commercial imperialism: the land empire of the Spartans confronting the Athenian maritime league. Some have attributed to him an attitude of moral indifference, such as is revealed in his report of the debate between Athenian and Melian ambassadors, but he wrote with no intention of either moralizing or producing a cultural history. He was a military man interested in the vastly different political and economic patterns of Athens and Sparta. Writing for intelligent readers rather than for the ignorant masses, he saw in the modes and ideals of their cultures an explanation of their ways of warfare.
The eight books of Thucydides’ history, divided into short paragraph-chapters, provide a few facts about their author. In book 4, for example, he refers to himself as “Thucydides, son of Olorus, who wrote this history.” He must have been wealthy, for, discussing Brasidas’s attack on Amphipolis, he states that the Spartan “heard that Thucydides had the right of working gold mines in the neighboring district of Thrace and was consequently one of the leading men of the city.” He also tells frankly of his failure as the commander of a relief expedition to that city and of his twenty years’ exile from Athens as punishment. Apparently he spent the years of his exile in travel among the sites of the battles he describes, thereby increasing the accuracy of his details. Students of warfare find that he gives descriptions of the tricks and stratagems of both siege and defense. Not until 404, after the war had ended, did he return to Athens. He seems to have been killed about 400 b.c.e., either in Thrace for the gold he carried, or in Athens for publicly writing his opinions.
In his masterpiece of Greek history, the Athenian Thucydides wrote of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians from the time it began, “believing it would be great and memorable above all previous wars.” Thucydides explains the rivalry of Athens and Sparta, the two great states of Hellas then at the height of their power. He was proud of the advances made by his native Athens over the ways of the barbarians. “In ancient times the Hellenes carried weapons because their homes were undefended and intercourse unsafe.” Swords, however, like the old-fashioned linen undergarments and the custom of binding the hair in knots, had gone out of style by his time.
Rivalry between the two cities had a long tradition. It had kept Spartans from fighting beside Athenians at Marathon, but it took a commercial form when the Lacedaemonians demanded that their allies, the Megarians, be allowed to market their products in Athens. Pericles, the orator, statesman, and patron of the arts, took the first step toward breaking his own Thirty Years’ Truce, agreed upon in 445 b.c.e. In a fiery oration, he declared that to yield to the Spartans would reduce the Athenians to vassals.
The final break, according to...
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